The Sea

Uncanny
I hear waves 
at the seashore
in the blustery gusts
through the naked maples
and the whispering pines
that line my morning walk
into spring

a visceral melt
into the surf.

today would be 
a red flag day 
at the beach
waves too strong 
to tame

but to the trees
flexing overhead
it’s all the same

What Do You Know?

Acutely or peripherally?

I don’t think that any one person can know everything. Most knowledge is peripheral, that is why we seek out specialists. Some of us are lucky enough or mindful enough to have acute knowledge on topics that interest us and bring us joy and satisfaction. 

I have peripheral knowledge on most subjects. Layman’s knowledge. I sorta know how cooking works, automobiles, basic tools, electricity, plumbing. I know the basic belief systems of all the major religions, understand the workings of several layers of government from several different nations. I can hold my own at most social gatherings and appear knowledgeable and able to form opinions on many topics. I, like many others can live with peripheral knowledge because I have tools to research and I know how to get resources pertinent to any subject I may be curious about. I also know who not to consult.

Some people have acute knowledge on a specific subject like I have with music. I know a lot, but there are huge gaps. Some of the musicians I play with know music that I have only heard of. For example, I have never knowingly listened to Iron Maiden or Kiss. I am continually learning new things about music to expand my horizons, but, alas, there is only so much one can stuff in one’s head and my interest is narrowly tapered. I have peripheral knowledge of opera, twelve tone composition and punk rock. Even subjects I am well-versed in like Jazz and R&B and folk-rock and Bob Dylan are not exhaustive. I know more than most, but less than some. 

I saw a tee shirt in a tourist trap in Chinatown that said “I don’t need Google, my wife knows everything” (there was another that said “husband”) which is kind of funny in a passive aggressive way. I used to say of my friend Danny that I didn’t need Google because I had Danny. He could talk in depth on a plethora of subjects as unrelated as “fractals” and “organic farming” and “taxi licenses” or “water pumps”. I was locked in a bathroom once, as the handle had a malfunction. I really could not figure it out, so I phoned him up and he McGyvered me out of the situation. Useful practical knowledge about everyday things and general physics and tools and then silly amazing pockets of knowledge about bizarre phenomena are part of what made talking to Danny a delight. Danny is no more, so Google is a useful if not as loveable resource. 

I read recently in “The New Yorker” a story that made reference to Jane Eyre. I asked Sharon if she had read Jane Eyre , and she responded “anybody who is a reader has read it” but I am a reader, and I don’t think I ever did. It might be a gender related experience. 

I often hear from students the phrase “oh, I know that” or “I’ve seen that” and if I press them about it, ask what it is about, or to describe it. It usually is the case that they may have heard or seen it peripherally and don’t really “know” it. Mere exposure to something does not make one more knowledgeable.

When I was in grade 4, it was discovered after a series of tests that I had dyslexia. My mum looked into resources to help me, and I went to see a Dr. Kirschner who was a specialist. I had to do many exercises that involved eye-hand co-ordination such as swatting a rubber ball suspended from the ceiling on an elastic string and walking along a rail among others. The most important homework he gave me, though, was to “notice everyday things”

People who go on walks with me or who are passengers in my car know that I am not exactly a “point A to point B” person. I will not stop noticing things and revelling in their existence. I can’t pass a blossoming tree without sniffing the flowers. I enjoy interesting buildings, rocks, trees,and abandoned spaces. I prefer driving a country road to the highway. I love old cars. I love used record stores and flea markets. I prefer to shop in small stores rather than mega superstores. 

I try to be acute and in the moment. To fully experience what is here today. One day, before I had kids (pre-k…or “j” as I call it) I was in Smith’s Cove, Nova Scotia at the 9 bedroom “cottage” which was the family cottage of my first wife. I woke up to the sound of surf, seagulls, and Beethoven being played live on the piano. It was an exquisite moment and I went into the kitchen to make a coffee and intended to sit on the porch in the sun and watch the dew evaporate to the sound of Beethoven. In the kitchen was a guest of my brother-in-law with headphones on listening to heavy metal while he coloured in panes for a comic book he was hired to put out. The juxtaposition of my world views\ and his at this point was so clear to me. Why anyone would choose to block out the Beethoven and sit inside under a fluorescent light rather than enjoy the glory of the morning was beyond me.  

Learning and transcribing other people’s music is a great example of listening acutely. Sometimes a song I want to learn and may have heard dozens if not hundreds of times reveals a twist or hook that is beyond what a casual listener would be able to discern. Maybe a diminished chord mistaken for something else. I love music that has chords with notes in the bass other than the root. G/A for example has the 9th degree as the bass tone. D/F# is another common type of chord especially in singer/songwriter music. Sometimes a chord can be interpreted several ways depending on where it leads and where it comes from. Sometimes it defies description. When I learned “You’re a big Girl Now” by Bob Dylan, the D/F# that leads to the  B minor chord where the singing starts struck me as particularly interesting and kind of jarring, but perfect. Usually a chord before a Bmi would be an F#7 or an f# minor or perhaps a diminished chord. None of those could possibly be as effective as the one Dylan ultimately chose. A similar thing happened to me where I tried to pick up the chords to a song made more famous by the Beatles “Til There Was You” I was doing great just from memory until I was temporarily stymied by  a faulty memory. The chord I was missing was a Bb minor that came after a G minor….I heard other things that weren’t quite right….the obvious C7 after G minor……my memory could not retrieve this little morsel until the person who had asked me to learn it to play with him said “Bb minor” and again, it was perfect. Not an obvious choice. I love puzzles like this. 

I also listen to music for pleasure. I am not always analyzing the piece or trying to understand the lyrics, or counting measures. Sometimes the joy of listening without understanding is immensely enjoyable. I recently put on a J.J. Cale record that I am less familiar with and it took me into feelings and thoughts that ultimately led to these musings. I was not actively listening so much as just passively hearing while resting and the feelings were subliminal. I am only recognizing them in retrospect.

I am one of the lucky ones freed from Plato’s cave. Well, What do you know?

Look Up

As I put out the recycling bin last night as I do every Sunday night, I gazed up at the stars in the clear sky. I noticed that they seemed clearer. Closer, even. I wondered if it was just my imagination. I live in a suburb, and there is less light here than in the city. The sky looked like the night sky of my Laurentian youth (before the night lights for ski hills) or fond respite at Danny’s farm in Baldwin’s Mill near the Vermont border.

I read a post today from a friend who noticed the sky last night as well. He lives near Huntington so, his sky would usually be clearer than mine anyway. His opinion of last night’s sky validated my own. I think that perhaps with less commuting, less airplanes in the sky and less industry, less diversion the world may be showing us how to heal.

Look up!

I just finished reading “The Inconvenient Indian” by Thomas King. Sharon says she has never seen me read a book so fast. I think she is exaggerating. I read Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles VOL.1” very quickly as well. I tend to read things quickly that excite me. I am a dyslexic who reads well. I struggle with boring but adore nurturing.

Thomas King writes in style that reminds me of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Dry and witty, but poignant and pointed. I so admire the writings of all of these authors. King (I feel like using the more familiar “Thomas” as I have just spent intimate time with his book) talks quite frankly about the dubious interactions between aboriginal people in North America and “whites”.

I am white. The people who invaded and colonized this continent can be lumped into this category even though none of the terminology describing the many native tribes works, or the invading nationalities of settlers really works either except “settler”.

Semantics aside, my heritage is appalling.

Way back in 1066, my Norman ancestors invaded England, doing the dirty work for the aristocracy back in France. We became anglicized and continued being non-aristocrats for centuries.

On my recent trip to England and Wales I became aware in a visceral way of my heritage. and the whole notion of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and privilege and not privileged which had been festering for a while became crystal clear in my mind. As I trace my family tree, I can see that my ancestors were clerks, stonecutters, farmers, teachers, until my father and mother who both had post-secondary education and were considered professionals. All of them clearly middle class. Yet to hear my grandfather talk about England you’d have thought we were all Nobility. My dad used to say that Papa never forgave him for not being born in Britain which is odd because my Papa emigrated FROM Britain.

This arrogance propagated by movies such as “The Battle Of Britain” and songs like “Rule Brittania” are a part of my fabric. God Save The Queen…..what the hell for?

I grew up being a proud Canadian not questioning my place in society and feeling somehow superior to others by our “he’s Canadian, you know” mentality about people who “made it”. Superior to Americans in particular, but actually everybody in a very passive aggressive manner. “Sorry, (asshole!)” I don’t think I was alone, it was particularly Anglo centric and rah rah rah “We The North” attitude long before the phrase was coined.

My eyes opened up to much in the world through my friendship with Charlie Biddle. Charlie and I shared a lot of time when I was in my early twentiesand he, in his fifties. Charlie was an American married to a Québécoise. Charlie was black, and a jazz musician. Through a Charlie and Constance I learned much about racism (black and French) and I woke up to the fact that my upbringing to that point had made me of that ilk.

I changed. I worked at improving my French, I became more worldly, open to other sometimes contrasting points of view and more knowledgeable about subjects that would have been unthinkable to people in my family just a generation before.

I still feel pangs of patriotism if I hear O Canada played at the Olympics, but my geographic fluke of being Canadian kind of ends there. I am thankful to live in a country that has universal health care and space, but not thankful to be in a country that has bigots and selfish frightened people among us who sometimes gain political power.

Didn’t think much about native rights one way or the other. I started to become aware around the time of the Oka crisis. I heard many people shitting on the protesters and in particular on Ellen Gabriel who was an articulate and unwavering spokesperson for the Mohawk. It was clear to me that building a golf course on native burial ground was not right. Many of my friends disagreed. Particularly Franco friends whose ties to the Roman Catholic Church although severed, were as in place as my British roots. The land in question had been given to the Sulpician order by the King of France after France had claimed it from the people who had already been there for centuries.

Then, a few years back my daughter had a room mate who is Mohawk. My daughter’s friend referred to us as “settlers” which bothered me at the time, my knee-jerk being that I was born here and my grand parents immigrated.

All on the backs of colonialism, and expansionism and opportunism, capitalism, etc. Just like the marauding bastards that invaded England and kicked out the other marauding bastards who had kicked out the other marauding bastards……

I guess “settlers” is better than “marauding bastards”

The recent pipeline protests with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation brought up some quotes by Thomas King Tom “The Inconvenient Indian”. Sharon bought the book and read me pertinent passages which piqued my interest, and no sooner had she put the book down than I picked it up.

Thomas King wrote:

“The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.”

I am an ally to so many causes. This cause resonates with me in particular as the First Nations are tied to Mother Earth. This is an important book for all North Americans to read!

The Covid19 crisis has pushed everything else out of the news, but we can all hope that Mother Earth is returning from the brink.

I am including some ideas here from a tract by Francis Weller:

“There are shifts happening along the fault lines of this evolving crisis.The insane pace of modernity is being brought to a screeching halt.The dominant ideology of power/privilege is cracking, coaxing a more compassionate and heartfelt response to our mutually entangled lives.Suddenly, productivity is not the primary value, but connection, affection, love, encouragement.In the pause of sheltering in place, we remember neighbors and kindness, mutuality and empathy.” -Francis Weller

Some Other Time

In this time of self-isolating, I have been reaching out to the tendrils of my extended family. Last night I spoke with my older brother Guy. When I reminded him that March 17, was the day our dad died, he told me he had had a conversation with someone just this week and he mentioned the song that I played at Dad’s funeral.

Some Other Time is from the Broadway musical “On The Town”. It is sung by several different characters (sailors and girls) on stage as they lament the fact that the sailors are in town for one day and have to report back to the ship at day’s end.

Guy said that if you heard the song from the soundtrack, it might be easy to escape the poignancy and potency of the song. He was extolling the virtues of my version to his friend and told me it offered such comfort to my mum at the time.

Understand that I seldom get such kind words from my brother who I always looked up to as a child and continuing into the present. I was the little brother who broke his model airplanes, dipped in to his coin collection and as younger brothers can be, was a hero worshipping pest. I even picked up French Horn in imitation of him and rode a motorcycle for a time like he did. His words mean so much to me I decided to record it today.

I discovered the song when I was going through a Bill Evans phase. Bill Evans is (was) a beautiful interpreter of standard repertoire and a brilliant composer and pianist. I was hesitant to pick up the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans record because I associated Tony Bennett with Bel Canto singing (loud and emotive..to my ears “over the top” and corny) I was right to pick up the album and wrong in my assessment of his singing. I still prefer Sinatra, Ella, Sarah, Chet Baker, but Tony and Bill had a remarkable and unmistakable intimacy. Bill brought out the tenderness in Tony that I can now hear in subsequent music of his that I have purchased.

It’s a bit unfair to compare. Guitars have only six strings and a piano has 88 keys and even though both a guitarist and pianist (most of them anyway) have ten fingers. In so many ways the piano has a wider palette not to mention a sustain pedal. In any case, I transcribed the essentials of Bill’s interpretation to my use and learned the lyrics as well.

I have attempted to record “Some Other Time” several other times, and there was always something “off”. Maybe too fast, maybe a string out of tune, voice not up to par, a misplaced lyric…. etc. Oh well… we’ll get it some other time….

There is a good live duet performance by me and Alto legend Dave Turner somewhere on the internet.

Today’s performance was OK except at the very end I had to cut off the sustain of my excellent instrument (Greenfield GF) because one of the dogs decided to go downstairs and the sound of his nails annoyed me. I edited out the F bomb at the end, but left some of my scowl. I bet that never happened to Tony and Bill.

Just as this year is memorable for the Coronavirus, St. Patrick’s Day in 2002 is seared into my memory like it was yesterday. I am Including a link to that story here: https://vignettesandbagatelles.blog/?s=St.+Patrick%27s+Day

I Don’t Want To Wear A Hat

I met up several years ago with my good friend Terry to catch up and just enjoy each other’s company over a cup of tea. As we settled in to our seats he asked me how things were going? At the time my life was seemingly spinning out of control. I had a mother who was fading away and who lived several hours away. I had a teenage daughter who was struggling with life, another teenage daughter who wasn’t, but felt neglected. My job was stressful, and my boss was Narcissistic. My marriage was straining (actually failing) and my art was suffering. I said; “I wake up and put on my Dad hat, I drive to work and put on my teacher hat, I come home and put on my husband hat, there were many more hats, but you get the idea. He said “Sounds like you are wearing too many hats!” which was true. He then asked “How are your migraines?” to which I replied “Worse than ever!”. He said “Maybe you should take off a few of those hats!”. He was right, of course.

The thing is, we wear hats to define ourselves. Nothing says “British Banker” more than a Bowler. Cowboy hat on a musician means you aren’t listening to Jazz. A beret means you are artsy (or a fascist). Work hats are obvious. A uniform. We often wear hats just to fancy ourselves up. Hats are an accessory that people notice first (unless maybe you have no nose, are green, or naked). Just the other day someone asked me “Which one is Ted?” and I said “the guy with the Peeky Binders Hat”. I didn’t have to describe any further. Some hats we put on out of necessity like a helmet or a toque to protect ourselves. I have noticed that many people who are balding or bald wear hats to lower the glare or frame their face.

The good thing about most bald men that I know is they have nice shaped heads. Baldness suits them. My head is a block. If I were bald, they’d get out the pitchforks and torches and I would scare little children. I have a full head of hair which is nature’s way of protecting the aesthetic of the environment. My head is also very large (I was going to say “huge”, but that might be an exaggeration). My chiropractor was working on my head and remarked: “Ian, this is the biggest head I’ve ever worked on!” I replied “There goes my self esteem!”

I wrote this song shortly after my visit with Terry. It came out in one fell swoop. Plopped in my lap fully formed. I was quite pleased to have written something that sounded so balanced and catchy with so little effort. I performed it as early as July 2008 at The Yellow Door and another engagement in January 2009. Then I sorta shelved it because everything in my life came to a head and music became secondary to survival. I recorded a demo of it at home in 2010 (the xylophone sound is an Orff instrument I had borrowed from the school I was working at)) and I always intended to re-record it and put it out on an album. I returned to it last week and listened. I decided to master it on-line to see what that might produce. Lo and behold, I am very pleased with the result. The guitar and voice have a presence I was unable to access in my home studio.

Seeing as almost no-one buys music anymore, I thought I should let this song go. It is worthy of being heard. Best way is going to be a video. I asked some friends to submit some goofy shots. Here it is.

The greatest hat I ever wore
Kept my four corners warm
Sheltered me from every storm
Man, I miss that hat!

Some hats are too loose
Some hats fit too tight
Some hats I get to choose
But nothing seems to fit right

I don’t want to wear a hat
The ceiling’s low and my head’s too fat

I wear a hat when I go to work
Another when I get home
I wear a hat when I’m out with friends
I even wear one when I’m alone

I can’t remember when my head was bare
Since I was young, there’s always been something there
Always on the go, always on the do
Always trying to try on something new

(chorus)

When you wear a hat it’s hard to dream
If you’re a dreamer your head will be splitting at the seam
Cause if your head’s too big like mine is
A hat’ll just confine this

If I gotta wear one, make it fit
Not just my head, but what’s in it
If I gotta wear one, make it cool
I’m tired of changing hats like a fool

(chorus)

In god’s house I try to keep my head bare
But prayer caps and doer caps keep slipping up there
I wish I didn’t care
What hat I wear when people stare

(chorus)
I think it’s pretty unfair
I just want to feel the wind in my hair

Empty Rooms

Revisiting troubled times is always fraught with danger. All of the “what if”‘s and “could have been”s return to the conscience. A home is a place to alter to your tastes and fill with familiar objects and keepsakes that provide comfort. Today I was finally getting around to some of my music that had been neglected if not downright forgotten and I rediscovered “Empty Rooms” and remembered the walk through video (at the end of the blog) I took of our sold house the day before the possession date. Shattered dreams and failure overshadowing the happy times and the delight of raising two wonderful children. But, to quote the Bacharach/David song, “a house is not a home”.

The music started out (I am not sure of the year) as just a guitar piece on electric guitar using a volume pedal to eliminate the attack of each note and/or swell the chords (with Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen on cymbals). I still intend to record it that way some day.

I do remember that I was very inspired after seeing an Art exhibit by Brian Eno at the “Galerie Lavelin” in Montreal called “The Quiet Room”. The article below describes the exhibit very eloquently and saves me the trouble of doing so as well. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/arts/brian-enos-quiet-revolution/article1117765/ Funny how in my mind the exhibit was called “Empty Rooms”, but I digress.

The poem came to me in the dark one night several years later while I was laying emotionally wounded on the wooden floor (visible in the video) and wondering what on earth I could do or should do about my seemingly impossible situation. It is not easy living on a volcano. I picked up the guitar and the song fell in place, distracting me from my misery.

I have recorded it several times, never quite satisfied with the result, and shelved it. My life now is vastly different from those times, so I never felt the need to express this pain anymore. Today, though, as I mixed and mastered, I finally heard it the way I wanted it so I added all of the ingredients together to make this little video. I hope it may be of some comfort to someone out there to recognize that there is light and shared experience beyond the bleakness.

The song
The walk through

The Forgotten

I wrote down the words “The forgotten” from a feeling I had while we were visiting a person we know who is having some difficulties and is at the Douglas Hospital in Verdun for observation and treatment. My intention was to write a poem about this feeling.

It was a particularly desolate winter evening. The meandering route to the poorly lit, windswept and empty parking lot was long and foreboding, forlorn and barren. The buildings that comprise the hospital were particularly dark and gloomy that night and loomed before us like a lonely forgotten castle. There was nothing welcoming about it.

I know hospitals are necessary, and are wonderful places where massive effort is put into healing. I know that there can be drama and fear as well as joy and sadness. I was only able to recall negative and depressing details from my hospital experiences that night: My father’s death bed in St. Agathe, my two weeks in isolation at the Royal Vic.as a three year old, my last visit with a dear friend who was dying of cancer and was half his adult weight when I last saw him. My mother failing and her intellect shrinking with every weekly visit for several years. Visiting my close friend Danny who kept living and defying death even with the most gruesome and insurmountable health issues. He lived, until he didn’t, but that wasn’t a hospital story. I remembered my own lonely and prolonged stay in hospital as a teen-ager. All of this burden at once as we approached the entrance. Not optimistic. The corridors may not have been dark, but my thoughts were.

As can be expected, the person we were visiting was disoriented and showed little or no affect. That is why she was there, after all. It was very sad. The “common room” where patients could receive visitors or pass time was almost empty and it’s few occupants had very little in common. Not the kind of place to meet and make friends. I noticed the clock had stopped. 3:47…..who knows how long ago? There were random(probably donated) books on shelves. Probably never been read by their previous owner nor by anyone at the hospital. They were books, though. It was then that I wrote “the forgotten” on my notepad. I thought I would come back to it and write something sad and profound about how these souls were languishing or some such nonsense. Something to match my mood.

Subsequent visits were equally gloomy, although there was more action, some medical personnel and the occasional visitor.

Today was different. We met Lucien. He was a spry old fellow wearing a toque and he went over to the piano and played a few ascending chords very lightly. He turned around and I made eye contact and I said “bravo” He sauntered over to us and told us his story about having been a patient and how he returns to volunteer and help people as he was helped. He had lost his wife of 50 years and fell into a depression. The hospital helped him deal with his dark thoughts, got him some laser surgery for his eyesight “I’m eighty, but I can see like I am twenty-four” he exclaimed cheerily. “No pills!” he added. He was delightful, thankful and graceful and encouraged any within his sphere to join him in the sunshine room tomorrow, or any day, for that matter. A hero. He had a companion with him who he had met and befriended when both were patients. They both went off to visit another room and it was clear that they had left a spark in the “common room”.

I was hesitant to walk over to the piano, but my wife encouraged me. I went and played a few chords and then seeing as no-one told me to shut up I sat down and played in earnest. I played some chords and melodies of songs I vaguely knew and was going to stop, but the room started to fill with the curious, and , it turns out, the appreciative. A woman patient said to me “N’arret pas madame” and burst out laughing when I turned around. She had assumed that with my long hair I must be female. The beard tipped her off. I sang “Golden Slumbers”, and “Caledonia” to an ever expanding and appreciative crowd. Even the nurse gave me a thumbs up.  I only took my exit when I saw someone about to make a phone call. We had to go as our parking was up.

I realized then that it was I that had “forgotten” that my skill with music can be a bridge. My fear and loathing was lifted and the room had more air and people were smiling and talking to one another. It was finally a Common room. There was joy that was lasting and abounding. I think I know how I will give back after I retire. Merci Lucien.