Music Has Charms

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As a famous Paul Anka lyric has it, …Regrets, I’ve had a few/But then again, too few to mention…

I do frequently mention one regret, however, an abiding sorrow that I didn’t study music when I was in high school.  Having been raised in a family where music was an ever-present part of our daily lives—to the point where I and my siblings to this day get a sing-song going whenever we’re together—it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I eschewed the opportunity to acquire formal training.

All the more so when I remember that the lead music teacher at our high school would go on to become one of the country’s leading choral directors—Elmer Iseler, conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founder of the Festival Singers of Canada and the Elmer Iseler Singers.  What a doofus I was!

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With a stunningly callow arrogance, I suppose I dismissed the music students, some of whom were good friends, as too effete for the teenage machismo I was probably trying to cultivate.

I regret that.

As a youngster, I often found myself surreptitiously curled up, late at night, on the landing of the stairs in our home, listening to the singing of my parents and their friends from the parlor where the piano sat.  One of our neighbours was a gifted pianist, and he knew all the oldies—Frivola Sal, After You’ve Gone, What’ll I Do, Rose of Tralee, Sweet Georgia Brown, Rockabye Your Baby, Danny Boy, Sonny Boy, For Me and My Gal—and so many more.  Even fifty-plus years on, I know all the lyrics to dozens of their repertoire (sometimes now with a little prompting), and my favourite singer is still Al Jolson.

My mother loved the torch songs, and she’d vamp a little when she sang, a woman born to be a headliner.  My father favoured the oldies, and was very good with the harmonies (although he occasionally had to be reminded of the decibel level).  He absolutely loved barbershop quartets.

So many times there were that he would find me fast asleep on the landing after the last chorus had been sung.  For a long time, I never knew how I drifted off on the stairs and awakened in my bed.  I only knew that I loved the singing of the songs, and the singers who sang them.

The only singing I have done since those childhood days (other than alone in the shower) is at family gatherings, or occasionally at karaoke parties (with beer).  But the music gene was definitely passed along to my two daughters, both of whom have been singing, together and on their own, since their pre-school days.  They’ve even written songs together, ballads mostly, which I hum along to.

Recently, my wife and I attended a concert mounted by a local men’s chorus, a 108-man, traditional barbershop harmony group, but one that branches out into a cappella jazz, swing, soft rock, pop, traditional, and inspirational music.  The concert was superb, and we were fortunate to be invited to an after-party by one of the members (not-so-coincidentally, a golfing friend).

choir

And guess what!  Some of the choristers at that party gathered ‘round each other to sing some of the oldies, an impromptu concert.  And guess what else!  I sidled over, inched close to their circle, and joined my voice to theirs.  Tentatively at first, not wanting to spoil the beauty of their chorus, but then more confidently when two of them parted to make room for me.  I knew all the words, of course, and we belted out a few classics—When You Wore a Tulip, Daddy’s Little Girl (a personal favourite), Oh! You Beautiful Doll, and That Old Gang of Mine.  I could almost hear my father joining in beside me.

My wife told me later that I fit right in.  In fact, she said, some of the others at the party told her they assumed I was part of the chorus.  I stared at her, sure she was having me on, but she was apparently telling the truth.  And that was music to my ears (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Even better, however, was an invitation from several of the chorus members to try out for the group.  Attendance at three rehearsals, where I would be assessed to find my voice part placement, would be followed by an audition performance with three of the established singers as part of a quartet.  And then I’d either be in, or out.

I’ve never been part of a quartet in the shower, where my best solos have been rendered, so this public audition would be somewhat intimidating.  Plus, I have never been much of a joiner in groups of any sort, so making a commitment to this would be quite a change.

Still, I do regret passing up my first chance those many years ago.  All those yesterdays when I could have been singing joyously with like-minded choristers are gone forever.  But I do have a few tomorrows ahead of me.  And I do like to belt them out.  So, we shall see.

More than three hundred years ago, in his comedy of manners, The Mourning Bride, William Congreve wrote this—Musick has charms to soothe the savage breast…

Well, I am no savage, but it may well be that music could soothe the sadness I have carried with me since high school.

I’ll have to warn them, though, that I cannot hit the high C!

 

 

Free Speech? Free Press?

A cornerstone of democracy is the right to free speech, a principle perhaps best expressed in a 1906 work by the English writer, Beatrice Evelyn Hall, a statement often erroneously attributed to Voltaire:  I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

A second foundation of a democratic society, closely related to the first, is the right to a free press.  Newspapers as we know them made their first appearance in 17th century Europe, and in the mid-1700’s they were dubbed ‘the fourth estate’ by Edmund Burke, a British politician (the first three estates being those represented in parliament—the clergy, the nobility, and the common people).

Burke went so far as to describe this fourth estate as more important by far to the health of a nation than the other three, a sentiment echoed a hundred years later by Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, who wrote:  “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

newspapers

The invention of the telegraph greatly enhanced the spread of news across nations, and around the world.  Thanks to technology, reporters could file their stories from anywhere (traditionally ending them with the rubric – 30 –  a shorthand for End), assured that they could be read everywhere.

But why is it so important to a free society that its citizens have the right to speak their minds, and the right to access a free press, unrestricted by government censorship?  Especially today, in this age of unlimited entrée to digital social media.

The answer lies in the fact that until very recently, we have been able to trust our news sources to deliver truthful accounts of events in the world around us.  Most reliable outlets reported the facts as they happened, based upon the best information available.  Serious journalists regarded accuracy and bias-free reporting as sacrosanct.  Editorial beliefs were confined, for the most part, to the opinion pages, and op-ed viewpoints were included to ensure balance in the presentation of the news.

Throughout my lifetime, it has been relatively easy in our democratic nation to educate and inform oneself about the world in which we live by reading, listening, and watching a variety of news outlets, their spectrum of viewpoints providing a balanced picture, as accurate and verifiable as it is possible to be.

Today, however, anyone can report the news through a variety of social media, regardless of their qualifications (or lack thereof), degree of impartiality, sense of right and wrong, education, or bigotries.

As an example, have a look at the headlines below, from different decades, and decide how many (if any) were actually reported:

Titanic Torpedoed by U-Boat; Tragedy Covered Up by Admiralty

FDR Knew About Pearl Harbor; Allowed Attack to Mobilize War Effort

JFK, Marilyn Buried at Arlington; Lovers Reunited Under Eternal Flame

Lennon Survived Murder Attempt; Lies in Coma in New Jersey Hospital

Chinese Colony Established on Moon; China Claims Lunar Sovereignty, Alarms West

Now, before deciding about that first group, check out the next list:

 Elvis Sighted; Rock Legend Living in Wax Museum

Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes; Computer Industry in Freefall

Pope Francis Shocks World; Endorses Donald Trump for President

Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?

Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber; Time to Get Back in the Closet

Which of the two groups is the more credible, which the more ridiculous?

Well, as you may have guessed, none of the headlines in the first group ever surfaced in any news outlet; I made them up.  But, incredibly, every one of the second group has actually appeared in a newspaper or digital news source—many of which inhabit the social media universe.

social-media

That could strike one as funny, but there’s a serious consequence to the burgeoning glut of fake news stories.  Many readers, listeners, and viewers (let us hope most of them) have the wisdom and experience to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.  And to base their subsequent actions on those conclusions.

But increasing numbers of uneducated, unsophisticated, gullible consumers of information do not have the ability to separate truth from fiction in such stories.  They are, therefore, susceptible to the persuasive powers of those who purvey pernicious falsehoods, often for political or financial gain.

To one who is colour-blind, all the various hues may appear the same; to those who are media-illiterate, all news accounts may possess the same weight, the same degree of veracity.  And that being the case, which are paid the most attention?

Unfortunately, all too often the attention goes to the lurid, sensational, graphically-charged, and blatantly false packages, at the expense of the sober, dispassionate, accurate accounts a free society and informed citizenry needs.  And this is coming at a time when traditional newspapers are increasingly falling by the wayside, unable to financially survive in our digital communications world.

I see three possibilities if this trend continues, and two of them are alarming.  One is a persistent proliferation of fake news sources, many of which reap great financial rewards for their producers, and all of which contribute to the continued dumbing-down of our society.  Ignorance is greatly to be feared.

A second is the institution of censorship by governments worried about the loss of press freedom—or, more ominously, about the unbridled existence of propagandizing news outlets that would replace elected leaders with demagogues not concerned or constrained by democratic principles.  Censorship is also to be feared, for it is a death-knell for freedom of speech.

The best possibility, but less likely I fear, is a re-awakening on the part of citizens of countries such as ours to the importance of a free press; to the obligation we have to teach young people (and their media-illiterate elders) how to differentiate between the real and the fake; and to the absolute necessity of safeguarding both free speech and a free press if we are to preserve our democratic way of life.  No number of fact-checkers can ever substitute for an informed, discerning, and open-minded citizenry.

If we are unsuccessful, I believe, we shall arrive at the point where the last credible headline we shall ever see is:

– 30 –

People Who Know Everything

People who assume they know everything are annoying to those of us who do!

Thus spake a friend of mine (in jest I think) during a conversation about smarmy politicians who claim to have solutions to the ills that plague our society.  All we have to do is vote them into office and our worries will be over.  Or so they promise.

I confess I, too, become annoyed whenever someone presents as a know-it-all—not, as my friend joked, because I think I know everything, but because I think no one does.  Whenever I hear someone bloviating loudly on any subject, I remember a character from the Saturday morning cartoon shows of my childhood, Foghorn J. Leghorn.  I still picture him as a blustering, southern senator, speaking a mile a minute, pausing only intermittently to check with his listeners.

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“Pay attention to me, boy!  I’m not jus’ talkin’ to hear my head roar!”

“I keep pitchin’ ‘em, son, an’ you keep missin’ ‘em!”

“Any o’ this gettin’ through to you, son?”

The theory, I suppose, is that no one can contradict you if you won’t allow them a chance to speak.

The problem is, the world is a complex place where almost any issue has more than one truth attached to it.  Draining a swamp, for example, might be considered a fine idea by a developer who wants to convert it to a new mobile home community, but not such a good thing for the alligators, herons, and muskrats who already make it their home.  One’s perspective always plays a part.

If the swamp denizens are afforded no chance to speak on their own behalf, if they’re out-shouted and overwhelmed by those who know everything, by those who have the financial and political wherewithal to dominate the conversation, they are doomed.  In such cases, although both sides of the argument may have merit, only one side gets heard.  And that side usually prevails.

My experience with know-it-alls is that they seldom want to be confronted with facts or evidence that might support a view contrary to their own.  The flat-earth society comes to mind.  When presented with the famous ‘blue marble’ photograph of our planet, shot from an Apollo spacecraft, the society’s response was, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”

the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17-1

There are numerous other situations where those claiming to know everything reject scientifically-based information in favour of pre-determined positions: holocaust deniers, global-warming skeptics, and tobacco users are but a few.  The staunch refusal of these deniers to entertain an opposing point of view effectively cuts off any possibility of meaningful discussion, and imposes their peculiar world-view on everyone.  In the words of the Borg, from the Star Trek television series, “Resistance is futile.”

It is instructive to reference Susan Glaspell, a Pulitzer Prize journalist and novelist, who wrote:  One never denies so hotly as in denying to one’s self what one fears is true…

I don’t know the ‘honest truth’ (if there is one) about any of these controversial issues.  But I instinctively doubt those who claim to know it, especially in the face of possibly-contradictory evidence.  Surely both sides of any argument (or however many sides there may be) should be weighed and assessed before conclusions are reached.

And in cases where such rigorous debate has occurred, the resultant conclusions should still remain open to further examination and challenge as new information comes to light.  But certainty is the enemy of an open mind, and an open mind is the enemy of those who claim to know everything.

I’m reminded of a snatch of dialogue from a long-ago film that illustrates the point.  While arguing about something, one character states his opinion in no uncertain terms, clearly brooking no challenge.

“You really think so?” his companion asks.

“I don’t think,” the first one declares.  “I know!”

After a meaningful pause, the second character says, “Good, ‘cause I don’t think you know, either.”

confused

Indeed.

The Quality of a Nation

According to St. Augustine, a nation is an association of reasonable beings united in a peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore, to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.

He wrote this in a monumental work of Christian philosophy, entitled The City of God, in the fifth century AD.  Fifteen-hundred years later, in 1951, the Canada Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters & Sciences used it as a preface to their report to parliament.

royal-commission

The recent triumph of Donald Trump in the US presidential election was one of two things that got me to wondering what a list of those qualities might be—not so much for the USA as for my own country.  What are the values that Canada, as a nation, truly cherishes?

The political opponents of the American president-elect have cast his ascension to power in the darkest terms, quite a difference to the sunny ways seemingly endorsed in our own federal election a year or so ago.  Words like racist, misogynist, bully, and xenophobic, used in reference to Trump by his foes, offer a stark contrast to words such as enthusiastic, transparent, optimistic, and leader, which have been applied to our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, by his supporters.

On the flip-side, Trump’s supporters have described him as strong, forceful, down-to-earth, and no pushover.  Trudeau’s detractors have used words and phrases like boyish, emotional, and not man enough in their descriptions.

Of course, political opinions, like beauty, are mostly in the eye of the beholders, and care should be taken not to believe everything one reads or hears about either of these gentlemen.  Still, the fact that both were elected to their country’s highest office by their respective citizens might say something about what is cherished by each nation.  At least at present, and by a sufficient number of those who voted.

But the critical thing about nationhood is that, despite these opposing viewpoints, each nation as a whole must accept and adhere to a basic set of values if it is to survive.

us-constitution

The second thing that prompted my curiosity about the qualities Canada might cherish was the proposal by a presumptive political-party leader, Kellie Leitch, to vigorously pre-screen potential immigrants for any trace of “anti-Canadian values”.  If they fail to measure up to the standard she will presumably establish, she will bar them from entry.

It makes sense, of course, to ban terrorists and criminals; it also makes sense to admit people with skills and training Canada needs, and people who are fleeing for their lives from oppressive regimes.  In fact, our current immigration practices and procedures do both of these things quite well.

But what are the values Leitch is looking for?  She has stated that the test will screen for anti-Canadian views that include intolerance toward other religions, cultures, and sexual orientations; violent and/or misogynist behaviour; and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms.

I wonder, though, how she might define such concepts as intolerance (Sorry, but I will not eat poutine!) or personal freedoms (Okay, okay…I won’t pee on the golf course!).  Could it be so simple and light-hearted?

Likely not.  For example, if I were a prospective immigrant of a particular faith, say Catholic, would I be banned for not endorsing the notion of same-sex marriage?  If I were to vigorously protest the environmental policies of the federal government (perhaps a government she might be leading), thereby exercising  free speech, would I be expelled?  If I chose to wear a niqab during my citizenship swearing-in, would I be rudely escorted from the room?  And the country?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted as part of the Constitution Act in 1982, pretty much lays out in its thirty-four sections the entitlements and responsibilities conferred upon, and expected of, every citizen.  By its very existence, it establishes many of the values our nation cherishes; for example:

  • the right to life, liberty and security of the person…
  • [equality] before and under the law and…the right to the equal protection and equal benefit  of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability…
  • [these rights] shall not be construed as denying the existence of any other rights or freedoms that exist in Canada…
  • [these rights] are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

canadian-charter

In effect, this means all citizens enjoy the right to cherish, and act in accordance with, whatever they believe—with the proviso that they must not harm anyone else.  No one, it seems to me, including a politically-motivated Kellie Leitch, can judge any of us on a set of arbitrarily-established Canadian values.

Perhaps John Stuart Mill said it best, in his 1859 essay, On Liberty, where he attempted to identify standards for the relationship between a nation’s authority and its citizens’ liberty:

          The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself…

          Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

If we were to accept the guidance offered in these two foundational sources, I don’t believe we would need a test to suss out anti-Canadian values.  To the contrary, our co-existence would exemplify those values, and allow us to live united in a peaceful sharing of the things we cherish.

And we would be proud of the quality of our nation, upholding it for all to see—from sea to sea to sea.

Everybody Knows

By now, I suspect, everybody knows that Leonard Cohen, an iconic Canadian poet and songwriter, died at the beginning of this week.  And of course, everybody knows that Donald Trump, an American entrepreneur and novice politician, won the US presidential race a day later.

I am struck by the awful asymmetry of these two events.

For many lovers of music, the passing of the artist, while distressing, allows us once again to celebrate and honour the memories his songs created for us.

For progressive, liberal-minded people, the election of an erratic demagogue foreshadows a period of pullback, retrenchment, and isolationism in America.  The nation’s motto, E pluribus unum—out of many, one—takes on an ominous tone.

I know of no one who is happy at the death of Cohen.

cohen

By contrast, millions upon millions of Americans are thrilled by the ascension of Trump.  And, despite my many misgivings, I could well be among them if all the actions he has pledged to take were similar to these, for example: impose term limits on all members of Congress; impose new restrictions on lobbying and lobbyists in Washington; allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward; and fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.  In my view, these are reasonable, wise moves.

Alas, he may also proceed with actions such as these: renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal altogether; lift the restrictions on the production of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal; cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs; repeal, rather than fix, the Affordable Health Care Act; appoint conservative judges to vacancies in the Supreme Court (who will, quite possibly, reverse Roe v. Wade affecting women’s rights with respect to abortion); and cancel funding to such organizations as Planned Parenthood and Sanctuary Cities.  I deem these actions to be backward-looking and regressive.

trump

For me—one of those liberal progressives favouring public policies of inclusion and social conscientiousness—it is interesting to consider some of the sobriquets bestowed on Cohen over the years, and to see how many of them might fit Trump:

∙ prophet of despair,

∙ gloom merchant,

∙ grinning reaper,

∙ world heavyweight champion of existential despair, and

∙ dark messiah.

In Cohen’s case, these phrases were intended as respectful descriptions of the songs he wrote and performed.  They are almost oxymorons, in that they combine positive and negative attributes in each phrase.

By contrast, for Trump they may bear no double-meaning; depending upon the actions he does choose to take during his first months in office, I fear they may have to be taken literally.

Consider these lines from Everybody Knows, one of Cohen’s most revered works; time will tell if they prove prophetic:

Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes…                                                                                                                

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied…

And if the worst does come to pass, keep in mind these lines, also from Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

light

Cohen knew that, and we know that, too.

Everybody knows.

 

The F-Word

Years ago, when our two daughters were still in elementary school, my wife and I encountered a moment of truth with them—one of those things that never seems to arise in the privacy and sanctity of one’s own home.  Children are too diabolical to let that happen.

We were out for dinner, treating them to a white-tablecloth dinner in a fine restaurant in our neighbourhood.  Part of our strategy to introduce them to the niceties of life, we hoped it also would serve as an opportunity to educate them in the proper manners and etiquette such occasions demanded.  No other children were present, and I smugly complimented myself on the loving family picture we must have presented.

family-eating

Our table sat amidst several others, nicely spaced, but close enough to require moderated tones while speaking.  We all had ordered, the girls speaking directly with the server, being sure to say please and thank you as required, and the evening was going splendidly.

Then my eldest daughter dropped the bomb.

“Daddy,” she said (more loudly than necessary, it seemed to me), “what does the f-word mean?”

Even as the blood rushed to my ears, it couldn’t drown out the sound of dropped cutlery clattering on plates from the tables around us.  I resisted the urge to check how many pairs of eyes must be staring at us.

“What?” I said, stupidly, since the last thing I wanted was for her to repeat her question.

“I said, what does…”

“I heard you, I heard you,” I interrupted.  “Please lower your voice.”

No one spoke for a moment or two.  Our fellow-diners appeared to resume their own conversations, though hoping, I was sure, to hear how I might respond.

My wife was the first to break the silence.  “What f-word?” she asked.  “There are a lot of words starting with ‘f’.”

I stared at her, aghast.  What could she be thinking?  Surely she didn’t want our daughter to say the word out loud in a crowded restaurant.

The two girls glanced sidelong at each other, almost furtively, nervous smiles on their faces.  The youngest shrugged her shoulders slightly.

“Umm, I guess I forget the word,” the eldest replied.

“That’s okay,” my wife said nonchalantly.  “But if you think of it another time, you can ask us again.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for my savvy wife’s realization that such a sweet child would be unwilling to actually utter the word.

Emboldened by her success, I added bravely, “Yeah, and when you tell us the word, we’ll tell you what it means.”  I immediately winced from my wife’s kick under the table.

The rest of the meal passed in peace as we engaged in casual conversation, laughed at the girls’ stories of their activities at school, and discussed our choices for dessert.  But just as our selections were served, my daughter spoke up again.  Too loudly again.

“Daddy, I remember the f-word!”

I dropped my spoon, splattering chocolate pudding on my tie.

“The…the what?” I uttered lamely, dabbing at the stains with my napkin, spreading them wider.

“The f-word,” she repeated.  “You said if I could remember it, you’d tell us what it means.”

My wife smiled sweetly, abandoning me to the course I had set myself.

Stalling for time, I surveyed the room around us, noting how people quickly averted their gazes.  One or two appeared to be laughing into their napkins.

“Yeah, okay,” I finally said.  “I guess I did.  But when you tell me, talk quietly.  We don’t want to bother other people, right?”

She nodded solemnly.

“So, what’s the word?” I heard myself ask, confident now that I could handle this.  I was beginning to feel like SuperDad.

superdad

With another glance at her sister, my daughter blurted out, “Fart!”

“Fart?” I echoed, hearing the now-audible laughter from other diners.  My relief about the choice of word was immense, given the alternative, but not for long.  “Where did you hear that word?”

“At school,” she replied.  “Lots of kids say it.”

I realized that now my wife, too, had her face buried in her napkin.

“Oh,” I said, trying to maintain some semblance of control of the situation.  “Well, fart is not a word that nice people like us use.”

“Yeah, but what does it mean?” my daughter persisted.

“Well…it refers to…to the gas…you know…the smell that sometimes comes from your bottom.  When you’re sitting on the toilet, for instance.”

With a shriek of laughter, my youngest daughter cried, “Oh, I get it!  When you do it, it makes a loud noise, and you call it a tinkie, Daddy.  Right?”

Blushing furiously now, I said, “Right, right.  But that’s just what we call it in our family.  Not everybody calls it a tinkie.  Probably every different family has their own word for it.”

There followed another few moments of silence at our table, save for my wife’s choked chuckles into her napkin.

“But Daddy,” my eldest daughter said, “if we say tinkie to anybody else, they won’t know what we mean.  Does that mean we should say fart?”

“No,” I replied firmly, “you should not say fart.  You should probably not talk about it at all.  But if you have to say something, just say passing gas.  That’s all it really is, anyway.  Nice people don’t say fart.”

And that was the end of it.  Both girls seemed satisfied, and it didn’t come up again.

On the way out—with me clutching my jacket closed to hide the chocolate smear on my tie—we passed a table where a neighbour from our street was sitting with his wife.  I nodded politely, hoping to avoid any embarrassing conversation.  But I had to stop momentarily when he held up his hand, then beckoned me closer.

“Tinkie?” he said.

I fled.