What’s In A Name?

When I taught music full time I would greet each group with a hello song. This served several purposes. The first was to refresh my memory of each child’s name. You can imagine that in an elementary school of 200 plus children that it was easy to forget names of children that I saw for a half hour twice a week at most. The second was to gauge the room. to see who was eager and who was laying back. The children were seated on the floor in a circle (campfire style) with me as part of the circle and the song had as many verses as there were people in the room. Hearing or saying your name in a song is important. It is an affirmation that you matter. You exist. You are famous! I would include aides and If there were visitors in the room I would include them as well. It was all very Pete Seeger!

The song I used most of the time was a little ditty I made up called : “J’aime Mon Nom” Which translates to “I Love My Name”. The children would “patsch” (clap thighs and hands on alternating beats) and we’d all sing: “J’aime mon nom, J’aime mon nom, J’aime mon nom, J’aime mon nom” And then I’d sing and gesture to a child “Je m’appelle….” and the person chosen sang their name. This is a very effective way to read the room and get even the slightest effort and engagement from even the non-engaging students.

in the higher grades I would try and drop this because I already knew their names, and I had lots to stuff into the half hour together, but the children would ask for it, being lovers of routine. It didn’t hurt.

Teachable moments would arise from this according to the situation. On Hallowe’en I’d ask for the name of the character they were disguised as. Several times a child would say that they didn’t like their name so we’d change it to “Je N’aime pas mon nom”. We could use it to access different activities such as: your favourite hockey player’s name, your “girl/boyfriend” (imagine the giggles and/or horror), favourite breakfast, favourite teacher, etc. The opportunities for expression were only limited by the imagination, so, in my case, limitless.

One day, as a grade three class entered, I happened to have a rubber rat on my piano which piqued their curiosity. The reason I own a rubber rat is another short story which I will try to synopsize here.

Before teaching at the School Board I had worked for a decade as a music therapist with children with Autism, PDD, etc. Our Music Therapy room was in a basement of our school in Westmount. We were two therapists who usually worked together with small groups of children and their “shadows” (educators). One day my co-therapist wordlessly gave me the hand sign that she needed to use “the facilities” down the hall and I understood. When she returned, she was stammering and utterly speechless. I eventually made out through her gesturing the words “rat” and “dans la toilette”. She was utterly freaked out! I went down the hall and there was a small rat swimming in the toilet. I flushed, and it disappeared back into the sewers. Bye bye rat. We got some maintenance workers to install mesh and the problem was solved.

Until I saw a Hallowe’en toy at the dollar store…. A life size black rat with red eyes and a squeaker inside. OF COURSE I HAD TO HAVE IT. I bought it and when I got to work, I put it in my co-worker’s desk drawer. I was not in the room when she opened her drawer. I was upstairs, but I still heard her scream…. I got to the room and Marianne was standing outside the room making similar gestures to several days previous. I got the rat and showed her that it was a prank. The horror switched to anger and I was chopped liver for the rest of the day. The next day we were back to normal and she could laugh about her reactions. All was fine until a month later when the rubber rat “appeared” on the piano as Marianne was sitting down to play. This actually went on for months…. I even snuck it into her car!

So, that was the rat story. Back to the story at hand. The rat went into a box and followed me around to several schools and stayed in the box until I put it on my desk with the intention of “naming” it in a song.

I sat in the circle with the kids and said “I have a rat. The poor rat doesn’t have a name. Can we think up a name for a rat that has never been used before?” I sang: ” j’aime mon rat….” I named him something like “zgworrrdndillybop mc wa wa” as an example. I asked the children if they thought that name had ever been used before. As the song (and the rat)went around the circle, names like “Blackie” and “Ratty” were tried. I would ask the class if they thought those names had ever been used before. Most agreed they were not original. As we got further there were many creative examples: “George” , “Matilda”, ” Queen Rat” etc. Not original. Some children tried names in foreign tongues I would poll the class after every try and most agreed that there was a strong possibility that somewhere on earth at some point in time there was a rat that had received this name before. One kid tried “Ratatouille” and another said that was Disney’s imagination which set off even more discussion. It was all very educational and creative and fun. I then had an idea. I asked the class if they had ever heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin? To my amazement (and horror) none of them had!!!!!!!! I said “We are out of time, but I will read it to you next time. As fate would have it, I was reminded by a student that it was a double period that day as I was doing a favour to their teacher who had an appointment and it was a prep period for me. Woo Hoo!

I love stories! I love reading stories aloud to children. I was read to, I read to my own children and my nieces and nephews. I could not believe that by third grade, these children had not been exposed to this wonderful story.

I read it to them off the internet complete with “interjected lies” such as: “then they grabbed a burger at Harvey’s” just to see how attentive they were. I fielded questions throughout and I used all sorts of funny voices for the King, the girl, the imp, etc. The kids were rapt.

Their teacher arrived to take them back to their class and the kids all groaned. They told me that the story was amazing, the best class ever One boy asked where to get that story and told me that I “made the words come alive” and they never realized old stories could be so much fun. I was elated that it went so well, I saw little light bulbs lit.

Almost totally unplanned, yet hugely successful. My elation of having done a good job was tempered by a sadness that many of these kids did not have the same nurturing and opportunity and privilege that I enjoyed growing up.

Bourgeois Suffering 

Sunday evening, while on a family zoom call, my brother-in-law used a term that was new to me, but the meaning of the term was extremely familiar. 

Earlier on Sunday, while grocery shopping, I was very frustrated with my shopping list which had several items on it that I had difficulty locating. There were crowded aisles and seemingly no workers to ask, my overcoat was too warm for being inside for longer than about five minutes and the omicron numbers in our province were way up. A recipe for me to get cranky. 

I was getting more and more grumpy as I went from one failure to procure to another. Even the things I did get were not quite right. I needed to get Rolled Oats (not quick). I checked the cereals. 32 different products and none of them were just oatmeal. I figured maybe they would be in the baking section. No. Maybe they were in the display of everything baking at the end of the aisle? Nope. I returned to the cereal section and found a box that did not use the word “Quick” (it did say “fast rising” or some other synonym.) I put it in the basket. Wrong!!!! I was also asked to get large zip-loc bags. There was a huge selection. I found Zip-Loc. I found large. I put it in the basket. Who knew that there are different kinds of large Zip Locs? Not me. What I bought was for vegetables and not cookies. I tried to call Sharon and see if she had any suggestions, but she was not picking up….. 

Usually I don’t let the small stuff bother me, but it was a perfect storm for exasperation and kvetching. I did not do this in public, but  did in private. . The rolled Oats SHOULD HAVE been where I looked for them! There SHOULD NOT have been so many confusing Zip Locks to choose from. There were TOO MANY people shopping and I was TOO hot. Woe IS ME!!!!

Bourgeois Suffering. A phrase coined by the Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön.

It is sort of like “First World Problem” in that, the problem at hand is not life threatening, but an inconvenience to my entitlement. A mere blip on the radar of what is important in life.  

 I was once in line a few years ago to get a coffee at The Second Cup in Westmount. There was a “Karen” ahead of me who was freaking out on the kid barrista because the franchise had run out of Mocha flavouring. The woman was quite rude and nasty to this poor kid. I was next in line and when it was my turn, I jokingly said “I guess I shouldn’t order a Mocha then?” and the the Barrista said in all seriousness: “Welcome To My Ghetto!”. I stored that away and wrote a song about it. 

Another story from around the same time was when I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and doing a cryptic crossword when the car ahead of me backed up and hit my car. I was immediately getting all my testosterone gathered to give this person a blast of shit when he scurried toward me and I rolled down my window. He said “Please forgive me!” which blew my testosterone out of the water. “Of course!” I replied. 

When I take a step back and see how silly my attitude can be in the face of trivial problems, I reset my attitude from entitlement to gratitude and things go much better. 

On Sunday, people in my age group became eligible for the booster shot (3d vaccine) and I went on-line to book, but the site kept crashing. I’d either “time out” or the slot I was hoping for became unavailable. I got frustrated but shrugged and gave up after about 30 minutes. Sharon had two devices going trying to do the same for me and she got quite flustered as well by something she could not change. She gave up after 45 minutes. I decided to try my luck with walk-in (sans rendezvous) on Monday. I tried three locations without success.

Meanwhile Sharon got me a reservation on-line for tomorrow. 

I will probably always have the feeling of Bourgeois suffering to go with my white privilege, but I have the tools to keep it in check and stay healthy. Gotta remember that “Namasté” and “Fuck You” are opposites and the first is harder to access, but better for me.

Roll into Tim’s to win….

We didn’t have adequate milk supply at the cottage, so We visited one of the Tim Horton franchises in Lachute on Saturday so Sharon could have a latté. I placed the order via the intercom and as I approached the window of the drive-thru with five bucks in hand the Tim’s worker on duty handed me the coffee and said “la madame en avant à déjà payer ton café”! Sharon insisted I give the cashier the 5$ as a tip, which the lady tried to refuse, but ultimately accepted. Win/win, right?

Yesterday we had to return to Lachute to get a baking thermometer and my sister asked if we could pick up 2 dark double doubles for her and my bro-in-law. We saw that there was a huge lineup at the same drive through, so I said “f…. it” and we drove past and up the hill to Canadian Tire for the thermometer. There was another Tim’s there, so I drove in to the parking lot, but the lineup was very long, so I thought maybe going inside and ordering would be faster. The lineup was such that I didn’t even get inside, and in the five minutes I stood there not budging, no one came out either. Again I aborted and thought we’ll just forget about the coffees. As we retraced our trip back into the centre of town, Sharon saw that the lineup there had shrunk to only a few cars. I turned in and ordered three drinks and got to the cash where the same lady served me and said “bon appetite” in the way that some English people mangle the french language on purpose(like merci buckets) and then repeated what had happened the day before: “La madame en avant à déjà payer” only this time she closed her window as fast as my dropping jaw so I couldn’t pay her a tip. It was completely surreal. How can this rarity occur twice in a row? On the way back to the cottage Sharon and I discussed the absurdity of it all and posited several theories about what may have happened and why. I think this may be how conspiracy theories get invented. Was it a Thanksgiving thing? Did she recognize my voice and decide to repay the tip from the previous day? Was it a Tim Horton Illuminati plot that tracks Anglos in green jeeps? Maybe it was a special effort by Tim’s to make people more generous and sell more coffee, or maybe it is just that some people are just kind and enjoy surprising others. It was fun. We were surprised and thankful and it put smiles on our faces. 

Small Town,Main Street, Saturday Night.

On Saturday, Sharon and I were tasked with getting pizza for the gang (my brothers, sister and all our spouses). Our rental cottage was in the hills outside of Brownsburg which is very near the town of Lachute where I had gone to High School fifty years ago.

Lachute is a hub for the surrounding agricultural community and is a fairly large small town. When I was a teen the place to get pizza from was Princess Pizza. My exact memory of that place is gone, but when I got to Main Street I did remember another place with booths that I had gone to as well. Chez Carole was still there, so I went in and ordered three huge pizzas “to go”. They told me it would be about twenty-five minutes so I went out to wait in the car with Sharon. 

The layout of the street is somewhat like a very wide boulevard. When I visit this street, I am always reminded of 50’s era movies of American small towns and/or small town scenes painted by Edward Hopper. They used to have angled (zig zag) parking, but switched to parallel.

There is parking next to the sidewalks and on either side of the median. I was parallel parked next to the median facing east. When I got in the car after placing the order Sharon remarked on the number of motorcycles and mullets she had seen. I replied “Small town, Main Street, Saturday Night” as an explanation. Clusters of teens walking in groups, older couples looking for a place to dine out, etc. Driving up and down the street itself were several restored vintage cars and many Harley Davidson motorcycles.

We watched a couple on the other side of the median getting prepared to mount their bike. Each article of biker clothing carefully put on in a ritual dance. Chaps tightened, vests attached, bandanas adjusted helmets fastened and sunglasses donned. Then some little stretches and the rider got on followed by the driver who had an extra adjustment of his junk before straddling his hog, kicked off the kick stand and fired up the electronic ignition. They rode away slowly and deliberately showing off their leather and poise. I said to Sharon that everyone is on parade tonight.

Just then we saw two identical fire engine red Mazda convertible sports cars in tandem. They slowed and the first driver made a gesture to the following driver and they parallel parked in unison. I was amazed. It was like some synchronized swimming choreography we were watching. They backed in as if attached and then went forward about a foot and then back about half that, all in unison. The passenger doors opened as one and two former trophy brides got out and turned to watch the tops of the cars glide into place and then the two drivers struggled to get out. I recognized the effort of two large bald men with bad knees attempting to look effortless. They succeeded and rounded their vehicles to join their companions and cross toward a restaurant. It struck me at the time how unhappy they presented and I imagined that the men had probably been relevantly employed in industry, but had been cruising on their initial success for the last twenty years and now were too entrenched in their ways to be able to handle any change. The expressions on the faces of the female companions had a strange fadedness to them. Bottled blondes in clothes just a wee bit too tight and shoes that pretended to be stylish, but weren’t. 

I thought that maybe these people were former classmates of mine (they certainly could have been) disguised by fifty years. My imagination placed them in this same scenario every week-end since the mid seventies. I could see at a glance that they played golf, but probably didn’t enjoy it. 

As they walked away (still synchronized on auto-pilot) I forgave myself for being so judgemental and turned to look at Sharon and I was filled with thankfulness for her, for the week-end away, for the time with my siblings at Thanksgiving.

photo by Sharon Cheema

The Story Of Jack Gas

Chapter One

This is a story about Jack Gas, a boy who grew into his name. Jack grew up as a normal boy who did normal things and everything about him screamed normal except for his name which was an easy target for the bullies at school and at the playground. He was teased mercilessly because his name sounded a bit like “jackass”.

In 6th grade, as “the puberty” visited, Jack developed quite a nervous stomach. He quite literally grew into his name. Jack became chronically flatulent. His body began producing methane at an enormous rate. Jack needed to expel this gas very frequently to avoid debilitating cramps and severe discomfort. At first, his “outbursts” arrived every five minutes or so, which Jackie tried to disguise by lifting a cheek off his chair and manually lifting and separating his buttocks to minimize the noise. Unfortunately this had the effect of making his gas “SBD” which we all know is “Silent, but deadly!”.

For some reason the farts smelled worse if there was no noise. The snap and pop of his noisier farts dispersed with a lesser olfactory effect. It was impossible for Jack to “sneak one by”. Anonymity was not an option. Everyone knew that all smells and all rude noises came from Jack Gas. This was actually convenient for some his classmates who could fart with impunity and never be blamed. A whole new perspective on “passing” gas. Jack Gas was given credit for other people’s twinkies. 

The toll on Jack Gas’s school/social life was extreme. He became ostracized No one wanted to be seated near Jack at school, the girls all thought he was gross and the boys, although some were secretly jealous of Jack’s ability to expel air at will, played along with the girls in calling out Jack Gas for being gross. Jack was reprimanded so often by the teacher for his classroom clearers that eventually Jack Gas was given permission to leave the class discretely without raising his hand first if he felt an eruption coming on (which was frequently). 

Jack Gas’s home life also had become quite different. The constant flatulence meant that Jack ate in the kitchen at dinner time rather than around the dining room table with his family. Road trips together were also a thing of the past as Travel with Jack was quite unpleasant. Jack Gas’s only road trips were to see any one of a plethora of medical specialists who tried to get to the bottom of Jack Gas’s condition. Dieticians, internalists, allergists, just about every medical specialty ending in “ist”. Then the were the non medical “ists” and “paths”, herbalists, naturalists, mycologists, osteopaths, naturopaths, pathists, istopaths, none of whom could offer any relief. The only thing relieved was Jack Gas’s dad who was relieved of hundreds of dollars with each futile attempt to fix the problem.

Isolation began to take it’s toll on Jack Gas. He never got hugs from his parents, never horsed around with his brothers anymore. Jack Gas no longer played any team sports, didn’t go on field trips, in fact all extra curricular school activities had to be stopped. No scouts, no choir, no summer camp.

The family dog, “Pizza” didn’t mind most of Jack Gas’s smells, and only left the room for the most vile smelling ones. You knew a bad one was in the air if Pizza left the room.

Jack Gas was still afflicted by the time he had to start Junior High School. He had hoped to be better, but to no avail. His hormones were full on raging and Jack Gas started to notice girls. Girls noticed him as well, but only in order to avoid him. There was a girl he saw from time to time in the library who didn’t move if he sat down near her, and who treated Jack Gas normally. Her name was Lorna. She was what you might call “bookish”. She spent all of her spare time in the library. Jack Gas started to spend more time in the library as well now in hopes that he would somehow encounter Lorna. Even when he did encounter Lorna he had to wait until the engrossed Lorna surfaced from her reading. Jack felt like a polar bear waiting near a seal’s breathing hole in the ice for the seal to arrive. 

One day, as Lorna closed her book, she took off her eyeglasses and was cleaning the lenses when she looked up and there was an awkward moment when she and Jack Gas made eye contact. Jack nervously spoke first. They discussed the book she had just read and had similar observations about the plot and the characters. The small talk was good, but Jack had a question he was dying to ask her. He finally just blurted out “How come you don’t avoid me like everybody else?”

Lorna replied that she has no sense of smell, and furthermore, likes to be left alone to read, so  she didn’t find Jack Gas’s smells offensive, and as a bonus, no one bothered her if she sat near him. She continued by saying that she liked that Jack was respectful of her space and didn’t interrupt her reading. They started to hang out together and even walked home together as Lorna’s home was a mere block and a half away from his. 

One day, Lorna invited Jack Gas to come inside for a snack and to play backgammon. Jack balked, but Lorna reassured him that it was OK, her mum was deaf, so couldn’t hear his farts, and Lorna had inherited her poor sense of smell from her dad, Ernie “Hot Rod” Morris. Ernie got his nickname from a local hoodlum named Gary, whose only apparent skill was in giving nicknames as slurs to his neighbours. Gary had observed that Ernie was a very timid driver who drove at a snail’s pace through the neighbourhood. Ernie was not, in fact, timid, but drove slowly in the neighbourhood because of the dozens of children and pets that lived there. Jack’s nickname from Gary was: “Pepe” short for the Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew. Lorna was soon to become “Pepe Adjacent”

Hot Rod invited Jack to stay for supper. Cabbage rolls….. 

Jack Gas and Lorna became inseparable. Their friendship blossomed and seemed to be headed towards becoming a romance as well, but fate intervened. Maybe not fate insomuch as the inevitable cruelty and unfairness of life in the pitiless substrata of high school cliques. Lorna soon discovered that being Pepe Adjacent meant that she was soon unable to follow her other interests (choir, weaving, debating and puppetry) because of the gossip and cruel innuendos of her peers in these clubs. She had to decide if it was worth it to remain Jack’s friend. 

Lorna was in tears one night after she had gone to bed. Her dad had noticed she was not herself at dinner and when he heard the sniffles through her closed door, he knocked and entered. Lorna spelled out her dilemma to her father and he set himself to thinking about how to solve her problem. 

Her dad remembered years ago how out of place he had felt due to his lack of scent. His peers would put salt on his cornflakes and serve him actual dog biscuits. Could have been worse. Ernie told his dad about it and his dad suggested visiting a “word-of-mouth” man named “Ruby” who had a semi-hidden kiosk in a lane off a cul-de-sac in Chinatown. Ruby had various cures for sundry human conditions that actually worked. His ointment to destroy warts was his biggest seller, but he also had a balm for shingles, he had a pill that could give a man a 24 hour erection, and on a related note, an oil for any number of venereal diseases. Ruby had many other concoctions as well. When Young Ernie went with his dad to visit Ruby, he recalled the dimly lit, smoky hovel with deadly accuracy. When told of the problem, Ruby stroked his tiny grey beard and started to pull out several drawers and gather some ingredients together. Each ingredient was in a tiny box or vial that had icons on them that Ernie assumed were words in Mandarin. Ruby mixed seven dry ingredients that may have been herbs, or dried mushrooms or powdered bones, etc. Only Ruby knew exactly what the ingredients were, and he almost never spoke, hence these were secret recipes. When he had mixed his concoction for Young Ernie, he separated the powder into 8 piles with a razor blade and placed each pile into the centre of small brightly coloured origami papers (I know, Origami is Japanese and Ruby is Chinese). He then folded each little paper into neat envelopes that easily opened only one way and provided a natural spout to pour the powder either directly into the throat, or into a receptacle to mix with liquid. Ruby said “Good for 8 days” and “twenty dollars” and ended with “one small side effect, nothing free”. He never divulged what the side effect was, but it became clear after Young Ernie took his first dose and began smelling smells much more vividly than we ever could. It was like he got smell and taste on a level with a dog’s hearing. Ultra smell and ultra taste akin to having an operation on your eyes and going from blindness to fully sighted when the bandages were unravelled. Words like “lush”, “opulent”, “savoury” come to mind. The drawback was that each smell was like an overdose. Each taste was overwhelming and all together made for unpleasant eating. Young Ernie learned that day that living without scent and taste was not so bad as being overwhelmed by it to the point of paralysis. He flushed the seven remaining packets down the glugger.

Lorna said to her dad “I’m not asking for me…..It’s Jack’s problem.” Hot Rod said that maybe Ruby (if he’s still alive) has a cure for flatulence. Let’s go check it out. Lorna called Jack and they drove to Chinatown and parked on the outskirts. Hot Rod and Lorna walked along oblivious to all the wonderful aroma encounters available in Chinatown, but Jack was familiar with all the fried smells, the sugary smells, even the not so great stench of the trash bins behind each establishment. He bought some Sesame balls with the red plum paste inside to have later. 

Hot Rod’s memory navigated to the last lane before the cul-de-sac and he almost missed Ruby’s kiosk as it looked even more decrepit and over run than it had twenty years previous. He opened the door gingerly and squinted into the dark. Sure enough, on a stool behind the counter sat a wizened old gnome with a scraggly beard who bowed to him without speaking. Hot Rod started “you may not remember….” And the old man said: “no taste, I remember, want more?” Hot Rod  responded in the negative, the old man laughed…”side effect too much, huh?” And Hot Rod nodded.

Jack Gas didn’t need to describe his problem to Ruby. Ruby said “too many fart, yeah?” Jack shrugged. Ruby said “one minute” Ruby went about the same ritual he had done with Hot Rod twenty years earlier. Drawers flung open and shut, boxes and vials extracted, only the ingredients were different or maybe not, only Ruby knew. Ruby pulled out his mortar and pestle and began grinding ingredients in the mortar. He was humming lightly a melody that was all at once universal and unfamiliar. No words, just sounds, although to our ears a foreign language seems to be just sounds…. We don’t know if it was an incantation or just happy unrelated music. When Ruby was done, he separated the powder evenly and placed eight piles each on their paper origami paper and folded each one meticulously. He turned to Jack and said “good for eight days, no charge this time, next time forty dollar.” Ruby added: “not so small side effect, nothing free…!”

Hot Rod, Lorna and Jack returned to the car and started for home. Hot Rod suggested that Jack take the first envelope right away. Jack poured the powder down his throat and chased it with some iced bubble tea. Almost immediately Jack’s gas stopped. The relief was short lived, though as they discovered the “side effect”. Twenty minutes after ingesting the powder Jack sensed a humongous explosion building up inside of him and he knew it was going to be a ripper.

FRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR………………appppppppppppppp

I am not exaggerating when I say that from the time it started until it’s last murmur Hot Rod’s car logged 2 kilometres in city traffic. The volume and force of this particular fart might have even registered on the Richter scale. Aside from the force of it, both Hot Rod and Lorna who supposedly had no sense of smell, rolled down their windows and leaned towards the fresh air gasping. Some side effect. 

After the Guinness worthy fart, however, Jack experienced a relief that was to continue until the next day. Twenty four hours fart free. The potion worked. 

The Fourth Wall in Cottage Country

We were sitting around a campfire deep in Quebec cottage country last night, surrounded by pine and balsam trees and enjoying the crackling of the fire and poking at it occasionally to produce fireflies and fireworks. In the distance we heard some music wafting on the air from another cabin that is far enough away for us to feel private, but we were still within earshot of their music. It wasn’t all that loud, and we might have felt it intrusive but for the conversation and the memories it inspired.

I recognized the music as coming from an album (albums) I had owned and enjoyed as a teenager when my family first moved to the Laurentians.

Grand Funk Railroad was a rock power trio popular in the early 1970’s. At the time, their music appealed to me. I liked that it was bluesy, had sort of soulful vocals, fairly decent vocal harmony and lots of guitar improvising. I mail away ordered Grand Funk Live which was a double album and had extended versions of all the songs I liked except “Closer To Home”. I think I got it through the Columbia Record Club from an ad in the back of a comic book or the Saturday coloured section of the paper. 

The live album came out in 1970. I mentioned to the girls that I knew the album well and said “I bet we and that neighbour are the only people in this entire world listening to that particular album at this very moment.” They guffawed and said “no way! “, but we finally agreed that it would be highly unlikely anyone else was listening to it as it is way out of fashion and almost entirely forgotten. A footnote. A possible answer to the Boomer version of Trivial Pursuit. Unless there was some revival of the music of Grand Funk Railroad going on in the world right now that we are unaware of, or a satellite radio specialty station, probably no one else was listening at this exact moment. 

It’s most likely that the neighbour playing it is a man, French speaking, probably around my age. This music appealed more to men/boys. I was Almost certain it is the vinyl, not CD or mp3. Although I heard “Closer To Home” with flute, so maybe a playlist or maybe he had a stack of lps out of sequence.

I asked my companions (my girls and son-in-law) to invent possible scenarios for why the person would put on this particular album at this exact time. 

Maybe he comes to the cottage on weekends or vacation to let off steam and keeps his records here. Maybe he is a “local”. Someone who never left the area he grew up in. Perhaps he put the music on and conked out blotto on the chaise longue.

Has he been listening to this album often? Or is it an occasional pleasure. Maybe it is “break up” music that he plays to cleanse his psychic palette of the fresh pain and loneliness. Maybe he just bought it out of curiosity at a garage sale or flea market, maybe he found it by the curb after someone tried to sell off their lps. Could have been a recent gift from an old friend. A plethora of possible scenarios. Nostalgia, soundtrack to drama, odd coincidence. My youngest daughter had another scenario to add: maybe he is a founding member of Grand Funk who wooed local ladies to his lair with his fame and needed to hear his own music to “perform”. Highly likely, but no.

I prefer to believe that his name is Yves and he listens to this music regularly and has been doing so since he was fifteen.  Never breaking free of the mould. An eternal teenager. 

I imagine if I had stayed in that time warp for the last fifty years. Stayed in my home town, never broke out, never matured, never went to uni, never had careers, kids, never saw the world…. never progressed past Grand Funk in my listening. The human equivalent of one of those blind mules they used to put in mines whose life consisted of trudging up and down a mine shaft hauling ore and returning empty bins to be refilled. Back and forth, back and forth, always the same track, never seeing daylight,  always eating the same mash, never even a pat on the head, just doing. 

When I was fifteen,  I dressed like Neil Young, wore my hair long, wore patched jeans and flannel shirts or hunting jackets. I knew it all. 

I am kind of still like that, except my jeans don’t get patched anymore and now I know nothing. 

At that age I stayed in my room a lot listening to the same five or six lps  over and over again. When no one was around I would blast them loud as I could. 

-Traffic- Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

-Santana- Abraxas

-Grand Funk -Live

-Deep Purple -In Rock

-Steppenwolf-Monster

There were more, but these were a few of my high rotation dirty pleasures. 

These albums would also spin at “get togethers” with friends. We didn’t really have parties, or at least, that isn’t what we called them. Maybe I just wasn’t aware of or invited to any parties. These get togethers Were a place to strut, get high, drink beer, try and pair off while listening to what we believed was the coolest music ever created as we were differentiating from our families of origin.

From the vantage point of our campfire, we heard no talking, just the music. If it was a get together, it was a get together of mutes. I think it was just one guy…. passed out.

I know I could have gone over there and seen for myself, I probably would have liked the guy, maybe had a beer.

Maybe the music was a signal for anybody within earshot to come and visit and get together. Maybe it was a warning to stay away. To leave him alone.

I didn’t want to break what in theatre they call the fourth wall. He probably thought he was all alone in the country as we also had thought. It is like the “privacy” of those curtains in hospital wards. We believe that we are alone but everyone in the room knows you are getting your catheter changed. 

I had other reasons to not seek out the source of the music, one of which was in order to write a story about it. Sometimes fiction can be better than reality.

My Best Lesson Wasn’t Planned….

One of the most effective lessons I ever taught came spontaneously as the result of a “teachable moment.”

The year was 2001 and the date was several weeks after 9/11. I was teaching a grade ten music class in a private school and as part of my lesson I was exposing the children to music that they might otherwise never hear. 

Some of the details of this lesson are hard to retrieve, like what music I was playing at the time. Let’s just say it was Chicago playing Saturday In The Park. It might more probably been Tower Of Power. I do remember It was a band with horns, of that I am sure. A boy in the class said “that sucks!” I immediately stopped the song and asked a one word question: “Why?”

The boy replied “because it does!” I replied: “I see, and what criteria did you use to make that assessment?”. He said “I don’t like it!” Which I said was a more acceptable statement because it was a personal opinion. I dug deeper. “”Why don’t you like it?” I continued “ it is tuneful, well produced, well recorded, a very listenable piece of music.” I then made the parallel of food, saying: “I don’t particularly like lasagna, do you like it?” He answered in the affirmative as did most of the class. I asked what he thought his response would be if I had said “Lasagna sucks!”? Lights went on around the room as the discussion grew deeper. 

We recognized that sweeping statements were poor communication and realized that one needed to have a reason to like or not like something. The boy really had no vocabulary for what I was seeking from him. I was able to give twenty reasons why I did like it and how, with all the great music out there I would not play them something that “sucked!” 

I told the kids that it is much easier to say something destructive than it is to very create something. Blank stares. 

I went to the closet and picked out a retired hand drum. It had once been half of a set of bongos, but had lost it’s partner and was just one of the useless unusable instruments hanging around a music room. I held the drum up and asked how it was made, and how long it might have taken. We discussed the materials, wood that was grown, harvested, sawed, beveled, shaped, glued, varnished. The skin was a calf that had to be birthed, kept, slaughtered, skinned, cut, tanned, stretched. The skin was held in place by metal pins. The ore needed to be mined, smelted, shaped, plated. There had to be a design for the drum, etc. The point being, making the drum took ideas, effort and time and cost. We agreed on a value of time and a cost. 

I then threw the drum on the ground as hard as I could and jumped on it, completely destroying it. The kids looked at me like I was insane. They asked me why I did that. My response was: “It is really easy to destroy something that was hard to create!” I asked them how much thought and energy went into destroying the drum? I saw more lights go on. 

I then guesstimated how long it took to build the twin towers which we had watched collapse live the previous month. We talked about all the architects, engineers, tradesmen, etc. Same as the drum. And as it happened there were half a dozen Mohawk children in the class who said their fathers had been away in New York for seven years working on the girders. Mohawk people have a long tradition of being high altitude steel workers. We discussed the human cost of their absence and the long commute to and from Kanawake. We then reflected on how long it took for the buildings to fall and how much skill it took to bring them down. 

All the lights went on.

To wrap up the lesson I paraphrased: “It is harder to create something than it is to destroy it” “Be a creator, not a destroyer!” 

The kids actually applauded. 

Some thoughts on Pro Sports

I was talking with my friend Luigi yesterday, and I innocently asked if he would be watching Les Canadiens that evening. He replied in the affirmative. I told him I don’t usually watch, but this year I tuned in to the Montreal/Toronto series and got hooked. The team was playing well and looked like they were having fun. They beat the Leafs and then swept Winnipeg and eked past Las Vegas to appear in the finals with Tampa Bay. 

I asked if he noticed the size of the brutes playing for Tampa Bay, and he said “and the size of their salaries, they slipped through a loophole and have slipped past a salary cap” which means they have superstars against our mere asteroids. I said it is kind of disgusting to be in a race on a scooter next to a souped up Hemi Roadrunner. It takes the fun out of it. Like playing cards with a stacked deck…. not exactly fair. Not exactly “sportsmanlike”.

It was evident that the Canadiens would lose game three from the first period on. It was 6-3 finally. The Lightning (Greased Palm Lightning) are ahead in the series 3-0. It is possible that the Canadiens could fight back. They have done it before, but this Lightning team has a goalie that, if he were a few inches bigger, could effectively seal the crease without moving. Their team are all at least a head taller than our guys. Orcs vs. Hobbits. Good should finally prevail, but probably won’t. It is a shame, because I was enjoying this run at the cup until we met the bullies.  The Lightning are VERY SKILLED, there is no doubt about that, they will win the cup and should win it. It is the league that is flawed and money driven.

Luigi told me that he was enjoying the Euro cup, especially….you guessed it…Italy. He told me that the coach for Italy didn’t want superstars who would wade in and score, he wanted athletes that cooperated and treated each other with fairness and respect. 

I get it. I won’t follow soccer, just because I find it to be like geriatric hockey and the players, although marvellous physical specimens are a bit wimpy when it comes to a slight kick in the shins….. But I love watching the various communities driving around with their proud flags and honking horns etc. I abhor hooliganism and racist b.s. which seems to mar the sport. Watching drunken English soccer fans for example is embarrassing not just for my heritage, but for the human race.

These two things remind me of why and when I stopped following sports. I was an Expos fan from their birth til their death. They were only a contender once, but that never deterred me from following them fervently. The team was sold to some “flippers” who gave zero shits about baseball, or Montreal. Jeffrey Loria and Claude Brochu whittled away at the talent and the support  until they finally sold the team to Washington D.C. 

The death knell for me was when the English language radio no longer had Dave Van Horne or Duke Snyder…. I listened in French often, but I preferred the colour commentary of Duke ’n Dave.  I stopped reading the sports in the paper and stopped any watching or listening. Period.

I am not sad that I invested my time last month. I truly enjoyed watching the games I did, win or lose. I just hate the Star maker machinery of the mainstream world. Greatness can’t be bought, it has to be earned. 

I have my life back. Bravo to our scrappy talented team. Hold your heads high!

Standing Up

When I was in the third grade I “failed” music. It probably wasn’t a “fail” per se, but it was a capital U on my report card. Not an E for excellence, a VG for Very Good or a G for merely good but a U which stood for “Unsatisfactory”.

This requires some explanation on my part.

It was 1964. I had just turned nine years old in February. I sang in a church choir. Not yet the more serious Cathedral choir which came the next year, but I could always sing, and sing I would. Whenever I was happy. I was a happy child for the most part. I still am happy and I still sing. I don’t have to be happy to sing now, but it will still make me happy. 

Music in school consisted of designating a small period of time each week to sing easy hymns like “This Is My Father’s World” and “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” or folk songs like “Un Canadien Errant” or “Land of the Silver Birch”. We also learned patriotic songs: “God Save The Queen”, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “O Canada”. The School I attended was part of the Protestant School Board and the kids were mostly white. This was before the province switched to linguistic boards. Protestant meant “not Catholic” or “Les Autres”. My Jewish classmates sang “Jesus Loves Me” without balking…. I don’t recall if there were any children of other faiths, but they would have been lumped in with us as well.

I usually excelled at music because I was enthusiastic and sang in tune. I didn’t excel at much else except making my friends laugh at my hijinks. I had not yet had the diagnosis of “dyslexia” that I would carry with me after testing in grade four. I made an adequate bench warmer in sports and could not figure out my dominant side. I write left handed, but the testing called me “ambidextrous”. “A-dextrous” would have been a more accurate description. Our jock neighbour who lived next door had a derogatory nickname for everyone he encountered. Mine was “spaz” as in “spastic”. His nickname should have been “bully” or “asshole” which aren’t necessarily exclusive.

In grade 3, the teacher (a generalist-not a music teacher) decided we should sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here is where the trouble started. I was singing along with the class, proud to be loud and in tune and leading. I sang a line in particular that bothered me. “Marching as to war”. This struck me as not something I could support. I had a strong Christian background and knew the Ten Commandments by heart. I knew that killing was wrong. My first awareness of news and current events had arrived several months before on November 22,1963. I then became exposed to and aware of the war in Southeast Asia and saw the bodybags on the news. Looked wrong to me even at such a young age.

The teacher noticed that the hymn was not unfolding as it should and saw that I wasn’t singing. She ordered(not asked) me to sing and I refused. I told her I didn’t like the song because it promoted war. I was sent to the corner. I know now that “as to” is two prepositions together meaning “as if” and is an imaginary comparison, a simile. The song did not mean “marching to war”, but following with the determination and discipline of the military. She could have explained that to me and it might have been win/win.

The whole idea of Christian Soldiers was/is confusing. Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Northern Ireland, the Nazis as well were ostensibly Christian but doing decidedly un righteous things. 

I hadn’t yet discovered Bob Dylan or his song of ascerbic irony “With God On Our Side”. I was just trying to make sense of things. My religious upbringing at home was making me an idealist and it flew in the face of senseless authority. I dug it when Jesus overturned the tables at the temple. Surely Goodness and Righteousness shall follow me all the days of my life.

Having grown into a life where music plays a defining and central part  and from which I have made my livelihood, performing, teaching and writing, I look back on this event and wear the badge of “Unsatisfactory” with honour. I don’t know where I got this rebellious streak, but I have had to stand up against other teachers, administrators and school boards and parents with their skewed and fearful versions of reality and defend my choices of my reality with conviction and honesty. Also able to promptly admit when I was wrong.

 “Truth and Beauty” to quote Bill Evans. It is in my music, my teaching,my writing, my love, and a pretty good raisin d’être.

Synesthesia

Watermelon season is upon us. It often comes up in my teaching that we categorize things and put them in songs. I like to use music to reach kids on several levels: cerebral, emotional, visceral and olfactory. It is a multi-sensory approach to teaching, storing information in different parts of the brain, a sort of manufactured Synesthesia. Synesthesia can be: hearing colour, seeing sound, tasting emotion etc. My eldest daughter, for example, can see colours as numbers.

One of the things we categorize with young children is “favourite desserts” (primary motivators). I think that watermelon is, if not my favourite dessert, it is at least my favourite fruit and my favourite healthy dessert. Several years back I had a Kindergarten class sing “Watermelon Man” (J’aime le Melon d’eau) by Herbie Hancock (but the Mongo Santamaria version). I put on my helmet as a secret surprise when they were on stage ready to perform.

We had friends over yesterday for an afternoon of camaraderie and music in the garden. We served frozen grapes and fresh strawberries and watermelon ( along with chips and veggies and hummous etc.). Lovely to see friends as we emerge from a year and a half of strict isolation. We were a bit rusty on the music side… but fun and contentment was had by all.

I woke up this morning thinking about watermelon and an incident that happened to me about thirty years ago. I was at a similar party at a couple’s home in the plateau area of Montreal. I had known John for a decade or so, and Adele was a new friend to me, but she knew my girlfriend well. We were all very comfortable around each other. I remember the house and their sweet little girls Camille and Sabine. Those girls were two of the reasons I decided to become a father myself.

The incident was an embarrassing one. At least it would have been if it hadn’t been so hilarious. Adele was being the hostess and was passing around hors d’oeuvre on a platter and had a bowl of sliced up watermelon in the other. I blurted out “I love diarrhea!” and Adele immediately cracked up, doubled over laughing. I apologized exclaiming that I had meant to say “I love watermelon, but it gives me diarrhea!” which in retrospect seems like too much information in the first place. Adele went around telling people who hadn’t been in the room of my verbal faux pas, and suddenly the party came alive.

My constitution has changed and I seldom get gastro-intestinal issues with watermelon anymore. I have some cut up in the fridge and thinking about it made me think about this story this morning. I am still in touch with John and Adele though they are no longer together. I see tidbits from their girls who are now vibrant young women and it was a gift to think of them this morning via this silly little story.

  • Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses. People who have synesthesia are called synesthetes.
  • The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek words: “synth” (which means “together”) and “ethesia” (which means “perception). Synesthetes can often “see” music as colors when they hear it, and “taste” textures like “round” or “pointy” when they eat foods.
Silly video