Five Cousins

Longer ago than I care to think, the final one of our five grandchildren made her entrance into the family.  She joined an older sister and brother, and two cousins, both girls.  Because the five of them live close to each other in the same town, they’ve spent a lot of time together and have grown quite close.

Ranging in age from seventeen to eleven, Ainsley, David, Alana, Naomi, and Abbey were the subjects of a book I published some years ago, a collection of poetry for and about them.  Titled Five Cousins, the book spun tales of their adventures at the various stages of life they had by then attained.

3 Cousins cover

Each of them received a copy from me one long-ago Christmas—signed, of course, with a suitable inscription.  At the time, the younger ones enjoyed having the poems read to them more than reading them themselves, but either way, their peals of laughter warmed the author’s heart.

Each of them had a section of the book, titled with their name, containing half-a-dozen or so poems with such titles as:  Ainsley Starting School; It’s David’s Day; Alana’s in Florida; Oh, Naomi, You’re the One; and Little Abbey’s Walking Now.

Over the years, these five cousins have seen a good deal of us, their Nana and Grandpa, often at our retirement home in Florida.  In one of life’s everlasting mysteries, they have grown older by leaps and bounds each year, while we elders have hardly aged at all!

[pause for muffled snickers of disbelief from amused grandchildren]

Regardless, it is a fact that three of them are now taller than we are; the eldest is off to university this fall; the second one will join her next year; the next two are halfway through high school; the youngest will soon enter junior high; and every one of them eats gobs more than we do!

As they have grown, their lives have gravitated less toward us and more to their friends; their interests have shifted away from us to their myriad interests and activities; the time we spend with them now is less than it used to be.  They face their futures now, rather than focusing back on what has been.

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Happily for us, they visited us in Florida this year—perhaps for the last time all together, as their lives will increasingly take them along paths diverging from ours.

That is natural, of course, and as it should be.  But their inexorable journey to their own destiny has me thinking I must write another collection of poems about them, and for them, before they leave the sanctuary of childhood for the last time.

I could do it for each of them separately, beginning with the eldest, and follow up for each succeeding one as they reach the age she is now.  Or I could do it as I did the first time, with poems about all of them, suitable to the stage each finds her- or himself at right now.

I think I favour the second option, given my own age.  Time, I increasingly find, is not to be taken for granted.

Anyway, here are five short pieces I have already written about them, collectively rather than individually, in haiku form.  The poems attempt to express my love for these five cousins, my hopes for them, and my unabashed pride in them.

smiling photographs

on the refrigerator—

loving grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

free your grandchildren,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

grandchildren

Five Cousins e-book – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

He Was My Brother

My brother died today, the first of our generation to go.

We weren’t close, he and I—brothers by birth, but distant in life.  He was a complex man, troubled by emotional problems and addiction issues, and hard to help.

Since learning of his passing, I’ve been reflecting on his life and how it intertwined with mine.  As is often the way with me, it helps to write it down and share it.

The best parts of our relationship were during our childhood, so long ago now that I have to think hard to remember them.  We didn’t see each other much over the past five decades, nor did we speak very often by phone—telephone phobia being one of the fears he struggled with.  The last time I met with him, he looked older than I who am his elder by three years—hair gone white, walking only with assistance, racked by a persistent, phlegmy cough.

When we did meet over the years, it was almost always when he needed help.  I checked him into rehab clinics on three different occasions, lent him money, gave him a temporary bed, and after our parents’ deaths, managed his financial affairs—always feeling, I’m sorry to say, somewhat put-upon.  I could never understand why he seemed unable to respond to the many, well-intentioned interventions mounted by his sisters and me.

I have pictures of him as a young boy, nestled in the cocoon of parents and siblings, but almost no pictures of his adult years.  He always had a dreamy expression on his face in those pictures, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the notion that the onrushing realities of life would have to be faced.

He was highly intelligent, but seriously unable to apply his intellect to everyday problems and situations.  He wanted to be liked, but his social skills were lacking, to the point that he would frequently offend people without intending to.  And when he became frightened or frustrated, as he often did, he had a temper.

But he could display a quirky, astute sense of humour, too, and would smile quietly as the rest of us laughed at some of the things he said.  When at his best, he was unfailingly polite, almost Victorian in manner, and spoke deliberately in the most precise English.  Even when I, impatient with the pace of the conversation, would finish his sentences for him, he would continue on to finish in his own way, as if I hadn’t interrupted.  He could be a charmer.

He was a keen devotee of chess, a game at which he beat me regularly in our childhood, much to my chagrin.  He loved classical music, a trait we both learned from our father.  I remember listening to each other’s LP records and arguing about which was best—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’.  I find now that I love them all, and am glad we listened together.

clef

Reading was another of his passions, as it was for me, although our tastes were not the same.  Nevertheless, it was my brother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and William Butler Yeats, two favourites to this day, and it was he who gave me my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, perhaps my all-time favourite story.

It would have been nice if all that had continued into adulthood.  But it didn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Given his afflictions and general health near the end, I feel little sorrow at his passing—rather, I am grateful that his problems are over and he is at peace.  I picture him now, embarking upon the next phase of his eternal journey through the universe, unencumbered by his mortal restraints, free and open wide to whatever may come.

If I choose to remember him only through the good things from our time together on this earth, so be it.  If I choose to believe we loved each other despite the many obstacles, then it is so.  He was more than his illnesses and sufferings, after all.

He was my brother.

The Mile of Gold

As a child, I spent many a summer vacation with my aunt and uncle, themselves childless, in the northern Ontario mining town of Kirkland Lake.  But not just a mining town, mind you—a gold mining town.

To my young eyes, it was the most romantic place ever, evoking visions of places I had only read about—the California gold rush in 1849, the Klondike gold rush in 1896.  Chasing the allure of gold, hundreds of thousands of prospectors, all sure they would strike it rich, embarked on a long, arduous, often-fatal trip to California or the snowy Yukon, most of them to be sorely disappointed.

Kirkland Lake was like one of those destinations for me, akin to the wild west of my imagination.  Why, it was there I first saw the Gold Range Saloon (from afar), looking just like the ones I saw in the movies, but more real.  And it was there I spied my first drunk, a poor soul passed out on a bench in front of it.

As you entered the town, a prominent arch over the roadway proudly proclaimed:  Kirkland Lake – Hub of the North on the Mile of Gold.  A whole mile of gold was beyond my ken.

hub

I was puzzled, though, that there seemed to be no Kirkland Lake in Kirkland Lake, and I asked my uncle about that.  He was a mining engineer who regularly inspected the  mines in the area, many with fabled names, at least in my estimation—Teck-Hughes, Lakeshore, Wright-Hargreaves, Toburn, Macassa, and Upper Canada among them.  They’re gone now, or subsumed by the modern mining conglomerates whose names evoke none of the romance of the period.

“There used to be a lake over there,” my uncle told me, pointing to the northwest, “but it got filled in by tailings long ago.”  Tailings, I came to understand, were the residue of the mining industry.  Slag.

From their house, my aunt and uncle could see the tall headframes of three of the mines, and their chimneys from which smoke almost always rose.  I was amazed how my aunt would check the direction of the wind by noting which way the smoke was blowing, determine falling or rising air pressure on her barometer, and forecast the weather for the next day or so.  That was extremely important to me, because a sunny day almost always meant a trip to the golf course where I would caddy for her or my uncle.

Like most Canadian boys back then, I was an avid hockey fan, and my favourite team was the Toronto Maple Leafs.  On one joyous day, my uncle played golf with one of the team’s young stars, a hometown boy named Dick Duff.  For me, that was like being in the presence of a god!

duff

Kirkland Lake was the birthplace of dozens of professional hockey players in those good old days, including Duff, Ted Lindsay, Ralph Backstrom, Mike Walton, Bob Murdoch, Tom Webster, Daren Puppa, Floyd Curry, Dick and Mickey Redmond, the three Plager brothers (Bill, Bob, and Barclay), and the three Hillman brothers (Floyd, Larry, and Wayne).

Gold itself was an abstract commodity to me at my tender age, nothing more than the justification for the town’s existence, and therefore the reason I was able to spend my idyllic summers there.  To this day, a watercolour of the Teck-Hughes headframe hangs in my home.  I loved Kirkland Lake, but not for the gold.

teck-hughes-south-peter-midtskogen

My interest in gold was sparked many years later, however, upon my aunt’s passing, when I inherited a small amount of bullion which she and my uncle had purchased over the years.  They believed in investing in commodities that would retain their value, if not increase it.

The price they paid was significant to them, I’m sure, but not nearly what it would cost today.  For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the steady erosion of fiat currencies around the world, gold and other precious metals have tended to hold on to their value over the past fifty years.

Those currencies—which are really nothing more than IOU’s from the government that prints them—can fluctuate wildly in value, compared one to another, and are subject to both inflationary and deflationary cycles, depending upon their availability or scarcity, and the vagaries of the global economy.

fiat-money-overview

It has long been held that, as the spending power of currencies declines, the worth of gold and silver increases.  One of the causes for this is the limited amount of these precious metals worldwide; one estimate has it at seven billion ounces of gold, one billion ounces of silver.  Moreover, it is becoming increasingly expensive to extract more of the metals from the ground.

Currencies, on the other hand, tend to lose spending power over time.  An identical basket of goods selling for one dollar in 1946, for example, might sell today for almost twelve dollars, twelve times as much.  In that same year, the major powers determined to fix the price of gold at US$35/ounce, in an attempt to ensure stability in world financial markets.  That standard was abandoned after 1971 because many of the leading industrial nations were printing more money than their gold reserves would support.  Too much scrip, not enough metal.

Using the same 1946 – 2014 inflation calculation, the price of gold today would be worth approximately US$420/ounce.  The reality, however, is that gold is currently valued closer to US$1300/ounce, and has been as high as US$1900/ounce, a testament to people’s declining confidence in fiat currencies.  Investors know that governments can’t print precious metals.

gold

Now I wouldn’t call myself savvy in the ways of the financial world.  I have, however, returned to those Kirkland Lake roots over the past several years, and begun to supplement the gold left to me by my aunt and uncle.  Real metal, mind you, not paper promissory notes.  The seed they planted has blossomed and will, I devoutly hope, eventually bear fruit.

I haven’t been back to Kirkland Lake in half a lifetime.  Those iconic headframes may no longer stand, stark against the sky, and the chimneys may no longer spew their acrid smoke.  But I metaphorically look to them to see which way the wind is blowing, I check the barometrics of precious metal prices, and I try to predict the financial forecast.

I hope my aunt and uncle would be proud of me.

kirkland

Nothing Else Matters

I read an interesting post recently by an author, John Gorman*, who professed that life is essentially meaningless, that there’s no preordained destination for our journey.  Rather than searching fruitlessly for meaning in life, he wrote, we should be looking for the intrinsic value in the things we do along the way.

On the same day, I read another post by a different writer, Rachel McAlpine**, who mused poetically on the eventuality of her own death—

…I’ll be dead and I won’t know I’m dead because
the brain that could create, contain and comprehend that fact
has fled.

The two posts got me thinking about, guess what?  Death, and the value of life.  And here, in haiku form, are some conclusions I came to—

my thoughts, unbridled,

take me to worlds I ne’er will see,

nor have ever seen

The-Spirituality-and-Immortality-of-the-Soul

don’t fret the future,

focus fiercely on the now

where we live our lives

the now

the journey from womb

to tomb—no matter how long—

is but a fragment

immortal 2

I would have to live

forever to realize

I already died

live-a-life-of-purpose

nothing else matters

in the great, grand tapestry

if you are with me

together

See?  No worries.

*[John Gorman –  IG: @heygorman]  **[Rachel McAlpine – writeintolife.com/blog]

 

Repeat Again!

In my personal opinion, it was an unexpected surprise to each individual person to see an armed gunman circling around the fenced-in enclosure where the invited guests had gathered together.  The uninvited intruder, although separated off from them, was in their close proximity, which presented a difficult dilemma as to how they possibly might escape to freedom.

Did the two sentences above capture your interest, alarm you, perhaps?  Or did they bog you down with verbosity?

If the latter, how would you rewrite it?

One of the outcomes desired by most writers is clarity through brevity.  Do not use ten words to say what might be said more effectively with fewer.  As an example, read the same two sentences, revised to eliminate redundancy.

In my opinion, it was a surprise to each person to see a gunman circling the enclosure where the guests had gathered.  The intruder, although separated from them, was in their proximity, which presented a dilemma as to how they might escape.

In conversation, it’s easy (and forgivable) to utter redundancies because talking is generally spontaneous.  Writing, however—particularly if it is to be published—is subject to editing.  Whereas speech is heard at the moment it is uttered, affording no chance to amend it, published writing is seen only after it has been scrutinized for errors.

editing2

How often have you heard people say things like: I’m absolutely certain…or here’s an added bonus…or the consensus of opinion…?

How many times have you caught yourself saying: past history…or they were few in number…or those are basic fundamentals…?

I say things like that all the time.

Occasionally, I allow them in my writing, as well, but only for style purposes—that’s my official explanation, anyway.  Truth be told, there are times when unplanned redundancies find their way into a finished essay, even after the application of a rigorous editing.

Here is an example of both, taken from a recent post on this blog—

tallandtruetales

Hot air, flights of fancy, and roads not taken…

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

The word free is unnecessary as a modifier for democratic; of the world is unnecessary after countries; ever is not needed ahead of remember; all were unintended.  However, my use of contentious, rancorous, and partisan in the same sentence was deliberate for emphasis.

Here’s another example from a different post—

When music is added to words, the result can provide a tremendous, emotional impact for an audience fortunate enough to be part of it. 

The word tremendous is not needed to modify impact; the phrase fortunate enough to be part of it is unnecessary to clarify audience.

And here is one more example from my blog—

I’d be well offshore when the sun brought the forest alight in greens, bouncing and careening its way through the translucent leaves.  Dark shade-spots would climb the stretching tree-trunks, dance across leaves turned to face the morning light, and then suddenly vanish.

The words bouncing and careening were deliberately used to convey the sense of helter-skelter as the sunrise broke through the forest; the word suddenly, although not needed to modify vanish, was likewise used purposely to emphasize the quickness of the change.  The word dark, redundant in describing shade-spots, snuck in unintended, although I confess to liking it descriptively.

There are times when I write clinically, as a reporter might, describing only the bones of the subject.  On other occasions, I write descriptively, as a water-colourist might paint, portraying imagery above facts.  Both have their place.  It is in the second mode, however, that redundancies are more likely to intrude.

Still, the best writers are able to craft beautiful descriptions without a plethora of words, and that remains a worthwhile objective for lesser ones such as I.

writing2

Compare these two examples, one from a writing workshop, the other from the Bible, describing a man’s grief.  The first reads—

The middle-aged, forty-five-year-old man was sobbing and crying. Wet tears streamed down his cheeks, his whole face was red, and he screamed loudly at the very top of his lungs. His upper body and shoulders wracked and contorted with every sob that forced its way out, chest rising and falling as he gasped for breath.  He closed his eyes shut, balling his hands into clenched fists each time he threw his head back to let out a blood-curdling scream.

The second reads—

Jesus wept.

Each reader may decide which of the two is more powerful.  But the first could be rendered less verbose by eliminating a few redundant words and phrases; read the passage without the parts underlined in bold—

The middle-aged, forty-five-year-old man was sobbing and crying. Wet tears streamed down his cheeks, his whole face was red, and he screamed loudly at the very top of his lungs. His upper body and shoulders wracked and contorted with every sob that forced its way out, chest rising and falling as he gasped for breath.  He closed his eyes shut, balling his hands into clenched fists each time he threw his head back to let out a blood-curdling scream.

Of course, none of this is of import to people uninterested in writing.  But even if you are one of those, you might enjoy listening for redundant phrases in the conversations going on around you—

free-english-conversation-books-900x380

actual experience; advance notice; ask a question; completely filled; end result; enter in; false pretense; first began; free gift; plan ahead; postpone until later; revert back; still remains; usual custom.

And don’t forget the title of this post—

Repeat Again!

Another Birthday

As it has every year since first I made my entrance into the world, another birthday is creeping up on me.  In the dim, long-ago past, I suppose that was quite exciting—the anticipation, the suspense, the thrill of growing older.

For some time, however, the prospect of celebrating one more year added to the total has held no joy for me.  I’d have been quite happy to stop observing birthdays way before now.  On the big day, I don’t feel the slightest bit different than on the previous day, yet I’m supposed to feign happiness at reaching another milestone.

In truth, I feel neither happiness nor sadness about it.  Relief, maybe, or gratitude, for still being around.  But the actual number is of no concern.

geezer 2

Fortunately, my adult family members know how I feel, so the day is long past when they unveil a surprise party, or present me with airline tickets to a destination of my choosing, or arrange for me to be serenaded by a cadre of bored, atonal servers in a fancy restaurant.

Even my five grandchildren lost interest when they realized there’d be no goodie bags—such as they receive at their friends’ birthday parties—if they came for dinner to honour the completion of another year along my journey.

As I said, I’m not unhappy about any of this, nor am I fearful of growing older.  Aging is just the way of things, after all.  I prefer to think of life as an uninterrupted voyage from womb to…wherever.  The fact that I travel ever more slowly as the years unwind is immaterial; the crossing continues until it doesn’t.

One of my pals is fond of saying, “I plan to live forever.  So far, so good!”  I love his optimism.

Other friends who might have espoused the same sentiment are gone, however, perhaps surprised by the ending of their travels, perhaps relieved.  An analogy I’ve heard expressed is that of riding a train, being joined along the way by fellow-travelers, some of whom will disembark ahead of me along the way, some of whom will still be aboard when, at some point, I shall have to get off.

The best part of getting older is the humour that accompanies it, some of it self-deprecating, some of it kindly (I choose to think) foisted on me by family and friends.

laughing 4

It’s better to be over the hill, Dad, than buried under it!

I agree wholeheartedly.  I welcome each day on top of the grass.

Growing up is inevitable.  Growing old is optional.

Well, in spirit, anyway.

Studies show that people who keep having birthdays live longer!

I’ll drink to that!

You’re pushing eighty, my friend!  Isn’t it getting heavy?

Only if I’m not going downhill!

You could ask for a recount!

Not sure they could count this high!

Not sayin’ you’re old, but if you were milk, I’d smell you before pouring a glass.

Okay then, think of me as a fine wine.

You’re only as old as you remember you are!

That’s the problem!

Getting old is like living in a haunted house…lots of unexplained noises and smells!

Ah, that explains it.

Keep your chins up, old pal!

Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

Getting older isn’t so bad, Dad.  Consider the alternative!

Getting younger?

If you haven’t grown up by now, Gramps, you don’t have to!

Amen to that!

Laughter certainly helps to cope with aging, even if only because I can claim my wrinkles are laugh-lines.  In fact, one of my sisters-in-law has a plaque on her wall declaring, If you don’t have wrinkles, you haven’t laughed enough!

young

Anyway, my upcoming birthday will be quietly spent with the special someone who has already shared fifty-six of them with me, dating back to high school, and then we’ll continue on our merry way.

It really does come down to this—even if I didn’t enjoy growing older, I wouldn’t want to stop!

Flip-Flops

While residing in the sunny south for these long winter months, I have become reacquainted with the unmistakable sound of one of the most ubiquitous pieces of footwear ever invented, the flip-flops.  Flimsy pieces of rubber precariously fastened to one’s foot with a plastic thong between the toes, flip-flops are worn by hundreds of millions of people all over the world.

flip-flops 2

One would have to be extremely unmindful not to hear the approach of someone wearing them—flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…

That same unmindfulness, however, may explain why we seem to have been oblivious to other sorts of flip-flops, all of which have perverted what we have long thought to be the cornerstone of our democratic way of life—the right of every eligible voter to cast a ballot on every question of significance to our civic life.  That is no longer the case.

In societies with a small population—ancient Athens, for example—eligible citizens had only to attend in the public square, pay attention to the arguments being presented, and direct their vote in favour of the one they preferred.  Majority ruled, of course, and so the will of the people was carried out.

athens 2

It was of little import back then that the only eligible voters were men, and only men who owned property.

In larger, more complex societies, such as the democracies we live in today, direct civic involvement is nigh impossible, certainly impractical.  Even as we watch the ever-accelerating unfurling of technology that promises (or threatens) to transform the very way we interact with one another, it is hard to conceive of a system that would allow every eligible voter to have a say on every issue affecting the direction of the nations we call home.

That may well be why one of the first great flip-flops in how we are governed came to be.  Instead of citizens having a direct say in the affairs of state, they began to delegate their voices to spokespersons elected to represent them.  Long before Abraham Lincoln had spoken his famous words about government of the people, democracy had already morphed to government by the people’s representatives.

lincoln

Whether that has continued to be government for the people is an open question.  And did no one hear the sound of the flip-flop?

Mind you, there are still examples of direct, one-to-one voting on issues affecting the commonweal.  Plebiscites or referenda are often placed before the people to decide on questions of import great or small.  Examples might include:  the secession decisions by thirteen states in the US circa 1860; the presently-dormant question of Quebec separation from Canada; the still-active issue surrounding Scottish independence from Britain.

A prime referendum example is the choice afforded the citizens of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar in 2016, whether to leave the European Union or remain a member.  Those wishing to leave, the Brexiters, squeaked out a narrow victory over the Remainers, thus establishing the will of the people.

brexit

Second thoughts seem to have plagued the UK ever since, however, resulting in the government’s plan to exit the EU being roundly defeated in parliament recently by the people’s representatives.  The EU is not amused.

This change of course seems to me to be another example of a flip-flop in the way we are governed, in that, apparently, hundreds of thousands of British citizens, when given the opportunity to make their voices heard in 2016, declined to do so.  Only when the potential consequences of the referendum’s outcome began to surface did those recalcitrant citizens seem to realize they were hoist on their own petard.

If this case is any indicator, the lack of esteem in which their right to vote was held by so many citizens is a far cry from that of their predecessors who, on the fields of Runnymede in 1215, demanded and obtained such rights from King John.  Even eight hundred years later, how could such reluctant citizens not have heard the sound of the flip-flop?

magna carta

Over time, as people ceded the right to govern them to elected representatives (or had it snatched away), those very delegates moved inexorably toward the formation of collective positions on almost every issue facing their countries.  Political parties were birthed, they lived, and in some cases died, only to be resurrected in somewhat altered form.  This has been true in fascist regimes, capitalist unions, and communist societies.

It became the norm for these collectives to establish a platform, a set of principles and intentions upon which they would stand.  Indeed, parties were criticized, and continue to be, if they have no such guiding manifesto.  Of course, whether or not they govern according to the platform promises is another thing altogether.

All of which brings us to the point where the representatives we have elected to govern on our behalf, rather than listening to us to determine how we want them to do that, tell us what they will do—the proverbial stump speech.  The will of the people, even if representing only a majority of them, has become secondary to the decisions of the political party to whom we have granted power.  For voters, it is all too often a choice between the greater or lesser of evils.

the-importance-of-the-stump-speech

This is surely a flip-flop of the highest magnitude, where the directions in which we—collectively, by majority rule—want our nations to move can be easily subverted by the contrary will of those we have allowed to represent us.  It has been said that, as government expands, liberty contracts.

And when enough of us don’t even bother to vote, don’t care to have a say in who those representatives will be, we open ourselves to government by a small faction of the people—a tyranny of the minority.

We must stand up to this.  Our unwariness and our indifference are allowing the flip-flops in how we are governed to approach us, overtake us, and inevitably subjugate us.  Just listen and you will hear them—

walk

Flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…