Word of the Day: Do-over

Growing up with a mentally ill parent is probably not anyone’s idea of a fun time. Certainly it leaves a mark; my brother had nightmares well into his 30s and to this day I bolt like a rabbit from anyone who appears to be even momentarily off their medication. When Bluetooth devices first appeared on the market, I found myself dashing wildly from one side of the street to the other and back again to avoid the business-suited folks apparently babbling to themselves.

Bluetooth! Run away, run away!

It does however, given the passage of time, provide for some deeply rich stories around the campfire, provided your audience is a) liquored up fairly liberally, and b) of a somewhat twisted turn of mind. Had I desired a career in stand-up comedy, I’d have enough material to last me into my 90s. (Me, leaning on Zimmer frame & snapping dentures mirthfully, “…and then there was the time that she put on a Roger Whittaker record at 2 in the morning, lit about 60 candles and danced a Highland Fling buck-naked in the living room. Yep…heh heh…those were the days.”)

Of course, as with many things, even seemingly horrific things, it wasn’t all bad. When my mother was on her medication, she was actually quite interesting, often pleasant and even funny on occasion. She loved nature and introduced my brother and me to wilderness camping when I was 9 and he was 7. Many a cold winter’s night passed with the three of us curled up on the couch or on my bed, my mother reading Paddington Bear aloud and cracking up right along with us.

Hast thou homework, whelp?

But without warning, the tide would suddenly shift and my brother and I would find ourselves standing outside our house after school, looking uneasily at the door and nudging each other. “You go in first.” “No, I went last time. You go in.” Inside, my mother would be dressed as Janis Joplin, say, and laughing crazily to herself while stirring a pot of something vile on the stove. Or, spying us hovering on the sidewalk, she would tear the door open and intone biblically, “Thou children wilt get thyselves INDOORS at once and commence thine homework.” You just never knew, really.

With the latter personality came a perfectionism and strictness that makes some of the world’s more atrocious prison camps look like the Windsor Arms. Bedrooms were minutely inspected. Toilet paper was handed out on an as-needed basis. The slightest infractions (speaking at the table, drinking water without permission) were met with crushing punishments, from a beating (preferable, actually), to standing in the corner for the day, to long stints of house arrest. I missed my Grade Six end-of-year party, and the sendoff for a beloved teacher, Mrs Beatty, because I had let the porch door close too loudly several months previously.

One particularly memorable day my brother, having committed some sin or other, was given the unenviable task of mowing our lawn. We lived on a large corner lot, with many gardens and shrubs around which to manoeuvre, and had an ancient, stiff, creaky push-mower — the kind about which Yuppies blither on nostalgically these days, making me want to smite them hard.

It's this or the water-board, kids.

Being a young teenager, he did what any kid would do and gave the lawn a cursory once-over. He was strong as an ox from being on the swim team and it actually wasn’t a bad first try. I, on the other hand, was a kind of failure-to-thrive creature with arms like pipe cleaners, and couldn’t have mowed that lawn if my life depended on it — which it occasionally did.

Anyway, he did a passable job of it and went inside to report to our Head of Household. “Stand aside,” our mother intoned in a booming basso profundo. “I shalt inspect thy labours.”

The use of King James’ English was always a bad sign, and I could almost hear my brother’s heart sink in tandem with my own. “Oh shit,” I thought. “He’s in it now.” I was hiding in my treehouse and as was my custom, I stayed very, very still.

My mother proceeded out to the yard and began to eyeball the lay of the land. She cruised past the rock garden, along the edge of the alyssum bed, and made her way to the front of the house where she swept her mighty gaze across the expanse of grass and mock-orange shrubs. My brother trailed uncertainly at her side, like a dog on its way to the vet — still hopeful that maybe, just maybe, they were going to the park instead.

But no. “Imperfect!” cried the maternal unit. (Really, she should have been a Dalek.) “Thou wilt do it over.” She pointed my brother toward the ancient lawn mower — wisely, he had not put it away — and swept imperiously into the house, closing the door firmly behind her.

Medicate! Medicate!

After another half an hour or so, he parked the mower beside the garage once more and once again presented himself at our mother’s feet. Out she swept and made another tour of the grounds. “Hmmm…” she said. “Hmm.” I could almost see my brother’s ears twitching.

Ah, perfection...oh, hello, Doctor...

And then…our mother lay down on the grass and sighted along the tips of the blades. “Hm!” she said, and got to her feet. She stared down at my brother, furious. “Uneven!” she cried. “Do it over!”

I won’t belabour the point but the afternoon soon melted into early evening, which found my poor brother on his hands and knees with a pair of nail scissors, hiccuping with quiet sobs, doing it over, and over, and over again. He never did get it right – sort of like army boot camp, where your shoes will never be shined correctly, ever –  and was sent to bed without supper.

And for those of you wondering why I did not help him, I’ll say only that I knew better. We each suffered alone, but later on, after lights-out, one of us would sneak into the other’s room and we would talk in the dark, cuddled up like pups. Nothing sinister about it; it’s one of the things I miss about him, actually, that stark, desperate camaraderie born of having a common enemy.

Oddly, I have been reminded lately of the grass-snipping incident – in a diluted way of course. I am working on a project that is being overseen by someone who seems to have attended the “I’m not going to tell you what I want, but whatever you do will be wrong!” school of management.

The project arrived nearly a month late on my desk, skewing my summer schedule badly, and has been what my friend Katerina would call a cockadoody clusterfuck from the outset. I spent the first week doing, then redoing, then re-redoing one small part of the work. Each time I would send it off to the Dear Leader, and each time it would be returned to me with a note: “Thanks for this but we also need….” I would redo the thing, add in the “also needed” material, and resubmit it, only to be told by return of post, “No, what we need you to do is this,” followed by a set of instructions that appeared to have been compiled by a chimpanzee on crystal meth.

After a couple of these go-rounds, I finally drew myself up and said something along the lines of “I’m not a mind-reader. Would you mind telling me what you would like the finished product to look like? And would you mind perhaps informing me of these specifications BEFORE  I put in an eight-hour day doing it WRONG?”

Oh goody, more @^*%!! feedback.

I finally finished Part One (either to spec or they just threw it out; I will never know) and began Part Two earlier this week. Last night (a Saturday night, go fgure; I really should get out more) I submitted a couple of pieces of it for “review” and…wait for it… this morning in my Inbox was a long, detailed email explaining minutely everything that was wrong with it. And asking for a do-over.

Anyone who knows me well also knows that I have two words on the tip of my tongue at this moment, and they are not “Happy Motoring.”

Alas, the same people also know that unless a lottery win is coming my way, I must zip my lip, use my words (no, not those) and carry on in a businesslike fashion in order to earn the (admittedly) handsome paycheque that will come at the end of this dreary ordeal.

But for now, it is Sunday afternoon. So I will turn off the computer and go hide in my favourite “treehouse,” namely the verandah beside my dear friend Ann’s pool. Her daughter & grandsons are visiting and there is gin and tonic and pizza and good company to be had.

The nail scissors can wait until tomorrow. Nail scissors, and probably something nice in a mallet.

Smiter out.

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