“Why Don’t You Just Kill Rambo?”

Rambo Barked at Butterflies

Rambo Barked at Bees

Rambo Barked at Sunshine & the cool Autumn breeze

He lunged and snapped at babies

Fangs bared at you and me

Rambo Barked at everything

Die now Rambo…die now… please?

We suspect that the Real Estate agent asked the neighbours to hide their dog Rambo in their house while she was showing her listing to prospective purchasers, such as I and my 8 and a half months pregnant wife Elaine, on that sunny but crisp February morning.

We were a young couple with a baby on the way and this was our first house purchase so we were operating at maximum busy, excited and optimistic. Perhaps – because of this – we weren’t as attentive to important details, such as the character and compatibility of our new neighbours, but on that day, none of that mattered, all seemed well, and our offer was made…and accepted.  We were the new owners of a sweet little stucco bungalow on West 17th Avenue in Vancouver! We took possession quickly, loaded up a truck with our belongings, and enlisted the help of friends to make setting up our nest as smooth and fun as possible.

I don’t remember when Rambo started barking. We were so busy in those early days, setting up house, working at our respective jobs, buying baby things, and getting ready for Elaine’s due date – which was just weeks away – that everything else dropped off the radar. We’d met our new neighbours – a seemingly pleasant  middle-age Greek couple – who ran a restaurant up on Broadway, and were the proud parents of five daughters ranging in age from 6 to 16. And we were vaguely aware that they owned a rather large German Shepherd which seemed confined to their back yard.

Dogs bark, it’s normal for them to do so, and is part of the background noise/ fabric of city life…lots of people…lots of dogs…lots of barking. I like dogs – a lot – and always try and befriend them wherever I go. In fact, I’m a complete idiot when it comes to dogs and will crouch down on one knee in the street if I see someone walking a dog in hopes that I can pet them…”Do you mind if I say hello to your dog?”, I emplore, “Oh yes, go right ahead, Bart (or Fluffy or Rex) is very friendly”…and then it’s all sweet luvvins, hugs, and ear rubs. Rarely am I warned off with, “No no, please maintain your distance…Satan is trained to kill and will lunge for your throat without a moments warning”…but there are such dogs.

Our son was born on March 11, just weeks after we had moved into our new home. The delivery went smoothly and soon we were cuddling and fawning over 7 pounds 9 ounces of joy that would transform our lives. Elaine only needed a day or so in the hospital before she and our new baby Cameron were deemed safe to go home.

A typical Vancouver lot is 33’ feet wide by 120’ long. Usually, there is a thin 3 or 4 foot strip along one side of the house, with a sidewalk, allowing for access to the back yard, and a fence separating the neighbouring property. We parked on the street and for some reason decided to walk along this sidewalk with Cam bundled up in my arms, to enter via the back door. It was a lovely day, and Elaine walked on ahead as I navigated the narrow sidewalk while learning how to safely carry a baby. Suddenly, I heard rapid movement in the neighbour’s yard and then – out of nowhere – 80 pounds of unexpected German Shepherd ferocity was leaning over the fence, lunging, snapping and barking  – fangs bared – at me and our days-old baby. I automatically protected Cam’s head with my hand as I pressed him closer to my body and crab walked sideways into the back yard, with my face almost scraping the stucco wall, trying to avoid Rambo’s bite.

Elaine turned in horror as I scrambled to safety with Cam. “Jesus, are you guys OK?” She asked, as I handed Cameron to her. Who was, by the way, still sleeping and completely nonplussed by the situation. “Fuck, that scared the shit outta me”, I said. “We’re going to have to mention that to the neighbours” “Be super careful if you ever need to walk alongside the house until we get this sorted out”

That evening, I wandered over and rang Dmitri’s doorbell. One of his daughters answered the door and called out, “Dad!” We had already met the neighbours and they seemed like very amicable people. When Dmitri appeared I explained our scary & awkward encounter with his threatening dog and he was most apologetic. “Oh no…we are so sorry about that…and with the new baby” “Rambo is very protective of my girls and we have him because we work late at our restaurant. He keeps our girls safe when they are home alone. He’s just not used to you yet as you are new” “We’ll keep him on the back deck so he won’t lean over the fence at you again…so sorry” Thus assured, I went home and told Elaine about the “solution to our little problem”…all seemed well.

The next few months were a haze of new parenthood, settling into our new digs and grappling with all the demands that life throws at 30-somethings in the late 1980’s. We discovered – quite quickly – that “Rambo’s deck” was on the back of the neighbour’s house, on the same side and level as our bedroom…about 10 to 15 feet away from where we would be – trying – to sleep…and that, as well as his violent demeanor, Rambo was an incessant barker.

I have a gift. It is the gift of sleep, and I am blessed to be able to sleep almost anywhere and through nearly all conditions. Noise had never been an impediment to sleep – until Rambo. And I should explain that in fact it wasn’t Rambo’s barking that woke me up at night but Elaine’s sharp elbow and insistent voice. “George” jab jab “George!” jab jab “GEORGE!”…”Rambo’s barking and it’s going to wake the baby” “That’s every night this week” “Uuh…ok” I said rousing from my deep sleep…”what do you suggest?” “That dog has been barking almost constantly since we moved in two months ago…it can’t go on… between breastfeeding Cameron and Rambo’s barking I’m not getting any sleep” “Why don’t you go over and knock on their door and ask them to keep their dog quiet.”  “It’s only 2:00 am, I don’t think Dmitri or Sophia are back from the restaurant” “Well then, go and talk to one of the daughters, they can deal with it”…”Uuh ok” I said pulling myself out of bed. I slipped on my housecoat and some shoes and headed out.

Most of the houses on the street were built in the 40’s and 50’s and were equipped with the “old school” round white plastic doorbell button. I pushed it twice. Then a third time before I could hear the sounds of someone stirring inside, against the background of Rambo’s  – now feverish – barking. A young girls trembling voice came through the door “Who is it?” “Hi” I said, “It’s George your next door neighbour” “Hey, Rambo is barking a lot and it’s waking our baby” “Can you bring him inside or something” “Oh, sorry” she said. I think it was the 12 year old. “Ok, I’ll bring him in” “Thank You, g’night”

Problem solved, I thought. It seemed like such a simple solution – just bring Rambo into the house at night as we were all getting ready to go to sleep…ahh…I felt a wave of relief, and satisfaction that I had effectively completed my “man duty” and protected my own family from this noisy disruptive beast. Going one step further, I vowed to get their phone number in case I was ever in such a situation again and would just phone rather than looking like a sketchy guy in a housecoat standing on a porch at 2 in the morning.

The “system” seemed to work – for a while. Rambo was still a crazy threatening barkaholic from his porch, but the girls made an effort to bring him in at night, and if they forgot, I could just phone and they would oblige. But then, they seemed to lose the thread of the agreement and either forgot to bring him in at night or just wouldn’t answer the phone.

After several more months of this hit and miss solution, as Elaine’s late night elbow jabs were becoming more frequent and insistent and I was becoming more irritated at the neighbour’s intransigence, I came up with the bright idea that perhaps I could recondition Rambo not to bark through negative reinforcement – or punishment – in layman’s terms.

We left the hose out at all times and I would spray Rambo anytime we were walking by and he was going rabid on us. But he figured this game out fairly quickly and would go to the other end of the porch to avoid the cold water and continue barking. Late one night, I got out of bed to have a cigarette and spray Rambo when Dmitri – who happened to be home – leaned out the window and said, “Hey! Why are you spraying my dog?” “Well Dmitri”, I said, “He sounds like he’s getting a little hoarse from all the constant barking!” “No one answered the phone when I called” “We didn’t hear the phone” he said, “Well, can you take him in now?” I asked, “No, he’s all wet” I put the hose down and went inside, angry, “the system”, which also included civility, seemed to be breaking down.

Elaine had gone back to work after her maternity leave ended but we were still wrestling with “the Rambo problem” after a year of seeking possible solutions.  We griped about this situation to friends, family, and coworkers because it had become a seemingly insoluble problem that we were obsessed with. During one dinner party after a few glasses of wine our friend Dave said “Why don’t you just kill Rambo?” we all paused at this suggestion, and looked at Dave to see if he was serious “Sure, you just need some kind of poison, wrap it in a piece of steak and chuck it up on the porch” After this length of time it almost seemed like a good idea, but no, we couldn’t do that – we both liked dogs too much to even contemplate such an act, and realized that this wasn’t really Rambo’s fault, it was the owners fault, because they hadn’t trained him properly and weren’t dealing with a viable solution. “Maybe we could kill Dmitri and Sophia” I suggested…our guests laughed as they were used to my dark sense of humor.

I may have a solution for you guys said Elaine’s co-worker Milo. Milo was a very clever guy who was a skilled technician with BC Tel. “I could set up a high pitch sound feedback device, that would blast Rambo with a high pitch noise, only audible to a dog’s ears, every time he barked” “It’s kind of an immediate feedback loop…his bark triggers a switch on a noise sensor which triggers the other high pitch noise amplifier” “Essentially the high pitch noise would hurt his hearing and train him not to bark through negative feedback” “Wow” said Elaine and I in unison, “What a great idea Milo, I mean, it sounds like a long shot but we’re willing to try anything.”

Within days the affable and earnest Milo returned with the device which he had fabricated in his workshop at home. He had even attached it to a wall bracket which would screw into the side of our house, close to our bedroom window so we could run a power chord to an inside wall plug. It looked a little cumbersome, like a 1950’s Sci-Fi illustration of a death ray machine, and if that was the net result we would not be heartbroken, but we were hoping that Milo’s hi-tech solution proved worthy of it’s promise…we plugged it in.

Rambo, of course, had been barking incessantly since Milo showed up, outraged by the appearance of this stranger doing strange things in our yard. When the device was finally installed and plugged in we all held our breath, hoping that Rambo would collapse in a puddle of furry whimpering discomfort with each bark. We watched closely, trying to detect any sign of “negative feedback loop effect” which might indicate that Milo’s device was working. “I think I saw him wince”, I said. “He’s got a kind of puzzled quizzical look…I think”, said Elaine. “Maybe I need to turn it up to 11”, said Milo. “Yes! Yes!”, we agreed, “11 – 12 – 19- max it out Milo! Let’s see what this baby can do.” After a few more tweaks and adjustments, we all stood in the yard, intently looking at Rambo, which infuriated him into a spasm of frothy barking.

Whatever behavioural modification benefits the inflicted pain might have given us seemed to be offset by the additional frenzy Rambo was exhibiting from receiving it. This new discomfort just made him crazier, plus, wily beast that he was, he moved farther back on the deck, seemingly to get away from the “range of pain”. “Give it a week”, said Milo, “It’ll take a little while to see if it works”

We gave it a month. It didn’t work. And we fell into some kind of despair. “Well honey, we’ve tried everything”, said Elaine, “Do you think it’s time to exercise the “Dave Option”?” “No, I can’t even seriously contemplate that”, I said. “There is the Noise-ByLaw Infraction” “Maybe it’s time to get City Government on our side, show Dmitri and Sophia we mean business” “Hit them in the pocketbook where it hurts, with a nice big fine” “Leave this one to me, honey, I’ll call the City”

The Vancouver City Dog Barking Noise ByLaw Infraction process is – in itself – a descent into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. After eighteen months of frustration and fruitless effort, this appeared to be the last avenue open to us –  short of exercising the “Dave Option” – a labyrinth of paperwork, identifications, reporting, discussions & explanations, delays and perhaps most unfair of all, the need to “Use a log (called a barking package) to record the day, time, and duration of barking, and impact it has on you” which was, at that time, several months. If the Animal Control Officer thinks you have a case, it goes to the City Prosecutor to set up a Court Date, which you must attend and if successful a Fine is set. From start to finish this whole process took about 4 or 5 months, countless hours of my time, and in the end they were fined $75 for a first offence – with a warning. And all the while Rambo barked and barked.

“Well that was a complete waste of time”, I said with resignation, “Five months of effort and they get a $75 fine and a warning, and our problem hasn’t gone away” “How shitty is that?”…We sat in the front room and looked out the picture window as 2 year old Cam played happily with his toys, as toddlers do.  

“Maybe they’ll make more of an effort to control Rambo”, said Elaine, “If we continue with the noise bylaw, the fines get heavier and I think they can have their dog impounded” “Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for those guys”, I said, “And if Rambo gets impounded they’d probably just get a bigger, meaner, noisier dog to protect the girls from monsters at night…a Rottweiler with a personality disorder…or a Mastiff with childhood Trauma…something so psychotic and big we’d never be able to sleep or access our sidewalk again” Elaine could tell I was embellishing for playful effect…and she smiled. “I dunno” she said “I guess for the time being we have to go back to square one and call them at night if we’re woken up…what other option do we have, being as you’re too cowardly to do the manly thing and go over there and break Rambo’s neck”…now it was my turn to smile. “Yeah, let’s just take it one day at a time”, I said, “I guess we’ll need a fresh supply of earplugs”.

Whatever reprieve we were hoping for was short-lived. 2am, days after the Court decision. Bark Bark Bark! Jab-Jab-Jab… “George, Rambo’s barking” “I know, I know, you don’t have to jab me with your elbow anymore, I hear him, you’ve effectively conditioned me to be as noise sensitive as you”, I said testily, “I always hear him…there is no escape” And from down the hall…Waaah Waaah Waahh! “And Cameron’s crying, he’s probably still a bit feverish” “Why don’t you go deal with Camy, and I’ll try calling the neighbours”

I threw on my housecoat and went to the phone where the Kakavelakis families’ number was written on a yellow sticky note. Bark! Bark! BARK! went Rambo…Waaa Waaah! WAAAH! Went Cameron. Bark! Bark! Waah! Waah! …Bark! Wah! Bark! Wah! I thought I was losing it as I anxiously dialed their number. Ring Ring Ring! Ring Ring Ring! Ring Bark Wah Ring! Please God make it stop! Then, someone picked up the phone. There was no greeting so I just launched in, “Hi, it’s George next door, our little boy is not feeling well and Rambo’s barking is disturbing his sleep…and ours”. There was no reply, a brief hesitation, and then they hung up the phone.

Where does mercurial anger start?…from the toes? Does it build and flow from our extremities? rushing carelessly like a raging river through our veins, gaining strength as it cascades through our hearts on its way to the brain where it explodes and washes away the dykes and dams of learned civil behaviour?

The pent-up anger and frustration of two years of dealing with this issue boiled over and I “totally lost my shit” as they say. I grabbed my shoes and headed out the door. “J’en ai Ras le Bol Tabarnak!” I swore in my passable Quebeois. “Hang up on me when I’ve got a sick baby, you fuckers!”, I muttered under my breath. Having a sick baby can add a sense of righteousness to indignant rage, so I definitely pulled that card out of my anger deck. I marched across their lawn and ran up their stairs and began leaning on the doorbell.  Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding Dong! I didn’t let up on this for 5 minutes and it’s probably good that no one came to the door – I had become the monster that Dmitri was trying to protect his family from – an enraged man who had taken leave of his senses. While on the porch I started kicking their aluminum screen door as well, putting a sizeable dent into the lower half, and then, realizing it might be time to leave before the police showed up, managed to kick all their potted plants off the front steps on my way back down.

Good thing I wasn’t drunk or it could’ve gotten…ugly.

The next morning, we sat in the kitchen having coffee, discussing this new escalation in events. I think Elaine may have been secretly pleased by my outburst, because it served as a long overdue release of her own pent-up frustration and anger, but also horrified because it represented a new low in our neighbourly relations. “I totally get why you did that”, she said, “we’ve really been put through the wringer on this, if I hadn’t been looking after Camy I might’ve gone over and gotten into some kind of scrap with those guys myself”.  “Now, it’s not just Rambo we have to worry about…it’s Dmitri’s reaction, and our emotional well-being” “God, what if he gets a second dog for the front yard to protect his girls from late-night angry neighbours. Sigh” “Such a shitty situation…I don’t even like living here anymore…any ideas?”

We sat for a while in silence, sipping our coffees and pondering our situation when there was a knock at the door. “Shit, that’s probably Dmitri coming to chew me out and seek restitution for damages, I’ll get it”, I said.

I opened the door and there was a smiling bright faced woman with short blond hair, holding some pamphlets. “Hi”, she said, “My name’s Sue Clayton-Carroll, I’m a realtor, and I’m dropping off some flyers because I just sold a house down the street, which is quite like yours, for $250,000, and I’m checking to see if you have any interest in selling.” My eyes widened at this amount – maybe I salivated a bit – as it was fully double what we’d paid just two short years earlier.  I could see, out of the corner of my eye, Elaine sit bolt upright on the couch when she heard the amount. “Hi Sue”, she said, “I’m Elaine, I co-own this house with George…so…if we wanted to sell with you, would you be willing to ask our next door neighbour to take their dog Rambo indoors during the Open House? He’s a little noisy” “Oh, I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem”, said Sue, “We realtors are asked to do that all the time”.

Elaine and I looked at each other, “Why don’t you pop in and tell us a bit more?”, I said, “can I get you a cup of coffee?”.

Well…that didn’t happen

Lesson # 1: Let go of attachment and expectation during a Pandemic and an era of Climate Change

I came to the painful awareness, on or about January 7, that I had packed on an overabundance of seasonal pounds, developed an undeniable couch/laptop habit, and was feeling – in a word – depranxious.  

“Why am I so inert?” I moaned, “Why such difficulty focusing?” I bleated…”Why so little purr in my purpose and so much meaninglessnessmess?” …faced with this existential angst, I knew what I had to do – call up one of my coffee-shop Gurus for a session. I reached for my iPhone…

Lesson # 2: Pause for awareness, take time to assess & understand – go for coffee with a friend

When last I posted on November 7th, I was looking forward to my slower Fall/Winter schedule at my Gallery/Café on Mayne Island https://shavasana.ca/ . This was – theoretically – going to free up some time for creative projects that I wanted to work on – a new mask, maybe a painting, definitely some writing, and extra time to refocus on my Podcast, which had been languishing.

Luckily, I did manage to produce a new podcast on Nov.10, https://www.theaccidentalcurator.ca/ and had a fabulous weekend at Shavasana Gallery & Café, Nov. 11 – 14th  – which coincided with the annual Mayne Island Studio/Art Tour…and then the Atmospheric River hit.

New terms have shown up recently in our weather lexicon that we have not heard before – Atmospheric River, Heat Dome and Polar Vortex are three relative newcomers that have arrived with their concomitant disasters and associated worries.

The November Atmospheric River Event brought record-breaking amounts of water to BC and Washington and catastrophic flooding to the region, which destroyed roads, bridges, dikes, homes, farms, lives & livelihoods

The scale of this event is almost unimaginable – these few photos are but a glimpse of some of the regional destruction – including a massive fire which destroyed 100 RVs at an RV Park and gave the carnage an “end of the world with a sense of twisted irony” quality

This biblical flooding occurred shortly after Vancouver had a small – but unprecedented – tornado on Nov. 6.

We. Don’t. Get. Tornados.

And all of this came on the heels of one of our worst summer fire seasons on record when we were introduced to the term “Heat Dome” with its punishing heat and destructive fires.

I had two more sessions with the Gallery on Mayne – early December and mid December – to pick up some Christmas business and visit with some of my community there. Mary Jane who bakes all my cookies went the extra mile and produced a fabulous selection of Christmas goodies for my appreciative customers. My dear friends Famous Empty Sky and Bill Maylone graced the walls of my Gallery with their art, as did the late Cedar Christie, via a loan from her friend Pat Gaston.

Like other regional Cafés, who are not required to ask customers for proof of vaccination, I had adopted a stringent mask policy that allowed people to come in, sit down, take off their masks, and have a coffee. It felt, briefly, like a return to normal. I had even expanded my seating to near full-capacity as coffee shops in Vancouver were doing. It was great – the buzz of happy people visiting and chatting…such a long-awaited relief. But then, in early December Mr. Omicron announced that he may be coming to spoil the party.

For a while it looked like maybe we were going to be spared – this new variant, which was raging in South Africa & Europe, hadn’t hit our shores. But news, and Omicron, travel fast. During my last few days of business – Dec.13 – 16 – conversations started to turn to Xmas party cancellations, and plans to “hunker down” before this next wave of the pandemic – inevitably – hit. By mid December we were still hovering around 4300 cases per day (Nationally)…and then on the 16th …my last day…they jumped to almost 7,000 cases. It had arrived. Within ten days we’d be seeing unprecedented numbers like 50 and 55 thousand cases per day. I felt like I was closing up shop and fleeing back to Kitsilano before things got really bad – with half an eye on cancelling my own Christmas plans.

On the ferry back, Thursday night, I had time to reflect on some other tragic news I’d received the day prior. A sweet & gentle man, I knew in Vancouver – Justis Daniel – a 77 year-old musician who was operating as the park caretaker at Tatlow Park in Kitsilano had been murdered. There seems to be no shortage of senseless in this world, and this was one more WTF moment to add to my own backpack of worries – an unsolved murder…of a friend…in my neighbourhood. As of today’s date (Jan. 15) police still have no leads in his death.

Justis Daniel – sweet dreams chum🙏

Despite the stresses of pandemics and regional disasters and senseless murder, life goes on. My partner Cathy and I still had to figure out our Christmas. Maybe this is the antidote to tragedy – as the Brits say, “Keep Calm and Carry On”…what else can you do? “Ok, we’ll buy & decorate a tree..that’s outdoors so can’t be too risky”…”Gifts?” …”Are they really necessary?” “Is it worth getting sick doing all that crowded indoor shopping?”…lineups and masks and squirt bottles of sanitizers with furtive, military precision excursions into shops to buy stocking stuffers for your loved one. Eagerly exiting shops so you can rip off your mask and breathe the cool refreshing air, before planning your next life-threatening purchase….and then, hardest of all, making decisions about Christmas dinner.

A large part of the gruelling stress of this pandemic has been the complete overdose of conflicting bits of information & misinformation we’ve received, the polarization this has created, and the uncertainty this has engendered. As cases of the new Omicron outbreak kept growing exponentially from mid to late December, and with mixed reports coming in on the severity of this particular strain, we were left perplexed about what to do with our 6 anticipated guests (8 including ourselves). All info that we were gleaning from our various sources, screamed reduce, diminish, cancel & postpone. The fact that my son & his new wife were flying to Quebec for a 4 day excursion, where the outbreak was particularly nasty, and returning the day prior to our dinner – pretty much sealed the decision to not have an indoor sit down dinner, and instead enact “Plan B”. Turkey sandwiches for just we four, meeting in our cars in an oceanside parking lot, to have a little picnic, and visit through our open windows – despite the snow and minus 8 degree weather!

It started getting uncharacteristically cold in the third week of December with temperatures below freezing. The Polar Vortex delivered a very rare ten inches of snow on Christmas, followed by a record-breaking -15.3 degrees on the 27th. This bone-chilling cold coincided with our worst-day ever Covid case count, with 49,148 cases nationally, a ten-fold increase in 12 days. Provincial restrictions came back into being, some businesses were shut down, events cancelled, lineups for goods and services returned and – most cruel of all – coffee shops started to limit their indoor seating again, or in my case, close down completely.

I’m a social animal and, for my mental and emotional well-being, I must get out of the house, and away from my home-office – at least once a day – to interact with the world. Visits with friends at coffee shops plays an important role in that process. By late December, with the Omicron numbers off the charts, indoor seating was not an option and finding someone – anyone – willing to bundle up and sit in subzero weather wasn’t happening …except for my good friend and coffee shop Guru – Jordy B. Our mutual love of coffee and conversation and proximity to each other in Kitsilano has made it relatively easy to scoot out for a cup o’ joe and have some of that invaluable human interaction that has been in such short supply – for many – over the past two pandemic years.

There came a time in early January – a few days – which felt like the emotional low of the past two years. “What exactly is this feeling, this state I’m in?”, I wondered, “Is this Ennui?”… “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement”…close, but not exactly, maybe it’s Lassitude…”a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.”…hmm, kinda…Languor? …”the state or feeling, often pleasant, of tiredness or inertia”…no, definitely not, nothing pleasant about this. Torpor?…”a state of physical or mental inactivity; lethargy.”…So many terms describing variations of what I’m feeling, but none of them seemed quite bang on. It wasn’t Anhedonia…”the inability to feel pleasure.”…because I still enjoyed lying on the couch, eating chocolate, and looking at my laptop. There was only one way to find answers to this riddle and break the deadlock of this emotional morass in which I found myself trapped…time to book a session with Jordy B. – my coffee shop Guru.

“I’ll see you at Bucks in 15”, came the reply text, “sounds serious, better order a Vente” The outdoor seating at Starbucks on West Broadway in Kits has been a cherished meeting place during the pandemic, as it provides a modicum of protection from the elements. “OK, see ya there” …

“It sounds to me like you’re moribund” he said, when I described my plight. “Stagnating…lacking vitality or vigor” “Everybody’s been experiencing some version of this…just look at all the shit that’s going on…we’re two years into a pandemic that’s just recently gotten worse…we’ve had 6 months of disastrous weather anomalies, almost everybody has overeaten during the festive season…so we’re sluggish & justifiably a bit depressed”…”Just recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself & the world for this moment we are all going through…and get your head straight”…”Oh…and, be nice”

Lesson # 3: Forgive Self, Forgive Others and seek forgiveness from others you may have harmed

Always good to sit with JB and receive some of his eclectic wisdom…”Moribund”…yeah, that seems about right….and sure, I probably do need to get my head straight. And I was pondering his last bit of advice to “be nice” and thinking “Hmmm…no, that seems to be asking a bit too much, I don’t think I’ll do that” When this “Regional Civil Emergency Advisory Alert” came in warning about an impending Tsunami😳

…Well…that galvanizes the ol’ Moribundity! Gotta run for higher ground!…see ya!

The Return…Getting Back to my Creative Process

It’s been eight months since I’ve posted anything on this website and six months since I’ve created any new episodes on my Podcast: The Accidental Curator https://www.theaccidentalcurator.ca/ . Although most of my creative energy had been directed towards the podcast since its inception in mid-2020, it was still my intention to use Clay and Bone as an outlet for my mask-making, painting and short story writing. Whereas writing can take place anywhere and anytime that inspiration and the muse allow, regional travel restrictions prevented me from using my Studio/Gallery on Mayne Island for any of my 3 and 2 dimensional artwork. All creative projects hit a wall in June as regional Covid restrictions were lifted and I was able to travel – once again – to Mayne Island to re-open my Gallery Café https://shavasana.ca/ .

Although I haven’t painted much during the pandemic I did manage to sell one of my pieces, “Winter Pond”, when my Gallery re-opened for business this past summer

When I finally managed to re-open to the public in July – after a 21 month hiatus – I had no idea what to expect. Given that we were still in the midst of the pandemic, would islanders and tourists show up or would I be left in my empty Gallery/Café vaxxed, masked, and holding a bottle of hand sanitizer. Well…they showed up…in droves…and I had the busiest summer, albeit shortened, that I’d had in 8 years in business. Perhaps this was due to an unprecedented fire season we were having in the interior of BC which drove people to the coast for vacation, perhaps it was due to the US border re-opening to Americans (but not Canadians) such that they flowed up here but we had nowhere to go, maybe it was the new dynamic of people leaving the cities, discovering ways to continue working online thus liberating them from offices and the urban environment…maybe it was just that islanders after a year and a half of pandemic limitations, were in need of somewhere else to go and grab a coffee on a small island with few options. Anyway you slice it, it was a busy, busy summer at the Gallery Café and all plans of Podcasting, Posting or Painting were off.

This was my last day of Summer hours – October 3, 2021 -and I had a quiet moment to do a walkthrough to capture the Shavasana vibe, a little momento of a fabulous summer – despite the pandemic👍

This outcome was not such a bad thing. I actually love working at Shavasana Gallery & Café. I feel blessed to interact with such a – generally – happy group of people. Whether they are tourists who are on vacation euphoria or islanders who are joyous at their good fortune, my experience, as a barista/curator on a small Gulf Island has been one of sublime bliss.

And I could carry on this way indefinitely but for two realities, “shoulder season” arrives, and my inner creative neanderthal needs to abandon the hunt for nuts and berries and go into the cave and make art, or tell stories, or beat a drum. “Shoulder Season” for a small Gallery Café proprietor on Mayne island is that period – roughly – from October through March where I become, as one friend described it, less of a gregarious summertime social maestro, and more of counsellor for those suffering mid-winter cabin fever blues…all for the price of a cup of coffee.

I did manage to paint this mask, “Pandemic Pan”, which I made in 2020

Thus…a perfect time to work on my creative projects. I’ve already started to prepare more clay for a new mask I have in mind, and have been gifted with a lovely set of Fallow Deer antlers from one of our island hunters – Bob – which will grace this piece.

Preparing “Clay and Bone” for the next mask project

Another project which has kept me moderately busy is an ebay store which I set up in late 2020. It occurred to me during the pandemic that I had collectibles (comics & sport cards from my childhood), antiques and art that I was willing to part with so I took some time to populate my ebay store https://www.ebay.ca/usr/shavasana9 with 200 items for sale (follow the link if you wish to have a look). This has been going surprisingly well and has been a fun pastime in lieu of running Shavasana Gallery or making art at my studio. I think the next stage will be reaching out to artists and friends who have art which they’d like to sell through my store. I already have a few items from friends for sale and have had interested inquiries from others.

And then there’s life…and death. Joyously, my son Cam got married in September to his sweetheart Nekita, and then tragically two of my dearest friends lost their son in October…this capricious universe, so dynamic, so organized yet chaotic. I am often left in awe of this experience, yet always try to find some way to express gratitude.

And when all else fails? Go to a Bond movie…although the pandemic postponed the release of “No Time To Die” for 18 months, when it finally hit the screens in October I beelined to the neighbourhood cinema and caught a Sunday matinee. I slouched into my seat with a box of hot salted buttered popcorn… and Bond delivered…all is right in the universe👍

Nothing like a little Bond & Buttered Popcorn on a rainy Sunday afternoon to make everything right in the universe…at least for a short while🙏

Sugartime

“Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime”

“Be my little sugar and love me all the time”

Sugartime” – song written by Charlie Phillips & Odis Echols in 1957, and popularized by The McGuire Sisters in 1958, Kitty Wells in 1959, and yes, even Johnny Cash in 1961

When we gain sobriety, one of our primary tasks is to try and understand where our excessive habits came from. “How did I get here?” sang David Byrne of the Talking Heads…the trail of self-discovery was, in my case at least, not sprinkled with breadcrumbs, but sugarcubes and candycanes, leading all the way back to my early childhood…

Is this the face of an addict?…apparently yes 🙂

It was the mid to late 1950’s, I wasn’t yet toilet trained and already I lived for sugar. The world, and everything that found it’s way into my tiny mouth seemed sprinkled, dusted, coated, dipped, rolled in, spread with or completely fabricated of sugar. It was everywhere…it sweetened every social event, it was baked into the major holidays, it kidnapped Halloween…the birthday parties with their inch-thick icing cakes, the visits to family with their gauntlet of well-meaning candy-proffering Aunties & Grannies, and the ubiquitous bowls of assorted bonbons & mints presented as offerings of supplication to we God-children by fawning neighbors.

There was always a rush to be the first to give a child candy. The giver knew intuitively that it bestowed an immediate bond…sugar was love.

Sugar in the morning. By the time I started eating solid foods a typical day would start with a good sugar-saturated breakfast cereal…Sugar Pops, Cap’n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios…and for those “healthier” cereals (Special K, Rice Crispies, Cheerios) there was always the

ever-present bowl of sugar in the middle of the kitchen table, to help oneself – unsupervised – to as much sugar as one could tolerate…and yes my friends, young Georgie had a very high tolerance. And who am I trying to kid?…I put sugar on all of my cereals…whether they came pre-sugared or not. “It’s Sugartime Folks!”.

The alternative to cereal was toast slathered in jam, honey & peanut butter, with weekend treats of pancakes & waffles swimming in syrup, or batches of my Swedish Grandma’s Plett (small thin pancakes) sprinkled with spoonfuls of sugar butter and cinnamon.

I had a particular love affair with the sugar bowl and would often find myself  – at age 3 or 4 – kneeling on a chair at the kitchen table, leaning over and methodically channeling spoonful after spoonful of sugar into my mouth while my mother was downstairs doing laundry…bliss.

By the age of 5 or 6 my teeth started to resemble those of Shane MacGowan from the Pogues.

Sugar in the Evening.  If we were sick, sugar was there to “help the medicine go down”. I remember my mother crushing whatever pill may

have been prescribed or bought over-the-counter and mixing it with jam or honey to make it more palatable for my little pill-averse taste buds. If ever we had a cold, flu or fever, Dad was there with a Hot Toddy (Hot Whiskey, Honey or Sugar and maybe a little lemon…a Scottish thing) before we went to bed… hovering somewhere between a sugar coma and boozy delirium.

One “cute story” that my mother (bless her) used to tell from my early childhood, was of little Georgie – perhaps age two – going into the bathroom, climbing on top of the toilet to reach the medicine cabinet above the sink to retrieve the Benylin cough syrup (a rather

potent medicine laced with Codeine – an opioid linked to addiction –  and sugary syrup)…and downing the entire bottle. Mom found the empty bottle and me – staggering around the house. She gave me small amounts of coffee and forced me to keep walking so I wouldn’t pass out.

Sugar at suppertime. I received a weekly allowance of 10 cents, and permission to walk the two or three blocks to my favorite store in our neighborhood (and likely the only one I frequented at the age of 5) called “Kiddie Korner”, a candy store where I would load up on penny candy.

C’mon kids…first one’s free!

Ten cents  – at two or three pieces per penny – could fill a small brown paper bag and provide an afternoon of addictive* cavity expanding distraction. Green Sugar-Coated Jelly Mint Leaves, Pinkish Sugar

Strawberries, Yellow Bananas, Little Black Licorice Babies, Candy Necklaces, Red Shoestring Licorice, Bazooka & Double Bubble Bubblegum (no suckers or Jellybeans thanks, they’re a little too pedestrian), Lik-M-Aid, Candy Lipstick, Candy Bacon…and on and on. If you build it they will come. Kiddie Kokaine as my friend JB calls it, and as it turns out…he’s right.

When I quit drinking in 2012 (thank you AA) my desire to eat sweet things (ice cream, chocolates and sugary baked goods) spiked, as if I was replacing my adult drinking obsession with my more primary childhood sugar craving. I wasn’t eliminating addiction, I was only transferring it…reverting to the mean, as it were. Shortly after receiving my 1 year “Sobriety Cake” in 2013 (also slathered with sugary irony), I came across across this article in the NatGeo titled “Sugar Love” which said:

*“When we eat sugar the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two mood-boosting hormones that stimulate the area of the brain associated with reward. In a process similar to drug addiction, we get sugar cravings. However, our sugar rush releases insulin that creates a sugar crash, triggering more cravings and a vicious sugar cycle”

Bingo. If not a smoking gun then at least a prime suspect.

Although I still indulge in the sweet stuff, and may indeed be powerless** over a well-crafted cookie or piece of chocolate, my life is not unmanageable…unless you take away my coffee…don’t even think about it.

** Step 1 from AA, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”

The Three Injuries

Rule # 1 – just because you have one injury doesn’t mean you can’t have another

Rule # 2 – just because you have two injuries, doesn’t mean you can’t have a third

I know that these are contentious times but can we all agree at least, that Holly Trees are malevolent and dangerous beasts? From their poisonous red berries to their skin-piercing needle-festooned leaves they are a menace for all seasons. They seem to grow incessantly and beyond reason, and if you are one of the unfortunates – like myself – that has two of them in his yard, you will inevitably be called upon to tame their unwelcome expansion through pruning.

The offending beast

I don’t think I’m a particularly accident prone guy, but, those who know me well may agree that I lack a certain amount of caution and forethought.  I sometimes take risks – wittingly or unwittingly – and don’t always preface my activities through the filter of self-preservation. 

And I’m not bereft of tools, being quite well-equipped for the job of pruning…I’ve got Pruning Shears, Bypass Lopper, Saws, Hedge Shears and even an 8’ Pole Pruner…and of course, for the task of fighting with my Holly Tree, heavy leather work gloves.  As it turned out, the only thing I was really lacking on this day was… Safety Goggles.

Rule # 3 – Never try and prune a Holly Tree without Safety Goggles

You get where I’m going with this, right? It was Sunday, Father’s Day in fact, when I found myself – without Safety Goggles – standing on a chair, stretching to prune branches over my head…not a good idea. A cautious, safety oriented person would have – while wearing protective eyewear – switched to a ladder to be able to prune above the falling branches thus avoiding potential injury.  Not I, or should I say, not eye?

The falling holly branch scraped across my eye on it’s way to the ground leaving me with what is known as a Corneal Abrasion. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was about a 7, but of greater concern was an immediate reduction in vision by about 50%. The eye closes involuntarily and through the tears, painful blinking and blurred vision I knew that the bad haircut I’d given the Holly Tree would have to wait …”OK fucker, you win this one, but even if I have to finish this job looking like a pirate with one eye, I’ll be back!”

With my one good eye, I went inside and consulted Mr. Google to see what I should do – hoping to avoid Doctors… on a Sunday…during a Pandemic…on Father’s Day. But no, beyond a little rinse in Saline solution, the risks – blindness – were too great and a trip to emergency was in order, where I expected to see a room full of hapless Dads, bleeding and broken from their various ill conceived yard duties.

As I was unable to drive, my lovely partner Cathy volunteered to be my ambulance and risk-management adviser, reminding me – once again – of the benefits of precaution. I promised I would heed her good advice.

At Emergency, it turns out that bleeders, strokes and organ failures get fast tracked through “Emergency Room A” whereas those who are just broken and in pain – like myself – get put into “Emergency Room B”…with it’s lengthy waits. We are there to endure and build character.

Emergency Room “B” at VGH…patient patients

After my obligatory four and a half hour wait I was able to consult with a specialist who informed me, while looking deep into my eye –and my soul – that my injury was not very bad and should slowly heal over the coming weeks. “It’s a rather small scratch Mr. Bathgate, you’ll be fine, here are some drops” It’s all I really wanted to hear, even though it still felt like my eye had been slashed with a bayonet. The next day I went and bought Safety Goggles.

Despite my ongoing discomfort (mild pain, blurred vision and an eye that wouldn’t stop blinking and weeping) I needed to get over to Mayne Island to work on my Gallery, which had been shut since October. The yard was an overrun mess of waist-high grass, weed families, and a long-neglected California Lilac that was in dire need of…pruning…I stuffed my Safety Goggles into my back pack, and made my way via public transit to the ferry.

The lovely California Lilac

Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, my Gallery/Café will likely remain closed for the season.  Where I would have normally done all my spring-cleaning, gardening and preparatory work in March and April for a May opening, I only started to make tentative forays to Mayne Island in mid to late June. The extra 3 month absence has allowed my yard flora to run riot and I have my work cut out for me. This is good as it gives me focus and a sense of productivity as I self-isolate on Mayne.

Rule # 4 – You can never wear enough protective gear to prevent all possible injuries

The California Lilac is a beautiful bush and the bees love it. I love it and I love the bees. It has grown considerably since last year, gaining height and breadth to give us a beautiful display of its fragrant, buzzing, blue flowers. It seems to allow its lower branches to die out, creating a canopy of support for the upper display, and has gained enough width to prevent us from accessing our path into the back yard without ducking. It is this barrier, and the tangled mess of dead branches which I have to tackle…luckily I have my Protective Eyewear.

Crouching under the Lilac to gain access to the dead branches, sometimes on my hands and knees, puts me in some pretzel-like yogic positions for pruning. Although I’ve got my protective eyewear, my injured eye is still weepy and not giving me clarity of vision…and here, on Mayne, I don’t have the complete contingent of tools…all I have are pruning shears, which are like pliers… with sharp blades. It’s all going well until I encounter a rather thick branch which requires two hands to apply enough pressure to make the cut. Where’s a Bypass Lopper when you need one? While exerting maximum pressure, my thumb slipped into the crushing/pinching fulcrum as the cut was made and I gave myself a nasty blood blister.

Not my thumb, a gift from Mr Google, but gives the general idea

Swearing comes fairly naturally at these moments…I’m under the bush with my weepy damaged eye, holding my injured hand between my legs with my teeth clenched going f…u…c…k! It hurts but I know the drill, I’ve had these before, all you can do is wait, grimace, and clench your teeth…the pain will subside in 5 or 10 minutes. Some choose to lance the blister to let the blood and pressure out – and I may do this later – but at this moment I’m looking at piles of pruned dead branch debris thinking, “OK…I can do this…I’ll just clean up this mess and then wrap up for the day and have a look at my wound”.

I start to gather up handfuls of dead branches and ponder where I’m going to toss them. It’s a 10 acre parcel of land and we don’t have an official burn pile so I decide to throw the organic material into the bushes. All I have to do is wander through a small patch of innocuous-looking waist high plants to chuck my load.

Rule # 5 – Know what poisonous plants thrive in your region – avoid them

There are two kinds of people in this world – those that recognize Stinging Nettles and avoid them and those that don’t and suffer accordingly – I fall into the latter category. Maybe if I hadn’t been wearing shorts and sandles it wouldn’t have been so bad. I’d never had an encounter with Stinging Nettles before and, it truly is, an unforgettable experience. By the time I was 10 feet into the patch I knew something was seriously wrong…my legs were on fire and, as a novice to this problem, it took me a moment to understand my plight and make a plan of escape. The pain was so great it dwarfed my earlier injuries, but all I could do was ditch my armload of debris, turn around and rush back the way I’d come, adding further injury.

Stinging Nettle – I know…they look so innocuous…

The Stinging Nettle is covered with thousands of filaments that pierce the skin of the unwary and inject poisons that result in burning, itching painful sensations. Hundreds of mosquito-bite like blisters form on the exposed skin and even with washing can remain with the victim for up to 18 hours.

I felt like I’d just experienced medieval torture with my nasty thumb pinch followed in such short order with my blistered burning legs. I was reminded of Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction when he asked his homies to “bring pliers and a blowtorch” to deal out rough justice to his hillbilly tormentors.

Bruce Willis & Ving Rhames in “Pulp Fiction”

Luckily I have a sense of humor and was able to sit back with my damaged eye, blistered thumb, and ravaged legs and laugh…at myself and unforeseen circumstances. And, due to “The Rule of 3” (not to be confused with Rule # 3 above) from the Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete…I’d had my three perfect accidents and was now complete – I was safe from further harm.

The Forever Month

I’m writing this from my home/office in Kitsilano on April 22, 2020. It’s a good day to sit down and write because, well, it’s raining out and I have little else to do. It’s not yet time to go out for my furtive human-avoidance daily walk, nor am I ready to venture out on my weekly life-threatening shopping excursion. Although the Coronavirus arrived locally in January, its impact was not felt – personally – until voluntary self-isolation & social distancing kicked in on March 19th…the beginning of this minimized and repetitive, Groundhog Month existence we all now share.

We British Columbians are – uncharacteristically – grateful for the rain, as we’ve just experienced the driest April in recorded history, and, as a forested province had begun to worry about our summer fire season. As we are not, as yet, experiencing complete societal lockdown, walking – albeit furtive, fearful and weird – has become one of our primary pleasures – a chance to leave the house/apartment and get much needed fresh air and exercise. This blog/journal is my attempt to keep a record of photos & observations from these local excursions, during this longest of months.

Luckily, I’d returned from a holiday in Mexico on March 6 – before the chaos of airports closing and airlines shutting down had begun. By March 13 though, everything had changed. Friends flying into Vancouver from Ottawa cancelled on the 13th, and my son and his partner Nekita had to cancel a trip to Peru, scheduled for the 14th. Another friend’s son made it to Peru on the 15th just as the airports closed and the country shut down, and Nekita’s mother is still trapped in Hungary with no hope of getting home until late May. I stumbled across these images on my my daily walks, which seemed to reflect the news. Chaos was coming closer to home, “Should I Be Worried?”

If I wasn’t worried previously, early forays into stores with depleted shelves set off some primal inner alarm bells that created a fear-based urge to stock up. My inner lizard had been unleashed. The media were stoking this fear with stories of “toilet paper hoarding” (still not sure what that was all about), and images of vast lines at grocery stores and people greedily clutching at their overloaded carts. I didn’t become one of the human-locusts, but my behaviour was definitely modified to make sure that Cathy and I had enough supplies at home to last for a month if the whole thing fell apart ….hence the Legume Shelf, our protection against the feared collapse of supply chains, and also a great food to assist with social distancing 🙂

I have a lot of faith in the essential goodness of my fellow citizens…it’s humans that I sometimes worry about. Knowing what they are capable of under duress adds a certain edge to ones decision making process in such times. Until rules were put in place by grocery stores ( socially-distant lines, entry limits), and people overcame their initial panic-buying, shopping was unpleasant, slightly fearful and greedy – and quite likely fraught with danger due to the proximity of potentially Covid-infected, clutching hordes of shoppers.

Self-isolation has unique challenges for couples, individuals, and parents at home with children. Emotional strain is being experienced by all. I feel fortunate, during these times, to share these duties – and my life – with my pragmatic & lovely partner Cathy. Whereas my own proclivity is to ignore, forget, or pick and choose from the growing list of rules that are designed to save my life, Cathy’s cautionary wisdom is there to help save me from myself. If not for her, I’d likely be SOL in an ICU at VGH 🙂 ❤

I suffer from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) …this, coupled with my first attempt to do my own taxes in…oh…30 years, using unfamiliar software, while the rain drizzled down under a grey sky and the Canada Revenue Agency was inaccessible due to the Covid-19 outbreak, made self-isolation and the prospect of Global Pandemic especially…….fun. Every now and then – in life- we get to experience new shapes and flavours of misery that we never even dreamed existed…this was one of them 🙂

Coffee…learning to adjust to a coffee-shopless world

I love coffee, and coffee shops. So much so that I run one called Shavasana Art Gallery & Café on Mayne Island, where I, in fact, live when I am open for business…6 months of the year. So I can truthfully say that “I live in a coffee shop”, albeit part time.

One of my personal disappointments that has arrived with the Covid-19 shutdown, has been my need to close my business til further notice. I love my little endeavour and the wonderful community of friends that I have made there. Due to a shortage of medical professionals & facilities on Mayne Island, and a demographic dominated by seniors, the island is especially at risk for the Coronavirus outbreak, and has asked those of us who have alternate accommodation (as I do in Kitsilano) to remain in place.

One of my favourite coffee shops in Vancouver is Bruno’s Corner Cup, which is a short two blocks from my home and is – under normal circumstances – my first stop of the day where I grab my morning coffee and sit with “the boys” to discuss…”important things”. Bruno makes a great cup of coffee, best in Vancouver by my reckoning, and has had to repurpose his place since the shutdown, as indoor seating is disallowed. He’s a very resourceful guy and after a 3 week closure is now selling bags of coffee and doing takeout.

In his absence I played the daily game of trying to find those rare coffee shops that were still selling takeout. It almost felt like a drug deal…furtive and dangerous. I would take the occasional photo to send to my good friend and morning coffee buddy Jordy as a kind of game, “look what I found”. It’s good to have Bruno back …when the shutdown is over and we all return to some semblance of normalcy perhaps I’ll introduce Bruno’s blend to my Mayne Island audience.

Finding Joy During Crisis

Despite the weirdness & worry, and the upset of our comfortable routines, we adapt and find new or forgotten joys to replace what we have lost: We were very lucky to have 2 – 3 weeks of sunshine, which made walking so much better; I found great pleasure (all winter) feeding birds (my new little friends) on a ledge outside my office window; Traffic was cut back which made the city quieter, easier to navigate, and less polluted; Acts of kindness sprung up everywhere, including appreciation for our essential workers & health care professionals, hearts & signs everywhere and random individual acts like the “Table of Freebies” in front of someone’s home; Moments of tranquility at Lolly’s bench where songbirds abound; the joy of access to golf courses – which are closed to golfing – but open to walkers; and, lying down in a field of daisies.

Nature & solitude can be excellent companions during this – and any – time, and are great substitutes for whatever self-important things I may have been doing previously. Just one recommendation though…if you have an opportunity to lie in a field of daisies, by all means do so…just check for Canada Goose poop first! 🙂

“Adventures in Leather”

The rewards of running a Gallery Café on a small island are not always financial…as I think about it, in my own case, they’re not financial at all,  because I really don’t make a lot of money at this gig. What the Art Gallery Café may lack in remuneration though is more than compensated…well, mitigated perhaps…by a depth & breadth of experience that I have come to cherish…tolerate…endure…and fear.

Mostly it’s been good…fabulous actually…how can you not love it when friends and neighbours drop in with fresh baked scones and home-made preserves just out of a spirit of generosity. It’s a very giving community and I’ve been the happy recipient of so much largesse…food of all sorts: smoked salmon, various teas and coffees, baked goods of all kinds, numerous bouquets of flowers, award winning sunflowers, canned items from homegrown gardens, and perhaps one of my favourites, the friends who showed up with an entire ice-cream maker full of freshly made blackberry ice cream…God that was good, perhaps the best ice cream I’d ever dipped my spoon into.

And the fearful? Well, at the moment the bucket of ice cream scares me as I try and shed 20 pounds after my winter excesses. All kidding aside though…it’s people. When you run a retail operation, as I do, it’s a public space open to all, and you never know who is going to walk through the front door. I’ve been fortunate, I know, as I can safely say that 99%+ of those who have graced my Gallery with their presence have been kind, funny, happy, bright and engaging.

And the <1% ?…mostly a garden variety of quirky individuals whom we all encounter from time to time who trigger our awareness mechanism in a way that speaks of unpredictability. We know that our ability to communicate and understand might be challenged and may try our patience. But these individuals are – ultimately – harmless and wander off on their quixotic journeys. Then there are the in-your-face recovering drug addicts who generate wariness and, of course, the irritating drunks who wander in eliciting anger, wariness and thoughts of self defence…

….and then there’s Colin*. Colin was the “1 in a 1,000” deeply troubled individual who walked in one fine spring morning and stayed for a year and a half. I’m not going to go into detail but suffice it to say that Colin’s depth of personal pain had created a malevolence filled with hair-trigger anger, paranoia and threats of violence which I became privy to on an almost daily basis. His appearance, and my exposure to his toxicity made me seriously consider closing my shop…and then, one day, he was gone!

The experiences I have come to value the most (next to buckets of ice-cream) are those which feel unique and fresh and unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Situations or events which arouse my sense of the absurd….friends who drop in by horse, performance artists appearing with giant puppets, phone calls to help move a giant pot-bellied pig to a Church Fair, a friend showing up with a truckful of retrievers, a hunter coming in with a bag full of bloody deer hooves for “my art”, and, one of my faves, an elderly friend dropping off her late husbands collection of retro leatherwork magazines which I’ve captured in this short video “Adventures in Leather”

“Adventures in Leather”

The magazines went to a good home as I decided against a new career in leatherwork. The adventure – now in its sixth year – continues 🙂

*Colin is the name I have given to “He who shall remain nameless”…

The Blüthner

It was there, waiting for me, when I got back from Vancouver. Black, lustrous and imposing, it now occupied the space I’d left for it against the far wall between the two cabinets. Possessing a certain presence and grace, it sat there patiently, as if expecting me. My new roommate had arrived – the Blüthner was here.

The movers had obviously found the “secret key” and managed to access my Gallery and wrestle its awkward bulk into place, without my assistance. For this I was grateful as pianos are notoriously difficult to move. Three-men with a truck, a special dolly and straps is still no guarantee of safety – for the piano or the movers. This is why you’ll find many pianos being offered for “free”…if you pick up the moving fees.

In fact, the piano was not mine – a friend had received it, for free, when the local Community Centre on Mayne Island decided to divest themselves of their two pianos. His impulsive agreement to take the piano was short-lived though, when he realized that he didn’t have space for it. Pianos are beautiful instruments and have an intrinsic allure, even if you don’t know how to play them – like myself. When offered a chance to “store it indefinitely” in my Gallery Café, I readily accepted, and now, it was here…what to do?

It looked lovely in its new home, fitting perfectly between the two cabinets, allowing for stylish art displays on the wall in the alcove above, and on top of the piano too. But what of the piano itself? What is a Blüthner? A name I’d never heard, before one showed up in my Gallery. I was curious.

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It all starts with a little Wikipedia…

Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik  manufactures pianos in Leipzig Germany. Along with Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the “Big Four” piano manufacturers. Established in 1853, Julius Blüthner, a deeply religious man, spoke the defining words that would allow his company to survive and flourish for the next 167 years, “May God Prevail”. The age of any particular Blüthner piano can be determined by matching its serial number to the age table freely available on the Blüthner website”

Blüthner pianos have won international awards consistently since their inception, and have been prized by pianists all over the world, including Rachmaninoff who said, “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.

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“Hmm…impressive pedigree…and I can determine the age of my Blüthner?,” That’s cool I thought…I had to look. Lifting up the lid, and exposing the Hammer Action I saw the Serial number stencilled on the metal frame, “92989” Returning to the computer and the Blüthner website I was able to determine that my Blüthner was built in 1914 – exactly 100 years earlier (I was doing all this sleuthing in March 2014).

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100 years. I paused to reflect for a moment on this significant date. I think we naturally accredit a special respect for anything that is celebrating a century of life on this earth. If the Blüthner was not technically alive, it had experienced a lot of life at the hands of its various owners. And, significantly, it was born in Leipzig Germany at the start of World War 1 which began on July 28th of that year. Where did it go? How did it get here?

My curiosity about the Blüthner’s journey was piqued and I wanted to know all I could about her…but all I had was the piano sitting before me – and she wasn’t speaking. I grabbed a flashlight and a screwdriver and started to explore.

Removing the bottom panel just above the piano pedals I peered in with my flashlight and saw the Serial number again, handwritten in pencil along with what appeared to be a signature. My first thought was of a young German piano maker leaving his mark for posterity – a little Saxon graffiti – and immediately wondered what might have happened to him with the advent of War.

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Without knowing for certain though, I sent a photo to my German friend Rainer Schroeder (Valhalla Tours ), for translation. Rainer said that although “it’s definitely a word…the font is in Old German “Suetterlin” …but I’m not sure”.

Undaunted, I went online and found Katherine Shober of SK Translations who works in this field to see if she could help. (Chasing this one word translation becomes a story in itself: Katherine was too busy but directed me to Geneologist Dr. Ellen Yutzy Glebe. She too was busy but gave me three Facebook Translation Groups – which I joined – and within hours had a viable translation from Georg Patrzek – “Tschempel (or Tschumpel/Tschampel)” which is a family name…God I love the internet)

I was glad that the word I’d discovered was a family name and didn’t mean “right piano leg” in Sütterlinschrift . Knowing that M. Tschempel decided to sign this instrument upon which he (or she) worked creates, for me at least, a whole thread of historic inquiry to ponder or pursue. Was he young, old, married with family? What happened to Tschempel? World War 1? 2?…in a last grasp at trying to understand, and complete this circle, I found one Tschempel reference online – again on Facebook, a Marie Lea Tschempel whom I have messaged…I await her reply.

The next and most obvious clue in the Blüthner’s journey was a small metal plaque attached to the keyboard lid which read: “Bowran & Co. Ltd – Newcastle on Tyne”

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I knew that Newcastle on Tyne was in England, so the Blüthner had to have made it’s way safely between two warring countries, but I had no way of knowing when it made that perilous trip. Mr. Google was there to help and gave me a little tidbit from the Newcastle Journal August 4th, 1916…a small classified ad indicating that E. O. Bowran was indeed engaged in piano sales, representing several makes & models of new & used pianos. Bowran survived the war but not the great Depression, and had to be “wound up due to liabilities”, as published in the London Gazette, February 5, 1935

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So, somewhere between 1914 and 1935, the Blüthner made it’s way to England, sat in a Piano Shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and was sold either new, used or as part of a bankruptcy liquidation.

Sometime during it’s long life, an aspiring pianist, or perhaps a child who didn’t know better, sat down at the piano with a pen and piece of paper, and forever scarred the keyboard cover while writing out the notes and lyrics to a song:

“Bridge…Bb…Crazy…on…After…Em…Let’s…on…Bill…Dean…Eb…F#m…D”

Their scribbling moved around too much for me to identify the song, or tell what era it’s from. I visualize a young student or budding musician from the 60’s or 70’s copying or creating a piece for personal enjoyment or to entertain family and friends. I find these words add a human element to the Blüthner’s almost indecipherable journey.

The trail goes cold here until August 10, 1986 (or perhaps October 8) when the Blüthner was tuned up by Cliff Brownlee of Penticton, BC.

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I’ve attempted to fill in some gaps with the Blüthner’s history but have been unable to do so beyond the plaques, stickers, and graffiti that were left attached to the piano. The 50 year gap between Newcastle & Penticton is long so I decided to take a chance and call Cliff Brownlee in Penticton to see if he could remember anything about the piano – 28 years after his tuning job. It was a long shot.

Much to my surprise, there he was in the directory, no longer listed as a piano tuner and living at a different address but I felt compelled to call him. What possible harm could it do? Again, surprisingly, Cliff picked up the phone after a couple of rings. I could tell by his voice that I was not dealing with a young man. I explained who I was and why I was calling, that I was on a crazy mission to try and understand the life of a piano. How did it get to Pentiction?…and then to Mayne Island?

Cliff was friendly but admitted that – after this length of time – he really had little memory of working on my Blüthner, but – again with the surprises – he would look into his files, and call me back. He did just that. Two days later I received a call from him, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to elaborate much more on my pianos journey. He did recall coming to Mayne to tune David Hodges Grand Piano back when he was still in business, so we speculated that perhaps the Blüthner was here at that time, and not in Penticton, and that Cliff had picked up some additional tuning jobs.

I had one more lead to try – call the Community Centre and see where they got the piano and talk to whomever donated it. A chat with Lauren led me to Lise who gave me the final word on my quest. A couple named Don and Nina Thompson had made the donation to the Community Centre but they were now both in a seniors care facility in Victoria and should really not be disturbed. The thought being that perhaps they would be dismayed to know that their “donation” had changed hands and was now in a Gallery Café.

After all my sleuthing I certainly wanted to call them, or their family members but I honoured the suggestion. If Don and Nina’s intent when they made their donation was for the Blüthner to be cared for and played lovingly, I’m sure this little video that I made: “Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner” would warm their hearts and assuage any concerns they may have…

“Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner”

The Anecdotard

“an old person whose mental faculties have declined, but not enough to dissuade him from telling short stories about himself”

                                             From the “Bathgate Book of Puns & Portmanteaus”

I suffer from the occasional bout of depression. Although it’s not clinical or chronic, and usually dissipates within a day or two, while it lingers, it can have a nasty crippling effect upon my productivity and sense of accomplishment. I don’t medicate – anymore – as I have assembled tools & techniques, from years of self-work to help me deal with the down. A little reading and self-awareness, a little counselling, and a little Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have been the Hardware stores from which I have filled my emotional toolbox. Luckily, these discouraging feelings are oft times mitigated, as well, by a zany sense of humour, which I have in spades.

It usually starts with some kind of self-critical observation. 

I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing recently (and not so recently) and have had the  disquieting thought that a lot of my current writing lacks substance and depth and is merely anecdotal in nature.  This is the crack in the door through which the depressive thought tries to gain a foothold. 

“Of what lasting value are your anecdotes…old man?” Sneers the cruel inner critic as the crack of despondency widens further. It’s the same accusation of meaninglessness that my demon has conjured up anytime I’ve picked up a pen, a paintbrush or a musical instrument. “Gee…am I just an old guy writing his memoirs?” I ask myself glumly. “Limited talent and minimal lasting value I can accept…but old?…I still have red hair for fuck sake”  My “Sensei of Humour” arrives with a pun and some self-deprecatory thoughts, to teach me a valuable lesson and deflect the cruel blows of self-doubt. “That would make you an Anecdotard, Seito” he says,  “an old man with diminishing mental acuity, telling amusing stories about himself.”

Despondency lifts as I comfort myself with this playful pun. But self-doubt has not released its grip and returns with a pointed remark which casts doubt on my knowledge of language, “That’s not a pun” he oozes, with thinly veiled contempt …Anecdotard is a portmanteau!” Like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed by self-doubts’ cocky certainty, I slowly reach for my cell phone. “What the fuck is a portmanteau?” I wonder. “Sounds like a French overcoat….I need to reach out to a higher linguistic power” No, not Google or Wiktionary – higher than that – I text my friend Jon Steeves, creator of  “Moot – The World’s Toughest Language Game” and pose my question.

“Ahhh, I’m not wrong”… I ponder, optimistically, as I lean back in my chair with my hands clasped behind my head…“I’m half right”. Depression and self-doubt are – for a time – vanquished, and I return to my normal happy-go-lucky state.

Friends and an appreciation of the absurdity of life – two of the most important contents of any depressive’s toolbox.

Afghanistan – December,1973

I’ve been writing a few short stories recently, most of which have been gleaned from experiences I had back in the early 70’s as a young long-haired traveller. I’ve enjoyed the process – thus far – feeding these stories to my website and friends on social media for general consumption. For some reason, as I tackle this story about my time in Afghanistan, in December, 1973, I’ve been hit with one of those occasional moments of self-doubt about my motivations for writing…at all…or the value or purpose of what I’m doing.  Seeds of creative doubt and purposelessness creep in.  To spare you my current angst I’m going to forge ahead with this story, and save my pathos for a subsequent  article, tentatively titled, “The Anecdotard”.

It’s Wednesday December 12, 1973 and we are trying to get into Afghanistan. We had picked up our Afghan Visas in Mashhad, Iran, the day before and boarded the bus for the 3 hour trip to the border, blissfully unaware of the hassles we were soon to face as we negotiated entry at the crossing…from my journal:

“Super cold, some guys are just in rags. Desert. They have a “So Long” sign (at the border) in Iran. Crazy system at the two border posts. The Afghani one is insane. The bus stopped because we were being ripped off. Driver refused to pay. Then we had to go through 6 people to see our passports….a real hassle, it took us 5 hours to get across. Men are always praying to Mecca”

The drive to Herat should have been a breeze but was punctuated with potholes and Toll-roads, which took an additional  2 or 3  hours to navigate the remaining 100 km. Once in Herat we found a Hotel for 20 Afghanis (the unit of currency…about 40 cents) and dinner for about 30 cents…

A piece of very worn Afghani paper currency from 1973 – the image is of King Mohammed Zahir Shah who had been deposed in a coup d’etat 4 months before my arrival

“…and we got about 10 – 14 grams (of Hash) for $1. I was elated but it turned out to be bad – paranoia inducing  – shit…we heard of a jam session (of Afghani musicians) so we walked to it.  All was well until the manager asked for 200 Afghanis for the show, we started to leave and he was going to kill himself. He was begging and getting really ugly so we paid 10 Afghanis each and got tea and music and dope. The vibe was edgy and we all got super paranoid so we left. Insane”

Thursday 13th – Day two in the land known as “The Graveyard of Empires”…”a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan”…1973 was a time of relative peace, a window through which we travellers could pass unscathed. Allah willing…

“Woke up and everybody has a bad cold. Steve and Brad the worst, they will probably sleep today. Omelette, bread, yogurt & tea for 40 cents. Prices here are quite appealing…got stoned, no good, worse cold and paranoia.”

We are all young. The oldest of our travelling companions is likely 25 and I was clocking in as the youngest at 18. None of us are well-versed in moderation or proper self-care. The rigors of the road are demanding, eating is sporadic and getting high is chronic. We are in the legendary land of Black Afghani Hashish. Some hippies on the road have travelled specifically here for this latter reason – inexpensive, accessible, and powerful dope.

“Friday 14th – Very cold here, and I feel pretty sick. I vowed “no dope” but I did and regretted it. The manager taught us to say “Chulta Bukharum” as a way to say thank you but it really means “lick my ass”. Smoked more dope…no good”

We discovered fairly quickly what Chulta Bukharum meant by the uproarious laughs of the manager and staff when he encouraged us to say it to anyone who came in. To this day, I still use it as a form a greeting with Brad, the last of my fellow travellers that I am still in contact with on a regular basis.

“Saturday 15th – Went to the Bazaar, really strange, hard to believe you are really there”

Was this culture shock? Delirium from my nasty cold? Or, the combined effects of the aforementioned and chronic hash smoking?

“Donkeys, garbage, everyone in rags. My cold is worse – sore throat. No dope tonight. Went and listened to music and danced. The old man with one tooth looks like he is out of an insane asylum – but he sure could dance

Sunday 16th – We catch the 9 hour bus for Kandahar, getting in around 6 at night. My cold persists as we acclimatize to our new surroundings…

“nice looking spot. Found a cheap hotel (30 cents). I felt rotten so I went to bed while the others smoked…wild dreams about Jesus, revenge, lightning and death”

Monday 17th – Arose and had tea on the mud veranda overlooking town. Our party of eight is now seven as our British friend Jackie decides to leave.

“Moved to another Hotel – Bamiyan – nice place, good menu. Lazed around & walked to the bazaar where Steve & Knute bought shirts. Great brownies and apple turnovers. The people sell their dope just like a market, anything you like is in their shops. Went back and got high and ate a great vegetable stew.”

Tuesday 18th“1 week til Xmas and we are all  fairly sick. Graham is in bed and I walked the streets in a stupor – really weird, the two girls are fine. No dope til I’m better.”

Wednesday 19th – The imminent arrival of the comet Kohoutek was a much-hyped celestial display that we were all anticipating. It was billed as the “comet of the century” on its “once in 150,000 years” flyby, and was scheduled to reach perihelion on December 28th while we were in Afghanistan. Every night in this clear, pollution-free country, with its arid but cold December evenings we would go out and scan the skies for its presence.

“David Berg, founder of the religious cult, Children of God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in January 1974. Children of God members fled in anticipation to existing communes, or formed new ones, around the world. Because Comet Kohoutek fell far short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular disappointment.” …Wikipedia

“The girls and Steve leave for Kabul tomorrow. Graham had the shits and I’m about the same…walked over to the Indian and Pakistani consulates. Lazed around. Looked for the comet – only small”

Thursday 20th –Life on the road – even in Afghanistan – develops its own routines. Unless something remarkable occurs, Journal entries can be a little repetitive “got up, ate, walked around” or mundane “Brad broke the tape player and fixed it”…”played poker, won 100 Afghanis”, “traded my Asimov book for another Asimov”, or bizarre & lacking explanation, “most people have some disfiguration.” Some of my entries – such as this one – leave me mystified as I don’t recall, now, people being disfigured. Maybe this was the day I bought oranges from a young boy with leprosy who was selling them from a donkey, also with some facial disfiguration. A mystery…maybe Brad will know.

Friday 21st – We’re off to Kabul – we must’ve left quite early because it’s a 10 hour drive and my Journal notes a 3 o’clock arrival, with only one stop at “a crazy café with green-looking meat”.

“Got into Kabul about 3, swarmed over with hotel men (hawkers), each one competing for our business. I stood in the mud to escape. Got a ride into town with me holding the door not to fall out. Our first impressions of Kabul are lousy…dead rat in the road…meat hanging off carts onto the ground. Getting sick of chai. Have to stay a couple of days, at least, to get our visas for Pakistan. Met a guy named René who told us of his times in jail for hash busts”

Saturday 22nd – Moved closer to the Embassy section of town, into the “Friends Hotel”. We met up with our other friends Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and Steve (…“a real hypochondriac, always on pills”…). We are being accosted by an armada of beggars “Baksheesh mister…please!”, and another reference to disfiguration, “one with a really diseased puffo face”.  

Rumours of a “really great restaurant called Sigi’s” has piqued our curiosity, as we haven’t encountered anything but basic food – flatbread, rice, yoghurt, meat, eggs, occasional fruit – for quite some time.  Sigi’s, as it turned out, was to Kabul, as the Pudding Shop was to Istanbul…

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Courtesy of  Pamela Woodland on Flikr

“another legendary place among travelers in the early seventies… one of those western traveler-oriented places (with) great ambiance.  …It was all very surreal.  Taking off our shoes at the door, we entered one of the large, carpeted rooms, sat down on cushions and ordered our meal.  We were briefly greeted by the owner, Siegfreid, a tall German in his forties with blue eyes and short blonde hair. Psychedelic music was playing and people were sitting in small groups swapping road stories …There were two house rules, no dope smoking and no sleeping.  You would be asked to leave if found doing either”……from “On the Hippie Trail” by Tony Walton…( I highly recommend this fellow’s blog if you are interested in stories about the overland trip from Istanbul to Nepal/India in the early 70’ – great photos and writing (either a great memory or a detailed Journal) – I read his site to see what I did….and then pretend that I did it. 🙂 )

“…had Weiner Schnitzel with potato salad, green salad and bread. Banana shakes! All the free mint tea you could drink and beautiful music. A really great place, easily the best in months.”

Sunday 23rd – Spent a good part of the day at the Indian and Pakistani Embassy getting permits (No visas necessary according to my Journal) and planning our Christmas Eve party for the 24th. Taking advantage of Sigi’s food & ambience oasis, again, was a unanimous decision. (I was so taken with Sigi’s use of Afghani style carpet & cushion seating that I would adopt this style – on several occasions – when I returned to Canada.)

Monday 24th – Party planning involved tracking down alcohol, which is always problematic in a Muslim country. There are no liquor stores so one has to ask around, and make furtive under-the-counter purchases. My efforts produced a bottle of brandy for the nights festivities, while the others went out on similar hunting and gathering excursions. We all enjoyed another fabulous meal at Sigi’s. “We” at this point in the journey includes my six travelling companions: Knute, Steve, Graham & Brad (young American guys), Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and myself – the token Canadian.

After Sigi’s we returned to one of our Hotel rooms for a little party – which, in fact, was not unlike parties anywhere that young western kids congregate…

My travelling companions – Steve, Graham, Jill & Sally, Brad & Knute

“Started drinking and smoking, took a pic of us all. Got pretty destroyed, had to work to keep straight. Lots of fun was had. Bought flowers and a tree branch (for decoration) and lots of goodies. Passed out about 12:30 along with all the others. The people next door have been here 1 year because of a death, so they were all decked out for Xmas. Knute scored with Sally, so that’s good”

Tuesday, December 25th – Merry Christmas! I have no idea why I thought Knute “scoring with Sally” was good. Perhaps, as a young red-blooded male I was glad to know that – at the very least –someone was getting lucky.

“…the girls (Jill & Sally) treated us all to a new pair of socks for Xmas. Steve, Graham, Brad & I walked to the top of a local mountain – fantastic scenery. Everyone was hungover.”

It was a low-key day of recovery. Cleaning up our room from last night’s party. Another meal at Sigi’s, fattening up on inexpensive delicious food after weeks of lack, and not knowing what lay in store for us further down the road in Pakistan, India & beyond.

Wednesday 26th“Not much happening. Went to the American Library, no big news, just bad – 20-30 million predicted to die in India. Girls across the hall have scabies”

I find some of young George’s entries hilarious – so matter of fact & devoid of explanatory information…”20-30 million expected to die in India (where I am headed). Girls across the hall have scabies.” Apocalypse juxtaposed with an irritating rash. In fact, I was probably more alarmed by the scabies.

Thursday 27th – We are slowly preparing our exit from Afghanistan. Steve, who had borrowed money from several of us, received $$ from home and paid us all back. I wrote a few letters, and, from the Journal:

“Knute has no passport and we all have tickets. Steve leaves Tuesday, Graham, Brad & I leave Saturday. It’s very cold. René is having bad problems, Mike is accused of spying. Our poor Afghan, “Good Morning Mister” friend says passports are too much for his 40 cent job to handle.”

Friday 28th – It seems that, from my journal, I take some issue with Steve, “he lives off his parents but hates the system”…in fact, most of our group is soon to split up. Steve will head for parts unknown, Graham will go to Nepal, we’ll part with Jill and Sally in northern India and only Brad & Knute and I would make it all the way to Goa. For our last evening in Kabul though, we go to the Star Café which had decent cuisine and a fabulous musical group playing traditional Afghani music on Tablas and the  21-stringed Rabaab. A beautiful way to wrap up our unforgettable (thank God for Journal-keeping) time in Afghanistan.

“The comet is supposed to come out now…I think I’ll paint a picture of the beautiful scenery – planets, star, moon, comet, dark blue sky & mountain…beautiful…Got up at 7 and headed for the bus”

I painted this picture of the mountain and sky, in the heart of Kabul, when I returned to Vancouver in 1974