Gordie

Back in the day, before the Internet was invented, I used to write a lot of letters. And I would always wind them up with the same notation: “I advise you to hang onto these letters,as I intend on being famous some day, and these might be worth a lot of money.”

Okay, okay… I know. My life might be as obscure as that of a field mouse in an abandoned farmhouse somewhere in the Appalachians. I’m not famous now and my hopes for future glory lessen by the day as the neurons disconnect and my fuses blow. So my chances for glory are slim. Someone once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Or maybe it was that every American life has a second act. I get confused.

Gordie Howe’s life had a second act. His life remained a constant in my own consciousness as his fame was such that he never escaped the media for very long. After his first retirement after twenty five years as a hockey player he was given a front office job in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization. Oh, it paid well enough but for someone with a work ethic that was developed in Depression-era Saskatchewan, Gordie never saw it as a real job. “I got the mushroom treatment,” he said after one year on the rubber-chicken circuit and the go-round of shake-and-grin photos. “Every once in awhile they’d open the door and throw some shit on me.”

The only problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.

My own hockey equipment still comes out several times a week, even during the summer months. Although a neutral party might not see a lot of productivity in my own retirement, there is at least some motion. My wife says that I have a one-track mind and maybe a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome, but I think that she just wants to piss me off.
Which she does very well, by the way.

I sometimes wonder what my neighbours think of a sixty year old man who plays hockey continuously, even in the summertime. Mine is a genteel neighbourhood and no one plays hockey. Maybe one guy, a hematologist, who plays once a week in a mixed league, but that’s not really hockey. No offense intended. And he was kind enough to refer to me one time as ‘Mr.Hockey.’
“Yeah”, I retorted, “but without the talent, skill, strength, fame and career of the real ‘Mr.Hockey.’

Gordie Howe, of course, was the real Mr. Hockey. He represented the times I respect so much and which are now gone forever. Growing up in the Depression and from a large, hard-working but poor family and living in Saskatoon, he didn’t receive his first skate until his mother paid two dollars to an even-poorer neighbour for a burlap bag full of odds-and-ends. And yes, I did say skate. Without the ‘s’. In the bag was a pair of adult skates that Gordie had to share with an older sister until he saved up and bought the second one from her for a quarter. His father didn’t register him for an organized league and then carry his equipment bag into the arena. Needless to say the old man didn’t hire a personal trainer and a sports psychologist in order to hurry Gordie on his way to stardom. Gordie’s dad never thought his son would amount to anything because he was “so shy and bashful and backward.” He never even saw him play until Gordie had put in several years at the National Hockey League level. Much to my dismay modern hockey has become an expensive and exclusive endeavour whose expenses almost guarantee that it is restricted to the upper-middle class. I’m a guy who gave up tennis at the age of thirteen when the local playground started insisting that all players wear whites, like some exclusive club in apartheid South Africa. And I still feel more comfortable bashing golf balls across an empty field instead of driving a cart around a manicured golf club. Although I am a grumpy old man, I am a grumpy old egalitarian man.

Of course, no one is perfect. Gordie’s advice to aspiring hockey players was to work at hard, manual labour jobs during the summer months, by saying that the best training for a hockey player was at the end of a shovel. Looking back on it, while this did toughen me up physically, it never qualified me for much more than digging trees on landscaping jobs and drilling holes on Alberta highways in order to install guard rails.

Gordie’s second act was his comeback playing for the Houston Aeros in the upstart World Hockey Association of the 1970s. In other words he did go back to doing what he did best. And he was still able to play in that uniquely violent, don’t-cross-me, elbow- smack- to the head manner which even his own son said would have him suspended most of the time in these kinder, gentler, politically-correct times.

And what’s not to like about someone slightly out-of-step with the times ?

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Ali and Me

If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those it cannot break it kills. It kills the very strong and the very brave and the very gentle impartially.
-Ernest Hemingway

My heroes are disappearing, one by one. That leaves only me and my generation as the patriarchs and matriarchs and role models.
Scary thought, that.

I can remember the mid-sixties vividly, better than I can recall yesterday, as a matter of fact. It was a time of turmoil and tumult and for a sports-mad kid who was just becoming aware of the world outside the hockey rink and baseball diamond there was no bigger name than Muhammad Ali.
I first knew him though, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, a name that I thought was very cool. In 1964 I read a book called ‘Young Olympic Champions’ and he was included because he had won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. Boxing was still in its heyday and it was a pre-politically correct time when one still heard the expression, “Boys will be boys.” For that reason we spent a good amount of time pummelling each other, especially my brothers and me. My grandfather passed on two old pairs of boxing gloves that he had worn while boxing with his friends and brothers. Needless to say they were ancient and the horsehair stuffing was falling out because they had been used since before Kaiser Wilhelm I was the Emperor of Germany. We’d put them on and pound each other in between putting in loads of hay, cheered on by my uncle and grandfather who thought it was loads of fun. None of us knew any better during those times when a concussion was regarded as no worse than a skinned knee, but it’s probably the reason why my head is in the condition that it’s currently in. I don’t know about my one surviving brother. It’s not that I’m totally insensitive to his condition. It’s just that I can’t remember where he lives.

Lest I leave you with the impression that my family’s only means of communication was punching each other in the head, let me assure you that we also had plenty of reading material. Besides Time Magazine, Newsweek and Maclean’s I still remember what an impression the book entitled ‘Black Like Me’ left on me, as to what it would be like to be black in America in the ’50s and 60s. My parents also had on hand ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and ‘Soul on Ice’ by the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And then the American government drafted a newly-politicized and recent convert to Black Islam who also happened to be the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. He had also recently changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He didn’t want to be known anymore by his old ‘slave name.’

Anyone younger than a boomer probably couldn’t realize what a divisive character the young Ali was. The mid-sixties still saw a majority of white America supporting the Vietnam War and the U.S. had no truck with anyone not on board with “my country right or wrong.” I remember playing in a hockey tournament in Boston in 1968 and being asked what I thought of draft dodgers. The answer that my hosts expected was obvious but I didn’t want to give my true opinion. And I wasn’t in danger of being sent to jail or having my world-famous title stripped from me.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Ali’s opponents, white or black, were subject to his taunts and teasing. The thug-like Sonny Liston was “the big, ugly bear.” Canadian George Chuvalo was “the washerwoman.” Joe Frazier, always my favourite and a fighter who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from a hopeless life of abject poverty was an “Uncle Tom”, probably the worst branding one African-American could give to another. Which is my point. Ali was human, not a plastic saint. He would still have to be considered the most famous individual of our time and quite likely the personality who had the most impact on the world in a positive way in God -knows-how- long. His personal life was chaotic, married four times and at least nine children with six different women. But anyone who ever met him talks of the kindness of the man: his humour, good-nature and his total sense of the equality of all, whether they were living in a remote village or the President of the United States. And despite the fact that he made and lost several fortunes, we never saw him flogging running shoes or sports drinks, even before Parkinson’s Disease stole his gift of speech and his status as maybe the most-quoted man in the world.

It’s been said before about others. And for no one is it more applicable than for Ali.

We shall never see his like again.

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Mortality

My wife looks over the obituaries of two newspapers every day.
I think it’s because she’s secretly hoping to find my name there.
No such luck as of yet. But she did strike a connection. “Did you know a Rishma Singh who was born in 1956 and went to Beaconsfield High School?” she asked one Saturday morning while scanning the obits of the Globe and Mail.
“Let me see that.” Of course I did. Rishma and I had both entered Beaconsfield High School in Grade Eight in 1969 and had been in lots of the same classes together. Rivals in a way, although she was much too gentle and pure a soul to ever admit as much. I never suffered from those same faults.She was easy to remember. An East Indian girl in a Montreal suburb that back in the day still did not have a lot of non-European immigrants. In particular we seemed to share a lot of the same English classes as we made our way through the ranks of good ‘ol B.H.S. and those courses seemed to be our strong suits. Teachers often seemed to pick on us by sometimes choosing our work to read out loud to the rest of the class. I particularly remember her reviewing ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy in Grade Nine while I was reading ‘Scrubs on Skates’ and ‘Touchdown Pass.’ Rishma was always serene and confident during these moments while I slowly sunk into my seat while my jock friends laughed and pointed at me.

Our ambitions were different. I didn’t seem to have any. Her obituary mentioned that she ended up teaching Creative Writing at York University and had published five books of poetry.
I ended up writing this blog with as far as I can realize, five dedicated readers. We all find our proper level in life.

Finding your peers’ names in the obituaries can be a sobering experience and a reminder that it was once written that even our very days are numbered. That reminds me to start the process of applying for my Old Age Security as soon as I wind up this article. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder what happened to all those hundreds of kids I grew up with and then were scattered to the winds of the Anglophone Diaspora that was launched by Rene Levesque’s Parti Quebecois victory in 1976. I follow the news as closely as anyone but there’s not an ex-Prime Minister or a serial killer among them.

So if you are out there, let me know. I’d rather hear from you than read your obituary.

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A Mediocre Man

At the liquor store yesterday I had to quicken my step at the last minute. I wanted to get into the checkout line before a little old lady with a walker and a bottle of sherry stepped in front of me.
Sorry for the politically-incorrect language. I know that one is not supposed to use the adjectives ‘little’ and ‘old’ before lady. I don’t even know if ladies want to be called ‘ladies’ anymore. But I’m sixty now and I’ve been called a lot worse. All’s fair in love, war and the battle for priviliges among senior citizens.
Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “I could never retire,” some of my friends tell me. “I’m too energetic. How many naps do you take a day?”
Of course a bristly character such as myself cannot help but take such remarks as a subtle kick in the teeth. My buddies love to insinuate that I’m a lazy, unmotivated slacker and that of course they are not. Then there is the kicker. “I have to keep working. I’m paying your pension, aren’t I?”

Of course there may be a grain of truth to their jibes. Am I the only one tempted to save myself a few steps with heavy grocery bags by parking in the ‘Expectant Mothers Only’ spaces in the Loblaws’ parking lot ? And besides, a drinking buddy with a Phd. informed me that since I have a pacemaker I can now qualify for a ‘Handicapped’ sticker for my vehicle. Those parking spots are always closest to the arena entrances and would certainly save me a lot of energy as I carried my hockey bag into the rink before games. It’s true that it’s never been my dream to have a Handicapped sticker but if the shoe fits then why not wear it ? As Danny Devito said in the movie ‘Twins’, “Do I look normal to you?”

Speaking of looking normal, like many seniors I now have a lot of communication with the medical establishment. Those people are like charities in that once they have you on their phone list you can never get off. I received a call from someone at Ottawa’s Civic Hospital verifying that I remembered my upcoming appointment for some tests concerning my pacemaker. She was checking off her list. “Height ?’
“Five feet, eight inches,” I replied. Well, give or take.
“Weight ?”
“One hundred and eighty pounds.”
There was a brief silence at the other end of the line. “Pounds?” she hesitantly inquired.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Even over the phone I couldn’t get much respect. “If it was kilograms I’d be in even worse shape than I thought.” I laughed and she joined in merrily.

And so, dear reader, you can see a man does not have to work hard to remain humble in his years of being pensioned-off and out -to-pasture. A lawyer friend of mine was talking about recently attending a wedding which featured an open bar. Being a practical and economical man, I wondered about the expense of a two hundred person guest list when the patrons could belly up to the bar and order Chivas Regal as often as they wanted.
“The guests who order Chivas Regal are the same ones who drink wine out of a cardboard box in their fridge,” the lawyer replied.
“You must have been looking in my fridge,” I retorted.
Actually that wasn’t true. I usually drink my homemade wine at home.
The boxed stuff is for special occasions.

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60+

It was seven a.m and my luggage was already on the sidewalk. I kept an eagle eye on it from my front window. My neighbour and his two dogs were always up early and I thought they might pee on it.

Not the dogs. My neighbour.

That may not be your experience in your neighbourhood, but it is mine. Compared to the snarly, grumpy old man living next door, I’m Pollyanna.

But the main thing is that I was off to another hockey tournament. This was something called the World Championships and I would be playing in the 60+ Division. It would take place in Windsor, Ontario.

Someone once told me that if they decided to give the world an enema, they’d make the injection in Windsor.

And once again I’d be playing with a group of military guys. I’ve finally figured out why recent governments have been pulling our armed forces out of the world’s hotspots.

It’s that there are an awful lot of hockey tournaments to be played back home in Canada.

Granted, these guys were all collecting pensions now and working on contracts. An F-35 fighter pilot would be driving the van, so I was confident we could safely navigate Highway 401 to Windsor.

There were other pluses as well. Dick was driving the van and he introduced me to the two other passengers. They were named Tom and Dave.

Dick. Tom. Dave. And me… another Dave. These were names I could handle.

When we first moved into the Ottawa neighbourhood called the Glebe I used to listen to my daughter Rachelle’s tales out of school. While I enjoyed the long and sometimes pointless stories, what most amused were the monikers with which these privileged kids were saddled.

“And Reuben kicked Rainbow Harmony and then Casimir poked Sunshine Harmony. Matteus didn’t like it so…”

“Jeezus Murphy, Rachelle,” I interrupted, “do you have a Susan in your class?”

“No.”

“Tim ?”

“No.”

John?”

“No.”

Sitting in the van with Tom and Dick I felt at home again. All we were missing was Harry. He was probably in the other van.

Eight hours later we pulled into Caesar’s Hotel and as I pulled my hockey bag out of the van I glanced across the Detroit River.

Motor City.

Murder City.

MoTown.

Diana Ross.

Smokey Robinson.

Gordie Howe

It didn’t look so bad. In fact most of the tournament’s participants, hundreds of us from seventeen countries, had bought tickets for a Wednesday night hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Jeezus, Perras, you’re a bowlegged son-of-a-bitch. Did you leave your horse outside?”
I turned quickly in the elevator and met the grinning gaze of Greg Welton, a friend from my days in Lindsay, Ontario. In fact, we had played on the same Old-Timers’ team and that team was also playing in this tournament. If you can count on an old guy for a good-natured insult, you can also count on them for some timely advice. We were on our way to the Red Wing game.
“Make sure that you don’t get on a bus with a bunch of Russkies aboard,” he advised seriously. “There’s no telling how long they’ll be kept waiting at customs.”
Politically incorrect, to be sure, and absolutely correct as well. It’s a good thing we left two-and-a-half hours early to make the fifteen minute drive to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. The more than fifty buses were unloaded one-by-one at the customs terminal where passports were inspected and brusque questioning administered. The guards at the Berlin Wall in 1955 were probably a friendlier lot.
After sitting in a bus for an hour-and -half it was finally my turn. I didn’t dare shoo away the sniffer dog barely six inches away.
“Where are you going?” the official asked as he scanned my passport, no doubt checking to make sure that I hadn’t just arrived from Greece on my way out of Syria.
“Same place everyone else is going… to the Red Wings game,” I remarked smugly.
I didn’t really say that.
“Ever been arrested?” was his next question.
“Jeezus, you are one dim bulb,” I replied. “If I had been, I sure wouldn’t tell you.”
As you are probably thinking, I didn’t really say that either. I made my way past another half dozen guards at the door, making sure not to step on the toes of any of the sniffer dogs also congregated at the exit.
Before making it through to the arena entrance to be frisked before entering we had to wade through a phalanx of scalpers and ticket seekers. One man sat in a wheel chair with a homemade sign announcing that he was a Vietnam War vet who wanted a free ticket. He couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. I’m sixty this month and I was too young to fight in the Vietnam War.
Fortunately, the game was good. For two periods. As that period ended my teammate and roommate leaned over and asked, “Do you have money for a taxi back to Windsor? Imagine how long it’s going to take to load up the buses and get out of here.”
He was right . Three of us made our quickly across the border with a cabbie who had a passport. Canadian Customs held us up for exactly thirty five seconds. Yay Canada.
Windsor, I apologize. We’re going to have to find some other place to make that injection.

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Marital Bliss

“Do you want to watch ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ with me tonight?”, my wife Brenda asked as I walked into the living room after supper. “It stars Maggie Smith and Judy Dench.”

I squinted my eyes in an effort at some foggy recollection. Brenda tried to rattle any memory of movie stars not named Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenneggar. “They’re both stars and they’ve been in movies that you don’t want to watch with me at the Rainbow Cinema.”
“On Toonie Tuesdays?” The hamster ambling slowly in my brain’s treadmill was still warming up, slow to work the arthritis out of his old joints. I seldom want to attend a movie younger than three months old if it will cost me more than $3.50, Toonie Tuesday’s new price tag. My daughter wonders why I sneak my own muffins into Tim Horton’s.

“Is it another one of those movies from Edwardian times?” I remembered a failed attempt at watching the opening episode of ‘Downton Abbey’ with my wife. I followed through before she could answer. “No, I don’t think so. The Habs are playing tonight.”

My wife sighed and returned to her newspaper. “At least we have red wine in common.”
“And don’t forget single malt scotch.” I was trying to be agreeable. It’s amazing how many married couples out there need counselling.
Not us, of course.

In our first year of marriage we were both teaching in Lindsay, Ontario. Situated in the heartland of Ontario it is largely a town of rye drinkers. We were delighted to find out in 1986, the year before we were married, that we both had a taste for scotch and the local liquor store was accommodating us by holding a year-long sale on the single-malt variety. This mutual love of the same refreshment inevitably led to a marriage proposal. And fortunately this tidy arrangement also lasted through our first year of marriage , which helped us weather many of our first-year-of-marriage storms.

“The Lord makes ’em and the devil matches’em.” I can still hear my grandfather’s words of wisdom passed on to me during my formative years, as we sat by the wood-burning stove in his kitchen. He would be chewing tobacco while I smoked a cigar, both of them habits that are today ranked lower on the socially-acceptable scale than smoking crack and injecting heroin. Even though many of my relatives never took the plunge, I now regard marriage as an almost mandatory step on the road to learning how to get along and play well and share with others. At the same time I know it is not for everybody. A lawyer friend of mine tells me that a long list of his divorced clients end up living in a single-room apartment without even a vehicle in which to get around town.
I constantly remind myself not to ever hire him as my attorney.

For the sake of marital accord, I did end up watching ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ In fact, I enjoyed it so much we also viewed ‘The Second Best Marigold Hotel.’
The Habs are having a terrible season anyway.

And what Sonny Kapoor, the character played by Dev Patel says about life can just as well be applied to the whole institution of marriage: “It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”

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Finite

“No one here gets out alive.”
-Jim Morrison – the Doors

I first heard the term in a strip-club. I tell my wife it was before we were married.

They referred to themselves as ‘danceuses’ and one was dancing at a nearby table. I would never pay for one myself, of course.

It was the mid-1980s and we were a bunch of guys at a hockey tournament in Niagara Falls. One of the twenty-somethings at the table joked that his buddy’s heart wouldn’t be able to stand the excitement. He shouted out his warning. “Terry, your pacemaker !”

I wasn’t sure what that particular gadget was but we all guffawed loudly and pounded the table in appreciation of such an insightful observation, nearly upending our precious beers in the process. None of us were over thirty three years of age and I presumed a pacemaker must have been something used by the geriatric set, those who took out their teeth at bedtime and dropped them in a glass after a long day of snoozing in their rocking chairs, accompanied only by a blanket and a hot waterbottle.

And now I’m left wondering to myself… what’s to become of me ?

“Go to the doctor,” my wife said to me about a year ago. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?”
Well, no.
“What for?” I countered cleverly. “If you take a ’56 Chevy into the mechanic he’s going to find something wrong when he looks under the hood. Even if it’s running smoothly.”

I have been to a doctor…twice in the past forty years, actually four times if you count the two occasions I received shots for overseas trips to South America and Asia. But it’s true I would be sixty years of age on my next birthday and I did experience some slight dizziness for a few seconds when I started running or skating hard.

“It’s only a slight salt deficiency,” I told my kids. I self-medicated by stepping up my consumption of potato chips.

The doctor asked me some routine questions after my examination, which had seemed to have gone well. I congratulated myself, thinking, “I’ll see you in another twenty years !”

When I mentioned my symptoms he picked up a pen and started writing what turned out to be a referral. “Cut back your activities for the next two weeks, until you can get into this cardio specialist,” he advised. I looked him in the eye and nodded gravely, lying through my teeth. “Okay.”
He may as well have told me he was prescribing a lobotomy.

My second visit to the cardiologist involved the dreaded treadmill test. They steadily raised the incline and upped the speed before taking me off after twelve minutes. “How’d I do?” I asked the technologist, panting and sweating as she ripped the tape and devices off my chest.
“Better than average, ” she answered noncommittally. I allowed my self a smug nod. “I’m outta here,” I reckoned.

Not so fast, bud. My follow-up visit entailed examining a read-out of my above-mentioned test. “See these electrical impulses.” The physician pointed to some squiggly lines on the printout. I nodded sagely, just as I had learned to back in Grade Eleven physics when the teacher put some sort of equation on the board and then looked directly at me. “These electrical impulses are not firing properly, which means that the blood is not being pumped sufficiently from the ventricle to the auricle. That’s why your heart rate is only forty beats a minute.” Just in case I got the mistaken impression that I would be grasping my heart and falling face first into my mashed potatoes at suppertime that evening he put my now-anxious mind at ease.
“I’m going on vacation for the next while and we’ll call you back in after Christmas vacation.”

My heart was strong enough to take the next shock, which came about two days later, however. I was out walking my pet dog Jasper when my wife almost drove me over in our Toyota Corolla, and then jumped out of the vehicle in a panic. “You can’t walk any further.” She was quite agitated. “They just phoned from the Civic Hospital. You’ve got third degree heartblock and you have to go in and get a pacemaker installed tomorrow.”

The next morning I was met by a nurse who grabbed my arm and led me to a gurney before she prepped me with the preliminaries. “Did you come in here with a walker?” she asked sincerely. “Where are your canes?”
They’ve got the wrong guy, I concluded. “I just played two hockey games yesterday.”

Undaunted, , the agenda, like the pre-planned Allies’ attack on the beaches of Dieppe, pushed forward. My ticker was installed in the next hour and a half. Barely sedated, I was mostly conscious for the operation. Looking at me sternly, the nurse read me the riot act. I would be allowed to walk but not play any hockey or go the ‘Y’ for the next six weeks. Hell, I was told that I couldn’t even drive for the first week. I presumed that I would be a menace to all the drunken and texting drivers out there over the Christmas season.

So I’m not quite an invalid, but I’m getting there. Good thing I had my eye operation done three years ago or you’d be seeing me in Centre Town with my white cane and tin cup. As it is now I’ll be checking myself into the Home for the Aged and Infirm.
I’ll be the bald, toothless guy sitting in the wheelchair with Pablum dribbling down my chin.

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