In Praise of Benign Addictions

I received a text from my son Michael the other day.  He was trying to connect me with a friend of his who has a friend who has a whistle for sale.  He suggested that although my latent affliction, WAD (Whistle Acquisition Disorder) appeared to be in remission, perhaps it could be activated.  I expressed a guarded interest – sometimes you don’t want to go back there, right? – and then since I was on the road anyway, I got thinking…

The object in question is a high end pennywhistle.  For those of you who are not familiar with these instruments, they can be described as deceptively simple 6 hole tubes with mouthpieces for blowing into.  They can be played at any level, from basic to full on band work.  (Think The Chieftains, Riverdance, Theme from The Titanic.)  Whistles have been a key component of Irish music for a long time, but these days you can hear them in every genre, from rock to country music to new age.  It’s possible to buy a basic Clarke whistle for under twenty dollars.  I have a few of those.  It’s also possible to spend several hundred dollars on one, and I have a couple of those too.  They are available in every key, and vary in length from pencil-sized to wrapping paper tube size.   Although I own more than a dozen whistles, as a player I’m much closer to the basic end of the continuum.  Whatever.  This is all in the past, relevant to my WAD days, which I have left behind me.  More or less.

You may think that such addictions are rare, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only sufferer.  A friend of mine (you know who you are) has struggled for years with BAD, which can be variously (and accurately) translated to “Bodhran Acquisition Disorder” or “Bicycle Acquisition Disorder”.  I see signs that he is at last escaping the clutches of the former, but as often happens, there are signs of a substitute addiction, in his case GAD (Guitar Affliction Disorder).  Another friend (you know who you are too) appears cured, more or less, and is divesting himself of most of his musical gear, keeping only what he uses regularly.  I admire him so much for recognizing that he had a problem, and then going about resolving it.

It’s time for some honest self appraisal.  First, it’s important to acknowledge that I never progressed to WOAD (Whistle Obsessive Acquisition Disorder), which might have been quite serious.  Imagine a home full of hoarded pennywhistles.  But as much as I would like think I’ve left WAD behind, it is possible that the disorder has expanded into a broader dysfunction.  Perhaps you have heard of MEAD (Musical Equipment Acquisition Disorder)?   Some people might refer to rather disparagingly as GAD – Gadget Acquisition Disorder – but that acronym is already in use (see paragraph above).  Being under the influence of MEAD would explain why I have acquired three guitars, a dulcimer, a bouzouki, an octave mandolin, five tuners, two amplifiers and a full PA system, several effects pedals, a rat’s nest of instrument cables and power cords, four harmonicas and two different types of holders, a plastic egg shaker, and a metronome, not to mention the whistles.  You get the picture.

Well, IF in fact I have MEAD – and I do say IF – as addictions go, it’s is relatively harmless addiction.  I’m not harming anyone else, other than the occasional assault on their ears.  I don’t HAVE to buy music equipment.  In fact, I can quit any time I want.  And over the years I’ve sold quite a few items, some of them even at a profit.  It’s just that I like to surround myself with…musical…things.

Well, time to wrap this up.  I have to go out and look at condenser microphones…and there’s a chance that the penny whistle owned by a friend of Mike’s friend might still be available.

Today I Remember…

My father, aged 93, is in the process of moving.  On my last trip to Creston he gave me his father’s briefcase for safekeeping.  “It’s best that you take it now,” he said.  It’s actually a small black suitcase, the leather exterior tattered and battered, the key hanging from what’s left of the handle by a piece of string.  I was glad to have it, because I knew the case contained a treasure trove of Hepher family documents and historical items.

Last night I opened the case, reverently and with intention, mindful of all the history that it contained.  There are many stories contained and imagined in the items and papers in that case, most of them for another day.  It was the eve of Remembrance Day, and close to the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I.  What I sought on this occasion was my grandfather’s Military Cross.

Let me go back in time.  My grandfather, William Lawson Hepher, was born in Cambridgeshire, England in 1875.  He emigrated to Canada in 1908, and after a year working in an Ontario orchard, went to Kootenay Lake where he homesteaded  at a place called Destiny Bay.  When WWI broke out, he attempted to enlist with the 12th Canadian Infantry Battalion but was turned down on medical grounds. Undeterred, Lawson paid his own way to England, had required surgery to both legs and succeeded in joining the 12th Battalion on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire on 26 February 1915. He was immediately transferred to the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion, sent to France the end of April and taken on strength in the field on 2 May 1915.

On 3 September 1915 Spr. Lawson Hepher was transferred to the Canadian Engineers, 3rd Field Company.  He saw considerable service with his unit, including principal actions  at Festubert, Mount Sorrel, Somme 1916 (Pozieres Ridge, Flers-Courcelette, Ancre Heights) and Arras (1917).

Lawson was returned to England for officer training in May 1917. Eight months of rigorous training paid off when on 2nd February 1918 he was appointed 2nd Lt. Special Reserve of Officers with the 223rd (Home Counties) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.  He would later on attain the rank of Lieutenant.  He returned to France on 20 March 1918 and joined his Battery unit at the front in the Somme battlegrounds. His unit participated in the Battles of Ancre, Albert, Drocourt-Queant, Canal du Nord, Cambrai and The Passage of the Grand Honelle.

As a result of his actions on 23rd August, during the 3rd Battle of Albert, he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, which was gazetted on 11 January 1919 as follows:

 2nd Lt. Lawson Hepher, M.C.             R.F.A. (Spec. Res.), attd A/223rd (H.C.) Bde R.F.A.,T.F.

“During an exceptionally intense period of shelling, when two detachments of his battery had been scattered, he took the place of No. 2 at one of his guns and kept it in action during a S.O.S. call. His example of gallantry and devotion to duty at a very trying moment was most timely, and steadied the men, who were shaken by the heavy shelling.”

Lawson’s medal citation reads: “1.11.1918 – For services rendered during the recent advance. During one period his battery was in action for 14 days.

Among the treasures in the little suitcase is a tattered telegram which reads:  “To 2nd Lieut. Lawson Hepher Swavesey Cambridgeshire.  Your attendance is required at Buckingham Palace on Saturday next the fifth at ten twenty o’clock am Service Dress please telegraph acknowledgement.  Signed, Lord Chamberlain London.  I believe he was given his medal by the reigning monarch, George V.

I’ve included pictures of the MC and his other war medals here, as well as his discharge certificate which describes his military character as “Very Good”.    He returned to Canada in 1918, bringing with him a new bride, my grandmother Kathleen.  Of interest, he remained a member of the Reserves until being discharged from that duty in 1945.  More of his story appears here.

DSCN0724 DSCN0726DSCN0725

World War I was to be the war to end all wars, and it should have been.  Twenty years later, war was once again declared and my father Peter signed up, a callow 20 year old from rural BC.  History repeated itself in the sense that the physical requirements for soldiers had to be circumvented once again.  My father had limited vision in one eye, and memorized the eye chart in order to pass the physical.  He was successful, and spent the war on duty in war torn England.  (Coincidentally,  he also brought back a bride, my mother Mary.)

I’ve been thinking about these two men, of whom I am a direct descendant, over the last few weeks as the anniversary of the Great War approached and passed.  They have been in my mind for last few days as Remembrance Day approached.  And they are certainly in my mind and heart today.  I wonder at their selflessness, their sense of honour and duty that trumped everything else, and the power of the call to defend their homeland.  I know very well that their stories are but two of many, and I am grateful to both these men, and to thousands of others like them.  It is because of them that I did not have to go to war, and my sons will not have to go to war, and their sons and daughters will not have to go to war.  It is because of them, and thousands like them, that we live privileged lives in a free country.  It is because of their service and their sacrifices that we are here.

Staff Sergeant Peter Lawson Hepher, today I honour you and thank you.  2nd Lieutenant William Lawson Hepher, today I honour you and thank you.  The hundreds and thousands of soldiers, brave young men and women, living and dead, who fought in the two Great Wars – I humbly honour and thank you.

In your names do I hope and pray for peace in the world.

Little People – A Photo Series

I have in the past been accused of not knowing how to have fun.  It’s quite true, I’m afraid.  I tend to focus on what has to be done next, the list on the counter, the worries about next week, and so on.  But every so often my inner child escapes, and the childlike (as opposed to childish) part of me steps takes over.

The inspiration for this series of photos was a little group of LEGO people left out after a visit from grandchildren.  I took them out to the yard with my trusty Nikon, and here is what happened.

Little people descending to a new planet.

Descending into a new world.

"I'm stuck!"

“I’m stuck!”

"There doesn't seem to be any sort of path through this jungle."

“There doesn’t seem to be any sort of path through this jungle.”

"I claim this territory in the name of Canada!"

“I claim this territory in the name of Canada!”

"If I could just get to the Buddha, I know I would discover the meaning of life!"

“If I could just get to the Buddha, I know I would discover the meaning of life!”

"My mother told me never to poke the dragon.  I wonder what she meant."

“My mother told me never to poke the dragon. I wonder what she meant.”

"What do you suppose it is?"

“What do you suppose it is?”

Hey, guys!  Help me out!"

Hey, guys! Help me out!”

"Come on up.  There's nobody home.  Maybe there will be some food inside."

“Come on up. There’s nobody home. Maybe there will be some food inside.”

"Is it poisonous, do you think?"

“Is it poisonous, do you think?”

     "I love the sound of running water."      "Yeah?  I need to pee."

“I love the sound of running water.”
“Yeah? I need to pee.”

"Hey!  Where's John?"

“Hey! Where’s John?”

"It's hard going, but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

“It’s hard going, but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

"When will the mothership come for us, I wonder."

“When will the Mothership come for us, I wonder.”

"I can't swim, so I don't know how to get to shore.  Oh, well...I can worry about that later."

“I can’t swim, so I don’t know how to get to shore. Oh, well…I can worry about that later.”

"We are all in the hands of the angels."

“We are all in the hands of the angels.”

"Watch out!  Incoming planes!"

“Watch out! Incoming enemy planes!”

On Writing What You Know

An article in the November Issue of Alberta Views addresses the question of why writers from Alberta have won the Giller Prize for literary fiction so often in recent years.  Three in a row to be specific.   The author, Marina Endicott, suggests that “…we write from where and who we are”.  I think this is true, and I’m going take a giant leap off this single phrase, recognizing that I am probably dismissing the  breadth and depth of Endicott’s analysis by quoting her entirely out of context.  Read the article if you want to know more about what SHE thinks.

Last winter I read a book called “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son”, by Pat Conroy.  It’s quite a book.  Conroy has been writing his life over and over again in “The Lords of Discipline”, “Beach Music”, “South of Broad”, and of course, “The Prince of Tides” which is in my top 10 favourite books ever.  “The Death of Santini” is, according to Conroy, the final chapter in the story of coming to terms with his tumultuous, troubled, rich relationship with his father.

Although Conroy’s first book, “The Water is Wide” is a memoir (of his brief career as a teacher in an all Black school in rural South Carolina), he is known as a novelist.  I found his perspective as a writer fascinating.  Consider this quote, his reply to urgings from Chicago Irish relatives who wanted him to write stories about their their life in Chicago, a world about which he knows nothing.  They can’t understand why he won’t write their story.  He says to Maggie, an aunt or cousin…“But that’s research,” I said.  “That’s not living a life.”  “Just pretend, “ pretty Maggie said.  “Just make it up and no one will know the difference.”  (Pat Conroy, 2013)

I can’t remember reading another book that is so filled with raw emotion, scathing humour, biting sarcasm, and all the other stuff of intense emotions.   Conroy has written what he has lived, without editing, without judgment, and without apology.  This is just who he his.  This is his family.  These are the people that he loved, fought with, got angry at, cried for.   This is all there is – take it or leave it.   These themes, presented so intimately in “The Death of Santini” appear in his other novels as well, in one way or another.

In a way, it’s shocking.  It’s not really fictin, but a glass house, with content presented for all to see.  Oddly, the characters and events Conroy describes are so raw and real that it is easy to identify with them, in kind if not in intensity.  To quote Conroy again:  “I don’t believe anyone who says they have a perfect marriage.”

While prowling shelves at the public library last week, a book called “Never Surrender” caught my eye.  (“Nevah Surrendah”, the voice in my head said, mimicking Winston Churchill rather than Corey Hart.)  It turns out that the voice was correct.  I checked it out in order to…er, check it out.  It is one of a series of historical novels about Churchill, in which imaginary people and events are intertwined with the events and figures of history.  The author is Michael Dobbs, described as “…an academic, a broadcaster, a senior corporate executive, and an advisor to two Prime Ministers.”  I don’t believe one of them was Churchill as Dobbs is too young; however, he has apparently been close enough to British history to write about it as if he was there.  More good reading.

I am led to muse about the following question.  What about those of us who live ordinary lives?  Can we write?  Can we scrounge enough drama, excitement, emotion from our everyday existence to create something unique, something that will be interesting to others and will entertain and endure.     C. S. Lewis probably never walked through a closet into Narnia, and I’m pretty sure J.K.Rowling didn’t actually spend time at Hogwarts in order to create Harry Potter.

Perhaps there is no such thing as an “ordinary” life.  Maybe the secret is to take the template of what you know and who you are, and impose it on a different landscape, then write about what happens.  Or maybe the secret is to have a vivid imagination.  Or maybe both…

To be continued…


Winging It

It’s funny how events in your life evolve to create something new. Here is a simple progression, that, in hindsight at least, seems quite linear.  It goes like this. If I had not had to quit running, I would not have done so much walking. If I had not walked so much this summer, I would not have taken the time to notice all the birds around me. And if we had not built a stream and field in our back yard, we would not have attracted so many birds. And if I had not discovered a Facebook Page devoted to birds, I wouldn’t have been inspired to buy a real camera (rather than a phone or point and shoot) to take better pictures of birds. And I wouldn’t have access to all the cool features on my camera, which I now leave permanently on “continuous shooting” in the hope that Casey will flush a pheasant out of the underbrush. And so on.

Of course, there are likely other factors involved. Somehow, though, through all the stuff that goes on in life I’ve found a new hobby this summer. I’ve spent hours sitting in the back yard waiting for some new bird to fly by, perhaps to bathe in the stream. I’ve gone on long walks with my eyes up in the tree tops, looking for owls and eagles. I’ve dashed madly into the house with muddy shoes to get my camera because of the sudden and unexpected appearance of a downy woodpecker or blue jay.  I’ve hunted through Costco and Bulk Barn and Peavey Mart looking for the best deal on bird seed.  I’ve bought (and filled) half a dozen different kinds of bird feeders.  I’ve eagerly and religiously noted first sightings in the Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds, given to me recently by my friend Ralph, himself a bird enthusiast (among other things).  I’ve created a bird calendar…

To be honest, I am slightly obsessed with birds, particularly the species who live in and around where I live.  I watch them with interest as I learn what they like to eat, where they live, and how they behave.  Even the house sparrow, that most common of feathered creatures, is fun to watch, particularly when a dozen or so of them are competing for space on a newly filled feeder.  I zoom in with my new Nikon, trying to get the perfect picture.  I eagerly post the best of my pictures on the Alberta Birds Facebook page, sometimes confidently identifying the birds (and being wrong), and at other times asking for identification.  I’ve learned so much…

Recently I attended a talk by Dr. Bryan Kolb, a professor in Neuropsychology at the University of Lethbridge.  Among other things, he suggested that the two best ways to maintain and enhance brain plasticity are to involve yourself in music (either by playing an instrument or listening), and to learn something new.  Thanks to the birds, I am doing both.

American Goldfinches Young Cedar Waxwing, July 22 2014 - Wetlands Blue Jay one House Finch copy GBH2