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2015 The Year To Be Great – Part 1 …

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Life flash

– Gerard Way

OK, I’m not the SuperHero I make myself out to be.

No Oscars, no Emmys, no Grammys. NOPE. No tony international agency will declare 2014 as the year I accomplished everything I set out to do and then some.

But on the other hand, I did do some pretty cool things.

  • I felt blood rushing into my ears as I screamed like a little kid while ziplining a hundred metres above a rock-strewn canyon.
  • I dressed top to bottom in funky, furry green and played a chilly Mr. Grinch for thousands of passersby.
  • I wrote (and sang) songs with joy – sometimes sorrow – and passion in my musical heart.
  • I stood on the grey-clouded shores of north Africa and looked out on the endless Atlantic Ocean as Humphrey Bogart did years ago in Casablanca. And in Marrakesh, I sat naked in a Hammam (Moroccan spa) amongst locals before being propositioned by a male prostitute.
  • I perched on Arizona’s southern edge of the immense Grand Canyon – giant Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons soaring overhead and below.
  • I said so long to a 37-year long career as a Medical Lab Technologist and many wonderful co-workers that I enjoyed more than the work itself.

But all joy and cool things must be interspersed with sorrow and, as we all do in various measures, I said a few sad goodbyes to family members and friends who shared their life’s journey with me – giving to me, often without ever knowing.

If you’ve travelled this blog road with me a little – or a lot – you’ll perhaps know that I take stock of my life at the end of each year, reviewing where I’ve been, and charting a course for whatever mild flowing river or ferocious bounding seas that lie ahead.

It’s some instructive fun for me and I hope it gives you pause to think about the direction of your life.

I’ve come to an age and a stage where I know my productive, active years are passing quickly through the sands of time and there’s a touch more sand in the bottom of my hourglass than there is on the top. So, an urgency passes through me to see, do, taste, love, smell, grab a hold of … what I can while I can.

I’m a happy, lucky dude with the amazingly good fortune to live in a time and space that allows me to jump into my passions with fervour … today I’m healthy and alive so what more could I ask for?

Well, to answer my own question, I need to pursue another year’s worth of goals. Goals are what and who I am.

Next week, I’ll pull out my New Year’s Crystal Ball and go through my list of 2015 BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).

But first, this week, let’s have a look back at the year of 2014 and get a sense of where I held up my end of the bargain I made with myself and where I let myself down. The dark type below is my 2014 goals as I wrote them a year ago, and the blue is the year-end results: positive or negative: pretty, ugly or indifferent.

On Casablanca Atlantic shores...

Playing Air Piano On Casablanca’s Atlantic shores…

2014 GOALS

BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and LFEG’s (Little Fuzzy Everyday Goals)

1. PHYSICAL/HEALTH

a) 100 burpees including pushups. I’m going at this lung-busting challenge with a few of my co-workers, so we can all DIE together. Most people I know, including me, hate the BURPEE. It’s hard once you get past 3 or 4 of these up/down/pushup/jump contortions, which is exactly why I’m doing it. I’ll enjoy the pain … afterwards!

RESULT? For once, procrastination was put aside and my friend Pam (who I did 100 non-stop pushups with last year) and I conquered this challenge by the end of July, adding 10 Burpees each couple of weeks until we hit the 100. They’re oh-so-tough but oh-so-satisfying. To kick it up a notch we could have pushed further by doing the 100 in less and less time, but instead we chose to move on to other physical challenges for variety. 

b) 2 more New-To-Me Sports (eg. Paintball, Kickboxing …). It’s important to keep refreshed with new things to keep our enthusiasm levels high. If you have any great suggestions for innovative new sports I can try… add your comment at the end, OK? Pole dancing is NOT an acceptable suggestion for this dude.

Sports? Hmmm … how about physical adventures? In one fine August week I joined Irish cousin visitors for a zipline cruise above deep, rocky canyons, then flew skyward overlooking Okanagan Lake with the help of a parachute towed behind a boat. 

c) Run 2 Half Marathons – both in sub-2 Hour time and as a stretch goal, finishing one in sub-1 hr and 55 minutes. Half marathon running is the perfect distance for feeling a sense of accomplishment without having to give over your life to training.

YUP… well … NOPE. I ran through torrential Vancouver spring rains in one half marathon (Time: 1 hr. 58 mins) then began another race in Penticton 2 weeks later but withdrew from the event after 5 kilometres with a painful calf muscle. My spirit is ALWAYS willing, but could someone please talk to the flesh …

d) Lose Enough Weight to See the Subtle Signs of a 6 pack Abs.- I work hard in training. A lot of that work includes the core (ie. Abdominal muscles). Isn’t it fair that I should see even a tiny ripple or two of ripped muscle that says that yes, it’s finally paying off?

Muscle definition is one part health-related stuff to one part ego matter, and my ego needs a teensy little meal to feed on here. I don’t have an actual weight loss goal, just enough to see the small sandbar ripples in the mirror.

Yes and No … I did drop a few pounds over the course of the year which is the ultimate key to a 6 pack, so if I tense my ab muscles REALLY hard I can see subtle signs of ripple if I tilt my head in just the right direction. Alas, the young lads on the beach have little to admire in my 6 pack (unless it’s labelled MOLSON).

2. CHARITABLE

a) 10% Charitable boost – I’m so lucky to have won the life lottery that gives me an unbelievable lifestyle. Supporting charities  (Plan International /UNICEF) that assist in enabling others to proudly develop their own systems and economies to live the way I can is a tiny tiny price to pay.

TOO Easy… this one gets done in the first week of January each year with 2 phone calls … to label this a goal achieved is really an overstatement, but because sharing is so important, it needs to be here. CHECK! 

b) Buy a coffee for the next person in the lineup at Tim Hortons once per month – Coffee is mentioned in the Tim Commandments given Moses:

Thou shalt be provided and drink coffee in healthful abundance“.

Huh, it’s not a commandment? Really? Well it should be.

Oh BOY I’m bad … I forget about this one so often despite it being so simple … maybe it’s the lack of caffeine in my system. Anyway, I can go for 3 or 4 months without doing this, so I have to make up for it by tossing a twoonie ($2 for the non-Canadians out there) through the Tim Hortons drive-thru window on consecutive visits to make up for lost time. I’ve had this happen to me on one or two occasions before and it brought a smile to my face, so I hope others have had the same experience when I leave my $2 behind for them …

3. WRITING

a) 50 Additional Blog Posts + 40 views/day on blog 

I’m not the most stylishly eloquent guy when it comes to verbal communication. In some ways, I suck at the whole talk thing.

That leaves writing as my favoured way of expressing what I have to say. A weekly blog allows me to think about and ponder the things that are meaningful to me, and then allows me to share my thoughts with you.

BIG YES! I love writing my blog posts. All 51 that I wrote in 2014. Fifty-two if you count this one.

I love the challenge of thinking of ideas to share. I love the focus of pulling disparate thoughts together into one cohesive whole. I love it that blog writing helps me to consider my beliefs in a deeper way than I might otherwise. I love exploring and teasing with sometimes naughty thoughts. And I love that many of you take the time to read and respond to what I have to say … thank you!

40 views per day as a goal? I remember a year ago when more than 20 views of my blog posts was a good day. The year 2014 brought me 20,000 readers meaning the daily average for 2014 is… drum roll please…. 54 views. From 149 countries. My most viewed post of the year? Your Castration Awaits: 8 Reasons Women Will Dominate Men in the 21st Century.

b) Take on Writing Another Novel – this past November (2013) I participated in the month long National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an internet-based 50,000 word novel-writing challenge.

It’s free, it’s motivating, and they give you lots of feedback and encouragement. I wrote about 2/3 of a novel that is really bad, but I loved doing it.

I’m psyched to take it on again and make my own sexy 50 Shades of Green.

WOW… a total MISS. The focus needed to make a novel materialize on a screen or page was directed elsewhere in 2014. As the year moved along, my passions became more intensified in the area of songwriting.

Songwriting takes time, lots of time.

Writing novels takes time, lots of time.

Songwriting was the winner of the battle and National Novel Writing Month was something I merely observed as an outsider. It was a worthwhile sacrifice in my eyes. But I hope to visit and participate in the writing challenge once again in future days.

4.  MUSICAL 

a) Purchase 12-string guitar – The guitar has been one of my best friends in life. It’s been there all through the peaks and valleys. But sometimes, a song just needs a little more depth than 6 strings radiate and a 12-string guitar can add that richness, like a teaspoon of full-fat cream in coffee.

ALMOST! I’ve been on the hunt, doing my research, trying out various 12-string models for the best sound, great projection, soft, easy action on the strings. I think I’m gonna have to pull the trigger on this goal early in 2015, so listen for the strains of Hotel California wafting in the breeze, OK?

b) Purchase a Baby Grand Piano – This is probably not a goal that will be attained this year, but it’s too important in my mind to not at least put it on the list for the next year or two.

Piano is a great late-night instrument that satisfies my spirituality needs. Singing a love ballad on a richly-toned grand in the semi-darkness at 11 pm. …well, it just soothes my savage soul.

I called this one right when I said it likely wouldn’t happen in 2014. It didn’t. But it won’t be coming off my list because the rich tones of a lovely piano are life-enhancing, the musical equivalent of sipping from the Holy Grail.

c) Learn more mandolin – I got a lovely mandolin gift last year. Like a 12-string guitar, the double sets of strings on a mandolin add musical dimensions that lift us dreamily towards the heavens. It’s time to give a bit of quality time and develop at least a minimal skill set.

A big SORTA. I did play the mandolin some. I did improve a little. But really, I do need to spend more “quality time” with this instrument if I ever hope to come close to the picking abilities of my friend Jimmy Ferguson in Oregon. The nice thing about mandolin is that I can pick a few notes in the background as accompaniment to develop some depth when I’m recording songs with my guitar as the prime instrument.

d) Write 6 more Songs and perform original songs publically. Writing songs is hard, but rewarding. For variety I’d like to write 2 country, 2 folk-ballad, 1  jazzy, and 1 rock’ish-style. This should stretch my imagination and creativity skills to the breaking point.

YES. I did write at least 6 songs and had a great time pushing into this underdeveloped area of my creative “me”. I’m so excited about this that I hope to spend even more time trying to get my 1,000 hours (10,000 hours is way too much for this ADHD dude) of practice in. Here’s a little teaser of a song I wrote (and play/sing) about an old songwriting hero of mine, Harry Chapin… Only Half a Lifetime

Performing publically is nervously challenging but fun. But now, finding the steely nerves to take my own songs to a stage and perform them publically is, for me, a huge leap. 2014 is the year for me to brace myself and do this. Besides, why should only my family suffer through hearing my dulcet vocal tones!

NOPE. This didn’t happen but I know I’m ready to climb the stairs to the stage of public performances of my own works. I’m feeling more confident than I ever have and I look forward to the sky-high adrenaline boost when the day arrives.

5. TRAVEL 

a) Visit at least 5 more American States – one of my long term goals is to visit each of the 50 American States – I’ve visited all of the Canadian provinces and territories in previous years. Last year I wandered and added 9 states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and DC) to my list that includes 9 others. This year I hope to knock off a bunch of western U.S. States and make it near to the halfway point.

DONE … CHECK! This fall we wandered south for a road trip on the western side of this continent… add Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to the finished side of the ledger – I felt the unfettered joy of legally driving at 140 kph in Utah and Idaho. 

IMG_4568

Grand Canyon

 

b) Touch Ground on One More Continent – One more of my long-term goals is to step on each of the continents. Africa, Australia, and Antarctica are out there calling my name like sweet sirens in the mist. See next item…

AGAIN…CHECK! Africa has been breached, although it only counts as a taste. Morocco sits atop the African continent leaving a HUGE land mass beneath to be seen and “tasted”.

c) Buy a Fez Hat in Fez, Morocco + get my hair cut by a “Barber in Seville” – A touchdown in Morocco this year would take me to the African continent, and allow me the opportunity to do a couple of things that are iconic of the area: Visit Casablanca and talk like Humphrey Bogart, buy the Fez hat that Steely Dan sang about in the 1970’s , and while in Spain, be sheared like Rossini’s famed Barber of Seville.

I’m on a roll … CHECK! While in Casablanca, I passed by Rick’s Cafe where Humphrey Bogart hung out, I bought a FEZ hat overlooking the medina of Fez, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar where I had my locks shorn by a Barber of Sevilla. A trifecta accomplished!

6. MENTAL/EDUCATIONAL

a) Listen to at least 1 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talk per month – I’d be hard-pressed to find a finer source of creative and thought-provoking material than is found in the inspiring TED talks. This is a Lego-block piece of the grey-matter material that makes the internet so great.

The end of that roll… NOPE. I listened to maybe 3 or 4 talks over the year but didn’t prioritize this sufficiently. I love inspirational journeys by those who have lived to talk of their great experiences. Now I need to walk the talk and listen to their talks. Got that?

b) Read at least one new book each month – whether it’s for escape or education or relaxation, books (PAPER or ELECTRONIC) are one of life’s wonders more crucial and dear to most of us than the physical 7 Wonders of the World.

Thanks to KOBO (electronic reader) and their 15%, 20%, 30% discounts, I’ve been sucked in, totally seduced into purchasing and reading books regularly. What is really nice is that I’m reading more fiction than I’ve read in years. Three of my favourite reads (2 fiction, 1 non-fiction) this year have been Jodi Picault’s Nineteen Minutes , Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama, and Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of A Creative Life.

7. FINANCIAL

a) 15% return – Each year, my goal is to bring home an additional 15% on my investments.

And each year I start out feeling nervous as hell because no matter how well I did the previous year, January 1 is right back to the starting blocks. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day and each year I have to prove my investing chops all over again as if last year never happened.

My 5-year average annual return is looking pretty fair at 22.7%  but then when you cook in the 2008 stock market plunge, my 10-year annual average is only 12.4%.

OK, I can breathe again as the year comes to a close.

The goal? 15% overall return.

The final tally with 3 market days remaining in the year? 15.2% … whew!!

My investing choices this year largely concentrated in the higher tech area, which is unusual for me. However, looking at the financial results for companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Intel made these easy choices given their ability to print huge $$ and Mr. Market not giving them credit for their huge sales. A buyout of Tim Hortons by Burger King late in the year didn’t hurt my results any either, although it did bruise my delicate Canadian psyche.

b) Retire, Debt-Free –  The year 2014 is my “Freedom 57″ year.

I hate the word retirement, it’s kinda like saying “I’m done with life“. We live in a golden age with countless choices of paths to wander.

As Yogi Berra said: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Retirement is just another fork in the road, and I’m choosing to take it.

I DO hate the word retirement, but for now, let’s just go with it and say that YES, it happened in 2014. I turned 57 on my last day as a paid laboratory technologist… ate some wonderful “BYE BYE PIES” with my wonderful colleagues to celebrate, then walked away after 37 years spent in labs from Ontario, to the Northwest Territories, to B.C. DEBT-FREE.

8. FOOD & EATING

a) Eat at least one box of Kraft Dinner per month – mmmmm. Kraft Dinner. God’s flavourful gift to men. Like the humour of Monty Python, Kraft dinner seems to be favoured by the male set. With or without ketchup, it’s a simple box of orange-hued macaroni ambrosia.

EASY PEASY … CHECK!… Need I say more!! A boy’s KD dream come true …

b) Drink Coffee with Only One Sugar – to counteract the ill effects of all that delicious Kraft Dinner, I’ll resolve this year to scale back my sugar (and/or Splenda) use. A couple of years back I shed my Canadian-ness by cutting back the double cream to a single dose in my coffee. This year will be the year of my sugar assault.

AND finally, one last CHECK! A few stalks of Caribbean sugar cane have lived this past year to tell their sweet story to their GrandCanes because of my daily sacrifice of the white stuff. But the sugar assault ends here … chocolate will never be so lucky to escape my clutches!

………………..

So, there you have a year all balled up like a pair of comfy, favourite socks and gently placed in a time drawer.

Why don’t you come back next week, and we’ll bang our heads together to plan out BHAG’s and LFEG’s for a fantastic 2015, shall we?

 

Well that sucked

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An Okanagan Christmas Story

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Summerland lights

It was an unusual year in that there was snow on the ground.

Not just a skiff of the white, but enough fluffy ivory to strap on the cross-country skis and glide quietly between the rows of trees in the apple orchard. Just a muffled swoosh swoosh swoosh and the occasional chirp of a tiny pine siskin perched in the tall evergreens at the edge of the field.

The sky was a dull-grey and the unseasonally chill air froze my eyelashes with a frosty glaze. No more than 15 minutes, I figured. A good hard ski to get the blood flow running and then back into the warmth in front of the woodstove, ablaze with the fragrant chunks of fir I’d cut last spring.

The morning’s light had surfaced only an hour earlier as the moments grew close to the winter solstice.

I got dressed in my day clothes after the combination of muscle heat and fire warmth had penetrated sufficiently. Then popping on my Sorel boots at the back door, I headed out into the cold once again.

My retirement “job” this morning was to spend a few hours at One-to-One reading with some grade schoolers at Trout Creek Elementary – kids who were struggling with their reading ability and could benefit from some one-on-one coaching.

I slipped through the fence gate into the school’s playground. It was fun to see and encounter the little tykes as they chatted excitedly about their families and friends as if we were old buddies. The experience was all the more heartwarming because in the back halls of my mind were the memories of the days I spent here on the same playground and classrooms in my childhood.

A snowy day like this in the Okanagan Valley was confirmation that Christmas day and Santa’s arrival would come about with certainty.

The morning passed. I saw four youngsters in half hour segments.

We sat next to each other in short chairs at a small shiny amber veneer-top table in the small library across from the computer room next to the school’s front entry door.

First, little Tyler, a 7 year-old who wanted to be a drummer-musician like his uncle Teddy and knew with robust confidence the life histories of each of the Beatles, as well as their song catalogue. When he was able to refrain from wiggling, his reading skills were not too bad – clearly he could read the words – although when asked a question about the story, understanding the words read was a totally different matter.

Next up to practice her reading was 9 year-old Melissa, a dark-haired princess with baby-blue-painted fingernails  – she might have been confused for a little Ariana Grande in a dimmed room. Melissa was very socially aware and would eye each student entering the library as if she were a talent scout seeking America’s Next Great Model. “Did you see the belt on that Grade 5 girl’s skirt, it’s the wrong colour. I’d choose something red for her.

Reading wasn’t a problem for little adult Melissa, she could likely pick up and understand words beyond my comprehension if she was able to focus on the page rather than on the social scene passing by.

Next. Joseph. Not Joe. Joseph. Taking his biblical name to heart, this Grade 1 youngster was timid but made it clear that the books he wanted to read were stories from the Bible. Public schools in this province don’t carry a selection of biblical material, so I convinced him that story books filled with characters of strong moral values, like Mortimer Moose, could be seen through a context of the Bible. He bought into this and we were on our way. Amen.

Finally, a skinny log of a kid with tousled blond hair and red red cheeks post snowy-recess, stood, looking in through the library door. “Are you Peter?“, I asked.

He nodded shyly and moved forward a step and stopped. “Come in and have a chair, Peter. I’m Mr. Green. You’re my last reading buddy before Christmas break.”

Peter nudged forward and plunked himself on the seat, arms flat at his sides. He looked down at the table and said nothing. No smile. No movement.

Never having read with Peter before, I glanced silently through the brief notes left in a manila folder given to me by his teacher Mrs. Jermyn.

Hmmmm. “Peter Briskman. 8 years-old. Grade 3. Moved to Summerland one year ago with his father, Jacob Briskman. Mother Carla, died from cancer 2 years ago in Calgary. Quiet boy – advanced for age in most academic areas.” Such a sad story, I thought to myself.

Thinking I’d break the ice first before we settled into reading, I asked, “I like snow days like today. Is one of the snowmen I saw in the playground yours?

Keeping his face pointed downwards, he spoke reluctantly in a quiet voice.

I used to build snowmen when I was little and lived in Calgary. But not anymore. Now I make Mountain Goats.

– Really? Mountain goats? That’s kind of unusual. Why mountain goats and not snowmen? Is there a Disney movie about mountain goats that I missed?

No. Mountain goats live on steep hillsides where it’s dangerous and they eat the little bits of grass that grow between the stones. It’s very hard for them to live, but they find a way, even if it’s -50 outside. And, even if they’re injured they protect their babies against cougars and eagles. Have you seen one before?

I had seen the white shaggy goats many times, clambering along the rocky screed hillsides overlooking Okanagan Lake north of Summerland. Often, I would see groups of 3, sometimes 5 or 6 way up high in the distance of the steep rises above the highway. But I didn’t want to stop Peter from talking since we were just establishing some rapport so I said, “No, never.

– I can show you one I made on the back field today. I started it before the bell rang at the beginning of classes and then finished it at recess. Would you like to see it? We don’t have to go outside, I can show it to you through the window.

– Sure.

Peter ran ahead, leading me past a few scattered little tables to the window in the corner of the library.

mountain_goat_

 

He stopped and pointed towards the area in front of the tetherball court in the centre of the playground. There was a lot of white out there; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust and take note of the large snow animal in the yard. It was an amazing likeness of the real thing. Even the sharp tapered white horns appeared genuine.

How had one little boy created such a sculpture? Had his Dad helped him build it before school began for the day? It was striking that it stood almost as big as the real animal; then, something unusual caught my eye.

– You’ve done an incredible job there Peter, but did you see that one of the goat’s legs is missing? Do you think maybe the snow wasn’t packed tightly and it crumbled?

The mountain goat had only 3 legs, a gap existed where the front right leg should be.

– Nope, that looks just like the one I see at home. I see it when I wake up and look out my bedroom window in the morning. It stands there and nudges its nose on my window. It gets the glass all steamy and gooey. Then it wont leave until I go and make it a cup of green tea and set it on the ledge outside the window. After it licks the tea all up, it turns and runs off into the trees behind our house.

I was about to respond when a man’s voice called out from behind.

– Peter? I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m Peter’s Dad, Jacob… I need to steal Peter away from you. I told Mrs. Jermyn I’d be here at a quarter to eleven to take him for his therapy session. I’m sorry if my timing is bad.

Peter turned and ran up to his father, “Hey Dad. Just gotta grab my backpack and coat and I’ll be set. See you in the new year Mr. Green.” 

I reached forward to shake Peter’s father’s hand.

Hi Mr. Briskman, I’m Mr. Green. Peter and I were going to do a reading one-to-one session but we never actually got started. It’s funny, but we got caught up talking about the snow creation he made outside. He’s an amazing little artist, such incredible talent for a youngster.

– Thank you. Yeah, Peter seems to have acquired some artistic skills from his mother, not me. I can’t draw a stick man that’s recognizable. But his mother, she could draw or make anything. She would sit around for hours – actually, she died a couple of years ago – but before she became sick, she’d be in her back art room drinking green tea, making charcoal sketches and working with clay, making sculptures of animals. Her animals looked so true-to-life that when people visited and saw her deer and mountain goat sculptures in the yard, they thought the beasts were real. We laughed so many times when visitors came to our door and mentioned the creatures standing in our yard. I guess Peter picked up her creative gene.

Mr. Briskman turned and began moving toward the library door. It was a moment of confusion for me listening to his words and the similarities with Peter’s story. I mulled the ideas about in my mind, trying to discern what was real and what was imagined; before he left the room, I asked,

 – I’m so sorry about your wife, Mr. Briskman. It must be very difficult for you and Peter coping with her loss. What was the cause of your wife’s death?

He paused momentarily at the door, and with a haunted look of longing for days gone by and a love that had left far too early, he replied,

She had an aggressive osteosarcoma in her right leg.

His eyes grew dewy and I could see a slight quiver at the corner of his mouth. He hesitated a few seconds before continuing.

– They eventually amputated her leg when the chemo couldn’t stop the tumour from growing. It was just too late to save her.

Shaking his head, he snapped back to the moment, regaining his composure.

– I’ve got to run now. Peter needs to get to his counselling appointment. He’s had a really hard time finding ways to deal with his Mom’s death. 

He paused.

– Mr. Green? Thanks for helping Peter … and … Have a Merry Christmas.

We shook hands once more; Mr. Briskman disappeared and I too paused in thought.

Then as I began to gather my things to leave, I turned to look out the window once more at the noble snow sculpture standing proud in the schoolyard and wondered if young Peter had somehow, already, in his own way, begun to work through the loss of a mother’s love and nurturing.

snowman

Boney M Must Die …

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Boney M

I’m such a fascist.

I know it’s the season of goodwill and peace but all I want to do is smash and burn Boney M Christmas music CD’s.

Christmas. The splendour and fears, the joys and heartbreak mix together like a multi-hued fruit cake … loved to the heavens by some, loathed to the devil’s armchair by others. Strong, strong gut-felt sensations from heart to head to toe.

Smells of pine or fir needles waft softly through the warm rooms of our hearts and homes, scents of gingerbread and vanilla and shortbread, voices of grandparents, Mommies and Daddies, the thp thp thp of excited pyjama-clad feet over wooden floors.

Laughter at turkey-festooned tables, where long simmering bitternesses are subsumed by best behaviours… the notion that no ill words will be laid on the Christmas table; not this hour, not this day, at least.

Modern Family Christmas

And in the background of all this joy and tension lies music. Seasonal tunes emanating from vinyl record and CD players, cellphones, MP3 players, songs springing from the living room’s polished piano keys or the silken strings of Aunt June’s guitar.

I love so many carols and hymns played over the Christmas season, don’t you? And if a chanteuse sings one song I don’t enjoy so much, there’s usually another they perform that lifts me skywards to nirvana.

Holly_Wreath

Years ago I lived for a time in Canada’s arctic town of Yellowknife.

As Christmas approached, I’d sit crammed with a bunch of other revellers in the cheek-numbing open-air box of a friend’s pickup truck and drive through the dark at -40C under the warm, green-tinged swirl of northern lights to co-workers’ homes for carol singing and rum drinking. Staid old Dr. Igoe was always the most generous with the spirit bottle, so we unfailingly sang our best festive tunes in the warmth of his living room.

Our Arctic choir didn’t have one, but just about every artist in the recording universe has a Christmas album or two. I can enjoy a carol, a hymn from just about anyone … exceptBONEY M.

The gritty, irritating sand of the synthetic Boney M Jamaican/Disco sounds wear at me like fingernails screeching down the blackboard.  Every verse, every chorus, every song.

I want to scream and run over sole-searing hot coals until there’s more pain in my feet than in my ears.

When I tell my family and friends of my Anti-Boney slant, they look at me like I have two heads, as if there’s something terribly wrong with me, a sickness that needs a cure.

Maybe I have an aural allergy, is this possible?

But enough. I won’t spend my Christmas season in a funk because of one musical group who, for me, massacres the sounds I love so dear.

Each of us has a selection of festive melodies that find a way into our hearts, giving rise to joy, melancholy, desire, cheer, sorrow. Our range of human emotions is brought rolling to the surface in a huge wave when the annual litany of music hits the tidal sands of Christmas.

Christmas FaMILY AT PIANO

Today, I have a question or challenge to make you exercise your mind and hold the Alzheimer demons at bay. Are you ready?

If I were to send you away Tom-Hanks-Castaway-style for the next month and your iPod or iPhone or Galaxy S would hold ONLY 3 Christmas (substitute SEASONAL if you prefer) songs/ carols/hymns … what would your choices be?

To jog your thinking, I’ve gone to the wintry streets and canvassed a few folks nearby and received a few suggestions like:

Also, just as an FYI, a recent Nielsen Company survey of most popular Christmas song downloads are as follows:

All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey)

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) (Alvin and the Chipmunks)

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Christmas Canon  (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Rockin Around the Christmas tree (Brenda Lee)

The Chanukah Song (Adam Sandler)

Where Are You Christmas (Faith Hill)

Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano)

Jingle Bell Rock (Bobby Helms)

White Christmas (Bing Crosby)

My own musical tastes at this time of year gravitate towards the melancholy end of the spectrum, maybe because I like to plumb the depths of my emotional heart. So, restricted to just 3 pieces, I would go with:

  • Holly_WreathTom Jackson (Huron Carol) … the wonderful Canadian Christmas carol (likely written in 1642 by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons) by deep-voiced Tom Jackson. The tremelo of his “In excelsis gloria” sends shivers down my spine.
  • Holly_WreathJohnny Mathis (The Christmas Song) … a favourite from my childhood that was always heard on the record player while we decorated the tree.

Released in 1958 by Columbia Records, Percy Faith provided the album’s musical direction. The Christmas album containing this song by Mathis peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart in 1959.

  • Holly_WreathVince Guaraldi (Christmas Time Is Here)… another childhood favourite… the swish swish swish of the brushes on the snare drum just makes me feel the snowflakes falling.

This song was written for the 1965 Christmas cartoon Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. In the weeks preceding the premiere, TV producer Lee Mendelson encountered trouble finding a lyricist for Guaraldi’s instrumental intro, and penned Christmas Time is Here in “about 15 minutes” on the backside of an envelope.

The recording sessions of the childrens’ choir were conducted in late autumn 1965, and were cut in three separate sessions over two weeks. They often ran late into the night, resulting in angry parents, some who forbid their children from returning – therefore, numerous new children were present at each session.

The children were directed by Barry Mineah, who demanded perfection from the choir. Mendelson and Guaraldi disagreed, desiring the “kids to sound like kids”. Each child was paid five dollars for their participation. In addition, the children recorded dialogue for the special’s final scene, in which the crowd of kids shout “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”.

                    charlie-brown

So, as you sit sipping an egg nog latte snuggled under a warm blanket, sugar plum fairies dancing in your head, snowflakes sowing themselves gently on your window frames, take a moment to ponder over your three finalists.

If you’re brave you can share them with me and I won’t laugh … or decry you … even if … a Boney M tune is among your selections. How’s that for Christmas Spirit? HOHOHO…


 

 

How I Lived as CinderFella …

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This is how Jean's kitchen really looked...

The pristine look of my Step-Mom Jean’s kitchen in reality…

 

It was a nasty thing to do but I was feeling a bit ill-natured. What can I say, I was a teenage boy.

I inclined my face to just the right angle so I could see the reflected light from the overhead fixture, then slowly dragged my finger across the brown metallic finish of the kitchen stove hood, squiggling my name in the light greasy coating on its surface.

This is how she thought it looked after I fingered my name in grease on the stove hood....

This is how she thought it looked after I fingered my name in grease on the stove hood….

 

A Scrooge-like pleasure pulsed through my body.

It was the passive-aggressive approach of a hormonal, acne-stricken 16 year-old adolescent to a fresh, unwelcome presence in the house.

My house. Not her’s.

My retired Dad’s new wife Jean – he married her just over a year after my Mom died from a heart attack – was a clean freak, and I had found a chink in her hygienic armour.

Jean cleaned everything top to bottom three times daily. The house was cleaned more frequently than the air exchanged. How had she missed cleaning this surface?

When my mother was alive just 18 months earlier, the discovery of a light film of animal fat on any kitchen surface would have been commonplace.

She wasn’t a slob by any means, but Mom didn’t give her life over to the deity of Mr. Clean.

I know this because my job on most Saturday mornings before or after my Peewee hockey game, was to go about the house, joyfully spraying over-generous wafts of Lemon Pledge aren’t those spray cans single-use only? –  on any wooden furniture surface and buffing it to a wonderfully citrus-scented sheen. There was always a light layer of dust anywhere I went with my cloth.

“Larry, you only need a very light spray to remove the dust and make it shine”, Mom would say.

Yup“, I ignored her, as I continued on my merry aerosol-aplenty way. I loved how the Pledge hit the wood surface and magically bubbled up into a white foam like painful hydrogen peroxide on a nasty, gritty wound.

Lemon pledge

Many of us at some time in our lives find the need to adapt to a new face sitting across the dinner table in place of our Mom or Dad.

It might be through divorce or separation, or as in my case, the death of a parent.

I imagine sometimes this is easy, but in most cases, it’s difficult to transition a Mom or Dad.

These are the people who changed our diapers, walked us to school on fog-soupy days, held our hand when we jittered nervously, waiting in the dental office.

Our lifelong security blanket has been taken away forcibly and suddenly, and tossed into the trash. We realize how Linus feels when Lucy steals his blanket, except it’s not as funny as in the Peanuts comics.

In its place a shiny new substitute has been handed to us. And it doesn’t really matter how nice or beautiful or competent or loving the substitute is. We know it’s not the original that we bonded with from our moment of birth, the familiar smell, the sound of her/his voice will never be the same.

It’s a bit funny in my case because I kind of welcomed the entrance of someone – anyone – into our lives. My Dad and I had lived as solitary bachelors for a year (technically my brother Gord lived at home still, but with a fiance in his life, he was seldom seen) and it was an uncomfortable co-existence.

Really, it would have made a great sit-com if there was any humour to be mined. Two guys, one bald and retired in his late 60’s, the other a long-haired 70’s-era kid. Think of the fun possibilities! I can hear the laugh track rollicking over our stunted, confused conversations. Think Jack Nicholson living with Justin Bieber. Who wouldn’t bust a gut over those conversations?

Somehow the sit-com scenario played out more like a dull, lonely drama in real life. So what did we say to each other? Not much.

There was a lot of silence and conversations kept to the required minimum of “Will you be home for supper?“, or “I’d like you to cut the lawn today“, or more threatening, “You need to get your hair cut.” That last one was a constant thorny itch to make a moody teenager’s blood boil.

Get a haircut

Then when Jean, an old family church friend entered the picture, it was a good thing.

My Dad needed companionship that a 16 year-old son had no ability or intent of providing. Jean was a talkative, cheery presence that filled a major gap left in an eerily quiet home after Mom’s sudden departure.

She was just what the doctor ordered to make an older, lonely fellow’s life something whole once again, and he too filled a chasm that existed in Jean’s world after her husband died a few years earlier from emphysema. It was a win-win for them both.

I just didn’t see it that way from a younger son perspective. She was perfect for my Dad, but not for me.

I was living in a perceived hell I hadn’t asked for.

I missed my Mom terribly.

I’d never had anything resembling a close relationship with my Dad. I wanted an escape but had no clue how anything could possibly change.

And then, like a Disney wand had swept through with its magic, it happened.

My older sister, Betty, who had lived and worked in B.C. for a few years, decided to move back to Ontario early that summer to be closer to our family. In a moment of weakness, and probably, with her social sciences background, feeling great pity for me, she suggested that I move into an apartment with her, and, well, the rest is history.

By the end of summer and the start of my Grade 13 school year (Ontario was the only Canadian province that held onto that tradition), my Dad and Jean were happily living alone in their love nest, while I shared a small nearby apartment with my saviour, my sister.

I completed my Grade 13, then studied at college for a couple of years until I was a certified Medical Laboratory Technologist winging off to my first professional job in Yellowknife, NWT.

In looking back, I never really disliked Jean. She was a bit like a stray puppy with a waggly tail that pushes its way through your back door one day unexpectedly. She wasn’t perfect. But I wasn’t perfect either.

puppy on doorstep

And fortunately, when she discovered my little scrawled trail of grease on her presumed pristine stove hood, instead of unleashing a burst of anger at me, she laughed and laughed at the humour of it all.

She continued to talk and laugh about it for the next few years of companionship she offered to my Dad in his declining years.

Bringing a new woman into our home wasn’t the easiest, smoothest move my Dad ever made. There were difficult, tense moments.

Oily, slippery, dirty moments come about in all our lives. We need to hang on tenuously by our fingernails sometimes and remind ourselves that eventually, this too shall pass.

I may have harboured some bitter, resentful feelings towards my Dad for “replacing” my Mom. But I got over that simmering emotion years ago. Now I can smile knowing my Dad’s last years were happier and more contented with Jean around, even if the stove hood was a bit greasy.