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