Post #1031: My latest ‘Aha!’ moment


I’m very close to finishing the book Survivor – Auschwitz, The Death March and My Fight for Freedom by Sam Pivnik and some two-thirds of the way through I was jolted by this passage:

We could have run, could have made it, could have reached the welcoming arms of the British, who surely wouldn’t fire on scarecrows wearing the stripes of a concentration camp? But we didn’t. None of us. And it’s something I’ve read about since in the memoirs of other survivors. The years of terror, of barbed wire, of electric fences, they never leave you. You turn in on yourself, hiding in the only Hell you know. Why? Because out there, in those fields and woodlands, across the ploughed farmland of North Germany was a world I didn’t know at all. I was just thirteen when the Wehrmacht invaded my homeland and in a way my life had been put on hold ever since. In a word, I was too scared to run away.

Almost an entire shelf of my book cabinet is stocked with various accounts of the Holocaust, a collection I started with Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz on the recommendation of a psychiatrist I was seeing for post-traumatic stress that followed a serious accident in 2003.

While the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’ of Pivnik’s experience differ greatly from my own, I recognize my own mindset in how I processed difficulties in my childhood.  (By the time I was Pivnik’s thirteen years of age, I had experienced this example of the drubbing of a head teacher/principal in elementary school and the sexual abuse and subsequent exploitation at what I would now recognize as a sexual cruising area.)

I have long since absolved myself, intellectually at least, of any guilt in these matters.  However Pivnik’s laser-like identification of lingering fear - my fear, too, of the world – has amazing resonance with me.  It’s not the first time I have named fear as a foundational part of my emotional operating system, and I could quantify it in reviewing the hypomanic behaviour which has characterized my history with bipolar II, but to read Pivnik’s account is to affirm how I can relate my experience with what has followed.

(I still aspire to writing my life story, such as it is, told only in fits and starts in this blog.)

Review (and a personal retrospective) – Behind the Candelabra


With only the most scant help from Google I have been trying to remember more about my personal, professional meeting with Liberace (“Please, call me Lee.”)

It was some time in the mid-1980s, while I was working at a St. Catharines, Ontario radio station, when the subject of last night’s premiere of Behind the Candelabra was making one of his periodic appearances at Melody Fair Theater on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda, New York – a suburb of Buffalo about a forty-five minute drive from St. Catharines.

My first impressions of Melody Fair were that it had seen better days (and it has since closed, demolished in 2010). The same could be said for Liberace who, after all, was some eight years older than my father who would have seemed “old” to anyone else in their twenties!

The meeting was what I have since learned was a very routine set-up between journalists, celebrity-chasers, and their self-important subjects. My allotted time of ten minutes or so was no more, on less than anyone else in line claiming “exclusive” access from their particular micro-market’s point-of-view.

I had come out relatively recently and took it upon myself to use my time with a slightly dressed down version of himself to tease out Woodward and Bernstein-worthy details of his private life.

What did he like to doon his days off, infrequent though they may have been?

Spend time at one of his several homes. He liked to cook for his “friends” (none of the bawdy details I would have liked to hear, of course, and portrayed in Beyond the Candelabra and Scott Thorson’s palimony-inspired book.

That’s all I remember about our conversation – riveting I know – having been derailed in my aim of making news out of what was inevitably to be a fluffy entertainment piece.

I grew up feeling a lot of antipathy towards the flamboyant, yet conflicted (a self-professed Roman Catholic) and ultimately talented pianist. This was no role model I would ever want to emulate, should I ever own my own homosexuality.

His age, I suppose, would also have been a factor in his denial of the obvious.

It was, however, his denial of what ultimately killed him that left me feeling quite angry – with him and his church. He never acknowledged dying of AIDS, swearing everyone to secrecy, which of course illustrated the stigma of the times (worse even than now) in his over-the-top way.

I couldn’t separate my feelings for him as I watched last evening, which is not to say that I couldn’t also relate to the inner struggles while recalling my annoyances with him.

Michael Douglas had a hell of a job to do which I found to be well done and credible. Matt Damon also proved himself to be a convincing actor in a gay role and a sympathetic character. In a supporting role I thought Rob Lowe stole the show.

I will watch it again, while it’s still in the HBO lineup, and while I don’t necessarily expect my feelings for Liberace to change I know I am capable of seeing him – jewel-encrusted warts and all.

Lunch with Vito Russo


Disclaimer:  My memories have been assisted by Google and a piece of paper, 8-1/2″ x 11″ divided in half, on which is written the following:



After signing up for The Movie Network again recently, I came upon the film Vito: A Man For All Seasons.  I was immediately transported back to the early summer day in 1982 when I met the celebrated author, filmmaker and activist Vito Russo. It was at a very ambitious conference, at the U of T perhaps, put on by, among others, The Body Politic collective called “DOING IT! Lesbian & Gay Liberation in the 80s”.

Vito put to words, and obviously used film clips, what he had done in the book but had us riveted with laughter during the presentation and in the question and answer period which followed.

Because I was staying with a couple of the conference organizers for the weekend and, I’d like to recall, at 22 among the younger guys there I was invited to lunch with Vito – then in his 30s and a real looker!

We walked to a patio along the north side of Bloor, I’m guessing near Brunswick, perhaps Dooney’s.

This sheet of paper protrudes from my copy of Vito’s book “The Celluloid Closet – Homosexuality In The Movies” which had come out the previous year (as had I).  I described to him how upset I was that I had not remembered to bring the book along on my break from my then-dreary existence in St. Catharines.  Such, apparently, was the extent of my troubles back then!  He thought nothing of just folding a sheet of copy paper in half and writing the cute note.  This story goes with it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

While I’d like to launch into a tale of love unleashing itself into a passionate, long-distance relationship, as we sat across from one another, I can’t even allow my “based on actual events” note to take me there, as much as I’d like to.

He vented about Ronald Reagan.  (By comparison we were experiencing the second go-round of Pierre Trudeau, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms round at that, with Conservative Brian Mulroney only in our nightmares.)

The documentary inevitably moved to the beginning of the AIDS crisis and its eventual taking of his partner Jim Sevcik in his thirtieth year.  That same year, 1985, Vito himself was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma and died in 1990, just a year-and-a-half or so after my diagnosis.  But what a difference there has been, both in opportunistic infections and in our respective treatment options.

Vito went on to become a founding member of the media-monitoring group Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

In 1987 Vito, Larry Kramer and ten others founded ACT UP!, the AIDS activist organization which has been at the centre of some of the biggest developments in AIDS anger, compassion and care.  A clip in the film is of Vito shouting,

“People are dying of homophobia.  They’re dying of Jesse Helms.  They’re dying of Ronald Reagan…AIDS is a test of who we are as a people!”

Given all he went on to do in his AIDS-shortened life I count it a privilege to remember the joy of that day on a patio in Toronto and the personal touch of his autograph.

Ninety-five years since World War One ended for my great-uncle


An addition to this otherwise repeat tribute, the above photograph was taken in about 1900 when my paternal grandmother was an infant.  It’s now been over ninety-five years since her brother, Tom, (here with his foot up on a stool in the McIntyre Photo Studio in Perth) died on the World War One battlefields of France, roughly five weeks before the final  assault on Vimy.  By the time of his death, Grandma was acting as home-maker to her widowed father, her older sister Bea having pursued a secretarial career away from home.

Perth Courier accounts brought the war close to home.

My father, born ten years and one month after Thomas’ death, and who died in 2002, was given the first name of his late uncle.  As my genealogy project continues it is clear that there were many Thomas Butlers, before and after the young fellow from Harper, west of Perth.

Any memories of Grandma talking about him are filtered through the eyes of the child that I was when these stories were told – less interested than I am nowadays. How I would love to hear them again.  I can only imagine he went off to war because. at the very least,  it was the thing to do at the time.

This is how Tom’s death was reported, with a few more details, in the Perth Courier:

The Pte. Herbert Gibson mentioned as being with Pte. Tom appears in this subsequent article with vivid descriptions of the war:

 

 

My sister has a formal portrait of Uncle Tom, in his handsome uniform (different from the one in the press clipping), taken in Perth before his deployment, as well as a cloth belt which was sent home completely covered with various regimental pins from across Canada.

The newspaper clippings come from Veterans Affairs Canada, as do these copies of Uncle Tom’s ‘attestation papers’. (Looking at his signature, I can see an amazing resemblance to my grandmother’s penmanship, as well as my Dad’s!)


In the first part of “The Great War”, a film on CBC-TV by Brian McKenna, we learn that “Complexion: Fresh” was racist code used to distinguish caucasian from non-white soldiers, gladly accepted when county-by-county quotas were low, from their ‘fresh-faced’ comrades.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) web site provides these stark ‘Casualty Details’ (I have added links):

Name: BUTLER
Initials: T
Nationality: Canadian
Rank: Private
Regiment/Service: Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment)
Unit Text: 75th Bn.
Date of Death: 01/03/1917
Service No: 787151
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: VII. D. 17.
Cemetery: VILLERS STATION CEMETERY, VILLERS-AU-BOIS

copy-of-vii-d-17.gif

There’s a bit more of an online tribute, however generic, here.

villers-station-cem.jpgmap_web_mapquest.gif

Tapestry, coping and shame


Last Sunday afternoon, Thanksgiving weekend, I was out for a walk in Perth taking some of the photographs I collected over my five days there.  I was also slipping away from the family in order to listen to a radio program which included brief comments I had made by phone as invited by the producers.

CBC Radio’s Tapestry was airing the second part of a series called Coping and at about 15:49 into the program I am heard introducing myself, then speaking of how my bipolar II diagnosis was an “A ha!” moment for me in the context of living as a survivor of childhood trauma, addiction recovery, and living with HIV/AIDS since 1989.

I also said that the bipolar II diagnosis has allowed me “to have a little more compassion for myself” and, in turn, with others with mental health issues with whom I can more easily and comfortably empathize and suppress my self-criticism.

“I live on,” I said, “and live on in curiosity”.

The reason I felt I had to head off to my favourite café, rather than invite my family to listen to the program with me, is that they are not all up-to-speed on my bipolar II diagnosis nor, in some cases, the sexual abuse.  In the case of my mother, I have withheld these because I have judged that she has had more than enough to deal with.  Whether it is worth the secrecy may be another matter entirely.

Fast forward to my weekly group therapy yesterday, which I had missed due to travel last week and being ill the week before.  It followed on the heels of my check-in with my psychiatrist in the same hospital during which I confessed that, due to financial problems over the past little while, I had been unable to pay my quarterly prescription co-pay of about $100 and had, therefore tapered myself off my medications – re-starting at the end of September after more than a month when my finances were back in limited order.

He urged me to be in touch with him should I ever run into trouble again (I had even bluffed my way through an appointment with him during the crisis) and to keep in mind that relapses could be very serious.

Off to group therapy I went where I broke down crying as I reviewed the past couple of months and spoke of the shame I felt in being short of money.  It was of my own doing, I judge, because I had sought sexual release time and time again with the click of my TV remote at $9.99 plus tax per viewing.  (More shame.)  The financing – no worries until the bill arrives – was as seductive as any of the pay-per-view characters.  There were equal amounts of shame in having dug myself into a financial hole, putting my health at serious risk, and the mental condition which I dared not speak of with my loved ones – despite all of their support for me in every other area of my life which many other families might not be able to tolerate.

I did manage to tell my family, as we packed down a splendid turkey dinner, that I had lost ten pounds in the past little while.  What went left unsaid was how much less I had been eating and why.

What could I have done differently?

Certainly I could have flagged the financial problem with not only my psychiatrist but also my doctor and pharmacist.  Heaven and earth might have been moved to make sure I had my meds.  Instead I chose, in shame, to deal with it myself – the same faulty self-reliance that got me through the rough years as a kid.

I could have told friends what was going on.  It would not have been too tough to borrow a hundred bucks for my meds.

No doubt I could spend time, honestly, openly and,  more constructively, out of isolation with friends.

I’m sure that Craig would be proud of his United Church of Canada electing a gay man as Moderator


The criteria my brother Craig set out for the United Theological College award in his name reads in part:

To recognize the powerful and passionate ministries of gay and lesbian persons and to honour one whose life’s work has been particularly distinguished in its clear commitment to such central Gospel values as personal courage and integrity, life-affirming faith and spirituality, an unswerving commitment to social justice, a sustainable environment and solidarity with those who are poor or marginalized.

Now I’m not making an early pitch for next year’s award but I can imagine that Craig would be pleased and proud of the United Church General Council’s choice of openly gay Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson as Moderator for the next three years. In fact, he was one of three openly gay candidates in a record field of fifteen nominees.

Craig was not completely open with his sexuality right up until he took his early retirement, at which time, it turned out, his parishioners were far more concerned for his health and well-being than his sexual orientation. He had been able to come out to many people in his congregation over the years when he thought it would be helpful but I know he took something of an envious delight in me being as open as I have been for so long.

The United Church of Canada broke new ground, and cracked open parched, dusty ground, when in 1988 – twenty-four years ago – its General Council decided, by no means unanimously, that every Christian, regardless of sexual orientation, was not only welcome in the church but was “eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.”

Craig was at that assembly in 1988, speaking of sexual orientation in the third person, feeling the slings and arrows of the often acrimonious debate. In light of all the love which surrounded us when he died, and the wonderful memories of Craig his parishioners shared, it is still so painful to imagine what that meeting in Victoria must have been like for him and other lgbt colleagues.

That was then. This is now. Although my direct relationship with the United Church has never been the same since Craig’s death, I applaud the decision-makers who re-affirmed the church’s 1988 decision in such a big way.

AccolAIDS much appreciated!


Healthline editors recently published the final list of their favorite HIV & STD blogs and I’m pleased to let you know that this blog made the list, which can be found here (in no particular order).

I am very appreciative of this vote of confidence!

Kenn Chaplin is no defeatist; he’s brazen, energetic, gut-wrenchingly honest, and inspiring. This active blogger, political activist, traveler, and long-time AIDS veteran knows a thing or two about living with AIDS.

He fills his blog with jokes, personal stories, tributes to friends who have lost the fight, and lovely photos of anything he wants. Along the way, he educates his readers about life with AIDS. Kenn knows (and shows) it’s not always easy, but hopefully he also knows how important his strong, steady voice about life with AIDS is for the rest of the HIV/AIDS community. Go, Kenn!

A school trip to London with a Kodak Instamatic camera


I think I’ve posted these scanned photos before, but today’s festivities along the River Thames brought back wonderful memories of a class trip to London which took place during March Break in 1976. The camera was a Kodak Instamatic – not very sophisticated – and the prints have not fared well in the ensuing years, stuck – literally – in photo albums which featured a lot of plastic and glue as I recall.

How fortunate I was – what a privilege – to have been able to go on such a voyage as a high school student! We flew out of the then-brand new airport, formerly known as Mirabel, just a few months before Montréal was to host the Olympic Games, as a much different London is now preparing to do in mere weeks.

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Reading today (when I’m not writing)


 

When I read it’s a bit like grazing in front of the dessert table (minus the diabetic considerations).

So it is that I am currently reading, roughly a chapter or section at a time:

The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond
by Lucille H. Campey
Robert Bourassa
by Georges-Hébert Germain (texte en francais!)
Those Who Save Us
by Jenna Blum (on the recommended list in the recently-read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay)

 

It’s the paper book version of channel surfing but with far greater results.

I bought the Bourassa biography (still available only in French) after seeing the author on Tout le monde en parle several weeks ago. It is a pleasure to recognize the neighbourhood in Montreal where he grew up, went to school (later across town in Outremont), and acquired a taste for the cut and thrust of politics with which I can so identify. His father was a painfully shy civil servant, his mother a more boisterous lover of singing – all during a time, in the thirties, marked by the Great Depression and the foreshadowing of war. It was, in fact, his keen interest in the day-to-day developments of World War Two which helped make Bourassa the walking atlas he would become.

That’s as far as I’ve read thus far.

In the novel Those Who Save Us, a university researcher is helping a Holocaust researcher interviewing German-Americans who experienced the war in their homeland. Meanwhile her mother’s story, including the disappearance of the narrator’s Jewish father, is being told in flashbacks.

The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond appeals to the historian-genealogist in me. I am finding plenty of references to the life my ancestors must have shared, some coming to the named-for-home Glengarry region in the south-easternmost part of Ontario and others to Lanark County in the military settlements of the townships around Perth, on land assembled by treaty with the Algonkian (Algonquin) people as wood and farm land for immigrants and, in the case of Perth, as a military settlement for half-pay and retired soldiers from the War of 1812, including both the European battles and those along the border with the United States.

I haven’t bought an e-reader yet, still enjoying the weight and touch of a book’s pages – three books even!

Finding Émile


I reached another marker this week in my posthumous, intriguing, fan-like relationship with Montréal poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) when Craig’s partner, Claude, drove me to the site of his burial in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Even with a map of the cemetery it took us a while to find Marker #588 in Section N. At 350 acres, and with fifty-five kilometres of road, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery, dating back to 1854, and fast closing in on a population of one million people’s remains.

He even wrote about the place, the only reference in his works to Montréal:

Notre-dame-des-neiges

Sainte Notre-Dame, en beau manteau d’or,
De sa lande fleurie
Descend chaque soir, quand son Jésus dort,
En sa Ville-Marie.
Sous l’astral flambeau que portent ses anges,
La belle Vierge va
Triomphalement, aux accords étranges
De céleste bîva.

Sainte Notre-Dame a là-haut son trône
Sur notre Mont-Royal ;
Et de là, son oeil subjugue le Faune
De l’abîme infernal.
Car elle a dicté: ” Qu’un ange protège
De son arme de feu
Ma ville d’argent au collier de neige “,
La Dame du Ciel bleu !

Sainte Notre-Dame, oh ! tôt nous délivre
De tout joug pour le tien ;
Chasse l’étranger ! Au pays de givre
Sois-nous force et soutien.
Ce placet fleuri de choses dorées,
Puisses-tu de tes yeux,
Bénigne, le lire aux roses vesprées,
Quand tu nous viens des Cieux !

Sainte Notre-Dame a pleuré longtemps
Parmi ses petits anges ;
Tellement, dit-on, qu’en les cieux latents
Se font des bruits étranges.
Et que notre Vierge entraînant l’Eden,
O floraison chérie !
Va tôt refleurir en même jardin
Sa France et sa Ville-Marie…

Below, closer to his home as a teenager on rue Laval (also shown) near Square Saint-Louis, is a bust of the young Nelligan, which enjoys a prominent place in that lovely park.  It remains a somewhat bohemian, albeit pricier, neighbourhood of artists and students among whom, over the objections of his parents, he found companionship among peers.

Born at 602, rue de La Gauchetière (not far from present-day Gare Centrale) on Christmas Eve 1879, and baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Day, he was the first son of Irish immigrant David Nelligan and Emilia Amanda Hudon, a francophone and daughter of the former mayor of the lower St. Lawrence town of Rimouski. Two younger sisters, Beatrice and Gertrude, followed. It cannot be overlooked that Nelligan’s bi-cultural background represented something essential to the understanding of Montréal culture at the time (think of Hugh MacLennan’s later work “Two Solitudes”). At the time of Nelligan’s birth, the percentages of francophones and anglophones in the city-proper was tied (and the English overwhelmingly waved power over the French). It was only after the annexation of outlying “towns”, which have been part of Montréal for generations now, and with increased migration from rural areas to the city, that the proportion of francophones grew to 75% by 1920.

On the outside, his childhood would have appeared to be pretty good, spent between the family home in Montréal and their summer residence in Cacouna, not too far from his mother’s birthplace. However Nelligan skipped school increasingly, devoting more and more time to his love of writing poetry. He left school outright in 1897, over the strong objections of his working-class father.

Childhood, despair, difficult relationships with his individual parents right out of a session with Freud, social awkwardness, love, sin, music and a morbid fascination with what he viewed as the relief of death dominate his work.

The story is told, in the preface to P.F. Widdows’ bilingual edition of “Émile Nelligan – Selected Poems”, of David Nelligan sending his son off to Liverpool, as something of a would-be merchant mariner. Alas he was back home in two months. His father having given up on him, as Widdows writes, “he never again submitted himself to what the world and his father called work”.

Émile’s work, however, his poetry, continued unstopped.

His first published poem appeared in the journal Le Samedi de Montréal on June 13, 1896, which he submitted under the pen-name Émile Kovar. It was Rêve fantasque, an early indication of his fascination with death, even suicide.

Qu’il est doux de mourir quand notre âme s’afflige,
Quand nous pèse le temps tel un cuisant remords,
-Que le désespoir ou qu’un noir penser l’exige -
Qu’il est doux de mourir alors!

My shaky translation:

How sweet to die when our soul is grieved,
When we weigh the time such a bitter remorse,
-Such black despair of thinking that is required
It is sweet to die then!

Nelligan was just sixteen years old.

Between 1896 and 1897 he met, and was taken under the wing of, Roman Catholic père Eugène Seers, better known in Montréal literary circles as Louis Dantin. An encouraging critic of Nelligan’s work, he published some of his religious-themed poems in the newsletter of his Order and was instrumental in preparing his protegé’s collected poems for publication after Nelligan’s mental breakdown.

Joining, quitting, then re-joining, l’École littéraire de Montréal which met at the Château Ramezay (pictured below in Old Montréal) Nelligan’s brief public reading stint came to a dramatic end during the presentation of three of his poems to members, one of them his most well-known La Romance du vin. Following a rapturous reception from his audience a nearly-ecstatic Émile Nelligan was carried away on the shoulders of his friends during – or after – which he suffered a psychotic breakdown.

That was May 26, 1899.  He was diagnosed with irreversible psychoses, before schizophrenia had been named.

At the insistence of his parents, Nelligan was confined to la Retraite Saint-Benoît, a Catholic brothers’ retreat centre at the eastern end of the Island of Montréal. He was moved to what was then the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in 1925, where he remained until his death on November 18, 1941.

In 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp which paid tribute to one of his most widely-read poems Le Vaisseau d’Or:

“Le Vaisseau d’Or”

C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif: 
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues; 
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues, 
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif. 

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil 
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène, 
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène 
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil. 

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes 
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes, 
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés. 

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève? 
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté? 
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve! 

“The Ship of Gold”

It was a great ship carved from solid gold:
Its masts touched to the skies on uncharted seas;
Venus, goddess of love, her hair streaming, her flesh bare,
Flaunted herself on the prow beneath a blazing sun.

But one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck tilted its keel
Into the depths of the abyss, ineluctable coffin.

It was a ship of gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures which the profane mariners,
Loathing, Hatred, and Neurosis, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, a deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the dream!

Source: Wikipedia, translator unknown

My very first introduction to Nelligan was through the music of pianist and composer André Gagnon .  On an early album was a tune entitled “Nelligan”.

Then, around 1990, Gagnon collaborated with playwright Michel Tremblay and mounted an opera/musical “Nelligan”.

One of Nelligan’s poems Soir d’hiver was put to music by the recently-deceased Claude Léveillée

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
Ô la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai!   Oh the pain I have, that I have!

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,   All ponds lie frozen,
Mon âme est noire: Où vis-je? où vais-je?   My soul is black: Where am I living? Where am I going?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:    All his hopes lie frozen:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège   I am the new Norway
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.  Hence the fair skies are gone.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,  The thrill of sinister things,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,   Weep my tears, cry my roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.  On branches of juniper.

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai!…   For all the trouble I have, that I have! …

A lovely boutique hotel in Vieux-Montréal, complete with the renowned Verses restaurant, bears his name and celebrates his legacy. Hôtel Nelligan opens onto the cobble-stoned Rue Saint-Paul

Having learned about Nelligan’s impressive body of work (to say nothing of a promising career) dashed by mental illness that was treated with the crude methods of the day, I felt some identification with him – if only in the sense of having felt private despair.  I almost never fail to walk past Nelligan’s bust in Square St-Louis when I’m in Montréal.  I am so pleased to be connecting my love of André Gagnon’s music, the poetry of Émile Nelligan, my fascination with Nelligan landmarks downtown, and now his grave-site on the beautiful slopes of Mont-Royal.

Toronto AIDS Memorial, 519 Church Street Community Centre


With one eye on the wider world, marking thirty years of AIDS (and hopes that we may be seeing the beginning of the end), my other eye is on memories of friends lost here in Toronto (and hopes that many more may yet survive).

Pte. Thomas Earl Butler: 17 March 1896 – 1 March 1917


It’s been over ninety-four years since my paternal grandmother’s brother, Tom, died on the World War One battlefields of France, roughly five weeks before the final  assault on Vimy.  It seemed to me that Grandma bore his death with pain right up until her own death in 1991.  She was already acting as home-maker to her widowed father and perhaps she thought he should have been staying home on the farm.

Perth newspaper accounts were quite limited, but brought the war home.

My father, who died in 2002, was given the first name of his late uncle (Thomas).

Any memories of Grandma talking about him are filtered through the eyes of the child that I was when these stories were told – less interested than I am nowadays. How I would love to hear them again.  I can only imagine he went off to war because. at the very least,  it was the thing to do at the time.

Though I’m sure there was at least an official telegram this is how Tom’s death was reported in the Perth Courier:

My sister has a formal portrait of Uncle Tom, in his handsome uniform (different from the one in the press clipping), taken in Perth before his deployment, as well as a cloth belt which was sent home completely covered with various regimental pins from across Canada.

The newspaper clippings come from Veterans Affairs Canada, as do these copies of Uncle Tom’s ‘attestation papers’. (Looking at his signature, I can see an amazing resemblance to my grandmother’s penmanship, as well as my Dad’s!)


Only tonight, watching the first part of “The Great War”, a film on CBC-TV by Brian McKenna, did I learn that “Complexion: Fresh” was racist code used to distinguish non-white soldiers, gladly accepted when county-by-county quotas were low, from their ‘fresh-faced’ comrades.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) web site provides these stark ‘Casualty Details’ (I have added links):

Name: BUTLER
Initials: T
Nationality: Canadian
Rank: Private
Regiment/Service: Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment)
Unit Text: 75th Bn.
Date of Death: 01/03/1917
Service No: 787151
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: VII. D. 17.
Cemetery: VILLERS STATION CEMETERY, VILLERS-AU-BOIS

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There’s a bit more of an online tribute, however generic, here.

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Rest in Peace, Jamie Hubley


“I’m tired of life, really. It’s so hard, I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore.”

“I don’t want my parents to think this is their fault, either. I love my mom and dad. It’s just too hard. I don’t want to wait three more years, this hurts too much.”

As carefully as he worded his final blog entry, the pain being experienced by 15-year old Jamie Hubley of Ottawa is clear and heart-breaking. Jamie ended his life on Friday.

His father, Kanata Councillor Allan Hubley. released a statement citing bullying as one of the factors in Jamie’s death.

In a blog post from three weeks ago, Jamie wrote that he hated being the only openly gay guy attending A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in Kanata.

“I hate being the only open gay guy in my school… It f***ing sucks, I really want to end it. Like all of it, I not getting better theres 3 more years of highschool left…How do you even know It will get better?”

He also said neither the medications he was taking nor psychological therapy was working to alleviate depression.

Bullied as I was – by peers, yes, but far worse by a teacher – in elementary school and then by the back-of-the-bus crowd in high school, I don’t know sometimes how I could have survived when I can relate so strongly to the tragedy of youth suicides, and the hopelessness preceding them, today.  I certainly scoffed at all claims by my parents that these were the best years of my life!  At least the “It Gets Better” campaign makes no such present-day claims.

Jamie chose figure skating over hockey.  So that makes bullying him okay?  As someone who chose the band and drama club over any sport I can relate to following one’s passions over the pack mentality.  I would trade my worst day of rehearsing Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid or Lionel Bart’s Oliver! over my best shift on the ice trying to skate away from the puck.

As is more often the case nowadays than in my school in the 1970s Jamie not only knew he was gay but was open about it and he bravely tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in his school.  He was a courageous kid who did not live to see the many accolades and tributes from around the world.

My chosen method of indirect suicide, I guess, was the prolonged torture of excessive drinking, where some days were better than others for a long time thus numbing me to the damage that I was doing.  What had started as experimentation in high school plunged into the real thing once I was away at college.  Struggling to accept myself – let alone seek the acceptance of others – made for easily identifiable signs of problem-drinking just as I was turning eighteen (the last year anyone in Ontario could legally drink at that age).  These were hellish years as I tried to fit in to the socially conservative milieu I found myself in while barn-storming around looking for love in all the gay places (Buffalo and Toronto).

I guess that’s it then.  As unworthy as I felt, as hopeless as life seemed, my faith that an intoxicant of one form or another would at least temporarily change the way I felt probably kept me sufficiently comforted – however delusional – that even the frequent thought of ramming into an overpass abutment usually came after I was safely home.

“It Gets Better” only when teenagers such as Jamie, and peers who are on different paths, are taught about the varieties of sexual orientation early enough – before individuals have even begun to experience strong feelings – so that everyone might find her/his place and grow into as non-judgmental a school environment as possible.

Clearly setting out his last few words, it’s such a pity that Jamie was so desperate and feeling so devoid of hope.

I hope that his parents take Jamie at his word that they bear no blame for his final decision.

It’s just so sad for his survivors to say good-bye.

Not pictured


I am mindful, on this Father’s Day, that I do not have many photographs of Thomas Arnold (“Arnie”) Chaplin.  (The additional ones I do have are wedding party shots with people who might not wish to be published.)  However my memory informs me of many more, in safe-keeping with Mom, from the honeymoon phase, the beginnings of our family, and so on – and more of them in colour!  However, due to the limitations of our cameras of that time (not to mention the cruelty of those large adhesive photo album pages of the 1970s) some colours have faded or been peeled off entirely.  I hope to, however, do my level best to increase my scanned, uploaded collection in future visits with Mom.

The four pictures up top are of Dad on his wagon in Glen Tay, Bathurst Township, Lanark County, Ontario (just west of the Town of Perth), followed by Dad holding my sister Lynn (and a wide-eyed Craig on his right), Dad (at my sister’s age in the previous photo) held in the arms of my grandmother on the farm with older members of his family, and in the fourth picture I am in Dad’s right arm, Lynn in his left, and Craig with the obviously rosy-cheeked grin on the right.

Not pictured is the devoted, hard-working guy I grew up with whose daily routine was almost like clockwork.

He was the first up in the morning (7:10) and, therefore, the first to use our bathroom – so tiny by today’s standards with exactly enough room for a toilet, sink and tub.  Before I was of school age I remember standing on the toilet watching him shave in the mirror.  By 7:25 or so he was eating breakfast with the rest of us in a kitchen-dinette which, again, used every inch of space optimally.  At 7:50 Dad was at the car-port door with Mom, a wet-sounding peck was exchanged along with the daily farewell, “Toodle-oo”  (No wonder spell-check has trouble with that.)  I don’t know how that word entered their vernacular – I must remember to ask Mom.

Dad was fortunate to live about ten or fifteen minutes from work and, as a result, he never failed to drive home at lunch.  This was great when I was in elementary school since we also came home for lunch.  After he ate he laid down on the sofa where, without napping, he managed to have a rest that most working nowadays, and many then, would envy.

At 12:50 Mom and Dad repeated their morning good-bye ritual and Dad was gone until about 5:10 when his 1959 Ford Fairlane, 1968 Buick Special or 1973 Impala drove up the slight incline of our driveway.

Not pictured is the father who, without the perks of a company dental plan, managed to pay for trips to Montreal for Craig and me for braces, in Craig’s case, and then braces – and a whole lot more – for me when I smashed my mouth on the cement foundation of school playground equipment.  (Mom’s income as a piano teacher helped, too, I know.)  Together they also put all four kids through university or college.

Not pictured is the Dad who – together with Mom – calmly accepted, with no outward signs of difficulty, both his sons disclosing that we were gay (four years apart, just like our ages) AND, no more than ten years later, that we were HIV-positive.

‘Unconditional love is what we have to offer,’

says (Dad), looking surprised there could be any alternative.”

Dad (quoted above) took part with Mom in a magazine article, which I am too-generously credited with having co-written, for The United Church Observer in May of 1996.  That would be courageous even now, more than fifteen years later, but they’ve always brushed aside any sentiments of courage when it comes to the complete acceptance of their kids.  (Mom still can’t believe the ever-changing varieties of parents’ rejection of their children.)

Not pictured, indeed, is Dad’s very best friend for well over fifty years who continues to bless us just by being herself.

Not pictured, finally, is my Dad who lived only long enough to see his first grandchild reach eight months old.  He had suffered a slight, non-debilitating stroke and so it was really important as a family to gather in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday on April 1, 2002.  Just a month later, May 4, 2002, he collapsed and died in the garden he so loved (and he kept one wherever we lived).

I picture Dad, alive and vibrant, on the back step with a handful of onions, leaf lettuce or beets or a couple of Mom’s favourite yellow roses.  But mostly I picture him in his garden.

Rustling the branches of my old family tree


You’ve probably seen the advertisements for Ancestry.ca (or dot-com elsewhere).

A few weeks ago I decided to give it a test-drive and I must say I’m hooked! The program isn’t doing all the work, mind you, as I leaf through two or three family-specific books that have been largely ignored by other members of the immediate family. These books, with help from the software, trace my grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, as well as their siblings and spouses. On two different branches I’m back to the 1600s already – and the program tells me (with a list of names up the chain) the exact relationship of a “find” to me, e.g. “eighth great-grandfather”. Sometimes I have found there to be no relationship as it is very easy to get sidetracked by one relationship or another.

I was happy to get as far back as emigration to Canada (from England, Ireland and Scotland) but now I’ve found a relative, nicknamed “Billy the Picket” for his talents fighting in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

It’s also interesting to see how surnames have evolved from, in a few cases, Norman France.

What neither the books nor the software give me are enough details to write stories (at least not non-fiction tales!)

Someone asked me the other day if I had pinned down my relationship, if any, to Charlie Chaplin. I must get on that!