Truths my father told me

Penny Bruce and her husband of 59 years, hanging loose at the Atlantic Journalism Awards

Penny Bruce and her husband of 59 years, hanging loose at the 2012 Atlantic Journalism Awards

The document, handsomely framed in some sort of gilded metal, certified that the holder  had received the gold award for “excellence” in the category of “lifetime achievement”. And a thought began to stir.

If one could qualify for a gold in such a competition, then, logically, others could merit a mere silver or bronze. How, I wondered, would it feel to receive an honourable mention for a lifetime of achievement in one’s chosen field of endeavor?

Close but no cigar, pal. You were good, but you weren’t that good. Better luck next time around on this mortal coil.

These are the sort of weighty issues the mind considers when the body is stuck in a chair for three hours watching two dozen people mount a podium to snatch their well-deserved trophies.

Only one, of course, earned the golden lifer’s nod at Saturday’s Atlantic Journalism Awards. And, in my thoroughly biased opinion, it couldn’t have gone to anyone other than my remarkably talented father, Harry Bruce.

Measuring professional achievement is usually a chump’s game, especially for people in our business. We’re not supposed to care about awards, which have a disturbing way of distracting us from tending the noble underpinnings of our craft, which are – for lack of  more original exhortations – to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (courtesy of Finley Peter Dunne, American scribbler, circa 1867).

More recently (just this month in Esquire magazine, in fact), actor-activist Robert Redford mused on the meaning of achievement, telling writer Scott Raab, “We’re all heading to the same station. There’s a great line by T.S. Eliot: ‘There’s only the trying. The rest is not our business.’ Just keep trying. Do what you can, but don’t stop, and particularly don’t stop at that sign that says success. Run that light. Run that light.”

Fair enough. But, sometimes, we may permit ourselves the time to yield just long enough to recognize what true excellence looks like. Call it an exercise in Platonic reasoning: We become what we admire most.

Or, that’s the theory.

Growing up, I was aware that my father’s reputation in Canadian journalism was enormous. He was one of the true heavy-hitters on the field. He could write about anything – politics, business, sports, knot-tying – and make it sing. But if journalists of his calibre were as rare as snow in Hawaii, those of his character, his fundamental decency, were virtually extinct.

More often, those possessing a promethean skill with words had attended the Evelyn Waugh school of social comportment. For most of his working life, that famous, 20th Century, English novelist and essayist travelled through the stratosphere of his profession. And yet his son, Auberon, once wrote that his father was such a bully that, despite his short, physical stature, “generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quailed in front of him.” Another contemporary described him as “the nastiest-tempered man in England.”

In contrast, my father was almost absurdly generous with his patience and praise. Perhaps that’s because he realized – as did his own father Charles Bruce, the Canadian Press journalist and Governor General’s-Award winning poet – that life is too damn short for anything else.

During his acceptance speech the other night, he touched on this basic truth when he reflected on his 59-year union with my mother, which, he said had “flashed by like a long weekend on a soft beach by a warm ocean.” (A classic Harryism, which had the predictable effect of animating every married woman in the room as they turned to their hapless husbands: “Why don’t you ever say things like that to me?”)

As he stepped down from the stage with his handsomely framed certificate, I had to smile, thinking about his “achievement” and whether the real gold in his hand had anything to do with his journalism, after all.

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