The Lion’s Gate


If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason.

Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day.

I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation.

We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek.

Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue.

Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job.

When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond.

The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter.

Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day.

Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that.

They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting.

In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack.

The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk.

At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below.

My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed.

The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats.

The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer.

When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt.

Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable.

The constant swoosh of traffic hummed below, ships sailed the Burrard Inlet, sun shone, ocean breeze blew. Snowcapped mountains stood in the distance. When you looked West, you stared straight out to sea.

As the weeks went by, I repressed the unspoken fear of danger. I gained courage. I became used to the casual disregard for safety, took the others’ confident actions on the job for granted. They were sure they wouldn’t fail. They could do anything they had to on the job: there was no possibility of them falling to their deaths. Anyone who doubted them was a fool and this was no place for fools.

I didn’t work at the top of the tower because it was done in the past summer but, some days, I climbed the ladder inside the tower to eat lunch with the painters. The towers at both ends are attached to each other by a steel walkway in an x configuration which spans the roadway. There are two walkways, the painters ate in the top one.

I don’t know who saw me, Fred or Jimmy. I got a warning from Ron himself. My friend, Les, who told me about the job, was angry. It just seemed logical at the time.

One day, near the end of summer, we had worked our way into an area in the middle of the bridge which was too far from the towers to go back to them for anything. We took everything  with us. After needle gunning, scraping and wire brushing all of the rusty areas out in the middle, it was time to paint them with the red primer. After this they would be painted by the painters from bosun’s chairs.

I carried my can of primer and the brush with me, doing what I had been doing all summer, crawling, climbing, struggling along the side of the bridge. The bulk of my work had been where there were a lot of girders to hold onto.

I watched Les walk along the top of the bridge barrier, brush in one hand, paint can in the other. He moved along at a steady, relaxed pace, arrived quickly at the place where we were working. It would take me a long time to cover the same distance, my way. I decided to do it his way, climbed up onto the bridge barrier.

There, standing up, with nothing on either side to hang onto, I started walking along the external barrier. The water below sparkled, the wind whispered, the sun shone warm on my back. The ledge was a foot and a half wide, a crisscrossed pattern of flat, steel pieces fastened to the big girders on either side by rivets.

I saw the blur of vehicles on the road to my right, twenty feet below me, the waves of the inlet, more than two hundred feet below me, on the left. I walked on, carrying my paint can, scraper and wire brush in the pockets of my coveralls, careful to avoid the rivets.

A big cruise ship passed under the bridge at that moment. It emerged beneath me, on my left. I stopped to watch it. I was mesmerized by the slow motion. The breeze carried Les’s voice to me. He told me to move. I did.

I made it all the way to the work area, but that hesitation got me into trouble. It created a moment of worry, a sliver of unease in someone. They told the boss. He gave me a lecture about not doing a circus act, just doing the work. It must have looked worse than it felt.

It was either Fred or Jimmy who told him.

Fred was an older guy who showed me how to hold a brush properly for that kind of painting. I found out later that he used to be a boss like Ron. He was demoted when he and the crew were caught playing poker and drinking on government time too many days in a row. Fred probably told the boss in a sincere effort to save my life.

Jimmy was a big, tough biker who painted from a spider. He used to come to work hungover with his knuckles skinned from fighting in his favourite Surrey bars. He had a picture of his father doing a handstand on the flagpole on top of the Surrey city hall. Jimmy always had a smile and a laugh, even with a hangover. He probably told the boss because he thought I might fall off the bridge and embarrass the crew or cost them money.

I left at the end of the summer, got hired onto a highway crew which replaced railroad ties on the bridges to Squamish.

I saw Les later that month. He said that they’d had one more job after I left.  Ron had taken a couple of the guys, climbed up to the very top of one tower, changed the light.

When you look at the Lion’s Gate Bridge and see that red light at the top, that’s the one they changed. When they came down, after doing it,  Ron told them they had done a good job, bought them a beer.

There were a few men lost over the years. One conversation I heard was about the death of a man they worked with. Some said he shouldn’t have gone up that day, there was too much moisture. Others said he jumped into the Burrard Inlet because of problems at home and “bad nerves”. His body was never found so there was even a suspicion that he had taken the opportunity to disappear from his current life for mysterious reasons.

The Vancouver rain started again that Autumn, winter approached. I tried to get a job on a freighter. I heard that there were regular shipments of lumber from BC to Australia.

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Me n You and a Dog Named Boo

The dog’s name was Rocky. He was a Malemute pup who spent his first few months on earth travelling through the States with us, in the back of an old pickup.

We left Vancouver early one morning and drove to Doug’s parents’ farm in the mountains of Washington.

They said goodbye over the weekend before we headed south through the mists and seascapes of Oregon.

I didn’t know it when we left, but Doug had stolen some plates in Vancouver and had a credit card in someone else’s name with a fifty five gallon drum for fuel in the back of our pickup.

When we needed gas, Doug stopped up the road, we changed plates, sometimes filled the fifty five gallon drum, refuelled, stocked up on snacks and beer.

He had the guy’s signature down pat.

We were good at shoplifting, spent some satisfying nights by the campfire, frying stolen steaks, purchased mushrooms.

We slept in our sleeping bags, camping beside the pickup, drinking black coffee, rolling our own Bugler’s.


Siphoning fuel from the drum to the gas tank became a fine art after a few mouthfuls of gas.

As a kid, Doug had earned money guiding elk hunters in the mountains. He simply changed the sites of his camps to urban or highway settings.

I learned the tricks of living on the road along with Rocky while our tape deck blared Mountain and the Stones.

We met some people as we travelled south who invited us to a party in LA where some of the company were offended at our looks and attitude. One guy called us “common criminals”

We were attracted to the women, but when the crowd headed for the swimming pool to get naked, we couldn’t do it. There was something in us which stopped us.

Were we really so free when we couldn’t be free like these people?

It was a negative thought, not worth worrying about. We knew these people couldn’t live as we were.

We landed in Imperial Beach; road weary, dirty, ready for a good rest.

Imperial Beach, the furthest beach south, next to the Mexican border. In those days there was just a chain link fence topped with barbed wire over which Mexicans and Americans lofted packets of marijuana to someone else or to themselves, to be picked up later.

We had come to see Danny and Jan. They were from Doug’s small town in Washington.

Doug and Danny were celebrities, each in his own way.

Doug because he did time in Walla Walla State Penitentiary for blowing up his principal’s house when he was a teenager. They said it was really only a cherry bomb thrown at the front door, but the cops wanted to stop Doug’s wild behaviour.


Danny was famous in their town because he had successfully convinced the US military that he was a conscientious objector, unfit for duty in Viet Nam. Few fought the authorities through interviews and writing, to gain ‘conscientious objector’ classification.

Jan was a tall, slim, blonde nurse. Danny was a balding in the front, long hair in the back, ex male nurse who played a mean guitar along with his version of Greenback Dollar.

They had a comfortable, little apartment on the ocean.

Danny had his weekly ounce of good weed delivered on a certain day. That day he’d heat up sake to drink while he sorted the weed in a shoebox. When he tilted the box, the seeds rolled to the bottom. The sake changed flavours as it changed temperatures.

The only thing I remember from the trip to Tijuana with Doug and Danny, the three of us stuffed into cab of the pickup, is standing at a bar trying to match them with shots of tequila.               Between each shot they would pluck a whole hot pepper from a glass of water in front of us, chew it with gusto.

They’d see who could eat the hottest, stand the most pain.

I couldn’t even compete.

Doug won but had mucho trouble later because of his haemorrhoids.

Years later I visited Danny and Jan in Washington. They had moved to an isolated farm with their three kids.

Jan had gained a lot of weight and lost her feminine attractiveness. Danny, who had grown a long beard, wore only overalls, boots and a battered, old hat, had gotten even more radical and disgusted with the system.

There were a lot of  ‘Government Agents Not Welcome, Keep Out’ signs posted on properties in the mountains of that area. Lots of weapons.


The people I was with, already disgusted by the dirty appearance of the farm, the kids, Jan and Danny, were horrified when Danny walked us to the car. As we stood saying our goodbyes, admiring the horses in the field behind the house, our host confided that the meal we had just eaten was made, primarily, of past horses which he slaughtered and canned himself.

When I read Joseph Wambaugh’s book years later, I realized that we had worked in the very onion fields which the book is named after. We ended up there on our way east from Danny and Jan’s.

In the Imperial Valley, the vegetable producer extraordinaire of central California, they were hiring labourers by the day.

After spending what we had on fuel, eating meals left on neighbouring tables in freeway Macdonald’s, we picked onions there, gladly, for days.

The gangs of Chavez pickers, who were doing most of the work, laboured in fields beside us. They were just smudges of colour in the shimmering heat.

We were left alone in a gigantic field of shallots. We were so hungry by the end of the first day that we wiped off the dirt and ate the onions as we picked.

At the eastern border of California, on the Arizona side, we discovered a reconstructed English village in Lake Havasu City. As we partied through the days and nights of Cinquo de Maio there, only a few were killed waterskiing on Lake Havasu and the Colorado River which divides the states. We were told that there were usually larger numbers of deaths of drunken boaters and skiers on this annual celebration.

The Grand Canyon provided a Colorado Rocky Mountain high as we chugged up highways in the thin air and bright sunshine.


The pair of girls who quit their jobs at the tourist restaurant overlooking the canyon to hitch a ride with us, left us to go home to Utah as we moved east.

The kindly stranger who gave us peyote buttons in Arizona was fondly remembered that night at our desert campfire.

It was probably a blessing that we couldn’t afford to try for the five pounds of steak and fixings which was offered for free if you could eat it all, at a truck stop, in the Texas panhandle. Who knew how our stomachs would react to that much food after the way we’d been living?

Our long hair and old pickup drew unfriendly stares as we filled up.

The period between leaving Texas and arriving in New Orleans is hazy.

Doug ran out of the medication he took for epilepsy. Combined with our drugs and alcohol consumption, the heat, living in the truck and surviving on highway junk food, the pace proved too much for him.

He completely freaked driving down the road, sheared off at least ten maiboxes, screamed insults at anyone we passed, black or white, until I forced him to stop, take a break, trade places, let me drive.

We stayed with a friend of a friend in New Orleans. He happened to be confined to a wheel chair, paralysed in a car accident a few years before.

The moss on the magnificent bowing trees. The music everywhere in the French Quarter. The smell of chicory, fish and perfume in the air.

We refused to cut our beards and hair or we would have got a bit part in a Terrence Stamp western which was being filmed there. The bars were filled with beautiful dancing girls who turned out to be men.


A bad experience, actually, a dumb, rube mistake with a transsexual and discovering Rocky at home, one drunken night, with our host’s full colostomy bags torn up all over the kitchen, got us on the road north.

By this time we needed to stop for rest and work. Since we were on the East coast anyway, we headed for Ottawa, my home.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama was where the old pickup gave up the ghost. When Doug stopped to fill her up beneath the canopy of a service station, some pieces of metal fell out of the transmission right there on the asphalt.

There was no possibility of affording repairs so we sold everything we couldn’t carry to a kid at the station.

We hitched north, consulting a worn map, singing Beatles songs, throwing stones on the side of the road.

The image which is implanted in my mind is that of Doug, his cowboy boots, jeans and long hair dusty, pulling Rocky on a leash behind him, up another on ramp as I followed with my sleeping bag slung over one shoulder, the sounds of rock ‘n roll coming from our boombox slung over the other.

In Georgia, a man picked us up in a new, air conditioned Cadillac. He said he had done some travelling in his youth, showed us the Bowie knife he kept beside him in the front seat.

He pulled over, led us back to the trunk which contained a cooler of beer and the handgun he always carried. The message was clear as we sipped the cold drinks.

He took us home where his wife washed our clothes, cooked us steaks and fussed over Rocky.

We resumed our journey north with renewed faith in humanity and rednecks.


In Tennessee we soon found out that hitchhiking is illegal. We were dropped off, had no way to proceed north without hitching.

Doug found the credit card which we had used with the truck, in his pocket. He buried it and some other papers by the side of the road, just as a state trooper pulled up.

He listened to our story, thought for a moment, looked at Rocky, gave us a lift to the border.

His gesture seemed to lead us to the party with the marines in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. We attended a party in a barracks full of stubble headed Marine recruits where Doug found fanatic Leslie West fans and the best weed we had encountered since the West coast.

The last stretch seemed to take forever. An endless series of highways, freeways, taking turns talking to the driver while the others slept. A desperate scramble for the finish.

When we had installed ourselves at my mother’s house in Ottawa, we discovered that Rocky, Doug and I had ticks. They’re like crabs, under the skin. Probably from sleeping in ditches on nights when we had given up hope of getting a lift.

We had to undergo a rigorous treatment supervised by my disgusted mother, observed by my laughing sister.

Doug and I had, understandably, gotten sick of each other’s company. He had a grand mal seizure at my mother’s breakfast table, broke his jaw.

I said goodbye to Rocky, escaped, hitched solo back to Vancouver when I realized that Doug and my sister had fallen in love.

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Dark Money

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind The Rise of the Radical Right


Jane Mayer

Large Print Edition

765 pages

ISBN 978-0-7352-1033-2

$30 US $39 Can

Contents: Introduction, Parts 1, 2 and 3, 14 Chapters, an Author’s Note, Notes for each chapter and an Index.

Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the co-author of Landslide: the Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988 and Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. She is the author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. She has won many prizes for her writing and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Recently the New York Public Library named Dark Money as one of the ten best non-fiction books of the year. She spent five years conducting exhaustive interviews, searching public records, private papers and court documents following the well-hidden trail of the billions of dollars spent by the ultra-rich to change the ways Americans thought and voted. Some of her sources refused to be named for fear of reprisals and she, herself, was followed and closely investigated while researching this book. No one would admit who was responsible.

For those interested in understanding Donald Trump’s recent election to the post of President, this book is essential. People like Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney are involved in the secretive networks which Mayer uncovers. The prominence of Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil is also referred to. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll describes ExxonMobil’s business in Russia. There is no doubt, as one reads Dark Money, that this movement was behind Trump’s win. It is scary and hard to believe the measures which the Koch brothers and their friends take in order to gain political power in an attempt to avoid regulation and taxation.

The story begins way back in the 50’s when Fred Koch, the father of four brothers, two of whom, Charles and David, became known as “the Koch brothers”, used the enormous wealth he gained from Koch Enterprises to begin to influence the political system in the US. Koch Enterprises gained much of its early good fortune because of Fred’s willingness to work with Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

When Fred died in 1967, Charles and David bought out their brothers and owned what became the second largest company in America. They owned four thousand miles of pipelines, oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota, the Georgia-Pacific lumber and paper company, coal and chemicals, and they were huge traders in commodity futures, among other businesses. The company made the two brothers the sixth and seventh wealthiest men in the world. Each was estimated to be worth $14 billion in 2009.

Charles Koch seemed, on the surface, to be simply an ideologue dedicated to the American – Libertarian dream. But when you consider that Koch Industries was the number one producer of toxic waste in the USA in 2012 and that one defense of a company it owned in Texas was that producing smog with their air pollution saved many from skin cancer, you are forced to look a little deeper. The anti-regulation and taxation philosophy behind Koch’s “freedom” rhetoric always ends up producing a financial gain for him at the expense, in most cases, of others.

The most shocking revelations, which Mayer documents scrupulously, are the secretive, duplicitous, intentionally false lengths to which the Koch brothers and their supporters go. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 was meant to allow citizens to see for themselves whether their political leaders were receiving funds from various corporations. Instead, it did just the opposite. By ruling that any amount of money could be contributed to outside groups who were supporting or opposing political candidates, it overturned a century of restrictions banning corporations and unions from spending all they wanted to elect candidates. The court held that corporations had the same rights as individuals and that as long as the money was given to groups who were technically independent of the campaigns, anyone could give any amount. This opened the doors for Koch’s billionaire friends (some of whom were original members of the John Birch Society) to finance candidates and contribute any amount to fighting their opponents. As Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and New Yorker writer put it, “it gave rich people more or less free rein to spend as much as they want in support of their favored candidates.”

The movement of the mega rich led by Charles and David Koch, “exercised their power from the shadows, meeting in secret, hiding their money trails, and paying others to front for them.” They didn’t want only to win elections. They wanted to change the way Americans thought. They did it by anonymously funding think tanks, university departments, Pacs and Superpacs and other “philanthropic” foundations.

Jane Mayer has written a fascinating book about a largely unknown movement in the USA which is responsible for Donald Trump’s victory and the state of America today.

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Piper at the Gates of Dawn Considered

Back when Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd , the band recorded its first album at Abbey Road Studio at the same time as The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s there and The Pretty Things were recording S F Sorrow. They called it, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Flash forward to this century and a habit I picked up in Amsterdam and can’t seem to shake. The habit is listening to the World Service on the radio all night. It’s the CBC All Night Radio here, the BBC World Service there (I think). A lot of countries contribute reports to the World Service. I don’t really understand how it works but there’s nothing quite like laying snug in your bed, free to fall asleep or listen to Holland, Sweden, Korea or Poland talk about their news. For instance, the other night there was a report from somewhere near Alice Springs, Australia about a race they held between honey bees and homing pigeons. The bees won.

Of course, it you’re tired and working and need to get up early in the morning, it’s unwise to indulge this habit. You lose too much sleep. At the moment, though, I am indulging this habit and the other night I must have dozed off and awoke to a female voice with an English accent declaring that the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows proved his hidden but genuine pantheism.

Kenneth Grahame was born in Scotland and spent all of his working life in a bank in London. According to Wikipedia he died in 1932 and The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908.

As I rolled around in the dark, it occurred to me that Van Morrison had included a song on The Healing Game cd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The chorus is “The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn”.

And Fred Armstrong out in Newfoundland actually talked on CBC radio about The Wind in the Willows. It was his opinion that the book was not a children’s book at all, that it was really written for adults. There was no script for the show but he said he went over the top a little when he called it, “Shakespeare with fur”.

It’s probably the combination of poetry and music in Van Morrison’s song that appeals to me so much. When I actually read chapter seven which is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Grahame’s book, I discovered poetic language there too. In fact, Van used several phrases verbatim from the book or almost verbatim. When Grahame uses “the daybreak not so very far off”, Morrison uses “the daybreak not so very far away” and when Grahame writes “the light grew steadily stronger”, Morrison sings “grew steadily strong”.

And Fred, an old friend and veteran reporter (30 years) just published his first fictional novel, Happiness of Fish (Jesperson Publishing., 2007) in St John’s. He’s a creative soul, one who never gives up on his dreams. If he was interested in the book, there must be something to it.

So I asked him and here’s what he said, “Wind in the Willows is a deep little book about a rather Taoist bunch of beasties sitting around writing poems and banqueting between adventures….”

“Opinion seems to be split on the Pan chapter of WIW. People love it or hate it…. I think WIW is a comfortably sentimental look at nature as deity.

I think anyone who has been scared at sea or lost in the woods and come home can handle the balance between a nature that creates us and takes us away or maybe doesn’t. There’s also something appealing about a deity that performs a Men in Black mind wipe after you trip over him. Ratty and Mole don’t remember him when it’s all over. They take the little otter off to breakfast rather than sitting down and writing the Book of Revelation.”

The words in Van’s writing which are taken straight out of chapter seven are:” heavenly music” and “song-dream” though one doesn’t have a dash connecting them and the other does.

Graham writes “when the vision had vanished” and Morrison writes “vision vanished” a difference in tense only.

Here is the description of Pan in Wikipedia:

‘Pan: in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. His name originates from the word paein, meaning to pasture. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. He is recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of Spring.

The wikipedia article goes on to say that “accounts of Pan’s geneology are so varied that it must lie buried deep in mythic time.” and that “panic” is derived from his name.

The story recounted in Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is a simple one: Mole and Ratty search for the lost Portly, son of Otter, and find him safe and saved by Pan after they are led there in their rowboat by his magical piping.

Van Morrison uses words like “awe”, “wonder”, enchanted” and “spellbound” to describe the characters’ state as they follow Pan’s music to find little Portly.

Grahame emphasizes Pan’s insistence that the wild creatures’ experience with him will be forgotten when it’s over. Like hypnotism, “You will awake and remember nothing”

Wikipedia includes all kinds of interesting facts like, “Pan is famous for his sexual powers and is often depicted with an erect phallus.” and “Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene.” along with references to the symbolism of Satan, Romanticism and Neopaganism and “A modern account of several purported meetings with Pan is given by R. Ogilvie Crombie in the books, The Findhorn Garden (Harper and Rowe, 1975) and The Magic of Findhorn (Harper and Rowe, 1975).”

Pan is not named in the book, just described, but in the song Morrison calls him “the great god, Pan” when he echoes Grahame’s insistence that the animals were not afraid of him despite his reputation.

It is the only song on The Healing Game (1997) which has no percussion in it. Just Van’s vocals as he plays acoustic guitar with a dobro (which I can’t hear probably because of the quality of my sound system), and a piano with Brian Kennedy’s vocal backings and Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes and whistle.

The Uilleann Pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe, aren’t apparently related to the Pan Pipes but their effect in the song is an ethereal, delicate one.

When you see the innocent willow leaves on the cover and the cartoon characters with which it’s

illustrated, the same impression is left by the book as when you see Van Morrison’s black and white picture on the cover of the cd with a black fedora and shades, a black over coat and white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neither give any hint of Pan’s magic. They bring to mind an old Willie Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.

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Lawyers and Poison Ivy


It was the sweat. The sweat did it. The sweat I couldn’t touch with my hands. Little, black midges buzzed in my eyes and ears. The itchy drops rolled down my forehead and hung off my eyebrow. Even with a lot of head shaking, some of them splash onto your eyelid and cheek. So you lift your arm to wipe and scratch with your sleeve.

You’ve forgotten that the poison ivy roots are longer than the rubber gloves, reaching past your elbows, under your arms. You try to gather the handfuls together while following the next root to pull it out of the sandy earth.

The trick is to get them as long as possible. The more they break off, the more you have to go back. They break off where another root grows over top of them a few inches under the surface. That top root is bigger than the one you’ve got, so you mark the spot to save searching for it later or forgetting about it. Meanwhile, you are pulling up this root and its runners.

The pain in your back, shoulders and legs increases as you search for the runners which wrap themselves around each other and the roots of other plants. Your itchy eyelid touches your sleeve which has absorbed some of the oil from the roots. You get poison ivy in the eye.


The new lot, on the outskirts of the city, is cut out of the forest near the river. The builder bought a lot and built a bungalow on a gravel road. Our neighbours say this lot used to be like a bird sanctuary. A hillside of oak trees, poison ivy and wildflowers where no white man has ever lived.

Sand and a few weeds surround the foundation and cover the surface of the front yard where the septic system is buried and the back yard over the well. Around the perimeter of the lot there is poison ivy, three small evergreens, a few poplars and thirty or forty oak trees. Not big old massive oaks but big enough. Forty to fifty feet.

I waded into the poison ivy in shorts and sandals, thinking I was immune to it because I was when I was a kid. It turns out, according to the medical books, that you lose your immunity as you grow older. I got it all over my wrists and forearms and legs.

I received enough money in an inheritance for a down payment on a mortgage which my wife qualified for because of her job. We had enough for new appliances, furniture and a wood stove to heat the place after we got rid of the agent.

The real estate game was a new experience since neither of us had owned a home before. We moved from a two bedroom fifth floor apartment highrise to this ex bird sanctuary after visiting almost every bedroom community outside the city.

The agent was a mutual friend, not a close friend, but someone we trusted by default. There was no reason not to.

A few weeks into our search with the agent, I read a library book on inspecting your own home. My wife and I argued over our obligations to the agent.

Finally, I confronted him on the phone. I was outraged that we had been cutting ourselves off from investigating private deals (“no agents”) because we felt guilty about him.


His patter remained pretty well the same in each house we visited. The home inspection book detailed everything from the foundation to the chimney which one should inspect and test carefully in estimating the real costs of buying a property. You deduct the cost of repairs or upgrades from the price.

In the real estate system, such things as meetings between the buyers and sellers were discouraged. Two hour home inspections, crawling around the house with flashlight, measuring tape and tools were unheard of. There was no legal obligation by the agent to guarantee the quality of the property,  nothing in writing which obligated us to use him. We later found out that an agent can only be held responsible for faults in your house if you can prove they had intentionally hidden them from you.

The agent pockets a good amount of your money which could be spent on furniture or appliances, but in a year or two, if you run into huge expenses because of a problem with your property, he can drive away in his company car with your money in his pocket. He’s free of all responsibility. If you’ve taken the precaution of paying a few hundred dollars for a home inspection, that is all you have to fall back on.

And we’re feeling guilty about him.

He didn’t say “take it or leave it”, but I could tell that’s what he was thinking.

When we happened onto the property we bought, we were alone. We realized that we could save $7,000 in agents’ fees, so we didn’t hesitate. We called a lawyer, took possession and moved in within two months.

Dealing with the agent while the O.J. Simpson trial was on CNN daily should have prepared me for the lawyer and the legal system. In one of the endless, microscopic, depressing Larry King explorations of the American legal system some expert said a rule of thumb for lawyers is “Never represent yourself”.

I did just that.


I heard about a procedure in law which enables a private citizen to question a lawyer’s bill and request to have it lowered by the court for fifty bucks. It exists, but the public doesn’t know about it.

They don’t advertise it, the lawyers and judges who are former lawyers. They have created a system which is like the real estate system. We can avoid the real estate system and poison ivy, but we can’t avoid the legal system.

This lawyer became our lawyer by default. My mom’s legal affairs had been taken care of by a family friend who used to have his chicken track essays typed for him by my sister. I played football with him in high school. He was good to my mom. He had too big a heart to be a lawyer.

Before my mother died, he called to say that he was retiring to take over the family bakery. I assumed then, know now, that he left the lawyer trade in disgust.

His boss, a partner in one of the biggest law companies in town, called to get the job when my mother died. I assumed he would treat the administration of the will with the same care as my friend had.

The legal process to challenge the lawyer’s fees was in motion at the same time as we bought and moved into the house. The final hearing was scheduled for early August.

I came to challenge the bill, not for the money involved, but to protest the treatment of my family by the lawyer. I’m sure that if the equivalent had been done to the family in my father’s time, he would have dragged this individual out of his fancy top floor suite of offices by the suit and made him back it up, man to man. People, these days, either kill each other or go to court.


Lawyers’ insidious power creeps into every facet of our lives, witness pro sports and our political system. Common sense and honesty seem to be absent in all of the huge systems we have to deal with from day to day. The legal system, like poison ivy, will get you, one way or another, if you get involved with it.

My aunt, in her mid eighties, was the executrix of the will. She had only good intentions in that capacity. She was overwhelmed by the mess which was created by this lawyer, preferred just to get it over with as soon as possible. My mom’s short, clear will took over a year to be administered because of the arrogance and ignorance of the lawyer and the behaviour of my sister.

She objected to the will, the funeral arrangements, my aunt’s executrixship and anything else she could think of.

The lawyer, at first taken aback, confided to my aunt that he had met such people before, had one in his own family. He knew how to handle her. Of course, he was putty in the hands of  my sister. He was soon bullied or conned into doing nothing.

Finally, my aunt and I forced him to act by threatening to take the will to another lawyer. It seems that every family goes through turmoil when death visits. No one is ready for it. How many times does your mother die? I resigned myself to waiting for months to get the matter settled.

The extra money the lawyer charged because of the problems which my sister caused was not the main consideration in having his fees assessed. It seemed to be the only way, short of making a splash in the media and risking slander charges, to question his competence and criticize the quality of his work, publicly. Ranting on the phone or through the mail is a waste of time.

The assessment is done by a judge in a formal hearing with a bible and a court reporter. It’s not much consolation if you lose, but at least you get to look the lawyer in the eye in front of witnesses on public record and tell him what you think of his work.


By the time the poison ivy root pile had grown into a three foot by four foot hump at the back of the lot, I had tried every poison ivy cure known to man. From rubbing broken aloe vera leaves on the rash, to experimenting with expensive  homeopathic remedies, to good old calamine lotion, I tried everything to control the poison ivy. I was still attacking the last of the big clumps. Nothing worked.

I seriously considered taking the advice of friends who recommended a napalm like herbicide which would “kill everything it touches for three years”. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I continued to itch as I tried to write down my thoughts on the lawyer’s work. I planned a space close to the basement window for the woodpile.

August arrived. The big day approached. This was going to be my third time in this judge’s courtroom. The first two times procedural mistakes exploited by the fast talking lawyer caused delays.

We got the call from the wood cutter the night before the court date. He would be arriving the next day with loads of wood, four in all, totalling ten face cords.

I killed the tension by pulling roots furiously that hot afternoon. That was probably when I contacted my eye with the poison ivy oil on my sleeve.

We drove into town early that August morning and had a greasy breakfast on the way. My anger at the lawyer had driven me to refuse an out of court settlement of $500 off the bill which he had offered by phone a few days before.

We smothered our ham and eggs in ketchup. I agonized over whether I should have taken him up on his offer.

My wife asked me why I was winking at her. A large tear ran down my cheek. My eye had begun to swell, turn red and itch as much as my ankles and wrists.


The intimidating atmosphere of the formal hearing became exaggerated as I sat in suit and tie and studied my twenty pages of notes. They recorded the catalogue of insults the lawyer had heaped upon me and my aunt. Not overt insults, but an endless series of delays, mistakes and inexplicable charges.

My eye ran. My voice sounded like a strangled crow as I tried to explained to the judge why I was questioning the lawyer’s work. The structure of the proceedings, about which even the greenest cop and file clerk in the building knew more than I, threw me. Statements, questions, cross examinations which were second nature to the lawyer, spoiled the plan I had rehearsed.

The judge and lawyer exchanged significant glances. The court reporter turned to examine me curiously while I sputtered and squawked emotionally about the injustice and lack of attention the lawyer had paid to the administration of my mother’s will. I made statements when I should have asked questions and fumbled with my notes.

The lawyer defended himself. The judge confronted me with a release I had signed in a meeting when my sister finally agreed to have the will administered as it was written. The lawyer simply blamed the delays on my sister and the mistakes on his assistant.

He had delegated the details of the settlement to his assistant because it decreased the cost of his services. He charged three hundred dollars per hour for his time, only one hundred per hour for hers.

He couldn’t explain many of the charges on the bill and after a year of dealing with our family, he hadn’t even been able to get my name right on the final papers.

It didn’t phase the judge. It became obvious that the exercise was carried through because I had paid the fifty bucks. They were humouring me. If I had known the procedure or had been represented by a lawyer who did, I might have had a chance.


As it was, with anger and adrenalin tightening my collar, sweat and a steady tear rolling out of one eye, I was disposed of in short order. I was told by the judge that he would allow no further litigation on the matter, that the bill was fair.

The consolation of knowing that I had, in three court appearances, wasted at least four hours of the lawyer’s $300 an hour time, comforted me on the drive home. The endless technical details and procedures I watched millionaire lawyers manipulate on behalf of a millionaire defendant in the Simpson trial became more meaningful and more depressing.

The woodcutter arrived cheerfully with the first load of wood.

I struggled to keep up with my wife who had grown up on a farm. She taught me to crosspile the ends of the rows of 16″ maple, beech and ironwood logs. We continued until darkness and exhaustion halted our labours. My eye had closed completely.

The Arnprior Hospital took care of the poison ivy with a shot of penicillin.

Some of the poison ivy still survives beneath the frozen ground of winter. The wood stove gives good heat. We heard later that the same lawyer had been taken to court again for the same reason.

My original lawyer, my friend from high school, died of cancer.

O.J. got off.

We carry on.

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