Who is he calling ordinary?

The Prime Minister needs to read the fine print about the arts before he jumps to political conclusions.

It was about 8 o’clock last Thursday night, when I made my way to the microphone to begin festivities at this year’s Books and Authors Night in Uxbridge. It was the 23rd edition of interviews with, and readings from, Canadian authors. It is, of course, a cornerstone of the annual Celebration of the Arts festival in our community. Like the Studio Tour, the Art Show, the Gala and countless other Celebration events, the Books and Authors Night was nearly at capacity. The lights dimmed slightly in the Music Hall as I prepared to speak.

“Would anybody, who’s been subsidized to be here, please identify himself?” I asked.

Chicken Little on the hustings

Returning from a family gathering in the U.S. on Monday morning, I flew into Pearson International Airport, gathered my baggage and headed for the parking facility to pick up my car. As we approached the lot, I was the only person left in the mini-bus. I was refocusing on being back home and asked the bus driver who she thought was winning the federal election.

“I don’t like any of them,” she said.

“OK, but what would you like to see from them?”

“I just want things to be the way they used to be,” she said. “No crime. No high gas prices. No problems. No fear.”

One cool life

Kay Barris at the Lake Simcoe cottage c. 1960.
Kay Barris at the Lake Simcoe cottage c. 1960.

My sister Kate, my wife Jayne and I sat at her bedside, the same way we have almost daily these past six months. That day, last Thursday, the world was acknowledging the tragic loss of many lives on Sept. 11, 2001. We were marking the loss of one life. My mother – Kay Barris – had died minutes before we arrived about midday. We felt myriad emotions. Sadness. Loss. Some relief that the pain in her weary and withering body had ended. Then, a hospital social worker appeared, passed on condolences, smiled and offered an epitaph of my mother.

“She was one, cool chick,” Brenda Stein said.

Dysfunctional family values

About a week before Stephen Harper went to visit the Governor General, television stations began running the Conservative Party’s campaign advertisements.

As I recall, the TV ads showed a farmer, a student, a veteran, a homemaker and others. They all had comments about this “straight ahead” guy, who “looked out for our interests.” One said he was “approachable.” And they all seemed to agree on one important asset he possessed above all else.

They told viewers the Prime Minister is a “real family man.”

Minding our p’s and q’s

Just for fun, try reading this quickly:

“I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rsceearchr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a word are. The olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. And I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.”

This is part of an e-mail I received from a student in one of my copy editing classes at Centennial College last year. At the time, the exercise of reading this e-mail – in the context of a class to improve grammar, writing style and spelling – seemed hilarious. I have to admit my laughter was restrained. Why? Well, the truth is that all too often I receive e-mails with equally appalling spelling mistakes in them for real. And just because they’re e-mails, somehow I’m supposed to overlook the errors.

Yes Virginia, there is a rainbow!

Anyone standing on the Uxbridge museum grounds late last Friday afternoon in the wake of that downpour of rain would have seen it. About 80 of us, gathered outside at the museum gazebo for my daughter Whitney’s wedding ceremony, spotted it right away.

Most of us would have recalled our high school physics to explain it – white light being refracted through airborne water droplets forming the optical illusion of a red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet arch in the sky – a rainbow. My aunt Virginia would argue, however, that it was no illusion and had nothing to do with science at all.

“I predicted it,” she said later that evening at the wedding reception. “I knew the rain would pass, the skies would clear and there would be a rainbow.”

Virginia Nopulos never claimed the power of clairvoyance. Despite being a religious woman, she probably wouldn’t credit her spiritualism for the sudden break in the bad weather last Friday, allowing the marriage of her great niece, Whitney and fiancé Ian, to proceed as planned outdoors at the museum. My sense is that she would credit the assembly of her immediate family – some 28 of us – and the power of their love for each other as the reason for the sudden appearance of brilliant late afternoon sunshine and a perfectly timed rainbow.

“There is nothing more important than a loving family,” she often said.

I write this slightly ironically – only predicting the way Aunt Virginia might explain the miraculous turnaround of the weather last Friday afternoon – because later, following a sumptuous meal, much music and dancing, many speeches and toasts to the wedding couple during the reception at our local Music Hall, Virginia awoke in the night in great pain. She was rushed to hospital in Toronto and died of a heart attack with much of that loving family stunned and heartbroken at her side.

“Why now, at the end of such a glorious day?” we asked ourselves. “How devastating to face grieving in the wake of such celebrating,” we thought.

It took us, as a family, some time to find some answers to these anguished questions. We knew that Virginia, 86, like her younger sister Kay (my mother), had battled through a number of recent illnesses of ageing to make it to this wedding. In fact, because my mother knew Virginia was coming all the way from her home in Baltimore, Maryland, that seemed to rally her strength enough to leave hospital and join her sister at the wedding. They both seemed buoyant, even youthful, watching their family gather and celebrate the occasion, even dancing to the Greek music with their younger brother George. It was as if Virginia knew her time was extremely short.

“It wouldn’t be right for my younger sister to pass away before I do,” she told several family members during the wedding day.

Perhaps she also knew, if her time should suddenly come, that this might be the best time, with the family all in one place, or as we often said, “Angaze!” “Together!” We all knew that Virginia lived for such moments. Whenever the family reunited for Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries or summer holidays, she would be the first to announce how grateful she was that her family had given her a lifetime of memories.

In fact, we all recently learned that a family reunion last year in Baltimore had inspired her to finally jot down on paper the way she felt about her family. She had those thoughts put to paper by a calligrapher. She made copies and planned to present them to the family the day after Friday’s marriage celebration when we planned to assemble again for a post-wedding picnic in Uxbridge.

After she died Saturday, it rained all day. Nevertheless, we all decided that Virginia would have wanted us to get together no matter what. We did. We gathered for an indoor picnic at our house. And together we read – on the very day she died – her page-long tribute called, “What My Family Means to Me,” in which the attributes of her family spelled out the phrase: “A L-O-V-I-N-G F-A-M-I-L-Y.” Among the qualities she considered was:

“L is for Life … a book of memories that each one of you has written in … beautiful and rich memories … bad times, sad times, happy times … smiles, laughter and tears shared.”

Today, instead of basking in the warmth of such memories as the wedding celebration of her great niece and nephew-in-law, our aunt will be buried at a cemetery in Baltimore. But those of her family who shared her last day with us here will be recalling the science of water droplets in sunshine.

We will never forget our Aunt Virginia’s rainbow.

A man and his high flight

The day proved to be a milestone in a man’s life.

It’s exactly a year ago. Most of the community where I live – Uxbridge, Ontario – had plenty on its plate. But for anyone who happened by the Greenbank Airport, that day, the visit of a Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter crew en route to the Arctic for manoeuvers, was a spectacle. For the man who had been preparing the airport facility for this day, the visit of Capt. Jack Wesselo and his military crew proved a shining example of his efforts rewarded.

“Nobody’s prouder of this moment than Micky Jovkovic,” his wife Dorothy said.

Micky Jovkovic died last Friday in the crash of his ultra-light aircraft, not far from the airport he loved.

Implements of destruction

Most people missed my high-wire act a few weeks ago.

My neighbours – smart people they are – went indoors when the lightning and torrential rains came down. I, on the other hand, grabbed the extension ladder. You see, I never got around to cleaning my eaves trough last fall, nor this spring, nor on any dry day this summer. Consequently, when heavy rain came recently, the water poured off my roof, swamped the eaves and cascaded down the walls of our house. I finally got the message. The eaves needed to be cleaned out. So, I climbed the ladder to the roof and emptied it. All in the pouring rain! That adage Mom used to tell us never even crossed my mind:

“If there’s lightning, don’t go near trees, towers or elevated places!”

Of thunder, lightning and boom

I spent last weekend in Saskatchewan, visiting family and friends while participating in the province’s annual writers’ gathering – Festival of Words – in Moose Jaw.

Between events at the festival, my niece’s husband Vern and I made our way through a prairie rain storm to Taylor Field in Regina. He had a pair of tickets to the Roughriders-Alouettes football game, but he’d packed the rain suits just in case. It’s a prairie trait, I think, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. During the 1970s, when I worked in Saskatchewan, I learned an appropriate descriptive of the then ‘have-not’ prairie province:

“This is next year country,” they would say. “The best is yet to come.”

Going to hell in a disposal bin

I got talking to a friend in my small town the other day. She and her husband are about to refurbish an older downtown building for their business. She said she’d become a little frustrated, partly with the delays getting the project going. But she was also miffed at something she hadn’t expected. In anticipation of the refuse from the coming reno, she had hired a firm to drop off one of those large, industrial disposal containers. Not long after the bin arrived at the construction site, the contractor asked if she had dumped some garbage not associated with the planned business reno into the bin. She said no, she hadn’t.

“Well then what’s a sofa doing in the disposal bin?” he asked.

She was really perplexed. You mean, a stranger had simply dumped an unwanted piece of furniture – not a lamp or a card table, mind you, a sofa – into her large garbage container right on a main street? How bizarre is that?