My Sisters Were Wizards

When I was a kid, my sisters were wizards.  They had magic words that could turn a pillow-high, cozy warm brass bed into the March family living room.  They had incantations that produced beautiful horses, stinking French sewers and one sad little dog named Greyfriars Bobby.  They could conjure people and places at will, and on one occasion, they harnessed the wind from a stay-home-from-school bitter Saskatchewan storm to propel our ships out of danger.  They cast spells that bewitched me so completely that, long before I was allowed to cross the street by myself, I could travel through the puny barriers of time and space with ease.  And it was there that my sisters abracadabra-ed their friends for me — Black Beauty, Travis and his dog Yeller, Hans Brinker and the queen of long, lazy summer afternoons, Nancy Drew.


The source of my sisters’ sorcery was the Mayfair Public Library.  It was a cavernous basement with high little citadel windows and dim, humming electric light.  It was a place of holy quiet, brown with wisdom and heavy with wooden shelves.  It was guarded by ferocious matrons in sensible shoes.  They kept their eyes on little boys who might be loud — or sticky — but, by then, I knew how powerful and precious books were, so I sat quietly and kept my eye on them.  I remember thinking, “I’m a little boy now, but someday… someday, I will decipher your runes and, like Lochinvar,* I’ll come and I’ll take what I want and know your magic for myself.”  I knew I would do this.  I knew it because my sisters were never jealous witches, concealing their art.  Tired of me pestering them to read to me, they were already showing me that the tiny symbols in the books made sounds and the sounds made words — and the words, taken together, made power.

Today I am a wizard.  I have spent a lifetime studying the alchemy of words — reading and writing them.  I still smile when they are used well in delightful new combinations and still cry when they are abused.  I will never tire of their wonder.  I do this because once upon a time, in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, five magical sisters loved their little brother so much they taught him how to read.

*My sisters knew Lochinvar personally and, two years in a row, two different sisters memorized his adventures — so I did, as well.   Even now, I still have a stanza or two.

Family Reunion — 2015

vandale4Families are like belly buttons: everybody’s got one.  I’m one of those lucky people who has two — families — not belly buttons (that would be weird.)  I have a perfectly good DNA family, stocked with sisters, nieces and nephews.  I’m the off-the-wall uncle, and we bash along functioning as dysfunctionally as all families do.  However, when I was young, I “adopted” another family: one of those wild, extended ones with rambunctious cousins, several generations of sons and wise, comical old aunties — all sprawled across half a continent.  I grew up with this family just as much as I did with my own.  It was fun.

Last week, after several years, I went to a Family Reunion of my adopted family (that’s me in the back.)

I spent the weekend playing “Remember When,” trying to figure out who was related to who, which generation was which, and how did my generation get so damned old, so damned fast.  And it all reminded me why I “adopted” these Vandales in the first place.

Vandales are a unique bunch of folks.  At a Vandale table, there’s always room for another plate and nobody goes hungry, although, on occasion, the soup might be a little thin.  There’s always another chair, a place to sleep, somebody to talk to and room in their heart for another child or somebody’s girlfriend.  Everyone’s welcome.  If you’re there, you belong.

When Vandales get together, there are stories — some of them printable, all of them funny.  There’s music: old songs, newvandale3 songs and

“I didn’t knew you played 12 string guitar!”
“Neither did I!”

Children play.  Everybody talks.  In the general confusion, nobody can ever find Auntie Barb.  We all sing.  And there’s enough food for the 108th Airborne Division.  Vandales are a family who genuinely like each other — faults, fights, warts and all.  And now that the kids I grew up with have become the comical old uncles and aunties, it’s nice to see that — in 5 generations — nothing has changed.  The newest generation of Vandales are just like we were — all those years ago.

Most of us take our families for granted — they’re either too close for comfort or too far away to do us any good — but we need to remember our families are actually our first BFFs.  Yeah, they know what buttons to push to drive us crazy, and they don’t always forgive the way they’re supposed to — but so what?  These are the people you’re in it for life with.  So we should all take a page out of the Vandale book: lighten up and enjoy the ride.

Endless Moments Photography
Endless Moments Photography

Self-Help and the Modern World

Have you ever noticed that people who buy Self-Help books never buy just one?  They always have three or four of them kicking around.  Usually they’re all on the same subject, but sometimes — and this is really scary — they’re all over the map.  There are people (we all know them) who could use a little help, self or otherwise.  There are also people who genuinely want to improve themselves; their outlook, their personality, their world, in general.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  In fact, most of us could do with a tuneup every once in a while.  However, this is the basis of the Self-Help industry.  They know, that we know, that there’s something wrong with us.  All they have to do is sell us the cure.  And that’s the reason people buy so many Self-Help books: they are a cure — that doesn’t work.

Self improvement is not a recent innovation.  There is probably something called A Slave’s Guide to Better Cowering written in hieroglyphics on a papyrus scroll, buried in the Nile Delta somewhere.  However, Self-Help is less than a hundred years old.  Its rapid development into a multimillion dollar industry runs exactly parallel with the development of our contemporary society.

There are two reasons Self-Help has become such a lucrative business.  First, we are losing our sense of family, and secondly we have lost our sense of community.

As we head off into the 21st century, our homes are no longer multigenerational.  Our parents and grandparents do not return to the family in old age.  Increasingly, they are warehoused, first in retirement communities, and then in care facilities.  Likewise, as most families consist of one or more working adults, childcare is outsourced, first to Daycare then the public school system.  Although these may be excellent institutions, they simply do not have a personal, vested interest in either education or development (beyond immediate behavioural problems.)  In other words, it’s a lot easier to fly right if you have grandma looking over your shoulder — or Dad — because they have an emotional attachment to you and pretty much everything you do.  You are the centre of their world, and they genuinely want to help you find your way around.  Likewise, as you grow older, your emotional connection to your parents and grandparents is strengthened by, if nothing else, proximity.  Nobody in a multigenerational family is left on their own to fend for themselves.  It isn’t in anybody’s emotional best interest.   Just as an aside, I know there are excellent care facilities everywhere with expertly trained staff, and I cast no aspersions on them.  However, at the end of the day, nobody wants you to succeed at life as much as grandma and grandpa do — and that lasts forever.  As we continue to replace the functioning parts of our multigenerational families with multi-task, care-for-hire personal assistants, we are turning ourselves into individual entities, relying on the kindness of strangers for our well-being.

It works the same for neighbourhoods.  In the old days, for better or for worse, the multigenerational family actually cared what the neighbours thought.  This was simply because they knew who the neighbours were.  They didn’t merely share the back fence; they shared community values and responsibilities.  Neighbours were involved with the comings and goings of the neighbourhood, which included Bob’s diet or Janet’s quit smoking plan.  People were available to help, and they did.  In essence, neighbours were all in it together.  However, as that community disappears, we are not only becoming physically isolated in the world; we are now increasingly psychologically alone.

The mantras of the Self-Help crowd are “Show personal responsibility” and “Take ownership of your problems.”  This is just a sugar-coated way of saying, “Good luck!  You’re on your own!”  Since we no longer believe we can rely on the traditional community to support us, we go looking elsewhere for help.  Invariably, this means throwing money at the problem; either through professional assistance or Self-Help.  And there we are again, back at that one-size-fits-all guide to personal growth, wealth and happiness: the Self-Help book.

Somehow, I find it impossible to believe that somebody sitting in their converted laundry room cranking out 800 words a day, has any connection to my quest to quit procrastinating.  They may have a good plan.  It may have worked wonders for them.   However, unless they know my heavy schedule of avoidance behaviour, I’m afraid they’re going to come up short.  By the same token (and I’m sure this worked for you, too) no three-chapter discussion of “How to Dress for Success” ever trumped my mother telling me to wash my hair and put on a tie.

Sometimes, the best self-help comes with some sharp-tongued maternal assistance.