Archive for November, 2010

Cruel Winter

Okay, open your eyes. Admit it: Winter is here, roughly ramming Standard Time down our throats “weather” we like it or not (oh, great pun, Al, great pun). One day the afternoons are somewhat darker, then — zap! — they’re blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Everything seems sharper, both visually and meteorologically. Ice-blue skies, and winds that slice your cheeks thinner than prosciutto. Every gust seems like a handful of razor blades flung in your face.

A sharpness, waxing, waning, in the air;

There is a distant depth to darkening sky;

Strange stereopticon of passersby,

In vivid chiaroscuro hurrying there.

The streets, too, have changed, as have the people who use them.

Pedestrians, without a smile to spare,

All hunched and pinched, with rigid shoulders high.

No mini-skirts of summer catch the eye;

Sweet summer bums avoid the thoroughfare.

Every season has its own feel, its own ambiance, and most of them are pleasant in varying degrees. But winter?

Looks like a bad-hair day.

Must Winter’s hand be bare, and O so cruel?

And spread its bitter darkness everywhere?

Gay Summer’s always fair, a sunlit jewel;

Wears golden gowns, and flowers in her hair.

I’m all for summer wear, so as a rule

I’ll pass on snow, and emulate the bear.

Hang in there. Winter is the longest season, six months more or less. It just seems longer. So don’t hold your breath. This, too, shall pass.


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There’s Air Canada (airlines; at least I think they’re still an airline), Revenue Canada (taxes), and Poste Canada (mail). But mail, in the rest of Canada it’s also Canada Post. Why?

Is it because some misguided civil servant felt that we can cater to the French so much and no more, and that the postal service will carry the banner of revolt? (To the barricades! Canada Post Forever!)

Still, somehow, I feel it lacks the same heroic vibrancy as in the old days when we scaled the walls of Constantinople, cross of St George in one hand, blood-soaked sword in the other, voices hoarse from petitioning the gods (ours or anyone else’s) for aid.

Canada Post mailbox *

Now we are asked to man the shallow barricades of “Keep Canada free from the stain of Post Canada.”

Sheesh! Is this a fight worth fighting? Maybe it’s because the civil servants can visualize their names on some future rusted plaque mounted over one of the urinals in the Ministry of Something-Or-Other, a plaque dusty but hallowed, grimy with age but a monument to their selfless endeavour.

But, by George, it might really be something to be so revered! Has a spot been reserved for the memorial? They might declare a national holiday: Canada Post Day. Still (pensive scratching of head), translate it and the whole point is lost (Le Jour de Poste Canada), and the guys on the barricades would have to get a job. Ach, it’s a small point, surely; leave it to the purists. Political correctness hasn’t failed them yet.


* Photo:  This photo is by “TomJ” to whom I extend my thanks. I think I’m allowed to use this without infringing copyrights. If not, please let me know.

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I’m sure you’ve noticed: Times change; the songs our parents sang are now off-key.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking change. Some things cried for change, and when it occurred the world became a better place. But too often change takes one of two forms: (a) change for the sake of change, which is worthless, or (b) change that profits the few at the expense of the many. Neither of those changes is going to win the Nobel Prize.


In olden days a handshake served your word;

Decisions weren’t for credit checks deferred;

Your word became a contract as if signed,

And Trust — no empty word — was there enshrined.


Who now does not insouciantly agree

With cynics down the halls of history:

It’s “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,”

For trust is just a word we all outgrew.


When we were young our parents did their best to instill a basic sense of good manners into our black little hearts, hearts that Mother Nature had filled with self-interest. Sometimes the parents succeeded.


“More?!” Looks like a backhander coming up any minute!


As children of our time we learned to wait;

To interrupt our seniors tempted Fate.

Backhanders were the norm, and often seen,

For little brats who dared to intervene.


To interrupt is de rigueur today;

The loudest voice, and crass, will always pay.

C’mon, they say, and take the Roman view:

If everybody does it, so must you.


All the parental guidance we absorbed — well, some of the time, anyway — was supposed to teach us that there were other people in the world, people who deserved as much consideration as ourselves. These were the toughest lessons to learn. Modesty? A modest thought for others? Don’t see much of that around. Today it’s zero tolerance for altruism.


O Modesty! Sweet name! Remember that?

That ancient attribute that’s now old hat?

That languishes behind an ass’s bray;

“Dig me!” the asses, stridently, will say.


Ah, Modesty: sweet posture never seen;

What colloquy can Modesty convene?!

Can understanding gain, our minds unlock,

When “me” comes first, and “shout” has banished “talk”?


So let’s hear a round of somewhat subdued applause for changing times.

Has it done anything for us?

Go ahead, take a guess.

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First nations think they have a patent on “Original Peoples.” Little do they know I’m part of the group. Not overtly perhaps, but kind of the Southern Ontario branch office.

Drop in next time you’re by. My living room looks like a longhouse. Brooding over everything and everyone in the room is a totem pole. Warm dark wood, over a metre tall, it was carved in the early 1960s by one of the west coast natives, a very talented guy named Jimmy John. Most of the figures, one atop the other, stare out at you, grim, unsmiling.

Do you detect a certain menace? Could be; the totem is powerful and doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

Have you noticed that every totem pole bears frowning figures? My totem gives top spot to the Owl, wings folded as if at rest. Beneath him the Raven sits on top of the Bear, who is seated on the Frog. I like to think the totem represents my family: The Owl, wise, all-seeing, and powerful (that’s me); the Raven, the cunning trickster (that’s me again); the Bear, brave, strong, very big on courage (the totem can’t be about me all the time); the Frog … well, my wife is French.

The totem pole has guarded my home for almost half a century since it came into my hands during a visit to my homeland, Vancouver Island. I would never give up that totem. And, somehow … in the darkened room at night, I think … I think the totem pole would not let itself be taken away. I see the Owl’s alert eyes in the darkness, I hear the beat of the Raven’s unfurled wings, the threatening grunt of the Bear, their movement in the shadows … no, they would not let it happen. And I feel reassured, and sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge.

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Nothing happens until you act.

Act, like in acting? Life upon the wicked stage, and all that?

No. What we’re talking about here is acting, as in getting your butt in gear.

I don’t think you need to be reminded that, in this world at least, nothing positive happens until you act. Do something.

This might well be called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s door(s) of opportunity, produced over a period of 27 years (beginning in 1425), and situated in the Baptistery of St John, Florence, Italy. (Lorenzo Ghiberti 1378–1455)

There’s no better definition of the noun “reciprocation”: To get somewhere you have to do something; waiting for things to happen, good things (especially good things for you), is futile.

It’s an old maxim that says: When Opportunity knocks, open the door. Opportunity is a sensitive animal, susceptible to slights; easily insulted when ignored, it rarely knocks twice.

As a corollary to all this, one more thing: If you want something, ask for it. If you don’t, how are others to know you want it? You see? You have to act, you have to let them know.

Has any of this been helpful? I ask because these two maxims have certainly helped me beyond measure. If you had to live by only two rules, these would be the rules to embrace:

(1) Nothing happens until you act, and (2) If you want something, ask for it.

What’s that you say, George? You, my old friend George, are asking me to loan you ten dollars? I only lend money to people I know well. Sorry, stranger.

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Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, 1953.

Down south, in what passes for civilization, a snow storm is inconvenient, uncomfortable, dangerous to traffic, and a huge pain to shovel afterward. Up north it’s a blizzard and it’s the end of the world.

The only safe element within that maelstrom of snow, ice, and insane winds is the lifeline, that microscopic thread, no thicker than a spider’s web it seemed, that linked you to the huts and bunkhouses of the site.

Standard blizzard; motor vehicle (lower left) is perhaps ten metres away. At ground level in Frobisher Bay, swirling wind and snow between the bunkhouses made visibility zero. *


Beyond my window lifelines stretch, in sight

For maybe three short inches from my door.

And then they’re lost within the snow’s bright light;

Completely lost within the blizzard’s roar.

Looking through the bunkhouse door toward the dining hall, I saw … nothing but screaming billows of blizzard-driven snow, and heard the terrifying animal-like howl of the storm. I knew the dining hall was there, a scant three or four metres away, and I was starving. But I also knew that narrow laneway went perhaps 50-60 metres to my right. You could walk that distance and at the end … there was nothing, just 2000 bleak, empty kilometres, eventually leading to civilization.

Ice on power lines.

I stepped out the door and grabbed the lifeline. The wind slammed the door behind me.

Of necessity my eyes were squeezed shut. Blinded, I knew salvation rested solely in holdingthatline, firmly, with both hands. The wind pushed, tugged, tried to spin me around. Nothing to be frightened about, I told myself, frightened. I knew I had to simply take two steps, fall forward, and I would be touching the dining hall. Quite simple. Nothing to it.

Other blizzard conditions: Weight of snow pulls down a tree.

But …

What if … when I fell forward … I lost my hold on the lifeline … and found I wasn’t touching the dining hall? Eh? Eh? What do you do then, pal? Are you struggling in what you think is a forward direction, hoping to find the dining hall? Or are you headed toward that barren tundra thousands of kilometres to the right? Eh? To the right where the wolves are waiting …?

A bit melodramatic, I know. But you weren’t there. You were not faced with the reality. It wasn’t melodrama; it was stark, bonechilling. There were two or three of those storms while I was there. I never got used to them. Every one reminded me of the thousands of kilometres of empty snow and icy sea between me and the next human being. And I understood, then, why some of the men on the site went crazy.


* Photo:  CambridgeBayWeather

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Oh! see the grey-haired paragon of yore;

Experience exudes from every pore.

Life’s problems solved, from 9 to 5, no charge;

Appointments, please; his clientele is large.

Does that sound like you? Yeah, I think it sounds a bit like me, too. Us old guys are supposed to be awash with wisdom — you know, the stuff we, in theory at least, pick up along the way.

Why are wise men depicted as ugly? Some are good looking (ahem!) …*

Unfortunately, when us old guys look around at today’s youth, we see with a familiar sadness that youth is industriously making the same mistakes we made ourselves many — well, a few — years ago.

Youth’s golden promise oft by Youth is spurned;

So filled with self, life’s lessons left unlearned;

Through life runs riot, gaining naught, at cost,

Will bravely lose the hours that we, too, lost.

He’ll drink and whore, ignore the bright new day;

The day has risen with the sun, to stay;

Tomorrow, too, he says, will see him play.

He’ll count the cost when he, like me, is grey.

Occasionally, though, we’ll sometimes meet a young man of surprising rectitude, lots of common sense and sound opinions. And — can you believe it? — we’ll be irritated by his presumption! Why, he’s acting as if he were as wise as us! Cheeky little twerp.

And here am I: Old guy, by Youth annoyed,

By all the feckless young I would avoid;

With pointless joy do they invest their lives…

And then — a lad of common sense arrives.

And all I find within my heart to feel?

Contempt. The lad’s exemplary life’s not real!

But then we stop. With not a little embarrassment we recognize the paradox.

The thing we rail against we seem to prize;

And that of greater worth we criticize!

Would we hold him in higher regard if he made all those old mistakes that remind us of our own?

It’s crazy. And more: We’re still making those mistakes!


* Illustration:  Arthur Rackham, 1918

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