I Won’t Go Back Again

On the day I visited Venice, the city was flooding—a precursor, I fear, of what is to come.  Some of the streets alongside the canals were underwater, deep enough that I couldn’t venture into them without rubber boots.

In the Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, raised boardwalks had been erected to allow tourists to pass from one side to the other.  Outdoor cafes, their tables waiting for customers, were untended because they sat in several inches of water.  A few children romped and splashed in the accidental lake that covered much of the square, their squeals of delight piercing the general hubbub.

 

I wondered, sadly, how much longer tourists would be allowed to visit the legendary city.

I made a point of visiting the famed Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal—to say I’d been there, of course, but also because my youngest daughter accepted a marriage proposal on that very spot several years ago.  I found it quite romantic, despite the crowds.

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Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t!

I had stopped to take pictures at the top of a staircase from the bridge to the street below, when I was roughly jostled from behind.  I almost dropped my cellphone.

“Outta the way!” a voice growled.  “You’re blocking the way!”

The speaker, about my age, held the hand of a little girl, perhaps six or seven, and they started down the steps past me.

More out of surprise than belligerence, I said, “Yeah, I guess I am.  Too bad!”

The man stopped, turned, and came back towards me, the little girl drawn along.  Standing one or two stairs below, he had to look up as he spoke to me.  He appeared to be somewhat younger than I, but old enough that I assumed the child was his granddaughter.

“What did you say?” he demanded, his English accented but fluent.  And angry.

“I’m taking pictures,” I said.  “You should watch where you’re going.”

“You shouldn’t even be allowed to come here!” he exclaimed.  “You’re spoiling our city, all you people!”  He was quite excited by then.

“Why don’t you calm down?” I said, wondering where this was headed.  “Before you frighten your granddaughter.”  The little girl was clutching his hand tightly.

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“I’ll calm down when I punch you in the nose,” he said, still looking up at me.

“You won’t do that,” I said, slipping my phone into my pocket, bracing, wondering if he would.

There was a momentary pause.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I say momentary because an awful lot of thoughts were flashing through my mind at that precise moment.

Who is this guy?

Why’s he so mad?

What if he takes a swing?

If he does, I’ll push him, and he’ll fall down the stairs.

Yeah, but what about the little girl?  What if she gets hurt?

And what if the police come?

How do I get into these messes?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The man apparently thought twice about it.  Turning away abruptly, he started down the stairs, the little girl in tow.  “We can’t even walk around our own city anymore,” he complained loudly, one arm gesticulating.  “All you people, you come here, you block the streets, you ruin everything.  You should stay home, stay wherever you come from…”

His voice faded away, and within seconds he and the little girl were swallowed up in the crowded street, lost to sight.  No one else seemed to have noticed the altercation.

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I was shaken, of course, although convinced I had done nothing wrong.  After a few minutes, I resumed my walking tour of the remarkable city.

Later that evening, reflecting over a glass of wine, I wondered if the man’s anger was not so much with me, as with the fact that I was but one of hordes of tourists overrunning his city, even as the marshy land it sits on sinks into the sea.  In fact, more than 30 million people visit Venice each year, a city with a population of approximately 50,000 souls.

In his anger, I heard echoes of complaints from people in nations all over the world—people opposed to the influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers to their countries, people afraid their jobs will be taken, their culture destroyed, their language lost.  Their fear is real and their resentment palpable.  Politicians cater to it.

And I wondered if those same fears had been voiced, in vain, by the indigenous peoples whose homelands had been invaded by the rapacious colonizers who appeared on their shores four centuries ago.  

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I’m awfully glad I visited Venice when I did, and I’m happy I stood where my daughter did almost twenty years ago when her beau proposed to her.  It is an indelible memory for us both.

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But I won’t go back again.

Odes of Joy

I would wager the family farm (if I owned one) that not one in ten of you, dear readers, will know the meaning of this acronym:  SPEBSQSA.

It stands for the original, and still official, name of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), founded eighty-one years ago, in 1938.  Since that time, loads of odes of joy have rung out across the world as men and women of all persuasions have come together in harmony.

quartet

The acronym translates as: Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.  Quartets still flourish, but barbershop singing has since expanded to include large choruses.

I mention this because a few years ago, a friend introduced me to the joys of singing in a men’s chorus—Harbourtown Sound, of Hamilton, Ontario.  Eighty-five men strong, HTS is a competition chorus that was ranked twenty-fourth in the world in 2018, out of more than a thousand barbershop choruses worldwide.

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The jubilant music the chorus produces can make the listener shiver with delight.

Just this past winter, that same friend invited me to join a second chorus—the Suncoast Statesmen, of Punta Gorda, Florida.  This great group, comprised almost equally of American stalwarts and Canadian snowbirds, is a performance chorus, eschewing the competitive experience in favour of a more relaxed approach.

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Nevertheless, the music the chorus creates is both joyous and memorable.

I’ve written before in these pages about Harbourtown Sound, and one of those posts may be found at this safe link—

If you missed it, or even if you’d like to enjoy a reprise, check it out.  You’ll hear some wonderful music selections within the post.

The chorus, which this year is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, will present its annual spring show, Making Great Music and Great Friends, on 12 May at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.

The Suncoast Statesmen recently performed their annual spring show, Harmony Showcase, held in a large church in the area, before a sell-out crowd.  The chorus sang nine songs altogether, five in the first act, four in the second.  Between sets, a number of quartets and local high school student ensembles performed.

If you’re in the mood to hear some brilliant harmony, have a listen to these five songs, which may be found at this safe link—

Much has been written about the joys and benefits of singing, either alone or in an ensemble.  For me, it’s a little bit like rainfall—once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

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Making Babies

“Gramps,” says she, almost absently, “you and Nana made babies, right?”

“Ahh, that’s right,” says I, a tad taken aback by her question—out of the blue from an early-teen granddaughter.  “Two of them, beautiful sisters.”

sisters

We’ve been sitting on a swing-chair in the lanai, each of us tapping on our phones, together yet apart.  I turn my attention from mine, but she is still engrossed in hers.

“Like Mum and Dad did with us, right?”

“Exactly,” I reply, wondering where this is going.  “Like they did for you and your sister.  But we did it first.”

She smiles to herself.  “Did you ever make babies with anybody else?”

I shake my head.  “No, the only one we made babies with was each other.  Your mum and aunt are the only babies we ever had.”

“Did you ever try with anybody else?”

Another shake of the head, this one to clear the surprise I’m feeling.  “Nope.  I didn’t want babies before I met Nana.”  I’m trying hard to answer the questions as asked, without offering anything extraneous.

“Was she your first girlfriend?”

“No, I went out with other girls before we met.  But she was my last girlfriend,” I say with a chuckle.

steady

Eyes and thumbs still on her phone, she smiles at that.  “How did you guys know you were the ones you wanted to make babies with?”

I pause, gazing skyward, taking myself more than fifty years back.  “Well, I guess it was because we sort of clicked right off the bat.  After going out with her a couple of times, I didn’t really want to date anyone else.  Lucky for me, she felt the same way.”

“Yeah, but how did you know that?”

I laugh quietly again, buying time.  “I’m not sure we really did know, not right away.  I think it was something that grew slowly, the more time we spent together.”

“And that didn’t happen with any other girlfriends?”

I shake my head yet again.  “It was different with Nana.  She had a wonderful smile, and I guess she liked mine.”  I flash her a Cheshire grin for effect.  “We both loved sports and played a lot of them, so that helped.  Plus, we knew a lot of the same friends.  After a while, we just didn’t want to be with anyone else.  And before we knew it, we figured out we were in love.”

 “But you didn’t try to make babies?”

“Okay,” I say, screwing up my courage, “you know how babies are made, right?  Sort of?”  I pray that she does.

conception

She nods and blushes slightly, looking at me now.

“Well, Nana and I both wanted to graduate from university, meaning we wouldn’t be able to get married for a few years.  Back in those days, most people didn’t have babies before they were married, and birth control—you know what that is, right?—wasn’t available the way it is today.”

“Lots of people have babies today without being married,” she says.

“They do,” I acknowledge.  “But think of the enormous responsibility that can be, being a mother or father of a baby.  It’s like a full-time job, so any plans you have for school or a working career could be delayed a long time.”

“You think it’s wrong to do that before you’re married?”

I pause again, thrust without warning into the role of a reluctant life-coach, caught unprepared for this conversation.  But not disposed to dodge it.

“So-o-o,” I venture, “I wouldn’t call it wrong or right in a moral sense, like a sin or anything.  Not if two people are sure they love each other.  But I do think making babies could be an unwise decision for them, depending upon the circumstances.  If two people consciously want to be parents, if they know what that will entail, and if they believe they’re equipped to raise a child, then at least they’re going into it with their eyes open.  But even then, I think there’s a problem with that logic.”

“Which is?” she says, all in now.

“In my limited experience,” I say, smiling self-deprecatingly, “making love with someone is an emotional act—as it should be probably.  But emotions can often push common-sense aside in those situations, so people might end up doing something that seems exactly right in the moment, only to realize in retrospect that it was exactly the wrong thing to have done.  And if their actions result in a baby coming along, the consequences of that one mistake can be life-altering.  Especially if they’re young.”

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She nods, brows furrowed.  “How many girlfriends did you have before Nana?”

I’m tempted to reply, jokingly, that the number was in the dozens, but her manner is quite intent now.  “Boy, that’s a long time ago,” I say.  “I think there were probably three or four girls I really liked before Nana.  We’d tell everybody we were going steady, meaning we couldn’t date anybody else.”

“But you did, though, right?”

“Yeah, eventually,” I concede.  “With all of them except Nana.  She’s the last girl I went steady with.”

“And the only one you made babies with,” she affirms.

“Yup.”

She leans close to plant a kiss on my whiskery cheek.  “Okay, Gramps.  Thanks for telling me about you and Nana.”

And off she goes, phone in hand—curiosity apparently satisfied—leaving me alone on the swing-chair in the lanai, wondering if I’d answered her questions wisely, thinking I might know the reason for them, and hoping her innate common-sense would prevail.

It’s all so long-ago for me, and so achingly right-now for her.

Those Were the Days

Let me list some life-threatening things that have befallen us, my wife and me, along our way together through these many years—

  • a head-on collision that totalled our car, from which we walked away shaken, scathed, but alive;
  • a diabolical attempt on our lives by an unhinged assailant, foiled only by the most fortunate of circumstances;
  • a last-minute, lifesaving operation in the wee dawn hours by a dedicated surgeon who removed my colon before the disease ravaging it could snuff me forever;
  • the onset of cancer, that most insidious of diseases—once for me, twice for her—held successfully at bay, so far, by equally dedicated doctors;
  • a severe lacunar stroke that struck her without warning, treated as quickly as possible, from which she has recovered to the point of resuming her tennis and golf endeavours.

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It’s a grim list, to be sure, not one we enjoy recalling.  And yet, here we are, still alive, still able to remember each and every event.

Let me cite now another list, this one of life-altering blessings we have been allowed to experience together on our journey—

  • two amazing daughters and their loving husbands, who love and esteem us beyond what we deserve;
  • five loving grandchildren, only just awakening to the limitless possibilities dawning before them;
  • siblings, six in total now, whom we have known and loved for more years than seems possible;
  • fast and faithful friends, both new and old—as the children’s song says, the one silver, the other gold;
  • a beautiful home on a lake in Ontario, another on a freshwater pond in Florida, each a place of inspiration and respite;
  • a creative penchant that allows us the opportunity to craft things where there was nothing before—pottery and glass-sculpting for her, music and writing for me.

This is a much happier list than the first for so many reasons, the most important being that, where the first comprises things from our past—never to be revisited, we hope—the second embraces blessings we continue to enjoy.  And that enjoyment follows from a belief that, as Robert Browning wrote, …the best is yet to be.  Through the hardships, it is that belief that sustained us.

An old Russian folk-tune (for which English lyrics were composed several years ago) speaks to the reminiscences of people my age upon their vanished youth, and recalls their once-cherished romantic idealism—

Those were the days, my friend, / We thought they’d never end…

I’m happy to say that, so far, they haven’t.  We’re still singing and dancing.

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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

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]