Categories
Essay

“Wrapping if Necessary”–a Christmas Eve Essay

One of the unanticipated negative impacts of the online shopping that has become the norm during the COVID pandemic is the loss of the gift wrapping service that was generally available with live shopping.

          I came to the business of getting Christmas presents gift-wrapped where I bought them very early on—at the age of seven, to be precise.  Knowing, even then, that I was simply terrible at any sort of wrapping, I took to patronizing stores, such as the Shop for Good Living in my home town of Darien, Connecticut, that offered free gift-wrapping.  In gratitude, I became a most loyal and regular Christmas patron of the Shop for Good Living and one or two other similar stores, showing up every year in a ritual that the stores’ proprietors and I both came to enjoy.  When, as occasionally happened, family members would compliment me on the wrapping job, I would simply smile, knowingly.  At first, only my sister, Mary, whom I often pressed into service to help with those few items that I couldn’t get wrapped “at the source,” was in on the secret. And she had the good grace not to say anything or even crack a smile when the compliments started pouring in for the excellent wrapping jobs performed by the Shop for Good Living, Grieb’s Pharmacy, and one or two other kindly local merchants.  On the rare occasions when I put a package I myself had “wrapped” under the tree, it would look like something a dog had dragged through a swamp.

          Through most of my adulthood, I continued to get the majority of my presents wrapped “at source.” As I matured into middle age, I more and more often had to pay for the service, and occasionally, instead of having a present wrapped at the store where I’d bought it, I was obliged to take it to a central Christmas wrapping station.  This was definitely the case with the gifts I would buy at the Rideau Centre during my previous stint in Ottawa.  Each present would cost somewhere between $2 and $5 to wrap, depending on the gift’s size and the complexity of the job.  I didn’t mind a bit.  Rarely did I drop more than $20 on all the presents I needed wrapped.  To me, this was money well-spent, keeping me in festive spirit by freeing me from a job I found frighteningly difficult and keeping the gifts’ recipients happy by giving them a professionally-wrapped package instead of something that looked as if the cat had dragged it through its dinner dish.  (I had improved by that much over the years).

          Fast forward a couple more decades, to the present.  I’m little better at wrapping now than I was as a small boy.  The difference is that, in this time of pandemic, I’m not doing my shopping live, at stores that gift wrap for you.  And I also don’t have my loving sister available to help out.  I still use a roll of Scotch tape for every three to four mid-sized packages I wrap conventionally, just as I did during my boyhood.  But now, as of this year, I no longer even attempt to wrap things conventionally.

          In old age, I’ve hit upon a system of “wrapping” that achieves wrapping’s prime objective—to conceal the present from plain sight so the recipient doesn’t know what it is—with considerably less expenditure of time, energy, and raw materials than my feeble attempts at conventional wrapping did, and with fewer (though still a far from negligible number) of my most unchristian, unChristmaslike profanities and obscenities. 

          The system makes liberal use of small to medium-sized mailing boxes, which thanks to all my online shopping, I have around the house in goodly numbers.  What I do, first, is stick my gift into one of those boxes.  If the box is a good fit for the present, that’s a plus, but a good fit isn’t essential.  I can always fill up any empty space with crumpled newspaper, crumpled tissue paper, or other materials of that sort.

          Having put the gift into its box, I then tape the box shut with one or two small pieces of Scotch tape, before setting about seeing if I can cover the box in some way. For this purpose, I am using tissue paper of various colours.  Some might argue that given my extreme ineptitude as a wrapper, I would more properly be using tinfoil.  They might have a point.  But my supply of tinfoil is limited; it must be carefully husbanded to ensure I have enough for the roasting of small birds, the covering of pies, and other critical Yuletide tasks.  So I stick with the tissue paper, which I attach to the box with more Scotch tape—probably more than I should be using. The result still doesn’t look like anyone else’s wrapped present, but at least it no longer looks like something a dog (or cat) dragged through a body of water, large or small.  Now it looks as if I had started to wrap the item but had been called away, mid-job, on an urgent matter and had forgotten to get back to it. But, to repeat, the item is at least fully and decently covered. That’s the main thing.

          I describe this new system as “Wrapping if necessary, but not necessarily wrapping.”  Hopefully this will be the first and last year in which I’m obliged to use it.  Next year at this time, with a COVID vaccine universally available, I plan to do most of my shopping “live,” as I did for most of my life—and to get my presents wrapped, no matter how much the job costs.

          In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all my readers.  See you again in the New Year, if not sooner.

          Jon

Categories
Essay

A Short Dissertation on a Hitherto Neglected Aspect of Colour Theory

Black and white; white and black. Early on, at the age of around 16, I learned from the famous Jack Daniel’s label that these are not just abstract ends of the colour spectrum, but powerful, expressive colours in their own right. Later, I would take away the same message from the documentary and retro films I saw, from political campaign signs, and even from some of my own shirts and fleeces. Even now I turn with pleasure to some of those old films as an escape from the overly colour-saturated world we seem to inhabit.

Categories
Essay

Walkin’ My Cats Back Home, or, Feline Resistance Unleashed

In September of 1964, my parents rented a small apartment on New York’s Upper East Side so that my mother could get to her graduate classes in sociology more easily than she could have from our home in Darien, Connecticut.  I was delighted with the new arrangement, but our two cats, Gypsy and Rhody, were less than enthralled.  Instead of a three-acre property filled with trees to climb, a huge lawn to roll around on, and birds and small rodents to hunt, they had only a four-room apartment to explore.  Gypsy and Rhody soon discovered that there are only so many different ways to climb a curtain, and that killing cockroaches on the kitchen floor really wasn’t in there with hunting moles and Flickers.

          We didn’t dare let the cats go outside, for fear they’d be hit by a car.  But as they grew more and more restive, I started to take pity on them.  People (including us) took their dogs for walks on the sidewalk all the time.  Why not cats, I reasoned?  And so it was that one mild, pleasant day over Christmas vacation, I attached two of the dogs’ leashes to the cats’ collars and loaded them into the elevator.  My plan was to walk down 89th Street, where we lived, east as far as Park Avenue, and then to turn right on Park and walk down as far as 86th Street. Then we’d turn right on 86th, and walk back west to Fifth Avenue, where we’d again turn right and walk back up to 89th.  From there, one final right turn would bring us back to our apartment building.

          Ignoring the stares of our fellow elevator passengers and the snickers and guffaws of people entering the lobby, I got the cats out of the elevator, through the lobby, and out onto 89th Street relatively easily.  The walk down 89th to Park was also uneventful.  Perhaps the experience of walking on a city street was novel enough to the cats to keep them from trying to break away.

          We then turned onto Park for the walk down to 86th.  Not only did we make the turn without incident, but Gypsy and Rhody continued to behave as we walked down to 88th Street.  It actually seemed, for a moment, that the two cats were enjoying themselves.  I began thinking about longer routes we might take in the future.  Once again, I wondered why more people weren’t taking their cats out for walks.

          It didn’t take me long to find out.  No sooner had I stepped off the curb to prepare to cross 88th Street than Gypsy and Rhody suddenly turned wild, pulling and tugging at their leashes so violently that it took considerable effort on my part to get the two across the street.  Gone was my vision of peaceful mid-afternoon strolls with the two felines.  Now I was beginning to wonder if I could get them home without help.  I had (and still have) no idea what made them change their tune so quickly.  Nothing about 88th Street seemed particularly threatening, or even unusual.  To me, it looked pretty much the same as 89th Street had.  Perhaps Gypsy and Rhody had simply tired of the venture as such, and were letting me know in the most direct way possible!

          The two behaved better once we stepped back onto the sidewalk after crossing 88th Street.  Maybe the incident at Park and 88th had been just an aberration, and we could actually finish the walk?  But just before we reached 87th Street, the cats started pulling and hauling at their leashes even more violently than before.  This time, they pulled so hard that I was surprised one or both of them didn’t break their leashes.  It was all that I, a strong, fit 200-lb. college boy, could do to keep them from breaking away—and in all likelihood getting run over.

          With herculean effort, I got the two cats turned around and headed toward home.  Possibly sensing that the end of the walk was close at hand, they behaved somewhat better on the homeward journey, though every so often they would pull and haul quite strongly, as if to remind me not to attempt such a venture again.  I needed no such reminder.  What I needed, I told myself after I’d finally gotten the cats through the lobby, up via the elevator, and back into the apartment and off their leashes again, was a hot bath.  And some physio for those aching arms.

          I wasn’t, and still am not, generally a believer in the conventional wisdom.  But every so often, it does have its uses.  There was some reason, I reflected, as I sipped a badly-needed bourbon highball in the bathtub, why most people didn’t take their cats for walks on city streets.  Taking leashed cats for an urban walk might not be quite as difficult as herding cats.  But it would definitely come a close second.

Categories
Essay

On Sociology

Ah, sociology. A field that started out well, but that has in recent years all too often proven the last refuge of the intellectual charlatan, as it has taken over the groves of academe like some noxious weed imported from another country. No–I don’t do sociology. Never have. Never will.

This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate what sociology can bring to larger intellectual ventures. In some of his U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Justice Louis Brandeis showed us how sociology can, and should, be done. But in Brandeis’ decisions, sociology is never used apart from other intellectual disciplines. It is when it becomes an end unto itself that sociology runs into trouble, all too often choking off rigorous intellectual inquiry in a frenetic bid to make sure all the appropriate demographic boxes have been checked off. This seldom ends well.

Using sociology as one’s sole or even main intellectual tool is akin to using black pepper as one’s sole or main spice in the kitchen.

I will admit that the fact that my mother did graduate work in sociology in her middle years, earning a Master’s and completing most of a doctorate at the New School in New York, has something–perhaps more than a little–to do with my jaundiced view toward the subject. She was a more interesting person to talk to before she opened her Durkheim, Veblen and Weber. At his worst, Benjamin Disraeli is a more agreeable intellectual companion than Max Weber at his best. Once Mother started her New School program, there were no more references to Disraeli, and precious few even to Fielding, Trollope, Sterne, and her other favourite novelists. She became, to all intents and purposes, a one-dimensional person, intellectually.

It is possible that a sense of humour may yet be found somewhere in the thousands of pages of sociological tomes and treatises. But even if that is the case, I’ve never found it. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, a discipline that you can’t laugh along with is a discipline to be laughed at.

Good morning.

Categories
Essay

Coda to “A Cardinal Career”

Generous to me while I was selling their cards and stationery, the Cardinal Greeting Card Company would prove equally generous long after I’d given up my little business.[1]

          About a year after I’d quit, I was surprised to receive a small but fairly heavy package from Cardinal.  What could they possibly want with me? Intrigued, I opened the package, still addressed to “Mrs. J. Peirce,” as all Cardinal’s previous correspondence with me had been, to find a solid metallic object about three inches long.  Closer inspection revealed the object to be a shoe.  And when I read the promotional literature accompanying the shoe, I discovered that it was a bronzed baby shoe, and that Cardinal’s idea was that I should go to the same people to whom I’d formerly sold Christmas cards and writing paper and try to sell them on the idea of having their babies’ shoes bronzed for posterity!  I laughed outright, never in my life having heard of anything so ridiculous, even grotesque.

          “You know, there are some people who’d like to remember what their baby’s shoes looked like,” my mother said.  But she said this with a kind of half-smile, as if she herself were not totally convinced. 

          “You’ve got to be kidding,” was my reply.  “Why would anyone even want such a thing in the house?”  In any event, whatever her take on the thing was, I knew there was no way I’d go up and down the street trying to convince my friends and neighbours that they have should their babies’ shoes bronzed.  Still laughing, I put the shoe back in the box, resealed it, wrote “Return to Sender” in large, clear letters on top, and took it out to our mailbox for the postman to take away the next day. 

          This process would be repeated at least twice over the next year or so.  Finally, the third or fourth time, I decided to keep the shoe, figuring this might help stop Cardinal from sending me any more of the ludicrous trinkets.  Instead of stashing the thing away in a drawer, I went whole hog, putting it up on prominent display on a window sill in the kitchen, for family and guests alike to see.  (Our fireplace, unfortunately, lacked a mantel). At first, people (other than my mother) didn’t seem to know what it was.  But soon they were catching on.  It wasn’t long before I was hearing occasional wry chuckles and even the odd outright belly laugh.  People were clueing in to the thing—and they were loving it.  The little bronzed shoe was more than earning its keep.

          I was bang-on in my guess that my keeping the shoe would stop Cardinal from sending me any more of them. Clearly, even their generosity had its limits.  And in due course, the little game lost its appeal to me.  I stuck the bronzed shoe away in a desk drawer while I decided whether to use it as a paperweight or to give it to someone I didn’t particularly like as a Christmas present.  Five years later, I still hadn’t decided, and the shoe was still sitting inside my drawer.

          But if you were to say that that was the end of the bronzed baby shoe saga, you’d be sadly mistaken.  For years after I’d put the shoe away, it would remain a small but significant part of our collective family life.  When something particularly ridiculous or untoward would happen, all anyone would have to do is say “The bronzed baby shoe” to evoke loud peals of laughter from everyone in the vicinity.  The mere mention of the thing enlivened more than one otherwise drab afternoon or evening.

          Whether such was their intention or not, Cardinal had truly provided me with the gift that kept on giving!


[1] As some of my readers will know, my time with Cardinal has been described in “A Cardinal Career,” published in 2018 in the Chicken Soup anthology “The Power of Yes.”  I sold Cardinal cards and stationery when I was in fourth and fifth grade.  As my Chicken Soup piece notes, Cardinal always addressed their correspondence with me to “Mrs. J. Peirce.”

Categories
Essay News

Adios, Andy

Yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 13), I had the pleasure of watching the entire U.S. Open men’s singles final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.  It was an extraordinary match, with the final outcome in doubt until, after four hours of play, well into the fifth set tiebreaker, Zverev missed on a routine forehand, leaving Thiem the overjoyed but utterly exhausted winner, barely able to hobble off the court to claim his prize.

          While this particular final was more physically demanding than many, it was far from unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Open, or of men’s major tennis finals generally.  Some major finals, at tournaments like the French Open (which still does not use the tiebreaker), Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, have run as long as five or even six hours.  Such matches are a test of courage and physical and mental stamina as much as they are of the players’ tennis ability.  They demand the very best of totally fit young men, compelling them to draw on physical and emotional reserves that in many cases they hadn’t known they possessed.[1]  Such matches are not for the faint of heart—or for those who are in any way infirm.

          Up until about 2017, when his numerous injuries started to take a severe toll on his game, Scottish tennis star Andy Murray might well have been one of the two U.S. Open finalists.  His 15-year career has included three major titles (one at the U.S. Open and two at Wimbledon), eight other final appearances at majors, two Olympic gold medals, a Davis Cup title, and nearly a year as world number #1.  He has also made the semi-finals at ten majors and the quarter-finals at nine more. Over that long career, Murray has earned more than $60 million on the courts, making him the fourth all-time leader in earnings.  Clearly he is one of the sport’s all-time greats.  And clearly, at this point, he has—or should have—nothing further to prove regarding his ability to play the game.

          The memory of what Murray has been makes it particularly painful to see what he has become since his two major hip surgeries, in 2018 and 2019.  At least one of those surgeries involved the insertion of a metal plate.  On the court, he is still the gamer he always was, giving his all on every point and frequently showing flashes of the brilliance and tactical excellence that propelled him to the top of the men’s ranks. But he sometimes misses shots that would have been routine for him prior to his surgeries, and on occasion doesn’t even go after balls that he would likely have hit successfully in the past—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows he has no real chance of even getting to the ball, let alone hitting a successful return.

          As I say, the sight of this former world #1, struggling to make shots that in many cases would have been routine for him four or five years ago, is a sad one indeed.  And I can probably empathize more than most, as a near-lifelong tennis player myself who now attempts to keep on playing despite two hip replacements in 2015.  (I confine myself to doubles and to singles rallying, and to clay courts.  A full set of singles, even on a clay court, would likely leave me unable to walk the next day.  If I should be so unwise as to attempt to play singles on a hard court, I’d almost certainly end up in Emergency). 

          Before my first hip replacement operation, I did some reading on the Internet in an attempt to determine the likelihood of my being able to play tennis again after my recovery. The literature I saw suggested that about half of all tennis players are able to return to doubles after the operation, but fewer than 10% are able to return to singles.  This suggests that any sort of competitive singles, let alone world-class singles, including occasional five-set matches on hard courts, is distinctly against the odds for anyone who has undergone such surgery.  Despite these odds, and despite having been in such pain following his first-round loss in the Australian Open earlier this year that he was unable to board his plane back to Britain the next day, Murray has continued to attempt to compete in the majors, entering the same U.S. Open ultimately won by Dominic Thiem.

          In his first-round match against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, a player I have never before heard of, Murray barely survived, requiring five sets and two tiebreakers to get past his opponent.  I did not see this particular match, but am frankly just as glad I didn’t; it would surely have been painful to see Murray leaving the court at the end of the five-set marathon. The commentators said it took all he had to get through the match.  Next up was his second-round match against the young Canadian phenom Felix Auger-Aliassime, who handily dispatched Murray in straight sets, allowing the Scotsman to win just nine games over those three sets.  While Auger-Aliassime was a seeded player for the U.S. Open, and might well have beaten Murray when he was in his prime, or at least given him a good run for his money, I very much doubt he’d have given him this kind of a drubbing.  Hopefully this match and its results have given Murray reason to think seriously about his future in professional men’s singles tennis.  No less than John McEnroe said the same thing after Murray`s loss to Auger-Aliassime.  As a long-time tennis champion himself, he should know.

          Even worse than seeing Murray miss or not even try for shots that would have been routine for him four years ago was seeing him limping around on the court between points and games, looking more like a man of 63 than one of 33. It now seems increasingly clear that if Murray continues to play competitive singles, he will be risking his future mobility, his ability to engage in the ordinary activities of daily life.  Is it really worth it for someone who has been one of the greatest players in the world to risk ending up in a wheelchair so that he can obtain, at best, third-tier status by occasionally, and at great effort and physical cost to himself, surviving into the second round of majors he used to have a decent chance of winning?

          Regrettably—and I say this as one who has always enjoyed watching him play—the time has come for Andy Murray to give up competitive singles altogether, and to start thinking about other things he wants to do with his life.  He owes it to himself, his family, and his fans, as well as his fellow players, not to continue to torture himself any more by putting demands on his much-abused body that it is simply unable to meet. If he quits singles now, and takes a few months off to rest and rethink things, he may be able to continue with competitive doubles, which he said in the past did not cause his body any pain.  Even that is a decision he should only make after consultation with his doctors, his team, and his family.  As for his continuing in singles, we have twice seen the results of that, and they were not pretty. Those results offer definitive proof that Murray will never again come close to being the player he was. If he starts listening to what his body is telling him, his decision should be easy.  I hope he makes it soon, before inflicting even more damage on himself in a futile attempt to continue with competitive singles.   


[1] Readers unfamiliar with modern professional tennis may wonder why I have excluded women from this sentence. The reason is that, even in major tournaments like the U.S. Open, women’s matches are the best two of three sets.  While a three-set match can certainly make considerable demands on players (men as well as women), they are not quite the same demands as those made by five-set matches—particularly five-set matches that go for the full five sets.  Whether there is any justification for having women’s matches shorter than men’s at the majors is a question I’ll leave to wiser heads than mine.

Categories
Essay

Farewell to Nova Scotia, Part II

With community theatre, in which my career began in 2014 with the role of Judge Omar Gaffney in Harvey, it was much the same as it had been at the Seniors’ College.  A promising beginning, including being cast in three of my first five auditions—one at each of the three major local community theatres—Dartmouth Players, Theatre Arts Guild (TAG), and Bedford Players—soon gave way to repeated rejection and disappointment.  The last major role for which I was cast was that of crime writer Edgar Chambers in Bedford Players’ Habit of Murder.  After that, I was never cast again at either TAG or Dartmouth Players, and only landed cameo roles in two biopics at Bedford, and in the comic murder mystery Habit of Murder, also at Bedford.  After succeeding in three of my first five auditions, I went something like three for twenty-five. And this despite the fact that I was physically stronger and more flexible after my two hip replacement operations in 2015, and a significantly better, more knowledgeable, and more experienced actor than I had been my first two years in theatre, even to the extent of taking workshops and private lessons in an attempt to hone my skills. As I kept getting better at my craft, my audition record kept getting worse.  Again, trying to riddle this out proved increasingly frustrating, so I finally gave up the attempt.

          By the fall of 2016, frustrated by my seeming inability to crack the literary and theatre communities, as well as by my continuing lack of a relationship, I recognized that I probably had little future in Nova Scotia, and should seriously consider moving.  One place that quickly caught my eye was Victoria, B.C., which in addition to its equable climate, offered a strong theatre community and an equally strong literary community.  But the city’s high rents and the huge costs entailed in moving there made such a move an economic non-starter.  Reluctantly, I crossed Victoria off my list of possible relocation destinations.

          My second possible destination was West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa. There I would be close to the two children I had who were still speaking to me.  Equally to the point, there I had two very dear friends:  my old workmate Denise Giroux, who lived in Cantley, and my old literary friend Elena Calvo, who lived in Hull.  Having such good friends close at hand would be a big help when it came time to actually relocate.  And Ottawa had a strong literary community featuring OIW, which had been such a big part of my life when I’d lived there, and a vibrant theatre community as well, of which I had been a tangential part as an understudy for an Ottawa Little Theatre production.  West Quebec had a vibrant theatre community as well.  The rents appeared manageable, and the moving costs, while significant, were far less than those entailed in moving to Victoria.  Early in the fall of 2016, I began to explore both drive-it-yourself and commercial moving options.  

          I’d just begun packing when U.S. Election Day came. Against all the odds and all the polls, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.  Trump’s election sent me into a deep depression from which it took months to recover.  Any thoughts of moving were put on indefinite hold, as I once again hunkered down in Nova Scotia for security. 

          The continuing need for security kept me from seriously considering a move until the spring of 2019, even as I realized I had next to no chance to grow so long as I remained in Nova Scotia. On the relationship front, with the exception of a fairly brief (three-month) fling with a Halifax woman about my age, I continued to strike out completely with the dating services and in personal encounters with possibly eligible women.  Now it was becoming hard for me to get even a second date after the initial meeting,       

          Meanwhile, my theatre career was yielding mostly a growing (and increasingly frustrating) string of rejections.  On occasion, my rejection was due to the fact that the director already knew who (s)he was going to cast for the part.  More than once, I heard an older male actor say, straight out, that he had been invited to audition for a particular role—one in which I was interested.  Though I kept on going to those auditions, in the hope that the “chosen” actor might become ill or have a conflict that would keep him from accepting the role, in my heart I knew I had little chance.  Worse yet, I lost out on three roles I arguably should have had at Dartmouth Players because the entire play was recast by the director in such a way that it no longer contained any of the parts specifically written for older males. In the face of such chronic systemic ageism, there is absolutely nothing an older actor can do, except move to a more promising locale. By the middle of 2019, I’d had no fewer than 20 audition rejections since the beginning of 2016–enough to have made a less determined character give up on theatre altogether. 

          What kept me going, and what may have kept me here slightly longer than I would otherwise have stayed, were I two amazingly powerful experiences, experiences that convinced me I had something special to contribute, and in dramatic as well as comic roles.  The first of those experiences was being cast by new director Lita Llewellyn in local playwright Joanne Miller’s comic murder mystery, Habit of Murder. I was cast in two different small roles:  that of a dim-witted and foul-mouthed but occasionally funny construction worker, whom I nicknamed “Archie” after his model, Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” fame, and that of a plain-spoken but intelligent and articulate farmer, “Poppy.”

          I had lots of fun doing Archie, poking around on the ceiling with a long stick that resembled a pool cue with a long bridge and ticking off my fellow construction worker with my obscenities and cynicism about local customs.  But the part that really stretched me as an actor was “Poppy,” the first serious (albeit small) dramatic role I’d played since age 18.  During my time on stage, I get into a serious argument with the much younger hockey coach “Leo,” who is also my business partner on the financially failing farm. Leo wants to burn down the barn for the insurance money, a scheme I refuse to have anything to do with.  Before long, our altercation turns physical; there’s a serious fight scene, for which Lita brought in a professional fight choreographer to work with me and my acting partner, Rafael Franco.  Doing that scene, which Rafael and I would rehearse every night at intermission (the scene came early in the second act) helped me tap into huge, hitherto unknown reserves of physical and emotional energy, and discover important things about my masculinity—most important of all that there was plenty of it there.  As I often told Lita, Rafael, and others in the cast, doing that scene every night taught me more about my essential masculinity than five years in a men’s group.  The potential for this kind of powerful emotional discovery is why I do theatre.  And the experience convinced me I’d done the right thing in sticking to theatre despite my many bitter disappointments, and despite the exceptionally severe “post-partum” blues I experienced after the run ended in March through most of the spring, a condition that two further rejections that spring did little to alleviate.

          The other experience was a comedy and introductory film acting workshop I took in Parrsboro at the end of August.  The workshop was facilitated by noted TV actor Sheila McCarthy.  I was paired with a chap named Robert More, then director of the Parrsboro Creative Centre, which was hosting the workshop, and someone who had had professional theatre training, followed by a number of years’ experience as a professional actor.  Together we worked up a fairly extended scene from Neil Simon’s classic, The Odd Couple.  Without blowing my own horn too much, I can say that throughout our time together, I was working as Robert’s equal—a fact he generously acknowledged. 

          What this experience told me was that my Habit of Murder experience hadn’t been just a flash in the pan.  I did have something powerful and important to offer to audiences.  At the same time, the experience reinforced the feeling I’d already had, that I would need to leave Nova Scotia to realize that potential, whether because my large size, equally large vocabulary, and high energy level frightened people, or because, as an outsider, I was a threat to established groups and cliques, or for some other reason altogether.

          For by this time, I was definite about leaving Nova Scotia.  It was during a meeting with my three old literary friends, Elena Calvo, Adele Graf, and Ralph Smith at an outdoor café in Centretown in late July of 2019, that I finally decided, once and for all, to make my move back to the Ottawa area.  Being with these three long-time friends, even if only for a short period, made me realize I wanted to live near them and be able to meet them fairly often.  Over the iced tea and latte, I pledged to move back to the area within one year (it was then late July).

          Shortly after this second, highly positive theatre experience in Tatamagouche, which I followed by a week-long visit to relatives in Maine, my whole perspective on doing theatre in Nova Scotia changed.  On returning from Maine, I found that, for the first time in several years, I was no longer passionately interested in when the next audition was, what the next show would be and at which theatre, who would be directing, etc., etc.  To say I no longer cared at all would have been a bit of a stretch.  But I did now feel a measure of detachment I hadn’t felt at any time since I started in theatre in 2014.   For I knew, now, what I had to offer—a lot if the director had the mother wit to recognize it. If I didn’t fit in one or other of the local theatre companies, it probably wasn’t my fault.  I always came prepared, learned my lines, followed the director’s instructions and worked as hard as I could, never giving any show less than my best effort, while at the same time making sure I was an easy guy to work with.  I couldn’t do any more than I’d been doing.  If my best efforts were not enough, then leaving was a no-brainer, if I wanted to have any future in theatre at all.

          Even as I packed my book collection, from which I would prune over 300 items by late winter, I was hit anew by the nagging question of why Nova Scotia, which had worked so well for me in 1970, when I’d first moved here, seemed to be working out so badly for me in 2019.  It was Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which I’d re-read that spring for the first time in many years, that provided me with the answer.  In 1970, my needs had been the primary ones of economic and physical security.  Dalhousie met those needs amazingly well, even giving me, as a sort of plus, a place I could call home for a few years, which as I mentioned earlier met some of  the “belongingness” needs we’ll be talking about in more detail shortly. 

          In 2019, my situation was almost completely different.  As a pensioner, I had enough to live on, and a bit to spare.  Materially, I wanted for nothing.  But I was (as I still often am) bitterly lonely–lonely for friends, lonely for a family that scarcely existed for me any more, and lonely for a close, physically affectionate relationship with a significant other, of the sort I hadn’t had for many years.  In short, what I was missing was a sense of connection.  None of the plays I’d been in, board meetings and church services I’d attended, and hours I’d spent at the tennis club had managed to provide me with that.  I was striking out completely on Maslow’s Level 3, his “belongingness” level.  Recognizing this was a key factor in solidifying my resolve to move, as it demonstrated the futility of attempting to do anything more about the situation where I was.  Nine-plus years was more than a fair try.

          I will admit to having had a few second thoughts during the fall of 2019, after Dartmouth Players posted an audition notice for Much Ado About Nothing, long my favourite Shakespeare comedy.  Given my Ph.D. in English, acting experience, and the fact that the play contains several good parts for older men, I figured I would be a shoo-in for one of those roles, and even began to nourish the fond hope that this gig might restart my flagging Metro Halifax theatre career.  But I wound up not being cast at all. The part for which I’d read, designed for a man of at least 60, was given to a man less than half my age. Indeed, the vast majority of parts were given to actors under 40, although it is clear from the play that at least five or six of those parts are intended for actors of late middle age or older. Once again, I’d been left completely helpless in the face of systemic ageism, an ageism applied ruthlessly and comprehensively enough to distort the playwright’s original intentions.

          Any second thoughts I’d started to have about the move died aborning when I received my e-mailed rejection for Much Ado. As painful as it was, the rejection had the effect of galvanizing me into action on the move.  No longer could I maintain even the pretense that Metro Halifax would have anything to offer me. I returned to the tasks of packing, checking out moving options, and looking for available apartments in Ottawa and West Quebec with renewed energy.

          More than one friend, on hearing of my plans of leaving, has asked if it is really wise to leave a place in a fit of pique. Won’t I simply find that I bring the same state of mind, and therefore emotional problems and emotional baggage, to whatever new place I go to?  In the first place, it’s important to point out that I am not leaving Nova Scotia in a sudden fit of pique.  As you’ve already seen, the decision is one that has been nearly four years in the making. 

          In any case, my friends’ argument seems to me simply a restatement of the old story about someone leaving one place and going to another, and asking an inhabitant of the new place how the people are there.  The response of the inhabitant is to ask the person how the people were where he was, and to say they will be exactly the same in the new place. While the old story is not altogether without foundation, it is, like many expressions of the conventional wisdom, a significant oversimplification. 

          It’s true that our state of mind is an important determinant of how we will get along in any particular place. But it’s far from the only determinant.  The suitability of the environment can’t simply be written off.  Not all places are created equal for all people.  Most of us do do better in some places than in others. 

          Consider the case of Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista.  Before being traded to the Blue Jays, Bautista was playing for Pittsburgh—but not every day.  Once traded to Toronto, he was made a regular, with all the confidence-building that that entails, and before long he had hit 50 home runs for the Jays. A guy who hadn’t even considered good enough to be a regular for his old team was hitting a near-record number of home runs for his new team. It was much the same with David Ortiz, an average player for the Minnesota Twins who, on being traded to the Boston Red Sox, became anything but average—in fact, the heart of their offense and a spark plug to two World Series titles for the Sox.  Now retired, Ortiz seems a good bet to be elected to the Hall of Fame in short order, once he becomes eligible. 

          Try telling either of these guys that environment doesn’t matter.  To them, it mattered very much indeed.  For my part, I think it entirely possible that I might have my own “Jose Bautista” experience on moving to West Quebec and finding my literary and dramatic skills once again in demand. 

Part III will appear tomorrow.

Categories
Essay

Farewell to Nova Scotia, Part I

This is it—finally.  After nearly four years of off-again and on-again, after dozens of calls to movers and U-Haul companies and hundreds of searches of apartments in places as scattered as West Quebec and Victoria, B.C., you can count on my being out of this city and province by the end of August, unless some utter disaster should transpire between now and then.  By utter disaster, I mean contracting COVID or some other life-threatening illness, or being hit by a bus. At this point, nothing less could keep me here.  I’ve rented a place in the Hull quarter of Gatineau, in West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa.  The moving truck is due to come on Wednesday, August 26.  Two days later, I’ll be driving myself and my most fragile items out of town in my trusty old Camry. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be unloading that Camry at my new home late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 30.

          How can I even think of leaving such a beautiful place?  Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that same question at least a hundred times over the past few years. All the things you’ve heard about the place’s funky charm, its sheer liveability, the presence of all kinds of culture at a fairly reasonable price, and the clean air, ready access to the sea and excellent seafood are absolutely true.  And these are definitely things I’ll miss in my new home, though West Quebec (as well as Ottawa) has plenty of culture of its own available—provided that COVID allows us to access it.

          The short answer to the previous paragraph’s tough question is that, beautiful though Nova Scotia is, I really don’t belong here.  This has been made clear to me, over the past two years in particular, in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ranging from total rejection from the one close family member I have living here to a complete inability to find a life partner, despite a decade’s diligent searching both on the Internet and through more personal channels, and taking in numerous rejections from Metro Halifax’s theatre and literary communities along the way.  After years of blaming myself for all these failures and rejections, I concluded that maybe it really wasn’t me, but the place, and that if I wanted to make the most out of my remaining years, I would need to leave the province.

          No one could say I haven’t given Nova Scotia a good, thorough try.  In addition to having become thoroughly acquainted with both Halifax and Dartmouth (much of the latter a mystery even to many life-long Haligonians), I’ve seen a good deal of the rest of the province, ranging from Yarmouth and Annapolis Royal to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck and the Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay, and including even such remote spots as New Ross, dead in the middle of the province.  I don’t think there are all that many residents of Nova Scotia (including lifelong ones) who have seen more of the province than I have.  There remain only two places of note on my Nova Scotia “bucket list,” the military fort at Louisburg, in Cape Breton, and Old Sherbrooke Village.  The latter, at least, I hope to get to see before decamping.

          Necessary though it may be, this change of venue isn’t something I undertake lightly. Moving is a major hassle at the best of times, particularly in old age, when one must sort through the detritus of an entire adult life in preparation for the moving van’s arrival.  There are so many things, big and small, to attend to, from possessions to be packed or discarded to insurance policies to be changed, that the most careful sort of planning is required if one is to avoid being overwhelmed the final week before the move.  Even with such careful planning in place, I’m already beginning to feel occasional moments of panic, three weeks before my scheduled departure date.  The normal stressfulness of the situation has been significantly aggravated by the COVID epidemic and by a sudden flare-up of my longstanding hernia condition, which means that I am physically unable to do much of the packing and loading of the car myself, and must therefore hire people to help me.

          The thought of leaving gives me no joy. As I prune my books and papers and decide which pieces of furniture to keep, I feel the same kind of grief I might expect to feel at the end of a long-term relationship, perhaps even a marriage. 

          There’s a lot of history to get over.  I’ve invested 16 years of my life in this province—six years in my first stint here, during the 1970’s, and now another ten-plus in my second stint, which began at the end of 2009.  Not only did I do my graduate work in English here, I met both my wives here, started writing poetry and doing Yoga and modern dance here (during my first stint) and started doing theatre and singing here (during my second stint).  My older daughter was born here, at the Victoria General (VG) Hospital.  And the place has been a refuge and a haven to me, not once or even twice, but three times.  All of this is hard to give up.

          Nova Scotia in general and Halifax in particular were little short of a promised land to me when I arrived in September of 1970 to take up graduate English at Dalhousie. Before coming here from the U.S., I’d had practically no money, no job and few prospects of one, and no sense of what my future might be.  Those familiar with the late American psychologist A.H. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” will recognize the situation as one involving deficiency with regard to the basic physiological and safety needs at the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Failure to satisfy these needs in the U.S. bred in me some pretty extreme anxiety, which resulted in a major panic attack during the spring of 1970 and steady mid-level anxiety throughout much of the summer of that year.  Becoming a graduate student in Dalhousie’s English department satisfied most of those basic needs in one fell swoop, and thus eliminated most of the anxiety I’d had earlier in the year.  I had a job (as an English student and teaching assistant) and would continue to have one, provided I performed well enough, for the next several years.  My fellowship, though modest, was enough to pay tuition, room and board, and even provided me a small amount of spending money each month.  The fact that Canada, unlike the U.S., had public health care available relieved me of any possible concerns on that score. 

           Soon enough I had a fair number of friends, as well as a lover or two, most though not all drawn from the same English program in which I was enrolled.  Though few of us had much money, we all managed to have a pretty lively social life.  In many ways, my first three years at Dalhousie were the happiest of my entire life.  It wasn’t until the later years of my doctoral program, when I began to get close to completing the program and preparing to go out into the academic world in search of a teaching job, that the seamier side of Nova Scotia life would start to reveal itself.

          As had been the case in 1970, when I first learned I was going to be moving back to Halifax, at the end of 2009, my feeling was one of great relief.  At the Ottawa head office of my employer, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), I was in senior management’s bad books for having, in my capacity as union-side health and safety representative, strictly enforced the health and safety law.  It had been made abundantly clear to me by senior management that they would make my life hell for me for this capital offense, at least as long as I stayed in Ottawa.  In the case of my union-side colleague and dear friend, Denise Giroux, who unlike me was not in a position to leave the area, they made such a hell of her life that she was forced to take stress leave.  Being unattached, and not owning a house in or around Ottawa, I was able to leave. I figured there would be a lot less management interference in my life if managers had to board a plane and fly for two hours to see me than if they simply had to walk down two flights of stairs, as had been the case in Ottawa.  And I was absolutely correct.  I was never again bugged by senior management once I arrived here.  Workwise, the place was everything I could have wished for.  I had what strikes me in retrospect as the best of all possible arrangements for my two final years of doing the always difficult, conflict-ridden job of being a labour relations officer for a union.

          Outside of work, however, it was quite a different story.  During my first stint in Halifax, I’d had, as noted above, many friends and an active, even lively social life.  Before my first marriage, I’d even been a bit of a lothario, sowing my wild oats fairly freely in a graduate program where there were plenty of bright, attractive women available.  On my return, 31 years after my departure to take an out-of-province teaching job, I found that many of my old friends had left, some no longer wished to see me, and a couple had died.  I did have a few friends left from my time in Ottawa, when I would often spend summer vacations in Nova Scotia, and I made one more friendship on the tennis courts.  But people were busier now, and (aside from my one tennis friend and a work colleague who became a friend), I’d be lucky to see any of them even as often as once a month.  Far more nights than was good for either my physical or mental health were spent alone, listening to music and drinking single malt Scotch.

          If my quest for a lively social life proved difficult, my quest for a relationship proved downright futile.  An arduous search on several different dating sites yielded little but rejections—mostly polite but occasionally downright rude.  More than once I had great correspondences with women, and sometimes even great telephone relationships, only to find the women in question fleeing me as soon as they decently could once we’d met in the flesh.  Except for one six-month out of town relationship, with a woman from North Carolina I’d met through the E-Harmony dating service, no other relationship I had between 2010 and 2014 lasted more than six dates, with most being of considerably shorter duration than that.  Two platonic relationships, between 2014-5 and 2015-6, did last longer, but since 2017, I haven’t made it past three dates with any woman from Nova Scotia.  It’s all part of a now-familiar pattern:  As I’ve kept growing in knowledge and understanding, and improving in physical health as well, I’ve had a harder and harder time being accepted. For years I tried to riddle out how this could be, before finally giving up on the attempt last year.

          It may or may not have been coincidental that starting in late February of 2010, just a couple of months after I’d moved back to Halifax, I was hit by what I now realize was a moderate-level depression.  Had I been more in touch with my feelings, I might well have recognized such a depression as a symptom of the things I was lacking in my new-old city: love, affection, close friendships, and literary fellowship chief among them.  Not until the summer, when I was playing lots of tennis and doing plenty of swimming at the Waegwoltic Club and looking forward to an epic cross-country trip in August, did the depression finally lift.  After it had lifted, and I had taken that epic trip (much of it by train), I was hit by a number of other health problems ranging from a large boil on my rear end to high blood pressure and the beginnings of prostate cancer—afflictions which may or may not have been connected to that earlier bout of depression.

          The province’s literary community would come to be a major source of disappointment.  Although I received Writers’ Council (professional membership) status in the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia around 2011, this did not for many years parlay itself into any workshop or teaching gigs.  Every year I would apply to be a Writer in the Schools, and every year I was turned down, until finally, in 2018, after I had just about given up hope, I landed a 1 ½-day gig in a middle school in Kingston, in the Annapolis Valley.  My attempts to land other workshop gigs were equally unavailing.  As for any sort of fellowship resulting from my membership in WFNS—forget it.  Here there was nothing like the monthly talks and/or readings we’d always had at Ottawa Independent Writers (OIW), sessions often followed by lively conversation over beer and munchies at a nearby pub.  Most of my time here, I’ve felt like one writing in a vacuum, just as I would if I didn’t belong to WFNS or any local writers’ organization at all.        

          The Nova Scotia Seniors’ College and community theatre seemed, at first, to offer more promise.  Having, to my amazement, discovered that one of my old Dalhousie English professors, Harry Whittier, was teaching for the Seniors’ College in 2010, I decided to give it a shot myself.  So at the end of 2012, after I’d retired, I applied, and was accepted to teach a course on “Getting Started with Writing.”  My approach to teaching writing, which featured minimal lecturing on my part and the maximum possible amount of student participation, at first proved popular, and over the next couple of years, I would teach a sequence of three writing courses as well as an introduction to poetry course, generating considerable repeat business along the way.  But the writing sequence would be nowhere near as popular the second time around, and by the middle of 2017, by which time I had taught half a dozen courses, my star was no longer in the ascendancy. I would never again be given a course to teach in Metro Halifax, though I did manage to get three to teach in Truro, an hour’s drive away, between 2018 and 2020  thanks to the understanding of the course coordinator there, Phil Warman.

Part II will appear tomorrow.

Categories
Essay

The Big Turn

Last week, we had our big turn from summer toward fall. One day, it was sweltering. You felt warm again as soon as you got out of the pool. The next day, there was a bit of a nip in the air by about 6 p.m. If you didn’t towel off immediately, as soon as you got out of the pool, and put on your shirt, you would start to shiver a bit. And the days are shorter, with night coming an hour earlier than it did less than two months ago.

As often happens, some heavy rains marked the transition between the two mini-seasons.

With nighttime temperatures dropping into the mid teens, the weather is much better for sleeping. On sunny days, the air is lighter and crisper as well as a bit cooler. Motion has started to return to much of nature. No longer having to slow ourselves down to adjust to mid-summer heat, we ourselves go about our business more briskly and, I dare say, more purposefully. Joy at the beauty of the season is mingled with regret for what has gone by, but at this early point in the transition, joy still outweighs regret. I shall probably immerse myself a couple more times at the Lido Pool at the Waegwoltic Club, if only for old time’s sake. But at the moment, going for a walk holds more appeal than going for a swim.

Welcome to the swing season.

Categories
Essay

Summer Groundhog Day?

As of yesterday, we had come halfway from the summer solstice to the fall equinox.  This day is the mirror image of Groundhog Day, which is more or less halfway from the winter solstice to the spring equinox.  From here on in, the days will become significantly shorter, just as they become significantly longer after Groundhog Day.

I find it curious that though much is made of Groundhog Day, with huge quantities of journalistic ink spent chronicling the doings of critters like Punxsutawney Phil and Weirton Willie, little or nothing is ever made of Groundhog Day’s summer equivalent.  At most, we’ll see a passing reference to the “dog days of summer.”

Has this disparity come about because in early August most of us are too busy enjoying the summer weather to have any time or energy to talk or think about it?  Or is it that we would rather not think about the shorter and cooler days that lie ahead?  Alternatively, could this be because most of us (in Canada, at least) have just celebrated a long civic holiday weekend, and are in no need of a further event to celebrate?