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Everybody Loves the Sound of Train Sex*

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Italy. Summer 1979. Overnight express train from Milan to Brindisi.

milanocentrale

My travel companion John and I were clickety-clacking southward to catch the ferry boat cutting away from the heel of the Italian boot across the blue Ionean Sea to Patras, Greece.

Our vagabond student backpacking wandering was into its third month.

I was so young and pliable that I’d started to talk with a slight British accent after only a month hitchhiking in England and Scotland. If the Queen had invited me for tea, she might have mistaken me for one of Prince Charles’ good buddies, in those pre-Diana days.

John and I had been 2 friends from high school, three years into our professional careers, living thousands of miles apart with a common desire to travel Europe.

The relationship between John and myself went off the rails almost immediately after we landed in England from Toronto. Within a week together, we could barely agree on whether London was north or south of Edinburgh.

Fortunately, we had an equal relationship. We were both equally certain that the other was a total ASSHOLE. Our tense “marriage” crumbling, we took to separating for a week or so and meeting up at pre-determined locations for a day or two before splitting off once again in different directions.

One thing we could agree on was that we were both keen on visiting “cheap” Greece. So, while knocking back huge frothy steins of beer, and lustily shouting eins, zwei, g’suffa in the huge Hofbrauhaus in “expensive” Munich, Germany, we agreed to meet a few days later in Milan so we could travel in tandem to Athens.

Hofbrauhaus

A then-cheap Eurail pass gave us unlimited train and boat travel in western Europe. We used the landlocked cruise locomotive not only as transport but also a place to crash on the nights when hostels were filled and there were no stable-rooms available at the inn. It provided all of the necessities for efficient travel. Our goal was to access as many European ruins, cathedrals, art galleries, and museums as possible in the time before our return flight to Canada.

We agreed to catch the overnight train from Milan to Brindisi and then jump aboard the morning ferry boat to Greece. In the Milano train station, we waited in a line for about an hour anticipating the train’s arrival. There were 30 or 40 of us young 20-something kids from various countries, festooned with our heavy backbacks and hiking boots.

Conversations ensued.

Just in front of my friend John and myself were 2 young girls, our age, Canadians we quickly discovered.

One was dark-haired and studious looking, the other, knockout gorgeous with short blonde hair and an “I’m ready to party” attitude about her. Woody Allen’s movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has two female characters (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) that could have been these girls’ close twins.

vicky-cristina-barcelona

As Canadians, there was a commonality that led to excited chatter about where we lived and what we did when we weren’t backpacking… soon, a bit of flirting and suggestive talk arose between John and “Scarlett”.

As dusk began to settle in, the train arrived at the station in a cacaphonous mixture of brake squeals and diesel smoke. Together, we four Canadians climbed aboard.

A quick bond had formed between us, as so often happens when we travel. Strangers become friends in a flash in a foreign country. We stuck together and found an unoccupied compartment to share. John and Scarlett on one side, “Rebecca” and I sat on the other.

Train compartments were always cozy with their heavy sliding entrance doors and long plush-weave bench seats that faced each other on either side. When there were no other itinerants occupying the adjoining spot on the bench, we could stretch out on them to sleep. Drop-down windows allowed us to gulp in huge mouthfuls of fresh air when smokers shared our space and to hang our heads out like dogs in speeding cars to take in the gorgeous Italian countryside. Orchards filled with ripening olive trees or reach-to-the-sky sunflowers refreshed our mental cupboards when they were filled to overflowing with cathedrals and museums.

train compartment

Soon, the train began to inch forward and the compartment lights were dimmed so that we could see only shadowy outlines of each other in the darkness.

Like some magic, as the lights dimmed, John and Scarlett’s ardour rose.

The mere act of turning down the compartment light seemed to draw something intense from their inner sexual urges. Neither Rebecca nor myself were interested in creating our own “liaison” with each other.

Conversation died off and the sounds of physical connection took over. Oohs and ahhs and slurps and smacks rippled across the dusky compartment in little waves. Shuffles of clothing being removed or pushed up or down. The unhinging of bra and pant buttons and zippers. Each new note of voice or clothing sound increased my discomfort. Making casual conversation with my benchmate Rebecca seemed inappropriate somehow.

What to do, what to do.

Rebecca and I became unwilling and uncomfortable voyeurs-in-the-dark.

Feigning sleep at this point seemed to be the only option.

I closed my eyes as the level of lust and fast paced rhythmic intimacies intensified. The blending of the train’s steady staccato beat and our companions lovemaking merger was like a beautiful artistic aria in an Italian opera. I remembered that I didn’t like opera.

The train’s rhythm continued pulsing on but the movement and sounds on the opposite side of the compartment soon swelled … and peaked … and then receded. The night returned to quiet, except for the incessant click-clack beneath us.

The sun rose hot and bright early the next morning and the train pulled to a stop in Brindisi. We sleepily poured ourselves off onto the station platform. We stood chatting a bit awkwardly together. Scarlett and Rebecca said they planned to stay a day or two in Brindisi before taking the ferry across to Greece. Mailing addresses were exchanged (e-mail in 1979, not a chance!).

We said our goodbyes to the girls and ambled in different directions down the platform. John and I were soon aboard the ferry bound for Greece and seeking new adventures in a new country.

We didn’t talk about the night before.

There were uncontrollable trains that merged and passed in that night and on that trip. We hop onto one train, enjoy the journey, and travel to a destination that suits us. Then a station comes along and we decide a new destination will fit us better than the one where we’re headed.

I never saw or heard from either Scarlett or Rebecca again after that day.

A few weeks later we boarded the plane returning from London to Toronto.

I never saw or heard from John again.

(*with apologies to Paul Simon for hijacking lyrics from his song “Train in the Distance“)

 Man Looking Out Train Window

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Death of an Everyday Senior

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I’ve mused here before about how I might like to die.

Surely, since we don’t seem to have the choice over whether we die, we should be able to exercise the choice of how we might die … it’s only fair, right?

A truly loving God would acquiesce and give us that much. Merely munching an apple offered by a snivelling snake shouldn’t take away all rights and freedoms, should it?

APPLE _,SNAKE AND BEAUTY

And so in the spirit of my despair over lack of choice, the following is a true-to-life little black-humour tale of :

HOW I’D PREFER not TO DIE.

About 10 years ago, in the small’ish lab in which I work on the 3rd floor of a medical building in downtown Penticton, it was approaching 5 p.m. and near closing time for the day. I was putting the last samples of patient urine and stool onto agar-culture plates to incubate and grow bacteria overnight. Yes, somebody really does have to do this!

In the front patient-section of the lab, an elderly gentleman – we’ll call him Mr. Jones – was stretched out long on a thin mattress-covered table in a small private alcove. Liz, one of the lab assistants, was placing little sticky electrodes across his bared chest so she could perform an ECG (electrocardiogram).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even dogs can have an ECG done…

Penticton sports a mild climate – by Canadian standards – and mixed with sun and beaches this means that the city is full of retirees. End result? The lab performs a lot of ECG’s to check on the ticker health of local seniors.

In a turn that no one anticipated, suddenly, unexpectedly, Mr. Jones gasped weakly and went limp and unresponsive … cardiac arrest. His skin tones dissolved into an ashen grey and his mouth sagged open … breathing came to a halt along with his heart.

All the stops were pulled out to resuscitate him.

Within minutes, the lab was jammed with firefighters, ambulance paramedics, police, doctors, and 5 or 6 of us lab folks.

The poor fellow was hoisted unceremoniously off the ECG bed like a limp Muppet and laid out in the middle of the lab floor. People in white coats and various other uniforms pumped and suctioned and intubated and shocked his poor spiritless body, doggedly determined to save this life and and AND…BUT…

… MR. JONES DIED.

ekg-flatline

The frenetic movements and loud voices of the medics gradually stilled and bit-by-bit a calm settled over the room.

It was over … Mr. Jones was over. Nothing more to be done. Just take the body away and everyone could go home.

And so the firefighters departed … and then the doctors … and since it was now well past closing time, all the lab staff melted away as I had volunteered to hang around and lock up once Mr. Jones was packaged up and taken away.

And THEN, the police and paramedics started to leave…HUH…

But, what about Mr. Jones?“, I inquired.

He was still placidly laid out on the floor with tubes sticking out everywhere… plasticy grey-skinned but otherwise quite peaceful looking. He seemed content.

Well“, said the paramedics, “we only transport living patients to the hospital, and since he’s deceased, our job is done here“.  Off they went….

Police??

Well… the doctor was here and declared it a normal death, no criminal concerns, so we’re out of here too. Try calling the coroner to see what she wants done with him“.

…BUT BUT BUT…

Suddenly, the lab door closes. All is deathly quiet and Mr. Jones and I looked at each other (metaphorically, of course) with puzzlement. He might have even grinned ironically at me, but I think my mind was perhaps playing little games on me at this point.

After a moment of absorbing the situation, I finally phoned the coroner. I explained the full story to her in great detail, and then she broke out laughing (it’s a morbid world I live in!). There was no foul play involved and so she too determined that it didn’t involve her.

laughing-woman

Me-“oh yeah, so what do I do now, just cart Mr. Jones home to meet the family?

She suggested I call the man’s family at home to see if there was a funeral home that they would like me to call and have Mr. Jones picked up. Kind of like calling 1-800-GOT-JUNK for a pickup.

GREAT…I get to break the news to Mrs. Jones that she can put that dinner plate back in the cupboard because Mr. Jones ain’t coming home for his supper. They didn’t teach us this stuff in lab school.

My heart was beating fast and hard when I dialled the Jones’ home number…a man’s voice answered…

Hello, is this the Jones’ residence?

Yes, this is Dr. Jim Striker, Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ family doctor.

Umm, I was just calling to tell Mrs. Jones about an unfortunate event concerning her husband-

Yes, I know…my brother Mark was the Doc that attempted to revive Mr. Jones at the scene…he called me to let me know that Mr. Jones had passed, so I came to the family home to break the news.

WHEW, my heart started pumping again! Didn’t have to tell the wife the bad news after all.

Dr. Striker conferred with the bereaved widow for a few moments and then gave me the name of a local funeral home that could pick up Mr. Jones.

This little tale ends a short while later with my poor old new friend Mr. Jones rolling out the door of the lab in a zippered shiny black bag.

Funeral home body

And so the curtain falls and the movie ends?

Yes and No.

When Mr. Jones woke up early that morning, he didn’t turn over, tenderly kiss his wife’s cheek and think to himself,

“This is the day I will die. I’m going to wait until I’m surrounded by strangers and then croak”.

He may have had an inkling that because he wasn’t feeling very well that time was running short, but nothing as dramatic as pegging out in a 3rd floor medical laboratory. This would never have been in his plans as he pulled the door closed to his house a final time.

It doesn’t really matter if I die like Mr. Jones. There are far worse ways to reach the end, but Mr. Jones’ death is just the start of a message I took away from this event. It reminds me that, short of suicide, we don’t have the choice of where and when we’ll expire. The day arrives and it … just happens.

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Woody Allen

What matters more than how or where we die, is how we live. We have the capacity, no matter our lot, to find fulfillment in our days. It comes down to choice.

It’s complicated and it’s messy… but it’s simple, really.

Hope Flower

Finding Our Song

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     Open your eyes
     Look up to the skies and see,
     I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
    Because I’m easy come, easy go
    Little high, little low
    Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me,
    to me
                  Bohemian Rhapsody – QUEEN

Piano

If you could choose a song to represent the life you’ve lived (are living), what would it be?

Songs come in various shapes and sizes like fashionable clothes hanging on a rack. Some pieces are form-fitting and secure, making us feel giddy elation and full of fresh air, others bind or billow and leave us feeling uncomfortably bloated and unhappy, maybe even irritated.

Rock, folk, jazz, reggae, classical, bhangra…the choices go on and on. We mix and match them depending on the day, the time, our mood.

Lift me, won’t you lift me above the old routine
Make it nice, play it clean, Jazzman.

        Jazzman– CAROLE KING

After closing time, I worked the overnight graveyard shift at McDonalds on a few occasions as a teenager. It was quiet and still in the cooling night as the humidity of sticky Hamilton summer days dissipated until a renewed blast of heat began when the sun rose the following morning.

There was just Bob Randazzo and myself working away to get things clean and prepared for the next day’s hordes of hungry burger eaters. Bob cleaned and mopped the lobby and outside area and I cleaned and stocked the McKitchen.

saturday-night-live-angry-mcdonalds-firing

I had to pour viscous, orange Big Mac sauce into plastic squeeze sleeves, chop grotty fly-ridden lettuce into thin shreds (yes, I did remove the flies!), and chop onions into little bits until streaky tears coursed in streams down my face.

It felt eerily strange working through the night when everyone else I knew was fast asleep.

But it was music that kept me company through the solitude of the dark hours on Queenston Road. I bopped along while the radio played on the restaurant’s overhead speakers and the high-pitched cries of Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You“, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In the Cradle”  and Ozark Mountain Daredevil’s “Jackie Blue” kept me going.

Cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little Boy Blue and the Man on the Moon
    When you comin’ home Dad I don’t know when 
    We’ll get together then son, you know we’ll have a good time then.

            Cats in the Cradle – HARRY CHAPIN

There were John Denver songs that would carry me up to emotional heights of elation (You fill up my senses…) and then Roberta Flack’s soulful voice (Killing me softly with his sooooooong...”) would push into the delicate sore spots that it couldn’t reach in daylight hours.

Darkness and solitude have a way of pushing demons and heavy-hearted ponderings to the surface. The pressing thoughts that separate and hold us back from sleep at night have no apparent link to those we have after the sun rises for the day.

beatles-harmony

So…let me ask again:

If you could choose a song to represent the life you’ve lived, what would it be?

Would there be only one song, or would it take a collection to sum up your complexity?

Would there be the rousing sound of a train whistle approaching announcing you’ve arrived or would it be a foghorn searching mournfully in the grey, weary night?

There’s a time a for joy
A time for tears
A time we’ll treasure through the years
We’ll remember always
Graduation Day

Graduation Day– BEACH BOYS

Songs define us and the times we live and share with others. Music has done this for eons. It tells stories about us that we often don’t even understand ourselves. It lodges in our sub-conscious and rushes to the surface with it’s collection of senses: sounds, smells, touches, when we hear it years later.

There’s a song for every feeling and emotion and the collection we hold inside is as individual as Saskatchewan snowflakes in late April (sorry, couldn’t resist the Saskatchewan dig there!).

We sit in our cars driving and drifting, melodies carrying us inside ourselves to times when we were flush with romantic lust in an early relationship; sweaty-palmed nervous about a presentation or assignment while travelling on the bus to university or college; gulping in the delicious wafting scents of coffee and bacon on a visit home to visit Mom and Dad.

Music is emotion

And… as I’m discovering through a brilliant online course in songwriting, it doesn’t just happen by accident.

Music is truly an art but it works like a science on our minds and our moods. We absorb music and find its meaning in similar ways. The major chords seek us out when we’re happy and upbeat, the minor chords find us when we’re melancholy. A small twinge of off-harmony notes in the chorus tell us that something just isn’t right. We’re often not even aware that the texture and tone is manipulating our emotions. One small but glaring example?…the screeching high-pitched minor-key violin notes in the famous “Psycho” shower scene are obviously designed to heighten tension and get the hair standing on the back of our necks.

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

       Fire and Rain – JAMES TAYLOR

Personally, I define myself by songs bordering on melancholy. I could suggest a bunch of possibilities for why this might be the case, but the truth is, I don’t really know why. Psychologists and psychiatrists could make a good living delving into the deepest core of each of us finding reasons for the way we are. There’s something powerful and emotionally stirring in songs of despair, longing or desire.

And so, I’ll leave you here with a current favourite melancholy earworm of mine, called Pieces. This is co-written by my online songwriting instructor Pat Pattison of Boston and sung by Liz Longley. It’s designed (scientifically!) to pull at my heartstrings, and, for me at least, it works beautifully.