The wonderful thing about living in a small town on the East Coast is nothing is exactly current or topical. This is especially true if you work from home. Social contact is reduced to about zero, other than the ubiquitous e-mails and IMs. No one uses the phone much any more.
So the phone call I got this afternoon stood out. It was our nine-year-old son. In the softest voice possible he whispered that he was in ‘the office.’ Yes, I said. Barely audible, he told me that he ‘hadn’t paid attention’ in class. ‘Oh,’ I said, without surprise. ‘Well, OK,’ I said. He went on to tell me that he hadn’t paid attention three times, and was moved into the ‘red zone’ on the board, whatever that was, and was going to lose three of his recesses. ‘Oh,’ I said. It sounded vaguely like a Catholic confession to me.
His teacher got on the line and, in her perkiest teacher-voice I’m sure, told me that it wasn’t her doing; the students had devised the system, and, though it sounded tough, it was just what it was, the students wanted it this way. ‘Oh. OK,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t pay attention at home sometimes. Older brothers,’ I said. She made a graceful slide into a ‘getting back to the class’ and that was it.
I put down the phone and went into the living room. My wife was working on a client web site on her laptop and was concurrently watching a documentary. Yes, on Netflix. It was about some old guy who’d been accused of murdering his brother. I was hooked and dropped into a chair.
The old guy reminded me of some of the people out here in New Brunswick. In fact, there were four old guys and they all looked alike, grey beards, longish curly hair, weathered faces. They were the Ward brothers, all in their 60s, illiterate farmers living in upstate New York. The upshot was that Delbert, one of the three young brothers, was accused of suffocating his older brother. The police had obtained a confession of sorts and their first conclusion was that it was a mercy killing: the older brother had been sick. Then some eager cop dug a little deeper and found out that the two old guys had been sharing a bed, and the prosecution’s theory moved from euthanasia to a sex-and-violence scenario.
Except that there wasn’t any evidence of violence. Or sex. Or even suffocation. The old bird’s heart had just given out.
I’m not quite sure what got to me about this film. It triggered a few flashbacks to the old hermits hiding out in the northern Ontario backwoods that my brother, an antique car collector, used to visit. Occasionally I’d tag along and what I remember most is how these old guys smelled. Like wood smoke and sweat and mothballs and mold. Especially the mold. Their houses were small and the walls were always streaked with mold from the leaky roofs.
The point of the movie, the intentionally and ironically named Brother’s Keeper, was the contrast between the old dudes and the slick, professional legal system, and if the movie proved only one thing, it was that the brothers with their IQs in the low 60s seemed to be a helluva lot brighter and nicer than the county cops and prosecutors.
The movie was over. My wife absent-mindedly flicked on another doc. This time it was The Corporation. I’d seen it before. I got up to make us some coffee, resigned to the fact that the afternoon was shot, and thought about my son and his crime and punishment. The flashback was immediate. There I was in grade three, caught daydreaming again. I was looking out the window and hadn’t realized that the teacher had asked me a question. I looked back. Everyone in the room was silent and staring at me. I was called up to the front of the class and, with great but familiar formality, was given the strap ten times on the left hand. All in all I got the strap on ten or twelve occasions that year, all for the same offence.
Strangely, I think my teacher actually liked me. (Yes, the old joke, one does wonder about the ones she didn’t like.) She even invited me and my whole family out to her farm, which come to think of it wasn’t too different from the cow-and-chicken outfit the old guys ran in the movie. I have an old black and white photo to prove it.
The Corporation proved all over again just how much we’ve changed in fifty years. The old guy movie was just some kind of aberration, a leftover twilight zone, compared to the new corporate order with its industrialized agriculture, terminal seeds and all, and the culture-wide mind control agendas. I mean, it’s a pretty good movie. And it’s aging well, given that corporations seem to be getting worse instead of better.
But I had this nagging thought. Were the old dudes really that much of an exception? As I drive through rural New Brunswick (as former city-dwelling Ontarians we still do “discovery” tours with the kids) I can plainly see the great hollowing out of the rural economies. You can see the old people still living alone in their crumbling houses, paint peeling. Whole islands, like nearby Campobello, have been split into two cultures, the full-time residents who earn a hard scrabble living from lobster fishing, tourism work and EI cheques to keep going through the winter, and the part-time people who arrive in new SUVs and summerize their freshly painted pastel cottages overlooking the sea.
The phrase Brother’s Keeper keeps coming back to mind as I surf through more of the Netflix documentaries. I’ve seen a lot of them, probably too many. All the best ones speak to what we’re doing to the home planet, even the wonderfully gauzy Blue Planet series that my kids watch. The more we know the less we seem to be able to do about it. Or perhaps it’s just the fatigue factor. How many doom and gloom stories can you watch or read before you just don’t give a damn any more? Apparently, I must have a higher tolerance than most.
Fortunately there’s a built-in offset: all those other Netflix categories, months if not years of good diversion to keep you blissfully happy and distracted from your contract work waiting in your office.
All I can say is, thank God I had an excuse today. The weather was grey and wet, so a movie might be forgiven. But if it were sunny and warm it would have been a whole other temptation. Maybe what I need is a perky teacher and some cruel classmates to keep me in line. Can I get something like that online?