Ethics versus life

Carol Off reading at Blue Heron Books & Brunch event, Nov. 12, 2017.

Last Sunday morning, I watched a seasoned journalist get uncharacteristically emotional. Previously a foreign correspondent, a reporter who’d covered hostilities in the Middle East and a long-time current affairs radio host, Carol Off’s eyes welled up. She recalled, in 2002, convincing Asad Aryubwal, an Afghan father of five, to go on-camera to expose the warlords the U.S. military was courting to overthrow the Taliban.

“Asad’s courage in speaking out was rewarded only with the calamity when, in response to (my) documentary,” Off told Zoomer magazine, “Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord sent a death squad to kill him.”

Harbinger of fall

Shelley Macbeth at her Blue Heron Bookstore

Some of the last few nights, when I took the dog for a walk, I noticed that I had to wear a sweater. On other walks up our street, it became pretty obvious that the trees were starting to turn. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Shelley Macbeth’s email arrived.

“Just confirming that you’re all ready for Books and Authors,” she wrote.

That’s when I realized the season had changed. If it’s time for Blue Heron Books’ Books and Authors night, it’s truly the beginning of fall. For those of you who have lived here and have followed Uxbridge’s incredibly lively arts scene over the past 30 years or so, it’s no surprise.

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.

Was it stolen valour?

Unknown to historians, Charles Loewen addressed the logistical challenge of landing an army in wartime France.

Early in 1943, the military planners in London, England, coped with the ebb and flow of the Second World War, but they did so secretly. Squirrelled away in his tiny office at the British War Office, an experienced Canadian-born artillery officer grappled with a logistics problem about an upcoming military operation. But the stress proved overwhelming for hm. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. To switch his mind off before bed, he tried reading detective stories. Then, he tried something completely different.

“I set up a fly-tying table,” Charles Falkland Loewen wrote in his memoirs, “and before going to bed sat down to tie a fly or two. I found that this absorbed one’s complete attention … and really unbuttoned my mind from current problems.”

Who needs civics? You do!

The business report on the radio began with the latest dooming and glooming. The commentator used all the appropriate clichés about this poor outlook, that unexpected downturn, and, of course, the uncertainty prevailing. Then, he surprised me with his ignorance by describing this week’s outcome in the French election.

“European markets are surging,” he said, “because of leftist Marine Le Pen’s showing in the first round of the French elections.”

Leftist?” I repeated out loud. “Does he have any idea what he’s talking about?”

Workplace and symbol

It was about 1 p.m. One of the clerks outside the chamber went over the rules I was to keep in mind when I went inside: Enter quietly. No briefcases or parcels. No applauding or talking out loud. Rise to your feet when the Speaker enters, when you’re introduced and when you leave. It made me think I was entering the Vatican.

But it was actually the Speaker’s Gallery at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton last Thursday afternoon. Eventually, the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton, rose to address the government and opposition members present.

“Speaker, I rise to introduce distinguished visitors,” MLA Annie McKitrick said.

Locked into vinyl

As background to where and when I work, a favourite LP on my retro turntable.

It happens about 15 minutes and 30 seconds in. It’s happens after the flugelhorn introduction from the leader of the band, Chuck Mangione. It follows the entry of the full Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the spontaneous applause. Just about the time soprano sax player Gerry Niewood comes in. Right in there, kind of unexpectedly, there’s this short stutter in the recording. No, not in the recording, but in my pressed version of it.

“It’s a locked groove,” I once explained to my daughters, “an imperfection in the pressing of the vinyl disc.”

Power in association

The occasion was a municipal debate at Toronto City Hall, that I witnessed some months ago. The issue arose over the purchase of a small, insignificant piece of land by the municipality for the expansion of a city service. And before the debate even began, the city clerk called for city councillors to declare. Then, several stood up and did.

“In accordance with the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” one councillor said, “I excuse myself from the debate.”

Keys to a problem

Upright pianos, such as this one, often get relegated to back walls, basements or worse...
Upright pianos, such as this one, often get relegated to back walls, basements or worse…

First, we got some experts to separate into manageable pieces. Next, we sought advice about how to move its heaviest parts. Then, I rented a cube van to move all the pieces. But we left the toughest challenge to the last – how we were going to move its huge sounding board down a set of stairs, across a floor, onto the front porch of our rental apartment and into the back of the cube van.

We actually found a set of heavy ropes and pillows to try to ease the heart of our upright piano – its the massive interior sounding board – down the stairs gently. Problem was, none of us could keep the hundreds of pounds of Baldwin piano sounding board from rumbling down the stairs. And when it got away on us, it slid down the stairs out of control, until it hit the wall at the base of the staircase with a thundering crash.

“Baaaannnng!” rattled the sounding board. And it resonated in that wall for a good minute after the collision.

Wine, women and peace and quiet

Restaurants try to deliver great food and great atmosphere, but...
Restaurants try to deliver great food and great atmosphere, but…

There was only one thing wrong, that night. The appetisers were tantalizing, the steaks exquisite. The bay window in front of our table gave us a stunning view of Niagara Falls. And the wine helped every morsel of the entrees go down ever so smoothly; and since we would later be walking to our accommodation and not need a designated driver, the five of us thought we might linger over the wine. But that one thing nearly erased an otherwise delicious evening. Not long after the meals arrived our waiter returned.

“How’s the meal so far?” he asked out of genuine interest.

I looked at him, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”