Awe and shame

Van Gogh, Old Man with a Stick, 1882

I have recently acquired a stick. A sturdy stockman’s cane, made of ash, octagonal in cross-section, with a rather large crook, the kind of stick used to prod unwilling cattle into a pen or up a chute. This one is stamped “Stock Yards Hotel, Pittsburgh.” I got it for walking over uneven ground, as when we go to Crawford Lake and the Niagara escarpment trails. It is very good for the purpose. Steadies the step, and provides a convenient hook for climbing.

Other uses occur to me. A weapon, for example—in the unlikely event I have to fend off louts or, as we would have said in my youth, punks. In this reverie I call to mind the sketchy military police training from my days in the army, long ago, covering the use of the billy club or truncheon. The main idea being to poke rather than hit. Lifting the club up to strike invites having it wrested from your grip, not to mention that heads are hard, while a jab to any of several soft parts produces more effect with less energy. Then too the approved method for turning a belligerent drunk into a tip-toeing angel: stick grasped in the middle, shoved up the crotch from behind, a quarter turn, knuckles up, free hand on the collar—the bum’s rush.

I have not so far, to be truthful, encountered louts or punks, or even hooligans, but I did meet, the other day, coming home from the shops, a pleasant matron of a certain type: brisk, of indeterminate age, fit, all teeth and suntan. I thought at first I should know her. She opened with a gambit about the weather—she thought there had been rather too much rain—I countered with something about appreciating the abundance of wild flowers. This went back and forth. “Yes, look on the bright side!” she said, in parting, with the sort of patronising smile one gives to clever children, and in a flash I realised how I must have appeared to this woman. Not the armed and possibly dangerous rogue, the fearsome scourge of louts and punks, but an old man with a stick, perhaps lonely, a small bag of groceries in hand, ingredients, no doubt, for his sad and solitary evening meal, grateful for a kind word.

I am intrigued by the thing that actors do, the assembling of a limited repertory of imitative gestures, acquired God knows how, fabricating a convincing representation of a character, a life, a moment, more real than any reality. They themselves, the actors, not necessarily trustworthy in accounting for how the trick is done, or even quite knowing how it is done. In ordinary life we experience too this shaky transaction between performer and onlooker, this dissociation between intention and perception. Every prop or gesture or bit of costume an opportunity to invent and an invitation to interpret. A dance of control and hazard, of awe and shame.

I didn’t poke the good woman with my stick, but I thought about it.

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