Month: December 2016

A milestone passed – and a cry in the night

Well, there it is then, a 93-year-old marker already fading in the mists of yesterday as I set out on yet another unknown road hoping to catch a glimpse of the 94th about a year from now.
The last few miles (I’m too old to fully convert to metric) were not the easiest. Had a bit of a rough ride with my COPD – the disease with the trumpet sounding title Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – which should be enough to shake even the most avid smoker free from the tightest filter tip.
It must be three or four years now since my doctor listened to my breathing and asked if I smoked. “Not me. Haven’t smoked for more than 30 years.”
“Before then, how much?”
“Maybe two packs a day.” (It was often up to three but I didn’t think a one pack cheat would distort the pending diagnosis too much.)
“How long?”
“Can’t remember, a few years I guess.”
“That’s when you did the damage….”
“But it must have healed over the past 30 years…..”
“No.”
Which brings me to a few days before Christmas, hacking and wheezing like an old steam train with a faulty boiler, with boxes of chocolates and stocking stuffers replaced by handfuls of prednisone and antibiotics plus regular flourishes with “puffers.”
By December 27, the day to attend the milestone passing ceremony, the worst seemed to be over with four sons and partners in attendance. No snubs from the missing pair. They had both fled, or were preparing to flee, BC. Gathering the full clan of six sons with families is never guaranteed.
There was a solemn moment – for me – when I realized that three of the six are receiving “clawed back” OAP. A fourth is getting close. I must be getting old to have OAPs among those young lads I used to drive to rugby games every Saturday afternoon of their young winter lives.
They have more than repaid me in recent times whenever I have needed support for whatever ailed or bothered me.
I have been a fortunate man, not just with my strong and loyal family but with so many good friends made along the way. Those who sent me Facebook or e-mail salutations to mark the passing of the 93rd – thank you, especially to those not heard from for years who resurfaced with reminders of stories and experiences long forgotten and now re-remembered with joyful clarity.
They were all appreciated but none more than those from old journalistic rivals from the days when we fought hard each day to beat each other to a story and went for a beer together at day’s end.
Always competitive, never bitter. Always rivals; always friends – and remaining so.
I send that same measure of respect to the politicians – former and present – who could well complain about barbs thrown their way over the years but wrote instead to thank me for “being fair.” I don’t think I was always, but it was pleasing to be told.
Each year for many, I have ended my year-end musing with a few lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam to “Ring out the old, ring in the new …. ring in the nobler modes of life, with sweeter manners, purer laws. Ring out old shapes of foul disease; ring out the narrowing lust for gold; ring out the thousand wars of old; ring in the thousand years of peace.”
Not much chance of that, you say? Maybe you’re right, but as Tennyson also wrote: “Oh yet we trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill ….” while acknowledging, as do I at 93, “But what am I? An infant crying in the night: an infant crying for the light: and with no language but a cry….”
But, never without hope…

Of Magic and Miracles

I grew up by gaslight. Seems impossible to believe 90 or so years later, but I didn’t see the magic of electricity until I was five or six years old. Prior to that, faintly hissing gas mantles had provided what could best be described as a faint glow to ward off winter dark.

The mantles were small and had a cheap pottery collar with a fragile mesh-net body. They clipped to a wall holder to be switched on and lit by match as gas filled the mantle. One of my chores when I was a little boy, but capable of running to the nearby hardware store, (the “Ironmonger’s”), was to pick up mantle replacements for a penny or two.

They didn’t last long and pennies were short during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, so we often went to bed by candlelight or the smelly, smoky light of the oil lamp, the source of household light before the flick of the gaslight switch.

It all seems so far away, almost unbelievable, yet memory flickers to recall isolated incidents as I stumbled with the rest of civilization out of the darkness of oil (kerosene) lamps and then domestic gas into the brilliance of electricity with its thousands of other comforts.

I can still vividly remember one oil lamp in my grandfather’s cottage in the heart of the English Midlands. The entire cottage was lit by oil lamps with all but one being the standard variety, lamps you could carry from room to room and place on a bedside table or chest of drawers. The one exception had a huge but beautifully decorated porcelain body to hold the kerosene and a glass chimney looking twice the normal size. The lamp hung over the kitchen-dining area suspended by finely crafted golden chains and pulleys.

I can remember the first time I saw my grandfather light it. I know it was just before Christmas because I was holding a just slaughtered chicken by its legs, head down, wrapped tightly in cloth the prevent blood dripping. It was Granddad’s annual contribution to our Christmas dinner. It was close to dusk when he told me to step aside and watch as he grasped the base of the lamp and gently lowered it, the chains and pulleys just whispering as the lamp descended from its gloomy home among the rafters. He lifted the chimney, applied a struck match to the wick, replaced the glass and gently raised the lamp to the appropriate height for dinner. With the meal over, the lamp was extinguished and Granddad manipulated gold chains until, with the softest sounds of friction, the lamp ascended to the high ceiling shadows and disappeared.

To me, it was magic and although I pestered my mother every step of the three-mile chicken-swinging walk from Gramps’ to home for an explanation, I was not prepared to accept one. I liked the magic idea much better than the factual chain and pulley story. I had seen the lamp descend from the shadows and after dinner almost silently ascend and disappear. Magic.

A few months after Christmas that year all the houses on our street lost their gas mantles and oil lamps and welcomed electricity … another magical event. A flick of one switch would flood a room with light; we could listen to far away voices or a band, or vaudeville. A miracle.

A few weeks later Granddad’s cottage was electrified and I asked what happened to the glorious oil lamp with the golden chains and pulleys. “I guess they threw it out,” my mother said. “I mean they wouldn’t have any use for it now, would they, with electric lights in every room?”

And thus, I learned before I was 10 that magic is not a sound foundation for belief and even the most marvelous miracles usually carry a price tag.

Afraid to look on the face of evil

     
     

The transition, as they call it, from residence to “residential retirement” has gone well. Or maybe I should be cautious and say “is going well so far.” It’s been a month since I checked in to Berwick Royal Oak and with a smidgen of good fortune as I whisper past my 93 birthday on the 27th it will continue to go well for many more.

The daily cares of grocery shopping and sharing the chore of cooking evening meals – then doing the washing up have vanished. My only morning chores involve lowering a four cup coffee maker to the two cup level, switching it on, finding a decent news channel on TV (not easy), sipping coffee. Then come the main chores of the day –shave, shower, take medications, dress and head for breakfast with the cooking and the dirty dishes left to someone else.

By 9 a.m. it’s time to find a quiet spot for a disturbing read of local and national newspapers with their incessant reminders that outside my new-found cocoon the world continues to hurtle through space with billions of highly intelligent human beings locked in the belief that all is well. It disturbs me that so many can so easily be deceived by the junk food fed them by those who disseminate it.

Of late, all mass news outlets have been lamenting the growth in social media of “false news stories” appearing as “facts” on Facebook or Twitter. Editorials lament the trend; columnists rant about the dangers and chief editors don their chamber of commerce blazers and hit chicken dinner or radio talk show circuit to boast about the care they take to check facts before they publish stories. It’s a fair boast and after 50-years in the trenches of journalism, I can verify that editors do check facts before they publish.

I can also verify that they do not always publish ALL the facts for the good reason that if they did readers would leave them at greater speed and increased volume than the current alarming rate of desertion. Newspaper readers prefer a pablum diet, nothing to upset the stomach; newspaper editors deliver.

Not many days pass without photographs of mangled cars on local highways or ravaged buildings in far way cities with long lines of harried men, women and children fleeing terror from rebels or government forces. But we never see close up pictures of those left behind – the accidental dead in car crashes or the victims of bullets, bombs or exploding shells. Just crushed metal or shattered buildings.

We never see the dead because we don’t want to see them, and would condemn for brutal sensationalism any editor who dared to force feed us the bloody realities of carnage on our highways, and what really lies behind all those shell and bomb burst clouds we see destroying buildings. We may be informed that 200, maybe 300, people were killed with the majority “women and children.”

That’s as close as we want to be or editors will dare to take us as we lament the horror of violent death on highways or battlefields but don’t want to see its face.

So I turn the pages of my newspaper, have another sip of coffee and, sitting in this Berwick Royal Oak sea of tranquility, wonder if humanity will ever have the courage to face the evil of man-created violent death by automobile or gun and bring it to an end.

Refusing to look doesn’t help. Shakespeare said that a few hundred years back when he warned “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” and Walt Kelly’s Pogo repeated just a few years ago when advising a friend “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

 

Joseph the Gentleman

     
     

Bethlehem was already an ancient town when a young couple trudged the last few metres of what had been a 193-kilometre trek from their hometown of Nazareth.

The journey had not been voluntary. The Roman army of occupation – one of several the country had seen over the centuries since King David’s glorious 40-year rule – was conducting a taxation census and, under Roman rules, that meant all men of adult age had to register in their place of birth and record their tribal affiliation.

The young man helping his wife the last few steps up the limestone ridge to the gates of a once proud but now shabby, almost forgotten, town close to 800 metres above sea level was Joseph “of the House of David.”  His partner’s name was Mary. She was close to full-term pregnant. But, not with his child.

The young carpenter and Mary were “espoused” but not yet married when Matthew, one of four remarkable journalists of his day, wrote the first Joseph and Mary story. He told us that just before they set out on their momentous journey to answer the taxman’s demands Joseph got the word from Mary: They were “espoused” wrote Matthew delicately, “but before they came together she was found with child.”

Joseph, who usually plays a bit part in traditional nativity plays, should really be one of the stars when the Christmas story is told. His first reaction to his fiancé’s pregnancy was understandable. First he thought he should “denounce” her in public, then that he should just “put her away,” banish her to some remote place thus hiding his and her shame. But, as Matthew tells it, “Joseph being a just man and not willing to make her a public example” married her instead.

And I think that’s one of the greatest Christmas stories. The story of a man’s love for a woman; a story of integrity, forgiveness, understanding and great compassion. Everything Christmas is supposed to be about, but all too rarely is. The Gospels tell us that while Joseph was first wrestling with the problem he had a dream telling him to accept the pregnancy and marry Mary: “And being raised from sleep (he) did as …. Bidden … and took unto him his wife and he knew her not till she had brought forth her first born son and he called his name Jesus.”

I like to think the qualities of forgiveness and compassion later preached by the son were lessons learned from his adopted dad. If I have the sequence right, the birth and marriage took place well after Joseph got the word of Mary’s condition. It must have been a long, long journey of steps and uncertain conscience from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

In his scholarly treatise, Desire Of The Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill suggests that Joseph and Mary were in the ancient town as drop-in guests of Joseph’s family. He notes in original Greek texts the word kataluma “which means a room occupied by human beings” is used for their lodgings. He suggests: “Mary and Joseph were not relegated to a romantic stable ‘because there was no room for them in the inn,’ the old inaccurate translation. What is far more likely is that they were relegated to an unused room, originally set up for domestic cattle, because there was no room for them in the crowded family quarters of Joseph’s poor Bethlehem relations who could no doubt count to nine and may have relegated them to the worst room of the house because they disapproved of such an embarrassing pregnancy.”

It’s a version that appeals to me. I like the idea of tolerant Joseph dropping in unannounced on his remote relatives with a young woman he wasn’t married to but who was very pregnant. What a field day for clucking gossip and frowning disapproval of in-laws! What a test for newlyweds.

Whether stable or cold back room, the young couple brought to birth a son who would eventually attract millions of followers and change the world. He was a smart child but could be precocious and not above thoughtless behaviour. Luke (another of the great journalists of the day) tells us that on a family trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 he disappeared without trace only to be found three days later in learned discussions with temple elders. When chastised by a frantic father and mother for the panic he’d caused he told them he was just conducting his “Father’s business,” an answer, says reporter Luke, “they understood not.”

And here we are two thousand or more years later with many of us, buried in Christmas lights and irrational Christmas debt, still trying to understand, still trying to find some of the qualities Joseph passed on to his adopted son.

(Sources: The Gospels, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills and James Mills’ Memoirs of Pontius Pilate, a meticulously researched novel) jhume@shaw.ca

 

Are We Canadians First or…?

It may seem a bit early to be talking about elections in British Columbia. With the sour taste of the one just concluded to our south still lingering and with winter barely underway, May 2017 seems a far distant horizon. But these days Tempus does seem to Fugit at ever increasing speed and old events recycle with remarkable regularity and clarity in the catalogue of political lessons never learned.

I’m thinking in particular of the recent federal government decision to bestow its long awaited blessing on the Kinder Morgan pipeline project thus setting  the stage for re-run of the 2013 election. That’s the one that the press and pundits forecast the NDP, with Adrian Dix at the helm, would win by a landslide. The opposite took place.

The NDP election wagon lost its wheels a matter of days before voting started in 2013 when Dix, who had been wisely stating he wanted to see full environmental assessments of the Kinder Morgan proposal before deciding whether to support or oppose it, declared he and his party could wait no longer for all the facts. They would, if elected, oppose Kinder Morgan. And Christy Clark, saying a silent thank you, made the most of her assurances to maintain a pace of economic development and new job creation and won the election.

Time went by, Dix resigned as NDP leader and John Horgan stepped up to declare he was against the project at present but could possibly be converted. He was back where Dix was when he was waiting for full environmental impact in formation before deciding to openly oppose.

Horgan maintains the view that while “Kinder Morgan is a divisive issue” it isn’t the biggest problem facing British Columbia. He recently told CBC News reporter Richard Zussman: “It will be an election issue. But there are many, many other issues that will be critically important. We want to talk about a wide range of issues and so do British Columbians.”

While that is an accurate observation, the always restless electorate demands more than just talk. It wants, demands, needs decisions. In 2013, it was indecision and then a precipitous decision by Dix that went a long way to deny the NDP victory.

In 2017, Horgan faces even tougher decisions. In Alberta, Rachel Notley’s NDP government desperately needs the pipeline – and any other project capable of healing provincial economic wounds. Horgan says his main responsibility is to stand up for the people of British Columbia. Is it? Or should he first be thinking what’s best for Canada, then factor in provincial needs?

 

It isn’t just Horgan – or any political leader – who needs to think that way. Are we Canadians first or does our home province rate higher priority?  It’s a question we all need ask ourselves from time to time – and answer honestly.