Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Brother Hubert's Red Tricycle

I was in the back row of my ancient history class. I was in the 9th grade in a Catholic boarding school in Austin, Texas called St. Edward’s. My teacher was Brother Hubert Koeppen, C.S.C.. He told us a story about a little boy who wanted a brand new red tricycle for Christmas. He told his father that it would make him the happiest little boy in the world. Once he had his wish he quickly became bored. The little boy graduated from the tricycle to a red bicycle, a red motor scooter, a red motorbike, a red car, a red Ferrari, a red motor boat, a red yacht, a read Cessna and ultimately he became board with a red DC-6. Brother Hubert told us that only upon seeing God would the grown little boy finally find satisfaction, money-back guarantee. I have never forgotten that little story in which Brother Hubert gave us an informal proof for the existence of God.

Not too long ago, I was sitting having a caramel macchiato with whipping cream at a nearby Starbucks when I overheard a conversation between an old man and a young girl.

Old Man: Your father and I have a difference of approach to life and I am not really sure which one of us is right.

Young Girl: And what is this difference?

Old man: I believe in happiness and he believes in contentment. To be content you must not be too ambitious and you must go with the flow. You find a steady job and you stick to it. You don’t socialize too much and you avoid confrontation. Since this will ultimately reduce your stress you will be content.

Young Girl: And your version, what is it?

Old Man: I believe in happiness. To be happy you must set goals and be ambitious. You cannot be satisfied with a status quo. You seek to better yourself. You socialize and meet people. You sometimes become stressed out because you realize you have to compete to get where you are going.

Young Girl: Are you happy?

Old Man: No, but I think I may be getting there. And even now I am not sure which is better, to go for happiness or to be content. What do you want to be?

Young Girl: I want to be happy.

Today Rosemary and I drove our granddaughter to see a councilor near East Hastings and Renfrew. As we crossed Renfrew and Grandview Highway our granddaughter asked us if we were in the suburbs. I told her not quite. She immediately told us that the suburbs were ugly, full of fast food joints, Chinese restaurants and used car lots. She told us that she would never want to live in the suburbs. I thought that at her present level of school performance she might be doomed to living in the suburbs and earning a low hourly wage. But to avoid confrontation in the close quarters of the car I remained silent.

I wrote what is below on Saturday, May 19, 2012
That Meandering Melancholy That Is Entropy

Mexico City, 1968

In 1986 Rosemary, our two daughters and I moved to our present home on Athlone Street. As soon as we had purchased the corner house with a large garden I knew that I needed to buy something else. The house has two fireplaces. One is in the living room (we never use that fireplace) and the other in the den. I had second thoughts of having a stiff mortgage but Rosemary promised that if we bought the house the den would be called the smoking room and I could smoke my pipes and cigars in it. That did it and we signed on the dotted lines.

That first purchase was an antique, black slate, turn-of-the-20th century French mantel clock.

On our first night in our new house, as I lay in bed with my wife, I would peak outside the window and admire the fine view of 43d Avenue with its weeping birches. There was no Lougheed Highway. There were no neighbors on the other side of the wall as they were in our Burnaby townhouse. Best of all, the house was so quiet I could hear the chime of the clock from downstairs. It was sheer bliss.

A few days ago, John Kessel a recently discovered German-born clockmaker who has rapidly become my friend, brought a wonderfully repaired mantel clock. After all these years the clock went the way of entropy and the main spring broke and quite a few other parts followed suit. For about a year the clock lay silent and motionless. It was just another thing in our house that needed repairing. The roof might have to be done soon and the interior needs a paint job. We have four bathrooms but each one has some fixture that does not work. In one the leak underneath the tub needs to be seen to. We have been told that the only way is to make a hole in our living room’s vaulted ceiling.

Rosemary, when it is sunny puts sheets on the erstwhile beautiful wooden floors to slow the fading of the sun. It seems, sometimes like we are in a corner of a room which is the only place where things are as they were back in 1986.

For years we put most of our money into our children and grandchildren. What was left went into the garden. We bought premium plants and yuppie trees. I spent a fortune in all sorts of apparatus to have a perfectly manicured lawn. Our roses are the best.

But even our plants are showing entropy. Many of my hostas under the Western Red Cedar (all in protective plastic pots) have been attacked by an almost-intelligent root system. The Western Red Cedar has robbed my precious hostas of nutrient. Some have disappeared, others I have removed from their pots and nurtured back to life.

Trees have been dying and our beautiful Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is almost dead. I will have to cut it down.

It seems that it was only yesterday that in the height of summer we would place a blanket in the shade and put baby Rebecca on it while we all listened to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. It was not quite yesterday that both Rebecca and Lauren would run in their lovely flower dresses on Saturday, right through the kitchen and out to the garden. We looked forward to these all-day visits and dinner at our large Victorian crank table.

But then everybody grew up as we the grandparents started manifesting our own personal entropy with pains, constipation, flaccidity, heartburn, etc. Our breakfast tray is now full of bottles with pills.

It was only today, the usual day when we get the girls come early afternoon, and then my daughter Hilary and her husband Bruce show up later for my home-cooked meal. I could hear Hilary telling Rebecca, the oldest granddaughter, that I was going to make shish kabobs and that it might be worthwhile coming. She then informed us that Rosemary would review Rebecca’s math after dinner, kyboshing our usual family movie session.

In a fit of temper I told them all that I was not going to cook and that I was not going to make my famous ice tea and that was that.

So nobody showed up and Rosemary and I ended up early in bed and the quiet in the house was so that our new repaired mantle clock chimed and we indeed did hear it.

All the above brought to mind a story Brother Hubert Koeppen, C.S.C. told us in my 9th grade Ancient History class at St. Ed’s in Austin Texas. It was a story about a little boy who nagged his father to buy him a red tricycle. The purchase would make him the happiest boy in the world. The tricycle became a bicycle, a motor scooter, a motorcycle, a car, a red Ferrari… and so on. This was Brother Hubert’s so-called proof for the existence of God. Ultimately he was telling us, our desire for happiness could only be satisfied by the sight of God.

I am not entirely sure that Brother Hubert was right but I now understand, better than ever, that good things have a lifespan. Even new shoes get scuffed and suits become moth-eaten.

As I write this it is Sunday and I miss my granddaughters, my daughters and my friends who seem to be so far. I miss my father and my mother and the red-haired sister of mine that was born dead. I miss my childhood and galloping on the Argentine Pampa pursuing South American ostriches with the smell of rich humid earth and the occasional sight of a large OmbĂș.

I remember that day in 1967 when I gathered up enough courage to ask the blond, mini-skirted beauty, Rosemary Healey for a date. She got into my VW beetle and quickly did something that she has always done. She made herself comfortable on the seat by bringing up her lovely legs giving me glimpses of  thigh that suddenly made the VW have a pair of stick shifts. It seems it was only yesterday.

But I can count my blessings - or at least one blessing. And that is that in this meandering melancholy that is entropy, I can at least share it with my Rosemary.

Our bedroom - top windows - the boulevard and the birches

Rosemary is at Rebecca’s tutoring her in her math. I can hear the mantle clock. Most of the weeping birches on the boulevard have been long ago cut down.