My Literacy Problem

By Jim Hagarty

Somebody realized a lot of people in North America can’t read and so now we have an illiteracy problem. Maybe we’ll do something about it.

Personally, I have a literacy problem. I can read very well. The problem is, I can’t stop.

Somewhere along the line after I’d learned my ABCs, I gave up reading for pleasure and information and started reading just to read. Like a gambler unable to walk by a slot machine or a glutton by a buffet, I can’t pass by a bunch of words without finding out what they say.

“Why don’t you just read what you want?” you might ask. That sounds simple except when you realize you can’t possibly know whether you want to read something until you have read it. You can’t do anything else with words except write them and read them. And the advantage the writer has is he already knows what the words he’s written say. You don’t. So, he’s got one up on you unless you read what he wrote.

It gets a hold of you. To illustrate: I sat down in my favourite coffee shop Wednesday night to read a newspaper and have a cup of coffee. Noticing my disappointment, the waitress broke it to me that the papers usually waiting there had been thrown out. “But,” she said, amused, “there is a department-store catalogue here.”

“I’ll take it,” I said, and I did. For the next half hour, I read about flannel shirts, winter coats and computers. It wasn’t Gone With The Wind, but it was entertaining enough. Did you know you can buy electric boot warmers?

I always read through the lottery literature a popular magazine sends me and all the information on breakfast cereal boxes. I read three or four newspapers a day and various magazines throughout the week. I’ve read through the manual to my television set and I read politicians’ pamphlets at the door.

And the posters in store windows.

I just finished reading a pamphlet on urinary tract problems in neutered male cats, a fascinating treatise. I read up all the old journals in doctors’ offices and barbershops and have been known to lose my place in the haircut line while engrossed in an ancient newsmagazine. I read in the bathtub and on other fixtures in the bathroom. I read at the kitchen table during meals. I read in bed and sometimes I go out on the front porch and read outside. I read on buses, in restaurants and at the newstands in stores.

Basically, I’m a wordaholic. There, I said it. Sometimes when my system gets low, I just need a quick fix. A few hundred words about anything at all, to relax me again. A paragraph or two. A couple of sentences. A hasty browse through some junk mail.

On a boring Sunday afternoon, on my fourth time through the Saturday paper, I can even get all the way down to reading about the marital troubles of lesser-known actors as well as articles on preparing your lawnmower for winter. I read one this Sunday on how to remove stains from a concrete floor. I don’t even have any stains on my concrete floors. But, if I ever get any, just see how long they stick around.

It has been so long since the days when I couldn’t read, I have forgotten what it’s like to be illiterate. Except that I was a pretty happy guy back then. Maybe not reading about tragedies, turmoil and terrorists and problems, problems, problems, kept my mind freer for the odd uplifting thought that might want to float into it. As it is, where is there room in there for a pleasant idea?

Like the alcoholic who gets a job as a bartender to be close to a ready supply of booze, I made my living for decades serving up the very words I’m hooked on.

It’s The Curse Of The Grammar Book Demon.

And to think it all started with Dick and Jane. And their dog Spot. I never did like Spot. He was always running.

Running.

Bad Daughter

Bad Daughter cd cover

By Jim Hagarty
This is the title track from Bad Daughter by the McCullough Girls. All 12 songs on the CD by the Stratford-based mother-daughter duo were written by the Deborah McCullough and her daughter Callie. The CD was recorded in Nashville. It will be available for sale soon in the Corner Store.

Bad Daughter by the McCullough Girls

Home Sweet Home

By Jim Hagarty

Sometimes I look back year to year
And wonder how I wound up here.
Could I have found a better place
To spend my nights and spend my days?
But then I think it’s pretty clear
The Universe has put me here.
And though I cannot answer why
I ended up here by and by
I’m glad a place was found for me.
There is no place I’d rather be.

Time Travellers

By Jim Hagarty

I worked at a small daily newspaper 30 years ago.

The composing room, where the paper was prepared for printing, where all the ads were assembled and stories and photos laid out on broadsheets before being photographed and sent to the press, was populated by older and younger workers.

The older workers spent much of their time regaling the young journalists such as I was at the time, about how things used to be done years ago. The years of “hot type”, where metal letters were physically placed in special trays to form every word that appeared. It is a cautionary tale for people who think talk of the old ways in fascinating. It wasn’t.

But we tried to respect our elders. They were nice hardworking people, deserving of our respect. I liked them.

The owners of the paper were middle aged and in a constant battle to keep up with the times. I admire them to this day for their willingness to embrace change.

One momentous day, computers were introduced to the composing room. Henceforth, though there would be a long period of adjustment, all the ads would be created by the computers and the people who operated them.

Needed were volunteers who would be willing to be trained in the new methods. A few people stepped forward eagerly. Five gray hairs could not have been assembled from the heads of those who applied.

For their part, the old guys laughed defiantly and declared they would not be caught dead on one of those computers. One semi old guy did embrace the new way, but wasn’t great at it. Another tried it and quit in frustration, going back to the banks of broadsheets and what he knew best.

One by one, the old guys were gone, in fairly short order. They gathered in the coffee shops and bemoaned the indignity and injustice.

Thirty years later, many of the volunteers who stepped up that day are still there. One young woman I know eventually left and is now a teaching assistant in a high school.

Helping kids learn computers.

No Whiteout Needed

By Jim Hagarty

I ate my lunch in the food court of a lovely little shopping mall in a nearby city recently.

It is one of the city’s oldest malls which is fitting, in a way, because it appears as though there is a dress code for the place: You have to have white hair to be allowed entry.

Meeting the code, I fit right in, which was a problem for me. I looked around at everyone who looks pretty much like me now and thought, “Oh no, these are my people.”

I took out my cellphone and looked at the crowd of 50 or 60 people and thought, “I bet if you held everybody upside down and shook them, only three cellphones would fall out of the pockets of everyone here.” And even I am behind; mine is not a smartphone. (I have since upgraded.)

I also doubted there were very many computer-users in the group, but I bet their homes are filled with radios, radios, radios and lots of tube TVs. Not very many CD or DVD players and not one BluRay (I don’t have one yet myself). And I bet a daily newspaper gets dropped on the doorstep of most of the people there.

There were several tables of men only, swapping tales amidst uproarious laughter. At a couple of tables, women sat by themselves drinking a coffee and reading a novel. A younger man arrived at the table next to me but even he had almost-white hair. I suspect he dyed it just to fit in. He spread out a feast before him and also picked up a novel. At only one table did I see what you might call young people – two mothers with their infants in strollers.

Finishing my pizza, I took a stroll past the stores and could see that they reflected the crowd. There was a big drug store at one end and an optometrist half way down the stretch. Another big store offered home health products such as special walkers and foot baths and massagers. And as though to put an exclamation point on my no-cellphones observation, there was a bank of payphones in the front entrance, the better to call a cabbie with.

I never thought about a mall having a personality before but this winter I wrote about skating at an indoor rink in a shopping mall in Cambridge and realizing that I was the oldest person on the ice. That realization gave me kind of a sinking feeling.

Today, I was one of the younger ones in the food court of the mall. Same sort of feeling, coming from a different direction.

Guess I’m going to give up malls as they appear to be contributing to the aging process.

This one had great pizza, though.