by Yule Heibel on August 4, 2003

It’s too bad I’m such a techno-peasant. My 9-year old daughter had to write out the HTML command that allows one to make links in blog entries (up to then I had been using the “shortcuts” that are built into this software, but it’s actually much faster to type the HTML command & copy & paste the relevant URL). I finally memorized it, but she had to write it out on a piece of paper for me first. Sad, isn’t it? That’s what a graduate degree in art history gets you. She, meanwhile, hasn’t been blogging because she’s too busy in the Redwall online community, and has now become a sort of editor-contributor on a popular Redwall site. For her, this virtual stuff is practically second nature, and I’m alternately amazed and concerned. I keep an eye on things, and sometimes I compare and contrast with my childhood.

My current technical problem is that I’m starting to add more blogs to the roll, and I can’t alphabetize them anymore. I get an error message. I don’t really care that they’re not alphabetized, but now it bothers me that some are and others won’t be. I also had to change how long “news items” stay on the front page because I needed to have a news item disappear off the page: I used a photo of a Snowbird pilot from the eponymous site, and couldn’t size it down to manageable proportions. Pathetic. It’s not that I’m so dumb that I can’t get it if it’s explained, but that for most things there’s no one around to explain it. If it’s explained concretely, I can do it. Dave Winer nicely explained how to add the “trackback” feature on these sites, although I had to write out his instructions because I couldn’t trust myself to memorize the actual (tiny) macro or its correct placement. There are many things I need to write down.

For example, in March 1965 my parents took my 6th oldest sister and me to Canada — specifically, to Winnipeg. Actually, that’s not true: my father and this sister (who is nearly 8 years older than I) had already emigrated in November or December 1964. For my birthday in December 1964, I distracted my mother from her impending nervous breakdown over her upcoming departure to what must have loomed like Novo-Sibirsk by setting the Christmas tree on fire. In March she and I went. It’s a memory that’s clear in places, awfully blurred in others. I didn’t speak a word of English — well, maybe one or two words, since I had visited another sister (#4) and her RAF husband on various British bases in the UK. I have a vivid memory of getting some ridiculous pointy white shoes when I was about 6 and marching around London for miles until I cried because my feet hurt so much. But my English skills were pretty near zero. Getting lost by myself in Brussels while visiting yet another sister (#1) didn’t miraculously awaken a French-speaking gene or anything, so why should brief visits to England have done anything for my language skills?

Winnipeg in March really is like Siberia: blasts of Arctic air, mountains of frozen ice and snow. A week or so after arriving, I had to go to school. All my clothes were dark — I must have looked like such an immigrant, fresh off the boat. Lucky we at least didn’t wear kerchiefs. My mother thought the girls all dressed like Russian peasants: thick pants over which you wore the “proper” girl skirts and dresses. But the weather determined things, whether you came from town or country, and style was not a priority. Not having language meant feeling even less than peasant, though: it felt like being stoneage. Ugh, grunt, guh, ugh.

My first day at a Canadian school: the middle of March, just about 3 months past my 8th birthday, incapable of understanding or speaking, surrounded at recess by curious kids who asked questions I didn’t understand. A teacher hurtled past with a pot of hot water because yet another kid had gotten his tongue frozen to a galvanized metal fence post. Even on that first day they had sent me to school by myself. Just as they had sent me out alone in downtown Brussels to buy liver at the butcher’s, armed only with a little shopping list in French. I never found the butcher shop, I got lost, I wandered around Brussels for a very long time amidst rows upon rows of very tall art nouveau apartment buildings. I was perhaps 7, but not yet 8. My parents were like that. I was number 7, I was not planned, and I could get lost, and often did. I got lost in Norwich, I got lost in Brussels, I got lost in Calgary when I was 8, the first summer in Canada. I got lost in the cracks, I got lost in substances, and I survived by not caring one whit.

Except for things and concepts and ideas that were shown to me. Is that what would bring me back? I had a teacher in those first months in Winnipeg whose name I think was Mrs. Dyck. She was a Mennonite and had a few words of German, so she took it upon herself to keep me after school to go through primers with me. Since I’m not dumb, and since I care for things that are shown to me, I learned to speak, read, and write English within weeks. In the beginning, I did have some problems with the “th”-sound though. Very early on, still learning English, I misspelled “that” as “dat,” which was a double faux-pas since “dat” is low German for the high German “das,” which is both the gender-neutral article as well as the word for “this.” “Dat” is also sometimes used by particularly careless (dialect) speakers to replace the female article “die,” as well as “dass” (“that,” near to “which”). My misspelling was so glaring and I remember it so well because it seemed to me even then symbolic of my family’s seriously restrictive poverty: it was as though I had let it escape into perception, and it just exhaled on the page, shaming me like some giant fart. That was one of the negative things I remember caring about: shame. That, and feeling guilty about being alive, because, even though I felt guilty over having messed up my mother’s exceedingly unhappy life, I was often happy, I often felt lucky, I was often full of curiosity, which only made me feel even guiltier.

In the coming years I had many reasons to shut down more and more, not to give a damn, because if I cared, it hurt, but I didn’t fully start that way. My mother liked to tell me, very earnestly, as though this was a hard-won insight on her part that she was sharing with me (and knowing today how clinically depressed she was, in its wrong, hurtful way it was): “Don’t try too hard, you’ll only be disappointed.” Her favourite maxim, however, shared sometimes during those rare moments when a touch of mania infused her with gallows humour, at other times freely dispensed with dour, depressed resignation, was: “Life is like a chicken coop ladder, full of sh*t from top to bottom.” Ah yes, life lesson, language lesson, repeat after me: Ugh, grunt, guh, ugh.

The first Winnipeg summer came. It was hot, very hot and dry, and there were many mosquitoes, and it was common to see small planes spraying entire neighbourhoods with DDT and whatever else was on offer to kill the bugs. Breathe deeply. September next, back to school. By now I was bored. About a month into the new school year, I was skipped ahead a grade. Would school get more interesting now? No. The only truly new thing was that we had French now: Bonjour, la classe. Moi, je m’appelle M. Drouit et je suis le professeur. C’est beau aujourd’hui, n’est-ce pas, mais peut-etre il fait pluit. Le matin il y a eu beaucoup de soleil. Repetez apres moi. Blah blah blah, or as they probably say in French, bleui, bleui, bleui. I was 8 and in stinking lousy grade four, stuck in the lockstep system and bored right out of my mind. I’d conquered English and my disappointment was great that there wasn’t anything more, but of course I was an obedient child and guilty by virtue of existing, hence I would listen to my mother and not try very hard so as to avoid the disappointment I felt so keenly. Keep your head down, you’re undeserving. We ended up moving more times than there are school grades, and I don’t remember much, except that for some reason, I must have woken up somewhere, somehow. Something hormonal perhaps.

It’s a strange thing, but in the end, life will have its way with you if you’re lucky, and it likes being awake. And you must hold your head up, for you’ll see further and improve your aim, whether it’s lofty or targeting some butt. As for disappointment: yes, it’s real, but on good days I feel that I own the freaking chicken coop ladder. Besides, that stuff is great fertilizer.

And while I might still be a techno-peasant, I have a 21st century ally: a smart daughter.

Ugh, grunt, guh, ugh.


Joel August 5, 2003 at 6:40 am

Blogrolling is a nice way of managing your blog links. I’m sure that your daughter can show you how to insert the code and if she can’t, maybe this old man can help you. 😉

Art history? I nearly majored in that.

Yule Heibel August 5, 2003 at 3:29 pm

Isn’t it odd that we should be posting autobiographical stuff about dysfunctional families at the same time? It must be an August thing, dog days and all that.

Joel August 8, 2003 at 12:37 am

I don’t know what brought it on. I just pulled out my notebook and the stuff started to appear. I am amazed and frightened by it, to tell the truth. These aren’t recovered memories — I’ve not forgotten what was done — but putting them down where others can see them and seeing with my own eyes what I have known all these years makes me question again and again why I haven’t turned into a monster.

I know you think that I have achieved mastery over my upbringing, but I don’t feel that I can say that. It’s true that physical violence isn’t a part of my life and I keep it mostly out of my daily life, but I fear the man at the keyboard sometimes.

Moreover I fear the loneliness that comes from these revelations. People see me as someone to avoid, not speak to. What if he’s a ticking time bomb? What if he finds out my address and comes after me?

I know that I am no such person. But this fear of me gets weary, tiresome. And I wonder if a man carrying all the baggage that I do can give the world anything new, original. It seems the fashion for self-revelation about abuse has passed. No one wants to discuss it anymore. They’re off reading other books.

Yule Heibel August 8, 2003 at 1:35 am

Well, maybe it’s not about mastery — who wants to be a slave, eh? You’re dealing with it, though, versus pretending. But I know what you mean about suddenly letting loose with revelations about one’s past: it just kind of roars out, and it is scary, because it’s not private. Must be why the Catholic church has confessionals where you don’t see who you’re confessing to: it makes the words flow, I guess, only that blogs can be confessionals with built-in microphones broadcasting to anyone who wants to hear. But you know what?, nearly 100% of the world doesn’t pay attention to blogs, and after a while it rolls off the page. (Although I have had some interesting referrers and someone emailed me about a yoga posting of a couple of months ago — sheesh!). And on that note: you never know if some kid or adult won’t happen upon your post and have an “aha” moment, some kind of realization that their particular hell isn’t unique (one), or that they don’t have to continue existing quite like that (two). I don’t think that telling the truth is a bad thing. Maybe it’s a personal-political dialectic, a way to be in the world, even if the mainstream publishing fashion has changed.

Joel August 8, 2003 at 6:01 am

They will always nail you on a mistake. It’s the sharing of self to self that is missing in most comments.

I realize that the whole obsession with politics is just a way that a lot of bloggers use to prevent self-examination. Maybe it’s the Catholic in me — who is not yet dead — continually going back over my actions to see if I am all right, to see if I have strayed off the path of sanity into insanity. Could my take on the world be wrong? It’s unnerving to ask such questions because people who apparently examine themselves far less than I attempt to do are the first to supply answers. This isn’t always the case, but nevertheless, I despair.

Recently I read that the more you write and the more you get into writing, the lonelier you will feel. You keep going, like the zen master or the monk keeps going. Why? Is it because of the habit? Is it because of the high? I don’t know. Could I be standing on higher ground looking down at less self-realized people or am I the blind one?

The cure could be not asking such questions or it could be simply not answering them.

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