Big Yellow Taxi

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Ides of March 2017

These are interesting times we live in, where nothing seems as certain as it once was.

Uncertainty as to whether foreign governments can determine other national elections…

Increased irrationality and xenophobia and hate crimes against folks whose only offence is the appearance of being different…

Wars that never end, from the ancient conflict between the Koreas that was resolved by uneasy ceasefire but without a peace treaty, to Afghanistan whose location and lithium cause empires to clash, to Syria so divided and torn apart causing untold millions to become adrift in modern diaspora, Africa where bloodshed is constant but media attention is scarce…

The most public nation on Earth run by an administration whose only real goal seems to be the total erasure of any achievements the previous administration might have accomplished…

Flag of the United States

Brazil: where governments change and prison conditions worsen…

Flag of Brazil

Turkey: a land of wonderful people ruled over by a government that seems desperate for the world to view the country in the completely opposite way…

Flag of Turkey

Israel: fighting for its rights of self-determination while denying the same rights of those caught within its reach…

Centered blue star within a horizontal triband

India: a land of unlimited potential yet prisoner of past values incompatible with the democracy it would like to be…

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

A world where profit is more important than people, short-term gain more valuable than long-term consequence…

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Interesting times.

And it is these interesting times that find me re-evaluating the behaviour of the routine traveller and why this type of person may be more deserving of respect than is often shown him…

A routine traveller is that kind of person who, regardless of a world that has so much to offer visitors, will not visit any other location than the one to which he returns to, again and again, year after year.

This kind of routine traveller tends to be found amongst the older population.

My biological father will drive down from Canada to Florida once a year, following the exact same route, stay at the same motels and eat at the same restaurants he slept in and ate at before, return to the same trailer by the same beach and do the same things he did before, vacation after vacation, year after year.

An elderly lady student of mine travels from Switzerland to Spain once every seven weeks and lives in Barcelona for a week, remaining in her apartment except to visit familiar places and familiar faces.

22@ district, Sagrada Família, Camp Nou stadium, The Castle of the Three Dragons, Palau Nacional, W Barcelona hotel and beach

And the only thing that would dissuade them from changing their routine would be circumstances beyond their control, like ill health or acts of God or government.

For much of my life I have mocked this kind of traveller.

I have wanted to explore the planet and visit faraway places with strange sounding names.

I have loved the sound of ship horns, train whistles, plane engines…

RMS Titanic 3.jpg

I have loved discovering new sights and smells, meeting new people with different perspectives, learning anew just how much I have yet to learn, every day a new discovery, every moment a new adventure.

And that inner child, with eyes wide open with excitement and wonder, never really disappeared from within me.

But as I age I feel I am beginning to understand the routine traveller more, for there is something comforting in the familiar.

My father and my student had made wiser financial investments than I ever had or ever will so they have managed to build themselves second homes in other locales outside their countries of regular residence.

My wife and I, limited like most by time and money, have not even considered the lifestyle of the routine travelling retiree just yet.

But I am beginning to see their point of view.

Last month the wife and I visited the Zürich Zoo and I found myself, to my own amused astonishment, expressing a desire to retire one day in walking distance of a zoo with an annual membership and spend my final days sitting on benches watching the animals obliviously engage in their natural routines.

ZooZürich Eingang.jpg

I could see myself spending hours watching monkeys climb and swing, penguins march, peacocks strut, elephants calmly forage for food, owls stare back at me unblinkingly, bird song filling my ears, animal odors filling my nose, the solid concrete beneath my feet, the endless activity and colourful wonders of nature in myriad form.

Schimpanse Zoo Leipzig.jpg

Peacock Plumage.jpg

African Bush Elephant.jpg

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I can imagine worse ways of spending my last days.

There must be something comforting about going away to a place oft-visited, to once again shop in familiar markets, to take familiar strolls that never require a map, to rediscover the pleasure of a favourite café, to browse again in a well-loved bookshop, to feel at home in a place that isn`t home.

Above: Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

I am a married man, for better or worse, so I am unable to simply abandon everything and hit the road as I once did.

I, like most, am bound by schedules and obligations and responsibilities and it is an adjustment, a rut, quite easy to mold oneself to, with its security and certainty in a world not so secure, not so certain.

Time is precious – as is health –  and the unreligious know that we only get one life, so there should be more to life than spending one`s youth working for unappreciative others than finding oneself struggling painfully to maintain a sliver of dignity in a health care centre just waiting to die.

Yet if this be fate then few will avoid it.

As much as I long to see more of a world so vast and unexplored, I think what might attract me to a life of a routine traveller is the increasing realisation that change is inevitable so it is important to appreciate what we’ve got before it is gone, before it is no longer available.

My father at Jacksonville Beach, my student in Barcelona… are comforted by the false security of the familiar getaway.

Images from top, left to right: Jacksonville Beach Pier, water tower, Jacksonville Beach City Hall, Sea Walk Pavilion, Adventure Landing, Jacksonville Beach

No matter how much their lives have changed back in Canada or in Switzerland, the trailer by the beach abides, the apartment in Barcelona is waiting.

But I am not yet ready for a trailer by the sea or an apartment in another city, for what I want to do in the few precious leisure moments afforded me at present, though I am limited by money, I want to step outside as often as possible and explore and re-explore the outdoors within my reach.

While it still lasts…while I still can.

For the newspapers and the media suggest that things might not last.

America has convinced itself that running a pipeline next to a major supply of fresh water is somehow a good idea.

Around the globe, forests are denuded, holes scar the Earth in Man’s mad search for scarce resources, waste is dumped into rivers and oceans with no thought or compassion as to what dwells under the surface or the consequences these actions will have for generations to come.

We rattle our sabres, stockpile our nukes, cry out for war and blindly fight for invisible gods under ever-changing banners, staggering drunk down the road towards our destruction while applauding ourselves for our cleverness.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

How long will the forest beyond the village of Landschlacht stand?

How long will seagulls and ducks swim in the clear waters of the Lake of Constance?

How long will the waves crash upon the shores of Jacksonville without dead fish and rotting carcasses polluting the sands?

How long will Barcelona’s streets be filled with music before the sound of marching militia boots tramp over the assumed tranquility?

How long will mothers fear the future for their newborns, teenagers feel the rage of a legacy cheated, the workman groan under the weight of his duties, the elderly too weary to care?

Too many questions…

I still want to explore the planet, but I no longer mock the man who embraces the familiar.

For the routine traveller may be lacking in courage or curiosity, but he is wise in his appreciation of the moment.

The routine traveller abides.

I take some comfort in that.

 

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot….

…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em….

…Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees please….

…Late last night I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi come and take away my old man

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve gone ’till it’s gone…”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell.jpg

Louis Armstrong What a Wonderful World.jpg

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One foot down

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 January 2017

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.” (William Butler Yeats. “Sailing to Byzantium”, The Tower)

Above: William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Yesterday, working at Starbucks Bahnhof St Gallen, there was blood on my hands.

Logo
Literally.
Out in the new Kiosk, or as I call it “the coffee coffin”, an elderly man asked me where the nearest public WC was.

No automatic alt text available.

In responding to his query I noticed a small bleeding cut on his forehead.

I told him…”continue along the platform…turn left around the corner…the loo on the other side of the railway station.”

Bahnhof St. Gallen bei Nacht, Juli 2014 (2).JPG
But he seemed confused…
I locked the Kiosk and followed him…to see him heading down the stairs the wrong direction from the toilets…
I shouted at him that he was going the wrong way.
He turned.
He fell down the stairs.
What started as a minor cut became a flood of blood pouring from his head.
Someone called an ambulance.
I returned to the Kiosk…feeling horrible.
Less significant but a part of the day was a repairman there to fix our climate control.
His walking on the roof sounded like the advancing footsteps of a principal on his way to punish someone…decisive, resounding, imminent…

Inside the Kiosk I washed my hands to remove the blood from the old man…but nothing could wash away the image of his fall down the cold stone steps…

It is with some appropriate irony that this accident has happened at a time when I am engrossed in reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old.

Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sunday 6 January 2013

KeizersgrachtReguliersgrachtAmsterdam.jpg

“My dribbling keeps getting worse.

White underpants are excellent for highlighting yellow stains.

Yellow underpants would be a lot better.

I´m mortified at the thought of the laundry ladies handling my soiled garments.

I have therefore taken to scrubbing my soiled garments.

Call it a pre-prewash.

If I didn´t send out anything to be laundered it would arouse suspicion.

“You have been changing your underwear, haven´t you, Mr. Groen?”, the fat lady from housekeeping would probably ask.

What I´d like to reply is: “No, fat lady from housekeeping, this pair is caked so firmly onto the old buttocks that I think I´ll just keep wearing them for the rest of my days.”

It has been a trying day…

The body creaks in all its joints.

There´s nothing that will stop the decline.

At best you have the occasional day when you´re not bothered as much by this ache or that, but genuine improvement is not on the cards.

Ever.

Hair isn´t suddenly going to start growing back.

(Not on the pate, at least.

It readily sprouts from the nose and ears.)

The arteries aren´t going to clear themselves out.

The bumps and lumps won´t go away, and the leaky nether parts aren´t going to stop dripping.

A one way ticket to the grave, that´s what it is.

You never grow younger, not by a day, nor an hour, not even a minute.

Look at me whining and moaning like an old crock.

If that´s where I´m headed, I might as well go and sit in the Conversation Lounge downstairs.

Whingeing is pastime #1 down there.

I don´t think half an hour goes by without somebody bringing up their aches and pains.

I do believe I´m in a rather sombre mood.

You´re supposed to enjoy your sunset years, but it bloody well isn´t always easy…”(The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old)

Barring unforeseen accident or disease, is this what I have to look forward to?

Mind you…

“Old age isn´t so bad when you consider the alternative.”(Maurice Chevalier)

Above: Maurice Chevalier (1888 – 1972)

“You know you´re getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.” (Bob Hope)

Bob Hope, 1978.jpg

Above: Bob Hope (1903 – 2003)

Other telltale signs that you´re getting old:

  • You stoop to tie your shoes and wonder what else you can do while you´re down there.
  • Your ears are hairier than your head.
  • Everything hurts, and what doesn´t hurt, doesn´t work.
  • You´re still chasing women, but can´t remember why.
  • Whenever you fall asleep, people worry that you´re dead.
  • You can remember cover versions of songs the first time around.
  • You can live without sex, but not without glasses.
  • Your knees buckle, but your belt won´t.
  • You have a party and the neighbours don´t even realise it.

“I´m at an age where my back goes out more than I do.”(Phyllis Diller)

Phyllis diller 2-25-2007.jpg

Above: Phyllis Diller (1917 – 2012)

There are age groups I have trouble understanding…

Two-year-olds and teenagers never seem contented…the former say “No” out of spite, the latter seem perpetually depressed about the inherant unfairness of a world that they didn´t make but yet are forced to somehow conform to.

Women in the midst of their “mental pause” are always difficult to comprehend, for one can never predict in which mad direction a woman´s changing hormones will drive her.

Living with a menopausal woman is a lot like being tied to the mast of a storm-tossed ship…

You hold on and hope you don´t sink along with the ever-changing current.

The elderly also puzzle me.

The older a person seems to get, often the more helpless that person gets, but adult pride, even after the loss of one or more of the senses and/or the loss of mobility, is the last remnant of character to go.

Finding that balance, that midpoint, where you show an elderly person respect and dignity yet are there to catch them should they fall, is akin to walking a tightrope across a chasm.

It is so easy to make a misstep.

The Walk (2015 film) poster.jpg

Above: The Walk (2015 film) poster

Sources: The Mammoth Book of Jokes / The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old / Wikipedia

No fool like an old fool

Outside our apartment door, hanging on the mantle beside at eye level, is a magnet that reads: “A lovely lady and a grumpy old man live here”.

As I type these words, I am reminded of an old TV series I watched as a youth growing up in the isolated village of St. Philippe d’Argenteuil.

The Waltons was a drama focused on life during the Great Depression, where a family struggled together to make ends meet while somehow always maintaining their values.

It was a large family.

(They were fruitful and multiplied!)

At the head of the family were Grandma Esther and Grandpa Zebulon.

He was spirited, imaginative, loyal and loving.

She was prim, proper, no-nonsense and tough.

When annoyed with him (as she often felt she had cause to be), Esther would vehemently call him “an old fool”.

It was a phrase I often wondered about.

Doesn´t the acquisition of experience automatically preclude wisdom?

Or are there other factors that come into play as a man ages, like regret, pride and sentiment?

What causes a man, who should damn well know better, do acts of folly?

What causes a man, who has many reasons to be thankful, become grumpier with age?

The events of the past two days, albeit minor, have made me ponder these questions.

Frank Sinatra, in his famous tune “My Way”, sings:

“Regrets – I’ve had a few.

But, then again, too few to mention.”

Oh, if only I had done what I didn´t do…

Oh, if only I hadn´t done what I did…

These are thoughts that all of us have had, and may continue to have, as the years pass.

I hear these sentiments often from my male counterparts…

“She´s a wonderful woman, yet I wonder what if I had kept travelling.”…

“I love my children, but what if we had waited awhile before having them.”…

“I always wanted to visit Nepal, but now with the kids and the job, I guess I´ll never go.”

Sound familiar?

Somewhere in that great collection of books called the Bible is the phrase: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

How bruising to a man´s pride is the discovery that activities, once laughed at for their ease, now are no longer so simple.

I used to carry upon my back a fully-loaded-for-bear backpack without noticing it too much.

Today my back complains bitterly.

I could stay out with the boys cavorting til dawn and then do a full day´s work without complaining.

Now?

Not so much.

And damn that mirror, mirror on the wall, what happened to the fairest of them all?

I may have never been anyone´s idea of a top male model, but, damn it all, I had HAIR, nay, a MANE of hair, like a super sexy young Elvis Presley.

Now, in the politest of terms, I am tragically follicle-ly challenged.

As for sentiment, the older I get, the harder it is to throw ANYTHING away, as it reminds me of thoughts, events and feelings I fear I will forget should I fail to keep that old restaurant napkin, a copy of an old newspaper, the ugly old rock I found on the beach that day, etc.

Just yesterday I impulsively bought John Baxter´s Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light, not because I needed yet another book added to my, already way-too-large, collection, but because the cover reminded me of my own nights spent there.

Just yesterday a young lady of my acquaintance, barely old enough to be my daughter, gave me a simple heartfelt hug.

It was marvelous.

I did not want to let her go.

I want to believe that for her the hug was nothing more than a simple expression of affection.

I LOATHE myself for contemplating more.

In the cartoons, we often see an angel, flying above our hero´s right ear, counselling goodness and wisdom, and a horned devil, above the hero´s left ear, seducing with temptation and pleasure.

Somehow that damned devil never dies, never quits, while I think that poor angel must be getting wearier and wearier with age.

Fortunately, with age I have become more cautious, and with grim (grumpy) determination, I force my mind away from avenues best left unexplored.

I exorcise this devil out of my thoughts by public confession.

I grumpily admit now understanding the phrase:

There truly is no fool like an old fool.

A sense of accomplishment (my favourite SOB)

I know that I am probably not alone in this – “Why can´t you be more like (Insert name here.)?” – situation.

I am certain that there are, or have been, people in your life who seem to shine brighter than those around them.

They radiate success, confidence, achievement and accomplishment, and are the envy of all who know them.

It is only with maturity that we come to see that these role models have their own insecurities, their own moments of doubt, their own crosses to bear, their own dark shadows.

In my own life growing up in Argenteuil County, my cousin Steve O´Brien was the person whom others measured and compared my accomplishments with.

Everything he did shone like gold in a field of coal.

While I was struggling to find myself, Steve was out there getting things accomplished.

He was a professional athlete, had his own business, owned property, was happily married with two beautiful children.

Meanwhile I was unathletic, lived often a hand-to-mouth existence, until the age of 40 I was unattached, never had kids, never owned property except for too many books, I seemed destined to die one day unloved, unmourned, forgotten, while the legend that is Steve would shine on long after his bones dissolved into dust.

Only with the experience that time and age bring a person did I come to learn a few valuable lessons…

Though Steve continues to be and act “legendary” – at present he is travelling across Canada (his 7th week now – from Victoria to Regina so far) under his “own steam” raising money for disadvantaged children – and though he still seems “larger than life” he remains still insecure about himself despite so much he has achieved and continues to accomplish.

Of course, part of his success is due in part to good fortune. Of all his many talents, his ability to attract other good people around him has propelled him to success.

But his success has been richly deserved, for it came as a result of hard work and constant effort.

Like most of us, he has his moments of self-doubt, yet he never lets those doubts overwhelm him or let defeat overcome him.

For Steve, success at any endeavour is achieved by learning “how”, and is often the case, the “how” comes in the doing.

As Steve is both family and friend, despite our vast differences in character and life experience, we have remained close over the years.

I remember sitting on the sofa in Steve´s home one evening and he was telling me of his plans to raise money for disadvantaged children struggling to stay in school.

He turned to me and told me how much he has always envied me!

He has had the advantages of a very loving and supportive family, while I without these advantages had somehow managed to make my own way without them.

I was astonished, never imagining that I was an inspiration for his selfless project, never quite comprehending how my friendship mattered to him.

As much as I envy Steve, I have no desire to be Steve.

He makes an excellent Steve, but I need to focus on being the best Adam I can be in my own way.

Steve may achieve riches and glory for all he accomplishes- I both approve and applaud him for his success – but the lessons I take away from knowing him are far far more valuable to me:

1) The how comes in the doing.

2) Every person is my superior in that I may learn from him/her and I am superior to every person that he/she may learn from me.

3) No person is an island. 

Whether we realise it or not, we need one another.

4) Every person must find his / her own path.

“To thine own self be true.”(William Shakespeare)

5) Everyone is afraid.

Facing that fear is the only way to defeat it.

6) We tend to overestimate others and underestimate ourselves.

7) Never underestimate the power of one person to make a difference in the world. 

As a pebble dropped into a pond causes ripples to expand, so do our lives affect everyone we come into contact with, whether we realise it or not.

You matter far more than you think you do.

Thus endth the lesson.

 

 

Post vino veritas

The Canadian group, The Rovers, have a song, “Wasn´t That a Party?”that seems appropriate to describing the events of yesterday and the after effects this morning.

“Could have been the whisky

Might´ve been the gin

Could´ve been the three or four six-packs I don´t know

But look at the mess I´m in

My head is like a football

I think I´m gonna die

Tell me, me oh me oh my, wasn´t a party?”

Yesterday, I officially celebrated my 50th birthday, albeit 9 days later, with friends at the Bar Metropole, across from the Hauptbahnhof St. Gallen.

For folks who regularly gather together to celebrate special events or just simply life, the events of last night were unremarkable, but to me it meant much much more…

As I get older (more mature?) a phrase that I find myself trying to live up to more and more is:

Be the change you want.

I had, prior to last night, never had a birthday party before.

As well, I had never initiated or hosted a party before.

Previous birthdays had either been celebrated quietly or low key or had gone uncelebrated.

I knew this would again be the case with She Who Must Be Obeyed.

And though she tried, in her own way, which I do appreciate, to make my half-century mark special by arranging a long weekend at a fancy four-star hotel in the Mosel Valley in Germany, truth be told, I knew that this was not what I really desired.

I am, at heart, despite my occasional ability to string words together semi-coherantly…

I am a gens de pays, a good ol´country boy, a working class hero, just a p´tit gars de St. Philippe d´Argenteuil.

And what I wanted was to let my hair down (what little remains!) in the company of similar souls and share in the warmth of their spirits.

One of the sad lessons a man in a long-term relationship grows to learn the hard way is that there resides inside every man a wild child that on occasion needs to be let outside to play.

This means there are moments when a man realizes it is necessary to do what he wants and beg forgiveness later then to wait for permission that may never come.

I knew that She Who Must Be Obeyed would not approve of my plans.

Money would have to be spent.

Alcohol would bring out the true nature of people that might best be kept secret.

And the fear that I would embarrass her and myself both would remain everpresent and hang over the festivities like a raincloud over a picnic.

I had learned a hard lesson about party-planning from departing colleague Gianluca´s farewell.

With insufficient notice and a location that required forethought on the part of the participants to get there, Gianluca was saddened at how few people there were that responded to his invitation.

I was determined not to make the same mistake.

A month in advance I arranged a place convenient and familar and an invitation that gave notice to those with other responsibilities, and then I let be what would be.

Then, of course, there is the cultural question…

In Germany, and in German-speaking Switzerland, birthdays are done differently than they are in Canada.

Here the birthday celebrant buys the cake, pays everyone´s food and drink tab, so as to ensure that all will go as planned.  (Ordnung ist alles. / Order is everything.)

In simpler terms, if I invite you, I pay.

So, despite the international nature of my co-workers, I was prepared for this possibility.

I had considered buying and bringing a cake, but not knowing everyone´s taste or preference, and being from a country where one of the gods of Canada is named Tim Horton (a chain of donut shops founded by a professional hockey player.  Very Canuck, eh?) I opted for donuts from a Konstanz donut shop.

To my delight, I had correctly predicted how many people would show and most seemed to love the donuts and were surprised that I had gifts for each one of them as well.

(Maybe I should rethink my career and become party-planner? Nahhh)

I think things went well! 🙂

Now, despite the suggestive name of élan that “Metropole” might convey, the Bar is only a slight upgrade from what one would find in a tavern or a working man´s pub.

It is not quite as seedy a spot as Don Henley´s Sunset Grill, but by the same token being across from the main train station does attract all sorts of colourful characters!

Last night, WE were the colourful characters!

It was a jolly evening.

Fifteen of us were packed around six tables with glasses of beer, whisky and soft drinks, three boxes of 27 types of donuts and a map of the world to show our ethnic origins.

We made a deafening noise, talking at the top of our voices and singing songs we couldn´t remember.

Everyone seemed happy and overwhelmingly certain that the world was a good place and we a most noteworthy and honourable bunch of beings ever to grace God´s green Earth.

This was how I wanted to celebrate and the gods delivered!

On the whole, the hours we spent when we were perfectly and wildly and spontaneously and naturally happy are worth my headache this morning!

It wasn´t the alcohol that made us happy.

It was the camarderie, the shared moment that made life seem pretty damn decent.

From the far flung corners of the planet we gathered to celebrate that thing called Life.

Vanessa and Ben, Julia and Conrad, Nathalie and Ricardo, Yuen, Jackie and Sonam, Ricky, Volkan, Bryan, Agustin and Adrian…

From the bottom of my heart, many thanks for the moment (and the presents and the drinks) and for the intense pleasure of your company.

I am truly blessed.