The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel
I was standing in line at the Co-op about a month ago when the cashier, while ringing through my items, held up several of my seed packs and waved them about. “You don’t want to waste your money on these”, she informed me. “They won’t grow.” And she picked through the rest of the heap while giving me the lowdown on what would and would not work in this part of the world.
I was grateful for the advice; I actually got a kick out of the fact that it never occurred to her not to warn me off buying something on which I’d be wasting my hard-earned waitress tips. I realize that when I don’t really know what I’m doing I appreciate all the help I can get. And while I have an affinity for flowers and herbs, vegetable gardening is a bit of a crap shoot. Actually, come to think of it, here, all bets are off. Flowers that thrived the minute they hit the soil in the Okanagan can give up the ghost in a matter of hours if I don’t choose their new home carefully in these parts.
And maybe what I really enjoyed about the little cash register encounter was the familiarity, the willingness to have a human exchange with me, a stranger. Even in Swift Current, which after a year in Val Marie, takes on the proportions of a big, busy city, people are Prairie People living on Prairie Time. And they will stop what they are doing long enough to give you their piece of personal advice.
My dad was born in Fox Valley. By all accounts he never had a childhood; he was ploughing and planting and fixing and harvesting by the age of 12. He skipped two years in school and was good at numbers so when he finally left the farm he became an accountant and eventually he went into partnership with a friend and opened a car leadership in Prince George, which led to an RV dealership in the Okanagan when RVs became something that everyone could tour in, not just rock stars and film crews. My father may have preferred to have driven off into the sunset in one of his new models, but instead he waved to happy customers as they left the lot with their own getaway vehicles. He was a family man, with six kids at home and his job was to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. And he did that. But any attempt to give us advice was, for the most part, stubbornly ignored.
My father’s way of giving advice was to make an observation based on his estimation of what it took to achieve optimal results or profit in any given opportunity. If he could spot a potential dividend in our path he would muse aloud to no one in particular: “You know, what a guy oughta do…” Never mind if that guy was often one of his five daughters, he was spotting a chance to do something new and clever and any ‘guy’ smart enough to see the possibilities would take heed. Advice, delivered in this way, appeared more like a very strong suggestion for anybody with any brains at all. He never came out and said: you’d be an idiot not to, but you got the sense that was where he was coming from. The point being, a suggestion that open-ended allowed for some contemplation. The ‘guy’ in question was ‘everyone or anyone’.
My older sister Celeste uses a phrase she learned studying dreams. We talk about our dreams a lot and will call each other up if we’ve had a doozy the night before. We start by telling the dream like a story and looking for ‘reality checks’ – incidents in the day that may have triggered elements of the dream. Then we let the listener tell us what they see as “if it were my dream.” It works well with problems; instead of saying “you should do this” we try to remember to say: “well, if it were MY dream,” meaning if it were me, I’d do this.
Remarks like: “Well, if that were me” or even a polite: “Can I offer some advice?” go a long way in preventing lot of frustrating squabbles. Especially when dealing with people like me who seem to have a need to “already know that.” Or like my pal Page who probably did already know that – especially if it came to what to plant in a Val Marie vegetable garden – but could keep that information to himself if he knew what was good for him. Luckily for him he has a sense of humour and has accepted the moniker “Monsieur Connait Tout.” I have even offered to embroider it on a shirt pocket for him, to wear on days when he can do no wrong.
Another brilliant way of offering good advice is to do what smart but magnanimous people like another friend Ervin does. Just preface a choice piece with: “And I know you already know this, but…” A remark like that gives one the opportunity to feel smarter than they actually are, or have enough wiggle room to plead lapse of memory under pressure. It’s also a way for the advice-giver to share their knowledge with someone they aren’t sure possesses the same information. People like this make great bosses and MCs and probably have more friends than the rest of us because they give even fools the benefit of the doubt.
I’d like to think I’m good about taking advice when it concerns matters I know absolutely nothing about. And while I know a few things, none of them have to do with raising children, running a ranch, putting up a fence or farming land. When I first arrived I thought my radio/writing/art/music/travel resume might lend me some prestige, but it turns out my table-waiting skills are what’s most valued. I keep needing to relearn to offer help, show up when asked, do what’s required and keep my own advice to myself, or at least until somebody asks.
However, as the new kid, I’m an open target for locals. And while I hate to admit that some old codgers have been dead-on in their advice to “slow down. Don’t bite. Get on Prairie Time,” and I’ve even passed on those same words to newbies, I still rankle at advice about things I know inside-out, thank-you very much. Like making art, for example.
I make t-shirts for sale at the café using a print-making process and designs of Grasslands critters, like bison, turtles and burrowing owls. Last summer I did a series of owls on all colours of backgrounds. People liked them well enough, but they weren’t selling. Not like the bison skulls. Then one day Millie came into the cafe and gave me a piece of advice: “You need to paint little white dots in their eyes. Then they’d sell. They look stuffed.”
Well. I’m a trained artist. I spent $30,000 and four years on a highly employable second bachelor’s degree to get my credentials. So thanks for the advice, but I think I know what I’m doing, I thought. Turns out, Millie’s trained too. She goes once a year to the Bob Ross School of Art in Florida for lessons in how to paint seascapes, landscapes and living animals.
Bob Ross had a tv show on PBS for a long while and his calming voice, softly encouraging his protégées to paint “happy little trees” could put me to sleep. Literaly. When touring with my bluesman beau we had to come to an agreement on hotel tv channels, because I preferred total silence after an amplified evening, but he needed the hum of voices in the background to fall asleep. We agreed upon old black and white movies or NBA basketball games. But, one night, near the end of a particularly brutal tour, we had just pulled into the parking lot of our motel in Chicago called The Heart of Chicago, which we quickly dubbed The Spleen of Chicago, and the sun was beginning to rise. Desperate for sleep we surfed the channels with no luck. Until we hit on Bob Ross and his lulling, encouraging voice, and he painted us into a happy little sleep.
After Millie discovered the flaw in my work, people would pop into the cafe to pass on the advice. I held out until about the third week when even strangers seemed to be staring sadly at my, apparently, lifeless owls and felt moved to share: You know….Millie says if you just put a couple of little white dots….
“Well,” I thought. “I can be pointlessly stubborn about this or I can plop the damn dots in the irises of these birds and see if I can’t move them.”
I sold three of them the following week.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna firstname.lastname@example.org