Tag Archives: nostalgia

Finishing Strong

“A long time ago we used to be friends, but I, haven’t thought of you lately at all.” The Dandy Warhols
“Is it too late, tonight, to drag the past out into the light?” U2

I recently attended my 25 year high school reunion. I know. It’s hard to believe the champ here could be old enough to graduate from HIGH SCHOOL all those years ago. You might be thinking I was some kind of savant with a pituitary problem who graduated at age 9 or something like that, and you would be forgiven for thinking such a thing. But in truth I went through the 12 grades like everyone else, no different from George Clooney or Justin Trudeau.

Don’t worry, everyone. I’m not about to write two awkward blog posts in a row. I mean, not INTENTIONALLY. They all have the taint of awkwardness, I guess, whenever I dredge up the past and put it on display like a fish in Pike Place Market. But unlike Pike Place Market, I shan’t grab the past and toss it to my colleague for the amusement of tourists. No, once I’ve caught the past fish, I shall merely gut it, fry it, and serve it to you, my loyal audience of readers and commentators.

So, how did we get to this reunion?

A couple of organized former classmates tried to do something for our 20th anniversary, but I really don’t think anything happened. I mean, something MAY have happened, but I didn’t go. I think at the time I thought myself rather witty when I told people that anyone who I really cared to see from high school I still see, so what’s the point? (and then I pranced off, Oscar Wilde style, to the titters of the room).

Well, five years is a long time, and in that time I have become sentimental and even though I know nostalgia is the most toxic impulse, I also know that Big Macs aren’t good for me but guess what? Sometimes I just wanna eat one of those greasy motherfuckers, and so too did I feel like attending this high school reunion, and reader? I did.

I may have covered this ground before, but bear with.

My high school was made up of three streams. Trois Riverieres, for our francophone friends who are struggling with the google translator. The first stream was the normals. These were the neighbourhood kids who lived close to the school and for whom the school board couldn’t really justify NOT having attend. There wasn’t anything special about this group, by the way, unless you consider proximity special. The next group was the nerds. These kids were enrolled in some kind of advanced internationally recognized academic program, and were bussed in from richer neighbourhoods just because their parents thought our high school had a good reputation. The third group was the French Immersions, or “Frogs” as they came to be known by the normals. (I know: racist, but what did we know then?) They too, were mostly made up of kids “from away”. It was a real S.E. Hinton situation, everyone. (I just made an S.E. Hinton ref you guys, and I’ve never read or seen The Outsiders or Rumble Fish, although I just listened to Sophia Coppola on Marc Maron’s podcast and they spent QUITE SOME TIME talking about Rumble Fish so now I want to watch it and see if my S.E.. Hinton ref here makes any sense at all. Maybe I should stick with what I know). It was a real John Hughes situation you guys. #saveferris

These three groups really kept to themselves, with the exception of things like band, choir, and sports. You OCCASSIONALLY got some kid that was in French immersion, who was also in the smart class, and who lived nearby, but I don’t think they encouraged that kind of engagement. Just like Anita’s advice from West Side Story, we kept to our own kind.

I was in the normals group. I’m pretty sure I was smart enough for the “nerd” group, and I remember my parents having a meeting with the principal before I started high school in which the school was encouraging them to enroll me in the smart program, but they refused. They didn’t think it was normal for a high school kid to be studying all the time, and wanted me to have a more “well-rounded” experience. If by “well-rounded” they meant me reading a lot of comic books, watching movies, buying beer underage, and riding my bike around the neighbourhood a whole lot, then I guess they succeeded.

I didn’t have a bad high school experience, I don’t think. I mean, aside from my Dad dying at the end of Grade 11. That was pretty much the worst thing that could happen. But I mean, aside from that, I had a pretty good time in those three years. I had my small circle of friends, made up mostly of the same small circle of friends I had all the way through from elementary school. I wasn’t particularly popular, but I also wasn’t ever bullied or felt excluded from anything. I just did my thing and was happy to be able to do it.

After high school, I still saw some of my high school friends. They just became my “friends” at that point. I didn’t really make a lot of new friends at university. Sure, I met my future wife at university and that was great, but you know what I mean. I didn’t ditch the old crew for a new crew. We just kept things going. Some moved away, or had kids, or got married, all of which made it more difficult to stay close. By the time my late 20s became my early 30’s, my world had shrunk a bit, socially. I was working full-time with people I liked, but not necessarily with people I would hang out with after work. I filled my days with “grown-up stuff”, like grocery shopping and lawn cutting. Gone were the days of just calling someone up and inviting them over, or spontaneously going over to someone’s place to watch a ball game or rent a movie. I shouldn’t say, “gone” like it never happened, but it certainly happened less frequently than before. I had become an adult against my will!

Between graduation and now, our high school was sold off and torn down to make room for condos, which further removed us from our childhood experience. We would never be able to walk our old hallways, visit our band and choir room, or look for our class photos on the walls. That time of our lives faded into the background of our collective memory, and life chugged along.

It wasn’t really until our daughter was born that we made friends with a whole new group of people connected to our new neighbourhood. I was NOT expecting that to happen. To connect with a whole new group when you are already in your mid-30s was really great, and it just goes to show you never know what’s around the corner. Life moves on, and new relationships form and old ones fade and some continue but others don’t. That’s a bit long for a t-shirt, unless you used a really small font. I hadn’t really thought about high school and the people with whom I went through it in a long time.

And so it was quite a shock to be in the same room with all (or most!) of these people again. I knew that one of our classmates was currently in jail for an assault on a senior citizen, so I knew two things. First: THAT guy wasn’t going to be there, and second: I knew that as confused and mixed-up as my life may seem to me right now, at least I wasn’t in jail.

You hear stories about people attending their high school reunions, and how all of the old cliques and rivalries and grudges disappear and everyone just catches up and has fun. At least that’s what my cousin told me, who recently attended her 40th high school reunion. She was a bit worried about the whole thing, because in high school she was not “out” as a gay person, and wondered how being back with all those old friends and teachers would feel to her. It turned out to be a great experience for her, but the biggest shock for her was seeing people who looked like her old friends’ Moms and Dads, but it actually turned out to be her friends, with 40 years of life experience attached.

That wasn’t really my experience. Our three groups, mentioned at the top of this post, pretty much stuck to their corners for the whole night, which was fine with me. I mean, they didn’t talk to us during the three years of high school, so what would we really have to say to each other now? In a way, there were three mini-reunions happening in the same room that night. The biggest surprise to me was that it wasn’t just a high school reunion. Considering that most of my group went all the way through school together from kindergarten right on up, it was more of a “the first 18 years of your life” reunion, which suddenly became overwhelming to me. These were people who knew me before I really knew who I was. If I were a Broadway show, these people saw me in workshops in regional theatres years before I made it to the bright lights. They saw the worst of me and still loved me. They brought out the best in me, too. I couldn’t fool them if I tried, and I wouldn’t try. It just felt good to be around these people again, to feel that shared energy forged on the mean streets of St. James.

There were albums of old photos. Was I really ever that skinny? I had George Michael hair! Why did I have my pants off in that one pic? Who’s basement was that? There was one picture of me at grad with my then girlfriend beside me and MORE THAN ONE person came up to me to ask who that person was. THIS WAS MY GIRLFRIEND FOR MOST OF GRADE 12 AND TWO YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL and yet nobody seemed to remember her. It probably didn’t help that she was a grade younger than me, but STILL. Erased from people’s memories, just like our high school itself. Did she even exist at all? I caught up briefly with ANOTHER ex-girlfriend, my first “real” girlfriend from my jr high days. (It sounds like I was some kind of PLAYER in school, but I really wasn’t. At least I don’t think I was. Was I?) It was good to see her again, and to hear what she is up to now. She was another piece of the puzzle that I didn’t know was missing until I was reminded.

As I mentioned earlier, my Dad died unexpectedly at the end of grade 11 and that became the dominant narrative of high school for me (and for many of my close friends). That event over-shadowed not only the rest of high school, but also oddly enough cast a dark cloud over the years that came before. It was my personal 9/11. In the years since, what became lost to me were all the little excellent little things that happened on a daily basis that I honestly forgot about. Little anecdotes about our daily life, or other classmates, or teachers, or our friends’ parents that would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for this exercise in group remembering. We all remembered little pieces of our public school experience, and over the course of the evening began to weave a memory mosaic that was mostly warm and comforting, yet flecked with remorse and even some regret.

It all came back to the surface.

Memories of my first real love, of lazy afternoons in the summer with my friends, comic book shop runs, of adventures at house parties, of the thrill of skipping class and having a day out, of goofy pranks, like the time I was called down to the principal’s office to pick up a package and it turned out to be a container filled with bras and panties. (I finally found out that night who was the mastermind of it and it was NOT WHO I EXPECTED), of big ideas and grand failures (we talked a bit about the notorious Pippin production that never was), of broken hearts and stupid grudges and weaving through it all was the real sense that at one time this group of ours was tight-knit and showed up for each other in all the ups and downs that happen between childhood and adulthood.

The reunion started at 7 pm and I didn’t get home until after 2 am, and it felt like I was there for an hour.

We all made assurances that we wouldn’t let another 25 years go by before we gathered again, and even though I’m sure that was what you were supposed to say to be polite, I really really wanted to believe it to be true, and I hope that a group of us can try to connect again before the summer is out. These people were my people. They helped shape who I am today, so you can either credit or blame them, as you see fit.

Every year the annual marathon makes it way past our house on Father’s Day. And every year since my daughter has been around, the two of us have gone out to check it out. The first year she was just a couple of months old and I took her around in her stroller. We did it again this year and a common encouragement that marathoners seem to say to each other is “Finish Strong”. At least this was being shouted by people in the crowd, and the runners seemed to acknowledge it. I liked it. It suggested that no matter what came before, you can still end well, and that maybe the best is yet to come. I took that sentiment to heart in Grade 12, when I realized that it was my last chance to really do the “high school experience” right, so I really came out of my shell and got involved. I was on the student council at the grade 12 rep (which sounded good but really included very few responsibilities), I was on the basketball team (although I’m not sure if I ever was in a game), I was in the high school play (although not the lead as I was supposed to be the year before), I submitted a cartoon to the school yearbook (which was rejected on account of it being “too vulgar”), I was in band and choir (baritone and 2nd clarinet respectively!), which resulted in a European trip at the end of it all, and I think I even encouraged the school to adopt a recycling program as president of the environment club (but was met with red tape). I really Max Fischererd it up. I was happy to be given what felt like a last chance to get things right.

And so too with this reunion business. I was rattled after it, and am probably still processing some of the emotions that were brought to the surface, but the overarching emotion I feel is gratitude. Gratitude that I am actually here, alive, and living a pretty great life, despite all its ambiguity and messiness. Grateful for my wife and daughter who provide daily reminders that life should be fun, first and foremost, but will give me space when it clearly is not. Grateful for the hashtag #onward and for looking to the future. Grateful for that rough-housed pillar of strength that is my Mom who out of sheer will and stubbornness is living her best life and is a constant source of inspiration. Grateful for my wonderful current circle of friends who support, love and encourage me, and for whom I hope they know I do the same for them. Grateful for the memories of a childhood well lived and for those who lived it with me. And grateful that I am not in jail for assaulting a senior citizen.

I guess this is just all to say that despite what’s happened, despite where we are at, we all have the potential to finish strong. Finish Strong. And you can fit THAT on a t-shirt.

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Time after Time

In the late 1960’s, before my Dad met my Mom, he lived in Edmonton for a couple of years, working for some big insurance company. He didn’t know anyone there but he became good friends with one of his coworkers, Jeannette. I’m pretty sure it was all on the “up and up” but it was the 1960’s and I just don’t know, do I? I mean, I’m sure it was fine. I even think Jeannette was already married at that time, and my Dad would hang out on the weekends with Jeannette and her husband and do stuff. Not, “do stuff”, pervs, I mean like, I don’t know, go to movies and restaurants and stuff. Why is this “Mad Men”esque image of my Dad in a natty suit and a thin tie wearing dark aviator shades and holding a cocktail in a lounge not leaving me? He still wore those sunglasses well into the 1980’s.

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My Dad, circa 1968. Edmonton.

Anyway, my Dad and Jeannette remained friends after he moved back home and would be the kinds of friends that would exchange Christmas cards over the years and keep up with each other’s families on an annual basis.

So, when we, as a family, took a vacation out west in 1984, and it included a stop in Edmonton, it only made sense that we would get together for one night with Jeannette and her family.

This is where I come in.

I was 10 that summer and was pretty content to sit in the back of my grandparent’s borrowed van with a stack of G.I. Joe comics and John Bellairs novels and bury my head through the dry prairies until we hit the mountains. A stop in Edmonton seemed to me to just a unessessary delay for the ultimate goal: (Japser!) and I was not at all looking forward to the prospect of spending a boring evening with some old pal of my Dad’s. They’d probably be spending the whole damn night sitting around the dining room table talking about how fun the “old days” were and my brother and I would be stuck making our own fun.

“Oh, I think you’ll have a good time. They have kids you know”, was my Dad’s only response.

I couldn’t have known then, as we passed the world’s biggest easter egg in Vegreville, that the night we’d spend with Jeannette and her family would blow my mind and stay with me for years to come.

Because: Jeannette and her husband had three girls.

Collectively known as “The Heiss Girls”, I’ve long since forgot their individual names, but I do remember that one was slightly older than me (12?) one was like 14 and the eldest was 17. All three were home that night for supper. I think that Jeannette told them that they were having supper with an old friend and his family and that they were all expected to be on hand for it.

Let’s just take a moment and remember that I was 10 years old at the time, and although of course I knew girls from elementary school, I’m not sure I ever really hung out with any outside of school in my spare time. And I certainly wasn’t interested in any of them romantically, not yet anyway. To me, they were just the kids in my grade 4 class that preferred to play with Cabbage Patch Kids instead of Transformers. That was the main difference, as far as I could tell.

So we all ate supper together, two combined families, and then mercifully us kids were excused soon after and were free to do our own things. I do apologize if I’m not accurately and objectively reporting the events of the night, but when I turn my mind back to this evening, it seems as if someone has smeared a little Vaseline on the lens and everything seems a bit perfect.

At this point of the story I should mention that Jeannette’s husband turned out to be rather wealthy. He owned a couple of office buildings so their house seemed like a mansion and they had a large garden and back yard. After supper, the girls took me outside and wanted to do all kinds of outdoorsy crafts with me. I distinctly remember taking a piece of paper and a pencil and finding things with nice texture in the yard to get a rubbing. (Come on now). You know, like leaves and pine cones and that kind of thing. At first I thought they were a bit cuckoo. I mean, looking back at it, was the 17-year-old really into this too? Was she a bit on the simple side? She was around for sure, and so was the 14-year-old and the 12-year-old. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but I went along with it. I went along with it, first because it was just me on vacation. I didn’t have to act “cool” around my friends, and secondly, this whole “rubbing yard stuff” meant there was quite a bit of contact between me and the girls. Lots of “here, let me take your pencil and show you how to do it” and “oh wow, that one’s really nice. Look at the one I just did” kind of stuff, and casually finger-touched and arm grazing and shoulder bumping and I think I was pretty smitten by the three of them (but especially the one closest in age to me because she paid the most attention to me). After we tired of the “rubbing game”. (Funfact: I DID NOT get tired of that game EVER), we moved on to actual “flower pressing”, which was not quite as fun as all the rubbing, but it did mean that there was still some casual contact. I’m telling you, that 10 year-old me could have kept finding things to rub all night.

Eventually, it got too late for us to be outside in the garden, so we all came inside and went downstairs into the family room. I don’t know what happened to my brother. I’m sure he was around, but I have no memory of him that night. I only had eyes for the Heiss girls.

They were one of the first families I knew who had a VCR, and the Heiss girls had recorded a bunch of music videos. I think my brother and I were as much a novelty to them as they were to us, and I think they were surprised at our lack of pop culture knowledge. (I’ve alluded to this in the past, and even today my friends will marvel at the huge gaps of knowledge in music, books and movies.)

Amongst the Duran Durans and the George Michaels, the Culture Clubs and the Corey Harts, the Heiss girls couldn’t wait to show us Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Now I knew all about Thriller because the year before our music teacher rolled a TV/VCR cabinet into our music room to show us it. I think she wanted us to see the dance moves or something, but that fucking thing terrified me and I had nightmares for days afterwards and I think my Mom went to the school to complain. I wasn’t willing to show anything but 10-year-old manliness and bravery in front of the Heiss girls, but I knew if we watched it I’d get freaked out again. My brother is three years younger than me and even though he’s probably made of tougher stuff than me, I didn’t think he should be seeing it either. I distinctly remember tossing him a pillow and saying, “this is going to get scary, I’d hide my eyes until it is over if I were you”, and I remember crawling under a blanket.

The youngest Heiss girl joined me. Holy shit. I’m under a blanket with a girl and she’s kinda right up against me and her top and shorts are made out of the softest cotton ever spun and oh my god what’s going to happen here?

I was hyper aware of her presence next to me, and even though the Thriller video is really long (over 13 minutes, according to one youtube clip) the time spun by all too quickly. I survived Thriller! The next few videos were tamer, and I prefaced each one with a “this isn’t going to be gory like Thriller, is it?” and that sort of became my “running joke” of the night. It was the first time I had ever seen Cyndi Lauper, and the Heiss girls had quite a few of her videos in the rotation. Girls just wanna have fun was there, and of course Time After Time.

At one point in the evening, the eldest Heiss girl (who was old enough to drive), needed to get something from the West Edmonton Mall, and we all piled into a car and made our way there. I don’t even remember what that thing was, but I remember whatever it was, it was seriously cutting into my “blanket and music video time” and I couldn’t wait to get back to the house for more.

As it turned out, we stayed at the mall longer than we intended, and by the time we got back to the house, the adults were just about wrapping up their visit. Soon we’d be back to our hotel, and the next day: Jasper! What had started off as a necessary road block to my beloved mountains had surely become the highlight of the trip, and if I was even a little bit older I might have suggested exchanging addressed and keeping in touch with the Heiss girls. Later on in my life, I carried on lengthy “pen pally” style communications with a couple of people (before the internet!), but I just wasn’t on the ball that night. Could it have become a generational thing? Just as my Dad and Jeannette kept in touch over the years, why couldn’t their offspring? But sadly it was not meant to be. We said our goodbyes, and I had a handful of rubbings and pressed flowers to show for it.

I never did see the Heiss girls again, but I never forgot that night.

As it turned out, that Cyndi Lauper album, She’s So Unusual, was the first cassette tape I ever bought with my own money after I received a Walkman for my birthday the following year. That song, Time After Time, ended up being our first dance song at my wedding almost 20 years later, and ten years after that I endured a Cher concert just so I could see Cyndi Lauper perform as the opening act. She killed it and stole the show, in my opinion.

And through it all, each time I hear that song, or really any of her songs for that matter, I think back to that 10-year-old boy on that perfect summer night, in that bucolic garden, lit up during magic hour, following a 12-year-old-girl that he just met around the yard with a paper and a crayon saying, “How about this one? Can we rub it? Or this? Or this? Or this?”

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“The owls are not what they seem”

“The night was all you had
You ran into the night from all you had
Found yourself a path upon the ground
You ran into the night you can’t be found”

Laura Palmer, by Bastille

“The owls are not what they seem” The Giant

“Garmonbozia” The Man from Another Place

“How’s Annie? How’s Annie? How’s Annie? How’s Annie?” S.A. Cooper’s doppelganger

“I’ll see you in 25 years” Laura Palmer

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Town sign, with Mountains beyond Mountains behind.

I toyed with the idea of just quoting a bunch of Twin Peaks related quotations to mark its return to TV after twenty-five years. The crypticity of that kind of appealed to me, but I feel like I have more to say. Surprise, surprise.

Twin Peaks was always like a half-remembered dream to me, even from the very beginning.

I don’t think Twin Peaks was ever really about the murder of Laura Palmer. I mean, sure, that was the vehicle on which to hang the structure of a show, the elevator pitch that TV executives wanted to hear in the late 1980’s, but I think if you were overly concerned about that mystery, you were missing the point of the show.

I’m one of those people who probably missed the point of the show when it was first on, and I count myself among its fanbase. Growing up, one of my best friends had an older brother, Andy, and we all looked to Andy as the arbiter of what was cool. He was three years older than us, and was into different stuff than us, but it was SETTLED LAW that if Andy was into a thing, it must have been legit. Looking back on it now, Andy was pretty much just this introverted, quiet kid, and I don’t really think he was into anything more cool than anyone else. He liked what he liked, and didn’t really follow trends, but try telling the 12-year-old versions of myself and my friends that in the late ’80s. We wouldn’t have believed you.

So, as it turned out, Andy was a big David Lynch fan, and was excited for this upcoming “detective show” on NETWORK TV (ABC) called Twin Peaks.  David Lynch, up to this point was a movie director who was known for his weird and off-beat imagery, but he had never done TV before. His co-creator, Mark Frost, is a novelist and wrote for TV before teaming up with David Lynch.

Fans of this blog will know that I pride myself on being “behind the curve” on most things, and that I usually only get into something after everyone else has gotten over it. This held true for Twin Peaks, as I never watched that mythical first season when it first aired, despite getting regular reports from Andy’s younger brother (my friend Steve) over the course of the spring. Little things like “You really should watch it. I think you’d like it”. Stuff like that. It wasn’t until the first season ended on a cliffhanger, “Come on, Trev, you gotta watch it“, that I saw my first episode.

My friend Steve had been recording all of them on his parent’s Beta VCR. Beta! It’s hard to imagine a time when all of North America relied on about 12 or 15 TV channels for all our entertainment. A time when there were really only three big American networks. A time when “serious TV shows” were things like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. So when one of those three major networks took a chance on what we’d call today “Prestige TV”, it was a big event. Nowadays, our entertainment stream is so varied and granular we are watching stuff at all hours on dozens of platforms, and all of it seems to be “edgy”. So when Netflix revives a “classic multi-camera sitcom” like it did with the revival of One Day at a Time earlier this year, it actually felt fresh and ground-breaking. “You mean there’s a show that pretty much takes place in a living room about a family and it’s sweet and funny and well written and wholesome? REVOLUTIONARY!”

I think I actually watched the season finale of Season 1 before I watched anything else, (I know: OUT OF ORDER?!). My friend and his older brother were getting geared up for Season 2 to begin that fall, (Grade 11 for us), and were going to do a rewatch. I joined them for most of it. So, even from the beginning, the show had a surreal, disorienting quality to it. I watched season 1 out-of-order, and I am even sure to this day that there are some episodes of season 1 that I’ve just never seen. For example, (SPOILERS!), I think I only know Jacques Renault as a corpse, but I’m pretty sure he was alive and walking around for some of season 1. I just don’t think I’ve seen those episodes. And we are only talking about 8 episodes in total for season 1! How is it possible I haven’t seen all of them? I never really understood who Jacques Renault was, but I sure became familiar with his evil brother, Jean Renault, in season 2. And you know what? Maybe I DID see those Jacques Renault episodes. I just don’t remember. The whole show has a hazy, misty quality to it, and for me it was filtered through my friend’s Beta tapes out of sequence.

Despite having watched Season 1 out-of-order (and possibly missing an episode or two), I immediately fell in love with the mood of the show. I think that is the best way to describe it. The show is all about the mood it creates. The feeling it leaves with you. This is why I encourage people who haven’t seen it to actually seek out the shows themselves, and to not rely solely on Wikipedia summaries. Sure, you might get the gist of the plot that way, but you’d be missing the whole experience of it, which is, as I am arguing here, the whole point of it. The colour palette, the wonderful soundtrack, the hypnotic shots of the falls by the hotel, the very essence of the “Pacific Northwest” distilled into hour-long shots to be taken weekly. I loved the “fish out of water” tropes of an urbane FBI agent “from Philadelphia” discovering all the small town charms of this sleepy yet mysterious town. Even the coffee, donuts and cherry pie in the “Double R Diner” seemed to take on meaning beyond their face values.

If I was late to the game, I didn’t waste any time getting caught up in time for Season 2. In addition to watching as many episodes of season 1 on my friend’s Beta tapes as I could, I got the show’s soundtrack, I collected Twin Peaks trading cards, I picked up a copy of a “Twin Peaks Cook Book” (True story), someone gave me a copy of “Laura Palmer’s Secret Diary”,  I got a copy of “Special Agent Dale Cooper’s Diane Tapes”, an audio CASSETTE that was filled with recordings of actor Kyle McLachlan sending reports back to the mysterious “Diane” back in Philadelphia. We never really find out who Diane is, but she must be associated with the FBI in some way: an admin assistant or some other office staff who is presumably transcribing Cooper’s tapes into official reports, I even got sheet music for the piano for the Twin Peaks theme and Laura’s Theme (the LOVE theme from Twin Peaks), so I could learn to play them. This was years after I actually stopped taking piano lessons, even, but I was able to plunk them out eventually. I still have them.

And then season 2 began, and I didn’t miss a single episode. I even got my brother into it. Was it possible that with my brother being three years younger than ME, that I was the arbiter of cool for HIM? Probably not. More likely it was that we had one TV set and a dozen channels so WHAT ELSE WAS HE GOING TO WATCH? Oprah?

It was one of the weirdest, most uneven, befuddling, disjointed, misfit seasons of TV I’ve ever watched. I know I said at the beginning of this post that the whole point of the show wasn’t solving the mystery of who murdered Laura Palmer. I still believe that, but having said that, once the show reveals to the audience who the murderer is, it really begins to lose its way. The audience finds out in episode 7, but it takes two more episodes for this to become public knowledge in the show. And then, after that: it’s a little like we are all experiencing a lucid dream in this weird town, no longer having the driving force and reason for being there. It feels like the writers are spinning their wheels at this point, and when the writing goes, it doesn’t take long for any “moody good will” to get used up. Once the murder is solved, there really was no reason for Agent Cooper to remain in Twin Peaks, so the writers came up with this meandering plot involving a ex-partner who went crazy, and a run-of-the-mill revenge plot that eroded, rather than enhanced the signature look, feel and mood of the show.

I’ve never watched Lost, but a common complaint I’ve heard about the show from those who did watch it, was that it introduced a bunch of ideas and possibilities, but then never fully capitalized on them. It was as if J.J. Abrams had never heard of Chekhov’s gun. The show kept getting more and more convoluted until it finally came to a messy end where it turned out everyone was in heaven or something (SPOILERS ON A TEN YEAR OLD SHOW, EVERYBODY). I mean, maybe SPOILERS, I  don’t really know.

So it seemed to go in the course of the 18 episodes of season 2 of Twin Peaks. It started so strong, and I stuck with it, but it didn’t help that there was an almost 2 month break between the penultimate episode and the finale on June 10, 1991. During that break, my Dad got really sick with Depression again and was hospitalized. Even though he never watched Twin Peaks (he thought it was weird), he was always interested in what my brother and I were into. And of course that winter and spring, my brother and I were into Twin Peaks. In my all too infrequent visits to him in the hospital, I would sometimes give him story updates. He was a big fan of Kenneth Welsh, a Canadian actor who played Cooper’s ex-partner Windom Earle. I didn’t really go into alot of details about his character. I figured a man suffering from Depression probably didn’t need to hear about a character that went INSANE and escaped from a mental hospital. Still, when you can’t talk about anything else, you can always talk about pop culture, and it was better than silence. At least I thought it was at the time. My Dad never did recover from that last bout of Depression, and he died a week before the finale aired. My life was in shambles already, but I made sure I watched the ending. I had to. I was still a fan. Well, the last episode ended on an extremely nihilistic note, with Special Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the “Black Lodge”, a version of hell in this show’s mythology. He offers himself in exchange for the release and safety of his girlfriend, Annie Blackburn. In the final minutes of the show, we get a scene between Cooper in the lodge and a spirit version of Laura Palmer (or is it her doppelganger?) who says to him, “I’ll see you in 25 years” (is this a dream?).  Change of scene to Cooper waking up in a bed, in the company of the sheriff and the doctor. We are led to believe that things are going to be okay, as he asks about his girlfriend. “How’s Annie?” BUT THINGS ARE NOT GOING TO BE OKAY, because the final scene of the show has Cooper rising from the bed, going into the bathroom, closing the door, looking into the mirror. He squeezes toothpaste all over his brush and sink, and you see by the reflection in the bathroom mirror that he is possessed by the same spirit that murdered Laura Palmer. Cooper’s doppelganger smashes his head into the mirror, turns around, and with a crazy grin on his face, says repeatedly, “How’s Annie? How’s Annie? How’s Annie?”

Roll Credits.

And that’s it! That’s all we got.

I’ve read since then that there was supposed to be a Season 3 where a rescue mission is mounted to get Cooper out of the Black Lodge, but since the show was cancelled after 2 seasons (probably the right call), Cooper has been left in the Black Lodge all this time. Laura Palmer’s prediction that we would see her again in 25 years is coming true in real-time, with the unlikely revival of the series in a third season this past weekend. Now, this isn’t some kind of “fun reunion of the cast” kind of thing. This is a solid 18 EPISODES OF CONTENT, all written by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Most of the cast of the original show is returning too, with a couple of notable exceptions. Michael Ontkean, who played Sheriff Harry S. Truman is “officially retired from acting”. Some of the best scenes on the show were between Truman and Cooper, who developed a kind of “Holmes and Watson” banter and relationship over the two seasons. The revival will be the poorer for it without him. Another exception is Heather Graham, who played Annie, Special Agent Cooper’s love interest and the person for whom Cooper asks about in the last lines of the show. With her not returning, will we ever get an answer to the haunting question, “How’s Annie?” Another notable absence is Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Donna Hayward in the first two seasons. Her role was famously recast for the Fire Walk with Me prequel that came out a year after the show ended, and depending which Hollywood gossip you want to believe, didn’t appear due to something boring like “scheduling conflicts” or MAYBE IT WAS SOMETHING MORE JUICY LIKE “she had a falling out with David Lynch and her FORMER BOYFRIEND Kyle McLachlan”. When given a choice, I always go for the juice.

A few actors revived their roles, but have died since filming their scenes, so who knows what that will mean for the future of the show, if indeed there will be a life after Season 3? These include Mark Frost’s Dad, Warren Frost, who played Dr. Hayward, Miguel Ferrer, who played the sardonic Agent Rosenfield, and Catherine Coulson, better known as “The Log Lady”. Rest in peace, weirdoes.

In the years between 1991 and now, Twin Peaks has popped up in the wider pop culture. In some ways, it never really left those of us who watched it and loved it. There were references on The Simpsons, where Homer is shown watching the show and calling it “brilliant” and then in the next breath saying that he has no idea what is going on. On Seinfeld, two actors from the show, Warren Frost (Dr. Hayward) and Grace Zabriskie (Laura Palmer’s Mom) played George’s future in-laws in a nod to the show. Northern Exposure devoted a whole episode to a homage to Twin Peaks, and the show Psych did a special “20th anniversary” episode that featured no less than 724 Twin Peaks references! Even Stephen King was a fan of the show, and I remember reading Needful Things and smiling to myself when Norris Ridgewick, the deputy sheriff in Castle Rock, is described as a “Deputy Andy Brennan from Twin Peaks” type. Even my friend Kaj made a Twin Peaks reference in one of this high school history papers. Right in the middle of a report about the siege of Quebec he wrote in all caps THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM, mid-sentence, and carried right on talking about Montcalm and Wolfe. He did it just to see what our teacher’s reaction would be, AND THE TEACHER DIDN’T SAY A THING, which leads me to believe he is either a) a doppelganger from the black lodge, or b) never really read the report to begin with. I’m still not sure. One of my high school pals, Michelle, dressed up as “The Log Lady” for Halloween. We were an odd bunch.

The thing that is tripping me up is this: do I even WANT to see this? After 25 years, do I need more Twin Peaks? It’s easy for me to not watch it. It’s only available on a pay channel here in Canada, or through a mysterious streaming service called Crave TV, apparently. That would involve me signing up for a membership, and I’m not quite ready to take that step. For me to see this third season, it’s going to take work. But then again: it took work for me to see season 1 all those years ago. I had to sit in my friend’s basement and fast-forward through commercials on Beta tapes. The upsetting and unsatisfying end to the series is mirrored by the upsetting and unsatisfying to my childhood in real-life, too. Even doing a bit of research for this blog post has stirred up memories and feelings I haven’t felt since high school. Do I really want to go deep with this? Should I just leave Cooper in the Black Lodge, where’s he’s been since high school for me? David Lynch and Mark Frost are surely different people than they were 25 years ago, and I guess so am I, in some ways. The world is different too. When Twin Peaks first aired, TV was dominated by big networks, and everyone sort of watched the same handful of shows. Now, there are a number of PODCASTS dedicated to that show. I just downloaded the first one of a series called “Twin Peaks Unwrapped” which I guess is a reference to Laura Palmer’s body being wrapped up in plastic. Just try explaining PODCASTS to Agent Cooper. And don’t even start with him about Twitter. Today, you can type #twinpeaks as a hashtag and you’ll get a cool little graphic of red drapes and zig-zaggy carpet after it. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait…………….

Cool, huh? I don’t know what to tell you. There is definitely a part of me that wants to see what happens next. OR DO I?

Okay, so despite stating my opinion that Twin Peaks is all about the journey, not the destination, it’s all about the mood, not the plot, that it’s all about the experience, not the results, I know there are some of you that just want to jump in and watch Season 3 with minimal catch up.

I get it.

I know what that feels like, and maybe that is the biggest difference between the me of 1991 and the me of 2017. I just don’t have the patience for things like I used to. When I hear a new season of a show is available, even a show I’ve enjoyed, I don’t automatically feel joy, I feel dread. Dread that it is ONE MORE DAMN THING for me to get off my already overflowing pop culture plate. And that goes double for “revivals”. Sure, I enjoyed the heck out of the first three seasons of Arrested Development, but like most people, I was pretty disappointed with the Netflix revival. When news broke that yet another season was announced recently, it felt like too much of good thing. Enough, already. You probably wouldn’t order the same pizza from the same pizza place every night for supper, would you? EVEN IF IT WAS GREAT PIZZA? Wouldn’t you like to try new things? Isn’t variety the spice of life? Maybe it has to do with the fact that I am now in my 40’s and every day feel the cold breath of DEATH on the back of my neck and realize I better “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin'”, as Morgan Freeman reminded us in The Shawshank Redemption. I think a part of me is just plain scared that I won’t be able to capture that good feeling I had of catching up on this show in my friend’s basement, and watching the new ones with my brother all those years ago. Nothing will bring those days back.

So for those readers who would like a quick primer of what you probably need to know to get into Season 3 of Twin Peaks, (and aren’t afraid of SPOILERS), read on! For the rest of you, you can stop here and eagerly await my inevitable tribute to Roger Moore, who died while I was in the middle of this post. Rest in Peace, Double Oh Seven. We’ll get to you in a bit.

twin peaks

Lynch’s Last Supper?

  • Laura Palmer was murdered by her father, Leland Palmer, who was possessed by an evil spirit known as BOB. Another evil spirit, MIKE, was BOB’s partner in many murders and rapes but at some point before the beginning of the show, MIKE repented, cut off his arm, and is now on the hunt to stop BOB. MIKE is currently possessing a shoe salesman named “Philip Gerard”.
  • Special Agent Dale Cooper had a former partner named Windom Earle, who WENT INSANE, murdered his wife, Caroline, (with whom Cooper was having an AFFAIR: what is this? Broadchurch?) and was locked up in a mental institution. (All of that is back story that comes out in Season 2). A large part of the second half of season 2 was all about Windom Earle escaping the institution and coming to get revenge on Cooper in Twin Peaks.
  • In the show’s mythology, there are two lodges, The White Lodge (good spirits) and The Black Lodge (evil spirits) that exist in another dimension where time and space intermingle. BOB and MIKE are from these lodges, which are connected by a waiting room that has zig-zaggy carpet and red curtains. The lodges also can create doppelgangers, or evil twins of people who sometimes get out into our world. In the show, we’ve seen doppelgangers of Laura Palmer, Agent Cooper, Laura’s Father, The Man from Another Place, and Caroline Earle.
  • In the final episode, Windom Earle kidnaps Annie Blackburn (Cooper’s girlfriend) and takes her into the Black Lodge as revenge. Cooper follows. BOB murders Windom Earle and Cooper strikes a deal with BOB: if he lets Annie go, Cooper will stay in the Black Lodge as prisoner.
  • Agent Cooper’s doppelganger (which appeared to be possessed by BOB) escapes the Black Lodge and is free to roam our world. Annie’s well-being is unknown.
  • The owls are not what they seem.

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Thing(s) I love, 2015

“Journeys end in lovers meeting”. The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson

Hey everyone,

Happy Valentine’s Day. We started this recurring post a couple of years back, where I talk about a thing or things I love. It was never supposed to be ongoing, but you know how it goes. “Do it once, it’s an accident. Do it twice, it’s a tradition,” as my old mentor and nemesis, the Reverend Doctor Peter Denton would remind me.

So what’s it going to be this year, you may be asking yourself?

It’s trains.

I’m pretty sure if you were to canvas a grade 3 class about what they wanted to be when they grew up, you’d get your “astronauts”, you’d get your “cowboys”, sure. You’d probably even get “teacher” by some of the brown-nosers, and you’d certainly get a couple of “train engineers” in there. Now, you may think where this blog post is going. That I’ve always wanted to be a train engineer and are still harbouring secret regret I never pursued it……WRONG!…..a train engineer? That sounds like a terrible job. You’re up in that tiny, smelly cab. It’s probably freezing in the winter. Sure you get to blow the whistle, but what kind of a life is that? In fact, I was reminded recently that when I was a kid and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I usually answered “Happy”. I never knew why people thought that was adorable. It was the truth. If I was happy, then that meant I found something that I like doing, I’ve found people I love to be around, and I’m reasonably healthy. The rest is just details. Years later, when I watched “Young Sherlock Holmes” and there’s that scene where the boys are all sitting around talking about what they want to be when they grow up, I could relate to Holmes’ response. It was simply, “I never want to be alone.” I nodded my 12-year-old head in the darkened movie theatre. Sherlock got it.

But to say that I never really wanted to be a train engineer does not at all suggest that I don’t love trains. I suppose if I had to have a job on the train, I’d maybe want to be a porter. I’d be helping make people comfortable, and I’d get to be the guy who releases the lever to lower the stairs when we come into a station, so that’s fun. I’d find working in the dining car WAY too stressful. Maybe I could work the baggage car? It would be physical work, but I bet you’d have a lot of down time.

Travelling by train across Canada these days is pretty cost prohibitive. Or at least travelling in style across Canada. By in style I mean at least having an upper or lower berth, which gives you access to the last half of the train, and includes your meals. You also get a place to sleep at night and you get to hang out in the dome cars. I last time I was on a proper train trip like that was in the spring of 2002 when my then girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the train home from Toronto after my brother’s wedding. In fact, I had hatched a plan to propose to my girlfriend AT SOME POINT during the train ride, because, I don’t know, trains are cool and kinda romantic? Well, Canadian trains are not known for their promptness and ours was about 4 hours delayed. I wasn’t the least bit concerned. It gave me extra time to hang out in the train station, which was great. And it just made the anticipation of a train ride all the more sharp. Before that trip, I hadn’t been on an overnight train in almost a decade. That was the Halifax to Montreal trip in 1993. It was just long enough to count as an overnight trip, but not really long enough to get the full experience of it. Arriving at our destination on a rainy August morning, I thought to myself, “Montreal, already?” And before that? Well, before that there were so many train trips I can’t really even begin to recount them all.

But let’s try.

First of all, my Dad loved trains, and I think in the 1970’s and early 1980’s it was still fairly cost-effective to travel that way for families. My parents certainly weren’t rich, but every couple of years we were able to take an overnight train trip somewhere. There’s a photo somewhere of me, 2 years old, wearing this little red coat, standing on a platform, next to our sleeping car. It was so long ago you could tell that the sleeping car was painted in Canadian Pacific colours. This was before 1977 (when Via Rail was incorporated) and all the old silver and red cars were repainted in the now familiar blue and yellow. It looks like I am blowing a kiss to the camera, but I’m told by my Mom I am actually making the “Wooo woooo” sound of the train whistle.

I remember taking the train through the Rockies to Vancouver. This was when VIA would take the more scenic “Southern Route” owned by CP. Heck, this was back when VIA had enough money to run two trains on two different routes out west. You had the Super Continental that would go west from Winnipeg and stop in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, and then split in Jasper and one branch would carry on west through Prince George and Prince Rupert (right to the coast!) and the other route would wind it’s way south west down through the interior to Vancouver. You’d also have The Canadian that originally ran from Winnipeg through Brandon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Banff, Kamloops and Vancouver.

My family and I have been on both routes, and it’s generally accepted that the southern route is more scenic. I remember going through the spiral tunnels and not really understanding what they are. (I’m still not really 100 percent sure I could explain them but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been running from our car to try to see a train go through them, only to have just missed it, waiting around for a half hour for another train, slowly making our way back to our car only to hear a train whistle and then running back to the lookout and so on) I remember sitting in the lounge on a particularly bumpy section of the Crow’s Nest Pass, transfixed by watching my glass of Coke dance its way across the table and being stopped by the raised edge, and then moving by glass back to the other side of the table and watching the glass dance again. Who needed video games when you could watch your Coke dance?

One time, coming home from Vancouver, rumours spread throughout the train that there had been a washout (Near Golden!) and that the entire train was going to have to be bussed around to the other side. While other vacationers might have been put out by the inconvenience, my family and I looked upon this as a grand adventure. When we finally arrived in Banff on the other side of the washout, it was chaos. My Dad made sure that my Mom, brother and me got on the correct sleeping car and found our room, and he went back onto the platform to try to find the whereabouts of our luggage. Not long later, the train started moving slowly away from the station. My Mom slipped into the corridor (those narrow corridors that I love so much) and flagged down a porter.

“My husband’s out there still. He’s going to be left behind!”

“Oh, not to worry. We are just shunting. We aren’t actually leaving for Calgary yet. We don’t even have the dining car crew yet.”

Well, that porter was right about one thing. We didn’t have our dining car crew yet, but he was woefully misinformed about the train’s schedule. This became increasingly clear as the train picked up speed and it was obvious that our next stop was going to be Calgary. My Mom was beside herself with worry, and our whole sleeping car knew the story.

Well, to everyone’s surprise, the sleeping car door opened and there was my Dad! The entire sleeping car erupted in applause! Apparently what happened was that my Dad was standing on the platform, and he located our luggage. He was handing them up to the baggage car when the train started to move. The baggage carman shouted, “Hey! It’s going! You better get on!” and in my mind to this day I imagine my Dad running alongside the train and reaching out and being hauled into the baggage car by the train crew and picking himself up and dusting himself off, and shaking hands with everyone and making his slow walk back through 30 cars to get to his family.

And yeah, the train had to stop near Canmore for a school bus to pull up alongside. It was a school bus full of the dining car crew.

Or what about that time between grade 3 and 4 where we took the train from Thompson, Manitoba to Churchill to see the polar bears and beluga whales? I remember a communication mishap between me and my Dad resulted in me getting grounded to my room. In Thompson, before the train left, I asked my Dad if we could go out on the platform and see the “Engines”. It was a kind of tradition that he and I would walk the length of the train, up to the front, and wave to the engineer. It was always kind of scary because you never knew when the locomotive would spit steam or loudly hiss with the sudden release of an airbrake, but this time my Dad’s face clouded over and said, “You can stay in your room if you’re going to talk like THAT.” I was stunned. I didn’t know what was happening. My Mom and brother were somewhere else and honestly didn’t know what was happening. Eventually when my Mom got back to our car it was all figured out. My Dad thought I said, “Let’s go out and look at all the Injuns.” Being a northern community, there was a large aboriginal community, obviously, and my Dad thought I was making some kind of a racial slur and he was punishing me for it. I hadn’t even heard of that term at the time, and I would never had said something like that. We eventually got it sorted out, and I think my Dad must have apologized to me, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember the feeling of confusion and injustice I felt as I was banished to my room in the middle of summer vacation.

The route itself was one of the most unusual experiences I’ve ever had. The tracks had to be rebuilt every couple of years, because the ground was so soft due to the muskeg. Even the telephone poles had to be held up with tripods to avoid slumping. I remember how the train in northern Manitoba was used like a local taxi service, where the train would stop and start countless times after we left Thompson and headed north. People would appear out of the forest alongside the train and wave it down and climb aboard. My Mom remembers a young woman getting off the train with a small doll sticking out of the top of her pack, a toy bought for someone special in the Bay in Thompson. When that young woman got off the train, there was no one to meet her. There was just a path that went a few feet into the forest and then turned. The train pulled slowly away and the young woman was soon hidden from view. How far was it to her community? A half day’s walk? An overnight? Did she need to take a boat? All we knew was that some little kid was getting a special present and the world seemed incredibly large and mysterious to me.

We didn’t always need to go on long train trips to get our “train fix”, either. I remember one time my grandma was taking the train to Vancouver and at that time we were all allowed to not only go on the platform, but actually go up into the train and get my grandma settled. For the briefest of moments I was able to catch the smell of the train, and it would have to be enough. Being the goofy family that we are, after we said our goodbyes, we jumped back into our car and drove to the edge of the city to find a good spot to park and wave one last time to my grandma as she whizzed by into the night. I swear she was waving back.

Another time, we were coming home from a road trip out west, and we noticed that train was in the station in Brandon, Manitoba. The doors were shut and the “All Aboard” was just announced. My parents looked at each other and without talking, I knew they loved each other because a plan was instantly formed. My Mom did most of the driving on roadtrips because she loved it, and as we spun out of the station parking lot, my dad was consulting the schedule he had just picked up. “I think we can make it, Marilyn. If we don’t hit traffic.”

My parents were going to try to race the train to Portage La Prairie.

Portage is just over an hour east of Brandon, and the last stop before Winnipeg. I can still remember the excitement of navigating the city streets of Brandon, trying to figure out the quickest way out onto the TransCanada. Once out on the highway, my brother and I had our eyes pressed to the glass, looking out to see if we could get a glimpse of the yellow and blue cars as we both made our way East. There is was! We were gaining on it!

We arrived at Portage about 5 minutes before the train did, so we had that wonderful experience of watching the train roll into the station. Then my parents announced the second half of the plan. My Dad was going to buy three coach tickets from Portage to Winnipeg, and he, my brother and I were going to GET TO RIDE THE TRAIN HOME while my Mom would drive the car and meet us at the station! Keep in mind that we lived on the western edge of the city, and this was already after a long day of driving, but my Mom was going to drive right past our street to go downtown so that her three boys could have this experience. Did she love my Dad or what?

Of course we would hit train museums whenever we could. Some were better than others, obviously. Favourites included Cranbrook, BC, Duluth, MN, and the Museum of Western Development in Moose Jaw, SK. (Not a train museum! But it had trains.) In fact, the museum in Moose Jaw has a little picnic table outside that you can see from the TransCanada, and we would often stop and have a little picnic lunch either before or after our visit to the museum. To this day if we are driving West (and if we are not stopping in Moose Jaw), I will always crane my neck when I see the familiar metallic blue of the museum roof and look for that picnic table and remember. It probably comes to no surprise to you that on our honeymoon we did a little road trip and one of our stops was the Duluth Train Museum. I think my wife liked it. Who wouldn’t?

We did get engaged on a train, after all. In the dome car. Just as the train was about to leave Toronto. I couldn’t stand keeping it a secret. (I’m terrible at secrets you guys.) But I realized afterwards if she had said “No” it would have made for a pretty awkward couple of days together. “Yes, hello. This is my girlfriend. Or, um. Was my girlfriend? I’m not exactly sure what it all means. Can you excuse me, I think I’ll go have a little cry.”

Growing up, there was this restaurant called “Country Kitchen” across from Union Station and down a little bit. The food was okay: your typical clubhouse sandwiches, burgers, etc. But it’s one redeeming feature was, as previously mentioned, it’s location across the street from the train station. There were about 3 or 4 booths on the south side of the restaurant that were PRIME train watching seats, and we would routinely go there as a family and my dad would ask to be sat in one of the four “trainspotting booths”. The restaurant would oblige him whenever they could, but on the rare occasion when all the good booths were taken and we were seated on the other side of the restaurant, the four of us would sit glumly and think to ourselves, “what’s the point?” Quite often these suppers would be followed by a semi-illegal drive under the train bridge into the CN rail yards behind the station (the spot where Winnipeg’s Forks Market and Canadian Museum for Human Rights now stand) for the sole purpose of looking at train cars up close. Even as a kid, I felt like we were probably doing something not quite right. I mean, I couldn’t see any signs that said we were on private property, but there certainly weren’t any signs that made you think we would be welcome. We sort of justified these nocturnal missions by parking in the station lot and going into the station for a looksee, as if we were going to be going on a trip or meeting someone. We were subconsciously trying to give ourselves, confirmed interlopers, an alibi for being there. This train loving business can be a real problem.

One last train story. A month or so after my Dad died, my Mom booked my brother and me on a train trip to the Rockies to just get out of town for a bit. By this point, the train didn’t run the southern route at all (cutbacks!) so we took the train to Jasper and then rented a car and a cabin and just had a few days to ourselves to exhale and say, “what the hell just happened?” That trip was all a bit of a blur, but taking a train to the mountains incorporates two of my favourite things and was probably the best thing my Mom could do for my brother and me that summer. (Spoiler: maybe next year’s thing(s) that I love will be mountains, especially mountains that are beyond other mountains). We made the best of it, as we always do. Hashtags hadn’t been invented back in 1991, but if they were, you could have stuck a nice #onward onto the three of us as we tried to find out new way in this scary and uncertain reality. Taking the train so soon after my Dad died somehow heightened the grief (if that was even possible) but also provided some level of familiar comfort. But it wasn’t all rosy. I remember an overly friendly dining car steward asking my Mom if she was married. (The nerve!) and her responding that her husband had recently died. “Cancer?” the creep offered unhelpfully. My Mom had one quiet word for him. “Depression”. And the steward left us alone for the  rest of the trip.

These days, my Mom is the only one who still regularly travels by train. She usually takes The Canadian out west once a year to visit my brother and his family in Vancouver. In fact, the second blog post I ever wrote was about going to the station and picking her up. I hope that one day I can take my daughter on an overnight train trip and she can experience, at least once, some of the wonders of riding the rails.

I haven’t even touched on the pop culture references to trains that have become touchstones for me. Just take a look at the number of songs written about trains. There’s an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the weird subgenre, Train Song. A favourite of mine being “Something About Trains” by Jane Siberry.

“But you wake up in the middle of the night
And a train whistle blows and a dog barks
And something’s not quite right
And the cry is sent up from this earth
Into the silent sky”
And what about movies? Books?

So many movies and books, especially thrillers, seem to find themselves set on trains. I guess the idea of sticking a bunch of strangers together in a semi-confined space can lead to countless plot developments. Throw in a dash of romance, a hint of murder and bingo bango baby you’ve got a story going on.

Here are just a few of my faves:

Silver Streak. This comedy thriller is the BEST. I didn’t realize how many other movies it was referencing when I first saw it, but it holds a special place in my heart. (Okay the whole “Gene Wilder in blackface” bit is troubling, I’ll freely concede), but the climatic ending was filmed in Toronto’s Union Station when my parents were living there in 1972 and they spent the better part of a day watching the filming (naturally).

North by Northwest. Some readers of this blog have not seen this film, and some have lovingly (if not mistakenly) called it a “snoozefest”, but there’s a [SPOILER]: great scene that takes place on a train. A scene that was referenced/parodied in Silver Streak, actually. I think this is probably my favourite Hitchcock film, and firmly planted me on #teamcarygrant. As you know, you can either be on #teamcarygrant or #teamjimmystewart BUT NOT BOTH

Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock really liked trains, huh? The title says it all, doesn’t it. Two strangers (on a train, you guys!) swap murder plans giving each other supposedly perfect alibis. This was sort of referenced/remade with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito in Throw Mama From the Train.

The Darjeeling Limited. Three brothers travel to India to sort stuff out. It’s Wes Anderson at his very best, and the “behind the scenes” documentaries on my Critereon Collection DVD are super informative.

From Russia with Love. The close quarters fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in an Orient Express compartment is unexpectedly brutal and claustrophobic.

Murder on the Orient Express. Speaking of the Orient Express, Agatha Christine’s most famous mystery takes place on the famous train while everyone is stuck in a snowdrift or something. She loved trains too, using trains in “4:50 from Paddington” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”, for example. Not the greatest film in the world, but it has Sean Connery.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles. This movie still holds up, but the train section is much too short, in my opinion. Stupid planes and automobiles.

Snowpiercer. I HAVE NOT YET SEEN THIS MOVIE, but I plan to VERY SOON. The whole darn thing takes place on a futuristic train in the near dystopian future. And Chris “Captain America” Evans is in it. And it’s Korean so you know it’ll be effed.

I’ve already mentioned Agatha Christine, but I’ll mention just one more book. My elementary school library had a copy of Eric Wilson’s Murder on the Canadian. (An obvious nod/homage to Agatha Christie). Boy detective Tom Austen takes The Canadian from Winnipeg to Vancouver and solves a murder mystery on the way. Doesn’t this sound like it was tailor-made for me? It quickly became one of my favourite reads (along with John Bellairs, of course) and I was so happy to see that when I became a librarian eight years ago I inherited a copy in our children’s collection. I’ve always made sure that it’s available and I’ve recommended it a number of times to kids who don’t know what to read next. I took a picture of the book cover just this morning to show you that even now it’s available to borrow. Note that the cover is so old it features the Canadian Pacific colours. More recent paperback editions have updated their covers to show VIA’s blue and yellows, but there’s something nostalgic about this cover that makes me want to keep it as long as possible.

 

This cover has everything. A Train! RCMP! Even Mountains Beyond Mountains!

This cover has everything. A Train! RCMP! Even Mountains Beyond Mountains!

Thanks for indulging this shameless geekfest over trains. It has brought back so many great memories.

SO many memories.

The sounds of a train. The mournful cry of the horn across a seemingly deserted prairie landscape, with nothing but the three red blinking lights of a transmission tower in the distance to light the way. The smells of the train. The smells of the creosote and diesel. The wonderful smell of stale cigars in the fabric of ancient armchairs in the dome car. The heavy doors and the crazy funhouse style shifting floors between cars. Constellations and even sometimes, if you’re lucky, northern lights through the dome car windows at night. Climbing into your cozy bed draped with a yellow and black striped VIA monogrammed HBC style wool blanket and being rocked gently to sleep by the train’s motion. The romance of it all, not romance in the sense of Valentines and chocolates, but rather in the sense of an idealized perfection of an impossible experience. The way the landscape glides silently by your bedroom window, and the gradual but seamless transition from wilderness to town to city to wilderness. The way people still come out to see a train arrive in small towns, and wave as they pass. I never miss an opportunity to wave, like I was still 12 years old. The quick friendships that you make over shared meals and shared visits which never last past the final destination. Shirley Jackson (and Shakespeare, originally) may have said that “journeys end in lovers meeting” but in the case of trains I think the journey is the love and the destination is just a second-rate afterthought.

Growing up, my Dad would love to sing around the house. Whenever we were on holidays, particularly in the States, he would wake us all up with a spirited “Good Morning America, I love you!” and then hum wordlessly as we grumbled and stumbled out of bed. This was almost clock-work on American holidays, as common as a “rise and shine” might have been back home. It wasn’t until years later, after he was gone, that I learned that he wasn’t just making some dumb song up. It was an actual song, although he wasn’t getting the words right (another classic trait of the men in my family, whether on purpose or by accident). It was a folk song called “The City of New Orleans” and yeah, you guessed it: It’s about a train.

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I’m thinking Arby’s

Sometimes restaurants close with much fanfare, generating nostalgically fuelled newspaper retrospectives and meaningful “last visits”. Other times, restaurants close without a word of warning.

The second way happened to me a couple of weekends ago. I had my “every-two-years-whether-I-need-it-or-not” eye exam out in the old neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d head out there and then have a little quiet afternoon by myself before heading home for supper.

Well, as it turned out, our daughter caught wind of the fact that “Daddy was getting new glasses” and she couldn’t WAIT to come and help me pick out my new pair. This didn’t really bug me (it bugged me a little bit, to be honest), but actually it meant that I could get my eye exam AND new glasses picked out in the same afternoon, even if it meant I was sacrificing a little “me” time in the process.

As we got close to the eye doctor, I saw a sight that LITERALLY forced me to the side of the road.

It was this:

photo[1]

Closed. I had to pull over to investigate. Closed, as in “closed for renovations, see you in 6 weeks!”? or closed as in “It’s all over, mate. You shouldn’t be eating this rubbish anyway”. Sadly, it was the second kind of “closed”. A typed-up sign on the front door elaborated a wee bit. It said something to the effect of “we thank our loyal customers for many years of business. Your smiling faces were a joy to us every day.” I’m paraphrasing, I couldn’t get a good photo of the sign as the tape on one corner gave way and the sign dangled away from the door, but it definitely used the term “smiling faces”, I can tell you that.

Well, this was a blow. Arby’s has been a special place in my life for almost as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, my family, the four of us, would have season’s tickets to what was then called “Actor’s Showcase”. I think they call it “The Theatre for Young People” now or something. They even have their own theatre downtown, but back then we saw plays in a converted gas station in a part of town called “Osb0rne Village”. The plays were always on a Saturday afternoon, and I always looked forward to our play day. They happened about ever six weeks throughout the winter. We’d get down there a little bit early and poke through a couple of bookstores before making our way to the theatre. Afterwards, we always went out for supper as a family. We went to a variety of places: one favourite was this place called “Country Kitchen” on main street. The food was okay, but the REAL attraction was getting a seat near the window so we could watch the trains go by. In fact, alert readers of this blog will recall a story about my Mom vs. a particularly douchy Jaguar driver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this incident took place after a supper of trainspotting at the Country Kitchen. My Dad liked trains as much as the rest of us, but whenever he got his pick, he would choose Arby’s.

Back in those days, there was only one Arby’s in town. My Mom was a saint, really, looking back on it. She didn’t really care for Arby’s at all, and the drive to the restaurant was a good half hour from the downtown, and yet  more often than not we ended up at Arby’s. After supper, I remember that warm, comforting feeling of being filled with Beef ‘n Cheddars and climbing into the back seat of our warm car and getting all cozy and falling asleep as the sun set and as we drove home.

I would always get a Beef ‘n Cheddar, my Dad would get a “Giant”, which was just a regular roast beef sandwich, but with twice the meat. I can’t honestly remember what my brother and my Mom had, they probably changed their order up from visit to visit, but it was always a Beef ‘n Cheddar for me and a Giant for my Dad. Curly fries for everyone. That goes without saying. They even had these deluxe baked potatoes that came with all kinds of crazy toppings and they came in these little domes that would steam up from the time you took your tray from the counter to your seat. I would quite often get a baked potato instead of curly fries. My favourite was the mushroom and swiss cheese option. In addition to the mushrooms and swiss cheese, the potato would be doused in butter and I would eat the whole damn thing, skin and all.

I can’t tell you exactly what it is about a Beef ‘n Cheddar that is so good, but I’ll try. It’s the softness of the onion bun, the gooey goodness of the cheese sauce, the tenderness of the slow roasted beef, and the sweet tang of the BBQ or “Arby’s” sauce. That’s it. Sounds simple, but try one and see if you don’t agree. Sometimes, I get a craving so strong, it’s ridiculous.

Although Arby’s in general holds a special place in my heart, this location in my old neighbourhood, this “closed without fanfare” location holds a particular special spot in my personal mythology. I still remember the day that the Arby’s opened in our neighbourhood. My Dad came home from work, all smiles. “Guess what’s going up in front of the hospital? GUESS! We don’t have to go to Transcona anymore! It’s an Arby’s!” It was the outline of the ten gallon hat that gave it away. We went on opening day, much to my Mom’s chagrin. We went there after church. We went there WAY more than we probably should.

My friend Ed worked in a comic book shop across the street from the Arby’s for many years, and on Sundays he was the only staff person in the building. It virtually became an unofficial “hang out” spot for me and my friends. We joked and we called it “The Eddie Show” because was like a late night talk show host, sitting behind his desk at the front of the store, and each of his friends would make their way over throughout the afternoon. “Who will be the first guest on the Eddie Show today?” was a common question. Whenever I made a guest appearance on “The Eddie Show”, you just KNOW I came with a greasy bag of curly fries and Beef  ‘n Cheddars for my best bud. They sometimes would have these crazy deals like “5 Beef ‘n Cheddars for $5”. I mean, Jesus, who is buying 5 Beef ‘n Cheddars at one time? That’s right: this guy. I remember showing up at “The Eddie Show” with the 5 in the bag and Ed saying, “You’re not planning on eating ALL of those here, are you?” Actually, I was, but I felt a bit guilty, so I gave Ed one.

As fate would have it, when I was hospitalized in my late teens for Depression, I was on the psych-ward in my neighbourhood hospital, a short walk from Arby’s. I didn’t take me long to figure out the morning routine. The breakfast carts would be wheeled onto the ward. We would eat and then we would line up for our morning meds. I learned to befriend the kitchen staff that would bring our breakfasts. I would ask them if they knew what was on the menu for lunch, and if it was something terrible, I would spend my morning trying to arrange a day pass so I could go out “for a walk” around 11:30 am and come back around 1:30 or 2. Reader, I’m not ashamed to say that this “walk” was a ruse and it would always lead me to the Arby’s.

Years later, I remember this one time when I was having a bad reaction to a new medication. Cold sweats, shakes, diarrhea, bad thoughts, you name it. I was anxiously pacing in the waiting room to see my psychiatrist when my then girlfriend (now my wife) showed up unexpectedly with a bag of (you guessed it!) Beef ‘n Cheddars. I know without a doubt in my mind that there is a time and a place for lithium, zoloft, paxil, and prozac. I also know that at that moment I don’t think I could have been any happier to see that familiar ten gallon hat logo on the side of that greasy brown bag. Oh, and my girlfriend too.

I remember a time about fifteen years ago when I received one of the worst phone calls you could probably ever imagine. It was my aunt, telling me that my beloved cousin, my favourite cousin, Cal, was driving home from up north with his wife and his two kids and some how he had driven off the road and flipped the car and was killed instantly. His wife sustained a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, his 2-year-old son had a concussion and by the grace of God his eight month old son was not harmed at all……car seats.

We all gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house, stunned, as families do in moments of unspeakable tragedy. We were hoping the reports were wrong somehow, but they weren’t. I know that sometimes when you’re in shock and you are grieving you don’t feel much like eating. Not my family. My uncle Doug turned to me, and asked if I was getting hungry. I said I guess so, and he pulled some money out of his wallet and said, “Why do you go out and get some food for everyone?” So I did. It felt weird to be elevated to the status of “the guy who went and did things for my uncle”, because that was my cousin Cal’s job.

But I did it anyway, and without even thinking about it, I went to Arby’s.

I didn’t even take orders. I just got a bunch of Beef ‘n Cheddars, Philly Beef and Swisses, a few regulars, a “Giant” for my uncle (just like his brother), and a whole whack of curly fries. When I got back to the house, my awesome family sat down together and ate Arby’s in one of the darkest chapters of our collective family’s life. We figured out who was going to go up to Thompson to help with my cousin’s wife and kids, we started the impossible talk of planning a funeral for someone in his late 30’s, and even then, in our grief, we told stories. Our favourite stories of Cal. How Cal introduced me to the band U2 and gave me his cassette copy of “The Joshua Tree”, how Cal always made time to talk to you, was interested in what you were all about, was always wanting to talk about books, movies, tv shows. This sounds corny, I know, but somehow through sharing these stories over this impromptu family reunion Arby’s meal, I knew everything was going to be okay.

So yeah.

Arby’s has a weirdly special place in my heart, in my family’s personal mythology. I could go on. I could tell the story about how my wife and I visited an Arby’s in Marshall, Michigan and how they had fresh homemade iced tea in a ceramic cistern that you poured yourself. I could tell you about the time my Uncle Jack and Aunt Doris were driving back from Arizona and my Uncle Jack was wearing a ball cap in the Arby’s and my aunt (who can have a loud, commanding voice) shouted, “Jack, take that damn hat OFF!” and my uncle looked around the restaurant and saw four other guys take their hats off too. I could tell these stories, but I won’t. Otherwise we’ll be here all day. When I eat at an Arby’s, I think of my Dad, my cousin, my uncle, all lost to me now.

Sure, there’s still the one on the other end of town, and sure, there’s still one in the mall, but to see the neighbourhood location close, the one with so much history, without so much as a “last supper” opportunity is hard to take. As it turns out, my “last supper” at that location happened to be on Good Friday last year, before a viewing of Zoolander. The Beef ‘n Cheddars delivered, but sorry, fanbase, still not a Ben Stiller fan!

I got back in the car and drove on to the eye doctor’s appointment. As it turned out, my eyes passed “with flying colours” and I didn’t need new glasses anyway. When we broke this news to our daughter, she starting bawling right there in the show room. I almost said, “Come on. Cheer up. Let’s go get some Beef ‘n Cheddars,” but I caught myself. In a minute, I felt like bawling too.

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“The Queen Ate Here…”

This past Thursday I was checking in on Twitter and a rumour began circulating. Hours later it was confirmed. “Kelekis was closing”.

Kelekis is this small, almost hole-in-the-wall, restaurant in the “north end” of town, an area known for its rich immigrant history and working class ethic. There’s actually a roof-top as you cross over into the north end that has different coloured shingles that spell out “Welcome to the North End. People Before Profit”. It’s that kind of place.

Peoplebeforeprofit

This restaurant has been called an “institution” because it has been around for so long, and in cases of places that have been around for ever, you just expect that they will continue to do so. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be bringing my grandchildren to this place forty years from now, and telling them that my grandparents, their great-great-grandparents would bring my Mom, their great-grandmother, there when she was a girl. But Thursday night’s news has changed all of that.

All of a sudden there is this urgency to go there, and eat there, and experience it one last time, or hopefully more than one last time. Two or three times. We have til the end of January, but I don’t want to wait. I want to go now. And it’s not like one of those places that you remember from your childhood and feel nostalgia for, this is one of those places where I’ve been going for my whole life and have been continuing to do so. I was there only a few weeks ago.

Why is it closing? The same old sad story you hear everywhere else these days. Mary Kelekis, the youngest daughter of the restaurant founder will be turning 88 later this month and there isn’t anyone in the next generation willing to continue running it. Mary never married, and has devoted her life to the running of the family business. Day or night, you will see Mary behind the counter, overseeing the kitchen and handling all payments. Kelekis has always been “cash only”, much to the consternation of various Kelekis virgins who are forced to go out to the drug store next door to use the ATM. Anyone who knows anything knows that you need to bring cash to Kelekis.

Mary’s father, Chris Kelekis, came to Canada in 1917 from Greece and converted an old Model-T into a chip wagon from which he began selling chips and hotdogs in 1931.  In the 1944 and 1945 they opened two “chip stands” on Main St, and in 1955 decided to close one and expand the other to include a dining room.

Kelekis Chip Shop Main Flora Jun 9 1944 Trib opening June 10 1944[1]

This restaurant holds a special place in my family’s personal mythology. My Mom, born in 1941 and raised as an unrepentant “north end girl”, remembers driving to visit her grandmother on the other side of the river. On their way home, they would drive over the Redwood Bridge in her father’s pickup truck and she and her brother would wait with bated breath to see whether the truck would turn right to go on home, or whether it would turn left, which meant a trip to Kelekis! In those days, my Mom tells me, vehicles didn’t have turn signals, so the custom was that you would actually open your door to show your intention to turn left. My Mom and her brother would cheer when their dad, my grandpa, would reach for his door handle at the stop light.

68474_4303677627674_737403343_n

My Mom actually remembers going to Kelekis when it was just a window, which makes sense, because she would have been 14 when the restaurant was expanded. She tells me that every Sunday after church her lifelong friends, Val and Christine and her would head to Kelekis for lunch. Every Sunday.

I’ve been going to this restaurant for my whole life. Since I was a baby, really. I remember going there with my grandma and grandpa, with my Mom and Dad (a new convert since he grew up in the west end, not the north end. My Mom still loved him, though.) And later with my wife and now daughter.

Kelekis Nov 12 1955[1]

The wonderful thing about Kelekis is that it never changes. I mean, it is exactly the same as it was when they expanded in 1955. The menu has been expanded a bit to include sandwiches and soups and salads and whatnot, but die hard traditionalists will order either a hotdog, a cheeseburger, or a Yale buger (a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato), and that’s it. Don’t even bother showing me a menu, because when I go to Kelekis I want one of those things. Oh, and of course the chips. The world-famous shoestring chips. The best in the city, in my opinion. The best anywhere, actually. The plates, the plastic bowls in which the chips are served, the glasses for Coke, all seem to date back to the 1950s. Same with the sizes. If you order a “large” Coke, the glass is roughly the equivalent of a “small” to most burger places today. If you order a small, God help you. Same with the chips. The large isn’t all that large. If you’re super hungry, Kelekis won’t do it for you, I’m afraid. I guess people ate less in the 1950s. But it’s not about portion size, it’s about tradition. Another tradition is the “wall of fame” in the dining room, which sits back behind the “counter” section at the front of the restaurant. I’ve eaten in both places over the years, but there’s something special about getting seating in the diner on the “wall of fame” side. The “wall of fame” is a wall of mostly black and white publicity photos of famous people who have eaten at Kelekis. (The opposite wall is a full mural telling the Kelekis family story: also very cool). The thing about the wall of fame is that Kelekis probably reached its height of popularity in the 1970s, and the wall of fame reflects that. Well over half of the celebrities up there are now long dead or forgotten. People like Al Waxman, or local politicians or sports heroes from back in the day. Apparently Kelekis had a rule that you had to be asked by the restaurant for your photo. If you happened to be a “celebrity” and dropped off a photo, it would go into the office, but not on the wall. Dennis Quaid found this out the hard way a few years ago when he was in town filming a movie. Our former (and probably most famous) Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, visited Kelekis in the 1960’s at the height of Trudeaumania, and was one of the first politicians to make a point of coming into the “north end”. Since then it has become trendy to visit the spot, and in fact some politicians have tried to get their photo on the wall for their own publicity, but the house rule still applies.

Kelekis September 15 1945[1]

The waitresses are notoriously crusty, and you might just get yelled at if you’re not careful. My father-in-law was tossed from Kelekis as a teen for “causing a ruckus” and he does not share the same love for the place as we all do. You are to write your own order down on the pad at your table. If you want everything on your dog or burger you write “W” next to it for “the works”. That’s north end code, people. When the waitress gathers up the orders and reviews them, if she sees  the “W” a look of understanding will sometimes pass between you and her. A knowing glance that says, “You’ve been here before.”

A quick word on the washrooms. First, DO NOT USE THEM UNLESS YOU’RE DESPERATE. Second, YOU HAVE TO USE THEM AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE. I was terrified of the washrooms when I was a kid. You had to go through the kitchen and down the back stairs into the cellar. You had to walk past these crazy looking, almost medieval devices used to peel and slice the potatoes that eventually become the world-famous chips, past weird prison-cell looking lockers that hold supplies until you get to the tiny washrooms in the depths of the place. There is a sign on the front door that says washrooms are meant for customers only, but seriously, they’re really not meant for humans, period. Still, it’s part of the experience.

I remember eating there one time and you could tell that this guy was taking his girlfriend there for the first time and he was trying to impress her. He was a north end kid, you could tell, and he was damn proud of this restaurant, his restaurant. “Ya gotta have the hotdog. They’re made special for here. Just here. See these pictures? All these people ate here, and they liked it. The queen ate here.”

It’s true that the queen’s picture is up on the wall, but it is separate, not grouped in among the rest. I’m pretty sure the queen DIDN’T eat here, or even visit here. I think it was just a sign of respect, especially back in the old days, and they never updated the photo. It certainly wasn’t signed or anything, but I wasn’t about to steal this kid’s thunder. He was on a roll, impressing his girlfriend, and it was really cute and wonderful to eavesdrop on their conversation. To hear this passion for this special place, a passion I shared equally. And what do I know? For all I know, the queen DID eat there, had the hotdog, and liked it.

Pass the mustard, Phillip!

Pass the mustard, Phillip!

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