Friday, June 10, 2016

Farewell To The Giant

On April 2, 2014, I was walking north toward Stephen Avenue here in Calgary when I saw a familiar figure strolling east. He was accompanied but more preoccupied, as a grandfather would be, with a rope of preschoolers who were toddling past. They were a diverse group oblivious to their brush with fame with this man who discreetly doted on them without intruding. It was a beautiful moment for me as I watch this man who gained a second act in his hockey career playing professionally with his sons, the family business masterfully managed by mom and wife, Colleen.

It was of course, Gordie Howe, 2 days passed his 86th birthday. I'd never seen him play, but from childhood I knew that his birthday was one to file in my thoughts and commemorate with a quiet good wish to him each year. On this occasion, I could directly give him my belated greetings but I was reluctant. Frail is never a word that you would use to describe Mr. Howe, never. His health was in decline. That much Canadians and hockey fans had heard. Throughout my childhood, I plundered the bookmobile shelves for hockey books and read of Gordie Howe's life and exploits in way that other kids read of fictional heroes.

I am not one to crowd celebrities. I would much rather acknowledge them discreetly with a nod of respect. In this case, however, the internal debate raged briefly and I concluded that I did not want him to feel forgotten. There was something about his fond glance at those children that gave me the sense he wanted to reach out, to dote, to connect. I gave it a shot and took a few steps toward him and his son-in-law to express my respect to the man and wish him his belated happy birthday.

I was welcomed, the man and his family more accustomed to the affections of hockey fans than wearied, even now, by it, and we chatted briefly. His son-in-law offered to take a few pictures with my phone an unexpected largesse given all I wanted to do his wish him a happy birthday, place my small hand in his bearpaw for a shake and worship him a little.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Greatest Achievement

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic memoir, Exiled From The Tundra, a passage which outlines what I still consider my greatest achievement. The names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Alfred reminded everyone it was time to prepare for the Christmas concert. The teachers probably dreaded it more than they did the year before. All I wanted do was avoid the girls’ rebellion against the concert and the embarrassing performance that was a consequence of the late decision to join.
Recalling the challenges from the previous Christmas concert, one of the first things I set out to overcome was the challenge of filling the gym with sound for whatever songs we did. With Raymond absent, I decided to combine my class with his to perform "Silent Night" together in French and English, something that would give Raymond’s class a presence in the concert and create a group large enough for everyone to hear in the gym. When the kids became familiar with the song and melody, they let me know that there were Inuktitut lyrics as well. With that, I thought it would be a good idea for the two classes to sing it in all three languages. As we rehearsed in the gym and the Inuit teachers of the youngest students heard it in all three languages, the choir expanded to encompass all the students in the school. This lead to rehearsals with all the students and teachers together in the gym. As everyone gathered to rehearse, there was a rare moment of camaraderie. Each of the teachers took their turn prompting and directing their kids or in their language to enhance the performance. There was a feeling amongst us that — at least for that brief part of the program — the concert was going to be all right despite the prevailing mood among the teachers.
For my class, I came up with a reworking of "A Christmas Carol." I wanted to avoid making it corny or being too wordy for them to remember or their parents to understand. I kept the lines short, assigned and refined parts according to the personalities of the kids and even worked in a (bad, bad) joke on the meaning of Ghost of Christmas Present to let me come on for a moment to correct their use the homonyms and assure them I was there. I cast Putulik as Ebenezer Scrooge. I put Mary in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Future as the Terminator and with that in mind, cast strong, silent Josepi. I kept Piatsi and Eva together to be the Cratchits and Ima had the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I was not sure if the people in the village were familiar with “A Christmas Carol,” but it would be in English, the kids would not have any undue demands on them and it would be quick as well. All of the kids remained in their comfort zones and there were enough little subversive touches to keep them from turning their noses up at it. They were eager to do it and gave me the feeling they would have been willing to do even more. We rehearsed the play in the evenings in our classroom and went over the lines and blocking a few times before they had it and were confident with it.
On the last night before the concert, we ran through the play a few times in the classroom and I found in that evening together a contentment that made the entire year worthwhile. For some reason, we worked just by the light that came into our classroom from the hallway. Sitting in the shadows on the floor, leaning against the wall with the desks obscuring our view while we wound down over milk and granola bars, I looked ahead to the concert the following day with confidence. We chatted about my Christmas holidays and things about my life in the south. I realized that all of them would have done what Putulik did for me in the Co-op my first day back and that I would do as much as I could for them.
I did come up with a way to involve Raymond’s class more in the concert as well. I asked Josepi Ovaut, Paulusi Kenuajuak and Jaaku Angutik what they were doing in the concert and I was met with shrugs and retreat. I knew that these three guys would be up for something fun and that they could do it well. The three of them were about the same height and they were all good at playing the clown. I asked them to come around to the school in the evening for a performance in the concert that would require little translation. I brought them into the gym and set down a long plank, a chair and a banana. I explained in the best detail I could that they were going to perform “The Jape Sketch,” a highlight from Monty Python’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I had a personal fondness for the sketch and thought it would be a fun contribution to the Christmas concert even though it did not capture anything resembling Yuletide spirit. I recalled Elias Taptuna’s fond recollections of watching Charlie Chaplin silents on a hand-cranked projector decades before and thought our sketch would provide a good tip of the hat to that era. The guys would proceed to abuse each other with silent-era slapstick while I contributed a pompous academic commentary on what they were doing. My contribution was not all that important during the performance given the vocabulary that I was using. I emphasized the boys’ need to be serious throughout. We rehearsed steadily and I pushed them to buy into the reality that their seriousness would be the key to the comedy. They indicated that they were in, but I suspected that they might be tempted to goof off at some point. I trusted my instincts, but crossed my fingers.
The afternoon started off with all of the kids singing "Silent Night" together. The younger classes then each took their turns singing a few songs and the concert concluded with the play by my class and the “The Jape Sketch” with Raymond’s boys. I hung on every word of my class’ work on their play and was thrilled to see my kids nail it. I wondered if the irony of Josepi’s performance as the Terminator made people think about the disillusion of those same kids who hid behind their mirrored shades when we first arrived. It was not my intention to remind people of that, but it was a vivid image that hinted at how out of character these kids were a year and a half earlier. During the grand finale, Raymond’s boys held form and kept stone-faced throughout, but the adrenaline might have gotten the best of them as they carefully cream-pied each other and did their shtick with the two-by-four. One of them came away with a bloodied nose that he ignored, but it was superb and disciplined other than an attempt to finish their delivery of a pie to me when I was supposed to surprise them instead with one of my own.
The concert quickly went down as one of the better ones that the school had ever had. I went home content and packed for the trip home for Christmas. I joked to myself that I better not come back for a third year because I would have a hard time living up to what I had just done that day.