Monthly Archives: January 2011

Don’t go just yet. I need a little more wisdom to carry on

“I’m not long for this world,” said an elderly friend to me yesterday morning. “Doc tells me my heart is pretty much finished so I could go at any time. Can’t really complain. It has served me well for 89 years, so I can’t ask for more than that.”

 I hadn’t seen him in a few months and wondered if he were OK. Negligently (or humanly) I hadn’t bothered checking closely.

His statement nonplused me. Even more nonplused because he uttered it so matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the state of the weather.

I was also saddened. I like the man very much. He was in his day a very successful businessman. Indeed, one of the pillars of the community and virtually everybody knew his name and knew the company that bore his name. And even now, as an elderly man, he is sharp of intellect and a pleasure to be with. Always immaculately dressed, usually in shirt and tie in a rather casual – too casual, many think – community. And we’d see him walk by nearly every morning, and would often run into him in the park across the way.

“I’d like to be like him when I’m his age,” I’d say to Wendy. “He still has it all together; still walks like a young man; still seems to enjoy his life. Not so bad.”

So, what I’m wondering now is not so much that his life may be coming to an end. Personally, I hope his doctor is full of shit and that he’ll be around for years yet, but that’s possibly wishful thinking. That’s because I am a ‘geriatricophile’. I like me my old folks. I think it’s a legacy from my grandparents and my love of them. I think our elders can teach us much and I always find time with a senior to be worthwhile. My favorite character on the treacly Waltons was Grandpa. When old Will Geer died I didn’t bother watching any more. Didn’t much like the rest of them, especially that smug John-Boy jerk.

In recent years too many of my senior folk have died. They tend to do that. And now it seems my friend will be joining their numbers and move into the past-tense. 

What struck me in our conversation, however, was how philosophical he was about it all. As I said, he was very matter-of-fact. Is that something that happens? Do we reach a point in which pending death seems as natural to us as any other aspect of life; that aspect being, it must end?

I don’t know, but in fact I hope that is the case. It wouldn’t make it seem so ominous.

Maybe I need to have a few more elderly people conversations to find out if that is indeed the way it is.

These are a few of my unfavorite things

I know people who, on a daily basis, make out a ‘gratitude list’ upon which they write down all the things for which they, on that day, are grateful. It’s a nice idea, you know, positive-thinking and all that. And there is no question that I have many things in my life for which I am immensely grateful, and the mere fact they are part of me makes me feel blessed.

But, there is also a need for balance of our life’s realiteis. Sometimes I think we just might have an excessive impulse to seek only “happy endings” to everything, rather than preparing ourselves to go face-on with those other realities — the crappy ones. Life is, after all, a trade-off. There must be a ‘yang’ to our ‘yin’ or we wouldn’t be strong enough to cope.

Bearing that in mind I, in a spirit of public blogger service, am about to help those who don’t seek to be wrapped up in puffy cotton, some of the things we must contend with — things that demand we expand our coping resolve. Don’t worry, the elements I mention can only make you stronger and firmer in your resolve to never let the bastards grind you down.

I have my ‘things’, you have yours, so it behooves you to create your own list. But, as follows are the irritants that for me make life seem just a little bit less blessed on my cranky days, but confronting them or enduring them can only make me stronger rather than just merely pissed-off. No, these are not things that are so bad that they would tempt me to ‘go postal’, just little, less than charming things and circumstances: (these are in no particular order):

– We all hate fingernails scraping on a blackboard. This is a universal, primal detestation, so I thought I would include it as the kickoff item.

– Snoring bedmates; snoring people in the next room; the next house; in extreme cases, one street over.

–         Staying in hotel/motel room with paper-thin walls in which you can hear from your room the inhabitants thereof arguing, copulating, doing unspeakable things in the bathroom

– Speaking of bathrooms and the activities therein, accidentally blocking the toilet in somebody else’s house.  Your anxiety level will rise exponentially if it is the toilet of a new love, your boss, prospective parents-in-law, or if the toilet just will not stop running and the water level rises ominously. I mean, you can’t just walk away and pretend somebody else was using it.

– Being unable to remember the events of the “night before.” Or worse, wishing you didn’t remember the events of the night before.

– Slopping coffee, tea or a any potable directly onto your crotch area. “No, really, it’s just tea – ha-ha-ha!”

– Having to provide a ‘specimen’. Having to produce one in the doctor’s office because you forgot to bring one with you. Having to hand that specimen to a nurse who turns out to be someone you had a huge crush on in high school or college.

– Stubbing your toe, biting your tongue or cheek, bumping your head. No dignity here, just excruciating pain.

– Waiting up for someone who should have been home hours earlier. Try to do it minus that sick feeling in the pit of your tummy. Bet you can’t.

– Responding to the smile or wave of somebody fantastic looking on the street only to find, to your mortification, their wave was directed at the person behind you.

– Parking your car in a rough neighborhood, returning to it at 2 a.m. to find a tire has gone flat, then being offered assistance by an individual who looks like he was rejected by the Hell’s Angels for appearing too morally depraved.

– Being caught in traffic gridlock and really, really having to pee.

– Nearing the end of a four lane highway stretch only to find you are stuck behind an oil-burning ’57 Rambler or the largest RV ever manufactured, that is being driven by the oldest guy on record to still possess a driver’s license.

Being in unrequited love. This is almost as distressing as being the object of somebody else’s unrequited love.

– Flashing red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror. Either that or a cop car going in the opposite direction that suddenly makes a squealing U-turn on the highway immediately after you pass by knowing well you were going at least 30-per over the posted speed.

– Arriving in Levis and sweatshirt and realizing everybody else is in formal.

– The sounds of sirens at any time, but especially at 3 a.m. They can only mean something bad has happened to someone.

– Virtually all governments, at any level in any place on the planet. Slight comfort in knowing yours is just a little more benevolent and a little more honest than the ones in other places.

– Airport security personnel. I know everybody wants a job, but most of those I’ve ever dealt with in any country would be happier working in an abbatoir.

– High school reunions. Nothing good comes from such things, unless you have a masochistic desire to revisit all your insecurities at the age of 17. Spending time with your parents if they’re still living can have a similar impact.

-Lifestyle questionnaires that indicate you should have died five years ago and that if you are still around, you shouldn’t make it past the end of next week.

Is there such a thing as knowing a little too much?

Around home with George and Martha. Are we having fun yet?

My Dad once told me he had a “special friend.” A special friend of the female sort. He would meet up with her once or twice a month and they would have lunch together. 

When he told me I said: “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?”

I was well into adulthood at the time; well enough into adulthood that ‘middle-aged’ would apply.

In fact, I wasn’t shocked. Indeed I understood why he might have been motivated to have that ‘special friend’. In the first place, there is nothing much wrong with having an outside friend as long as the friendship isn’t threatening anything domestic.

That’s true in most cases. In the case of my father I actually hoped the friendship was more than just ‘friendship’. I didn’t actually ask “Do you do her?” I was tempted, however. There was nothing voyeuristic about the impulse; I just thought his home-life was so fraught that it might be nice if he had tender female ministrations to calm his fevered whatever.

My mother, as I have said before, was an alcoholic. She wasn’t a delightful, Dorothy Parkeresque witty and urbane alcoholic, she was a kind of nasty drunk kind of alcoholic in the blowsy mean-mouthed way of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In her cups she was no fun to be around. She was childish, petty and vicious with her cruel barbs. Having been on the end of a few of those, I knew what it was like. The old man was on the end of most of them, however, so who could blame him?

Sober she was OK. But interludes of sobriety became rarer and rarer as time went on. By the time he offered his mini-confession she was well along the spiral of chronic liver-rot and she was to die a few years later of cirrhosis. 

Actually, when he spilled the beans about how he just might have some sort of a life apart from the domestic scene I was struck by the realization that I didn’t know anything about him. I mean, there he was, my father, the guy who gave spawn to me and all, but I didn’t know much else. I knew what he did for a living. I knew he could be a jerk when ill-temper got the better of him. But, I also knew he was scrupulously honest, very hard-working, never took anything that didn’t belong to him, and paid all his bills on time.

But, I didn’t know anything about him!

So, his ‘on-the-side’ popsy came as a surprise. Who was she? What did she look like? Did they indeed have an ‘intimate’ relationship? Did I know her?

In that last realm I did have a niggling thought that wouldn’t go away quickly. A girl I went to high school with later went to work for my father as a college instructor. Dad once asked me: “Do you know Delia Fakename?” I said she wasn’t exactly a friend of mine but I knew her. In fact, I told him that the rumor in high school was that she was having an affair with the drama teacher. “I doubt if it was true,” I quickly added, not wanting to cast moral aspersions on one of his employees.

But, as time went on, every time I visited Delia’s name would come up with fair regularity. You know, something she’d said, how much he valued her professionally, etc. I hadn’t been living with my parents for a long time, so it almost seemed like with each visit he had stored up a few Delia tales.

So, then when he dropped the bombshell of his ‘special friend’, I thought, Delia? Hell, she’s my age. How could that happen. Of course, now, from a more advanced perspective, I no longer see anything weird in the age discrepancy. Maybe it was true about her and the drama teacher. Maybe she really dug older men. It happens. Quite a bit, actually.

I never did find out, and I never really pressed the point. I hoped that he did have some genuine love in his life, finally. He deserved it.

But, I never will know the truth of the matter, any more than I never really will know him. Maybe that’s just as well.

Touching the face of God and all like that there

Dorothy Parker once said she didn’t like writing, she liked “having written.” As a writer of sorts I agree with the divinely debauched Ms. P. But, I will also apply her thoughts on writing to flying. I do not like flying, but I like having flown because that means I have arrived intact at a destination I sought, rather than bobbing around mid-Pacific or mid-Atlantic with sharks homing in.

I don’t like flying for a number of other reasons as well. In the first place, its largely excruciatingly boring, and the boredom is only punctuated by moments of stark terror. Turbulence always unnerves me; the seats are always uncomfortable; and the second the flight attendants block the passageway with the drink trolley, I know that I will have to pee more urgently than I’ve ever had to in my life.

I won’t even get into the excruciating and insultingly outrageous security checks we all have to undergo these days. The only people to have gained from those hideous exercises are the chronic exhibitionists. “Hey, please, I really want to show you my junk!”

I have had only a few very good moments on an airplane. I’ve never joined, nor been invited to join the ‘Mile High Club’ (sigh) but I have met some interesting people. I met a very young lady well over 20 years ago on a flight and she was ultimately a peson who became one of my best friends in this universe. Once, on a flight from Vancouver to Honolulu (on the wonderful and hugely lamented Wardair) I was actually hit upon by a gorgeous flight attendant who left no doubt that she would like me to join her for her three-day layover in Hawaii. She didn’t define exactly what she meant by ‘layover’, but being no naif (I don’t think), I got the gist of her invitation. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I was hugely married at the time and my wife was asleep in the seat immediately in front of where I was sitting.

But, I can honestly say I have had one flying experience that could never be matched by any prosaic commercial airline offering, and that was the time I flew in a Canadian Air Force T-bird (pictured above). In gratitude for all the nice things I had written about our local airbase, CFB Comox, I was invited to take a flight in a vintage fighter jet. That was an event in my life that wasn’t boring. The pilot told me that such a flight is the closest you will get to the exultation of sex with your clothes on. He was right. After a full five-hour training session (in which I learned how to eject, God forbid, and other bits of esoterica) we took off in this bubble-topped rather venerable aircraft. It was amazingly exciting. I actually had the sensation of speed as we screamed across the Comox Valley and on towards the Beaufort range, and right out to Nootka Sound within mere minutes. We flew straight, we flew up (whence I found out what G-force really means), we flew down, jeopardizing my lunch, but I kept it down, we did rolls (not as unnerving as you might think), and anything else the pilot had in mind, or was directed to do.

Eventually we had to return, almost to my dismay. We came in by the back way from the west coast of the Island. Our plane and another fighter/trainer screamed at low altitude through a canyon in a scene most reminiscent of Star Wars. The pilot then asked if I would like to see the Glacier from the top. I did very much. He came in so low over the icecap that I felt I could step out of the cockpit and stroll around — except for the fact we were moving at hundreds of miles an hour.

At the end of the flight, I felt like the poet who penned ‘High Flight’. I truly felt like I had stuck out my hand and “touched the cheek of God.” You don’t get that on your average Air Canada flight. You don’t even get a lousy bag of peanuts any more.

The sweetest swan-song you ever heard

Our much-loved and regrettably short-lived little Manx cat, Stumpy, was terrified of them. If she was outdoors and they honkingly flew overhead she would hunch to the ground until they had passed. Stumpy’s response to a flight of Trumpeter Swans was akin to that of east end Londoners in 1940 when the sky was filled with Heinkel bombers. If she’d had a shelter to take to, she would have taken to it.

True, they were birds, but such birds they were. More bird than she was prepared to handle. Can’t blame her because the Trumpeter is, after the California Condor, the largest flying bird on the planet. And they’re just as common as dirt around here. In fact, fully 10 percent of the world’s population of Trumpeter Swans winter in the Comox Valley.

Farmers’ fields are full of them, and many farmers cooperate to create havens for the giant visitors. A few years ago we used to have an annual Swan Festival. I’m not sure what happened to that but I think they should bring it back. They warrant extolling, in my esteem.

They warrant extolling because they are magnificent to see and one literally cannot walk anywhere this time of year without spying and hearing them overhead. They warrant extolling also because not that many years ago they were a threatened species. Their numbers now show what a little diligent environmental work in terms of habitat and so forth can do.

Once, many years ago, when they were still borderline threatened we were sitting in the staffroom of the school at which I taught in that other incarnation of my life. A couple of noisy swans (and they are noisy, very noisy) flew past the window. One of the teachers made a shotgun gesture and pointed it at them and went “Pow!” One of the other teachers looked almost aghast and said: “Don’t do that, even in jest!” We took his point. Even the gesture was a bit like pretending to kick a panda cub.

Swans are, of course, very graceful and stately and just look magnificent on the water. Don’t be deluded, however. As lovely as they might be, Trumpeters are, like Madonna in her day, fine to look at, but don’t mess with them. You’ll be sorry. For they are mean mothers and can easily break an arm or even a leg if somebody decides to maraud. Look but don’t touch. See, just like Madonna. They are formidable because they are big. Like white sharks and grizzly bears, Trumpeters are aware of their size and will use it to their advantage if needs must. Don’t blame them. People used to club them to death to get their down.

They are around here from about October until March or April. A ‘swan person’ once told me that a lot of them are loath to leave when the winter season ends. But, farmers want to till their fields so the swans have to literally be kicked out and be sent off with a bit of a flea in their ears, but are assured they’ll be welcomed back in the fall.

I am happy they are welcomed back. So is everybody around here.

If it doesn’t inconvience you too much, could you show me the money?

Those of you who are terribly ancient like I am probably remember the character of Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoon strip. Wimpy was a chronic mooch who also suffered from an insatiable hunger for hamburgers.

 “Buy me a hamburger today and I’ll pay you Tuesday,” was Wimpy’s classic line. In Wimpy’s mind Tuesday never came and he never repaid his friends.

Sometimes people who hire freelance writers are a bit like that. In one sense they are like Wimpy and they promise to pay by Tuesday. Tuesdays that also seem to never come in their minds, nor do they have the impulse to rectify without the scribe getting nasty. 

And, I hate getting nasty with anybody. It’s not in my nature. Just play by the rules and then I don’t have to think ill of you.

I say this because I am currently awaiting reimbursement for a writing job I did quite a while ago. I called two weeks ago about the matter and was ever so polite and said it was just a matter of keeping my records straight. You know, at the first inst kissing a bum sometimes gets you further than throwing rocks. So, the response I got was: “Oh, don’t you have that yet?” My inner voice said: “Well nooooooooo, why the fuck do you think I am calling?”(inner voices are always in italics, in case you didn’t know). But, my public voice merely noted that no I don’t seem to quite have that money yet.

I was assured the matter would be seen to immediately and the sum I had billed for would be on my way posthaste. It still hasn’t come. So, that means I will have to call again.

Why do people do this? Would you buy an appliance and play fast-and-loose with reimbursing the store? You wouldn’t keep the appliance for long. Try to get work done by a dentist or a lawyer by offering just vague promises of payment. So, why do writers seem to be fair game? 

The problem with being a writer is that you, the writer, set the rate of pay. Not an easy thing to do, and one of the worst sins you can make is to have too little pride in your skills and to undercut yourself. That will never do. You have to be realistic. On the other hand, those doing the hiring are sometimes aghast at a suggested rate of, say, $100 per hour.

There are those who somehow feel the writer should be cap-in-hand about the process. I was once contacted by a businessman; a millionaire entrepreneur, who wanted me to write some copy for his business. I met him for coffee and he asked me to suggest a price. I suggested that aforementioned $100 per hour (which is actually pretty cheap). He looked aghast and informed me that (a particular individual with whom I was acquainted) would do the job for $20 per hour.

I rose to the occasion in this instance (partially because the guy was an arrogant dickwad) and said: “Well, if Mr. X will do it for twenty bucks, then hire Mr. X. I might add that Mr. X is not a professional writer but a hack that fancies himself as one. Good luck, buddy. See ya.” And I walked out of the coffee shop feeling a bit good about myself.

I could write a book about the perils of freelance writing, setting prices, invoicing contractors and my experiences would be no different from those faced by anybody in the trade, and the only thought I am left with is, you have contracted a service just like any other service, so pay for that service and pay for it quickly.

That’s not an unreasonable request.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting. I know I’ll get the money; I just hate having to wade through bullshit to get it.

Sometimes it behooves us to extend some gratitude

It’s lunchtime early in the year of 1981. I am sitting in a venerable pub called The Feathers on the High Street of Gorleston, a suburb of the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth. It’s chilly outside and in my recall I am feeling a profound sense of isolation within myself. My recall tells me that, though I am no longer aware of why I felt alone in a world so far away from the one in which I grew up.

I’m sure there were others in the homey pub, though I can no longer picture who might have been there. I am nursing a pint of Norwich Castle bitter and eating a liver-pate sandwich. Funny how I remember the sandwich.

Somebody punches in something at the jukebox. The song that comes up is Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. Perfect choice, though probably the worst choice considering the mood I was in. The song had been around for a few years by 1981 but it was one of those pieces that had deservedly segued into ‘standard’ realm. 

I listen to that incredible Raphael Ravenscroft saxophone riff  (for which Ravenscroft was paid a disgusting one-off sessions fee of £27, I might add) and the poignancy of the piece permeates my mood (and arguably my soul) that day almost exactly 30 years ago.

To me the piece had always been a background offering but on this day I actually listened to the lyrics.

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land
He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he’ll settle down there’s a quiet little town
And forget about everything

For Rafferty the song was an ode to his days as a busker outside the Baker Street Underground station. But, more importantly it was about how he wanted to escape a life he was living.

I found that I empathized with the lyrics more than I had perhaps with any other bit of musical poetry. He captured exactly what I was feeling at that moment in my life. And what he wanted to ‘give up’ applied too painfully accurately to my life at an earlier incarnation of who I am today.

More profoundly, it told me what I had to do if I wanted to get out of assorted funks in which I tended to find myself, and to keep moving forward in my life. 

I think on that particular day I bade goodbye to my protracted childhood and set out on a kind of quest to make it through this mass of confusion and sometimes self-indulgence called life. In retrospect it’s been good and I kind of like the man I am today. 

Thanks, Gerry. At the news of your too-young recent death I couldn’t help but show gratitude for what you gave me. 

Too bad and so sad that you didn’t really follow your own advice.