Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kodachrome-ing a Moment in Time

Kodachrome - Paul Simon

Kodachrome - the ability to capture a moment and hold on to it long after the moment has passed. It's just not the same with digital images, where most don't bother to print that tangible proof of the time worth capturing. And it's so easy to delete and do over. Or so we think. Perhaps it is because there are no second chances that I find myself occasionally looking over the photographic images with a caressing finger and tear running down my cheek. So many memories. Both good and bad. It may seem unusual for some to document in image form the bad but it happens. A gathering at a funeral, a wrecked car after a mishap, Mother Natures glory before her fury. 

But while Paul Simon thinks back on all the crap he learned in high school I think of one person who left this world too soon and left my life long before I was ready for it. My sister Sandra Sdraulig. Sandra was born on All Saints Day (November 1) one year and 22 days before I came along. She was the oldest, the wisest, the most confident and she seemed so grown up. Our twin beds occupied the same room but her and I had very little in common in our pre-teen years. There were four kids in the family and when we paired off to battle or play, she was never on my team. Sandra would rather rough-house with the boys or talk to the adults then play silly pretend games with barbie dolls and secrets. She was self-assured, confident and well-liked by all. She had a entourage of friends with a few especially close ones. She was talented in sports and excelled at artistic endeavours like ballet, tap and jazz dancing. It seemed that she succeed in all that she tried and I was envious of her abilities that seemed to come so easily. 

Sandra trying to push me into the fountain! Or so I thought
It seems strange sometimes that there was only one year difference between us but she seemed to have accomplished so much. Despite her tom-boyish behaviour she was an accomplished seamstress (clearly inheriting my mom's talent in this area), she had been on a tour of Italy with my grandparents where she perfected the language so as to converse fluently with all the friends and relatives who passed through our door. This brief journey cemented an unbreakable bond between her and our grandfather. Truly the only time I remember him smiling is when they had their arms around each other. The closeness that they shared was a joy to observe. Laughing and smiling together with private jokes only they understood. All cross-generational family relationships should be so special. As an adult I could understand the pain and anguish that he must have felt when she died - like a piece of his heart was ripped away. He never smiled again - not sober anyways. As a kid of 12 when Sandra passed away, all I felt from my grandfather was a resentment that she was gone and I remained. She was a treasure for sure and a crushing blow for him. 

But he wasn't alone in feeling her loss so intently. The Home Economics teacher saw all the fruits of her labour come to a head with the enthusiasm and talent that Sandra possessed in the domestic arts. I followed a year later in the same classroom with none of the zeal and a mountain of resentment that the Catholic education system would not allow me to join the boys in the Industrial Arts room to play with the tools. It was hard being in her shadow and worse when people expected me to rise to her level. She had some pretty big shoes to fill. I didn't come close.

As different as people saw us after she was gone, I saw similarities. We were two young girls trying to find our own place in the world. Fortunately, as she neared her teen years and upcoming high school experience, we suddenly found that in the darkness after family "good nights" were spoken, we leaned over the edge of the beds to whisper secrets of boys, love and life. I was suddenly a person she looked to for companionship and friendship. The gap that separated us was closing and I couldn't have been more thrilled. We had a commonality suddenly - boy crazy. The time of connectivity was short-lived because she was ripped from my heart too. My grandfather may have had her closeness for longer but it hurt me too when she was no more. For many years I walked into our room and saw her empty bed. Many times I wanted to lean across the narrow pathway between the beds and shake her mattress to wake up and talk. 

Dad takes a break from working on the house
to cradle his new babe!
The last day of her life, as we began that fateful car ride Paul Simon began to sing Kodachrome and Sandra remarked that it was her favourite song. I don't know what meaning it held for her if any. Maybe it was just thoughts of bright colours and the greens of summer. But the bright colour that came that night were not nice and she never made to see the summer colours again. I don't remember the last words that she spoke to me. In the dark of the night as my mom guided the car down the divided highway, Sandra occupied the front middle seat. It had been a long day and if us four kids weren't asleep we were dozing off. In the aftermath when the car came to a rest on its roof in the middle of the Grindstone River, the flames were bright and words of fear (from my youngest sister, Linda) and words of encouragement (from my mom) were spoken. But not a word from Sandra. Seat belts weren't used in those days and I always hoped that she had been spared the pain and may have been killed in the initial impact being tossed into the front dash or windshield. I've asked and no one has ever answered. In the end it really doesn't matter how. The knowing doesn't change the outcome, she was gone. My dad's first born and pride of his heart had left to go be with him. 

Sandra models the dress she made herself
She left me to take on the role of oldest in the family and I was ill-equipped to follow in her footsteps and forever remained in her shadow. 
I regret not knowing her better. I regret not having her to turn to in the quiet of the night with the fears faced growing up. I regret not having her by my side and never again knowing what it is like to grow up in a sisterhood. She was an amazing child of 13 when she left the earthly world and she would have been an amazing adult. No doubt! And my life is much emptier not having had her a part of it. When I consider a role model for my life, she is it. She is my big sister!

If I knew that the last time I hugged you it would be the last time, I would never let go. If I knew the last time I saw you smile would be the last time, I would never blink. If I knew the last time I heard you voice would be the last time, I would never want to hear another sound. If I knew the last time I saw you would be the last time I would take pictures til there was no Kodachrome left in the world and hold them in my withering old hands. But I never knew. The times I cried for you can not be calculated, the tears I've shed make Niagara Falls look like a babbling brook. I love and miss you. This lifetime without you has been too long.

Happy Birthday Sandra...see you soon! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Now and Forever in the House of Dreams

Now and Forever - Blue Rodeo

If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me? 

It had been going on without a hitch for several years. He was an intellectual equal and made her smile and laugh. His attention made her feel good about herself and he gave her confidence. He encouraged her and stood by her when she fell. She is analytical and perceptive. She noticed that there were habits that she could count on. That brought a sense of security, knowing that there was a predictability of sorts. But not all the habits were comforting. Christmas is a stressful time for a lot of people but without saying a word, his actions told her that this was truer for him than many others in her circle. The tension in the early months of the new year became expected and tolerated. When it was a pattern that was followed she could take comfort in knowing that it wasn't her fault. Men don't understand that the female species tends to want to take onus for the problems and snags in relationships. Women are masters at finding fault within themselves when they pass by the mirror and are quick to assume the blame. If they know why...maybe they can fix it. Healers by nature, it is astounding that the field of medicine isn't dominated by the female gender.

Once it was in the middle of the winter doldrums that he suddenly made himself scarce. She asked why, she didn't get a satisfactory answer. He dismissed her. She blamed herself because this was beyond the normal realm.  He had just recently bestowed upon her a gift. It was the most thoughtful gift and it came from his heart. He had listened to her and he knew what would please her the most. When things went sour she felt discarded and the gift was a reminder of what she thought were her inadequacies. She wanted explanations, reasons or excuses for the recent turn. She didn't get it. She felt used and abused. The media reinforced her feelings of cheapness, the line in the movie said "I thought I would charge more for the indignation of eff-ing for cash". She returned the gift to him to remove the constant reminder from her view.

She hated that word "eff" when it was attached to the act of mutual physical appreciation. Making love seemed a bit too corny, screwing was something done in the tool shed not the bedroom. Somewhere in her mind though she had always hoped that going to bed with a guy would entail some mutual respect. Eff-ing seemed to negate that. Carnal pleasure, using one another for ones own purposes requires no respect. Just receptacles and warm bodies. That's when she really felt eff-ed. One night stands had happened in her life but for her part, she was not just using him...she had hopes beyond that single encounter. That's why she hurt when it died. Her girlfriends would call him a sleaze to try and make her feel better. But what did it say about her, if he really was a sleaze and in his mind she was not good enough to see a second time?

But they weren't a one-night stand. They shared a bond that transcended the years. Beyond the horizontal dance that they periodically engaged in, there was the friendship - the respect for each other. She could tell him anything and she was secure in the fact that it was like telling a secret to her best friend. He wouldn't tell anyone and he wouldn't use the information to hurt her. And she kept his secrets too. It was the ultimate friends with benefits. She told him things that previously had been locked away in her subconscious, she had no fear that he would judge her. She felt peace and happiness like a warm blanket enveloping her. She had her freedom and she had her satisfaction, it was the best-case scenario. 

House of Dreams - Blue Rodeo

Something changed to cause him to disappear and she became afraid. Afraid that she had done wrong, that she had over-stepped. She saw flaws in her reflection that she hadn't seen for a long time. She remembered words that she perhaps shouldn't have spoken. Everything she did and had done, she scrutinized and criticized. She knew that the reality was that she was far from perfect and that there were many better and younger models out there willing to take her place. She became afraid to talk to him thinking that what she said would be misinterpreted and misconstrued to mean something other than what was her intent. It wasn't long before she felt like a bother and a nuisance and that he had summarily discarded and abandoned her. The worst part was that she couldn't tell any of it to her best friend...because he was it, her confidant...and he was gone.

Days passed and weeks turned into months. She accepted her new reality because there was no other choice. She felt alone in the world, ugly and unworthy of any ones attention. It felt like mourning the death of a close relative to her, for she was indeed mourning a loss. When a family member leaves the worldly planet to pass onto the great beyond we must learn to fill in the gap that they have left in our heart and life. He left a huge hole in her existence when he turned away from her. 

It never went away, the fear of bumping into him on the street and not knowing what to say. She felt that whatever words came to her would just anger him more. She hadn't figured out what she had done to cause the change, she just knew that he hadn't changed so ergo it must be her. The only certainty was that something had indeed changed. She had hopes that the confidence would come one day so she could look him in the eye and tell him that she deserved the courtesy of knowing what she did to anger him so. 

Physical relationships end. People move on. Maybe they are afraid of the intimacy, maybe they are afraid of the closeness. Maybe someone better or different comes along. Friendships don't end in the same way. People over time drift away and spend less time with one another but unless something has happened to cause a rift, it doesn't end overnight...just like that.

But if he can't find the time for her, maybe there is no time left for them at all. It's a hard lesson and if she could have dropped out and not finished the course...she would have done just that. She gave him the gift back but she couldn't erase the memories of better times. His presence was everywhere. When she could finally think of him without the floodgates of tears opening up, she saw the rainbow. And there like a pot of gold waiting to be collected stood her Adonis. A new chapter in her life was unfolding and she opened herself to the possibilities that the future held for her, for him, for them. No more eff-ing for her. From now on...only love.

PS: This was written and drafted in the files for quite a long time. Looking to finish and publish I am happy without having changed a word. :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Travelling the Highway of Life in the Single Lane

Hey Ho - The Lumineers

I love to talk, I love to write but I can't say it any better than The Lumineers:

I've been trying to do it right
I've been living a lonely life
I've been sleepin' here instead
I've been sleepin' in my bed

So show me family 
All the blood that I will bleed
I don't know where I belong
I don't know where I went wrong
But I can write a song...

The empty chair.

No one likes to be in the midst of a crowd of people with the only vacant seat in the room being the one next to you. What does it mean exactly? You begin to question yourself. Did I shower this morning? Did I use to heavy a hand with my fragrance? But if you are me, you internalise and assume it is the you that you cannot change. The intrinsic personality that has developed and been set in stone since birth. It that core belief system that has been reinforced everytime you see that empty chair beside you. There is nobody who wants to sit through the ride of life next to you. Of course the rationale side of you knows that this is not the case, rather sometimes you have to look outside of the room - beyond the assembled crowd to find the right participant for your life's journey. 

But at that moment, it wouldn't matter if there were 5 other empty chairs in the room, you would feel like there was a spotlight on the one next to you. The empty chair means that you have come alone. You are the one travelling the highway of life in the single lane. There is no one that is going to take that spot and help you move into the more popular HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane. But we can't always decide when someone will chose to sit and rub elbows with us. Chance or fate. There are somethings that are just out of our control. 

One thing that most of us lugging that chair like an albatross around our neck wants is someone else to decide who is going to sit. Who we spend time with, whether it is a casual acquaintance or a life mate should be a decision we make on our own. There are a lot of people I like and respect in my world, but not everyone of those people would have open access to the secrets of my heart. There are many I could spend even hours with in a social environment but one on one and someone would be begging for mercy and looking for an escape route. It would probably be me. One of my most favourite people in the world is me! I enjoy spending time with myself and can always find something to occupy my time. I think that makes me more particular about who I wish to spend my time with. Why just last evening an acquaintance was cozying up making conversation - and while I was outwardly cordial, I didn't invite discourse beyond the superficial banter. I had my guard up for sure, but that was only because I know for a fact that she has taken what little she knows about me and used it as gossip at her weekly social gabfest. Why would I give her more ammunition? Does this make me cold and unsociable? Perhaps - but it is also self-preservation. Maybe if I see her again, I will have the courage to speak my mind and tell her what I think of her malicious gossip.

Who am I kidding? One piece of advice that my Mom loved to share was if you have nothing nice to say, then keep it to yourself. I won't say anything, I will hold my tongue. Inside I will hurt and I will cry but it is quite unlikely that I will share my thoughts especially with someone who I have been hurt by.

Mental illness like Cancer or any other human ailment is not something that people wish to have. Most often the onset is out of their control. Personally, a diagnosis of depression and anxiety is certainly not something I ever expected to happen at this stage of my life. I would have been less surprised if it had come about in my pre-teen or even teen years (when I really could have classified as messed up). But now? 

Closer to retirement than not, my lifes' course was set in my mind. The children were "successfully" raised and making their own way in the world. I had a job that I loved and financially, things were coming together. I could start to look forward to the extra things in life - maybe even a trip back overseas to explore more of Europe. Socially, it was time to focus on finding that right person to sit in the empty chair - at least there would be some fun in the search!

But with that diagnosis nearly two long and lonely years ago came alienation. If I announced the big "C" had invaded my life, I would have people coming out of the woodwork to offer support and comfort. As it is, people are afraid. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, people seem to fear that they might catch it if they are exposed to the tears that fall. The only thing I see is that I am seeing you for your true muted colours. And I want to run away and I won't look back to see you. You probably won't even notice. And I'm talking about the people who should be standing next to me - family. Or in my case the people who in the past have wanted to "stand-in" for my family.

The celebration of Thanksgiving has recently passed for us living here in Canada. A time to get together with family, share a meal and some joy. We are lucky to be far enough away from Christmas that the American shopping frenzy that follows there Thanksgiving turkeyfest doesn't apply to us. Regardless, back to the Lumineers - Show me family and where I belong. Family has never been for me - and with the alienation due to my current struggle to survive, I didn't feel comfortable with the concept of family get-togethers. The square peg in the round hold syndrome. It has been said many times and now in countless facebook posts "Family is not always blood. It's the people in your life who want you in theirs, the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile, and who love you no matter what." In that case, my family is my friends. In-laws, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents - they are family of sorts by definition but not necessarily by actions. By their actions, I felt invited for the harvest feast by obligation not desire and there was an empty chair where I had sat in the past when I was well and accepted. Metaphoric empty chair - for I am sure that they found someone else to sit and break bread with the family. 

And that would be okay for I am not one to go where the welcome mat has been stowed away. But then I came across this little tidbit "A person's own family is, without a doubt, the greatest wealth we will ever achieve...we are rich!" My chair has been beside her at the table. I am not her own family. She is rich and I am...not worthy. Perhaps I am overly-sensitive but if you never thought that words can hurt...well they do. Those of us without family - by God's design or our own fate is not necessarily of our choosing. 

Maybe I don't know where I went wrong because I didn't go wrong. Wrong was done to me. I cannot climb in their head and understand their motivations. They are truly Ugly people with souls like rocks. And because of the unfortunate timing of it all I am going to pay a brief tribute to Amanda Todd. Amanda was a 15 year old girl from British Columbia who very recently succeeded in taking her own life. Amanda didn't do anything wrong, she had pride and self-esteem and shared the love of herself with someone else who exploited her youth and innocence by bullying and belittling her. She suffered from anxiety and depression and alienation. In her own words, I have nobody. I need somebody =( I feel her pain...acutely. I've been there. I am there. 

People don't die from suicide, they die from sadness! 

Truer words were never spoken. Invite someone to sit in the empty chair. You may save a life and at the very least you can be a somebody, even for just a little while. Don't judge. Believe. Just sit beside them so they aren't feeling so alone. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

You Don't Have to Win the Race to Succeed!

Walls - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

"Some days are diamonds,
Some days are rocks
Some doors are open 
Some roads are blocked"

Karma is just an excuse people use to not exact revenge on their enemies themselves. I am not a believer in the notion of Karma as people portray it today. It seems more of a convenience. The idea of the forces of nature serving punishment for misdeeds just doesn't seem to wash most of the time.  Just once, I would like to see the a-hole who nearly runs me off the road pulled over by the cops or better still his cheek smushed up against the trunk of his car as the handcuffs are fastened and seeing me laugh as I pass him. It hasn't happened yet. Is that Karma?

If I believed in this notion of Karma then I would have to believe that a 10 year old girl did something so awful in her life that she was killed. I have to believe that a 12 year old girl did something so heinous that not only was she disfigured but her entire family was ripped from her life forever. The boy who battled cancer from the age of 9 to his untimely death at 21 was also fighting the forces of Karma. He got what he deserved? I don't think so. Karma has nothing to do with bad things happening to good people. I could write an encyclopedia of personal accounts proving this notion however. Bad things happen and it is not fair or just!

But then look at the other side of the coin and you see the bully that not only carries on with their life seemingly unscathed while at the same time thriving. Meanwhile, their victim is suffering traumatic effects of the abuse and living in fear. Karma my ass! Jeffrey Dahlmer, Ted Bundy, Clifford Olsen, Jack the Ripper. The names are familiar to us but how many of us can name one or more of their victims. Is this Karma? The beast goes on to infamy while the innocent are forgotten. Maybe some of these serial killers are thrown in jail for the rest of their lives but they still have a life (unlike their victims) and by all accounts it's pretty damn cushy. In North America anyways, all the amenities we wish for and then some that the working poor can't afford. Access to higher education, TV, clean clothes, nutritious meals, warm and safe lodgings (yes it may be a solitary existence but it is comfortable). I have known people who were incarcerated repeatedly for petty crimes just so they could rest, eat and wash free. While at the same time, law abiding citizens work two or three jobs just to make ends meet without the luxuries or free time afforded the convicts. Justice? Karma?  

A Little Food For Thought 

She says, "I know, I think I understand. Some people walk protected safe from trouble they never understand and no matter how I try, feel like sinking sand."

"I wish I was a river. A river running free, runnin' wild. I'd wrap my waves around her and carry her off long into the night."

With gratitude to the mastery and talent of Jim Cuddy - Slide Through Your Hands.

The Origins of Karma from Buddha

Buddhas law of cause and effect is called Karma and in its' simplistic form it is about the nature of our intentions. To have good Karma you must have good intentions as we are the architects of our own fate. If we do good we get good back. Buddha actually identified six intentions that drive our actions - 3 positive (kindness, compassion, generosity) and 3 negative (anger, cruelty, greed). If our intention is positive we are said to be doing karma meaning we become what we do. In spreading kindness we are kind. Similarly in acting with anger, we perpetuate anger around us. That would be bad karma.  However to create an atmosphere of understanding we want to be understood but to fully appreciate the concept, we must be misunderstood at some point. To create love we must know and understand hate and feeling of being unloved. To appreciate peace we have to understand the horror of war. To appreciate a smile we must have experienced sadness. 

In the quest to achieve good Karma, we are desiring and seeking Perfection. As nothing is truly perfect in an imperfect world, at some point we must become accepting. The goal of finding perfection for ourselves over the imperfection of humanity can easily cross the fine line over to greed and cruelty. When we seek to become better - we have to compare. Better than what? Better than whom? To be perfect ourselves we must ascribe the label of imperfect to others. That is NOT a positive intentions for our actions. 

In our hope for something better, we may not see when we already have become the best that we can achieve. Ironically, I always said something very similar to the "special" students that I worked with. All you really need to be is the best that YOU can be. You don't have to go to University or be and English scholar to be the best YOU possible. And sadly I have run into more than one university educated teacher who put themselves up on a pedestal over their students. Book learners and hands on learners are two different type of people but not one is smarter than the other. Sometime the attitude of superiority can make a person seem very stupid indeed. If you are in a wheelchair and can't run a marathon, you are not less of a person. You don't have to win the race to succeed. Don't look at the job in the fast food industry as a failure because even the University professor may "want fries with that". Think for a moment what the world would be like in no-one worked at the burger joint, if no-one dug the ditches or collected the garbage. And before we throw all the teachers under the bus - what if there were no educators? I for one, have tremendous respect for anyone who has found their calling in life and does what they do best with the attitude that says I am proud of me. 

Karma be damned. Rather than looking upon it to exact revenge upon those who have wronged us, lets use it to be accepting of our own selves and strive to be the best we can be without the comparisons. If I like and respect you for who you are, it is much harder to be cruel. If I accept you and me, I have no need to belittle you to raise myself up.

The Bottom Line     

If you do good you get good but purely in a spiritual sense. A feeling deep within ourselves, but you have to have a conscience to know this. I live my life in the consideration of the good intentions because I can look myself in the mirror and like myself for the effort. If that was the goal of Buddha when the law of Cause and Effect was conceived than I have attained Karma. Certainly I see myself 10 steps behind perfection because I know my flaws, but I would prefer not to focus on your flaws for they are your own issues. 

As for the people who do me a disservice, I may briefly consider the notion of Karma exacting its revenge but I can't dwell on that for it may never come to fruition in my sight. They have to live with their own intentions without the devil me sitting on their shoulder. These though become the people I don't have the time for. I walk away from the bad vibes and negativity.  

Contrary to the teachings of Buddha however, I do not believe that we alone are the architects of our own fate. We may have a hand in it based on our actions. For example, if we commit a crime, we are likely to end up in jail. We have chosen our own fate. But the child that suffers a disease or ailment has not chosen their fate, they have not perpetrated a crime against humanity to deserve such Karma. There are other powers that be at work here. I can't explain them, I just have more and more questions. 

The good die young - but why? And if I live to be 50 or 90 when the rest of my family has passed before the age of 35 - does that mean I am bad? I can't believe in that notion or I can't live without the fear of the wrath of a supreme being raining down on me. God, Buddha, Karma or the devil himself.

"When life throws lemons at you, make Lemonade! Unless the lemons are rotten...then turn around and walk away. For there is a better orchard around the corner if you take the time to look..."

Monday, October 01, 2012

Twin Ribbons of Steel

Canadian Railroad Trilogy - Gordon Lightfoot


Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald had the notion to build a railway from Montreal to the Pacific coast. Ah yes, Atlantic Canada was left out of the plan because the ships coming from the old country to the new one could sail in the St. Lawrence seaway as far as Montreal. It was 1871 and the newly formed country was anxious to claim British Columbia for its own before the United States gobbled it up. So with the lure of prosperity on the far side of the landmass the 10 year process of surveying the country to determine the best and cheapest route for the tracks to take began. From my perspective, more people were killed in the construction of the twin ribbons of steel that crossed the 6,000 kilometres (almost 4,000 miles) of virgin land then in accidents throughout the 100 plus years of service.  

Workers lay ties for the National Rail
The surveyors were the first casualties of the dream. Months spent trying to find the most direct route led to frosty conditions living in tents among the wildlife of the country. Many died as a result of lack of food, warmth, attacks by grizzly bears among other dangers. The Metis of Manitoba were none to thrilled about the train transecting their land and fought against the progress and transplantation to other reserves. Louis Riel who led the rebellion was hanged for treason, his band of First Nation people were sorely outnumbered by the 3000 strong troops the national government sent in. The Chinese of British Columbia were the next group to pay the ultimate price for the good of the country. They were paid half of what the white folds received and they had to pay for their own equipment and then on top of it all they were given the most dangerous jobs. They did the majority of the blasting through the Rocky Mountains that created the tunnels for the trains to pass through. It is said that in a 93 kilometer (57 miles) stretch of track through the Fraser Canyon 4 Chinese labourers died on the job, were killed outright or because of the deplorable living conditions they had to endure. That's nearly 230 people! By some reports it is one Chinese soul lost for every foot of track but in reality the true numbers aren't known but is likely in the thousands. The point is that a lot of sacrifices were made by many to fulfill the dream of a coast to coast transportation system in Canada. 

It was November 7 1885 that the last spike was driven into the iron road in Craigellachie, B.C. Communities not accessible by another means were serviced by the train system. Not every city in Canada had access to passable roads throughout the four seasons. Trains provided transport for people as well as goods. If the intention was to connect the citizens of the country, then the project was a resounding success. However, almost since the first train traversed the land, our leaders have not maintained any sense of pride for this great feat as they methodically snip away at the accessibility of the train. And that sucks.


Tracks near Thunder Bay Railroad Station
I've had a love/hate relationship with trains all my life. Trains were the cause of my fathers death when I was 2 years old. The train that killed him was the very train I have dreamt of travelling on most my life. "The Canadian" that journeys from Toronto, Ontario to Vancouver, BC., although I did not always know that was the train that pulverized his car. The Clavett Street level crossing where he took his last breath was before the train reached downtown Port Arthur. The same tracks that further down permanently divided the city of Thunder Bay between the communities of Port Arthur and Fort William was a common spot for a traffic jam when I was growing up. It was probably just a clever trick that my mother used to finally get some peace and quiet but every time we got stuck at the tracks, we would all four sit in silence with our fingers pointing at the cars counting. As the barriers came down we all shouted out how long we thought the train would be. Winners were immaterial 5 minutes later, but it made it kind of cool watching the train rumble past. It was a sad day when in 1989 the final red caboose left the tracks. Seeing that car come around the bend was always the signal that soon we would be on our way again. And the trainman always had a wave for us - I wanted nothing more as a kid than to ride in the caboose. Even the word itself is fun. 

Sitting at that train crossing with the whole family in the car is one of my last childhood family memories before my life changed forever. And maybe if the corporations of the nations used the train system instead of over-loading the highways, my life may have been taken a happier path. The truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel/or was in some other way unfit to be on the road, would not have destroyed my life. But if there is one thing we know, it is that the past cannot be changed - though we should be smart enough to not keep repeating the same mistakes. I call many truck drivers friends and I will not name any names but I constantly hear stories of falsified logs that are supposed to record hours of sleep vs hours of driving for the sake of safety. But in the pursuit of a healthy wage and human error, accidents happen and lives are lost. I wish I could count on one hand how many times I have been in near accidents because a truck (like an over-sized bully) comes barreling down the road narrowly avoiding a collision. Or the truck driver that uses his bulk to intimidate the driver in front of him by riding very close to the rear, and in the next breath you hear, "trucks can't stop on a dime". GRRRRR! I've been the car in front and praying for a way to escape when I look in my mirror and see nothing but truck because he is sooo close. Ever been there? 

Runaway Train - Blue Rodeo
My favourite band playing tribute to the train and to Thunder Bay. Three of my favourite things brought together. 


Here's the thing, in 1960 trains first began piggybacking highway trailers on flatbeds. They could be stacked two high as containers, or wheeled on as trailers. The energy expended to transport many of them would be less than the litres of diesel used by each individual semi. The cost of fuel, the cost to maintain the vehicle, the roads, the drivers' wages and the cost of human life, it's just not worth it! In the past month/year how many fatal accidents have you heard of involving a transport truck? How many fatal accidents have you heard of involving a train? Why can't we get rid of the trucks on the road and put them on trains. Then smaller trucks can be used to access areas of cities once they arrive. Yes, jobs will be lost in the trucking industry but will be created in the railroad industry. Win/win. 

But no, it seems the exact opposite is happening. In Australia, road trains are becoming the norm. They are 3 or 4 trailers pulled by one truck. In Canada, two trailers are becoming common in larger metropolitan centres (more traffic, more danger, yeah that makes sense) but we don't call them road trains. No, here you might see LCV or ELV or EEMV posted on the back of a truck as a fair warning if you are thinking of passing the beast of the road. But consider the non-threatening names we bestow on them:

Australian Truck Train

LCV - Long Combination Vehicle (I agree they are long) 
ELV - Extended Length Vehicle (like an sedan towing a camper?)
EEMV - Energy Efficient Motor Vehicle (so towing consumes less gas?)

These monstrosities aren't making our roads safer. They are making more money, quicker for corporate America. At some point people and the planet have to come before the amassing of the almighty dollar. Put the cargo back on the rails. The rails that were designed and built to move the goods. Lives will be saved. The environment is healthier without the spewing of diesel fumes from so many trucks on the roads. Costs for delivery would be cheaper (3 train engines can pull a lot of rail cars) and more communities would have service. Parcel delivery companies could have rolling offices on the rails like the mail cars of days gone by where sorting was done en route. Subways are safer and more reliable than street level buses. Doesn't anyone else see the relationship?


The Canadian - My Dream Trip!
So I am a dreamer, but what should be our greatest triumph is being dismantled before our eyes and the process will cost many more lives in its aftermath than it ever took to build. Despite my checkered past with the railroad industry, I love trains. There is a romanticism about clickity-clack rocking motion of a train. The dedicated passenger train service VIA rail began to share the tracks in 1977 and it was shortly thereafter that I took my first train ride. My very European and old-school grandmother was aghast. She recalled the uncomfortable wooden seat in the crowded cars of the old country. Not a pleasant means of travel. I found the opposite. Luxuriously comfortable seats with plenty of leg room, time to get to know my seatmates. Enjoying meeting people in the bar car or during a meal in the dining car. Just wandering the aisles of the cars and looking out of the expansive windows as the great Canadian landscape lumbered past. New found friends met for social time and camaraderie in the dome car in the dead of the night looking at the stars pass above. 

But its going the way of the horse and buggy. Nobody has the time for the leisurely travel of a train adventure. They want to jet off to places surrounded by water far south of Canada. On Friday, September 28th 2012 the last journey of the Ontario Northlander rolled out of Union Station in Toronto to the community of Moosonee. There wasn't much fan-fare, not much more than a quick blurb on the local newscast and not even a word in the National Post newspaper. How sad!

It's an attitude thing. In North America we have the rails but not the time to appreciate them and use them. In Europe the rail is embraced and steps are taken to get the people on them and off the roads. Like cargo should be. With the Northlander it goes even further. The have and have not attitude between Northern Ontario and the prosperous growth of Southern Ontario. Bullying seems to permeate here as well. In the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) the subway system is reaching its tentacles further inland, the commuter GO train is expanding service to more outlying suburbs with greater frequency. But 300 kilometres away the ill-serviced highways are becoming more clogged with trucks and buses to accommodate the stranded and forgotten of the Northland. 

R.I.P. Northlander :(

credit where credit is due:
The Silent Spikes: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads by Annian Huang
Building the Canadian Railway