Take-off to Turkey

Forgetting my sunglasses for my three week trip to Turkey was not smart, even if it was typical. My wife Brenda had packed another pair, however. She pulled them out of the backpack/suitcase that we had carried around the Camino three years earlier. “Wear these.”
Even being a beggar in this instance did not stop me from being a chooser. “I can’t wear these,” I protested. “These are ladies’ glasses. I’ll look like one of the sultan’s eunuchs.”
That was about all that I could say that I knew about Turkey; that it was once ruled by sultans, and that castrated eunuchs took care of said sultan’s harem. Oh, and that the Greeks and the Turks disliked each other intensely, going back even before the times of the Trojan horse. I had learned that during my first trip to Greece with my wife, back in 1988. We had just gotten on a bus in a hot coastal town and were setting off into the mountains. My wife and I were sitting in the front seats, opposite the driver, in order to get a prime view of the upcoming countryside. The bus driver climbed aboard and started the engine just as the last passenger, an old man in his seventies, took his seat directly behind the driver. He leaned forward and quietly whispered something in our driver’s ear. I could hear it, but of course I didn’t understand a word of the language.
The bus driver understood it, of course. Even as he pulled out of the parking spot he started yelling at the old man, sometimes turning completely around in order to make sure that the old fellow could correctly hear every syllable. We started to climb, but the driver’s anger only seemed to fuel itself as we climbed the switchbacked road which wasn’t encumbered by any guardrails. The old man sat quietly with a straight and expressionless face, completely unaffected by the Pandora’s box which he had opened. I wasn’t quite so calm. I looked over at the steep cliffs we were mounting and tried to steer my eyes away from the abyss, hundreds of feet below, where we were most likely to end up. The bus driver’s diatribe lasted a good twenty minutes before he finally calmed down and the old man had not said another word, sitting silently in his seat without any change at all to his placid demeanour.
I regained my breath, and then turned back in my seat to speak to the young guy behind me. We had talked together in the ticket line before boarding the bus. He was Greek, but could speak English quite well after spending a couple of years in the United States. “What did the old man say?” I whispered very softly. I didn’t want anything to set off another ranting rage.
The old man said, “Your mother is a Turk,” was the reply.
So that was what I figured I was getting myself into. The slaughter of the Aussies at Gallipoli during World War I, the massacre of the Armenians at about the same time, the 1970′s movie Midnight Express about two young Americans put in a Turkish prison, my own nightmarish experiences with Turkish toilets in France; the Turks should surely fire their press agent. But what I saw and experienced of the Turkish people during the past three weeks changed my outlook entirely. My trip was a wonderful experience. But there’s an old expression that I first heard when I was just a young kid and that I didn’t fully understand until I had gained some experience with the passing of time. Like most old sayings it’s probably judged too politically incorrect to blurt out anywhere within earshot of anyone under fifty years of age : “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
To which I will add an adage of my own making: Beware of Turks selling carpets !

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Turkey

I’ m leaving tomorrow for three weeks in Turkey. Nothing will be posted during my trip; but hopefully there will be tales to tell upon my return. But not too exciting ; I want to be writing the stories, not have you reading about another unfortunate Canadian caught in an unfortunate predicament !

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A Far-Off Kingdom

It’s easy to have an opinion when you don’t have to take any responsibility for it. I’ve been dining out on that concept for over fifty years. So settle back and remember; you don’t know where I live.
Once upon a time in a land far removed from this one there used to be a school which graduated a lot of students, many of whom went on to become very successful; it was called Hard Knocks. If you’re over forty years of age then you know the drill. There was no degree to put on your office wall at the end of the ordeal, and that’s the thing. Your lessons didn’t stop when you left the classroom. Your teachers weren’t always kind and gentle and they didn’t write nice things on your report card about all the great potential you had even if you were often disruptive in class and seldom did your homework.
It started with the neighbourhood kids on the street or in the yard at recess. Your mom hadn’t phoned her friend and then driven you across the neighbourhood because there were rumours that some middle-aged pervert in a white van was cruising your street offering Smarties to stray young innocents. The neighbourhood gang probably included one overweight kid who was known as Fatso or Tubby, another boy who wore glasses and was called Foureyes and if there was a disabled youngster included he was known as Crip. Most of your time was spent running around playing Cops and Robbers or pickup sports and if you just weren’t very good at that stuff you were picked last, probably damaging your psyche for life. The littlest brother was called ‘Kid’ and he was always put in the nets or in the outfield and had to chase the ball down the street or to the far reaches of the park when it went astray. I’m just talking boys here; girls were alien creatures who were always put in separate lines at school and to tell you the truth, I really don’t know how they amused themselves. To be totally honest, I still haven’t figured them out to this day. Most women who know me could vouch for that.
Your dad had lived through the Depression and may have fought in the Second World War and now he had a house full of kids, some of whom he didn’t know what grade they were in. You didn’t have a lot of heart-to-heart chats and he didn’t have to drive you to the arena an hour before the game so that you could jog around with the team trainer in your team warm-up suits and get “mentally prepared.” In fact, there probably wasn’t an arena in your town. The hockey season started after Christmas and wound up by the beginning of March.
And so there you go. Another time and place. People didn’t wear seatbelts and bike helmets and there were things called ashtrays lying around the house and offices that were always filled with cigarette butts. I shared a bedroom with one brother for nineteen years. That doesn’t necessarily make for a close family; I haven’t seen him in over two years. Another brother died five years ago and probably some of those lifestyle patterns mentioned above had something to do with that. Even the humour was a lot more rough around the edges. What kid didn’t love watching The Three Stooges calling each other names and cuffing one another on the head. And could Jackie Gleason get away with threatening his wife and promising such repercussions as “One of these days, Alice! To the moon!” My siblings used to love listening to my father talking to service people on the phone, where he would meet up with one bumbler after another. “You don’t know very much, do you?” he would growl into the receiver, blowing cigarette smoke out through his nose. “Put me on with someone who knows something !”
The older I get, the more I understand the old man. I try to keep most of my opinions to myself; I don’t want to get committed. Like my mother before me, the older I get, the less sure of my opinions I am, but the less I care what others think of me as well. But there is always my daughter to keep me in line.
“Have you ever known me to be wrong, Boo?” I have a nickname for everyone.
She looks up from her texting for a second and rolls her eyes. But what does a kid know !

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Signposts

There is nothing new under the sun. Somebody said that, anyway. I was thinking of that expression the other day, because Ontario goes to the polls in just two days. And that led my thinking to another famous axiom, by Hippocrates: Do thy patient no harm.
So what the hell is going on here, old man ?
Politicians have been insulting each other up ever since one australopithecus hominid held up a coconut and said that it reminded him of his rival’s brain. Really, as far as that goes, we haven’t progressed too far up the evolutionary ladder. And did the new guy, who probably bashed in his rival’s head with said coconut, provide any better leadership ? The historical record just depends on whose memoirs the tribal historian got a hold of and published as his thesis at old Precambrian U.
Which brings us to June 12, 2014 in the province of Ontario. Who to vote for ?. I’ll admit that I am a small, selfish and self-serving man. Having made my living at the public trough for the past thirty one years, and now dining out on the Cadillac of public pensions, I have never, and will never, vote Conservative. It makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. Tim Hudak saying that he will improve the economy by cutting one hundred thousand jobs seems to me like the Romans saying they are only trying to help out their conquered enemies, the Carthaginians, by first salting all of their fields.
So sorry, Tim, but I’m not voting for someone who not only will spear me in the solar plexus, but promises that it will be the first thing he will do. I like Kathleen Wynne, she seems like that patient, sincere, hard-working and well-intentioned teacher that I wish I had in Grade Four, but never did. I know you are not to blame for wasting over a billion dollars of tax-payers’ money just so that you could try to win a majority government, but Kathleen, you might have been in the room while the heist was being planned. And as for your party’s big accomplishment; the improvement in high school students’ graduation rates ? Sorry, Kathleen. I know that’s only because your administration made it impossible to fail anyone in a high school class, even if they couldn’t spell CAT without spotting them the C and the T. It’s hard to scam someone when they were in the room while the plot was being hatched.
So that leaves me with, realistically, the New Democratic Party. I know…I know. I haven’t voted for the ‘socialists’ since my naïve student days when I thought they would provide me with peaches and cream every night. And they didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory in those early years of the 1990s when they swamped the province with debt. But as a teacher, they did provide me with a good living. And before I pay off the deficit I have to feed my family.
Jennifer MacKenzie, their candidate for Ottawa Centre, came by my house last night. She could see by the voters’ list that we have four possible votes under one roof. I told her what I thought; she agreed with me ! Imagine that ! Because she is such an intelligent woman I allowed her to put an NDP sign on my lawn, the first time in my life I’ve gone public with my vote. The only other Jennifer MacKenzie poster belongs to my next door neighbour, a man who has invited in two street people, a crackhead and an alcoholic, to live with him in the past four years with, ahem, rather mixed results. This man is already in deep trouble with his neighbours for, shall we say, compromising the neighbourhood. Maybe the villagers will also now be at my house with their pickaxes and sharp-edged spades, ordering us out of the neighbourhood.
But as Hippocrates warned his brethren thousands of years ago, the Number One priority of any physician is, if you can’t help the poor devil, at least don’t harm him any further. And as the case currently stands, that’s all I look for in my elected officials as well.

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Guaranteed Long-Lasting

After 8 a.m.
You may want to start yourself up with…
A Bloody Mary
A Bloody Caesar

That’s what the breakfast menu said at the Jay Lodge Inn, I think it was called. I’m a little foggy on the name, and no, it’s not because of the two breakfast specials. I may be able to remember the name of every schoolteacher I ever had, but it’s the recent past that sometimes escapes my memory banks. My daughter and I were attending her hockey tournament at Jay Peak, of all places. It’s not just the National Hockey League who have pushed the hockey season up to St. Jean Baptiste Day, all in the pursuit of perennial profits. Every kid’s sport runs year-round now, and parents are encouraged to sign up quickly, before all spots are filled. How else will your kid make the big-time, ensuring themselves (and you) the equivalent of King Solomon’s riches ?
And just behind the Holy Grail of never-ending overflowing coffers lies our elusive search for eternal health and youth. We all love to laugh at the old travelling circus hucksters selling Snake Oil, guaranteed ‘to cure what ails ya.’ But any glance at any sort of media, from mailbox stuffers to the internet, shows that our self-delusion did not disappear with bowler hats and handlebar moustaches.
Back in the early eighties I remember reading the biography of Jim Morrison, entitled ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive’. I was in my mid-twenties then, and I thought it was a great title. Not applicable to me, of course. Your correspondent is as delusional and optimistic as the American novelist William Saroyan, who put into words what so many of us secretly believe: “I’ve always known that everyone must die, but I just think that an exception will be made in my case.”
P.J. is a young guy that I play hockey with once a week. Like many young athletic kids of today he is into working out and drinking protein shakes: low-fat, high carb, probably gluten-free for all I know. We shared a good laugh in the dressing room the other day.
“You know,” he confided to me,” when my dad was younger he worked out with the weights as well. But in those days after all the lifting they would refuel with a couple of cheeseburgers and a milkshake.” I guffawed right along with the young lad, then added, “No, that’s not exactly right. I would also have an order of fries or at least some potato chips as well.”
But the thing is, no matter what we do we always end up looking our age. The Hollywood set may have access to the latest diets, personal trainers and best skin care products in the world, but when even the best of them reach the age of fifty-five they are no longer playing the romantic lead. Okay, well, maybe they can if they are both producing and directing the movie. And even a quick glance at the aging beauty queens making the presentations at the Oscars proves that too much botox and one too many facelifts aren’t going to help land any prominent roles. Not unless you want to play the lead in the next sequel of ‘Aliens.’
There is a special locker room at the YMCA I frequent called the ‘Men’s Plus’. I’ve always avoided the place and it’s not only because of the extra charges. But because of renovations to the regular Men’s Room’s shower floor I’ve been allowed into the exclusive confines. These men are older, wealthy, prominent figures in the business and government world of Ottawa and I’ve been privileged in the past few days to see them shaving, naked, in front of the mirror.
Yikes !
So relax, everybody, relax. Even though I can’t realistically recommend the breakfast special at the Jay Lodge Inn I would probably venture to say that unless you really enjoy eating seaweed and drinking carrot juice that it’s not really going to help a lot in the long run. Have an extra glass of wine and unwind. We’re all a little too uptight as it is. Just remember to enjoy yourself and not to stray too far from the basics. Jim Morrison may have been a little excessive in some of his habits, but his basic philosophy applies to all of us.

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A Steadfast Hab-it

You may not bow down and be a true believer, but I am. At the altar of the Montreal Canadiens, I mean. The spirit descended on me in 1962 and I have not felt a moment of doubt ever since.
Oh sure, scoff all you want. Judaism, Christianity and Islam may share Abraham, Isaac and David, but have they contributed more to my life than Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson ? And that’s not even bringing up Rocket Richard who I never saw play in the flesh, just on those grainy old film replays from the 1950s, sort of like watching a video of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.
I tell my kids that when I was growing up in Montreal hockey was like a religion. They look at me blankly, nod their heads if they’re feeling polite and go back to Instagram, Facebook and on-line poker. I sigh, pity them for the heathens they are and just hope that hellfire is not really the destination for non-believers.
But even today seeing the Habs eliminated annually from the playoffs brings on the same feeling as a punch to the solar plexus or a death in the family. Maybe I no longer stumble into the bathroom and cry bitter, disbelieving tears as I did in 1967 when the Leafs beat the bleu, blanc, rouge to win the Stanley Cup in Canada’s Centennial year. But I can honestly say that I cursed that blue-clad clan of Protestant Orangemen, hexing them with the curse that they wouldn’t win another Stanley Cup for fifty years. I sealed the deal by spitting in the toilet. If I had spit on the bathroom floor my mother would have made me clean it up by myself. It’s been going on forty seven years and my curse, to quote Hemingway, she still runs good. I swear that the statue of Maurice Richard winks at me every time I drove over the bridge into Gatineau. For me it’s like seeing the face of a crying Virgin Mary in my plate of lasagna.
Like most religious fanatics I came to my faith early on. It’s not even as if I was brainwashed. My father was a fan, but he was just like one of those weekly church-goers that don’t let any exhortations from the pulpit affect their lives too seriously. My mother, and I pray daily for her soul because of this, was a Leafs’ fan. My older brother was completely indifferent to anything he referred to as a jock-like activity. My younger brother, who was under my good influence at first, soon sold out when he received a team picture of the then-Minnesota North Stars in the mail. I still compare it to the Bible story where Esau gave away his birthright for a mess of pottage.
Jean Beliveau is my patron saint and he never once let me down, never let my faith waiver. The greatest gift I ever received was a Canadiens’ sweater when I was ten years old, with Big Jean’s Number 4 on the back. Every day after school in our road hockey games I would announce that I was Jean Beliveau and the other kids would just smile indulgently, like you might do when your friend announces that he is the reincarnation of some great historical figure.
Those CBC commentators on Hockey Night in Canada enrage me weekly, especially at playoff time. Habs-haters all of them, from Don Cherry to P.K. Stock and Glen Healy, all who go back in time to when the Canadiens used to yearly knock them out of the playoffs. By cheating, of course, they imply. By having the refs afraid to call a penalty against them in the Montreal Forum. By always being favoured in the NHL’s head office. They belittle the miracle of the Canadiens’ twenty seven Stanley Cups, more than twice as many as any other team in the league. To me it is no different than denying Jesus’s miracles, like saying some cantine truck drove up just in time to supplement the five loaves and two fishes that Jesus was dividing up to feed the multitudes.
I have only found one other fanatical true believer to rival me in my devotion. His name was Paddy Dussault and he was a hockey-playing buddy of mine at Bishop’s University in the 1970s. He used to carry around in his wallet an autographed photo of Guy Lafleur and it came in particularly handy one Saturday night in April when we crossed the border into Newport, Vermont to revel in one of those cheaper American bars after yet another Canadiens’ victory. Stopped at Customs as we were about to cross back into Canada we were asked to produce some identification. Paddy, who was not at the wheel, pulled out his Lafleur -autographed photo and stuck it in the officer’s face. Then my other friend gunned the gas and we tore out of there. There was no siren, no alarm, no chase. Maybe the customs officer was another true believer.
Maybe he assumed to track us down and fine us would be like giving a traffic ticket to the Popemobile.

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Neighbours

I live next door to a crackhouse.
Maybe I’m exaggerating just a little, but my next door neighbour is a crackhead.
He doesn’t own the house and he’s persona non grata there now, but make no mistake, he has been my neighbour for over four years. Not that there’s anything wrong with him, other than his addiction to crack cocaine, which brings on shouted outbursts of profanity, insults and threatened violence. Hey, we all have our quirks. How many consecutive nights now have I sat in my basement, alone with my beloved big-screen t.v., while I service my springtime addiction to N.H.L. hockey playoffs ?
So I’m not here to judge . Decades of observing our times becoming kinder and gentler have made me as soft as a plush toy in a newborn’s crib. Some of the other neighbours may not like the pounding on the front door at 6:30 a.m., the yelling and the inevitable arrival of at least two police cruisers shortly afterwards, but I don’t mind having my sleep being disturbed. Unlike some of my working neighbours I can catch a nap later in the day. And what goes on next door replaces more time spent in front of the television, watching manufactured drama. With my aching knees holding me back from some of my old activities, sometimes the only excitement an old man gets now is the vicarious variety.
Mark the Crackhead is in his early fifties. We are always friendly towards each other, and I’ve had quite a few conversations with the man. I’ve never asked him anything about his life story. John has filled me in a little on that subject, but with none of the sordid details. John is one of the two house owners, and it’s not his fault that Mark lives there. What happened is that his friend and the other owner of the house, Chris, ran into Mark downtown one evening in the vestibule of an office building while both were escaping a drenching downpour. Chris is from the Maritimes and an empathetic soul when it comes to those down on their luck. He invited Mark back to the house for the evening to partake of a square meal and to get cleaned up and Mark must have misunderstood the part of it being for one night. Some of you may have unemployed brothers-in-law who also have the same hearing problem.
Our family is good friends with John. He looks after our house when we are gone on one of our extended trips, and the courtesy is reciprocated. And even Mark has never been much of a problem, at least towards us. Sure, he’s chronically under-funded and sometimes approaches me with the request for a small loan in order to buy a submarine sandwich. You can’t fool me, however. If I ever do lend him anything, I’m always careful to advise him to get something with vegetables in it. He looks awful pale. Stay away from McDonald’s, I tell him. That place will kill ‘ya.
So, the thing is, after more than four years, Mark has become less welcome than a family of raccoons in the attic. And a darn sight harder to get rid of, I tell you. Hence the early morning greetings and goodbyes on the front lawn, with the police invited out as the bouncer. The last time I saw Mark was three days ago, as I was chatting with some neighbours who were strolling by on our tree-lined street. Mark drifted into the driveway on his bicycle. We greeted each other with big smiles like those two guys in the car commercial on t.v. who go through the motions of neighbourly chuminess. “Hi Phil.”
“Hi Steve.” Then when Phil disappears into the house, Steve drenches his new car with a soaking from the hose. Mark banged loudly on the front door. There was no response. After four years, John and Chris may be catching on as to how to rid themselves of an unwelcome pest. And with witnesses just a few yards away, Mark was behaving himself. He didn’t smash the window as he had done a few days previously. Instead he only picked up the garbage and recycling and calmly spread it all over the front verandah. Then he got on his bike and rode out of the driveway. “See ya, Dave.”
“See ya, Mark,” was all we said to each other. My strolling neighbours had interrupted their chat momentarily, stupefied as to what had just happened. I just looked over and winked, as if to say, that’s how we roll in the shire.

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