Tribute to Graeme

How I Experienced Graeme

Lee Bartel

As I remember Graeme on this anniversary, I reflect on how I experienced him.

Almost everyday I get an email link to the daily issue of Aeon magazine. Every time I see this link I remember Graeme. It was he who introduced me to Aeon by sending me links to articles. But it is not only the link to the magazine, it is the content of the articles that for me so represent how I experienced him. It represents the breadth and depth of Graeme’s interest, thinking, concern, and passion and often his wry sense of humour. In the past few weeks I have seen these articles:  “The lives of cavewomen,” “Amish Tech Advice,” “How the fall of Rome led to modernity,” “The mind does not exist,”  “Empathy is at heart an aesthetic appreciation of the other,”  “The Charity that teaches underprivileged kids to humanely hunt their next meal,” “An artist grapples with the loss of his brother, and the problem of canine abduction,” “Do antidepressants work?” It was this sort of range of topics I so often discussed with him – often late at night we would sit and talk (and sometimes argue) philosophy or art or technology or any crazy mix of ideas.

I experienced him as being keenly interested in the ideas I was pursuing and the same applied to other people. He used these ideas to then connect. I would mention what I was working on and then the next time we met he seemed to have studied the whole field and often had new insight to add. For example when I started working on vibroacoustic applications and installing transducers into chairs, he was eager to figure this out. He had me bring a transducer to Mexico and the first evening there he tore the bottom out of one of Lynn’s chairs and installed it. Turned out she was not very thrilled by this. He had already printed out many pages of info on this application and it was from him that I first learned about small piezoelectric transducers that might be useable for my purpose.

I experienced him as a fellow polymath (or maybe simply suffering from multiple interest disorder – or at worst attention deficit disorder -- leading to pursuit of many different fields without ever mastering them to one’s expectations). He was good at so many things and knew so much. Construction of course but really it was architecture, design, engineering, decorating, tool application. Cooking of course but really recipe creation, entertaining, décor, nutrition, food preparation techniques, restaurant development including pizza oven building, business management, sales, marketing, and customer service. Art of course but really understanding materials and their manipulation, symbolic representation, art history and appreciation, toilet design in Europe, Dali and surrealism, multiple techniques and their limits, philosophies of art, applications to multiple media, marketing, and sales whether for condo developments, restaurants, funeral homes, magazines, etc.  Communication and sales of course but really word smithing and message spinning, reading the client, matching style, image selection and application. Pets of course but really it was veterinary medicine, training, psychology, ethics, and sociology. Mechanics of course but really it was more about vehicle image psychology and representation, understanding engineering whether mechanical or electrical. Health and wellness of course but really it was the science of nutrition, kinesiology, exercise, tests and instrumentation, biology, and chemistry. Philosophy and politics of course but for him this was really about human experience, compassion, ethics, religion, morals and values, and not coldly detached reason. I could go on – there is so much more he was very good at. But this very ability, interest, and drive to learn and understand has a very negative underbelly – you get to know how little you know, how short you fall of the complete, what a failure you are at really reaching the ultimate goal – of being able to know and do everything perfectly. As in the Garden of Eden, eating of the tree of the knowledge can lead to an unending feeling of dissatisfaction and failure.  

I experienced Graeme as a “big presence” in the kitchen. He was fast and noisy, banging pans and cooking big amounts with ambitious recipes and creative flare and aplomb. Guacamole was never a 2 person amount – it was a basket of avocados for a party. Barbeque sauce for ribs did not come from a bottle – he made a 10 quart pot on the stove for 4 hours even if that delayed the meal by 3 hours! He made a whole beef tenderloin on the BBQ spit and let it catch fire and smoke out a party! He created a Mexican Fiesta for my birthday filling an 11 foot dining table with food that I didn’t like while playing music I hated. We enthusiastically shared bad shrimp in a high-end restaurant in Mexico ending in serious bathroom emergencies. He cooked for the masses and for the romantic partners and always with a zest and style that had the energy and enthusiasm of Guy Fieri! He took one of my odd ideas garnered from a competitive picnic at the University of Illinois and turned it into a multiple hit event with various partners – the red picnic (originally it was a pink picnic). Everything was red – the drink, the food, the napkins, packaging. It represented his penchant for the dramatic and symbolic with food.    

His presence was almost as big while renovating. I engaged him to help renovate the third floor of our house on Avenue Road. Big ideas, immediate action, expensive materials, gusto and grit, throwing things off the 3rd floor balcony rather than carrying it down. He did learn some short-cuts from me as well – how to turn off the relevant breaker without running up and down stairs – just cut both wires at the same time!

His love and passion for dogs was almost limitless. Tauzer and his running away, Baden and his catastrophe, Maxwell and his shyness, Powell and his brashness, walks with Lucas with Maxwell and Powell, Powell’s old age and Graeme’s obsession with designing and building the ultimate wheel chair resulting in Michaelangelo-like drawings of dog physiology and mechanical models. Although he claimed to not like small dogs or cats, his actions belied that – he was so attached to his cat Mikey in Mexico and to Gucci in his last years. He was psychologically inseparable from his dogs and their suffering affected him deeply. The end-of-life struggles of Powell and Max were almost unbearable for him but he took on the ethical responsibility to end their lives himself out of a deep love and mercy. I keenly remember watching him sit with Max in his arms for his last breaths on a disastrously difficult weekend for him – the combination of courageous will and responsibility and the emotion crushing love he felt for his companion.

I saw how he loved kids. Alex was his delight and he went to great lengths to find just the right toy, just the right activity, just the right costume to wear with him for Halloween. He loved taking the kids on trailer rides and helping them pick apples from the trees. Whether engaging with the kids in his life while swimming, or making a boat, or exploring the museum, or painting and drawing, or reading, he always seemed enthralled and deeply engaged.    
I recognized that Graeme fundamentally loved being a maker of things. His dream was to have a big shop with lots of tools where he could make things. But he did this even without the right tools. I remember on one visit to Mexico he was making a headboard for the bed. He needed a table saw but didn’t have one and so he improvised with a skill saw clamped to a piece of plywood – at the top of the stairs in the landing area obstructing everyone trying to walk to a bedroom. But the headboard was beautiful! Creating was his life blood. Paintings, drawings, photographs, wooden boats, desks, rooms, houses. That’s why he loved renovation and construction – it brought together all these ”making” activities and provided an opportunity to create – and to please people with his work. But he rarely pleased himself with his work – he seemed to be hounded by an ever critical eye and voice pointing out flaws and failures.

I experienced Graeme as an intrepid computer hacker. In the late 90’s when he lived upstairs, he seemed to be replacing the operating system in his computer every few months, or partitioning his discs, or adding new drives. I carried a batch of new drives and connection ports that he ordered in Toronto to Mexico so he could make his computer more complicated – and in his mind more safe from his feared online hackers. I guess it takes one to know one. According to his accounts, he joined dark web groups, tried to get Apple service genius status, participated in document hacks and leaks, and generally fuelled his conspiracy theory perceptions. The most stressful experience was his attempt to replace the operating system on our notebook computer on the day we were flying back. He started late, got it going but it seemed to take forever. We ended up standing in the airport parking lot waiting for it to finish before boarding the plane.

I experienced Graeme as a gift giver. Usually not formally wrapped and ceremonially presented for special occasions. Rather he would hand me something and say it was a present (or perhaps not even say it was a present – just that he got me something). This might be a new fibre cloth to clean glasses, or small non-slip mats for the car dash board, some new electronic gadget, often the oddest things. And, I am sure I often disappointed him with my lack of enthusiasm because I didn’t recognize it “as a gift” or didn’t see the personal value in it or thought of it as a form of appeasement. But it was part of his generosity and desire to make people happy.

I experienced Graeme as valuing sentimental items, symbolic, meaningful, beautiful items. Before he headed out on his big adventure in 2000, he put his “treasures” in a big chest in the basement – objects with memories, things he treasured, souvenirs, pieces of art and beauty. When he moved from our condo to his house in Stouffville, he took beautiful china, silver, art, chess sets, antiques, old books, impractical but beautiful furniture, old toys, memorabilia, and every kitchen gadget possible. Objects engaged his memories, associations, imagination, aesthetic, and values. They nurtured his tender soul.  

I most strongly experienced Graeme and music riding in his huge-wheeled truck in Mexico – the music was always on. He liked variety – folk, alternative, techno, odd. Music was like a wall paper to his room. And a means of communication. He sent me links to songs – songs he never explained but probably were meant to communicate deep feelings and associations. I remember on one trip to Mexico, he seemed to be incessantly playing KT Tunstall with songs like “Suddenly I see” and “Black horse and the cherry tree.”  One web comment about the “black horse and the cherry tree” is “This enigmatic rock song from 2004 is about looking back on the choices you've made in your life and reconciling the consequences with your feelings. The black horse may be a symbol for death. The songwriter has remarked that it's a song about having to dig deep to find out who you want to be.”   In retrospect the lyrics are chilling:  

Well, my heart knows me better than I know myself
So I'm gonna let it do all the talking

I felt a little fear upon my back
I said don't look back, just keep on walking

And my heart had a problem in the early hours
So I stopped it dead for a beat or two

But I cut some cord, and I shouldn't have done it
And it won't forgive me after all these years

So I sent her to a place in the middle of nowhere
With a big black horse and a cherry tree

Now it won't come back 'cause it's oh-so-happy
And now I've got a hole for the world to see

Big black horse and a cherry tree
I can't quite get there 'cause my heart's forsaken me

One song he recently referred to repeatedly was the odd song by Lyle Lovett, “If I had a boat”

And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat

One interpretation of this song posted on the web is this: “Lyle Lovett wrote it from the perspective of a grown up looking back and remembering what he as a child wanted to be.”
But there is also this verse:

And now the mystery masked man was smart
He got himself a Tonto
'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto he was smarter
And one day said, "Kemo sabe
Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I'm going out to sea"

Perhaps there was this internal tug between realizing the childhood personal or expected expectation and wanting to escape by simply saying, “Kiss my ass I bought a boat I'm going out to sea."

And another song he played repeatedly and sent links to, “7 Years old.”

Once I was seven years old, my mama told me
Go make yourself some friends or you'll be lonely
Once I was seven years old
It was a big big world, but we thought we were bigger
Pushing each other to the limits, we were learning quicker

I only see my goals, I don't believe in failure
'Cause I know the smallest voices, they can make it major

I'm still learning about life
My woman brought children for me
So I can sing them all my songs
And I can tell them stories
Most of my boys are with me
Some are still out seeking glory
And some I had to leave behind
My brother I'm still sorry

Perhaps it is hard to really understand how he heard these songs. But what I understood from him is that art – whether music, or poetry, or visual art – spoke deep into his soul and he made connections most of us could never really understand. It touched so many points of pain and confusion and hope and fear. My experience with Graeme over too few real contact years reminds me of the Wordsworth poem:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

Overall I experienced Graeme as a deeply loving, caring, passionate, intelligent, ambitious, creative, expressive, performative, competent, suave, handsome, knowledgeable, sensitive, artistic, entertaining, …..  and so much more.  But despite having all these qualities, I experienced him as always trying to do better, do more, reach higher, improve the vision, pursue perfection, see the infinite. I am confident he has achieved that.