Paul Canniff was the webmaster of Barrelstrength. He died of a sudden viral infection in Regina, Saskatchewan after being ill for a couple of days, scarcely fifty three years old. This is how I remember him.
“I met Paul in early days of the Reform Party in Ottawa, which was, as you can imagine, a minority taste for a government town. I was immediately taken by his immense cleverness and by his uncanny capacity to mimic and quote from every cultural motif of the past twenty years. Entire episodes of the Simpsons could be cited at will, in the right voices. He could put an audience into paroxysms of laughter when he was “on”, as he often was.
He was a new kind of person to me: one who engaged with the world of computers to make a living out of helping people put up websites. His work, in my direct experience, was always precise, creative, and tasteful. I am not sure it has ever occurred to him that many other kinds of mind are softer-edged and more tolerant of error and imprecision. He was not tolerant of fluffiness in others because he was not tolerant of it in himself.
If I may speak the truth on this occasion, I came to realize over time that his early years had left their scars upon him. He had emerged from difficult family situation, one where his mother had been unable to provide a steady flow of affection to her children equally, and where heavy dread may have been the normal state of affairs. I do not know whether he was favoured or disfavoured by his mother but he could not have had an easy time growing up.
He joined the Masons at some point in his thirties and there he found the stability and the explicit value system that did much to keep him on an even keel thereafter. The formality of Masonry, and its explicit appeal to sanity of behavior, the central idea that we are all building our temple, not to the self, but to make a worthy place for God in our lives, as we might conceive him, and to be the kind of person who can be approved of by the Great Architect: all these ideas held him and cradled him and kept him from wandering off the path. He was a man for whom Masonry was the true path of manhood.
He was also assisted in Masonry by his quite phenomenal brilliance. We have all been impressed at various times with his abilities to recite the various declamations and orations of the Masonic ritual. These were but a small part of a mind that, in former ages, cited books of the Iliad, or reams of poetry, or lore, from memory. No small part of the charm of our institution is its emphasis on exercising the skills of memory, in which he was a master.
I have seen him up and I have seen him down. I have seen him both manic and depressed. Paul’s was not an easy life. He faced it with a courage that was native to his character. Whatever ailed him was external to his true being. What assisted him was the Craft, its fellowship, and its essential message.
Finally, when he was on, there was no one funnier. I still recall a party nearly thirty years ago when, as people are wont to do, they crowded into the kitchen. Paul picked up an empty wine bucket which amplified his voice and he spoke in deep tremolo. He imitated the voice of the monster in the first Ghostbusters movie, saying “There is no Dalwhinnie, only Zuul” and went on in this vein for a time. I started to laugh, and as he kept on, I was reduced to gasping for air. I had to crawl out of the crowded kitchen trying to clutch my ribs at the same time – I assure you it cannot be done – to recover myself in the living room. We cannot party like that anymore, being closer to seventy than to forty, and I miss those times and I miss the person he was then.
I hope you in Saskatchewan were able to enjoy this wholly madcap side of Paul, and that he had not suppressed it in later age, because his comic genius was as true of him as was his more serious Masonic self.
Perhaps, whether in Lodge or outside, you might devote yourselves to recalling this wonderful man at his best. I will miss him. I am sure you will too. I can only hope that at least a few of you got to know him at his best, because when he was ‘on’ he was very, very good indeed.
Rest in peace, my friend.