Friday, August 26, 2016

Collectible Elvis bites the dust

Things occasionally happen around the house that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter but can still make you feel bad.

For example, I recently broke a bowl.

It wasn't a great bowl, not a family heirloom or anything, but it was a bowl I used most days and my heart sank when I dropped it. For a split second, I imagined myself gluing it back together — it broke into quite large pieces — but I've moved beyond that as a solution to a broken dish and I stoically swept it up and put it in the garbage.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my new white blouse got put into the drier by mistake. The clothes would normally be on the clothesline but it was a showery day and so the drier was pulled into emergency use. I'm sure I assumed the blouse was a man-made fabric, just made for a drier but it turns out the blouse is 100% cotton. I knew as soon as I looked at it that it hadn't enjoyed its trip in the drier. It was the broken-dish-on-the-kitchen-floor feeling all over again.

As it happened, I gave it a little iron-therapy which may have stretched it out — it was the length that was affected — and although it might not be perfect, I think it will probably be wearable.

These are small things though and I mention them only to try to lead up to a comparison.

Because then, there's this:

Please look at this very closely. Click on it to enlarge. That's a 78 rpm record of early Elvis — on one side Blue Moon of Kentucky, on the other That's All Right. It's a classic and it's a victim of many moves and many boxes since it left my parents' basement many years ago. Our joint record collection has now been dealt with as we begin the marathon of trying to get rid of decades worth of stuff. This wasn't the only 78 that didn't make it but it was the most notable.

I went to some of the collectors' sites to see what they'd think of this record. The original recording of these two songs was on Sun Records with the yellow label. Someone would pay you a few hundred dollars for that one. By the time RCA Victor got its hands on it and put the black label on it, it lost value and you might get $50 for it. There's also more than one RCA Victor label and they're also considered to be different values.

I wasn't going for a payday anyway and would never have got around to sending it away to some collector in Tennessee or wherever. I just liked the idea of having a collector's item, even if I wasn't doing anything with it.

I can still listen to Elvis. Our music supply is, I guess, simpler to access nowadays. It's certainly more portable. This is the exact device I listen to music with. It's a few years old now so it's probably obsolete but it works really well and it runs on a triple e battery. It's tiny and easy, not nearly as cumbersome as a turntable and a stack of records.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A middle-of-the-night knock on my trailer door

The story I'm going to tell you took place in a trailer park. It could have happened anywhere — it does — but I was living in a trailer park at the time so that's the setting.

It wasn't a bad trailer park, not the worst I've ever seen, but there is — by definition — something a little depressing about some trailer parks. This one looked something like this:

I liked the trailer I lived in. It was cozy and comfortable and had that efficient compactness that trailers are known for. Its previous owner had built on a room so it didn't feel so much like a train car as it had the extra dimension. I kept the curtains drawn at night because I think my neighbours were okay but there's often an undesirable element in those neighbourhoods and I didn't want to take chances.

One night, I had been out covering an event for the newspaper — the Miramichi Leader — and I got home late. I was reading and having a drink to wind down when a discreet knock sounded at the door. I almost couldn't be sure I had heard it. I opened the door and a young woman with three small children was standing there — two little ones on foot, one a babe-in-arms. The children were in pyjamas. It was 2:00 a.m.

I asked her if something was wrong — pretty stupid question — and she asked if they could come in for a few minutes. "It won't be long, I promise you," she said. Of course I let her in and we went to the living room. She continued to hold the baby but the two little kids — I think they were girls but I could be misremembering — so tired they could barely stand, curled up together on one end of the couch and went fast asleep.

The young woman was attractive and well-spoken. She was clearly embarrassed but she must have felt she owed me some kind of explanation.

She said that her husband had been out that evening. She had put the children to bed and she herself was lying down but had not undressed. Her husband arrived home very drunk. He came into the bedroom and told her to get up. He was noisy and raucous. She tried to quiet him down and told him he was going to awaken the children. He told her to get the children out of there. It was his house and no one was going to tell him what to do. He just kept yelling: "Go on! Get them up! Get them out of here!"

She had had enough experience with him not to try to fight him so she did what he said. She woke the children and put sweaters on them and he put them all out on to the street. She began to walk and didn't look back. She lived four or five trailers up the road from me and when she saw my light, she took a chance.

Thank goodness.

She said he would pass out before long and she promised she wouldn't take the children back in until it was safe. I asked her about calling police; she said she had called the police once but as he hadn't really done anything, there was nothing they could do. Their advice was pretty much what she was already doing — see if she could stay out of his way until the danger had passed.

We chatted and she told me, as I heard so many times before from different women, that when he was sober, he was a lovely man — a good husband, a wonderful father. She could sense when a episode such as the one we were going through was going to happen. When he left earlier in the evening and said he was going for a few drinks, she was dreading his return but she was mentally prepared. I asked her how often this sort of thing happened and she said not more than once a month. And sometimes it was much worse than other times. This particular night was quite bad.

I asked her if she ever thought of leaving him and she said no, no, she would be afraid to leave him, afraid of what he might do.

This was a very brave young woman.

After about half an hour, she asked me if I'd be okay with the kids while she went to check the homefront. I was fine and off she went. She was back in five minutes and said he was sound asleep and they were safe to go home. I asked if I could help with the children but I knew she didn't want me anywhere near her home so she woke the little ones again and off they went into the night. I told her not to hesitate if she needed to come back another time.

I saw her a couple of times over the next few months — both times with her husband and the three children. They were out walking, the little girls picking flowers along the side of the road.

The mother and father talked quietly. She didn't acknowledge me and I didn't expect her to.

I think they may have moved away in the months following. I was not around that much, working long hours at the paper and I didn't really get to know the neighbours. I still think about her though and I'm reminded to think about her by the headlines on a regular basis. The most recent headline was two days ago:

Father named as the shooter in Pennsylvania murder-suicide of family

The story is so familiar: the frightened woman who had been abused and was making plans to move out, the man who buys a gun but before he kills his family and himself, takes the children on an outing to a theme park. These stories appear so often, they run together in our heads.

The district attorney in this case said, "I don't know that anything can be learned other than when leaving an abusive relationship, it's often a very dangerous time for a victim. So, we urge anyone who's in a similar situation to develop a safety plan and contact their local domestic violence agency for assistance."

There should be a better way to handle this than by saying, "we urge anyone who's in a similar situation to develop a safety plan."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Simon's big bang performance as Cosmé McMoon

We saw the movie Florence Foster Jenkins today.

In the 1940s, New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) dreams of becoming a great opera singer. Unfortunately, her ambition far exceeds her talent. The voice Florence hears in her head is beautiful, but to everyone else it is quite lousy. Her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) goes to extreme lengths to make sure his wife never finds out how awful she truly is. When Florence announces her plans for a concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair soon realizes that he's facing his greatest challenge yet.

I don't know what more can be said about Meryl Streep. She's surely acknowledged to be the greatest actress of our time — and if there were an Olympics of acting, she'd win the gold medal every time out. (She's been nominated for 19 Oscars, more than any other person in history. Why she hasn't won 19 Oscars will always be a mystery to me.)

She plays the lovable, eccentric, generous Florence with just an edge of foolish but never enough that you lose respect or affection for her. Florence is a woman who loves music with such passion that it rules her life and her relationships and her very self-image. Meryl walks a careful line and gives us a beautiful character.

And Hugh Grant? I've always liked Hugh Grant. His reputation has taken a few hits but I've always enjoyed his acting. I always found him quite romantic. He plays Florence's loyal loving spouse while living in a very familiar way with a pretty young woman a taxi-ride away.

But the real joy in this movie is the actor who plays Cosmé McMoon, Florence's accompanist as she pursues her dream of singing opera.

Do you recognize him? This is Simon Helberg, best known as Howard Wolowitz on TV's The Big Bang Theory. Simon plays Cosmé with an innocent, intelligent, funny personality — and a different voice and different face from Howard's. Not only that, he plays the piano. He had studied piano to the level of concert pianist and that secured the acting job for him. He's an amazing choice and I can't say enough about his wonderful performance.

He was paralyzed with nerves when they went to Carnegie Hall but he came through in a professional and loving way for Florence. By then he had become a co-conspirator with St. Clair to keep from Florence the awful truth of what a terrible singer she was.

It's a sweet movie. It's well-written, well-acted, funny and it's a tear-jerker. I enjoyed it a lot and if you haven't seen it, maybe you would too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The day George W. galloped into town

In late 2004, the President of the United States of America came to Halifax. I had almost forgotten about the visit until I came across this short account in my archives. This was written for the progressive Catholic newspaper called Catholic New Times. I was clearly struck by how easily public opinion swung toward George W. Bush just by virtue of a quick visit and a couple of jokes. It explains a lot.

So. . . George W. Bush came to Halifax. They told us he was coming to say thanks for all the help we provided to Americans on September 11, 2001. (That’s 2001.)

Before he even got here, our premier, John Hamm told us to be polite and give him a warm Nova Scotian welcome – do it the “Nova Scotian way,” he said. Our mayor and the chief of police said that we were allowed to demonstrate but we must be peaceful and show respect for a duly-elected leader of a democratic country.

By the time he left, I felt that I had been patted on the head with condescension so many times that I had to go get my hair done. As usual, that made me feel better which was a good thing because by the time he left, I was feeling deflated and somewhat discouraged.

He travelled from the airport in his husky bullet-proof limo, accompanied by a couple of kilometres of entourage. They all scooted through an emptied-out downtown Halifax, and scuttled up to the back door of Pier 21 – avoiding the 4000 (well-behaved) protesters.

I borrowed this photo from The Marxist-Leninist Daily

The people awaiting George within Pier 21 had been there for over three hours (no food, no coffee), having been admitted after a strict security clearance. In retrospect, it may not be so surprising that, the instant he appeared, he was given a standing ovation.

Then he made the speech – the one that got lots of laughs and applause with hockey and Jean Poutine jokes – and went on to scold Canadians for not going to his war and for disapproving of his missile defence plan. He finished and he got another standing ovation. Then he left.

But not before something disconcerting happened. Within hours, it was clear that there was a different feeling in the air about George Bush. Pundits and people and passers-by were saying, “Well, he doesn’t seem too bad.” I sensed that our edge was gone – that suddenly, people felt that … “well, it’s true that we have to put up with him for four more years but at least he came here and paid attention to us and he was kind of funny. And he said thank you.”

The following day, the editorialists mostly focused on how well-behaved the protesters were and how polite everyone had been. There was much about how important it is to have good relations with the U.S., no matter what – trade, you know. There was almost nothing about Bush’s hateful ideology, his murderous war, his harmful tax cuts. There was just a superficial observation about how good his researchers must be (well, he quoted Mackenzie King!) and how charming he is and a Great Communicator too. I shake my head – but then, I never “got” Ronald Reagan either; he always seemed to me to be just some duffus who was orchestrated by someone else – oh, that sounds familiar.

The worst thing about Bush’s visit – and for this, I blame the premier, the mayor, the chief of police and the media (which mostly paid little attention to the protests – they were peaceful, remember) – is that the Bush-supporters have now come out of their caves in brave numbers. They have come out not only to uphold Bush’s policies but to insult, in the clearest possible terms, the 4000 Nova Scotians who went downtown to protest the visit.

One columnist, Rick Howe at The Daily News, compiled a list of what the protesters have been called, after the fact: “whiners, kiddies, slobs, wingnuts, yahoos, lazy, shiftless, homeless, ignorant, socialists and idiots.”

I wait patiently now for the premier, the mayor, the chief of police and the media to pat the Bush-supporters on the head and suggest that they be polite, that they express themselves in the “Nova Scotian way.” Then I will sit back and wait to see how the brutal, intolerable philosophy of the Bush administration can be defended with any kind of rational argument.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Richard Hatfield: A colourful NB flashback

(Back in the winter, I shared a piece I had written about Alden Nowlan: The poet from Desolation Creek, Nova Scotia. Alden and the Premier of New Brunswick at the time, Richard Hatfield, were good friends. Richard was a regular at Alden's, hob-nobbing with poets and novelists and artists. I met him there often and always enjoyed his company. I took a special interest in this book and this is a review I wrote when it was published in 1992.)

Richard Hatfield: Power and Disobedience

Michel Cormier & Achille Michaud (publisher: Goose Lane Editions)

This is a terrific book. Authors Michel Cormier and Achille Michaud have captured an era in New Brunswick political history that is as lively as good daily journalism and as relevant as good history.

In spite of the title, the book isn’t a biography of Richard Hatfield in any strict sense; it’s a picture of a province through a changing time, with Hatfield at the centre and the usual cast of characters peopling the inner circle, the outer circle, the margins and the fringes. How can anyone say New Brunswick is dull?

Both authors were journalists in New Brunswick during part of Hatfield’s tenure but they didn’t decide to write the book until 1985, the year the premier went on trial for possession of marijuana. They used a combination of interviews, archives and personal observations to put together this work, originally published in French by Editions Libre Expression. The translation is by Daphne Ponder. (Cormier is now Ottawa correspondent for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning and Michaud is the Toronto correspondent for Radio-Canada’s Le Point.)

Hatfield was certainly one of the more interesting premiers in our country in the recent past and all the predictable stories are here: Bricklin, kickbacks and Francis Atkinson, the doll collection, the membership in the Parti Quebecois and the bizarre toast to the Princess of Wales and, of course, the marijuana affair. Some of the stories are more familiar (and more frivolous) than others but all, especially the chapter about the Atkinson affair, are meticulously researched and clearly presented.

Hatfield with Bricklin

Other stories (and I was a journalist in New Brunswick and knew Richard Hatfield socially) are less familiar; the authors had good sources and have an engaging way with anecdotes.

Maybe the most interesting thing these authors bring to the book is their own Acadian background. Not a lot has been written for English-speaking readers about the political dynamics of the Acadian communities and the relationship Hatfield was able to build with them – which most certainly was one factor in his longevity as premier.

Not so his administrative skills. The book is riddled with examples of his carelessness in running his government, his lack of interest in how things get done. One typical story involved the hiring of Marcel Mass‚ as deputy minister of finance in 1973. Mass, an economic advisor in Pierre Trudeau’s office, was interviewed for the position and went back to Ottawa:

“Four months later...Hatfield called Mass‚ and said, ‘You start as deputy minister of finance in two weeks.’ Taken aback, Mass‚ explained that he needed more time to resign from the Prime Minister’s Office, sell his house and discuss the move with his wife. ‘That’s your problem,’ Hatfield replied, apparently amused. Before hanging up, Hatfield asked Mass‚ to draw up his own employment contract because he was not sure of the responsibilities of a deputy minister of finance.”

The authors observe that he preferred to forget about day-to-day problems or let them be dealt with by others – or not. “Not only was he more interested in principles than in their application, but he also believed that it was up to individuals to demand their rights...”

Certainly Hatfield was a charming and engaging man and his life makes for an interesting story but a reader coming to New Brunswick politics for the first time must wonder how anything got done in the province, how any progress could be made. And in truth, many things didn’t get done; progress was limited to one or two areas of Hatfield’s special interest.

There was an ambivalence about Hatfield in the province which I think these authors understand very well. Some people voted for his governments because to vote for another party was not an option to be considered.

They were your lifelong Tories. The Liberal party went through several destructive changes during the ‘70s making them a less desirable alternative than they would become later. But Hatfield was able to stitch together odds and ends of support to bolster the core Tories and some of the Acadian communities to win four consecutive terms – unprecedented in New Brunswick. (His final election, when he lost every seat to the Liberals, has also gone into the record books.)

This book is beautifully written – and beautifully translated. In a passage about former Liberal leader, Joe Daigle: “He was respected for his integrity and discipline, and for the long hours he worked on the public’s behalf, but only in the way a boring priest is called a saintly man. His appointment to the bench at the age of thirty-five seemed less an impressive career advancement than a sign that he had grown old too early.”

In this day and age, it’s a wonderful thing to read a book that has all the words spelled right and is almost completely devoid of editing inaccuracies. (Okay, IODE stands for Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, not International etc. etc. In the authors’ defence, this is an organization not commonly found in Acadian communities.) In general, Goose Lane has made an attractive, readable book – with photographs interspersed rather than bunched in the middle.

Oh yes. Some of you want to know how the question of Hatfield’s sexuality was handled. And these authors have added little to the discussion on the eternal question: was Hatfield gay? They asked him, choosing their words carefully and assuring him (and us) that their only reason for asking was because it had become an issue in the last campaign. His response was vintage Hatfield:

“If it was a factor in 1987, it was also in 1982 and 1978. In 1978, Joe Daigle made an accusation he retracted because of the adverse reaction to it. So regardless of what they may have said or what they may have whispered, you know, sometimes people would tell me things and sometimes they wouldn’t. But it never bothered me. I had a very generous respect for the people.”

People in New Brunswick knew that, I think. That would be another reason for his political success over such a long period.

The book is still available and anyone interested in looking back at fairly recent history would definitely enjoy it.