Once a Teacher…

I got a letter from a former student today. Landon has been corresponding with me since Ruth and I returned to Canada.

Here’s my response to his latest communication, reorganized with names for clarity.

Landon: Hi David,It’s been three years since last time I wrote to you.

Zale: How wonderful to hear from you, and to hear that you are still working at improving your English. The truth is, your English is already very good and the things that confuse you are mostly English idioms and phrases that I use in an unconventional way.

Landon: I have to say the time is flying so fast, especially during past two years with COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t travel frequently, we were busy for working, we were even asked to work for home when there were COVID-19 test positive cases occurred around my area. It’s like I don’t have much memories during past two years. As one of my colleagues said “year 2019 suddenly jumped to 2021”. And now it’s 2022 already, I wish you can have an enjoyable year in the new year.

Zale: Yes, time is flying very fast.  I also find it hard to believe that it is 2022 already.  Actually, I find it hard to believe that 1984 is no longer in the distant future, or that I am now considered elderly.  In mind, heart and spirit I feel like a man in his thirties, and it’s rather disturbing to find myself with all the physical limitations of advancing age. I’m fortunate that Ruth has done such a great job of documenting most of our time in China, and our lives during spring and summer vacations.  Without those photographs that great stretch of time would be just a blur. https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/ is where you will find her most recent pictures.  But going into her albums is truly amazing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums

Landon: My son got started primary school from Sep, 2021. He behaves just well at school. He is cooperative to teachers’ guidance, and consciously get homework done every day. But meanwhile, he is not willing to do what we, family members, told him to do, even though the thing is really good for his study. It’s like a common problem in China that a child listens to teachers, while opposes to families. The problem is there, but we still manage to improve the situation from time to time.

Zale: This is good to hear.  But please keep in mind that a child needs a childhood.  If he is paying attention to his teachers and doing his homework, that should be enough.  After that, I think you should just expose him to as many different activities and ideas as you can and see what sparks his interests.  Have you taught him to play xiang qi? Can you find any magic tricks online to teach him, especially tricks that show a scientific principle.  Does he have an interest in music, not just listening to it but also making music. Does he like fishing? Does he like to make things? There is so much instructional material online that any interest he has can find help to go deeper.  Maybe he’d like to build a robot.  Or a rocket.  Does he know the names of all the birds in your area, or all the different trees, or the different food crops? Does he know how to cook?  Does he know how to sew?  Can he type with all his fingers on a QWERTY keyboard? (If not there are great typing games and apps available to help him build up speed and accuracy.) Whatever he shows an interest in, encourage him.  Even if all he wants to do is play computer games, encourage and support him. There are people today making a good living playing computer games, or commenting on computer games. You have an interest in English.  Maybe challenge your son to keep up with you, talk to him in English, see if he can teach you any English vocabulary. The things he learns in school – mostly how to sit quietly, be obedient, and repeat what the teacher tells him – are not nearly as important as the things he will learn by following his own interests.

Landon: I occasionally logged on Facebook yesterday(because you know the website is blocked in China unless using proxy), and just noticed what you said on Facebook that your friend has passed away. And I am sorry for hearing that. I then read your whole blog for missing your friend. I could feel the friendship of you two, the memory you have for your friend, even though you two had many disagreements before. I hope you could recover from sorrow soon.

Zale: My father talked about reaching an age when he seemed to be going to a funeral every few days.  I’m now at that age myself, and must simply accept it as a natural part of life.  Over the Christmas holidays, my friend, Bernie, in Australia died.  My cousin Billy, my childhood hero, died. You know about my friend Rob.  One of Ruth’s friends and associates died of a brain tumor. Worst of all, my daughter in law is very likely to die of terminal cancer, although there is still hope. (we attended her fairy tale wedding just two years ago and you can see the pictures in one of Ruth’s albums https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums/72157710271821806 ).  You can read her story here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-lennea-get-uncovered-treatment?
Are you familiar with the stages of grief first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying”.  The stages are:

  • denial.
  • anger.
  • bargaining.
  • depression.
  • acceptance.

Most people have to work through these stages in order to accept reality.  For example, when given bad news from a doctor about terminal cancer, the first instinct is to deny that it’s true, possibly seek a second opinion, refuse to deal with it.  The next step is to be bitter and angry, possibly lashing out at doctors and family.  Then comes bargaining – if I just change my diet and start exercising, this will go away.  But when it doesn’t go away, the next step is depression, horrible, deep depression that makes it hard to see any joy in life.  And finally there is acceptance – this is natural; this happens to everybody; I’m going to live every second until the end and enjoy what is left of my time on earth.
It has always seemed to me that the first four stages are a complete waste of emotional energy.  I much prefer to jump straight to acceptance.  And that”s how I deal with things like my friend Rob dying.  Yes, I miss him.  It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.  But that’s life. That’s reality.  There’s still a lot of joy in my world.  So, while I feel sad, it isn’t a sorrow I must recover from.

Landon: For my English study, it’s quite a long term task.

Zale: Ha ha.  It’s a lifetime task, even for a native speaker.  Ruth and I are still learning English.  It is endlessly fascinating, and there is no way I will ever know all of the words in the English language. I still encounter words I have never heard before.  Usually I just guess at the meaning and read on.  That is the best way to build a vocabulary.  It’s only when I can’t imagine a meaning that I bother to look a word up. But usually, the context will give you the meaning.  Of course this runs the risk of looking foolish if I try to use a word but don’t understand it.  For example, many native speakers think that “penultimate” means the very best, the top, the final, as in “It was the penultimate achievement of his life.”  In fact, it comes from the same root as “pen” meaning “almost” as used in words like “peninsula”, almost an island.  So the penultimate achievement is the one before the final achievement.

Landon: I never said I gave it up, but I was never determined to devote time to study it (maybe there is no much need from my current working), and consequently I never saw any much progress of it. But recently, it seems I spent a bit more time to touch it. For example, I install an app called Radio Singapore(I once studied there) to listen the English channel, and another app called CNA(its an app from Singapore mainly focusing Asia News and the worlds as well) to read English news. 

Zale: I applaud you for this.  The best and easiest things to learn are learned simply for the fun and joy of learning. So many people seem to be dull creatures with no real interest in anything but entertainment provided by others.   

Landon: Overlly I feel that for those four parts of English – listening, speaking, reading, writing, I need to improve listening with the highest priority, and reading with secondly priority. The rest, speaking, and writing, I will set them aside(maybe for future to improve, ^_^).
I sort the four items above mainly out of the frequency I use them. I listen the News from radio, and I often fail to understand during the listening because of unfamiliar words or fast speaking speed. The situation of reading English News is a little bit better. Because I can refer dict for new words while reading, and repeat to read for better understanding, it’s low efficiency though. I’m always surprised that there are so many new words when reading different topics of News. 

Zale: And when you have a passion for learning something, breaking it down into sections, setting priorities,  and organizing your study is a great way to improve,

Landon: I have some parts that I don’t understand from what you writing, could you just explain a little bit more if you have time:
1: From your facebook, “News of his death kicked the crap out of my Christmas this year”
I think it says the News made you had a sad time during Christmas, right?  But I don’t understand “kicked the crap out of …”, even after I refereed dict for the word “crap”.

Zale: Okay.  This is a vulgarism, the more impolite version of which is “kicked the shit out of…: As in “If he does that again I’m going to kick the shit out of him.” meaning I am going to do serious damage to him. News of my friend’s death was a severe shock that brought me to tears.  It cast a shadow over my entire Christmas as I struggled to accept the loss, i.e. it kicked the crap out of my Christmas.

2: From your blog:  “Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”
“Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”, does that mean like every thing is ready except a last problem? But what is the exact mean of “lock down” here?

Zale: You understood perfectly. Yes exactly.  When he was putting a deal together there were hundreds of elements that needed to be decided, i.e. locked down, starting with the script, the director, the cast, the location, etc. and most importantly, the financing.  Very often there would be a vital part to this that would make everything fall into place.  Often getting the interest of a major star would be that vital part, or the interest of a wealthy investor, or a “green light” from Netflix. So you see, you really did understand what I wrote.  This is a perfect illustration of my belief that running to the dictionary every time you don’t understand something is usually  not necessary, and, in the case of idiom like “locked down” often not helpful.

Landon: 3: From your blog: “And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance.” 
Here, why I think it should be “And what Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise …”. I feel a little puzzled. Because only with Laowise, the Christmas could be perfect and completed.

Zale: No.  For your version to work you would need to leave off the word “what”.  “And a Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise…”  Adding the word “what” asks the question, “Is a Christmas party complete without the Laowise…”So you see, once again you understood my meaning completely.  It was just an unfamiliar structure that you found confusing.

Landon: 4: From your blog: “He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.”
I can only figure out it does say “He had no accomplishment”, the rest I don’t understand at all.

Zale: To rephrase this I would write: I know he played an essential role in the early stages of the financing for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”.  But he left that production early after a dispute with one of the other producers. Other than that accomplishment, I don’t know what else he managed to achieve.
 
Landon: Currently the main issue for me is vocabulary. If I had gained larger vocabulary, I think I could have a faster understanding while listening, and a low frequency of referring dict while reading, thus improve the efficiency of reading. And I will devote more on vocabulary.

Zale: Again let me stress that the best way to build vocabulary, and certainly the most fun way, is simply to practice voracious reading, especially classical writers like Charles Dickens, or more contemporary writers such as George Orwell. Just read.  Guess at the meaning of words.  Only go to the dictionary when you really feel that you don’t understand.  I have a huge vocabulary, compared to many native speakers, and I don’t think I went to the dictionary ten times during all my years as a student.  But I read everything I could get my hands on.Now quite often I think of a word I use and I’m not sure I understand what it means completely, so I will go to a dictionary.  It’s much easier now that a dictionary is as close as Google.  Almost always, I find that my understanding of the word is correct.Once again the Internet has made finding material to read easy.  For example, I’m now rereading a book by George Orwell that I read probably fifty years ago.  When I recommended it to somebody online, I discovered that it is available for free here: https://libcom.org/files/wiganpier.pdf

Landon: Again I wish you have all thing the best in this new year.

Zale: Thank you, Landon.  And again it’s great to hear from you, and to learn that you have become a family man of some substance.  I hope you have a happy, joyful, and prosperous time in the new year and years to come. Please feel free to write to me and tell me more about your life, family, work, and interests in China.  You might even include some pictures.

Warmest regards
Your old English teacher, David (Zale, Da Dawei)

My Friend is Gone

My world is being hollowed out. Rob S. Buckham is dead.

I got the news last night while binge watching feel good movies on Netflix with my wife. It came in a note from Rob’s Australian girlfriend, Marion, still in Australia. I only got past the first lines: “Hi David. I am sending you this message to tell you the sad news that Rob passed away last week…” before I burst into tears and blurted out “Bastard died owing me fifteen hundred bucks.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. WAIT. Don’t get the wrong idea from that. That was a joke. I really don’t give a damn about that money, or the fact that Rob died owing it to me. When I’m in pain, I make a joke. And the news that Rob has died really broke me.

So it’s true, but also a joke. That debt was incurred maybe thirty years ago, well before the turn of the millennial century. I had quietly written it off decades ago, and neither of us ever mentioned it. I always wondered whether Rob remembered it, and had every intention of making good when his ship came in. Sadly, that ship was lost at sea.

Also, please understand that this is not an obituary or a eulogy. It’s a personal wail of loss, as much about me as it is about Rob. Please don’t read it like one of those post demise puff pieces that describe the deceased as ever so talented and kind and beloved by all. Rob deserves better than that. He was a complex person who lead a full life.

Rob and I hung out a lot through the ups and downs of our lives before I went to China. Both of us were recovering from the breakup of our marriages, and both of us were mostly broke. I owned a fifty foot sailboat in those days, but was on the verge of letting it go, along with everything else in my life as the flow of events built up to bankruptcy. Rob played not bad rhythm guitar. He once suggested that we form a singing duo, but we never found the time to work up a set and take it on the road.

Over the years I came to appreciate that Rob had what it takes to be a big time movie producer. He was incredibly stubborn. Tenacious. And for the past few years I’ve been of the opinion that he was possibly a little crazy. Heroically mad. Stubbornly optimistic. Relentlessly positive. Every conversation we had, and they were frequent, he would tell me about the movie deal he was putting together. I never doubted that it was real. He wasn’t a con man. He knew his stuff. Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production. In China. No, in Czechoslovakia. No, it looks like we’ll be taking it to Taiwan. Always ever so close to closing the deal. But the next time we would talk, it was as if that conversation had never happened. Not that the deal was dead. But it was…a different deal. Or a new script. Another configuration of international players. Always positive. Always optimistic. Always very close to the big movie that kept moving away from him. In short, Rob was a movie producer. He was what a producer must be in order to succeed. I never rained on his parade, or questioned his chances. How could I in the face of such calm, relentless, determination.

He let me read one of the scripts once, which confirmed my opinion that our tastes were radically different. The script was a hot mess. We seldom agreed on the merits of a movie, seeming to approach them from completely different value systems.

As the years rolled by, my hopes for Rob grew dimmer and fainter. Frankly, I stopped believing. If Rob ever stopped believing, he never let it show. And in that, mad or not, he was heroic. A real international film producer. Just one who never quite managed to make his movie. Sadly, that’s not surprising. It’s almost an impossible thing to achieve and takes amazing luck. Most of all it takes persistence, which Rob had in full measure. Just not the luck.

I always wondered how Rob managed to survive and support his lifestyle, which, while not extravagant, was not inexpensive. Did he have an inheritance behind him? Family money? Or was he surviving on development deals and script development money, or occasional work coming up with budgets or production plans for other producers? I never asked. Rob played his cards close to his vest, and I never heard him say there was something he couldn’t afford. He paid his bills and kept up appearances. I didn’t pry.

In 2009 or so, Rob followed my lead and came to China to set up shop in Nantong and become a player in the Chinese movie industry. Soon he had connected with a young and ambitious female Chinese business partner. In 2010 he invited Ruth and me to stay in his rather luxurious apartment in Nantong and join him for a Christmas turkey dinner. He had purchased a large toaster oven, and somehow had arranged for a turkey to ride in a limousine all the way from Shanghai. Actually, I think he had two turkeys so that he could test out the oven on one of them before the main event. I had my Chinese drivers license by that time, so we rented a car and I braved the Chinese roads and traffic to Nantong.

-all photo credits Ruth Anderson
Here’s me picking up the rental car after hours. A little scary, but that’s how adventures start. I will never forget the drive through Nantong’s rush hour crush of e-bikes on that trip.
Here’s Rob’s second turkey. The first was just a test. The only other huo ji we ate in China, rather, tried to eat, was at a five star hotel in Weihai. It looked just like this, but was absolutely impossible to cut with a table knife, as if it was made from hard plastic. Typical of China, the chef had seen pictures, but had no idea how to cook the big bird.
Rob had no such problem and this turkey was as good as it looks.
It always surprised me that the Chinese, so fond of big family dinners, have yet to discover turkey. The only live turkey we saw in China was in a zoo.
And here’s Rob with, I think, his business partner, mixing a big bowl of cranberry sauce. This would be a feast with all the trimmings.
Guests included two of our former students, Simon and Lv Min, still cherished friends of mine eleven years later. They have made a life for themselves in Shanghai with their two beautiful boys, Lucas and Marcus. True to their nature, they pitched in to peel the potatoes.
And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance. GouGou (Pronounced “gogo”, Chinese for DogDog. The Chinese name pets with double syllables, like WangWang or FeiFei) is more interested in the view.
And of course, a real turkey dinner requires a large pot of gravy.
The full Christmas meal deal. Damn but it was good.
I made the eggnog. Potent and delicious.
That’s a bottle opener, with traditional design front and back, one of Rob’s stocking stuffers.

That was my last and best memory of being with Rob in person. It was a great dinner, the only edible turkey we had in China.

After the test turkey and the feast, Rob was very tired of turkey, so Ruth and I got to take home a lot of turkey leftovers.

Rob and I had a few more meetings to do with film industry maneuvers, and then a falling out over an indiscreet comment I made to Marion, his Australian girlfriend. I did my best to make amends and apologize, but eventually sent him a very cheap costume jewelry “diamond” engagement ring, delivered by Marion who had become our friend too. She reported that it made him laugh, so I guess he got the message – I was sending the ring back. I settled in to wait for him to get over it. I think that took a couple of years, but eventually we were friends again.

I’ve made it sound like Rob never actually did anything as a movie producer. I looked him up on the IMDB this morning, and found only very thin credits, some as a gaffer, production manager, camera and electrical department, all dating back into the eighties. He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.

What I do know is that he never stopped trying, right up to the end. That’s what it takes to be a producer, and with a little more luck maybe I would have been flown to a production in some exotic location to take a minor position and get paid back the money he owed me. I kept hoping, more for him than for me. This said, don’t ever think that Rob was a loser. He was a man trying to climb an impossible mountain, and in the end it defeated him.

So, about that debt. Shortly before I left Canada for China, Rob got me involved as the cameraman/director/editor to make a presentation piece for a promoter who wanted to put together a TV series about golf. We were paid three thousand dollars, all the money Rob could wring from the guy, for quite a bit of work, and the deal was we would split it fifty-fifty. I shot it on miniDV and edited it on my Final Cut Pro system in my living room, with Rob supervising the edit and making me exceedingly grumpy in the process. When it came time for the money split, Rob asked me if he could take the whole amount. He seemed to need it more than I did. So I said he could owe me my share. I never needed it badly enough to ask him to pay me back.

Really, that turkey dinner in Nantong was payment enough.

I’m going to miss you, Rob, you crazy man. Sorry your dreams never came to fruition. Very glad I got to know you. You weren’t a quitter, that’s for sure. But I guess you’ve finally quit. I’m so sad about that. Heartbroken even.

Not Dying Yet

Just planning ahead. Please register for my celebration of life party. It may not happen for a couple of years yet, but let’s all be ready.

I really hope to see you then and there. It’s going to be one hell of a party. As people register, I’ll start developing the program and lining up the performances. At the moment I’m planning on about three days of party, to allow friends from time zones in China and Australia a chance to drop in to say hello….uh…goodbye.

Four Stories – The Italian Violin, Barry, Naked People and vandalism, and Cancer

Things seem to be happening in my life that are extremes.  First the good stories.

Zale with Il Canone

              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 worshop in Cremona

Maurizio Tadioli in his workshop in Cremona

 

Maurizio with Il canone

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.”

“Yes?”

“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. 

Lineup at the Vatican Museum

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.

Restored Sistine Chapel cieling.

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.