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Thoughts on turning 70

Today I am three score and ten. Not quite ready yet to fly away, but certainly aware that more of my life is now behind me than up ahead

What has life taught me? Three things. There may be more, but three will suffice for now.

The first thing I learned was that Mother knew best. My father knew a thing or two as well but my mother was the one who – consciously or otherwise – pointed me in the right direction.

My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six. She knew nothing about music but she sensed – rightly as it turned out – that I might have some incipient talent worth cultivating when I started rocking in my crib in time to the music on the radio. After I had taken piano lessons for seven years she got me a paid gig as organist for our church. That pointed me in the direction of eventually drawing on music as a secondary source of income. Mother knew best.

My mother taught me to touch-type. How did she know this clerical skill would one day stand me in good stead when I became a journalist? She didn’t, of course. But she probably knew that in the years to come the ability to type a letter without looking at the keys would bring me as much satisfaction as playing the piano without looking at the keys. Mother knew best.

The second thing I learned was to trust my gut.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for the Irish civil service as a customs and excise regulator. The pay was good and the benefits were generous. But my gut told me the job wasn’t right for me. My gut also told me that Ireland wasn’t right for me. So I quit my job and immigrated to Canada.  My friends told me I was crazy but my gut told me I was right. Trust your gut. What did my mother say? She hugged me close and said, “Look after yourself.”

When I got to Canada I had an opportunity to go on the road playing music – singing Irish ballads as one-half of a recording duo named the Dublin Rogues. My practical-minded father thought I should look around for something more stable; something more like the Irish civil service perhaps. But my gut told me I should try making it in the music business, at least for a while. Trust your gut.

I met the woman of my dreams while playing a gig in Halifax. I knew within a short time that I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn’t talk to my parents about this. They probably would have told me to wait until I had a stable job and money in the bank. My gut told me I should get off the road and settle down with this wonderful woman who would soon become my wife. Zelda and I have been married now for 45 years and we have an amazing daughter, Nico, who is the apple of our eye. Trust your gut.

The third thing I learned was to follow my dream. This is a slight variation on trusting your gut.

Life, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the actual show. Find what you love to do and go do it. If you don’t like your job, quit and try something else. If you don’t like the second job, quit and look for a third.

My father was a civil servant. My mother was a civil servant before she married my father. They both believed the civil service was the best employer in Ireland. That’s why I joined the civil service; I was following their dream.

But I wasn’t following my dream. My dream was to play music and write stories. I didn’t know if this dream would butter any parsnips for me in Ireland, so I moved to Canada to pursue it. Within a few weeks of arriving I had a regular piano-playing gig at a pancake house in Burnaby. I spent my first Canadian summer in Dawson City playing nightly at the Palace Grand Theatre. I followed that with a year on the road playing nightclubs from Toronto to Halifax. Follow your dream.

When I quit the road I went to journalism school. That brought me a job at a newspaper, writing stories. That’s all I’ve done ever since: write stories. Today I market them on the Internet, which is the way everyone does business in the 21st century. I still play music from time to time but that’s now mainly for pleasure. Hauling keyboard equipment to the gig is no longer my idea of a good time. My musical friends keep telling me that the manufacturers are coming out with lighter and lighter gear every year. Maybe I’ll get me one of those feather-light keyboards before I give up the business entirely.

So there you have it. Three lessons that life has taught me during my 70 years on this planet.

I don’t like to think about death. But it’s the destiny we all share so I have to think about it sometimes. When I was in my 20s I bought my first life insurance policy. The broker offered me a hypothetical rationale, something along the lines of “How would you look after your family if you were diagnosed tomorrow with a terminal illness or were to get killed in a traffic accident?” Nobody of my generation actually believed that our families would ever have to deal with such a morbid prospect. Now it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. It’s a reality I have to face: My life will end.

I am still blessed with reasonably good health. My mother died of colon cancer when she was 62, and I used to worry the same might happen to me when I reached that age. Now I savour every moment, cherish every hour, enjoy every day. Life is more precious to me than ever so I try to focus on the good things – love, family, friends – and forget about the stuff that ultimately I have little control over anyhow. What the politicians might be doing to the economy or what industry might be doing to the environment is still a concern. But at the end of the day it will have to be somebody else’s concern. I will have done my bit. I cast my ballot and I rode my bike.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of an American aunt and uncle who were good to me when I first came to Canada. She is now in her late 80s; he is in his early 90s. Their oldest children are in their late 50s. At first I didn’t think I would go to the anniversary bash, in Rochester, because of the distance and the cost involved. But now I’m glad I did. Family and friends, more than 80 of them, came from Ireland, Alberta, Ontario, California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some I hadn’t seen in eight years. We shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughs. I came away with one more life’s lesson to add to the three I’ve given you:

Family comes first.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a few weeks before I went to Rochester. In the first poem of his first published collection he wrote about his father, who dug potatoes, and his grandfather, who cut turf:

I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

In another poem, Heaney wrote about his aunt, describing how she baked bread:

And here is love

Like a tinsmith’s scoop

Sunk past its gleam

In the meal-bin.

He wrote about his mother:

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

And, in a poem reprinted by the Irish Times on the day after his death, he wrote about his four-year-old brother, killed in a road accident when Heaney was away at boarding school:

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Family comes first.

Bob Edwards: Booze-loving newspaper satirist

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Bob Edwards 1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards
1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards was Calgary’s first media celebrity, a genuine pre-television superstar who put the frontier town on the North American map long before the cowboy showman Guy Weadick launched the Calgary Stampede or Mayor Don Mackay gave away his first white hat. “Calgary,” said a New York politician during the early part of the 20th century, “is, I believe, a place in Canada where the Eye Opener comes from.”

The Eye Opener was Edwards’s “newspaper,” a satirical publication that broke all the accepted rules of journalism by running gossip and satirical commentary instead of news, yet enjoyed the largest circulation (35,000) of any paper published west of Winnipeg.

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The once and future Calgary Public Library

The Calgary Herald, in three separate articles this past week, has come up with a stunning revelation: The city’s new central library will be “more of a community centre than a book depository.” One of the paper’s bloggers, David Marsden, is even moved to suggest, “please, call it a community centre, not a library.”

Well, folks, I have news for you. The Calgary Public Library has always been a community centre. It has never been just a repository for books. The first librarian, Alexander Calhoun, called it “a real civic and social centre.” With an art gallery in one room, a natural history museum in another, and a suite of other rooms set aside for meetings and discussion groups, the Calgary library of 1912 was a buzzing hive of social, educational and intellectual activity.

Full disclosure here. I don’t work for the library, but I was hired to write the centennial history of the institution. That’s how I learned what a vast array of services and programs the library has always offered for the edification and entertainment of Calgarians.

Before the advent of television, Calgarians went to the library to watch movies, for free. Before the arrival of Saturday morning cartoons, children went to the library for storytelling sessions. Before record players became common in city households, Calgarians went to the library to listen to recitals of recorded music.

When people could afford record players but had limited funds to buy records, they went to the library to borrow albums. They now do the same with CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. When immigrants wanted to practise their English, they went to the library to converse with other immigrants. They still do. When people had no access to personal computers, they went to the library to check their email. They still do. Just stand outside the central library on any weekday morning, half an hour before opening. You’ll see dozens of people waiting there to get in and use the computers.

Want to know how to give an effective toast to the bride? The library has a program for you. Want to know how to best prepare for retirement? How to do your own bicycle maintenance? How to get started on your family tree? How to achieve a better understanding of teen issues? The library has programs for all these and more.

You’re doing a research paper. Do you need access to databases you can’t connect to with your home computer? Do you want to find out what other databases are out there that might be of assistance? The library has a team of highly qualified reference librarians on hand to help you.  All you have to do is ask.

The Herald says there will be less emphasis on books than in the past. This needs explaining, because it is somewhat misleading. The library has always been a creature of time and circumstances. While remaining true to its beginnings – as a memory bank of human thought and action, and as a centre for the pursuit of truth and ideas – it has grown and evolved to adapt to a changing environment. If “digital first” becomes the mantra for tomorrow’s book publishing industry, as it already has for the newspaper and magazine industries, then the library will be there to ensure its customers have online access. It doesn’t exist as a hidebound literary alternative, hermetically sealed within a changing society. Having said that, there will still be plenty of books. This public library will continue to be one of the great knowledge institutions of North America.

The Herald is currently conducting a poll on the merits or otherwise of having a new central library. I don’t have to tell you which way I voted. Aritha van Herk put it well when she described the library as a “bright light centering this city.” It was, is, and always will be “home to Calgary’s book lovers and word purveyors, endless community services, and a tent full of information.”

The Calgary 1988 Olympics – 25 years on

It began not with a hockey game, a figure-skating contest or a ski-jumping competition. The Calgary 1988 Olympics began with the biggest festival of music, theatre, dance, visual and literary arts ever staged in conjunction with a Winter Games. It was also, as you would expect, the biggest cultural bash in Calgary history. We will never see the like again.

It cost $10 million to produce. It ran for five weeks, before and during the Games. More than 3,000 artists took part. I didn’t get to see all of them, but caught enough to be spoiled for the rest of my life. When the last curtain call was taken, I happily retired from arts criticism. Everything in the future was bound to pale by comparison.

The preparations had started more than two years beforehand. Even at that early juncture, it was already too late to try booking the likes of Pavarotti or Baryshnikov. Such heavyweight performers kept their datebooks full for at least three years at a time.

Then there were the disappointments. Placido Domingo looked like a definite possibility for a while, but couldn’t get released from his Metropolitan Opera commitments. West Germany’s famed Pina Bausch dance company sent regrets after landing a movie deal. The Stratford Festival pulled out citing a scheduling conflict. A rock concert featuring Neil Young had to be cancelled when only 3,000 of 15,000 available Saddledome tickets sold.

But there were compensations. Instead of Pina Bausch, we got Peter Brook’s riveting La Tragédie de Carmen. Instead of Stratford, we got a stylish performance of the Shaw Festival’s You Never Can Tell. And we enjoyed Calgary’s first literary festival; an event so successful it sowed the seeds for WordFest. More than 400 attended a sold-out Glenbow Theatre reading by W.O. Mitchell, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Kroetsch and J.P. Donleavy; then an unprecedented turnout for a literary event in Calgary. Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton and June Callwood were some of the other Canadian literary lights who attended.

After the five-day Olympic Writers’ Festival, the first to be held anywhere in 40 years, there was talk of a “draft Trevor Carolan” movement to sustain the momentum. Carolan was the Vancouver-based leprechaun who had persuaded 60 published authors – 40 of them from Canada – to take part in the festival. He wasn’t available to organize a sequel, but an experienced Calgary arts pro named Anne Green was ready to answer the call. Eight years later, she launched WordFest with a sparkling lineup that included Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Wayson Choy, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Sheri-D Wilson.

The newspapers and the airwaves are filled this week with recalled memories of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Elizabeth Manley’s surprise silver medal, Brian Orser’s disappointing silver medal, Katarina Witt, Matti Nykanen and “La Bomba.” I remember those, of course, but I also remember the great Oscar Peterson, the first Canadian production of Porgy and Bess, the multi-talented Andre-Philippe Gagnon, the Spirit Sings, the National Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens dancing on the same stage together, the Calgary Philharmonic’s haunting “Verdi Requiem,” the Joffrey Ballet, and Robert Lepage.

And, as I look through one of my old notebooks, I recall some of the more memorable quotes:

“We didn’t want him to do “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” again.” (Arts festival boss Michael Tabbitt explaining why Brian Mulroney wasn’t asked to sing a duet with Games organizer Frank King during the Olympic Eve gala.)

“We felt like one of Liz Taylor’s husbands. We knew what was expected of us but we didn’t know whose turn it was.” (Jointly attributed to Games co-organizers Frank King and Bill Pratt.)

“The biggest media event since Ronald Reagan’s polyp removal.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Don Ferguson.)

“Edmonton didn’t think of it first.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Roger Abbott explaining why Calgary got the XV Winter Olympics.)

“Edmonton isn’t really the end of the world – although you can see it from there.” (Mayor Ralph Klein spreading a little neighbourly goodwill for the benefit of Olympic Writers’ Festival visitors.)

“When this is over, I’ll either get a job as an NHL commentator or go to work for McDonald’s.” (Writer’s festival coordinator Trevor Carolan modelling the aquamarine blazer issued to him as part of his official Olympics uniform.)

“A Chinook could cause great havoc here.” (Competition organizer Gordon Taylor nervously checking the skies on the first day of the outdoor Olympic snow sculpting contest.)

“Canada is the cry of the loon, Gretzky worship, rye and ginger in a paper cup, vinegar on the fries, and talking gas pumps.” (Satirist Nancy White getting all patriotic at the Olympic Folk Festival.)

“Let the eastern bastards publish in the dark.” (Nancy White’s comment on OCO 88’s attempt to prevent Maclean’s magazine from putting out an unofficial Olympic issue.)

“Is 68 too old?” (A visiting pensioner from Zimbabwe wondering if he could play a walk-on role in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Petrouchka. He got the part.)

“Science fiction is the only genre I’ve discovered which assumes there’s going to be a future.” (Author Spider Robinson explaining why he made his living out of fantasy literature.)

“It’s very hard on the knees.” (Edmonton’s John Pichlyk describing what it was like to be a Shumka Dancer.)

Leaving Dublin: An inside look

You can read an excerpt from Leaving Dublin here on the Amazon website. What follows in this post is a summary, chapter by chapter, of what else you can find in my book of memoirs. If it whets your appetite for more, you can order your copy (paperback or e-book) here.

Piano Lessons. You can read some of this on the Amazon website. My mother tells my father it’s more important for us to have a piano than a family car. The lessons pay off. At age 14, I land a paying gig as a church organist.

Boys Will be Boys. It’s Dublin in the 1950s, long before the Celtic Tiger roars. Life for us as kids is a carousel of playing in the lane, going to the movies, and eating french fries. Our parents teach us that a good education is the key to everything good in life.

Coming of Age. I get my first summer job away from home and learn about girls. I join the civil service and become bored stiff. My friend Michael Murphy and I talk about moving to another country.

Coming to Canada. We immigrate to Canada. Vancouver is our chosen destination. We have no plan. We just want to see if the grass is really greener.

Journey into Show Business. I join forces with an Irish tenor named Shay Duffin. We call ourselves the Dublin Rogues. We make records and tour the clubs and concert halls of eastern Canada. My mother wonders when I’m going to get a real job.

Journey into Journalism. I go to journalism school for two months. That’s good enough to land me a reporting job at the weekly newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia. My mother is relieved. Zelda and I get married and Nicole is born.

Nights on Air. We move to Prince George. I read the news on CJCI Radio. I quit to play piano in a local pizza parlour. My mother gets anxious again.

Give My Regards to Old Prince George. I join the daily Citizen as a reporter. My mother is happy that I’ve finally gotten the music thing out of my system. I cover city hall and write pop music reviews.

Remember Me to Herald Square. We move to Calgary. I cover cops for the Herald and then start writing about theatre. What do I know about theatre? Not much but I’m a quick study.

The Tribute Column. After 13 years on the theatre beat, I’m ready for a change. I write features for the Herald’s Sunday magazine and then agree to write an obituary column for the daily paper. My colleagues think I’m one brick short of a full load.

Locked Out. We unionize the Herald newsroom and get locked out while bargaining for a first contract. After eight months on the picket line, some of us go back into the building. Most of us go on to other things. I write my first book.

In Search of a Literary Ancestor. I discover my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, was a renowned folk poet in West Cork. I write a book about her.

Moving to the Front of the Generational Train. Reflections on the lives and deaths of my parents. They wanted for nothing more than to give their children a good start in life. They surely succeeded.