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Living Back to Front

My brood – one bride plus one remaining brute equals a brood, for those of you who hate being told to “do the math!” – and I live in a three-bedroom attached house. Eco-bride emailed me the other day with the sales details for our (possibly fictitious) neighbours’ place a half-dozen houses down the row. (We’re not sure we’ve ever seen them.) What stood out to me was that the place apparently has four bathrooms, when it’s hard to imagine that as many as four people live there. My wife, meanwhile, was mock-offended that the ad “didn’t mention the friendly neighbours!” Ha. A sour little inside joke.

The whole point of places like this is to be free to ignore the neighbours. That’s why they’re all built backwards, as most suburban homes are. (Ours is more of a middle-class in-fill to what our real-estate agent thought of as a sketchy part of town – Vanier, for those who know Ottawa – but the same inversion principle applies.) The most prominent feature of our house is our garage, while the front door with its tiny front step is obviously something to pass through like a stealthy wind. That’s why our basketball goal off the drive is such an affront to our nearest neighbours.

We’re supposed to be invisible to each other. That’s why there are such tall and bland and ubiquitous fences. That’s why, ideally, one clicks the garage door opener and drives directly into the garage. That way, once you leave the hermetically sealed, climate-and-aural-environment-controlled ambience of your SUV, you can walk directly into the private foyer without having to risk the possibility of running into a human being not-of-your-same-address. That’s why most of us entertain only in the high-fenced micro-yards out the back patio doors.

And that’s why my wife is such an oddball when she throws a lawn chair out in our tiny front yard to read the newspaper on a warm spring morning. I like our little house, but I’m nostalgic for the old houses where I grew up, the ones with a rambling front porch where folks would drink their coffee, watch their kids, wave at passersby, jibe with the neighbours. And didn’t mind waiting for the bathroom to come free.

ODY: 31/365

As I said a couple of days ago, I do have to get out more. Out of myself, especially, out of my head. I want, too much, to keep my progress secret, to develop In House, to fulfil that mythology of the Self-Made Man that is so central to our cult of individualism, whether rugged or otherwise. (It’s a damaging myth, especially for the males at whom it is mainly aimed.) When I was in grade 7, my grasp of physics was even less certain than it is now, but here’s the thing. I believed that if I could only get strong enough, I’d be able to grasp the seat of my desk with one hand and the side bar with the other and lift both desk and me off the ground. I really did. At some level, I think I still do. 

When I tried out for the varsity basketball team as a walk-on in my second university year, I was in tremendous physical condition: stairs, weights, long runs, line sprints. I’d had a gym mainly to myself, and my shooting and handling had taken a huge jump. I was only 5’11”, but strong and quick. However, I had never spoken to the coach, had failed to find the best games where the stars and the other wannabes were. When tryouts were on, I suddenly turned into Mr. Team, distributing the ball and not showing off until too late the individual skills I’d worked so hard to hone. In short, I made every mistake in the book, which mostly came down to this: I was trying to lift myself by my own bootstraps. I was too much on my own.

 

So tonight, the Old Dog will be doing something he is not wired to do (the New Routine). As the next step in my year-long quest for mid-life guitar glory (the New Trick), I am going to join a bunch of other beginners at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. Guitar 101. (And with all these days on the Dégas, an el cheapo instrument that my son pulled from the garbage and glued, I’d better be better than anyone else! Absurd Expectations R Us.) But here’s the real point. I’m going to try the easy way. I’m going to learn from experience. Success leaves clues and I think I’ll try to read ‘em. It’s not worth less if I get some help along the way. Try easier for a change…

 

Sheesh. You’d think a teacher and coach would know these things for himself. What I have taught, in the main, has been stuff that I do (or did) pretty well. But when I’d encourage kids to work together in mutually challenging, mutually reinforcing groups, or to find someone better than them and follow in their slipstream, I was preaching to the preacher. I still am. Still trying to shed the label I’ve worn so long, even as a team sport athlete: Does Not Play Well With Others.