“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
– Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
A lousy sleeper my whole life, it’s disorienting to begin this day so early.
Fuel-injected with caffeine, but still only half awake, I find myself in the cool mid-summer morning air, straddling my bike on the deserted sidewalk in front of my house. It’s at times like this – just after the sun has finished chinning itself on the pinkish horizon, when the city is still, everything is awash in soft light, and the only sound is the hum of distant traffic – that I regret never becoming an early riser.
But here I am at 5:30. Pumped like the tires on my flashy red 18-speed, I’m about to embark on an annual mission: riding my age (in kilometres). Or die trying.
I’m 75 today.
Three-quarters of a century is less than the blink of an eye in the boundless span of time but it will, ultimately, constitute the vast majority of my lifespan. Having already racked up the biblical three score and ten years, I don’t need an actuary table to remind me that I’m now playing with the house’s money.
With the changing perspectives that accompany aging, birthdays – like so many other things – are no longer a big deal. Gifts, cards and parties have been largely phased out. Instead, once a year on this date – I’ve been doing this for 15 birthdays – I take a trip down memory lane on my bike. Alone, I pedal and ponder, reflecting on where I’m from (a hamlet on the southern shores of Ontario’s Georgian Bay), where I am (the vibrant metropolis of Montreal), and the circuitous journey that got me here. I don’t know if the unexamined life isn’t worth living, as Socrates said, but I can’t imagine how anyone can avoid taking inventory once in a while in hopes of extracting at least a modicum of sense from our fleeting time in this baffling, bittersweet, beautiful world.
From my home in Montreal’s gentrifying Verdun neighbourhood, I’ll ride my regular route along the bike path that traces the St. Lawrence River to the suburban city of Dorval. I’ll then backtrack to the Lachine Canal, and cycle alongside it toward the Atwater farmers’ market before zigzagging through Pointe-Saint-Charles back to Verdun. Checking my odometer at each kilometre, I’ll try to conjure up where I was during the corresponding year in my life – packing Shakespeare’s seven ages of man into my ride.
Other than a couple of joggers and a sleepy-looking dog walker being tugged along on a leash, there’s no one around at this hour. A grey squirrel rummages through an overflowing garbage bin. I’m more aware of sounds than I’ll be later in the day; the rush of wind in my ears reminds me of when I’m driving a car with the windows down. With the sun still low on the horizon, I tail my funhouse-like distorted shadow and imagine I’m in pursuit of a stickman on a penny farthing.
Naturally, few recollections materialize before Kilometre 5 (1953), where in the golden glow of the nascent sun, a half-dozen early-bird surfers, their arms extended like wobbly tightrope walkers, take turns trying to stay upright on the rapids at la vague à Guy.
Attempting to seize recollections from toddlerhood is akin to a space telescope seeking elusive traces of the Big Bang’s afterglow. They’re there, but they’re rare.
My two earliest memories are of a bee stinging me on my right ear and my grandparents’ German shepherd, upset by my wailing, barking madly; and of me about to have my tonsils removed and catching a glimpse of a tiny orange light on a sinister-looking medical instrument.
K6 (1954): I approach the sheltered inlet I call “Duck Cove” because of all the mallards that congregate here year-round. A couple leave ripples as they drift languidly on the glassy water, but the rest are motionless. There’s no quacking at this hour.
This was probably when I experienced grief for the first time. Hurricane Hazel was battering southern Ontario and, coincidentally or not, my first pet, a tabby named Peter, disappeared. Outside our house in the darkness I kept calling: “Peter!”
I began school that year, and it was in Grade 1 that I suffered the ignominy of getting my hands strapped by my tall, steely eyed teacher at the front of our one-classroom rural school. Older boys had shoved me into the girls’ cloakroom and I was unable to plead my innocence. On the after-school trudge home I fretted that my father would catch me red-handed – literally – and conduct an inquisition.
K10 (1958): I catch a glint of sunlight on roofs and a steeple in the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve across the St. Lawrence as I tap my brakes and descend a hill adjacent to the Fleming windmill, an armless, stone landmark built by a Scottish immigrant nearly two centuries ago.
The day my age hit double figures my mother baked a birthday cake and I had friends over to celebrate. Underneath each piece of cake, as was the custom, Mom had placed a coin wrapped in wax paper, and my friends and I looked to see who got a quarter, dime, nickel or penny (the latter receiving hoots of derision).
Birthdays were special then because, at that age, it seemed you had to wait forever for the next one. Little kids can’t wait to get older, to become big kids. And big kids can’t wait to become grown-ups, maybe because they don’t realize that, after the first few heady years of adulthood, the world no longer brims with endless possibilities, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in.
K15 (1963): I complete a loop of the urban-sculpture-lined jetty that is le parc René-Lévesque. It’s quiet, but later will be enlivened by Caribbean and South-Asian families grouped around picnic tables, kids running around, music playing and barbecues pumping out clouds of aromatic smoke.
My enduring friendship with Ernie – a scrawny, gap-toothed, bespectacled blond kid, whose big Catholic family moved to our WASPy hamlet – began on Sept. 25. I know this because Ernie told me that decades later, and he was never wrong about such details. One of Ernie’s remarkable qualities was his ability to recall dates. Equally impressive was his vocabulary, which bedazzled the kids and farmers who hung out each evening in my father’s garage, the unofficial social centre of our community. There, Ernie would regale all comers with his bons mots and stories, often delivered in a faux Newfie accent or that of a grizzled old French Canadian. One such evening, after he’d cut his finger and someone asked him if he was OK, Ernie broke into Shakespeare’s Mercutio: “’Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.”
“What’s the big word today, Ern?” kids would ask while we waited for the bus to take us to high school. “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” he answered one day, explaining that it is a lung disease and the longest word in the English language. Ernie was different. To many he was a harmless eccentric. Unlike most of us, he never let his hair grow long and never showed any need to conform.
Early in our friendship we played chess, studied the stars with his telescope and, later, did things like ride the giant roller coaster at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition six times in a row, or hitchhike to Montreal. Much of our time, though, was spent with Ernie schooling me about literature, science and history. Rather than reading only sports magazines, I now tackled The Grapes of Wrath and other classics, and we discussed ideas like those of Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan.
Sixty-three was also the year that U.S. President John Kennedy was fatally shot, and not many people of my vintage forget where they were when they heard the news. I was in Mrs. Cleaver’s art class. Until that Friday afternoon, I couldn’t imagine anything so horrific happening out of the blue. That memory underscores what a news addict I was from as early as 1957, when our family bought its first black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV. My awareness of current events came mainly, though, through newspapers, which I’d read after spreading their pages on the living-room floor and nudging away the curious family cat. While absorbing the extensive JFK assassination coverage, I had no idea how important newspapers would become in my life.
K17 (1965): I roll past Lachine’s two round, steel-plate-and-rivets lighthouses. They always look to me like red and white salt and pepper shakers. Next to the one that sits at the end of a wharf, a fisherman dozes off on a lawn chair and a pair of turban-wearing men snap cellphone photos of a slow-moving flotilla of Canada geese.
Frank Sinatra recorded It Was a Very Good Year and, indeed, ’65 was for me. That summer I took part in a student-exchange program with a Québécois named Florent, spending two weeks with him and his large family on one of the long, narrow farms that were once part of New France’s 17th-century seigneurial system of land distribution. With my rudimentary high-school French, I struggled mightily to understand, and be understood by, Florent and his family. Something took root that summer, and of all my subsequent travel experiences – from Haiti and Panama to China and Nepal – I doubt that any trip has more profoundly affected me. My first solo foray from home, it played no small part in my abiding love of everything French.
It was also in ’65 that friend Dave, whose family had relocated from Toronto and seemed so much more worldly than the rest of us, introduced me to the music of Bob Dylan. Until I’d listened to his copy of Bringing It All Back Home, my musical appreciation had been limited to pop songs, which somehow captured the pangs of pubescent self-doubt, confusion and longing I felt whenever, say, I saw Linda – with her short flaxen hair and high cheekbones – in the crowded school hallway, and desperately hoped her smile was meant for me. In bed at night with my transistor radio, I tuned in WABC in New York and listened to deejay Cousin Brucie, whose effervescent voice epitomized eternal adolescence:
“Here she is, Lesley Gore with It’s My Party … and I’ll cry if I want to …”
Dylan offered something entirely new, an alchemy of rock and folk music, with songs not only about desire and passion, but also topical issues like racism and war, delivered in an evocative, idiosyncratic and sometimes surreal way:
“… to dance beneath the diamond sky With one hand waving free …”
It was my entrée into poetry, including that of namesake Dylan Thomas.
Even the album title resonated. Bringing It All Back Home made me think about the journey we’re all on, lugging behind us a battered old suitcase bulging with the stuff of our lives – dreams, sorrows, joys, traumas and giddy moments of euphoria – the whole shebang, everything that makes each of us a one-and-done one of a kind. Bringing It All Back Home, for me, is about a universal yearning to tie up loose ends, like salmon instinctively returning to spawning grounds.
K20 (1968):I bump-bump-bump my way around the boardwalk in Dorval’s nearly empty parc du Millénaire before heading back toward Lachine.
A callow country kid living away from home for the first time, I began university (Waterloo) with no idea of what I wanted to do afterwards. Eschewing the school’s burgeoning computer program – I didn’t think computers would ever become that important, and besides, where were future generations going to warehouse all those punch cards? – I was in a BA program focused on liberal arts. It seemed sexier.
Undoubtedly insufferable to those who’d survived the Depression and WWII, I saw myself as part the ’60s Zeitgeist – a generation like no other, changing the world with our idealistic, peace-and-love counterculture. I even naively envisaged that something so momentous as humans setting foot on the moon would almost magically transform humanity. (When that didn’t pan out, I put my hopes on the still-distant new millennium, when cars would fly, sidewalks would move, and a new Enlightenment would replace the Cold War. Harder to visualize was me being 52 in the year 2000.)
Sixty-eight was a tumultuous year around the world and shocking one at home. Two friends were killed in car crashes – Alan in June and Paul in October. Both were drunk and happened to be driving Volkswagens. That should have been a sobering lesson about drinking and driving, but it didn’t immediately sink in, and I can only thank my lucky stars that I didn’t kill anyone (including myself).
K22 (1970): I pass moored sailboats and a monument honouring René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who in the 17th-century explored the Great Lakes and Mississippi River region for France, and is credited as being the founder of what is now the borough of Lachine.
I dropped out of university and became a waiter-bartender, involved with a bubbly blonde barmaid. An “older woman,” 31-year-old Gertie was a franco-Manitoban divorcée with three kids. Like Ernie, she schooled me – albeit with a radically different curriculum. Reality sank in, though, when her little daughter looked up and asked, “Are you going to marry Mommy?”
Jimmy wasn’t the marrying kind.
K24 (1972): It’s 7 a.m. and no one is around as I pass by the southwest entrance to the Lachine Canal. Later in the day pleasure boats will slip through the locks here on their way between Lac Saint-Louis and the Old Port. Once a key shipping corridor linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, the two-century-old canal is now a designated national historic site run by Parks Canada, popular with kayakers and pleasure-boat skippers.
I began my journalism career with the hometown paper (Midland Free Press), living for a few months at my parents’ place. One of my first assignments was covering the drowning of three adults and seven children in an overloaded aluminum boat on a stormy night. The only survivors were a 10-year-old girl and her mother. It was a devastating local story that captured national headlines. My newspaper’s most experienced reporters were, naturally, tasked with writing the main stories, while my job was to take photos. One of my shots, of a police diver preparing to search for bodies, got picked up by the Canadian Press, and appeared in daily newspapers across the country.
It wouldn’t be the last grisly story I’d cover in my newspaper career. Far from it.
K30 (1978):I’m reminded of the vital role the Lachine Canal once played in Canadian industry as I roll through graffiti-tattooed underpasses and stretches where the air is filled with clanging, screeching, snorting foundry noises and acrid odours, past shipping containers, overgrown railway spurs, red-brick warehouses and factories reincarnated as condo developments. On my right the rusting, hulking presence of the LaSalle Coke crane, built just before the Great War and used as an off-loading tower by a gas-manufacturing plant, looms over me. On my left is the early morning traffic on Autoroute 20. In the distance, the canary-yellow McGill University Health Centre pops into view.
On my 30th birthday in Paris, a girlfriend and I began 10 weeks of French courses and travel through Europe and Morocco. Unlike in the classic movie Casablanca, however, this wouldn’t turn out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In fact, it was the opposite; unlike Bogart and Bergman, we would not always have Paris.
K32 (1980):I welcome the coolness provided by a canopy of trees lining the canal’s sunlight-dappled bike path. I glance up at what looks like a pink Monopoly house incongruously perched atop the soaring, post-apocalyptic ruins of the Canada Malting silos.
While on vacation in the Gaspé I heard on the car radio that the Ottawa Journal had ceased publication. It was Aug. 27, known in Canadian journalism as Black Wednesday, when two national newspaper chains conspired to limit competition by closing the 94-year-old Journal and the 90-year-old Winnipeg Tribune. A reporter at the Journal, I was one of hundreds of journalists suddenly unemployed.
Among my immediate concerns was what to do with the police radio scanner in my car. It had been issued to me by the Journal. Unlike my mentor, a veteran police-beat reporter whom I suspected dreamed of a career in law enforcement, I was not the quintessential ambulance chaser. I didn’t fit in when it came to schmoozing with officers at the cop shop. My boss, Geoff, a hard-drinking, middle-aged assignment editor with a slight speech impediment and a penchant for wearing white buck shoes, pink slacks and pastel-yellow shirts, seemed to take sadistic pleasure in my discomfort. He assigned me to work nine to five – nine p.m. to five a.m., that is – and it often truly was a graveyard shift. Once after a fatal motorcycle crash, Geoff sent me to the morgue to ask the grieving parents for a photo of their son. (Photo pickups were part of the job, and Geoff routinely reminded me to scoop up all the best shots of the deceased so that the rival Ottawa Citizen wouldn’t get anything good.) I arrived at the morgue as a man was being led gently away by police officers. When I identified myself as being from the Journal, one officer shook his head as if to say, “Leave this man alone.” I could see the father in the back of the cruiser, rubbing his arms and shivering even though it was a warm evening. To my relief, Geoff didn’t yell at me when I returned to the newsroom and gave him a phony excuse for coming up empty-handed.
K34 (1982):With downtown’s glass-and-steel towers rising up in the hazy background, le marché Atwater comes into view. The city is coming to life. In a few hours, people will be picnicking here, and the footbridge linking the bike path with the market will be a bottleneck of cyclists and pedestrians.
Now a copy editor at the Edmonton Sun, I, along with other transplanted colleagues from Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere in Canada, were trying to survive a Siberian winter. Life had essentially been reduced to sleeping, working and boozing. I needed a healthier modus vivendi, so I turned to running.
“Nice body,” a voice called out while I was on one of my first spring training runs. I turned to see who had spoken, and the only person in sight was a young, black female cyclist who’d just ridden past me. Maybe she was being facetious – I wasn’t yet particularly fit – but as Mark Twain reputedly said, I could live for two months on a good compliment. Longer, actually. A year later, perhaps still inspired by my anonymous admirer’s two-word ride-by compliment, I was running in races. In my second marathon (Vancouver), I cracked the three-hour barrier with a time that would have given me fifth place in the 1908 Olympics. A lifelong jock, I’d finally found a sport at which I didn’t suck.
K36 (1984): It’s 8 a.m. and only a couple of people are wandering around Verdun Beach.
Hired over the phone by the Montreal Gazette, I was finally moving to the French-speaking province that had so enamoured me as an exchange student 19 years earlier.
K39 (1987): I make a half-hour pit stop at my house.
We’re only entitled to one rotation on the great Ferris wheel of life, but I’ll be making two loops of my bike course – albeit a slightly shortened second lap. With the temperature rising and my butt starting to complain, I will now focus less on my life in the rear-view mirror and more on my immediate future – getting back home, having a beer, shower, siesta and celebratory dinner with my wife.
K45 (1993): On my return visit to Duck Cove I’m greeted by quacking.
A winsome young Asian social worker in a red sweater named Winnie caught my eye at a New Year’s Eve party. I was thrilled when she agreed to give me her phone number.
Jimmy, it turned out, was the marrying kind after all.
K52 (2000): A coed volleyball game is underway under a grove of trees near Lachine’s lighthouse on the wharf.
No flying cars, no conveyor-belt sidewalks and no Enlightenment 2.0, the year 2000 didn’t turn out to be anything like I’d pictured it. And neither did I. Thinner on top and thicker in the middle, my running days were undeniably behind me thanks to the damage done by time. Running had been part of my identity – good for body and mind, when I did my best thinking – and I mourned Jim the Jogger’s passing.
K62 (2010): Back on the canal’s linear parkland.
In one pivotal week, Winnie and I became part of the landed gentry (buying our first house) and I retired. Despite the toll taken by years of working nights and weekends under the stress of ever-looming deadlines, with sudden middle-of-the-night heart palpitations over possibly botched headlines, I loved newspaper life. At least I did until a year or two before I accepted The Gazette’s buyout offer. I loved the camaraderie and our dedication to gathering, packaging and disseminating news, racing against the clock while fighting a rearguard action against typos, libel and misinformation. I loved print journalism’s institutional memory of smoke-filled newsrooms enlivened by unforgettable reprobates, the clickety-clack of typewriters (and later the clickety-click of computer keyboards), and the drinking-together, sleeping-together tales from the trenches.
How is it that as a baby boomer, who by definition embraced change, I now found himself so wary of it? How is it that, in all my visions of McLuhan’s instantaneously interactive global village, I hadn’t foreseen a day coming when the news wouldn’t land with a thump at doorsteps each morning? How is it that I didn’t envision a time when newsrooms would be turned into the soulless offices you’d expect to find at an insurance company?
Like my parents in the ’60s, I became more wary of change – from the homely and hideous tattoos and people mesmerized by their electronic devices to the war on expertise and democratic norms I’ve long cherished.
“Boomer,” I remind myself, “you’ve had your turn.”
But despite having no kids or grandchildren, I’ve nevertheless remained invested in how the universe unfolds – including post-me. Optimism, though, doesn’t come as easy as it once did.
K66 (2014): Noon approaches. There’s not enough wind for Montrealers to be out sailing and kiteboarding, but the bike path is packed. Cyclists now vie for space with young and old aboard an array of conveyances, motorized and otherwise – everything from skateboards and electric unicycles to what almost look like Hells Angels choppers. (Easy Rider, meet Wheezy Rider.) Sometimes, troops of Canada geese mosey across our path. Other times, it’s gaggles of humans, eschewing adjacent pedestrian paths, blithely sauntering three abreast, apparently unconcerned that they might get rear-ended by pelotons of speeding young cyclists. Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare fable comes to mind as these hardcore riders, decked out in colourful spandex racing duds, breeze past me. Perhaps they’re fantasizing about the Tour de France while I labour away on my Tour de Jim.
While I’ve always made an effort to stay in touch with old friends, it was especially easy with Ernie. We’d rendezvous whenever I visited family, bringing each other up to speed on how our very different lives were unfolding. I was the big-city, world-travelling bachelor (pre-Winnie), and he was the ex-seminarian who’d veered from the priesthood to become a homebody family man with a wife, three kids and a job as a salesman-bookkeeper at a small-town car dealership.
“That’s the funny thing about beer,” Ernie said while hoisting a stein at one of our last get-togethers, “after a few of these, I get the feeling I wouldn’t be terribly out of place at the Algonquin Round Table.”
“All you’d have to do is say pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” I said. “Dorothy Parker would wave her napkin in surrender.”
Sadly, Ernie’s wit and prodigious memory were wiped clean after he contracted Lewy body dementia, and I’ll always regret that I didn’t overcome my aversion to public speaking and tell funeral mourners how much he meant to me.
K72 (2020): Verdun Beach revisited is strewn with bathing-suit-clad bodies as customers encircle a man selling frosty treats from a cart.
A garrison mentality took over when COVID-19 arrived. This once-in-a-century pandemic underscored for me the reality that no one, not even someone lucky enough to be born in post-war Canada, is immune to disaster.
Hunkering down with Winnie, I tried to reconnect with old friends.
I learned from his partner that Florent, the French exchange student, had died in 2017. (We’d met up in 2012, after being out of contact for 43 years.)
On a whim, half a century after our last amorous hurrah, I found Gertie through an internet search. We had a lovely long-distance telephone conversation, speaking in generalities about life in the time of COVID and our Grand Hotel days, when we’d worked together. Without having a photo of her, I could only imagine what an 80something Gertie would look like. She seemed impressed that I could recall the names of her now-middle-aged kids, but before hanging up Gertie sheepishly admitted: “I can’t remember you.”
K75 (2023):As adults, birthdays gradually lose their sparkle because, imperceptibly, the years start to fly by like pickets in a picket fence, and it seems like only yesterday that you marked your last one. Plus, you find yourself attending more and more funerals.
When I began these birthday rides at age 61, a friend joked about the masochistic nature of my project – pedalling farther each year while getting progressively more decrepit. “I can just see doing 80 at 80,” I said with a laugh.
My body tells me I’ll never be one of those octogenarians who look like they’ll live forever, but that’s OK. I’ll just keep plugging away as long as I can.
Today’s ride has been a piece of cake compared with the one six years ago when, on a cold, rainy, breezy day, I had no feeling left in my fingers by the time I reached home (and weeks later ended up in hospital to be treated for anemia).
That was then.
I’m now in the home stretch.
With only a block to go, I’m again bringing it all back home.