Name Game

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Quacker-quack-quack: I suppose there are better names for a sort of quacking duck cartoon. But then, what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But would it? What if we called it a dead rat or a mushroom riot fungal infection, would it then smell as sweet? Good question.

With names, we are looking for le mot juste, the single word or short phrase that sums up the moment and seizes it, framing it forever. As the Welshman once said, when Wales beat the South African Springboks rugby team: “Now I can die happy.” And that’s what he was called ever afterwards: Dai Appy. Then there’s Dai Arrears, who could never pay his bills on time, and Dai Lemmer, who never knew what to do, and Dai Alysis, who had a kidney problem, and Dai A’Beckett, who ate too much sugar and chocolate, and Dai Ear-Kneed, who always held his hand out for a little extra financial help, and Dai Lingual, who couldn’t speak any Welsh (you’ll have to think about that one), and Dai Ap Bolockal, who had a devilish sense of humor and always played practical jokes on his siblings, and Dai Urnal, who slept all night and only woke up in the day time, and Dai Heederal, who threw stones at sea-gulls, and Dai Nasty, who lived in a shoe with so many children that he didn’t know what to do, and Dai Rection, who always knew the way home no matter how much he had had to drink, and Dai Late, who never arrived early and thought he would live for ever … One day, I would like to write a book about all my Welsh friends called Dai, and indeed, there are a great many of them. What adventures they would have. Enough to turn Under Milkwood sour with jealousy, probably.

Meanwhile, back at the duck farm, Quacker-quack-quack is looking for a nice, friendly duck name. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. And stop throwing sand in the Winky Bird’s eye: he’s got enough problems as it is.

 

 

Coat of Arms

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I’ve never yearned for a coat of arms. All those advertisements for this and that, DNA tests to prove your ancestry, where your family name comes from, how many famous people were in your past, how many convicts … and the convicts were often poorer family members, wallowing in poverty and forced into theft, money, a loaf of bread,  a chicken, a lamb, some eggs, something to feed the children, to pay the bills … the possibility of blue bloods and royalty outweighed by the probability of some dark skeletons swinging on gallows somewhere in the distant past.

Yet when I got my online advent calendar this year, there was the coat of arms game … make your own coat of arms. So I did. The choices were very limited, not too original, and came with a ‘clan history’ that has absolutely nothing to do with me. A bear and a dog … I can live with those, especially as the bear is apparently my Canadian spirit animal. A Welsh dragon draped round the top of the frame … wrong color and definitely not Y Ddraig Coch, the blood Red Dragon of Wales, but still a symbol I can happily live with. Down below, we have Sun and Moon, the symbol of Oaxaca and title of the first book in the Oaxacan Trilogy (first published in 2000). Unfortunately, I have reversed the symbols to give us Moon and Sun. Oh dear. Such things happen.

Then we have a snowman and a beer tankard. Sounds good to me. I have now lived in Canada for more than fifty years in Canada and I know all about snowmen, and the taste of beer, sometimes mulled, to take away the cold. I am not so sure about ‘my clan’ as I don’t really think that I have one. I feel it is a very foreign term  like Hi there, gang. I can take Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but Roger and his Merry Gang, no thank you, that’s not for me. Sorry. As for ‘throughout the land’, I wonder which land they are referring to: Wales, England, France, Spain, Mexico, Canada … I don’t really feel that any of these stand up as my ‘land’ … except possibly for Canada, and as for Canada, well, this land is enormous. I have certainly visited some of it, but by no means all, and there is so much more to see and hear.

‘In Battle’, well, I have never been in a battle. I dislike violence and fighting, and I cannot imagine how a phrase like that got in there. ‘Fierceness’ same thing, I am as mild as milk and very easy-going. ‘Loyalty’, yes: that’s what the bear and the dog are famed for. ‘Us bears never forget’, or words like it, from the Chronicles of Narnia. Oh dear, there I go … I can hear mother bear now … ‘Stop sucking your paw’.

Seize the day is goodCarpe Diem … but never in battle … in poetry, maybe, or else in gathering old age where every moment of every day seems more and more precious. I wold have preferred Horas non numero nisi serenas, but they didn’t have that one, even though, nowadays particularly, it is the happy hours that I count, and not all of them spent in a local bar, or home alone, with my own beer mug.

 

Show Don’t Tell

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A barber shop quartet, four of them, singing in unison, spring birds at a feeder, early morning sparrows at a jug of milk, abandoned by the milkman on the doorstep.

Except they were none of that. How could they be? They were four brothers, torn apart at birth. They never knew each other, never sang together, never embraced each other, never held each other in their arms. How could they have done so? The first one was stillborn. The second one survived for a while, but struggled to live, succumbed, and drifted away. The third one lived, marked for life by the scars on his forehead where they dragged him from the womb. The fourth one stopped struggling in the seventh month, but the mother carried him to term, even though she knew he was dead.

She carried them, blessed them, gave them all names, and buried three of them. They were her babies and she never got over their loss. Oh, she survived physically, but mentally she was destroyed.

The priests wanted to know what sins she had committed for God to be so angry with her that He destroyed the fruit of her womb. She had no answer. Some refused to bless her. Others ignored her completely. A few used her sorrows to drag the survivor into the tangled web of the church. “He has been spared. He will be one of us,” they said, and rejoiced at the potential strengthening of their celibate ranks.

Three of her children were ever before her. But the fourth lodged like an albatross on her shoulders and hung like a crucifix round her neck. She could never see him clearly. How could she? He was rarely before her eyes, never in the range of her sight. She tried to mold him like putty, but like water or sand, he slipped through her fingers.

Her husband hated him. Was he the father? It’s a wise man knows his father, or his son. Yet they looked alike. But no, they never thought alike, or walked alike. Nor moved in the same circles.

The father, a gambler, had borrowed a large sum of money and placed it with a bookie, betting that this third son would never live and that his death would make his father’s fortune, if the child was indeed a product of the seed his father deposited in his wife’s child bank.

The father lost his bet. The son lived. The father hated him every day of his life.  A rich man he would have been, if … if only … and the scars of that lost bet raged ragged on his face as the father cursed the doctor who had pulled his  son, if he was his son, alive and struggling from the womb.

If he was his son … a strong man, magnificently muscled , it was not his fault, never his fault, it was the fault of that worthless woman, the woman who had carried his seed, if it was his seed, the woman who carried his other three sons, and never brought them alive into this world …

The ostrich sees danger, and buries his head in the sand. The son sees danger and learns to run. The wife sees danger and  learns to suffer, to be beaten, to be abused, to be the victim because yes, she is filled with guilt, and how could it be otherwise, when the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak, so weak that it cannot give birth and eventually takes to the black holes of victimization, of alcoholism, and eventually of oblivion.

And the son learned to hide, to make himself invisible, never to be there, never to accept responsibility, never to sit at the desk when the buck was about to stop anywhere nearby, never to be blamed … never to turn down the solace to be found in the darkest depths of those same bottles that finally destroyed the woman he loved, who was also his mother.

Instructor’s Comments:

Rewrite.
Next time, show don’t tell.
Minimally acceptable.

D

 

 

 

Siege Perilous

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Siege Perilous

           My second name begins with G … G for Galahad.

         Siege Perilous: the chair calls me, sings out my name, craves my body warmth and blood. I move towards it, hear it groan to me in greeting. I feel it sink beneath my weight, feel its heat and comfort, sense the heart-sound of its old, carved, polished wood. My father sat here before me and his father before him, and his father … and so on down the ringing halls of time.

           Siege Perilous welcomes me as it welcomed them. It cherishes me, nourishes my flesh and blood, my sense of belonging within a great chain of being whose links vanish backwards into forgotten, far-off mists. The chair understands that we are weaklings. It accepts us are we are, strengthening our strong points, filling in for our gaffes, gifting us with the ability that allows us to see ourselves as we truly are, willing spirits in an all too flimsy flesh. Impervious its wood to words or tears, it strips away our masks, dismantles our disguises, meets our inner being face to face, seat of wisdom carved from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

           The chair rarely rejects us, though sometimes it senses the rot within and moves us on. More often than not, it brings light to our darkness, pierces our clouds of unknowing with its beam of sunshine, illuminates our darkest nights. It cares for us, wraps us in the warm wings of its radiance, carries us onward when we are alone, shapes our own heart-wood with its hand-carved arms that cling and clutch and cleanse of impurities. Blood warms its veins, the blood of the generations that have climbed here as children, sat on the elders’ laps, listened to their tales, then shared their inheritance, before sitting here themselves.

           A sense of entitlement wraps its veil around Siege Perilous and the Forgotten Table. It shuts out doubt and fear. We feel its power transmitted through us, fear, fire, foes all defeated. Power: the power of good to defeat evil, of truth to conquer lies, of my people to survive. They may seem to be crushed, and yet they will rise; defeated, they will overcome; victorious, they will be magnanimous in their victory.

           King Arthur: the Once and Future King … King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table … Siege Perilous … the Vacant Chair … the Holy Grail … Excalibur: the Sword in the Stone … Arthur himself … Galahad, Geraint, Percival, Gawain, Lancelot … all equal … all pure, honest, innocent, celibate … Camelot …

Merlin the Magician and Wondrous Wizard, conjurer of truth and falsehoods … the historian-poet adjusts his rose-tinted spectacles, smiles, clacks the false white teeth that spin-doctored so much verbal magic, so many mystical myths, fabulous fables, phenomenal falsehoods … and started, pen on paper, to create yet again another set of nonsensical, downright gut-jarring lies.

SNAFU 2

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SNAFU 2

            I drive to the hospital through falling snow. No wheel-chair parking when I get there. Damn. Not a walking-stick person hobbling towards a car in a wheel-chair space and nobody sitting in a car, exercising the engine, reverse lights glowing. That means  a normal parking spot. Unless I drive round again and take a second look. I do just that. SFA. Nothing doing. The usual SNAFU.

            I drive to the normal person’s lot, stop at the gate, lower the window, stick my arm out, but I can’t reach the button that will give me a ticket and raise the barrier. Behind me, the impatient parkers are a nose away from my rear bumper. Nothing doing. Arms too short. I open the door. Seat belt holds me back. Someone toots. I undo the seat belt. Lean out. Push button. Take ticket. Ticket falls onto ground. The gate opens. I get out of car. Slip on ice. Fall to knees. Cling on to car door with one hand. Grab for ticket with other. More people toot. I give them a one finger salute. Fall back into car. Finally drive through gate.

“Round and round and round I goes.
Where will I park? No one knows.”

            Vast car park. Not a parking spot in sight. On the third circuit, someone un-parks right in front of me. I drive straight in to the vacated spot. Too fast. Car skids on ice. Oh no! Close, but no contact. Thank God. I’ve now got a spot about 100 metres from the hospital entrance. 100 metres. I used to run that distance in 10.07 seconds. With snow underfoot, even with my stick, I’ll be lucky to walk it in under five minutes. Drat. I am already late for my appointment.

            I hobble to the foot of the steps and arrive there just as two large women, faces covered and dressed in voluminous head to foot robes start to walk down. They are arm in arm and enormous. One has a hand on the right-hand rail, the other a hand on the left. Together they take up the whole stairway. I wait for them to descend the twelve steps. They start to descend, then stop three steps from the bottom and engage in animated conversation. “He also serves who only stands and waits.” And waits. And waits. When they finish talking, they descend the final steps and the one on the right swings her arm and shoulder, nearly knocking me down. I lurch forward, grab the hand-rail to save myself from falling, and move slowly upwards. I hold the rail in my left hand, my stick in my right, and climb one step at a time, always the right leg first. Heart thumps in chest. Arteries surge. My head pounds. 12-11-10 … 3-2-1 …zero. I am at the top. I’ve made it.

            I start to cross the road. Half-ton hell bent to park in now vacant wheel-chair spot nearly runs me over. I recoil. Start to fall. Get a grip with my stick. Lurch a little. And salute the driver. He doesn’t even turn his head. Bastard. Balance regained, I get to the hospital door. Young boy holds it open for me. “Thank you,” I say. “You’re welcome, grandpa,” he smiles. I hobble down the hall. Punch a simpler machine to get my number. Wayne Gretzky. Number 99. My luck has changed. The board shows #98. I am next.

            Humorless, the lady who calls my number. Bad-tempered. Cold her little cabin. “Hello, bonjour,” she says and I reply in French. Grim glance. Speaks to me in English. Goes through the gears. “Have you fasted?” “No.” “Why not?” “They didn’t tell me to.” It’s here on the computer,” she stabs the screen with an angry digit. “It wasn’t on my piece of paper.” She checks the paper, sniffs, and tut-tuts. “You should have fasted.” My middle finger itches. “Can you pee in a bottle?” “I can try.” “Try hard.” “Wouldn’t it be better if I tried soft?” I get vicious, filthy look. “None of that or I’ll call the supervisor.” I read out loud the notice on her desk: Do not place samples on counter. “What do you think I am?” I ask. “A travelling salesman?” “Eh? What’s that?” “Nothing,” I mutter. She rumbles round, produces the usual plastic bottle and a see-through bag. “We need a sample. You know how to take a urine test?” “Of course I do, I studied all last night, didn’t I?” She grunts. I grunt back. I pick up my papers and my little gifts. And off I go to perform pee-pee.

            The stalls are empty. I walk right into one. Hang stick on door. Free hands. Open bottle. Strain. Nothing. Man comes in whistling and washes hands. Running water. Miraculous. Pee-pee flows. Bottle overflows and I soak hands and fly. Shit. Well at least I don’t have to perform that trick. Yet. No plastic potty and accouterments this time round. I grab stick. Move to the washbasin. Wash hands. Go to door. Press the automatic door button. The door doesn’t open. I pull again, harder. Nothing. I hang my stick and my bottle on the automatic door button and pull the door with both hands …

“Doors marked ‘Pull’ reduce the speed,
of those who ‘Push’ before they read.”

            The man on the other side of the door stops pulling and pushes hard, very hard, just as I pull, hard, very hard. Door flies open. I topple over backwards, hit my head on the floor, and see multiple stars. I have just enough time to wish I’d brought my plastic potty before my world turns smelly, then black.

On The Outside Looking In

 

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Billy was walking home on his own. As usual. The church party was awful. As usual. Lots of trumped up noise and artificial gaiety.

The priest had made the boys sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. Then he put a bar of chocolate in the middle of the circle. He walked around the group and whispered the name of an animal secretly, he loved secrets, to each one.  Then he explained the game to them.

“I cannot remember what animal name I bequeathed to each boy,” he said, staring at them, his eyes golden, like a fierce eagle’s, beneath bushy black eye-brows. “I will say the name of an animal until one of you, whoever it happens to be, hears his own secret animal name. When you hear that secret name, you must grab the chocolate bar before anyone else can get it. Understood?”

The boys all nodded and the mums and dads who had brought them to the party smiled in anticipation.

“Are you ready?” He watched the boys as they nodded and shouted “Alligator!”

Nobody moved.

“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.

“Tiger!” A sigh from the boys, some of whom were already licking their lips.

“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. I didn’t give the name lion to anyone.”

“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.

“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”

“Yes father …”

“Monkey!” All the boys moved as one. Some crawled, some dived, some leaped to their feet and ran. A surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long awaited fights ensued.

All the boys moved, except one. Billy just sat there.

“I said ‘Monkey’, Billy,” the priest frowned at the boy.

Billy nodded.

“When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”

Billy nodded again.

“Go now and have some fun. Join in the game.”

Billy shook his head.

“Why not, Billy?”

“It’s a stupid game. I won’t play it. I want to go home.” Billy stood up and walked out of the church. He turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at him while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.

As Billy walked, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets. Billy turned up the collar of his coat and, bowing his head, stuffed his hands into his pockets. He turned the corner onto the last street before his own and stopped.

A house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. He drew closer, pressed his nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, Billy’s heart warmed up. Then he thought of his own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. A snowflake settled on Billy’s heart and refused to melt.

When he got home, the house stood cold and empty. His parents were at work and the fire had gone out. Nothing was ready for Christmas. Billy sat at the table, took out his colouring book and began to draw the cartoon you see at the top of this page.

When his mother came home, he showed her his drawing.

“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.

“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”

Billy’s mother stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside in the snow,  peering in through the window.

 

 

 

Happy Hours

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As the inscription on the old Roman sundial announced: Horas non numero nisi serenas / I count only the happy hours. And, of course, the sundial is right. When the skies are cloudy and the rain and snow are falling, the sundial sleeps and refrains from marking the passage of time. But when the sun prances brightly through those heavenly meadows and casts shadows across the numbers on the clock, then the sundial counts the hours, precisely because they are happy.

I try to do the same. I try to avoid the shadows that are cast across our planet and I try not to count them. Alas, like the grains of sand on the beach and the countless stars in the sky, they are innumerable, though the latter are being named, numbered, and counted, much to their chagrin.  Who wants to be called Welsh by foreigners, with all the negative connotations they associate with the epithet, when our real name is Cymraeg? And no, we don’t live in Wales, we live in Cymru, or better still, in Canada when we (e)migrate. Canada: I wonder what the real name is for this huge and wonderful land? And what about the local indigenous peoples? I can accept that they are First Nations. No problem. But who are our hosts and neighbors when they call themselves Wolastoqiyik (or Maliseet) and we call them Aboriginals (or worse)?

What’s in a name? North, South, East, West … simple, eh? How about Upstream, Downstream, Away from the River, Towards the river? Think names of the months, names of the days of the week. Now think guidance, think signposts, think culture, think separate cultures, think different ways of living, think different ways of life. Think possessive pronouns: my book, my house, my cat, my dog, my son, my daughter, my Wifi, my wife.  Or as le grand Charles de Gaulle expressed it, in Le Canard enchaîné: “Ma France, mon coup de frappe, mon Europe … mon Dieu.” Maybe we would be better off without possessive adjectives. But then …

“Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to our house
and stole a leg of beef.”

Taffy: a generic name for the Welsh. Any male person from Wales is automatically a Taffy from the moment he opens his mouth and speaks with anything like a Welsh accent. Taffy, from the River Taff that flows through Cardiff,  aka Caer Dydd, the fort on the Dydd. There are many rivers in Wales, many regions. Men from the Isle of Mona, Llanberis, Caernarfon, Brecon, Abertawe, Aberavon, Castell Nedd, Caerfryddin, Pen-y-pont, Caer Isca, Usk, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-Bryn, Sgetti, Uplands, Trebanog, Llanelli, Llanfairpwllgwyngilldrawbwllchllantiisilioggogogoch, Cwm Parc, Trebanoc Cwmbwrla, Cwmrhyddiceirw  … Taffies one and all, even if they were born miles away from the River Taff and rarely visited Cardiff, the very name of the river and the city anathema to them.

I once had a friend, a very good friend, or so I thought, educated in Harrow, Oxford, secret member of the ultra-secretive, fabulously expensive, well-endowed and super-privileged, ultra-elite Bullingdon Club. He had a triple barreled name of course: Somerset-Trilby-Frisbee or something like that, I forget now. Whenever I arrived at a reunion or a meeting, he would greet me with a bullhorn, bullfrog chorus that reached into the far corners of the room: “Lock up the silver spoons, the Welsh have arrived.”

Humor? His laughter would rock the rafters and shake the room once more. Racism? What racism is there in mocking the Welsh when you are English? Bigotry? No man with a three part surname, an English public school background, and a list of ancestors longer than your arm could possible be a bigot.  Idiot? He was very intelligent, slightly unbalanced, and totally oblivious to any social norm or indignity, unless he was the threatened person, and watch out for vicious mousetraps if you made him the butt of your own humor and he took umbrage at the slight. Criminal? No way: the Welsh were always the criminals, for back in the legendary mists of time they had stolen a leg of beef and now they were here to steal the precious plastic spoons and knives and forks that masqueraded as silver …

… what’s really in a name? What’s in a grey day or a blue day? What’s in a cloudy day or a sunny day? What’s in our hearts when we denigrate our friends and doubly degrade our enemies and those we declare to be our enemies, sometimes on a gut feeling or a whim? Horas non numero nisi serenas … Time to look on the bright side, to walk on the sunny side of the street, to reject the shadow and live in the sunshine. Time, in fact, to turn the whole day into a succession of Happy Hours. Study the cartoon above. Now that is a portrait of someone who really enjoys a Happy Hour. And not a glass or a bottle in sight.