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A New Forking Year…

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What to do… What to do…

OK, I didn’t anticipate the year we’re just finishing.

You did?

Well, I bow in homage to you Nostradamus… maybe I didn’t read my Chinese horoscope closely enough as we leave the Rat behind us and enter the Ox’s domain!

I placed no DoorDash or SkipTheDishes order of COVID virus for 2020.

Traditionally, starting out a new year, I’d think and ponder about Christmas bills, my running and swimming goals, and if stock markets would rise or fall through the year and how my and my kids’ investments would fare… silly me…

… because… then came the virus. 1918 redux.

All of our lives changed immediately… overnight.

Millions were and are affected. Tragedies and near tragedies abounded in every nook and cranny of the globe.

It just happened and we’ve all had to whip ourselves into a different pretzel contortion of ourselves each week to adjust to the “new” world.

Another set of protocols for daily life were pronounced regularly, sometimes every few days.

Every country, every province/state/county, every town and city had its own set of rules du jour. We’d slog to the top of Mount Sinai and pick up our updated slate of Ten Commandments… depending on the current bend of the “curve”.

Looking back to pre-COVID time, my normal ADHD-based world was filled with lots of activities and social interactions in a swath of different directions. I typically thrive on a cornucopia of varied pursuits.

Not in 2020, nope nope nope.

But away to the window they flew like a flash… yes, Santa’s research elves went right to work in their North Pole labs …

… and through the miracle of today’s research, technologies and communications, science’d the shit out of this virus, and here we are in less than one year with a solution in a syringe, set to reverse the tide of this microscopic demon.

Despite our worldly problems and challenges, we are so very fortunate to live in 2020 and not 1918.

Fortunate that in only six months or a year from now, we’ll open our doors, rip off our masks, and step out into the sunshine of the world-as-we-once-knew-it… and clocks will start to tick once more.

Which begs a big question of us all.

Should we return to the old “me” or… is it a chance to create a new “me”? It can be our version of New Year’s resolutions.

Let the inner debate begin. What have we learned about ourselves during this period?

Isn’t the inner dialogue best faced now while in the throes of isolation, before the push and pull, the swell of the tides drags us back into the sea of “normality”?

I can’t answer the questions for you.

For myself, I know I have a tendency to over-schedule my life. It’s a blessing and a curse of having many interests and desires. I want to do everything that grabs my inner passion.

But I also know that as a semi-introvert (I guess the true term is omni-vert), I’m also beginning to feel a minor pulse of uneasiness rising.

As much as I enjoy the outside world, I also enjoy solitude, and the need to reflect and just let my mind wander aimlessly into corners and alleys where I discover inner worlds that no airliner can carry me.

Isolation has given me time and permission to focus so much more intensely on one of my great interests, music. Practising, writing, playing, creating, experimenting.

Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates gave us his guidance: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Occasionally old white guys have wise messages (but ONLY occasionally!)

So, entering 2021, I’ll challenge you to examine your trajectory as will I.

Will the road you journey be the same as before… or will the Ox lead you to a courageous turn down the fork of a road unknown, novel, and undiscovered?

Whichever path you trek, make it YOUR path.

And in a nod to a year’s end and your new beginning… a song for Old Times Sake, a reminder of longstanding friendships: remember to take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

Here’s a little guitar instrumental based on Robert Burns poem that I put together this week.

It’s A Wonderful… River…

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Joy and Peace…

Sure, Joy and Peace, but you’d expect in this COVID year that isolation and loneliness might be prime themes too because we know that really, despite all the uplifting messages flooding radio and TV, that…

… Christmas has shadows of schizophrenic experience for many; the river of happiness melts into another counterpoint tributary of sadness, each river and tributary a personal journey of a life lived.

I love the bittersweet… the blend of jubilation and melancholy… the summary of life and living.

This week, while listening to beautiful seasonal music on the radio, one song sunk its teeth into me… Joni Mitchell’s bittersweet RIVER… a song I don’t even remember hearing until maybe 15 years ago, despite its release 49 years ago in 1971.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

River, from Mitchell’s 1971 BLUE album, was never released as a single.

Derivative of Jingle Bells and set at Christmas time, its opening and closing melody is “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. Yes, those minor keys that pour a mist of sadness over us.

River is thought to be Mitchell’s lament over the loss of a relationship with her “best baby that I ever had”, the one who “made me weak in the knees”, singer Graham Nash… although Mitchell is a bit coy in letting that out.

And now, in the last 20 years, River has ascended to holiday-hit status as an antidote to all those “songs of joy and peace.” “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” Mitchell said with a chuckle on National Public Radio in 2014. “In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all.”

Aside from the sumptuous richness of the production of the song (so lush you can feel the rubbing of your shoulders with Joni on the piano bench)… taking her message of loss and sorrow and turning that blueness into something of beauty is clearly one that rings true for many.

Just drown in the chilly airiness of her singing “fly” near the end of verses 2 and 3.

And River was never truly written as a Christmas song.

Listening to the song, this week before Christmas, I’m struck by thoughts of other creations from times-past that have unexpectedly ridden a tsunami wave of popularity…

Another example… this time a cinema case-in-point:

It’s A Wonderful Life… the Frank Capra produced, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed-acted Christmas masterpiece.

Released 74 (!) years ago in 1946, it barely caused a blip on the popular radar. The film had disappointing attendance and sales, and didn’t even return its cost of production ($6.3 million).

Nominated for Best Picture in 1947, it lost out to The Best Years Of Our Lives. Jimmy Stewart lost in the Best Actor category to Frederic March, also from The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Stewart had barely returned from a 4 year-long stint as an Army Air pilot who flew 20 combat missions over Germany when he took on the role of distraught son, brother, father George Bailey and turned the suicidal character into an emotional icon of film. Critics derided it as overly sentimental…

… it languished in the movie backwaters until the 1980’s when it was released royalty-free into the public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life is now ranked #20 on the top list of movies by the American Film Institute.

The rest is history, the film is a fixture of holiday watching. And today… we all know how an angel gets his wings, right?

My Christmas is best savoured with the bittersweet…

… the unloved Charlie Brown tree, sailing away on Joni’s long river, the recovered desperation of George Bailey…

In whatever way you find your journey through this COVID holiday season – whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa (Habari Gani)…

… may you discover some Joy and Peace in your little corner of the world.

Pass The Christmas Cake and Remote Please…

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ME… preparing for Christmas!

Ah yes, Christmas in COVID times… a new life experience for all of us who live in the Christian world.

I’m gonna put down my TV remote now and share my guilt trip with you today.

If you can’t feel guilty at Christmas, check your pulse. A Charlie Brown Christmas will just have to wait (but I can listen to the music while writing).

This morning, I was having my twice weekly online 6:30 am tutoring session with my Syrian refugee friend (let’s call him Amir).

We sip coffee and latte together, and chat amiably (in English only – beyond hello, goodbye and thank you, my Arabic sucks big time… yup, more guilt) about our daily lives and the world, before diving into the day’s lesson.

Growing up, Amir barely glimpsed the inside of a classroom in Syria, and after 5 years in Canada, he still struggles hugely with the writing and reading parts of this silly English language we take for granted.

His literacy difficulties (Larry, have you thought that maybe it’s your teaching that is the problem?) hold him back in a major way from obtaining meaningful employment in this country.

The family of 5 (now 7) escaped the brutal Syrian/Russian troop incursions into their small agrarian town near the Jordan border, and arrived in this country having never uttered as much as HELLO in English, and never having felt the bitter chill of snow blowing past their faces. Difficult life? You bet.

Anyway, today – with his burgeoning bundle of English vocabulary – Amir told me the story of his friendly next door neighbour, a 50’ish year-old fellow with 2 young sons – one in Grade 7 and the other in Grade 2.

Amir’s 5 year-old son and the neighbour’s younger son play together often, racing their miniature RC cars in the driveways of the townhouse complex where they live. VROOM VROOM…

The man’s wife is in prison (reason unknown).

Just these tiny pieces of information tell you that the neighbour and his family, like Amir’s, must be in a difficult situation. Then…

Yesterday afternoon… a host of screaming emergency vehicles, blue and red lights flashing – police, fire department, ambulance… CORONER… descended on the neighbour’s house next door… a dozen responders in full uniform…

… an hour and a half later, the neighbour, the father, was declared dead, likely of a heart attack.

As the lifeless father was rolled out of the house in a shiny black, zippered bag, a family member arrived to whisk the 2 boys off to a new “home” in the local area. Merry Christmas little ones.

Even though I don’t truly count myself as a “Christian” today, I’ve lived my entire life in the cozy saturation of Christianity and the Christmas family; beautiful religious ceremony, music, and scents have filled me with nostalgia and warmth and an inclusive sense of belonging… a belonging to something weighty, magical and mysterious. It’s as much a part of me as my heart and lungs.

But with each passing year, and especially so at this time of year, I feel the burden of the discomfort of others (cue melancholy Sarah McLachlan song). This isn’t a bad thing, I don’t think.

It’s good because it tells me that I am experiencing a greater awareness of the whole.

No matter how young or old we are, the ability to unearth and display compassion for others is crucial, and whether it’s tied to a religion or deity doesn’t really matter. Empathy for others isn’t connected to Christianity or Islam or Judaism etc.

Those sounds of discomfort I’m hearing are emanating especially loud this year amongst many individuals and families who despair at the thought of little or no physical connection to family as they awake Christmas morning. It’s not part of our fabled Christmas scene.

Worse still is that Christmas will be even more challenging this year for so many who struggle on a daily basis in ordinary times. These aren’t ordinary times, you know it.

One example in my world: I can only faintly imagine the crushing hurt and thoughts of isolation surging up this year in many of the folks I’ve encountered over the years at the local soup kitchen… or those who can’t visit loved ones in hospitals and care institutions.

And it reminds me to my core of how fortunate I’ve been to have so many opportunities and so many creature comforts… you know… Peace on Earth and Comfort and Joy.

My challenges are infinitely smaller than a family of Syrian refugees living on this alien Canadian “planet”, or a pair of 2 young brothers who’ve lost their main parent and home, and will struggle through a Christmas season like no other.

You will likely find this hard to believe as you read along, but a few hours back I sat down to write this as a light, fluffy piece; a ditty of sorts about my guilty pleasure of watching The Great British Baking Show and this silly passion I hold for sweet food porn interlaced with lovely English, Irish, and Scottish lilts…

… but as so often happens, a tiny voice builds up to a crescendo inside me and crowds my space and finds a different message to write about (you know that speaking about these voices publicly could land you in a totally different space Larry?)

If you’re floundering with Christmas blues this year (and I hope you’re not, but if you or someone you know is struggling – Canada’s Crisis Hotline – 1-833-456-4566), my wish is that you can search your universe and find the positives, your Silver Linings Playbook to get you through …

Here’s my offering, a tiny token to help you along your peaceful trail… another country-style Christmas tune (written by my old bestie John Denver) I played and produced in my little home studio this week. HO HO HO…

Forget Me Nots …

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Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play

Leonard Cohen – Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen may have been talking about something a bit more lusty and sensual, but memory and memories are the playground where a lot of us go to work and play …. and sometimes ache.

When surrounded by my peers – mostly around my age +/- 10 years – almost without exception, they occasionally complain and worry about memory loss:

• loss of individual words on the tip of their tongues.

• loss of short term “what did I do yesterday” stuff (or my personal favourite: where are my keys/glasses).

• loss of long ago activities that can jumble things together so that a ten year time span feels like only one day in retrospect.

And they worry…

Memories long and troubled…

memories short and sweet …. memories lie inside us as a novel or a tweet

What was I saying? oh yes… Memory. My fading memory…

But, know what? I’m not worried about it… yet…

I don’t want to discount dementias and Alzheimer’s, and the terrible brain pathologies that truly only know the arithmetic of subtraction.

No, today I’m talking about the everyday person which likely includes you and me.

I’m not an expert in the area of memory… it’s not profound thinking here today but light verse… I merely have an opinion based on my own personal observations, which is not very scientific of this guy who spent years in a white lab coat (Larry, were the arms wrapped and tied on this white coat?).

Here’s something silly… It’s astounding the memories that stay with us at the top of the heap; the minor inconsequential vs. the momentous and life-shattering.

I clearly remember my Mom’s chocolate chip cookies from the 1960’s. We all know that chocolate chip cookies are crack cocaine to kids, right?

I see them, I smell them, I share them with my little friends.

In retrospect, they weren’t fantastic cookies (certainly not as good as the ones my wife makes today!)… but I can only believe that I remember this so well because they were a symbol of what she meant to me… after all, what is more comforting in life than a mother’s love and warm, chocolate chip cookies?

Here’s my take on memory slippage, you decide if I’m on track or not: The arithmetic and multiplication effect of aging, and the sheer volume of memories is flabbergasting.

Each added day, month, and year of our lives piles another layer of images and words and deeds… layer upon layer upon layer.

Plus, the world is more complex today with the inclusion of exponentially growing volumes of internet-based data, some of which we attempt to absorb.

Finally, on top of this, realize that our language is evolving, so much so, that the Oxford English Dictionary, on average, adds more than a thousand new words to the lexicon every single year. OMG, where are my glasses?

Bottom line folks: our heads, our brains, our “hard drives” (again, not to be confused with Leonard Cohen’s lyric lines above) are more and more overloaded with “stuff”.

I can’t worry about the little things I forget… I can only try to stay afloat and find small coping methods and tools to trick myself so I appear organized and coherent.

Two small fixes for me? 1.Reading glasses everywhere. I have at least 10 sets of inexpensive reading glasses strategically placed in rooms around the house and in the car. 2.Thank goodness for lists… every day I prepare a list or schedule to keep me focused and on track… I would be dead meat without my index of activities…

Lady Gaga might say of me:

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Yup, I’m far from the Shallow, but I’m treading water in this memory pool. Grab your water wings and join me?

……………

OK… another small guitar instrumental I put together this week. Welcome to a slightly countrified Silent Night.