Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Five Lambs: An Essay on the Stages of Sacrifice in Adulthood

Rain. The day of the Regina Cathedral Arts Festival seemed not meant to be clement. On this particular wet day the foot traffic at the festival was a colubrine of umbrellas winding among the myriad of merchants huddled in their booths, selling photos, fedora hats, leather belts, loaves of bread, delicious poutine, and giant cookies. Practically anything could be purchased along this midway of consumer opportunity.

My son, Baron, and I were there to perform, he with his cajon and I, with my banjitar. It was amidst this ruck of pedestrians that we hoped to somehow stand out, make an impression so to speak. While packing our standard of unusual instruments, the cajon and banjitar, we had originally planned to be attired in crisp and white long-sleeved shirts, wearing Sinatra and Martin type derby hats. However, the rain and the lower temperatures reduced our costumes to plain but comfortable rain gear and toques. Not surprisingly so, all the predictable passers by were cordial, some commenting on our instruments, some taking snapshots, and lots tossing coins into our busk pot. (Reflecting on this, I am thinking most of those participating in that festive parade were prone to take pity on the wet and chilled buskers -- tossing alms to those so disparate.)

The very first person to greet us on the street that day was our kappellmeister, Jaime, who dressed the part in her punk-haired do, sixties dress, and yum yum yellow cowboy boots.
I bought them in Toronto, she answered when I asked.
And this uber-congenial busking coordinator offered us the most welcome of greetings:
You guys okay? Can I get you anything? You guys look great! We are so glad you came!

Plodding our way through the thickening crowd on the way to our assigned station we passed other buskers, all of whom took the time to address us. (In Buskerland it is an unwritten rule of pseudo-professional etiquette to give gesture to one another.)

One of these buskers was the Dylanesque, Ben.
Would you please jam with me, he asked.
And could you stay in the minor chords, he added.
We obliged him for few tunes until Ben decided that my banjitar was overpowering his excellent pipes. Even so, Baron stayed with him for a couple more songs and then we moved on. Next we passed by two teenage girls on saxophones, both of them giving us a wave while they played. And we passed several seasoned looking buskers who just nodded as they kept strumming their guitars.

Arriving at our prescribed spot, marked by a painted green circle, we discovered we'd be sharing the intersection with an eight year old drummer who proved to be a very noisy neighbor. He rat-a-tat-tatted and boom-ba-boom-boomed us for the entire scheduled hour, innocently waving and smiling at us the whole time.

At the top of the next hour we were replaced by a very little girl, five years old perhaps, arriving with her violin and her mother. Clearly, she was experiencing the baptism-of-fire, sobbing in the drizzle, her hair stringy and wet from the rain, her chin to her chest in a pout, and her violin and bow dangling like a mistreated rag doll, clutched in one hand at her side, the other hand hanging over her eyes.

She thought this was going to be fun. She said she was going to have fun. This was until we got here. I'll be glad when this stage is over! stated her mother.

The sacrifices we make for our kids, I thought to myself.

Over the course of our lives there are masses of sacrifices to be made, and for that mother to be standing in the rain in support of her sobbing child was just one example of the many yet to come for her. This mother happened to mention this particular instance as being a stage, and in this regard she is not alone. Erik Erikson, Mike Steinhauer, and Lawrence Kohlberg are among a hundred practicing professionals who have expounded their theories on the stages in our lives.

Erikson proposed there were eight stages in our psychosocial development: Hope, Will, Purpose, Competence, Fidelity, Love, Care, and Wisdom. Steinhauer presented that there were seven, as expressed in the Cree tradition: Happy Times, Confusion, Searching Truth, Decisions, Planting Time, and Teaching. And Kohlberg suggested we develop morally in six stages: Reward and Punishment, Exchange, Good Boy/Good Girl, Law and Order, Social Contract, and Universal Principles.

It is high time that I explicate my own theory of stages in our lives, though it will be very much restricted by the confines of my very Western and middle-class culture of conventions. I advance that in our adult lives we pass through the five stages of sacrificial development: Luxury, Revenue, Conviviality, Freedom, and Diversion.


Our first sacrifice as an adult is that of luxury. We forego luxury in return for excitement and independence and venture. We leave the creature comforts of home and mommy and daddy and seek adventure, sharing space and rent for some cheap apartment away from the house from which we were brought up. Though we attempt to create a new physical space between ourselves and our parents, we consciously keep our support space within reaching distance. You know, party party party in young adult squalor until roast beef dinner at home with the rents on Sunday.


As young adults we have jobs. Good jobs. But we are not making near enough dollars to buy stuff such as a new car, a new sound system, new furnishings, or new anything. Common sense prevails and we decide we would rather be broke and studying than be broke and working. Sacrificing revenue for research, according to even the most stringent of economists, is the only way to go. There comes a time when we strive to get from benighted to pundit, abandoning our steady source of income from our service industry job, to study at some post-secondary institute, or take on an apprenticeship situation. With a little parent support and part-time employment in the academic off season, combined with the available student loans programs, we take the plunge into enlightenment.


No more wasted weekends (pun intended). No more one night stands. No more social butter/bar fly silliness. It is time to seek a real mate. It is time to devote one's life to someone other than thyself. It is time to procreate and continue the species. It is time to enter cohabitation with someone who shares our interests, values, aspirations, and most importantly, bring home to mother.


During this sacrificial stage there is no more foppery. No more individual liberties. It is time to sacrifice our freedom for our offspring. Once the children have arrived we spend our time fretting over whether or not to send them to daycare, and then whether to put them into French Immersion or not in public or private school. Instead of playing our sport, we now coach their sports. We squander our hard earned cash to keep our social savvy kids in the latest fashions. We taxi our children to all of their formal and informal events. And then when sweet sixteen finally arrives, we strain the family budget to buy that third vehicle so our teenager looks good even on the road.


And when we are weary from all these previous sacrifices, it is time, alas to make our retirement plans! To reside in a Rocky Mountain resort and be one of those ski bum ambassadors who welcome the newcomers to the hill, or to be forever swinging in the heavens of the back nine, under the desert warmth of an Arizona sun. Surely all of this recreational activity shall keep our aged minds off our inevitable closer-to-the-end-of-the-dock demise. Not so. We shall relinquish our last dreams, these imaginary diversions for the continued accommodation of our children. We will move to the same locale of our kids, so we can babysit our grandkids, and help out in any other regard so requested by our ever needy children.

Our lives and our fantasies ought to be enjoyed, though in all of our lives we shall have moments of downpour, those periodic douses of rain. Sometimes throughout our existence we must sacrifice comfort for cold and dryness for damp; and oftentimes we will even manage to sacrifice happiness for misery.
It is nearing the end of our lives, the time when all of our lambs have been sacrificed, measuring our journey in the traditional linear fashion, that we will likely have moved ourselves from being selfish to being selfless, at least in a loving and general regard. Having our final years being filled with as much fun as possible ought to be recognized as a well earned entitlement.

Baron and I ended our day at the street festival with over forty dollars in our busk pot, despite having to dodge out of the rain several times to keep our instruments dry. As for our busking being a purely mercenary and selfish adventure, I'd say that on that day we most certainly sacrificed ourselves for the common good, the entertainment of others.

I have but a few lambs left for sacrifice in my life and my son still has many. In the meantime, until those beasts are slaughtered at the altar, I can state unequivocally that, as for me and my son, we shall serve ourselves; and as for busking, we do it for the love (of money).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I Knew It: An Essay on Predictability

I was playing some new tunes on my banjitar on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Rose Street, within listening distance of four outdoor patios: the upscale Atlantis Coffee, the picturesque Crave Kitchen & Wine Bar, the ever busy Ramada, and the newly renovated Rooftop Bar & Grill. It was a perfect evening for busking. The sky was big and still a bright blue, and the pedestrians were plentiful and all decked out in their going-for-coffee fashions. Some smiled and nodded as they strolled past, and a few even stopped to listen, one of them being a thirtyish clean cut male wearing a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey.

Go Habs! I said to him just as I intentionally finished my instrumental to acknowledge him.

He replied while giving me the thumbs up.

This particular busking moment was taking place during the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Habs (the English nickname for the Montreal Canadiens hockey club) were among the last four remaining teams. The Habs had eliminated the Washington Capitals in the first round, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second, and they had just finally won a game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round.

This conversation must be put into perspective. In the United States of America hockey is regarded as entertainment; here in Canada hockey is a religion.

This particular fan was ecstatic, and rightly so. No one in the world of sports had predicted that the Canadiens would get to the third round, except of course for their most loyal fans. As in any sport, no one knows for sure the eventual outcome of any particular game.

It is this element of surprise that is one of the riches of sport.
And it could be this same element, surprise, is one of the topmost elements in life.

Speaking in a general way, there are certain outcomes both in sport and in life that are quite predictable. Take the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for example. Everyone kind of knew that both these teams would make the Stanley Cup playoffs, for both had respectable finishes in their regular season play. In fact, the Washington Capitals came in first overall! It is their unimagined ouster in the first and second rounds that is the surprise.

Usually, day-to-day life routines do not provide many surprises. If they did, the very notion of surprise would simply not exist. Saying this, without surprise and with some familiarity, we can predict with competence some rather ordinary human behaviors.

For example, after I've taught just one or two lessons in my Psychology class, I can predict where most of the students are going to sit from then on. Students coming into class tend to retreat to the same seat day after day until the semester has ended.

And my colleagues and I similar in this respect. We tend to sit in the same seats at coffee time each day. Catherine always seats to my left, Judy right across from me, Jimmy D to my right, and Marcel at the other end of the table. This particular seating ritual has gone on for years.
I can predict that the next time we have coffee together we'll be seated in the same arrangement.

I know a fellow who keeps moving from apartment to apartment because of his noisy neighbors. He insists he cannot sleep at night because of their noise. In the last four years he's moved four times. I can predict with ease that he'll be moving again before the end of this year.

I have a friend who loves Europe so much that he's been on vacation there over thirty times. I can certainly predict that he is currently making arrangements to return to Europe at his earliest opportunity.

Once we are aware of people's past behaviors their future behaviors are easy to predict. For instance, I have a friend who has been wearing the same half dozen outfits for the last couple decades. He once bragged to a group of us that he absolutely refused to spend more that twenty dollars on a new shirt. I can predict that he'll never squander his money on his wardrobe, and that he'll continue to be a walking and talking anachronism for the rest of his days.

I know people that are continually late. Whenever I've made plans to meet them somewhere at such and such a time, these people always manage to be late and with plausible excuses.

I can predict that people who are noticeably thrifty during their working lives are going to continue to be noticeably thrifty in their retirement years.

I can predict that people who do not travel in their working lives are going to stay close to home in their retirement years.

Without diversification, people with an adhesion to certain behaviors will always find themselves in the same situations throughout their existence. Doing the same 'ol same 'ol will always produce the same 'ol same 'ol results.

People who are content to be copacetic are simply living in a bastion of comfort controls, attempting to maintain a rather conservative and anxious free lifestyle. As boring as this presents, ironically, a life as this can be ever stressful.

A sustained shift in one's status quo lifestyle is very necessary for people hoping to effect meaningful changes in their life. Only by doing things differently will flavors be added to their existence. This could mean visiting new places, meeting new people, acquiring new hobbies. This is especially true for those who believe that our entire existence is but transitory and therefore all that we do then, too, is transitory.

Just as our daily associations are predictable, so are some of our personal circumstances. Once each semester in my Psychology class I present my Crystal Ball Fortune Telling Lesson. To the class members I state with authority that I know specific things about some of them, and I provide these samples aloud:
One of you slammed the door when you left your home this morning.
One of you has just broken up with your boyfriend.
One of you cheated on your girlfriend last weekend.
One of you is seriously considering your relationship right now as I speak.
One of you is extremely worried about a loved one.
And one of you has a close relative that is deathly ill.

How did you know? Some have asked after class.
How could I not know, especially when there are approximately sixty Psychology students in my class! What are the odds.

Every time I set up for busking the outcomes are predictable. I'll always set up where I have the potential to see lots of people, or more importantly, where they can see me. Once I am playing my banjitar or guitar most people will smile and simply walk on by. Some will toss coins into my case; some will stop and chat; some will ignore me; some will scowl at me.

Sports flash:

The Philadelphia Flyers have just flogged the Montreal Canadiens in game four of their series.

By simply recognizing the permutations and combinations of the three previous encounters, anyone with a brain could have easily calculated the outcome of this particular game. The final score was 3 to 0 and ...

I knew it (would/could be so)!

Go Habs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tell Me A Story: An Essay on the Stories We Tell

At the top of Bastian Square is a green Irish pub featuring the Beatles tribute band, the Sutcliffs. Both the vehicular and pedestrian traffic in this area is bumper to bumper noisy and the early Beatles Ya Ya Ya's are perfectly consonant to the setting. At the bottom of the Square, right next to the harbor, one catches the cooking scents of the fancy cafes, and the cacophony of seagulls dipping and diving overhead awaiting the food crumbs being tossed from the patrons seated in the outdoor cafe patios. On the demarcation between the top and bottom of Bastian Square there are merchants and their kiosks of oil and watercolor paintings, knitted scarves, and carved jewelry. There is also an organic food market. And because of the generosity of the clerks at that food market, a disproportionate number of reprobates and panhandlers linger there. It was from this rabble that a jocund cadge with a castaway beard approached me with his story:

I used to play in a band you know. We played lots of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love J.C. Do you know any CCR? (I had just finished Have You Ever Seen The Rain which probably prompted his CCR chat.)

Yes I know some CCR. How about Bad Moon Rising? I replied.

Bring it on! He yelled emphatically as he jumped up and down, clicking his heels in Mr. Bojangles fashion. I did play Bad Moon Rising and he sang right along, word for word, dancing through the whole song. He and I ended our CCR set with Hello Mary Lou.

Yah, we used to play everywhere, he stated as he continued his story. Our agent had us do the Interior; then we went to northern Alberta, Grand Prairie, finished that tour playing in a few bars in Calgary. It was great. But it ended there. My brother quit the band. His girlfriend had a kid and so he went back to drywalling. Me, I came back to Victoria and worked for a landscape company. This was in the 80's and I've been here ever since.

Still working landscape? I asked.

Naah. That lasted only a couple seasons then I hurt my back. Haven't done much since. My name's Bob, by the way.

Bob seemed so genuine when telling me this story. While busking I've heard lots of stories from lots of people, and for the most part, the person telling the story also happens to be the hero of the story. What compels people to come up to a singing stranger and tell their stories I am thinking is akin to busking, since both have to be among our earliest forms of community entertainment. We are all brothers and sisters under the storytelling sun; we have different faces and different names, but we have the same stories.

Many people have approached me over the years to tell me that they were used-to-be musicians. They tell me about their bands, their music, the fun times they had. Music is the main theme, but not the only theme. Tourists toss me coins as they talk about their holidays, where they've just been and where next they're going. These are the second most themes.

And in my other life I know lots of people with story themes. When I was a young man I worked with Wilhelm, a guy who was a member of the Hitler Youth Program during the Second World War. Wilhelm had the Desert Fox, Rommel, as his commander. Every day working with Wilhelm there was a story of war, and I especially remember the one where he and his fellow soldiers had to shoot and eat storks to survive. Wilhelm very much reminded me of my father's war buddy who fought in Normandy. Everyone in our town had heard his twenty year horrific dissertation of that battle on the beach.

I used to coffee a couple times a week with colleague, and all he ever wanted to talk about was work. He was the hero of his classroom. He had the students do this, then do that, then this happened, then that happened, and his philosophic spin on teaching was always his essential close. To keep my recreation time fun, I quit going for coffee with him.

One of my present colleagues loves to cook. No matter what topic in which we engage, it will always include a Last night I marinated this, or I added such-and-such a spice to that, or I sprinkled whatever with whatever and let it simmer for whatever time. He either fancies himself as a cooking connoisseur in his evening hours or more likely, he just cannot escape his passion.

Another acquaintance of mine played in the Western Hockey League. Most of his conversations somehow include I remember when I was playing with the Bruins and there was this ...

A significant number of us have friends who love to brag about their children. A guy I like a lot has a son who has just recently been elected as an MLA. Since the election my friend continuously talks politics, literally.

And most of us know people who continually tell stories that are lies; and over time most of us try to distance ourselves from such gratuitous conversations.

According to philosopher Sam Keen we are but featherless gregarious storytelling creatures, and projective psychologists insist we identify ourselves by the stories we tell. Storytelling is our philosophy, sociology, and psychology. The need to tell stories is essential to our species. In fact, there seems to be an efficacious need for people to disclose their life snap shots even to strangers. We are all familiar with the sitting-next-to-someone-syndrome, where on a bus, or train, or plane some of us are more than willing to exchange even our intimate life stories in order to galvanize with complete strangers who just happen to be near.

We are Tony; we are groundlings. We are liars; we are soothsayers. We are braggarts; we embigger. We are modest; we minimize. Some of us have plot lines that are incoherent; some of us perspicuous. We are all this and more, and the sounds of silence are not at all akin to our noisy noetic natures.

I know that I am a featherless gregarious storytelling creature. My blog is proof of this. And being the hero of my stories is must. My narratives are proof of this!

Historically, my stories have not always been about busking. When I was a barfly I told party stories. When my children were little I told bedtime stories. When I was a swimming instructor I told pool stories (and I've lots of those!). Now that I busk, I tell travel stories.

Perhaps we tell stories to escape our dossier of everyday doldrums. Perhaps we hyperbolize to keep ourselves socially hale. Or perhaps our chatter to others is just selfish artifice, a way for us to stay connected in our social world.

I believe the stories we tell and the characters we re-create are the action heroes we imagine ourselves to be, and as my final furtherance I'd like to combine my notion of projective psychology with that of Popey the Sailor:

I yam what I yam by the stories I tells.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

That's What Friends Are For: An Essay on Friendship

Medicine Hat was my last stop en route home from a summer of busking in the West. I decided that a sward beside a mall on the east side of the city was the perfect place to break, have a bite, and make a phone call. Sitting on a curb and sipping a vanilla shake I left my friend, Brent a message:
Hey Brent, this is Neil. I'm just passing through town. Give me a call at your convenience, okay.

Waiting for his call I reminisced. Brent and I had been sidekicks seemingly forever in our adolescence. We were the Stand By Me buddies who walked many a train track together, and when old enough, we drove to dances and flirted with the girls in the neighbouring towns. Brent and I had shared many exciting and arousal developmental moments, and to this day whenever I think of Brent I chuckle to myself.

Friendships asunder, since my youth many people have enhanced my sturm und drang existence.

There was Jennifer, the archetype of friendship. We taught together in the same high school that had an eighty minute lunch break, and rather than eat, we ran. Jennifer was the ideal running mate. She was gorgeous, bright, generous, thoughtful, and a treat to be near. She would even bake cakes on my birthday! When Jennifer is not travelling the world she is residing in Vancouver.

There was Jim. He and I were work-out buddies. Three or four times a week for twenty years we headed for the university weight room. Jim was a technical virtuoso on Olympic equipment, a perfectionist when it came to form. Following each lifting session we'd head over to the Stones Throw for a decaf and chat. Man, do I miss that. Jim is a ski fanatic and spends his days at Silver Star.

My friend, Burt was a marathon runner. He had completed the Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Honolulu marathons on more than a few occasions. For over a quarter of a century Burt and I pounded a variety of running paths, along with the politics of municipal, provincial, federal, and foreign governments. Now Burt is recuperating with his new titanium hip, and our chats are taking place at Tims rather than on the trails.

For years my friend, Gary, and I would meet each week to discuss the technical and tactical strategies for winning at soccer. We still palaver on everything under the sun -- except soccer.

My friend, Eric, still shows me how to party; my friend, Mike, models an extraordinary work ethic; my friend, Ken, keeps me academically inclined.

Of course I could mention lots of other friends from my chronicled parade of personal and professional assemblages: cohorts from my university daze, crew mates from my pipeline years, fellow band members of the Grand Trunk Troubadours.

Reflecting on these people causes me to become a bit chopfallen, especially when there are so many to whom I could give tribute. All of us, during our everyday pedestrian lives meet a legion of characters, most of whom certainly worthy of our friendship. Should ever we be soliciting for social associates, there is an expansive opportunity to corral a multitudinous number of eclectic acquaintances (though in a pragmatic way, any attempt to do so would severely complify our lives, due to the already designated time constraints of our individual schedules).

During this discourse I have unwittingly bracketed my friendships according to my selfish amusements, each one being congruent to a particular enterprise. Perhaps this is happenchance, perhaps not. These mentioned friends have certainly been necessary adhesives to suit my recreational well being. It is quite probable then that I, too, have been merely serving as a pastime attachment for others.

If, in fact, this is the case, so what -- that's what friends are for (I guess).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's Just a Masquerade: An Essay on the False Self

I remember it being mid afternoon on Government Street and the busking business was not brisk. A couple of hours playing and I had pocketed just under three dollars. Calling it a day, I rolled up my mat and walked up the block to chat with Christian, a fellow busker who played the sitar. Originally from Quebec, Christian was now just another summer busker in Victoria, British Columbia. I asked him how he was doing (a social no-no in the busking community, but we were close enough to engage in the delicate conversation of coin). He and I had been busking on the same block often enough to become familiar strangers, so to speak. On that particular afternoon, Christian had fared less than I.

I should have worn a mask, he stated dryly, and not even played. I would've made just as much.

Christian's mask reference was directed to Darth Fiddler, one of many other buskers situated a few blocks up toward the inner harbour. Darth Fiddler was famous. People came from far away to have their photos taken alongside this Darth Vader look-alike, this daily fixture playing his fiddle atop the Victoria Inner Harbour. (Google him -- he's awesome!)

A mask, suggested Christian! Just put on a mask and join the fictional forces of Darth Vader, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Batman! And life would go on just as well.

Here is the question:
Who is it that is not wearing a mask?

And here is the answer:
All of us are wearing masks in most vis-a-vis situations. In fact, masks are mandatory for societal survival.

Example: Masks are a must when purchasing big ticket items such as a car or house. Not strangely, spending big dollars demands an authoritative posture; and to respond in kind to such spending is the least a vendor can do to humour and honour a potential customer.

Another example: Who wants to listen and laugh with the real you, especially early in a romantic or other purpose relationship? Who are you really when you revert to your creature comforts? Or better yet, how do you really behave when you think/know that no one is watching you?
(Being ever ready and on guard and wearing a mask is the way to go when attempting to establish/solidify any interpersonal relationship.

Once upon a time in a place far away I wore a crisp white cowboy hat, a pleated and fringed shirt, a red neckerchief, boot cut blue jeans, and Rockytop green leather cowboy boots. During that time I sang mostly cowboy songs, Git Along Little Dogie, Don't Fence Me In, Happy Trails to You. In those busking moments I had absolutely transmogrified into a singing cowboy, and presenting that Old West front kept me in yodel da dee lunch money.

Nowadays on the busk, I tend to dress down: t-shirt, hiking shorts with lots of pockets, hiking boots. Rarely do I wear a hat, though most buskers insist there is more money to be made when donning any type of chapeau.

While busking I've met many people for whom despair and ennui have long since punched out any enthusiasm for even the most weak attempt at a pretentious appearance. Call them what you like: Dregs, beggars, bag ladies, druggies. They are down and out and have doffed their masks.

I knew a Sociology professor, Clem, who was famous for donning a mask on his first semester class appearances. Typically, on the first day of his first year Sociology course, forty or so of his students would flock into class -- and Professor Clem was always, by design, late. In the meantime, while the seated students waited for their professor, some looking at their watches, some sneaking looks at others, some snacking, some snoozing, some chatting, a maintenance man wearing the blue university union coveralls would arrive and empty the wastebasket and wipe off the chalkboard. While doing so, the maintenance man would make such comments as Professor Clem is late again, I see ... oh well, you likely don't care much and besides, I could probably be teaching you a thing or two until he gets here.

Some of the students were polite, some were not, and the maintenance man would exit shortly after all the comments were heard. Within moments, Professor Clem would arrive without the coveralls -- no longer glozing as the maintenance man. At that precise moment, all those students in the class would have unwittingly doffed their masks!

We are whom we present. We are but a macedoine life cut of emotions and issues and circumstance. Most of us are able to wear a mask and can, therefore, present a false self momentarily. Donning the occasional mask makes us more respectful of ourselves and of others.

So when you're feeling frowzy -- don a mask!