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I Never Said Thank You John Z…

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Of Mice and Men.jpg

-Tell them George….

-OK… Lennie… 

Stirring in my bed in the darkness, the fragile voice of Lennie intruded through my semi-awake state.

Lennie was getting worked up like a small child on Christmas morning, excited and wanting to share his enthusiasm in the same way that he got enthusiastic about petting little fluffy bunnies, soft furry mice, and rambunctious puppies.

And –  with no harm intended – young ladies’ pretty dresses.

Lennie just liked to touch soft things.

Have you read Of Mice and Men?… John Steinbeck’s beautiful masterpiece of two itinerant Depression-era farm workers in Southern California?

Did you see coverall-clad George and Lennie in the movie? Gold-toned cinematography capturing the simple dreams, and also the difficult but loving camaraderie between actors Gary Sinise (George) and John Malkovich (Lennie)?

Heartlifting and heartbreaking… just like real people’s lives. Muffled tears melt through my heart’s lining and ooze out my pores.

As a youngster and teenager, I harboured a soft spot for the little guy, the dark troubled souls, the odd man out.

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When I read Of Mice and Men, I think of my childhood friend John Z.

I say friend, but John was really a mere acquaintance, someone I knew and said hi to while passing on the wide echoing stairs beside the music room of Glendale High.

We never hung out or did stuff together after school, although we did chatter to each other each day while sharing a bench seat on the bus trip to day camp one summer. I never went to his house or met his family.

John was a lot like Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

John was big and strong like Lennie, but sweetly gentle unless provoked, just like Lennie.

He had a condition called hydrocephalus. John’s head was enlarged from fluid that accumulated in his head as a child.  His head spread out like an upside-down pyramid, narrow at the chin and unnaturally wide above the dark brown hair line, his broad forehead was intersected by eyes that were narrow slits when he smiled.

John was mentally “slow”.

He liked to laugh, really loudly. And when he was happy, John would yell out a boisterous “BAHOO!

I can hear his voice in my head still, all these years later.

John was a friendly fella living peaceably in a world, an era, that was mostly unfriendly to the “different” souls amongst us.

He took a lot of ribbing and ridicule from some of the hormonal teenage boys, mainly the jock crew who made mocking others their daily routine, like a sacred ritual of self-aggrandizement within their Temple of Jock’dom.

While I never joined in on the “fun” of poking jabs at John, I also never said or did anything to head off the bullies that tormented poor John daily.

I wanted to. I steamed inside, but as a small guy I was in self-protection mode, more determined to lay “low” and avoid any bullying thrown my way. There was a Darwinian survival protocol that drifted like a sweat-scented fog through the school hallways.

bullying

Today, I’m here finally… belatedly… to thank John and others like him who played a part in my early decision to make my occupational choice a “helping” career.

I was a medical lab tech for 37 years. I helped people. I hope.

The impotence I sometimes felt during those early school years were part of what motivated me to try to assist others who were struggling.

It could seem a stretch to suggest that high school bullying was what made me decide to jab needles in people’s arms, sucking out their blood and then testing the plasma and serum, seeking answers to their sicknesses and discomforts.

There are thin threads, minor rivers of connections that run through our minds.

Our daily experiences often seem meaningless or tenuous, yet they quietly mill about within our sub-conscious where the work of deeper understanding is done, weighing and parsing and figuring out what makes sense.

Those “helping” connections led me to the medical career that occupied more than three decades of my life.

It could as easily have taken me into other obvious choices such as police or firefighting, teaching or social work, a non-profit manager or an ombudsman.

And helping others can come in many less obvious forms.

The folks who pick up my garbage make my life easier and happier. The software writers that allow me to write a blog or access my bank accounts simply are heroes in my life. Truck drivers that deliver food supplies to my local supermarket keep me well nourished (and then some!).

Helping is often more subtle and broadly-based than we appreciate.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the book Of Mice and Men, as the law begins to close in, sweet Lennie heartbreakingly, unknowingly to him, meets his merciful death at the hand of his friend George.

Back in my own world, I did a Google search on my childhood friend John this week. I haven’t seen or heard a word of him since high school.

Sadly, I discovered that he died 7 years ago, 55 years old. His obituary picture looks just like the John I remember when you add in some lines and wrinkles, a few grey-streaked flecks adorning his temples.

His passing didn’t truly surprise me… but it did strike a nerve, an aching, sensitive scab was pulled back inside of me. I hurt for John then, and I hurt for John today.

John never knew it, and I’m even slow to understand it myself, but his struggles helped teach me a simple lesson: if you have a reason to get out of bed that is bigger than you, you will have a big life.

If you only help yourself, you live a small life.

Thank You John … rest now good soul…

-George?

-Shhhhh… it’s Ok Lennie… I told them…

Lennie and George.jpg

 

 

 

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Battle or Love Affair? Book vs. E-Reader

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Minion brawl

Let the bloody, eviscerating brawl begin…

  • Sydney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin
  • Ironman vs. Tough Mudder
  • Ali vs. Frazier
  • Tiger Cats vs. Argonauts
  • Hillary vs. Donald

I sit quietly gazing to where the evening’s flaming nectarine-pink sky meets the watery horizon in an arrow straight line, quietly pondering on the full spectrum of humanity’s aggressive battles.

Our world has suffered greatly and soared magnificently all because of the struggle of competition. Weeds and flowers entangled in Olympic rings.

My poor little heart was blown apart and scattered in pieces when, as a lovestruck teenager another A-hole… er… young man… outmuscled my charms and stole back his pretty ex-girlfriend whom I was head-over-men’s-70’s-style-high-heels  in love with.

There were no sun, stars, or moon tracing their arc across my miserable sky for many weeks…  (Just for the record she returned a few months later begging me, pleading… okay, mildly requesting… for a second chance when his allure faded quickly).

Competition. Suffered and soared.

Competition exists in countless areas of life,  Italian Pasta vs. Indian Curry or… Honda vs. Ford…

… or… traditional book vs. e-reader.

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I’ve lived these decades of my life with a reverence for books… those solid, stolid and satisfying reads and beautiful works of visual art arranged upright like beautiful ceremonial soldiers at attention in a ceiling-high dark-toned oak bookshelf.

I’ve fondled and nuzzled a book while warm sunshine caressed my toes stretching towards the ocean.

I’ve absorbed the lover’s touch, the alluring scent, the romantic feeling of flight at turning another enticing page, drawing me ahead with great expectation.

I’ve inhaled the words tracing mysterious laneways and winding paths across the pages; road trips where some incredibly talented author – a person just like you or me – has insidiously seized the inside of my brain and taken me intellectually and emotionally on a journey of scope and intensity well beyond my imaginings.

Who amongst us hasn’t remembered the passage of a memorable and meaningful story we read during the days of our younger selves?

read in train station

While backpacking my way across Europe in my early 20’s I sat in cavernous Munich hauptbahnhofs and Parisian gares patiently passing hours waiting for trains. Laid out against my backpack, I sipped strong espresso and read the at-the-time inspiring story of Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED before hopping in and out of train compartments and book chapters.

Then came the intensely human Leon Uris books (EXODUS, TRINITY) of ordinary people who grew into powerful figures within the founding of modern day Israel and struggling Northern Ireland.

The paperbacks I toted from Belgium to Denmark to Greece became grimy, worn, torn and tattered but the spellbinding lure of their stories remained.

And yet, despite all of this sensory wonder, this tactile magic, I have to admit that I’ve been largely wooed and converted from the traditional centuries-old hardcover or paper-bound book over to the slick, compact e-reader side of the tracks.

It’s just too damned easy.

I can carry a weighty bookshelf of reading material in the palm of my man-hand.

I can travel to any corner of the world, to the peak of Machu Picchu or the tombs of the Terra Cotta Warriors and in a moment, sit and become absorbed by a huge compendium of writing.

And even more magical is that, in my moments of fleeting ADHD need for change, a totally different reading experience is divinely available within a few seconds of Wi-Fi connection and a few dollars.

A new book, a new literary feast arrives at my table.

Woman reading an e-book on a tube train in London

Harry Potter may have his magic wand, but my e-reader (KOBO) contains a powerful wizardly set of its own potions.

The sorcery of the e-reader gives me a lighted page to read in a blackened room, a larger font for reading when my reading glasses have gone AWOL, a built-in dictionary that lifts me over the difficult word fences. These are truly powerful and alluring forces…

And yet…

Although I love the convenience of the electronic book, I reconnected over the last few weeks with my past. I found a comfortable homey place within myself as I became absorbed in a paperbound book (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) recently left behind by visiting friends.

The tender warm feel, the weight, the light sandpaper texture of paper against my skin was a sensual experience only heightened by the elegantly beautiful weaving of words within its pages. Each fulfilling sentence seemed to breathe deeply like a bursting popcorn kernel coming to life.

It was a combination of two souls – the physical, the emotional – where elation meets that relaxed sensation of returning home after a lengthy journey.

The same words read in an electronic reader would have likely seemed dimensionless, flat like a glass of Coke left on the kitchen counter overnight.

This is a brawl where no knockout punch will deliver satisfaction.

Any book, whether read from a heavy hardcover, a flimsy paperback, or a Kindle or KOBO, that delivers a sense of meaning to us – joy or heartbreak, entertainment or education – is a champion.

I won’t try to pick a winner in the “reading wars”.

There will be no Book’ish Bloodshed here today.

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PS. Where do YOU stand in the physical book versus e-reader universe?

 

 

 

 

The Non-Oprah Business Boys Book Club …

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Do you follow Oprah’s Book List?

She is HUGE in the book club world.

If I wanted to increase my tiny blog readership by millions overnight, I would just kidnap and drug Oprah and have her make a woozy public statement on Twitter or Facebook about how wonderful my blog is.

Then I could buy a Caribbean island and share evening cocktails with Richard Branson and Kate Upton, ” … I just love the saltiness of this Russian beluga caviar, don’t you Sir Richard?“… “Kate, you were fabulous in that Bartender video with Lady Antebellum!

Just FYI … Oprah’s latest book choice is called RUBY by Cynthia Bond. I haven’t read it so I can’t comment.

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I don’t follow Oprah’s list closely, but I do pay attention to another book list of someone I admire.

But first …

I’m an investor. Not a superstar investor  à la Carl Icahn or Warren Buffett or George Soros, but I do alright.

My largest stock market holdings are Apple and Microsoft, with that daffy featherbrained AFLAC duck holding down 3rd spot in the portfolio.

I have a great deal of respect for the thinking of business/investment leaders like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway).

Whether you hate or love business types, they’ve been creative in finding ways to enrich their personal bank accounts while simultaneously helping to create a HUGE group of others who can include themselves in the Millionaire’s Club.

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My own retirement “package” is in no small part thanks to their creative abilities … creation of products that people – myself included – want to buy, and creation of my personal wealth. Every billion iPads you buy means I get an all-expenses paid trip south.

Today though, I’m more interested in talking about how these business boys invest their “spare” time. Reading.

To my advantage over the years, I’ve read a number of investing and business books that Warren Buffett has recommended. Of course I didn’t read or learn enough to avoid losing $25,000 on YBM Magnex, a Canadian company that was actually Russian mob controlled. For real …

If you’re at all interested in stock market investing, you could do far worse than read Buffett’s recommendation of The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.

And just lately, I’ve begun looking over the annual reading list of Bill Gates … yup, the God of Microsoft… the Master of Mister Softy… the King of … well, you get my point.

Bill Gates is a consummate nerd, a ruthless, but savvy businessman who is now doing some incredibly amazing stuff in Third World countries as a philanthropist.

And because of his financial resources and connections to other wealthy individuals, he’s having as much or more of an impact on the health and welfare of millions than entire governments, including that of Barack Obama.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, Bill has assimilated the skills of time management. He finds a way to read a book each week, mostly non-fiction, with the occasional fiction novel slipping in from time to time.

I pat myself on the back if I can turn away from the absorbing Netflix dramas House of Cards or Orange is the New Black long enough to read one book per month.

So today, let me introduce you to Bill’s Book Club.

Below are 5 of Gates’ favourite reads from 2014, four of them non-fiction and the fifth a quirky, charming fiction novel:

  1. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.
  2. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  3. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil.
  4. Business Adventures, by John Brooks.

And finally, Bill Gates’ fiction choice and the book that I’ve read most recently. It’s called:

5. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

Rosie and Bill Gates

This is one quirky, sometimes confusing, sometimes hilarious novel because of its nerdy main character Don Tillman.

I don’t watch the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, but I’ve seen enough previews and interviews from the show to gather that Tillman would be a perfect fit if they were ever seeking new cast members.

Everything genetics professor Tillman pursues in life is given a research folder and a name… eg. The Wife Project, The Father Project, and yes, The Rosie Project. 

Professor Don Tillman is unmarried and his social ineptitude has resulted in a track record of bizarre and unsatisfactory dating experiences.

His interpretation of the statistics leads him to conclude he needs a wife, hence The Wife Project, which eventually morphs into The Rosie Project. This is where he decides to vet applicants for his Wife Project with a 16-page (double-sided) questionnaire, in the interests of efficiency. Yup, he really does have potential dates fill out the questionnaire.

Don is wired differently than most of us – he mentally assesses the age and BMI of everyone he meets – but he has integrity, focus, and determination, and it is pretty hard not to feel empathy with him even while laughing at his missteps.

It’s a slightly odd novel that also made me think about what makes relationships work and how we have to keep investing time and energy to make them better.

Don is out to lunch when it comes to subtle social cues. But if you need to secretly collect DNA samples from 117 people at a party (part of The Father Project), there’s nobody in the world who’s going to do a better job.

What Don allowed me to appreciate is that, just because somebody might not be highly literate in the language of emotions doesn’t mean he doesn’t have emotions, deeply felt emotions. He sees the world in terms of logic, but he feels just as deeply about that world as everybody else.

So, if you’re stuck in a nasty first-of-March blizzard, wind howling down your chimney, after the House of Cards episode ends, you can pick up Oprah’s book choice, RUBY.

Or maybe if you want to make your next read a fun “Project”, try a taste of Bill Gates’ choice in THE ROSIE PROJECT.

Invest in a good story.

Rosie Project

 

 

 

 

Before There Was 50 Shades … There Was My Man John …

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When I sat in eccentric old Mr. Batchelor’s Grade 9 English class, I dreamed of my own personal Fifty Shades of Grey scenario with about half of the girls in the classroom.

The short mini-skirts of the ’70’s era, revealing cream-coloured, porcelain-smooth teenage thigh skin were a “blurred lines” invitation to a 14 year-old male pubescent mind.

The scene outside my Grade 9 classroom...

A typical scene outside my Grade 9 classroom…

I was hormonally primed and more than ready to give up elementary schoolyard swings and slides and pounce onto a new sex-charged high school playground.

Yep, I was a squeaky-voiced early version of Christian Grey. My last name “Green”, akin to Grey, was an obvious prescient sensual sign of great things to come.

I was possessed of a totally literary kind of schoolboy perspective with high ideals and best of intentions … NOT!!

I’m pretty sure that not a single one of my imaginary classmates-harem gave this short, cherub-cheeked boy in the front left desk any thoughts close to what I was living in my preoccupied haze.

I was giftwrapped in my brain’s illusion, and there was no one that would take the wrapping off and make it real.

But … aside from my adolescent fantasy world, I enjoyed the class for some of the academic reasons too.

…………………

As a decent student, I relished reading stories and literature that drew me in and took me to worlds of which I knew nothing.

But, to take just one example, reading Shakespeare left me in a a muddled whirlwind of incomprehension and confusion. Good God, what did any of his Renaissance-era Olde English words mean?

I loved it when we travelled on field trips to Stratford (Ontario, Canada … not that OTHER Stratford) to watch the plays acted live, because mercifully, I could eke out an understanding of the story. Live theatre was a pretty reasonable substitute for Coles Notes.

The actions showed me what the words never had.

Plus there was lots of drama, fights, sword-play, and naughty 50 Shades-style bawdy skirmishing.

It was great fun watching the serious-minded Shakespearean actors jettison streams of airborne saliva all over each other in their emphatic acting roles. Strange how live acting never appealed to me as a life choice after seeing one of those plays.

Members of the company in Kiss Me, Kate , 2010. Photography by Erin Samuell.

……………………

Fortunately, I wasn’t a total literary loss — there was one author that we young learners read at various times throughout high school that was understandable for me.

He told empathetic stories with struggling, heartfelt characters like justice-seeking Tom Joad and dim-witted Lennie Small.

He created a world of real life drama that took possession over me, carrying me into a time warp that dramatized my parents’ and grandparents’ era…the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Who was this wonder author that penetrated the hormonally-charged mind of a teenage boy?

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men. East of Eden. Cannery Row.

Lennie and George...Of Mice and Men... so bittersweet.

Lennie and George…Of Mice and Men… so bittersweet.

I’ve told you in earlier blog posts that I’m not a great fan of Hemingway’s sparse writing.

On the other hand, I loved Steinbeck. I loved Steinbeck then, the way you might love Stephen King or Suzanne Collins or J.K. Rowling today.

By his words, you could taste the bone-dry prairie dust in your mouth. You could feel your heart breaking and tears rising when Lennie panics and accidentally snaps the neck of the boss farmer’s beautiful wife — Oh Lennie, why did you have to go and do that?

But I read his stories with different eyes in a different era from today. Society was a different place then, just as it is in every generation and time.

We look at the past world and see the words and actions of others as if they were occurring today. We judge Christopher Columbus by who we are now, not who he was in 1492.

Steinbeck chronicled an era, not unlike TV’s Mad Men, where women sat stoically in the background and waited for decisions to be made on their behalf.

Like obedient cattle, women were chattel, or sometimes Lady Chatterley, but never an equal co-driver or co-decision maker.

In those high school days, few of us ever saw his characters as being sexist or misogynistic.

Women were just people. 2nd Class people maybe, but it was what it was.

misogynistic-vintage-ads

Chapter 1 of The Grapes of Wrath had this telling scene of prairie folk fearfully surveying their destroyed livelihoods:

Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often.

And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.

The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes.

Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break.

Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. 

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.”

It’s a beautifully written passage of anguish and despair, finishing off with insight and hope.

But was this some kind of innocent early non-sexualized precursor to 50 Shades where women were meek and submissive – a place where the dominant male asserted his rightful supremacy?

Could you write a book today with lines like this?

Maybe, but I think that Steinbeck would more likely have this cheerless man and woman standing side-by-side, pondering the difficult choices to be made … together … equals. The man would want to know that she wouldn’t break as much as she wouldn’t want him to falter.

I still admire and enjoy Steinbeck’s stories, but I interpret and absorb the words differently.

The grey matter in this Green man’s head has been altered and shifted by time and experience. When I read a book (or view a movie) now that I took in as a younger person, I see it from the who and the where that I am now.

In a blog post I wrote about a year and a half ago, I told of my shock and dismay that 5o Shades of Grey had become such a popular phenomenon among women of all ages. It didn’t make sense to me that women would embrace a character like Anastasia Steele who would allow herself to be victimized and dominated so willfully.

It surprises the hell out of me that a society that clamours for gender equality, also enigmatically and breathlessly clamours for stories of female victimhood and inequality.

Who knows, perhaps in 20 years I’ll re-read 50 Shades and the words and scenes will look different to my older eyes just as Steinbeck’s stories and characters have changed for me over time.

NAH …

I’ll still yell at Anastasia not to sign that Dominant/Submissive contract with Christian Grey, and turn and run in the opposite direction.

50 Shades of Bad