Procrastination

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.

Seneca – 4 BC (Córdoba) – 65 AD (Rome)

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That line comes from Seneca’s essay – ‘De Brevitate Vitae’ (The Shortness of Life), written in 49 AD.

And as Wayne Gretsky, the former Canadian ice hockey star, once said – ‘Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.  You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’.

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I well remember a Qantas commercial from the early 1970s when I lived in Australia.  It started out with a young man saying that when he finished school he was going to travel.  Then it was after he completed his studies.  One saw the young man looking a little older, saying that when his children grew up, he was going to see the world.  Then the man looking much older, salt-and-peppered and conservative, saying that when he retired he was going to travel and see the world.  Finally, there appeared a very old grey bearded wrinkly saying – ‘One of these days…’.

For me, decisions involving my own money – buying a house, shares, a car, a phone, a computer etc. are relatively easy.  I know what I want, I have a reasonable idea of the cost, and when I find it, I buy it.  I really don’t care if I later find that I could have bought it for less somewhere else, or by waiting I could have had a better deal. The deal is done and I move on.  For me the old saying, that ‘time is money’ very much applies.  I very much believe that it is important to know what your time is worth and not to waste it in trying to make relatively insignificant savings.

In a similar manner decisions involving where I live and/or work have also been relatively easy for me and have always been because of what I wanted to do next in life. We have no choice of parents or of where we are born and raised, but we certainly can decide where we want to live.  Consequently, I have left a trail of cities behind me – Toronto, Sydney, Los Angeles, London, Lagos, Caracas, Miami, Panama, Lima, Camberley, Neuchâtel, Paris, Uppsala, Chamonix, Montevideo and now Cape Town.  One of these days I may settle down… 🙂

At work the major decisions are usually much more complex and involve many variables.  Making 5 out of 5 profitable decisions hardly seems possible.  With 4 out of 5, promotion is just a matter of time.  With 3 out of 5, one may remain employed.  Anything less usually results in ‘adios’.  And procrastination on a difficult decision rarely wins respect.

Where I have often struggled is with the negative decisions involving people, for example in terminating a relationship or someone’s employment.  With some, I would certainly never win a popularity contest.  And yet, once the decision is made and communicated, I have usually felt an overwhelming sense of relief.  As is written in the bible, and frequently misquoted, ‘the truth sets you free’.

Life is too short to waste on regretting what could have been…

In the words of Edith Piaf – ´Non, Je ne regrette rien’.

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Edith Piaf – Non, je ne regrette rien – (original)

South Africa Residency

I love Cape Town – the ocean, the mountains, the climate and the super-friendly people of all colours, both well-off and poor.  I feel so totally at home here, that after a year and three visits, I have started the process of obtaining a temporary 4-year residence, to be immediately followed by an application for […]

I love Cape Town – the ocean, the mountains, the climate and the super-friendly people of all colours, both well-off and poor.  I feel so totally at home here, that after a year and three visits, I have started the process of obtaining a temporary 4-year residence, to be immediately followed by an application for permanent residence.

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In most parts, it is not a demanding process.  I must provide apostilled (that was a new word for me) copies of my birth and divorce certificates.  Then there is a basic medical examination and chest x-rays.  I also must demonstrate that I have at least a net annual income of Rand 444,000 (c£26,000 or c$34,000).  But the painful part is providing police clearance from every country in which I have lived since I was 18.

Now for most countries, the process is not very demanding – basic identification data plus a fee.  But the US requires a set of fingerprints on ‘card stock’ plus a plethora of personal data, such as height, weight, colour of eyes, hair etc.  And their northern poodle requires electronic fingerprints, which are not readily accessible outside of Canada.  And neither of their embassies and consulates provide any assistance whatsoever.  To complicate the process, the US has a minimum of a 10-week service level, before the end of which my application could be rejected – I just hope that I did not give my height and weight in metric, leaving me to start all over again… 😦

Once I get all the required documentation, I must book an interview at an RSA embassy, in my case London – there is currently a one month wait.  And if my documentation is accepted, there is a further 33 working day delay until the permit is issued or rejected, during which time my passport is retained by the embassy.  As I also have an Irish passport, the latter is no handicap.

So, if everything I goes according to plan, I hope to be a South Africa resident by the end of this year.

Wish me luck… 🙂

Fidel and Pedro

The time that I spent in Venezuela in 1978-81, resulted in a seismic change in my direction in life: the geography of the country; the people, the friends that I made, with some of whom I am still in contact, the challenge of learning the language, the food, the music, the wonderful climate.  I could go on and on, and usually do.

And of course, it was in Caracas, where I was introduced to competitive running, inspired by Herbert Robertson, about whom I have previously written (see lenblackwood.com/2016/05/11/3).  But there were two others, who greatly contributed to my modest success as a long-distance runner – Fidel Rotondaro and Pedro Penzini.

I first met Fidel while training in the Parque del Este.  He was the enthusiastic organizer of local races and runners under the name ‘Club Ataka’.  I happily accepted to join with his group and often, after a race or long training run, he would invite us to his house for a beer or three.

Fidel was an economist by discipline, but in those days, he had a charter business, with his own 6-seater turbo-prop, stationed at the city airport, just across from where I worked, at Maraven, the oil company.  He used to transport wealthy businessmen and tourists, both within Venezuela and internationally. Twice he invited several of us to accompany him, in his plane, to races in Florida.  And when there, we stayed at his house in Fort Lauderdale.

Fidel was not just hospitable to his friends, he sponsored and subsidized two young talented local runners, poor guys with few resources.

Once, Fidel arranged a race in Canaima, in Eastern Venezuela, with a group of runners from Caracas and Indians from a local football club.  We set off in three small planes and one by one we landed in a field by the river Orinoco.  The landing strip was quite short, and twice we overshot the field and took off again, to avoid ending up in the water.  From there we took a canoe to an island in the river, where Fidel, or perhaps one of his friends, had a large open-sided dwelling.  We had a huge bar-b-cue and slept the night in hammocks.  It was idyllic.  The next day we had a short flight to Canaima.  By air, was the only means of getting to Cainama; there were no roads.

The 15 km race was run over dirt tracks, out and back, through beautiful countryside, with no shade.  It was quite hot and the last stage was along the airport runway, when my legs moved, but everything else seemed to be stationary.  After, we took some canoes on the lagoon and passed behind one of the waterfalls.  I will never forget the experience.

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The landing strip at Canaima, with the lagoon and the waterfalls in the background (photo from internet)

Pedro was not with us that weekend.  He was a chemist, at that time working in the pharmaceutical industry.  He was an enthusiastic advocate of healthy living and wrote a weekly column for a national paper, under the heading ‘Correr es Vivir‘ – (To run is to live).  He wrote a book on the subject, in the early days of mass running, when Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Greta Waitz were every runner’s heroes.  I will never forget one of his weekly columns entitled – ‘Escupir o no escupir‘, ‘To spit or not to spit’.  It was about the effects of the loss of fluid during a long race, and I never did know whether he was being serious or just ‘tongue-in-cheek’.

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Photo from internet

When I returned from the Cleveland marathon in May 1980, having attained a Boston qualifying time of under 2:50, Pedro wrote a very flattering article about me for El Nacional.  I remember that I was wearing my all black running shorts and singlet (John Walker, the 1500 m runner of New Zealand, was one of my heroes in that era), while the photographer took shot after shot of me running past him.  I don’t know what happened to my copy of the article.

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A formally dressed Pedro, complete with microphone (photo from internet

But life moved on, and so did I.  For twenty years, Pedro continued to write his weekly ‘Correr es Vivir‘, on running, sports and healthy living.  He had a daily program on radio and later on television, and became a well-known personality.  But despite his clean-living life-style, he fell ill and died in 2010, at the age of 74.

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A race in memory of Pedro was run in 2010 (photo from internet)

Fidel has never stopped running.  He is the only Venezuelan, and one of the few of any nationality, that have completed a marathon in all seven continents.  And yes, that includes Antarctica.  He has had a serious illness and a debilitating Achilles tear, but went on to compete successfully at international level in a plethora of Ironman triathlons.  He is now 76, living between Isla Margarita and Miami, and still competing.

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At 76, Fidel is still looking good (photo from internet)

As I sit here tonight in Cape Town, with my head filled to overflowing with warm memories of nearly 40 years ago, I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to have known Fidel and Pedro.

Each, in their own way, enriched my life, and that I will never forget.

Landing on my feet

July, 1965

Despite all my macho bravado and naïve ambition, when that early morning arrived for me to get up and leave home, to go off into the relative unknown, I felt suddenly quite nervous.  The enormity of what I was going to do, with little money and even less marketable skills hit me, and I just wanted to find it to be just a dream.  But my mother knocking on the bedroom door was real.  I took a deep breath and got up.

I had a hurried breakfast, while my parents silently watched.  Their faces said it all.  They looked sad and concerned.  It was a emotion that I did not understand until I, in my turn, experienced my own sons setting off for their first time, albeit from afar.

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Photo taken not long before I left home

My friend, Stewart Barnes, arrived to drive me to the airport.  I went to the bedroom to say goodbye to my brother.  He was half asleep when I kissed him.  I will never forget the sleepy look of bewilderment in his face.  I don’t remember going to my sister.

The rest of the day passed in a blur – to Belfast, then Heathrow and on to Toronto, where my grandparents were waiting for me.  I remembered my grandmother from a visit she made to us in Ireland, but I had never seen my grandfather. They migrated to Canada soon after the end of the war and he never returned. They lived in Brampton, about 50 km from downtown Toronto.

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After a couple of days walking around sleepy suburban Brampton, I decided that it was not for me.  My grandparents were keen that I stayed there, but to me, Brampton felt about as exciting as a night out in a funeral parlour.  So I decided to try my luck in Toronto, where my friends, George and Eileen, had settled.

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My maternal grandparents in their living room in Brampton, in 1963

I took a Greyhound bus to the terminal in Toronto and went to a nearby restaurant to eat something, before starting job hunting.  Apart from hamburger, I recognized nothing on the menu, so hamburger was what I ordered.  There were no chips.  Afterwards I realised that chips were called French fries in Canada.  I had never been in a restaurant before.  My innocence must have been glaringly obvious.

I walked towards the city, completely awed by the size of the buildings.  At that time, they were completing the twin towers of the Toronto Dominion Bank, the tallest of which had 56 floors.  I had never seen a building with more than three floors.

I stopped in a phone booth, close to the new city hall.  In those days there were still phone books in phone booths, and in the yellow pages I found a small section for Quantity Surveyors; there were only three entries.  One with the grand name of Helyar, Vermuelen, Rae & Mauchan, attracted my attention, and I called them.  A gentleman called Peter Pedrette answered my call and suggested that I go and see them right away, as their office was close by the city hall, at the corner of Richmond and Bay, opposite the big Simpsons department store.

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The new Toronto City Hall, with the old city hall on the right (photo from internet)

I was interviewed by Bob Maughan and James Rae, two Scots who had been several years in Toronto.  They soon seemed to be more than happy with my capabilities as a junior and were more interested in the fact that I played rugby.  They called a friend, Norman, connected to the Toronto Scottish, and arranged for me to attend their training later that week.  And, by the way, I could start the next Monday on a salary of 55 dollars a week, a princely sum to me; that was more in one week, than I earned in a month in Ireland.  It was only later that I realised that the cost of living in Toronto was much greater than that of Ireland.

I accepted their offer without any hesitation and I skipped and danced my way back to the Greyhound bus depot.  I was deliriously excited about my new job.

I felt as if I had arrived.

Bertie Peacock

When I was a teenager, Bertie Peacock was a hero and idol in my part of Ireland.  He was born in Killowen, in Coleraine, played a few games for the local football club in 1947, before being transferred to Glentoran, in Belfast, and on to Glasgow Celtic in 1949.  There he made 450 appearances, together with 31 caps for Northern Ireland during 1952-62.  He played in the 1958 World Finals in Sweden, when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals, a feat not since repeated.

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Bertie Peacock in his Glasgow Celtic days

In 1961, he returned to Coleraine as player/manager, culminating with winning the Irish Cup in 1965, at which I was present.  Soon after, I migrated to Canada and lost touch with the exploits of the team, which had several more cup and league successes.  Bertie retired in 1970, continued for a few years as manager, and eventually bought a local pub, which he named  as ‘Bertie’s Bar’.  He died in 2004.

When I recently visited the Coleraine graveyard, my brother showed me Bertie’s grave.  He told me that there was now a statue of Bertie in the Diamond in the town.

It was my great-uncle Bill and Ronnie Wilson who first took me to see a Coleraine football match.  Apart from the once-a-year North-west 200 motor cycle race and the horse racing in the fields beside Hopefield hospital, there was only local football to watch.  Television was in its infancy and, apart from the FA Cup final, no football was broadcast live.

Ronnie used to work with my father.  He was a few years older than me, and Uncle Bill used to drive us the four miles to Coleraine in his little Morris Minor 1000.  Uncle Bill used to set off more than an hour before the kick-off, despite that there was never a crowd capacity of much more than 2000.  We used to race along at about 30 mph, only slightly faster that uncle Bill would have driven his horse and cart; there was always a long line of reluctant followers behind us.  He always parked in the same spot on Union Street.  And the ground was practically empty when we took the same seats on the back row at the corner of the stand.  Sometimes we had to wait outside until the man who operated the turnstile arrived.  We never missed a kick-off.

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A Morris Minor 1000 – Uncle Bill’s was black

My brother dropped me off near the town centre and I strolled the rest of the way along the pedestrian mall.  The town centre that I remembered had much changed; it had been extensively rebuilt after the IRA bombings in the 1970’s.  I stopped opposite the building where I used to work and took a photo of it.  The quantity surveyors that I worked for – Dalzell & Campbell, probably no longer exists.

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My desk was at the window on the first floor, above the entrance

 

Close by, was the statue of Bertie Peacock, and reading the attached plaque was an older man.  We started to talk, as do most Irish.  I asked him what all the flags around the town were in mourning for.  He told me that they had been put up to celebrate Coleraine being in the Cup Final on the coming Saturday.  When I remarked that they all seemed to be in mourning at half-mast, he laughed and said that that the men who put up the flags only had a short ladder.

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It turned out that the man I was talking to used to play football and he had known Bertie Peacock.  Not only that, he used to play for Coleraine.  And to cap it all, he played in the Cup Final of 1965, which was the last game I saw, before I migrated to Canada.  I was talking to Johnny McCurdy, the famed defender of the sixties and seventies, who still holds the club record for appearances at 634.  After he retired from playing, he managed the club for a time.

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Johnny McCurdy as the victorious captain, with club chairman, Jack Doherty (photo from internet)

We chatted for a long time about this, that and the other, and when we went on our separate ways, I felt as if I had never been away, and that all my wandering for the past fifty-two years had been but a dream.  It was the same strong feeling of nostalgia that I always experience when I revisit my home country; of memories of happy and perhaps simpler times, tinged with a sadness that those days are gone forever, together with most of the people that I once knew.

I crossed the bridge and walked slowly back to my hotel, along the beautiful riverside walk.

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Part of the riverside walk (photo from internet

 

George

Since my father died in 1995, I have not often been back to Ireland, in fact only in 2004, and again about eighteen months ago.  The north Antrim coast, from whence I come, is not on the way to anywhere; it is about as far as one can get from civilisation, unless one is sailing north to remote Scotland, the Faroe Islands or Iceland.  And once landed at Belfast airport, there awaits an hourly bus service to Antrim and an hourly train to Coleraine, both of which I always seem to manage to miss by no more than five minutes.

But when I step foot back on Irish soil, all the frustrations and aggravations of modern travel and living seem to evaporate, and I completely relax; I am once more 18 and on my way home again.

I met my brother the next morning at my hotel, and we headed off to the graveyard; I was anxious to visit the grave of an old friend, George.  We worked together in Coleraine in the mid-1960s.  He migrated to Toronto in 1965, together with his fiancée, Eileen.  They wanted to marry, but being of mixed religions, migration was their perceived solution.  George had a cousin in Toronto, and soon after they arrived, George and Eileen were married.  As crazy as it may seem today, that was the experience of many young Irish couples in that era.

George & Eileen

I followed soon after George and Eileen, and spent a few weeks sleeping on their living room floor.  None of us had much money and my contribution to the household was much welcomed. Eventually I moved in with five other guys, at 345 Eglinton Ave West –  Howard Abrahams, Michael Goldberg, Robin Jackson, Bill Stott and a Canadian, Gordie.  I am still in touch with Howard and Michael; Robin died a long time ago in South Africa; with the other two I have had no further contact, although I was once told that Bill did end up as the global boss of Hallmark Cards,

George worked as an estimator for a construction company – Pigott Construction, and later, he introduced me to his boss, who offered me a job, which I accepted.  Outside of work, I saw little of George socially; he was a settled suburban husband and I was a lad-about-town, playing rugby, football and partying.

Before I left for Australia in 1971, I last saw George and Eileen.  At that time, they had a little girl.  They seemed to be very happy and very much in love.  That was our last contact.

After I had a stroke in late-2005, it took some time, perhaps 2-3 years, for me to realize that my memory had not completely recovered.  I stumbled upon my own method of revitalising it – one day I may write of that difficult period of my life, and in so doing, I tried to find George.  Telephone directories, linkedin.com, facebook.com, internet etc. – there was no footprint.  I eventually dismissed him as being as a ‘Luddite’, resistant to new technology.

Until my good friend and genealogist, Norman Calvin, found him for me, or rather, found his sister.  And there I was, with my brother, looking for George’s grave.  It was no wonder that I had not been able to find him.  He came upon hard times in Toronto.  He lost his job, divorced and lost his family.  He eventually returned to Coleraine, but his situation did not improve.  On 25 November 2005 he died, a totally broken man.  On that day, I was fighting for my life in an intensive care ward of a hospital in Stockholm.

But where was his grave?  I had a rough idea where it was, but there were so many.  We split up, one each side of a path.  We walked up and down the rows, until I was on the point of giving up and getting more precise directions.  I distinctly remember saying out loud, ‘George, where are you’, when, in that instant, my brother shouted, ‘Over here’.

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It was another of the many co-incidences in my life.

Enchanted evenings

‘Greenacres’ farm

Islandflackey

c1952-1956

Some of my happiest memories date from when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in Ireland.  Despite the fact that we did not have much, certainly little that would today be considered necessities, my childhood was a happy one.  We had no indoor toilet or bathroom, and no heating, apart from a fire in the kitchen and on special occasions, one in the living room.  During most of the year, the bedrooms were ice-cold and we took a rubber hot-water bottle to bed to fight off the chill.  We had no car and no television.  Our situation in that era was like that of most country people in Ireland.

‘Dinner’ was the main meal of the day, and we sat down to eat at one o’clock precisely, to the chimes of Big Ben and the one o’clock news.  The light meal in the evening was known as ‘tea’, and in our house, that was at 18:00 precisely, to chimes of Big Ben and the six o’clock news. Six years of military precision left their mark on my father.

By 19:30 my mother ordered me off to bed, but I could read until she came back to switch off the light.  As I got older, the lights-out time was slowly extended.

From the time when I could read, books were my passion; those who know me today would say that I have not much changed, at least in so far as books are concerned.  And when the lights went out, I fantasied about being a great explorer, a brave knight, a detective or whatever the hero of my current book did.  I was a dreamer.  I was able to borrow books from the library in Coleraine, and I read all the books on the little library shelf of my primary school.  I would have been a rare month when I did not read at least one book.

In the summer time, on a tranquil evening after ‘tea’, I used to love to go down to the piggeries and the fields behind the house.  I was alone there; the workers had gone home, my father usually to his bowling club, and my mother pottering around in her garden.  Sometimes I would climb up onto the roofs of the piggeries, armed with a rock, and try to hit one of the multitude of rats that were scampering around; the farm was always infested with rats; it was impossible to eradicate them.  It also proved impossible for me to hit them.  By the time I stood up to throw, they had disappeared like a flash.

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‘Greenacres farm in the mid 1950s
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A schematic drawing of the farm near Portrush

At other times, I would go down to the stream that flowed past the old flax dam, at the end of the pig run, and race two or three empty shoe polish cans and see which would be first to the tunnel under Carnalridge Primary school, where I would retrieve them.  The flax dam was silted up and filled with reeds and some stunted willow trees grew on the banks.  In springtime, frogs laid their spawn in the pools of water, and one year I put some spawn in a large jar and watched them hatch and grow into little frogs.

In the pig run, I once found a beautiful orchid.  I took the flower and pressed it for my collection.  My grandmother taught me how to do it, by pressing it between some heavy books that she had.  I never did again see an orchid in the pig run, or anywhere else on the farm.  Perhaps one of my father’s pigs ate it.  The pig run was always pitted, like a WWI battle field.  The pigs loved to tear up the soil looking for roots and would wallow in the hollows.

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My father in the pig run with the boar

On the south side of the piggeries, there was the midden heap and the area around it was quite marshy and the grass was left to grow long.  Every year a corn crake nested in that grass and every early morning and evening one could hear its ‘craeking’ call.  They were a migratory bird, but I had never seen one.  One evening I went into the long grass to find the corn crake and see what it looked like.  I must have almost stepped on it, for it burst out of the grass just in front of me and flapped away.  I felt very guilty after that, and hoped that it would come back, for I loved its call.  I never did see a cuckoo either, although at times I could hear them all around us.

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A corncrake (picture from internet)

Today, the farm has long gone, hedgerows have been torn up, the farm buildings have been demolished; all that is left are my vivid childhood memories.

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The overgrown ruins of part of the piggeries