It’s a night in late summer. we’re gathered around the barbecue in the back yard of my friend’s cabin on the Sunshine Coast. There are maybe a half dozen of us, drinking beer and eating grilled oysters. There’s this American guy from Idaho–checked shirt, baseball cap, one of those foghorn voices you can hear from miles away. He’s plump, maybe in his mid-fifties, owns a chain of repair garages. Turns out he’s a Bush supporter, with a big-time grudge against trade unions and the ?liberal media.? He’s smoking a miniature cigar that smells like It’s been dipped in bat guano. He’s the kind of guy to whom any true-blooded, progressive-minded, socialist-leaning bloke like myself could very easily take an intense dislike.
Problem is, he’s an utterly charming and apparently decent man. Turns out he’s spent a lot of his weekends over the past few years helping to set up a community garden for disadvantaged senior citizens. He’s been married to the same woman for 26 years, and he talks about her with affection and respect.
When he’s not aggressively ranting about politics, the stories he tells about his travels through India, his dysfunctional family, the fortunes he has made and lost over the years, are interesting and filled with a subtle, self-deprecating humour. Near the end of the night, I see him in the living room, surrounded by four or five young kids, my daughter included, who are watching him perform some pretty well-done magic tricks. Their faces are alive with laughter and delight.
Contrast this to another evening, some months earlier. I’m sitting in an Irish pub in downtown Vancouver in the company of two friends and a third man I know slightly, a writer whose work I have admired for years. I have more than one volume of his work sitting on my bookshelf at home. When I read his words on the page, they seem to me to be illuminated with grace and beauty and wisdom.
Problem is, I find myself thinking that, in person, he’s a tedious windbag–self-aggrandizing and almost completely humourless. I have this insane urge to pour his glass of single malt Scotch down the back of his shirt.
Our opinions of, and relationships with, others should be much simpler and more clear-cut. The people who don’t share our views and values should be obvious buffoons, objects of clear ridicule. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. Time and again, we find that relationships are frustratingly complex, challenging our pat, easily formed assumptions and prejudices. Which, come to think of it, may not be such a bad thing after all.