Being a writer is an odd sort of existence. You come up with these wild (hopefully original) ideas and slap tens of thousands of different combinations of the same 26 letters onto the page and bring them to life.
Katie Oldham famously wrote about the experience of consuming these ideas:
Creating the most effective hallucinatory experience takes a lot of effort. You need to know what you’re doing. You need to have a solid grasp of the rules and conformances – so you can break them properly. You need to be dedicated, not just to the execution element of the craft, but to the whole universe of storytelling. I will also argue it’s not enough to have merely existed, you need to have experienced something in life, either first-hand or vicariously through others. That’s not to say that young, inexperienced people can’t write engaging or even transformative stories, but I’ll assert that they are in the minority. Hell, the list of those who can is short enough as it is even if you don’t impose any life-experience criteria.
There’s also an expression out there, and I’m not sure who to attribute it to, but it goes like this:
Writers are readers.
I’ll take the quote a step further and say:
Writers are conscientious consumers of storytelling in all its forms.
Yes, books are storytelling but so are:
and screen productions (large and small, self-made or professional),
and live theatre,
and webcomics or cartoons,
and graphic novels,
and stand-up comedy,
and spoken (or signed) word,
and cave drawings,
and all the visual arts,
Recently, George Stroumboulopoulos (“Strombo”) interviewed the surviving members of Rush, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, on his “House of Strombo” show (you can watch the full YouTube interview at the end of this post). This segment early in the discussion really resonated with me.
Strombo:“Rush could have played 20 different genres. What were the things that you were being exposed to that led you to figure out that this is the way you wanted to be?”
Lifeson:“Listening to other things like Joni Mitchell, listening to the crafting of songs and what works and what doesn’t work and what really stands out in a song, and the pacing, and all of those things about the structure of a song, you learn about that through listening. You… maybe are not directly influenced by the music itself, but how it’s constructed and how it works… becomes the important thing, I think, and you carry that on forever.”
I extend the philosophy of Lifeson’s influencing experiences to my everyday existence. Sure, there are times when I just shut off my brain and enjoy various art forms for the sake of enjoying them, appreciating art for art’s sake, but more often than not I’m examining, as Alex said, “how it’s constructed and how it works”.
I pay attention to how whatever I’m consuming makes me feel and then I start thinking about whatever it is that’s making me feel the way I’m feeling. Naturally, if it involves words of any kind I examine the writing first, but what I’m really doing is looking for the fundamental elements of the story that are triggering the emotion, regardless of the positiveness or negativeness of it.
Ultimately, I’m constantly asking myself, “Why does the story make me feel the way I feel?” and when I sit down at the computer to write, I do my darndest to take those pieces, those elements of structure and construction, and craft the story I want to tell. In that sense, I’m (almost) always working, a concept that Misters Lifeson and Lee have understood since they strummed their first chords together more than fifty years ago.
I got no time for livin’ Yes, I’m workin’ all the time
– Workign Man. Songwriters: Alex Lifeson / Geddy Lee
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that everyone who creates should consume with the same analytical intent. It’s perfectly fine for anyone to enjoy art for art’s sake 100% of the time. However, if you’re a writer, if you’re a storyteller, I would encourage you to look beyond your chosen medium, see what makes it tick, and bring some of that into what you do.
At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding and appreciation for whatever it is you’ve experienced, and who knows, in the process, you might create a more engaging or transformative story of your own.
Check out Alex Lifeson’s new musical project, Envy Of None. It’s a departure from the musical stylings of Rush, but something any music lover will appreciate (Maiah Wynne’s vocals are so haunting and trippy you’ll find yourself immersed in the music). https://envyofnone.com/
At first blush, you wouldn’t think that your local mom & pop pizza joint would have anything in common with Kanye West, but you’d be wrong because they both claim to be the best in the world, and just as you take the flyer that Vito’s Authentic Pizzeria (“The Best Pizza In The World Since 1982”) stuffs in your mailbox week after week with a grain of parmesan, so should you with this quote from Ye.
“I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time. It’s not even a question at this point.”
Kanye West, 2019
In both cases about the only claim they can reasonably make is having an exceptional skill at crafting unprovable hyperbole.
I bring this up because musicologist Eric Alper posted the Kanye quote with no additional context and I immediately hopped into the comments to watch the show. Suffice it to say, it was pretty hilarious, so I added a comment of my own:
I should have known better. Kanye is a Donald Trump fan and Kanye’s fans behave, well, a lot like Donald Trump fans. I was called a “Boomer”, which is funny because I’m solidly GenX. Someone else replied that if Neil Peart was alive he’d appreciate Kanye as a musician, which I thought was the funniest thing I’d read all week – until the commenter made it clear that he was serious. Okay… His justification was that artists like Paul McCartney and Lou Reed have all come out publicly and said they like Kanye. As if somehow “I like Kanye’s stuff” from someone with actual musical talent equates to “I hereby bestow upon you the indisputable title of Greatest Artist of All Time.”
Kanye doesn’t lead the world in more than a couple of objective categories, let alone all of them. Subjectively, I could name fifty other musicians across time and genres that I think have either had a bigger influence on the world or have honed their craft to a greater degree than Mr. West.
Listen, I don’t give a shit if you love Kanye and think he’s all that and a bag of chips. If his work brings you joy then that’s good. The world needs more joy. But for the love of pizza, blindly parroting a claim that at best is unprovable and at worst, as I already pointed out, is objectively untrue, makes you look infantile.
These days, and especially when Red Hats are involved, it seems that good-faith debate devolves into ad-hominem attacks and trading playful barbs into mudslinging, which is too bad. On other comment threads, there were more damning insults than me being called a “Boomer”, but I won’t repeat them. I will say that for every comment asserting Kanye sucked there was often a counterargument that involved a personal epithet. It seems that there will always be a group of people that have forgotten that it’s all subjective.
I actually love the “who’s better than who” debates that rage on the internet (and especially out with friends at a pub). It’s passionate people passionately defending something or someone they are passionate about. It can be educational (“Did you know…?”) and it can be a lot of fun, but some folks are hellbent on making it personal, completely ignoring the subjectivity and making it more about “being right”.
Off the top of my head, I couldn’t name a single Kanye song, but I know I’ve heard some of them before. To make sure wasn’t missing something, I listened to a few of his songs on Spotify:
Stronger (over 900 million streams)
Ni**as In Paris (over 750 millon streams)
Heartless (over 400 million streams)
My impression after giving those songs an open-minded listen? Meh. I can see people digging it, but it did nothing for me and I still 100% stand behind my “beats” meme comment.
It goes to show you though, it takes all kinds. It’s just too bad some people are convinced that disagreeing with someone’s musical taste means they can spread insults and hatred like Vito’s secret family recipe pizza sauce on a large thin-crust pie.
Besides, there’s a common cause out there that we should all be focused on: Making fun of Nickelback.
Memories are fascinating. How do they work? In asking myself this question it became clear that I didn’t have the foggiest idea. I thought it was sort of like a hard drive where your brain would accept sensory input and then some sort of fancy synapse thing happened and, voila!, memory. Turns out that while this is a gross oversimplification it’s not actually that far off. There’s a lot that goes into encoding, storing, and retrieving a memory, and the science behind it will blow your mind (multiple times if you can remember it all). One thing the big foreheads in the science labs found out was that for the vast majority of people, their brain decides if it’s important enough to be worthy of remembering and if so it encodes and stores it for future reference.
For those in the memory game, they talk about building a Memory Palace; a visual story around what you want to remember, and the more absurd the better. Absurdity is memorable! This is likely also one of the reasons our memories are extremely fallible. Our brains don’t necessarily pick up on the details that are actually important. That said, there are some aspects of our day-to-day lives that are surefire memory triggers: songs, smells, and foods. I’d be willing to bet that these triggers factor more into whether or not you remember something than how “significant” the event is. Think about all the, “Where were you when…” moments that are supposed to be significant and then analyze what you actually remember about the event. I’m willing to bet that the other sensory details that were happening at the time are what’s driving the memory.
Songs, smells, and foods.
I know tonnes of people who have memories triggered by music and I am no exception to that. Here are just a few of the hundreds of songs that invoke a strong, specific memory for me:
When my wife was pregnant with our second child I worked 45 minutes from home. When I got the call that she was in labour I put the pedal to the metal and hauled ass home. When I was a few minutes out this song started playing. The lyric “Life’s waiting to begin” hung in the air as I pulled into the driveway.
I have lots of memories of this album but one, in particular, comes to mind when I hear any song off this album and that’s the craft hut at my old summer camp. I wandered in one day and the final riff from The Edge’s guitar on the opening track of Joshua Tree was playing and when track two stared I began to sing along, quietly, as I made my craft. A few of the girls from Cabin 2 started to sing as well, and soon it turned into a full-blown singalong. We spent the rest of the hour singing and crafting with that album playing. In fact, I can’t recall a single piece of conversation that happened in the hour I was there. I’m sure there must have been some, but it sure didn’t feel like it. It was just me, ten girls from cabin 2, a couple of counsellors, and U2. Thirty years later I had the privilege of taking my daughter to see the band play the album in its entirety.
As someone with a boatload of seasonal allergies who is scent sensitive (you know, “scentsitive”. I’ll see myself out.) I find my olfactory system triggers memory more often than anything else. In fact, I can even think of an instance where someone once described something to me and associated the smell of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal with it and now I can’t smell brown sugar without that visual coming to mind. A few other notable smellmories:
At some point in my childhood, my mom planted a lilac bush in the backyard and since we didn’t have air conditioning the windows were often open. In spite of my severe seasonal allergies I never really minded the smell. Lilacs remind me of home.
Fresh-baked tea biscuits
My father’s mother always struck me as being very proper. She never swore like my mum’s mum and she never let me win at cards or crokinole. Whenever we’d visit she’d make tea and biscuits and then she’d read my tea leaves.
My first experience with smelling the Devil’s Lettuce was at the Canadian university football championships, the Vanier Cup, which at the time was played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. My dad and his friend took my friend and I and we were way up in the bleachers and all the university students around us were smoking it. Not long after I went to my first concert, The Rolling Stones at Skydome in 1989, and while I was not accompanied by any adults, all the adults around me were getting high!
And then there are foods. These are often a combination of sight, taste, and smell for me, though if I had to divide it up I’d say that sight ranks lowest, followed by smell, with taste at the top. Maybe it’s because food incorporates so many of the senses (all of them, if you’re fortunate enough to experience them all to begin with), but for me, this one paints the most vivid picture. Off the top of my head:
This one is funny because it brings me back to the time when there was a salad made, I won’t say by who, and instead of whatever was supposed to be the base for the salad cilantro was used instead. After everyone had a bite it was determined that a grave mistake had been made and the salad was removed from the table.
I used to work as a busboy for this banquet hall / private club and once a month was Italian Night. Around 400 people would pack the large hall and a dozen old Italian ladies would take over the kitchen. Normally we’d have our own kitchen staff but not on Italian Night. The smell of the lasagnas cooking in the giant 3′ x 3′ metal pans was amazing. All the hall staff would get to eat once we’d served all the guests and it was absolutely scrumptious. Of course, all the busboys had to clean up so it wasn’t 100% enjoyable, but it was definitely worth it.
I was going on my first plane ride, alone, to visit my grandparents in Florida and at the airport, I was nervous and nauseous. Back then you could get farther in without a boarding pass and my mum was with me and she went and bought me a grapefruit juice. She said it would calm me down and settle my stomach. Of course, she was just making that up and hoping that the placebo effect would kick in. It did, of course, and now every time I have a grapefruit juice (or an actual grapefruit) I remember that moment and feel a sense of calm.
What about you? What are some of your biggest memory triggers? Keep it positive, if you can, since the world needs more of those memories being shared these days.
Here we are, again. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion of life, we have lost another great musician. The last decade has seen many greats shuffle off this mortal coil and some have hit me harder than others. This one is near the top for me, and I know it’s way up there for many others. What is it about music and musicians that have this effect on us? I think it’s because music breaks down barriers. In a world hell-bent on dividing us, it brings us together. It’s part of our every day. It’s there for the good times and bad. It makes us feel. It transcends. My wife absolutely loves music and everything about it and that’s one of the things I absolutely love about her.
Back in September or October of 1988, I was sitting in the first-floor hallway of my high school when my friend Jeremy plopped himself down beside me. He had a Walkman and he was air drumming. He said something to the extent of, “You GOTTA listen to this.” He rewound the tape a bit and handed me the headphones. Once I had them on, he pressed play and I heard the opening chords to Limelight. By the ninth measure, the thump-da-thump of Neil Peart’s drums kicked in and I was completely hooked on RUSH not 20 seconds into the first of their songs I’d ever heard. For the next twenty years, they were my #1 band. Even today, thirty years later and a good five since they retired, I’d put them in my top three.
I can remember back in 1993 my friends and I would huddle in front of computers in the math building at the University of Waterloo and connect to The Internet. We’d hit the newsgroups and bulletin boards searching for nuggets of information to sate our fanboy desires. Some of my friends would go to alt.music.nirvana and others to alt.music.pearljam. I went to alt.music.rush and even then the internet consipirators were out in full force.
“Neil Peart has cancer. That’s why he wears that beanie on his head!”
– Early Internet Trolls
Five years later daughter died in a car crash and ten months after that he lost his wife to cancer. Twenty years after that the Early Internet Trolls’ prognostications came true, and as off base as they were back then I can imagine they, like so many of us today, are crushed by the news.
Neil was the soft-spoken one. Neil was the lyricist. The quiet brooder tapping out “YYZ” in Morse code in the studio because he saw the Toronto airport tag on his luggage (“YYZ” is the transmitter code for Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport) and liked the beat. That would later become an instrumental of the same title that was nominated for a Grammy (losing to The Police’s “Behind My Camel”).
I haven’t tested the theory yet but I am certain that there is a lyric that he’s written that maps perfectly to every moment in my life. He wrote books as well as lyrics. He made a number of instructional videos. He used his fame and recognition to bring styles of music to the masses that we would have otherwise ignored.
“He was called ‘The Professor’ for a reason: We all learned from him.”
If you’ve been on social media for the past 18 hours you’ve no doubt seen all the messages, condolences, and tributes come rolling in. There are a lot of them. The most well-known musicians in the world today are talking about it. That’s the type of influence Neil Peart had on not just music, but the music industry. He touched so many, myself included, and my heart goes out to his family, his friends, and of course to Geddy and Alex.
There are literally thousands of lyrics to choose from to close out my thoughts but one that was penned by Neil’s bandmates seems most apt. For me, it perfectly sums up what it was like having Neil behind the drum kit and I can imagine Geddy and Alex felt much the same way.
“You can take me for a little while You can take me You can make me smile In the end”
I used to question the theory that every moment in a person’s life has led them to the moment they are experiencing right now. I mean, how many throwaway moments have there been? Certainly a lot. We’re not living a fictitious life within the pages of a best-selling novel. Not everything that happens moves the plot forward or develops our character. Sometimes the tip of your pencil breaking is inconsequential, and then sometimes a sequence of events gets strung together over twenty-five years to culminate in an experience never to be forgotten.
Like this one.
Back in my first year of university, I met a few people that, even at that early stage, I knew were special. My buddy Riaz, my friend-girlfriend-not friend-friend-girlfriend-fiancee-wife, Jodi, and my friend-lab partner-roommate-colleague-boss-friend, Jason.
Riaz introduced me to Jodi. I met her properly in his room across the hall from mine. She was playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis and he and I were listening to music, playing Ultima Underworld on his computer, and burning incense. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Jodi and Riaz introduced me to this band called The Watchmen. Jodi pushing their first album, Maclaren Furnace Room, and Riaz in love with their second one, In The Trees. Ri and I would take in as many of their shows as we could over the years and have more than a few stories to tell about those times.
Jay was a friend of some friends and lived on a rival floor in residence, and later became my lab partner and my go-to friend for a game or ten of pool, often played at the on-campus bar where this one album with the strange name, Shakespeare My Butt, by this obscure band called Lowest of the Low seemed to play on an endless loop.
Life was grand. Responsibilities were minimal. Parental supervision was non-existent. Our relationships were rooted in amazing Canadian music; the less mainstream stuff like Watchmen and Lowest of the Low, as well as the national heroes The Tragically Hip. Then, things started to change. Not overnight, though looking back it does feel like it was, but in slow motion over the span of years and decades.
Jodi and I married and a year later Jay married this wonderful woman, Tamara. Riaz moved back out West. Jay and Jodi stopped going to Watchmen concerts with me, but Tam was a big fan and stepped up and started being my “date” for shows. There was this one concert that all four of us went to one day. I think it was before kids were in the picture and we could all be out on a Friday night in Toronto (about an hour away from where we lived) without feeling guilty or tired. We saw Lowest of the Low open for Billy Bragg. Jodi’s a huge Billy Bragg fan and we were all in love with Lowest of the Low from our days hanging out in the on-campus bar.
For me, though, it was The Watchmen that held my attention. In the early days of me falling in love with Jodi, they were there. We’d argue over which of their first two albums was better. I could pull a lyric from any song and relate it to something about us. Strangely enough, on a couple occasions Danny, the lead singer from the band, would sing a Billy Bragg song as his signature a cappella song during their concerts.
In 2011 I decided I would do something special for my anniversary. I took some singing lessons and got a band together, with Jay on guitar, and I surprised her with an a cappella Billy Bragg song (sadly, not a romantic one but the one Danny sang at his shows) and a rendition of The Watchmen song, All Uncovered, the chords and lyrics for which were really hard to come by. Enter in Facebook and the super talented and one hell of a nice guy bassist for The Watchmen and solo artist, Ken Tizzard. I sent Ken a message asking for help with the song and he sent me back, within a couple hours I might add, some photos of their songbook that was no longer in print. It was an awesome gesture and was the reason the performance went off without a hitch (or well enough, all things considered).
While this was going on I was working on my writing and meeting a lot of really cool creative types on the internet. One of them was this fellow by the name of Alex Kimmell. He writes creepy, mind-bending horror now but he used to be a musician until MS decided to send him a swift kick to the nards and take that away. Back in the day, he was a drummer for this grunge outfit Out Vile Jelly. Korn opened for them at one point. It was then, through a connection at a record label that he was introduced and got into the music of The Watchmen. Alas, when I met him the MS prohibited extended travel and they weren’t touring anymore, only playing gigs in Toronto and occasional other Canadian cities. That’s when I got the idea that whenever I would go to a show, I would record his favourite Watchmen song for him so he’d get to experience the experience a little bit.
In the middle of all of that, like a gut punch from out of nowhere, we lost Riaz. It was sudden, it hurt like a sonofabitch, and it left a big hole. In the intro to my video tribute to him, there was Watchmen playing in the background. Hearing their music would never be the same. Every song would be bittersweet and carry a deeper meaning than I ever thought possible (more on Riaz in this blog post).
You might be thinking that this is all fine and dandy but what does it have to do with my opening paragraph? Well, that’s where Friday night comes in. All of what I just described (though it happened in much greater detail in real life) came together to give me the greatest concert experience I will likely ever have.
It actually started Thursday night when I got the last-minute idea to message Ken once again asking for a favour. I thought it would be cool if, before they played Alex’s favourite song, they tossed out a dedication to him. So, I asked. Ken got back to me in rapid fashion again and had some bad news. They were swapping out that song for something else for this show. He did say he’d discuss it with the guys though. I thanked him for even considering it and wished them a good show.
Friday comes and Tam agrees to drive into the city and we arrive at the venue ten minutes before the opener hits the stage. Because we’re old we got seats up in the balcony this time and were able to sit down for the show. It felt weird at first, having never seen the band from a chair before, but my aching bones would thank me later. The opening act? A fella by the name of Ron Hawkins. No, not the one from Arkansas currently in the Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Someone better. The Ron Hawkins who happens to play guitar and sing for the Lowest of the Low.
Ron opened the night with a close-to-45-minute set that included some solo stuff, some Lowest of the Low, some Rusty Nails, and a few snippets of some cover tunes just for shits and giggles. He even brought the LotL guitarist, Steve, on stage to do a couple of their classic tunes. It was a lot of fun, and the place was already close to capacity. The mood was set for more good times, and oh boy, were they delivered – in spades.
Due to curfew rules for the venue, The Watchmen came on at 9:02. Early by concert standards but to come on stage so soon after such a good opener turned out to be a great idea. Everyone was excited and feeling good, including the band, and from the very first chord, it showed.
Now, because I wasn’t sure if they’d play Alex’s song or not, at the end of each song I’d get my phone ready to record. It wasn’t a big deal because I was sitting down. I just put my phone in my lap with my camera app open and clapped and cheered like everyone else while we waited for the next tune. Then, the band did something different. The bassist grabbed an acoustic guitar and the drummer grabbed some bongos. Sensing something special coming I started recording, and Danny gave a little intro and they kicked into a cover of a Tragically Hip song. It was emotional as hell.
For those who don’t know, The Hip (as they are affectionately known) lost their lead singer, Gord Downie, a couple of years ago (about a year after I lost Riaz). The nation mourned (I wrote about that, too), but Friday night when The Watchmen played one of their tunes, it was a celebration. I, along with every other person in the joint, was close to tears, but it was a celebration and a damn fine tribute.
Then, the band played my favourite Watchmen tune acoustic-style. It’s the one I learned to play for my anniversary.
That was followed up by Danny’s a cappella. It wasn’t Billy Bragg this time, but it sounded like gold. His voice was like butter and while no live performance will ever be executed perfectly, it was perfect.
The whole show was fantastic. Every song was tight, the sound was clean, the audience was into it, and the band looked like they were having a blast. Toward the end of the show, they called out Ron to do a song: Billy Bragg’s A New England. It was off the charts fantastic and because I was at-the-ready with my phone I captured it.
I didn’t record every emotional moment I had, though. I started recording one of my favourite songs toward the end of the show but it was too much. It was one of Riaz’s favourite songs as well and he would often quote the opening lyric to me randomly on facebook or via email. As soon as they played it I put the phone down and just sat and watched, and listened, and immersed myself in the moment. Even now, the emotions are overwhelming.
With the show coming to a close and one encore set already done it was clear that I had just experienced something truly special. Then, the guys go and outdo themselves yet again. There was a bit of a discussion on stage amongst the band and then Danny informs us that they’re “calling an audible” and instead of only getting one more song to end the night that we’re going to get two. Camera at the ready, I started recording and then I heard the telltale opening drums of Alex’s favourite song, Say Something.
They played the last song after that, just Danny and the guitarist Joey, and the lights came up. Tam and I looked at each other and agreed that it was probably the best show of theirs we’d ever seen. We bypassed the main stairwell and headed down the side steps that led directly outside. Two paces to the right outside on the sidewalk I see a friend from high school that I interact with regularly on Facebook. I haven’t seen him face-to-face in probably twenty-five years. He hadn’t been at the show. He had been out with friends and was waiting for an Uber. He’s a hell of a guy and a wonderful blogger, and it was the perfect random encounter to cap off the perfect evening, all made possible by a quarter of a century of seemingly random and inconsequential events. Bob Ross would have called them happy little accidents, and after Friday night I’d be inclined to agree.
There is a lot of sadness, corruption, and hate in the world. Nations are committing genocide, North Korea has nukes and might actually be disturbed enough to use them, over a hundred First Nations communities in Canada don’t have clean drinking water, Flint Michigan, a city in the wealthiest country in the world, doesn’t have clean drinking water–and hasn’t for years–and the leader of that country is a complete and total dipshit. Terrible human, just terrible. Sad!
Fear not, my friends, for there is more to this than doom and gloom. There are good people everywhere. They may not solve the world’s problems, and they likely won’t do it on a newsworthy scale, but they will do good things and those good things will not go unnoticed. Those good things will mean the world to somebody. Somebody who needed something good to happen. Something to pick them up because they are down. Something to help them survive one more day. Something to remind them that the world is not all bad. Something that will make them smile.
I witness, hear, or read about these occurrences on a regular basis, and occasionally I get to experience them. Two such deeds happened to bring smiles of pure joy to my children and I feel they are both worth sharing. One was planned and one was totally random, but both helped show my family that the community in which we live has some genuinely good people in it. They were small things in the grand scheme of things, but they were also big things because they showed my children that there are random good people everywhere. In both cases, I am certain these small deeds will help my children grow to be good people themselves. Better than they are now (which is pretty darned amazing.)
First up, Linda from the Temple Baptist Church.
When my daughter started ninth grade I started driving her to a bus stop that was a little closer to her school to reduce her travel time roughly in half. Every day would take this one corner and pass the Temple Baptist Church and their sign on the corner. Every Monday the sign had a new message and over the course of the year, it became a “thing” for us. It was just a little father/daughter bonding moment that would not have seen like much to anyone else, but for us, it was a few seconds that we got to share.
As we approached her fifteenth birthday I got the idea to ask the church if they would change the sign and extend birthday greetings as a surprise to her. So, roughly a week before her birthday I found the church’s website and sent them an email.
In my message, I explained that we were not religious but every day we pass their sign and it often sparked discussion for the remainder of the drive and if they would be so kind as to change it for one day so that I could surprise my daughter for her birthday.
Linda replied to me in short order and said, of course, they would change the sign. Just like that. No questions asked (other than her name and what the message would be). I offered to make a donation to their church to thank them for their kindness and this was the response I received:
“No payment is expected. We care about you and Avery very much even though we have never met! Pleased to do this for you.”
Linda even sent me a warning email the afternoon before telling me that they had to change the sign that afternoon because the person who performs that task wasn’t going to be around early enough the next morning (we drive past it a few minutes after seven o’clock). So, I drove home from work and made up an excuse to pick up my daughter from school and I drove her home a different route instead of the route the bus would have taken, which would have seen her stopping on the corner right by the sign.
The next morning, I made up another excuse (so many lies!) about why I was recording video in the car so I could capture her reaction. Watch for yourself.
I think it all went about as well as it could have (except my voice in the video. In my defense, I was a little verklempt).
Next up, Mark, a music lover in Cambridge.
One week at my son’s drum lesson I asked his teacher, Vic, how far he should get in his book before I buy him a new snare. His existing one was a little worse for wear and was held together with duct tape, but I wanted him to have to work for it. Vic told me there was one for sale in the store, used, for something like $60 and was a great deal in his opinion.
Well, I got mired in a financial snafu with my bank and didn’t get the chance to buy the drum (figuring I would eventually spring it on Dude at the appropriate time). The next week we get to class and Vic calls me in, which is weird because I never get called in.
He sits us down and says that word got out to the guy who bought the drum that Dude was in the market to replace his duct tape special and this guy refurbished the snare (according to Vic he must have put over $100 into it) and asked Vic to give it to Dude. All he wanted in return was a picture of Dude with the drum.
The generous music lover’s name is Mark Parnell (possibly spelled differently) and after I texted him this photo and thanked him I asked him if he was on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter so I could give him a proper shout-out. He wrote back that he was not and that the smile on Dude’s face was all the thanks he needed.
Thank you, Mark. You made our day, and while Dude is no Neal Peart—yet—he’s going to practice with that snare and enjoy it a lot more than the old one.
BONUS GOOD DEED!
My across-the-street neighbour, Mohammed.
One morning, I awoke to the smell of gas in the house, so I got everyone outside and called the fire department. They came and shut the gas off and aired the house out and called the gas company. My wife took the kids to get McDonald’s breakfast and I waited outside across the street.
It was early morning in October and I was standing across the street on the sidewalk in my pajamas and bare feet freezing my little piggies off and my neighbour came out of his house. Now, Mohammed and I had spoken exactly two words to each other in the six years I had lived across the street from him (we’ve said “hello” twice). He’s quiet and keeps to himself. He has a nice lawn. He knows when it’s yard waste day. I’m not very sociable with the neighbours, which at the time was partially due to the fact I had the crappiest lawn on the block and was self-conscious that my neighbours were all annoyed by it.
Anyway, Mohammed walked over to me and asked me what was going on. I explained the situation and told him that we’d be allowed back in the house soon. Nothing to worry about, etc, etc. Then, he looked down at my feet and asked, “Do you want me to get you some shoes?” No one had ever offered me shoes before. I didn’t even get a chance to respond and he pointed to my feet. “You must be cold. Let me get you some shoes.”
It turns out I didn’t need the shoes as we were let back into our house shortly thereafter, but the gesture stuck with me.
So there you have it. Three small deeds or gestures that, at a minimum, show there are at least three people where I live that are ready to do some good anytime they feel it’s needed. I, for one, couldn’t be happier because I know that in my city and the region that surrounds it, there are over half a million people and the good ones far outnumber any others.
Start looking for people performing good deeds and random acts of kindness in the places where you live, work, and play. I bet you dollars to doughnuts it won’t take you long to find them. When you do, tell me about it down in the comments so everyone can see that the good news can travel just as fast as the bad.
Day 3 – A song that reminds you of summertime I considered this song for the upcoming Day 8 (A song about drugs or alcohol) but this song makes me think more about summer than it does about drugs. I’m not sure if it’s the imagery painted by Victoria’s lyrics or what, but this song makes me think about dry, dusty fields and hanging out on sweltering hot days with some friends
Day 4 – A song that reminds you of someone you’d rather forget I wrote a blog post (https://potatochipmath.com/2012/10/an-untitled-post-about-bullying.html) about some of the memories that got kicked up when I went a did a favour for an old high school acquaintance by playing a fighting street person for this video. Thankfully, I’m not a big follower of hip hop & rap (though do enjoy it on occasion) and I don’t come across this song too often
Day 5 – A song that needs to be played loud Oh my god, so many choices. I don’t know where to begin. Obviously, AC/DC came to mind, then Van Halen and Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses… and we have a winner. I cannot listen to Paradise City by Guns N’ Roses without having to crank the sound to eleven.
Day 6 – A song that makes you want to dance I am not known to be a dancer. I make Elaine from Seinfeld look like Paula Abdul. That said, there’s one song that makes me groove every time (in as much as I am capable of grooving). The thing is, I hate the lyrics to the original and have little respect for the original artist as a musician or even a human. Fortunately for me, Weird Al Yankovic did a parody with much better lyrics but with the same musical groove. Word Crimes by Weird Al Yankovic. Music by that dipshit Robin Thicke
Say what you want about Ed Sheeran, but I love this song. I can’t help but turn it up and sing along and smile. I like the album version better overall but watching Ed do this one with just an acoustic guitar and a loop machine is pretty damn cool. Plus, seeing a bunch of kids sing this at the KW Glee boot camp this summer was awesome too
There was a stretch where every time I found out about someone dying this song would play on the radio shortly thereafter. Plus, it’s a sad song. Even though it’s a song about hope and hanging on and knowing you’re not alone in your struggles, the fact is there are still so many struggling that there is, at best, one degree of separation between yourself and someone to whom this song applies. This song makes me sad, but I’ll be okay. If this song applies to you and you need someone to hold onto or just be present, give me a call. Send me a text or an email.
I don’t know what it is about this song that sticks with me, but something does. I think it’s probably my favourite U2 song out of their whole catalog, and for a band that’s probably one of my all-time favourties with as many songs as they have that I like that’s saying something. The fact they played it on their recent Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour this summer is even better. Like it or don’t like it, whatever your preference one thing you can say for sure it’s that it’s not a bad song #dadjoke #groan
The list is insanely good. Easily a dozen of those songs popped into my head when I first read the category. How did I pick just one? Easy. I went with the love song from the movie that had Demi Moore in it, of course! I love the intro to this dong and even tried playing it at the piano at summer camp. I never did learn how to, but it’s a fun memory regardless.
A friend of mine, writer and all-around great guy Gareth S. Young started doing this 30-Day song challenge and after seeing his posts day after day I decided I’d give it a shot. I haven’t blogged much in a while so I thought I’d do it here as a weekly Monday summary to get me in the habit of writing at least something every day. Plus, MUSIC! Who doesn’t love music?
This is the “challenge”:
June 3 – Day 1 of the 30-Day Song Challenge
My favourite song
I have lots of songs that I love. I have even more that I enjoy in specific situations. One song, however, stands above them all. I have yet to listen to a song that captures my attention more than this one. Originally written by the Magnetic Fields, The Book of Love was covered by the Airborne Toxic Event and I first heard it on their live album played with the Calder Quartet at the Walt Disney Concert Hall the week after the death of the lead singer’s grandma.
The lyrics, the emotion, the music… I love everything about this song.
This wasn’t even a contest for the longest time. My least favourite song by a country mile was Paranoid Android by Radiohead. It’s odd because Radiohead isn’t even my least favourite artist. They’re nowhere near the top, but they’re also not at the bottom. That Paranoid Android song, though, grates my cheese like you wouldn’t believe. But it’s no matter because Gwen Stefani wrote the song Hollaback Girl and it instantaneously took over the top spot. Even after the ridiculous amount of airplay it got on the radio I have not warmed up to it. Not even a little.
You know what’s B-A-N-A-N-A-S, Gwen? That hearing your song makes me want to throw my radio across the room.
There is so much about music to be happy about. Whether it’s seeing my wife pour through music on Spotify and see the look on her face when she hears a new song that that she likes, or hearing my daughter singing the same song over and over again because she absolutely loves it and must know how to sing it and play it on the guitar, or watching my son destroy the dashboard of my car because we are on our way to or from drum lessons and the Beastie Boys are playing and he. Must. Play. Along. For the longest time all I had was the radio and a few cassette tapes and CDs so when I first heard Rush’s Spirit of Radio my mind was blown. Considering when that song first came out I think it was about as meta as you could get at the time. The song is about the companionship and freedom that music brings but how ultimately it’s controlled by commercialization.
“For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall, concert hall… and echoes with the sounds, of salesmen, of salesmen, of salesmen”
When they play it live and hit that “concert hall” line all the house lights go up and the crowd goes crazy. I’ve seen them play that song live at least half a dozen times and it gives me goosebumps every time.
In December 1991, Canadian rock legends RUSH started their Presto tour in Hamilton, Ontario with Jeff Healey as the opening act. It was thought that a couple nights later in Toronto, that Healey would open as well. Ticket sales were slow, or so the story goes. A friend of mine scored us a pair of tickets in the sixth row, just off center, and on the day of the concert my high school walls were buzzing. At least, the dozen RUSH fans in the two thousand student body were buzzing. A rumor was circulating that Jeff Healey wasn’t going to open, instead, it was going to be The Tragically Hip.
I was a counselor in training back in the summer of 1990 when The Hip’s first full album, Up To Here, was making waves on the shores of Sparrow Lake – and Lake Ontario, and pretty much any other lake, small town, city, or metropolis in The Great White North. At the time it was one of my favourite albums. The album that outdid it, though, was their next one. The 1991 gem, Road Apples. So, by the time December of that year rolled around The Tragically Hip had become Canada’s band, and I was going to get a front row seat (okay, it was the sixth row, but who’s counting) to see them open for the band that previously held the title.
That concert was everything it promised to be, and then some. I watched Gord Downie belt out hit after hit of hard hitting, good old fashioned rock-n-roll married with lyrics that were pure genius. When he lay down with half his body hanging over the stage and screamed the lyrics to New Orleans Is Sinking while pretending to do the front crawl I knew I was witnessing something truly unique. Part man, part machine, part poem, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip were rewriting the national anthem.
Twenty-five years later an entire country was collectively winded from the gut-punch news that Gord was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Doing what I can imagine only a few people in the world could do, Gord and the band decided they would go out the way they came in. That is, with a bang, and they set out do play a series of gigs – exclusively in Canada – with their magnum opus to come in a six-thousand-seat venue in their band’s birth city of Kingston, Ontario.
The Hip could have sold a hundred thousand tickets to that show. Hell, they could have filled Downsview Park in Toronto and close to a million people would have shown up. Interest was so high in tickets for these concerts that, after the debacle with getting seats (tickets going up on Stub Hub for thousands of dollars within seconds of going on sale), the national broadcaster, CBC, committed to airing the concert free of editing and commercials as well as streaming it live on their website, YouTube, and Facebook. Over four million people watched the entire broadcast and almost twelve million tuned into it at some point.
Let that sink in.
A rock band from Kingston, Ontario, population roughly 120,000, had one-third of the entire population of Canada tune in to watch a portion of their final concert.
Several politicians from several levels of government and all party affiliations were in attendance but the one that stood out the most was none other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in addition to clapping and cheering in a concert t-shirt, showed his love and appreciation for Gord and the band in a series of tweets:
On behalf of Canadians, I thank Gord Downie and the Hip for their decades of service to Canadian music. Forever in our hearts and playlists.
Personal stories were in abundance. So what is mine? Aside from the above introduction, I don’t really have one except to say that The Hip went from being the best-kept secret in Ontario to having throngs of loyal fans. I described it to a coworker today as having this feeling that in 1990 they were this obscure band that had a few good songs I liked and in 1991 it was as if they had always been playing on the soundtrack of my life.
After that night in Toronto, I only managed to see them a few more times but their music was everywhere to be found. My good friend and former physics lab partner is a big fan and when we shared an apartment not many hours would pass without a Hip song being played, or strummed on the guitar, or sang poorly over Kraft Dinner being eaten straight out of the pot. I remember listening to their album Phantom Power on the radio in the car on the way up to the cottage with my then-girlfriend now wife. There’s a lyric in the song Fireworks that goes, “She said she didn’t give a fuck about hockey and I never saw someone say that before,” and that pretty much summed up our relationship right there. She always sings that part loud and proud when we’re together and we hear that song.
The stories, they go on and on and on and on. Throw a rock at a group of Canadians and you’ll hit someone with a story about the Tragically Hip. So what is it about them that brings together millions of people to say goodbye?
For starters, the lyrics are masterfully woven from the threads of Canadiana, set to guitar, drums, and bass that make you want to sing along and move, and delivered with the rawest of emotions. For a good number of Canadians, the band speaks directly to them using tools and talent a rarified few possess.
The online Canadian encyclopedia gives us a glimpse into the poetic genius of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip with an exhibit outlining the stories behind of a handful of the band’s most popular songs. For people who have never heard of the Tragically Hip to people that have committed every lyric to memory, this is a must-see. They lifted the name of the exhibit from a song off the album Fully Completely.
What sums it up most aptly for me is lifted from two lyrics from one of my favourite Hip songs off the album Day For Night (which, in a sick and twisted bit of coincidence features the song titled Inevitability of Death):
“Armed with will and determination, and grace, too.”
“Armed with skill and its frustration, and grace, too.”
Gord Downie did it all. He did it with will and determination and even with all his skill, he showed us his frustration. And he did it with grace, too.
As a reminder, I present my main decision-making criteria:
Number of songs I like on the album (the fewer songs I skip over, the better)
Composition of the album (are the songs arranged in an order I find pleasing)
Memories invoked when I hear a song from the album
Emotional impact of the album (how does listening to it make me feel?)
Today, we complete the list with an album that literally helped define a generation. By many, it is not viewed in the same regard as, say, Nevermind by Nirvana, but in my opinion, this album was more complex, richer experience that touched a much broader audience.
I like every song on this album. In fact, I’ve liked every song on this album since the moment it was released. If I were to rank each song from one to eleven the songs at the bottom, Oceans, Porch, and Garden end up bouncing around in my head for hours after hearing them.
I completely understand why the producer decided to open with the song “Once”. It’s a powerful song and within the first minute of the song the lyrics, “Once upon a time, I could control myself / Once upon a time I could lose myself” tell us that we’re about to embark on a fairytale journey like none other. Followed by “Even Flow” these two tracks make you feel like all you’ve been doing is climbing, then, without warning like the first big drop on a roller coaster we hear “Alive”, a song just as powerful as any of the others but slightly downtempo. Not to have us get lulled into a false sense of security the album hits back with a 1-2 punch with “Why Go” and then “Black” only to follow up with probably the most iconic opening bass line in the band’s catalogue on “Jeremy”. The album continues with songs that alternate between laying low a little and jumping right up in your face until we get to the last song on the track. As far as album endings go “Release” is a formidable choice for the end of this wild ride, though I have to admit that it’s just as fitting to have it as a live show opener. All in all, the songs on Ten are perfectly arranged and are a pleasure to listen to on their own, in order as they are on the album, or randomized on an iPod with a thousand other songs.
This album makes me feel like jumping around and yelling. Occasionally, a song will come on that’s one of the slower ones and instead of jumping around and yelling it will just magnify whatever feeling I am having in that moment. The themes of the album are dark and uncomfortable and complex, and the feelings it invokes are the same. But most of all, it makes me feel like jumping around and yelling.
There are too many memories involving this album to list them all here. I remember one of my longest-standing childhood friends driving us to a party and saying, “I’m feeling kind of grunge tonight” and putting PJ on in the car. I remember countless days and nights “studying” with Riaz; half-written physics equations haphazardly scribbled on scrap paper and Riaz with his guitar in hand and Pearl Jam on the CD player. They are the go-to concert for another friend of mine and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them a couple of times with him. I should have seen PJ in New Orleans with him back in 1995 but this girl I worked with wouldn’t switch shifts with me (which was a total jerk move, if you ask me).
Probably the coolest memory I have involves the pop/ska band The English Beat. I was in Ottawa, Ontario, standing a few rows from the stage with my Pearl Jam tour buddy and Pearl Jam launched into their hit song “Betterman”. They extended the ending and out of nowhere started singing the English Beat’s “Save It For Later”. Fast forward five years and I’m in Waterloo, Ontario (a solid six-hour drive from Ottawa) and I’m in a small club watching the English Beat with my wife when right in the middle of their song “Save It For Later” they start playing a few bars of Pearl Jam’s “Betterman”. I figure I was the only person there who had that experience and every time either of those songs come on my iPod I think of those two concert moments. Also, if you’ve never experienced the crowd participation at a Pearl Jam concert, you are truly missing out. I only need to speak two words on this topic: Baba O’Riley. Look it up on YouTube.
So there you have it, my top five albums of all time. Next time, I’ll put the songs in order and give you a list of great albums that didn’t quite make the top five cut but are worth checking out nonetheless.