Thursday, November 29, 2012

Confounded Courtesy (fourth of five)

"Manners maketh man!" was the inscription within the frame on the wall in the infirmary of Solomon House, at my old boarding school. Yeah, we are not beasts. The sentiment was further expressed by the headmaster, "A gentleman is not defined by what he does in public, so much as what he does and thinks when all by himself." Hoisted by one’s own petard? Who needs be born in the times of the knights? The mid 60’s in Africa were a challenge enough, especially amongst testosterone charged teenagers eager to parry and thrust. The spoils of sporting events were treated with polite accord, lose or win; the cricketer was politely clapped off, successful or not. And young gentlemen were caned for not wearing one's boater, for being late, for smoking or swearing or... Well, the fear of reprisal seemed to lurk around every corner. And so one toed the line, and to the outsider the veneer of politeness and civility was most apparent. Interestingly, 40 years later I had occasion to visit the same old school and witnessed the same old deference, the same respect given to adults, earned or not. Even the uniform had not changed. But the civility, I knew from painful and certain experience, was a veneer. Seen the McDowell movie, 'If'? Most boys, left alone, quickly become as confounded as characters in 'Lord of the Flies'.

Civility at its best is a yoking of Fellowship, Frankness, Compassion, and Courtliness. It is the practice of consideration for others. It has little to do with the affectation of being fashionable, with the in-authenticity of politeness only when we want something, nor with the need to know which knife and fork to use first. Civility, courtesy, is about caring how to make things easier for the other. Putting one's cutlery together on the plate to make it easier for the waiter to collect is courtesy; so is opening a door. And so too is cleaning up after oneself, though nobody may know you were the cleaner, especially in publicly used places. Courtesy is being politely frank about someone's fly being down, about another's nose needing wiping, and about consideration for the other wherever and whenever possible. At its very best the reward is when no else sees it being exercised at all. Penelope once showed me that. When I asked her if I may use the example of her picking up the tossed wrapper in the empty corridor she replied, "Only if not using my real name, please." We do unto others as we would like it to be done for ourselves.

In the longevity of relationships between people we soon begin to take for granted the other's ability to fend for themselves, and we no longer open the door, help them with the chores, bite our tongues from interrupting, take into consideration their point of view, or listen attentively to their chatter. We know them; they know us. Why bother with the manners that we once extended? Families can very quickly devolve from courtesy. Friends do so too. Male or female. And many a young lady now spits and swears quite liberally in public, as do young men, yet it does not necessarily make them physically lascivious, nor whores and wastrels, not anymore. They may claim authenticity as their bible. After all, adults swear, and life all around them gives copious examples of dress, manners, habits, and words by which to express the self, communally. So, what's up?

Courtesy is about being aware that one's cigarette smoke is blowing in another's direction. It is an awareness of the impact of one's own noise. And in the long to-do of one's life, it is about making things easier for another. So too for those knights. Indeed, whether in the thick of battle, or whether negotiating one's place, the inner caution might be, "Let's mind manners, or are we beasts, hm?" (Yes, that infirmary still haunts, ha!)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Painting by Sir Frank Dicksee (1853-1928)
[...and won't boarding school boys have fun with that name, ha!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Complementary Compassion (third of five)

Difficult not to be derivative. Compassion is easily said. Easily given. But for how long? Compassion sees itself realized in fits and starts of intensity, but over the long haul, the day to day, the lived in, lived with, and lasting endurance of the day-to-day-to-day compassion is most difficult to feel wholeheartedly. We generally like to feel that whatever we feel serves ourselves. We feel good having pity, having sympathy, having a round of empathy, being generous, being different from the norm of self interests; but for how long? Compassion fatigue is a clear dilemma for nurses, doctors, psychologists, friends of those with prolonged diseases, friends of those with chronic inescapable pain, donators towards those who have little, contributors towards those whose needs are unfulfillable. Compassion, that feeling of feeling for, feeling with, feeling alongside, feeling akin to, and even feeling at one with is more easily realized from moment to moment. And then let me get on with the rest of my day! Compassion is but a complement.

Natural compassion, according to the Dali Lama, is easiest for those who were nurtured in the first place by loving parents. It is more difficult for those offspring, human or animal, that were uncared for, unloved, unprotected, and not nurtured in childhood. As adults we come across Compassion as a subject for books, for Conventions, for learned dialogues. As a Knight of yore, Compassion was one of the five tenants of the pentacle of Knightly Virtues. And as a human being, as part and parcel of all human beings, as the Dali Lama would have it, we needs focus on the big WE of us all, rather than the small 'we' of our immediate cognizance. We tend most easily to think of the immediate, the group with whom we are associated, the nation to whom we give allegiance, the continent in which we find our place. Our global consciousness, thanks to our modern interlinks, grows rapidly. An advent in Taipei affects us all, let alone the poor Grecian economy. Compassion more easily is experienced for Biafra, for Nepal, for Tibet, but in Times of Yore compassion was very limited to the immediate surrounds, naturally; so one donates the $50 to the food-drive and then gets on with living one's day. How else to survive when there are so very many causes, so many charities, so many in distress?

Compassion, like charity, begins at home. Understanding where another is coming from, not taking things personally, not rising to argue, to be right, to be self-righteous, to be self-centric, to be self assertive despite (nor even to spite) another; that is where compassion finds itself lived in a prolonged sense of whole-heartedness. No? Well, half-heartedness at least, for the endurance with and amongst others who may so drain at one's resources, at one's energies, at one's sympathy, can be enervating indeed. And as we know, enervating is quite the opposite from invigorating. Energy is consumed. So compassion, as a virtue, gets doled out like coins from one's purse, in bits and pieces at a time. Even the mother bird eventually nudges the chicks out of the nest.

Five knightly virtues, Fellowship, Frankness, Courtliness, Courage and Compassion are depicted in the Pentacle on the knight's shield, or emblazoned on his chest. And of the five, compassion as the very air we breathe is the most natural, and yet the most difficult to prolong. We can be friendly, frank, complimentary, and even courageous, but not to feel disdain, contempt, arrogance, judgement, and impatience is a difficult thing indeed. Compassion would have us be loving, accepting, inclusive, and understanding, but for how long? Hm? Now, my good deed done, let me get on with the rest of my day!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fickle Fellowships (second of five)

Five fundamental values continually challenge. Lady, or Gentleman. Since the age of Arthur's knights the three C's and two F's of the pentagon emblazoned on the knight's chest call the cultured person, the one ‘in the know’ to espouse the virtues of Compassion, Courage, Courtesy, Frankness, and Fellowship. And that last one, Fellowship, seems to me not necessarily about being part of a club, worshiping in a congregation, or being a bonhomme, nor even being a perpetual pal, but being conscious of the essential value of another. Fellowship, in Biblical terms, appears to be about treating thy neighbour as thyself.

Martin Luther King, champion of the civil rights movement, upholder of the grail of equality, racial, relational, male or female, had it that the accord of fellowship be extended beyond all bondage. Fellowship was, is, the essential dignity we allow in another, let alone in ourselves.

The Dali Lama has it that the inequality we experience results chiefly from our own insecurity. We deem others greater than ourselves, or worse, we deem others less than ourselves. Our need to assert our individuality engenders subtle if not overt placement of rank and status, psychically, consciously, subconsciously, and continuously. Fellowship (we almost instinctively gather) is about birds of a feather flocking together.

Diversification is natural to us. Polo clubs and soccer clubs and hockey clubs and football clubs and gladiator combats are varieties of establishing bands of brothers, clutches of sisterhoods. Fellowship is seen to be deserved, or not. Sororities ensure that passage to their fellowship is met only by passing certain standards. So too for virtually any group; the necessity is that one ascribe to the predominant cultural and societal expectations of the group, no matter how gaily clad, boldly bruited, or esoterically evinced. Fellowship is a natural progress of being human; we find our companionship most easily among the like-minded. Even the knights had very many challenges to fulfill before they ceremoniously were granted the status of ‘Sir’, and knave and vassal knew their place. We have not that much changed in the natural order of selection, testing, evaluating, and approving of persons before we call them 'fellow'. After all, in order to be a colleague one needs first to attain the required rank. So too for every peer. Arrogance can so easily be an abrogation of fellowship. True individuality is about, well, exercising one’s individuality.

But why then Fellowship as a Knightly Virtue, or is it a simple 'all for one and one for all' only as long as you are a musketeer? Fellowship on a much larger scale is surely the recognition of the essential interconnection among all of us, organisms on a planet, in what might be viewed as our symbiotic relationship with the universe; an essential inter-dependence. Or are we cancerous cells gobbling up our every resource? Fellowship is surely about extending accord and deference and respect and value to everything and everyone that is encountered, all as a part of oneself and oneself a part within all. Respect Everything and Everybody, the rule of fellowship would read; now which part of 'every' shall be excluded? And of those people and things that are negative, like dragons and warlords and evil witches and warlocks, why, we deal with them too as but part of the whole, yet they deserve our Compassion. Yet another link! But must it really be Fellowship for all?

Three C’s and two F’s, eh? Frankness and Fellowship, Compassion, Courage and Courtesy. All five of them, for all? Given the history of mankind, why does that seem so hard? Oh well, “Tally ho!”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Knightly Frankness (first of five)

"Frankly, my dear!" Ha! Frankness has always been a knightly virtue. And those five virtues that keep on niggling are worth examining. Two F's and three C's. Frankness, Fellowship, Courtesy, Compassion, and Courage. Cannot recall exactly where first I read about them, but I do know I've struggled with the concepts since childhood. Rather like the recent phrases popularized since '97 as The Four Agreements, so very many similar concepts can come trippingly off the tongue, perhaps precisely because we trip up on them! Ha! How do I keep my Words Impeccable; Make No Assumptions; Take Nothing Personally; and always do my Best? Comprehending, even Understanding such phraseology is one thing, but Living it? How to live a balanced life amidst the courtly expectation of three C's and two F's? The median is the modus operandi for me; one is fundamentally average with oneself, no matter how high one tries to set the bar.

"Frankly..., I don't give a...," Rhett Butler began the transition between an old world and a new, and the rest has gone with the wind. Apparently ladies fainted. Movies changed rapidly after that, and swearing became progressively authentic. An intriguing word that, 'authentic'. We seem to think that honouring authenticity gives us licence for all sorts of gratuitous depictions of life as it is, or might indeed be, if we were there as witness. We do not much drive our art nowadays with a view to how life 'should be, could be, might become.’ Yet how many of us would thereby fundamentally be influenced? Was our culture en masse ever really that caring, considerate, compassionate? History reveals how at large we readily want to escape prescriptive overtones. Hence the songs and the movies that elicit our interest in things 'real', graphic. TV shows like Father Knows Best, Lassie, and Leave it to Beaver are bygones of the past. Not all shows. But channel surfing can reveal without warning what used to pass for pornography. And nowadays one witnesses many a youngster not so much as blanch. Nudity, sex, swears, violence; it's par for the course. Not that it's all bad, or that we should conceal what does happen in reality, but in the interest of being frank, forthright, honest, truthful, we can be very revealing. Yet frankness and truth are not swappable sides of most coins.

"You can't handle the truth!" Nicholson spat. What an iconic line. It reverberates beyond the military courtroom. We deal Truth out as a commodity, as if Truth is impeccable. Truth may be desired, yet even in Biblical terms truth is harboured. The lines about 'pearls before swine', from Matthew 7:6, intrigue. There is real value in integrity. Frankly, not everyone deserves the truth; why tell the enemy things that will count against you?

Two recent episodes of the 1950's Rifleman series are fascinating examples of useful fabrications. The negative influence of a non-existent controlling wife, to teach another; and an in-court actually undeveloped photograph as proof of someone's identity have one re-examining 'truth'. In both stories Rifleman fibs in order to secure the safety of another. Utter dishonesty for a greater gain! Ethics has it that the first principle of living be not truth, but 'do least harm'. Honesty is rather different from being frank, which is not necessarily truth. Frankness is defined by Webster as 'open, ingenious, candid'; defined by the Oxford dictionary as 'ingenious' too! And somehow, that word, 'ingenious,' to be frank, has never struck me as 'honest', ha! At issue is how much one cares. And frankly, my dear, we might all care more about what we contrive. Frankly, or 'whatever!'? Ha!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pelleas and Pellinore

Principle figures in one's life bear the distinction of having been poised on the fulcrum between a past and a present. Some we recall easily. Others had a fleeting influence. Some merely gestured in the right direction after an enquiry, others entirely travelled with you a-ways, became friends, measured days, shared dinners. And then you or they moved on.

Time intervenes after the fact. Ten, twenty, thirty-five years. We become virtual strangers. Yet there is an essence of being that remains recognizable, no matter what new habits the other has acquired. Dress, hair styles, no longer a smoker, no longer a jokester, no longer single, no longer an outdoorsman, now an academic, then a trench digger, these are the things that differentiate our ‘now’ from our ‘then’, yet the essence of the being remains the same.

So too for Pelleas and Pellinore; both Arthurian creations. Faithful Pelleas. Wandering Pellinore.

Pelleas is purported to have lain his sword on the bed of his unfaithful love and her sleeping partner, rather than kill them. He is reputed to have been the most gentle of Arthur's knights, the most faithful. He stayed put in his place, worked for the good of the kingdom, and served his community with those five knightly virtues of courtesy, courage, compassion, fellowship, and frankness. His reputation and his honour remained steadfast. He was a pillar of the community.

Pellinore on the other hand, in his quest for the holy grail, wandered off and braved many a battle, saw several different lands, was embroiled in various adventures, did deeds here and there, and emerged finally out of the woods, creaking and battle worn and pleasantly dazed by the sudden end of it all, to retire in Arthur's court where he had little else to do but gaze out to sea, to spin his yarns, and to await the certain imperfections of his continuing glimpses of enlightenment. The Holy Grail, he finally came to understand, was not so much in what one does, but how one does wherever one is at. Everything matters and Nothing is really important.

Complex? Well, yes, but if it were simple every Knight and M'Lady would simply be invested with truth and honour and beauty and compassion and understanding at birth, as indeed would every serf and vassal and courtier and.... For we needs grow into such light as we find, rather than be burned all at once by too much of it, or indeed by all of it, ever. No wonder, even on one's death bed, there are corners of the mind and realms within the soul yet to be discovered.

So when Pelleas and Pellinore again found each other, after some thirty five years or more, it was faithful Pelleas who had remained in the same territory, who had contributed and made a life of rich dimensions in the same spot as when they both first had met. And wandering Pellinore, rather like emerging from the tangled forest in the musical, Camelot, comes blinking into the new light somewhat pleasantly surprised that he was ever there at all. In their swapped stories lies the interim. Neither is necessarily in contrast to the other, rather in juxtaposition. And for that much, how rich might be their old friendship so revived!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nakina Revisited (from my novel "a-Kanata!")

NAKINA (1976)

Was maachst du hier?” was female, “Hie du!” young, “Herhaus!” and strangely German. His back was to her, his right hand reflexively slipping inside his shirt and resting on the hilt of his knife as something hard prodded him. But then he came fully awake. It was not yet dawn, but with the whiteness of the still falling snow it was difficult to tell.
            A young woman stood over him in the entrance to the clinic, appearing three times her probable girth for the thick animal-hide parka about her. A brown woolen toque exposed only part of her small pretty face. Her firmness of expression showed a sense of proprietary, a clear indignation that anyone should appropriate her turf. She wore thick fingerless suede mittens, so that her right hand gestures with the ski pole were as stiff as an Eskimo’s. In her left mitt the other pole and two long skinny skis bristled like spears. It was the first time he’d seen such equipment. He smiled up at her.
            Her face and voice softened, “Oh! I’m sorry. I shust thought you were one of those drunken lay-a-bouts from Arrowland, eh?” She leaned the thin wooden skis and poles up inside the porch and used her mitt to scour the globs of snow from their length. At the base of the ski poles miniature Frisbees had scissor cut-outs like spiked toy flying saucers, while the blade-like points beneath them were like little metal scythes. Her small black ski-boots had specially designed toe- Tongues, he noted, with holes that probably inserted into the metal bindings of the skis. “Not that they’re all drunkards,” she hastened to qualify herself, “It’s shust that Mr. Russel wouldn’t allow any of his men, eh, to... well, to sleep out in the open.” Her English speaking voice now had the softest trace of a German accent, but followed the Canadian habit of lilting and making sentences end as though asking a question. Her eyes were hazel and their lashes were still frosted with the cold. She stepped beside him and brushed the snow off herself. “You must be freezing!? Why are you in here? Why aren’t you in the hotel?”
            “Hotel? Didn’t see it.”
            “Shust down the street,” she vaguely waved through the window. “So, let me guess. You arrived on the red-eye express, eh? Are you to be one of the Klimack men, or are you headed out for the Anaconda outfit?”
            “Anaconda Iron and Ore, I think. Keith Russel’s my contact.”
            “Yes. He would be. The whole town is booming with all of this new construct-shun going on. Well, come on inside. Bring your pack. Let’s get you warm.”  She stepped past him and slipped off a mitten by biting the end of it in her teeth. They were small and white and even. Her hand, the short nails unpainted, was thin-wristed but sinewy. Strong. Then she extracted a set of keys from her parka and opened the door.
            The clinic was functional, utilitarian, sparse, and smelled sterile.
            “You can warm up by the register in the waiting room,” she announced before going in, bending to her boots and then taking them off. She handed them to him. “Take your runners off, please. I’ll shust go put the coffee on. And take these to the register too. I like them toasty when I ski back to Cordingly.”
            “Cordingly? Is there a ski hill here?”
            “Ha!” Her laugh was short and sharp, as though he should know better, “Not at all! At least, not a commercial one. But some of the steep hills on cross-country skis are challenging enough, let me tell you. No. I’m at Cordingly Lake. It’s about four miles from here. I have one of the Liman cabins there.”
            “Anne Liman. She’s this great old lady who still goes out in snowshoes on her trap lines. Owns Cordingly. Rents her cabins. Well, you wash up. I’ve got work to do.” She padded out in her thick woolen socks.
            While she busied herself in the other rooms he washed and changed in the ‘gents’ room. And within twenty minutes she was back, carrying a tray with two steaming mugs, a sugar bowl, and a small milk container. She now wore a white nurse’s uniform. It was calf-length and hung loosely about her, as though being a size too large for her wiry frame.
            He took the tray and read her nametag: ‘Nan Laurens. R.N. / B. Sc.’
            “I know B.Sc. is Bachelor of Science, Sister. But R.N.?”
            “Registered Nurse. We don’t call nurses, ‘sister’, here. Shust ‘nurse’. Or, ‘hey you’,” she laughed. “Well now, you can see who I am. You are?”
            “Adam Broadford. Pleased to meet you.”
            She nodded. Her hair was cropped short, page boy style. They sipped their coffee. She looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, her figure slight and her body coltish, but she handled herself with the forthrightness of a mature woman. She wore no makeup that he could discern, and her skin was weather-bronzed. He kept quiet, waiting for her to ask him where he’d come from.
            “Well,” she commenced, and drained her mug, “I have things to do. You may use my phone,” she indicated with a jerk of her head. “It’s six-thirty, but Keith, Mister Russel, will need to come and get you before work starts anyway. Everything comes alive at seven a.m.. So shust go ahead. Use it.”
            And within a few minutes, ‘shust’ as she said it would, the whole town came alive. Adam watched from the clinic’s windows as cars and trucks and pick-ups, their exhausts’ pluming white smoke, slowly slipped and slid along the scoured tire-ruts of the thickly white-caked roads. Various sizes of men, hunched against the cold, came out from the hotel and picked their way through the snow drifts to their snow-piled vehicles. Some bent at the grills and then unplugged long extension-cords that snaked up like thin black mambas from burrowing under the snow; it was as though the electric cars were being charged overnight? Then, once the vehicle was started, they climbed out again, left it running, and with a long-handled brush commenced sweeping the piled up snow off the windshields and the bonnets. Or ‘hoods’, Adam corrected himself. Across from the clinic other vehicles slowly arrived, parked, and the men coming out of them just left the engines running, pluming thickly white from exhaust pipes. Yet more men, their quick breaths like cartoon puffs of wool in front of their mouths, joined those going up the steps and entering the Greasy Spoon. Further along, even the Hudson’s Bay store was apparently open for business. 
            “Nan?” Adam called, putting down the phone. “Thanks! Keith said to get some breakfast and to wait for him across the way.” But there was no response.
            He searched for her, and then from a widow saw her coming across the road from the Hudson’s Bay, a brown paper bag in hand. Running like a white-frocked snow angel, she wore nothing other than her white uniform and a pair of suede mukluks.
            “Hi,” she volunteered as she dashed in and stood over the radiator heater, rubbing her hands, “I shust needed some more coffee and while you were here to hold the fort I shust ran across.”
            “No gloves? No coat?” he marveled. “You’ll freeze to death.”
            “Today?” she shook her head. “This is nothing. It’s snowing. It’s warm. Wait until it’s really cold.” She removed her mukluks. “You will need to buy a coat. Is that thin shacket all you have?”
            “Yes. And this jersey.”
            “Well. The Bay has everything you’ll need. Everything. Now, excuse me, I must work. See you later, maybe.” And she walked away.
             He picked up his pack and headed out into the cold. ‘And if this ‘isn’t’ cold, as she shust tried to tell me,’ he shuddered. ‘Shust what have I let myself in for?’ 
             The heavily clothed men inside the Greasy Spoon had that distinct sense of knowing one another that, as usual, had Adam feeling at once very alien. He stepped inside to an almost instant hush as various heads turned to take him in. In his sports jacket, with his running shoes, no toque, no gloves, and his thin trousers, he felt conspicuous, almost ridiculous. His battered old pannier-pack at his side felt like a foreign thing. He swallowed. The men stared, curious, but not aggressively. There were about eight tables seating four or five men each in an L shaped arrangement around a bar counter behind which a matronly woman now paused to eye him too. She suddenly smiled across at him. “Been expecting you, eh! You must be Adam?”           
            He nodded.
            “Hey there,” she called over to the crowded corner. “Dave! Here’s our new man, Adam. He’s the guy Keith told us about, remember? The one who was a stowaway on the ship, who knocked everyone off the grease pole.”
            “Looks too friggen frozen to harm a flea!” a voice teased, “You sure you got enough backbone in there to fight at all, fella?”
            Adam smiled into the expectant eyes of the crowd, “Hell no,” he tried, “You mean Keith didn’t tell you? Only way I could get across the pole at all was to get everyone to hold onto me and drag me across. Truth!”
            Men instantly creased the corners of their eyes at him. The man called Dave stood up. “Yep. That’s our new man all right. Adam, is it? Come set yourself over here. Say hello to Beth.” She waved. “Say hello to the boys.”
            There was a brief silence, then some of the more outgoing of the men came forward and shook his hand and introduced themselves with names like Tom and Harry and Jim and Eric, who limped in a plaster-casted leg, and Jason and Jacque and Rod and Guy, “pronounced Guh-eee, you hear!” Almost all, except for Eric, were older than himself. Many were bigger, stronger looking men.
            Soon he was seated over at Dave’s corner table. A plate of eggs and toast and bacon and sausages materialized, along with coffee. Despite being a vegetarian he ate gratefully as the others finished their meals. He noticed that he sat upright, formally, with his palms over the handles of his cutlery while the others hunched down, fisted their forks and stabbed down at food. The men also cut up their entire plateful, put down their knives, transferred their forks to their right hand and, mouth now quite close to the plate, commenced a fast-paced and fork-fisted shoveling. Except for a tall, skinny man; he wore an air of dignified elegance.
During the meal Dave introduced the men around the table as Naresh and Li, and Cho, and then, “I’m Jon,” the skinny fellow grinned, his accent most English, “without an ‘h’, if you please”. Next was an Ivan, who most interestingly wore a cowboy hat, of all things, and then came a Ted, and finally, the big old Indian, No-Tongue.
            The privilege of meeting such a diverse bunch did not escape Adam, but he could not bring himself to give voice to it. He was glad of the opportunity to shake their hands, even though he felt awkward at reaching across the table to do so. Never in Africa would men of such different ethnic origins have been allowed to eat together, much less to be introduced on equal terms. Naresh, a handsome man in his thirties of East Indian descent, was the Project Surveyor. Li and Cho, brothers from China, were in their forties. They had come from British Columbia, on the West Coast, because they were ‘powder monkeys’. “Blast Supervisors, like me, once,” Dave informed him, holding up his mangled left hand. The forthright gesture, and the sight of Dave’s stumped hand, with only its scarred thumb and third finger remaining, spoke volumes. Dave was a congenial, big man. “I’m the foreman,” he introduced himself. Jon, the lanky Englishman, was, “Fourteen years here, serving as bush pilot. Although it really should be ‘lake pilot’, shouldn’t it?” he explained dryly.
            “Let me guess,” Adam grinned, “You fly a ‘lake plane’, not a ‘sea plane!’”
            “Touchè.” Jon quickly winked, a sense of camaraderie developing.
            Ivan, strange in his cowboy hat, was a thickset man, of Ukrainian origin, who’d come from Alberta, “beef country, out West”. He was a back-hoe operator. He had steady, appraising but kindly eyes as he paused in his methodical forking. Ted, a solid looking man in his fifties, was a big Dutchman, in charge of Transportation. “Really the ‘Chief Mechanic and Grease Monkey,” he explained with a big grin. He’d been in Canada “Thirty years now.”
            But the one who fascinated Adam the most was the reserved and somewhat aloof looking Indian, No-Tongue. Yet he wore clothes no different from the rest of them. At about fifty, or maybe even sixty, the quiet man gravely nodded and stared Adam down. He’d been in Canada “...for-ev-er,” he answered, using monosyllables.
            Dave, a touch patronizingly, added, “Our friend here, No-Tongue, is our Algonquin hunter and trapper. Aren’t you, my friend?” No-Tongue ignored them. Dave turned to Adam, “He just happened to come back with Jon last night. Need more bullets, No-Tongue?”
            The man gave the slightest of nods.
            Jon asked. “And you, Adam, first time in Canada, we presume?”
            “The neophyte! Measured in hours,” Adam smiled.
            “No!” No-Tongue suddenly shouted. His beaked nose and sharp chin hawked down imperiously as he rose. His talon-like yellow-nailed finger pointed directly at Adam’s chest, “This is a spirit that has been here long, long before.” And then, quiet as a panther, he padded out. For a moment all was silent, and then the gradual clink of finishing breakfast continued.
            “Curiouser and curiouser,” muttered Jon.
            “Ha!” Adam laughed. But the men around him did not.
            “Most I’ve heard No-Tongue say in a long while,” Dave commented, lighting a pipe, then went on, “Well, Keith said for you to wait here for him here, eh? But we gotta go. See you later Adam.” 
            With Dave’s rising men everywhere hastened to gulp down coffee and stood up and wolfed down toast slices and made for the door.
            Within three or four minutes the CafĂ© was cleared.
And then in strode Keith.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One's Worst Enemy!

My first vehicle and first spring in Canada, 1976. (A University of Cape Town T-shirt)

Seems guilt is worse than reality. We take ourselves along with our mistakes into the months and even distant years of our future, regretting that the lessons we learned were at the expense of others, and presuming that a person still holds it against us, or at least feels that we still are somewhat unworthy of their affection, consideration, liking. The insecurities can debilitate. What if you, the one who was immature, unthinking, uncaring, wrong, were to run into the person so slighted, betrayed, injured, in the grocery store, the social gathering, the reunion? Or do we just shrug off the past, put it down to immature experience, and trust that the other person also just accepted that we each get bumped along by the progress of life?

There is a certain agony in me for the things I've said and done in the past. It comes up unexpectedly, and rides me awhile, and I churn over the incident and shake my head at myself and click my tongue and offer a prayer that I be forgiven by the person I've wronged, even as far back as forty or more years. Recall happens occasionally when driving, whether behind the wheel of a car or just in my power-chair. Recall happens when something in a movie, some phrase, some vision, some feeling surfaces to remind me that I once said or did something hurtful, selfish, egotistical. It happens not so that I'm depressed or rendered miserable as a general state of being, but rather as checks on my insight, as reference points by which I might not repeat the errors, like lessons needed to learn the map of my own potential. If only others hadn't been hurt!

One such lesson occurred back in early '76. Behind the wheel of my new V8 Dodge caravan, the gravel of the Northern Ontario back-road churning up and spitting rocks beneath the tires of the speeding vehicle, I selfishly showed off some of my driving skills. Two women and a young man roughly my own age were my passengers. No seat belts in the back, those days. The man's wife became progressively uncertain, and eventually over-stressed or emboldened to secure our lives, asked me to slow down. She must have had to repeat herself several times, since the moment that I still regret is when I actually, in my 24 year old arrogance, looked at her and barked, "Shut up. I know what I'm doing!" Virtually immediately, as is my wont, I examined my rude outburst. But too late. Perhaps I even slowed down a smidgen. Perhaps I even sped up a bit. But the damage was done. I do not recall if I apologised. The relationship between the couple and me was forever tainted, I felt. I had not only growled; I might as well have bitten. My apology, now, is very late.

Cannot tell you how many times I have mentally rerun that road. I could almost, some 35 years later, find the precise spot on the slip-sliding surface where I said it. But lest this sound too self-conscious, I mention it as but part of the great meteorological soup of ingredients that are within anyone's makeup. We are the sum of all the parts. I happen simply just to keep agitating at the stuff in my own stew. And each peppercorn can pack a punch, if chewed all by itself. Nor do I hereby suggest that anyone spend one's time invested in the past rather than the present; the point is, when the past surfaces in the present it is worth within that 'now' truthfully to examine that moment of the past, or why did it surface?

So, 35 years later, I happened today to make contact with the lady and her husband in question, and in relating the event received this precise wording: "We chuckled as we can't recall the driving event as u do." Wow! Goes to show; we are own worst enemies, ha! Now, what about...?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bear Bait (part two)

I was not yet old enough, even at 50 something, to react more considerately. When the Christmas gift to me of a stuffed toy black bear from a friend was glanced at with a fair amount of disapproval (or judgement) from the 80 something year old man, three seats away from me, I might have realized I should have curbed my intensity of affection and appreciation. We were some 12 or even 16 people at the present-swapping, all adults, except for the two children, about 6 and 8. And even though the little boy and young girl worked at being our Christmas elves, distributing the colourfully wrapped gifts according to names, they themselves received no presents; their own gift openings had been done on the night before. It put them very much in the role of onlookers. And the young girl's eyes were now glued to my brand new black bear. "It's really a reading-book pillow," I explained, holding it to my chest and miming at flipping over pages.

The old man gestured, "Here, let me see it." I cradled it over to him, and he plucked it from me and promptly pushed it into the little girl's arms. "You have it!," he said to the child, and her eyes went wide. In a moment I have repeated many times over in my mind, where instinct and self-preservation, selfishness and materialism, symbolism and sentiment all coincide in a precise moment that defines your action before you pause to think, I blurted, "No! Sorry, that's my bear. I'll get you another." The room went silent. But  then the giver of the gift and the mother of the child as well as my wife all rose to my defence, and with caring phrases pointed out to the child that she could not have things that were not meant for her. Yes, there were tears. Yes, one of the younger women who had lived in that family house most of her life fetched down her own old teddy bear from the top shelf overlooking the kitchen, and gave it to the girl. And generally the situation was saved, though to this day I wish I had reacted differently.

The thing for me was the history behind the gift. Back in July of 1977, within a year of being in Canada, I'd had to shoot a bear. Me, who always has loved teddy bears, had to shoot a real one. And though I collected teddies, and used them in some musicals I directed (as in Frederick’s, in Pirates of Penzance; and one for Tom, our big lone guard in Iolanthe) I had never come across a black one. But sometime just before Christmas, about six years ago, my wife was pushing me past a stuffed toy display in the mall, and there he was! A black bear! Perhaps I had already told my wife the story of the shooting, or perhaps I relayed it then, but she realized I liked the thing, 50 something though I was. So she told her friend. And her friend went and got it for me for Christmas. And I was touched at the gesture, the thoughtfulness, the... How we do defend ourselves!

Boundaries are healthy. Little girls learn them. Men, it seems, keep having to relearn them. Animals may even learn them too. Many a dog stays in its yard. Socially we extend ourselves but have a 'none of your business' clause. And Santa Clause, though believed to be real by many a child, eventually maintains a boundary of belief in even the sternest of adults; come let us celebrate with presents and egg-nog, but preferably without egg on my face. The generosity of Christmas overwhelms emotions, budgets, and constraints. But for a real black bear, back in '77, as well as for a stuffed-toy, some 30 years later, the boundary had ended with me. By what self-righteousness did I lay claim to being right? Surely there were other ways to discourage the real bear? And surely there were other ways for me to handle that Christmas too? But we balk, at boundaries.

Friends Pat (police constable), Sandy (teacher), Jay (Nakina's principal) before the hurricane, 
and just before my surgery.

The cabin after the hurricane!

That poor Cordingly Lake cabin bear became this rug!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bear Bait (part one of two)

"A life unexamined is hardly worth living," my friend reminds me. She and her husband lounged at my dinner table last night. And she hugged my bear. My black bear. In fact, she took so much to the furry stuffed object that we grew animated with its implications. Snugged up against her, like a child, or a pet, it did not reciprocate, respond, wriggle, writhe or judge. It did not of itself move. It had no life. Yet it engendered from most holders a warmth, tenderness, and sense of care endearing to watch, especially if not given to scoffing. Even my manly friend, veteran of sports and an inveterate campaigner of 'keeping things real' was at pains not to mock. It was, after all, the old story of my once shooting a black bear after a hurricane that had brought about having this present. 

Nakina, Northern Ontario, autumn, 1977. Food was scarce for the bears. My wife at that time (nurse to the one-horse town) and I had a rented log cabin beside Cordingly Lake, three miles out of town. No phones. No electricity. An outhouse. No running water. And the small two-roomed cabin had a 15 degree slope to the floor. Heat was by a wood stove. Mice were frequent. Even chipmunks vied indoors for potatoes that rolled. But we did not quite expect the bear to come inside. Still, the local game warden warned me, "A bear comes through a window, panics, and goes through a wall." So I got a bigger rifle, a World War Two Lee Enfield. Besides, in my condition then, with a full plaster cast from my waist to my neck, as well as my wearing a silver-wired neck brace, and holed up day after day in the isolated cabin, I was rather a sitting duck, if you'll pardon the expression.

It was about three in the morning when, consternated, I hobbled forwards in the dark. The bear at the garbage can was very noisy, very bothersome. My wife stood behind me, five or so steps from our cautiously opened front door, directing the flashlight around the corner of the cabin at the ghostly black thing, and I, a trained marksman, hefted the .303 and fired a quick shot into the ground. A growl and a roar! I clunked at the antique weapon's reload bolt. Shot closer. The bear barked, eyes blazing. My wife dropped the flashlight! Bolted! And an enraged animal and I were left in the dark. I heard the sounds of crashing, too near, directly at me, and I raised the rifle and fired and the bear groaned and took off, crashing through the bush. And I was angry that a wounded animal might be loose out there. But by 8:00 a.m. the thing was back, or perhaps even another bear, for at the low-slung window of the cabin, right between our two single beds, the bear scratched with steely-sounding claws at our window pane. And as I rolled awkwardly out of bed, pyjama bottoms and great white body-cast foreign in its cognizance, it scrammed. Or perhaps it recognized my take up of the rifle. But its hurtle took it around the corner and in front of the cabin. Hurdling the fallen trees or ducking under them slowed its headlong flight, and at about 40 yards from it, in a small clearing, I connected the sights of the rifle with the spot just behind his ear. Kaboom! He dropped without so much as a twitch. Anne Liman, the local trapper, came to fetch it in her old truck, skinned it, and froze the meat. We had hindquarters steaks from it. The skin was preserved and now, 40 years later, lives with my young friend, Sean. And there was not a mark on the bear. Through the ear, out the far eye. The army had trained me too well.

But that's not the whole story behind getting the stuffed bear. And it is not the story I retold at our dinner table. Instead, we gave the toy hugs and cuddles, and we spoke of there being no fear it would reject us. A life is examined, ours, but not that poor old bear's.