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.

IMG_3292

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

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]

 

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…

‘Though the Winds Still Blow

Reflections are imperfect, it’s true, but instructive, nonetheless.  They allow us to look back over those roads we followed in our youth, with a mind to mapping the ones we have yet to encounter.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

portrait-of-boy1

Or so it can seem.  I know he’s with me, although I encounter him less frequently now in my daily pursuits.  Perhaps he struggles, as do I, against the inexorable weight of the years—

the boy is within

the man, still, but hard to find

as age o’ertakes him

boy 3

Despite that, however, the persistent, exuberant boy I once was still urges me forward on his youthful quests, unfettered as he is by the physical restraints enshrouding the me who is me now—

the sails of my youth,

once hoist, are often furled now,

‘though the winds still blow

sailing-ship

Do I regret that I can no longer join that boy to play as once I did, that I cannot oblige him as he coaxes me onward?  Of course!  But, do I regret the choices I made, whether wise or foolish, when I was him those many years ago?  Well, I have scant time to dwell on that—

regrets?  some, maybe—

but I can’t go back to change

the pathways I’ve trod

two-roads-diverge

It’s the mapping of the road ahead that is most important to me now, however short or long it may prove to be, and the welcoming of each new adventure that awaits—

the uncertainty

of finishing pales next to

the joy of starting

fear 2

So, in spite of my inability now to cavort and engage in those many pursuits I all too often took for granted, I still search out that boy each day—hoping he will not tire of my company, welcoming his encouragement, remembering how I loved being him—

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

images

 

 

 

 

Do Better

Only the seriously stupid or wilfully resistant among us can deny that this planet Earth, our interstellar home, is changing.  Even if one were to disregard or dispute the vast array of credible evidence of global warming and environmental degradation we are presented with on an almost daily basis, it would be hard to challenge the notion that, over time, since its very beginning, the planet has evolved from its original state.

Across billions of years—4500 million of them is the best estimate—this third rock from the sun has passed through numerous iterations: the largest of these are defined by science as the Hadean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic eons, each of which is further subdivided into eras, periods, epochs, and ages.  During the first of these, the hot rock we now call home cooled to the point that water began to form on the surface, enabling the creation of the earliest life forms.

earth

According to the fossil record so far unearthed, human life first appeared during the mid-Pleistocene Epoch, five to seven million years ago, following an environmental cataclysm that destroyed about 75% of all plant and animal species then existing.  This demonstrates that for 99.5% of the planet’s existence, humankind did not exist, mainly because the conditions necessary for our survival and propagation were not present—evidence that, over four billion years, the planet evolved from its original state to a stage that supported human existence.

Why, then, should anyone today suppose that the earth has somehow ceased its evolutionary journey?  It is ridiculous to think that it has somehow morphed into stasis, an unchanging organism destined to remain for always as we would like it to be.

Of course it is evolving!  Of course the climate is changing!  As it always has.

During the relatively short period of time human life has existed, the planet has experienced as many as six ice ages, the last of which was about twelve thousand years ago, and four periods of temperature variation warmer than today’s, the last of which was approximately 160,000 years ago.  It is worth noting that the temperature variation of the planet today is creeping ever closer to that of the last warm period.

icemaps

Had we been alive at the end that last ice age, we would have witnessed the retreat of continental-shelf glaciers from what is now Canada and the northern USA as the ice melted during a warming period—just as we see happening in the Antarctic and Arctic regions today.  The waters are rising.

Really, the question is not whether the earth is changing, or whether we are truly plunged into a period of global warming.  Only the seriously stupid could doubt that.  The question is: has this change been exacerbated by the great spewing of carbon-based emissions we have caused?  The question is: are we, as self-preoccupied residents of the planet, ensconced in our oft-warring, sovereign nations, able to sacrifice our creature comforts in order to slow down the rate of warming?  The question is: are we even willing to do that?

And the critical question is: even if we do decide, globally, to take meaningful action now, not thirty years on, is it already too late?

The humans who walked the planet during the last warm period were not like us today.  Humankind has changed mightily since then.  It is likely that, if our species is to survive the earth’s latest evolutionary cycle, however long that may last, those remaining will be far different creatures than we are today—perhaps as unrecognizable to us (if we could still be here to see them) as our distant homo erectus progenitors would be (if we had been around to see them).

When I read of the potential devastation to the populations of the planet by the end of this twenty-first century—made worse by our wilful ignoring of humankind’s destructive aggravation of the evolutionary changes naturally occurring—it is of some comfort to me that I shall not be here to suffer through it.

warming

But I wish we could do better.

On the Road Again

If you were born and raised in Canada, you are doubtless familiar with sounds that typify our country—the quavering call of a loon across a lonesome lake, for example; the eerie, chilling howls of a wolf-pack under a cold, starry sky; or the absolute sound of silence in a colourful, autumn woods.

For me, the most iconic sound of all is the shrill warning cry from a group of kids playing hockey on the street when an approaching vehicle is spotted—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

Back in the 1950’s (yes, dear reader, that long ago!), I was one of those kids.  Every day after school, all day on Saturday, and on Sunday after church, the neighbourhood boys—no girls back then—would assemble on our street in what was then North Toronto, hockey sticks in hand, to play road-hockey.

road hockey

If we all showed up together, we’d choose teams the fairest way possible.  Gathered in a circle, both fists held to the centre, we’d listen to one of us count off, tapping every fist:  One-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four, five-potato, six-potato, seven-potato, more!  The boy whose fist was tapped on the eight-beat would step back, waiting for the next kid, and the next, until half the boys were out.  Those would be the teams.

Kids who showed up late jumped right in, joining the team with the fewest players at that moment.  Our sticks were sawed-off wooden models, many of the blades worn thin from the constant scraping on the asphalt.  Our puck was a scuzzy tennis ball, no longer white and fuzzy, and I remember how that ball could sting, especially when frozen, if it hit an unprotected spot.

Everyone at some point played with tears in his eyes, waiting for the pain to abate.  Nobody laughed at the crying kid, though, because we all knew only too well how it felt.  But no one ever quit.

In truth, we had scant protection—no helmets, no padded gloves, no shin pads.  Toques, thick mittens, and lined jeans were all we wore, along with sturdy boots.  Inadvertent whacks on the shins and hacks across the fingers were merely occupational hazards we all endured.

prohibited

We didn’t care that road-hockey was technically forbidden, even when, once in a while, a police car would roll down the street.  We’d simply scatter up any of the myriad driveways between the houses, sticks in hand, until the danger was past.

Makeshift goal-markers would be set up at each end of the stretch of street we had claimed—sometimes small piles of snow, sometimes mounds of frozen horse-turds left behind by the stoic steeds that pulled the carts of the milkman, the bread-man, and the ice-man.  The youngest kids’ sticks were requisitioned to gather and pile the turds—a sort of rookie hazing, I suppose.

When those intrusive cars would dare to interrupt us, we’d trudge begrudgingly to the side of the road, glaring at the offending drivers as they passed, and yelling at them if they managed to squash one of the goal-markers.  Repairing it was gross if it was one of the turds.

There were few rules:  no slashing, no high-sticking, no deliberate bodychecking.  That left lots of room for incidental body contact, however, especially when the number of boys playing was particularly high.  When that was the case, we had to move the goal-markers back, lengthening the playing area to fit everyone in.

By and large, all the boys played by the rules, governed by a commonly-understood code of fair-play.  The odd kid who might repeatedly play dirty was not assessed a penalty time-out for his transgressions, though; he was simply told to go home.  Adult supervision was not required.

rules

With no goal-nets and no end-boards, the ball would sometimes roll halfway down the street after an errant shot.  The youngest among us were designated to chase it, but we never minded.  It was a chance to practice our stickhandling as we came back up the street, unhindered by the other boys hungering to steal the ball from us.

Most of us had nicknames, some ethnic in origin, which nobody regarded as a slur back then.  All that mattered is if you could play.  There were Boo and Dinny, the Draper twins, Paul (Puppy) Jackson, and Terry (King) Clancy, son of the Maple Leafs’ hall-of-famer—all of whom would go on to win a Memorial Cup in 1961 with the St. Michael’s Majors.  We had the twins’ older brother, Mike (Meatball), and Gary (Swampy) Marsh, who would win an Allan Cup in 1973 with the Orillia Terriers.  No one knew of the fame some of the gang would find, of course, not then.  But we all harboured our own dreams of grace and glory.

We played with Kraut, whose parents owned the Salzburger Deli on Eglinton Avenue; Mick, whose parents owned Murphy’s Meats nearby; and Dago, whose family owned Carradona’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.  Our mothers all shopped those stores, two or three times a week, back in the days when icebox-chests, not refrigerators, were still the norm for many of us.

groceries

Other players included Boomer, he of the hard shot; Skinny, the guy who could slip through any defenders; and Magic, the kid who could stickhandle in a phone-booth.  I think I was mostly known as Hey Kid!

I vividly remember reaching the age where my parents let me go back out after supper to play under the dim glow of the streetlights—it seemed a rite of passage, somehow.  And I can still see the ethereal wisps of steam from all the panting mouths, dissipating into the darkness overhead.  But I’ve lost track of how many Stanley Cups we won on that darkened, winter street, running and passing and shooting with reckless abandon.

There’s an old barbershop-quartet song titled, That Old Gang of Mine, and part of the lyric-lines come to mind when I think back to those long-ago good times with boyhood chums—Gee, but I’d/Give the world/To see them all again…

But I can see them, really, whenever I choose, stretched out in my recliner, eyes half-closed, ears attuned to the inimitable sounds echoing in my brain.  It feels like I’m on the road again, under the streetlights, hearing the shouts of those indefatigable hockey players.

Calling loudly for a pass—Here!  Here!

Yelling at a teammate to take a shot on goal—Shoot!  Shoot!

Celebrating a score—It’s in!  It’s in!

And hearing that most urgent shout of all, the iconic warning we all would heed, no matter what—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

car 9