Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A shocking view that still hurts to read

This column was shocking when I wrote it for The Daily News back in 1991. We had just returned from a trip to Spain and it took me back to earlier trips to Spain and some of my observations and experiences of those times.

It's still shocking today. It so clearly explains how prejudice and bigotry exist and thrive. I'm sure if I read the entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica of today, they would be very different but think how many generations of people read the entries as I quote from them below.

When we were in Italy a few years ago, we encountered gypsies – still called gypsies in many places – who seemed to live much the same way in Rome and Florence as we had observed in Granada almost 30 years ago. The prejudice is still very strong. There remains in many countries an antipathy toward the Roma people, including Canada.

I remember strolling up the hill toward the Alhambra in Granada on one of my earlier trips to Spain and being presented with a flower by a charming, laughing gypsy woman. I accepted it with pleasure, thinking what a nice hospitable country this was, when she demanded payment from my (male) companion. He hadn't noticed any of this and was taken aback by her aggressiveness but things were sorted out, the woman was paid, and I decided I might as well enjoy my flower. I was a little embarrassed that I had so easily assumed it was a gift.

I've never accepted another one although the flower vendors – women and children – are as much in evidence on the streets of Granada today as they were 20 years ago. Some of them could be the same ones, I suppose. They still thrust the flowers at women travellers and then turn to the men for the payment – “por amore!” they say, both loud and pathetic at the same time.

The Granada gypsies live outside the city in the mountains. In fact, an old guide book I came across lists them as one of the tourist attractions: “Granada is protected by mountains...in the north by the Albaicin, where a large colony of gypsies live in caves – complete with electric lights and telephones! Make a trip there and perhaps see them dancing in their colourful costumes.”

That particular guide doesn't say watch out for your wallet, although another guide I read recently warned of groups of young gypsy boys in certain areas who, the book said, are accomplished pickpockets.

Gypsies are not a people I've thought too much about although I was once fairly well-acquainted with Ron Lee, author of the acclaimed book Goddam Gypsy.

But after returning from Spain this time, I kept thinking about them – they live not only in Granada, of course, but are also seen in the other cities, usually street vending.

I read bits and pieces about gypsies here and there, and then went to that definitive tool of research, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now I must explain that my Encyclopedia Britannica is quite old. The only reason I have it is because the high school in Chatham, N,B, was being converted into an elementary school and someone called and told me that many books – including a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica – was being taken to the dump. Imagine! So I went and rescued it. This set was revised in 1960.

Anyway...I looked up gypsies. I read some interesting things: for example, says E.B., the gypsies were originally a low caste people of India whose language is related to Sanskrit. They dispersed throughout Europe, retaining a common language but integrating it with the language of the cultures they lived among.

So far, so good. I first began to get uncomfortable when I read this: “...When the gypsies first entered Europe, they were confused with another group whose descendants, called Jevgjit, are found in Albania living in humble houses. The Jevgjit have clean habits; they are reddish-brown in color, have oval faces and have little in common with the gypsies.”

I went through a rather long and rambling history of the gypsies and then arrived at a section titled “Characteristics, Customs and Crafts.” The first sentence says: “The mental age of an average adult gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of ten.”

Excuse me?

I went on to read:”Gypsies have never accomplished anything of great significance in writing, painting, musical composition, science or social organization. What culture they possess has been thrust upon them from outside.”

A little further down, there was this: “A common gypsy conception of paradise is a place where there is plenty to eat.”

A few sentences on, written in a really patronizing fashion, this: “...They ply trades which members of established society find either humiliating or unprofitable...their small earnings are in general sufficient to satisfy their simple needs.”

And this list of their trades, although it's clearly pointed out that, except for these, they don't know much about anything: “...they're trough makers, blacksmiths, farriers, kettlesmiths, tinkers, riveters, combmakers, makers of wooden spoons, spindle makers, sieve makers, matmakers, basketmakers, hacklers, bagmakers, musicians, bear trainers, dealers in wool and cattle, jugglers, horse dealers, circus players and there are a few lawyers.”

Oh, where to stop? This leaves me speechless. This is the Encyclopedia Britannica, not the National Enquirer!

“Quarrelsome, quick to anger or laughter, they are unthinkingly but not deliberately cruel...They betray little shame, curiosity, surprise or grief and show no solidarity.”

Ron Lee was a bitter, angry man when I knew him. No wonder. I wonder whatever became of him?* As for me, if I'd read this before, I suppose I'd have bought every flower ever offered to me on the way to the Alhambra.

*After I read "I wonder whatever became of him?" I browsed around to see what I could find. Ronald Lee's website is called kopachi.com and it looks really interesting with lots of information and articles. I was really happy to find it; it cheered me up immensely. I hope you go visit the website. He was presented an honourary laws degree by Queen's University in 2014. Sometimes there are happy endings.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Food, football, friends — on an evening in summer

We had Cousin Dale (Estey) and his friend Lorna over last week. We were very anxious to meet Lorna and, of course, we wanted to make a good impression. We knew she had been a Shakespearean scholar at Cambridge and she’s a huge fan of football (footy! soccer!) and opera. We were pretty sure there would be no shortage of conversation.

With that in mind, I thought I should concentrate on the food. We had been having very hot days and I was pretty sure no one would want to sit down to a hot dinner. I knew for sure that I didn't want to cook a hot dinner.

I'm mildly obsessed with getting things done in advance. In fact, I've been known to go too far. Once, when we were serving a delicious pâté with crackers as an appetizer, I took matters into my own hands and before the guests arrived, I prepared a lovely plate of crackers with the pâté already spread. Don't try this. By the time the guests tried to pick up a cracker, they had all wilted like dead flowers and were just about as appetizing.

I've learned a lot since then and I'm pretty good now to know what can be done in advance. I started by making some beautiful lemony aïoli.

The recipe is from one of my favourite cookbooks which I wrote about here.

The aïoli can be made by hand, with a mortar and pestle and a whisk but, as you can see, I took the easy route and used the food processor.

At this point (above), the only thing left to do is add the lemon juice, to taste.

And there it is, in all its finished glory. I have to say, the garlic was very strong and when I took my first taste, I was quite impressed with the statement the aïoli made. It was hot but very tasty.

Because I stay up late anyway, I decided to cook into the night. I roasted some potatoes and barbecued some chicken to be ready for salad-making the next day.

Happily, everything was ready by the time our guests arrived and after a very short time, I think we all felt we'd known Lorna forever. As predicted, the conversation was wide-ranging and interesting.

Dan and I are not huge fans of football — he knows much more about it than I do — but we often like to share a broad global experience with others around the world so we did watch, on our giant TV, the final game of Euro 2016 between France and Portugal. The game was played at the Stade de France, the same stadium where terrorists had attacked just a few months before. France was a sentimental favourite. It was widely felt that a win would begin the healing process for the country which was still hurting.

I felt that way too and I was leaning toward France until Dan told me that this was Portugal's 30th appearance in a final and they'd yet to win. Oh dear. Imagine how those fans must have been feeling. I began to waver back and forth in my team favouritism and I realized at a certain point that I would happily accept either team as the champion. When Portugal won 1-0 in extra time, I was thinking of their fans and of their country and what it must have felt like for them.

I told Lorna this but she couldn't agree. Lorna and her sister had been watching the international friendly match between France and Germany on November 13, 2015, when the attacks happened. Like those who were in the stadium, people watching on television didn't know about the attacks until much later and by then, the extent of the death and destruction had become known. For Lorna, that game for France was very much tied up with that awful night.

This doesn't sound terribly cheerful but in general, our evening was fun and we discovered a lot about each other.

Our appetizer for this evening — which was assembled in advance and which didn't involve crackers — was smoked salmon and cream cheese on cucumber slices:

The aïoli and the roasted potatoes teamed up to make a pretty salad. . .

. . .and the barbecued chicken, in the company of prosciutto, olives, red onion, broccoli and tomatoes held its own.

I've spent a lot of time and space discussing the food and although food matters, the people we share it with are the most important element of a good evening. Making a new friend always feels good.

Flowers from Lorna. That's Her Majesty behind the flowers — solar-powered — waving in the window.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A little addition to our family — and how it happened

This is a very personal story. It's the story of how William joined our family and became our son. William is 21 years old now, has been working and attending Nova Scotia Community College and will be heading to university in September.

A variation on this story has been published in the no-longer-existent alternative Catholic weekly, Catholic New Times. It has also been published in the German magazine Spotlight.

It was written just before William's third Christmas. He was born November 29 so he spent quite a lot of his first Christmas as a precious gift under our tree.

This is the story much as I wrote it then. I made a couple of very small insignificant changes and I added photos. I hope you enjoy reading it.

I'll give you this much background: When my husband Dan and I met and married, we were both past the age where we expected to become parents. But we knew we loved and admired and respected each other, we had common life goals and cared about the same things, and we knew – as much as anyone can know such things – that, with our work and our home and our friends, we'd be a happy fulfilled family of two (plus three personable, sometimes neurotic, cats).

All that notwithstanding, one day we decided that we would take the Children's Aid Society's eight-week course called Orientation to Adoption. We felt pretty sure that we would never be able to adopt a child through an agency but we thought we would learn something and we might as well be prepared just in case something came up.

We went dutifully to our classes, listened to social workers and others involved in the world of adoption, and joined an adoptive parents' organization. We looked briefly into international adoption, read material about other alternatives, but never really turned adoption into a project that took over our lives – as we saw happen in some other families.

Whenever we mentioned our wish to raise a child, we seemed to get the same advice: tell everyone you know; tell friends and relatives, teachers and nurses, doctors and dentists. Eventually, the advice said, someone would know about a child available for adoption.

* * *

Adopting a baby has become difficult almost everywhere for reasons that most people are familiar with: more effective methods of birth control; an increasing tendency for single mothers to keep their babies; and greater access to legal abortion. So maybe it's not surprising that the first question we often get is, "how long did you have to wait?"

It's not an easy question to answer: it was 1990 when we took our CAS course, so perhaps we waited four years. But it was late October 1994 – about a month before our baby was born – when we got a telephone call from a doctor/friend who said, "I have a patient who will be giving up her baby for adoption. Are you still interested?"

We thought it over for about five minutes before we said, well, of course we are. Within a couple of days, we went to meet the mother of our baby. Together with the doctor, we had breakfast together and talked about our lives. She had two other children and a job that enabled her to raise them comfortably; she felt that a new baby would be an addition to her life that would upset a balance she'd been able to construct.

We told her about our jobs, our house, our neighbourhood and some of the values we held that we thought would be relevant to child-rearing. In fact, our values – the importance of equality for all, of alleviating poverty, of eliminating discrimination and racism – extended into our work: I was (and am) a writer and broadcaster working mainly for alternative media but I was also a regular TV and radio political panellist. Our baby's mother had seen me on TV and felt she knew something about me already. Dan is a longtime senior worker with the NDP and was much respected – as was his party – in Nova Scotia politics.

Two days after our meeting, the doctor/friend called and said, "She likes you. She wants you to adopt her baby."

There was a little confusion about the due date but it was thought that the baby would be born in about a month. So did we wait four years? Or did we wait – with some trepidation and superstition – for about 30 days?

* * *

Our baby was born in the middle of the night, November 29, 1994. We got the telephone call just after 7 a.m. Dan was already downstairs and took the call; I sneaked quietly partway down the stairs so I could hear his end of the conversation.

I'm not quite sure what I was thinking. I knew that we were committed to the baby – sight unseen, condition unknown. That was cause for a little apprehension. I knew we had respect for the mother and, although I didn't think she had changed her mind, anything was possible. I couldn't discern anything from Dan's end of the conversation: "yes", "no", "oh really." Until he hung up and I went down the stairs and he said, "It's a boy." I burst into tears, of course; I'm sure I would have burst into tears no matter what he had said.

* * *

In Nova Scotia, adoptive parents are required by law to be accompanied by someone during the first 15 days of the baby's birth. The law was enacted to protect birth mothers from being coerced into giving up their babies during a very vulnerable period. We felt no resentment at the law and Lynn was very happy to be with us as we went to get our baby from the hospital.

(We had – superstitiously – avoided filling the house with baby clothes, baby furniture, toys; we had even been careful about telling people. However, there were some things that had to be done in the month we had before the baby was born. We hired a lawyer. We notified the Community Services Department and learned the steps that would have to be taken to start the adoption process. We identified parents , friends of a neighbour, who were willing to be foster parents until the baby's mother signed the Consent to Adoption, enabling us to take him home.)

* * *

Just before one p.m. we step off the elevator onto the pre-natal floor. Donna, the baby's birth mother, and Jennifer, her three-year-old daughter, are in conversation with one of the nurses.

"Hi Sharon," Donna says, softly but quite cheerfully. She acknowledges Dan, our friend Lynn, and Liz, our lawyer. We last met her when she was eight months pregnant; today, she is tiny, slim, and doesn't look like a woman who has so recently given birth. "Donna and Jennifer will go in first," the nurse says. "I'll come back and get you."

I am nervous and shaky and don't know what to say to anyone. We all stand around reading the health posters on the walls. The nurse comes back in ten minutes and tells us we can go in.

Donna is holding the baby, bending over so Jennifer can see him. "Look at the little hands," she says. "Isn't that sweet?"

Jennifer is shy and not too interested; they're going directly from the hospital to see Santa Claus at the Mall. Donna looks at the baby affectionately and smiles. Then she passes him to me.

"I'm giving him to you now, Sharon," she says. I am so moved I can't speak, but she understands. It seems like a ritual to me, a small ceremony she's planned to make it easier. It's something that reassures me during the waiting period, that she has made her decision carefully and is unlikely to change her mind.

Within an hour, we are hurrying across a snowy runway to board the plane for the short flight back to Halifax. I'm carrying the baby. It is December 1, 1994. The baby is 58 hours old. I am just over 50.

* * *

When we arrived back in Halifax, we took the baby directly to the foster home. For the next 15 days, Baby William Daniel (named after my father and his own new father) stayed in a small warm home with a young couple who had two children of their own and who – believe it or not – looked forward to having a newborn in the house again, if only for a few days.

I visited William several times during the 15 days and finally, we decided it would be okay to buy some baby clothes, some feeding equipment, some bedding for the beautiful antique cradle that had been lent by a friend.

William's foster parents loved taking care of him and assured us that he was an easy and good-natured baby. At the same time, for us, they looked forward to the happy day when he would go home with us – as we all did.

That day was December 16. The foster parents had everything ready for us to move him out; they had arranged a babysitter and planned a dinner out for themselves. We had the baby seat ready in the car. All day, into the evening, we waited for the phone call from the lawyer that would say everything was fine. Every half hour, we called the foster parents to say, "not just yet – but you go."

It was after nine when our lawyer called: "Go get your baby!" she said. We only heard later that she and the birth mother's lawyer had been missing each other all day to sign the final papers and had finally caught each other at a Tim Horton's. The call to go get our baby came to us from a fast-food pay phone.

And William's foster parents – in their going-out-to-dinner clothes – had waited for the call as well and were with us as William began the short journey to his new and permanent home. It was nine days before Christmas, 1994.

* * *

All of this happened almost exactly two years ago. For William's first Christmas, we had a lot of relatives and friends come over to see our beautiful tree – and a new baby. We were happy that so many of them brought books, dozens of books, for such a tiny baby!

That's John Holm, talking with Dan and Alexa. John got to hold the baby too.

His foster parents were right. From the beginning, William was – and remains – a good sleeper, a good eater, a little fellow who seems to enjoy life. He cries only when he's hungry.

He was lovingly baptized on Easter Sunday, 1995, by Monsignor A.M. O'Driscoll, then-rector of St. Mary's Basilica in downtown Halifax, who had affectionately performed our marriage ceremony seven years before.

* * *

Dan and I have never had any questions about whether we did the right thing. That just goes without saying. Our closest family – Dan's mother and brother, my sister, her husband and kids – all think this is a miracle for all of us.

So many of our contemporaries, sending children off to university or awaiting grandchildren, envy us this wonderful adventure – not because they're unhappy with how their children turned out; just because they think they'd do it differently now.

I too think that there are as many advantages as disadvantages in being mature parents. If we lack something in stamina, perhaps we have gained something in knowing what's really important in life. If we hate the music young people listen to, maybe we've been around long enough to know that good music (by all parents' definition, the music that we listened to) will come back. We don't feel that life is passing us by; we have friends who range from their 20s to their 80s and we know that William has something to gain from knowing all of them.

But there are still questions. For example, how do I feel when people ask (and they do!) if I'm William's grandmother? More to the point, how will William feel when they ask him if I'm his grandmother? (And they will.) And did Dan and I jump the queue? Is private adoption fair? Is international adoption positive – not only for children and families, but for societies and communities? We continue to look for answers.

But for now, we're looking forward to Christmas. Dan and I – even before William joined us – have always been Christmas people. We love to decorate, to cook, to entertain, to listen to the music, to go to Church. Last year, for the first time, we put our Christmas tree on a table to protect it from a completely unreasonable 13-month-old.

This year, I think we'll have a big tree again – bearing in mind that we still have those three cats and have always tied the tree to the wall with fishing line anyway.

We'll try to explain the birth of Baby Jesus and what that has to do with Santa Claus bringing toys. We'll teach Away in a Manger while knowing that we can't avoid those reindeer and wondering if he'll confuse them with the animals in the stable where Jesus was born.

Mostly, we'll be happy to see our own families' Christmas traditions carried on – the old stories, the old ornaments, the old recipes. And the most important – we'll teach that we should try to be together and enjoy it together and love one another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Destiny, fate, and what's written in the stars

This is a story, as my headline suggests, about Destiny. About Fate. It's a story I've told many times but never in writing. I'll try to tell it just the way I do around a dinner table.

In 1986, I was living in Prince Edward Island where I had been the first editor of a newspaper called Atlantic Fisherman. It covered the commercial fishery in all four Atlantic provinces and it was a job I loved. The newspaper was very popular with the fishermen — not so much with the industry or the bureaucracy or the politicians — and it was right up my alley: encouraging the fishermen to define their own industry. I travelled around talking to fishermen on the wharves of Atlantic Canada and I learned so much and made some lovely friends.

I was leaving the job though — reluctantly — and I was up in the air about what I was going to do next.

Valerie was a free-lance writer in Halifax who did a lot of work for my newspaper. We had never met in person but we had taken to talking on the phone several times a week and had become friends. We knew about each other's lives, families, ambitions — really, the only thing missing from our friendship was that we'd never seen each other, face to face.

One day, Valerie phoned and told me there was a job available in Halifax: editor of Atlantic Insight. She said I should apply. Atlantic Insight was the premier general interest magazine in the region.

I was pretty sure I could do that job — in fact, I suddenly came up with all kinds of good ideas that I thought would improve the magazine — but I did wonder if I had the profile and the résumé that publisher James Lorimer would be looking for. Nothing to lose though so I put together my credentials with a letter and sent it off.

Lo and behold, I heard back from James and he came to Montague to interview me. We sat in a bar — the best bar in PEI (the Lobster Shanty) — for two hours and it was a fairly bizarre interview but I went home to await his call.

I'm not sure of the time sequence but I do know that when he called to offer me the job, it was a Friday afternoon.

I had a lot to do. I called friends in Montague to tell them I'd be moving. I called my sister. I called Valerie early on and got no answer but I kept trying.

In Halifax, every Friday afternoon — for Happy Hour and a pub supper — Valerie and a variety of friends went to Gus' Pub & Grill, very near to where Valerie lived. In this photo are good friends Carolyn, Eleanor and Sharon C. standing. That's Valerie in front.

Meanwhile, Dan O'Connor, whom Valerie had known when they were both at Dalhousie University a few years earlier, had returned to Halifax from Winnipeg. He had been Communications Director in the office of Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley and had come to Nova Scotia to be Chief of Staff in NDP Leader Alexa McDonough's office.

Valerie and friends were used to having an all-girl Friday evening supper but Dan was an old friend and always good company so they decided he could be the Token Male and he often joined them at Gus'.

Here's Dan with Carolyn, Valerie and Sharon C.

On that Friday in Montague, I called Valerie several times and still no answer. I fussed around, started making plans and lists, began considering how I was going to get moved.

And here is where Destiny enters the story: At around five to nine, I said to myself, "I'll try Valerie once more and if I don't reach her this time, I'll wait and call her tomorrow."

I called and Valerie was there! She said they had just got back from Gus' and were making a quick pit stop at her place before heading downtown to the Take Back the Night March. She said, "If you'd called five minutes later, we wouldn't have been here!"

I told her I'd got the job and was moving to Halifax. She repeated my news loudly and excitedly to the people who were there: "Sharon got the job and she's moving to Halifax!" To me, she said, "I'll find you an apartment! In fact, there's someone here right now who has an apartment for rent. I'll tell him about you!"

Dan, just moved back from Manitoba, had bought a house that included a small apartment. The apartment was empty and there he was, right in Valerie's apartment on that Friday night, in need of a tenant. Valerie said she'd give him my number and she gave me his number and said maybe we could work something out.

You may think it's a stretch to call this Destiny but I can assure you of this: if I had not reached Valerie that evening, in that five-minute window, when Dan was right there, she would not have thought of his apartment. She would have happily found me an apartment in the North End of Halifax — in her neighbourhood — and my whole life would have turned out differently.

That five minutes was a life-changer for both Dan and me. We did work things out and I moved into the little apartment on the lowest level of his house. If I hadn't, I'm sure I would have become acquainted with Dan and moved in somewhat the same circles but we never would have had the opportunity to nurture such a close and deep friendship as we were able to do while living under the same roof — different living quarters but same house.

That was 30 years ago. We got married in 1988, became parents in 1994, have moved away, moved back and will no doubt move again.

Valerie likes to take credit for it all and she deserves a lot. She reminds me that she said when I moved to Halifax, "Well, I found you a job and I found you an apartment. Now do you want me to find you a man?" I said thanks, but I'd take care of that myself.

And I did.

This is the heritage house where we lived back then — the right hand side. It was a lovely blue when it was ours.

The headline I've used is part of a quote from Anaïs Nin. The whole quote is:

You don't find love, it finds you. It's got a little bit to do with destiny, fate, and what's written in the stars.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Harry Flemming, the Tattoo, the column, the letter — read on

Harry Flemming was a well-known Nova Scotia journalist who passed away in 2008 at the age of 74. He was pretty universally known as "curmudgeonly" and would probably have been disappointed to have that descriptor omitted in any conversation about him.

Harry and I were fellow columnists at The Daily News in Halifax. He affected a cranky conservatism and he really hated my columns, especially my Sunday feminist columns. More than once, he took me on in his own column, so impatient was he that my feminist notions were getting good ink in a daily newspaper.

He was the kind of person who said things like, "I'm all in favour of equality but you're too extreme and you're going too far. You can't expect people to change the way they think and the way they talk just to accommodate you."

Oh but I did expect that. I still do, 30 years later, and although Harry's gone, there are plenty of other people carrying on his grand tradition: the tradition of "believing in equality" while choosing not to do anything that would make it happen.

But the column that made Harry the angriest of all was one I wrote after I had attended The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo for the first time. I made the mistake of suggesting I would have enjoyed more music, less military. Harry exploded at my ignorance and foolishness. He ridiculed me for wanting to change what is essentially a tribute to the military to some kind of musical comedy. It's a long time ago now and I can't remember all of Harry's tirade but I think it's likely he said something like it was time for me to get back to the quilting bee. It's the kind of thing he would have said.

I'm remembering this today because I've been to several Tattoos since that first one and I went again last week. We went as guests of a friend who had won tickets in a Sky-box. It was great fun and I enjoyed the show. It was noticeably smaller than it used to be — fewer acts, fewer bands — and I think, which I know would be to Harry's chagrin, there was much less military. There used to be several acts that were performed by military personnel and even the music and narration dealt with whatever the military was up to.

The Tattoo is still mostly funded and staffed and provided with volunteers by the military but I found it quite different.

So, wherever you are, Harry, I hope you're resting in peace. And just for old time's sake, here's the column that caused all the kerfuffle in the first place. This column was written in July, 1989:

On Canada Day, I did something I had never done before. It required a great act of courage on my part to do it, just as it does for me now to write about it.

I went to the 1989 Nova Scotia International Tattoo. In many of the circles I move in, this is not considered politically correct.

But I am a girl, after all, who grew up in small town New Brunswick and never missed a parade. I oom-pah right along when I hear the sounds of a big brass band on the radio. I'm a pushover for the big production number in the splashy big musicals; The Music Man, in fact, is one of my all-time favorites.

I am a person who once received as a gift a record album of the greatest compositions of John Philip Sousa. I am the daughter who inherited my mother's Vera Lynn records. And, it goes without saying, my Scottish heart beats faster at the screel of the pipes even though I recognize it as a call to arms; I quite understand why the rulers of England banned their use.

So I thought I might find something to enjoy at the Tattoo and I did. There were a lot of good brass band tunes; many of them weren't warlike – I'm sure there were just as many from Broadway musicals. There was a precision gymnastics team of young girls from Sweden, an hilarious trampoline team from Germany called The Flying Grandpas, and some nice dancing — I loved the Charleston — and singing by a large troupe of dancers and a 150-voice choir. There's also something very exciting about the precision of marching massed bands.

There were also things I didn't like. The performances of the cadets from the Royal Military College and of the Canadian Paratroopers were violent and ugly. And certainly, the silliest statement of the evening was the solemnly intoned: “NATO — 40 years of peace.”

I imagine that statement would be disputed by the people of Viet Nam, Grenada, Libya and Nicaragua, all of whom have had less than pleasant dealings during the past several years with the largest, most powerful member of the NATO alliance. There are many wars being fought around the world right now with lethal weapons that have been sold to them — to both sides — by members of the NATO alliance. (There are companies right here in our province — lured by our provincial government – who are involved in the manufacture of same.) So I think that line could have been dispensed with.

The Canadian Armed Forces, who present and finance the show along with the provincial government, would say at this point that Canada's forces are known around the world as peacekeepers. But peace is much more than the absence of war. Standing — armed — between two warring factions to keep them from shooting each other is not real peace.

Real peace will only come when there is a complete change in the way people in power think, when the very idea of war becomes unthinkable, when the well-being of all people around the world supersedes the greed of the people in the richer nations.

And there's another attitude that has to change. The respected journalist William Broyles Jr., former editor of Newsweek, wrote an article a couple of years ago for Esquire. It was called The Secret Love of a Man's Life: Why Men Love War. In it, Broyles says things like: “War is for men, at some terrible level, the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death." Attitudes like that have to go.

Meanwhile, did I find that the Tattoo glorifies war? Not particularly. I would be more likely to say that it sanitizes the idea of war — just as so many of the classic war movies have done over the years. I found that it over-sentimentalizes the role of the military, over-romanticizes our history, over-simplifies the search for peace. Praying for peace won't work all by itself.

With the amount of money, dedication, hard work and hours and hours of volunteer time that goes into it, I think they could still come up with a pretty good show leaving aside gun runs, bayonet ballets, and military ritual that often takes itself a little too seriously.

I stand by the column today and feel much the same way as I did in 1989.

Not all my interactions with Harry were disagreements. After he died in 2008, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Chronicle Herald. Here it is:

During the time I was editor of Atlantic Insight, there was a provincial election in Nova Scotia one day before our magazine was scheduled to go to press. It would be an Insight cover story and I needed a writer who could provide us with accurate background, interpretation and analysis — within a few hours of the polls closing.

I called Harry Flemming and he agreed, after some sweet persuasion — and after negotiating a somewhat higher fee than I was authorized to pay — to do the story.

He delivered the story — masterfully accomplished on the manual typewriter — by hand the morning following the election. It was lively and interesting and well-written but mostly, it showed a profound understanding of and connection to the political landscape in the province.

And although he was kind of gruff and dismissive about it, it was a very nice thing for Harry to do.

A sidebar: Harry used the word "niggardly" in that story, for which he was pilloried by readers in subsequent issues. In an editor's note, I defended his use of the word — an ancient word of Scandinavian origin, meaning stingy, parsimonious.

Years later, once again under attack, he invoked my name and quoted me in his defence of his use of the word in a newspaper column.

Did I allow myself to feel a little self-satisfied, being used as an authority on language by Harry Flemming?

You bet.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

2. The intriguing story of how I spend my days

I made a start at telling you about some of the things I do during my day — what I'm reading, what I'm watching, what I'm listening to. If you missed it, it's right here. Here's some more of my day.

What am I cooking/eating?

I eat a fruit salad every morning with my second cup of coffee. Dan makes each of us a fruit salad every morning: oranges, grapefruit, apple, pineapple, grapes, a seasonal fruit — right now it's strawberries — and we add our own banana just before eating. This is not ours but it looks pretty close.

I used to make the fruit salad last thing at night but a couple of years ago, I had extensive dental surgery and was out of commission for a few weeks. Dan took it over and he's been doing it ever since. I've offered to take it back but so far, he's keeping it.

Over the winter, we get citrus orders through a fund-raising arrangement so we have particularly delicious oranges and grapefruit from November through April.

I like to cook, as you know, but I also complain a lot about being in a rut and being bored with my repertoire. When it gets too bad — my boredom and complaining — we order out. Most recently, we've ordered from Blue Olive, a Greek restaurant. I had Chicken Souvlaki which I almost always have. This image is taken from their online menu and I'd say it's a good likeness:

Succulent chicken on skewers with tzatziki, lemon-roasted potatoes, rice, Greek salad — a wonderful dinner and I didn't have to do a thing.

I do try to prepare and eat healthful things — we eat lots of vegetables (and fruit, of course!) and we try to abide by whatever food rules make sense to us, not necessarily the food rules that are in fashion at any given time.

I do have a couple of vices which I will confess to as they're quite small. In the late afternoon, I like a small bowl (I said small!) of potato chips — Lay's regular. I have them with a small glass of Italian lemon soda. And late at night, I like a small bowl of ice cream — always Sensations Caramel-O.

I said small vices. They could be worse, eh?

Friday, July 8, 2016

The intriguing story of how I spend my days

I'm borrowing a format I've seen other blogs use, to tell you a bit about my typical day.

What am I reading?

I'm reading The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

I bought this book when we visited Hyde Park, the Roosevelt home and site of FDR's Library and Museum. I have a stack of books always waiting to be read — as many people do — and this one has risen to the top.

Eleanor is so modest, so humble. There are times, based on her memories of things that happened to her as a child and as a young person, that I want to wrap my arms around her and hold her. She so often mentions that she was homely, tall for her age, awkward — and it's because people told her that. It seems that people felt free to tell her anything that popped into their minds. She was an exceptional person and surmounted the slurs of her youth and became one of the most admired people of her time. Her writing is plain and accessible and appealing.

I'm also reading Heave by Christy Ann Conlin.

I should have read it years ago when it first came out but for some reason, I didn't. Christy is a good writer and the book strikes many familiar notes about growing up in a small town in the Maritimes. The book is set in the Annapolis Valley and involves alcohol, drugs, families, gossip, pain, love and hate. What else is there?

What am I watching?

Right now, I'm watching The Fall, an acclaimed BBC Two crime/thriller drama.

It's set and filmed in Belfast and stars Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan.

It's well-written, well-directed, well-acted and it's very suspenseful. It keeps me on edge.

Just before The Fall, I watched the latest season of Luther, another BBC production, this one set in London. Luther stars the magnetic Idris Elba in a truly distinctive role.

And just before that, I watched — and recommend — a series from Australia called Rake. I enjoy watching shows from Australia because I realize that I know only superficial things about Australia and I enjoy learning more about the culture and daily life of a country that we're supposed to have a lot in common with. There are a lot of differences between our two countries though.

Rake stars Richard Roxburgh and its tagline is "A brilliant barrister battles his self-destructive tendencies." That's about it. The barrister, Cleaver Greene, is a deeply flawed character and I found it interesting that they don't try to romanticize or glamourize his faults. He just is.

What am I listening to?

I don't listen to the radio any more. It used to be the first thing I did before I was barely awake was turn on the radio beside my bed — CBC Radio, of course. I came awake listening to it and then, as I moved along for shower etc, I turned on the bathroom radio. Downstairs, the large radio in the kitchen could be heard as we moved around getting the day underway.

One day, about three years ago, I turned all the radios off and I haven't turned them on since. If I want to hear some music, I listen to Sirius radio, often the Sinatra channel (which is not all Frank but also includes lots of music from singers of his era and earlier: Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Billie Holliday, Perry Como — and more.)

I also listen to a classical music channel but the truth is, I also spend a lot of time listening to nothing. I enjoy the quiet. The windows are open now and there are children in the street, shrieking and laughing and playing. And there are birds and often just some nice breezes blowing through the trees. That's pleasurable and relaxing too.

This has turned into a bigger project than I anticipated so I'll come back to write part two soon.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Put it in writing: Can you do that?

I started school at the White School in Chatham, NB.

I wrote about my earliest days there, right here. I was quite far advanced in most things by the time I started school but I think there was one thing I hadn't yet experienced: ink.

It was grade three where we were first trusted with the writing tools and the bottle of ink. To this day, I remember the feel of that bottle in my hand and I remember the smell of the ink.

This was it. In the tip, fill bottle. Waterman's blue black. We were not allowed to veer off that blue-black track. The pure blue ink was so pretty; the black was authoritative and important. (Don't even mention the gorgeous green or the purple. Those were still many years in our future.) The blue-black — an awful non-colour — was it for us. In retrospect, I suppose it had something to do with a standardized look across the classroom although why that should matter, I have no idea.

We used what were called straight pens with nibs. We got them — along with our bottle of ink — from The Gazette Stationery and Printing which is where we got all our school supplies.

The nibs were often scratchy, depending on their quality, and often, the point had divided so when you tried to write, you'd get a double image. It looked quite artistic but it was not appreciated by the teacher. It was when we began to use ink that we became aware of the problems faced by our left-handed classmates, whose hands often moved behind the inky writing and caused blotting and a blue-black hand.

We did a lot of work that looked like this:

And we did a great variety of lines and loops and OOOOO — all designed, I believe, to loosen the wrist and make for a relaxed writing experience. We had writing workbooks that were filled with exercises to be done and it was a regular part of our daily routine. Learning to write — well, it's one of the traditional big three, isn't it? Reading, writing, 'rithmatic.

I started to think about this after I read a discussion that took place on the page of one of my Facebook friends. My friend is young and she had never learned cursive writing in school. She wonders why everyone who's older thinks it's so important and should be brought back. My son never learned cursive either — when he has to sign something, it's mostly a printed signature.

I honestly don't know if it's important or not. Most people don't write letters or thank you notes or cheques or poetry or a daily diary. All of those tasks are taken care of on the computer or the phone. Is writing a bit like using two tin cans and a string to communicate instead of sending a text?

Even I don't use handwriting that much any more — the grocery list, maybe. A personal note on a sympathy card. It's too bad. I have pretty handwriting although I didn't always. Back in the days of the straight pens and nibs, my writing was execrable. I think it was grade five when I realized that all my friends had lovely writing and I decided I could do that too. I worked hard and trained myself and I succeeded in making my writing very presentable — which it is to this day.

I was at the Grammar School by grade five and we had graduated to fountain pens and we still weren't allowed to use green or purple ink but blue became permissible. Remember this, with the built-in well?

Fountain pens became much more than a writing tool: they were a status symbol. They became the go-to gift for retirement, for any scholastic achievement, for milestone birthdays, for Christmas. They came out of pocket or purse to sign important contracts or to pen love letters. So lovely.

Of course, they were also quite capable of leaking all over the inside of your purse or pocket and regularly, just as you were hitting your stride in writing something important, your pen would run out of ink.

We continued to use them though even after that new-fangled invention, the ball-point pen, made its appearance. Many of the experts said the ball-point would never amount to anything so if we were wise, we'd hang on to the fountain pen.

What can I say? Do you still have your fountain pen?

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The artistry of jewellery — my necklace of many colours

Of all the pretty necklaces I have, there's one that stands out. It's the one that elicits comments from strangers in the cashier's line at the grocery store. It's the one that could be worn with almost everything, it has so many colours. But it's not a necklace you wear every day.

I never try to describe it because a description just naming its parts and trying to explain how they're put together can't really do it justice.

What do you think? (Be sure and click on the photo to get the full effect.)

As so much of my beautiful jewellery is, this piece was chosen by Dan. He often tries to buy work by local artists. This one could be but he's not sure and he thinks the chances are just as good that it's not.

Wherever she is, I like to think of the artist who made this coming into her studio one morning and seeing a small handful of jewellery-making materials on her workbench — beads, stones, little medals and medallions, wooden shapes, small metal leaves and blossoms, bits of chain. Maybe she's moving to another studio or maybe she's just in the mood to clear everything up and make a fresh start.

She decides that before the day is over, she's going to create the most beautiful necklace she's ever made and she's going to use every single element in front of her.

On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong and maybe she planned this necklace carefully — with a sketch and a measuring tape and a colour chart. Maybe somewhere in her portfolio is an exact drawing of this unusual necklace, that has so much character.

One of our former priests, Father Roberto, is a joyous, exuberant Italian. He's a musician and an artist and every time he saw me wearing this necklace, he had to break off whatever spiritual task he was involved in to exclaim once more on the artistry and the use of colour and imagination and composition that had gone into its creation.

"This is art," he would say, with such delight.

Father Roberto has returned to Italy. I miss his high spirits and his loving nature and especially his appreciation for art and music and beauty.

The necklace grows more beautiful with age. We'll grow older together and hope we can live up to each other.

Friday, July 1, 2016

It's a good country — a work in progress

Halifax harbour — I'm not exaggerating — is probably one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. It's the second largest natural harbour in the world — it's ice-free and deep — and ships from all over the world come and go to its container piers. It's a busy working harbour but some days, you can catch it at peace, like this — taken from the immigration museum, Pier 21. That's George's Island, which is just across from downtown Halifax:

But there's a recreational side to the harbour too. Today was Canada Day so the harbour-side looked mostly like this:

And this:

And this:

This is a photo of a much-loved sculpture called The Wave. There's a little stone plaque right in front of it that says, "For your safety, please don't climb on The Wave." You can see that sign works. I suppose it protects the Port from lawsuits.

We also saw a couple of luxury yachts, mysterious and anonymous. When we see a yacht like that, we always say, knowingly, "It must be John Travolta." I'm not sure why except that I think he did come here in his yacht one time, many years ago, and so we just keep saying it.

Canada Day is a much bigger holiday than it used to be — like Hallowe'en, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's day — like any day that can be exploited and used as an excuse to manufacture more "stuff." I saw so many maple leaf banners, T-shirts, baseball caps, balloons, jackets — all, no doubt, manufactured in China and sent over to help us celebrate our national holiday.

I'm happy — and grateful — to be Canadian and I know this is one of the best countries in the world. It's good to live in a country where most people feel safe. I've read a lot of sentimental bordering on maudlin things about our country today though. I can't do that — as I can't about almost anything. I'm just not the gushy type and besides that, I tend to analyze too much.

We still have many improvements to make in our country.

But. . .it was Canada Day and, as we almost always do, we joined many many thousands of our fellow citizens on the waterfront. I even wore a pretty red blouse:

Most years, we have dinner on the deck at Salty's Restaurant. Not this year as Salty's has continued to advertise in The Chronicle Herald although the journalists and editors have been on strike there for almost six months. It's a bitter strike being driven by the management which is trying to bust the union and is putting out a pathetic newspaper with "replacement" (scab) labour. No Salty's this year.

We went to the deck at Murphy's.

We had a leisurely dinner, starting with mussels, moving on to fish and chips, bbq chicken and all the trimmings.

Over dessert, we watched the sun go down and the sky darken.

And then there were fireworks!

We didn't take any photos of the fireworks because we really weren't well-situated for that. We could see them well though. Besides, Dan loves fireworks and if he'd been photographing, he wouldn't have been able to enjoy them fully.

So that was our day. I hope you had a good day too.