Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Quite simply, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of the best books I have ever read! Having finished it 48 hours ago, my head is still swimming with the implications of the points raised as a result of this woman’s life and her death. I am also incredibly impressed by how the author, Rebecca Skloot, tells the story of the Lacks Family. She weaves together the true events of an ordinary life that ended up extraordinary beyond measure. This story is about love, family, bioethics, systemic racism, trust, good journalism, important medical advances, faith, personal privacy, legal statutes, mental health and identity (in the form of how much do we know about our own family history, our personal interactions with social institutions and so on). The story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is epic in nature but, the beauty of this book is that Skloot keeps things simple and humane; focussing mostly on Henrietta’s children and how they were affected by their mother’s death and about how the search for information changed their lives. This story will warm your heart, challenge your intellect and will dazzle you at how so much of what we take for granted in our own lives can be traced directly to Henrietta Lacks and what happened to her the moment she died. What an amazing tale this is.

*******SPOILER ALERT!!!*******

I am going to discuss the book now. If you would rather not know what happens so that you can enjoy the book on your own then, stop reading by the end of this paragraph. If you are interested in the totality of this review then, feel free to read on. Either way, I thank you for stopping by and I encourage you to buy this book if you like non-fiction told extremely well.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who grew up near Clover, Virginia. She married a man known as Day and had five children with him. Their names were Sonny, Deborah, Lawrence, Joe and Elsie. The family lived in poverty. They lived in a time of racial segregation in America. As she turned 30, Henrietta Lacks developed cervical cancer. She was treated in the “coloured” ward at John Hopkins Hospital. She died from the cancer at age 31, leaving her husband and five children behind.

That’s the story. She grew up, got married, had a family and died. Like millions of people around the world, Henrietta lived an anonymous life; except to those who loved her. To them, she was a shining star. Her death affected all who knew her and changed the course of all of their lives. This would be normal under most circumstances. We all feel loss when someone we love dies. That is completely normal. But, the power of Henrietta’s story really begins the moment she died.

Henrietta died alone at the hospital. Upon her death, her doctor removed a piece of her cancerous tumour and sent it to a lab for further testing. He did not ask the family for consent for this procedure. It simply was done. At that time, the authority of doctors was rarely questioned; especially, by a poor black family against a white doctor at such a prestigious hospital as John Hopkins. But, more importantly, the Lacks family did not even know that something had happened that they should be questioning. They were told that Henrietta had died from cancer. End of story. The Lacks Family took possession of her body and buried her next to her mother in a field behind a barn on a family farm in Clover.

Meanwhile, doctors were routinely acquiring all manner of biopsies from patients and sending them to labs in the hopes that someone would discover a way of causing cells to remain alive after being removed from their host. Having cells that scientists could study and manipulate would allow them to seek ways of finding cures for many diseases that were plaguing people around the world. However, no matter what medium the cells were placed in, the cells always died shortly thereafter. That was, until Henrietta’s cells were tested. Not only did her cells not die, they thrived. They multiplied at a prodigious rate and remained alive indefinitely. In fact, her cells remain alive even to this day, 70 years after her death. Scientists dubbed her cells HeLa (after the first two letters of her name). HeLa cells have changed the face of modern medicine. They have been used to help develop vaccines for Polio, for Aids, for the Human Papilloma Virus (which causes some types of cancer) and were instrumental in helping scientists complete the Human Genome Project which involved learning about our very DNA.

Initially, HeLa cells were shared for free among geneticists, all in the name of Science. Much good came of this collegial approach. But, as in all things of this nature, it soon became commodified and soon companies were trading HeLa cells and making billions of dollars in profits. Good still came from this arrangement but now, HeLa cells were big business. Meanwhile, the Lacks Family knew nothing at all about any of this. They remained in ignorance and in poverty. Life was hard for all of them. Legal issues, addictions and mental illness were interwoven into the lives of the Lacks survivors. Anger and sadness mixed in equal measure for them all. One child, Elsie, was sent to a mental institution for “idiocy” and died there at age fifteen.

Where the story really got interesting for me was around the very fundamental human trait called Trust. Eventually, journalists began showing interest in HeLa cells and the medical advances that were happening as a result of them and they began asking questions about the origin of the cells. Eventually, those cells were attributed to someone named Helen Lane. Once a name was put forth, reporters began researching into “Helen Lane’s” life. Soon “Helen Lane” was revealed to, in fact, be Henrietta Lacks. The ensuing attention given to Henrietta was the first time any members of her family had been made aware that there had been anything done to her at the hospital and, as well, it was the first time they came to learn about her cells and how special and important they were.

Not surprisingly, the Lacks Family was angry that they had been excluded from something so personal and private. They felt that this was just one more example of “the system” ripping off black families. None of the Lacks family members had the education level to understand what cells were and why Henrietta’s were important. No one took the time to help them understand or involve them in any part of the science of it all. They were excluded again. The only difference was now, this time, they knew they were being left out. They felt slighted, disrespected and powerless to affect any change because of the state of their intellectual capacities, as well as, the state of their finances. There was never a realistic thought of suing John Hopkins Hospital for damages. They could barely pay for groceries, let alone a lawyer. The surviving Lacks Family members felt that Henrietta’s life had been violated in the most private and personal of ways. They came to develop a hatred for those HeLa cells because of the injury and loss they represented to the family.

Into this maelstrom of mistrust stepped the author, Rebecca Skloot. As much as this story raises issues like the necessity for “informed consent” from patients before doctors perform extra procedures, who owns your body parts once they are removed from your body and who governs what sorts of experimentation is done using harvested human cells, the real backbone of this book is Ms. Skloot’s relationship with the surviving members of the Lacks Family. It is so heartwarming to see the transformation that takes place……over the course of ten years(!!!)……in the Lacks Family members as they learn to trust again and begin to see Ms. Skloot as being as important and valuable to them (in terms of helping them understand Henrietta’s story) as Ms. Skloot views them to be in helping her tell Henrietta’s story. Faith and Love and Family are so important in all of our lives. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows this better than any book I have read before.

Proceeds from the sale of this book have been set aside and used to established something called The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. The idea behind this Foundation is to honour the life of Henrietta Lacks, giving her credit as the original donor of the HeLa cells. It is, also, hoped that scholarships will be established so that future Lacks children, as well as, other children from homes that would be considered “under-privileged” would be able to afford a good education so that they could make the most of the opportunities presented to them in life.

Finally, before I close, I want to take a moment to help avoid making villains out of Henrietta’s doctors and of the medical establishment, in general. This book stresses that, although informed consent was never granted for the extraction of Henrietta’s cells, that it was common practise “at the time”. Since then, whenever we have to go to the hospital for a procedure or treatment, the signing of consent forms is now standard practise. It is that way because of Henrietta Lacks. Polio has been cured because of Henrietta Lacks. The AIDS vaccine was developed because of Henrietta Lacks. Cancer may, one day, be cured because of Henrietta Lacks and those wondrous, immortal cells of hers. What a life! What a legacy to leave behind! What a book this is! I cannot recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, highly enough. Please go to your local book store or public library and read this book for yourself. You will be changed because of it, I guarantee it!

Will You Be My Neighbour: 2020

Hello, everyone. We are now well into the year, 2021. I hope that you are all finding the new year to be a gentler time. The Orange Menace is gone from the White House. More and more people are being vaccinated against the dreaded Corona Virus. There is Hope on the horizon. But, even with the worst of the woes that 2020 served up, there always was Hope then, too. Here is a short post about kindnesses given and kindnesses received in the midst of the loneliest of times for so many.

If you are a regular follower of my blog you will know that during the Christmas season, my family and I give out Christmas cards and crafts to everyone in our neighbourhood. It is a tradition that started a few years ago as a way to help us get to know our neighbours better (and them, us) but, it was, also, a way of teaching our children about the goodness that comes with giving to others and the joy that comes when a sense of community is fostered. Even though our neighbourhood was under health-related restrictions due to Covid-19, we still felt that it was important to reach out to our neighbours. We wanted to let them know that even though we are living in our separate bubbles, we are all still a neighbourhood family and that no one on the street needs to feel alone; especially at Christmas time.

So, as is our tradition, Sophie made a craft. I wrote the Christmas message in each card. We decorated all envelops with a holiday scene. Finally, we placed the cards and Sophie’s craft in gift bags and delivered them throughout our neighbourhood at the beginning of December. As you can see in the photo, Sophie made little hats or toques out of yarn. We thought they looked pretty cute. The idea was that by giving each neighbour a tiny toque, they would be able to easily display it somewhere. As well, our hope was that the tiny toque would act as a reminder to everyone that they were in our thoughts during the holiday season.

As the years have gone by, we have come to know the people we share our street with and they have revealed themselves to be kind and giving people. We began our tradition of giving without any expectation of reward. We simply wanted to express our gratitude to them for living where we do. At most, I was hopeful that our little exercise would yield friendly banter as we strolled around the block and, as well, that our children (and our neighbour’s children) could play outdoors, in safety, under the watchful eyes of so many excellent parents and grand-parents, all up and down our street. But, it seems that our Christmas tradition has served to inspire our neighbours. Their response to our cards and crafts has been overwhelmingly positive and has been returned to us, in kind.

It seemed like each day, there were one or two cards in our mailbox from our neighbours. In all cases, these cards were filled with words of thankfulness and appreciation for our gesture. But, more importantly to me as a parent, in virtually every card were words of recognition for Sophie and for the effort she made to create the tiny toque. Many folks commented that they still had her glittery star tree ornament from the previous year. They even took time to tell her where they had placed her tiny toque…..everywhere from their own Christmas trees, to their decorated fireplace mantels, to other special places where her toque was sure to be noticed and to bring a smile to the faces of those who saw it. Some sent proof, as you can see from the following photo.

Because of the fact that the crafts we give out are handmade, we received many gifts that were creative on the part of our neighbours. We received honey (from a neighbour’s own bees), homemade cranberry sauce, as well as, handmade maple syrup, too. Some artistic endeavours resulted in a stained glass star, as well as, an origami star for our tree. One neighbour who is into wood working, took a fallen tree limb, placed it on his lathe and carved a one-of-a-kind Christmas tree for us. Definitely, one of the highlights of Christmas in our neighbourhood was an event! Even in these challenging times, we gathered together as a neighbourhood family and went for a socially-distanced candlelit walk to see the Christmas lights up at the main park downtown. It was so good for the spirits of all involved to share a few moments of kinship, even if we couldn’t hug or shake hands or break bread, as it were.

We have one new family on our street this year. We gave them a tiny toque and a card that explained who we were and why we were giving them a gift. They, in turn, replied with a kind card of their own and this beautiful family portrait, as drawn by the very talented and totally awesome, Olivia. “Kid Art” is always something that has been near and dear to my heart so, getting this in the mail just completely made my day.

It isn’t always easy to send something out into the world and have it be understood as what you intended into be. But, our tradition of reaching out to our neighbours with a card and a craft has been received by our neighbours exactly as I had hoped. In fact, the wonderful feeling I have gotten from doing this is beyond what I dared to dream. Our neighbours are wonderful and very intuitive. They understand the nature of friendship and they, also, understand the nature of parenting and the lessons that we try to teach our children through actions, more than through words. The amount of positive reinforcement my girls are receiving touches my heart. The kind comments in the cards, the gifts that are demonstrating that creativity often begets more creativity in reply but, most of all, the simple acknowledgement that our neighbours see the girls as individuals and as young ladies who are growing up into their own true selves. This was brought home for me most by one gift that was slightly different than the rest…..not better but, simply, different, in a thoughtful way. It was a book of poetry for the girls to share. It was written by Canadian writer, Jean Little. I will close this post with a poem of hers that, in my opinion, captures the spirit of what I want my girls to get out of our Christmas tradition and what I hope our neighbours will come to see when they think of us as a family and my daughters, as young women. The poem is called, The Bulb.

I am the fourth daughter in my family. They kept trying for a boy. Since I was born on my Gran’s birthday, they asked her to name me. I used to wish they hadn’t.

Most people call me Mary. And I never used to correct them.

When Gran turned ninety and I turned nine, she sent me a mysterious box. It had nothing written on it, and inside it was this big brown ugly bulb. Mother gave me the letter that had come with it. “This is for you,” it said. “Follow the instructions below and you will see yourself growing up into a woman.”

I was kind of mad, if you want to know. What a terrible present! But, Mom made sure I did what Gran had said. Nothing happened for ages.

Then out of the top, which stuck out of the dirt, sprouted a fat green shoot. I guessed that must be me starting to grow. Then I turned into a tall, gangly teenager. I kind of got interested. There were lots of buds.

Finally, overnight almost, the thing burst into enormous flowers. They glowed. I’ve never seen anything like them. Wow!

Now I correct people sometimes. “My name’s not really Mary,” I say.

“It’s Amaryllis.

We live in a world filled with Hope and Kindness and Love and Generosity. Beauty abounds. The magic of creativity is everywhere. May your year in 2021 be filled with wonder and happiness and good health and, of course, may it be filled with hugs.


The Calendar

Like a lot of you, I spent this past Christmas close to home, with my family. Normally, an Ontario Christmas with family means that there are ten of us; me, my wife and two daughters, my sister-in-law, her husband and their two kids and then, the matriarch and patriarch of my wife’s side of the family, Gramma and Poppa. My own family (my mother, my sister and her husband and my cousin, Morah) are all in the Maritimes. Although I am far from my own family, I have always considered myself lucky to be a part of my Ontario family. They are all good people and Christmas time is usually a very memorable and enjoyable experience for us all.

Like all family gatherings at Christmas, there are jobs and responsibilities handed out. Someone does the cooking. Someone brings dessert. Someone takes care of the drinks. Someone tidies up the debris after the presents are all open and so on. The children are tasked with looking cute and having fun and reminding us, as adults, about the magic of Christmas. As for me, I have an important job. I am the person who creates the family calendar. For the better part of the last decade, I have been telling the story of this family each year via the creation of a calendar. This calendar is comprised of family photos from our home, my sister-in-law’s home and my in-laws home, too.

The calendar cover always goes to the person who had the biggest event happen. For instance, the year that Poppa retired, his first day of retirement photo graced the front of the calendar. On the downside, when my wife’s Grandfather passed away, we honoured him with the calendar cover. Rest in Peace, Grandpa Slim! I made the cover when I retired. The kids have made the front cover at various times, as well.

As a family, there have been many accomplishments and interesting moments; all of them, “calendar-worthy”. That phrase, “calendar-worthy” is now the defacto term that we all use throughout the year, any time a good photo is taken of any of us doing anything for any reason. If it is a photo that merits the term, “calendar-worthy” then, it must be a good shot. Luckily for me, there are always many “calendar-worthy” shots each year to choose from which makes telling the family story that year a pleasure.

As for how the calendar is organized inside, as it turns out, the ten of us all have birthdays spread out throughout the year so, I usually dedicated each month to the person who was having a birthday. Leah always was featured in April (her birthday month), my nephew, Heath always had July, Sophie always had September and so on. The ten of us all had our birthdays during the first ten months of the year, too, so that always left November and December to my discretion. Most often, I opted to use December for Christmas-related photos, which meant that November was always a catch-all month that I used to highlight the best of the rest of that year’s photos.

In the grand mayhem of the opening of the presents when all ten of us were gathered together, the Davis Family Calendar, as it is known (after Gramma and Poppa Davis), was always accorded a special place in the process; going first or else, being saved until the very end. The calendar has always been well-received, which makes me feel good. My wife’s family has always been good to me so, to be able to honour them in this way leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and pride.

So now, travel back in time with me to mid-november, 2020. Canadian Remembrance Day has just passed. My wife and daughters have left for school for the day. I sat down at my desk and began the task of compiling this year’s calendar so that it can be sent off for processing. With the traditional format in my head, I began to search through the photos I had to work with. In all, there were 289 photos. But a funny thing happened as I began to sort the photos out by each person…..there weren’t too many individual photos this year that were solely about the person in the photo. Instead, almost all of the photos depicted some act that was influenced by the same thing: COVID-19! It didn’t matter who the subject person was, what the event was that they were featured in, what the setting was, nothing! The story of the Davis Family Calendar was almost entirely about survival and adaptation, not personal accomplishment! So, instead of focussing in on each member of the family and giving everyone their own shining moment, I opted to tell the Davis Family story of 2020 in chronological order. I am sure that in the photos I am about to share below, you will see echoes of your own experiences as a family this year, too.

January was a fairly ordinary month for everyone. My sister-in-law and her husband went away on a trip. We had a bowling date with my niece and nephew while they were gone. But, the most unusual thing happened in our garage when we made a strange discovery.

Yep! That little fellow was dead on leftover wine, inside of the bottle. So began 2020.

The events of February seemed very important at the time. My wife is a teacher. I am a retired teacher. Our children are still in the school system. February was the month of labour unrest in the Public Education sector. Our provincial government was trying to change the terms of collective agreements to eliminate class size caps and to pave the way for the introduction of online learning as a regular part of the school system. Teachers were fighting back to protect their jobs and their working conditions and, in the end, there were a series of rotating strikes. Needless to say, our family supported the teachers in their fight and showed that support by walking with them on their picket lines. We walked with Keri on her picket line. We walked with our neighbour, Leslie, on her picket line and, in this photo, Sophie is standing alongside her own teacher, Miss Bondy.

February gave way to March and, life as we knew it changed for everyone. School was cancelled for the time being. Stores and businesses were told to shutter their doors. The Covid-19 virus was in Canada and we were all told to change the way we lived. So, we did. We stayed home….a lot! We walked around the neighbourhood for exercise…a lot! We tidied and organized our home…a lot! At first, the tidying up revealed interesting an unusual things. For instance, Keri began going through her own photo collection and discovered that she has 92 (!) photos of herself from her school days.

Upon seeing these 92 photos spread out on our living room floor, I remarked that it reminded me of every crime drama I had ever seen regarding stalkers and serial killers; specifically, that moment when the police finally search the killer’s house and discover the room where his obsession with the victim is laid out and is plain for everyone to see.

As much as we were being productive and finding things to do, the first month or so of lockdown was off-putting, in the sense that our world became so quiet. Our social life was put entirely on hold. We didn’t visit with Gramma or Poppa. We didn’t see our friends. We didn’t go for dinner anywhere. I was the designated shopper so, most of the family didn’t even go into stores for mundane things like milk or bread. But, in the quiet of our home, we began to read of other places in the world and how people there were coping with isolation and loneliness. We heard about the people in Italy, singing on their balconies. We heard about New Yorkers who were clapping their hands and banging pots at 7:00pm each night to show support for frontline workers. So, we decided to engage in symbolic acts of solidarity, too. The girls wrote messages and jokes in chalk on our driveway. Keri made art for our front window. Sophie donated stuffed toys for the front window, too.

Not long after that, on our neighbourhood walks, we counted 20 other homes in our school community area that had art and/or toys in their windows. While this knowledge didn’t change how we were living, it did change our attitude a bit and made it our isolation feel less harsh.

All of that acrimony that went into the teacher strike gave way to the acceptance by most people that education was in the process of changing. The COVID-19 virus, while terrible in so many ways, was a gift for our right-wing government when it came to educational reform. In the words of one politician, “Covid provided an opportunity to re-imagine how education could be and should be delivered for a modern age.” Since Covid-19 had wiped out the social aspect of our family life, it was not that much of a stretch to see it wipe out the social aspect of school life, either. Soon, Keri was teaching from home and the girls were learning from home.

I’m the only one who wears socks in my family, I swear. We were lucky to have enough access to technology to enable everyone to do what they had to do to complete their assignments each day. Going to school was different now for all concerned.

I have to say that regardless of what happened throughout the year, we were very lucky because we maintained our health and Keri always had her job as a teacher. Not everyone was as lucky as we were so, I am thankful for the blessings we have enjoyed.

That having been said, Covid-19 impacted us the most in the sense of opportunities that were lost and disappointments that were endured…..and which continue to be endured to this day. At the epi-centre of those disappointments has been my Leah.

Just prior to the March Break, the girls went shopping and found a dress for Leah to wear for her Grade 8 graduation ceremony to be held later that June. Having always been a very good student, Leah was justifiably proud of the fact that she was graduating from elementary school and getting ready to go to high school in the Fall. This dress was symbolic proof that her moment of crossing that stage, to the applause from the audience, was about to be realized. Mere days after she got this dress, the closure of schools was announced. All throughout the Spring time, the end date for school closures kept getting extended in small increments, finally, being closed for the year late in May. So, instead of having her big moment, Leah got to go to school one last time in June, to recover her possessions from her locker. There was no one there to see her off, to congratulate her and to give her a round of applause. Like everything to do with Covid-19, Leah’s final day in elementary school was met with silence and distance.

Now Leah is a trooper and took everything in stride. But, no doubt, this was not how she envisioned her elementary school career ending. When we think of Covid-19, we, naturally, think of the medical aspects of this virus but, the mental health aspects of being in lockdown cannot be ignored, either. People, in general but, children, in particular, are being fed a steady diet of disappointments since this virus has come along. One of the most important elements of childhood is the ability to explore the world around you. In doing so, a child discovers what they like and what their strengths are and, conversely, they learn what feels uncomfortable and what they wish to avoid as they approach adulthood. But, in these times, many children are coming to accept that life is meant to be less than they hoped. They are scaling back their dreams. They are willingly settling for a life less-lived. In addition to this for Leah, she, also, lost the opportunity to deliver ten History Talks to seniors (losing $400.00 in the process) and, biggest of all, she lost the chance to fly with me and her Poppa to Europe in June, to see the battlefield of WW1 and WW2 (which she was pumped to see).

But, one thing Leah and Sophie have going for them is that they are loved, completely and totally, by the adults in their lives. So, amid a sea of disappointing news, we tried our best to make her graduation from elementary school as memorable as possible. On her graduation day, her school put together a virtual graduation ceremony that we could watch on tv. So, we all put on our best clothes. Leah wore her dress. She got her hair styled (Hair salons had re-opened by this time). We made special food and drinks available. Gramma and Poppa joined us inside the house for the first time since the lockdown started (our family bubble had been allowed to grow to ten). And, we all got to cheer for Leah when her photo appeared on the screen. She won two awards, which were mailed to her a couple of days later. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be but, it made for some “calendar-worthy” moments, just the same.

If we have learned anything from this experience it is that the most special things in life aren’t things at all. The most special things are people. One of the highlights of the year happened on the day that we were able to go Gramma and Poppa’s house (where the girls saw they graduation signs above). What made that visit so special was the fact that the government had just announced that family bubbles could be expanded to include “secondary” family members, such as grandparents. Up until then, Gramma and Poppa had followed the rules to the letter and there had been no physical contact with them at all. But, on the day of this visit, there would be hugs. Gramma insisted that each hug be at least five minutes long because she had missed her girls so much.

At the end of the day, people matter. Family matter most of all. Human contact lay at the heart of much of what we all hold dear in this world. From that moment on Gramma’s front step onward, we had a busy summer of day trips, hikes, picnics at provincial parks and so on. We always followed Covid protocols whenever we were out in public but, alone, within our bubble, we felt safe to be ourselves. One of the bonuses of this experience, if any aspect of the Covid experience can be viewed as positive, is that life slowed down and afforded us time to just be. We explored trails that we would have driven by otherwise. We saw sites that we had ignored for years (such as one of the largest glacial boulders in the world…the Bleasdell Boulder, as well as a ghost town…El Dorado…all within an hour of our home). Sophie discovered that she had a knack for photography, as you can see in the photos below.

Even though we couldn’t take our annual trip to Nova Scotia to see my mother this summer, we managed to fill our days with many good memories and experiences. This brought us back to the subject of school in the Fall.

The provincial government decided to give in-school learning a try again. No allowances were made for reduced class sizes (to help meet social distancing) nor were any additional staff hired. It was, as though, they wanted the virus to spread through schools and force everyone to flee the bricks-and-mortar buildings of their own accord for the relative safety of the online world. We are a family that supports public education 100% so, after discussing it with the girls, we decided to allow the girls to go back to school, to see their teachers and their friends again and, hopefully, have as normal a school year as they could. The “First-Day” photos were a little different this year, to say the least.

Keri and the girls made it right to the Christmas Break before any cases of Covid-19 appeared. There was one case at Sophie’s small school (which ended up being traced to a hockey team and not the school, itself). There were two cases at Leah’s high school but, again, she was not affected and they happened right at the end of the school term so, those families are having time to recuperate while, Leah is enjoying her holidays, as she normally would.

As we end this most unusual of years, Covid-19 cases are in our area so, the re-entry plans for both girls and for Keri are such that all will be learning/teaching from home for the first week of January. At that time, the situation will be re-assessed and, if good, Keri and Sophie will return to school. Leah already knows that she will be home for the first three weeks of January and that her school situation will be re-evaluated at that time. In the case of all three members of my family, their safety is paramount. As much as we support in-class learning, we will not expose our loved ones to something as nasty as Covid-19. They will go back into a safe environment or else, they will stay home and work as they did in the Spring.

As for my mother, the real tragedy of Covid-19 for my family is the time we have lost with her. She is 89 years old now. She lives in an assisted-living complex in Nova Scotia. She is well-cared for and in as good a state of health as one can expect for being as old as she is. However, the toll Covid-19 has taken on the mental health of our seniors is terrible. Most seniors, my mother included, are severely under-stimulated and have been for almost a year now. Prior to the arrival of the virus, there were many activities in her residence and, in fact, we often were telling her to slow down and remember to rest. Now, her residence, like most Long-term Care facilities in Canada are in their own form of lockdown. In my mother’s case, specifically, there is almost no one able to visit her. My sister was able to come down once this year from Halifax. I did not make it in the summer nor at Christmas, as I usually do.

We talk to her via Facetime each Sunday but, some weeks, that does not happen for reasons we don’t know about. When we do talk with her, her mind is not as sharp anymore and we need to be careful not to overwhelm her with too much information. She was unable to shop for Christmas presents for us this year and I am pretty sure she doesn’t even realize that happened. She is slipping away from us and, because of strict anti-Covid rules in Canada and, particularly, in Nova Scotia, it is extremely difficult to get to her. Last Christmas I said on a blog post that I wasn’t sure Nanna would see another Christmas well, I was wrong. She did. But, it was not Christmas as any of us know it to be. If there is one wish that I have for the new year, it is that I/we get to see her one last time while she still has enough of her mind left to enjoy our visit and to know how special it is for us to be there with her.

This has turned out to be a long post. But, guess what?! I managed to turn this long post into a version of the Davis Family Calendar that may end up being the best one yet. As with all of the other calendars, it was well-received by Gramma and Poppa, which pleases me.

2020 has been quite the year. I hope that, as 2021 rolls around, you and your family are safe and are healthy. I hope that the new year brings with it old opportunities to move about safely and freely. I hope there are hugs and handshakes and cold beers and barbecues and, did I say hugs? I want there to be hugs. Yes, let me dub 2021 as the Year of the Hug. Good luck. God Bless you all.



This seems like a good time for a book review.

A few months ago, US Congressman, and well known Civil Rights activist, John Lewis passed away. Just prior to his passing, a biography of his life was released in the form of a graphic novel trilogy, appropriately titled, MARCH. For someone like me, who professes to know and love History, it was an eye-opening memoir. I am very thankful to the friend who recommended I read Mr. Lewis’ story. Not only did MARCH deepen my understanding of how systemic racism has kept people of colour in a state of oppression for generation after generation but, it has heightened the sense of justice that many are feeling right now because of how the recent US Presidential election has played out; particularly, in the state of Georgia.

The story of Mr. Lewis’ life often focuses on that day when, alongside other Civil Rights leaders, he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was met with armed resistance from law enforcement officers. The incident was broadcast on national television and is generally acknowledged as the tipping point in the creation of The Civil Rights Act in the United States.

As people, we tend to like our myths, our national stories, to be simple and easy to understand. Sometimes, injustice IS easy to understand but, more often than not, the background of the stories that shape nations and that go down in History are multi-faceted and slow in forming. John Lewis would be the first to tell you that he was not solely responsible for The Civil Rights Act coming to fruition. He would tell you that the journey to freedom and justice for people of colour in the US was long and hard and filled with many desperate and dangerous times. He would, also, tell you that racial equality is still more a dream than a reality.

In MARCH, Mr. Lewis demonstrated how deeply engrained the inequities faced by people of colour were in America. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with stories such as Rosa Parks purposely sitting in the “white” section of the bus and being arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that saw people of colour refuse to use public transportation for over a year. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with the iconic photo of little Ruby Bridges, a Grade 1 student, being escorted into a formerly segregated school by US Marshalls, as angry white parents hurled vitriol upon her. The hatred from white adults to that black child is palpable. The de-segregation of schools is widely seen as one of the biggest accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, it would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t possess, at least, a passing familiarity with Martin Luther King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

These are the stories we know. As a white person, I was quite familiar with the broad details of each of these stories. As someone who believes in racial justice and equal rights, I always have nodded my head and smiled whenever the stories of Dr. King or Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or Billie Holiday are told. Then, I read all three books in the MARCH trilogy. I have to be honest and say that I am ashamed at how little about these stories I ever really knew. The mythic nature of sitting on a bus or walking into a school or crossing a bridge were never just about those, specific moments. Instead, they were the culmination of years of effort by scores of dedicated, courageous people. As Mr. Lewis would tell you, You can’t climb a mountain by starting at the top.

What I learned from reading MARCH can be boiled down to a few main points: 1- Systemic injustice means living in a society with laws and policies purposefully enacted that favour one group over another. Furthermore, it means that the oppressed party is often blamed and punished for actions that others are not and/or they are denied access to opportunities and freedoms that the other group enjoys without question. This is a textbook answer, on my part. But, what MARCH showed so clearly was how so many aspects of living life as a person of colour was difficult and unfair. For example, I read a book a few months ago called The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. It showed how the City of New Orleans had enacted bylaws about the zoning for housing that made it harder to purchase homes in certain neighbourhoods for people of colour and then, once neighbourhoods began to form that contains mostly people of colour, by-laws enabling industrial development in those areas were enacted thus, lowering the value of the homes and creating unsafe living conditions because of chemicals, pollution, etc. “Lower class” areas of the city became places where folks with few options ended up. What systemic injustice does is create conditions that eliminate options in life for whole groups of people. As a result, an oppressed group ends up struggling for basic rights throughout the whole of their lives.

2- The second thing I learned from reading MARCH was that one of the driving forces behind the entire Civil Rights movement was voter registration. In a democratic society, having the right to vote enables each citizen to have their say in how things are run and by whom. As a white person, I have usually only dwelled on the fragility of my right to vote on such occasions as Remembrance Day (here is Canada) when we pay our formal respects to the men and women of the Armed Forces who fought in wars for “our freedom”. I am privileged beyond belief to assume that I will be able to vote every time there in an election in my area. In MARCH, Mr. Lewis showed quite clearly how many jurisdictions in the southern US had formal policies in place that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people of colour to register to vote. Things like having criteria for registration that contained clauses that most people of colour couldn’t pass or else, having very limited registration hours so very few aspiring registrants could be processed. Sometimes, people of colour were given academic tests, with questions on them that were impossible to answer correctly. Many people of colour were intimidated with physical reprisals if they attempted to register to vote. In those days, the Ku Klux Klan was very active and had many ways, subtle and otherwise, of letting a black family know that their actions were being monitored. One of John Lewis biggest roles in the Civil Rights Movement had to do with helping people of colour register to vote. This was because, in a democratic society, if you want to change the way things are being run where you live, you vote for change. For people of colour, one of the best chances they had to change the laws of racial injustice which so marked their lives, was to register to vote. Registering people of colour to vote was dangerous work. People like John Lewis were often the subject of physical abuse. Mr. Lewis often served time in jail for his actions. He famously called this, “good trouble” because of the importance to him and so many others, of this cause.

3- The third major thing I learned to appreciate more after reading MARCH was the importance to this cause, and to any other, for that matter, of being organized. It is difficult to affect change when you are one person, alone. But, in numbers, many people can make great things happen. This point was brought home, again and again, in MARCH. Mr Lewis talked repeatedly about organizational meetings held in churches and in the basements of safe homes and in the jails where he and his colleagues were so often incarcerated. Not only was having an organizational approach important when it came to the number of people involved, it was, also, clear that those on the front lines needed certain intangible qualities such as courage, determination and a positive outlook on life. Love trumps Hate every time but, sometimes, Hate holds sway for awhile and it isn’t always easy to keep willing oneself to fight the good fight when Hope is in short supply. One of the over-arching themes of MARCH was how relentlessly bleak things seemed much of the time….how difficult it was to make even the slightest bit of progress….how much of a struggle it was to remain optimistic….how easy it would have been to simply give in and give up in the face of such violence, hostility and systemic injustice from those tasked with being our leaders.

John Lewis would be proud today.

In the tradition of activist organizers like Mr. Lewis, I present a lady named Stacey Abrams. Ms. Abrams has been involved in the civic life of the State of Georgia for most of her life. A few years ago, she ran on the Democratic ticket, for Governor of Georgia. She ran a highly respected campaign but, in the end, she lost her election to her Republican rival. Throughout this contest, there were accusations of voter suppression. Her rival was white. He was acting Governor at the time and was accused of enacting laws that made it more difficult for Georgians of colour to vote. If you can’t vote then, you have a much more difficult chance of enabling change to occur. At the time of Ms. Abrams defeat, it seemed like “business as usual” for people of colour in the southern US. This was especially ominous because of how supportive the US President was, at the time, of white nationalist policies. Undaunted, Ms. Abrams dusted herself off and re-dedicated her efforts to register as many voters as possible and, as well, make sure there was an organized effort, all across the state to get that vote out to the polls.

It is possible that her drive to register voters may end up being the reason that President Trump loses the 2020 Presidential election. At this moment, Georgia has been declared “too close to call” because the vote tallies for President Trump and his challenger, Democrat, Joe Biden, are nearly deadlocked. Georgia has always been viewed as a safe Republican state, in large part, because of laws that limited the ability to vote of people of colour. If, in fact, Georgia does end up being declared as a victory for Joe Biden, it will push his Electoral College totals over the threshold for victory in this election. If so, a large share of the credit for this dramatic turn-around will be accorded Stacey Abrams. When asked, I am sure she will say the exact same thing that Mr. Lewis would have said….she didn’t do it alone. Being organized, being courageous and possessing an unflinching sense of determination are all necessary ingredients in helping to secure racial justice.

So, as Georgia prepares for its moment in the national spotlight, I think back to all that I learned while reading MARCH by John Lewis. The journey to the top of the mountain has been long but, on this day, the summit appears within reach. And, from high up above, I reckon that Mr. John Lewis is smiling.

A Dementor’s Kiss

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in the Harry Potter series. When this book was released, many fans of the series reacted with mixed emotions. The reason for this was that the first two books had been rollicking adventures that served the purpose of introducing us all to the wizarding world in which Harry found himself. The third book, however, moved more slowly. It was darker, more sinister. The danger in this book was more inferred and less overt. Nothing symbolized the change in tone more than the introduction of a new character element called a Dementor. Dementors were dark, wispy creatures that would envelop their victims; giving them a “kiss” of sorts, rendering them joyless, with a profound sense of nothingness. Once a victim received a Dementor’s Kiss, they were never the same again. When Dementors first appeared in the storyline of The Prisoner of Azkaban, a chill swept through the Harry Potter franchise. Some fans disliked this, more serious tone. Some fans applauded the introduction of such a mature element to the storyline. When author J.K. Rowling was asked about the significance and symbolism of the Dementors, she replied that the after-effect of a “Dementor’s Kiss” was akin to a feeling in the real world of clinical depression.

Emptiness. Darkness. Loss. Despair.

In these Covid-times that we find ourselves in, it is easy to find someone who is struggling with their mental health. That someone can easily be yourself, too. Covid-19 is, at its essence, a deadly disease that can kill you or damage your body in such a way that it impacts your ability to ever live a normal life again. But, it is more than that. It is a bully. The lasting legacy of a bully is the fear that they instill in their victims and, as well, the changes they cause to their victim’s behaviour. Bullied victims stop doing the things they love because they fear the bully will be there, waiting for them, ready to pounce and inflict pain. Bullied victims self-censor themselves, which is the biggest coup a bully can score. Bullied victims lose the power to author their own story. The fear they feel permeates every fibre of who they are and, as a result, they change who they are. The person they were ceases to be. They become shell-like, empty.

Covid-19 has delivered its Dementor-like kiss all across our planet. Approximately, a million people have been killed by this disease and hundreds of thousands more have had their health impacted. But, more than anything, Covid-19 has changed the way we live our lives. It has bullied entire civilizations of people into living lives marked by restraint. Being less than who we can be is now who we all are. It is difficult to strive for greatness when we move in ways that make us small. I have read many stories shared by those who managed to survive being in the concentration camps of the Holocaust in WWII and, to a person, they all said that what helped them to survive was a feeling of Hope. Well, dreams and hopefulness are in very short supply these days. But, ask for a show of hands of those who are sad or who are at a loss with what to do to give meaning to their days and, I am confident, a forest of arms will shoot into the air.

It may seem like a lifetime ago but, do you remember what was, arguably, the biggest news story on the planet prior to the arrival of Covid-19? It was the Climate marches. 2019 was the year that experts raised the alarm that our planet was reaching an environmental tipping point and that immediate changes to the way we were living was required. So, people all over the world marched in the tens of thousands. As ordinary citizens, we began changing how we lived by eliminating plastic from our lives. Governments began contemplating new “green energy” initiatives. Automakers began making the transition away from gas-powered cars and toward e-vehicles. Young Greta Thunberg became the face of the climate movement and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2019, whole populations began to change they way they lived; their actions fuelled by a sense of Hopefulness that they had the power to help create a better world.

In 2020, whole populations have changed they way they lived; their actions were fuelled by fear. The biggest symptom of that fear is fear of each other. We have gone from marching in the streets to huddling in family bubbles. We cross the street to avoid getting too close to each other. We no longer shake hands nor hug in a warm greeting. Children no longer are allowed to sing at school. Whenever we see a photo of someone brave enough to hold a public wedding, we don’t look for the Love and Happiness on their faces, we immediately, look for the masks on their faces…and the social distancing of their friends and family members. Slowly but, surely, we are giving in to the bully that is Covid-19 and we are self-censoring ourselves. We are excising the Joy from our lives by our daily acts of withdrawal from human contact. Having fun has become taboo. We seldom dream about a better future anymore. We are all just trying to survive.

So, what can we do to save ourselves? Well, perhaps the most important thing we can remember is the notion of Kindness. Even with the spectre of Covid-19 lurking around every corner, some aspects of life still go on. Yesterday was my wife’s birthday. My wife is the epitome of who a kind person is. She is always helpful and has a ready smile on her face. She is a positive presence to those around her. She remembers all of the birthdays and anniversaries that pop up throughout the year and always manages to find time for a card or a phone call or, better yet, a visit. She considers the act of friendship to be one of Life’s higher callings. Not surprisingly, she is held in high regard by others. So, it was not that much of a surprise when one of Keri’s dear friends reached out to contact me with a desire to do something….anything….for my dear wife, who had done so much for others, on the occasion of her birthday. That phone call culminated in the organization of a Covid-style drive-by birthday parade in her honour. People decorated their cars, honked their horns and came together to sing “Happy Birthday” to the woman I love. She was completely surprised, which is hard to pull off. Her parents got to watch their daughter being feted and honoured in a very joyous and heartfelt manner. Keri was thrilled with the personal touch. For a short while after the singing had stopped, Keri got the chance to stand in a circle and talk with everyone. It was human contact. It was a happy, fun time for all concerned. It almost felt like the normal, hopeful, good old days of 2019.

And, therein lay the path forward.

It will not be a vaccine that restores the spring in our step and the song to our hearts. It will be simple acts of human kindness. There is beauty in our hearts that, when shared and given freely to others, adds colour and warmth to our world. I am so thankful to those friends and family members who did so much on my wife’s behalf yesterday. Such a simple gesture helps to reaffirm the notion that goodness will triumph over fear in the end. Our lives are meant to lived in the full and warm embrace of all that our dreams may conspire. While the need to stay safe still exists as we move about in our daily routines, it is so very important that, in doing so, we keep each other close and not drive each other away. Isolation plays into the hands of the bully. Well, to heck with that bully! I don’t want a Dementor’s Kiss any longer. I am tired of the chill of avoidance. I want a real kiss from warm lips. As my wife smiled while we sang to her in front of our house, she smiled with her whole heart. I want to see more of those kind of smiles, too. Life is meant to be lived. Let’s all conspire to do so with boldness and vigor. Stay safe, all but, as I recently heard in a song, don’t be afraid to “sit under the light that suits you.” Be brave. Be kind. Be you. And soon these terrible times will end.

From all of us, to all of you, thanks for being such a treasured part of our lives. We love you all.

20- Yer Not The Ocean

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

In 2005, The Tragically Hip released their best selling cd of all time, Yer Favourites. This 2-CD set was a collection of live performances, re-mixes and studio versions of their most popular songs to date. It says something about the success of The Hip up to that point that they had enough legitimate hit material to warrant a double CD. But, they did. Fans, like me, ate it up. Listening to Yer Favourites is like being at every Hip concert that they played. As fans, we like to hear the songs that we like and this collection tied the career of The Tragically Hip up neatly with a bow. It was every song that made The Hip seem like The Hip. It was a complete a collection of the songs that we really wanted to see them play live when we saw them in arenas or at festivals. Truth be told, if the members of The Hip had decided to stop creating new material and spent the rest of their career touring and simply playing their hits, no one would have minded.

But, Gord Downie and the rest of the members of the band were never ones to sit on their laurels. Coasting, in an artistic sense, went against the grain of who they saw themselves as artists. So, in 2006, they released an album of completely new material called World Container. Coming, as it did, on the heels of the wildly popular, Yer Favourites, many fans were not prepared to embrace this new material. In fact, many fans thought that The Hip had “sold out” because many of these songs sounded different. There was more instrumentation featured. Many of the songs had a Pop flavour. This wasn’t our Hip music. What actually had happened?

By the time World Container had been released, the members of The Tragically Hip had been together for almost twenty years as a band. They were no longer the young rockers touring the world, seeing the sights, meeting so many influential people. Life has a way of changing you over time, if you are open to the lessons it has to teach. Because The Hip viewed their world through a poet’s eye, each member of the band had grown as individual human beings and their lives had evolved. They weren’t young, single men anyone. Most were married by this point. Some were fathers now, too. I know that my outlook on Life changed as I grew from a child at home, to a young man out in the world for the first time, to a married man, to a father, to a retiree, which is where I stand now. I thought I knew a lot back in my twenties but, looking back from where I stand today, I didn’t know as much as I thought. For The Hip, the release of Yer Favourites was their way of saying that the fun times would always remain special but, that those days were over now. The release of World Container was the band announcing that it was time to grow up.

Most Hip fans did not want to grow up. The news that new music was being released meant that the band was moving on. While fans were certainly invited to continue the journey, many greeted the release of World Container with skepticism. One of the big reasons for that was that this album was being produced by a legendary figure in the Canadian music industry, Bob Rock. Mr. Rock first came to the attention of Canadian music fans as a member of a band called The Payolas. The Payolas featured singer, Paul Hyde and guitarist, Bob Rock. They had several hits, the biggest of which was called, Eyes of a Stranger. The video for that song can be viewed here. It is instructive to listen to this song because it is not a straight-ahead rock tune. It infuses elements of ska and reggae into the rock song format that was so prevalent at the time. The Payolas were a breath of fresh air that blew across Canada’s music scene in the 1980s. However, like many bands, longevity was not to be their calling card. Paul Hyde and Bob Rock soon went their separate ways. For Rock, that meant beginning a career as a producer. He gained lots of fame by sitting behind the control panel for some of the biggest selling albums of all time. Most notably, it was Bob Rock who produced Metallica’s Black Album. Prior to that album, Metallica had been, primarily, a speed metal, hardcore band. But, under Rock’s supervision, Metallica released songs that became big hits with non-metal fans. Songs such as Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters are terrific rock songs. Bob Rock helped make Metallica more accessible to a broader swath of the music-buying public. This did wonders for the financial success of Metallica and those involved in the business of promoting their music. But, to the original Metallica fans, the release of the Black Album was the signal that Metallica had officially sold out. That money seemed to matter more than artistry hit a nerve, even with Metalheads. Metallica’s fans directed their venom at Bob Rock, accusing him of ruining their favourite band. If those accusations hurt, Bob Rock didn’t show it.

(*THM) Bob Rock was introduced to The Tragically Hip by Canadian music promoter, Bruce Allen. Allen was one of the biggest names in Canadian music in the 80s and 90s. But, the scuttlebutt was that Allen didn’t think much of The Tragically Hip’s music. In fact, it is said that he felt they were over-rated and given far more credit than they deserved. In facilitating the connection between Bob Rock and The Tragically Hip, Allen may have been trying to perform a service that he felt was necessary for the band. Instead of singing about Jacques Cartier and small towns like Bobcaygeon, perhaps Bob Rock could bring them more out into the mainstream of Canada’s rock scene. Regardless of his motivation, Allen set in motion a collaboration that resulted in the musical release of World Container.

Not surprisingly, World Container was met with mixed emotions from fans and critics, alike. This did not sound like Road Apples or Fully Completely at all. It sounded more Popish, for sure. But, it, also, heralded a new focus from Downie on writing songs that better reflected the current states of their collective lives. The songs on World Container and those that followed on other albums, were far more personal; often dealing with marriage, children, health, death, the state of the environment…in other words, things that grown-ups tend to be thinking about. The first song on World Container is called Yer Not the Ocean. In short, this song is about looking back at your youth and realizing that many of the things you thought were significant and weighty, actually, were nothing of the sort at all compared to what awaits in the future. When I listen to this song, I can almost envision the conversations that went on in studio prior to recording it. I can imagine Gord Downie telling Bob Rock that the band wanted to explore weightier themes in their songs going forward and Rock replying that this was fine but, first, the band was going to have to explain this to their fanbase. Yer Not the Ocean is that explanation.

Yer Not the Ocean opens with the following lines:

Again I’m talking to the lake, I’m standing on the rocks
You’re not the ocean, I’m better to watch
Britney Invisible or The Stranger In Myself
Than a wall of water just hitting the shelf

“Britney invisible” is a nautical reference that refers to sailors watching the sea with interest, waiting for something to happen, like the wind to pick up and a storm to come in. “The Stranger in Myself” refers to a book about a German soldier in WWII. Willy Peter Reese was in his late teens when he found himself at the Russian Front. He was a Nazi but, he had a poetic side and, as a result, he kept a diary of what he saw and felt. His diary was found upon his death in battle. In his poems, Reese often commented upon the inhumanity of war and of the nobility of a life dedicated to something larger than himself, in this case, the Fatherland. Many who have read this book have commented that Reese sure had a lot to say about Life when, in reality, he knew so little about all that it had to offer. I can certainly remember being 20 years old and thinking I had all of the answers, too.

When Gord Downie references A Stranger in Myself or “Britney invisible”, he is telling his fans that what the band had talked about in their music before…..on Yer Favourites….was important but that the band knows so much more about Life now and has so much more to say. Of course, Gord says that in his own poetic way but, none the less, World Container was the start of, what has come to be known as, the second half of The Hip’s career. Some fans stopped their Tragically Hip journey with the hits on Yer Favourites. But, thanks to the influence of Bob Rock, as well as, an outlook dedicated to more mature issues by the band, I find much of the material from the second half of their career to be very interesting. I love the hits, don’t get me wrong but, I enjoy their “new” stuff, just as much. I hope that you will think so, too.

The video for Yer Not the Ocean can be found here.

Thanks, as always, for reading my words. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you wish to comment on anything I have said or to talk about the quality of Yer Not the Ocean or to pass on any great lessons in life that you have learned along the way, please feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks to Bob Rock, The Tragically hip and to The Hip Museum for the content of this post.

Bye for now.

Lost Treasure Found

About eight years ago or so, while on a summer trip to Nova Scotia to visit with my mother, we received a phone call. It was from my Father-in-Law. He was calling from my house. That he wished to speak with me and, not his own daughter, was indicative that something out of the ordinary was going on. When I got on the line, he cleared his throat first before speaking. When he did speak, it was not with the usual jocular familiarity of the man we call, “Poppa” at our house. This voice was the one he used in the Board rooms of the companies for which he worked. He was serious and authoritative. In solemn tones, he told me that during that afternoon, our home had been broken into and that we had been robbed.

It is funny what thoughts spring to mind at a time like this. My very first thought was for the safety of our cat, Ringo. He had been left at home for the week we were to be away. My wife’s Aunt and her parents were taking turns visiting our home during our absence. They promised to spend some time each day with Ringo so that he wouldn’t be too lonely. Their promise to do so was the only reason my wife, Keri, ever agreed to go on any trip. You see, Ringo was her cat. He was her furry little boy. He had been rescued from an animal shelter and loved Keri from the very first moment they had met. So, when my Father-in-Law told me there had been a break-in and, that he wanted to talk to me first instead of Keri, my very first thought was that the burglars had done something to Ringo and that I was going to have to break the news to my wife. I’m not sure how I would have had that conversation, to be honest.

So, it was almost a relief to hear that we had merely lost some material possessions. I’m not sure what Ringo must have been thinking as strangers rifled through closets and dresser drawers, looking for treasure that never really existed. But, whatever the case, they ignored my wife’s furry little boy and, instead, concentrated on taking whatever jewellery they could find, along with our desktop computer and a laptop that we had, too. For insurance purposes, the monetary value of the stolen items was under eight thousand dollars. Not the King’s ransom these burglars were hoping for, I am sure.

The burglary happened at the exact mid-point of our trip. I asked my Father-in-Law if there had been any structural damage to the house and he said that, aside from a window screen that had been pulled off that, no, the house was ok. There was mess, for sure but, no broken window glass or smashed in doors. We were lucky, in that sense. The phone call ended with an agreement that we would not tell my wife or daughters about this until we arrived back in Toronto at the airport. There was nothing we could do about anything from where we were. As well, we thought that my own mother might get upset if she knew this had happened because we were away visiting her. So, it was decided that everyone would get to enjoy the rest of the vacation as planned. No need to ruin things with this news. My terrific in-laws promised to tidy the house after the police had concluded their investigation so as not to upset my two children upon our return. Hopefully, despite the loss of jewels and technology, we would return to our home and everything would seem almost normal.

I broke the news to Keri and the girls after we had arrived at the airport in Toronto and were putting our suitcases back into our car. Needless to say, they were shocked. Keri immediately asked about Ringo. The girls asked about their rooms. I told them all that I knew and said that Poppa had promised that things were ok. The hour and a half drive was quieter than normal. Finally, we arrived home. I asked everyone to wait outside while I went in first. I wanted to make absolutely sure that an emotionally-scarring experience wasn’t awaiting us beyond our front door. So, inside I went. And…….everything seemed……well……pretty much just as we had left it. The house was clean. Our furniture was all there. There were a few small things out of place because Gramma and Poppa didn’t know exactly where they had been previously but, other than that, it didn’t look too bad. So, I went back out and invited everyone inside.

A thorough look was had by all. The girl’s bedrooms were left untouched, from what we could see. I am sure that the burglars looked in from their doorways, saw stuffed animals and toys and figured that there was nothing of value there so they quickly moved on. When I explained this to the girls, they were almost offended that a burglar would think that they had nothing of value to steal.

For Keri and I, we began a more thorough search to determine what actually had been stolen. It wasn’t as easy a task as you might think. Keri found her jewellery box empty. But, when asked to list what had been in it, she had a hard time remembering everything. For those of you reading this post, could you list everything in your jewellery box right now if you had to? We saw that our sock and underwear drawer had been rearranged which, immediately, made Keri slightly nauseous. There was lots of laundry that took place that day we arrived back home, let me tell you! But, overall, as far as we could tell, nothing was missing except the jewels and the two pieces of technology.

But, as you all know, it is often not the monetary worth of something that gives an item value. We all have in our possession, items that hold, what we call, sentimental value. They are items that help us recall a favourite memory or else, were given to us by someone special. They may just be, in reality, a photo or a trinket of some sort but, to our hearts and minds, they are as important as if they were bars of solid gold. For us, the biggest loss came when we realized what was missing when it came to our computers. Keep in mind that, even though this incident occurred less than a decade ago, it was still a time before “Cloud” technology existed. There was no magical place where everything on our computer was safely stored for a fee. In those days, we saved what was important directly on our computer. So, as we thought about what was there, we realized that we had actually lost something incredibly valuable to us. The thieves had in their possession, unbeknownst to them I am sure, all of our photos and videos of the kids up until that point in their lives. Leah was five or six at the time and, Sophie was two or three years old. As parents and/or grandparents, you can imagine how many photos and video clips there were. First steps. First Christmases. First swimming lessons. First everything. All of it gone or, at least, all of it in the hands of thieves. If the thieves had been smart, they could have bargained with us for the safe return of those photos and videos. In doing so, they may have actually realized the King’s ransom that they had sought because we would have paid any price to get those memories back. But, alas, all was lost.

Our computer had been an iMac from Apple. They have a feature that enables you to track the location of your computer if it ever becomes lost or stolen. I activated that feature and found out that it was somewhere in North Cobourg. The police didn’t seem to think that was helpful information so, nothing more came of that. Apple, also, has a feature that enables you to remotely lock your computer. I did that so, at least, the thieves couldn’t look at our images and mock them or manipulate them in any way. Then, after six or so weeks of our computer being lost, Keri and I decided to take the third and final step available to us from Apple and that was, to remotely wipe the hard drive of our computer clean. In doing so, it would erase every file and leave an empty shell in its wake. Did we really want to give up any hope of recovering our iMac and all that it contained? I looked at Keri and she at me. We both knew what had to be done. So, I activated the remote wiping feature. And, that was that. Even if we ever got our computer back, those childhood photos and memories were gone. That was the worst moment for us.

But, Life is nothing if not resilient. We got an insurance cheque and got new computers. Keri bought a few pieces of jewellery to replace what she lost. The girls continued to grow up. We lived our lives, made more great memories and took more photos and videos. This time, having learned our lesson, we made back-up copies on external hard drives and took out a storage plan “on the Cloud”. We back up our hard drive every day. The last time I checked, we had over 10,000 photos and video clips saved. I’m not sure if that is a lot compared to everyone else but, we have a good visual record of our lives from the point of the robbery forward. That means a lot to us.


Then a miracle happened. My Father-in-Law is now retired but, in his day, he was a financial manager and sat on the Boards of several charities and corporations. He continues to dabble in this sort of work to this day. Consequently, he maintains an office in his home. Last week, while preparing to export a presentation he had prepared, he rifled through one of the drawers in his desk for an external USB drive. Apparently, he had dozens of these memory sticks kicking around. He grabbed one at random and plugged it into his computer. Before doing so, he checked the contents of the USB drive and was startled to discover that it was filled with a dozen of our favourite videos we had taken of the girls as pre-schoolers. None of us can remember exactly how or why he would have come into possession of these videos on this particular USB drive. But, like ghosts from the past, there these video clips were.

I tried to load one into this post but, I keep getting error messages that “this type of file is not permitted” so, maybe, the technology used to record them is too old to function properly anymore. So sorry. But, the videos work fine for us on our computer and they have been stored safely “on the Cloud” and backed up daily so, they will never be lost again. In the midst of all that is dark and worrisome about our world at the moment, into our lives has come this beautiful ray of sunshine in the form of lost treasure, found.

So, what are the lessons you can take from our experience? For starters, back up your computer files in some way beyond your actual computer hard drive. That way, if you ever lose your physical computer, the contents are safe and ready to be downloaded in their entirety once you have a new machine in place. Secondly, make a list of the model numbers and serial numbers of the technology you own and keep it is a secure location. For example, we didn’t know the serial numbers of our desktop or laptop computers that were stolen so, even if the police had found them, they would have no immediate way to determine if they were ours. Finally, if you are planning to leave your home for an extended period of time, make sure you have some lights on timers so that they will turn on and turn off without you having to be there so as to give the appearance that you actually are still at home. Apparently, our thieves had been watching our neighbourhood and had noticed that our house was dark at night for a couple of days. That invited closer scrutiny as the week went on until, they determined we actually weren’t home and they decided it was safe enough to break in.

If you have ever been robbed, in person or while away, you know the sense of violation that goes along with such an act. It is creepy knowing someone was in our house, touching our things and doing, who knows what, with what they had stolen. If this has ever happened to you, I am so sorry. No one deserves to have this happen. In the end, despite the mistakes that we made in not having proper file back-up systems, not having our serial numbers written down and not having our lights on timers when we were gone, the fact remains that burglars are jerks who make bad choices. We are thankful that Ringo was not hurt during this incident. We are doubly grateful to have 12 of our priceless videos back, as well. I guess it all comes down to what you define as being “valuable”. For us, our memories are our treasure and, thanks to Poppa, we have some of those memories back.

Thanks, as always, for reading my posts. I hope that you enjoyed this one. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts and feelings about this story or about similar experiences you may have had. Thanks again. Bye for now.

The Last Day I Was Alone

I am alone in the living room. It is evening. It is Friday but, it could just as easily be Tuesday. I don’t know what time it is but, then again, it doesn’t really matter because I have stopped looking at clocks. I know that it is evening because it is getting dark outside.

I am alone in my own home for the first time since March 12th. That was the last day my daughters went to school and the last day my wife taught at her school. March 13th was to be the start of Spring Break for Keri and for the girls. In past years, we had spent the weeks prior to Spring Break compiling lists of places to go, jobs needing to be done and people we wanted to visit. In 2020, we compiled a list that was 15-items long. Everyone was excited about having the week off from the normal routine. All we needed was for Keri to come home and then, Spring Break could officially start.

At 4:00pm, the announcement came. Corona Virus wasn’t just a problem for China or Italy anymore. It was now starting to wash up on Canada’s shores, too. Leah, who was on-line, got the breaking bulletin first: she and Sophie and all of their friends were not going back to school after Spring Break. With that announcement, new words entered our vocabulary: social-distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, lockdown. New words that signalled the start of a new way of having to live our lives.

March 12th at 3:45pm was the last time Keri was truly alone, too. She left her school with sunny thoughts in her mind. Like most teachers, she was tired from all that goes into being a teacher and was looking forward to some time off for fun and relaxation with her family and her friends. As she drove home, she did so with the radio blaring. Her protective bubble of innocence lasted until she arrived home. As she climbed out of her car, she was met by Sophie, our version of the town crier, informing her that schools were closed for three weeks. Keri had no idea at that moment what Sophie was talking about.

Spring Break 2020 ended for us before it even began. As the enormous scale of the pandemic started becoming apparent to everyone, our Spring Break to-do list fell to pieces. One by one, Leah’s speaking engagements were cancelled, as Long Term Care facilities sealed off their residents from the outside world. Leah lost all ten speaking engagements and, with it, $400.00 that she would have made. That’s a lot of money for a thirteen year old girl to lose. But, that was just the beginning.

Much to her delight, Sophie’s dental appointment was cancelled. Much to her chagrin, Keri’s hair appointment was cancelled. The Royal Ontario Museum closed its doors thus, cancelling our outing to see the Winnie the Pooh exhibit. All of the libraries in our area shut down before Leah could get there to stock up on books. My hair appointment was cancelled before I could get in. Several medical appointments I had all fell by the wayside, one by one by one. The biggest blow came when we had to postpone the trip to the battlefields of Europe, scheduled for the first week of June, for Leah, my father-in-law and me. One ironic thing that did actually happen was that Leah found a dress to wear for her Grade 8 Graduation ceremony, slated for the end of June.

During that last week of school, I had a sense that something may be heading Canada’s way, based on the news coming out of China and out of Italy. The talk of lockdowns was widespread on social media. Consequently, I spent my last week alone, trying to be pro-active while I could. I bought extra pasta and sauce. I bought two packages of toilet paper. I bought chicken noodle soup for Sophie. I bought a lot of things that, as it turned out, were not what I should have been buying. That is one of the real lessons of this pandemic: life is very different now and much of what we valued before has next to no value during a lockdown. For instance, I made a point to fill the gas tank on my car and then, to withdraw several hundred dollars from the bank so I would have cash on hand in case of an emergency. I never thought that I would hardly be driving my car because there was nowhere to really go. I never thought that stores would ban cash. But, they did. The cash I withdrew is just so much Monopoly money right now. Btw, for what it is worth, the price of gas has dropped almost 40% in a month. Too bad most of us can’t really take advantage.

If I could live that last week before Spring Break over again, knowing what I know now, I would have stocked up on those latex gloves I saw at Home Depot…..24 gloves for $12.00 at the time. We have one(!) latex glove to our name, as I type these words. I ordered some from for $50.00 the other day. The same can be said for facial masks. I never knew the abbreviation “PPE” before but, now we all do. Personal Protective Equipment is the difference between life and death for our front-line medical workers and, with each passing day, it is becoming the same for us, as regular citizens, trying to go about our business in the new reality of our lives. A dear friend recently offered to sew masks for anyone who wanted them. I asked for one for each of my family members. I pick them up this Monday. We will join the growing chorus of public mask wearers when we go for our daily family walks or I go to the grocery store for our milk and fruit.

On March the 12th, our lives were filled with possibilities and the world was at our beck and call. Now, our world has been limited to the physical boundaries of our property. We cannot do what we want. We cannot go where we want. We are now living lives of small measures and careful movements. There are no hugs, except those we give to each other. People cross the street to avoid being near us. We have to line up for food at the grocery store…all of us, six feet apart…in lines that stretch down the block. Each day, there are new restrictions on our movement. Public places, like parks and beaches, have been closed. Very soon, there will be no place to go except your own home. Our world shrinks as the pandemic grows.

I was not surprised when the announcement came on the 12th that schools were to be closed. But, I am surprised to my core, at how quickly the humanity has been wrenched from our lives. My girls can no longer hold their beloved Gramma’s hand when they see her. In fact, our visits are now conducted at arm’s length, from two ends of a phone line or from the top of the steps to the bottom. Sophie created this message in her bedroom after we told her that she could no longer cuddle with Gramma.

As for my mother, like all of seniors in retirement residences, she is confined to her room almost every minute of every day. As small as my world has become, hers is infinitely smaller. Aside from what she sees on TV, she has no contact with the outside world. She relies completely on the hard-working staff where she lives. As I write these words, she is healthy. If that changes, I am not sure if I could even make it down to Nova Scotia because all flights into Sydney, where she lives, are cancelled. Even if I made it down, I would probably not be able to see her. Depending on how long this pandemic-inspired lockdown lasts, there is a reasonable chance that I will never see my mother alive again.

So, like everyone else in the world, our social contact has been reduced to what we can manage via technology. In Ma’s case, technology takes the form of a telephone. Because neither of us are doing grand things, our calls basically amount to me telling her that the four of us are all healthy and doing well. She tells me, in reply, that she is fine and that I shouldn’t worry. We always end our calls by saying “I love you” to each other.

My wife, who is not a fan of technology, has been learning to video-conference with her staff at her school. She is working harder than I have ever seen her, trying to help her colleagues prepare to begin distance-learning and helping families of kids on her Special Education caseload, prepare as well. Leah has gone old-school and has decided to write letters and send them in the mail (which is still up and running). She has been thoughtful about this and has started writing, first, to people who find themselves alone so that they might have a little socializing to brighten their day. Sophie has Face-timed with a few of her classmates but, other than that, she just pines for the physical comfort that used to be brought into her life by Gramma. None of us want to live in a world without hugs.

Almost a month has passed since that momentous announcement at 4:00pm on March the 12th that changed all of our lives. In that time, we have sought to bring as much normalcy to our days as we can. The girls asked to have school at home. So, “Mr. MacInnes” has come out of retirement. I had the girls go through the Ontario curriculum for their grades and highlight some skills/topics they had not covered yet. From there, I have started teaching two of the best students I have ever had! Sophie started by learning about the organ systems of the human body. Leah has started with History of Canada and, specifically, with First Contact scenarios as seen from the differing perspectives of those involved. Both girls have been contacted by their classroom teachers and are getting set to begin Distance-Learning next week. Both are curious to see how that goes and both are hopeful that they will be able to re-connect with their classmates, even if it is limited to thumbnails on a computer screen. Both have, also, asked me to be on stand-by should Distance-Learning prove too easy.

Breakfast. School. Lunch. A family walk. House/yard work that may or may not get done. Supper. Phone call to Gramma and Poppa. Social media/reading/TV time. Bedtime. Wake up in the morning and repeat. That is the extent of our lives now, one month removed from the lives we used to live.

The girls have gone to bed now. Keri is downstairs watching a comedy on TV. I hear her laughing. Her laughter has always been one of my favourite sounds. She says she sleeps better having laughed before retiring for the night.

And so, I find myself alone.

I don’t really like the life I am living now but, I do recognize how fortunate I am, as well as, so many of my family and friends are, too. As small as life has become, our lives continue to be rich simply because we remain healthy. An unlabored breath has replaced cash as the currency of value in our world. Although I tremble inside with every small cough I have or every throat tickle I experience, the truth is, I am fine. Those I love are fine. We are lucky to be able to say that in a world where so many can no longer pause their coughing fits nor draw a deep breath.

As March stretched out to an eternity, surprising people emerged as our leaders and heroes. I bow down in gratitude to those medical workers who are working to the point of exhaustion and, even death, to help those in the grip of the Corona Virus. I am so incredibly grateful to every grocery store cashier, stock person, trucker and cleaner who helps to keep food available for my family. I love my girl’s teachers. Sophie’s school staff drove by our house in their cars the other day to remind everyone of the personal relationships that so strongly existed mere weeks ago. Leah’s staff just posted a montage-style video of each of them saying hello to their students, including my daughter who, even though she is in Grade 8, smiled when she saw her teacher appear on screen. I would love to shake the hand of our postal carrier and our garbage guys. Thanks, as well, to all of the independent business owners who have completely re-oriented their stores and made online shopping possible. Whenever we can, we have sought to order from local stores and restaurants as a way of expressing our thanks to them for continuing to be there for us.

Beyond our town, I have watched housebound Italians serenading each other from their balconies. I have watched movie stars, authors and poets reading aloud from children’s books and from Shakespeare. Singers have put on live concerts. Some landlords have begun forgiving the rent of their out-of-work tenants. In Canada, our Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, has spoken to the country every day, even while his own wife was stricken with the Corona Virus and he was forced into self-isolation in his home. Canada has been lucky in that we have had steady leadership when it has mattered most and that, for much of the time, that leadership has crossed partisan lines.

Keri just laughed at something she has seen on television. It made me smile.

In her bedroom, Sophie remains awake. She is working on a special project for her Gramma that involves the crafting of miniature hats made out of toilet paper tubes and coloured yarn. Each hat will end up forming the letters in a sign she is making that will say, “Happy Birthday, Gramma”. She has made over 100 little, tiny hats so far. Each hat is filled with Sophie’s love for her Gramma. Gramma’s birthday is at the end of June.

In the morning, we will awaken to the sounds of birds singing. The sun will be shining. The day will begin anew.

But, for now, I am alone.

I will luxuriate in these precious moments because since March 12th, I, like all of you, have become a citizen of the world. Prior to that, my world was comprised of my hopes and dreams and opinions. Now, as this pandemic is making so abundantly clear, my dreams never really existed in a realm of their own. No, what Covid-19 has shown in such a powerful way is how borders don’t matter and wealth doesn’t really matter because this virus will find you anywhere, no matter how simple a life you have lead or how powerful you may believe yourself to be. In every nation where the Corona Virus has hit, doctors and nurses have given their lives fighting it. In every country in the world, elderly family members have died alone. In every country, people have sang and danced and engaged in an endless parade of acts of selflessness and kindness toward those they love and strangers they have encountered. The hashtags are all true…..#weareinthistogether.

I may be alone in my home but, I now know that I have never really been alone. I am part of something far grander. And, so are you. We are in this fight together. And, when this is all over, I can guarantee you that there will be hugs.

I Am Hat. You Are Shoe

This past Monday, a blogger friend of mine from Belfast decided to offer his thoughts on this year’s Academy Awards. He began with a simple statement: he had not seen this year’s winner for Best Picture, Parasite. He went on to say that none of his friends had seen it, either. So, he was asking for input from his acquaintances in the blogging world. Had any of us watched this movie or was this another case of Hollywood opting to honour an artsy movie that no one, outside of their own circle, really cared about? He concluded his remarks by stating that he had just seen 1917 and thought it was pretty good.

Like my friend, I had not seen Parasite nor, had anyone that I was aware of. I had seen 1917 so I wanted to comment on the post but, before I did, I felt compelled to research Parasite a little first so that I could speak with a modicum of knowledge in my comment. So, I went to Twitter and typed in #Parasite. Scores of tweets poured forth. The bulk of the initial comments were reactions to some of the racially-insensitive comments being made by those offended by the fact that a foreign film had won Best Picture and that the director, Bong Joon Ho, made his acceptance speech in a combination of broken english and his own, native Korean. Normally, I follow the rule of thumb that advises us all to not go down the rabbit hole when it comes to most on-line comment threads. But, because I was thirsting for facts about this movie, I ignored my own advice and plunged in. For once, I was glad that I did.

About one third of the way into the comment thread, someone decided to take the conversation in a different direction. They tweeted their hope that now that Bong Joon Ho had been brought into the public eye in North America that, perhaps, some of his earlier films would gain renewed interest and recognition. In particular, this person recommended Bong Joon Ho’s very first big budget movie, Snowpiercer. As soon as Snowpiercer was mentioned, the thread took off in a whole different, excitable direction, with dozens of fans chiming in to say what an amazing movie Snowpiercer was. But what really caught my attention…..and what went on to inspire this post…..was a tweet by someone who claimed that Snowpiercer was actually a dystopian sequel to the beloved childhood classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! What!? A violent, futuristic tale of class warfare is the sequel to the tale of the world’s finest chocolate maker? This I had to see for myself!

First of all, let’s review the basic premise of the Roald Dahl classic first. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a mysterious genius has created a perfect world in the artificial setting of a chocolate factory. There is no end to the innovation and imagination on display by Mr. Wonka. Into this world of wonder comes a group of children and adults. Within this group, their are different personality types, reflective of various segments of society at the time. As this group attempts to co-exist with Wonka’s factory, the true characteristics of each child come to the fore and, as they explore one magical room after another, they find themselves facing a reckoning that slowly but, surely, whittles the group down to one. That one child, Charlie Bucket, is declared the “winner” by Mr. Wonka who reveals that, in fact, he is tired of running the factory and is seeking someone to take over the reins and that, in fact, that person is Charlie Bucket. I have read the Roald Dahl book to many students over the years and we have watched the original movie, staring Gene Wilder as Wonka, many times as well. It is a classic tale told very well and is deserving of every accolade it has received over the years.

Snowpiercer is set in the not-too-distant future. In an effort to alleviate the effects of Climate Change, scientists have released a refrigerant into the atmosphere to cool rising global temperatures. However, the effect of this is that Earth freezes and all life goes extinct, except for those lucky enough to find refuge on this train that endlessly circles the Earth. The train is a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark and has been created with enough resources to maintain a complete, bio-diverse eco-system designed to allow those on-board the chance to survive while awaiting the possible return to the outside world should temperature warm enough to allow for regeneration. Like Wonka’s chocolate factory, this train was created by a mythical genius known as Willard, played by Ed Harris. Those who subscribe to the theory that Snowpiercer is, in fact, the sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory say that Willard is really Charlie Bucket. If you can allow yourself to believe this single fact then, the structure of the remainder of the movie falls neatly into place, despite the fact that Snowpiercer is told more as mash-up between Blade Runner and The Hunger Games.

In Snowpiercer, the Ark-like train is divided up into a series of connected cars; each car containing something different and important when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the eco-system on board. The premise that drives the action forward is that the train has been divided along class lines, too, with the rich at the head of the train and the very poor at the tail of the train. The poor live in squalor and are oppressed at every turn. Eventually, they revolt. The leader of the insurgency is Chris Evans, who played Captain America in the Marvel movies. Like Willy Wonka, the rebels (who are a rag-tag collection of characters) move through the cars on the train, one at a time, like the children moved through Wonka’s magical rooms. At each car, there is action, often violent action, that causes the group to reduce in numbers over time. Eventually, without giving away too many secrets, there is a “winner” in this movie who is asked to take over the running of things on this magical train. As in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the ending of Snowpiercer hints at the possibility of an entirely different way of living; a world devoid of class stratification, wanton violence and discrimination and poverty, too.

One of the sub-texts to the story of Snowpiercer is why this movie is only becoming known now, eight years after it was released. The story of that is one of abusive power. Snowpiercer was Bong Joon Ho’s first big budget movie. In order to arrange financing, Joon Ho entered into a partnership with producer Harvey Weinstein. As the recent history of the #MeToo movement has documented, Weinstein was not the nicest human on the planet, putting it mildly. He wielded the power of his position like a ruthless dictator. For many actresses, it meant sexual abuse. For Bong Joon Ho, it meant a battle for control of his artistic vision for the movie against a man, Weinstein, who was known for expecting the final say on all edits. Because Bong Joon Ho fought back throughout the making of the movie, Weinstein used his clout to severely limit the release of Snowpiercer, to the point where it almost disappeared completely from view.

One of the big “lessons” from this movie is resistance to oppression. In the photo above, Tilda Swinton is a representative from Willard who has been sent to the back of the train to quiet some murmurs of dissent. At the end of her not-well-received speech, one of the poor folk throws his shoe at her and manages a glancing blow. The scene pivots at that point. The man is taken into immediate custody and Swinton, holding his shoe, launches into a speech about how she is a hat and he is a shoe and how hats belong where hats go…on a head….and shoes belong where shoes go….on feet. To mix the roles of hats and shoes is absurd and upsets the carefully-crafted balance of society. In other words, know your place and stay in it! The punishment the man receives is to have the arm he used to throw the shoe placed through a hole in the side of the train so that it is exposed to the freezing outside air. Those in charge do careful calculations as to how long it will take for his arm to freeze solid based upon current weather conditions, the speed of the train, etc. and Swinton speaks for that length of time, accordingly. At the end of her speech, the man’s arm is pulled back in, revealed to be frozen solid like a statue and then, it is chopped off in front of the rest of the poor passengers as a warning to remain obedient. Throughout the rest of the movie, the presence or absence of limbs becomes an underlying layer of added meaning and significance.

Despite the graphic violence (which is on a par with what was shown during the Hunger Games), I thought this movie was amazing! It is very much like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in how imaginative it is, at times, and how mesmerizing some of the scenes are. Social commentary flows through both movies; sometimes, it is blatant and said aloud, sometimes, it is woven into the consequences of the action in a particular scene and remains unspoken. But, through it all, both movies speak to the value and goodness inherent in ordinary humans. Resistance to oppression is healthy and valuable and difficult and dangerous. But, most of all, it is important when forces within a society get too far out of whack. It happened to President Snow in The Hunger Games. It happened to Adolf Hitler in real life. It happened to the likes of Veruca Salt in the Wonka movie. It happened to the inhabitants of Earth prior to the Great Flood in The Bible. It happens in Snowpiercer, too.

Resistance is not futile.

Snowpiercer is playing right now, for free, on Netflix in Canada. I would highly recommend this movie. It is terrific and leaves you with much to think about. But, if I could offer any advice at all prior to watching it would be this; don’t go into this movie expecting The Hunger Games or a Marvel action-type movie. There are enough plot holes in Snowpiercer to drive a truck through. But, if you allow yourself to view this movie through the absurdist lens of Mr. Wonka then, Snowpiercer will blow your mind. The trailer for the movie can be viewed here.

Sometimes it actually pays to read the on-line comments. Without the guidance of others, I would never have even known that such a movie as Snowpiercer existed. Bong Joon Ho is a talented director and is deserving of the praise he is earning for Parasite. Perhaps it is time to give that movie a chance, too. I am betting I won’t be disappointed.

18- Long Time Running

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

What comes of being together with another? To share our space in this world with another takes a special kind of commitment. It isn’t for everyone. But, it is for some. At a distance, we tend to view those couples or groups with envy or admiration. We enjoy hearing their story. But, sometimes, the story we tell ourselves about others isn’t the real story. Sometimes, the real story is different. What is real and what is a facade? Sometimes, only the couple knows the truth.

Long Time Running by The Tragically Hip is, ostensibly, a song about a relationship that has run its course. There is bitterness in the lyrics. Yet, this song has been the chosen “first dance” song at many a wedding in Canada, too. It is a song that hints at divorce and infidelity but one that people admire for its commitment to longevity. There are no Hallmark moments here unless you count lyrical gems like, “We don’t go anywhere, just on trips” as being your version of romance. Long Time Running ends with a line that has sparked a variety of interpretations. “It’s well worth the wait” has been described as meaning the relief one feels when the pretending is finally over and a relationship that has gone on too long can finally be declared dead. Some prefer the line to mean the satisfaction one feels from a relationship that has stood the test of time, survived the ups and downs of life and has emerged intact. The Hip have never definitively said, one way or the other, what the line means. We are left to draw our own conclusions; each of us viewing the song through the lens of our own experiences.

One of the reasons Long Time Running is such a well-received song is because of the way the structure of the song mirrors its meaning. A song that ruminates over the validity of marrying our lives together over time should be told at a relaxed, leisurely pace. From the opening guitar notes that seem to hover in mid-air and then, slowly move forward like steps on a stairway, Long Time Running meanders its way along, unfolding its layers in a measured, deliberate way. The bluesy, country-esque nature of the music gives the song the feeling of hearing a tale told on a hot summer day, when everything and everyone moves slowly. There are no unnecessary movements on such days yet, you can feel each rivulet of sweat trickling from the nape of your neck, down your spine to the small of your back. Even when Gord belts out the closing line, he focuses on the word, well,….stretching it out as far and for as long as his voice will allow. Everything about the structure of this song is built upon a foundation of length and endurance and the shimmering heat rising from a path that heads out into the distance.

Long Time Running was popular when it was first released and had remained popular throughout the course of their career. In a way, the song came to represent how many people felt about The Hip. The Hip were a group of people who seemed well-suited for each other and were thriving over time. One of reasons for this feeling was the intensely private way all five guys went about living their lives. There were never any scandals. There were never any public spats or disagreements. The band seemed to be like the brothers that they claimed they were. They were school-aged friends who had each other’s back. Egos were parked outside. The Hip were quietly professional in all of their endeavours. Which is why, when it was announced that Gord Downie had cancer, it came as such a shock. For a band that had kept their lives so close to the vest for so many years, Gord’s announcement was not the sneak peak anyone was expecting nor, wanting.

So, when it was announced that the band would do one last tour and that a documentary movie was going to be shot during it, many people were pleased that Long Time Running was chosen as the soundtrack anthem. It seemed a very appropriate choice; being as it touched on relationships and longevity. As fans, we had enjoyed a loving relationship with The Hip for over three decades by the time 2016 rolled around. It was an emotional time for all. It felt like family. It felt like loss. It felt like a celebration of life, too. In the end, the documentary gave us a look behind the curtain, as it were, and revealed a band that were, for the most part, as we expected them to be. They proved to be a brotherhood, in the truest sense of the world. As saddened as we all were by Gord’s demise, we were filled with admiration for the strength of his courage. When the tour ended in real-time, as well as when the documentary ended, the feeling we were left with was one of, dare I say it, satisfaction. It was very re-affirming to see the love that existed between them and to note the pride each felt for having made the shared journey from childhood to adulthood on their own terms.

In my own lifetime, the only legitimate comparison I can offer for the outpouring of affection for Gord and The Hip during that final tour was how Canadians reacted when Terry Fox was forced to halt his run across our country because of cancer. It was big, big news and we all felt it. Between writing letters, creating poetry, promising to work toward Reconciliation and much, much more, people from all walks of life reacted to Gord’s passing with hearts full. So, naturally, when it was announced that Canada’s sweethearts, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were going to dedicate a performance to Gord at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a nation waited with bated breath.

Much like members of The Tragically Hip, Scott and Tessa had known each other since childhood. From the very earliest of their days skating together, Scott and Tessa possessed a chemistry that was noticeable to everyone who watched them perform. As the pair grew into teenagers and then, young adults, we grew with them. Their journey became our journey, too. We followed their successes through the ranks and, as a nation, we were extremely proud of them, both.

But, more than just having pride in their athletic accomplishments, we, as fans, were heavily invested in the relationship they portrayed. The smouldering looks they gave to each other. The gentle caresses. The loving embraces that, inevitably, gave way to broad smiles and hugs and her head resting on his shoulder. It was a fairy tale romance being played out before our very eyes. They were the most popular couple in Canada. Everyone was convinced that their love was a love for the ages. Wedding fever consumed us all. A Tessa and Scott engagement announcement following the Olympics was what many Canadians were expecting and/or hoping for. So, in this context, when the duo announced that they would skate to Long Time Running and that there would be a denim jacket present (Gord Downie often wore a denim jacket. It became one of his trademarks), it was almost too much to imagine. Canada’s sweethearts honouring Canada’s band and its poetic heart, Gord Downie. The video can be seen here. I will admit to crying freely while Tessa and Scott performed.

Relationships are funny things, sometimes. When The Hip revealed themselves in their documentary, we found what we had hoped to find and we were pleased. After the Olympics, when Scott and Tessa came back to Canada, they revealed a secret, too. It came to light that Scott Moir had had a girlfriend, not named Tessa, for quite some time. The relationship portrayed onscreen and on ice by Tessa and Scott was, simply that, a portrayal. It was a staged play. It wasn’t real. Our collective hearts cratered. Through no fault of her own, Scott’s girlfriend, who Tessa was intimately familiar with, instantly became the most hated woman in Canada. Since that time, she and Scott have kept a very low profile. Meanwhile, Tessa has been attempting to establish a career for herself in broadcasting. She has appeared as host on talk shows and is the product spokesperson in several advertising campaigns. But, each time we see her alone, it reinforces the feeling of heartbreak that resides within us. There is no wrong in this situation. There was no infidelity on Scott’s part. It is simply that the reality for us was not what we were expecting and we can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed.

As it turns out, what comes of being with another is unique to those involved. That was the essence of the song, Long Time Running. Sometimes it actually is well worth the wait and, sometimes, it isn’t.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you have any comments to make regarding the song, Long Time Running or the documentary or how you feel about how The Hip ended it all as a band and/or how Scott and Tessa ended up as a team and as real people, please feel free to leave them in the comment box below. As always, I appreciate the time you spent reading my words. Take care and bye for now.