Three Vignettes

Splinters

I had a visceral memory the other day. I remembered sitting on the arm of an armchair looking over my father’s shoulder as he read a story to me and I was stroking my father’s stubble. My father was clean shaven for most of his life and at the end of the day his stubble was like sandpaper.

It made me think of a similar situation from years ago when my young daughter was sitting with me as I read to her and she stroked my stubble and said very dreamily… “all the splinters from long ago!” 

A “Licking”

My dad’s knee made a clicking sound when he climbed stairs. It was from a war injury when his plane crashed near Tufino in British Columbia. He also had a small bump on his shoulder from the same accident. He never talked about the accident or ”the war” either, unless prompted.

I could tell my dad’s mood from how quickly he climbed the stairs from the speed and intensity of the clicks in his knee. His feet didn’t make a sound as the stairs were covered in carpet.  If I was “awaiting the wrath of Dad” as in…”wait till your father gets home”…. the clicks had an intensity different from end of the day trudging Willie Loman.

I am from a tradition where spankings were in order if a child transgressed. It was not referred to as a “spanking”, but a “licking”, as in “you’re asking for a licking”. I don’t remember at what age the spankings stopped, but it was certainly before I was ten years old. It’s not that I stopped transgressing at ten, or that dad gave up on me, they just didn’t seem to be working on this hard-headed punk.

Pause for thought

A funny thought occurred to me the other day while standing at a urinal in Chapters Book store. I wondered if the slit in the front of my underwear was biased for right handers. 

I am left handed and usually just pull the top down and under. For some reason I used the fly on this occasion. I looked it up on Google and lo and behold, I am not the only lefty that pulls the underwear down rather than use the fly…. The design is meant for rightys as is the zipper on pants. The stuff one learns…..

Bizarre Dreams

 I recently had a disturbing dream about a very nice girl I knew in my early years (elementary school through grade nine) until my family moved away from the area.

In my dream, this girl I remembered was as vivid as anything, except that in it, we were both adults, and I was in my role as a teacher,and she, a visitor. Perhaps it was a parent-teacher night. It was an unusual situation, It was nighttime in a school that I never taught at. The room we were in was like a classroom I may have been in before at Roslyn School in Westmount. Not that exact room, but it had that same vintage (ancient) smell, and feeling. Both of my girls had attended Roslyn, so perhaps it was from those drawers in my memory let loose seemingly at random in my dream.  

I don’t recall what it was that she and I were talking about, but out of the blue I asked her if I had ever been mean to her when we were kids. She astonished me by saying “as a matter of fact, you were!” Then she disappeared as the scene shifted and I was scrambling to find my day book and a pencil because I realized I was going to be late for another class and someone kept kept turning the lights on and off in the classroom making the search more difficult.

I woke up. I desperately wanted to find out if and how I had been mean to her, and to make an amend. I had been rocked by her quick response in my dream, as I had no recollection of ever being unkind to her. I realize it was only a dream, much like my entire childhood is dreamlike to me now. 

I remember all sorts of foolish things that i did as a kid that I would never do now. Saying racist things like calling french kids “pepsis” and saying insensitive things to kids with handicaps, etc. Laughing at racist or sexist jokes that weren’t funny.  I chalk it up to childishness and ignorance and just selfish unawareness. My parents did not teach me to be a little dickhead. I don’t beat myself up over it, but being aware of it now has helped me evolve into a kinder and more tolerant and open human being. 

My music teaching career has provided me with many opportunities to observe and challenge similar behaviours and try and teach children to be empathetic and aware of the harm and hurt that such loose and thoughtless language and behaviour causes. Music is an amazing resource for teaching (as Elvis Costello wrote) Peace, love and understanding.

It was only a dream, but there was such clarity about what she said, and it was definitely her, not some vague composite memory like the room and the situation was.

It has been 50 years or so since we were classmates and Sunday School mates as well. I hoped that if I did or said something to her in those early years that caused her any sort of pain or anguish, I wanted her to know I was deeply sorry and I would ask her forgiveness. 

In my conscious memory, she was someone smart, friendly and pretty who I genuinely liked and my father teased me about. I think I may have let slip that she and I were friends. Maybe she was the only girl on a birthday party list or something else very innocent. He would embarrass me on purpose calling her my “girlfriend” in a mocking tone. He was teasing, but i remember the shame and embarrassment I felt at that tender age. Just writing this now evoked that visceral memory again. 

The cruelty of waking up with this shame and this mystery unanswered is why I sought her out on social media and wrote her with pretty much this same story.

My friend promptly replied in a beautiful letter which I have abridged here:

“Oh my goodness Ian! I had a huge crush on you in elementary school and you were never, ever mean to me!!! I remember your infectious sense of humour.

I remember how kind your mom was. I think I went over to to play at your house a couple of times. And you invited me to your birthday party which was very cool for me. 

That day, your mom gave me an empty red velvet Valentine’s box that I kept for a long time to put my stamps in. 

While your dream got it all wrong, the timing is interesting.  

Thanks for reaching out and rest assured, you were a really nice kid.”

Whew!

Perhaps bizarre dreams are a part of the aging process where we look back and try and make sense out of the voyage we have all been on. Seeking affirmations or refutations of memories, decisions, choices, roads not taken, successes, regrets…..

Truth be told, I had had a crush on her as well, and my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. I am relieved that my dream had some truthful memory in it, but that I am absolved from being a jerk. At least, in this case.

August 25, 2020.

This is my first Rentrée sans rentrée in many, many years. The last time I felt like this was in my twenties when I took a semester off from University. August for teachers and students is like one big long Sunday night. For the past 19 years  I have worked full time in July at a day camp for exceptional children, so my Augusts have usually meant only two weeks of vacation and around ten days of “Sunday Night Syndrome”.

As I write this, my former colleagues are in meetings to plan out the year ahead (like last year’s plan ever panned out…). I am not among them. I had chosen 2020 as my retirement year four years ago. I progressively cut down on my hours and teaching load from 100% down to 80% (4 day week) for two years. This was just a leave of absence because the school board only allows a 2 year progressive retirement. Same dif. The last two years were officially progressive retirement at 60% (legally I was still 100% status so as not to affect my pension. 

Last school year, of course, came to an abrupt end a week after returning from March break. Confusion, fear, more confusion, anger, disappointment, more confusion. It seemed like no one in charge had any clear idea of what to do besides shutting down. Initially I was presumed to be excused from work in that I was over 60 and have an underlying condition. Then the “suits” decided that 70 (who in their right mind would teach young kids at 70?!?!?) was the cut off point and I was to report for duty. The “suits”  decided that “no matter what”, music and phys ed were not going to be taught. Other teachers at the school had to Zoom their classes to mixed results. We (the specialists) were instructed to phone the kids on Individualized Education Plans to engage them in French conversation for a few minutes each week (Smell busy work?). This, in my case was pointless, useless, fruitless…need I go on? My calls ended up being a chat with the parents of the kids and some very distracted conversations with kids who would rather be playing video games. I would go into the school building once a week with mask on just to shuffle some papers, pack crap and catch up on “the latest” which was usually pretty lame. 

So, the final concert I would have prepared never got done. I had carefully planned a series of interesting songs and even had the kids pre-prepared in some cases. It was to be a swan song for my teaching career. Didn’t happen. The grad ceremonies were weird and disjointed. Last year’s grade sixes I had known since Kindergarten and I am particularly fond of them. Of course I showed up for their “Grad” even though attendance was not mandatory. 

I had been dreading the whole rigamarole around retirement anyways. Speeches from people who barely know me (we had a new principal) and empty platitudes from people who talk shit about me behind my back. That part I wouldn’t miss. At the online graduation there were a few words spoken by my friend Stephanie, but in the itinerary my name was spelled wrong. Mr. Hatchet. This rankled me, as I had been at that school for nine years. My name pronounced in English sounds a bit like Hatchet, but in French (which is how I was addressed at this school it sounds more like Hawn shay. I pointed it out to the staff before the grad, and the teacher responsible for the agenda blamed spell-check. What a maroon….We are teachers. Spell check my level of being offended. I said “You did a real hatchet job on my name.”

I do have some fine friends on staff, however who had been secretly planning a send off with my daughter returning from NY and people who I loved from across my career. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously it was cancelled. My friends on staff did treat me to a brunch without fanfare and a parent made a lovely cheesecake. Perfect. I was content with that, but I was still feeling a bit sore that my send-off was pretty lame. Then came the surprise.

My wife is a shutterbug. I pose for photos all the time. She called me outside on the Saturday morning after my last day at School. She claimed there was something weird in the ditch at the front of our home. I played along cluelessly even though there was nothing weird in the ditch besides her and her camera. She got me to make silly poses for about five minutes, and just as I was finally getting fed up with “just one more” a parade of honking cars with kids yelling and balloons and placards streamed by. they drove by, but I say streamed because I had tears streaming down my face. this was such a kind and meaningful gesture. There were gifts, cards, videos, a cross stitch image of Bob Dylan! Many, many, many wishes and love.

A few of my friends and former colleagues made videos. Two sang me personalized songs. It was a bit overwhelming. I realized that I HAD made a difference in some people’s lives and that was so much better than the chore of a retirement speech…..

Many people ask me “what are you going to do in retirement?” If only they knew what it is like to be blessed and cursed with being a creative person. I won’t have enough time to do it all, but I will enjoy each day doing what I love doing. Living is a gift. I am glad that I was an effective teacher for most, sorry for the ones I couldn’t reach. I will miss the eager tentative faces that will congregate in a few days, but I won’t miss the bullshit of office politics, the bloated, dysfunctional School Board or the dance of explaining what it is I do in the classroom to clueless drudges.

My friend Nathalie sent me this message last night.

“I know, I know, it was technically in June. But for me, it’s today that it really starts. The evening when you go to bed and don’t have to think that TOMORROW you have to go back for another year. I’ve seen you with the children and you fitted(sic) right in. I know that there are a lot of little ones who will miss you this year and the ones after. Enjoy the coffee tomorrow morning, the one you won’t have to bring in a travel cup! Remember, while you are listening to your music, there will be a bunch of us listening to those long-ever-lasting-f…en-meetings! Happy retirement!”-Love,Nath

Miss Duke

I just read an obituary for a beloved High School Phys Ed. teacher who touched so many lives in a positive way. One of the testimonials from one of his former students stated that “Chuck” had stood up for him twice to prevent his expulsion. I never knew “Chuck”, but the stories in the comments generated by his obituary and the personal testimony of some of my friends and acquaintances who knew him made me think immediately of Miss Duke.

I attended three different High Schools (sequentially….). The second High School I went to was a big rural “Regional” high school. My classmates came from very diverse communities. People from my region tended to come from educated parents who had recently quit the urban scene but still commuted to the city (an hour away). my region was also a ski resort, so many outdoorsy families as well. Other stops on our school bus route picked up regular kids whose parents (or parent) perhaps worked in retail, or trades or other jobs that one would expect to find in a small village or town. Other buses that fed the school had kids that came from very rural communities where farming and occupations like well-drilling and/or septic tank maintenance or tractor repair were the norm.

Miss Duke was not that much older than us grade ten students. I believe it was her first posting out of teacher’s college. She was very prim and proper. In a way, like Mary Poppins. She came from a small farming community herself and was perhaps the first one in her immediate circle to get a college education. She was passionate about books! She got excited about poetry. She loved to invite opinions from her students and was very disappointed in students who were apathetic, dull, or unthinking.

I was also passionate about books and poetry and finding meaning in the seemingly meaningless. My lifelong friend Jon describes himself and me as “searchers, seekers, on the road”. Not just passengers. I also really liked hallucinogens and pot. Miss Duke was the epitome of sober, (but I digress).

I was a royal pain in the ass to some of the other teachers who I deemed to be “assholes” whose classes I treated as non-compulsory, but in Miss Duke’s class I was attentive and contributed to the class discussions in a way (so I am told) that was beyond my years. I never skipped her class. Miss Duke inspired me. She stood up for me when “the suits” wanted me gone from the school for spotty attendance to certain classes and the various shenanigans and general mayhem that my cohorts and I fostered through our increasingly counter-cultural behaviour via music, dress, attitude and drugs. Rebel without a cause.

One of these events was “Mandrax Day” (which was never pinned on us) which caused the school to close early one day as there were dozens of us completely, howlingly bent…. It has reached legendary proportions by now, so you can’t really believe a word I say about it, except that a buddy of mine swiped a huge pile of Mandrax from his granny and gave them out to the adventurous (quite ignorant and stupid, actually) like me. Mandrax is sort of like Quaaludes…. a tranquilizing effect if taking properly, but quite a bit of fun if abused. Naturally, we abused them.

Many (40) years later as my generation’s parents started to die off, I got re-acquainted with one of my cohorts and one of my best friends as he returned to Quebec to attend to his ailing father. We had a great visit and his wife snapped a picture of us at one of the lookouts on the mountain that dominates the Montreal skyline. It was great to see him as we live very far apart. I didn’t know I’d be seeing him two weeks later when his father died and he had to fly back.

I attended the funeral with my buddies and it was great to get reacquainted and reminisce about things. Miss Duke was at the funeral as well, and I was delighted to catch up with her after four decades had passed. I was talking with her when my friend’s wife interrupted us to give me a gift that she had brought from Winnipeg. I unwrapped a coffee mug with the image of us that she had taken two weeks previously on it. Underneath the photo were three letters: BFF. I jokingly asked my friend’s wife if it stood for “Big Fat Fuckers”? Probably shouldn’t have done that in a church hall with my former English Teacher present…..

I actually thought nothing of it until the next day when my phone rang. “Ian!” barked the oh so familiar authoritative voice from a different age. “Miss Duke” I meekly replied, knowing I was in deep shit. She exclaimed:”I have a bone to pick with you”… I replied desperately: “I am so sorry to offend you by swearing yesterday….” She replied, cutting me off, “I don’t give a shit that you swore,” she continued “Don’t you Ever, EVER put yourself down!” Then she said “Now, please give me your mailing address”.

My eyes welled up as I hung up the phone, and I felt so amazed that she would take time out to guide me after all this time. It was a balm in a particularly hectic time in my life. I felt loved.

Three days later, a package arrived in the mail.
I received perhaps the best note anyone could receive from a mentor.

Along with the note, she sent photocopies of my correspondence with her from the mid-to-late seventies. She kept the originals!!!!! I read them aloud to my eldest daughter who was sick at the time. We both wept with joy.

January 2011

Dear Ian,
Your ingenious
ability to compose
brilliant thoughts,
always tempered by
your magnanimous heart,
Still (almost forty years later)
Takes my breath away!!

Enjoy your “diary”
Louise

framed

Which, in turn, inspired this poem….

Miss Duke

Duke had my back
Back in the day
When not much
Went my way

She stood up for me
When it counted
A teacher, a mentor
who really cared

She laughed at my
confounding questions
and deflected my
Angry Young Man
Into words and
Self-esteem.

Protected me
From the suits
And the jokers
who spat,
who never understood

She got me.
She had my back.
I wrote.
She wrote back.

Even now,
When fallow years
And other roads
Diverge,
She has my back
Still

Everyone should
Have a hero like
My Miss Duke.
I hope she knows.

As a postscript to this poem which I sent her, and may have slightly embarrassed her, She knows.

It is important to let people know how much they mean to you. It takes next to nothing to say kind, real, heartfelt things to make the world a slightly better place for people that matter.

Broken

She was a delicate, sentient child. I liked her. She had ideas and questions and interests well beyond her years. An engaged child among ball chasers, cliques, gossip mongers and acrimonious whiners and tattletales.. Her heart had been battered and bruised by the cruelty of not being “one of” of not being the “same as”. She had entered our school in second or third grade after many of the bonds among children had already taken hold. She had come from overseas. Over the same ocean that the grandparents of her tormentors had traversed. Just not from the same country of origin.

She devoured books and was teased for it. She wore clothing that matched. She wore ribbons in her jet black hair accenting a Snow White kind of beauty. She liked classical music on the radio.

Her mother was very protective. The little girl was not allowed to be photographed, was not allowed on school outings and was not permitted to be on stage for any kind of presentations. The mother somehow believed her child had a rare beauty that would (not might) attract kidnappers. This maternal attention I am sure contributed to the torrents of teasing that she endured.

She adhered to the teacher on duty at recess. She knew that harm would not befall her in our shadow. It was at recess that I got to know this child beyond what we experienced in the classroom. She spoke of her habits and desires and provided stimulating conversation beyond her years. One particular recess in the spring, just before her graduation stands out in my memory. She was walking beside me in her stylish red matching rain gear and red boots. I asked her if she had chosen a high school yet. She lit up and exclaimed that she had passed an entrance exam to an exclusive French all-girls private school that favoured students like her: Studious, cultured, inquisitive, eager to learn. None of the kids at our school ever went there. She said to me: “monsieur, I will be so happy to leave behind these bad memories and start brand new with maybe some new friends and a clean start.” I wished her well, and I was thankful we had had that conversation. I felt relieved that at least someone and something was going right.

Not being allowed on stage, the child missed her graduation ceremony, but I am pretty sure she was relieved to not have to attend the “Grad party”. She sought me out on her last day as everyone was emptying their lockers and gathering their stuff for the last time. She gave me a little card and thanked me for teaching her and for being understanding. I remember wishing her well and asking her to let me know through her younger brother how things were going at her new school.

In August of that year after a well deserved summer break I was issued my new class lists and I noticed that her brother was not on there. I asked about it and was told “Oh, haven’t you heard?” I replied in the negative. Her brother was not coming anymore. The family had split and he was now in another district. It is always tragic to hear about families breaking. I asked “What about his sister?” I am very low on the totem pole when it comes to news,

“She died this summer!”

She had gone to La Ronde with her brother and was on the roller coaster when she fainted and had to have emergency services called for her. They went to the hospital and ran tests and found a hitherto undiagnosed heart anomily. The little girl was given some follow up appointments, maybe some meds and was told to take it easy.

Several days later she was swimming in their backyard pool and had a heart attack. Her non-swimmer brother witnessed it helplessly calling out frantically but unable to reach her. She drowned.

Her little heart gave out. They said it was a congenital defect, but I knew differently. I knew that it had already been weakened and broken hundreds of times. My heart broke a little when I heard the news.

The spiral downward for their family was swift….differing ways to grieve and the brother probably confused as hell. The cracks in the family may have already been there. I don’t know.

My little friend never got the second chance she so desperately wanted. She was never kidnapped either. I swore I would never forget this child nor the profundity of this story.

I was recounting a little of this tale to my daughter recently. She had asked me if I had ever lost a student to death. I was telling her in detail but I was horrified that I could not recall this child’s name. This child I swore I’d never forget.

Angry with myself and a little disappointed in my fading mental acuity, I went over all the clues I could fathom. I remembered her brother’s name. It was unusual {as was hers). In my lengthy career these were unique monikers that I thought I could never forget. I messaged my friend (a colleague) who was teaching at the same school at that same time. She had a vague recollection and had to use her “sources”. I remembered the face, the clothing, the oddness of the name. I finally wrote “it sounds like…..” and we both got the flash. It is not necessary to name her for this story, nor is it ethical to write it. I have it in my notes.

Her little heart gave out. It just broke. She might have had a chance if she had been kidnapped.

 

Centennial

My dad was a pretty good dad. He was above average in many things. He taught his children some very positive values. He introduced and nurtured (among other things) our interest in reading, skiing, nature, music. 

Some things, however, were beyond him. 

I can’t figure out whether he was not effective as a math tutor or whether I was a hopeless student. Perhaps it was a bit of both. 

My father contended that math was “easy”. No opinion here. “Either you know it, or you don’t!” he said. His was a stark world of such absolutisms. A product of the great depression and the second world war, his world view was unquestionable. Poverty-bad. Nazis-bad. He was an aeronautical engineer, and he knew his stuff. He laid out how to solve the problems I was struggling with in tenth grade. It made perfect sense to him, but might as well have been Sanskrit to me. As I reminisce right now, I wonder if I just feigned ignorance hoping that he would solve my problems for me. He solved many many other problems as they arose. I leaned pretty heavily on his example and his advice in most things. No such luck. He expected me to know the rules that governed how to get the “right” answer. All I saw was a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules that, if followed, gave some other seemingly arbitrary number. The exercise had zero meaning to me. I had to do it because society demands it for high school matriculation. It was like a punch line to a joke that went over my head. 

One of the defences that I cultivated as a kid with dyslexia was to make jokes and absurd statements to deflect from the fear of it being discovered that I’m not as clever as I thought I was. I couldn’t use this diversionary tactic with my father. He knew I was fudging. I quickly depleted his (admittedly small) supply of patience until it deteriorated to the point of us yelling at each other and his ordering me to not leave my room until it was done. He said I could “take your time, but the longer it takes, the more things you will miss.”

He checked in on my progress after a half hour or so. I was miserable. Sensing that he needed a different approach, he thought he’d cheer me up with a relevant story from his experience. He was calm. Probably bolstered by a glass of Sherry. He asked me to guess what his math mark was in University. My dad studied engineering at McGill University (interrupted by WWII).  I guessed wrongly that he got 90. We tried again several more times and I continually guessed wrong. He finally just told me. Not boastfully or bragging, but just matter-of-factly. “100%. Either you know it, or you don’t”. I was incredulous. I had never had 100% in anything. Not even close. The closest thing I ever had to a perfect score was my batting average in little league baseball. I hit .000 which is perfectly dreadful. It is essentially what a dead person could do. I was on a par with corpses. My dad was on a par with the Gods…..

He told me that when he enlisted in the Air Force, they looked at his math scores and wanted to send him to navigator school. My dad refused. He made the case for becoming a pilot and the recruiting officer relented. Dad had argued that “you want the really smart ones controlling the aircraft”.

His pep talk had the reverse effect on me from his intended result. I thought “how could you compete with that?….I give up!” I knew I was smart about a lot of things, but I was entirely prepared to not do math! I would not compete with perfect.

I flunked. Plan F.

I had to repeat math the next year (plan B) as it was still compulsory to matriculate. I could not avoid it. Fortunately my new teacher was Mr. Hayes. He was funny. He was patient, he made math at least bearable. He would stand by the board and flip his chalk while instructing or fielding questions. There was rhythm there. There was humour, there was absurdity. He never once dropped the chalk either. Mr. Hayes motivated me to just do the work and follow the guidelines. 

I am pretty sure Mr. Hayes did not get 100% in math. He probably didn’t get anything close to that in pedagogy either. I don’t know much about him, really. I have thought about him about as infrequently as I have the same math that I have never used.

If my father were still alive today, this would be his 100th birthday. He missed it by 18 years. As much as I miss my father, I am glad he didn’t make it to 100. He would have been insufferable. 

 “100. Either you get there, or you don’t!”

David Hanchet b. April 28th 1920.
David Hanchet 1922 age 2.
Gladys Hanchet 1920.
War is over.
A tour of the city where David Hanchet was born in the year of his birth.

Some Other Time

In this time of self-isolating, I have been reaching out to the tendrils of my extended family. Last night I spoke with my older brother Guy. When I reminded him that March 17, was the day our dad died, he told me he had had a conversation with someone just this week and he mentioned the song that I played at Dad’s funeral.

Some Other Time is from the Broadway musical “On The Town”. It is sung by several different characters (sailors and girls) on stage as they lament the fact that the sailors are in town for one day and have to report back to the ship at day’s end.

Guy said that if you heard the song from the soundtrack, it might be easy to escape the poignancy and potency of the song. He was extolling the virtues of my version to his friend and told me it offered such comfort to my mum at the time.

Understand that I seldom get such kind words from my brother who I always looked up to as a child and continuing into the present. I was the little brother who broke his model airplanes, dipped in to his coin collection and as younger brothers can be, was a hero worshipping pest. I even picked up French Horn in imitation of him and rode a motorcycle for a time like he did. His words mean so much to me I decided to record it today.

I discovered the song when I was going through a Bill Evans phase. Bill Evans is (was) a beautiful interpreter of standard repertoire and a brilliant composer and pianist. I was hesitant to pick up the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans record because I associated Tony Bennett with Bel Canto singing (loud and emotive..to my ears “over the top” and corny) I was right to pick up the album and wrong in my assessment of his singing. I still prefer Sinatra, Ella, Sarah, Chet Baker, but Tony and Bill had a remarkable and unmistakable intimacy. Bill brought out the tenderness in Tony that I can now hear in subsequent music of his that I have purchased.

It’s a bit unfair to compare. Guitars have only six strings and a piano has 88 keys and even though both a guitarist and pianist (most of them anyway) have ten fingers. In so many ways the piano has a wider palette not to mention a sustain pedal. In any case, I transcribed the essentials of Bill’s interpretation to my use and learned the lyrics as well.

I have attempted to record “Some Other Time” several other times, and there was always something “off”. Maybe too fast, maybe a string out of tune, voice not up to par, a misplaced lyric…. etc. Oh well… we’ll get it some other time….

There is a good live duet performance by me and Alto legend Dave Turner somewhere on the internet.

Today’s performance was OK except at the very end I had to cut off the sustain of my excellent instrument (Greenfield GF) because one of the dogs decided to go downstairs and the sound of his nails annoyed me. I edited out the F bomb at the end, but left some of my scowl. I bet that never happened to Tony and Bill.

Just as this year is memorable for the Coronavirus, St. Patrick’s Day in 2002 is seared into my memory like it was yesterday. I am Including a link to that story here: https://vignettesandbagatelles.blog/?s=St.+Patrick%27s+Day

The Forgotten

I wrote down the words “The forgotten” from a feeling I had while we were visiting a person we know who is having some difficulties and is at the Douglas Hospital in Verdun for observation and treatment. My intention was to write a poem about this feeling.

It was a particularly desolate winter evening. The meandering route to the poorly lit, windswept and empty parking lot was long and foreboding, forlorn and barren. The buildings that comprise the hospital were particularly dark and gloomy that night and loomed before us like a lonely forgotten castle. There was nothing welcoming about it.

I know hospitals are necessary, and are wonderful places where massive effort is put into healing. I know that there can be drama and fear as well as joy and sadness. I was only able to recall negative and depressing details from my hospital experiences that night: My father’s death bed in St. Agathe, my two weeks in isolation at the Royal Vic.as a three year old, my last visit with a dear friend who was dying of cancer and was half his adult weight when I last saw him. My mother failing and her intellect shrinking with every weekly visit for several years. Visiting my close friend Danny who kept living and defying death even with the most gruesome and insurmountable health issues. He lived, until he didn’t, but that wasn’t a hospital story. I remembered my own lonely and prolonged stay in hospital as a teen-ager. All of this burden at once as we approached the entrance. Not optimistic. The corridors may not have been dark, but my thoughts were.

As can be expected, the person we were visiting was disoriented and showed little or no affect. That is why she was there, after all. It was very sad. The “common room” where patients could receive visitors or pass time was almost empty and it’s few occupants had very little in common. Not the kind of place to meet and make friends. I noticed the clock had stopped. 3:47…..who knows how long ago? There were random(probably donated) books on shelves. Probably never been read by their previous owner nor by anyone at the hospital. They were books, though. It was then that I wrote “the forgotten” on my notepad. I thought I would come back to it and write something sad and profound about how these souls were languishing or some such nonsense. Something to match my mood.

Subsequent visits were equally gloomy, although there was more action, some medical personnel and the occasional visitor.

Today was different. We met Lucien. He was a spry old fellow wearing a toque and he went over to the piano and played a few ascending chords very lightly. He turned around and I made eye contact and I said “bravo” He sauntered over to us and told us his story about having been a patient and how he returns to volunteer and help people as he was helped. He had lost his wife of 50 years and fell into a depression. The hospital helped him deal with his dark thoughts, got him some laser surgery for his eyesight “I’m eighty, but I can see like I am twenty-four” he exclaimed cheerily. “No pills!” he added. He was delightful, thankful and graceful and encouraged any within his sphere to join him in the sunshine room tomorrow, or any day, for that matter. A hero. He had a companion with him who he had met and befriended when both were patients. They both went off to visit another room and it was clear that they had left a spark in the “common room”.

I was hesitant to walk over to the piano, but my wife encouraged me. I went and played a few chords and then seeing as no-one told me to shut up I sat down and played in earnest. I played some chords and melodies of songs I vaguely knew and was going to stop, but the room started to fill with the curious, and , it turns out, the appreciative. A woman patient said to me “N’arret pas madame” and burst out laughing when I turned around. She had assumed that with my long hair I must be female. The beard tipped her off. I sang “Golden Slumbers”, and “Caledonia” to an ever expanding and appreciative crowd. Even the nurse gave me a thumbs up.  I only took my exit when I saw someone about to make a phone call. We had to go as our parking was up.

I realized then that it was I that had “forgotten” that my skill with music can be a bridge. My fear and loathing was lifted and the room had more air and people were smiling and talking to one another. It was finally a Common room. There was joy that was lasting and abounding. I think I know how I will give back after I retire. Merci Lucien.

“Levesqueing”

I never noticed before,  but my father-in-law combs his hair forward and slicks it down. Due, I suppose, to his attempt at minimizing the effect of his ever encroaching forehead. Looks sort of like Caesar (or at least, Graham Chapman who played Caesar in “The Life of Brian”) or the British director Lindsay Anderson. It got me to thinking about baldness. More specifically, the disappearance of the “combover”. I wonder when the last time was that I saw someone “Levesque” their hair. 

Is “Levesque” even a verb? To “Levesque” one’s hair is to grow one side of fringe that can be combed over to meet the other side. Named affectionately (or not) after a former chain-smoking Premier of Quebec whose combover was quite evident. Defining, in fact.

My friend Allan has what he refers to as “Bozo wings” when he lets his fringe grow too long. Another friend John is mor Icabod. Picture the actor Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future”. 

Many of my friends just shave their whole head at the first sign of “male pattern baldness” which disguises their age somewhat in that it makes them look tougher, younger, smarter. One friend with a “chrome dome” looks sort of like Daddy Warbucks another like Kojak and yet another friend looks like Yul Brynner. I think the shaved head looks best.

My ex-friend “Dan” lost his hair in his early twenties and he was quite uptight about it at the time because he was a musician and thought he needed hair for it. My friend David (who I have never known with hair) put a female wig on at Hallowe’en and it really did transform him. His face now framed with blonde tresses made him look like someone else entirely

I am into my 60’s and have a full head of hair still. A bit of grey, but not pushing it. I don’t know how my hairless friends feel about being bald. Some have said “you’re lucky” to have a full head of hair implying somehow that they are less lucky. I always point out that my head is this huge square block that if shaven would scare kids…Every bald guy I know has a round head, and baldness in their case is not the aesthetic disaster it would be in mine 

One thing for sure, and I suppose the reason for this essay is that I am glad I never had to “Levesque” my hair.

Songs of Autumn: 2016.

The year 2016 saw many icons of music die who had had an impact on my life. In January, the rock artist David Bowie died within days of releasing the masterful and poignant Black Star. On Nov. 7 Leonard Cohen died; On November 8 the unspeakable was elected in the U.S.(democracy died). On Nov. 13 Leon Russell,and Nov. 15, Mose Allison died. These may not mean anything to you, but were huge losses to me.

In a year marked by such public tragedy and grief, an enormous personal tragedy befell me and my family. Our beloved friend (uncle to my girls) Danny Lewis died on October 21st.

Danny wore many hats in his life. It would be hard to find anyone more interesting and/or unbelievable than Danny. He was well-travelled, had jobs from taxi driver to potter to technical writer and organic farmer. He seemed to know so many odd facts, conversed at length on disparate subjects and always injected his thoughts with abundant humour and intelligent ideas. Some of Danny’s stories were pretty far-fetched, but he was always able to convince that most elements of the story were true and that if there was some reason to stretch it, that also became true. His stories, rants, and his general take on things delighted and fascinated all who came in contact with him. My daughters loved him dearly. He was a confidante and a sage non-parental unit to them.My younger daughter even has a caricature of Danny tattooed on her arm. I valued Danny as a friend. He never let me down except by dying….

The girls and I spent lots of time at Danny’s organic farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, near the Vermont border. His farm was on a crest of land that Danny bragged was the highest elevation of arable or cultivated land in the province. Who knows if that is true or not? The way Danny said it, it became true. He called his printing business and his farm “Topedahill” which is a nonsense word that he was able to get past the Office de la langue Francais (businesses in Quebec can’t have English names.) Danny was clever. Danny was kind. He let my family vacation at the farm dozens of times. When I was going through my separation and divorce he sheltered me and the girls for many months at his home in the city. Danny seemed unfazed by visitors. He always greeted phone calls and visitors enthusiastically, even when he was suffering and in dire pain. In 2007 I wrote the song below for Danny. The original recording of this song was a “one off” demo that I gave to Danny and, like him, it is gone.

Danny’s Farm
By: Ian Goodall Hanchet

I’ve got a friend who lives on Topadehill If I
need someone to help me I know he will
Life’s a bit too hectic here
I need a rest I need some cheer

I know the country’s where to go so I
Hop into the car you know it isn’t very far
I’m going down to Danny’s farm
down to Danny’s farm
down to Danny’s, down to Danny’s farm

City life is too eclectic
Everything is too electric
I’m gonna sink like the Titanic
Get me back to where life’s organic
(chorus)
I know the country’s where to go
When I need some country charm
I just go down to Danny’s farm

when I’m on the fringe and every
thing has come unhinged
then I know it’s when it’s time to
take me there again
(chorus)
When I need to get away
When I need things to go slow
I know where to stay
I know where to go
(chorus)

©2007 I.G.H

On September 21, 2016 Leonard Cohen released a CD for what was going to be his last time. I purchased “You Want It Darker” as soon as it was released. Leonard’s late in life music tended to blues forms and lyrics that rhythmically interested me. The song “You Want It Darker” hit me like a freight train. I transcribed and learned it immediately. I don’t often cover Leonard’s songs, but this one hit me in the same way “Make It Rain” by Tom Waits hit me. They could be companion pieces. When the news of Cohen’s death in November spread through the tiny “folk” community to which I belong , we immediately went into mourning. My friend Brenda worked for the synagogue that was going to process Leonard’s funeral and had been sitting on exclusive news of his demise for three days (Leonard died on the 7th and the news broke on the 10th) before the news became public. She was present at our open mic. and heaved a huge sigh of relief and tears and had a stiff drink. She had been sworn to secrecy, and like the trustworthy person she is she kept her word. We musicians immediately wanted to pay tribute. My contribution was “You Want It Darker”.

Retracing my autumn, I go back to a story of what my friend Hal Newman posted on the 20th of October just a day before Danny died. Hal lived in Stanstead, Qc. on the border with Vermont. He had been awakened pre-dawn by hundreds of crows ( a murder of crows) in a tree outside his bedroom. I quipped “Murder On The Border” which I thought would make a great song title. (Apparently already existed as a book and movie, but I didn’t know that.) We agreed that it was a great song title. With Danny dying the next day I was “distracted” and forgot about the title until I started to imagine macabre scenarios. Danny’s body was at the morgue (as yet unclaimed by his family) and lengthy conversations between us survivors added to the imagery. Danny’s farm is also on the border with Vermont about 18 km away from Hal. Many of the scenes I imagined in this song are actual locations on Danny’s property. I was drinking coffee at my favourite Mexican cafe (Cafe 92). On the walls are beautiful and macabre posters celebrating Dia de la muerta. The next day we were to celebrate Danny’s life and commit his ashes back to the earth. This song is the confluence of Leonard Cohen, Danny, Cafe 92 and the Crows and Hallowe’en approaching. The song and the video arrived effortlessly in my imagination.

Retracing again, I received three urgent messages from my accountant which was highly unusual for October. Danny and I were both clients. I believe it was Danny who recommended him in the first place. We were both viewed by Doug as “slackers” in the tax filing department. It was a standing joke as to who would get his crap in first. I knew it was something bad. The news broke my heart. I then got to the task of informing others of this sad news. My daughters took it very badly. Friends in common were aghast! My friends Peter and Helen had had Danny over the night before and there were no indications of anything beyond the usual wrong with Danny. The next day, this came out:

Three urgent messages
What could be worse?
They always said of love
Someone always leaves first

two short words

there goes my universe
Your heart gave out
My heart just burst

Who can I call now?
Danny knew everything
Who can I call now?
Danny was always there

Who can I call now? He was my first call

who can I call now? he could spin silk

Who can I call now? who will divert me?

Who can I call now? Why’d you desert me, huh?

With news good or bad
Any time of night or day

He never let me down
He never pushed me away
Who can I call now? Danny knew everything

Who can I call now? Danny was always there,
Who can I call now? Now that Danny’s gone

Late Autumn is generally a stark and foreboding time of year where I live (Quebec). The trees become skeletons and the ground becomes hard. We all know what is coming. This Autumn of 2016 was the worst. The US election was the foulest and worst nightmare scenario imaginable. I won’t talk about that here because there has been too much written about it already…. I was a big fan of Leon Russell. His “Stranger In A Strange Land” and “This Masquerade” are two pearls among many others. Wonderful musician. Mose Allison was a witty and sardonic Jazz and Blues artist whose style and hipness and great songs influenced me greatly. Needless to say all this death and dying and the hopelessness of the world events weighed heavily on my shoulders. This ensued:

Live recording from Mariposa
fields at Danny’s Farm

Thank you for reading and listening. I apologize for jumping around in time. It isn’t supposed to make chronological sense. Hard to make any sense out of anything when grieving. I hope I was able to convey that songs don’t just come out of nowhere. This was a sad period. Art was made.

Life goes on until it doesn’t.

The pond at Danny’s Farm