Upon Retirement

When I first met her I thought that she must be one of those mysterious Eastern European women we always used to see in those Cold War spy movies. She had these high cheekbones and maybe, just maybe, she was a few pounds lighter than she is now, thirty one years later. No offense intended.

That first encounter with my future wife Brenda did not take place clandestinely on the Charles Bridge in Prague, but in Lindsay, Ontario’s Grand Hotel. To be perfectly frank, it wasn’t really grand but it served its purpose as a hangout for teachers on Friday afternoons in the 1980s. I had just returned to teaching after a semester off travelling in Europe and I became quite smitten with her not only because of her high cheekbones and slim figure but because she was the only person in town who actually listened to my travel stories.
Little did I realize that that wouldn’t last too long.

Shortly after that we ended up teaching at the same high school in the same department and even sharing the same prep period. What really shocked me was that she had actually read the Ontario Ministry Guidelines. In fact, our first disagreement was when we were assigned to make up the Grade 9 French exam and she was adamant that we follow instructions to the letter-of-the-law. Remember – this was the 1980s, in small town Ontario and French was considered an unwelcome intruder to the high school curriculum by many in the community. My cynicism when it came to following the bureaucratic maze of instructions shocked her at first.
Little did I realize that I would create a monster.

One of the first things she told me was that she wasn’t long for teaching high school French in Lindsay. She had just returned from a summer course at the University Of Nice in the French Riviera. She was going to the Sorbonne, she said, to further her studies and then begin her many journeys into parts unknown. Oh yeah, I thought, and I’m going to study astrophysics and become an astronaut.

Within a year we were married and the first two summers Brenda spent doing further studies in La Pocatiere, Quebec and at the University of Grenoble in France while I taught at a summer hockey school in northern Ontario and drank beer. There you go, I thought, there’s the wanderlust out of you. After failing to convince me to move to China to teach ESL and being one day late with my application for a Department of National Defence school in Germany, Brenda successfully applied for a paid sabbatical to take her Master’s in French and we ended up having one of the best years of our lives in Sherbrooke, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. That sojourn ended up being both good and bad for me. Upon our return to Lindsay with her expanded education my wife was appointed Department Head for a year while our previous chief took her own leave. So now she was officially my boss at work, which extended her authority over me to around the clock.

We had been married eight years and had two young children when she began talking about an international teaching exchange. Oh-oh, I thought. Let’s rein this in, I said. We have a four year old and a two year old here, for crying out loud. I don’t want the boys, and especially not me, suffering from culture shock. Why not something a little less exotic… like Edmonton, perhaps ?

Brenda nodded mildly and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The next thing I know the Ontario Teaching Exchange had given us the address of someone named Philippe in Nimes in the south of France. Brenda handled all of the arrangements because I sat them out as a conscientious objector. Another great year as our family used the extensive French holidays to travel through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Lichtenstein, Andorra, Spain, Monaco and Morocco.

After years of teaching French most of us have shifted out of it for the sake of our sanity. Brenda never did.

Maybe that explains a lot. But what put a reluctant end to her teaching career were those concussions: two within three weeks because of collisions in the Y’s swimming pool and another one too soon after those while skiing in Orford, Quebec in between our daughter’s hockey games at a tournament in nearby Sherbrooke,. But even head trauma can be a blessing in disguise. Brenda is loving life in retirement, even if she was forced into it. Last Thursday she just returned home from a month visiting one of our sons in New Zealand.
But no more concussions, I told her. We need your sense-of-direction while on those trips. Me, I inherited mine from my father, who could get lost on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Next November we’re scheduled to hike the Annapurna Trail in Nepal’s Himalayas. We don’t want me leading the way. They tell me if you take a wrong turn somewhere you can end up spending a long, cold night.

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Beginning Jobs and Bad behaviour

“I really want to be a hockey referee,” one of my sons said to me awhile back.
“No… you don’t,” I answered.

Like most of my advice, I have no delusions that this unsolicited counsel will be heeded. Nor should it be. My track record of advising is at least as odorous as the pile of manure which still exists outside of my deceased cousin’s horse stable. I once advised the father of Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks’ all-star defenseman who is one of the three contenders for the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s’ top defenders, not to move from Lindsay, Ontario to the growing city of Barrie. Brent’s parents, Rob and Gabby, thought that he would receive better coaching and competition closer to Toronto.
“Don’t do it,” I advised. “What chance does the kid have of ever making it out of Junior ‘B’?”

The thing is, we can only relate to our own experiences and perspective when we look out at the world and give our opinions. I refereed hockey on outdoor rinks and umpired baseball on the sandlots of Montreal’s baseball diamonds when I was twelve and thirteen years old. It looked like a step-up from delivering the Montreal Gazette at six a.m. or trying to sell greeting cards door-to-door.
It wasn’t.

My fingers and shins were hacked to death when I dropped the puck between two house league centres and the renumeration probably wasn’t enough to buy myself a hot chocolate at Peppy’s Greasy Spoon as I trudged home, carrying both my skates and the resentment I felt after listening to an hour of abuse.

And even though I was earning my wages in the wide world of sports, which I loved, I came to realize that there was no easy money out there. “What did you expect, kid?”, my father retorted when I shared this profound truism with him.

My daughter has a part-time job as a cashier at a grocery store on Ottawa’s Bank Street. Her job has both annoyed and amused me, for as much as that matters. She and I can’t walk through a grocery store without her rattling off the cash register numbers of every piece of produce that I pick up. “Broccoli… 4060.” I decided to humour her along so I asked her the number for apples. “What type ?” she asked. “Royal Gala…4135. Granny Smith? 4017.”
“Do you wanna know any others?”
No. That’s enough.

But standing at a cash has provided my daughter with more of a life education than memorizing produce food codes.

Lost causes and crumbling empires make for a good story. So does bad human behaviour. Maybe not all of us have carried a banner for a lost cause or lived through the crumbling of the Babylonian and Roman Empires. But not any of us, not a one, has not witnessed bad human behaviour.
We don’t have far to look. And it’s usually when people have their guard down, at the times they think they are free of the judgement of their friends and acquaintances, that their true colours shine forth.

And it’s become a part of my daughter’s coming of age. There’s the grocery store crowd that when asked if they need bags at a cost of five cents each, say no, that’s not necessary. When the order is rung through and the bill complete, then they suddenly realize that bags may be of some use. There are others who bring bags, but they are of the small clear plastic type that we tear off in the produce department and in which these aforementioned cheapskates now expect their cereal boxes and ice cream containers to be wrapped in.

Then there’s the guy who has carefully removed the tiny round identifying paper stickers used to identify apple brands. “These are Royal Gala apples?” my daughter will politely inquire, although she certainly knows anyway.
‘No… they’re not. They’re MacIntosh,” the thrifty fellow will reply assertively, having substituted the most expensive stickers for the least. To his credit, he didn’t expect to walk off with free grocery bags. He threw his on the counter, then folded his arms as he watched my daughter pack up, pretending to be completely enchanted by the price of the chocolate bars on the nearby shelf.

Of course, there’s such a thing as karma in this universe of ours. You see, I’ve done more than played hockey and worked out at the gym in my retirement’s free time. I’ve also been studying Eastern mysticism and spirituality. And as it turns out, my new gym, GoodLife, is now on the lookout for personal trainers.
“Maybe that could be a retirement career for me,” I mused to my daughter one afternoon while reading the notice on the gym wall.
My daughter snorted and almost choked on the smoothie these kids always seem to be drinking these days. “Who would want a 60- something personal trainer,?” she scoffed.
I silently envisioned a phalanx of bagless, apple sticker-switching customers lining up relentlessly at her till.
Karma, anyone ?

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Vimy

I do not love war, but I love the courage with which the average man faces up to war.
-James Michener

Those that know me might accuse me of not getting my facts straight too often… and they might have a point. But I’ve never let not knowing the facts get in the way of forming my opinion.

April 9th was Easter Day, one hundred years ago. If you’re a Canadian you know what happened on this day and if you don’t, then shame on you. Maybe you skipped History class the day World War One was being taught. I made my living as a teacher for thirty one years but I don’t know how much I actually taught anyone. I do know that whether I was teaching Grade One phys.ed in Ottawa, Canada or college- level English as a second language in Nimes, France, I did learn a lot more from my students than they might have from me. In some of the courses I was given to teach I didn’t know an awful lot before I started. In Law for instance, I didn’t know a legal tort from an apple tart, so I had to stay a least one day ahead of my students.

That was certainly true with my knowledge of Canadian military history. I grew up in Quebec and the society and culture of la Belle Province did not give a lot of support to either of the two world wars. In high school history we would spend a lot more time on Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain than we ever did on those years between 1914-18 and 1939-45. Conscription was a dirty word in Quebec and most in that province witnessed a lot more violence in the protests against going to the war than they ever did at the front. Not much attention was paid to any hostilities that the English and Germans were undergoing at the turn of the century in their battles for empires; it was more focused on the hostility that some French-Canadians felt against ‘les maudit anglais.’

And for that reason when I did start teaching Canadian high-school English in Lindsay, Ontario I didn’t know the difference between Vimy Ridge and the newspaper column ‘Goren on Bridge.’ And even though my mother had taught me that card game at a young age I soon became way more interested in the four divisions of Canada’s Expeditionary Force than I ever did in bidding in bridge. And as I did in the classroom, I’m not going to bore you with a recital of the facts of how in a very short few days Canada’s four divisions in the first time that they ever fought together did something that the both the British and French divisions had failed at for for years; capturing the German-held stategically -important Vimy Ridge.

When I turned on CBC Radio this morning they were denigrating Vimy Ridge of course, not too mention all of Canadian society at that time. We were racist, misogynist, homophobic and hide-bound. Of course we were. I’m not disputing that. And I wonder what the intelligentsia will say about our society one hundred years from now. And I’m not glorifying war. The whole misadventure of 1914-18 was one horrendous mistake which should never have happened. But you can’t blame the the 3598 Canadians who were killed and the 7000 wounded in one battle for that.
Winston Churchill was not talking about Vimy Ridge but I’m going to steal a line from him that he used to describe another event of incredible bravery during yet another war.
War should never be glorified, but it should be remembered. And as far as wars go, for Canada, “It was our finest hour.”

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Turkish Delight

“Look,” I said to my wife Brenda. “I’ll tell the story about almost losing you in the middle of Turkey. Except I won’t blame you. I’ll use a self-deprecating sense of humour.”
“What ??” was her retort. “There’s nothing self-deprecating about it. You messed up! You’ll have to tell the truth – for once!”

Anyway… here it is. The truth according to me. Brenda will never know. She never reads my stuff anyway. “Why would I?” is all she says.

We flew from Istanbul to Kayseri, which was once called Caesarea. A great flight, except that there was a mild spat just before we boarded because I absent-mindedly went through the carry-on line with some contraband stuff, which was, well, taken from us. It’s not what you’re thinking. But it ticked off my wife and she let me hear about it. She’s not a shy woman. And no one can piss you off more than your wife.
She’ll pay for that, was all I thought.

Landing in Kayseri, all was well. On the surface. Just before entering the car rental office we were going over our documents. I had brought the wrong driver’s license. This one was expired.
“You idiot. How could you do that??” was what she said. I expected worse and decided to nonchalant it. “No problem. The guy will never notice.”
This time I was right. We sailed through the paperwork with flying colours. I was only worried about being stopped by the police sometime during the next sixteen days while we were driving through Turkey. The Turkish police may be more on the ball than this guy. Scenes from that seventies movie, Midnight Express, about two Americans in a Turkish prison, flashed through my mind’s eye. Yikes !
The rental guy was handing over the keys. “The car is standard shift-on the floor. Any problem?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I learned how to drive a standard back in 1972. Before that I had been driving tractors on my uncle’s farm. I even had driven a standard ‘three-in-the-tree’ gearshift landscaping truck in the 1970s and had almost burnt out the clutch my first time driving through Toronto.
I didn’t mention that.
“Okay, that’s it,” I said, jumping up. “It’s getting late and it’ll take a while to get to Gorem.” I’d had enough of going over documents. Not to mention that we have to stay ahead of those Turkish police, I thought to myself.

The car was loaded up but we didn’t get much more than a mile before we had to stop and park. We needed something at the store. Finding parking wasn’t a problem and we were soon in and out of the store. Ready to roll-at last ! Except that I couldn’t find reverse on the gear shift. I pulled it this way and that, tried every conceivable position on every standard I’d ever driven. Nothing.
“Let me try it.” Brenda could be a little bit impatient with what she saw as my inadequacies. To my satisfaction, she was no more successful. “You’ll have to get out and get back to the rental agency before it closes,” I said. “This whole trip was your bright idea-remember?” I was still more than a little ticked off. “We’ll be right here-obviously.”

Maybe because she suspected that I wouldn’t be able to retrace our steps she agreed. I figured that she could be there, get the reverse-shifting instructions and be back in fifteen minutes. Twenty at the most. Rachelle, our daughter and the only one of our three children accompanying us on the trip, and I, would play the waiting game.

What we didn’t know was that our distress had not gone unnoticed. A kindly Turkish male approached the car and soon the problem was solved. I had to push the gear straight down from the neutral position before reverse was implemented. As I thanked our saviour I silently cursed myself out- and my wife.
“Okay,” I said to Rachelle. “Your mother’s been gone long enough. We’ll go and find her. How hard can it be ?”

We circled the town for the next hour-and-a-half. Did I get off-track ? To tell you you the truth, the sense-of-direction gods have never smiled kindly in my direction. “Maybe your mother has gone native and we can’t recognize her beneath her burqa,” I suggested to Rachelle. No response. Actually, I had seen more head-coverings in Ottawa’s Heron Street Mall than I had seen so far in Turkey.

A fool and his wife may go their separate ways for awhile, but some deity with a sense of humour always brings them back. We spotted a teary-eyed woman among a sympathetic crowd of Turks, all waiting for the return of a wayward husband. In fact, a man with his two daughters invited us into their apartment for their fast-breaking Ramadan supper as the sun descended. That was more than we deserved, but we still had a long drive ahead of us through the dark to reach the hotel we had reserved near the Cappadocian caves. We still regret not taking the Turkish family up on their kind invitation.
I really didn’t mean to lose my wife and put her through a couple of stressful hours.
But she did deserve it !

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The New Puritans

“Do not drink water”, the sign said.
This announcement was over the sink in the restroom of an Ontario provincial park. I always have my trusty pen handy and I couldn’t resist.
“Only alcohol”, I penned in underneath it.

As I’ve gotten older I don’t drink anymore.
Or any less.
But… I seem to be a minority in my lush-full ways. And like most of my viewpoints I ask myself why others cannot see the light. My wife and I ran into a couple the other day at the funeral of a dear old friend in Lindsay, a wonderful man who died before his time. We were delighted to see this particular pair as they had been excellent neighbours for a number of years and like many of our aging cohort of friends we now encounter each other most often at funerals. As Linda gave me a hug she very kindly remarked, “I don’t know what pills you two are taking but you look younger all the time.”
So, dear readers, I’ll let you in on my dirty little secret.

One of my hockey teams still sneaks beer into the dressing room, but it seems as if barely half of us drink the contraband grog anymore. I always make sure to have my libation directly under the sign that reads, ANY CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED ON THESE PREMISES. We now have to pack bottled water, San Pellegrino lemon drink and V-8 juice into the cooler. Where, by gum, have the old days gone ?

Listen up- I have a theory about this. I know plenty of you have told me where I can put my theories. But here’s the thing; we have entered a New Age of Puritanism. Not the religious, fundamental Christian kind when Pentecostal and Baptist brethren held up signs saying ‘John 3:16’. There’s no doubting the fact that we are supposed to be a kinder, gentler society where kids no longer get in fights in the smoking area. In fact, there are no more smoking areas. At least not for tobacco anyway. But we all seem to be a little too tightly wound.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to C.B.C. radio longer than ten minutes without an acute desire to slit my wrists. Gone are the days of Vicki Gabereau, Ralph Benmergui and Peter Gzowski where a bit of humour was a part of every show. Now it seems as if the Mother Corp’s airwaves can only broadcast sob stories that get progressively more gut-wrenching every day.

It used to be the fundamentalist zealots holding up signs on the street proclaiming that the end is near. Now it’s posts on Facebook and Twitter that when they are not self-righteously shaming someone, then they’re predicting that climate change will end it all, but only if the Trump Administration doesn’t do us all in before that.

Can we all do a few deep-breathing exercises here, people ? And then maybe have a scotch followed by a beer-chaser? Or some red wine if that’s more to your liking. We don’t have to forego with all the pleasures in life and go on some wild goose chase hoping to change everyone and everything in the world. Because the stress of all our sanctimonious finger-pointing is going to kill us long before the end of the world arrives.
And maybe we can start listening to each other again.

Thanks. I feel better now. I’ll have to sign off here and pour myself a scotch. It’s past noon somewhere in the world.

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Generation Gap

I’ve walked into the same gym every day for four years. The same guy is behind the desk. He gives me the same blank look every day. But by now I know the drill.
“May I have a towel, please?” I ask. Every day. For four years. And he still hasn’t figured it out.
It’s hard to find good help these days.

Okay, okay. I know. Lighten up, old man. Who was it who said that life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think? And looking back at it, I probably started raging about “Kids these days”, back in 1981. I was twenty-five. I can still remember my principal remarking, “It was ever thus.”

Certainly when I get off my high horse and open my eyes to all the humour that exists amidst the chaos I realize that there is no end to the laughter. In 1980 I was a student-teacher in a Grade Five class in Magog, Quebec. Somehow the classroom discussion got de-railed and I suddenly realized we had gotten around to discussing bathroom visits in the middle of the night.
Don’t ask.

Anyway, it came to pass that one little guy put up his hand and started to wave it frantically. My mentor teacher had told me to let the kids speak; he hated to silence anyone.
“Yes, Willie ?” I asked. Willie was a bit of a wild card. The words gushed forth even before the hand was completely lowered. “One time in the middle of the night,” he began, “my father went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror… and he saw the devil.”
Oh.
Willie looked at me wide-eyed and then around at his classmates. They were all ten years old and there were no challengers. The only reaction I remember having was to tell everyone to get out their Language Arts workbooks. And later on I remember telling my father, as sardonic a man as ever lived, the story. His reaction ? “Maybe he did.”

Of course, generational irritation cuts both ways. My daughter is nearly eighteen years old, with all of the confidence and none of the doubts in her viewpoints that comes with the certainty of youth. I was asking her about some process on Facebook that I was, ahem, unfamiliar with.
“Oh my word, Dad, it annoys me at how little you know.” Ouch.
Anyway, back to the gym. My membership ran out and I switched facilities. Now I can pick my own towel off the rack without having to ask for it. And who should I run into sitting in the lobby but Henry Burris, the just -retired Ottawa Red Blacks Grey Cup-winning quarterback. We had a nice conversation and I don’t think that either of us was annoyed. At least I wasn’t.
You’ll have to ask Henry.

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Jerks Anonymous

The four-wheeled drive was parked and also covered with bumper stickers.When I’m sitting at a red light I don’t text. I read bumper stickers.
This one said: JESUS LOVES YOU. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.

Which reminds me of a story I heard in the dressing room the other day. My friend Craig related it to the rest of us ten minutes before we were due on the ice.
Craig was getting on a bus somewhere in Ottawa and what he saw annoyed him. Now, Craig sees himself as a man’s man, and also tells a great off-colour joke, but in his own eyes he’s considerate, upright and and is also a stellar example of virtuous old-school manners. An old gentleman, Craig estimated his age to be at least eighty-five, climbed onto the bus just ahead of him, helped and steadied up the stairs by Craig. The bus was full, and no one volunteered their seat to Grandpa.
Craig immediately targetted the young man sitting opposite, wearing sunglasses and headphones and obviously with no intention of helping out.
“Hey,” Craig said in a loud-enough voice. “Would you be kind enough to get up and give this gentleman your seat?”
No response from the young dude. “Typical,” Craig thought to himself. “Young guy today. No manners and even less consideration for a fellow human being.” So a little forcefulness was required here.
“Look,” Craig said in a louder voice. “Could you get up and give my grandfather a seat?” He had decided to personalize this a little and he also tapped the impervious young fellow’s shin with the toe of his boot. Everyone was looking their way.

This time there was a response. The young chap looked up and reached behind him, pulling out his white cane. He tapped the floor in front of him a few times and pulled himself slowly to his feet. As the bus lurched into motion Craig had to catch him and he made sure that he held on tightly to the sightless young man until the next stop. The driver leaned back and called out the street name for the blind guy and Craig helped him down the stairs and through the bus door. He then re-entered the bus to the bemused smirks of his fellow passengers, or at least those who once again were not under the spell of their cellphones.

I haven’t taken the bus for years and I feel fortunate for that. But my youthful days were full of countless bus rides all over the country and I probably have a story for each one.

There was one between Sherbrooke and Montreal. I was probably nineteen years old and in my first year at Bishop’s University. You could probably have called me a smart-aleck. That’s another term I haven’t heard for awhile. I liked to read the French tabloids in those days to work on my French. The one I was reading here was called ‘Allo Police’ which I don’t think exists anymore. It covered crimes in Quebec, real or imaginary, a forerunner to the reality t.v. of today. After I had finished with it I sat on it because as a college boy I didn’t want the other passengers to think I was a rube. I’m really revealing my age with my expressions here.

We stopped in Magog, Quebec and one of the new oncoming passengers saw the traces of the tabloid underneath my nether regions. People in those days didn’t have phones to occupy them on boring bus trips and this guy obviously didn’t have the quarter it would have cost to buy his own damn reading material.
“Hey,” he said to me, en francais. “You reading that paper ?”
“Mais oui,” I replied. I stood up, turned the page and sat down again.
It’s not without reason that my late father would often look at me, shake his head and then exhale loudly.

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