Coffee is Life

Kaldi (a goatherder), the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock. Witnessing Kaldi’s goatly gambol, a monk plucked berries for his brothers. That night they were uncannily alert to divine inspiration – A Coffee Legend (read more…)

When I was young, I was allowed a cup of milky tea after meals. My English heritage insisted upon tea being a huge part in my life, as were the simple pleasures in general which the English are famous for celebrating. I like tea. But, coffee is my dark mistress.

Coffee - is the planet shaking or is it just me?My grandmother on my mum’s side was my first coffee accomplice. I think there was a bit of a stigma surrounding coffee, particularly its intake by the young, which tea seems to have escaped. There is a lot of talk about the dangers of caffeine and how it interferes with the healthy development of a child, with coffee being one of the greatest menaces associated with it. Everyone forgets about cola, and chocolate, and tea in fact. But that’s our culture for you. In any case, my grandmother must have felt that if I was allowed milky tea, than why not some (very) milky instant coffee too? I had been fascinated by coffee for some time. They drank it on TV! So, my grandmother and I sought to satisfy my curiosity surrounding this black, rich, ‘mountain-grown’ drink that seemed to be an international sensation.

Most people feel that coffee is an acquired taste, and I suppose it is. Thanks to a lot of milk and sugar, I acquired the taste pretty fast. Granted, this was instant coffee, so I was sort of taking baby steps with its wonderful bittersweetness. But, I was smitten. And you never really stopping loving, once love has been born, right? My grandmother and I kept it a secret though. We knew that coffee had a bad rep. It had to be (another) love that dared not speak its name.

Since those days, coffee has been a constant and welcome companion. I’ve had good coffee. I’ve certainly had bad coffee. I like it best when it’s strong and sweet, with just a dash of cream to turn it that lovely caramel-brown colour. And perhaps it has more medicinal uses than it did when I first started drinking it. But, getting back to the idea of simple pleasures, I think coffee is one of those things which centres me, gives me a glimpse at the wonders of life on the small scale. Its flavour is one of those sensory stabalizers, one which tells me that whatever happens to me during the course of the day, I can still rest in a taste of the familiar, the comforting. The rush helps too. Who am I kidding?
coffee cup, saucer, and spoonThere is a cafe chain in Vancouver called Caffe Artigiano where a few of us at the office go to get a taste of heaven. I’ve come a long way since my illicit cups of very milky instant coffee made by my Grandma. Now, my milky coffee (café mocha, to be precise) is made by a professional barista. Some of the details have changed, perhaps. Caffe Artigiano sells a $15 cup of coffee – a specialty item, of course. Not all of their coffee is that expensive. But, that is a snapshot of how important coffee can be to some people – mostly those who can afford it. But for me, drinking coffee is mostly about comfort.

Of course with everything in life, there must be moderation. I know that. I should probably drink more water, for instance. But, one of my central beliefs is that we work and we remain healthy in order to appreciate the simple things. Ah, the simple things once again. And coffee, for all of its impact on health, and all of the politics which surround its production, is pleasure. Simple.

The Christmas Messenger

Here is a Christmas special which I haven’t seen since I was about 6 or 7. It’s “The Christmas Messenger” starring Richard Chamberlain, and narrated by David Essex. The special is a series of animated vignettes which recite Christmas carols as poetry, with some live action too featuring Richard Chamberlain as a mysterious stranger appearing in a Victorian village, listening to Christmas carols while speaking cryptically.

The animation is pure early-to-mid 70s; lots of mystical imagery – like a Yes album.

Merry Christmas!

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:


dark corridor image

I had a dream. Well, it felt like a nightmare at the time. I don’t know how old I was, but it was when we lived in the apartment in Port Credit on Park Street. So, I must have been 3 years old at most. It wasn’t a terribly eventful dream, but it was one of those dreams where a sense of the mysterious was lurking somewhere behind it, as if in the silence, something was about to happen that would be overwhelming, perhaps frightening. That’s how it felt at the time. But it was a dream that has stayed with me and I wonder now whether it felt so terrifying because I didn’t understand it then as a child. Perhaps I still don’t really understand it. But I remember it, and to me that makes it important. I was standing in the corridor just outside of our apartment, knocking on our door. I was locked out, and no one seemed to hear my knocking. It was dark, and I could only see two things. The grim outline of the door was one. And the other, far away down the corridor, farther away in my dream than the corridor possibly could have been in real life, was a burning point of blue light, keening through the darkness. It was the colour of the sky on a clear day, yet on fire too, an incandescent light like a distant, burning blue sun. There was something mysterious about that light, something ancient and all-encompassing. I knew that I wanted to get inside the safety of the apartment. I wanted to be contained by something, away from the endlessness which I sensed behind that light. I don’t remember anything after that, after the images in my mind made their mark, not even waking up from the dream.

This dream is roughly where my memory starts, and I now like to place it as being the starting gun to my life, which is as scary, mysterious, impenetrable, and important as that dream light was. I wonder about what it all means, if anything at all. I’ve often thought about it, whether that dream was my mind coming to grips with the burden of self-awareness, or whether the light in the dream was the common place of mysterious and spiritual origin from which everyone enters the world – a sort of “beforelife” as opposed to an afterlife – and I was actually remembering something that had actually happened to me. Perhaps it was just a random dream caused by a series of chemical reactions, signifying nothing beyond a scientific exposition of dreaming. I like to think though, that because my memory holds it, it must contain some sort of truth. I believe that it what memories are for in general – signposts to a greater truth. Maybe that truth is held inside every brain, waiting to be unlocked. Maybe it exists out there somewhere. Who can say? But I think over all, it is at least significant as the one of the first, if not the oldest, memory I’ve got. So, whatever else it might be, it’s mine.


On TV and in the movies, there is a cliche that insists that all children hate school. It’s interesting that in a time when everyone is so concerned about the welfare of children, protecting them from harmful influences of every variety real and imagined, that no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea to perpetuate. A button many people have pushed, at times on these very same TV shows and movies is this idea that the young should stay in school without adequate reasoning why this should be, other than for the benefit of good jobs and income later on. School should be looked upon, in my view, not as a means to an end, a sort of dues-paying period for kids, but as an end in and of itself. Personally, I think the reason I loved school as a child and then on into adulthood is because I knew that I was not in it alone. It was a time when I first was introduced to the simple idea that other people of my age were in the same boat as I was, and that I could revel in that and enjoy it. It was my first taste of truly sharing an environment and a set of circumstances with others. This has value beyond the marketplace, an ineffable treasure which remains with me, even to this day.

My wife and I met in grade 4 in Ms Portage’s class. She was the new kid, having moved with her family from Montreal to Oakville. What attracts me to her now is much the same as what attracted me then; smarts. She is one smart cookie. Recently we talked about school, most importantly our years at Sunningdale Public School, a red-bricked elementary school built in 1960 with a marvelous expanse of playing field which featured two baseball diamonds, a tennis court, and two soccer fields, not to mention being smashed right up against Oakdale Park, where a succession of monkey bars and slides came and went during our years there, as well as two venerable boulders, beside two park benches under a bower of trees, upon which we would also climb. On the northern-most part of the field, just at the bottom of the incline where we would go into class, were the remains of bike racks, now serving as a set of parallel bars, from where many of us used to hang and twirl as recess wound down into classtime. In terms of what our expectations of school were, my wife’s penchant was for extra work – she actually asked for homework! With me, I loved the stories, which Ms Portage was particularly good at delivering just because she was able to perform them, not just read them. A particular favourite, and one which stands out in my memory, is her reading of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which featured a cast of oversized insects, a couple of cruel maiden aunts, and the titular fruit. Ms. Portage would do the voices! We kids would sit in wonder, being drawn into the story of a kid about our same age, who triumphed over adversity, and who grew up on his great adventure while surrounded by friends. I think it really was this last bit which resonated so well with us; we were growing up, with varying amounts of adversity at times, while surrounded by friends of our own.

Most of the people I went to school with at that time I had known since the age of five and had shared classes and teachers, and experiences which seemed to last decades in accordance with how children experience the passage of time. Sunningdale Public School was a little world. We had shared the seasons, dressing up for Hallowe’en and wearing our costumes to school, decorating the classroom with highlights of green and red for Christmas, sending each other little cards made of construction paper for Valentine’s Day. In the winter, we formed orderly queues and enjoyed the natural snow-slides which the school grounds afforded, built as they were on a series of inclines as one got closer to the building when approaching from the rear field. There were school plays on the little stage in the gym (which seemed so enormous back then, sitting on the smooth floor and looking upward…) and assemblys of every kind, movies shown in the same gym, Christmas Caroling, the Queen’s Silver Jubliee when we all got coins in little plastic sleeves, class-awards for sports, and stories we’d written read (in my case) to the whole school. History, of the greater world and our own, was pushing us along as we grew, as we played on the sunwashed fields during “Play-Day” and during the two fifteen minutes of recess which seemed an adequate time for us to have an adventure of our own making, or to spend time with a teacher outside of the classroom before the school bell rang and it was time for us to return to our desks. When one has so many shared experiences, it is easy to recall such a time as that of our first sense of community, that this little world of school was our world, our time.

One of the things which I often think of is a time when a group of us sat under the trees on the park benches near the two boulders in Oakdale Park in 1981, discussing our future. It was the future we were talking about, the big Year Two-Thousand, and we thought about how funny, and wonderful it would be to meet up again (just like the song by Pulp) on that magical year and in that same place, to see how different things would be, how things would have changed. I think we hoped that we would all still be friends, that we would still know each other and get along the way we always had. But, I think the main reason it came up was because we knew that things would never be the same again, when Junior School loomed, and High School would soon follow. Of course at that time, we couldn’t put it into words, at least not in terms of a living reality. It was the time of fantasy, when our futures were more malleable. That was the point; we were in our age of innocence. Such things as the passage of time and of change seemed to be no further beyond the thought of grade 7 at a new school. But, I think we knew we would have to say goodbye, not all at once for many of us, but in increments.

Of course, things changed as they do, as we now expect them to do as a matter of course as adults. Junior School introduced a new influx of kids from other feeder schools in the area, adding a new infusion to our gene pool. The play of the past became more like intrigue – who is going out with who? Who likes who? Hormones made their presences known, and those we barely noticed in years gone by, were suddenly objects of our hidden, and not so hiddden, affection. We became teenagers, always aware of ourselves and always worried about what others thought of us. By the time High School rolled around and by the end of grade 9, I had moved away to attend another school and many of the kids I’d known at Sunningdale became faces I’d only see occasionally when on my travels during weekends, and during part-time jobs.

When I look back on my time at Sunningdale, I remember it as a time when I was growing with a community, when we shared experiences and formed friendships in a way that served us well for the time we spent there. It was a time when we gained a sense of perspective about the future and the nature of our lives, that the future was coming, that we would be different people before the end, and that it was all OK because we knew that we were enjoying something unique and something which would never pass our way again. While growing up, while experiencing new things and meeting new people, keeping my mind open to the possibilities of the future, I would often take a walk back to my old school grounds, the vast expanse of playing field now a little less expansive due to the presence of portables and a new parking lot, and revisit the time. I would stand under the old tree in the middle of the school ground, thinking of the time a bunch of us, in the second grade no less, put on a play we’d made up about a young prince meeting the ghost of his dead father under that very tree, and wondering why the teaching staff were so enthused about it. We thought we were just making up a story, unaware that we were performing our version of Hamlet. I remember my years there as something which grounds me to this day and reminds me of what school can inspire in a child, beyond the theories of education. In me, and in many of us, it inspired us to express ourselves, to share our ideas with each other and to play with wild abandon.


On New Year’s Day, my wife and I, with a friend, took a trip out to Belcarra. It is an area in Greater Vancouver which is rich with provincial parkland and is a place where, I joke to my friends from England, we keep every foreigner’s idea of Canada. This means lots of woods. It means babbling brooks and mountain vistas. When you’re out that way, you think that someone somewhere is really trying to impress you. But, our trips there mean more than drinking in the beauty of God’s landscape painting. It’s not just the thing itself. It is what being in the forest reminds us of. When I say “us”, perhaps I should say specifically my wife and I, who as children enjoyed romping through woods, being under a roof of branches and leaves. Being there brings us back to a mindset, when imagination was the guiding light, the thing that allowed us to wander about in worlds of our own making.

When I was young, there was an expanse of forest where the outside world could just as well have passed away entirely while I played there. It was the Trails. The boundry of this primeval world was located behind General Wolfe High School, bound by Sheridan College to the East and Upper Middle Road to the North. I supppose the area itself is not very large, but at the time it seem to be the size of Sherwood Forest. Much like the Creek (or “Creekway”, as I’ve been reminded) which I’ve talked about in another column, The Trails were a wild place. Eventually, we kids had explored every inch of it, playing at guerilla warfare, building forts out of found materials and picking wild raspberries (no food tastes better for a kid than the food he finds in the wild places), but no matter how many times we went there, how many days stretching from morning to dusk, it seemed to be as mysterious and exciting as the first time. We would crash through the trees, following the narrow dirt spines of the trails themselves, which were veined with the gnarled roots of the trees. We walked in single file, sometimes laughing, sometimes in silence, and always on some kind of adventure under the canopy of shade spotted with warm, off-yellow sunlight. We’d come home at the end of the day, covered in dirt and red clay caked on our shoes, smelling of the green creeks which fed the woods themselves. We would be completely exhausted and happy, with dinner and hot baths waiting for us in the real world. The magic of the day would fade into a sort of sleepy contentment, and we didn’t give a second thought to the woods, which continued to grow far away from our beds, our orderly homes which existed on another planet to our arboreal playground.

Perhaps my first hint of political outrage happened when I discovered that more houses were needed in our town. Oakville had been growing since we moved there in 1975. Since that time, it had become known as one of the most affluent places to live in Canada, being as it was a prime location for commuters who took the train into Toronto on weekdays. The construction started on one of the easterly parts of the Trails, and one day I rode my red Raleigh bicycle up one of the high trails, along the lip of the ravine where most of the trails wound their way into the foliage, following the hidden creek. That day, I realised the trail was different. It was thinner, the trees looking almost anaemic. My bike threw up a red cloud of dust as I rounded a corner and there I was confronted by the reality of a lawn, a house, windows, a front door, the early makings of a patio. World’s had collided. It wasn’t the end of the Trails, and there were still many hours and days of pleasure, of make-believe there afterwards, but I realised at that moment that I couldn’t stop things from changing. I knew then that just because something was in place that made me happy, it didn’t mean that it always would be. It didn’t mean that I had any sort of control. I remember railing against the new houses being built, not just there, but also in the tangled wilderness behind our school as well, at the end of McCraney Street where the only sign of civilisation was the triangular, flying saucer-like structure across the Sixteen Mile Creek at Glen Abbey Golf Course (and the Abbey itself – a gothic wonder I may write about later which I also didn’t entirely associate as being a part of civilisation). The world of commerce seemed to be unstoppable, and the Wild World seemed to be something which was entirely helpless to its demands for space, for resources.

One of my favourite poems is “Sir Gawain & The Green Knight”, particularly the part where the Green Knight rides his equally green steed into the banquet hall of Camelot, the very seat of civilisation in that ancient world. I’ve always been fascinated by that contrast; the silks and finery of Arthur and his knights versus the bearded, weather beaten giant, intruding upon the solemnity of the Christmas meal, offering his violent challenge. It reverses the roles which civilisation has constructed; it meets the world of order, of commerce and common sense, and demands that the virtues upon which civilisation is meant to be based be tested to make sure that it has not slid into laxity and corruption. The presence of the Green Knight, the embodiment of nature and of things beyonf our understanding, commands attention and strikes fear into the hearts of the complacent. I think that is another reasonI love the woods so much; it gives me perspective, that no matter what I achieve and what shape my world will take, I am still subject to the humility that the beauty and the power of nature brings to me. It reminds me that I am a part of it, vulnerable and as full of that sense of wonder as I was when I rode my red Raleigh bicycle, surrounded by friends, into the embrace of the trees.


The sound was tinny and coming from the bathroom through a black, transistor radio about the size of an ice cream sandwich. From it, flowed forth so many types of music, all of it sort of murky, but the soundtrack to my early life nonetheless. I remember thinking that the radio stations must have had huge waiting rooms, while each band took their turns to play. I didn’t really have a steady grasp of the recording process, needless to say. But the sound was everywhere around our house, mostly in the mornings when my parents were readying themselves for work. I would wake up with the sun streaming through the filmy curtain to my bedroom window and cast spots of daylight on the motorcycle wallpaper. The sound of the shower, the hair dryer, the voices of my parents, the DJ telling me what had just been played – it was all the music of getting ready, of starting a new day. Sometimes when I am engrossed in a memory of my childhood, it is much like a musical dream sequence featuring the Guess Who, Queen, Elton John, ELO, The Average White Band, and so many others playing in the background, there to hold up the backdrop of the time. Music is a two edged sword that way – it ties you to a time, but it can often date easily too. When you get old enough, the dating can be another source of amusement – you remember where you were and what you thought of it all. Like so many things, in its small way, it adds a sense of continuity to things, a sense of personal history even as those songs raise a smile when you hear them years later. I complain a lot about radio these days and there is a lot to complain about. The same songs get played over and over again only unlike in years past there are fewer of them, and they are all of the same style. There are no songs played which risk breaking the format, the uninterrupted flow of advertising time. The people who play the records have no relationship to them, either. As for listeners, I hope the songs on the radio today still have the power to tie this generation of radio listeners to their times the way that Gary Numan’s “Cars” reminds me of the time I first met my childhood sweetheart on a rare occasion outside of school. As disposable as pop music is thought to be, I wonder how things will advance given that everything has become disposable, and that everything is meant only for one red hot moment before something else replaces it.

I can only hope that the spirit of what can be found in simple things, like a tinny radio playing a song which ties a listener to the track of their lives in some way, both then and years later when the song is heard again, will never be lost. That out of a world where everything changes so quickly, something will remain for everyone which will make them realize that there is treasure to be found there. There is something which isn’t meant to burn out and be forgotten, and that the best part of it is that it can’t be named, or put into a category. This sense of transcendence, this meaning in our experiences embodied in something as simple as a song heard one morning when you were a child points to something beyond the surface, which we can only glimpse at. It reaches beyond the world and yet is rooted in the most humbling elements that make it up. This is not mere history, or fashion. It is our experience. It can’t be sold like airtime.


There were at least two important creeks running through the town where I grew up. One is famous and the other is not. The fame of the one rests on the Canadian Open and Glen Abbey Golf Course, a bright green-yellow golfing wonderland designed by Jack Nicklaus, but never (to my knowledge) conquered by him. Golfing fans across North America have seen that creek, giant trap for wayward golf balls, on their TVs. But the other creek, although quite a bit less grand in most ways, was “the Creek”. It wound rather weakly through an underdeveloped patch of green that broke up the streets of my neighbourhood and it was there that my friends and I were often waylaid on the way to and from school. There was something about that place, you see. It captured our imaginations. It was a place to explore and to have adventures. It was A Location, a place of power. It was a Wild Place, a microcosm of some vast and unexplored world.

The creek itself had carved a valley through the parkland, flowed under the streets through a series of corrugated metal tunnels (wide enough for three kids to walk side by side) and through yet another park before disappearing at the far end, gasping below into darkness. None of us really knew where it came from or where it went. Our creek, lined in places by walls made of caged stones, existed in a section of about four blocks, something of an anomaly when compared to the polite neighbourhood and orderly streets of our town. It was a wild place. In the summer, the flow of the creek was minimal in places, and the water was as warm as bath water, heated by the sun and with red clay banks that would harden and crumble beneath our shoes. It smelled of earth, of growing things, of leaves and slime. Across its surface, battalions of water striders stood guard, sliding this way and that as you moved your hand over it. Just beneath lurked crayfish, which some of us tried to catch. Minnows darted there too, unexpectedly in unison. Just up the incline to where the creek flowed, grew stocky, gnarled crab apple trees where a lot of kids had crab apple fights. Those round little apples were not soft!

In the winter, the creek froze and where it didn’t, the water ran black against the snow on the bank. The creek wasn’t deep on clear days and there would be clusters of kids down there, kicking at the ice with their plastic boots. We all loved that satisfying “crunch” of a boot heel against a pocket of thin ice, the shards skittering across the marble-hard surface of frozen water that was pocked with past attempts of the same pursuit. There were inevitable “soakers”, which I am pretty sure is a unique slang term invented in Canada for accidentally getting water in your boot, after trying something foolhardy. But soakers were as much a part of winter as Christmas, as aching ears and cheeks in the frosty wind, and March Break. Nothing could stop us from going down into the creek, except when it rained, and the creek ran fast and angry like blood, coloured that way because of the red clay bed it ran along. It was like seeing someone raging about some thing or other, and you know that it’s time just to keep your distance. As far as I know, the Creek never took any of us. But, on rainy days in the spring when the ice melted far up stream, past the invisible barriers of the last tunnel under Miller Road, it looked like it might try.

I saw the creek again last year. The underdeveloped park it moved through now has a paved walkway and a lamp. The creek itself is now shrouded by trees; it is hidden like a secret. It had been blocked the winter before and it had flooded the neighbourhood at one end, destroying at least one house, and a good deal of my collection of books and pictures that I had been storing at my Father’s place. I ventured down into the basement a number of weeks afterward as I had come home from England, where I was living at the time, to visit My Dad. The smell was there. That earthy smell things of growing, of earth of slime. It was The Creek, finding its way into the basement, and back into my nose where it had lived for a long time in years past. I supposed that I could live without some of the stuff that had been damaged. The Creek was an old friend. How could I really be mad?


I remember who it was who told me. It was my Grandma, who was taking care of me for a week or two at the end of 1980. That was the year I really discovered the Beatles by way of an ancient reel-to-reel compilation made by my Dad. It was the year that “Starting Over” hit the ariwaves, and I knew that this was the return of someone great, someone who had been away and was back to put out more greatness for the benefit of my thirsty ear for pop music, and particularly all things Beatles. But Grandma said, upon my coming home for lunch that day, “Someone shot him.” My first question was asked with incredulity;

He’s dead?


Five times.

Died on the way to the hospital.

But, that’s John. That’s the guy who answered the question “How do you find America” with the answer “Turn left at Greenland.” Beatle John. The Walrus. How could he be dead? He’s just come back. He’s got a number one on the charts. The song was even called “Starting Over.” That’s not fair.

It was a strange feeling to have that kind of reaction to the news. He was someone I hadn’t met, but he had made an impact on me in any case. I couldn’t put a name to it then, but I went into mourning. The Beatles had changed my life – they gave me a passion in music, something that could be mine. They created a mythic presence in my imagination that is still there to this day, and there it will always be. It was only later in life that the true dimensions of the life the group lived as a unit and those who were in the group became apparent to me. These were mortal men, real people who had lives apart from one another, the group and the preconceptions of those who adored them as I did. But the basic feeling of unfairness, that I had somehow been robbed of something, remains. That the story should end in such violence, such a senseless and meaningless way was unacceptable to me, and yet there was nothing else left to say. He was gone.

It was later still that I understood that he had been killed by a fan, someone who felt the same way about the Beatles as many of us do and as I certainly did. This made no sense to me either, but it is a sobbering thought that the thing which inspires to such a degree, can inspire one to greatness and to destruction in a like manner. Had he been considered merely as a husband and father, would he still have been murdered in the street? This gives my outrage another dimension because this violent act casts a shadow on the very heart of my admiration for what John created and who he was. The shooter, who has gained fame of his own as he wished (and so I don’t name him) ruined it for everyone. Maybe we should have listened more closely. The dream was over. It was time to allow The Walrus to be John and the fact that we couldn’t proved to be his downfall.