Friday, April 22, 2016

A Passover Story, as Told By Pete The Clown

The more I think about it, the bigger this coincidence gets.

Just moments ago, I was talking on Facebook with a young woman who I met in person just once before in my life—more than 30 years have passed. And the circumstances of that last meeting are so close to the situation we're in this minute, it's almost mystical. This story begs to be told.

Her name? Adrienne Ziegler-Shulman.

I met her back in the last century, when I was in university, after a sunny mid-April Friday afternoon like today at her family home in Thornhill, ON., when I showed up by surprise, with her older brother Stuart.

Stuart was one of my housemates in Ottawa, and earlier that Friday, I was taking in the Spring sun on the front porch when he emerged carrying a small satchel. He was, he told me, heading home for Passover.

I’d known Stuart mostly as a quiet very funny smart guy and one of the reasons I thought he was so cool was that his soft-spoken nature  cloaked a surprising anarchistic streak; something that said “I’m up for anything, at least once.” Seconds after he told me where he was going, he added, “Wanna come?”

Passover. That was sure something I had absolutely zero experience with.

I said “yeah!” And not packing much more than maybe a pair of socks, we headed to the Greyhound Station for a long’s evening ride to North York, just outside Toronto. 

From there, we went to what I thought was an extremely swanky family home in Thornhill and a mom--who despite neither having met me nor been warned of my arrival--greeted me like a loving aunt; with open arms and a late-night snack.  I immediately felt at home. 

The next 24 hours was life-changing and I am not exaggerating.

Up to that point in my life, I knew precious little about The Holocaust. Or Jewish history.  True fact.

But after Passover at Stuart’s? Phew!

We arrived late Friday and woke up early Saturday. And all day long, it seemed people kept showing up from who knew where. The house got very noisy.  Uncles –I remember one gentle man who ran a souvenir shop in Niagara Falls—aunts, and cousins seemed to invade and they each of them talked to me as if I were a welcome in-law or something.

Several of the older folks bore concentration-camp tattoos. And despite having to catch up with relatives and help with chores, each took time to patiently explain to me how lives had been devastated by the war; about how other people suffered, and—this part is key-- how families, faith and strength helped them through.

Years earlier, I had read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”, a holocaust-based story about the triumph of the human spirit under horrifying adversity, but until my weekend at Stuart's it remained pretty academic. 

At the Ziegler home, I could put real human faces to such heroism.

I once heard a management consultant –or maybe it was a Facebook Post—that was like, “People might forget what you say to them but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

The Ziegler family made me feel like I was a visiting dignitary. I left their home stronger; with even more faith in the human spirit.     

And while it’s not my job to share the Ziegler family stories, you can read one of them here. It’s an amazing story about Stu and Adrienne's mom Miriam’s historic return to Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of liberation.  

Also very important to this blog: I recall laughing as much as not laughing that weekend.  

The Zieglers clearly believe laughter is as essential for life as water.

 Also, I’d come from Ottawa in jeans and a t-shirt. Passover Seder is something you dress up for.

So the morning of the feast, I went downtown to borrow dress clothes off some hippie friends and I wound up in a yellowish plaid suit belonging  to a guy who, although generous, was shorter and wider than me. I looked like a cartoonist’s version of a used-car-selling clown.  Plus I had long greasy hair and the kippah (the little hat) kept slipping off.

Adrienne just told me via Facebook, that she remembers the suit, too. But she was raised polite. She said, “you felt a bit awkward.”

 “You were also,” she reminded me, “a bit blown away at how many leftovers my mom insisted on sending you back to Ottawa with.”

Of course there was lots of food. That's why they call it a feast.  And most of it consisted of delights I’d never eaten before, like gefilte fish and little sandwiches full of horseradish.

Finally, Adrienne informed me today, as I type this blog, her heroic (my adjective) mom Miriam is “cooking up a storm and her food is still delicious.”

My thoughts will be with them as they sit down for Passover this weekend.

Being in that family’s presence was a privilege I’ll boast about until I’m too old to blog.

Monday, April 18, 2016

In Which Pete Channels Tom Sawyer

I'll never forget how tightly my daughter Ewa Frances wrapped her arms around my tummy and how loudly she exclaimed--when we got to the end of our block--"I LOVE YOU DADDY!!"

The occasion: Her first motorcycle ride.

Her age: 7.  Maybe 8.

She's 25 now and goes by Ev. (A quarter of a century explaining that "Ewa" is Polish and the "W" is pronounced like "V" was enough.)

Ev's friend, a University of Toronto creative writing student named Tess Hole, produced the following story as an assignment. They gave me permission to share.  (I've edited it slightly, for length.)

Posting Tess' story on my blog reminds me of Tom Sawyer letting other kids pay him to let them paint the fence.  A point very few folks make is, never mind how it got done, the fence got painted!

                                                  A Motorcycle Chronology

                                                            By Tess Hole

Ev walks in to Manic Coffee at Bathurst and College Street. She’s twenty-three.
The left side of her head is half-shaved, the right side curls behind her ears cut right at the
neck, red from henna dye. Ev has a soft welcome smile on glowing white skin, with
warmth about her aura that beckons anyone to talk to her. A tattoo of the festival map of
“Burning Man” is on her right wrist; an annual event in the Nevada Black Rock Desert
that is dedicated to connection, art, and self-expression. Ev is accustomed to being in
close proximity to strangers, she and her twin sister host couch surfers in their crafted
Love at first ride
blanket fort in the basement of their home. Christmas lights dangle on the walls and
books stack along the sides like a dreamworld reading nook.

Ev’s number one love is her motorcycle. I remember being terrified of riding
since I was a child, but when I was invited by Ev to go for a ride the anxieties drifted
away in the breeze that wisped by us. I watched the city lights pass by like cheerleader
pitons guiding us home. She always has two helmets, commonly takes friends on rides,
and checks how the passenger feels at every stoplight. I clung to her for dear life at first,
but then I realized she is an expert. She has claim over the road like the international
dancer knows the lines of every stage she dances across; a natural and trained instinct.

ProudDadsRUs: Jack Hole and his author/daughter Tess 
Today Ev and I sit down in the March sunshine of the front window of Manic
Coffee. I have a cortado and a chocolate hazelnut croissant. Ev orders an Americano and
a matcha white chocolate chip cookie.

“Can I ask you about your motorcycle?”

“Yes of course.”

“What kind of motorcycle?”

“BMW 650.”

I ask Ev how she got interested in motorcycles.

“I grew up on the back of my dad’s. We lived three streets away from my elementary
school. He would drive my brother, and come home, then my sister, and come home, then
me. And we always felt so cool with our helmets, on the back with our backpacks. And
he never got in any accidents so it felt really safe, which is probably why I don’t have the
aversion to it. Now I feel safer on a motorcycle than I do in a car. Like when I’m driving,
my mom’s van, it’s so bulky. Like, how am I supposed to be safe with this?”

“It sounds like it’s in your veins now, since when you were younger being on it.”

“Yeah. Totally. Definitely it feels safer.”

“And I have to say as the passenger too, that’s the experience with you. Perfect first
motorcycle experience. It’s like: I feel totally safe right now and taken care of.”

“That’s really important. I’m really glad you feel that way, thank you for telling me.”

“What kind of attention do you get when you’re on your motorcycle? What do people

“It’s begun!” Ev laughs. We’ve spoken about this before. She points outside, indicating
the dwindling winter season allowing for her to take out the bike again.

“I forgot about it until recently, until I started taking out again. I feel like I should write
these down., like all the people’s different comments.”

“Like a motorcyclist chronology?”

“Yeah! Like people who comment, or tell me things, or feel like they have a right to get
into my space because you’re only on a motorcycle. Um, I remember one time I was
stuck in traffic on the Gardiner. And a man said: ‘There’s nothing cuter than a woman on
a motorcycle!’ as he drove by me. Like, why do you think like that’s something to say?”

“How did that make you feel?”

“I was like, why am I cute? You would never say that to a guy.”

Ev: "You never get a negative reaction from kids"

“Um, and then like, police at stoplights pull down their windows and ask me, what kind
of bike is that blah, blah, blah.

I noticeably cringe.

“Do you feel like that’s a common thing? People try to like.. it almost seems to me trying
to play with power a little bit. Like, you have a certain power being a woman on a
motorcycle, it being a masculine thing, does it feel like a challenge?”

“I think it’s mostly annoying. Like, stay out of my space. I don’t want to talk to you. It
happens mostly at stoplights people will start talking from car windows, sidewalks.. It’s
mostly about gender, a guy once told me to ‘make sure to shoulder check!’. And it’s like,
you’re telling me how to drive? You would never do that for a man! It’s interesting, when
I wear more masculine clothes, the comments stop. Okay, I’ll tell you a positive
experience.. When kids see it. You never get a negative reaction from kids. They always
wave. When you’re just driving by, like a baby or something, or a kid in a wagon, or
elementary school, ALL the kids will wave. And like, I’ll get big smiles.”

“I like the kid in the wagon, because they’re in their own sort of vehicle.”

“Yeah, and they don’t even think about it, they just wave! It always brings a smile to my

“It sounds so pure.”

“Yeah, it’s so lovely.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Very Cool Song About Brothers

 Family Ties: Eddie Alex and Me.
I just heard a wonderful song called "My Brother" by a Welsh entertainer named Ian Shaw that everybody should hear. You’ll want to play it twice.
But read this first: 
It’s a quick story about my older brother Alex. And if you’ve met him, you’ll have a hard time believing it. I kinda do even though I was involved.
I was in grade five, in St. Albert’s School, in Sudbury.
It’s important to know that St. Albert’s was half French/ half English. The English part--where most of us Carters went--was on the first floor. The French kids were upstairs.
And for some reason, the two groups were kept apart. 
Really, two separate two schools in one.
Yes we were all Roman Catholic, and we all came from the same neighbourhood. But the two schools had different principals and separate staffs.
They had their sports teams, we had ours, and I have no idea if their teams had uniforms, or, now that I think of it, if they even existed. We just never had any truck with the French kids, except to fight.
Here’s something that bugged us. The French kids’ recess was 15 minutes before ours so we could hear them playing in the yard while we were still locked up on class. That hurt. Ditto their school exit time.
All this means that in our little kid brains, French boys were dumb and French girls were easy.  I wish I were joking but that's the way we thought.
(Ironically, because my folks were very progressive they encouraged us to learn French; and my sister Mary actually attended all of her education—from grade one to a Nursing degree—in French.  Must ask some day how she pulled that off being easy and all. But I digress.)
As I mentioned, the French kids got out 15 minutes before us. That gave them plenty of time to clear the schoolyard. But one day, for some reason, one of them was still hanging around the exit door when we were let out.
And, for the same mysterious reason, he took a dislike to me.   
What happened—according to my memory—was this: I walked out of the back door of the school, he was leaning against the wall.  After I got a few yards away into the schoolyard, he found a reason to chase me.  I had to get out of there as fast as my skinny grade-five legs would permit. 
I turned around to escape and without raising my eyes to look for an escape route, I ran headfirst DIRECTLY INTO THE WALL OF A BIG SILVER TIN GARAGE that sat beside the schoolyard.  I slammed into the wall and fell backwards.  (I think it’s happened to every little boy at least once.)  
Mr. French guy caught up to me. Got me in a headlock. But even from that  unwieldy and unflattering position of  having being bent over with my head vice gripped in they guy’s forearm, I managed to spot—walking across the sidewalk down where the laneway met Eyre Street, my brother Alex, a  grade-niner, walking home from high school.
The coincidence couldn’t have been more timely. All those years of my being an altar boy and sucking up to God just paid off.  
I yelled. He heard. He ran towards us and looked menacing enough to scare the evil French kid away.
As I alluded earlier, “menacing” and “Alex” don’t really fit in the same sentence.  While strong and funny, Alex is anything but a fighter.  But that day—for me--he was.  
I’m only writing this because earlier this evening I heard on the radio a situation described as  “very Big Brotherish.” In that context—and in far too many contexts—“Big Brother” is a negative image. An unwelcome presence in one’s life.
And it’s 100-percent wrong.
Big brothers are the best.
I should know. I have four:  Pat, Tom, Alex and Ed.
When I hear something is “Big Brotherish,” I think, “Great!” 
Believe it or not, that laneway incident was not the only time Alex saved my life. He rescued me from choking to death, years later. (Come to think of it, the reason I was choking is because my other big brother Pat and I were involved in a food fight and Pat shoved a piece of beef in my mouth. But never mind that. Al held me  upside down and saved the day.) Eddie, too, pulled me to safety after I fell through the ice on Mud Lake near what is now the Ghost Town of Creighton, ON. 
In other ways, all four of them taught me things that saved my life and/or bacon one way or another.
They taught me to drive; to be a dad; which music was best and –this is key--how to not get caught doing things.  
They know all my secrets and have never ratted me out. They know what I don’t want anybody else to know.
Say what you want, George Orwell. My wish for the world is that we all have Big Brothers.
And with that, I want to share this fabulous piece of music called "My Brother" by Ian Shaw.