Dear Son

They tell me that this week is your birthday or something special for you. 

I never know what to put in stupid cards.  So I asked the Binks girl on the farm next door to write something  up for me.  

Happy god damn birthday  or something --

... Your father.



No poet skill in me,
I ask you learn these three,
First 'If,' and then Henley,
and last, ‘a lender be.’


Head Smashed in Briefing Note Jump

“We’re shipping you to the farm.”

“Please, please don’t,” I said. “I’ll do anything; I can be better, please just give me a chance.”

My prayers sank under the reproaching sounds of “forget it,” “don’t fight this,” and “too late.”  He slapped down the transfer papers and barked that authorities were already coming for me.

There was no place hide, no place to go, and no way to avoid assignment to the cubicle farm in the basement of C-27A.

An old warehouse at the edge of the complex, C-27A sat empty for almost decade after the simultaneous discovery of asbestos and gophers in its walls.   When union officials went public, animal rights groups joined in the fray thinking it a venue for cruel experimentation.

Last year, the department opened the building up again with a pledge to seal off the toxic fibers, relocate the animals, and install a warren of gopher-free cubicles.  The unions hailed the decision, and animal rights groups moved on to the plight of pigeons on the hot, sticky roof of C-29B.

“In effort to minimize cost, the Government will limit investments in lighting, air conditioning, and washroom facilities,” said the memo to all staff. “We will transfer employee groups to the 2.0 cubicle farm through a process tied to efficiency, collaborative workspace priorities, and reverse order of hierarchical importance.”

I knew some of the first transferees and heard reports of widespread depression, sick leaves, and a spike in wrist-related papercuts.

“Personalize your cubicle if you want just as long as you stick to the grey, white, and beiges,” said the agent from building management. “No music and no yelling or screaming unless it’s for your work.”

I learned that we could sign out the branch helmet if we had special requirements to temporarily drown out the noise, to focus, and to write something coherent.  Today is my day to have it. I picked it up this morning, headed to my cubicle, and wrote this note.

Loire 1 - Leonardo's Razor

When I think of the town of Amboise, the Chateau Clos Lucé, and Leonardo da Vinci, I want to get a shave.

Not because of Leonardo’s later-life commitment to growing a long beard, but rather because of his life-long commitment to growing his brain.

When I found out that our holiday in the Loire Valley would take us through Amboise and past the manor where Leonardo spent his final years, I was thrilled and wanted to use this as an excuse to study his work and life anew.  I bought three different versions of his notebooks settling on one that seemed readable and visual.

Leonardo’s persistent curiosity and thoughts on art, science, and technology rub off and tweak the way you look at things.  But some passages seem like fragments of thought and confound, and I might have put the book aside had I not seen explicit references to Amboise and the Loire River.  This spurred me on to the end of the notebooks and presumably stuff written near the end of his days.

He shifted from science, engineering, and artistic technique to just telling stories.  Funny stories.  

In one, a priest travels across the Tuscan countryside sprinkling holy water on the plants, the pastures, and the people.He enters the great artist’s studio and sprays a few drops on unfinished paintings.

When the painter moves to protest, the priest stops him and says “Say not a word, I will receive my rewards one hundred-fold from the heavens.”  As the holy man leaves the villa, the artist, presumably an avatar for Leonardo, goes up to the second floor and dumps a hundred-fold of the water on the priest.

It cracked me up.   It was only a little funny, but I laughed most thinking of Leonardo da Vinci as a humour writer.

The story that touched me the most though was one about shaving and a razor.  In it, the razor is an anthropomorphic character.   He, the razor, shines brilliantly when opened up and remains sharp when at work.

But Mr. Razor is a lazy guy and thinks that cutting through the gnarly beards of the peasants is beneath him. He likes it best when he is closed up inside the nice warm cover and at rest. Eventually, the razor gets his wish, and the barber leaves him alone.

But he slowly rusts up and is of use no more.

By this point, you know he is not talking about a razor but rather a person and more specifically a human mind. When it is open and active, it is brilliant.  Closed and idle, it seizes up.

Leonardo was about my age, mid-sixties, when in Amboise and thinking about such things.  I could easily relate and resolved to try and buy an antique razor in the Loire as a souvenir and reminder to keep an open mind.

But about a week before we left I found myself telling Leonardo’s stories to my barber at the Beacon Hill Mall in Ottawa. He pulled open a drawer and picked out an old razor in its case and gave it to me.  I tried to decline, but the barber insisted saying he had three old ones like it.  But he said this one was at least eighty-years old. Later, I read online that the company named on the blade stopped manufacturing this model around 1890.  

The razor sits in a glass display case in my den – opened up, shining, and inspiring.  I am definitely going to take all my haircut business to the Beacon Hill barbershop from now on. But it doesn’t seem like enough. 

So, when I think of Amboise, Clos Lucé, and Leonardo, I also want to get a shave.

Loire 2 - Water and Watching

“I want to get one with rushing water,” I said to my wife. “Maybe even one with me standing over it.”

I wasn’t talking about the bathtub or bidet. I wanted to get a souvenir photo with water, Loire River water, water flowing around l’île d’Or  - the island at the upper rim of the town of Amboise.  

Amboise has a lot of photogenic material; the sprawling Royal Château with its ornate chambers, grim passageways, geometric gardens, and quirky chapel. Below its walls, medieval buildings and streets beg to have their pictures taken.  

Even better visuals lie a few kilometres away at Clos Lucé, the manor where Leonardo da Vinci spent is final years thanks to the French King, François I, and the nobles and peasants he plundered and taxed to pay for it.

When Leonardo arrived here in 1516, the packs on his mule carried the Mona Lisa and the other paintings that eventually ended up in the Louvre.  He also brought his famed notebooks and drawings.

Today Clos Lucé (evoking the Virgin of Light featured in its chapel) celebrates its ties to the great artist and thinker with a museum, a park, and installation art - the latter having been inspired by those materials.  

Thanks to the volunteer efforts of IBM employees, the imagined inventions and designs described in Leonardo’s drawings and notes have been built as working models: some full scale, some in miniature, some inside the home, and some operating outside in the park.

Again, more material and more spots for travel souvenirs.

But I wanted a photo with water.

Leonardo lived in comfort and esteem in Amboise.  But with age creeping into his hands and his enthusiasm, he didn’t paint, draw, or invent much.  He planned parties, thought about armaments, dabbled in architecture and thought a lot about water.

The few surviving pages in his notebooks that clearly associate with his final days in Amboise concern the flow of water and include intricate drawings of the Loire as it squeezed around l’île d’Or. For me, this meant that a walk over to the island and a few shots of the water at its western tip would bring me as close to Leonardo’s memory and mind as anything in Amboise or in the museum.

 Da Vinci was immensely curious and committed to figuring things out for himself from recorded, measured evidence. 

You can feel this attitude rubbing off on your mind after reading a few dozen pages of his notes.  Though I struggled with some of his writing, 
those sections on water intrigued me not only because of the link to Amboise, but also because I couldn’t figure out how da Vinci managed to see the ebbs and flows in the detail that he did. 

To my mind and my eye, rushing water moves too fast to recognize any patterns let alone record and understand.

Standing over the river on the motorcycle-busy bridge, we not only photographed exemplary water but also easily video recorded it on the iPhone.  

We took other shots of waterfalls at Clos Lucé.  

They made souvenirs of the kind I wanted, and we prepared to leave for Chenonceau the next day.

That night, watching the water in very slow, adjustable motion on the phone, I was satisfied, but lacking illumination.  I did not feel any closer to seeing the things Leonardo recognized with his naked old-man eye and the image-recording technology of five hundred years ago. 

Today fluid dynamics research draws on slick animations, and some scientists would regard Leonardo’s observations and insights as trivial. But I am not one of them and remain in awe of a brain that could generate its own simulations and images of complex patterns from simple, but careful observation.

I thought about this a lot in the following days as we walked down the streets, through the forests, and across fields that have not changed that much since Leonardo’s time and his slow trip from Italy to Amboise.   

It struck me that the trick may not be to slow down the water, but to slow down the water watcher.  Leonardo lived in an era and in a way that put him in harmony with slower things, with thinking in a slower way, and with the capacity to imagine in detail - all framed by a lifestyle conducive to careful observation, contemplation, and reflection.

Though 21st century technology opens up new opportunities to learn and create, it may impede other, more fundamental human skills.

I am not sure how to recapture this ability and this way of thinking.

But it seems to me that one might have better luck standing over the water than racing by it on a motorcycle.

Loire 3 - Forest Fantasies

"Koo Koo, Koo Koo."

"What's that??

"What do you mean??," Michele said.

"That sound - it sounds like a cuckoo clock."

"Yee ah - ah - and you never heard one before?"

"Not in a forest."

"You've never heard of a cuckoo bird ?"

My wife, born in Germany, knew the sound and the bird well.
Me.  I thought it only existed in the imagination of old clockmakers.  I never knew that it was a real bird.  I turn 65 years of age in November.

The cuckoo, which derives its name from its subspecies (the Cuculidae) not from commentary on its mental state, evidently can be found almost everywhere with the exception of northern places like my native land. 

The most common form haunts European woodlands like the venue for our conversation and our hike that day, the Forêt d'Amboise.

Influenced with new knowledge, I looked at the forest and the experience of walking through it differently for the rest of the day.  What started out as tranquil and commonplace suddenly seemed exotic and a little exciting.  

I noticed wild flowers and plants that you don't see in Canada, and I looked up at the gnarly pine trees with a kind of wonder.    

Later in the day, deer crossed our path, and I remembered that this was once the royal hunting grounds. I felt for a moment that we were having a 16th century experience.

"You know what?," I said. "I can easily imagine myself living in this forest in medieval times, surviving on wild foods, and maybe poaching deer for the poor like a kind of French Robin Hood."

"Koo Koo, Koo Koo."

"What's that ?"

"Oh, nothing," Michele said.

Loire 4 - Wine and Winning Tickets

I may be one lottery ticket away from obesity and alcoholism.

Eating at home in Ottawa means leafy, low-fat foods and mineral water – until Friday-night pizza and wine.  The end of the week break from routine encourages relaxation and rewards the good dietary behavior of the preceding days.

It works most of time. 

But on vacation when relaxation becomes a preoccupation, the good behavior part falls to the side and the whole strategy faces a test – one that brought repeated failure when we walked the Loire Valley this spring.  

Our trek ran about 120 kilometres through forests, across fields, and down country roads.

The fresh air and illusion of exercise made it easy to justify indulgence at both ends of the day.  It started with grazing on piles of pastries and pain au chocolat.  Later we hit the cheese plates and chacuterie in cafés ending with multi-course dinners dripping in sauces that demanded the acidic offset of wine and more wine and some beer.

For a few days, this didn’t seem like much of a problem.  Our vacation package included meals and that  made the travel company responsible for what was put in front us and what went into us.

But after a week, we noticed that wine, usually by the bottle, was an automatic addition to dinner – and sometimes along with a “dee-gest-eef,” “an a-pair-a-teef,” and “a what-the-eef.”  We felt stuffed and dozy more often than our ideal. 

“How do the French stay so slim ?”

“They eat small portions and smoke a lot.”

We tried the smaller portion thing and inhaled secondhand smoke for half a day, then slipped back into holding our noses, opening our mouths, and looking for more French food.

“Maybe, we should carry around one of those long baguettes like they do,” I said. “Just in case we need a snack.”

I asked why they didn’t serve wine on the commuter trains and whether melted compté might go good with granola.  At this point, I realized that a problem loomed and wondered how hard it would be to return to a normal diet back home.

As I thought this, we ordered another bottle of wine and talked about the process that leads to problem drinking and eating, when these bad habits take hold, and whether circumstance and money were all that separated us from the drinking and diet abyss. 

The trip came to an end before we ventured an answer to that question – it might have been “Maybe,” “I guess we should start watching it,” or “Who cares?”

Back in Ottawa and our normal setting, we found it easier than feared to get back on the leafy greens and mineral water wagon. I guess you can safely indulge and court excess without permanent dietary damage after all. 

Still, I don’t think I will buy lottery tickets for a while. 

Loire 5 - The Château de Chenonsore

Our plans to visit the Château de Chenonceau made me a little afraid.  

Famous for gardens, architecture and a history coloured by powerful women, the Château is pretty cool, and Michele’s enthusiasm for the place was powerful too.  Before our trip, she read several books about two of the ladies: 16th century Henry II’s wife Catherine de’ Medici and her rival, the King’s mistress Diane de Poitiers.  We talked about this and other Chenonceau stories, many times in the weeks leading up to our holiday in the Loire Valley.   

But, as I said, I was a little afraid. Not of the powerful women past and present. But of my foot.

It hurt a lot.

I had plantar fasciitis, an inflamed tendon along the heel.  Not the ideal companion for a walk of some 120 kilometres down roads, through forests, and across vineyards. But there was little room for backing out.  So, I rested my foot and braced for the first leg of our holiday through the La Forêt d'Amboise to Chenonceaux (the town with an 'x').

I hoped the pain would be intermittent.  It was.  Only every other step hurt.  No Pain. Pain. No Pain. Pain. No Pain. Pain. And so on for that inaugural seventeen kilometres.

It makes it hard to daydream and just relax; instead I found myself paying a lot of attention to the terrain and the details of the walk. 

“Does it hurt less on flat surfaces?” “Or did the broken mud and rocks help by alternating pressure points?” “Should I tie my shoe tighter or loosen it a bit?”  “Where are we now?” “How far?” “Could a cab find us in the forest?”

You could say I savoured the walk that day as the location and ambiance of every step, or at least every second step, is burned into my memory. 

We arrived at Chenonceaux in mid-afternoon and checked into the Hotel Rosarie.  At the front desk, we learned that Elenore Rosevelt once stayed there, and I was impressed. 

The room was nice, but the grim, grey visage of a woman in black stared down at us from the wall.

“I wonder if she is Rosarie – that is a woman’s name isn’t it?”

“Maybe the artist caught her in a bad mood.”

“Maybe, she had plantar fasciitis.”

The Chateau was still open for the day.  It was three blocks away. Michele’s enthusiasm and the look on possible Rosarie’s face nudged me out the door for another walk that day.  It soon seemed like a mistake. Three blocks was enough to push the pain into the barely bearable. Limping and wincing, I suggested we split up at the castle so Michele could be free to explore the place she had read so much about.  

I visited it too, but I did it by walking a few metres and then sitting down, walking a few more metres and sitting down again, each time hoping that the old wooden benches were for that purpose not works of art or parts of the displays.

I found that the sitting and resting gave me time to reflect and notice things that not everyone catches - like how the intertwining of Henry and Catherine’s initials create the letter D on the ceiling of the bedroom. 

I would have missed the full effect of the gallery hall without sitting long enough for the crowds to move on.  And outside, if you sit down on the rail by the bridge, you notice the boaters and the flow of the River Cher. (Cher - there’s another powerful woman).

Michele found me by the tower and wanted to walk around the gardens.

I couldn’t do it and instead sat on another bench, one overlooking them. 

This was not bad either.  Again, I rubbed my foot and told myself I had been given an excuse to rest, to be more observant, and absorb another vantage.  

I thought about all the people who walked around these halls in high heels and what it meant to be a woman in those times.

As we walked back to the Rosarie, I noticed something I had missed on the walk down to the Chateau.  

It was late April, time of the Presidential elections, and we passed posters of Marine Le Pen. Once again, I winced.  

This time, I thought about other features of French history, Catherine de’ Medici’s role in the persecution of the Huguenots, about my foot, and how we react to the pain that comes our way.

If we ever go back to the Loire, I hope my foot flares up again, or, rather, the memory of it and of how to see pain, not as a reason to be afraid, but as a prod to stop, reflect, and look at things from a different perspective. 

So, I wrote this.