Sunday, June 16, 2013

Can I Trust My Memory?

"Since I treasure my memories, I'm horrified by the idea that I'm making them up." - Len Blum

Back in the early 00s, my brother wrote a column for a national newspaper called "Going to the Movies."  It was a short brilliant column published every Friday.  In it, he'd compare the information available about two films that were playing in his city.  Based on rumours, feelings, and whimsy, he would choose one to see.  The column would end with a "bottom line" about the impact of his chosen movie.

One such column looked at East is East, about a Pakistani-British family, and U-571, about Americans who capture a German submarine.  U-571, Len wrote, makes him feel anxious:  "In the Second World War, two of my uncles were serving on a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer when their vessel was blown in half by torpedoes from a German U-boat.  Each was on a different half of the ship, and each was certain that the other had been killed.  Maybe that's why I don't like German subs.  In any case, both uncles survived."

Every week I would email my brother's column to family members living around the world, including those two uncles.  My uncle Abe wrote me back saying this:
"If the story refers to my wartime experience, there is absolutely no truth to it.  Baron von Munchausen couldn't have dreamed up a more fanciful tale."
My uncle was on a boat that was struck by a bomb from the Luftwaft.  My other uncle was in the navy but except for travelling to Scotland, he stayed on land.

My brother was quite upset when I told him that the uncles denied his story.  The following week, he wrote in his newspaper column that he was once again considering seeing U-571:
"As I mentioned last week, U-571 is a fictitious war story about a bunch of Americans who capture a German submarine.  Speaking of fictitious stories, it turns out that I was entirely wrong when I wrote that my two uncles were on a Canadian destroyer that was blown in half by a German submarine.  My sister spoke with them, and apparently this never happened.
I'm very upset because I remember hearing this story when I was a child and thinking it was wonderful.  Since I treasure my memories, I'm horrified by the idea that I'm making them up." 
I understand how his memory might have been jumbled.
  1. My uncle's ship, the HMCS Matane, destroyed a German U-boat with depth charges three months before it was hit from the sky.
  2. The Matane was attacked, just not by a submarine.
  3. My uncle survived the attack and went on a short leave to Scotland where he did meet up with his brother.  Apparently they spent a few days together driving the people at the gatehouse crazy by their coming and going dressed in identical uniforms.
Shake these various stories up in a child's brain and add forty years and a whole new "memory" appears.

It turns out that even memories of our most intense times are unreliable, and it doesn't require 40 years for the mash-up.  Still, I treasure my memories - even if I am making them up.  What about you?


Unit: Annan 20 Jul 1944
Bay of Biscay, South of Brest Peninsula. HMCS Matane was struck by a glider bomb, launched by a Dornier 217. The ship was rendered dead in the water. There were three fatalities and a number of injuries attributable to the attack. Matane was towed into Plymouth by HMCS Monnow, and after major repairs returned to service.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Are You on the Level?

In the fall of 1975, I moved 25 miles north of Whistler B.C., to live and teach on a First Nations reservation. There was a shortage of homes, so teachers were moved into mobile homes that the band had bought from a logging company.

Two stairs led up to the door at the side of the trailer. If you entered, you'd see a kitchen to the right, a small living room in front of you, and a bathroom and bedroom down a short hall to the left. It was cosy, but it slanted quite steeply towards the bedroom.
I asked the band council to level it and went south to Vancouver for the weekend.

When I came back on Monday, it was level, but I couldn't open the doors.  

They had to come back and reslant it.

Tell All The Truth

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.  
            Emily Dickinson

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Where Do You Draw the Pride Line?

When we think we've been mistreated, our self-respect (if we have any) will speak up.  It will say, "Do not let yourself get mistreated again (at least not in the same way by the same people).  

It will say, "Here is where we draw a line."  
Let's call this the pride line.

A full-time job came up at a college where I was teaching sessionally.  The interviewers asked whether I would continue to work for them if I did not get the full-time job.

I said, "Absolutely."  I had only been teaching for them briefly.  I was learning a lot and having fun.  Another interviewee told me that she said "no" to that question.  She believed that she deserved the job and not getting it would cross her pride line.

I ran into her a few months later.  She was working as a substitute teacher at my daughter's school.

Dave, a friend of mine, is a freelance writer of music articles and reviews.  The national newspaper had been publishing Dave's articles for 15 years in addition to articles written by the writer on full-time staff.  When the staff writer was re-assigned, and the paper needed someone new, Dave was not even interviewed.  When Dave phoned the arts editor, he was told that a well-known broadcaster had been given the position.  The editor then encouraged him to continue to submit ideas for freelance articles.  Dave said, "I don't think so."  Dave had found his pride line and was not willing to cross it.

I hung around the community college and was eventually given a full-time job.  During government cutbacks of the 1990s, the director that hired me retired.  A hatchet man took his place and, soon after, I was laid off.  A year later, I was back to teaching part-time (twice the work, half the pay).  It was soon evident that they had laid off too many people, and by Y2K they were advertising for full-timers again.  The director interviewing me for my former job was the same guy who had laid me off.  This time, not only was I not rehired, but the director did not even let me know.  After waiting anxiously for a week, I contacted HR and they told me that the position had been filled the day of my interview.  Six weeks later, the director called me to say that I didn't get the job, but would I be interested in a part-time or sessional position in the fall.  I said, "I don't think so."

I had found my pride line -- but I had also contacted another college.  It was in a city 100 km away - 75 minutes door-to-door.  They called me immediately after my interview to say they had courses for me to teach in the fall and  would schedule them over three days to accommodate the extra travel.  It was completely worth it.  I was lucky.

It's complicated.  On one side of the line is humility and gratefulness.  On the other side is pride and self-respect.  Have you ever had to draw a pride line?  Are you glad you did?