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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Joy To the World

I saw a kid throwing a snowball the other day. Good thing the fun police weren’t in the vicinity. The only thing considered worse in the Year of Our Lord, 2014 (oops – we don’t say that now either) would be to sing Christmas carols in public.

Which is exactly what happened later that evening. A group of four Filipinos appeared on our doorstep, singing Christmas carols in exchange for a small donation to the Pentecostal Missionary Church of Christ. I thought I’d been caught in a time warp. I was so happy with what I was seeing and hearing that I uncharacteristically handed over a rather large donation. Without even asking for a tax receipt.

So there’s hope for our world yet. Maybe it’s the season. I used to love the Christmas preparations: the decorations, the anticipation and the presents; especially anticipating my presents. Adulthood and three children cured that. Now it’s my wife and her begrudging spouse putting up the lights, tree and decorations, going shopping, buying a lot of what I consider unneeded gifts, and cooking Christmas dinner.
“Since when do you help with the tree and the decorations?” asked my wife. She was reading this over my shoulder.

“You’re not going to ruin Christmas for me again this year, are you Daddy ?” my daughter Rachelle asked me the other afternoon as I hauled in another dozen bags of groceries which would probably last us until the next afternoon, when I would be out doing the same thing again. As usual the activity had left me in a fine mood. “This whole business of the grocery stores going green is a big crock of crap,” I complained to my daughter as I unhooked a couple of cloth bags from my shoulders and let them drop to the kitchen floor. I wanted my misery to have company. “Call your brothers down here to help put away the groceries,” I continued. “Now they can charge for every bag they provide and they don’t even want to help pack them up. They just stand there like a cigar store Indian when I’m fumbling around for my credit card.”
“Dad… we don’t say Indian anymore and what’s a cigar store?” Rachelle was always both aghast and curious about my expressions of speech. I rolled on, ignoring her. “They used to even have people whose job it was to pack your bags. A lot of them didn’t look too bright but they sure made our lives easier. And at gas stations you didn’t even have to get out of your car. Someone would pump your gas and even clean the windshield. Some places advertised that if they didn’t offer to do your windshield then you would get your gas for free…” I was just warming up. “I should write a letter to someone complaining about all this.”
“No one will listen to you, Daddy,” replied Rachelle.
“Who does ?” I answered, gesturing to one son not to put the potatoes in the fridge.
“They’ll think you’re crazy.”
“Who doesn’t?”
Rachelle exhaled loudly, reminding me of my late father’s signal to me that I was now skating on thin ice. “Have you even looked at my Christmas list? You know that I need a new phone this year.” I chose to ignore that.
“I bought that tin of chocolates that they had on special at Metro to give to that girl who helped you with your Chemistry unit,” I said. Despite my bluster, I am really a kind soul.
“I’m just writing out the card now, but I don’t know whether to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’.” Rachelle had always been more sensitive than her father to the feelings of others.
My blood pressure began to rise again. I heard my son Adam start to snicker. He knew what was coming. I have never met anyone from another faith who was the slightest bit offended about hearing the words ‘Merry Christmas’ uttered within their hearing space. It was always someone from the politically correct police, who felt the need to feel offended on the part of someone else.
“Just write ‘Merry Christmas’ and if her feelings are hurt she can always return the chocolates to us.” I am always ready to compromise. “I don’t think she’ll mind. Kids seem to be a lot more sensible about that stuff than my generation. That’s why half the people I know are on some kind of medication.”

Actually talking about Christmas with my daughter and a quick glance at the dining room table to remind me that we had once again received some Christmas cards started me feeling a bit less like Ebenezer Scrooge and more like Tiny Tim. Maybe I wouldn’t need a nocturnal visit from the three spirits this Christmas Eve after all. But I really do need to head out to Future Shop to see about that new phone. How’s my daughter supposed to keep her self-respect in the Glebe unless she can stroll across Bank Street on a red light, with her head down, either texting or scrolling through whatever they put out on InstaGram ?

As Tiny Tim once said, “God bless us everyone.” And let me quote his uncle as well: Merry Christmas, everyone!”

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Don’t Call Me Coach

Coach Paul McLean of the Ottawa Senators was fired the other day. According to his boss, Bryan Murray, it’s McLean’s fault that the Senators suck so bad.

As an ex-coach myself, of a list of different teams in a lot of different sports, I took more than just a passing interest. Good players make good coaches. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear my mother used to say. I always hoped that she wasn’t referring to me and my prospects in life.

Like a lot of us Bryan Murray should be looking in a mirror when things go wrong in his life. This will be the fifth coach he’s hired in seven years. The Ottawa Senators made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, the year before he took over as a general manager. They have won exactly one playoff round since then. He says his biggest problem is that he can’t find a coach as good as he was. A former teacher, it seems as if Murray must not have taught high school English or even a short section on Greek mythology. How many classes did I sit through where it was made plain to even the thickest pupil in the pack that too much pride, hubris, was the reason for the hero’s demise ?

A cross-country running team that I coached at Nepean High School for several years usually placed either first or second in the City Championships. This being Canada and it being a high school sport, no one paid any attention of course. Oh, that`s not true. The principal did provide us with a shawarma lunch after one championship. I would have liked to have paraded around thumping my chest and proclaiming myself some kind of wonder coach. It wasn`t true, of course. Most of my runners were members of the Nakkertock Cross-Country ski team and trained hard with that club the year round. I also had an excellent co-coach who did all the considerable paper work that the overly-regulated Ottawa-Carleton School Board demanded. I just had to show up several times a week, pretend to know what I was doing and then plod along with the slowest runners to help keep their spirits up. When I was a kid my grandfather used to keep a few pigs around his barnyard. My pet pig Percy could have coached those teams to a championship.

Someone once said, “I’ve been rich and I`ve been poor, and believe me, it`s a lot better being rich.” I`ve had good players and I`ve had bad players and it`s a lot easier winning with good players. You can make a mule run from sunup to sundown but he ain`t ever gonna win the Kentucky Derby.

A couple of springs ago the Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs, mainly because Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson greatly outplayed his counterpart in the Habs’ net, Carey Price. I swear I saw a kid’s balloon let loose from the stands, float by Price and into the back of his net. Anyway, all of Ottawa and even Bryan Murray was trumpeting Paul McLean as a coaching genius; Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman combined. Even when he was insulted by the Habs’ Brandon Prust as a “fat, bug-eyed walrus,” McLean handled the situation with humour and suave aplomb. He’s unemployed now but he has more than two-and-a-half years left on his contract, getting paid to do nothing.

That’s almost as good a deal as my teacher’s pension !

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