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Essay

Pennies from Heaven

Finally, the much-awaited, long-awaited day had arrived.  Exactly a week after I’d been informed by Amazon Kindle that a royalty payment for my novella would be deposited into my account in two to five business days, the deposit came through.  At this point, I hadn’t had a royalty payment in nearly a year.  Now would be the moment of truth. I checked my balance on the Internet—to discover that it was exactly one cent greater than it had been the day before.

          In every writer’s life, there come those moments that render him or her speechless.  This, clearly, was such a moment for me.  Obviously I could not go on living my life as I had been, after such incredible largesse.  Move over, Gregor Samsa, I said to myself. The change I was about to go through would make his measly little metamorphosis look like nothing more than a low-grade seasonal moult.

          My first thought was to contemplate what I might buy with the proceeds. While I didn’t want to spend all the proceeds at once, I did want to have something substantial to show for my achievement.  Should I start visiting auto showrooms, looking at Benzes or Rovers or Jaguars? Should I perhaps consider investing in a piece of land, or maybe even a wee cottage somewhere on the South Shore? Or should I simply call my stockbroker and see what his investment advice would be? So little time. . .so many amazing possibilities.

          After revolving those possibilities around in my head for a while, and realizing I would also need to call my accountant to discuss the tax implications this royalty payment would have for me, I then turned to the question of how, exactly, Amazon might have come up with the figure of one cent. Back in the days when I was a flourishing new fiction writer, my royalties would be just over $2 per book sold, whether Amazon sold a hard copy or an electronic one.  In those palmy days, I might make $4 or even $6 in a month.  On one noteworthy occasion, I was able to buy coffee and muffins for two at Tim’s out of my royalties. Mirabile dictu! But this great success would never be repeated. Those days are long gone, vanished as certainly and as truly as Red Tories, full-bar, open-bar office parties, and full-service gas stations.

          Working from the known to the unknown, I spent hours that would have been better devoted to doing laundry or vacuuming the living room trying to make the leap from $2 to $.01.  What exactly did that $.01 represent? A correction of two years’ rounding errors? Three months’ interest on a late payment, at an interest rate of 2%? Six months’ interest on a late payment, at an interest rate of 1%.  And would the interest be simple, or compound? These are thoughts that keep a man awake late into the night, eventually causing him to resort to the pill container or the whiskey decanter in an attempt to get some sleep.

          Eventually I settled on three months’ interest at 2% as the likeliest alternative, 2% being the rate my bank gives me on an investment savings account. As for what I’ll buy with the proceeds, the jury is still out, but that seaside cottage near Lunenburg is looking better and better.

          As I search the real estate ads, looking for that perfect cottage, let me express my profound gratitude to Amazon.  Your payment of one cent is truly an example of pennies from heaven.  I haven’t had this much fun in a coon’s age.  I’m also grateful for the many expressions of support and pieces of advice I’ve received from fellow writers, most of the latter being along the lines of “Don’t spend it all in one place.” The sense of literary community generated by this simple act on Amazon’s part has been most heartening.  If only Amazon had sent me a cheque for the $.01 instead of simply depositing the money in my account, my happiness would be complete.  I would have visual proof  of my achievement to show to fellow writers all around the world, letting them know, in the most dramatic way, that if only they applied themselves as I had, they too might have royalty payments of $.01 in their future.

          Must go now.  There’s a call coming in from my stockbroker that I simply have to take. . .

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Essay

One Epic Journey: Tom Thomson from a Train Window

To me, the best way to appreciate the greatness and scope of Canada is to see the country from a train window.  If you fly, you miss the details. If you drive, you can’t really focus on the scenery because you must keep your eye on the road ahead.  I’m so glad that I took this trip in 2010. 

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll again be able to enjoy long-distance train rides in this country. Meanwhile, until we can take those long train rides again, the next best thing is to read about them.

Afraid of missing the long-awaited transcontinental train to Toronto, I race to the Vancouver station after arriving on the afternoon ferry from Nanaimo and enjoying a delicious pasta dinner at Il Campagnolo.  It turns out I needn’t have hurried.  There’s ample time to check my suitcases and get comfortable in my roomette before the train slinks slowly out on a cool September evening.

          In the evening darkness, there isn’t much to see of western B.C.  But by the next morning, still in B.C., we’re nearing the mountains.  As I finish breakfast in the dining car, I see snow-capped peaks looming off to the right.  These peaks will become more and prominent throughout the day, until, around 2 p.m., we arrive in Jasper, Alberta for a three-hour rest stop.  For the next two and a half hours of the beautiful early-fall afternoon, I alternate between short walks up and down the streets near the train station, pauses to contemplate the majestic mountains and beautiful trees in full foliage, and visits to the souvenir shops.  The shops are as pricey as the scenery is gorgeous, but never mind.  I learned long ago how not to be tempted by such places.  And two Scotches past Jasper comes the first of our marvellous train dinners, a splendid piece of grilled halibut with all the right trimmings. 

The Prairies are, frankly, a bit of a letdown.  After hours of mind-numbing views of Saskatchewan’s flat fields, I leave the train in Saskatoon and walk into the small, virtually abandoned station.  There’s no ticket window or washroom (even tiny Gananoque, ON has these)—just a broken pay phone, a half-empty Coke bottle, and three coffee-stained Styrofoam cups atop a rickety table covered in dust.  Depressing beyond words. The one consolation is that I’ve set foot on Saskatchewan soil, which means I’ve now set foot on the soil of every Canadian province. 

          Another disappointment is Winnipeg, where we arrive just after dark.  There’s really nothing to see in the immediate vicinity of the station.  At the same time, I don’t fancy getting lost in a strange city at night by going farther afield.  After half an hour’s desultory strolling around, I return to my roomette and am soon asleep.

          But if the landscape outside the train sometimes disappoints—it would be unrealistic to expect constant visual excitement travelling across a country as big as Canada—the company inside the train never does. Personal relationships here are nothing if not spontaneous.  I suspect that this is because of the transitory nature of those relationships—because people know they will probably never again see or hear from the person to whom they are spilling out their guts this evening.  If someone interests me, I invite him or her into my roomette for a chat.  If the hour happens to be at least 12:00 noon, the chat is accompanied by a dram of Glenlivet from the bottle in my carry-on bag.  As it happens, most of the chats are accompanied by a wee dram, since I’ve reserved mornings for writing and other private activities.  But this liquid commerce is far from one-sided, as several people invite me into their roomettes for a dram. 

Why are such conversations so frequent aboard long-distance trains? The main reason, I suspect, is that those who take these long-distance trips tend to be far more interesting than the average person—and thus more worth engaging in conversation.  We long-distance train riders have voluntarily chosen to pay more than we would have paid to fly from Vancouver to Toronto to have this experience.  For many of us, this is a trip of a lifetime, and bears with it all the excitement one would expect from such a trip.  I particularly enjoy the company of several Europeans, who make excellent travel companions as they are quite used to trains and know how to make the most of their many delights.

          Northern Ontario, which we hit about 2 on Friday afternoon, exceeds all expectations.  Tiring of my roomette, I wander up to the lounge car bearing a book and a notebook, and order a beer.  It’s just starting to rain as the beer is served me, and it continues to rain throughout the afternoon. The book and notebook remain unopened; the view from the window is too spectacular to miss.  Here, unrolling itself before my eyes, is the equivalent of the greatest Tom Thomson exhibit ever mounted, except that you needn’t go to the National Gallery to see it.  For the next four hours, I’m greeted with an unbroken succession of stunted pines, the occasional, equally stunted birch, fallen leaves, self-effacing rocks, and bodies of water that rank somewhere between a large puddle and a very small pond.  The gentle but persistent rain makes me feel all the more poignantly the landscape’s stark, almost child-like simplicity, and the almost total absence of people along 250 kilometres of track.  Some excellent prime rib in the dining car provides a fitting end to the glorious afternoon.    

In Toronto, I stop for a two-day break.  My stiff legs tell me I’ve been sitting long enough and need to be up and moving around.  I take in a Jays game, visit second-hand book and record stores, lunch with an old friend, and take long walks through a Jewish cemetery close by my B&B. From Toronto, also by train, it’s on to old, familiar Ottawa, where I visit with my kids and several old friends.  One day I rent a car and take my son on a drive through Gatineau National Park.  There, just before sunset, we’re greeted by a truly bizarre sight—a group of deer acting like small dogs.  Instead of fleeing at the sight of us humans, they step slowly and symmetrically up the park slope, showing no fear at all.  Have years of close contact with humans beings really turned these deer into tame animals?  With this sobering reflection, we head back toward Ottawa and a pub dinner.

          I’m driven to the train station in Ottawa, where I will catch a train to Montreal, by a very dear literary friend with whom I’ve shared many manuscript critiques over the years.  He’s 80, and I’m not sure how many more chances I will get to see him.  It’s good to ride to the station and have lunch with him once again.

          The final leg of this epic journey is the 22-hour ride from Montreal which will land me back in Halifax.  This ride offers the same freedom from everyday distractions, interesting and intellectually curious travel companions, and excellent food that I experienced on the longer Vancouver-Toronto run.  But there are important differences.  Very little of the landscape is new to me, as I’ve taken this trip at least 20 times over the years.  And most of the landscape is at least somewhat populated.  What the ride does offer is a fine transition and nice easing back toward the chain e-mails and irritable, over-committed people I’ll face on my return to my job with the union.

          Returning to my Halifax apartment, I know I’d like to take this trip again. But I also know that even if I don’t, I’ve picked up enough memories and images of Canada to last a lifetime.

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Essay

Gypsy: The Cat Who Was True to Her Name

True to her name, this cat disappeared from our lives as quickly and as completely as she had entered them, five years earlier.

No one knew where she’d come from, or why she’d chosen us.  She just sort of happened by.  She wound up staying with us for five years and a bit, which, given her nature, was a pretty fair stretch.

          I was introduced me to her on my return from boarding school to our home in Darien, Connecticut in June of 1961.  I met a smallish, rather slim cat, quiet and unassuming but also distinctive, in her black coat with white underbelly.  She came into my bedroom, listened attentively as I spoke, and then slipped out.  Unlike our neighbors’ touchy-feely cats, she rarely meowed and even more rarely sought human affection.  Nowadays you’d call her low-maintenance.

          Gypsy was the first cat we’d had in over a decade, since the untimely demise of Dewey, our previous feline. Like his namesake, a former New York DA and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, Dewey the cat had prominent whiskers and was pretty adept at cornering rats.  But he evidently suffered from an excess of feline testosterone, which kept getting him into fights long after he should have known better.  One night, he got into a fight from which he didn’t return.  That was the end of our cat-keeping–until Gypsy’s arrival.

          Though friends had warned us Gypsy might not get along with our three dogs, she never had the slightest difficulty with them.  On the contrary, she seemed to get along better with the dogs than she did with other cats.  Our free and easy, unstructured household with its three acres of woods and lawn was ideally suited to her independent nature.  She did her thing; the dogs did theirs.  Mostly they met only at mealtime, and since they ate different food, there was no competition over that.  The four coexisted quite happily as members of the daffy Peirce family menagerie.

          What I best remember from that first summer was seeing her chasing fireflies on our front lawn on warm summer evenings. She never caught any, but that did not diminish her pleasure in the hunt.  During daylight hours, she enjoyed hunting birds.  The first one I remember her capturing was a Flicker, a long-billed woodpecker very nearly her size.  The next day, Mother, who loved birds, put a bell on Gypsy.  But this experiment didn’t last very long, because Gypsy soon learned to hunt without triggering the alarm.

          My parents dilly-dallied about getting Gypsy spayed.  The inevitable result was that she gave birth to a litter of kittens, of whom we kept one, Rhody.  Rhody was a plump, dust-grey cat of a rather sulky, perhaps even spoiled disposition—far less adventuresome and more given to loud mewing and complaining than her mother.  Had she been a person, she’d have been the type to sit in a rocking chair eating hard candy and complaining that no one ever called her.  But the two got on famously, despite—or perhaps because of—their sharply differing personalities. Both particularly enjoyed their occasional “Smelt Nights,” when my father, before frying up the tasty little fish, would fling each of them a few, raw, just to see them leap in the air and catch them in their mouths.

          In 1964, we took a small apartment in New York so Mother could get to her graduate classes more easily.  Rhody didn’t mind the new arrangement, but Gypsy was not a happy camper. Instead of a three-acre property filled with trees to climb and birds and small rodents to hunt, there was only a four-room apartment to explore.  Gypsy soon discovered there are only so many ways a cat can climb a curtain and that killing cockroaches on the kitchen floor wasn’t in there with hunting Flickers. 

          From that point on, Gypsy was trying to escape.  Not that she was stupid about it.  She knew enough not to try to escape in New York, where her life expectancy on the loose would probably have been less than two weeks owing to the city’s frenetic drivers. But Maine, where we had a huge “cottage” on several heavily-wooded acres right by the coast, was something else again.  There, as in Connecticut, there were birds and rodents to hunt, and even the occasional firefly.  Prior to our move to the city, she had never made any fuss about returning to “civilization.” Once we moved to New York, however, it was a totally different matter.  Each year, as we busied ourselves loading the car for the return drive, Gypsy would do everything she could to keep from going back to what she regarded as her imprisonment.  

          In 1964, she disappeared and could not be found.  Though we all did our best to search for her, we finally had to leave without her. Dad had to be back at work the next day.  We’d just about written her off when we received a phone call from Phoebe Johnston, my late grandmother’s former cook, saying Gypsy had been found, and how should she get her back to us?  Two days later, she arrived at LaGuardia Airport in a big wooden crate, which cost over $100 to retrieve.

          The following year, we got Gypsy into the car relatively easily, only to lose her in Hartford, Connecticut, where my sister was then hospitalized.  Evidently she had escaped as Mary and her things were being unloaded.  The following night, we had a call from the hospital saying the janitor had found a black cat in the boiler room, and could somebody come and pick her up. The day after that, my dad left work early to pick her up, and by nightfall she was back with us.

          The year after that (1966), which happened to be just before my senior year in college, Gypsy left us for good.  Third time lucky, in her books.  Each of us spent hours searching and calling for her—to no avail.  Again, we couldn’t wait.  We simply had to leave to meet our commitments back in New York.  “Someone will find her,” Dad said, as he started the car.

          “Certainly,” Mother agreed.  But we all sensed that this time she probably wasn’t coming back.

          Ironically, it was this fall that my family moved to a much bigger, West Side apartment, with lots of little nooks and crannies for inquisitive cats to explore.  But Gypsy wasn’t there to share the new space with us.  She was somewhere in the Maine woods, chasing Flickers or perhaps even Pileated Woodpeckers.  Or maybe she had adopted some other family.  We never heard anything more about her.  Her disappearance was as abrupt and unannounced as her initial arrival had been.  To me, the miracle was that she’d stuck with us as long as she had. 

The lesson I take from our experience with Gypsy is that if someone or something is seeking freedom, it is pointless to try to stand in that person or animal’s way.  Sooner or later, if determined enough, he or she will escape—no matter what the cost.

Categories
Essay

Bambi’s Last Stand–or Sit

Just because an animal—or person—is big and hulking doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The following incident involving our next-door neighbours’ dog, Bambi, demonstrates this in spades.

Our next-door neighbours in Darien, CT, the Kellys, were not generally known for their sense of humor.  But Mrs. K. could get off a pretty fair zinger every once in a while.

          Her sense of humour was nowhere more in evidence than when it came to the naming of her dog.  He appeared to be  a cross between a Black Labrador and a bearskin rug, and he weighed anywhere from 190 to 210 pounds, depending on how many garbage cans he’d managed to break into that week and how recent his last haircut had been.  So naturally she named him “Bambi.” If he’d been a human male, he’d have played right tackle for the high school football team.

          Overall, Bambi rated as a moderate-sized nuisance—or would have had he been a moderate-sized dog.  Certainly he was a bit of a pest, but no more of one than half a dozen other dogs around the neighborhood.  It was just that, because of his immense size, the consequences of any deed he did were greatly magnified. If an average-sized dog knocked over a garbage can, maybe a quarter of its contents would end up spilled on the ground immediately surrounding the can.  Let Bambi knock over the same can, and its entire contents would be strewn over a radius of 50 yards. 

          Bambi was, therefore, not an especially popular visitor to his neighbours’ lawns and driveways.  Since we were his nearest neighbours and had by far the biggest undefended driveway on the street, we wound up bearing the brunt of his depredations, which were quite numerous since Mrs. Kelly allowed him to roam pretty much at liberty during daylight hours.  I came to dread seeing him shambling down that long driveway.  “Bambi, go home!” I would shout at him whenever I saw him coming.  If he didn’t vamoose quickly enough for my liking, I would attempt to speed the process by flinging a handful of gravel or even a few very small stones in his general direction.  Generally he would vamoose just quickly enough to avoid having a second handful of small stones flung his way.

          Far from upbraiding me for my cruelty toward our neighbours’ dog, my parents, my mother in particular, took to following my lead and reaching for the nearest small stones themselves whenever they saw the four-legged bearskin approaching.  Bambi remained unperturbed by the chilly welcome he always received at our hands, and continued to visit us at least two or three times a week.  Seldom if ever would he be up to any good.

          More than once, a handful of small stones wasn’t enough to drive Bambi away.  He would stick around, driven by whatever impulse to harass or annoy us.  It would take everything I could think up to get rid of him on those occasions.

          So oblivious did Bambi sometimes appear to be to our spirited attempts to drive him off the property that I came to regard him as stupid, or at least far from the sharpest blade in the canine drawer.  But an experience I had with him, one cool, cloudy August afternoon, convinced me that such an assessment would have been quite mistaken.

          On this occasion, Mother was visited by a friend named Alice McNichol.  Mrs. M. was a short, perky, dark-haired woman who drove a car very much suited to her—a bright red VW Beetle.  After an hour or so, the two women had finished their drinks and their conversation.  The sky was threatening rain.  It was time for Alice McNichol to go home.

          There was just one obstacle standing in the way of Mrs. M’s departure—Bambi.  The giant dog, whose arrival I hadn’t witnessed since I’d been busy writing in my room throughout the visit, had somehow managed to install himself in the driver’s seat of that red VW.  With a stubbornness that would have done Gandhi credit, he flatly refused to budge.  I was summoned to help.

          I looked at the gigantic creature, planted firmly behind the steering wheel, and shook my head.  Frankly I was dumbfounded that he’d even gotten into the car, much less stayed there for an hour or more.  “This won’t be easy,” I said.  Mrs. M. did not dispute me.

          Even in the rather unlikely event that Bambi could have taken the wheel and driven the car to Alice McNichol’s house, there still wouldn’t have been room for her in the front seat alongside him.  And since the car was a two-door model, getting into the back seat would have been out of the question.

          For the better part of half an hour, I cajoled, cursed, wheedled, pushed, shoved, and smacked that dog in an attempt to get him out of the car.  So, to the best of her ability, did Alice McNichol, who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds dripping wet.    It was all to no avail.  The harder we pushed and shoved and smacked, and the more urgently we cursed, cajoled, and wheedled, the more firmly did Bambi implant himself in the driver’s seat.  By this time, there were distinct rumblings of thunder.  It was absolutely imperative that Mrs. M. get home immediately to avoid being caught in one of Darien’s legendary summer deluges.

          I turned to Mrs. M.  “There’s only one possibility left,” I said.

          “What’s that?”

          “We’re going to have to turn the hose on him.  I hate to do it, because I know it could damage your upholstery.  But at this point, I really don’t see any way around it.”

          “Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll worry about the upholstery later.”

          Without even looking at Bambi, I turned and walked with slow, measured, purposeful steps toward the side of our house, where the hose lay ready to hand.   Just as I bent over to turn on the faucet, he leapt from the car, showing surprising agility for an animal of his size, and trotted up the driveway and out toward home, moving just fast enough to avoid the small stone routine.  Hastily thanking me, Alice McNichol jumped into the car, slammed the door, and was very soon on her own way home.

          He may have been clumsy.  He may have been a giant pain in the butt.  But he wasn’t stupid.  No, indeed.  As for Alice McNichol, she was never seen in our neck of the woods again.  That one afternoon of Bambi’s passive resistance seems to have settled her hash for good.

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Essay

A Method to his Comic Madness

Over the 57 years since I left the place, Andover has gone coed, and, in general, become both far more humane and far more culturally and socially sophisticated.  No longer would I describe its atmosphere as “arid,” or invoke comparisons to a monastery.  That said, it is unlikely that anyone like Stephen Whitney could be found on its staff, or on the staff of any other private, let alone public school, in Anno Domini 2020.  His highly theatrical personal style would be incomprehensible to a generation raised with computer technology and zero sense of occasion, and his casual attitude toward drinking, gambling, and other seamy aspects of late 19th and early 20th century life wouldn’t pass the muster of contemporary political correctness.  So be it.  I remain grateful for the opportunity to have studied French with him afforded by an era far more generous intellectually than our own, if more restrictive socially.

In the arid soil of pre-coeducation Andover, MA’s Phillips Academy, a place aptly described by one of its most famous graduates, writer Tracy Kidder, as having been pretty much like a monastery, there grew and indeed flourished a true comic genius, Stephen Whitney by name.

          For four decades, Mr. Whitney held forth in the school’s French department, turning the generally difficult and painful experience of learning la belle langue into the closest equivalent, this side of the pond, to a trip to the Comedie Francaise.  Of average height and relatively slender build, he at first glance seemed unremarkable, but on closer inspection quickly proved to be one of a kind.

          Take, for instance, his clothing.  No one else was wearing suits and sport jackets like Mr. Whitney’s in 1960, though many actors in 1930s’ and “40s’ screwball comedies had.  At a time when most professional men dressed like undertakers’ apprentices or Methodist divinity students, in narrow-lapelled black or grey suits with skinny ties, Mr. Whitney’s wardrobe featured massively thick Truman-era Harris tweed jackets, navy chalk-stripe suits with wide peak lapels, detachable-collar shirts and a seersucker suit complete with suspenders.  But if his costumes got your attention, it was his voice that held it.  An instrument of remarkable flexibility, that voice, which ranged from low baritone to basso profondo, was never loud but always clear and penetrating, whether he was narrating a dictation, delivering one of his trademark asides, or relating one of his large stock of anecdotes.  So powerful and penetrating was his voice that he often gave the impression of being a much larger man than he actually was.

          His anecdotes alone were worth the price of admission.  I can still remember his description of his father’s expression as the senior Whitney dropped, and saw tumble into New York Harbor, a bottle of rare Armagnac he had smuggled back from France at the height (or depth) of Prohibition.  Beyond priceless.  My memory of the story he told about the joke he and his fellow Yale students would play on their professor, a troglodytic gent much given to using the nearly-obsolete imperfect subjunctive verb form in ordinary speech, is even clearer.[1] On seeing the old gent start to wind up toward an imperfect subjunctive, by hooking his thumbs into his vest pockets and fondling his pocket watch, the students would ready themselves in their seats.  Then, just as he reached his climax, the students would fill in the verb form for him:  “. . .qu’il mourût!”[2] As an actor myself, I’ve heard some great comic deliveries over the years, but I have yet to hear one that could top Mr. Whitney’s imperfect subjunctive.

          He was just as good one-on-one as before a full audience.  On returning from spring vacation, I told him (en francais, naturally) that I’d been having trouble understanding some of the French on a Montreal radio station I`d been tuning into late at night.  ”That`s OK,” he said (also en francais).  “I don`t understand a lot of those guys very well myself.”

          His teaching style was perfectly suited to his curriculum, ordinary at first glance, which on closer examination, revealed itself to be downright subversive.  Sure, there were the dictations, the grammar drills, the readings of short pieces from 19th and 20th century French literature.  But what readings!  At least half were on “mature” subjects such as getting drunk, dealing with a New Year`s Day hangover, gluttonous feasts, or the pain of unrequited love.  You weren`t just introduced to the French language in Mr. Whitney`s classes; you were introduced to adult life and to society.  I`m sure that it was at least in part due to those classes that I had little trouble making my way through Europe, travelling, like most European students, with a Eurrail pass and a blanket roll, the summer after my junior year at Andover.

          In addition, Mr. Whitney was past master of the comic aside.  “Heard you the first time, Charlie!” he would drawl when the noise from a talking student threatened to drown out his discussion of verb tenses or the finer points of a Maupassant story.  That line never failed to leave us laughing in our seats.

          But the crown jewel in his diadem was a simple sentence which he encouraged us to use on any and all occasions when we were having difficulty keeping up with a French speaker, rather than revert to English.  “Pourriez-vous parler un peu plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” [3] he more than once urged us to say. With windup and appropriate accompanying stage business, the thing could be drawn out to 20 or even 30 seconds. It was a sentence that I, at least, never forgot, because it was a sentence that, in the lingo of the literary or dramatic critic, didn’t just tell, but showed.  With this instruction firmly ensconced in my linguistic arsenal, I never again feared any encounter with a French speaker, from the most genial of hosts to the rudest of Parisian waiters.

          Did Mr. Whitney have the purest of Parisian accents?  Perhaps not.  Did he teach us any more about the niceties of grammar than other French teachers would have?  Probably not.  But what he gave us was of infinitely more value than a pure Parisian accent or an appreciation of the distinction between the passé simple and passé compose. What he gave us was courage under fire and a survival skill that, if practiced at least occasionally, would last us the rest of our lives.  And he did it laughing all the way through to 6:00 and dinner, teaching at an hour when in many other classes, boys exhausted by afternoon sports and three or four other classes earlier that day would have been “Threaten’d, not in vain, with sleep,” in the words of Alexander Pope.

          Stephen Whitney was far too cagey ever to divulge his trade secrets, but I nevertheless remain convinced, as I was when a student in his class, that there was deliberate method behind his apparent comic madness.

          Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce


[1] The imperfect subjunctive is a literary form normally reserved for formal writing, and no longer often used even there.

[2] “. . .that he must die.”

[3] “Could you please speak a little more slowly?”

Categories
Essay

I Am Not a Retiree!

Sometimes, what would seem to be the most obvious insights turn out to be among the most profound.  This is a case in point.

Moliere’s famous bourgeois gentleman, M. Jourdain, had the startling revelation one day that he’d been speaking in prose all his life.  No less startling was my recent realization that I am not, in fact, a retiree.  Never have been one, and, hopefully, never will be one.

          In fairness, my situation is slightly more complex than that of M. Jourdain.  When asked what my occupation is, as happens almost every time I take a survey or seek to enter a new dating site, I check the box saying “retired.” Anything else would be inaccurate.  I am no longer working, nor am I seeking full-time or even part-time work.  If the right sort of part-time gig came along, I might consider it.  But I don’t expect this to happen and won’t be sorry if it doesn’t.  I have come to value my time too much, over the eight-plus years since I left the labour force, to be prepared to give it up at all lightly.

          But just because I check the “retired” boxes when filling out surveys doesn’t mean I’m a retiree.  “Retiree” is a term to which I object vehemently.  Why? Because even more than “teenager,” “retiree” is an artificial construct designed for use in marketing, or as a demographic sorting variable in surveys. A “retiree” is someone who likes to take cruises or fully-planned bus tours, who is free of most if not all stress, and who takes little interest in most issues affecting the larger society, beyond those immediately affecting him or her (e.g., pensions and health care).  A “retiree,” in short, is not just one who has left the labour force, but one who has given up on an any kind of passionate engagement with life (including with the opposite sex), and is for the most part content to sit clipping his her coupons and passively watching life go by.  The stereotypical images of retirees one sees regularly in TV and newspaper ads for retirement communities, investment companies, and home health care products such as automatic chair lifts are so numerous and so pervasive as not to require further elaboration here.  A “retiree” is always smiling, never raises his or her voice, and would never even think of going against the conventional wisdom, cussing a blue streak, stamping a foot in anger, telling an off-color joke, drinking too much, or flinging a curdled sauce or burnt vegetable dish into the wall.

          A “retiree”, in short, is a pathetically devitalized caricature, one that doesn’t begin to do justice to the energy, passion, and ingenuity I and most of my fellow 65-plussers bring to our lives each and every day.  Nor is the alternative stereotype, that of the “retiree” as a bitter curmudgeon who spends his days complaining about how society is going to the dogs, any closer to reality.

          What am I, then?  I’m a person who has only begun to come into his own since I left my last job at the end of 2011.  The name you choose to give me isn’t all that important–so long as you don’t call me a retiree.  To begin with economics, since it is the most important thing to many people, I’m a person of independent if modest means, thanks to my several pensions.  While I do earn a bit of money on the side from free-lance writing, editing and acting gigs and from teaching the occasional writing or literature course, and would like many others in my age bracket be happy to earn a bit more, I don’t depend on this money to pay my basic bills.  If I didn’t make one extra cent, I would still get by.  For the most part, money isn’t what motivates me to do what I do.

          Free from the need to earn a livelihood, and from the corollary need to “mind my p’s and q’s” so I don’t offend my employer, I’m able to focus on the things I love best to do, and on the places and organizations where I can make the most difference.  These have included acting, which I took up in earnest just six years ago, the writing of both plays and non-dramatic works, and service on church and theatre boards, as well as activities such as tennis, swimming, long walks, and improvisational dancing designed to keep me in fighting trim.

          Nor am I alone in being a senior living my life with passion and commitment.  The great bulk of work done in my Anglican (Episcopal) church, including much of the physical work, is done by people in receipt of their Old Age Pensions.  Without the active and dedicated participation of seniors, most mainline churches would soon be forced to close their doors.  In the world of community theatre, it’s much the same.  Seniors do a fair bit of the acting, the lion’s share of the directing, and almost certainly the majority of such behind-the-scenes work as designing and building sets, light-hanging, and costuming, not to mention producing.  Like the churches, community theatres would almost certainly have to close their doors were it not for the active and dedicated participation of seniors in almost every aspect of theatrical endeavour.

          Along with the recognition that I am not in fact a “retiree” came a parallel one, having to do with the overall framing of my life.  When I first left the labour force, that framing had gone something like this: “I’m retired, which means I really don’t have to work that hard at anything.” At the time, that framing had seemed unexceptional enough.  Eventually I came to realize that by adopting that framing, I was contributing to my own marginalization and possibly that of other seniors as well, by implying that I was less energetic, less passionate, less committed to things than younger people still in the work force.  There seems to be a kind of passivity in those words, a sense that we are mere agents of economic forces.  It is precisely that kind of passivity that I’m no longer able to accept. 

          Here’s how my new framing goes.  “Because I (thankfully) no longer have to work for a living, I’m free to devote my full energies to the things I love, the things I believe matter most to posterity.”  So long as I am disciplined about eliminating extraneous or unimportant things from my life, I will have more energy for the things I love than I did while still working, not less.  As this recognition has filtered through, I’ve amazed myself with my productivity, completing the entire draft of a full-length play in less than two months, to give just one example.

          Don’t get me wrong.  Age discrimination still exists, in the non-profit and volunteer world as well as in the paid labour market.  I have, I’m convinced, been the victim of it more than once.  But as we seniors adopt the kind of proactive life philosophy I’ve put forward, there’s likely to be less age discrimination, as those who might in the past have discriminated against use come to fear the consequences of our pushback.  That, along with our growing numbers, seems likely to make us winners in the end.

Categories
Essay

Not Your Typical Mother

And now, something a bit different for Mother’s Day. . .

The talk around the bridge table had turned to date squares, a couple of us having just enjoyed some splendid examples brought by a fellow player.

          “Just like Mother used to make!” said my right-hand opponent.

          “Did your mother make date squares?” asked my left-hand opponent.

          It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. “Well, no.  Not exactly,” I said, with commendable restraint.  Truthfully, I’m sure she never ate a date square—something she’d have rejected as “church supper food.”  Her idea of a snack was a can of sardines on pumpernickel, topped with lemon juice. While we’re on the subject of churches, they were places she never entered, except for christenings and weddings. 

          Imagine a mix of Paul Bunyan, Tugboat Annie, and everybody’s favourite eccentric humanities professor:  that would be Mother.  We had over 20,000 books in our house, and she’d read most of them, always with coffee cup and Chesterfields ready to hand, and usually lighting one Chesterfield from the butt of another, pouring the dregs of her coffee into her saucer to extinguish the old cigarette.

          Besides being a great reader, and immensely knowledgeable about almost all non-technical subjects and even a few technical ones, Mother was a superb gardener and a fine cook.  If she had a fault, it was that of overreaching.  Her half-acre vegetable garden often went unweeded, because keeping up with the weeds was simply too much work.  Her compost heap, some 35 feet across, never fully produced because it was too big to be turned properly, which would have allowed the organic matter to fully rot.  And her fancy dinners, so delicious that you’d remember them for months, sometimes weren’t ready until 9 or 10 o’clock at night—far too late for kids to be eating.

          Even her leisure-time pursuits tended to the Bunyanesque.  While other women in the neighborhood swam or played tennis, Mother’s favorite pastime was going out into the woods and pulling up small trees by their roots.  She was also given to trying to lift things far beyond her capacity to heft.  When I was 8, she racked up her knee attempting to move a railroad tie that had been lining our driveway.  During the time it took the knee to heal, I had to come home from school and cook her lunch.

          Overall, Mother was like someone who knew the calculus but couldn’t balance her checkbook (which in fact she couldn’t).  For all her vast store of book learning, she lacked many of the most basic homemaking skills. Her housekeeping was appalling. Even weekly visits from a cleaning lady barely kept our domestic chaos in check.  Often the cigarette butts from her bedside table ashtray overflowed onto her bed, despite my warnings that she might burn the house down.  She could sew, but it would take her weeks to get to a missing button or ripped seam. She rarely vacuumed and never dusted.  And the mail and important papers might be in any of 30 different piles. Income tax day was always a nightmare, with her and Dad plowing frantically through those piles looking for W-2 forms and receipts. 

          An important part of the 1950s mother’s job was providing comfort to kids when they came home from school.  We never knew what we’d find. When she was awake and in good spirits, Mother was companionable enough, and quite happy to chat with us over our after-school snacks.  Other times, she’d be sitting completely silent, reading or staring into space.  Still other times, she’d be in bed, finishing a lengthy nap.  It wasn’t until later, after I’d studied psychology, that I realized the long naps were likely a sign of untreated depression.

          Her ambitions for us kids, and particularly for me, as the oldest, were boundless. She once told me I should become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Associate Justice wasn’t good enough.  Concerned about our math skills (despite the severe deficit in her own), she took to running math flash cards at us at the dinner table, until Dad finally exploded: “For Christ’s sake, Carol, can’t you at least wait till we’ve finished eating?”

          And she could be impossible in other ways. Though I’d “graduated” from a six-week summer typing course in nearby Norwalk as the fastest typist in the class, and among the most accurate, the teacher didn’t like my attitude, and after the last class sent me home with a handwritten letter to my mother saying as much.  The letter set her off on a lengthy, finger-pointing rant about how I would never succeed in life with my bad attitude. Given that I’d actually succeeded extraordinarily well, I was in no mood for this, and soon left the room and headed out to our backyard pool for a swim.

          Years later, at our summer house in coastal Maine, she was doing yard work, decked out as usual in her Truman-era paint-stained coveralls.  When she bent over to retrieve something, I saw, to my horror, a six-inch hole in the crotch.  “Mother!” I said.  “These coveralls are no longer decent.”  Though she at first thought me petty for mentioning such a trivial thing, she finally admitted I had a point, and went indoors to change.

          But what a sense of occasion she had, and how she knew how to excite us all and stimulate our imaginations!  A special show on TV and a fancy lunch were like a party.  A train trip to New York, whether to a museum, to Macy’s for school clothes, to the Empire State Building, or to the theatre or a ballet, was the grandest of adventures.  On these trips, we’d be introduced to new plays, new types of music, ancient history, and even different restaurants, such as Longchamps, a pioneer in cooking vegetables al dente.  Mother was particularly fond of theatre, with a catholic taste that extended from Shakespeare through the flashy early postwar musicals to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.  Thanks largely to her, I myself developed a passion for theatre, now among my most rewarding retirement activities.

          She also motivated us educationally. Three of us four kids wound up getting Ph.D.’s; the fourth became a poet and visual artist. And her mid-life switch to sociology, at age 43, done at the New School in New York, directly inspired my own, economically-motivated career switch from English to industrial relations at age 39.  Her example made me intellectually fearless, unafraid to flaunt worn-out conventions and break rules, and willing to take risks—like that of changing my career at mid-life.  

          Beyond that, the example of my mother shows that we can’t and shouldn’t judge people by their official roles.  As a traditional mother, she was an unabashed failure.  But as an intellectual and imaginative role model, as cook, host, bon vivant, and story-teller, she was an amazing inspiration.  It’s for those many gifts that she should be remembered. 

          Seven months pregnant with my youngest sister, or so she always maintained, she climbed a tree at midnight, at the end of a wedding reception, to share the last bottle of champagne with a likable but disheveled young man. Whether apocryphal or not, that story is my mother in a nutshell. Totally unsuited to the role she was expected to play, she took the hand she was dealt and played it, with panache and daring, if not always with good judgment.  And each adventure always produced a great story.

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce

Categories
Essay News

When Reruns are Better. . .

I’ve an odd confession to make.  During this era of no live sports, I find that I’m enjoying the various hockey and baseball reruns I’ve been watching more than I was enjoying the “real things” prior to the Big Lockdown.  Even the tennis reruns, I am enjoying about as much.

          What sort of strange bird am I, anyway, to enjoy reruns more than the live events themselves? Am I also the sort of dude who, in this era of no restaurant meals, spends his evenings reading menus online, and finds this more enjoyable than actually going out to dinner somewhere?

          The answer to this last question is no, no, and a thousand times no.  Most emphatically I am not the sort of dude who prefers vicarious existence to real-life experience.  I just happen to find the baseball and hockey games of two or three decades ago, and even the tennis matches of five or six years ago, more entertaining than many of the recent games and matches I’ve seen.

          Let’s start with the issue of vicariousness.  Watching sports on TV is itself a form of vicarious experience, whether the games one watches are taking place in the moment or happened 20 years ago.  Going out to a ballpark or hockey arena and seeing a game live may be a tad less vicarious and closer to “real life” than watching the game on TV, but at the end of the day, one is still a spectator rather than a participant.  Not to mention that live sporting events of any kind, with or without a live audience, won’t be happening for a considerable length of time—perhaps not until a COVID vaccine has been developed.  As much as Donald Trump and his ilk may prate about giving people back their sports, the reality is that resuming live sporting events will be one of the last things that happens in the reopening process.  Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, certainly no foe of organized sport, recently said as much, in a remark quoted by CBC.

          Just the other day, I heard the Chief Health Officer of Japan quoted as saying he’s not at all sure it will be safe to hold the Olympics in Tokyo next year—during the summer of 2021.  That’s 14 months from now.  If this kind of attitude is all at representative of the larger world of sports as a whole, live sports fans are in for a long dry spell. For the foreseeable future, we’ll be left with the choice of retro games and matches on TV, or no sports at all. 

          To my great surprise, this really isn’t bothering me very much.  In fact, I’m liking my TV sports better than I’ve liked them in years. I’m finding that the experience of watching retro games and matches on TV differs, not just in degree but in kind, from the experience of watching live sports events as they are happening.

          There are three main reasons for this.  To begin with, the games or tennis matches we see as reruns have been specially selected, because they were particularly interesting, and generally because they were close, with an outcome that was in doubt almost to the end.  There has been real drama in almost every rerun I’ve seen so far.

          That definitely isn’t the case with the games we see live, whether at the ballpark or hockey arena or on TV.  What you get is what you get. The live Blue Jays game we tune into might be a 3-2 nail-biter that takes 13 innings to decide, or a 14-2 laugher that has most fans falling asleep or changing channels by the sixth inning.  There’s obviously no way of knowing in advance which type of live game we will get when we turn on our TV.

          In the rerun pool from which our games are drawn these days, there are no 14-2 laughers in baseball, no 8-1 laughers in hockey, no 6-1, 6-0, 6-0 demolition jobs by Roger Federer.  No network would show such a game or match.  Common sense would forbid it.  The airing of such a game or match would result in a flood of angry phone calls, texts, and e-mails.  It would be the sort of public relations disaster that the sports networks, already hurting from loss of their usual sports ad revenue, could ill afford.

          Beyond that, the TV viewing experience itself is different in reruns than in live matches.  Almost all live games and matches feature an enormous number of commercials.  In hockey games, in particular, there are special breaks set aside as “TV breaks.”  Live tennis matches, as well, have lengthy commercial breaks, generally after each odd-numbered game.  While the reruns still have some commercials, there are many fewer of them than there would be during a live game or match.  And there are none of those lengthy intermission breaks we normally see between periods of hockey games. We go directly from one period into the next, with at most a short commercial break in between. 

          In addition, some hockey and baseball reruns, though not all of them, have been shortened, so that one sees only the most exciting parts of the game.  This  makes for an even more focussed and exciting viewing experience.  I quickly noticed that I was falling asleep far less frequently during reruns than I had been during the live matches I was viewing immediately prior to the lockdown.

          “Isn’t it boring,” some might ask, “to watch a game when you know in advance what the outcome will be?” For me, this hasn’t been an issue.  In the first place, I often don’t know the outcome, because I never saw the game before.  (Many of the hockey reruns, in particular, go back to the 1980s, when I didn’t own a TV set).  And even some of the games I have seen before took place far enough in the past that I’ve long since forgotten both the final score and all but the haziest details. 

          But even when I do remember the score, it doesn’t bother me.  Watching a rerun, my focus is different than it would be were I watching a live game.  In the latter case, my main focus would be on the outcome.  While I would appreciate and perhaps even applaud great plays, I’d still be most interested in knowing who won or lost.  This isn’t so in the case of reruns. With the final outcome not in doubt (and sometimes deducible through internal evidence—you know that if a Canadian team is playing an American team, the Canadian team will probably come out on top), you’re free to focus on the game itself, on the strategy, the technique, and the style.  I find I appreciate the nuances of the game far more with reruns, whether those nuances take the form of the precision sniping of Joe Nieuwendyk, the defensive prowess of Kevin Pillar, or the indefatigable retrieving of Andy Murray. And I am actually learning things about all of these sports that I never knew before, because I never bothered to look for them in my concern with the won-lost column.

          Finally, particularly for hockey and baseball—this is not so much true for tennis, where thus far the networks appear not to have broadcast a match taking place prior to 2014—there’s a documentary quality to the old games.  For me, there’s something enjoyable, in and of itself, about being taken back to an earlier era, with its different styles of dress, different fan behaviour, and, above all, different style of play. I marvel at the players who played without helmets through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and I’m amazed (and slightly appalled) to see games, like a 1987 Cup final match between Edmonton and Philadelphia that I viewed the other night, in which none of the officials was helmeted.

          A number of current NHL players and executives have alluded to that different style of play—often quite fondly.[1] Says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot, “It’s hilarious when you see Bobby Orr skating and some guy’s got his stick wrapped around his waist the whole trip from blue-line to blue-line.  Sometimes I think, ‘That wouldn’t be too bad if I could just latch my stick on someone and slow him down.’”

          Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who played junior back in the late 1980s, has expressed himself even more pithily on the same theme.  “What the hell was a penalty back then? It’s unbelievable watching some of these games and just the manslaughter that took place every shift.”

          While Chiarot and Treliving may have overstated the case a bit, it’s definitely true, based on the reruns I’ve seen, that players on a down-ice rush would often be forced to drag an opposing player along with them for at least part of that rush, with little expectation (or hope) that the officials would call a penalty.  I have no way of knowing whether, as some claim, the hitting was harder back in the day, but there definitely appears have been more of it—and also more in the way of post-play rugby-type scrums, sometimes lasting several minutes and leading to further, game-delaying fisticuffs.  

          Beyond that, the reruns give us an opportunity to see things that would otherwise be lost to us forever—games involving the old Quebec Nordiques team, 1993 playoff games featuring the Winnipeg Jets’ Teemu Selanie, then a rookie, and games showing a young Jaromir Jagr working in tandem with Mario Lemieux to produce one of the sport’s most potent offenses.  I find it especially enjoyable to see games from what Joshua Clipperton calls the “wide-open 1980s,”[2] the decade when Wayne Gretzky was in his prime, backed up by a strong supporting cast, and when it wasn’t uncommon for teams between them to score five or six goals in a single period.  Without the reruns, we’d never have had these insights into how the game has evolved over the past three or four decades.  I, for one, am grateful for those insights.

          What isn’t as yet clear to me is how big the networks’ stock of retro games is, particularly their stock of reasonably exciting ones, and how long it can be expected to last, assuming that, as is presently the case, each channel broadcasts an average of two retro games or matches per night.  Will it be necessary for the sports networks to “ration” their retro games and matches, reducing their broadcasts to one per night or maybe even one every night?  Alternatively, will it be necessary for the networks to start airing reruns of second-tier, perhaps even third-tier games, games of only average interest and dramatic appeal, just to have something different to fill in the time each night?  Already there are signs that, as the saying goes, some of the reruns are starting to get awfully old.  This is certainly the case for the 1992 and 1993 World Series games featuring the Blue Jays, games which I notice haven’t been shown at any time during the past three or four weeks.  Might this soon be the case, as well, for reruns of the more recent 2015 and 2017 playoff games involving the Blue Jays and Ottawa Senators?  And how far back can the networks realistically be expected to go in their search for what might be called “new oldies”?  So far, I haven’t seen anything from before about 1985. Are the hockey and baseball games and, for that matter, tennis matches as well from the 1960s or 1970s of sufficiently good technical quality that they could be rebroadcast today?

          The answers to these questions will depend largely on how much longer we will have to rely entirely on reruns for our collective sports fixes.  If (as now seems a tad optimistic to hope) some kind of live sports is on air by the fall, the networks may not have to delve too far below their first-tier, super-exciting games and matches.  If, on the other hand, it’s to be a year or more before live sports can be broadcast again, the networks may well be faced with some hard choices.  Do they cut back on the number of reruns they broadcast, or do they start using games and matches of significantly less than top quality, just to fill in the time?  And if there is a significant reduction in the number of broadcasts of “major” sports, how else will the sports networks fill their evening time slots?  The longer live sports are off the air, the more serious this problem will become.  Suffice it to say, I’m glad I’m not in the network executives’ shoes.

          For now, whatever sorts of hard choices the sports networks may be facing with regard to reruns in the months or even years ahead, I can only say that what they’re doing is working for me.  Whether I’ll be saying the same thing in six months in a year is another matter, but it works for me right now.  Bring on those unhelmeted referees riding herd on the young Gretzky, Nieuwendyk, and Ron Hextall, those shots of the young Milos Raonic introducing the tennis world to his booming serve, those glimpses of Tim Raines and Jose Bautista in their prime.  I can take quite a lot of that.

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020


[1] Except as noted, hockey players’ and executives’ comments about the style of play they have seen in reruns are drawn from Joshua Clipperton, “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed,” CBC Sports website, April 19, 2020.

[2] In “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed.”

Categories
Essay

The Making of a Senior Weather Expert

After I retired about a decade ago, I became something I had been training to become ever since boyhood: a full-fledged senior weather expert.  The sort of person who not only knows when it will clear over, and when the next rainstorm is coming, but what the implications are for the type of clothing people should be wearing, and for planned picnics, tennis games, and other sorts of outdoor excursions.  And, most important of all, the sort of person able to convey his knowledge of the situation in a sufficiently convincing way that others will take heed.

          You don’t need formal meteorological training to become a senior weather expert.  Such training, indeed, may not be helpful.  While the formally-trained meteorologist certainly “knows his stuff,” he is also prone to break out in a highly technical patois in which terms such as millibars, kilopascals, and occluded fronts figure prominently, leading his befuddled listeners to head for the hills—or the Scotch bottle.  Just as it is a writer’s first duty to be read, so it is a weather expert’s first duty to be understood.

          All that said, I should say that I’m also a couple of steps beyond Gramps or Granny and their sensitive joints—the traditional weather experts of yesteryear.  Instincts are helpful, and mine are a match for anybody’s, but they will carry one only so far.  The throbbing ankle or swollen knee will reveal that a storm is coming, but they won’t reveal how severe that storm is likely to be, when exactly it will arrive, or how long it’s likely to last.  To be more than a one-time wonder, the senior weather expert must place those instincts in the context of some solid factual knowledge—knowledge about statistical weather norms, past weather extremes, and the way in which weather patterns are changing.  One must know how fast cold fronts and warm fronts generally move eastward. One must also appreciate that, like characters in a play, weather fronts have both a back story and a forward one.  And one must always keep oneself informed of ongoing weather developments.  Finally, as suggested earlier, one must keep one’s presentation skills honed.  All in all, not an onerous job, but one that does requires someone to pay attention to what’s going on.

          It is knowledge of what I’ve called “past weather extremes,” spectacular events such as the New York City blizzard of 1947 or the eastern North American ice storm of 1998, for which senior weather experts are most noted.  Not only are such storms the stuff of legend; they have obvious entertainment value.  Who isn’t enthralled by a good yarn about the Blizzard of “47 (the first two digits are always omitted in serious weather discussions) or the Ice Storm of “98?  But like strong spices in the chef’s cupboard, such spectacular events must be used judiciously and rather sparingly.  Overuse is liable to turn the weather expert into a caricature of himself.  At the end of the day, the whole raison d’être behind using such extreme events is to discover what they have to teach us about our weather today.  The weather expert’s job is to provide guidance to his fellow citizens, not to do a Gabby Hayes re-run.

          Besides, if he’s to be convincing, the weather expert must be true to himself.  I’ve never lived in a rural area and am not about to start now. I look and sound much more like a professor than like the typical weather expert of yesteryear–  very possibly because I was a professor for the better part of 15 years.  I’m both more youthful-looking and more urban-sounding than your father’s or grandfather’s weather expert.  I would only make a fool of myself if I sought to determine wind direction by wetting an index finger and holding it up to the wind, or to forecast the severity of a forthcoming winter by seeing how thick a mole’s burrow was on Hallowe’en. As for the Gabby Hayes-style locutions such as “tarnation” and “by cracky,” let’s not even go there.

          How did I become a weather expert?  For starters, I diligently immersed myself in the weather stats from earliest childhood.  As a boy, I would consult the weather page of the New York Times even before turning to the sports page to check on the doings of my beloved New York Yankees.  Most of the time, at least.

          Having filled that little brain with all sorts of goodies about temperatures, humidity, and extremes of precipitation, I would demonstrate my knowledge by reciting said stats on the school playground on what I deemed to be suitable occasions.  My idea of a suitable occasion clearly wasn’t everybody’s.  Over the years, I came in for more than my fair share of teasing from the less statistically inclined among my schoolmates.  This I took in stride, as part of the price one paid for being the possessor of such arcane lore.  Let the hoi polloi rag me to their hearts’ content.  In the end, I knew, I would have the last laugh.

          Besides, it wasn’t all about numbers.  For the big picture, and I do mean “picture,” there was the amazing Tex Antoine holding forth on WNBC every night.  Dressed in an artist’s smock, Antoine, better known as “Uncle Wethbee,” dazzled us all with his rapid-fire drawings of warm and cold fronts, clouds, and impending storms.  Antoine didn’t deal very much in numbers.  In his hands, the weather report was a story, or more properly a series of stories—a front story and a back story in addition to the current story, all superbly illustrated by his flamboyantly-executed drawings.

          Not the least of Antoine’s virtues was the example he set, to an impressionable youngster, as an urban weather expert.  In his smock, and with his urbane manner, he was clearly someone who would have been much more at home in a café than out in a field staring down a mole’s burrow to discover its thickness. Thanks to old Tex, I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to be some kind of hayseed to be a weather expert.  I could be my sophisticated urban intellectual self and still be a weather expert at the same time.[1]  That was one reason why his five-minute show was generally the high spot of my day during the 1950s.

          It was from Antoine that I learned, early on, that weather is a lot more than a set of numbers, interesting though these might be.  And thanks to my own real-life experience, as a guy trying to work in as many swims and tennis games as possible in an uncertain climate, I’ve acquired that precision of observation that’s at the bottom of any weather expert’s bag of tricks.  But now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go for my daily constitutional.  Right now, the weather is still good for it, but if I wait another half-hour, that warm front heading in from Ontario might wreak havoc with my plans.  .  .


[1] The tragic end to which Antoine’s career came, many years later, when he made a terrible joke about rape while in his cups, should not blind us to his real achievements in his younger and sober days. 

Categories
Essay

Only the Butler Knows for Sure

Do you think you sound like a butler whenever you use the pronoun ‘whom’? The noted American humorist and New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin does, or at least did, according to a recent “Cryptoquote.” (For those who don’t know what a Cryptoquote is, it’s a newspaper puzzle in which one letter stands for another and which, when solved, yields a short and occasionally pithy quotation).

The exact words of Trillin’s quotation were: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” Unlike any other Cryptoquote I’ve ever read, this one gave me considerable pause. What stopped me was the idea of a New Yorker writer—any New Yorker writer—seeming, even implicitly, to endorse bad grammar. Could this actually be happening in the magazine where E.B. White, he of the infamous Strunk & White style manual as well as Charlotte’s Web, had strutted his stuff for many years? Here was something definitely worth further exploration!

As I began my search for the origins of the quotation, I discovered that it has been cited many times recently. No fewer than a dozen Google references came up on my initial Google search—most from within the past month or two. But interestingly enough, most predated the newspaper Cryptoquote, meaning that it wasn’t just the appearance of the Cryptoquote that vaulted the quotation back into celebrity status. What, I wondered, what might have occasioned the quotation’s recent resurgence in popularity? Hopefully this wasn’t a sign that its author, whose work I’ve long enjoyed, is failing, or, God help us, already deceased. But why else would we be seeing the quotation so often? I hadn’t noticed that we were being overrun by wheelbarrowloads of ‘whoms.’ Had you? Here where I live in Nova Scotia, I’m lucky if I hear the pronoun twice in a week, except from my own lips.

Happily, a quick pass through Trillin’s Wikipedia biography revealed that, for the moment at least, he is still alive if not necessarily kicking. Thank heaven for small mercies. The last thing we need right now, after a month in which we’ve lost George Michael and Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (to name but a few), is to lose another celebrity.

Eventually I found the source of the quotation. Interestingly, it was from The Nation, not The New Yorker. (Another pass through Wikipedia revealed that Trillin has been the former magazine’s most prolific contributor in recent years). We don’t, therefore, get quite the same cognitive dissonance we might have had the thing appeared in White’s old magazine. Even so, The Nation has never been a magazine for lowbrows or for intellectual lightweights. While politically left, it’s culturally nearly as traditional as The New Yorker. Its average reader almost certainly has at least as many degrees as the average New Yorker reader.

Of more interest than the place of publication was the date. The quotation, it transpired, first appeared in the June 5, 1985 issue of The Nation—just about halfway through the Reagan years. Certainly the dumbing-down of society, of which we’ve all been made so painfully aware of late, had already begun. I myself had satirized the emerging trend in a 1982 essay, “In Pursuit of the Higher Mediocrity.”[1] At the same time, the universal darkness forecast by Alexander Pope at the close of his Dunciad had not yet completely descended on us. Not by a long shot. The Kingston Whig-Standard, then still a proud independent daily to which I contributed throughout most of the 1980s, offered plenty of scope for the free play of the mind and a full spectrum of political opinion, from Libertarian through Green, in its editorial pages and particularly in its Saturday magazine. Evidence of education, wit, and humour was still permissible in politics, both in the U.S. and in Canada. While danger signs had begun to emerge, genuine debate within the intellectual community was still perfectly possible. It is in this context, I think, that Trillin’s remark should be viewed. I see it as a throwing-down of the gauntlet to his fellow highbrows and high middlebrows, inviting them to lighten up a bit. It is not, as it might be construed in today’s far more black-and-white intellectual universe, an invitation to unfettered grammatical license. Which begs the intriguing question of why the quotation should have been revisited at this particular point in our cultural history. Nostalgia for a world that no longer exists? A somewhat belated attempt to demonstrate a populist folksiness on the part even of highbrow intellectuals writing for highbrow publications? The more I think about it, the more perplexed I become.

For the record, despite being a card-carrying high middlebrow, I’m not terribly bothered by people who use ‘who’ when technically they should be using ‘whom.’ In the larger scheme of things, such a minor solecism—perhaps the equivalent of not wearing a tie to a funeral—doesn’t really matter much at all. At most, it rates about a .7 on the grammatical Richter scale. The meaning remains the same whichever form of the pronoun one uses. I’m far more bothered by people who talk about something’s being “pretty unique.” And as for folks who blithely drop ‘disinterested’ into the slot meant for ‘uninterested’ or ‘bored’—well, let’s just not go there. My blood pressure is high enough already, since the installation of the Great Impostor in Washington.

All of this said, I shall continue using ‘whom’ as the objective case of this particular pronoun. While it’s true that I’m also the sort of man who still wears ties to funerals, my continuing use of the objective form goes well beyond mere obeisance to tradition. I have found ‘whom’ a very useful word indeed on numerous occasions—and always without feeling like a butler.

In my experience, ‘whom’ is particularly useful in dealing with telephone solicitors—at least a medium-sized nuisance for most of us. After the initial ‘Hello’ or at the first hint of an awkward silence, whichever comes first, I intone, in my best and most deliberate radio voice, the following. “To whom do you wish to speak?” For the timid, this succession of thudding monosyllables will often suffice. The would-be solicitor abandons the attempt and vanishes, as I imagine it, back into his or her private little rabbit warren. Oftener than you might think, the mere confident assertion of rhetorical distance is enough to rid me of the pest, at least for the time being. And even those who persist are at a significant disadvantage, both because of the rhetorical distance I have asserted and because I have taken the initiative in the encounter. They are easy prey for my next line: a Colonel Blimp-like demand that the caller “State your business and do it quickly!” The apparently contradictory need to be precise and to be quick reduces the vast majority of the survivors to babbling incoherence, whereupon I tell them tenderly, “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it seems the height of arrogance to expect anyone else to know. Goodbye!”

The above is just one example of how using ‘whom’ can benefit one’s peace of mind. I’m sure that many of my readers will have their own, similar examples to offer.

Bottom line: ‘Whom’ doesn’t, at least in my view, make me sound like a butler. I’ve never yet worn anyone’s livery and am not about to start now, as a septuagenarian, for the sake of an humble pronoun. What it does do is establish me as a person who knows what a butler is. Beyond that, it serves as a welcome corrective to the faux familiarity of our times. Though there may be times when I choose, deliberately, not to use it, it will remain, as it has been for some 60 years, a useful tool in my linguistic kit.

CONTEST: Embedded somewhere within this blog is a reference to a popular song that is at least 40 years old. I’ll give 30 minutes of editorial advice gratis to the first three readers to identify the song and the singer. Hint: the reference appears in the third-to-last paragraph of the blog. Closing date: whenever I post my next blog.

[1] This essay, first published in the Whig-Standard Magazine, has been reprinted in my Social Studies: Collected Essays, 1974-2013 (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2014).