Categories
Essay

Back Stories as a Route to Empathy and Understanding

One of the things I most enjoy about being a community theatre actor is creating “back stories” for the characters I’m portraying.  These stories give depth and substance to the role and help me feel more empathy for my character.  If I’m playing an alcoholic, who drinks ouzo at breakfast when everyone else is drinking coffee, what life experiences drove him to drink like that?  If I’m playing a weepy old guy with dementia who wants nothing more than a friend, how did he get into such a predicament?  Often, the script itself will offer clues, in the type of language a person uses or the way he relates to other characters.  When it doesn’t,  then I’m free to start inventing.  All that matters is that the story be plausible, given what we already know about the character.

          There’s generally quite a good reason for why our characters are the way they are, if only we’re willing to take the time and trouble to find it.  My alcoholic, I decided, had been shunned and bullied in boarding school, and also suffered from his father’s totally unrealistic expectations for his future. My weepy old guy had never really fit in his working-class community (his good grammar tells us that), and had then experienced the death of the only person who really understood him (Mel, the grandmother, whose funeral sets in motion the events of the play).  I’m sure that other actors reading this could provide equally good examples from their stage experience.

          But back stories need not be confined to the stage.  Knowing how to discover or, when necessary, create them can improve our personal relationships and enrich our everyday lives.

          My first foray into the world of back stories began with my parents, whom (like many others) I was inclined to blame for most of my adult shortcomings.

          Truthfully, they weren’t very effective parents.  Though intellectually brilliant, they were emotionally clueless—rather like people who knew calculus but couldn’t add a column of figures.  For years I looked, invariably in vain, for emotional support from them in my struggles.  When that support wasn’t forthcoming, I grew resentful.  What was wrong with them, anyway?  Could they not hear my cries for help?  And why did they never communicate anything of an emotional nature?

          Taking stock of my “emotional inheritance” one day when I was in college, I found that it amounted to absolutely nothing.  I’d entered college totally lacking in emotional development, and with precious little in the way of social and communications skills.  I would, therefore, have to wrestle with emotional issues that were second nature to most other people, who’d known about these issues since early childhood.

          Would I ever achieve the emotional maturity needed to function as a healthy adult?  Bitterly, I cursed my fate, and then sought professional help, having no idea how to proceed on my own.

          Even the best of the professionals I consulted couldn’t tell me why I was the lost soul that I was, let alone what I could do to change things.  And so my resentment increased with each passing year.  I was particularly incensed at my father for literally fleeing the room each time I attempted to raise any emotional issue.

          Then, one day, when I was in my 40’s and the father of three myself, I started to think about what my parents’ childhood and adolescence would have been like.  My examination of their back stories would prove most revealing. 

          My father, who fled the room whenever any emotionally charged subject arose, had never seen his father.  My grandfather, a chemist, had been killed in an industrial plant explosion before my dad was even born, leaving my grandmother, a physician, with three young boys and pregnant with a fourth (my father).  Quite understandably, Granny suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for some time, leaving my father to all intents and purposes an orphan for his first year of life.  Though she eventually recovered sufficiently to be able to resume her medical practice, she was never the same again.  The boys were left not only fatherless, but also to a degree motherless, since Granny now had to function as both father and mother.

          As for my mother, she’d undergone the trauma of seeing her parents divorce when she was 4.  After that, she was shunted back and forth from relative to relative and then from boarding school to boarding school until time for her to go to college.  As if that were not enough, her mother, whom she adored, had been hit by a drunken driver and crippled when my mother was 9. After some years in a wheelchair, she’d died at 43 while my mother was in college; her father had died a year earlier.

          Thinking about my parents’ horrific childhoods filled me with intense pity for both of them.  While it didn’t make up for the social backwardness from which I long suffered because I hadn’t learned basic social and communications skills at home, it did help me realize that my earlier expectations had been completely unrealistic.  How could someone who had never been parented herself be an effective parent?  And how could someone who had never had a father himself communicate effectively to his son as a father?  You can’t teach what you’ve never learned. 

          Freed of those unrealistic expectations, I was able to achieve a passable if still somewhat distant relationship with my father during his last decade, and to again become close with my mother, as I had been in childhood.

          From there, I moved on applying the technique to other relatives, whose behaviour had previously also appeared quite unaccountable.  While it didn’t always lead to a sea change in the relationship, it did at a minimum help me understand them better.

          The pace picked up once I went into community theatre about six years ago, and started thinking up back stories for my characters as a part of my standard operating procedure.  With practice, I got better at thinking up stories for the people I met off the stage.  A look of sorrow on a deeply-wrinkled face was like a key, opening up a vault containing hitherto unknown treasures.  Indeed, even something as simple as a locket or a watch chain might yield significant insight.

          There’s a part of our Anglican service that never fails to move me.  It comes right before the Peace, and it goes, simply: “Forgive others.  Forgive yourself.”

          You needn’t be an Anglican or even a Christian to appreciate the wisdom in those simple words.  By forgiving others, we clear the way to forgiving ourselves—the most difficult, but at the same time most important thing we are called on to do. 

          I’ve found understanding other people’s back stories a critical first step to achieving forgiveness.  And because forgiving others is an integral part of forgiving ourselves, understanding or if necessary creating those back stories is a key element of self-forgiveness, and thus of self-care. The wisdom these stories have to impart to a knowing heart is beyond measure. 

          For me, at least, there’s no better way to acquire that wisdom than by going on stage and literally putting myself in someone else’s shoes for a few months.  That it’s all great fun into the bargain is simply the icing on the cake.

Categories
Essay

The Dad I Had, or, Charlie, We Hardly Knew Ya

What to make of a man with whom I never in my life had a serious conversation on an emotional issue, a man who didn’t come to my first wedding but instead sent a cheque for the same amount as his plane fare would have been? A man who showed a documentary film about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at my younger sister’s third birthday party? A man who once walked out of a Sandy Koufax no-hitter that was being pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium he’d had a large hand in designing, explaining that nobody was getting any hits and he found the lack of action boring? A man who cared enough about me to accompany me to my conscientious objector hearing in Norwalk, CT, coming up all the way from New York to do so, but who, six years earlier, even faced with ample evidence that I had a serious drinking problem, hadn’t cared enough to get me the psychiatric help I was practically begging him and my mother to get me? And who, two years before that, had apparently been so determined to get rid of me that he took time off work to drive me all around New England in search of a boarding school where he could deposit me, my straight “A” average at Darien Junior High notwithstanding? A man who was such an inattentive driver that on superhighways he sometimes let the car bob and weave all over the road, like Floyd Patterson attempting to elude Sonny Liston in a championship bout? A man who was supportive enough of my interest in cooking to give me a wok and a fish poacher, but who never wanted to cook alongside me? A man who was allergic to cats, but nonetheless lived with two of them for many years? A man who continued to smoke despite having been told by his doctor that his lung capacity was 13%–one-eighth of the normal?

          It isn’t easy to put together any sort of coherent portrait out of such disparate and largely fragmentary recollections, but I’ll try.

          The first and most important fact to bear in mind about my father, Charles Peirce (1919-2002), son of Dr. George Peirce and Dr. Ethel Girdwood Peirce, is that he himself never had a living father, George Peirce having been killed in an explosion at the Colgate & Company plant in New Jersey in which he was working at the end of the First World War.  At that time, Ethel Peirce, already the mother of three young sons, was pregnant with my father.  As the story goes—I’ve never seen written confirmation but have no reason to doubt its veracity—my grandmother had a nervous breakdown either shortly before or shortly after my father’s birth, and had to be confined to an institution, leaving him to be raised by domestics, a virtual orphan for his first year of life.  This fact, together with the fact that after her recovery Granny had to be both father and mother to her four boys, all while maintaining her practice as a rheumatologist, inevitably left its mark on all four.  On my father, the biggest effect appears to have been that he was left emotionally frozen, incapable of expressing any emotion other than anger. It also meant that he never acquired any fathering skills, or indeed any nurturing skills of any kind, his mother, by her own admission, having been unable to be much of a mother to her boys, given the situation.  One can’t teach skills one has never learned oneself.

          As I became more aware of my father’s back story, I grew more able to understand many of the previously inexplicable lapses in his parenting.  This didn’t make the lapses any easier to take, however, nor did it make it any easier for me to acquire my own parenting skills, when the time came to do so.  Never having learned any parenting skills at home, I was forced to resort to trial and error in my quest to learn them.  Sometimes this worked.  More often than not, though, the results were unfortunate.  My own failures as a father, however inevitable they may have been given my lack of a role model during childhood, have continued to dog me to this day.

           Our best moments together were our weekly shopping trips to the Darien, CT, A&P.  For reasons still not clear to me, Mother never participated, except by writing the list.  I would walk to the store bearing with me the list, divided into two parts.  On the left-hand side: the meat and the produce.  On the right-hand side: all the remaining items, including frozen goods.  Arriving a few minutes before Dad did, I would start in on the non-perishables, handing him the meat and produce list as soon as I saw him. 

          There was definitely a kind of quiet camaraderie about these trips, almost a sense of being workmates at the job of bringing home the bacon (both figuratively and literally).  There was usually a bit of banter with the cashier at the check-out counter, and sometimes we would bet which one of us could come closer to guessing the total cost of the groceries.

          The last time I ever saw Dad, in 1999, was in Maine, at our summer house in Hancock Point.  We spent part of one afternoon going to Ellsworth and laying in a few modest supplies at the supermarket.  Each of us picked up six or eight items.  “Not like the old days,” he said, with a grin.

          “No,” I replied.  “Not quite!” I was secretly delighted that he’d remembered.

          Far less pleasant were the annual drives to Maine, on which I accompanied Dad to keep him company, or at least keep him awake. I envied my sisters who got to ride up with my mother on the old “Bar Harbor Express” train from Stamford to Ellsworth.  While they got to enjoy a night in a Pullman berth and meals in the dining car, I had to sit for 10 to 12 hours in a car with a seriously uncommunicative man, from whom I would be lucky to elicit six or eight sentences during the entire day, choking in the fumes of his cigarette smoke and nauseated by the stench coming from our two Springer Spaniels in the back seat, who often as not had become carsick by the time we’d entered the state of Maine.  Between the cigarette fumes, the stench of the dogs, and motion sickness from Dad’s erratic driving over bumpy roads, I would not infrequently become carsick myself, though fortunately I was always able to keep my puking outside the car.  Given that the best part of Dad’s and my relationship revolved around food, it’s no small irony that nearly all of those Maine drives resulted in my bringing up most of what I’d eaten that day somewhere between Kittery and Portland, along the Maine Turnpike. If I made it to Hancock Point (three hours past Portland) without puking, I considered it a minor miracle. These were definitely not memories to cherish.

          At home, Dad was as uncommunicative as he was in the car, scarcely involving himself in our lives at all, beyond providing occasional rides to ballet classes, evening basketball games, or Saturday music lessons. Throughout my boyhood, he was an all but completely absent figure, who spent the vast majority of his time at home either engaged in herculean construction projects, most destined never to be completed, or encased in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke behind the New York Times

          Granted, he was far from the only absent father around. From talks with my friends as well as some reading I’ve done, I get the impression that being largely absent from family life and any sort of emotional issues was almost the norm for fathers in the 1950s.  Certainly a great deal of poetry and fiction from that period revolves around absent or missing fathers.  But my father carried things to extremes.  His inattention to even such basic issues as whether we were in the house or not was such that I used to joke that if I’d run away with my bike to ride to California, starting from our home in southern Connecticut, I’d have been at least in western Pennsylvania, if not Indiana, before he’d have noticed I was missing.  No one ever disputed me.

          On the rare occasions when he did notice something about our personal lives, he was as apt as not to be completely off the mark.  The one time he ever commented on my public school grades, he criticized me for having gotten a “3” (average) effort mark along with my “A” in math.  I actually believe that the math teacher, who was very fond of me, had given me that effort grade as a kind of joke, or perhaps a suggestion that I belonged in a more advanced class.  In any event, I found the criticism laughable.  “I got an “A” in the course, Dad,” I said.  “How am I supposed to improve?” At least he had the sense not to pursue the matter any further.

          Searching for an image with which to sum up my relationship with my father, I can’t come up with anything better than the flickering signal from a radio station somewhere at the outer limit of the catchment zone.  This term may bear a bit of explanation.  If, as often happened to me as a kid, you woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, you would sometimes pass the time by playing with your radio dial, trying to “land” a station as far away from you as possible.  My dad was like a station on the extreme outer edge of that catchment zone.  Not like WBZ in Boston or powerful KDKA in Pittsburgh that you could get every night, or even the Chicago station that you could get two nights out of three, but the little station in Kansas City, or Miami, or Montreal, that you could get one night in five if you were lucky and hear for a minute or two before it faded away.   You never knew from one night to the next what you were going to get.  Depending on the night, the Montreal station might yield a few sentences of near-incomprehensible spoken French or the closing bars of an old Quebec folk song. The Kansas City station might send out some lovely jazz chords, or the ugly rant of a reactionary talk show host.  And so it went. Even more to the point, it might be a day or two—or a month—before you got that same station again. There was, in short, no consistency either as to the regularity of your contact with the station, or what you would hear when you did finally establish contact.

          Like my ever-futile attempt to develop some kind of consistent relationship with those flickering late night radio stations in Miami or Kansas City, my life with my dad was a near-constant, sometimes desperate attempt to establish and maintain some kind of contact—in this case, emotional contact. Though he was generally companionable enough, at any attempt on my part to raise a subject of an emotional nature, he would literally flee the room, vanishing as surely as that Kansas City station would whenever I was beginning to really get into one of its jazz numbers. I never heard a single song through to completion on that Kansas City station, and I never had a single conversation on an emotional issue with my dad, at least not any conversation lasting more than one sentence.  Ironically, his favourite saying was, “I feel for you, but I can’t reach you.” That sums up my relationship with him to a “T,” except that I was the one doing the feeling, and forever coming up short in my attempts to reach him, no matter how hard I tried.

          Our final moments together, in Hancock Point during the summer of 1999, in many ways epitomized our entire relationship. I was preparing to head back to Nova Scotia on the fast ferry from Bar Harbor.  Along the way, I planned to enjoy a lobster dinner in Ellsworth.  I offered to treat him to a lobster dinner, but he declined.  Instead, we just had a drink together, getting into the hard stuff despite the early hour (it wasn’t yet quite noon).  I had a gin and tonic; he opted for a bourbon on the rocks.  We clinked glasses, just as if we’d been two strangers enjoying a nooner together in some bar in Havana or Madrid.  We talked about trivial stuff, like the forthcoming Democratic presidential primaries (both of us supported Bill Bradley), never coming close to any emotionally-charged issue. After fifteen minutes or so, I heard the honk of a horn outside. My cab had arrived to take me to Ellsworth.  I believe I gave him a hug as I rose to leave, but frankly don’t remember. 

          As I ate my lobster at Jasper’s Restaurant in Ellsworth, I felt a certain emptiness inside, wishing that Dad had been there with me. But he’d been firm in his refusal, so there was no point in my punishing myself with regret.  I’d done the best I could.  He simply could not commit, even to the extent of sharing a meal. Of one thing I was certain: I would never see him again.  He was 80 and still smoking, despite his long-standing emphysema. The question wasn’t whether his emphysema would take him, but when.  (It wound up taking him about two and a half years later).

          To the very end, he remained as inscrutable as he’d always been.  While the fabled Charlie of the Kingston Trio’s “MTA Song” was the “man who never returned,” this Charlie, my father, was the man who’d never been there in the first place.   As I finished my coffee and got up to pay my bill at Jasper’s, I realized that even though we’d shared the planet together for nearly 55 years, I barely knew him.  Truthfully, I’m not sure anyone did.

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce

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Essay

In Defense of the Humble “Very”

As a writer, I find the three-quarters educated the bane of my existence.  Thinking that they know better than full-time practitioners, on the basis of some strictures against this word or that acquired in Miss Gibson’s or Mr. Thorne’s Grade 9 English class, they make writing into a slalom course or even a minefield—and lose sight of the bigger picture.  The strictures of some of those three-quarters educated against the humble but useful word “very” are an excellent case in point!

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Though it has served writers of English well—I almost said “very well”—for centuries, the humble adjective “very” is held in disdain, if not outright contempt, by no small number of them.  Some time back, in a Facebook interval between political rants and quizzes designed to reveal what colour one was in a previous life, I read a lengthy post dedicated to ways of ridding one’s vocabulary of the word.  After a brief introduction, the post consisted of a list of phrases including “very” on the left-hand side, and on the right, single words which could replace such phrases.  For “very cold,” one could substitute “frigid.”  For “very bad,” one could substitute “abominable” or “egregious.”  “Very stupid” could be replaced by “imbecilic.”  Etc., etc.

Up to a certain point, I take the point.  The word “very” can become, well, very tiresome, particularly if it is overused, or if it serves as a substitute for all other adjectives and adverbs.  When used to the exclusion of all other modifying words, “very” can create the impression—which is sometimes not mistaken—that the author is rather simple-minded.  In one sense, the authors of the aforementioned Facebook post were absolutely right.  There is almost always a more specific word that can be used instead of “very” this or “very” that.

But banish the word altogether? That seems just a bit much.  While it’s true that there is almost always a more precise substitute for “very” this or “very” that, such substitute phrases are not without their own drawbacks.  Most notably, those phrases tend to call more attention to themselves than would the humble “very.” Suppose we are talking about an error that a student has made on a law school exam.  If the student has made a “very serious” error, then he or she may be disqualified from further consideration on that particular question.  But if the question is hard enough or students have been deficient enough in their study, his or her error may not in any way stand out.  It may be that a dozen other students will be found to have committed the same error.  An error can certainly be serious without being unusual.

If, on the other hand, the student has made an “egregious” error, then that error will stand out.  By definition, it must, since “egregious” means conspicuously bad.  If the student’s error is one committed by a quarter of the class, it doesn’t make much sense to describe it as “egregious,” no matter how bad that error is.  The term “egregious” also has a slightly official connotation to it.  “Egregious” errors are apt to be those which justify awarding a failing grade to a student or administering discipline to a member of a profession.

We may also not wish to call all that much attention to the student’s error.  When an educated reader comes to the word “egregious,” her mental jaw is likely to drop.  The mere sight of the word is likely to make her re-read the sentence two or three times.  Often, we don’t want readers to stop and re-read a particular word or phrase.  We would prefer that they simply note it, and keep reading.

Here’s an example.  In a short story I wrote a good many years ago, I referred to a dancing school’s piano player as someone who “played very badly on a piano it was against anyone’s religion to have tuned.”  (The dancing school was conducted in a church hall).  Does it make sense, here, to describe the man’s playing as “egregiously bad,” or even “abominable”?  I don’t think so.  What I was primarily concerned with here was the fact that the instrument was out of tune, and had been for years.  Also, in fairness to the unfortunate pianist, while he was no Oscar Peterson, he might have risen to something approaching mediocrity had he been presented with a presentable instrument on which to exercise his skills, such as they were.  Beyond that—also in fairness to the poor man—I don’t really know enough about music to know whether his playing was outstandingly bad or just run-of-the-mill bad.  Not knowing, I figured it made more sense to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It is the mark of the truly precise thinker and writer to know the limitations of his or her knowledge.  To replace the humble “very” with a more precise word such as “abominable” or “egregious” would, in this case, be using a degree of precision beyond the author’s knowledge, in addition to (as we have already noted) calling unwanted attention to a simple but relatively unimportant fact.  Outside of formal legal or academic contexts, the word “egregious” seems to strut like a peacock.  The humble “very,” on the other hand, like a mildly embarrassed latecomer to a concert, slips quietly into its place and disappears.  Often this is just what we want it to do.

But why re-invent the wheel?  The issue has already been covered—dare I say far more elegantly than it would ever be by yours truly—by the English lexicographer and stylistic authority H.W. Fowler.  I refer particularly to Fowler’s delightful essay on “Elegant Variation” in his Modern English Usage.  Granted, the two contexts are not exactly the same.  Fowler is talking about writers who invent endless substitutes rather than repeating a word.  I am talking about writers who produce endless synonyms rather than use a common, perhaps somewhat trite word.  But the basic point is the same.  As my dear friend Harold Tausch has so often said, “Why be a slave to variety?”  Just as attempts to avoid repeating a word within the same sentence or paragraph can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on repetition, so attempts to substitute more specific, gaudier, more rhetorical substitutes for “very” can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on use of that word.

As what we might refer to as a simple intensifier, “very” serves pretty much the same purpose in writing as black pepper does in the kitchen.  It heats things up a bit without imparting any precise flavour of its own.  It adds a bit of interest without calling undue attention to itself (except in cases of severe overuse).  Granted, anyone who thinks of himself as any sort of cook would be embarrassed to admit he kept only black pepper in his spice cabinet.  But even the most sophisticated cooks, people with six dozen different spices in their cabinets, are likely to enjoy many standard dishes seasoned with nothing more than a bit of black pepper.

There are reasons why most of us keep pepper shakers on our tables, but not shakers containing cardamom or chili powder.  Similarly, there are reasons why experienced writers generally use “very” far more often than they do its longer, gaudier, and more precise substitutes.  “Very” ups the ante a bit without going into excessive detail or calling too much attention to itself.  More than enough reason for it to maintain an honoured place in the writer’s toolkit.

Categories
Essay

Paint Like the Masters: Lesson 1, Jackson Pollock

No expensive courses or materials are required. All you need do is study these instructions diligently.  Within the hour, you’ll be able to produce something fully the equal of anything the old master ever did.

Before starting, carefully line up everything you will need.  Many a promising project has had to be abandoned, mid-stream, for want of one or more critical materials.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Be prepared!

          Required materials and tools:  One dinner plate full of spaghetti and red clam sauce, well heaped.  Be sure to put at least one tablespoon of oil in the cooking water for the pasta, so it will slide better at the appropriate moment.  Grated cheese, while not required, is a welcome addition.  One plastic table, almost any size or shape.  (Plastic is recommended over wood because it can be cleaned more easily).  One smallish canvas, 8.5”x11” or 11”x14”.  A second canvas of any size you like.  Epoxy glue.  Cotton rags or paper towels.  Camera.

          Optional tools and equipment:  Most artists will want to use one or more of the following.  Mason’s trowel (preferred) or small garden trowel, putty knife, or kitchen tablespoon.  One or more butter knives. One dinner fork.  Cotton work gloves or disposable Latex gloves.  If late-stage edging work is desired, a small ice pick or, if that is not available, a corkscrew.  Chef’s apron.

          Procedure:  Serve up the spaghetti and clam sauce in the kitchen, making sure that the plate is fully heaped.  Maintain a steady grip on the plate as you bring it to the table.  As you are placing the plate on the table, allow your wrists to twist slightly inward, toward you.  This should be a relatively subtle motion; you don’t, after all, want to lose the entire plate full of pasta. The right kind of twist will send anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of the contents of the plate onto the table, away from you.

          Whatever else you do, do not stop to clean up the table before you eat.  The material should be taken directly from the table, not from a secondary location. And it will be far easier to work with once it has cooled.  Most important, seeing the stuff lying on the table directly in front of you should put you in a good frame of mind for creative endeavour, assuming you look at it in a positive light.

          Granted, it isn’t uncommon, particularly if you aren’t used to creating art in this way, to feel a wave of nausea at the sight of congealing food. My advice is to look away for a second, and then tell yourself this really isn’t congealing food; it’s material required for the creation of a Great Work of Art–and go on eating.  But if, after two or three tries, you’re still unable to convince yourself, you should not attempt to continue. Jackson Pollock isn’t for the squeamish. With all due respect, you will probably find one of our later lessons in The Eighteenth-Century Miniature or Early Canadian Landscapes more to your liking. Clean off the table and send out for a pizza.

          Eat at a normal pace. When you’ve finished, don’t bother washing your hands. That would only be a waste of soap and hot water.  Do, however, don your chef’s apron if you feel you need to do so, to protect your clothing. Apply the Epoxy liberally to your canvas, using cotton rags or paper towels to ensure it’s spread fairly evenly across the surface.  Once this is done, put the cooled spaghetti dish onto the canvas with a trowel, putty knife, or tablespoon.  If a fairly level surface is desired, use butter knives to spread the spaghetti dish evenly across the canvas. If a more three-dimensional effect is desired, use the trowel along with a fork or tablespoon, or heap it into peaks using the putty knife.

          You can also create your masterpiece “bareback” (i.e., without implements) by simply slathering the pasta dish onto the canvas and spreading it around with a gloved hand.  This will make for a more sensual if perhaps less aesthetically precise experience.  If you choose this option, it’s important to work fairly quickly; too long a delay may mean that the food congeals too much for you to be able to work with it at all easily without the aid of implements.

          When you’ve completed the work to your liking, clean up the work area, and then yourself, and allow the work to set for at least 30 minutes.  Then take a picture of your magnum opus, and print it out if you have full-colour printing capacity.  If you don’t, you will have to send an electronic copy to a commercial print shop, from which you can pick up the completed print at a later date.

          Once you have your print in hand, mount it on the second canvas, using more Epoxy, and then put the work up on your wall.  You are now a full-fledged modern artist, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.  Congratulations!  At this point, you may start trying to market your work. But if you feel you need more practice, you can attempt a second “painting,” this time using a slightly different medium, such as Shepherd’s Pie or roast turkey with cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed turnips, peas, and mashed potatoes.  Whatever you do, don’t throw away the original canvas.  It could be valuable as an example of Performance Art some time down the road.  Keep it in a cool, dark place at least 50 feet away from the kitchen, and put out several good strong rat traps nearby just to be on the safe side.

          In most situations, the above way of creating a Jackson Pollock-style work can supplant the time-honoured method, which was to take a plate full of leftover food and drop the plate onto a well-Epoxied canvas with some force from a height of four to six feet, leaving the food exactly where it landed.  Most obviously, the approach suggested here means less breakage and far less mess to clean off the floor.  Secondly, and even more important, this new approach allows room for the artist’s intention to be displayed, while remaining true to the original spirit of Jackson Pollock.  I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, this method of creating a modern Pollock work will be recognized as at least as great an advance on the previously-accepted technique as laparoscopy is on conventional “big-slash” gall bladder surgery.

          Bon appétit!

Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020

Categories
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. . .

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.