Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Horror of Being Right 

Every family has its quirks and its culture. A visiting small girl says the drinking cups, after being washed, are “s’posed to” go upside down. Perhaps as a hangover from the days when cups were on an open board exposed to dust and cinders. A visiting teenage boy is surprised to learn that other families don’t talk about hockey at every supper. For the first time he realizes that his family, which has brothers in youth hockey leagues and a father in the NHL, is unusual. A child of Arab or Russian mafia heritage might take honor killings or violence for granted. It was a Russian writer, Tolstoy, who said each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. A unique family culture is seldom sketched out and colored in until a grown child can move away and look back with an adult painter’s clear gaze.

It’s strange how, so many years ago, as a boy, I filed away instances where my surrounding family all told me I was wrong, when at the same time I somehow knew I was right. With four of my brothers older than I, there was often considerable force to the words directed at me. Buffeted by their strong views I could only smolder in silent fury and despair. I don’t know what queer survival instinct led me to resolve to keep sparks of memory. Maybe God was looking out for me. When I was many years older I would revisit the various problems to check whether I was wrong.

My family believed in violence. Feeling things were not right, I was like a British writer’s lonely character, Winston Smith, in Nineteen-Eighty Four, struggling to grasp what was missing. One day there was a light in the darkness, like a wooden bridge appearing within the void of my isolated family, as a brother taught me a concept: Chickens have a pecking order. That was us. This helped me grasp the physical bruising, but I still didn’t get the mental bruising. Children don’t have the words.

Today I have the words to say, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” From The Desiderada I can say that even the poor and ignorant have their story. I can maintain a blessed determination to see all people as having a right to exist with human dignity. As a child I had no such words, very little confidence, and much despair: How could I be right if that meant all the older wiser ones were wrong?

Actually, I saw this dramatized once on a Star Trek episode, Plato’s Stepchildren. On a little planet, a small number of ancient Greeks, about the same number as the family of the gods on Mount Olympus, have magic powers. And just as the most powerful Greek god, Zeus, is the chief of the gods, so too do these Greeks have a “right and proper” hierarchy based on the relative strengths of their powers. Except one fellow. A dwarf named, ironically, Alexander. He has no powers at all. Among the Olympians Alexander is forced to be everyone’s servant, a breathing marionette, an object of fun, a fool.

Into Plato’s world beam Captain Kirk and Spock. Although without powers themselves, they still have credibility: They both assure Alexander he is an OK person. Poor Alex: It’s the very first time in his life he has ever been validated. Alex cries out something like, “It’s them! All this time I thought was something wrong with me (that I deserved this) but it’s them!”

Since boyhood I’ve forgotten harsh incidents in my family, just as I have forgotten every close call on the road. Now that I’m a grownup, with a car, I can drive courteously and safely. I even drive the Deerfoot Trail that many locals avoid from year to year if they can, or drive white knuckled on the rare occasions they have to use it. When a local wrote into the newspaper to complain the editor commiserated, saying, “There are five freeway exits in a row with no two the same.” Sometimes highly educated engineers can all be wrong.

Since then many dollars have been spent to improve that particular highway, but still, it’s as if our city road engineers don’t prioritize being predictable, as if they prefer to use the artsy right side of their brain in planning their loops of spaghetti. That’s why when I give people directions I always have to add which lane to be in, not like in my old city. My point is this: While I have surely made mistakes every time I had to use a new highway, I have forgotten each of the mistakes (except for my most recent, learning the new Stoney Trail). Just so have I have forgotten all the times since attaining adulthood that I was able to stop, reflect on something from childhood, and say, “Ah-ha! I was right.”

It’s only natural to forget specifics. I guess down the years I dropped each memory once it served its purpose. But it’s healthy to remember that such instances occurred. Here’s what still baffles me: How could I, as a child, have known which instances to file away? How could I have known that sometimes I could be “a minority of one” yet be right? Maybe my artistic side allowed me to see past the grip of family culture.

How nice to think I’m artistic. I’ve come to believe that every culture needs artists, of paint and print and more. I’m not surprised evil dictators will always smash the freedom to show art. The communists smashed, and now the Islamics are smashing. Today I see, in my mind’s eye, an Arab boy who’s entire village—everyone he knows—all agree that he should some day kill his own sister, if need be, for honor. Strangely, he loves his sister. Could it possibly be OK to think your dear older sister is equal? And one day that boy comes across a printout of the old 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights, or a still older declaration saying his sister has “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Reality cracks. “It’s them!” The boy looks up in horror.

Sean Crawford
Calgary 2016

~In the Cuban-made movie Strawberries and Chocolate an artist yells to a young communist, “You need me!” with “you” being “Cuba,” meaning that even under communism art is vital.
By the way, an American, Robert Redford, sponsored it to be distributed in North America, which is how I saw it.

~My favorite Deerfoot Trail improvement is that all the level crossing traffic lights have been removed.

~Last night I heard about a teenage girl saying, “What? Women didn’t used to vote?” I heard how this week is the 100th anniversary of Canadian women getting the vote, three years before my father was born. (More precisely, it’s January 28 for the province of Manitoba, April for here in Alberta) I think it’s significant that five people—not just one hero—worked together for this. There is a statue of the “famous five” in our city plaza.

~I think a tavern offers too many escapes, so if you want to get liberated then it’s better done over coffee, perhaps in a kitchen—that’s where I remember women doing “consciousness raising,” in groups, when “Women’s Liberation” was current.

~I suppose the above Arab boy would slam shut the doors of his mind, forgetting what he knew, unless he found others safe to talk to. I think those rare souls who can get liberated in the library, all by themselves, only do so if they can hear a voice as they read the page.

~It must be a special frustration for liberated Muslim women and men: They can look behind to see what they were like when they were un-liberated, and so they know what others are still like, but no radical Muslim can look ahead to see that one day he could be free.     

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Prairie Free Fall

I didn’t “go home” for Christmas, no, because now the western plains are my “home.” On my wall art at home the scenes are prairie scenes. No wonder in my weekly Friday Free Fall writing group, over the new year, I did prairie pieces. Here are three. As I’ve posted before, Free Fall writing is where the group has a prompt, and then we write swiftly without much thinking or editing. Then we read aloud to each other. Such fun.

When I was a boy, and even now, people use “pretty” as an intensifier, meaning “very.”

Prompt- the thinker

Dear Mom and Dad,
Hi! I’m here in marvelous Moose Jaw, on the pretty great plains. Bit of a joke there, eh? The plains are great, and they’re pretty.

I woke up this morning and lingered in my carpeted hotel room, because I just had to catch the end of the movie. James Bond, in a tuxedo, was in a casino watching a bad guy. And out in the casino lobby were guys in suits like gangsters. Well they were gangsters, they were the henchmen of the bad guy. His minions.

After I put on my Hudson’s Bay Company parka I left the room and exited through the hotel lobby. Nobody had a suit on, just dull blue windbreakers or dull jackets.

I walked down the street going, “Wow, I’m really in Moose Jaw!” The streets are paved with salt, that’s what someone told me. He said this far from the sea, salt is as expensive as gold. The sides of the street have these quaint little berms—no, not salt or gold, but snow. And not a boring pure white, but lots of shades of grey and brown and black. I walked along wondering: If I were a secret agent, where would I go? If I were a glamorous millionaire, what would I do? I walked along and I was stumped. Grey walls of old buildings. Oh, a casino.

There I met the thinker who told me about salt. So that’s what people do for fun here: They think.

Prompt- ice sculptures

If you go to the town of Edmonton, in the middle of January, there they are: ice sculptures. In Churchill square, overlooked by a statue of Sir Winnie, is a number of statues, set in beautiful randomness, glistening and glittering, elves and gnomes, wolves and foxes, and what ever else the local artisans can come up with.

There are lots of artists in this town on the Yellowhead highway, atop the Queen Elizabeth the Second Highway, straddling the Canadian Pacific Railway, surrounded in summer by gorgeous yellow canola fields, where the land dips and sways to wheat fields and cattle grass far away. But here in town the sons of the soil have a talent for art. Some are born left handed, and some are born artistic, here under the northern lights.

Artists can be seen cheerfully crafting their ice blocks with chisels and chain saws, sandpaper and squirts of coloured dye. Artists can be very creative. Not purists but artists.
The artists are watched by passers by, by grad students with beards, children with light sabers in their mittens, and strolling parents. The weather is sub-zero, but no one notices.

At one corner is the ticket center and gift shop. Enter here for an idea of how folks endure the cold: a set of stairs leads the ground hogs down and under the street to a mall, or, the other way, to a subway that will soon emerge to run along tracks to the fair grounds and beyond. Enjoy winter, enjoy sculpture, and art your heart away.

Prompt- wild is the wind
On the prairie, that great inland sea of grass, where the plains stretch out for miles, and the farmers squint, and their colorful children see into infinity, oh, how wild is the wind.
Nature is not a lap dog, not here. Children walk to school bent over wrapping their mufflers or holding their scarves in one hand and watching them ripple in the wind. Childish shouts of glee are grabbed and carried for miles by the rippling wind.

On the Great Plains, where farmers work in sun and hail, where cowboys ride in rain and sleet, nature is a big galumping black dog. Either play with intensity, or have the dog leave you behind. The children who grow up on this land, bracing against the wind, are never left behind. They all wear a toque, a knit cap, a ski mask, or a watch cap—where they watch the wind come rushing over the grass like a mariner on the bridge watches the wind tearing at the waves. Soft eastern dudes once said, “This land is hell on women and horses.” Not if you grow up out here. Children grow to roam like tumbleweed, to be as flexible as willow, as strong as cottonwood. The land abides, under a wild wind.

And when the school is surrounded by cold snow at night, and the gymnasium is an oasis of light and warmth, and the parents are home bundled up, the kids are off to the gym. No one wants to miss the dance! Under the wind.

Sean Crawford
Between the TransCanada Highway and the 1A,
Between International Avenue and the Stoney Trail,
West of Lake Chestermere

~At the Tim Hortons cafe in Chestermere some young men asked me the way to the Stoney Trail. They were from the lower mainland of British Columbia, where the Fraser Valley is cramped by mountains, and the roads are cramped too. How cramped? The TransCanada is so crowded they have to have a special lane, marked HOV, for hovercraft and High Occupancy Vehicles.  And so the boys were really looking forward to being allowed to roar at high speed along a broad clear trail.

~According to a blog analytics, my site has a "strong global presence" so while local readers may take the plains for granted, I hope my far away readers enjoy today's blog post.