(Much) Better than some

It’s been a wonderful day.

Went back to bed after breakfast to finish the last of the 806 pages of A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), messaging my success to the youngest son, who had pushed me to buy the book 10 days ago and ‘read it as quickly as you can, please, so we can discuss it.’

I stayed up late and woke up early to read, abandoned Netflix, read at breakfast, read in the bathroom, read in the middle of the day. The middle of the day!!

Did I like it? Hate it? Bit of both? I couldn’t say which. What I did like was being completely pulled in to the story of Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, even if substantial parts of the book were harrowing to read, and the foreshadowing made me afraid to continue. You should take it on if you dare.

A ding announced a message: my daughter has received a solid offer for a job she thought she had, then feared she wouldn’t get. Now she’ll move to another city, not too far, but far enough that there won’t be Sunday morning pancakes together. I admire her resolve, her willingness to do what it takes to learn new things, build a reputation in her field. At least it’s not Australia, or France, or Sweden this time..

Then lunch at a little Japanese place with a good, good friend. Two hours of conversation about things that mattered, and some that didn’t. Emerging into a blast of sunlight, I walked back to the car, hopping awkwardly over rivulets of snowmelt turned to sly ice in the shadows.

Downtown to drop off a necklace for repair at a goldsmith’s shop. His atelier, on the second floor of a heritage building, smells of old wood and history, every surface covered with tools, drawers full of gemstones. He is an artist, a creator of beauty, but he seems not to mind such a simple job as the one I’ve brought him: the necklace my husband brought me when I woke up from cardiac surgery has lost its tiny blue heart and I feel naked without it. A heart for a heart, says the goldsmith.

I walk past a homeless guy slumped in the subway (in my town, a subway is a passage under the railway tracks) and felt shitty, as usual, for avoiding the misery of a person who hasn’t had my luck. Tired of feeling shitty, I go to MacDonald’s and order a takeout meal.

He is about the age of my oldest son, mid-thirties at most. Dirty, cold, and not very with it. Drugged, probably, but able to rouse himself enough to say he could do with something to eat. Then he reaches up, opening his arms for an embrace. My first instinct is No!, but my second, better one is to lean down and hug him for a long moment.

Came home, got Noa, the giant dog. Took him up on the hill (his favourite place) to run giddy and panting with a pack of neighbourly dogs, among them Norman, a tall, elegant thing who never gets over his wonderment that there exists a dog bigger than he. Norman’s mistress, a wickedly funny professor of American history, invited us back to her house for a glass of wine with her husband, a wickedly funny professor of American history, whereupon Noa seized on the dog toys and quietly, ruthlessly, shredded a number of them while we drank our rouge.

In the chill aftermath of sunset, we galloped back home. I imagined people seeing us from their kitchen windows, tittering at a middle-aged woman flying down the street, helpless to rein in a dog hell-bent on his dinner. It was my fault entirely: I urged him on with that single word.

We ate companionably: me leftovers, he a raw egg drizzled over his kibble, the better to make his meds palatable. He eyed my plate, but for nothing: I never feed him from the table.

Then there was noise at the front door, the sound of big shoes dropped to the floor: the oldest son, come by for a quick ‘hi’ and oh, some leftovers. Things got interesting, and he stayed on for an hour and a half. While he talked, I searched his face, trying to find in his strong, handsome features the three-year-old who had thrown himself into the arms of a stranger, yelling ‘”Cuddle!” Oh, it goes by so fast, a life.

Now the house is quiet. The dog sleeps, paws twitching as he dreams.

And I will have to find a new book to read.

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Three Small Stories

Just after Christmas I was handed a fat red envelope.

The giver was a doctor friend of my daughter, who had come back to Calgary after embarking on a world tour by 4X4. He’d spent the first six months of an intended eighteen travelling from Australia to India, China, Tibet and, regrettably, Kazakhstan (“absolutely nothing to recommend about the place”) where an accident forced him to abandon his truck, most of his belongings and all of his plans.

But I didn’t know a thing about that last bit. I’d been following his trip on Instagram, and had wondered why he was suddenly in London, then off to Chios, Greece to volunteer at a refugee camp, then Amsterdam, then Ireland. Maybe he was just taking a little break from all that driving.

Then he turned up in Calgary, and my daughter said I was on his list of people to see.  That’s nice, I thought. But weird.

I turned the mystery envelope over a few times. Why would a university chum of hers give me a Christmas card, and why bother doing it in person? Even more puzzling, it was weighty enough to suggest more than just a card. Was he an aspiring writer and wanted my nod? Was he going to declare something? He and my daughter were just good friends, so it couldn’t be that, surely. They sat on the couch in her tiny living room, snickering at my confusion.

I opened the flap. It was a letter all right, written on heavy vellum. Withdrawing the folded sheets, it hit me; only one person I knew had such elegant handwriting. “What the hell…?” I stared at the salutation, then at the doctor friend. “This is nuts! How—where—on earth did you get this?”

After his European fling he’d ended up in Dublin visiting a girl he’d met a few years earlier while trekking in Nepal. She took him out to her parents’ house for dinner and in the get-to-know-you chitchat, her mother asked where his home was. Calgary! She had an old friend who lived there, but had lost her address and hadn’t been in touch for years. Did he think he could track down the friend with just a name?

Our adventurer had some convincing to do before his Irish friend’s mom would believe that the name she had given him was none other than mine, the mother of his old university pal. Despite the unusual surname, she wanted proof. Had I once lived in France? Who were my other children?

Satisfied, she dashed off a letter and just after Christmas, I was handed a fat red envelope.

****

Always too cheap to jump on the latest tech trend, I finally decided to replace an iPhone so far behind the times that it was labelled ‘vintage’.  Twenty pages of phones for sale on Kijiji yielded the one I was looking for, and at a very fair price. Almost too fair, which made me slightly suspicious.

After a few emails back and forth, the seller agreed to meet me at an Apple store, which meant dragging her husband and two little kids to the mall on a bitterly cold day from her sub-sub-sub-urban home.

She—bravely clad in a cold-shoulder top— was young and bubbly, the kind of person you’d love to have as a next-door neighbour. With a thumbs-up from Apple, we traded phone for cash and congratulated each other on a successful transaction.

Except that there’s never an upgrade without the ripple effect, and naturally, my  old SIM card wouldn’t fit the new phone. Off to the phone store to get another one, where another bubbly young woman said I’d have to pay for the card, at a price vastly disproportionate to its nano size. Just as upsetting was the fact that she was required to see my picture ID.

My drivers licence photo is a likeness of me, yes, but I deeply regret that it was taken after I had spent most of that day in the bathroom with a paint roller. It was my birthday, the last day for renewal, and it was only at 3:30 in the afternoon that I remembered the registry office closed at 4.

While it would take a magnifying glass to spot the paint splatters on my face, everything else about my features is starkly exposed. My hair is scraped into a ponytail, and the angle of the shot is such that what remains visible of my hair (disingenuously indicated as ‘blond’) is blends seamlessly into the grey-scale background.

I passed the licence across the counter and pretended interest in a display of phone  accessories.

And then, “Oh! What a GREAT picture!”

I flinched.

“I LOVE your no-hair look!” she exclaimed.

She couldn’t just stop there. She bubbled on to say how fabulous I looked and how she wished she could wear her hair like that and I realized finally that she thought I had no hair at all in the picture and was being sympathetic because obviously I went directly to the photo shoot from a chemotherapy session.

Her effusion, remarkably genuine, meant that I let myself be convinced to buy a case for the new phone, although I drew the line at a $50 screen protector.

 ****

Once, in Grade 7, I put my hand up in class.

This was sufficiently startling that Wayne P yelled at the teacher “Pick her! Pick Sebbydoodle!!! She knows the answer!”

Until that moment I’d mostly escaped notice from my classmates except for the occasional ‘Sudul-Sudul-rhymes-with-noodle’ chant. The new nickname was a step up, not unkind, almost affectionate given the right tone. It stayed in use until the end of Grade 9 but in high school it was forgotten as I was swallowed up by the crowd, on nobody’s radar. The name was resurrected by my youngest when he first heard the story and subsequently proved to be handy as a username. (What? Someone else is using DebS??)

On impulse a few months back I sent Wayne a Facebook message. It said: If you’re the same Wayne P who was the class clown at Parkdale School, I just want to say that the nickname you gave me way back when has endured, and how are you, anyway?

He replied right away (eek! What had I started?) and promised to get in touch when he came to the city. Months went by and I almost forgot about him; when he finally called to ask if we could meet up at a Tim Horton’s I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go.

How very wrong-headed.

As I came through the doors of the café he leapt to his feet and pulled me into a big hug, exclaiming, “You’re so pretty!” To be honest, I doubted him, but then again, my face was paint-free and the ponytail had been ditched in favour of flow.

Wayne was the nice guy I remembered him as, still funny, and way more interesting than his younger self. His life as a Mountie had been unconventional and adventurous, and he had some good stories to tell. It was great to catch up with him, and to discover that neither of us had liked high school and had kept in touch with almost no one.

Midway through a refill, he got serious.

“There’s something I need to apologize for,” he confessed. “I said something awful to you years ago.”

“You what? I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“God. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.” He rubbed his face and grimaced. “Well,…oh jeez…OK, well, sometime in junior high—I don’t remember exactly—you called the teacher over and told her that I had called you a bitch.”

I choked on my double-double. “Really? No kidding. And then what happened?”

“She told you that it just meant ‘a female dog’.” He shook his head.

“Good pick, ” I said. “Though I might have just been asking her for a definition.” (It was about the same time that I first heard the word ‘masturbate’ and had to look it up in the Oxford, which unhelpfully offered ‘self-abuse’.)

Wayne looked like my dog after stealing bread off the counter. “I was too ashamed and embarrassed to do the right thing back then, and it’s bothered me ever since.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that it took so long to say it.”

I squinted. I could almost see Wayne at his desk, watching the teacher and me, aghast at what he’d done. It felt like something long-lost was re-surfacing and I really wanted to remember it just so his angst hadn’t been for nothing. But the camera angle was all wrong; the memory was fake.

I forgave him. We laughed and hugged again and when it was time to go, he kissed me on the cheek. At home I told my husband everything, not leaving out the ‘pretty’ part. Wayne messaged later to say how much fun he’d had and how he couldn’t believe he’d kissed Debi Sudul, as if I’d once been the girl of his dreams.

 

****

There goes another one.

With two words, I have just ended a friendship of six years, give or take a few months. They—those words, best left to your imagination—have been waiting in the wings for a while; the other night I looked hard at them for about thirty seconds and then gave the nod. This is unfortunate for several reasons, the first being that email was involved, the second because it’s never a cause for celebration when you’ve had enough of someone whose company you used to like.

The world is full of advice on how to navigate relationships, whether familial, marital, amicable or commercial, and what to do with the ones that don’t work. We—and by ‘we’ I mean women, since men don’t seem to have the same issues—are often encouraged to free ourselves from the confines of judgemental relationships and one-way connections, to detoxify our lives, to cull the people who don’t fulfil us.

I don’t entirely disagree, but that kind of counsel seems lacking in nuance. Why toss people out instead of recycling/repurposing them? Could I have tried harder to understand her? Will I have regrets? Will she? And was I fair? The answer to that last question—which niggles at me most—is ‘probably not’, given my unavoidably subjective view of her behaviour, which I interpreted as critical, controlling and wholly lacking in self-awareness.

I have previously lamented the loss of a long-time friend who purposefully went radio silent without any warning, or at least none that I picked up on. It took me years to stop wondering what had gone wrong, and only then because I ran into her and asked for an explanation (there wasn’t one). I did, however, feel better for having been able to say, matter-of-factly, how much it had hurt to lose her.

Then there were other friendships that simply ran out of gas. Lack of communality, proximity or plain disinterest rather than a disagreement are, I would guess, the way many of us don’t bother to put energy into s long as both parties are lukewarm, it’s an understandable, unlamented outcome. We are enriched by situational and temporary relationships, but there’s no rule that says they all have to last a lifetime.

Last summer, after spending a week together on a boat, a friend of twenty years suggested we call it quits. Yes, it’s true that close quarters and stressful situations can make or break a bond, and in this case, the trip served to highlight things we didn’t appreciate about the other. Rather than opting out of future holidays together, my friend figured we’d be better off with an amicable divorce. Without enough love to counterbalance the dislike, it was a reasonable thing to do, although months later she second-guessed that decision. We are currently in a sort of DMZ, trying to figure out if there’s enough left to give it another go.

Nobody really likes confrontation. Some engage in it willingly enough, but I’m pretty sure that, deep down, they don’t enjoy it. Deliberately and openly ending a friendship—especially while pissed off—without getting into that superheated territory, however, requires a level of skill and control that I do not possess. In this most recent parting my irritation morphed into anger and, best buds with adrenalin that it is, overwhelmed any diplomacy I might have had.

In the days since, I’ve had to remind myself of the long lead-up to that moment and rationalized the positive aspect of being unambiguous. My friend and I would have drifted apart at some near-future point, of that I’m sure, but the whole thing feels like having to put the cat down—you know the end is inevitable, but it feels crappy to do it.

My youngest son, an astute observer of human behaviour, is perplexed by this sort of thing. He sees no point to drawing lines in the sand and thinks that friends should be appreciated for their good points without dwelling on their shortcomings. Guys don’t dump guys for the kind of behaviours that bother women, he says, and unscientific study of men I am acquainted with would suggest that he’s right.

On the other hand, when men do let a friendship go, they tend to get past it and not agonize over the decision. Maybe they’re on to something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will we have to get used to the dark?

In June of 1944 my mother crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of ships;  a hopeful war bride with a newborn on her way to join my father in England. My parents had  met in Calgary, where the British government had sent my father and thousands of other young recruits to learn to fly in airspace safely beyond the range of enemy aircraft. After completing his training, he was transferred to a base in Ontario where he and my mother married and lived for a year before he was assigned to a bomber squadron in England.

The voyage was a thrilling adventure for a twenty-year-old—one who could reasonably be described as wilful—traveling outside her country for the first time.  Ignoring the warnings of the crew, she spent much of her time on deck with my six-week-old brother clutched in her arms, seeking respite in the wind and salt-spray from the sea-sickened misery of the other, mostly female, passengers.  The convoys that regularly plied the north Atlantic were made up of merchant ships carrying supplies to Britain, troopships, passenger vessels and their naval escorts. She knew about the German U-boats that prowled beneath, but likely had no idea of the magnitude of the threat they represented. Over the course of the North Atlantic battle, some 3,500 Allied ships were lost.

If she was initially charmed by the picturesque setting of her new home, she soon found out what it meant to be living in a country at war. A few weeks after she arrived at my grandparents’ house, thirteen miles from London, Germany began to bombard the capital  with V-1 rockets—buzz bombs, so named for their noisy flight. Launched from the French and Dutch coasts at a rate of more than a hundred per day, the radio-guided missiles were intended to wreak both physical damage and psychological trauma, and were notoriously inaccurate.

My grandfather was the village air raid warden, responsible for getting people to the shelters when the air raid sirens sounded. My mother hated the dank and crowded bunkers and after a time, refused to go back. My grandparents were appalled; she took the chance that the bombs wouldn’t fall short of their target, and that it one did, she’d know by its sudden silence to take cover.

It seems odd to me now that she never revealed whether she had been afraid. If she told her stories with some  pride in her youthful bravado, it was only because she had survived, along with everyone else in the family. My grandparents, having already lived through the nightmare of World War I and the Blitz of 1940-41, were probably far more fearful of the toll the war might take.

Hearing about my mother’s wartime experiences—my quiet father said far less about what he had seen and done—was like being read a book with thrilling bits where the heroine is up against darkness, but armed with resourcefulness, luck and courage, she prevails. My mother’s real-life adventures became entwined with what I learned in school about the war, and my child’s conclusion was that everyone had learned a crucial lesson and would never make that mistake again. War would never threaten my world.

Although the list of regional, non-Western conflicts since 1945 is a very long one, my assumption wasn’t so naive. It was supported by reality: former enemies signed peace treaties, then trade agreements. Government ministers conferred with their foreign counterparts. Borders opened. Belgian students basked on the beaches of Eastern Bloc countries. The Common Market became the European Union; the League of Nations expanded to become the United Nations. Apologies were made, even if they were slow to come. The Berlin wall fell to human hands and hope. Gorbachev threw open the Iron Curtain.

Peace wasn’t a dream; it was a living thing. Cooperation allowed disparate peoples to travel, exchange, discuss, encourage, educate, benefit, assist, harmonize, understand. It’s hard to pick the single most significant word in that incomplete list.

In Europe, where I have twice lived for the better part of seventeen years, the opportunities were legion. They still are, for now, but doors across the continent are beginning to close. With Brexit looming, the rise of the nationalist right in France, Holland, Hungary and Austria—among others—and the terrifying news that the world’s most powerful country has elected an authoritarian demagogue who will sit at the head of the table with Putin at the other end, we may well be in for it.

Whatever the eventual sources of frustration and disappointment in the bureaucratic workings and decisions of the European Union —and they are numerous— its member countries signed on purposefully as partners in solidarity, joining a real-life experiment in economic and social cohesion. If, like a slo-mo images of an imploding building, the underpinnings of the EU begin to fail with the desertion of its member states, then a war in the West will no longer be unthinkable. Goodwill is not enough; nations need to be obliged to work together in mutually advantageous ways, to commit to the idea that they are stronger together in all ways, not just economic ones.

Inclusive and outward-looking foreign policy can temper tribalism—the source of one of our greatest comforts and some of our worst behaviour—but if populist movements halt or reverse the progress made towards international co-operation, then conflict between Western nations who’ve been doing their best to play nice since the Second World War will not long be unthinkable.

I have always believed that humankind was moving—and wanted to move—towards  breaking down barriers in all things. We were able to point to the evidence that ways had been found to accommodate and respect differences, that we preferred partnership over conflict and that the lessons of history continued to remind us of what could happen if we went off course.

Since the American election, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and wondering how long it took her to get her head around the fact that she lived in an unsafe world. Months? A week? An instant? Perhaps she did what I have been doing since November 8—uselessly returning in my mind to the day before the lights dimmed.

I never imagined that I would be afraid for the generations to come. My life, like that of much of my boomer cohort, was better in significant ways than my parents’ had been. I was confident that we would continue that course, and make the effort to equalize our society. Instead, our children and grandchildren face not only potentially catastrophic ecological problems, but social and economic ones that raise the possibility of conflict on a large scale.

My mother crossed the Atlantic again seven years later, returning permanently to Canada with my father and my two brothers. She was hopeful about the future, looking forward to its possibilities and promise, and I’m certain she wasn’t disappointed. Did the fact that she had known a global war in her lifetime make her more or less optimistic about the chances of it happening again?

Her stories were a link to a time that we all need to remember, and I can only hope that the memory-keepers among us will help keep the lights on.

 

 

 

When You Least Expect It

I had the advantage, in that I saw her first.  Fifteen seconds, in which I could digest the fact that the woman at the desk was the one who had haunted me for years. She was concentrating on some paperwork, while I waited for her to lift her head to ask,  presumably, how she could be of assistance.

Instead, she stared up at me, stunned. It must be fate, I said. Her face stiffened into, what? A kind of wary defensiveness, perhaps. Why would you say that? Without waiting for an answer, she said, almost angrily, What are you doing back here?

But I never really left, I said. I was sure you knew that.

We looked at each other for a long moment. Are you well? I asked.

Her expression softened. Yes, yes I am. She leaned forward, cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered, confidingly, I’m never going to retire. They don’t know how old I am, and you’d better not tell them!

My heart relaxed. If she could talk to me like this, then perhaps there was a chance we could find our way back, even briefly. The telephone rang. I have to answer this, she said apologetically. The call was brief; she put the handset down and leaned back, smiling. I have two beautiful granddaughters now.

I probably shouldn’t have said that I knew. She recoiled, her mouth forming a soundless How? I’m friends with K on Facebook, I said.  .

I don’t like Facebook, she spat. Have no use for it. She was clearly shocked by the fact that her daughter was in contact with me, even if from a distance. I hoped there would be no repercussions for the younger woman, while understanding that my former friend was hurt. I couldn’t blame her, although a part of me thought You see? You might have discarded me, but she had her own loyalties.    

I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go now, but was more intrigued than apprehensive. I felt like a clinical observer, watching the sea changes of my subject.

To my surprise, she began to talk about how the experience of having grandchildren had changed her, and how different was the connection with them than with her own children.  I realized then what I had forgotten about her over the last ten years – how lyrically she could express herself. Our shared pleasure in the beauty of language had been something so special that, as I was now reminded, the loss of it flooded through me.

I’ve missed you, I said. I used to dream about you so often, that we were friends again.

I dreamt about you, too, about a month ago.

Why did you disappear?

I had longed to ask the question for most of those years and now it came quietly, without emotion.  She cocked her head, looked past me. I don’t know. You know, I’d have to think about that.

I assume you got my letter, I said. The one I wrote about six years ago. She nodded, said nothing.

It hurt, that you never replied.  She was clearly uncomfortable. This isn’t the place to talk about it, she said.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene – I just tried to understand why you withdrew like that without ever saying anything. I imagined all kinds of possibilities: that I had offended you, that you disapproved of my choices at the time, that…well, I had no idea. Perhaps you were just tired of the friendship.

She jumped on that. Yes, that’s probably it. I think we were just done, she said,

So there it was. As simple, as enigmatic as that.

I didn’t want to let go just yet. I asked about her husband, a guy I had liked a lot.   And what about M? At the mention of her son’s name, she sighed deeply. You know, if you’d asked me about him a month ago, I would have burst into tears. He’s gone through so much, a lot of self-discovery, had to figure out what he really wants. But amazingly, now he seems to have done it, and he’s in a really good place.

She talked on about him, this boy I had known since he was born, had seen grow into a person of immense talent and spectacular intelligence. She confided in me as though we were back in those days when we’d have a regular date to eat Italian, staying late over endless cups of coffee, talking, talking, talking. Feeling through our fingertips – literally! – the electric charge of connection. Marvelling at how close we were.

She stopped abruptly.  What are you here for, actually?

I explained. I had been advised to borrow a CD on meditation from this, the hospital library, in preparation for heart surgery. Her eyes widened but she didn’t comment. Asked nothing about me, nor the kids whom she’d known so well. She pulled a form from a drawer.

Just write your name and address here. You know, it’s just like when you were in elementary and you checked out a book.  She laughed.  No need to sign it. Did you ever sign a library card at school? No. Not here either. She handed me the CD and said I could keep it for 3 weeks.

We had reached the end. I knew it. But even though I had been dispassionately assessing her behaviour and odd reactions, unable to avoid the conclusion that this was not someone I could be friends with again, I still wanted to draw something from her unexpected confidences and uneven warmth. It was a few minutes before noon.

Any chance we could do lunch?

She shied from the question, startled and uncomfortable. I ’d seen this reaction before in her, this instinctive aversion to unpleasantness. Maybe some other time, she said.

No, you don’t mean that. And you still can’t say it. I shook my head and walked away.

It had taken a long time to get over losing my best friend, although her daughter’s bewilderment over her mother’s refusal to explain my absence helped me to accept that I wasn’t likely to get any answers, either. I understood that it would have been very difficult for her to say, flat out, that it was over, but I never really forgave her for what felt like cruelty.

Until yesterday that is, when, in an unlikely coincidence, I was handed the chance to ask the question that had bothered me for so long.   And more than that, to let her know that it had been hard to lose her. Is it vindication? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s fair to face the consequences of our acts.

I’m free of my old hurt, while feeling some sympathy for her. Unexpected and unwelcome as it was, our conversation would have been unsettling for her, I think. In any case, the story has finally come to an end, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think the universe had conspired to make it happen.

We’re In The Army Now

Stuff’s been happening since I last wrote about the association.  After the president resigned – apparently because the secretary and I challenged him for sidestepping an committee -approved policy banning freebies for event organisers – his post was assumed by the vice-president.

The VP, a Belgian who spoke three languages, wasn’t the best person to step into top spot but he had his good points.  He was inclusive, listened to advice and had some good ideas about what could be done to make the association more dynamic.  On the downside, he reacted without thinking, couldn’t remember from one day to the next what decisions the board had reached, and was woodenly awkward with people, which was a bit of a handicap considering that PR is the president’s job.

The way things work in French associations is that all executive board members have to be re-approved by the general committee  immediately following the AGM.  If there are no challengers  for any of the board jobs, it’s a general shoo-in.  Nobody ever wants these posts, generally, and so it was highly unusual for a second presidential candidate to pop up.

The challenger was a Scottish ex-army type, an seemingly affable guy who hadn’t had much to say in committee meetings for the two years he’d been a member.  He looked after a few things, but didn’t have any big ideas.  It was generally thought that he was only semi-interested in taking on the presidency, and none of the executive board members (the president, secretary and me, the treasurer) thought he represented a threat to the status quo.

We all assembled a few days after the AGM, with the first item on the agenda being the election.  The two presidential candidates gave their spiels, and as soon as the Scot opened his mouth, I figured he was done for.  In perfectly decent French, he said that one of the first things he would change, were he to be elected president, would be to insist on English during the meetings meetings.  My inner jaw dropped.  The committee is comprised of 4 Anglophones, one Dutch and 10 native French speakers, of whom five are not terribly comfortable with English, and two are unilingual.  Of those last two, one is the indefatigable and efficient secretary, the best the association has ever had.

To suggest that association business be conducted in a language unintelligible to two members, of which one is charged with writing the minutes, was so pompously ridiculous that I was sure the guy had dug his own grave in one sentence.  I didn’t even bother challenging him on the point after he finished speaking, so inconceivable was the idea. We’ve never had a problem with those who have to temporarily detour into English to explain themselves, but once the translation is made we’re right back into the language of Voltaire.

Mais quelle surprise! The Scot won by 9 votes to 6, prompting the visibly shaken former president to resign from the committee on the spot.  I was gobsmacked, as was the secretary and a few others around the table.  Obviously quite a number of the Francophones had voted for the guy, and that made me think that they were voting against the Belgian’s woodenness  more than they were approving of an English-language policy.

The second the sceptre was in the Scot’s hands, he morphed from innocuous bystander to tinpot dictator.  The meeting would now be in English, he intoned, and the two Francophones who did not speak any English would have to just take some lessons.  He smiled when he said it, but it wasn’t a joke.  The secretary spit tacks.  One of the Francophones said quietly that no one, not even the Anglophone presidents previously elected, had ever spoken anything but French in the boardroom.  I saw red, and said that no one, not even the president, could impose English on a French association with a majority of French members.  I spoke up, saw a few heads nod, and figured that would be that.

But if I thought that a public remonstration would stop him from trying that stunt again, I was wrong.  Two days later, at a meeting of the five board members, which included me and the secretary, he tried again.  About twenty minutes in, he announced that we would switch to English.  I didn’t even try to be diplomatic this time.  To proceed in anything other than French was at best bad manners and at worst, a display of astonishing arrogance, I said.   He was forced to continue in French, but the atmosphere didn’t improve.  He indicated in unsubtle ways that he considered himself to have the final word on everything, the secretary to be beneath his attention, and that he intended to keep an extremely close eye on what I was doing.  My knee-jerk reaction was to butt heads with him at every turn.

The phone rang the next day, with a summons to his house for a one-on-one meeting to discuss our working relationship.  Nyet to that idea, said I – we’ll meet somewhere neutral.  I was brought up to be (in the absence of a really good reason) co-operative so my first reaction was to agree to a meet up, but my natural inclination is to go my own way.  After a bit of reflection, I wrote him an email, explaining in plain but polite language what my position was regarding the language issue, and the autocratic manner he seemed to think was necessary, and further said that I had had quite enough of committee meetings for the time being.  If he wished to respond in writing, I invited him to do so.  I know perfectly well that emails aren’t the best environment to sort out a problem, but I’m at my best when I’ve got a figurative pen in my hand.   He declined to reply, and insisted we meet.

I both hate and relish confrontation, in almost equal measure.  When my dander is up, I’ll fight for what I believe is right, and I don’t take prisoners.  But that reaction takes a personal toll in terms of stress, and it’s usually accompanied by serious doubts about whether or not I am actually right.  The one thing I’m afraid of is being unfair, which is just another way of saying I terrified to be wrong.  For two weeks, I wrestled with the knot in my stomach, trying to talk myself into not caring, trying to convince myself that was perfectly OK to speak my mind.  Despite the impression I give of unlimited confidence, I’m not a fan of hubris.  I prefer to get along with people, and I’m not at all disagreeable generally.  But there are limits to what I’ll accept, and the Scot tested them sorely.  I realised that I wouldn’t be able to calm my nerves until we both had a chance to say what was on our minds, and that if there was a chance to smooth the waters, I really should take it.

I got to the meeting point first and ordered a beer, paying for it before anyone else had a chance to offer.  I don’t drink beer, but my inner spin-doctor thought it would send a message.   My mantra for the previous couple of days had been ‘calm and confident’, and I was feeling pretty good.  I had tried hard to get past the deeply-ingrained worry about not being nice.  Tinpot duly arrived, and one of the first things he did was to comment on my beer.  He was taken aback.  I congratulated myself.

He jumped in with, ‘lots of people think the association is becoming far too French.’  There was no point in asking what nationality these ‘lots of people’ were, but I did ask him just how many they represented.  Well, loads, he said, but had the grace to admit that ‘loads’ was difficult to quantify.  Where do we live? I asked.  He seemed puzzled.  France, he answered.  Indeed we do, I said.

He went on to say that I did far too much for the association, that I took jobs away from other people.  Those same people who never raise their hands to volunteer for anything, I asked? I asked him what he thought I did, apart from keeping the books and filling in just this one time for the communications guy who abruptly quit doing the newsletter.  He didn’t really know, so I spelled it out for him.  In addition to those two things, one of which is strictly temporary, I had an idea a while back about how the association might assist the local junior high schools with their language exchange programs, which some students are not able to take advantage of due to financial hardship.  Our members come from eleven different European countries, plus a few Americans and Canadians, and being open to other cultures is a big deal for us. Our bylaws state that giving back to the community is a fundamental part of who we are, but that has been slipping away over the last few years.  I wanted to explore how we could fulfil that obligation while giving French kids a chance to travel to other countries.  I also am part of a working group to develop a new website, since I use the existing site every day and have an insider’s familiarity with it.

He tried to prop up his position by fixing the number of people who didn’t feel comfortable with my involvement at six.  If I were in it for personal power, I could understand that, I said.  But the simple truth is that I like to help, have energy, time and ideas, and I feel strongly about the aims of the association.  People who are bothered by that tend to be those who don’t do much, and are resentful that there are others who do more than they.  They want control without earning it.

He wanted me to stay in my corner, do the books, and keep quiet.  I declined, and told him exactly how things would go down.  I would continue to challenge any attempt to Anglicise the association meetings unless every member of the committee agreed to it.  I would continue to speak out against his efforts to quash dissent.  I would continue to do my job and most of all, in what I viewed as my primary role, I would continue to defend the interests of an association which had been of great benefit to me and many others.  And no, I wouldn’t play nice just to make his job easier.

I also called him on his treatment of the secretary.  How he’d ignored her during the meeting, and literally waved her away as unimportant.  I suggested that he had done so for one of three reasons:  because she was French, because she was ‘just a secretary’ or because she was female.  Maybe even all three.  He blustered that he’d worked with lots of women in his life.  And what does that prove? I asked.  He had no answer. There is an almost visceral pleasure in laying bare the inconsistencies, bias and self-serving justifications of an opponent.  I haven’t enjoyed an exchange so much since I acted as my own lawyer during my divorce.  After a period of wordlessness he said, You’re pretty aggressive.  I smiled.  That’s always the word men use when they run up against an assertive woman,

I’m not going to waste any time wondering if I did the right thing, if I was fair, if I was too hard on the poor guy.  I figure he’ll either shoot himself in the foot, or else he’ll get his way with a majority of the committee members who can’t be bothered, or just plain can’t stand up to him.  If so, it’ll be a loss for all, but I’ll have done what I could.  And by god, it felt good.  I think I might be on a roll.

Sometimes I wonder

What is the matter with me?

We have a guest, arrived yesterday.  He is the nephew of my husband, a man in his forties whose life is in a bit of a shambles.  Father to two boys, he and their mother divorced long ago and until a year ago, he saw his sons every other weekend and half the school holidays.  His relations with his ex-wife are difficult, but he has always held to his end of the bargain in terms of his responsibilities to his kids, as far as I know.  Nevertheless, his ex embarked on a systemic campaign to turn them against their father, to the point where the eldest, at 15, exercised his right to refuse to see him.  The younger one is not yet officially allowed that freedom, but his mother has flouted the court ruling and simply won’t cooperate with weekend visits.

In addition, the nephew’s 5-year live-in relationship with a rather nice woman came to an end a few months back, and he is now living under his mother’s roof while he tried to sort his life out.  He is, fortunately, gainfully employed and successful in his job.  I feel extremely sorry for his kids and for him, and wish him all the best in his attempts to reassert his parental rights through the legal system.

But I don’t really like him.  He’s a bit of an odd character, and not in an amusing way.  His company feels oppressive, and I don’t feel comfortable around him.  When he wrote last week to invite himself here, I panicked.  Pleaded with my husband to make sure that the ‘full week’ he wanted to stay would be limited to a ‘short week’, and husband wrote back to that effect.

Last night at dinner, the nephew mentioned that he wanted to see the Museum of the Confluence in Lyon on his way back to Austria, and then sadly added that ‘unfortunately it’s not open on Mondays’, leaving the clear impression that he didn’t intend to leave us for eight more sleeps.  I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing.  But it kept me awake for a while last night, figuring out how to be diplomatic about telling a guest that you don’t want them hanging around for too long.

I can’t keep track of the number of times I’ve encouraged female friends to be assertive, and to stop worrying about conforming to that feminine ideal of being nice.  My daughter has learned this lesson well, I’m glad to say, and is as upfront as anybody I know, although she deals with pangs about being unkind.   Nobody wants to be mean, but sometimes that’s how it feels when you have to make yourself clear, when others don’t pick up on the unsaid messages or have different values that you do.

So added to my unease with this guy is my worry about saying anything that could make him feel unwelcome, especially considering what he’s been through, plus my fear of appearing to be un-nice.  I’ve been trying to figure out why I find it so difficult to be around him, without laying all the blame on his behaviour.  And it’s not even his behaviour,  but just a general way of being, which seems pretty petty to find fault with.

He’s heavy going, basically.  Dark and brooding at times, although not at the moment.  A sense of humour that’s a little bit off, and a marked inability to interpret the unspoken.  He doesn’t get social signals, and I think that’s what bothers me the most.   The autism label is trendy but I have only the slimmest notion of what that entails, beyond the frequently cited inability to ‘read’ others.  I had a twenty-four-year-old PhD student boarder a couple of years ago who was pretty much oblivious to social norms, and very poor at reading non-verbal cues.  Coincidentally he was also Austrian – extremely well-mannered about stuff like standing up when  a woman entered the room, but without the faintest idea that bringing a girl to the house with no introductions (walked right past me) and proceeding directly to his bedroom to make all kinds of noise audible throughout the house was not exactly the done thing.  His reaction when I asked him not to repeat the experience was a mixture of clinical interest and well-bred apology, without any apparent embarrassment.  It was as though he’d just learned something new to add to his etiquette folder.  He was bounced from the house a few months later for, among other things, a remark that was breathtakingly inappropriate, apparently completely unaware that anyone would find it objectionable.

Anyway, I don’t do well when I’m off balance, and that’s how I feel around the nephew.   By this morning I had figured out how to broach the subject of his overstay, but couldn’t summon the nerve at breakfast.  My stomach was in knots and I thought about all the times I have not been able to say what I wanted because of the fear of being unkind or not believing I had the right to express myself in anything but a positive way.  That did it, as well as taking to heart my daughter’s exhortation last night to ‘just tell him, Mom.  He’s the one who isn’t polite, by assuming he can dictate how long he can stay.’

I waited until he and I had a moment alone in the kitchen and then said, as mildly as I could, that we had only planned on him staying until the end of the week.  ‘But I want to stay until next Tuesday,’ said he.  What can you do with that, except be sniper-like direct?  I fixed my gaze on his and said, no, it would better if he left sooner, then  mumbled something about this being a hectic week all round.  He tried to bargain more, but in the end is leaving Saturday morning.  Interestingly, he then went to my husband and told him that I had said he should leave by Saturday, but not in a I’m-telling-0n-you kind of way.

If it helps me to accept his oddness by thinking he’s got some version of autism, then that’s what I’ll do.  Easier to accept that he can’t help the way he is than to be irritated by his lack of courtesy.