Who says I oughta know?

(This column appeared in The Sault Star July 17, 2023)

What’s the proper way to act when one’s gender is being savaged by a very loud chorus of women?

I could ask Miss Manners, but she’s on the cusp of 85. I doubt if a woman that age really “gets” Alanis Morissette.

So I’ll pose that question to you, not-so-gentle readers. And I’m asking for myself, not a friend, because I was the one who found myself all ears in a crowd that seemed to be all lungs.

Puzzled? Let me explain.

It happened in June at the Festival of Beer at the bushplane museum. I was the designated old fogey in a very congenial group of men and women about a generation younger than me. 

The other males drifted away in search of more beer to sample. Then the band launched into a very good cover of You Oughta Know, Morissette’s jagged little 1996 Grammy Award winner. Clearly it struck a chord in the women around me.

Now, I’ve always enjoyed You Oughta Know. It is venom you can dance to.

More than that, the lyrics are great, vicious and explicit though they may be. And Morissette pours her entire martyred soul into the song, her voice atremble with anger, spitting invective as if it were battery acid. No wonder she also won best female rock performance that year.

So I was on the verge of singing along (because I’d completed lots of beer-sampling by then) when I noticed the vehemence and seeming passion with which the women in our group, and it seemed almost every female in the hangar, joined in on the chorus:

“Well I’m here, to remind you/ 

Of the mess you left when you went away/ 

It’s not fair, to deny me/ 

Of the cross I bear that you gave to me/ 

You, you, you oughta know.”

It struck me that this was more than just a catchy tune from their youth. It seemed that the song’s sentiments reflected their lived experience. You Oughta Know appears to be the go-to rage anthem for women scorned.

British playwright William Congreve first mentioned, in 1697, that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and it still ain’t news. 

Morissette didn’t invent the rage song. Think of Aretha Franklin’s emphatic song Think, or R-E-S-P-E-C-T, for that matter. 

There’s Heart’s Barracuda, Linda Ronstadt’s You’re No Good, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, Joan Jett’s I Hate Myself for Loving You, The Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl, Taylor Swift’s Picture to Burn — even Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got a Gun.

Way back in the 1960s, Lesley Gore slammed her man with You Don’t Own Me. 

This was the same Lesley Gore who also hit gold with It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To), lamenting that “my Johnny” and Judy had left at the same time, holding hands. 

When Gore later came out as a lesbian, it seemed the joke was on Johnny: had she actually been crying over Judy? 

There are men’s rage songs, of course, but many of them have a thematic affinity with It’s My Party: the woman runs off with his best friend, taking his pickup and his dog, and he greatly misses the dog, truck and best friend.

She got the gold mine and he got the shaft, as it were.

What sets Morissette’s song apart from most of the rest is its blunt and overt sexuality. In fact, it seems almost everything the singer misses about Mr. Duplicity is something done without wearing clothing.

That sexuality made my position (old man abashed) a little awkward, standing there while the women belted out the chorus, seemingly for lack of a more lethal weapon.

Sure, my presence was incidental and no outrage was aimed at me. For one thing, younger people seem to think seniors are asexual, perhaps having ceded their lust as a condition of receiving Old Age Security cheques.

But they might have reasoned that any man who has lived to a crusty old age surely must have scorned a woman or two along the way. Guilty as charged.

Like other men, I left a few messes when I went away, though surely not as big as the messes I made while I was still there. (As comedian Sandra Shamas noted in the title of one of her shows, My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Gonna Be Laundry.)

What man hasn’t? What woman, too, for that matter?

As the audience participation was demonstrating, there’s no shortage of scornees in this world.

So though I was a bystander to the communal act of musically dismembering remembered dispensers of scorn, my ignorance of the situational ethic still made me uncomfortable.

Had I joined those women, pumping my fist in the air with every “you,” it might have seemed like cultural appropriation.

Feigning interest in something on the floor could be perceived as an admission of guilt.

Pulling out a cellphone and checking for messages might be seen as callously dismissing the wave of righteous collective emotion.

Nope, I had no idea how to act. 

Though I suspect if I had asked one of the women, she would have said I oughta.

An (im)modest proposal on modesty

(This column appeared in The Sault Star June 2, 2023)

I was accused recently of being too modest.

Really. I’m not bragging.

It happened before a theatrical event (I had been cast to type, as a member of the audience), when a woman smiled at me as if she knew me.

That compelled me to smile back at her as if I knew her. In truth, I couldn’t place her for the life of me.

This sort of preamble to socially awkward conversation happens way too often these days. 

It’s partly because I’m a senior. My memory powers, modest to begin with, are waning.

And appearances changed so much during the Covid gap years that my brain gropes for a name even when confronting my own face in the mirror.

As well, strangers sometimes recognize me from the mugshot on this column, which, in a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, hasn’t aged one bit in a number of years.

Is it immodest to illustrate this column with a previously published photo of the author grinning immodestly? You decide.

In this case, that was the case.

After confirming that I was not Tom Mills the astrophysicist or Tom Mills the mass-murderer, the woman made some flattering comments about my writing.

I responded, as I generally do, with some self-deprecating (but possibly true) remark to the effect that any marginally literate person with a questionable sense of humour could do what I do.

“Oh, you’re too modest,” she laughed.

Upon reflection, I had to agree with her, and not just because I’m also too agreeable.

“People are always telling me that,” I replied. 

“Excessive modesty must be my greatest sin.”

The expression on her face changed, she spotted someone else she thought she recognized and she dashed off, leaving me to bask immodestly in the glow of my clever repartee.

Continuing on in that vein (or perhaps vain) of self-evaluation, I had to admit that modesty is one of my strong suits. 

In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in all of Algoma as modest as I am.

Not to blow my own horn, but some might consider me to be one of those MOATs — Modestest Of All Time.

I could almost feel my head shrinking. Must be all the humility, I thought.

But then it occurred to me that being described as too modest might not actually be a compliment.

Think of a lot of those other “too” phrases, like “you’re too good to me” (which might mean “stop bringing me your leftover meatloaf”) or “you’re too kind” (which might mean “I can walk down a flight of stairs without someone pushing me from behind”).

Some of them have a touch of irony to them, or perhaps deliberate insincerity.

“Too modest” might be like “too smart for his own good,” “too clever by half,” “too big to fail,” or “too beautiful to live”: a thinly veiled insult that some people are too thick to catch on to.

As the above suggest, some “too” expressions are actually backhanded criticisms, like “protest too much” (meaning to deny an accusation so strenuously that it must be true) or “too big for his own britches.”

At this point in my contemplations I was too befuddled to know if I was too modest, too immodest or just had a modest amount of modesty. 

But clearly, when it comes to the virtue of modesty, there can be too much of a good thing.

Thankfully, in this business it’s not hard to find someone out there who thinks your writing talent is decidedly modest.

Yep, there are always generous servings of humble pie on life’s banquet table.

We’re never too old to learn that lesson.

Local strawberries can be subversive

(This column appeared in The Sault Star July 10, 2023)

I picked my own strawberries the other day. 

Boy, did I ever get ripped off,

First, not a single local berry had that huge white core you come to expect with imported strawberries. What’s with that? Are they deformed?

Second, the flavour of these local berries is very, very strong, almost obscenely so. It you enjoy using your imagination when tasting imported berries, or want something that reminds you of those strawberry pop-tarts you enjoyed as a child, you’re going to be disappointed.

Oops. Wrong Strawberry Fields picture

And juicy! These berries practically hosed down my tonsils when I bit into them. Sensory overload or what. 

Blessedly, you can drop an imported strawberry on a white t-shirt and not have to worry about pre-soaking. I think thoughtful scientists have genetically engineered them for juicelessness to spare your clothing.

Fourth, I don’t think there was a single Mexican or Central American person picking in the field with me, even though the pay rate (zero) was competitive with their usual wage.

That made me feel a little guilty. By picking my own local berries, I was affecting the livelihood of low-wage-earners from south of the Donald Trump Memorial Wall.

And that got me thinking about how many others I was depriving of part of their livelihood.

Here’s a few more that came to mind:

— growers, sorters and packers in places like California, Florida and the aforementioned Mexico;

— suppliers of water, fertilizers and equipment to the strawberry growers

— plastics companies that make berry containers that won’t biodegrade until eons after I do;

— label designers and manufacturers for the packages;

— truckers to haul berries anywhere between 2,200 and 6,400 kilometres;

— oil workers to extract, refine and ship petroleum products to fuel those trucks;

— truck manufacturers;

— truck stop owners and employees;

— highway builders and maintenance crews; 

— highway patrol officers;

— border officials;

— warehousing companies and their employees;

— those who design, produce and distribute advertising flyers;

— people who maintain grocery store websites;

— grocery store building lessors;

— supermarket owners and employees;

— grocery chain shareholders;

— billionaires like Galen Weston.

Thinking of all the people who would suffer from my selfish act of picking my own strawberries at a field almost close enough to walk to (although probably I wouldn’t have eaten all the berries during the walk home), almost brought a tear to my eye.

I felt sorry even for Galen Weston: didn’t you just love it when he’d come on TV to tell us about things we could do with those wonderful President’s Choice products? Or did you want to return the favour and tell him what he could do with his PC products?

I began to feel so guilty that I went back to the pick-your-own place and told the guy I wanted to return all of the strawberries.

No way, Jose, he said, apparently foolishly mistaking me for a temporary migrant agricultural worker.

“You picked ‘em, you bought ‘em.”

But that’s not strictly true.

I had waddled away from his patch with a whole bellyful of berries that I gobbled up while picking — free of charge.

And I have to say that little pickers’ perk of yours is the berries, local farmer guy.