Metropolitan Homesick Blues

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THE OLD JACKKNIFE

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Memories sometimes fade.

The events that spawned those memories become vague

as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself

when I found his jackknife at the back of a drawer.

 

My father was a bricklayer.

He was the only one of his crew allowed to raise the corners. As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited.

With line and level he laid out precise right angles as a guide for each course to come, a leads for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortarboard. The other bricklayers took this as their cue to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

“Ragazzi,” he would shout, “Guardi un vero muratore al lavoro.” Hey boys, watch a real bricklayer at work. The exchange of good-natured insults kept coming until he was ready to raise the next corner.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. As a child I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved. His vice like grip was unbreakable. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

Over the years arthritis stiffened his fingers. His health began to fail. His skill followed. Even though he taped his hands, he took to wearing leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick

All the bricklayers he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there.

“Non ne ho piu bisogno,” he said. I don’t need these anymore.

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table, his jackknife in front of him. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“I like to slice them and dip them in wine,” he says. The anticipation brings a smile to his face.

As he tries to pull the blade open, the knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to anger as he stares at the knife as if it too has betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes the knife toward me. “Lo prendi,” he says. You take it.

“It was my father’s knife.” He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years. With the blade fully extended the weight of its steel forged decades ago gives way to a delicate balance.

As I slice the peach cleanly, the knife has never lost its edge.

I still have it. I’ve never used it since that day.

Joe Nanni

Remembering you on Father’s day, Peppino.

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 18, 2017 at 6:00 AM

BRUCE COUNTY BACKROADS

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Side roads. Concession roads. Hardtop and hard-pack gravel. Graded and ungraded. Rutted and rain-eroded. They can get your car dust covered or mud caked depending on weather and which road you’re on. They are Bruce County two-lanes leading you everywhere and not necessarily where you want to go.

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We often drive these Bruce County back-roads. She is looking for birds. I’m looking for pictures. I don’t care much about shooting birds. My meager 250 mm lens fails in comparison to some of the big glass that other shooters carry. Most times, birds are just too far way to capture anything decent.

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I’m OK with that. I’m more interested in what was…the abandoned barns and farmhouses, the fences, the fallen in roofs and stone foundations…the what’s-left-on-the-land from times gone away.

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The structures that faced years of winds and weather, that struggled to stay upright and remain proud of what they provided to their hard-working owners…structures of shelter and warmth, places, markers that families once called home.

Some markers are different.

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This pockmarked weathered stone, its carved inscription unreadable, sits solitarily, a sentinel overlooking a vista of fields un-ploughed or planted. It seems out of place. More often than not you’ll see clusters of resurrected tombstones sitting on the side of secondary roads salvaged from some long forgotten cemetery to make room for more farmable fields. This one stands alone.

Cloud shadows silently drift across the fields it watches over. Why is it there? Is there meaning in its placement? Or is it just a photo-op for a wandering amateur with a camera? I doubt if I will ever know. But I take the shot anyway and move on.

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There is a great deal more to discover and capture on these roads.

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So we drive on.

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

RIPRAP

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Lay down these words before your mind like rocks placed solid by hands in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time. Solidity of bark, leaf or or wall…riprap of things.  Gary Snyder

If you’re a scribbler, you tend to record your experiences, your encounters, your thoughts and impressions on whatever scrap of paper you have handy. Then you stuff it in a file, in a pile of stuff on your desk, in a drawer or between the pages of a notebook, which when full, gets shelved and, no doubt, forgotten. I was searching through such things the other day when I found this folded up scribble on a torn-out page of a diary. Such discoveries always spark memories. This one takes me years back to a time when summer always meant two weeks on a small island in Lake Anima Nipissing. We left the world behind when we were there. There was very little to do…so we did very little. Each day set its own pace. Here’s what I wrote back then.

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

A Sunday in August – 1987

My daughter and I search for crayfish along the rock-strewn shoreline.

As we wade in the water we come across random piles of slate, granite and limestone lying on the bed of the slim, shallow channel that stretches some twenty feet between our cottage and its diminutive island neighbour. Haphazardly piled one on top of the other, the stones look like a crude underwater foundation for a rock bridge. But, their span doesn’t make it all the way across.

“Looks like someone tried to fill in this channel a while back,” I said.

“How can you tell?”

“From the riprap, there, just under the water’s surface.”

She turned to me with that child’s stop-talking-to-me-like-a-grown-up look on her face. “Riprap? What’s that mean?”

“It’s the loose rocks that they lay down as a foundation,” I explain, trying not to sound too pedantic. “Riprap…”

“But islands are never supposed to be joined, are they,” she says trying to show me that she has a fundamental grasp of geography. “They wouldn’t be islands then, would they?”

“Not necessarily,” I answer as she wades in carefully. “But maybe these stones were meant to be built up so they, natives I guess, could walk across. They chose this spot because the water is shallow and easier to build a path across. Which is good for us.”

“But, not for the crayfish, I hope.”

I was glad she came back to our reason for being here. “Do you see any?”

“No,” she says shading her eyes with her hands as she peers into the clear shallows.

“Then it is good for them because they think they’re safe.”

Intent on finding her first crayfish, she pays me no attention.

“They hide underneath…in the tiny spaces between the rocks, safe from your evil, clutching, human hands.” That makes her laugh.

She continues staring into the water, straining for a glimpse of her prey. The day is slightly overcast. There is still enough light filtering through the clouds to keep the surface transparent and free of cloud shadows.

“Their colour and markings are rock-like…perfect camouflage under water. That’s what makes them so difficult to spot. You have to concentrate.”

Gingerly lifting a stone she finds her quarry. But it is quicker than her young reflexes can manage. The crayfish propels itself backwards skittering under another piece of slate. She moves its new hideout aside but the elusive creature is gone again before she can grab it. There follows a flurry of splashing from stones yanked and thrown helter skelter, muddying the water and taking away any advantage we have.

“Easy,” I said. “You’re not thinking about what you’re doing.”

“I am. I’m gonna’ keep looking under the stones.”

“You won’t find crayfish if you stomp around like that. You’re driving them deeper under the stones. We need to stop and let things settle.”

We move on shore to wait for the water to clear. I look at her sitting there innocently hugging her legs, resting her chin on her knees, eyes straight ahead. I sense her frustration with me in every loud breath she takes.

“You have to be patient.” I say softly, “Crayfish are kind of like people. They back away when they feel threatened. They look for someplace safe…something to hide behind”

“People don’t hide under rocks.”

I can’t argue with her logic. She is testing me. My analogy is obviously too obtuse for her to understand. I can see she has no idea of what I’m talking about. In trying to get through to her I just dig myself a deeper hole.

“Looking for crayfish is a lot like trying to understand people,” I say. “You have to let them know you’re not going to harm them so they’ll show themselves to you. And just like you peel away people’s defenses to find their real selves you must gently lift away the rocks without disturbing the water to find the crayfish.”

With a deep sigh she reaches down and carefully picks up a small piece of flat slate. A crayfish sits there not moving. I am surprised at the speed with which she grabs it.

“He had no other place to hide,” she says happily dropping the helpless crayfish into her sand pail.

Pleased with herself she takes a bigger pail, fills it with water and throws in a few small rocks. “I’m making him his own riprap,” she says with that mocking tone of voice all kids have.

When she pours the crayfish in she looks at me mischievously “Do you think it feels safe now?”

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

October 23, 2015 at 12:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Night Snow

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Under the street lamps that pool their light on the now white road wind whips the flurries into individual cyclones whirling about helter skelter. Cedars on the roadside go dark, lost in the shadows, lost in the black of night. In the cone of the streetlights the snow takes on highlights that accentuate its movement. It dances with the wind, blurring in flight, never, it seems, touching down, hovering around and inside the beam’s pool bringing new life to the light. Night Snow is different than snow falling at daybreak…more menacing. You are unsure of what it leaves behind until dawn crawls up the dark trailing early morning light to show you its night work. Night Snow is like a secret gathering, an army, a relentless force building for an attack at daybreak when the world wakes and is forced to face the consequences of all that Night Snow has left behind.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 4, 2015 at 8:16 PM

SHOOTING ICE

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Ice is hard. Resistant. Stubborn. Ice can withstand any single human effort to break through…especially if ice has transformed concrete steps into a glistening, smooth, intransient obstacle that should be left alone. There is no point in trying to break it down (as I did) to get a better foothold – to get a better angle on the object you’re trying to photograph.

Such foolishness can possibly lead to disaster. I sometimes hurry to get things done – and in my unfocussed haste – misjudge and make mistakes that do not end well. I am a victim of my own stupidity.

There is a millisecond between attempt and failure when you are completely unaware of what you’ve just done. In that microscopic moment between slipping and landing you see nothing. The world around you becomes blank. First it’s simply, “Here I am trying to break through the ice with my foot. Here I am on my back lying on the ice. How did that happen?” Your next thought is, “Where’s my brand new expensive camera? Did I land on it? NO! Here it is secure in my hand that’s extended above my prone body. AT LEAST I WAS CONCIOUS ENOUGH TO SACRIFICE MY BODY TO PROTECT IT!” Then it’s, “Why can’t I get up?”

Because you’re lying at the bottom of uneven ice-coated steps, stupid!

Thankfully there are no witnesses to my next ridiculous act. Camera held high, I rolled over, grabbed the ice-coated railing with my free hand and painfully pulled myself to a more secure level. It took a while. Ice does not give up its victims without making them struggle. Eventually I made it. Looking down at the frozen steps I just scaled I chastised myself for being so reckless. And stupid.

When we take chances success is usually 50-50. Clearly this was a chance I shouldn’t have taken. Any go or no-go decision is often quick and thoughtless. Spur of the moment as they say. It is always difficult to judge the wisdom of one’s next move until after you’ve made it.

Life, the pundits say, is about taking chances. “Find a Way or Make One. Just Do It. Who Dares Wins. Deeds Not Words.” Pick any current phrase that suits you. Sometimes the taking works – sometimes it doesn’t. This time for me, it didn’t. That’s just the way it is.

I didn’t get that just-right angle for the shot I was looking for. But, I hurt too much to be disappointed.

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AT THE END AND AT THE BEGINNING

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HEALTH. GOOD FORTUNE. AND PEACE OF MIND TO ALL. 

LIVE EACH DAY AS BEST AS YOU CAN.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

December 31, 2014 at 2:54 PM