Father’s Day gifts

My father Alex Barris at his Toronto newspaper office desk – writing to dealine.

My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.

“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”

I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.

Precarious or preferred?

1930 Lewis Hine photograph depicting "skywalkers," steelworkers atop Empire State Building, is often used to symbolize "precarious work."
1930 Lewis Hine photograph – depicting “skywalkers,” steelworkers atop Empire State Building – is often used to symbolize “precarious work.”

We hadn’t seen each other in awhile. We stopped to catch up. My friend told me it had been a tough summer. His father had passed. He’d had to put a favourite pet down. So, his work as an artist had suffered. We’re about the same age and we talked about whether the idea of stopping work or even retirement had entered his thinking. He pointed out, while it might be appropriate and healthy to slow down or even retire, that it wasn’t feasible.

“I can’t just decide to stop working,” he said. “Working artists can’t afford to do that.”

We talked a while about what retirement might look like for him. He sensed that he might do more work of his own choosing, as opposed to the work that customers needed or wanted done. But ultimately we came back to the kind of work life he experiences.

“Freelance work never stops,” he said.

A time of evil

Dalton Trumbo's smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.
Dalton Trumbo’s smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.

I watched an entertaining and important movie at The Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge this past week. It reminded me of a very scary time in the world. It made me wince at the lunacy of the fear mongering. It saddened me to think that people lost their careers (and in some cases their lives) for their political views in a democratic country … in my lifetime. The hero of the story, Dalton Trumbo, summed it up late in the movie.

“No one on either side (of this feud) who survived it, came through untouched,” he said. “The blacklist was a time of evil.”

Shoe leather and storytelling

CBC News reporter Terry Milewski
CBC News reporter Terry Milewski

The first he knew of the story, came from a phone call early one Sunday morning in 1985. His producers at CBC told him to get on a passenger jet bound for Shannon Airport in Ireland and then to travel south along the Irish coast to where families from India were assembling.

Actually, they were scrambling to the coastline where they hoped they might find their relatives from Canada. CBC reporter Terry Milewski had been assigned to find these families and report on them.

“It was just a bizarre and horrifying situation,” Milewski wrote. “Most of the bodies (of their loved-ones) were never found. Most of the bodies went to the bottom of the sea still strapped in their seats.”

We are all Syrians

Greek Line S.S. Olympia
Greek Line T.S.S. Olympia in service from 1953 to 1974.

My sister and I made it our business to arrive in the theatre aboard the ship before most other passengers. We loved the idea – especially on rainy days during our Atlantic crossing – of getting the best seats from which to watch the Hollywood movie screened that afternoon, a new one every day.

But this day, when we got to the theatre, most seats were filled with other passengers. The Greek Line ship on which we were sailing – the Olympia, bound from Athens to New York City in the summer of 1964 – had recently stopped at Naples. A large number of Italian passengers – we sensed they were immigrants – had come aboard. Anyway, when my sister and I entered the theatre this day the woman in charge of ship orientation was scolding some noisy children among the immigrant passengers.

“Be quiet!” she scolded with a thick Greek accent. “If you do not behave, I will throw you away!”

Is Christmas relevant?

"It's Christmas Eve" brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.
“It’s Christmas Eve” brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

A number of Christmases ago, my father Alex called me. He was worried about something. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was facing a dilemma. He had just written a Christmas song and wanted one of our two daughters to record it. Since both were good singers, he didn’t know which to choose.

“Dad, I don’t see a problem,” I said. “They both sing. Why not ask them to record it together? They can sing it in harmony.”

Well, it was one of those times in my life when instinct proved to be bang on. My father approached both our daughters – Quenby, the teacher, and Whitney, the actor/singer – and they agreed to work on it together.

Ted Barris writes Foreword to new book Syncopated: Black Stories

In a new book of biographies (compiled by author Ed Brown) about Black musicians in Canada, Ted Barris was invited to write the Foreword.

The star attraction was not in the house that night. While many others – the luminaries of the Canadian jazz scene – performed on stage, perhaps the country’s best studio and jazz concert drummer of the day was absent. In fact, it was because he was absent, that all the stars came out. It was in 1967 when Toronto-born musician Archie Alleyne suffered serious injuries in a car accident. He was not able to work … at either of his jobs.

“I didn’t have a car, so I had to carry my drum kit on streetcars and the subway,” he told my father, Alex Barris, back then. “I’d play from 9 at night to 1 a.m., get home with my drums by 3 a.m. and be up four hours later to go to my day job.”

It takes a musical village

Whitney Ross-Barris headlined Toronto’s Lula Lounge, Dec. 5, launching her first jazz CD, “Everybody’s Here.”

It might have been the night she opened in the musical “Oliver” as the character Fagin and sang, “You have to pick a pocket or two.” Then again, it could have happened when she played the White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland.” They were both staged when our daughter attended public school. On one of those occasions she asked us for some last minute advice.

“Imagine I’m at the back of the auditorium, Whitney,” I said to her. “And sing out, so I can hear you from there.”

Work and loyalty

The original “Barris Beat” my father wrote as a staff columnist for Toronto newspapers. But he preferred freelance, non-staff work most of his writing career.

The other night just before I gave a presentation to a historical group in north Toronto, a number of people with the volunteer organization were recognized for their service. In particular, the group recognized a woman who had served the Richmond Hill Historical Society as its secretary.

“Mrs. Monkman is leaving her position,” the president said, “after 26 years of service to the society.”

Jobs and dodos

Jobs that go the way of the dodo bird are often the ones we rely on most.

The other day a canoeing partner of mine mentioned he’d faced a bit of dilemma. His cedar-strip canoe, which he and I had used one spring to paddle down the Black River in Muskoka, was in need of repair. Stored out in the open, the canoe had generally resisted the elements fairly well, except where the water had collected in the canoe gunwales and caused some of the wood to rot.

“I needed somebody to repair the damage,” he said. “Surprisingly, I found a guy near Huntsville. That’s what he did – repaired canoe gunwales.”