Monday, June 18, 2012

To the Lighthouse

My dad was everything a girl could ever hope for: tall, dark, handsome and crazy about my sister and I. And he possessed a winning attribute on his dad scorecard: he mostly left us to our own devices which is pretty much what every kid wants, regardless of age. He was also well-read, a terrific golfer, said "musn't" instead of "must not", wore Clark desert boots regardless of the season and was, much to my surprise, a pretty good dancer. Never arrive early to a party or yawn audibly, he told us by way of advice. Never date a man you find boring or who can't make you laugh. Sandles are for beach-wear only.... and even then. Not bad for a guy didn't even start his parenting until well into his forties.

Though my sister and I have tried not to idolize him, it has proven very difficult. A task made more so by the fact that he left us so young, while we were in our twenties and still figuring out who we wanted to be. It's only now that I realize that my model for who to be was living in my house all along, sending me off to school each morning and handing me off my allowance on weekends. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

After my father left us, I found myself trolling the obituaries each morning before I started my day and discovered that I took great solace in reading about the lives of others. There is nothing more fortifying than basking in a life well lived. This spring, I read the obit of a gentleman in Nanaimo named Mike Matthews who seemed cut from the same cloth as my father. A "gentle man" who was also a gentleman, he died after a "brief confrontation" with cancer. It was clear from the beautiful tribute that was written about him that Mike left this life far before anyone would have wanted him to but who, nonetheless, lived and laughed a full life that inspired those who had the privilege of being around him. I loved the obit so much that I cut it out and pinned it to my wall in front of my computer and reached for it frequently throughout the season. I felt connected to this guy for some odd reason and when I was feeling low, it made me happy to know that someone like him had been around to make an impact on those around him.

I told his family as much in the Father's Day card that I sent them last Friday. Though, I may not have ever met Mike, I told them, his obit had made me happy every time I read it. As happy as I know he made them. I wanted them to know that on Father's Day. There are people like my dad and like Mike Matthew who are like lighthouses, big, stand-alone structures who spend all of their life shining their light and illuminating everything around them for miles. I feel happy to have stood in their glow, brief though it may have been.


Born in Aklavik June,1937, Mike Matthews died on February 25th, 2012 in Nanaimo, B.C. after a brief confrontation with cancer. His wife, daughter and beloved dog were at his side.

Mike was a vibrant and witty man, a larger-than-life presence, treasured by his friends and family for his irreverent exuberance. Growing up in Vancouver, he went to Magee High School, which he described as a peak period in his life. He celebrated his lengthy undergraduate career at UBC, where he hung out at the Players Club and the Ubyssey. In Montreal, he worked at the McGill Library, attended graduate studies at Sir George Williams University, and played baseball with the York Street Tigers where his nom-de-baseball was Magic Mitt. Back on the West Coast, he began his thirty-three year career teaching English at Malaspina College, now Vancouver Island University, and busied himself with theatrical activities, running (7 marathons), and writing book reviews and articles about food, wine.

Mike dearly loved his family, especially for his granddaughter Charlotte and his talented dog Victor. He took pleasure in chatting to checkout clerks, bank tellers, shopkeepers, colleagues, passengers on the Protection Island Ferry, and whomever else would respond to his skill-testing questions, word games, rants and puns, encounters which he believed brightened people's lives. The natural world delighted him, and he was a constant champion of the Protection Island Community Garden. He loved the music of Handel, Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson, and all the Protection Island musicians. An enthusiastic cook, his specialties were plantain frittatas and Saskatoon berry pies. He was keen on crossword puzzles, and his extensive collection of pens and reading glasses was renowned.

He detested cruelty to animals, orange safety vests, sentimentality, bragging, car alarms, plastic water bottles, and the use of the word "multiple" rather than "many", or any long word when a shorter one would do. 

Mike is survived by his wife Carol, daughter Alison (Alex Taylor), granddaughter Charlotte, brother Dick (Diane), in-laws Rod Dobell (Marnie), Ken Dobell (Pam), eleven beloved nieces and nephews, and sixteen great-nieces and great-nephews.

Those who share his passionate love of animals may wish to make a donation in his name to the SPCA. In recognition of his love of teaching, donations may be made to the Vancouver Island University Mike Matthews Scholarship Fund. In appreciation of the wonderful care he received in his last few weeks, donations could be made to the Palliative Care Unit at the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Embrace the Boredom

Summer is coming soon. I can feel it in the softening of the air but I can see it, too, in the state of my kid's backpacks -filthy!- and in their homework agendas, the binder plastic ripped and frayed at the edges. An old remembered glee rises up in me because I know what lays ahead. Open windows. Fresh stone fruit. Day trips to the beach. Boredom. Especially the boredom.

Summer is the season that was the making of me as a human being because it was when I was bored for the longest period of time. Boredom breeds downtime and downtime is when we most become ourselves: looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, taking bike rides to nowhere, sitting in the backyard staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I believe that you can't become who you want to be - writer, actor, neuroscientist - without plenty of nothing to do. Boredom is nothing more than the quiet moving of the wheels inside your head. In my world, this is the sound of progress.

Apparently, in the last twenty years or so, Canadian kids have lost about four hours of unstructured play time per week. Recesses are getting shorter so that kids can get home faster for structured after-school activities or jobs. How did this happen?

Adults did it.

There is a culture of adult mistrust that suggests that a bored child who is not attending science-enrichment programs or cooking classes is out boosting cars or knocking off liquor stores. This is utter nonsense. I'm not saying these classes aren't for the good. I'm simply suggesting that if kids aren't left alone every once in a while, when are they ever gonna contemplate whether Wolverine could kick Green Lantern's ass? And then draw a cartoon of that exact thing. In the sand, with a stick.

That type of summer doesn't have to be gone for good. I've got two kids: one spends a good portion of her early summer at summer camp in Algonquin park, her days filled with new activities and almost constant social interaction. She loves it and I wouldn't change that for her because it's where she lives. But, she has a brother who thinks that scenario is like being stuck in the seventh ring of Hell. He spends his summer days sleeping in, playing with his Lego and swimming in the lake. He lives for the summer because that's when he lolly-gags, as my father once called it, busy exploring the inside of his own head. It's a wonderful place to be.

This year when you're rooting through the backpacks on the last day of school and chucking out the snacks left to mold in baggies at bottom's end, can I make a suggestion? Take a respite from the clock and throw out the schedule, too. Drop the organized day for a week or two. Embrace the boredom. Get outside and don't come inside again unless it rains or I call you, my mother would yell at me every day of my childhood summer. I intend for this sentence define my kids' fate this summer. Their characters depend on it.