Sunday, October 27, 2019

”Big Bag of Rocks” by Rocky Mancini

There is a joke that goes, “If a man is alone in the forest, and there isn’t a woman to hear him speak ... is he still wrong?”

I’m reminded of this joke every now and then.  One of those now and then moments came up during our latest move.  My wife and I have moved six times over the past 32 years and each time we have a discussion about what should and shouldn’t find a place in the new house. The latest move involved a particularly sensitive item.

“You’re not bringing that thing with us to the new house are you?” my wife asked.

I stopped… not sure if that was a question a comment or a command. It sounded like a question. I could even envision a question mark at the end of the sentence. But even after 32 years of marriage I occasionally had trouble distinguishing between them.

The subject of the question / comment / command was swaying heavily from my left hand while I did my best to balance a large well-used cardboard box in my right. The words Fragile and Breakable wavered drunkenly in front of me. Despite its dimensions, the box was a lot lighter than the knapsack I had in my left and failed to act as adequate counterweight to the hefty knapsack.  My sudden change of pace resulted in an interpretive dance-like movement of a third-rate circus juggler navigating an obstacle course. Conceding defeat, I slowly lowered the knapsack to the ground and focused on keeping the box steady.

The look of confusion on my face prompted my wife to continue. “You realize you’re literally carrying a bag of rocks to our new house, don’t you?” 

Again, I found myself struggling with whether this a question or comment.  I had an inkling of where this discussion was going.

 “First of all,” I pointed out, “it’s not a bag, it’s a knapsack.”

“Fine.” her sigh was followed by a controlled breath, and then she slowly repeated, “You realize that you are literally carrying around a ‘sack’ of rocks, don’t you.”

I was fairly certain that this was a comment, not a question.

“Secondly,” I continued, ignoring the implied you idiot, “they’re not rocks. They’re minerals and fossils,” trying my best to give an “as you well know” tone to my voice but coming across as defensive.

For the sake of context I’d like to include at this point that the knapsack in question contained various samples of minerals, ores, fossils and yes … maybe the odd rock or two. These were all collected over the years, starting from university where I graduated in geology, and ending, not coincidentally, when I began dating my wife.

The entire collection fit snugly inside an old knapsack.  I lugged, dragged and kicked that knapsack all over the province during my undergrad field trips.  Over time I continued adding to the collection whenever I came across interesting samples at mineral shows or during hiking and camping trips with friends.  I had invested a lot of time, sweat and energy into that bag of rocks.

The knapsack was a simple design, a single large pouch made of canvas.  I purchased it at an army outlet store at the start of university. It’s primary purpose was to hold rock and mineral samples, the odd prospecting tool, and beer, sometimes at the same time. It’s colour, never brilliant to begin with, had faded to a mellow sandy beige and showed the scars and scuffs of many misadventures.  It had tan brown buckles and edgings, which were cracking but holding up remarkably well.

It was still sturdy for its age, although it had lost its shape some time ago.  It now sagged a bit and the straps had been broken and replaced by various strings ropes and laces over the years. However, this knapsack, broken straps and all, never made it into the category of junk, at least in my mind. 

The knapsack, its contents notwithstanding, had become a symbol, a reminder of more carefree days before mortgages, kids and corporate ladders.  I couldn’t tell you the name of half the samples anymore, but that wasn’t the point.  I still have memories of climbing over outcrops in Timmins, hanging onto rocky ledges right next to a busy highway in Belleville. These images are firmly entrenched in my psyche.

To be honest, both items I was juggling, the bag of rocks and a box containing my wife’s mothers’ and grandmothers’ heirloom cups, saucers, dishes and delicate china pieces see the light of day about the same number of times each year – that is, never.  But somehow my wife’s box of china was considered valuable … nay precious … while the other was considered … well, a bag of rocks.

The point was that it was my bag of rocks, darn it, I’d take it with me if I wanted to.  It was my line in the sand and I refused to concede to “more important things” like family heirlooms and rare and precious china. It represented a line in the sand and I refused to budge – on principle.

I have to admit I sometimes wrestle with the logic behind my attachment to this weathered relic and why it deserves a place in our home.  To the untrained observer, my affection and dedication to its preservation seem incongruent with how I treat it or its cargo.  I find it embarrassing to even bring the minerals out in the open for anyone to see, having forgotten what most of them are called.  All I can say is that there aren’t a lot of things from my university days that I have held onto.  A dusty framed diploma and this old beaten canvas knapsack seem to be the extent of what I had accomplished in four years of study. Giving it up would be like turning my back on an old friend. 

Back to the story … I knew well enough that this was not the time to bring up the fact that the box marked Fragile and Breakable was also going to our new house and would take up more than twice the amount of our limited storage space than my wee knapsack would.  It was also not the time to mention that the knapsack would undoubtedly find itself tucked underneath my desk where it would continue its role of jamming my toes whenever I tried to stretch my legs and would not take up any of our limited precious storage space.

To make matters worse, my wife has recently taken up minimalism with a religious fervour.  The movements manifesto being something along the line of, “If it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out.”  You can probably see where this is going. My bag of rocks did not give my wife any joy.

But for now, my wife abandoned our discussion in favour of supervising the movers who were moving her dresser and were currently teetering at the edge of the stairs. Shaking her head and muttering something about the similarities between stubborn children and husbands under her breath, she hurried off to save the furniture.  

I knew that this was a temporary reprieve and that the discussion would continue.  Uncomfortably satisfied with the shaky truce, I took advantage of the opening provided and carried the box and knapsack to the car.  I realized that concessions might need to be made for the sake of peace. The familiar refrain – “happy wife, happy life” - kept ringing in my ear.  Compromise, I knew was the only solution to resolve the stalemate.  Compromise is something I have learned to do and have become quite good at – 32 years of marriage having provided me a lot of practice at perfecting the art.

So compromise I did.

The knapsack is a little lighter now. A result of sacrifices made on the minimalist altar regarding which rocks were really joyful and which could be discarded.  Peace restored, the knapsack with the surviving contents secured under my desk, things have returned to normal. 

But some days when I am alone in my office and my wife isn’t around to hear me speak, I tell myself, “I’m not wrong! At least I’m pretty sure I’m not.”

Rocky Mancini lives in Oakville with his happy wife of 32 years and their son. He recently retired and is exploring new endeavours with a particular focus on music, writing and art. In no particular order, his interests include: family, community, the environment, travel and the preservation of wildlife and nature. 

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including Saturday writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, New Tecumseth, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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