To the Faithful Departed

“I have decided to leave you forever and I have decided to start things from here.

Thunder and Lightning won’t change what I’m feeling, oh oh.

And the daffodils look lovely today…

And the daffodils look lovely today….” Dolores O’Riordan, Daffodil Lament

You couldn’t really go anywhere in ’94 and ’95 without hearing that song, Zombie, by The Cranberries. In amongst Carnival by Natalie Merchant, No More I love Yous by Annie Lennox and anything off of Jagged Little Pill from Alanis Morissette, there was this song with a thundery bassline and female lead with a storm of a voice. I actually didn’t really like it at first, but then I found out it was IRISH and I was ON BOARD. She was singing about The Troubles! And she references the 1916 rebellion! It wasn’t long after that song made peak saturation that I picked up the CD, No Need to Argue from HMV. From the very first track, Ode to my Family, I knew this album was going to be special. The way the lead singer, (who I eventually came to know was Dolores O’Riordan from Limerick), sang out, “Does anyone care? Does anyone care?” at the end made me smile. I was in a wilderness period with my other beloved Irish Band, U2, (This was that odd period between Zooropa and Pop where it was uncertain if they would ever bounce back), and was happy to turn my attention, at least for a little while, to another group of artists from my ancestral homeland. The fire really kicks in with the next track, I can’t be with you but the next song spoke to me directly. Twenty One. I remember listening to this album in a god damn DISCMAN on the bus home to St. James and noting at the time that I was 21 too. It was as if Dolores was singing to me. Then you get that popular outlier, Zombie, four songs in. It’s interesting because that song doesn’t really sound like anything else on that album, but that’s the song for which The Cranberries will probably be most remembered. (Maybe tied with Dreams from the previous album). The second half of that album has some gems, too. The longingly beautiful Dreaming my Dreams, the “fuck you” to depression song, Ridiculous Thoughts, Daffodil Lament (my wife’s personal fave, I think) and that calm after the storm/relationship/illness is over, the titular No Need to Argue. I fell in love with that album, and I fell in love with Dolores O’Riordan. I loved how it was so steeped in melancholy but didn’t feel sad to me. It felt angry, and wistful maybe, but never just sad. I didn’t know melancholy could have so much energy. Keep in mind that this was the year after I got let out the hospital after being on a psych ward for 4 months getting all manner of treatment for Depression and my own brand of “Ridiculous Thoughts”. It was a rebirth of sorts for me (I’ve talked about this before) and a part of this rebirth was trying new things, finding new sounds, going to new places, and The Cranberries were definitely a part of that. I went back and got their earlier album, and loved it almost as much as No Need to Argue. I say “almost” because you never quite get over your first love, do you? Of course the two standouts off of the first album are Dreams and Linger (no surprise there).

And can we talk about Dolores’ voice for a second? It is pitch perfect, and I can’t really think of anyone else who can sound so strong and so fragile at almost the same time. I loved seeing her on late night talk shows, and to hear her lovely Limerick accent answering questions from the likes of David Letterman and (ugh) Jay Leno.

I also loved how her songs would show up in the oddest of places, like in a café scene towards the end of Mission Impossible where Ving Rhames and Tom Cruise are parting ways (SPOILERS ON A 22 YEAR OLD MOVIE YOU GUYS), and in You Got Mail when you see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan going about their days. That’s a pretty versatile song, people.

Even though I loved those first two albums to bits, then it was the third release, 1996’s To the Faithful Departed that provided my best Cranberries memory. They were coming to town! Someone I worked with was as big a fan as me, and put the word out to see if anyone wanted to go to the show. I spoke up right away, and my co-worker came through with the goods. This third album didn’t do as well in sales as No Need to Argue (how could it?) and critically it placed 25 on Q’s list of “The worst 50 albums ever” in 2006, but I loved it almost as much. It is kind of trapped in a particular ‘late ’90s’ feel, being preoccupied with the war in Balkans on many tracks, this coming from Dolores’ work with the War Child charity. In fact, one of the more quiet, lovelier songs on this album is called War Child. It is a product of its time.

The chorus to one of their big singles, Free to Decide, goes like this:

“I’m free to decide, I’m free to decide. Well I’m not so suicidal after all”

and it always kind of bothered me that she made explicit reference to suicide in such a big song. But I sort of took it again in the spirit of Ridiculous Thoughts from the previous album. Maybe if we name it we take its power away from it. Maybe we can conquer it, overcome it. I read a recent article online about Doug Ault (digression time: feel free to go refill your drinks). It’s a long article so feel like you have to go read it, but it’s about the Toronto Blue Jays’ first real star from 1977 and his career and how in 2004 the world lost him through suicide. The article makes the point that with suicide victims it’s not really like their life is great and then it takes a terrible turn, but rather that every day is a struggle and a victory of hope over despair, until the day that it isn’t. I never really thought of it that way before, and it was heartening and revolutionary to me to think of a person surviving (and maybe even thriving sometimes) despite having ridiculous thoughts (and bad sleeps) on a regular basis. It was about the dawn coming after the darkness, and I cautiously embraced the idea.

Anyway, the darkness is never fall from the surface in a Cranberries song. But neither is the wit. My favourite song off the album (and I maybe foolishly tweeted that this was favourite Cranberries song of all to Amanda Palmer today) is Forever Yellow Skies. It is fast and loud and full-on PRESENT and I am HERE FOR THIS SONG. The chorus is clever in that it goes, “Forever, forever I’ll be, forever holding you. Forever, forever I’ll be forever holding you…” and you’re thinking “how lovely” but then like German grammar you gotta wait for the last word in the sentence for it all to make sense and Dolores sings, “responsible, responsible, responsible, responsible oh oh oh!” and it’s funny and cheeky and oh so Irish.

So you can imagine my excitement in 1996 to be ROW NINE with a group of like-minded co-workers and the lights went down and the opening drum beat of Forever Yellow Skies opens the show. “Dolores must love this song as much as I do if she’s making it the opener!” I thought to myself, and then the bassist appeared on stage playing the bouncy counterpoint to the frenetic drumming, and then a moment later the guitarist (I don’t know any of their names except Dolores, obvs) comes on and begins his part and by that point we are all on our feet and……..out steps Dolores to centre stage and she grabs the mic and wails into it. The buildup was longer and more dramatic live, and she didn’t start the “oh oh ohs” until after the guitar part (the reverse of what you hear on the album but if you click on this link you’ll get a sense of what I am talking about).

We were all wondering how she’d be, because just a week earlier she had injured her leg in a skiing accident, so there was some concern that she wouldn’t be as mobile as she’d like, but she seemed to be in fine form. The only concession to the injury was that she wore a leg brace, but it didn’t seem to slow her down. The concert flew by, and it was so wonderful to finally see this band, this woman with whom I had such an emotional attachment perform live. When it came time to play Zombie, she kind of turned to her bandmates, smiled and turned back to us and said, “It’s that time of the noight.” and I think a full shiver went up my spine at that particular moment. By the encores, Dolores had taken off the leg brace altogether. I imagined her backstage saying, “Fook it. It’s jyst in the whey anywhey.”

When I see a concert I really like, (I’m looking at you, Arcade Fire 2010 amd Coldplay 2012!) I often will make a playlist of the concert order so I can relive it in my own way, even if I am just using album versions of the songs. It’s a lot easier now to create playlists (and on my iPod I do have one called “Cranberries 96” which is this very concert), but in the 90s it was all done with CDs getting dubbed onto cassettes. Still, I made one, and probably played it just as much as I did the first two albums. It sort of became a supercut of the best off of those three albums, and I play it still. Most recently I stuck it on for a drive out to Brandon in November. When those opening beats of Forever Yellow Skies blasted out of the speakers, my wife gave me an approving nod.

The Cranberries went on to release a couple more albums after To the Faithful Departed, but they didn’t really resonate with me in the same way as those first three did. I still bought them. 1999’s Bury the Hatchet and 2001’s Wake up and Smell the Coffee. A greatest hits album followed that, and a “reimagining of their songs acoustically with an orchestra” album came next. I didn’t bother with either. The band disappeared from the public eye. I just found out today that about 10 years ago Dolores released a couple of solo albums. I don’t know how that wasn’t on my radar, but I had moved on, maybe.

I had always hoped for a reunion, and another tour. Maybe even a new album and a renaissance of sorts. I regret that my wife never saw them live, but then again, how could anything compare to what I remember from 1996?

We got news today that Dolores Mary O’Riordan of Limerick, Ireland died suddenly and unexpectedly in London. She was 46. She was the lead singer of a band called “The Cranberries” and enjoyed moderate international success in the mid 1990s. Cause of death: unknown.

That may be how newspapers will report the news tomorrow. For me, she was a wonderful singer, a clever songwriter, a broken, damaged soul who suffered from ridiculous thoughts but who was able to take those ridiculous thoughts and spin them into hauntingly beautiful songs that touched many lives. Many of whom may not have had the ability to express their feelings but felt a connection to her words and music.

And remember: every day is a victory of hope over despair, until it isn’t.

Rest peacefully, Dolores O’Riordan of Limerick.

 

“Outside my door, I’ll see you no more.” Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries

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Playing for Peanuts

Our local “Theatre for Young People” recently put on a production based on Charlie Brown. It was actually a mash-up of two stories. “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special”.

I saw it yesterday.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for that lovable loser, Charlie Brown. I had flannel Charlie Brown sheets and pillow cases when I was a kid, so he was literally the last thing I’d see every night and the first thing I’d see every morning. The sheets were of a hockey scene, and on one side of the pillow case Snoopy is giving Lucy a big “SMAK” of a kiss, and on the sheets you can see Snoopy is in the Penalty Box. It is uncertain he is there for the unsolicited kiss (#metoo) or if it was from some infraction on the ice, but those were the sheets of my childhood winters.

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In addition to the daily black and white comics and the weekend colour strips, Charlie Brown would pop up periodically throughout the year, most famously at Thanksgiving (with the great pumpkin special) and at Christmas (with the famous pageant and sad tree story). I have a Great Pumpkin t-shirt that I used to wear to work on Halloween, although I haven’t in the past couple of years since Peppermint Patty is wearing an Indigenous-style feather in her hair and I feel like maybe THAT part of it hasn’t aged very well. The Christmas one holds up a bit better, I think. In fact, it never really feels like Christmas until I’ve sat down and watched that special, and heard Linus’ speech about what Christmas is actually about. (Or at the very least had at least one run-through of the soundtrack).

In the late ’70’s and early 80’s there were even a few feature-length movies produced with the Peanuts gang. I remember going with a friend and his Dad to a double feature of these in some run down theatre in the West End on some Saturday afternoon. I was probably in grade 2. I don’t remember the first one, but internet research (and the “80’s All Over” podcast) has helped me confirm that the second one was called “Race for your Life, Charlie Brown” where the gang ends up at summer camp.

I was never into  drawing much as a kid, but I DO remember sitting down with the Weekend Comics and copying out my versions of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, carefully copying Schultz’s swirls and curls for hair, and the careful lines that made up Snoopy’s snout and nose. I don’t know what ever happened to those drawings, but they should be in a museum, obviously. Proto-fanfic. Seriously though, have you ever looked at a Peanuts character’s head up close?  There are a lot of little squiggles that go into making one.

I don’t think I appreciated how much the music in the Charlie Brown specials helped create that “Charlie Brown” mood, until I was in my 20s. There were two albums that came out within a year of each other, “Joe Cool’s Blues” by Wynton Marsalis (1995) and “Linus and Lucy” by George Winston (1996) that borrow heavily from Vince Guaraldi’s original themes. I’ve since lost contact with my Marsalis, but my George Winston is still in regular rotation, more than 20 years later. The first track on the Winston album, a Guaraldi (but not a CHARLIE BROWN Guaraldi) never fails to give me chills. I love the way the last note just seems to hang there in the air forever. Even its name suggests a leap of faith into the unknown: “Cast your Fate to the Wind“.

 

And I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard Winston’s interpretation of  Guaraldi’s “Skating”. I was driving up to Lockport along Henderson Hwy on a perfect snowy day in early December. It suddenly came on “Disc Drive”, a classical music show that used to run on the CBC in the afternoons. I was so taken with it, that I stopped in at a music store that same day when I got back to the city to buy the album.

 

Shortly after I got my first iPod Touch a few years ago, one of the first games I got into was this thing called “Snoopy’s Street Fair” (I think?!) where you earn coins and you can buy things for this Charlie Brown themed neighbourhood. I actually don’t even remember when I stopped playing it. I just did. It was fun, as I recall, and it scratched all my “Charlie Brown” feelings. My current wallpaper on my iPod is of Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a brick wall, with snow falling around them, to give you a bit of an idea of how subtly the Peanuts world seems to have seeped into my life.

So, all of this is to say that I have a bit of a history with Charlie Brown, and was curious to see what they could make of it on the stage. I was also curious to see how my eight year old daughter would respond to it, since she hasn’t grown up with the Peanuts gang in any real way. A couple of years ago, Paul Feig produced “The Peanuts Movie”, and I took her to see it. She seemed to enjoy it, and I was happy that it stayed true to the look and feel of the original specials, but as we were driving home I was surprised when my daughter asked, “What was the dog’s name again?” “You mean SNOOPY?!?!?!” Who doesn’t know Snoopy on sight? I guess a whole generation of kids.

The original Broadway production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” debuted in the late 1960’s with M.A.S.H.’S Gary Burghoff in the titular role, along with Bob Balaban as “Linus”. It was revived in the late ’90s with Anthony Rapp as Charlie and B.D. Wong (from TV’s “Oz”!) as Linus, along with that bundle of energy, Kristin Chenowith as Sally. Oddly enough, the original version did not have a Sally.

Since “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is a full length musical, the production we saw yesterday was an abridged version (so they could tack on the Christmas Special and still have it all fit into 90 minutes. The target audience is children, after all, so it’s unusual for any of these plays to go longer than an hour).

Not being familiar with the Broadway show at all, I didn’t know what was cut, but it still felt like most of the show was represented. Luckily, a friend of ours (who is a huge musical theatre fan, and actually starred in a church production of this play) was in attendance and was able to fill in the gaps for me.

Bottom line: it was really wonderful. (and our musical theatre pal shared our enthusiasm). When you go to enough of the “plays for young people” you get to see some of the same cast over and over, and so I recognized the chap who played Charlie Brown from last year’s Alligator Pie. You may be interested to know that they went with some diversity in their casting choices. Charlie Brown was a person of colour, Sally had dark brown hair, and Lucy was a blonde. (It took me QUITE SOME TIME to keep the two of them straight) and Snoopy was played by the head of our local Jewish Theatre, and I think we can all agree that Snoopy is a Lutheran. There was a live band on one corner of the stage (the seating was on all four sides of the stage. I believe theatre people call that “in the ROUND” although “in the SQUARE” might have been more accurate). The cool thing about the band was that each person was also a character in the play. PigPen was on drums, Frieda was on Bass, and Schroeder, of course, was on keyboards.

The first section takes you through a day in the life of Charlie Brown (which I’m guessing maybe is what the full version does as well?), with a series of short scenes and songs, Godspell style. Snoopy actually speaks and sings in this one, instead of just giving a physical performance (as he does in the second half for the Christmas Special). All the tropes are covered: anxiety over the little red-haired girl, the psychiatrist’s booth, the baseball game, Linus’ blanket, Snoopy’s house and dish, you name it. Even Woodstock and his pals make a lovely cameo appearance at one point. They were all familiar call-backs to my childhood, but maybe new for our daughter?  They don’t take any time introducing the characters; they just assume you know who’s who. When you think of it, I guess all of the seasonal specials operate on this same assumption. They just assume you know that Sally and Charlie are siblings, as are Linus and Lucy, and that Peppermint Patty and Marcie are in an untraditional but loving relationship. I don’t know what PigPen’s deal is, and Schroeder is usually just seen as a “love interest” for Lucy, I guess. I looked over at my daughter a few times throughout, and she was FULLY ENGAGED. This was one of the first times that she didn’t seem overly bored or distracted, not even towards the end when you might expect. And we couldn’t get her to wind down when we got home. She was singing and dancing and so full of energy (not songs from the show, but just music. Joyful sounds.) It was lovely to see.

The first section ends with a snowfall, which gives the actors a break and the stagehands a chance to set up the stage for the Christmas Special.

Although the Christmas Special clocks in at just over 20 minutes (and this version is not much longer), it’s where you get the full Vince Guaraldi treatment from the band, and these characters now feel familiar to you after having seen them run through their paces in the first half. Heck, I could even keep Sally and Lucy straight by the time they strapped on inline skates and transformed the stage into a skating rink.

(Cue “Skating” performed by Schroeder, Frieda and Pigpen and I was in my early 20s again, driving up to Lockport for a quick treat on a snowy day 20 years ago. If I closed my eyes I was even further back, eight maybe, crawling into a fully flanneled bed with a library copy of a John Bellairs book or a Hardy Boys next to my Snoopy pillow, safe and secure).

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

(For Steve. Thinking of you today. We’ll assault the heck out of Hoth when you feel up to it.)

 

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Royal Wedding

I pranced into the kitchen this morning, proudly announcing that there was a date set for the Royal Wedding.

“May 19!” I announced excitedly.

My wife looked up from her breakfast and said, “I thought you were staying off of social media until you saw The Last Jedi.”

This was true. I made that announcement last night, especially since the earliest screenings for the general public began on Thursday evening. The premiere was a week ago, and there have been a smattering of press screenings this week, but I have so far avoided all reviews, even those that claim to be “spoiler free” because I REALLY REALLY don’t want to hear anything about it ahead of time, good or bad. I even stopped watching trailers and tv spots about a month ago, on the urging of director Rian Johnson. He said that he doesn’t know what Disney plans to show beforehand, but if it were up to him, he’d avoid anything released after mid October. Makes sense, and I like that dude so I am just following his lead.

“Welllllllll. I wasn’t really on social media. It was a news alert that popped up on my iPod” I said unconvincingly.

A royal wedding! How fun! Something to look forward to throughout this long cold winter. I immediately looked up the date. It’s the Saturday of the May Long Weekend and even better, I am not working that day. I remember that April morning way back in 2011 when I got up before dawn to watch William and Kate get hitched. I think I may have even booked the day off work for it? Is that even possible? I suppose all things are possible through our Lord Jesus Christ, aren’t they? I remember Westminster Abbey was all dressed up with greenery reminiscent of Minas Tirith and it was the moment the world fell in love with Pippa Middleton. Shortly after that blessed event, I became the president of the local chapter of the Pippa Middleton fan club, and it has been my greatest honour, both professionally and personally, to serve in that capacity lo all these years.

Royal Weddings are always at their best when it is a Royal who is marrying a NON-ROYAL, because all of us commoners can imagine ourselves as that non-royal. They became our surrogate into the magical world of kings and princes. (Or in the 2011 Royal Wedding’s case, the bride’s SISTER became our surrogate, didn’t she?)

This next Royal Wedding will be a little different for all of us, because the ROYAL in question, Prince Harry, has decided to take for his princess A DIVORCED BLACK WOMAN FROM A FOREIGN LAND (America) WHO MAKES MOVIES AND TV SHOWS. Now, this is especially exciting because  I think we all have a little bit of a divorced black American lady in us, don’t we? (I mean, some of us LITERALLY do, if I am reading the results of my 23 and Me report correctly). Marrying a divorced person a generation ago would get you thrown of out the monarchy, if not the actual Commonwealth, so it goes to show how far along the Royal Family has come. Heck, Prince Charles even got to marry that lady with the horse face and that seems to be working out okay. So, best of luck to you, Harry and Meghan!

I’m hoping that the blessed event will be televised. Is it possible that it won’t be?? I love all the excitement that surrounds something like this. The CBC usually sets up shop outside, and in addition to a familiar Canadian face, they usually get some eccentric weirdo who is a “royal expert” and who is good is explaining who is related to whom and why they are there and who is in line for the throne, as well as making commentaries on their fancy hats and their howdy whatsits (IF I MAY USE THAT TERM). I wonder what Pippa will wear??

Sure, some people like to point out that in this day and age why even HAVE a monarchy? Those people are monsters. If we didn’t have a monarchy, who would we put on our money? And how would we know which products have been officially endorsed by the queen if they didn’t have that little crest on it? It is comforting to sit down with a cup of Twinings tea, for example, and know that somewhere on the other side of the world the QUEEN HERSELF is very likely ALSO enjoying that same brand of tea. It’s what connects us, and it makes the world a little bit smaller and friendlier. It’s the kind of thing that connects a lonely lighthouse keeper with the sister of the future queen of England, TO TAKE JUST ONE RANDOM EXAMPLE.

So, you can rest assured that next May 19th the lighthouse will be fully lit in royal colours, the kettle will be boiled for tea, and perhaps later on that day a British themed meal will be planned. Croquet on the lawn, even? We all have a role to play, and I AM HERE FOR IT.

p.s. does anyone have Pippa’s updated contact information? My emails keep bouncing back.

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In Remembrance

cantata

/kænˈtɑːtə/

noun

1.

a musical setting of a text, esp a religious text, consisting of arias, duets, and choruses interspersed with recitatives

Word Origin

C18: from Italian, from cantare to sing, from Latin

It’s always interesting to me how a piece of music can open a flood of memories. This happened to me unexpectedly last week in the middle of choir practice. We started in on a piece called “In Remembrance of Me” filled with communion imagery. It starts with a little simple chord progression, then the choir comes in. You get a little four part harmony towards the end and it wraps up without much fanfare. It’s a lovely little piece of music on its own, and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if it wasn’t for the notes on the first page. The anthem was from a larger piece of music, a cantata actually, called “Celebrate Life!” by the suspiciously named Buryl Red. Celebrate Life! I haven’t thought of that cantata for a long time. A long time. A quarter century, in fact. I felt the way I imagine Ben Kenobi must have felt when Luke asked him if he knew Obi Wan.
In the church I grew up, we had a charismatic choir director named Bert Kroeker. That guy was probably retired from teaching by the time I knew him, but nothing seemed to stop him. He was a shameless self-promoter, and unabashed lover of choral music. I really think one of the main reasons why our church was doing so well then was because of all the choral fundraisers Mr. Kroeker would organize throughout the year. If he wasn’t talking about how great the last one was, he was promoting the next one on the schedule. Mr. Kroeker’s favourite form was the “cantata” which was like a musical, but without any acting. Just music with soloists and MAYBE some spoken word sections. In fact the canata form was so closely connected to Mr. Kroeker that when I got home from choir that night, I told my wife we were singing something from a cantata and I asked her who she thought of when she heard the word “cantata” and her answer right away? You got it. “Bert Kroeker”.
Even though our church seemed to revolve around music growing up, I avoided the senior choir even when I was the appropriate age for it, for the simple reason that it was my Dad’s thing and even though I loved my Dad, I didn’t want to do the same thing as him. Maybe he would have liked singing in a choir with his son, or maybe not. Maybe he was happy to have his thing, and being Irish, if I ever got the sense that I was wanted to expected to do something, my natural response is to do the opposite. In any case, it never seemed an issue with my Dad. He loved singing in that choir, sitting between Harry Pauls, my future high school English teacher (and star of several blog post mentions here at MBM), and Marv Johnson, a music teacher who was also a composer. Sandwiched between an English teacher and a composer, my Dad was in his happy place Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 9 pm, and I was happy to fend off Mr. Kroeker’s repeated requests to join up. His wife had taught the junior choir in our church, which I had faithfully attended all through my elementary school years, but when my voice broke that was the end of my boy soprano career, and even though I still loved music and never rebelled about going to church, I took a minor stand when it came to senior choir.
That changed in the Spring of 1991, when I was in grade 11. I was still a year away from getting Mr. Pauls as an English teacher, but I knew him through church, and also through the drama department. That was the year our school attempted to put on an ambitious production of Pippin, with yours truly in the lead role. I’ve talked in detail about that doomed production and how we eventually had to abandon it in other posts. It was also the Spring when my Dad was hospitalized for Depression. AGAIN. This disease was becoming QUITE a pain in the neck for me, and I was really impatient, waiting for my Dad to get better and back to his old fun self again. (I guess I was a bit of a selfish dingus back then. Who’s to say I’ve changed?)
I mention my Dad’s illness because it was reason why I joined the senior choir that Spring. Mr. Kroeker asked me in the context that they were short some basses (my Dad, for one, obviously), and would I consider joining “just for the cantata”. I thought, “Why the hell not?” It was a short-term commitment, and I knew my Dad would be pleased that the bass section wouldn’t suffer TOO badly if his part was being covered. (And I secretly liked to sing, you guys, so here was a chance for me to do it without looking like I was giving in to Mr. Kroeker.)
I had a great time, taking my Dad’s place between Mr. Pauls and Marv. Weird that it was never “Mr. Johnson”, just “Marv”, but always “Mr. Pauls”, never just “Harry”. It just seemed right to me.
As the weeks rolled by, I kept hoping my Dad would get better and make a triumphant return to the choir loft. I had to field weekly questions about my Dad from well-intentioned choristers but who in reality were pains in the asses to me. I never really knew how to give a progress report on Depression. It wasn’t like a broken leg or even something tangible like cancer where I could say how the treatments were going. He always just sort of seemed the same to me, (i.e. not great) and I got tired of saying that. So did my Mom, and Mom stayed away from church that Spring. “I’m just tired of saying the same thing over and over”, she’d say, and I understood what she meant. I wish I could give positive reports, and sometimes I would just make stuff up to make people happy, like ‘Oh, well, he seemed a bit better this week (he didn’t), or I think he’s coming along (he wasn’t)’. Still, like I said: I think it was all well-intentioned, but being a selfish teenager, it was all about, “Ugh these annoying nosey people. Get a life”.
The irony didn’t escape me that we were singing a thing called “Celebrate Life” when I was feeling anything but celebratory. I hoped (and I think my Dad hoped too) that he would have been well enough to at least attend the performance, but life doesn’t always work out like a Hallmark movie, and when it came time to put it on, he was still too ill to attend. I wished he was there, in the end, the way he always found a way to make it to our school choir concerts, even when I didn’t tell him about them. Somehow he always found out! But not that time. That last time.
All of these memories of that time in my life flooded back into me last Thursday, and by fate or luck, one of those two influential men that sang in that choir then sing in my church choir now. After practice I worked up the nerve to go up to Marv and ask him if he remembered singing the whole cantata about 25 years ago. His eyes lit up, and he said, “I sure do.” And then, a moment, and he said in a quieter voice, “I really miss Bert Kroeker” and I said, “I miss Harry Pauls”, and the missing person that used to sit in between was on both of our minds, I’m sure, but we didn’t say anything else. It was a lovely moment. A moment to remember. I’ll sing that anthem this Sunday, filled with remembrance of that Spring, and the only time I joined the senior choir to sing a “cantata”.

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Infinitely Contented: An Album Review of Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now”

“I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” Donna Lewis

“Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” Arcade Fire

 

Arcade Fire released their 5th studio album at the end of July, but I was slow to get around to listening to it. I think that was partially due to the fact that I was HOLDING A GRUDGE against them for not scheduling a concert in my hometown. And also, I guess I didn’t feel a real immediacy to learn their new songs before seeing them live again. No deadline.

I’ve seem them in concert twice before. Once in September 2010 in support of their grammy winning “The Surburbs” album, and once in August 2014 in support of their ambitious double album “Reflektor”. Both concerts were memorable in different ways. I’ll never forget that special night that I saw them live for the first time, at a time when I maybe knew two of their songs, and the feelings/emotions that whole evening woke in me. That concert was so transformative that it was still resonating in me months later when I decided to start up this silly little blog and was trying to come up with an appropriate name for it. I always liked the idea of looking forward to that next thing, that mountain peak just beyond the ones we can see. It was something that I dreamed about ever since I had my first literal “mountaintop experience” as a child in Jasper National Park, and continued well into the digital age as I adopted the city of Calgary’s slogan as my personal hashtag: #onward. So calling my blog “Mountains Beyond Mountains” after that Arcade Fire song, seemed like a no brainer at the time. I think the name wears well. If that first concert was transformative, the second one was a celebration of sorts. Again, we were on the floor, so we could get as close to the stage as our elbows allowed, but this time we participated in some goofy parlour games led by DJ Dan Deacon before the that really seemed to bring a group of strangers together in a weirdly genuine way. Also, people were encouraged to wear costumes, so my wife had a couple of black t-shirts made up with silver lettering. Mine said “Scream” and hers said “Shout” (in reference to the chorus in “Afterlife”). We also wore mardi gras masks and boas and whatnot. Most people seemed to dress up in some way and get into the spirit of it, even if it was just a little “glitter on the cheeks”, if I may use that term. The band all wore masks and costumes and came through the crowd on their way to the stage. While the first concert felt like the beginning of something new, the second one felt like a confirmation of something great, and I was looking forward to whatever they would produce next.

What they produced next was this summer’s “Everything Now” album, and as I’ve already said, I was slow to give it a try (because I can be petty when the dark mood strikes). But one morning I was making coffee in the kitchen with CBC FM on in the background. It was playing this upbeat, hummable song that I immediately liked. It was like ABBA took the theme music for that PBS kids science show from the 1980s “3-2-1 Contact” and wrote a mash-up with members from Men Without Hats. It was high energy and I just loved how the band spit out the word “EVERYTHING” as a quick dotted eighth rhythm before landing on the next word, “NOW” on the chorus. I waited for the announcer to tell me what the song was, but it was of those situations where they must have announced it before the song started, so I didn’t find out. A couple of days later I was passing through the kitchen again and again that song was on the radio. I started singing along to the end of it and asked my wife if she knew what it was. “You don’t recognize the singer?” she said. “That’s the new Arcade Fire”. DAMN IT. It was so good my mood started to thaw, and I realized that in fact I was acting like the entitled, 21st century demanding consumer that the song was commenting on. I was the guy who wanted “Everything Now”, including a concert in his hometown, and all the songs beamed into my head. A particular lyric stuck with me: “Every song that I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.” I WAS THAT GUY. I’ve also felt that way for a while now. The guy who can’t keep up with all the content being produced and released each week, not to mention all the content that has been created since the beginning of human history that I still haven’t got around too. It’s enough to drive you to distraction, but I happy to see that one of my favourite bands was addressing the issue.

Maybe this “not seeing Arcade Fire on this tour” business would be good for my soul. At least, that’s the lie I was telling myself. So, towards the end of summer, I decided to give the album a listen.

I started a blog post on my review around then, but it got lost in the business and busyness of autumn, like so many other sparks of inspiration. But it’s back on the front burner this week because a FRIEND OF THE BLOG  (and a friend IRL, [that’s my code for ‘in real life’]) plus another POSSIBLE friend of the blog (I don’t know if she reads it) but NOT a friend IRL (only because I have never met her but I have a good feeling that we would INDEED be friends, if not good friends, or perhaps even DEAR friends (not THAT way, perv) if we ever did meet, just from the little things I have heard about her over the years that I have not known her ARE BOTH GOING TO SEE ARCADE FIRE THIS VERY FRIDAY IN OUR NATION’S SPIRITUAL IF NOT POLITICAL CAPITAL, TORONTO.

I don’t know if the PERSON WHO IS NOT MY FRIEND has been listening to the new album, but I know for a fact that the PERSON WHO IS A FRIEND OF THE BLOG AND A FRIEND IRL has NOT been listening up until today at least, so I consider this a PUBLIC SERVICE to two people, a friend and a NON-FRIEND but potential friend if life worked out differently to review the new album on these very pages today. A little “primer” in case you don’t get around to listen before Friday’s show.

It’s been a while since I’ve done an album review, so I’m a bit rusty. Do I do an overview first? It feels like Arcade Fire is just picking up where they left off with their last album, “Reflektor”. My favourite songs off that album come at the very end, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry”. The same thing happened with “The Suburbs”, with MBM bringing up the rear. Let me just check their first two albums and see what’s going on at the end there…be right back…okay: maybe not. Their first one ends with something called “In the Backseat”. I’ve honestly never heard that one, but it sounds a little…..you know. (And the previously one is “Rebellion (Lies)”, which I kind of hate, but it’s their “signature” song and so gets played at every concert. The only part I like about that song is when the play it before the encores, and if you get a good crowd, the crowd with keep singing the “Oh Oh Oh” part over and over until they come back to the stage, in the style of the “woah woah oh ohs” in U2’s “Pride”). For “Neon Bible”, you’ve got “My Body is a Cage “which isn’t exactly their best song off that album either. Here’s another thing I’ve just realized you guys: I don’t think I tend to listen to Arcade Fire as albums, but rather as playlists of the two concerts I’ve attended, and there are several songs that are not known to me, even to this day. Good lord, did you know there was a song called “The Well and the Lighthouse”? I mean, gosh: It actually has a lighthouse in the title. I guess I like what I like, and listen to what I like, and just reinforce that. (And no, I’m not about to start listening to the albums as albums you guys. I’m too set in my ways).

Having said all that, I think “Everything Now” works really well as an album, in the same way that “The Suburbs” does. (And maybe the others too for those of you who prefer their Arcade Fire in album groupings). The band seemed to have fun this summer promoting it too, going so far as created a fake “Everything Now” social media campaign management company that would often get into “fights” with the band and with people in the entertainment world. A good example of this was their appearance on Stephen Colbert, where they provided him with a list of absurd demands, and he happily played along. It was fun following their campaign from afar. In a moment of life imitating art, I was on Amazon the other day, and realized they have a little icon of a globe with the letters EN underneath (I assumed this was an icon indicating that I was on the English site), but the globe icon was the exact same one used by the Everything Now people, and it looked like Arcade Fire had infiltrated Amazon. It was a fun little moment for me, and I showed it to my co-worker who was not as impressed as me. In fact, I think she may have said, “at least you’re onto something different from Star Wars”. But the joke is on her, because I AM STILL DEEPLY INVESTED in Star Wars. In fact, I can’t wait for her to get in to work today so I can show her the new tv spot that has LUKE standing in the cockpit of the FALCON and I realized the last time we saw Luke on the Falcon was at the end of “Empire Strikes Back” when he was rescued from Bespin. He looks so sad standing there, no doubt thinking of his old buddy Han and the sacrifices HE made for the rebellion. I’ll probably see “The Last Jedi” about a dozen times in the theatre, you guys.

How did you guys get me started talking about Star Wars in an Arcade Fire album review? Back to the music: The album plays with the digital reality that if you are listening to this thing on anything other than vinyl, you are probably playing it on repeat, so the first and last tracks sync up into a lovely sonic Mobius strip reflecting the “Infiniteness” of their “Content” (see what I did there?) And based on computer file naming conventions, the first track is called “Everything_Now (continued)” and the last one is “Everything Now (Continued)”, not to be confused with the actual banger that blasted out of my kitchen radio all summer long, “Everything Now”, or indeed the album name, “Everything Now”. They do a similar thing at the midpoint of the album where they have two tracks back to back called Infinite Content and (you guessed it) Infinite_Content. It’s the same song, you guys, but played in two very different styles. The first being loud and upbeat and repetitive and the second being laid back, slow in the style of Iron and Wine, or maybe Calexico, and repetitive. On either side of these “Infinites Content” and in between of these “Everythings Now” you get a solid Arcade Fire album with a few notable standouts.

They start out strong with “Everything Now”, which also is the opener for their fall tour. (Okay, spoilers. Since I knew I wasn’t seeing them live, I watched their Montreal show through several different video clips on Youtube. I’m only human, you guys.) Then you get this great little number called “Signs of Life” which opens with a very Dave Brubeckian drum beat cribbed from his “Unsquare Dance”. That song made it back into the zeitgeist a little bit at the beginning of summer because there’s a scene in that movie “Baby Driver” where Kevin Spacey (BEFORE WE KNEW HE WAS A MONSTER BUT AFTER WE SUSPECTED HE WAS GAY. Those are different things Mr. Spacey but now you’ve got everyone all confused and off kilter and OH GOD here’s a new story about DUSTIN HOFFMAN so I guess we will stop talking about Kevin Spacey now and just let all this disillusionment fill us to the brim until we can’t or won’t trust or admire anyone or maybe instead we will stop and realize that there are tons of good, decent people out there who are also talented actors, directors, authors, artists and we should support those people and that maybe we CAN’T or SHOULDN’T separate the art from the person or the politics anymore and oh god I feel a headache coming on and even though “Hannah and Her Sisters” is one of my favourite movies I’m done with Woody Allen now and for good and I’m probably done with Joss Whedon and I just hope to GOD J.J. Abrams is a decent dude because I really have to see episode IX whenever they film that one oh God I am swamped by the infinite content) is telling the group the plan for the heist and there’s Baby with his Walkman on, blasting Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” so that all you can hear is the music in that scene and it’s a montage of Kevin Spacey’s lips moving and writing on a chalk board and pointing and whatnot and at the end of the scene Kevin Spacey’s character suspects that Baby wasn’t listening to the plan and gets him to repeat it and he’s able to repeat it perfectly because it’s a savant or something. (I didn’t really follow a lot of what was going on in that movie, but I think that was my favourite scene). I’m just leaving this link to Unsquare Dance right here. You don’t have to click on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yExwkQYcp0

 

Next up is “Creature Comfort” which could very well be my favourite song on the album. It sounds like a classic AF tune, with a reliable, confident baseline which gives you the feeling this song knows where it’s going from the very first beat. Confident AF, you might even say. It’s a pretty hard take on suicide which I wasn’t expecting but it worked for me. “…Saying GOD, make me famous, and if you can’t then just make it painless. Just make it painless”. And later on, “It’s not painless. She was a friend of mine, a friend of mine.” And at the end, a plea for choosing to live: “Well if you’re not sure better safe than SORRY.” Reader, this song hits me in all the right spots, and it’s got a cool music video too. The band is filmed on stage in black and white, but just from the waist down, so whenever Win sings, he has to bend down to get in the frame, and then he gets out of the way when Regine picks up the “On and On” part during the chorus. It’s simple but I like it.

Not too much to say about “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry” except that they are solid tunes and grew on me after repeated listens. Then you get that weird little “Infinites Content/_Content” interlude and we are onto “Side B” for those hipsters out there who bought the vinyl.

“Electric Blue” sounds like something that Michael Jackson might have left behind for us, and it’s one of the few songs on this album where Regine takes the lead, so you know it is going to be awesome. I have a musical crush on that lady, and I’m not ashamed to admit. Is there anything she can’t do? I’m going to stop talking about Regine now, because this blog post is already at the 2500 word mark and I could easily write another 2500 words about how much I like her, so let’s just move on.

“Good God, Damn” is a somber, reflective song that sounds like it could be from the band’s “Neon Bible” era, but the cool thing about it is that it is written from the perspective of the girl in “Creature Comfort”, the girl who “fills up her bathtub” and puts on the band’s first record as she contemplates killing herself. Her faith in God is the only thing that pulls her back from the brink with the line, “Maybe there’s a good God? Damn.” And the song ends with this lovely sentiment: “Maybe there’s a good God if He made you.” That kind of gives me shivers.

“Put your Money on Me” is an upbeat, poppy number that has even more ABBAesque feel than the lead off “Everything Now”, and is just a lovely plea/love song about putting your trust in someone, despite everything else that’s going on.

And that brings us to the last song, which actually IS my favourite of the album. (“Creature Comfort” comes close, but if I had to pick just one. it would be “We don’t deserve love”).

I love the quiet, introspectiveness this song evokes; its unashamed religious imagery and direct questions to God, wondering if we still deserve love after all that we’ve done to this world, or do we deserve to be abandoned? “Mary, roll away that stone. The men that you love always leave you alone.” I like this line too, “If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then burn it all down. And bring the ashes to me.” and how it goes into that pseudo-chorus that makes me think of the chorus of Donna Lewis’ “I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” In many ways, “Always Forever” is a perfect companion piece to “We don’t deserve Love” and I can’t help wonder if Win and Regine had this song in mind when they wrote, “Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” And you get those beautiful haunting harmonies from Regine that float over the rest of the song before the end which I can’t help but sing along with every time I hear it. It brought me to a stop the first time I heard it, and it still makes me want to come back again and again. Maybe it’s true that we don’t deserve love, or a concert in our own city, or any of the great things we have in our lives right now. Maybe we can’t see the grace through all the noise, but it’s there. This song reminds us of it.

And before we can think too long or deeply on this, we are swept back into the infinite loop of Everything Now (Continued) and we kick things off again from the top with another run through. The anguish of “Creature Comfort” is given deeper meaning now that we know about “Good God, Damn”‘s perspective, and we now know we get to hear the beauty and heartbreak of “We don’t deserve Love” again and again.

What more could you ask for from an album?

Just one or two more things and then you’re free to go. It wouldn’t be a MBM blog post without a list or ranking of some sort, so how does “Everything Now” fit into the rankings of the rest of the AF albums, I hear you asking?

5. Funeral. Come at me, hipsters! I know this is their debut album, and I’m sure it’s the only good one and after that they sold out, etc etc, but I can’t listen to it. It makes me feel cold and sad, all those songs back to back. I can take some individual songs one by one, like Neighbour #1 (Tunnels) with all that imagery of digging tunnels between kids’ bedrooms and whatnot. I revealed earlier that I don’t like “Rebellion (Lies)” and I also don’t really like “Wake Up”, but for a different reason. I don’t like it because it means their concert is about to come to an end, and that makes me sad too. So I guess if I was in a super good mood and feeling pretty good about myself then maybe I’d put this album on to bring me back to Earth? It hasn’t happened yet. I can relate to the unnamed woman in “Creature Comfort” who chose this album when she was thinking about suicide. That sounds about right.

4. Neon Bible. Okay, I know this album has some great songs, like “No Cars Go”, “Intervention” “Keep the Car Running” and “AntiChrist Television Blues” but it doesn’t really hold together for me, and songs like “Neon Bible” “Black Mirror” and “My Body is a Cage” suck the life out of me. If I can say anything positive about these first two albums, it’s that they show great potential, and the band keeps getting better and better as they go along.

3. Reflektor. Maybe the sprawling double album concept resulted in a lack of focus or theme for most people, but there is some really great stuff here, and I love to make my way through all of the songs on here when I put it on. My daughter used to call “Bring on the Night Time” the “song that goes slow and then goes fast” so I always think of that when I listen to it, and of course I think of that fun night in August 2014 where I was reunited with my musical pals. And “Afterlife” is right up there along with “Mountains Beyond Mountains” for me, with all of its New Orderly goodness.

2. Everything Now. No joke, I’m sticking this one at #2. Maybe because it is still fresh in my ears and I’m giving it a little bit of “recent bias”, but I like what this album has to say about the state of our world, I love the songs, the messages, and am grateful that even though we might not deserve love, we are still getting love in the form of this beautiful album.

1. The Suburbs. No surprise here, right? It was this album with which I first connected to Arcade Fire, and so it will always remain number one in my heart. “2009, 2010. I want to make a record of how I felt then” pretty much sums it up. I think of autumn, of new friends, of the excitement of new beginnings, of bitter nostalgia, of escaping on road trips, unexpected emotions, and the promise and hope of Mountains Beyond Mountains.

 

 

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That October Feeling

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

“October Country…That country whose people are autumn people, thinking autumn thoughts.” Ray Bradbury

“October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!” Rainbow Rowell

I could keep going with the October quotes. There’s no shortage of authors that make me feel autumny. You could easily stick M.R. James, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and John Bellairs on there, too. But what is this? A quote bot? It is not. It is a blog.

Well there’s no question about it. We are into October. A month that is not nearly as hated by me as September, but still: I have reservations. Of course, I welcome the slow cooker, and the sweaters; the everyday coolness and crispness. (Is that the proper use of a semi colon?) I have no problem with the rotting foliage or the fine colours. I can even handle the prospect of the inevitable long winter ahead. But there’s something about an October that leaves me uneasy, despite these quotations from three beloved authors. This year, though, I’ve decided to fully “lean into” the month and the season. For example, I’ve had THREE pumpkin spice lattés already, and I usually only get one per autumn. I’ve slow cooked something at least 6 times since labour day, and I’ve “gone flannel” in nature AND in the bedroom.

A few years ago I finally broke down and read “Anne of Green Gables“, and actually loved it. I loved it so much that I read every book in the series, finishing with “Rilla of Ingleside” this summer. (Okay, I kind of skipped over “Rainbow Valley”, but the events of “Rainbow Valley” get nicely summarized at the beginning of “Rilla” so I feel like I’m all caught up.)

I’ve had my eye of this collection of LMM’s short stories for a few years now. It’s called “Among the Shadows” and has been on the cutting block almost every time I’ve run a weeding report. This might be a little too much “inside library” information for some of our readers, but a big part of our jobs is “collection management” which is a fancy way of saying “getting rid of the stuff that is taking up space on the shelves”. We only have so much shelf space in a library, and we get 1000’s of new books added every year. I’m Marie Kondo, but if we are adding stuff constantly, we must also get rid of stuff constantly.

I regularly run two reports to help me decide what to keep and what to weed. One is a “use” report, commonly called around here a “grubby” report, which shows the titles that have gone out a pre-determined number of times. I tend to use 40 checkouts as my standard, but I go higher or lower if the occasion calls for it. The idea is that if something has gone out 40 or more times, chances are, it’s probably ready for replacement. Maybe not. But at least it flags the item for us to have a look. The other report is the “last use” report, which, AS THE NAME MIGHT SUGGEST, shows me things that have not gone out since a predetermined date. Again, my parameters will change depending on the collection, but let’s say 2 years. If a thing hasn’t gone out in 2 years, then I have to ask myself, “Is this something we need in the collection”. Library Science, you guys!

I’m saying all this because LMM’s “Among the Shadows” appears just about every time I run the “last Use” reports. This thing just doesn’t go out. Maybe it is because it is shelved with adult fiction, so the “Anne Fans”, (or “Gables Grabbers” as we call them) [editors note: we don’t call them “Gables Grabbers”. Gross] can’t find it. Maybe it’s because they are short stories, and for some reason people just don’t like reading short stories. Or maybe it’s because it just isn’t any good. In any case, I’ve kept it in the collection out of some weird loyalty to the lady who wrote “Anne” (with an E!), but it’s getting harder and harder to justify when a cargo ship of James Pattersons gets dropped off here every week.

Well, this fall I finally got tired of seeing that damn book on my reports, and I decided to do something about it. I decided to check it out and finally read it. (Okay, maybe not every last story. I’m currently in the middle of Stephen and Owen King’s 700 page “Sleeping Beauties” which I am loving, and I’ve got three other books lined up for a work project.) At least one or two stories in it, to get the flavour.

It’s billed as “the darker side” of LMM, and the dust jacket promises stories of MURDERERS, ADULTERERS, THIEVES, and a few GHOST STORIES. I was hoping for a little taste of some LMM erotica too, but I don’t think she went that way. I guess I’ll have to stick with my Anne fan-fiction to “scratch” that old “itch”. Don’t judge me! People like what they like, and if I want to dip into the ol’ erotica once in a while, what of it? I’ve said too much.

So, before I let you go, you’re probably wondering how this collection actually is, right? I can tell you this. I read one of the stories over the weekend, and it was PRETTY GREAT. I’d say LMM’s writing has a “timeless” quality, but that’s not true at all. In fact it has a very specific “timed” quality, that of somewhere between 1900 and 1920, let’s say, for the most part.
Take for example the story, “Some Fools and a Saint” which begins in the narthex of a church and joins a conversation between two Presbyterian ministers. One minister is retiring from the parish after 30 years of service, and the other minister, a young man with the suspiciously modern name of Curtis is taking over for him. Call me old fashioned, but I like my ministers to have solid, classic names, like Timothy or Paul (apostles!) …Curtis, though. It took me out of the story for a bit, but reader: I got right back into it because the story was a GHOST STORY (of sorts). The ministers were discussing this and that about the parish when the conversation turned to where Reverend Curtis was going to live. The manse, naturally! (But Curtis was penniless and was not able to afford “a stick of furniture”) so he was planning on boarding with a brother/sister team (shades of Marilla and Matthew BUT NOT REALLY BECAUSE THEY WERE YOUNGER AND THEY LIVED ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE MANSE AND THEY HAD AN INVALID COUSIN LIVING WITH THEM).

The older minister thought this was a TERRIBLE idea as there were rumours in the community that this very house was HAUNTED and he himself had “seen stuff” and told a sad backstory about a young woman who had HANGED herself in the garret. (I had to look up what a garret was, you guys. It’s like a little room at the top of a house. You’re welcome. As an aside, I had to look up the word SPOILER: dipsomaniac. At first I thought we WERE getting a little LMM erotica after all, but sadly a dipsomaniac is just an old-fashioned way of saying “someone who abuses alcohol”.

I shan’t tell you WHO the dipsomaniac was in this story, nor shall I tell you what reverend Curtis sees or hears during his time as a boarder, as you may very well read this story (and any self respecting LMM fans really should. It’s delightful.) I WILL say that reverend Curtis sees or hears nothing OUT OF THE ORDINARY for the first FIVE WEEKS of his stay, but to say anything more would be unfair to you, my fellow Gables Grabbers. (Still no? I thought it would have caught on by the end of this blog post).

Battening down the hatches

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No Dress Rehearsal

“I scored a gig as the lead singer with a school band … not necessarily for my singing ability but rather for my sheer memory power. I could memorize huge quantities of lyrics — mostly the Doors.” — Gord Downie

“Come in, come in, come in, come in
From thin and wicked prairie winds come in
It’s warm and it’s safe here and almost heartening
Here in a time and place not lost on our imagination” Gord Downie The Darkest One

“Don’t you want to see how it ends?” Gord Downie The Depression Suite

We all knew this day was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who consider ourselves fans of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. This blog may be named after an Arcade Fire song, but it could just as easily have been named after one of the dozens of Tragically Hip songs that have made up the soundtrack of my life over the past 30 years or so. “Ahead by a Century” might have been a good one, or maybe I would have called it “Behind by a Century” to poke fun at my late adoptiveness of most things pop cultural. “Little Bones” could describe my little nuggets of insight that I share with you here, less and less frequently it seems these days. All things have a lifespan, as we are reminded of today. Over the course of this blog, a Maritime theme has organically built itself its own organic mythology, so maybe “Nautical Disaster” would also be a good choice. While we might have our heads on the east coast, our bodies firmly remain on the prairies, so “100th Meridian” or “Wheat Kings” would be obvious choices, too. “Springtime in Vienna” has a vaguely John Irvingish feel about it. (Not that I am comparing myself to John Irving, obviously. I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned bears or SISTER KISSING on here, and I don’t intend to start.)

I guess what I am saying is that like many Canadians today, we are grieving the loss of someone who made a huge impact on many of our lives through his music. I’ve poured out my feelings at least three times already on this blog, so I don’t have much left for today. “Their Music at Work“, “Up to Here” and “Armed with Will and Determination” are all about the Tragically Hip in one way or another. In fact, I feel a weary emptiness that is passing for grief this morning. When I heard the news, I went to put on “The Grand Bounce”, his solo album from 2010 which begins with that great anthem, “The East Wind”. Those opening lines of welcome, “Hello again my friends, I’ve come to see you again…”

After a couple of songs, I switched over to “We are the Same”, an album that is near to my heart. It was released the same month that our daughter was born, and it was on regular rotation that first year of diapers, bottles, sleepless nights and uncertain anxiety. None of the songs from that album ever get played in concert, but that album contains some of my favourites. “Morning Moon”, which evokes that melancholy feeling of being down at a cottage past labour day. “Honey Please” which is so joyous and makes those wonderful references to “all the stars in the county, burning bright” at the end. And the remarkable, “The Depression Suite”, which resonated with me immediately for obvious reasons. I can’t stop quoting that line, “Don’t you want to see how it ends?”

I’m sure I’ll get to the big hits later on this week, probably starting with that awesome live album “Live between Us” recorded in 1996 at the height of their powers. Starting strong with “Grace, Too”, it rolls on right through many of their iconic hits like “Blow at High Dough” “Ahead by a Century” “New Orleans is Sinking” “Fully Completely” and “Scared”. It also features some of Gord Downie’s off beat stage banter, which some people hated but I always kind of enjoyed. If “New Orleans is Sinking” becomes the one song the Tragically Hip are remembered for (and why not? It’s perfect), then “Scared” may be my personal favourite of all of them, if I had to choose just one. (Of course, if I think about their legacy of songs left behind for more than 5 seconds, I am sure to shout out “Wheat Kings!” or “Bobcaygeon!” or “Fireworks!” or even “Poets!” or any other number of songs that are inside me forever. Jesus! “50 Mission Cap!” “38 years old and never kissed a girl!” Don’t make me pick! Lists are tricky. I’ll stick with “Scared” for now, if only because when they played that as one of the encores at their last Kingston concert a year ago, that was the moment when I broke inside).

I’m not saying anything different from what many of us are feeling today, and I am sure we all have our favourite songs, favourite Gord moments that we can conjure. Special nights with friends, road trips, concerts in the ’90s, images of Canadiana supported by a strong beat and bass-line, early mornings alone with just you and your music, moments of melancholy made just a little easier when you heard Gord Downie ask, “Are you? Are you going through something? Are you? Are you going through something? Because, I, I, I, I, I am too.”

Rest peacefully, Gord Downie.

You got to see how it ends. You meant the world to me. Bring on the requisite strangeness.

By Jeff Lemire

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Long Days, Pleasant Nights

“When is a door not a door? When it is AJAR”. Blaine the Mono, Wizard and Glass

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Stephen King

Happy 70th birthday, Stephen King!

I’ll never forget picking up that paperback copy of Pet Sematary 28 years ago in an unusual show of teenage rebellion. My parents were pretty laid back and I was a good kid, but they DID NOT like the idea that I would choose to read one of those books. I read it anyway. The last few weeks of Grade 9.

And I’ve never looked back. That summer, I survived The Stand, got my Shirley Jackson on with ‘Salem’s Lot, and fought through The Shining. And that autumn, my first year of high school, you broke my heart with Carrie. That fall I also tracked down that beautiful trade paperback of The Gunslinger, with all that fantastic Michael Whelan art. Little did I know then, that I wouldn’t know how it would all turn out for another 15 years. None of us would. I’d be married by then. An actual adult! (Sort of).

I guess my Mom realized that there was no stopping me, and as it was clear I was quickly becoming a “Constant Reader” of your stuff, she bought me an early Christmas present: the newly released The Dark Half  in hardcover. This was my introduction to Castle Rock, and all the extended mythology associated with that doomed town.

In ’91 I found some measure of comfort in Needful Things, in which I looked upon Sheriff Alan Pangborn as a bit of a role model in the way that he never really knew what happened the night that his wife and son died, and had to live with that ambiguity. I was, (and maybe still do), live with the ambiguity of what happened to my Dad in his final moments that year. I actually wrote a letter to you, a fan letter, explaining my feelings and how you inadvertently helped me. I never sent it. I would have been too crushed if you had never responded (most likely outcome). But your novel helped me, in its own way, and I think the act of writing a letter to you had its own therapeutic benefits at the time.

I thought you should know.

In ’92, my graduating year from high school, you treated us to two novels. Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, both linked by a solar eclipse. I was thinking of those books last month during the eclipse hysteria BUT FAILED TO INCLUDE THEM IN MY PREVIOUS POST ABOUT THE ECLIPSE, so let’s right that wrong immediately. Also during high school, I made my way back through your back catalogue, including those titles you wrote as Richard Bachman. I even have a hardcover copy of Thinner with the fake author photo on the dustjacket. It’s pretty great. My SECOND most prized book. (More on that later).

In the summer of ’93, my Mom, brother and I went out to the East Coast for a holiday, and I convinced them to make a “side trip” from Montreal down to Bangor, Maine. We totally miscalculated the distance since we forgot to convert the kilometers into miles once we crossed the border, so it took twice as long. I don’t regret it for a second. We took pictures in front of your house. (Sorry, I know. Bit weird) and shopped in Bett’s Bookstore downtown. I bought a beautiful signed and numbered hardcover of Cycle of the Werewolf, with that wonderful Berni Wrightson art. It’s still my most prized book.

We also made a pilgrimage to the L.L. Bean store in Freeport on that trip, and still look forward to the catalogues in the mail. In fact, I rarely think of you and NOT think of L.L. Bean (and the other way around).

That summer was followed with the worst winter. I was hospitalized with Depression for most of it, and many of my memories of that time are foggy. One that does stand out is of my Mom bringing me the new hardcover copy of your Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The nurses questioned whether giving a severely clinically Depressed person a collection of horror stories was the best idea, but my Mom knew me, and knew that I  would appreciate the gesture on some level. I don’t think I ever got around to reading it in the hospital, or ever since, but her thoughtfulness was noted somewhere inside me, like a seed buried beneath a foot of snow.

I may have missed Nightmares and Dreamscapes, but I haven’t missed a book since. Some standouts for me in the years between include the resumption and completion of the Dark Tower series, 11/22/63, and Under the Dome. I read a huge chunk of Under the Dome while I waited 6 hours in line to get stuff signed by Neil Gaiman, and the time flew right by.

In recent years I’ve enjoyed novels by your sons Joe Hill and Owen King. I love how you’ve peppered your stories with little treasures for your constant readers, and I love how Joe Hill’s mythology and your own seem to share a common universe. This gives me a lot of joy. I look forward to every new book, and am especially looking forward to your upcoming joint effort with Owen, Sleeping Beauties.

I won’t keep you much longer. I just wanted to geek out a little bit and wish you a happy birthday and thank you for all the stories over the years. May there be many more to come.

“Remember, Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing. And no good thing ever dies.” Stephen King, Different Seasons

 

 

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Staring at the Sun

“They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon, you know I don’t see you when she walks in the room.” U2 The Fly

Most of North American experienced a solar eclipse earlier this week, and the crew here at the lighthouse didn’t think there was enough social media attention paid to it, so we thought three days AFTER the event would be the best time to catch everyone’s “eclipse fever” and boost our views, visitors, and even followers. Speaking of views, WordPress helpfully tells you when you log in how many viewers or visits you have and where in the world they are visiting from. Today we’ve only had two SO FAR. One from France and one from India, so I guess we are attracting that much sought after “international crowd” here. Finally! It only took 6 years! So, let me say “Salut” and “नमस्कार” to our two foreign friends. (I hope google translate didn’t play a JOKE on me just now).

So anyway, back to this Eclipse business. I first heard about it way back in June, when a customer came into the library asking for “Eclipse Glasses”. In JUNE! We didn’t have them, obviously, and it took a google search to make any sense of what he was talking about. We sent him on his way, and my only thought at the time was that this was a man who liked to get his ducks in a row. A couple of weeks later, we had a friend visiting from the United States for a few days. She lives in Southern Illinois and knew all about the upcoming eclipse because her small town, Carbondale, was in the “Path of Totality”. I guess this means that they happen to live in a part of the world where the moon will completely cover up the sun for a few minutes. No partial eclipses for HER! The local businesses were all getting behind the excitement of this astronomical event and even produced t-shirts and tea towels, because: AMERICA!

tea towel

 

It was going to just be about 70% coverage here at home, so we weren’t expecting much, and as it turned out the local weather was overcast and a little rainy. Also, I had to work all day, and so aside from looking out the window a couple of times and trying to discern whether the darkness outside was eclipse related or just regular cloudiness, it didn’t really affect me.

I couldn’t say the same for my wife. She has a vivid memory of the last great eclipse in our area, which was in February of 1979. Her parents were so worried that she would stare at the sun, they took her out of school and made her spend the day at her grandparents’ place. Her grandfather, a lovely man I am told, but also a bit of a loon, even papered up the windows so there would be no chance of any of the “eclipse rays” to get through. I’m surprised they didn’t make them all wear tinfoil hats, and who’s to say he didn’t? He himself experienced an eclipse when he was a boy, and he claims he damaged his eyesight, which may explain the extra caution he took with his own granddaughter that day.

I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about the science behind eclipses, but I do know this: staring at the sun is bad for your eyes. Most of the time, it’s not an issue because the sun is just too damn bright to look directly at it for more than a split second anyway. But I guess during an eclipse the sun’s rays are diminished enough that your eyes COULD stare at it for longer periods and not realize the potential damage being done, because although the brightness is less, the damaging UV rays are still shooting out of there full blast, not to mention the COSMIC RAYS, which as everyone knows, turned 4 scientists into the Fantastic Four back in 1962.

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The sun is dangerous, you guys. Even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew that.

So, this windowless day really stuck with my wife. She was just 6 at the time, but it left an impression. So much so that instead of letting our daughter go to the first day of camp on Monday, she decided to keep her home, for fear of accidental eclipse watching. I suggested maybe taking her somewhere indoors, like a mall, but her response: “Malls have SKYLIGHTS!” and so, life came full circle and she and our daughter spent the day in OUR basement, and although my wife won’t admit it, my daughter told me later that she papered up the basement windows, “just in case”. I am happy to report we are all still sighted and none of us have turned into the Invisible Girl aka the Invisible Woman aka Susan Storm aka Susan Richards, or any of the other three.

This whole eclipse business made me reflect on my own “brushes with astronomical queerness”. I distinctly remember that same eclipse. Unlike my future wife across the river, I went to school that day. I remember our principal had a pair of welder’s glasses and we were FORCED to go outside and look through them at the appointed time. I was in grade 1. I guess this was back in the day when parents didn’t really helicopter in and interfere with school business, because instead of making a stink about it, my Mom just told me that when those goggles go on, I was to keep my eyes closed “NO MATTER WHAT” if I didn’t want to go blind. And so, I have a distinct memory of lining up outside with the rest of my classmates, waiting for my turn, and wondering, “why does my principal even HAVE welder’s glasses?” When it was my turn, I saw that it wasn’t just the glasses, but an entire metal hood that was to go over my head. I felt a little like Darth Vader as the hood came down, and so taken was I with the darkness inside that I initially forgot to close my eyes. I couldn’t see anything anyway, and I don’t even know if I was pointed in the right direction. I remembered when I could hear my principal’s muffled voice ask, “Can you see it, son? Can you?” I immediately closed my eyes to whatever I was supposed to see, and made the (what I thought) appropriate “oohing” and “aahing” sounds appropriate for the occasion, and then my turn was over and I was led back into the school. It was, as my Mom would say, a “royal rip”.

This memory was so strong for me, until I realized this week that it couldn’t have happened.

Or, at least, it wasn’t the great eclipse of February 1979. For one thing, it was warm weather, either in early fall or late spring, and in Feb 1979 I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.

So what was I remembering? Was it a lesser lunar eclipse? Why would the school go all nuts for one of THOSE? Nobody cares about lunars, I don’t think. Was I older than I thought? I must have been, because I remember when my Mom said to not look through the welder’s glasses I distinctly thought of Indiana Jones at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark telling Marion not to look at the Ark as it was being opened, and Raiders came out in 1981, and I saw it in the theatre with my Dad.

My memory is a little clearer for my next eclipse encounter, which happened a few years later. It was the end of the school year, and our grade 4 teacher decided to show us a movie called The Watcher in the Woods. I was just reminded of this movie this week by a Twitter pal. I wasn’t used to seeing “scary” movies, (at least not then), and this movie scared the SHIT out of me, giving me nightmares for a week. It involved an old English mansion, a crazy old lady, and a young girl who saw visions of another young girl in mirrors who wrote her name backwards and, oh yeah: there was some big climax scene that involved an eclipse, but you know what? I was so terrified at that point that I couldn’t even watch the screen and still TO THIS DAY haven’t re-watched it. So I’m not exactly sure what went down at the end of that movie, but it involved the moon and sun doing weird stuff. I guess my parents changed their approach since my “welder’s glasses days” and my Mom marched straight to the school to complain about showing that movie. So I had the double pleasure of not only looking like a boob in front of my classmates DURING the movie, I also had the lasting effects of being the kid who’s Mom went to the school and complained that a DISNEY movie scared her widdle baybee and gave him nightmares. Still, I take some comfort in seeing that I am not the only one scarred by this movie.

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Look at this still and TELL me it’s not as scary as all get out.

Still, eclipses in pop culture continued to appear in some of my favourite things.

In The House with a Clock in its Walls, Uncle Jonathan (A SECRET WIZARD, YOU GUYS) has an evening of magic for his nephew Lewis and one of his friends. One of the “tricks” is to cause a solar eclipse in the backyard. This is one of those stories that will be a part of me for my whole life, and it doesn’t hurt that the illustrations are all done by the incomparable Edward Gorey.

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Uncle Jonathan making it happen, by Edward Gorey

In the Little Shop of Horrors musical, it is during a “total eclipse of the sun” that the man-eating plant, aka the “mean green mother from outer space” aka “Audrey II” appears and is the catalyst for the titual horrors alluded to in the titual title. #tits (As an aside, LSOH has one of my favourite Bill Murray performances. He plays a weirdo who ACTUALLY LIKES GOING TO THE DENTIST because he always got a candy bar afterwards as a kid, and no matter how much pain is inflicted on him by Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist, you can hear Bill Murray take it and shout out, “candy bar! candy bar!” For a kid that hated a dentist, (and as an adult who can barely tolerate it now), I saw Bill Murray’s character as more than just a weirdo. I saw him as a defiant hero who wore down the villain dentist in the end.

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Candy bar!

I couldn’t be talking about eclipses without mention Tintin and how he DUPED the Incan people in Prisoners of the Sun. A little sidebar on Tintin: he is a boy reporter from Belgium who travels the world in search of adventure, often encountering danger and villainy, always in the company of his little white dog, Snowy and often in the company of an alcoholic seaman, Captain Haddock. Some secondary characters include the hard-of-hearing Professor Calculus, the clueless twin detectives, Thomson and Thompson, the internationally famous opera singer Bianca Castifiore, among others. I loved the HELL out of these stories as a kid, borrowing them from my local library, and then saving up my allowance and buying the volumes one by one whenever I could get my parents to take me to “Toad Hall Toys”, the one place in my city that actually carried them then. Now, as an adult, I still carry a deep fondness for them in my heart, but also realize the problematic depictions of certain races, cultures and people throughout the stories. You can say that they are a product of their time, and that in fact Hergé, Tintin’s creator did a great deal of research in bringing different groups and cultures into the stories specifically to ignite kids’ curiousity with the world. It certainly worked on me. As someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, my DNA is rigged to combat censorship, but yet at the same time I know I have a role in shaping collections to make sure we weed outdated and inaccurate information. I walk this line every time I make a decision to add or delete a title in our collection, but when it comes to Tintin, my approach has always been: make it available, but present it in a context that gives it perspective, and by no means let it be the only information you have on a culture, people or area of the world. Plus: it’s fiction.

Anyway, thank you for allowing me that little side-track. Back to Prisoners of the Sun. Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus have been captured by an undiscovered group of surviving Incan people who are about to sacrifice them on account of their intrusion. Luckily, Tinin saw a newspaper report of an upcoming solar eclipse and USED IT TO HIS ADVANTAGE to fool the Incan people into thinking he can control the gods. (Now, I know how bad this looks, and I am pretty sure that the Incan people had great calendars and observed astronomical happenings and probably knew all about solar and lunar eclipses and wouldn’t have been fooled by Tintin’s shenanigans but on the other hand it was a pretty cool plot device and was another time when eclipses played a role in my young life so it stays in).

And I think that’s all I have to say about eclipses, you guys. The next one that hits North America is in another 7 years. Our daughter will be 15 then, and MAYBE LEARNING TO DRIVE A CAR, so we can’t very well keep her in a shuttered basement again, can we? Let’s hope we are all still here to see it, and to quote that optimistic news anchor from way back in 1979, when he signed off after covered that year’s solar eclipse,  “may the shadow of moon fall on a world at peace”

Tintin eclipse

And weren’t we all prisoners of the sun that day? I think we were.

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150

Hey everybody! I’ve been going down a rabbit hole of memories these past few posts, and you’d think that writing that one about my high school reunion would have purged all the brown water ghosts and left the tap available for nice cool clear water musings, BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG because I think I’ve got one more in me.

U2 is wrapping up the first leg of their “Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Tour” tonight in Cleveland. (And you might think that this blog post would have turned into a little meditation on U2 and The Joshua Tree album and what it meant to me, but I think I’ve talked enough about U2 on here.) I was lucky enough to catch the opening night of this tour in Vancouver over a month ago, and here is my mini-review. It was a bit weird and boring to hear the band play The Joshua Tree album completely in order, and yet it meant hearing songs played live that I’ve never heard played live before, and hey: it’s U2 and I’m delighted to see them in concert no matter what but I am also looking forward to a new album and new tour and this band is always best when it is looking forward, not backwards. There, that’s my review. Also: I couldn’t get a t-shirt so I ordered one online and that turned out to be a terrible idea and maybe a story for another time.

This morning Bono and the Edge will be performing something on Canada’s Parliament Hill. It’s our 150th, you know. I morbidly mentioned at breakfast the other day that we weren’t around for the 100th, and we won’t be around for the 200th, so THIS IS IT. (No pressure). Us Canadians don’t really go in for a lot of patriotic flag waving. We prefer a quiet smugness with the knowledge that we live in the best place on Earth.

But living in a “the best place on Earth” does NOT mean for one second that we live in a “perfect” place. I understand the desire for protests over celebrating this seemingly arbitrary milestone. Our country’s history is filled with stories of our complicated, one-sided and shameful relationship with indigenous people, and that only now are there the beginnings of some awkward and half-assed attempts at reconciliation. I know our “squeaky clean” image on the world’s stage is convenient fiction, an easy stereotype that we are often too readily eager to let stick. I know there’s still much work to be done.

And yet, I love this damn country. I love the fact that could can just keep going north, if you want to, until you reach the north pole, and you could keep on going and end up in Norway. I love the Group of Seven, and the Rocky Mountains, and the prairie sunsets and summer evenings and cold -40 days where you bundle up and get on with life anyway and you feel pretty good about it especially when you come back inside to a slow cooker that’s been simmering that chili all day long and you get to eat it with your friends all rosy-cheeked. I love universal health care, and kindness, and adventure, and The Tragically Hip and SCTV and West Coast rainforests and even Tim Horton’s and Tilley Hats and the Friendly Giant and tobogganing and Bonhomme and Gimli and the way snow squeaks when it gets below -20 and Leonard Cohen and, and…

I’m happy we have a day where we can reflect and celebrate all this.

I wouldn’t say I have a tradition or a pattern to my Canada Days, but we always end up doing something unabashedly summery. To me, Canada Day always marks the offical beginning of summer, the gateway to the easy season. Growing up, we lived within a short walk or bike ride to a huge park that always had fireworks. So, if we were in town we would often default to a BBQ and then a stroll over to the park in the evening for the show. Those quiet, easy good no celebrations always were the most fun. When we were older, we’d ditch the parents and go with our friends. If we weren’t in the city, we were out at my aunt and uncle’s cottage, and getting to spend time with all my cousins was always a highlight among the docks and rocks of the Canadian Shield.

But we weren’t always close to home on Canada Day.

One Canada Day, growing up, my family planned to be in Ottawa. That was pretty great. We attended the Canada Day concerts on Parliament Hill, met our MP, watched the changing of the guard, waved at Jeanne Sauvé, our governor-general and got heat stroke.

Another great Canada Day away was spent in Banff, and we lined the main street for a parade. The lasting memory for me was a fireworks show at night that rumbled and echoed all through and around the mountains. The Park eventually stopped doing those fireworks shows because they “upset the wildlife” but I was glad to have experienced it when I had the chance.

About 10 years ago, I spent a Canada Day exploring Algonquin Park, north of Toronto, and even hanging out on Canoe Lake for a few hours. For a Tom Thomson fan, this was a lifelong thrill. 

More recently, we’ve gone for part of the day up to a historic fort north of the city (free admission!), or attended one of many “street or market festivals” before heading home or to someone’s place for a BBQ. Summer!

I can’t think of Canada Day without thinking of my late uncle’s conviction that it should never have been called Canada Day in the first place. He said that no other nation on earth calls its national holiday the same name as the country it is celebrating. When I would point out to him that Australia’s national day is called “Australia Day”, he sneered and said that was named after the continent. (And then mumbled something about Australia not being a proper country anyway as he stormed off). Canada Day was always called “Dominion Day” from 1867 until an act of parliament changed it to “Canada Day” in 1982. My cousin (my uncle’s son) had a t-shirt made up that said, “It will always be Dominion Day to me” which my uncle proudly wore, not just on Canada Day, but as part of his regular summer wardrobe rotation. One time, he came home from the grocery store beaming that another man had tapped him on the shoulder, say he liked his shirt and agreed with him 100%. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Mental illness doesn’t just run in my family, it practically gallops.

I’ll never forget Canada Day, 2002. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, and I were up at my uncle and aunt’s cottage along with all my cousins. For some reason my Mom didn’t go with us that time.  The cottage was a couple of hours out-of-town, and we planned to stay up there with everyone for 3 or 4 days. Canada Day fell on a Monday that year, and we headed out on the Saturday morning. As hoped and expected, we had a great time doing all the cottagey things we loved to do on the Saturday and Sunday. On the Monday we got up, sang O Canada! on the dock and settled in for another day of lounging, boating, swimming, napping, and eating. Then, late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was my girlfriend’s Mom calling to say that her Mom, my girlfriend’s grandma Helen, wasn’t doing great and maybe we could come back a little early? Helen not been well for a few months, in and out of the hospital, and in fact was in the hospital when we left for the weekend. My girlfriend’s Mom didn’t sound all that panicky, and we even debated about what we should do. We eventually decided that we should go check on things, but I don’t remember a big rush or panic packing up. My cousins and uncle and aunt sent their best wishes along with us as we headed home. I even remember stopping for ice cream before we made it to the hospital, so that can give you a bit of an idea of how worried we were.

As it turned out, it was the best decision to head in when we did, because when we got to the hospital, my girlfriend’s parents and brother (and oddly enough, my Mom!) were already there, and it became clear that Helen was not going to make it through the night. I felt self-conscious because I was still in my cottage clothes, a lime green swimsuit and a tank top. (For God’s sake, I am attending a death of a sudden. Couldn’t I have at least had the sense to put on a shirt with sleeves??) No one seemed to care what I was wearing though. As the evening wore on, more relatives made their way to the hospital, the space around Helen’s bed became crowded. Who knew we’d be seeing both sides of the family that weekend? An impromptu reunion. My girlfriend’s aunt from Toronto even hopped on a plane that afternoon, and there was much talk about whether she would make it home “in time”. [editor’s note: Aunt Lynn did NOT make it home in time, but she did come straight to the hospital from the airport, and they were all glad to see her when she arrived]

I had never been present at a death before. I felt a strange sense of privilege to be included in this most intimate of life’s milestones. It must be similar to being present at someone’s birth? I kept expecting some distant cousin to ask, “Who’s the doofus in the lime shorts?” but no one ever did. When the time came, it was peaceful. Sad, too. But it was a sense of peace that washed over me first. I stepped out into the hallway shortly after it happened to give the immediate family some privacy and alone time. Then, I heard all kinds of bangs and pops and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Helen’s hospital was across the street from one of the biggest parks in town, (the same park, truth be told, that we would walk or ride our bikes to on many past Canada Days), and it was the fireworks display going off. Of course! It was still Canada Day. My girlfriend joined me in the hallway and we walked to the end where there were big glass windows overlooking the park. We just stood there, side by side, appreciating the incongruity of sadness and joy, grief and celebration, literally death and life happening all at the same time. “Well, my grandma always loved a party,” my girlfriend sighed, and it all sort of seemed to make a bit of sense at that moment. Not a bad send-off, in the end.

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So, is Canada perfect? No, of course not. Nothing created by humans ever is, but I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. (Well, okay. I could be convinced to spend time in Ireland, England, Norway, Iceland or Sweden. I wouldn’t say “no” to an extended visit to Hawaii either), but YOU GET MY MEANING. I feel blessed and lucky to call myself Canadian, and that’s all I have to say about that. To say anything else wouldn’t be very Canadian, would it?

Happy Canada Day, everyone! (Or Dominion Day, if you prefer).

 

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