Cathy’s Salon April 2021

In 1958 I was an intern at the Montreal General Hospital. One Sunday I treated a young lady who had an ankle injury.  Her friend, Cathy (‘Cate’) Breslin was with her. Both women were friendly and Cathy, a journalist, invited me to join an informal weekly gathering at her apartment. This was in an oddly furnished basement on de Maisonneuve, a block or so from the Montreal Children’s Hospital where I later worked. The Friday evening event was a combination of soiree and salon mostly dedicated to drink and gossip. 

Over the years that followed Cathy and I became close friends.  We gradually lost contact some time after 1975 when I moved back to Montreal from Rochester. I decided to write this bog to underscore how often losing contact happens — equally with special friendships as with casual ones. As well I wanted to acknowledge how one person could surround herself with such a wide circle of friends, most of whom were unusual, bordering on the eccentric. I felt a desire to pay homage to this dear friend who brought so much joy to so many for so long.

What prompted me to write about the salon was that I had come across some of the many letters she wrote to me. I did not know if she was still alive and repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to find her using google. A few days ago I read part of the draft of this blog to my daughter, Tamara, who googled Cathy while we were talking. Tamara found Cathy’s obituary which included this lovely photo. She died in 2016, age 80. From the obit I was reminded  she graduated with honours from the University of Toronto, where she was an editor of the student newspaper. After her Montreal days she returned to the US and then lived in Hong Kong. 

Cathy was an exceptional character who, it was said, had had a fling with Pierre Trudeau or Jack Kennedy.  I can’t be sure which —  if either. She was a great raconteur and excellent journalist, In Canada she wrote for many leading magazines and newspapers. In the US for Ms Magazine, the Village Voice, and the New York Magazine. She also published three novels. One, Unholy Child, was based on a true case that occurred in Rochester where we lived at the time. It was made into a movie, Agnes of God, but somehow she failed to get rich as a result. The other novels were The Mistress Condition and First Ladies.

Her salon consisted mostly of lefty ‘intellectuals’ who Cath (aka Cate), usually referred to as ‘dearie’. It included two Sams — ‘Black Sam’ and ‘Red Sam’. The former was an Indian photographer, and the latter a red-headed South African paediatrician.  Among the many other ‘characters’ in the entourage was a talented violinist who founded the Orford String Quartet. Another was a strange guy from Manilla. Then there was a promising eccentric Russian psychiatrist, a lady wrestler, and a physician named Gomez from Latin America. Among the hangers-on was someone’s supposed 20 year-old lover who turned out to be 17! And a Jewish Jamaican political scientist and broadcaster who was educated by the Jesuits. And, Oscar.. no idea who he was but who was involved in a battle with red Sam over ski poles. Cathy was constantly matchmaking e.g. between the ‘irrepressible’ Cooky and Bob S. There were also four ‘ghastly women and a sexy social worker’ involved in a later event that she described as ‘delightfully sordid’. A wedding was ‘fantastic, other-worldly and weird.”

Her letters were delightful. The were filled with witty phrases, clever bon mots, and amusing descriptions. Every once in a while she switched to French. I was always addressed in an amusing manner and many of the letters included a paragraph or more about me… usually things I did not remember or didn’t want to remember. Below I offer an example of her lively and witty style. Unfortunately, all the letters were written on a typewriter whose ribbons needed inking so the print was light. See below. 

As you see, the news was mostly gossip. I learned about all sorts of strange affairs and peculiar relationships. From  what I had written to Cath while I was Charlotte, North Carolina as part of my internship, I was reminded that I delivered a baby in the aisle of a movie theatre, removed a rifle from a maniac (heavily drunk), and sutured a patient without novocaine, thanks to ‘white lightning’ —  North Carolina’s favourite home-distilled brew.  

Our circle  of friends skied together, went to pubs, and often visited a Boîtes à Chanson in downtown Montreal. We went there to hear a singer from Marseille, Clarette. Her pianist, who she called Chopin, was charming. I saved his career after he had a fall and I concluded he had  fractured his wrist. I insisted it be x-rayed to confirm my diagnosis. I was correct; he was forever grateful.   

These Friday evening gatherings were the closest I would ever get to emulating Hemingway’s experiences  in Paris. Not quite as artistic, perhaps, but undoubtedly, nonetheless, a salon. Why Hemingway, you may ask. Simply because I just finished watching a Burns and Novick bio about him on PBS and then rushed off to find For Whom the Bell Tolls to see if it was there that the earth moved. Check for yourself.

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A trip into the past

Where have all the years gone? I have been digging through 8 file cabinet drawers of old files, trying to discard as many as possible. It is a crazy job. Logically, I should have dumped them all in the garbage (Yanks say ‘trash’), without a second look. But I have never been famous for being logical, especially when it comes to my precious, undeservedly cherished writings. Instead, I went through each folder — literally hundreds of them — page by page, scanning but too often reading carefully. Then I discarded some but kept too many others.

The Keepers

While engaged in this exercise, I also discovered that I had written well over 200 letters of recommendation. Most of these were for students, colleagues, or friends. But some were for former chairpersons and mentors. Most of the letters were thorough, thoughtful and supportive. It was only late in the game that I began refusing requests where I had some reservations about the candidate. There is no consistent pattern governing how institutions choose referees. Only a few are initiated by the applicants themselves. I think that those that come from chairs, deans or search committees were sent to me because the applicant had included me in a list of those who knew them well. In those instances, I guess the applicant assumed I would write a strong letter of support.

I could not resist sending a copy of some of these letters to stellar students and colleagues. A few were pleased enough to thank me. But in the first instance, only a handful of the 200+ sent a note of thanks, in spite of the fact that most seemed to have been successful. I don’t rush to conclude that their success rested on what I wrote. Of course, they succeeded on their merits. And, to be fair, it is possible — indeed likely — that the applicants did not know which of the referees was asked to write and actually did so.

Before I conclude, as I looked over the letters I was relieved to discover that I did not often copy phrases or paragraphs from one letter to another. That said, there are a limited number of ways you can praise someone’s great accomplishments. As well, I underscore my astonishment at being asked to support colleagues who were far more senior and far more distinguished than I. Four or five were current or past chairs of departments in which I served; one was an internationally recognized leader in my field; and one became the Chancellor of a University!

As well as these ‘official’ letters, I discovered a trove of other letters mostly personal excluding, of course, those between family members, or my wife and I. These ranged over every part of my life even when I could not remember how I knew those with whom I was corresponding. Of course, being who I am, far too many were letters of complaint to editors, airlines, hotels, and such.

I was pleased that many of these letters were clever, even funny, and most were well-written. However, another aspect that was much less pleasing was how often they revived memories of friends now long-forgotten. I wondered how it was possible that even over a span of 40 years, give or take a decade or two, those relationships could effectively disappear. I asked myself if I had failed to keep contact or if the recipients chose to let our contact lapse. I worried that some were abandoned because the correspondent was angry or had died. I understood, of course, that it is in the nature of things that most old friendships diminish over time. Somehow that seems a facile explanation but until a better one comes along I accept that it is how life is meant to be. Still, I struggle to accept it.

The discards

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Recycling words

A long time ago in a place far, far away I was asked to give an after-dinner talk.  This is not one of my strong points, but I agreed partly because I had an amusing idea I wanted to share. Some while earlier I had come across a list of strange words with strange meanings. I decided that for this occasion I would prepare a somewhat scholarly discussion of some health care issues built around these words. For this blog I wanted to share a copy of this talk, but at first I could not find a copy of the original. I knew it was somewhere in my old files, but that is almost like a librarian saying, “Yes, Dr. Pless, that book is in this library, but we have no idea where it is”. I kept looking and several weeks later I found the file. This blog is a précis of that talk that I gave when I was invited to be the 1988 Felton Bequests’ Visiting Professor at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. 

The Bequest was the gift of Alfred Felton, an entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist who died in 1904.  Far more important than the Visiting Professorship was the part of the bequest that became a huge donation to the National Gallery of Victoria. At the time, it was thought to be the largest such gift to an Art Gallery. Another part of Felton’s Will provided funds for the well-being of women and children. 

One person’s bequest lay behind this trip.  I was in Melbourne as a recipient of a Felton Bequest Visiting Professorship. Wonderful as this was, far more important was the huge donation he made to the National Gallery of Victoria. It was one of the largest gifts internationally. Notably, Felton donated the remainder of his fortune at helping women and children. 

Alfred Felton

I introduced my topic by explaining that I loved writing and longed to move beyond boring scientific prose. I yearned to use imaginative “adjectives and adverbs that will carry my prose on the wings of a great eagle, soaring across the minds of men and women…”. (That quote was deliberately over the top; a self-parody).  But, I added, although I wanted to write non-medical stuff I lacked the opportunity, confidence, and skill to do so.  

Instead, I became a nitpicking word guardian (before being anointed as an editor and doing so officially). Some written words I disapproved of included hopefully, vast majority, however, when which (when it should be that). In speech I railed against ‘so, like, and you know’.  Instead of using these wrong words and clichés, I began searching for new or infrequently used words, even those that were arcane or archaic. (Yes, I do know the difference!). Then I became a spelling fetishist, favouring Canadian spellings to the U-deprived American versions.

And, finally, I became a word conservationist. I tried to recycle old words that appear useless, even in their original language. I thought they could serve as short-hand for complex ideas that might otherwise end up being long-winded – always the enemy of good writing.  It was some of these words I wanted to share with this captive after-dinner audience. 

I told my fellow-diners that I discovered the words in the Medical Post — my main source of medical guidance (and gossip). They were in a letter written by the Information Officer to the Australian High Commission in Canada. The Commissioner began his letter by commenting on bad puns, e.g., Hundred…. fear of old Germans. He went on to describe the list of strange words he that had appeared in a contest published in the BBC’s ‘The Listener’.  I found them delightful and wanted to add them to my store of old words I was assembling for reuse. As an example, I reminded my audience — those who were still awake and not too soused — how essential ‘eh’ is to the Canadian language. (“You understand what I mean, don’t you, eh?) 

The first of the words was Tjujigiri, which means [testing a new Japanese sword on an innocent passerby.’ As it was not particularly useful in this context, I proposed we recycle it to refer to the temptation of trainee physicians to improve certain skills on children who were innocent passersby. An example might be doing a lumbar puncture on a child with otitis media. Another might be ordering many lab tests ‘just in case’ even if it was certain the results would not change how the patient would be treated.  I suggested we refer to such actions as Tjujigiri. 

 Anaranjear is said to be a Spanish word that means ‘to kill a cock by throwing oranges at it.’  I suggested we put this useless word to work to describe the foolish debate about who does what in the care of sick children. I wanted pediatricians to leave primary care to family doctors or nurse practitioners and focus only on serving as consultants. When (not if) the debate arose again we could say, here we are back to doing anaranjear … or words to that effect

Mallemaroking  is an Old English word to describe ‘carousing by seamen in ice-bound ships.’ Fortunately, nowadays, seamen are not too often ice-bound and in any case prefer singing sea shanties. The word could be used to refer to the activities of paediatricians who practise the ‘new morbidity’. This includes such problems as adolescent health, behavioural problems, learning disorders, and preventing injuries. These were issues that the old morbidity largely ignored largely because they tend to be difficult. Just because we cannot do some things as well as we do others is no reason for ignoring those things. If we do, that amounts to little more than mallemaroking. 

One of my favourite useless old word is Rhapanizo  which, we are told, is ‘Ancient Greek for thrusting a radish into the fundament as a punishment for adulterers.’ Useful as this might be, I thought it might serve better as shorthand for several complicated struggles in nursing. One such is the desire of nursing to enhance its status by encouraging more students to get a Master’s degree even if might compromise seeing nursing as a vocation. Another struggle is deciding how much nurses become independent health care providers.  Rhapanizo could serve as a collective term for these issues. 

Dentilegus  is thought to derive from the Latin for ‘one who picks up his teeth after they have been knocked out.’ In paediatrics the knocking out of teeth may be a metaphor for having to reduce child health services if huge amounts are spent on high tech procedures. Probably the most vulnerable of the deprived services would be funding for prevention. Hence, the paradox: the high tech may be a liver transplant need to replace one unsalvageable after a preventable car crash. If we were to practise dentilegus we would choose to keep our own teeth rather than paying for expensive dentures. 

To conclude my talk on a high note I called attention the growing number of elderly whose health needs might rob children of the resources they require. Ideally, both should be cared for properly. If we spent less on defence, Olympics, subsidies to ailing industries,  marketing harmful products, and eliminated tax loopholes for the super wealthy, we could easily do so. For discussions about this, I proposed using the word Taghairm. It is, supposedly, Scottish for ‘inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall.’ It could apply to the mental processes of politicians when they contemplate reducing funding health care. When you next meet your inept Health Minister you could say “You know it seems you are engaging in taghairm rather than coming to grips with this problem. Get out from behind the waterfall; climb out of the bullock’s hide; make the tough decisions.’’ 

By this time, most of my audience, having consumed too much wine, whisky, or both, were incapable of taking offense if they were Ministers. They had  nodded off. Your bonus for staying awake and reading through this long blog, dear reader, is the word ‘ultracrepidarianism’. I too did not know that it meant ‘the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence’.  That may well be the sin I have committed by writing this. 

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An old, enduring miracle

No, dear reader, this is not about covid — although in some respects you could argue it could be. As my final blog for 2020 — a year when most of us will have reflected on medical matters more than we usually do — it seems an appropriate choice.  For those of my readers with medical backgrounds, it is a familiar reminder of an experience most of us had during the early years of our training. 

In my case, after beginning medicine in 1954, the next 2-3 years were stimulating, but also “Interesting.” I use that word to refer to the immense anxiety many students experience after reading even little bits of their medical textbooks. For younger readers, I should explain that in those days “textbooks” were those old-fashioned things pictured below. They were printed on paper and enclosed in hard covers. Most wee heavy and ran to more than 1000 pages. One of the photos shows the paediatric bible of the time that I received as a prize. I used to say that getting a free book was what persuaded me to choose paediatrics as my specialty. Later, one of the authors of the next edition, Henry Barnett, inscribed my copy. He and I were students at the London School of Hygiene in the mid-60s.

The pages in these books described the 100s upon 100s of things that could go wrong in our bodies. Consequently, many students soon became convinced they were experiencing — or would eventually experience — at least one of these maladies. After all, a single medical textbook (to say nothing of the dozens of texts dealing with specialties like neurology, nephrology, or, in my case, paediatrics), covered every disorder known at the time. Ranging from genetic conditions, to metabolic disorders, to trauma, the chances of not contracting at least one of them seemed slim. 

The question was then — and still is–  how could we possibly not have at least one of these conditions? Even for those who were poor at statistics, it was evident that the odds were heavily stacked against us. Chance alone could have inflicted us with all manner of diseases beginning with those with exotic names, e.g., Kwashiokor, Hirschprungs, Tsutsugamushi or Dengue fever. As well, of course, there were/are an unbelievable number of more mundane, less colourful diseases: Parkinsons, Graves, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, hundreds of cancers, thousands of infectious diseases, and a host of congenital malformations and other genetic conditions. The list seems almost endless. 

How is it I did not succumb to more of these?  I did my share. I had, what in retrospect, was thought to be mumps encephalitis. This resulted in a complete loss of hearing in my left ear. I had resulting polio, resulting in a weak ankle and right shoulder (and a long happy marriage —  I leave that for you to figure out); benign prostatic hypertrophy with a post op complication I shudder to describe; surgery for angina resulting in a stent; a hiatus hernia treated with lots of meds; and MGUS. (I include this, potentially the most serious, despite the fact that few know what it is.)  

Finally, I have had many injuries from car doors, me looking the wrong way at traffic, tripping on roots, falling off a bike, roller skating into a parked car, being pushed down stairs, and climbing on structures I should have been smart enough to avoid. These events may have prompted my decision to serve as founding editor of the journal, Injury Prevention. Unfortunately, that did not seem to have prevented these traumas from occurring. I continue to get injured. But at least I have not (yet) experienced more of the about 28,774 other illnesses and disorders we know to exist. 

PS-  No, I don’t believe in miracles. But this — not getting all the diseases in the books — does seem like one worth endorsing if we could, n’est-ce pas? 

The senior author of this ‘bible’, owned by doctor son, was a colleague in Rochester. Small world, eh?
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A lucky number?

I turned 88 last month. I almost wrote that I ‘celebrated’ that birthday, but then wondered if that was the right word. Clearly I was happy to have survived to that age. Indeed, I am still puttering along. For my survival I give most credit to good gene and some to luck. However, on my birthday a good new friend told me that in China, 8 was a lucky number. We agreed two 8s were certain to be even luckier. Apparently, ‘Eight’ in Chinese is pronounced ‘ba’ and sounds similar to fa (发, trad. 發), meaning “well-off” or “getting rich in a short time”.  I am not Chinese but, truly, I have had much luck for most of my life. In this blog I share some examples in chronological order.  

1932-42 I was born to two loving parents and was raised in a simple home in downtown Toronto with grandparents and two uncles. It was lucky that everyone read so I joined the local public library on my fifth birthday. A few years later I had a total hearing loss in one ear — probably the result of mumps. But, the lucky part was that my other ear worked well and still does. 

40 Grange Avenue

1942-52 My high school years brought more luck. Two of my teachers, sisters, reinforced my love of reading. An Englishman who taught geography was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan (G and S) operettas which he conducted. He urged me to audition for the comic lead in the one he would next conduct. Over the next 4 years I performed this challenging role in The Pirates of Penzance, the Mikado, Iolanthe, and HMS Pinafore. This was fun, rewarding, and helped build my confidence. In my final year I failed French after having dropped Latin, so I had to repeat the year. However, I learned to type and had another year of G and S. During that decade I was hospitalized with polio, but emerged with only minor residua. 

KoKo in the Mikado

1952-62 In 1952 great good luck enabled me to be accepted in medical school even after registration had officially closed. The next 6 years were hard work but exhilarating, and I did well scholastically. I ran a concert series, was part of the school paper, and helped write and act in the annual Xmas entertainment. I spent a marvellous summer of discovery hitch-hiking through Europe. Most importantly, it was during this period that  I met my future wife, Ann, in a swimming pool at a hospital where we both worked.

Ann – on our honeymoon

1962 -72  We married in 1962 – a tribute to our persistence and good fortune. What followed was a long, happy marriage to a lovely, loving wife.  From 1963 to 65 we lived in a tiny convenient apartment in Boston, learned to sail, made friends, and went to galleries and concerts. Then we spent two glorious years in London before returning to live and work in Rochester. We found a wonderful house in an inner city neighbourhood and became involved in the civil rights movement, opposed the Vietnam war, and supported Democratic candidates.  During these years our three attractive, bright, healthy children were born.

Me, Ann, Alexander, Charles, Tamara

1972-82  Around 1973 I was promoted and tenured. My research flourished. Those years were a good time for a devout liberal to live in the United States. It was when we enjoyed the first of several wonderful sabbaticals. On the last of these I discovered the joys of a moped. In 1975 we moved back to Canada. Luckily I chose Montreal over Hamilton or Ottawa. We had the good fortune to find an affordable house that was perfectly located at the bottom of a hill, close to grocery stores, bus stops, lovely parks, a great library, and two swimming pools. Snow permitting I  biked to work. 

Tomos the Moped; joyful in London

1982-92  Good funding and academic success continued during the following decade. This came far more from luck than talent because many of the programs to which I applied were new and it was easy to break in. During that time I became one of the first National Health Scientists and Chair of the Canadian Institute of Child Health. As well, I managed to establish a national injury surveillance system (CHIRPP) that continues to flourish. In 1982, during a sabbatical in London, I celebrated my 50th birthday. Ann gave me a clarinet which continues to bring me great joy. It is, perhaps, the best gift I have ever received. 

The clarinet

1992-2002 My final sabbatical was in London where we found a marvellous flat in a perfect location. During this period I received many awards including membership in the Order of Canada. The luck behind these awards resulted from being in the right place at the right time, guided by the right people. In 1994 construction of our Nest began, thanks to finding a wonderful location at a good price and Alexander’s desire to build it. With Charles’ help and support and a large team of worker-friends the end result was perfect. In 1995 I helped launch a new Journal and served as editor for 13 years.

The Nest in the Adirondacks

2002-12  The most important event of this decade was the birth of all five grandchildren. Four were born in Montreal and in 2015 Tamara and her family moved to Montreal to help care for Ann. Having all one’s children and grandchildren in the same city is unusual and immensely fortunate. During these years, and for a long while before and afterwards, we spent wonderful summertimes together at our Nest. 

Grandchildren: Emma, Elias, Romeo, Ollie, Oscar (top left clockwise)

2012-20  I retired before Ann died so that I could have more time with her and better care for her. Afterwards, I kept busy and coped. It helped being able to stay in touch with old friends, making some new ones, including one special person. I am in reasonably good health — well enough to be able to swim most days, to walk a lot, read, listen to music, write, and do some scholarly work. I received an honorary doctorate in 2012 and was promoted to the rank of Officer in the Order of Canada in 2017. 

Gifts from the Governor General of Canada

Finale: When I reread this it sounds as if I am tooting my horn. Perhaps, even worse, it may come across as false modesty. Neither is true. I genuinely credit luck far more than any talents I may have for these happy events. As for the Chinese belief in the number 8?  I have had great luck certainly, but I don’t expect to get much richer any time soon unless I win the lottery. Given that I no longer buy tickets, this seems unlikely. I am certainly not complaining. PS.. If I do buy another ticket, do my readers advise I choose one with many 8s? 

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Some marbles remain

Some while ago — BC (before Covid) — we spent most of our summers in the Adirondacks at our beloved Nest.  Our sons built this ‘chalet’ over 25 years ago, with the help of many others. For all of that time we had a tank of tropical fish. It provided entertainment for the grandchildren and tranquillity for the elderly. 

Arranging for the fish to be fed while we were away was a hassle. I did not  trust the white chunks of long lasting food to give them what they needed and tended to rely on neighbours to feed them when they came to water the plants. Eventually, the neighbours also disappeared during the summer and I had to find another solution. About 10 years ago I decided to join the modern era and googled ‘automatic fish feeder’. Lo and behold a reasonably priced one turned up. I ordered it  and assumed it was coming  from Amazon. It arrived on time, but when I tried to install the battery I was stumped. Most of the instructions were in an oriental language and the drawings were of no help. I decided a call to Amazon would be of little assistance and, instead, foolishly perhaps, sent an email to the vendor. 

I was astonished when, within a week, I received a detailed reply with excellent drawings and complete explanations. I installed the battery and all was well. As time went on, however, I became less adept at filling the container with fish food. I simply couldn’t align the container with the motor. Each filling meant hours of frustration. I usually succeeded, but recently on two occasions disaster struck. Though I thought the pieces were aligned, they came apart when I accidentally tapped the unit while it was mounted on the tank. All the food then dropped into the water. The fish were happy but their master — me — was most unhappy.  The spill required that I immediately grab a fishnet and scoop out as much food as I could before it was rapidly sank to the bottom of the tank. 

After the last such incident I decided it was time to buy a better, preferably simpler, and less expensive feeder. Before I got around to exploring the options on the web, it suddenly dawned on me that it could be years before Covid would permit us to cross the border again. That meant we would not be spending any length of time at the Nest or any other foreign destination. Hence, there was no need for an automatic fish feeder. I simply had to remember to feed them by hand as I had done in the pre-bC past.  

This discovery convinced me beyond any possible doubt, that I still have a few good marbles left. Feeding fish by hand may not be the most noteworthy intellectual accomplishment of the decade, but for me it ranks right up there with discovering two black holes colliding — or whatever it is that such holes enjoy doing. And my fish are happy to be fed in person, so to speak.  

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On daily swims

Today is September 2.  In less than a week our local outdoor pool will shut down for the season. A day later, the indoor pool at the YMCA opens. How lucky for me. A while ago I wrote a blog entitled “What a jerk I am” because in all the years we have live here I had not taken advantage of the Y or the outdoor Westmount pool, both one block away. Once I started doing so, it changed my life. 

This past summer we have been unable to visit our country place in the Adirondacks because of Covid, but the outdoor pool compensated well. I have managed to swim for nearly every day. The scheduling only permits an hour so I usually arrive on time. As there is no changing room,  swimmers arrive in bathing suits, take quick showers, and get started.

My swims take about 2 minutes per lap and the pool is 25 metres long. So 20 laps takes 40 minutes. My longest swim this summer was 29 laps. Usually I swim slowly and am more concerned with how long I swim rather than how fast.

I recently discovered that I was having trouble raising my right arm and thought it was from having had polio as a child. Then I found that a slight roll to the left made it easy to use the right arm properly. I now have a nice relaxing steady rhythm, even though my kick is still not great. Most days I have little or no angina and only use a preventive squirt of nitro. If I eat too close to the swim I belch a lot but so far no one has complained. 

A few days ago it was cool and cloudy. When I arrived mid-afternoon at my appointed time I found I had the pool to myself. On a few other occasions, when it rained, it was much the same. Having few swimmers means I can relax more. Specifically, I don’t have to worry about  backstrokers who often repeatedly whack me, or the 300-pounder with flippers on hands and feet who ploughs along at top speed. I fear being concussed if he crashes into me. 

Labour day is around the corner; the pool will close a few days later. Before we know it the leaves will turn. Then summer ends. I will miss these swims; because of them I feel far fitter, more relaxed, and sleep better. I am, as they say, ‘a happy camper.’ Thank goodness, the YMCA awaits right around the corner so I can continue.  By way of a more formal thanks, I offer an ode – the first I have ever written. 

Ode to the Water

Oh Westmount pool

I sing to thee.

I praise thy gentle caress

Giving thanks for

Near-daily access. 

Your waters are as silk

Your warmth comforts my breast

As I breathe I see the sky,

Blue and a cloud-scattered rest.

On clear days

The sun’s ever-shifting rays

Weave patterns in the pool.

To not have swum

Would be dumb 

It could make me 

Such a fool. 

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Happy coincidences: Discovering Yates

I assume that by now most readers of this blog will have concluded that I am passionate about reading. I recently discovered an author I had never heard of.  The discovery came about as the result of several happy coincidences. But, I’m not sure where my story really begins. Perhaps it starts with a 2015 Subaru Impreza. .

Last year I gave up on my beloved Volvo because almost nothing worked properly any more. I gave it to a friend whose car only went backwards which made his plight seem worse than mine. I bought the used Subaru driven rarely by the same little old lady who drives all these cars. This one was a 2015 model that had a place where you could plug-in an iPod. A few weeks later, when rummaging through some drawers for no particular reason I found an old iPod. I had forgotten I had it, thought it would not work, and I had no idea what was on it – if anything.  

Luxuriating in my ‘new’ car, In between listening to audiobooks on CDs and some hockey games and classics on the radio, I decided to give the iPod a try.  It turned out that it not only worked but had on it many classical recordings and and some good jazz.  More importantly to this story of coincidences it also included recordings of a series of broadcasts from BBC 4  done in October 2012. 

One, called BBC Extra Debut, hosted by Nick Fraser, made a persuasive  case for rediscovering the work of  an American novelist, Richard Yates. It seems Yates was much admired by other writers and most critics, but his books never sold well. They disappeared from the bookshelves soon after he died in 1992.  His best book, Revolution Road, was re-published following the release of a movie version starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2008. This book was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award, and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, brought comparisons to James Joyce.  As well as the film, interest in Yates was revived by a glowing essay in the Boston Review and by a biography.

After listening to the BBC broadcast I searched for and found an audio version of the book in my library. I listened to it, enthralled. As advertised, it perfectly captured the mores, behaviours, and speech patterns of middle class Americans in the late 50s. The plot was clever, captivating, and well constructed.  

With the book fresh in my mind I returned to BBC recording on my old iPod. I realized that in my determination to discover Yates I had not finished listening to it. When I did I discovered that Yates and I may have been neighbours in Boston. In the early 1960s he lived on Beacon Street in Boston. My wife and I, with our first child Tamara, lived around the corner.  

I urge you to read something by this gifted author. I cannot imagine that you would regret doing so. 

PS… Do you recall an earlier blog about getting rid of books? One that was in the discard pile that I held back on was Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I don’t recall having read it before. I opened it last night and discovered that  It belonged to our local high school had been owned or loaned by students going back to 1964 including one who was, temporarily, my physician. Small, strange world, eh?

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The French have donc and alors; others have “like”; but the rest of the world — especially Americans, it seems — is determined to begin every spoken sentence with ‘’so.” The word is ubiquitous. It drives me mad. We even hear it spoken by intelligent politicians, broadcasters, and academics, especially when replying to a question. I am determined to reduce the frequency of its use, if not eliminate it  entirely. But how?

When I was young I was taught that if you want to get rid of a habit, you need to repeat it until some part of you rebels.  I was never convinced that this technique is sound, but it seemed worth a try. 

So, you ask, why not? So, I reply, there seems to be no alternative. So, I continue, don’t you agree it is worth trying? So, I add, let me explain again why I thought this might work. So, it is like this:  if you say something often enough, I would be more likely to pay attention to your views. 

A further and better example, perhaps, is this familiar conversation after being introduced to someone.  ‘So, Dr. Pless, what kind of doctor are you?” To which I might reply, “So, it’s hard to explain. So, when I was a resident I decided I wanted to do research… etc., etc.”

Snobbily, perhaps, I have been inclined to think of this sort of “so” only as a filled pause, similar to “um,” or “well.” But, given that all readers of this blog are scholarly, I wanted to be sure I was right. Accordingly (note:  not ‘so’), I did some homework and checked with Google. To my astonishment I found several essays supporting the use of the word in this context. One of these was an opinion piece on NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast. (So, What’s The Big Deal With Starting A Sentence With ‘So’ September 3, 2015Heard on Fresh Air)

The Fresh Air essay notes that “so” is a “conversational workhorse”. It announces a new topic, it connects causes to results, it sets up a joke. Geoff Nunberg, the author of the NPR essay claims that starting sentences with “so” isn’t a new trend. We are not doing it any more often than we were fifty years ago. The only difference is that back then nobody had much of a problem with it.

There is, however, hope for increasing company in my growing disdain. Nunberg acknowledges that “It’s the ‘so’ that you hear from people who can’t answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the backstory.” Apparently this tendency is especially favoured by nerds and techies. Nunberg adds that  “By now that backstory ‘so’ is endemic among members of the explaining classes…” He writes that a psychologist has called it “a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer.”

Another wit writing in Grammar concludes his lengthy explanation of when, where and how the word can be properly used with the following:  “Putting these thoughts and guidelines into practice should help us rein in runaway so’s in formal writing, so let’s commit to doing so, shall we?” 

Incidentally, informs us that “In English, the word ‘so’ is highly polysemous. In case you don’t know what that term means (I did not), it refers to the fact that “so” can play several grammatical roles:  as an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun, an interjection, or an adjective. In the context under discussion in this blog, it might act as a coordinating conjunction if the connection were genuinely grammatical. To my ear, it rarely is. 

But there is a downside to this tirade: Ever since I started writing this I found myself using the dreaded word repeatedly at the beginning of sentences. It is infectious! Beware!! 

While we are at it, can we please do something about “you know”? Nowadays, far too many conversations are laced with this meaningless phrase, to which most of the time, if I were in the mood to respond, I would shout, “NO! I DO NOT KNOW!” 

Maybe I’m being greedy and asking too much. Reluctantly, I will settle for banning either one of these irritants and take up my cudgel against whichever remains at some later date.

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Bah bah blog – an update

Some time around 2016  I decided I wanted to write a regular blog. This proved to be a challenge for several reasons. One was that at the time I was not sure what a blog was.  I looked it up and learned from Wikipedia that the word itself is a truncation of ‘web log’ . It entry also explains that a blog is “A discussion or informational website … consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries (posts).” With that out of the way, I proceeded and made a start. Then I faltered and did not recommence for another two years. . I resurrected the project in 2018 not knowing who, if anyone, might read it.  I did not even know how they would know it exists and I am still not sure I understand the process. 

I recently realized that the blog is hosted by a website that is fairly expensive and is, of course, in US dollars.  I wanted to know if there were enough readers to justify the cost. I have now been able to answer part of that question: It seems I have posted 44 blogs that have been , viewed by 801 visitors (not necessarily different people). For some reason or other, the statistics indicate that my blogs have been viewed over 1800 times. I do not believe this is correct. 

Some blogs have proven to be far more popular than others. I was not surprised to learn that those that are brief are more warmly received than the long ones. The most popular was ‘More Chatchkes’ – 55 views. The least popular each received only two viewings. The topics of these failures included ‘Miracle Wrap update’, ‘In need of a new word’, and ‘Your time is valuable.’ It only goes to prove… I am not sure what!

The website that handles all this is  It is a bit complicated but once you get the hang of it it does a good job. It provides other statistics if you know where to look. For example, you can differentiate views from visitors – suggesting that one visitor is so enthralled or such a slow reader, he or she returns several times to read the same blog. Reassuringly, the number of views is always greater than the number of visitors. I even have learned who my 14 followers are though only some are people I know. I also know who I invited but declined. I can even tell which posts garnered the most comments and how many words on average each commenter used. I know for certain that our daughter, Tamara, is my most faithful reader and commentator. 

Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But is it worth over $80 US per year? I have decided to abandon WordPress when it expires next year. During the transition I intend to combine the blogs with these fortnightly Staying-in-Touch emails. Fair warning. I should add that I could not bear to part with links to all the old blogs so I copied them all, did some light editing, and intend to put them in a slim printed volume. For posterity, of course. 

All joking aside, when COVID began to isolate us, I resolved to keep in touch with family and friends and sent an email to about 60 of them every fortnight. Not everyone replies; I don’t expect them to. But those who do seem to appreciate the initiative. I  concluded that the recipients of this email are a better target for my blogs. Doing so will save me a bundle of money that I promise will go to a good charity. 

With many thanks for your patience,  

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