It’s getting late to wish you a Merry Christmas, but still on time to wish you all a Happy New Year.
We’ve had a great Christmas this year, full of warmth and affection and a certain acceptable amount of gluttony. I bought Ruth a rowing machine to replace our elliptical trainer that had finally burned out after years of keeping us fit. I started with five minutes on it and have been increasing by a minute a day. Yesterday I rowed for seven minutes and it left me with very sore quads and biceps, so I know it’s working. I have been far too inactive over the past year, and it takes very little to tell me I need regular exercise.
Ruth bought me a new laptop. I’m not sure how I will like Windows 11, and I am sure I’m in for at least a week of computer hell as I get used to the new machine. But my old laptop, running Windows 7, just can’t handle the video editing programs I want to use. I really miss Final Cut Pro and am frustrated by the learning curve of Adobe Premier Pro CS6. As a result, I skipped the refinements I would have given to to this video I made for the grand kids and just slapped it together to get it off in time.
There’s lots going on right now, mostly good, often frustrating. My quail egg hatching project has come a cropper with only four chicks hatched and none surviving after trying with two batches of eggs. I’ll try again in the Spring. The operation on my right hand, involving cutting off the arthritic bone on my right thumb and gluing on a tendon from my forearm, has been remarkably successful and I can now practice the violin again without immediate pain in my bow hand. Instead I have immediate pain in my right shoulder from the rotator cuff repair. I’m hopeful that the rowing machine may also address that problem.
I keep promising myself not to take on any new learning curves, but I’ve just purchased a new grinder and polisher and will shortly dive head first into knife making. The very last thing I need is a new hobby, but here I go again. There’s always something causing pain, much an unavoidable part of getting old but also self inflicted like running a finger into the band saw just before Christmas. It will heal, and hurt like hell until it does.
I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions, but I do intend to gain some consistency in my exercise, my music practice, and the projects I pursue, including more frequent updates to this personal website.
For you, my presumed reader, I wish the very best in 2023. Stay interested. Carpe the fuck out of each diem. Enjoy another ride around the sun on this amazing spinning globe. As my friend Danny in China would say, love ya tons.
Being left handed has had a profound affect on my comfort in social situations, an affect perhaps equal to starting school at the age of five instead of the usual six, which meant that I was constantly comparing my abilities to children often a year or more older than I was. Sometimes these influences worked in tandem. I’ve only recently come to understand them.
I started school a year or two after converting left handed writers to right handed went out of fashion. So I was allowed to use my natural, preferred hand to write with. I suppose this was considered a kindness, but like many well intentioned educational changes, it had unintended consequences for me. Desks were designed to be right handed. Such desks were entered on the left side. Support for the right arm was provided on the right side, which widened to form the writing surface. Each of my first school classes began with a search for a left handed desk for me to use. This, along with constant remarks on my left handedness, caused me to feel that I was somehow different from the other students, somehow unusual, somebody who didn’t really fit in.
This was brought home to me a few years ago. We had purchased a telephone desk that sat by the door. It had a seat and a seat on the right on the side, with the table for the telephone on the left, situated so that it was natural to pick up the receiver with the left hand, leaving the right hand free for writing notes. It was very awkward to pick up the receiver with the right hand so one could write with the left. I was sitting at this desk one day with the phone in my left hand, and began casually doodling with my rright hand on the note paper we kept beside the phone. I started writing cursive letters, and realized how easy it would have been to learn to write right handed since I can do most things easily with either hand. (Technically I am ambidextrous, not mixed-handed, since I do everything with my left hand unless I was trained to do it with my right: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks. I learned to roll a coin across my right knuckles because the script required me to teach this trick to a right handed actor. Now I can do that with some facility, but it would take hours of practice to learn to do it with my left hand.) The realization that I could easily have been converted to writing with my right hand hit me with an emotional rush, almost bringing me to tears. The thought that came to my mind was “And then I’d be normal”. Until that moment, I had no idea how abnormal being left handed made me feel. Explains a lot.
I suppose I should be grateful that the social prejudice against left handed people is pretty much a thing of the past. In the middle ages, when lefties were referred to with such pejoratives as “cack handed” (shit handed) or “sinister” and assumed to be allies of the devil, the unfortunate lefties were often driven from their villages by the taunts and slurs of the ignorant bastards they had to live with.
This caused my favourite, and most ironic, result. Left handers became the traveling minstrels and entertainers, moving from village to village performing and bringing the news. They are the ones who developed virtually all of the stringed instruments – violins, guitars, mandolins, lutes, and all the rest. Now, if you think about those instruments, the left hand does almost all of the heavy lifting, the fingering of notes, stretching to make chords and, in the case of fretless instruments, developing perfection of intonation and vibratto. It’s only after the performer has developed considerable sophistication that the right hand does more than strum or saw across the strings with a bow, easy tasks compared to what the left hand must learn.
Right handers naturally assume that all these instruments are right handed, since almost everything else in this world was designed for their use. But no. The stringed instruments are naturally left handed. Many left handed but essentially ambidextrous people have been convinced that they need to reverse the strings on a guitar or violin to learn to play it. Not true and so sad.
I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and violin the way they were designed to be played – left handed. It’s the right handed musicians who should be reversing the strings. The jokes on them, eh.
So, being left handed made me feel like a misfit, weirdo, oddball in school. But now that I’m an adult, how do I feel about it? Mostly I couldn’t care less. Aside from my wife wanting to sit on my right side at a dinner table, or taking care to seat me on a corner when we dine with others, it really isn’t an issue in my life. I once owned a left handed can opener, and had one heck of a time trying to figure out how to use it, just like my right handed friends. Since I’d never held a left handed bolt action rifle, I recently bought one out of curiosity, a left handed Savage 300 Winmag. Worst gun I’ve ever owned (for me). Kicks like a bastard, and the knob on the bolt tends to bash into the knuckle of my trigger finger if I’m not careful. I never resorted to handling a right handed bolt action rifle the way the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan” did, so such rifles never gave me any trouble.
Apparently being left handed is associated with creativity and a greater ability to visualize in three dimensions, which fits. Recent studies show more lefties in the arts, and among architects. Lefties also have %15 greater lifetime earnings than the right handed. But these are just statistical averages and don’t mean much at an individual level.
I’ve come to accept that there is no such thing as normal. If being left handed messed up my childhood, it hasn’t messed up my life. Being proud of being left handed is as silly as being proud of being white, or tall, just another accident of birth. I’m proud of accomplishments, not of things I had nothing to do with.
UPDATE: I am now ready to reconsider my theory that all stringed instruments are left handed, having recently become acquainted with the lyre harp, one of the earliest and simplest stringed instruments which probably predates the guitar and most certainly predates the violin.
The lyre harp in one of its simplest forms, with no resonator chamber.
The lyre harp is held by the left hand and the strings are plucked with the right. So in that case, the right hand is doing all the work and the left is doing nothing but holding the instrument.
I can see how the lute, guitar, mandolin, and eventually the violin could have evolved from this instrument, with the expectation that the right hand would pluck the strings. It might have been an afterthought that eventually gave the left hand more to do, to the extent that the left gradually assumed the more difficult role.
Well, it was a good theory. The jury is still out. Whatever the origin of the instruments, switching guitar strings for a left handed player still makes no sense at all.
I’m in that demographic now. You know the one, the demographic where old friends are dying and funerals, now called “celebrations of life”, become a weekly event. And still we chug along, those of us who are left on the planet. I’ve known Barry Carlson since my university days. We played in a jug band, The Vacant Lot, in 1966, a long time before I picked up the fiddle, back when I was bending notes on the blues harp. My friend J. Douglas Dodd had a minor stroke some time back. It hasn’t left too much damage. He’s still the genius I’ve known and loved since he was the music director on my first feature film. But it has caused a problem with his vision, and that caused a problem with keeping his drivers license. I drive him wherever he needs to go now, and last week that was to Victoria for a follow up appointment on an eye operation.
Once we got that out of the way, we joined Moira and Barry Carlson for lunch in their beautiful home decorated with Moira’s amazing art. Barry and I had a rare chance to try out a fiddle jam. This piece is called “Banish Misfortune”, an appropriate title for two old geezers with cancer and a third with vision problems. It’s just the demographic were in now.
“Banish Misfortune” should rightfully played about 1.25 times this speed. The next time Barry and I get together to play it, I’ll have it up to that tempo. I’m not happy about the fumble in the A part. I am happy about the way I aced the double stops in the C part.
In previous posts I told the story of how and why I got my rather expensive Italian violin made by Maurizio Tadioli, an award winning luthier who lives in Cremona, Italy. I told the story of how it was lost and all but destroyed in China, and how, after seven years as a decoration on my wall in China it made it’s way back to Maurizio for repairs, the two years it took him to repair the instrument, and my travels to Italy to get it back in my hands. I recently did a post about my tour of Scotland with the Szasz family and my young fiddle buddy, Kipling, playing Scots melodies in locations where they originated – “Over the Sea to Sky” on the Isle of Sky, “Callums’s Road” on Callum’s Road, “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin, and “Flowers of Edinburgh” in Edinburgh, plus a couple of others in random castles and ruins.
Now it’s time to tell why I don’t have my beloved violin any more and where it has gone. I guess this is the final chapter, at least as far as my involvement goes.
When I learned that my prostate cancer had jumped ship and gone ashore into my bones and lymph glands, I jumped to the conclusion that this meant curtains for Zale Dalen. That’s what Dr. Google told me, and I believed it when I read that the chances of me being alive a year after that diagnosis were 45% and my chance of being alive five years after that diagnosis was 1%. I’ve since been told by my oncologists that treatment has come a long way. Prostate cancer, even prostate cancer that has metastasized into the bones, is now considered a chronic disease rather than a fatal disease. I’m on a new drug, a testosterone blocker, and my numbers are looking good. Going on three years since that scary diagnosis, I feel generally okay.
But one thing that wasn’t feeling good was the arthritis in my hand. The thumb on my bow hand, my right hand, grew increasingly painful after the Scotland trip, to the point where playing the violin for a few minutes took all the fun out of playing and practicing. The specialist gave me cortisone shots into my thumb joint, and that helped a little, for a month or so. But it seemed obvious that my days of playing the fiddle were numbered. I had already decided that I wanted Kipling to have my violin. In fact, that was the only way I could feel comfortable letting her father pick up the tab for my trip to Scotland.
Then I learned that Kipling, who prefers reading music and playing classical violin, rather than fiddling, was going to take her grade nine Royal Conservatory test. She was at a critical stage for a violin student, a point where one either falls in love with the instrument and strives for perfection or puts it aside for other interests. I decided that perhaps having a piece of wood she could fall in love with might motivate her to practice, and really go for concert performance level in her playing. So my Mauritzio Tadioli Il Cannone became hers. She renamed it Cosimo, after Cosimo de Medici, the renaissance patron of the arts, which I took as a sign that she was forming a personal bond with the instrument. I took back the Chinese violin I had given her to use when she reached the size to need a 4/4 sized instrument. That certainly is good enough for me. I will never be more than a fiddler, and a mediocre one at that.
Since passing my Italian fiddle along to Kipling, I’ve had an interesting surgical treatment on my arthritic bow hand. The specialist told me that she could cut off the arthritic end of the bone and glue on some tendon from my forearm and that would possibly be a more permanent solution to the pain than the cortisone shots. My first reaction to this idea was astonishment. What? Take a tendon from my forearm? You’re kidding. Don’t I need those tendons? Well, it turns out we, at least some of us, have a vestigial tendon in our forearm that no longer has a function. It does virtually nothing. So I had the operation and… it’s been a miracle. It was a slow and painful recovery, but I can once again practice for an hour or two without undue pain in my bow hand thumb. Now the limiting factor is the rotator cuff in my bow arm shoulder, which has also had a surgical repair. But that is also improving with stretching and exercise. This doesn’t change the fact that I will never become a really good performer. Kipling has a shot at doing that, and I’m hoping she takes it. But that’s up to her.
I will admit to missing my Italian violin, and occasional twinges of regret at giving it away. But I’m finding that a new set of strings and daily practice has awakened the Chinese fiddle. It is also a hand made violin, made by Jin Lin Rui Lin in Shanghai, and is indeed a lovely instrument. When sunlight hits the Burmese maple of its back, it bursts out in ribbons of gold. But sadly, no matter how good a Chinese violin is, it will never have the status or value of one made in Cremona. I refuse to succumb to that cultural foolishness. Pure snobbery. It looks amazing and sounds wonderful. That’s what matters.
Whether my social experiment with Kipling works out as I hope it will is up to Kipling. I feel good about the deal, and the chain of events that lead to making it happen. I feel good about myself, and I’m enjoying playing again. That’s enough.
I have touched on the Scotland trip in a previous post, if you care to search for it. Categorized as Music I’m involved in I think, or cancer. But I left out the important details, the why of why it happened. So this is the thing:
A few years ago, my PSA level was rising alarmingly. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigens and is a marker for prostate cancer. The PSA level is now a routine part of most blood tests for men. A rising PSA level is not good.
More tests followed, and eventually a biopsy of specific spots in my prostate. That resulted in a Gleason score, which I don’t remember and don’t really understand. All I know is that my Gleason score indicated a high likelihood of cancer.
The next test was a CAT scan of my whole body. I was told that it is very sensitive, and if the cancer has metastasized, i.e. escaped the prostate and invaded the rest of the body, the CAT scan will show it. I had to wait through a weekend for the results, and in the meantime I asked Dr. Google, who told me that the one year survival rate if the cancer has gone into the bones is forty five percent. The five year survival rate is one percent. Gives a person pause, eh.
The following week, with results in, I could breath a sigh of relief. The cancer had not gone into my bones. Treatment of the cancer in my prostate would probably stop it in its tracks, and give me decades more time to enjoy my life.
The doctors recommended three forms of attack – hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and brachytherapy. Prostate cancer feeds on testosterone, so the hormone therapy cuts off the supply. In the old days this was done simply by castration. Doctors don’t want to tell a patient that they are going to cut his balls off, so they call it a bilateral orchiectomy. Nowadays this is accomplished with drugs, specifically an injection of leuprolide acetate, commonly called lupron, into the abdominal cavity. Radiation therapy, which I liken to sticking your ass in a microwave oven, simply focuses beams of microwaves from several directions at the prostate to kill the cancer cells. It is inconvenient, in that it involved traveling to a major city for the treatment every weekday for several weeks, but painless. The brachytherapy involves planting radioactive seeds of iodine in the prostate. It requires a general anesthetic, but otherwise is not a big deal. I was given a card to show to the customs people if I ever want to leave the country or board a plane, explaining why I’m slightly radioactive. Which is not to say that these three treatments, combined, are not a big deal. Testosterone is a very important male hormone. It affects everything, from energy level, mood and depression, to sex drive. The radiation therapy and brachytherapy did a good job of destroying the nerve that allows an erection. So, say good bye not only to sex, but to the sex drive too. That’s something I really miss. I’m now taking four large pills daily each containing 240mg of Apalutamid (trade named Erleada). This is a new drug, not yet approved by the B.C. Medical plan, and would cost $4000/month if it weren’t supplied by big pharma “on compassionate grounds”, meaning, if I want to be cynical, that they need more test subjects. It’s a testosterone blocker, negating any action by whatever testosterone I have left. So far the only side effects seem to be that I’ve lost all my body hair and been returned to a pre-pubescent condition.
But what does all of this have to do with the Scotland trip? Sit back and relax, I’m getting to it.
Some time after I had all these treatments, my cancer seemed to be under control but the science marches on and a new kind of radiation scan was in development. My oncologist signed me up and sent me to Vancouver to be part of the trial, to get another radioactive injection and enjoy another slide into the big spinning doughnut for a PET scan. I was told that it would be a couple of weeks before I learned the results, but my oncologist phoned me after two days. He didn’t sound happy. The new test showed cancer in the bones of my pelvis, and in my lymph glands all the way up into my neck. To me this sounded like a death sentence.
I told my wife, Ruth, about these results. We spent an evening cuddling and processing. That Sunday at the Unitarian fellowship, during a segment of their service called “Joys and Concerns” in which the congregation is encouraged to briefly share events in their lives, I made an announcement: “I’ve had some terrible news. Somebody very close to me, somebody I love, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (pause for effect) And unfortunately it’s me.”
Cue digression cam: I am not a member of the Unitarian Fellowship. In pre-pandemic days I would show up after the services for the potluck snacks and conversation. My wife is very involved with the group, and has served on their board of directors for the past few years. They have provided a great community for her on her arrival in this new town with me. I am a radical atheist. The Unitarians are the closest thing to a church that I can stand to enter. They are very accepting of all religious and spiritual views, including atheists, and I’ve felt very welcomed there. Many in the congregation describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, or agnostic, or even atheist like me. In fact, one of my favourite members was the second woman to be ordained as a minister by the Lutheran church. On the day after her retirement, following decades of work in a hostel comforting the dying and their loved ones, she burned her clerical collar and announced that she didn’t believe any of it. What Unitarians have in common is that they all want to be good people. They are very involved in social justice issues, inclusion, environmental issues like climate change, and every other progressive cause. They have sponsored a Syrian immigrant. They run a homeless shelter in the basement of the building they own. Their sermons never talk about sin, redemption, or salvation, but more about compassion, caring, forgiveness, and appreciation. I appreciate the support they have provided for my wife, and, inadvertently, for me.
To get on with this story, after the diagnosis, and my bombshell announcement at the Unitarian fellowship, Ruth and I commenced what we describe as our “crying tour”. We visited our closest friends to give them the news. Our second or third stop was to see Rod and Chao, an amazing couple we met at an Immigration Welcome Center appreciation dinner; Ruth and I had volunteered to help a Syrian family adapt to life in Nanaimo. By great good fortune, I happened to be seated beside Rod Szasz, only one of the most amazing people I have ever met, avid historian, mountain climber who has been to the base camp on Everest, local forest ranger and search and rescue volunteer, fluent in Japaneses, entrepreneurial businessman. His Chinese wife, Chao, is equally impressive. The two met in Japan, and their eldest daughter, Akela, is also fluent in Japanese. Shortly before she graduated from high school, she was flown down to Miami to compete in a judo competition, following which she flew to Beijing to compete in a classical voice competition. Since graduation she’s been studying medicine in Scotland. Their youngest daughter, Kipling, has been my fiddle buddy since she was a child.
And now, if you are still with me, we’re getting to the reason Ruth and I ended up in Scotland. Rod and Chao were in their kitchen when I gave them the news about my diagnosis and prognosis. Rod immediately rushed out of the room and came back with a bottle of expensive scotch, telling me to take the bottle home. “I’m taking you to Scotland,” he announced. He had a trip planned for just before Christmas to meet up with Akela.
I told Rod to keep the bottle and I would return to drink it with him, which turned out to be a mistake because he had another friend he felt he needed to share it with. And my initial reaction to the invitation to travel with him was that I couldn’t let him go to that expense.
Kipling, meanwhile, had been sleeping. She came into the kitchen all sleepy eyed, and immediately picked up the mood and the look on her parents faces. “What’s going on?” she asked. So I told her. Now, Kipling is a very reserved young lady. While I’ve spent a bit of time with her, and taken her with me to fiddle sessions in Qualicum Beach, I wasn’t even sure that she liked me, or whether she was just going along with the urging of her parents. But Kipling crumbled when she got my news. She came to me crying and climbed into my lap and hugged me, sobbing. When I got her calmed down, we got out our fiddles and played “Aspen Grove” together, and “Calum’s Road”. That’s when the idea of playing “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road entered my head, along with the thought that I would eventually give my wonderful, and expensive, Italian fiddle to Kipling, an acceptable trade for a trip to Scotland.
The next day, Kipling ran in the Terry Fox run for Cancer wearing a sign that read “I’m running for Zale”. Ruth and I made plans to go to Scotland. Ruth had decided to come along, and to pay her own way.
So off the four of us went, Rod and Kipling, me and Ruth. Rod took care of all the bookings, arranging the AirBnB accommodations, the car rentals, the navigation. We met up with Akela just as her exams were finished and set off for what we later called the cemetery and castle tour.
Kipling and I played “Over the Sea to Skye” on the Isle of Skye.
We played “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road.
We played “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin.
We played “Neil Gough’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife” in Doran Castle.
We played “Flowers of Edinburgh” in an Edinburgh cemetery.
Rod began each day with an early morning run. He lead us through a wonderful selection of old cemeteries, which, on seeing endless tomb stones with the names of parents followed by six or eight children who died at various ages, left me wanting to slap an anti-vaxxer upside the head when I returned to Canada.
Along the way we met some beautiful people and had some interesting conversations.
All in all, it was the trip of a lifetime. I used to think that I didn’t want to see death coming. That I wanted to be walking in the park and foolishly left my protective garbage can lid at home when a meteorite slammed into my skull and killed me instantly. Or, failing that, to simply fall asleep and die quietly in the night, not realizing I was dead until the morning. But I wouldn’t have missed all of this for the world.
You are, no doubt, by now familiar with the Kubler-Ross formulated stages of dying. They begin with denial on receiving the dreaded news; this can’t be happening to me; I’m not really that sick; I feel fine. Then progress to anger; This isn’t fair; I don’t deserve this. And then bargaining; Okay, it’s not too late; I’ll clean up my life style and eat healthy, or accept Jesus or somebody else into my heart. Then the penultimate, depression; Why bother getting out of bed; I’m going to die anyway. And then finally acceptance. Death happens to everybody. It’s just my turn. I’ll just try to make the most of the time I have left.
I’ve always believed that the first four stages are a waste of emotional energy. Far better to simply vault over them to acceptance. Of course that is easier said than done when dealing with emotions. But that is what I do, as much as I can. If I have to die, experiencing the Scotland trip made it worth it. That and the loving support of my wife and friends.
Anticlimax: As you may have guessed, my reaction to the news that the cancer had metastasized into my bones turned out to be an overreaction. After a consultation with my oncologist, I’ve learned that, with advances in treatment, prostate cancer is quickly becoming a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one. He insists that I’m going to die eventually, but of something else, possibly old age. My PSA numbers, thanks to the apalutamide, are down into the low decimals, which means that the cancer is not active. I feel a bit foolish for making such a fuss. On the other hand, it’s been worth it just to experience the reaction from friends and family. I have spent most of my life feeling foolish, so I guess I can live with this.
A couple of years pre-pandemic, I was yearning for the good old days of my university life, back when coffee shops and folk music was the thing. I told my wife, Ruth, that I wanted to find a space and start up a coffee shop that could have open mike nights once a week. Ruth, ever the moderating influence on my enthusiasms, suggested that this would be a big time and money investment and might not be the fantasy I want to live. So we came up with an alternative.
Wellington Community Hall is just a short block from our home. It’s a classic building, rich in heritage, and still in constant use for seniors dance classes and Brownie meetings. We came up with the idea of putting on an open mike night there once a month, just to find out whether I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the fantasy. Thus was the Stage Fright Cafe born.
The name was suggested by my friend Timothy Von Boetticher, a brilliant song writer and musician with a history of running open mike nights, plus a family of talented wife and children. Among my favourite people.
The hall reeks of history, but it’s a very stark environment for a coffee house. It did have a great sound system and plenty of small tables and chairs. I made red table clothes. We brought in our own lighting – my Chinese photography lights, a couple of work lights, electric tealights for the tables, and a rope light to add some colour. We decided not to use the stage. I wanted a more intimate relationship between the performers and the audience, so our performance area was set up in front of the stage at floor level, defined by two long tables where instruments cases could be left. The transformation was pure magic. But the best part was the support from friends and neighbours.
Dave Merchie, who was in charge of the hall at the time, volunteered to run the sound system. Kerwood and Jess, who had owned a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to Nanaimo, volunteered to take charge of the drinks and snack food. I explained to our first audience that they had returned to 1962, and the coffee would be ten cents a cup. The snack food was similarly low priced – banana bread with blue berries that I baked the night before the event, cookies baked by Ruth, fresh popcorn, a veggie platter, hotdogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing costing more than a buck or two.
These three wonderful people, Dave, Kerwood, Jess, plus Ruth and myself, became the operational crew. Ruth took charge of the performer list and the cash. The hall gave us a great deal, since we were contributing to their mandate of community involvement. So the rent was eighty bucks a night, but only if the donations at the door and the food money covered more than our expenses for food.
The next thing we needed was performers. The concept, as the name implies, was to provide a venue for amateurs, and my old friend J. Douglas Dodd had students in need of microphone and audience experience. I didn’t really appreciate how terrified some of his students were at the very thought of standing alone before strangers and performing, but it was delightful to see the change as they settled down and became more comfortable.
We attracted a few pros from my pool of friends, most memorably Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes, Joelle Rabu, Timothy Von Boetticher himself (who used the occasions to try out new songs), the entire Von Boetticher family band, and Sue Averill who runs another open mike night with a different agenda. But most of the performers were seasoned amateurs who had played for years in their dens and living rooms without ever showing off what they could do. It was an eclectic mix, and amazing, joyful fun. We ended up with both regular audience members, and regular performers, with delightful surprises each session.
But… after a couple of years of setting up and breaking down and acting as the M.C., I was frankly getting tired. I think our regular audience, for whom I am eternally grateful, were also getting a bit tired. Many of Doug’s students aged out of classes, some moved on to professional training and careers. The pandemic gave me an excuse to shut the show down and take a break. I was not sure whether I would ever want to do it again. Been there done that, eh.
But the, last week, Hank Ketler, one of our regular and much admired performers, he of the mellow voice and competent guitar, called me to say that there was a new musician in town who wants to get involved in the scene here. He brought Linda Lavender (real name. Really!) over to meet me. She is just a delight, both in and as a singer song writer. So plans are in the works for another revival. It’s too early, with Omicron filling hospital beds and spreading, but I’m confident that the show will go on, eventually.
I told Linda and Hank that I would support their efforts, but I don’t have it in me to be the main man any more. Too many other interests taking my time*. But they have agreed to take charge of the management. Ruth and I will set things up, at least for the first couple of shows. We’ll see how things go.
Linda and I are also talking about teaming up to rehearse her new songs and fine tune my fiddle backup. It’s exciting. All of this is exciting.
*So, what is it that is filling my spare time these days? What could be pulling me away from community involvement and public music? Well… here’s a short list of current projects. I’m going to take another run at making bodhran rims. I made two of the Irish drums before I went to China, but I didn’t manage to get the traditional steamed yew rims perfectly round, resulting in slack rawhide goatskin heads. Since returning home, I’ve taken two cracks at making good rims, with no real success. So that’s on my mind. Then there’s my plans to make a wooden pasta rolling machine. The shiny stainless one I bought on line is simply too small and inadequate. Next I’m going to make a fretless gourd banjo. I’ve got the gourd seeds in potting soil right now, and by the end of the summer I’m hoping to have a selection of gourds. But lately I’ve been killing myself down the Sketchup rabbit hole, staying up until five in the morning to learn that challenging CAD program, an effort that has my neck and shoulders in pain. Of course there’s still the fiddle group once a week in Qualicum Beach, Oceanside Jammers, and zoom sessions with my friend Dave Clement in Winnipeg every Monday to work up new Celtic tunes. I don’t lack for interests and excitement.
And there’s more, but that’s for my next installment.
Things seem to be happening in my life that are extremes. First the good stories.
Zale with Il Canone
Story #1: Il Cannone, my Italian Violin
Let the Good Times Roll Back in 1992, I fell in love with a pedigree violin, Il Cannone, made by Maurizio Tadioli, an award winning violin maker who learned the art from his grandfather, Carlo Pizzamiglio. Perhaps it was the names that grabbed me, or the story Maurizio had posted about colouring the violin “with the propolis of the bees of my father”, but mostly it was the amazing tone, especially on the D string. I was a working freelance film director back then, and making good money. So I paid $14,000 U.S. dollars and Il Cannone and I became inseparable.
Of course the first thing I did was badly scar my new violin. The violin shop sold it to me in a case with a catch on the lock that stood up like a knife blade. I told myself that I would have to be careful not to scratch my new violin on that catch. What I should have done was reject that case and demand a different one, because within days of taking the violin to my hotel I had music in the lid and when I lifted the violin, the case flipped and that catch ripped a large, ugly gouge in the back of the instrument. I told myself that it was like buying a new car. Sooner or later it would get a dent. Might as well get that over with. But as soon as I got home I took an angle grinder and cut that catch flush with the case rim., relying on the zipper and Velcro to keep the case closed.
Hitting the Bottom Come the new century, my life did a crash and burn. My first marriage was over. My kids were adults and didn’t need me anymore. I went bankrupt. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, I had been the enfant terrible of Canadian film making, the up and coming director to watch. But I wasn’t getting any support for my feature ideas and I had a family to support. So I went into directing television and, after thirty some years of that, I was no longer the hot young kid. I was the old television hack. My regular clients aged out of the business or lost their shows or got in trouble with the IRS. The phone stopped ringing. I was trying to be a film maker in Nanaimo, which is a bit like trying to be lumberjack in the Sahara Desert. I thought about moving to Los Angeles, or even Toronto or Vancouver, and going to parties and schmoozing. I was pretty sure that somebody would give me a job directing television again. But I’d been there and done that. I just couldn’t face doing it again. So I ran away to become a teacher in China. Of course Il Cannone, my violin, went with me.
And Bouncing After my first year in China things were looking up. I had already found the wonderful woman who is now my wife, ironically a Canadian from Winnipeg who taught me a song about Departure Bay in Nanaimo. We were preparing to move to a university in Weihai. I got established in my new apartment. Then I went to the airport to go back to Canada for the summer.
Music Up: Minor key. Impending disaster. On a very hot summer day in Weihai I put my luggage in the trunk of a cab and my Il Cannone on the window ledge above the back seat, where it would be safe. At the airport I paid the cabby, declined a receipt, and grabbed my suitcases from the trunk. Ten steps through the entrance doors I remembered my violin. Dropping the suitcases I whirled around and ran back out, just in time to see the taxi in the distance driving away. I didn’t even have a receipt for the fare. No idea which cab I had taken.
As soon as I got off the plane in Canada, I send an urgent email to a Chinese friend in Weihai begging for help. Next day I got an email back. She had called the radio station and put out the word. Could she offer a reward? “Of course. Offer two hundred yuan ( probalby as much as a cabby would make in a week). Whatever it takes to get my violin back.” The next day she emailed exciting news. The cab driver had finally noticed the violin and returned it. He refused to accept the reward. My relief was intense. And my gratitude.
Plot Turn The relief turned to horror when I returned to Weihai at the end of the summer. Weihai has heat like a pizza oven in the summer. My violin had been riding on that back window ledge in the intense heat for two days. When I opened the case and pulled back the plush cover, it made a sound like ripping Velcro. The finish had melted into the plush fabric of the case. The finger board had melted off the neck. My beloved violin had fallen apart. It was ruined.
The following summer I had the violin put back together by a Canadian technician. That’s when I learned that the nut was missing. Also, it had developed a wolf note on the G string and the finish was a disaster. I contacted Maurizio to say that I wanted to refinish the instrument and ask for advice on the kind of varnish to use. Here’s his reply:
Hello and thanks for your message. I’m very afraid to what’s happened to my/your violin…. Please, don’t make any work and don’t give the violin to any maker to retouch or above all to revarnish!!! This is a special work that has to be done by the maker of the instrument. I’m sure that we can find the way to return the violin to me to fix the work. Don’t worry about the cost. I can make something special because I’ll be happy if my violin will return as before. Let me know. All the best, Maurizio
I should have expected this. Maurizio is an artist making pedigree instruments. But sending it back to him turned out to be far from easy. A pedigree violin is not something you can just drop into the mail. It should be treated like a vulnerable child. Somebody would have to bring the violin to him. So Il Cannone hung on my wall as a decoration while I waited for an opportunity to get it to Italy. I thought about Il Cannone every time I looked at my wall, but I played a Chinese violin.
Act Three – Something Must be Done
Moon cake festivals melded into tomb sweeping festivals. Seven years slipped away. Finally, preparing to leave China for good, I simply had to do something. I contacted Maurizio again and asked him for instructions. Here’s his reply:
Thank you so much to be back with the update of the violin. In October I’ll be in Shanghai. Keep in touch. All the best, Maurizio
October? Oh no.. We were leaving China at the end of June with no plans to return. Zenma ban, zenma ban. (what to do? What to do?) This turned out to be simple, though stressful. I left Il Cannone with another trusted Chinese friend; she got it to Maurizio when he arrived in Shanghai; and my violin went home to Italy.Maurizio emailed me to say that the wolf note was caused by the bass bar melting loose inside the violin. As well as refinishing it, he would have to take it apart and basically rebuild it from back to front. He would have to make a plaster mold and reshape the top using bags of hot sand to weigh it down. That was the bad news. The good news was he could make it like new again.
And Now the Happy Ending Now, almost three years after getting the violin back to its maker, and more than a decade after the disaster in Weihai, the repair and refinishing is done. I have returned from Italy with my violin. My big worry was that a repaired violin might not sound as good as I would want, or that for some other reason I would not like it. But Il Cannonet looks beautiful and sounds better than ever. Maurizio even managed to hide the scar from that first misadventure with the case. I am so happy to have it back. It’s about time.
Maurizio Tadioli in his workshop in Cremona
Maurizio with Il Canone restored to like new.
Story #2 Old Friends are the Best Friends
Here’s the reason I could do the trip to Italy without too much financial pain. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life. Except it does and did.
Back in the late sixties I was a starving university student. Those were lean times. I was playing in a jug band called The Vacant Lot, and a fifteen dollar gig meant I could eat for a week. One of the other key members of the group was Barry Carlson, a charismatic fellow hippie and great guitar player. We were good buddies.
After I left university, I lost touch with Barry for about forty-five years. But thanks to social media we reconnected recently and I learned that he had moved to Victoria, a city not far from Nanaimo where I now live. So we visited him there, and he visited our home here. At the end of his most recent visit, just before he hit the road back to Victoria, Barry announced that we had one more bit of business to take care of.
“We do? That sounds ominous…”
“Yes. About forty-five years ago you worked in the fishing industry for a summer.”
“You made a bit of money, and you lent me four hundred dollars.”
“I did? Completely forgotten that. Nope. No memory of that at all.”
“Well, I said I’d get it back to you so here it is.”
He handed me an envelope. A thick envelope.
“That’s with compound interest for forty years. Four thousand dollars. I looked it up.”
Inside the envelope were 40 crisp new hundred dollar bills.
My wife, who witnessed this event, says she has never seen me quite so blown away. I was stunned. And this couldn’t have happened at a better time. I’d launched a GoFundME campaign to try to finance the recovery of my violin (www.gofundme.com/ilcannone), and many people had contributed. But it was still several thousand dollars short of what I figured I needed. Barry’s long memory, and generosity, allowed me to make the trip without going back into debt.
I wrote to Barry and told him that I appreciated the money, but I would have been happy just to get the four hundred back. The four thousand was… okay, I’m still trying to get my head around it.
“I was happy to close the circle.” Barry wrote back.
Story #3 Naked People and Egregious Art Vandalism
When I was about six years old I was very interested in naked people. I’m told that many children share this interest. But in those days, the mid fifties of the last century, porn was not as close as your smart phone. Pictures of naked people were only available in National Geographic Magazine, which seemed to include bare breasted African natives in every issue, and in art. My mother had a big coffee table book, put out by Life Magazine, entitled “Great Art of the World”. It included details of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And in those pictures I could see at least two naked people, Adam and Eve on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I poured over those pictures.
If you imagine the Sistine Chapel through the eyes of a child, it’s like a horror movie. You have the mother holding her infant above the rising flood waters, the boatman on the river Styx with his glowing red eyes, and of course Adam and Eve being driven from the garden of Eden. Strong stuff. I was fascinated.
The first time I went to Rome, in the mid seventies, I had the good fortune to meet a beautiful art historian. We had a love affair worthy of a Hollywood movie. I told her of my fascination with the Sistine Chapel. Let’s go see it. But she had seen it many times and wasn’t interested in seeing it again. She advised me to get to the ticket office early, and don’t spend time in the Vatican museum, but march the kilometers to the chapel without looking left or right, else I would find myself crowded in with other tourists. So that’s what I did. I got to the chapel long before anybody else. I got to lie down on the floor and spend an hour, undisturbed, soaking up the images of that famous ceiling.
After I had my fill of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I spent a couple of hours wandering the museum hallway. I was struck by the fact that all of the male statues, hundreds of them, were all missing their penises. Sometimes an obviously mass produced fig leaf was cemented in place of the missing member, but as often there was nothing left of the genitals but scarred marble. Who could have done this? This is the worst art vandalism I can imagine. What kind of kinky penis fetish could have caused this?
Naturally I asked my art historian friend. She told me that during the Reformation, when Luther nailed his criticisms to the church door, the pope and his buddies were being accused, rightfully, of decadent and immoral behavior, wild parties, orgies, boyfriends and girlfriends. In response to this criticism, the pope of the day launched the Counter Reformation. And as part of the Counter Reformation, needing a visible symbol of his reform, he ordered all of the penises to be knocked off the statues.
Now think about this. Somebody was assigned to this task. Somebody went from statue to statue with a mallet and chisel. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of statues. There must have been a wheelbarrow or two full of marble penises. Where did they go? were they burned to make cement, the actual fate of the glory of Rome, or are they buried in a landfill someplace in Vatican City. I can’t help imagining an Indiana Jones parody – “Raiders of the Lost Dicks”. The bull-whip would fit in nicely.
What brought this all back to my mind was, of course, my trip to Cremona to retrieve my violin. I accomplished that task within two days of my arrival, which left five days at loose ends. I have wanted to revisit the Sistine Chapel ever since I hear that it was being cleaned. I was reluctant to put out the effort or spend the money, but I hopped the fast train to Rome, found another ostello, and tried to repeat my memorable visit.
This time was quite different. As before, I arrived well before the opening time at the ticket office. But by eight in the morning there were already thousands of tourists following the tour guide flags, lining up, waiting to get through the entrance doors.
I paid a premium to allow me to jump the queues, and tried to push my way through the crowds in the hallways preceding the chapel. But by the time I got there, the space was shoulder to shoulder. No lying down on the floor this time. Every few minutes a voice with an strong Italian accent would demand silence and remind everybody that no photos or videos are allowed. Somehow he did not add to the sanctity of the place.
You can see a tiny square of the un-restored ceiling at the top right.
Still, it was worth it. Unbelievable colours, especially the flesh tones. Gorgeous. They left a tiny square in the top corner uncleaned, just so we can see the difference. And the difference is beyond dramatic. What I saw on my first visit was like looking at the ceiling through dirty sunglasses in dim light.
Of course I am no longer looking at those stories through the eyes of a seven year old. Now they seem horrible, and stupid beyond belief. Especially the whole ark thing. It has the credibility of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. So strange that there are people who believe it is an actual historical event that really happened. Strange world we live in.
Story #4 And Now for the Bad News
The bad news was cancer. I was diagnosed about a week before my trip to Italy. First came the routine medical and blood tests. My doctor said my PSA level was a bit high at seven. He ordered me to wait a month and get another test. That one came in at nine. So my doctor ordered a biopsy. Just the biopsy, the urologist called for another PSA test. That one came in at fifteen. So things have been developing fast.
The biopsy came in with a Gleeson rating of seven to nine, which means high risk cancer. Time to meet a urologist. He explained my options, none of which are very attractive. But before we can start any treatment he called for a bone scan and a CT scan. The bone scan will let them know whether it has metastasized into my bones. The CT scan will let them know if it’s in any other organs.
They injected me with radioactive marker and ran the bone scan. Then I went home and Googled what it might mean. Yikes. If it’s in my bones, the one year survival rate is 47% and the five year survival rate is less than 1%. Ima gonna die. I spent a tense weekend trying to climb through the Kubler-Ross stages of dying, hoping to skip denial, anger and bargaining and jump straight to acceptance. Then the results came back. The bone scan is clear. Not yet time to give away all my cherished possessions.
Then came the CT scan, followed by a visit to an oncologist in Victoria. Again a sigh of relief. The CT scan is also clear. So death is not imminent. What I have instead is discomfort and inconvenience. I can live with that.
My oncologist, Dr. Pai, is recommending a triple treatment – hormone therapy, focused radiation, and implanted radioactive seeds. With all three at once, the chance of curing the cancer completely is very high, someplace up in the nineties as a percent.
This doesn’t mean it’s going to be fun, or a cake walk. I’ve started taking pills to counteract my testosterone. Next week I’ll get an injection to shut my testosterone down completely. I’m not quite sure what to expect of this, but suspect that it means the end of having a sex drive, which means the end of sex. Damn. I’ve always loved sex. There is a good probability that my sex drive can come back after treatment, but that’s a long time in the future if ever.
In three or four months I’ll need to make my way to Victoria for radiation treatment five days a week for seven or more weeks. That’s an hour and forty minutes from my home. So although the treatment only takes fifteen minutes, the inconvenience will be extreme.
And with all this, I don’t even get to hold a pity party in expectation of dying. I do get to stay with Barry and his amazing wife, Moira, during my treatment.