Boundaries & Busybodies

Warm-ish for February, the snow hadn’t frozen on the windshield until late in the day. So the note, together with its author, had gone undetected — until it (note, not author), now soggy and rent in pieces, waved at me from the tip of the wiper blade, belatedly grabbing my attention. I managed to salvage enough to pick up the gist. Allegations of my self-importance, lack of consideration, and general insensitivity to the needs of other drivers — or, more properly, other ‘parkers’. Seems a few parking lots earlier, I’d managed to straddle the line demarcating the limits of my entitlement and my neighbor’s turf. Hmm.

Standing alone, I might have shrugged off the communique (and quietly wished the anonymous writer a fate similar to that of the flayed note). But it had a companion, face to face this time.  Mid-afternoon and anticipating a solitary coffee and bickie in my office, I’d brewed a single cup of dark roast from the ‘one cup’ machine I’d added to the staff kitchen on my recent arrival to our group practice. I sensed her presence before she spoke, unbidden, but evidently summoned by the finishing gurgle of coffee maker. ‘Read much about those things?’ Once I’d established ‘those things’ were in fact the ubiquitous ‘K-cups’ — too ubiquitous it would seem — I owned that I hadn’t. (Not entirely true, of course. As a self-confessed coffee snob, I’d researched my options relentlessly.) ‘They’re an environmental disaster. Choking landfill sites — no end in sight’. (I suspect the pun was unintentional.) The ‘hmm’ this time was audible — and all I chose to say on the subject before repairing to office for said solo treat.

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Apparently things haven’t changed much in the intervening near quarter century since  this August 1991 cover appeared and etched itself into memory. It touched me as much then as now. Lance Morrow, a Time columnist puts it rather succinctly, if pointedly:

‘The busybody and the crybaby are getting to be the most conspicuous children on the playground. The former is the bully with the Ayatullah shine in his eyes, Gauleiter of correctness, who barges around telling the other kids that they cannot smoke, be fat, drink booze, wear furs, eat meat or otherwise non-conform to the new tribal rules now taking shape. [He / she] has begun to infect society with a nasty intolerance — a zeal to police the private lives of others and hammer them into standard forms. In Freudian terms, the busybodies might be the superego of the American personality, the overbearing wardens.’

And so when my wife queried ‘why so prickly?’ (and elephant-memoried!), it gave me pause…and the need to revisit some thoughts on boundaries, empathy, and mutual respect. Living in community, whatever the ‘population density’, has one certainty attached: sooner or later someone will step on your patch; and just as inevitable, you’ll tread on someone else’s. The typically and compulsively Canadian ‘I’m sorry’ is the universal signal that a) you’ve done it again and b) you’ve acknowledged your fence crossing — be it physical (a bump in the street) or ‘meta-physical’ (whatever unseen, incidental hurt you fear you may have delivered). My irritation, then, was not triggered by the ‘bump’ — but by the intention. This was no accidental or incidental jostle. These were calculated and purposeful stampings down of the fence line. These were all about teaching points.

Rose Seaton Public sat square and imposing, mid-block on the street immediately behind my childhood home. Two choices were available for the walk to school — twenty minutes around the block; or, the option wildly preferred by us residents clustered at the midpoint of Highland Ave., jump the fence, thru’ the neighbor’s veggie garden and a quick scoot across Emerick. Three minutes tops. I still recall the visit from Mrs. Shisler with whom my mother barely communicated beyond the occasional wave when they both happened to be at the rear of their respective properties. ‘She’s asking that you boys don’t use her yard as a short cut to school. She’s saying her garden is a mess.’ First time I’d given it a thought. Her yard, her garden. What’s this to do with me? I knew the fence had taken a bit of grief over the years. But beyond taking care not to snag your jacket on the top wire, once cleared, the rest didn’t matter much. Sure. Whatever.

Perhaps as ten- or twelve-year olds, we might be forgiven for the egocentric stance we’d been refining for most of those senior elementary years. With adults, I’m not quite so generous. The coffee cop and the parking proctor are, as Mr. Morrow prophetically points out, incapable of adopting a position other than their own pedantic and painfully myopic perspective. Much like the short-cutting kid, not a moment’s consideration for a posture beyond their own. The ‘moral high ground’ adopted, banner held aloft, out come the wire cutters and the lecture commences.

Aside the absence of empathy and interpersonal respect — not insignificant issues in their own right — there’s the little matter of receptivity (to said ‘message’). Is anybody really listening? Does anybody really care? An interesting analysis of the impact of ‘warning labels’ pasted on gas station fuel pumps (in Vancouver, in case you’re interested), cautioning against the use of fossil fuel and detailing its effect on the planet might be instructive. A researcher points out that the customer rolling up to a pump, with tank on ‘E’ (and no easy alternate option at hand — bike in the trunk, longboard on the roof), may be a rabid environmentalist under other circumstance. But at the moment, that priority has likely been bumped from preeminence, and so the wrist-slapping, consciousness-raising effect is, shall we say, non-existent.

You want me to pay attention. Or, God forfend, change! Don’t kick in my front door and rant. You’ve already lost me. In this case, the medium really is the message — be it a frozen note or a dressing-down on coffee etiquette. I’m already focussed on the inappropriate affront — not parking between the lines.

The Print: Tales of Redemption & Resurrection

The Print My mother imbued me with many things. Her taste may not have been one of them. I’m pretty adept at picking my own clothes (no plaids with stripes), avoiding stringing tacky Christmas lights (less is more), and finding the vintage red amongst a bunch of Tuesday night, boxed beauties. But charged with the responsibility of choosing the ‘big art’ to hang over the couch in her newly purchased condo, I dropped the ball.

I may not have shared her preference for overdone roast beef — but I knew color trumped content. In short, if it matched, it could have be tastefully presented road kill. Armed with this knowledge, I emerged from our local art shop with what has, over the intervening three decades, come to be known as ‘the print’. A large (40 x 60), abstract, stylized ‘landscape’ in soft mauves, dusky roses, pinks, blues, and off-whites — all (tastefully) mirroring the palate in her love seat and chesterfield. I had a winner!

Wrong. Agnes, long known for her forbearance and mantra of ‘if you can’t say something nice. . . ‘, rarely expressed disapproval. I should have suspected the line had been crossed when the usual effusion of gratitude was elbowed aside by a troubled silence and pained smile. A few weeks of ‘getting used to it’ failed to soften and back to the gallery it went — those being the days when one could trial almost anything from mink to milk; and have it gratefully accepted back by the shop owner.

Imagine the surprise, and frankly Twilight Zone moment, when ‘the print’ appeared a few years later in the waiting room of the mental health centre on which I had cut my psychological teeth. Little Albert and his fur phobia had nothing on the tingle that ran through as I collected my first patient of that surreal day and beheld the framed embodiment of my mother’s principal disappointment in me — that I knew of. There it hung, disapprovingly for the next half dozen years or so. . . until Ministry funding allowed for a renovation on the already once reclaimed nurses’ residence. Off the wall to god knows where — my censure was complete.

Truth be told, the next incarnation had my own fingerprints all over it. Private practice looming and a need, once again, for big art — I’d caught sight of ‘the print’ peaking out between the cast off curtains, draped over dysfunctional file cabinets and frail, stained sled chairs in said mental health centre’s ‘storage’ room. Lazarus-like it rose again to adorn the entry hall at the newly christened office space — until a practitioner ballot (not even close!) voted it off the island — coincident with the Holstein lamp and the dead philodendron . Forwarding address: U-Stor-It, 123 Main St., Anywhere, ON. And there it remained, wedged between the cast off commode and bed-rail, all balanced, in the musty darkness of this rent-a-garage, atop the fold-out bed with its inquisitional ‘mattress’. Small comfort that it was reunited with old friends from those short-lived, halcyon days of condo living.

And so to 2014. Mother now a dozen years gone and a downsize of our own staring us in the face, the call for a holding tank was heard, yet again. Sorting the trash from the treasures, the recyclable from the rejects began in earnest. Well-travelled luggage would make perhaps its terminal trip — to Goodwill. Salvageable furniture, from Depression-era to Ikea, off to House of Blessing or a final fifteen minutes of fame on Kijiji. Horse blankets, hide-a-bed, terra cotta this and decoupaged that, boots, bottles, and headboards — all well past their BBD — were earmarked for a more ignominious fate. Landfill. And, sadly too, ‘the print’ failed to clear waivers. Into the pick-up’s already brimming box, Jeremy at the wheel — I think he lives for these cathartic scenes.

I missed the last rites moment. But Jeremy is an excellent historian. And I cannot doubt his account. The seagulls circled, disappointed with the absence of anything organic. The ‘dump stewards’ scrutinized to ensure metal was fully segregated from less durable materials. Time being money, there was little ceremony. No blessing of the raised toilet seat booster (new meaning to ‘booster chair’). No quiet prayer over the faux-silver drinks tray. No elegy for the mis-matched kitchen dishes. But as he scattered a few handfuls of dirt over ‘the print’, he was sure that he eyed a figure in the shadows — just possibly planning its next life. In the immortal (as it were) words of Harry Miller: ‘the print came back the very next day, the print came back — it couldn’t stay away’.

Travels with Myra


Myra turned 92 this year. Too old to be doing head stands (unless you’re Swedish — and she’s from Boston, not Borgholm). Too dignified tobe manhandled by three burly types. Too sensitive to chills to be wandering about outside in January. With bones too fragile to be jumping off stair landings. Still, ever the stoic, she endured all of these challenges — well, most. 

Myra’s early days are shrouded in some mystery, despite the ID she still proudly flashes with date of birth and home town address, ‘tattooed’ in gold for all to see. We’re not sure how she found her way across the border. But we do know she’s been in Canada a good long time. And has moved around a fair bit. As with any well-travelled nonagenarian, she’s had her share of hard treatment — likely at the rough and untutored hands of students; not mean-spirited or ill-intentioned, merely lacking the nuanced and acquired touch a lady of her breeding deserves. It’s hard to say when she had the implants — or even why. Best guess is to buffer the daily poundings, the compassionate act of a headmaster somewhere, eager to keep his staff intact.

We are reasonably assured that she spent some extended recovery time by the water, Niagara-on-the-Lake, if passport serves. Must have been quite an adjustment. Now days, if not weeks of idle time, more admired than engaged, included more for her beauty — which had not especially faded — than her conversation and contribution. An easy life, but humdrum and tiresome.She worried about her voice and her agility, one becoming shrill, brittle, the other sluggish and awkward. Could there not be some middle-ground in this life?

What we do know is that a back street clinic was her next port of call. A small operation, definitely not mainstream, run with more enthusiasm than skill by a pair of Italian brothers. Some quicky cosmetics restored a fading and lined complexion. Joints were tightened — or loosened and pins inserted as needed. Sadly, as with most marginal enterprises, surgeries are performed with materials at hand, more of a ‘MASH’ unit.  Good for appearances, the short haul, and back in the firing line. 

My wife saw the notice advertising ‘available services’, and called on a whim. And so Myra came to live with us. Some short-lived ignominy, briefly legless and forced to lie on her side for the trip from the Toronto cold-water flat to Stratford, she was welcomed into our home lovingly and with great anticipation. A few false starts with consultants, all with opinion, varying in inverse proportion  to their knowledge base, as to what might be ailing our aging house guest — then finally a diagnosis; or more properly two or three. Some serious bridge work and the surgical removal of several pounds of lead (no doubt left overs from her time at the front). Her voice steadied and strengthened and her nimble step returned.  

Oh to be left to spend her remaining years coddled with regular physicals, visited for long, intense, and daily sojourns, and allowed to preside over the occasional soiree as the grand dame that she is. But alas it was not to be so. Her employer was downsizing. Not that she would be relegated to some church basement or retirement home. But she was going to have to moveone last time.  

The news was, as unexpected tidings generally are, unwelcomed. ‘She’ll go in — but she won’t be leaving’. A robust gal of girth near the measure of her length, the options dwindled. ‘With the staircase out, we could drop her — but a sky hook or a chain saw would be her only exit visa’. No more indignities, please! A wee room (with a view, mind you) on the main floor seemed Myra’s last hope. On a painfully cold day in January, the lads arrived, sighed — and went about their business. On her head, a  short trip to the john across the hall and, inch by painful inch turning that crucial corner. ‘She won’t go’ supplanted by a ‘get under her and smooth the rug’ and. . . she was in. A studio, at last to call her own. Tears of pain and relief her anointing. Bless you Myra. You may rest at last.