The Great Rivers

Rivers of all sizes have always beguiled me, captive on the shore, watching their waters flow endlessly past—waters bursting from far-distant sources upstream, rushing inexorably downstream to distant lakes and oceans.

As a boy, I sometimes wished I could float away on their currents to discover what lay beyond my sight.  And just as often, I wanted to journey against their flow, longing to view what those rivers had already seen.

Those daydreams were continually thwarted, however, by my greater desire to be home in time for supper.

The first great river I learned about was the mighty Mississippi, described so lovingly in the first two novels I ever read, written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  I think my first hero was Tom, although I couldn’t imagine getting into the scrapes he did.  But it was Huck—as fine a character as you’ll find in the literary canon—whose presence stayed with me as I morphed into adolescence.

It was the Mississippi, though, that I truly focused on, that immense receiver of waters from its many tributaries—including the Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Red Rivers, each collecting water from their own tributaries—draining more than forty percent of the continental USA into the Gulf of Mexico.  In my youthful imagination, it was a river of romance and song, a gateway to the future.

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In time, I came to know of other great rivers, and snippets of their history:

  • the Nile, for example, and the tales of derring-do by British imperial forces at Khartoum that fired my imagination;
  • the Amazon, with its claims of pygmy head-hunters, and Theodore Roosevelt’s near-fatal trek on one of its tributaries, now named for him;
  • the Danube, so blue in my boy’s mind, the inspiration for one of the greatest Strauss waltzes;
  • the Yangtze, summoning images of the mysterious east, and Marco Polo’s exotic adventures;
  • the Ganges, that sacred river emptying into the Bay of Bengal, worshipped by devout Hindus as a goddess;
  • the Zambesi, which tumbles 108m at Victoria Falls, evoking heroic stories of Livingstone and Stanley in the darkest regions of Africa; and
  • the Volga, Europe’s longest river, conjuring romantic visions of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and their czarist empire at its height.

Given this rich history and my romanticizing of the world’s great rivers, imagine my shock when I read recently about what some of them are doing now to our environment.

According to a study completed in 2017 by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and first reported in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed, scientific journal covering research in environmental policy, a staggering eight million metric tons of plastic pours into the world’s oceans every year.

Of that amount, several of the world’s great rivers are responsible for up to 2.75 million metric tons.  Ninety-three percent of that volume emanates from ten major rivers, all in Asia and Africa, including some of those mentioned above.  The Yangtze alone dumps as much as 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.

Every.  Single.  Year.

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Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea,” by Christian Schmidt et al., in Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 51, No. 21

There are clean-up attempts underway, of course, and new technologies to assist them emerging all the time.  But is it already too late?  With the flow of waste only increasing around the world, can any effort match the magnitude of the task?

The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch has an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic, which by the end of last year had coalesced into a field of debris twice the size of Texas.  But that may be just the tip of the waste-berg, so to speak.

Micro-particles from plastics used in consumer products such as disposable bottles, packaging, and textiles have been found beneath the ocean’s surface, even in the Mariana Trench (estimated depth, 11,034 metres below sea level).  These particles are being consumed by animals on the lower end of the food-chain, which in turn are eaten by those higher up the chain—and eventually by humans, the apex predators at the very top.

According to a current World Wildlife Fund study, each of us is now inadvertently consuming about five grams of plastic a week on average, the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic.

The cause of the problem does not lie with our great rivers, of course.  They are simply doing what they have always done—draining and flushing the land surrounding them, carrying the detritus out to sea.  It is the producers, consumers, and disposers of plastics who are at fault.  In a word, us!

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But I must confess, I no longer look at rivers with the same romantic eye I did once upon a long time ago.

We have ruined them.

The Ins and Outs

Some friends were chatting recently in the park about the ins and outs of aging, a not-unusual activity for a group of greying septuagenarians, I suppose.  After listening for awhile, I excused myself from that rather depressing conversation, preoccupied by the thought that there seem to be far more ins than outs as one grows older.

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It’s as if the in-words are in, and the out-words are out.  In roughly alphabetic order, I’ve identified some of those nasty in-things we were talking about.

The first was the inability to do many of the things we used to take for granted—running up the stairs, for example.  It’s more likely now that we’ll fall down those stairs.

There is the foreboding spectre of incontinence lurking, an affliction that has already befallen some of my comrades—leaving them, to their chagrin, in-diapers.

Ailments such as that—and others too numerous to count—can be the source of a profound sense of indignity unless one is possessed of a massive sense of self-worth.  We are lessened, somehow, when we lose our pride in self.  As we read in Ecclesiastes, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!

With some of us (and I do concede for me, too), there can be a greater tendency toward infantile behaviour as we age, particularly when we don’t get our way—in a domestic disagreement, perhaps.  Whenever I discover I am moving in that direction, I try to remind myself that my wife is not my mother, and so I should abjure childish behaviour.

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That’s not always easy.

In many such situations, I find myself adopting a gratingly ingratiating manner in order to convert, or perhaps cajole, my wife to my way of thinking.  Prostrating myself, as it were, to attain my desires.

Hah!  Never happens.

So, when it doesn’t, and because I have fewer inhibitions now about my deportment, I occasionally fall into a visible funk, sink into a sulk, and refuse to talk further.  I just clam up.  But my silence, I’ve found, is always more appreciated by my wife than by me!

However, I am never so injudicious as to remain non-communicative for very long.  Dinner-time inevitably rolls around, and my wife—the head-chef to my sous-chef/clean-up guy—is long-past the stage of guessing what I’d like for supper.  If I don’t speak up, I could well be fasting ‘til dawn.

That possibility is at-all-costs to be avoided, for during the course of my seventy-plus years, I have learned that failure to eat leads my body to a virtually inoperative state, placing me indeed in-peril.

Despite all these puerile behaviours, I am quite a nice person (or so I’ve been led to believe by folks who are still my friends).  Therefore, I try not to present as insufferable to those around me, lest they will no longer be.

Intransigence on my part—on any subject, at any time—is more likely to lead to a parting of the ways with my friends than to any kumbaya coming-together.  So, I make every effort to remain amenable and open-minded.  It kills me sometimes.

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Perhaps the most difficult of the in-words as one ages is the realization that we risk becoming ever-more invisible—overlooked by the younger generations as they rush pell-mell through their daily routines.  No one ever wants to think (s)he has become unimportant in the world we still inhabit, but many of us come to fear it is so.

Anyway, the next time I’m chatting with those same greybeards whose conversation prompted these gloomy contemplations, I think I’ll try to present them with some out-words that might lend a more optimistic tone to our stage of life.

Words like—outgoing, outlaughing, outliving, outplaying, outspokenness, outstretching, outperforming, outworking.

And outrageous.  We greybeards need to be more outrageous.

We need more outs than ins!

Toot Your Roots

I was told once upon a time by a spinster great-aunt who disapproved of my adolescent exuberance (and, perhaps, my apparent irreverence for traditions she held close) that in our vast family-tree, with its roots stretching back to highland-hills across the sea, I was surely the sap running through the branches.  The sap!

I probably smiled gamely, unsure about the implications of the comparison, although doubtless certain I’d been disparaged.  But, interestingly enough, her comment did prompt me to find out more about my family-tree.

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That lady and her sister, my grandmother, were first-generation Scots-Presbyterian, born into a family of nine to an austere, eastern-Ontario farmer and his wife—my maternal great-grandparents, dead long before I appeared as a bud on the tree.

Sometime in the early 1900’s, my grandmother married a Catholic suitor with a French name, whose family had emigrated to Canada from Ireland.  From the time I first learned to speak, I was told not to address him as Grandpa or Grandfather, not Poppa or Gramps (my preferred sobriquet now with my own grandchildren), but instead by his first name.  So, I did.

This worthy couple had five children, my mother being second in line.  She—in concert with my father, of course—eventually had five children of her own.  One of her siblings had one child only, the others none at all, so I and my sibs grew up with one first-cousin on the maternal side of the family-tree.

My paternal grandparents—he born in Canada to English émigrés, she born in Canada to parents of Irish descent—had three children, only one of whom, my father, had children.  Thus, I had no first-cousins on that branch of the tree.

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Interesting, at least to me, was the discovery that, after my grandfather had married my grandmother, his brother had wed her sister.  They also gave birth to three children, so my father and his two sisters grew up with three double-double-first-cousins—a somewhat unusual occurrence on a family-tree.

Long after my disapproving great-aunt had passed to greater glory, I married a young woman whose family had similar roots to mine—Irish, Scottish, and English.  My wife has three siblings, and two first-cousins.  Her sibs have produced five children who are first-cousins to our own two daughters.  Our girls also have ten first-cousins on my side of the family, the children of my sisters,  for a total of fifteen!

As I delved into the history of our family-tree, I learned about the nomenclature and relationship of cousins—considered complex by some, incomprehensible by others.  I think it’s straightforward, however, so let’s see if I can explain it simply.

cousinsThe children of my first-cousin are my first-cousins-once-removed, as are my children to her.  Her children are second-cousins to mine.  That pattern is repeated unto the third, fourth, and all subsequent generations of cousins.  Easy, no?

We are now at the stage in our extended family where second-cousins (great-nieces or -nephews to me) are just beginning to have children.  Eventually, I expect this will lead to multiple sets of third-cousins, most of whom (due to constraints of time and location) will probably never even meet one another.

Two generations on from me, two of my five grandchildren—each with her own maternal and paternal branches of a family-tree—have a total of five first-cousins from both sides of their family.  The other three of my grandchildren, likewise growing from two branches of a family-tree, have two first-cousins.  None of those cousins has, as yet, had children.

Years ago, a good friend of mine, an artist and out-of-the-box thinker, developed a prototype for what would today be marketed as a family-tree app, which he called Toot Your Roots.  It didn’t catch on, although the digitized world we live in now might make it a feasible product.  As I recall, it had spaces in which to enter surnames in flowing script as each new family-tree melded with the others.

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If I were to attempt entering those names today—back to the time of my great-grandparents, forward to my great-nieces and -nephews, including both my and my wife’s branches, and those of our daughters’ families, and the families of their cousins, and so forth—I confess I could not do it.  Not without a lot more research.

Even now, having benefited from the endeavours of like-minded extended-family members, I can list only twenty-five surnames.  Descending across the years, they are:  Burt, Thompson, Smythe, Duck, McKinnon, Roche, Colquhoun, Fife, Dunleavy, Eaton, Eckert, Cherry, Rowsell, Whittington, Wigglesworth, Lansi, Moss, Curtis, Sweezey, Tiller, Tucker, Dunn, Fiorino, Guthrie, and Grant.

Given this partial list, and aware there are many more surnames I do not know, I envisage my family-tree looking like one of these—this dragon-blood tree on the island of Socotra (left), or this large banyan tree in Florida (right), one tree at root, despite its many appendages.

 

The thing is, I’m not sure where to look for myself on either of them.  My family-tree is just too vast, its roots and canopy too extended.

But I do know one thing for sure.  I am not the sap!

Being the Same

The highlight of the last spring-break holiday for two of our granddaughters was, unquestionably, a week-long visit from a friend of theirs.  They hadn’t seen each other since her family moved from their old neighbourhood more than two years ago, to one of the middle-east oil states where her parents are both employed.

Iraq oil facility AFP

The visit had been arranged months in advance—a period of time which passed like centuries, I’m sure, for our granddaughters.  During the weeks leading up to the arrival, the girls became quite concerned about something, and it simmered inside for a while.  Nana and I happened to be with them when they decided to talk about it.

“Gramps,” the youngest began, “do you think when Susie gets here, she’ll be just the same as she was?”

I tried to respond honestly, but without causing undue concern.

“No, I don’t think she’ll be exactly the way you remember her, because she’s been gone for quite awhile.  She’ll probably be a little different, just as you guys are a bit different than you were then.  You’re older now, you’ve experienced things without Susie, and all of that has changed who you used to be.  And remember, she’s had a whole lot of different experiences, too, since you last saw her.”

“But, Gramps,” declared the eldest, “I don’t want her to be different!  I want her to be the same!”

It’s an old dilemma, one I recognize from my own life.  I often find myself wishing something could be the same as it used to be.  Usually, it’s something nostalgic, and generally, I’m remembering it more fondly than I should.  The arc of the universe, for me, seems to curve towards rose-coloured glasses.

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My memories frequently play tricks on me, and I tend to believe things were better way back when.  But in fact, I probably had more things to worry about, and not as many blessings to be thankful for, as I have at present.

“Why don’t you wait ‘til Susie gets here,” I suggested to our granddaughters, “and see for yourself if anything’s changed with her?  I bet you’ll find everything’s okay.”

Their apprehensive faces told me they weren’t feeling reassured, but they gamely accepted my counsel.

Well, the big day finally arrived.  According to their mother, our granddaughters’ worries seemed to evaporate in the heat of joy and excitement when they met Susie and her parents at the airport.  There was a good deal of kissing and hugging, some surreptitious sizing-up on the part of all three girls, and a great deal of nervous giggling.

Their first few hours together were spent asking and answering questions—the questions tumbling out almost more quickly than the ensuing answers.  My daughter told us later that, at first, the questions appeared to focus on similarities, the things the kids still had in common.  Only later, after these had been confirmed—a comfort level established—did the questions turn to what Susie’s new home was like, what was different about her school, and who her new friends were.

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By the second day, apparently, they were thick as thieves, just as they had always been.

The next time I saw our granddaughters, I asked how the visit had gone, and how they felt, now that they’d seen their old friend again.  I wondered aloud if they felt their fears had been warranted.

“You were right, Gramps,” the eldest replied.  “Susie was different than she used to be.  But she was sort of the same, too.”

“Yeah,” her sister chimed in.  “And she thought the two of us had changed, too.  But, that’s okay.”

“We figure it’s like this, Gramps,” the eldest said.  “Always being the same isn’t so important when you’re still friends.”

I liked that observation.  And I told them so.

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No Cavities!

“Look, Ma!  No cavities!”

You might remember this loud boast.  It was shouted by a kid I really came to hate every time I saw him in a television commercial many long years ago.  The kid’s face seemed split in two, the upper and lower halves separated by a wide row of perfect, pearly teeth.  His was the smile of one who had never known pain.

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I also envied that kid.  Not just because of his check-up results, but because he would never need to face the needle, the drill, and the pick.  For him, the dentist’s torturous tools were virtually unknown.

Today, there are cavitydetectors available in the modern dentist’s office.  Through the use of a small, micro-electric current, the device locates cavities at the earliest stage of their development, thereby enabling the dentist to employ preventative medicine, rather than restorative piecework.

Alas, this news comes as no great comfort to me.  I usually receive good reports when I visit the dentist—but not because I’m using the miracle toothpaste that kid on television was hawking.  For whatever reasons, I haven’t had a new cavity in several years; however, the operative word in that statement is new.

It’s the old ones that cause me the problems.

When I was a small boy, the age of that other kid, I suffered from what my mother called ‘soft teeth’.  That meant I was going to have cavities despite all the safeguards she could set up.  It was in no way reflective of her parenting.  I just had ‘soft teeth’!

Every six months, I was trundled off to have my mouth opened unnaturally wide, and stretched, probed, and pulled by my dentist, a kindly, grandfatherly gentleman.  He always seemed genuinely glad to see me.

old dentist

“This isn’t going to hurt, young fella,” he’d say, as he tied the drool-bib around my neck, my mother hovering nearby.  “Just lie back and relax, while we see how you’re doing in there.”

Of course, he’d always find something wrong, something to fix.  Out would come the needle to freeze my mouth.  Out would come the array of picks and hooks.  And, worst of all, out would come the drill.

Mostly, I guess, my dentist was right.  It didn’t really hurt in the classic sense of pain.  After my face went numb, he would insert both hands into my yawning mouth (or so it would seem), and begin his excavating.  I used to imagine I resembled an old-time comedian named Joe. E. Brown, whose trademark was his oversized mouth.

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My dentist’s drill was a far, far cry from the high-speed marvel of today.  Back then, it droned along at a leisurely pace, sending vibrations on a journey up and across the bony structure of my skull.  I used to close my eyes and go with it—until, that is, I would smell the smoke.  When the drill got that hot, when I could smell part of me burning, I invariably began to gag.

That usually signaled the end of the heavy drilling.  The rest of the visit would be taken up with packing, shaping, and tamping a new filling in place—an amalgam of mercury mixed with silver, tin, zinc, and copper.  Then the ordeal would be over, at least until the freezing came out.

Fortunately, aided by fluoride in the water, my own children never had a cavity.  Nor, to my knowledge, have my five grandchildren ever had one.  Cleaning, yes.  Orthodontic work, yes.  Whitening, yes.  But nary a cavity.

And today, happily retired, I am just like them—no new cavities.  When I visit my dentist, a young woman, it’s to have my original fillings, some more than sixty years old, replaced with porcelain, tooth-coloured fillings.  I lie back comfortably on her contoured couch, breathe sedating-gas deeply through a nose-piece, cleansing me of all fear and anxiety, and listen groggily to her  talking through her mask about her latest trip to Europe.

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Occasionally, I drift off during the monologue—happily mellow, free-floating, with not a care in the world.  And sometimes in these reveries, I dream about that kid on television.  I wonder, if he were still that age now, what he would do in a world of no cavities, a world where teeth are ever-perfect, a world where regular cavity check-ups are a thing of the past.

And I find myself hoping the little braggart will grow up to become a dentist, only to find himself with nothing to do!

I really didn’t like that kid!

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.

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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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