Monday, August 15, 2011


I have never read Marcel Proust's massive work "Remembrance of Things Past." The work contains 7 volumes and approximately a million and a half words. But I do know that it is widely considered a modern masterpiece. When I taught, I used an essay in my OAC English class that contained a reference to an episode from the work. In it, the narrator describes his experience attending a party given by an old aquaintance and attended by numerous people from the narrator's past. He is especially moved when he meets a woman whom he had loved when both were much younger. His reaction seeing this woman, after so many decades apart, is poignant and provides the narrator with an important epiphany on the fleeting nature of youth and love.

We know intellectually that we cannot go back in time. We are told this in songs, poems and stories. Yet, deep inside us, is the self-image we all carry, and that image is rarely of the present. In our mind's eye, we see ourselves as forever young, vigourous, happy and always forward-thinking. We see ourselves as running free, unencumbered by the ravages of time and age, looking always to a new day full of promise and potential.

The opportunity to visit the distant past comes rarely. When it does, as in the case of the recent 100th anniversary of Brantford Collegiate Institute and it's accompanying reunion, we often go to the visit hopeful of seeing people and sights that we remember fondly and simply take up from where we left off. But, after the decades, we enter a room full of vaguely familiar strangers. Surely these people don't belong here: they must have gone to the wrong address. We expected to see classmates still young, still wearing the clothes of youth, still laughing and making smart-ass comments about parents, teachers, jobs, and the future. What are all these grey-hairs doing here?

But, after a few uncertain moments, the faces become those of past friends. True, lines in faces tell of a lifetime of achievements and set-backs, and the minis, platform shoes, and bell-bottoms of the past have given way to golf shirts and sensible shoes. But you can see them staring at you and search: it only takes a few seconds for them to find you, deep inside the middle age. And you look back at them and see that there are only a few layers covering the high school brightness. Yes, it's us, we're still here: we're just a little shy now, a little more quiet than we used to be. Laughter, hand shakes, hugs and back slaps give way to stories of the decades' long battles in families, schools, jobs, kids, marriages, and divorces. Sad stories emerge of those who are no longer here. How can that be possible? The last time I saw them, they were only teenagers. Suddenly, the truth comes clear: the kids in the yearbook pictures are all gone, all of them. And for a moment, you wonder who you are talking to: is it really you?

But, it's still us. As Proust said, it is out of the youth of the past that old men and women are made. Old? Us? Never !!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


We're told that smell is the strongest sense for bringing forth long-lost memories. I believe it.

There is a certain smell that I associate with summer. It is a smell that is dank, and sour, and very old. It is largely sweat and struggle, and permeates everything: walls, floors, chairs, glass, and people. It is the smell of competition and victory. And, when it invades your nostrils for the first time, it never ever leaves.

The memory came back with full force last night at the Iroquois Park Arena in Whitby. I decided to visit some ghosts and drove down to watch the Brooklin Redmen play the Brampton Excelsiors in the second round of the OLA's Major Lacrosse Series playoffs. Both teams are historic entities in the world of Ontario lacrosse: the Redmen began life back in 1966 in the small village of Brooklin, north of Whitby, and played in the old Luther Vipond Arena for years, labouring in obscurity except for the small, but loyal following who drove to the village on hot summer nights: the Excelsiors are even older, dating back to 1912, and have a storied past that includes several Mann Cups: they are the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers of lacrosse. Brooklin had won the first two games in the series, so Brampton needed to win to stay alive.

The game itself was astounding, given that the players performed at a high tempo in the sweltering conditions. The first period was even, and the teams emerged with a 3-3 tie. In the second period, Brampton played the type of lacrosse I always associated with the OLA: fast , long passes from the goalie to players running down the floor behind the Brooklin defenders, a lacrosse equivalent of the long bomb of football. This stretched the Brooklin defence and Brampton won the period 5-1. By the time the third period played out, both teams had settled into the heat of the building. Brooklin mounted a come-back with persistent long range shooting that finally found the mark, but Brampton sealed the deal with a costly Brooklin turn-over late in the game to snuff out the Redmen rally. Final score: 11-7 for Brampton.

But it was more than the play and score that caught my imagination. The sparse crowd, the ugly old barn of an arena, and that unforgetable smell took me back to 1971, when the Brantford Warriors were the toast of the lacrosse world. There's something strangely bonding about people who gather in harsh conditions deliberately to watch something they're passionate about. Lacrosse is still a fringe sport to most people, but to those who truly love the game, there's nothing better than sweating it out with the players, who chase glory and passion more than they chase fame or the ball. It's the smell, I guess. Ugly as it is, when it gets inside you, there's no turning back.