Talking Turkey

“Have you been to hell?” the ticket-taker at the entrance gate asked me.
I looked over at my wife. We would be married for twenty-seven years in two weeks time.
“Oh yeah.”
Just kidding.
We were at The Caves of Heaven and Hell in Narlikuyu, Turkey, about midway through our three week stay this past summer. We had picked up our car in Goeme after several days in both Istanbul and Cappadoccia, and I had been at the wheel the whole time, taking instructions from my tour guide (my wife Brenda) and finding life on the road in Turkey to be both hell and hilarity. The cave named Heaven required a slippery descent of several hundred feet and the cool cave air was a welcome contrast to the summer Turkish swelter. No Pearly Gates awaited us at the bottom, and I wondered if this was Heaven, what would Hell look like? I guess that the ancients didn’t hold the same lofty expectations to which the faithful of today look forward.
As it turned out, Hell was also a cave, but it was one of the few sites in Turkey that was gated and closed. Good thing anyway, I thought; my trip there was probably coming up soon enough.

Probably even hell will only be tough for the first few days; they say that you can get used to anything. That is certainly true of my driving experience. We had driven as far east as Tarsus, the hometown of Paul the Apostle. The faithful among us will know what thereof I speak; you heathens can look up both the man and the place; it will partially make up for all those Sunday school classes you obviously never attended. St. Paul’s Well was still intact, and Paul’s home birthplace was being well looked after. But like Paul, we couldn’t stay in Tarsus forever; we had a lot of ground to cover in the next two weeks. And unlike the apostle, we wouldn’t be boarding a ship in the port town of Tarsus in what used to be called Asia Minor; our way was the highways of Turkey.

Any sea voyage that Paul undertook couldn’t have been as eventful as our first car ride through a major Middle Eastern metropolis. Merson is the largest port in the eastern Meditteranean and I will advise the cautious and courteous drivers of Ottawa to give it a pass. And as for you, the entitled pedestrians of Canada’s capital city; put down your Starbucks coffee and cell phones as you amble across the city streets against any red lights. Any lane lines on the roads have long since faded, honking horns provided continual background noise and redlights were a mere suggestion. A mini-bus driver passed me, nearly taking off my rearview mirror. He didn’t seem to notice me at all, and cared even less. He was lighting a smoke with one hand and making change with the other. That left him his elbow to do the steering. If any moving vehicle did feel so inclined to stop at a red light, they would wait anxiously for that red light to soon turn yellow, at which moment they would start honking their horns impatiently before the light gave the green go-ahead. I was desperately trying to keep up with traffic, fifteen kilometres faster than the suggested speed limit, when a police car pulled up behind me and starting speaking indecipherable Turkish through a megaphone. Uh-oh, I thought. Busted. Visions flashed in my mind of the Turkish prison cells in that 1970s movie ‘Midnight Express’. I gulped and swerved to the side of the road, narrowly avoiding at least one collision. The cop put down his loudspeaker and zoomed on by.
Apparently I had been going too slow.

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Friends and Neighbours

“How come all your friends are so weird ?” I asked my wife that question,oh, more than twenty years ago now.
She thought about it for a minute or so.
“Your friends aren’t ?”
“Nope… completely normal.”
“I just think it’s because you don’t know them well enough. What do you talk about anyway ?” I don’t know whether she was just being defensive or whether she really wanted to know.

But she had me there. Most of the time I spent with my friends we were playing a sport, and after playing we would have a beer, rehash the game and cut each other up in a good- natured way. Sometimes we would have more than two beers and hope that we weren’t stopped by the police on the way home. If I was at work with my colleagues we would talk about work. To dig into what was going on in someone’s life, their home lives and thoughts about things, didn’t interest me a whit.
Yes… I really am that shallow.

So when my wife mentioned that she thought that one of her friends might be bulimic and that another one confided to her that she had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather I looked at her as if she had just been beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Such confidences had never entered my sheltered eardrums. And if they had I probably wasn’t listening. And as isolated as I have been from the real world of the people’s lives that swirl around me I feel it is only getting worse.

As Don Cherry might say, “Listen up, you kids out there.” Growing up I not only knew everyone on my street but I knew of everyone in a radius of at least a kilometre from my house. We’d meet in the parks, walking to and from school and at the community events that always seemed to be happening during those baby boom years. Kids would be ringing our doorbell at all hours to come out and play and there was always a game of pickup road hockey, baseball or soccer going on somewhere nearby. And the only indoor diversions were game shows and soap operas on our black and white televisions. We’d always have some kid over for lunch without phoning his mother for permission, and as far as I remember she never worried about him getting sexually molested while eating his peanut butter and jam sandwich. Now I would be hardpressed to give you the first names of half the people on our block of less than twenty five houses. Some of the adults say hello to me as I walk by with my dog and others pretend not to see me as they text their children not to go out or answer the door while they’re home alone.

Which when I think about it doesn’t make me all that much different. No one rings our doorbell any more unless it’s the nice Portugese Jehova’s Witness lady who drops off the ‘Awake’ magazine every second Saturday morning that I pretend to read or else some student painting business solicitor who looks at our front verandah, shakes his head sadly and advises me to hire him before the city inspectors condemn the place.

Maybe it was ever thus. I’m probably like all the other old guys who used to annoy me with their stories about working for less than a dollar a day or starting up the wood stove before the teacher arrived in the morning at their one room country schoolhouse. Maybe Neanderthal men drew a line down the middle of their cave and threatened to club their neighbour Grok if he ever dared to set one foot over the boundary line. Or maybe cabin fever has driven me mad after another winter so cold even I can’t say it was nothing compared to what I used to endure on the outdoor rinks when my feet froze so badly that I would roll on the living room rug and holler until my father would blow cigarette smoke out his nose and tell me to stop acting like such an idiot.
I’m going to get off the keyboard right now and go across the street and ask my neighbour what his name is.

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Gold (and old) Medallists

Sitting in the dressing room of my Over-35 Team before a game on Sunday, I threw out a question to the boys, just to be a pain in the ass.
“”Do you want to know anything about the Over 55 Ontario Winter Games that we just won a Gold Medal at?” I inquired with a big grin on my face, already knowing what the answer would be.
“No… we don’t.” This was said with no hesitation whatsoever.
Never be a braggart, I tell my fifteen year old daughter. I still give advice to her because neither my wife nor my two oldest sons pay attention to a word I say. No one wants to listen to your ailments or your accomplishments, but this is one time….

When people ask me what I do in my retirement, I tell them that I play hockey. Every day, sometimes twice a day. “Just as much as a professional,” I’ll say. “The only difference is that no one will pay me.”

Two years ago in my first year of retirement I received an e-mail about something called the Ontario Winter Senior Games. I know… I had never heard of it either. It was to take place in Huntsville in about a month and hockey was included on the itinerary. The only requirement was to be in at least your fifty-fifth year. There were no further qualifications and no bottom was too low to be considered eligible for the competition.
Which was a good thing, because as the team from Ottawa, we qualified as the bottom-feeder. We scrambled around trying to find the best players, but no one knew much about the Games and interest was not high. Couldn’t take the time off work, some of the best players said. Too bad, said others… that’s the week my wife booked us for a winter holiday. We were left just happy to be able to fill out a roster, with the only requirement being that you could put on your skates by yourself. Three losses in a row, two goals scored in three games. I can’t remember how many we let in; it’s wonderful how our subconscious protects us from a lot of mental anguish.
“We’re going to have to go with better players next time around,” said Glen, who had put our lineup together. “There were a lot of ex-pros here; we just can’t compete with a house league, rinky-dink outfit.”
Indeed. Glen was a fireman who had taken early retirement when he told me he could no longer cope with often being the first arrival at accident scenes, but he had no problem whatsoever in telling most of our team that maybe in a few years time there would be a place for them on the Over-65 squad going to the Games. After the carnage was completed, there were three of us left. I believe in wartime it’s known as a ‘scorched-earth’ policy.
“I’ve got the best fifty-five year old centreman in Ottawa playing for us in the upcoming Games in Haliburton,” Glen informed me when I ran into him sometime in the summer. “He’s better than you are, Dave.”

But I’ll play second or even third fiddle if it means a winning team. How often have I watched documentaries on those great Team Canada hockey teams where the only sign in the room says, “Check your ego at the door.” If it’s good enough for Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux then it’s good enough for me. “I won’t be satisfied unless we come home with the gold this year,” Glen added.

Glen may have lost his stomach for using the jaws of life to pry bodies out of mangled vehicles, but he certainly did have the mental toughness to say no to the many aging not-so -gracefully wannabees who approached him pleading their case for a position on the roster. Too bad that the Senators’ Bryan Murray and the Edmonton Oilers’ Kevin Lowe have not followed Glen’s blueprint of building a hockey team from the goaltending and the defense on out. “Two goalies,” he said, “the old buggers can get complacent if they don’t have a little competition. You know goalies. You have to be a little weird to want to play that position anyway. And the best four defensemen for their age in Ottawa.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play account of how the gold was won. Even an unabashed sports nut like myself starts turning pages quickly in a book when too many playing details are provided. After losing to the reigning champions from Brampton in a hard-fought first game, the playoff requirements were such that we could not afford to even lose a period in the rest of the schedule, which led us again up against Brampton in the final. The good guys prevailed, and we’ll be off in a year and a half for the National Championships taking place in… Brampton.

I’m looking at my medal as I wax nostalgic. It’ll be something they’ll have to bury me with, if it even lasts that long. Even now the ‘G’ is disappearing from the words ‘Gold Medallist’ ; so now it just reads ‘Old Medallist.’

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A day before the January exams started, my daughter Rachelle was quizzing her friend Malaka’s knowledge of twentieth century world history.
“What nationality was Francisco Franco ?” Rachelle started the interrogation.
Malaka’s eyes darted about, desperate for any kind of hint or clue. She spotted a pastry on the kitchen table.
“Danish ?” she offered up, a little uncertainly.
Rachelle chuckled and shook her head. “Try again.”
“Polish ? I know Poland has something to do with twentieth century world history,” was the next stab in the dark.
Unable to continue with the current questions from the Grade Ten History curriculum, Rachelle decided to change the subject and appeal for help. “Dad, what do you take in Grade Eleven History ?”
I had told her that I had taught for thirty one years, so she figured maybe I had some idea.
“It’s Ancient History… Egypt, Greece, Rome, that sort of thing,” I called out, exhilarated that my life’s calling was now being recognized by at least one of my children. I stood up, ready to move into the kitchen and continue the conversation.
But they were already discussing what they would eat for lunch. I sat down again and re-opened the newspaper. The only consolation that I took was that I had not been Malaka’s teacher for the past four months. But believe me, I had been there and done that.
I thought back to a time twenty years earlier. The French Immersion program had just started at our high school and I was handed the Grade Nine Geography curriculum to deliver ‘en francais': sedimentary rocks,eskers, moraines, contour lines and manufacturing in southern Ontario. It was a subject of which I knew little and cared less. As for materials, I was handed the twenty six textbooks, direct translations from the English version.
“What about all those curriculum aids that you have in English… magazine articles, games, that sort of thing,?” I inquired desperately, marooned alone on my French Immersion island.
“Feel free to translate ‘em,” came the reply from the head of the Geography department. He was a small town Ontario boy who told me that he dropped down into the States instead of crossing through Quebec on his way to the Maritimes every summer. I think I had once accused him of being an anti-French redneck.
Right, I said to myself. So I submitted one article on the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway to a translator friend of mine. It would serve as the material for one lesson.
A week later I handed over the translator’s bill to my redneck department head buddy. It came to $700.
“What’s this ?” Mr. Department Head blustered as he spewed coffee all over some contour maps.
“It’s the bill for one of those articles you told me to translate. That’s not a reasonable amount of extra work.” I didn’t know whether to be terrified or truculent. I had once seen this man throw a coffee cup against his office wall in frustration. The problem had been that one of his more backward students was showing more interest in his lunch than in his lesson. I backed towards the office door and ducked instinctively.
He calmed himself down. “Why don’t you come in to Dan’s classroom tomorrow and see how we teach geography.?” Dan was considered the bellwether of the geography department.

The next day I approached Dan’s desk while he talked with a student. He smiled smugly at me and patted his stack of curriculum aids, piled high on his desk. “This is the unit on Natural Resources…. fishing, mining, lumbering…” he began.
His student interrupted. “That looks interesting,” she offered up, obviously keen on building up some brownie points. “When do we start that unit ?”
Dan shook his head quickly, clearly taken aback at such woeful ignorance. “We just finished that unit,” was his sharp retort.

A year later I was mercifully removed from the geography file and allowed to concentrate on the History department. A few years later my family and I re-located to Ottawa, which had been our desired destination for quite some time.

My new principal handed over my timetable for the upcoming semester. I grabbed the schedule,eager to see what adventures awaited now that I had finally entered the promised land flowing with milk and honey.
“I was delighted to see on your resume that you’ve had experience teaching French Immersion Geography,” she beamed. “Welcome to Nepean High School.”

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January Blahs

I met a woman in the hot tub last night.
Nah, it was nothing like that. I was at the ‘Y’ and it was one of the few times the hot tub was actually in working order and open for use.
I nodded at said woman as I made my way gingerly down the steps. “It’s nice the hot tub is actually usable today,” I blurted out. I’ve always believed obvious, boring statements to be the perfect icebreakers.

I was pleased that this woman actually smiled and answered. I find that there is sometimes a suspicion between the sexes these days, with all the talk about ‘rape culture’ on university campuses probably spreading into the Glebe and other respectable residential areas. One never knows. But she was sixty-plus and I’m getting close to that age. One look at me and she figured I was harmless.

“When this hot tub isn’t open I just use the one at my daughter and son-in-law’s,” she informed me. “He’s an engineer and he’s very smart.”
My Spidey-sense started tingling.
“My daughter helped him build it. She’s very smart too. She’s the Head Engineer at the City of Ottawa. Most of the other engineers are men. She tells them what to do. But they all love her.”

I tried to change the subject. “Do I detect an accent?” I asked cleverly. I hoped that she didn’t find this question too offensive because quite a bit of what I say these days offends someone somewhere, I am told.
“Yes. I’m from Bordeaux, France. But I learned my English in London, England”
No wonder I was confused. Most of the French-speaking women I’ve met were from Sherbrooke, Quebec and learned their English in Cornwall, Ontario.
“Oh, I’ve been to both places,” I offered. She wasn’t interested.
“My daughter could talk at fifteen months,” she continued, “as well as you are speaking now.”
I nodded, plugged my nose and lowered my head into the foaming froth of the hot tub. I don’t know if that is dangerous, and I wondered if it was the usual Ottawa January deep-freeze that was numbing that sector of the brain that controls conversation.

Don’t tell me how great your kids are. I appreciate that about as much as a Christmas card with your family all sitting around the tree, or at the beach, or wherever it is you are at the moment.

I’m not really interested, thank you. And I won’t be putting it up on the mantle in my living room. But maybe I’ve mentioned this to some of you before. That’s why I don’t get many Christmas cards anymore from anyone under the age of eighty.

I know the Christmas season is just past and we’ve all got our heads down for the month of January, trying to sober up from all the seasonal parties, cutting back on our calories and trying to get in at least one good month from the gym membership. An employee of the liquor store informed me that sales go way down in January before picking up to their usual levels in February. There may be even a few of you self-delusional enough as to make New Year’s Resolutions.

I am sounding a wee bit sour here. Sorry about that. I think it’s about time I boosted the January sales at the liquor store.

So I will sweeten up enough to say that although unimpressed with the current trend away from the traditional greeting cards of Santa soaring through the sky or the Three Wise Men trekking through the dessert trying to find Bethlehem without the assistance of a GPS to the current mania of sending ‘selfies’ is still a big improvement over those short-lived and unlamented Christmas letters that seemed to start up in the 1980s and are now buried ingloriously in the graveyard of pop culture alongside, oh, I don’t know, the mullet.

I was never a good typist but I always fantasized about sending out a Christmas letter along these lines…

Dad will be paroled and coming home soon and Mom has upped her dosage of Prozac as a result. Little Joey is four and a half but is still resisting all efforts the be toilet-trained. Jane’s teacher is very pleased with her progress as she makes her way through Grade 2 for the third time. Jim has finished going to school (although he never actually completed Grade 12) and is now making a half-hearted attempt to find a job…

Well, you get the picture (but don’t send me a photo.) I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found candid, frank conversation to be refreshing, if not downright humourous.

Maybe I am actually just another old grump who is too set in my ways.

Any of you know how to set up SnapChat and InstaGram ?

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Your Eulogy

“Well, I’ve never been to heaven
But I’ve been to Oklahoma.”
-Three Dog Night

Have you ever walked out of a funeral and said to your wife, partner or whatever you have, “That was a great eulogy, but I don’t have a clue who they were talking about ?”

The opening line I had written for my brother’s eulogy was this:
“Michael would often throw me in the snowbank when we were walking to school together. He was in Grade 4 and I would be in Grade 2. He could be a jerk sometimes…”
My family wouldn’t even let me finish the line. “You can’t say that!” was the chorus of outrage.

Why not ? I thought. Not many people knew my brother better than I did when he died six years ago at the age of fifty four. And actually that memory still brings a smile to my face. The only better one is when I slammed him against the wall during a fight at home ten years later. Our parents weren’t home at the time and we were fighting about, oh, who had more pieces of pie at supper, I think it was. The impact of him hitting the wall knocked all the photos, paintings and prints to the floor and of course shattered their glass coverings to smithereens. The need to clean up the mess and hopefully hide the evidence before our father arrived home forced us to forget our anger and work together peacefully.
“You know, Michael, David just picked you up and easily threw you against the wall,” our younger brother Terry observed.
“Of course,” retorted Michael. “He cultivates his carcass every night.”

Really. That’s the way Michael talked. He meant that I worked out. Michael never spoke one short word when two long ones could be used instead.

The point is; he was human, not a plaster saint. And that’s how I remember him. I’m at a point in my life now where I at least glance through the obituaries in the Globe and Mail. Retirement allows me the time and my age grants me the curiosity to see if any of my peers have made it to their final notice.

Why do we feel affectionate towards some people ? At least some of it has to do with their own admittance of any shortcomings along with a willingness not to take themselves too seriously. But when I read a eulogy it often seems as if the world has lost an individual with the selflessness of Mother Theresa, the wisdom of Socrates and the generosity of an N.D.P. government. Why, I have to wonder, is the world in such a messy state if it was populated with such gigantic paragons of virtue? No one ever drank too much or cursed out their mother-in-law.
Oh, I guess it’s because only the giants of virtue have died, leaving us moral pygmies behind.

In his recently-published autobiography hockey great Gordie Howe reminisces of a car trip with a couple of ex-teammates to the funeral of their longtime coach and general-manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Jack Adams. Even on the way to the burial Howe remembers that some of the players couldn’t fondly wax nostalgic memories of the curmudgeonly guest of honour. When one old colleague allowed that Mr. Adams could be generous at times, another more realistic observer wasn’t going to swallow any such donkey dung.
“He was a miserable SOB and now he’s a dead miserable SOB,” was the unsentimental memory.

From what I read, old-time Asian religions involved a lot of ancestor-worship. Maybe some of that had to do with the fear of being haunted by the deceased. We like to think that we have risen above such superstitions today, but we still avoid “stomping on the graves of the dead.”

Despite the fervency of the fundamentalists on one side and the equal certainty of the atheists at the other end of the life-afterwards question, I am still stumbling about in the dark, much the same as I live my life. I’ve never been to heaven and not even to Oklahoma. I know that my mother would be generous in giving my eulogy but she’s not around here anymore. Probably what’s said wouldn’t be too important anyway.

But afterwards, just be sure that the sandwiches are good and the liquid refreshment doesn’t run out.

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An Incurable UnRomantic

No man is perfect.
Just ask his wife.
After 27-and-a-half years of wedded bliss my wife can roll out an extensive catalogue of my sins, transgressions, errors and bungles as well as a man of the cloth reciting the Sermon On the Mount.

“Do you remember my first pregnancy, with Liam, when my labour went on for twenty four hours with him turned the wrong way, and how much pain I was in ?”
I nod, neutrally, but I know where this is going.
“And what did you get for me, after all that… a pot of chrysanthemums ?”
I nod, blankly. I forgot that I had bought her anything at all.

My wife Brenda’s main problem is that she married an incurable unromantic. I’ve never understood women very well, let alone their apparent passion for receiving a bouquet of flowers. Roses… potted mums; really I couldn’t see much difference. Except that the mums lasted a heckuva lot longer, not to mention that you received a lot more for your money.

In my own defense, Brenda knew what she was getting before she tied the nuptial knot. I remember early on when she hinted that women liked to receive flowers from time to time. Eager to please, I visited some kind of store; I don’t remember which one exactly, and the next day proudly presented her with a tiny cactus.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” was her response. She didn’t act as pleased as I had hoped after my prompt compliance to her wishes.

“Well, not much, and that’s the point.” I was a little put out. “You hardly have to water the thing, and it lasts practically forever. But don’t handle it too much. Those bristles are prickly.”

Not as prickly as her behaviour for the next few minutes. “Roses are more what I meant,” she suggested to her slow-witted suitor.

Roses were the answer, then. The next afternoon I unwrapped twelve of the most perfect-looking roses that I had ever seen.
“But they’re plastic !” Again Brenda didn’t seem as thrilled as I thought she’d be.
“Yes, well, look at how good they look, you never have to water them and they last even longer than a cactus.” I couldn’t understand her lack of enthusiasm. Alright then; those would be the last beautiful flowers she’d ever see from me.

Flowers weren’t the only letdown in Brenda’s pre-nuptial romantic life. There was a staff Christmas party that was a formal, dress-up affair and Brenda hinted that it would be fun to attend.
“Is that the Friday or Saturday before Christmas?” I wanted to know.
“Friday. Why?”
“You know I play hockey Friday nights.” I couldn’t believe her forgetfulness.
“Couldn’t you miss it for one night?”
“I’m going for the league scoring championship.” I thought that would be self-explanatory.
“All right then. If you don’t go, then I’m going to ask Tony.”
She must have thought she had me cornered. But Lindsay, Ontario, where we were living at the time, was not large, and I hadn’t rode into town on a load of watermelons. “He’s gay, isn’t he?”

If Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings warned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, I’m going to caution men not to let themselves be married to Capricorns. They’re the ones born between December 19 and January 22. My wife happens to be born on January 5. It’s too soon after Christmas, I’m all shopped-out and sick of celebrating and to top it all off for a lifelong schoolteacher it always seems to be the first day back. And the event is usually distinguished by a coldsnap or a blizzard.
I’ve hated that day for twenty seven years.

Not that I haven’t always tried my best. Well, maybe not my best. I’m only human, after all.
“Do you know what you can get me for my birthday this year?”, I remember Brenda asking me one New Year’s Day.
Jeezus Murphy. I was lying on the living room floor after getting up early with one of our three kids and I was also more than a little hungover. I just hoped flowers weren’t on the list.
“I don’t want to tell you. I want to be surprised.”

You know, I smiled to myself, you have to give full credit to a wife who still wants to be surprised by a husband like me !

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