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This Is Us? That’ll Be The Day…

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Guilty Pleasures … Episode 1,012,325.

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… I was watching an episode of THIS IS US last night… and not just because I’ve had a minor crush on winsome girl-next-door Mandy Moore for years which – gulp – even to me seems kind of creepy knowing that I’m easily old enough to be her father.

Hey, there’s a psychotherapy session for another day. Squeeze me in between Norman Bates and Harvey Weinstein.

I watch the show because the stories are so raw, so borderline melodramatically overwrought, so personally intense… but eminently watchable. Every character is flawed and still lovable, so human.

This Is Us.

My only wish is that maybe they find time to shine a few more splashes of sunshine in their scripts. The best cinema and TV have a delicately sculpted balance of carefree and fun blended with sorrow and gloom.

I crave deep emotion and pathos, but I don’t want to plummet down a dark hole having them create a need in me for antidepressant pharmaceuticals where none exists at the moment.

This Is Us - Season 1

Last night’s episode titled That’ll Be The Day pierced me, and not only for the obvious reason of at last discovering the root of the family’s pain… you and I know that Buddy Holly’s song ends… that I die… yes, we now know when and how Jack died. I don’t want to seem impatient but OMG… that was more than enough foreplay.

In between distracted bites of carrot/banana/pineapple cupcakes with cream cheese icing I made earlier in the day, I was intimately drawn in when Randall (the adopted black “triplet”) said to his screwed-up white actor-brother Kevin, “… Dad’s already been gone longer than we had him.” 

Randall realizes that he’s lived longer without a father than he did with one.

Yes. This Is Us.

I’m now the age my mother was when she died.

Yes. This Is Us.

Randall reminded me that I’ve lived much longer without a mother and father than I did with parents. Inside, there’s this little nag telling me I’m a “dead man walking.”

The writers of This Is Us know how to turn us inside out, diving and examining the passage and import of our lives. That’s where its power lies.

Of course the writers of the show are skilled story-crafters who weave the past and present in wonderfully evocative ways, always leading us up and down alleys… alleys we know exist and what lies down them, but we desperately want them to show us even so. That’s impressive.

For years after, the triplets Randall and Kevin and Kate all live mournful moments in their lives because of the last interaction they shared with their father. An inner tape recording of their final conversation plays incessantly, shaping the adults they’ve become.

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It’s slightly tragic that we might allow ourselves to be affected by one negative prattle moment with someone we love.

My last conversation with my Mom on a sunny April afternoon didn’t end with a smile and a hug… it was more like me looking up like a little teenage jerk and saying, “God, stop bugging me Mom, I’ll apply at McDonald’s tomorrow or the next day”.

A month later I was a cherubic McBurger Flipper and my mother was lying cold underground.

That vaguely negative moment was our last, and I’ll admit that it lingered unhappily with me for a short while, but it doesn’t affect my tranquil memories or love for my Mom. A moment of crabbiness shouldn’t impinge on our obvious love and closeness.

I have a scrapbook in my head filled with cheerful memories and moments that have crowded out almost every other unfavourable second.

The arts we view and listen to pass through a fine filter between our ears as they reach our brain. A colander lies within us picking out the explanatory snippets telling us about who we are.

As you read these words, you may be delving inside, reliving some portion of your life that I’ve just reminded you of.

This Is Us.

We watch, absorb, connect, and live our lives over again – for better or worse – on-screen.

This is how we watch movies.

This is how we read books.

This is how we listen to music.

This is how we take heed of our neighbour telling us about his new motorcycle, or her sister’s operation.

Right now I’m enjoying the guilty pleasure of sitting here snug in a cozy office chair staring out my window. Random moments with free-ranging thought clouds.

Short fragments of dialogue between Kate, Randall and Kevin ping-pong through my head along with some soft guitar licks that punctuate and reinforce the sentiments of their story.

A luminous white snowline runs halfway down the valley hillside across in Naramata as I absorb delicious harmonies of Foxes and Fossils singing Helplessly Hoping, envisioning myself as the male “Fossil” singer in the middle… listening to my inner voice whispering…

This Is Us.

 

 

 

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Soup Kitchen Santa

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Today, a fictional short story based on a non-fictional person…

soup kitchen santa

If they had a chimney on this building, I could sneak in and bring us all out some warm cookies!”

John stood in line with the other early-comers in front of the plate-glass doors to the Soupateria. A few wispy snowflakes swirled and played in the morning’s light breeze.

His deep voice and laughter rang out over the quiet chatter of the others.

Looking at him, listening to him, you could become convinced in your ears and in your head – at least in the month of December – that Santa Claus himself had found his way south and joined the crowd waiting for some hot soup on a chilly Okanagan day, supping with those he had delivered special gifts to over many decades in their youth.

John hadn’t the stereotypical physique of Santa, he was fit and rode a bedraggled bicycle, no reindeer in the lead, on the chilliest of days.

He didn’t sport a rosy nose or chubby cheeks beneath the faded Santa hat that he wore today for the first time this year, instead of his usual Toronto Maple Leaf toque.

“You like cookies Betty Ann?”, he chuckledShe smiled a toothless grin and nodded.

What he did have was a fluffy grey-white beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a winsome, devilish smile and a charm in his speech that brought smiles to the faces of adults and children alike. You couldn’t be faulted for calling him jolly.

The tenor of his deep voice rang out loudly – like a low, rumbling avalanche in the distant hillside – as if he had a microphone hidden away in his woollen sweater or his old ski jacket.

John hadn’t worked a day in years even though he was probably 15 years short of normal retirement age.

His last job as a gardener ended with a soulless whimper one balmy day after lunch; he snuck in a nap while leaned against the tire of the boss’s work truck, and then just declined to get back up to mow the customer’s backyard lawn.

John was sweet and warm and jolly… and slightly deluded.

It wasn’t only you or I that might be fooled by his similarities to Saint Nick. Nope.

When John looked at himself in the mirror each day, the man staring back, he was convinced, was Saint Nicholas.

John believed in Santa Claus – John believed in himself. John is a current day Miracle on 34th Street.

After filing through the long lineup at the soup serving window, mischievously and with one eyebrow raised, he searched the dessert counter for a prized chocolate chip muffin.

Every day he prayed for chocolate chip muffins.

He’d chuckle when the serving person at the counter handed him his prize, then, solitary, he’d sit quietly at a far end table and munch away at his soup and sandwich with headphones wrapped over his toque and ears.

When he sipped the last dribs of hot chocolate and swallowed the final bite of his muffin, he turned his attention to the others lined up at the long tables and worked his way through the group, chatting in animation and laughter.

I don’t know John well other than our regular friendly small talk conversations outside the soup kitchen as he patiently waited for “door opening”.

A soup kitchen volunteer once told me that John had an older autistic brother that lived with him in a small basement apartment a block away from the beach.

For a long time, a couple of years at least, I’ve observed John and his gentle calm demeanour as he jabbered with the heavily tattooed; the itinerant fruit pickers from Quebec, Mexico, or France; those with pockmarked faces from meth abuse; and others indistinguishable from anyone else you know.

Last week, near the end of my dishwashing shift, a clatter arose in the dining hall behind me. No biggee. Just usual squabbling.

I finished off rinsing a bowl in the deep stainless-steel sink, popped it into the dish rack, then turned slowly to see what the din was about.

Often a minor kerfuffle breaks out amongst the Soupateria denizens over a toe clumsily stepped on or when someone gets deeply offended by a sandwich uneaten. Most arguments are worked out within seconds and calm settles back in like a duvet shaken over a bed.

This time was different. I looked out into the big room as a sizeable throng rushed out the front door as a smaller throng rushed back in. Hmmmm, that’s not typical.

The ones rushing in were signalling to us volunteers with crazed looks on their faces.

Man down!“, one woman yelled. The surreal scene began to take on the sheen of a movie set, I almost expected to hear another voice cry out… “CUT!

I had an immediate jolt of “this was happening“. For months, I had thought about this moment each time I came in to help out.

Fentanyl.

Linda, kitchen supervisor for the day, and I looked at each other with trepidation. We knew where the kit was located that we had hoped to never need to locate.  We also both knew that we were the only ones trained on site.

We were slightly stunned but our glances turned into reflex action; we both scurried towards the noise and activity.

Weaving through the crowded group, we exited the building onto the cement walkway out front where a human circle had formed like the ones kids make around a schoolyard fight.

There was no surprise in seeing a man’s body splayed on the hard ground, a few snowflakes resting on his dark blue ski jacket. Motionless and quiet. Still, with no breath.

The surprise arose when I saw the Santa hat on the victim’s head.

John.

Grey, lifeless, unsmiling John; his skin and beard colour not differing by many tonal shades.

The next few minutes – it might have been 5, maybe 10, maybe an hour, who knows –  were a blur as Linda and I went throughout the steps of administering naloxone as best we could remember.

Because of my previous lab experience in needle use, I did the injections into John while Linda made some attempts at artificial respiration. I drew up a cc of the drug into the syringe and plunged it into his now-exposed shoulder.

We waited and watched. One go round and we could see that John wasn’t responding. No movement, no breathing, no less grey.

There were sirens in the distant background. Linda said, “it’s been 3 minutes now, I think you should give him another shot.

I had the next needle deep beneath his skin when, oblivious to anything more than 12 inches away, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The EMT’s had arrived.

…………….

John… Santa… still ashen-grey, was whisked away with sirens blaring.

The crowd dispersed quietly as Linda and I gathered the detritus left on the sidewalk, the  plastic containers and latex gloves, the bits of paper and empty naloxone vials.

The last thing I picked up was John’s weathered Santa hat.

I carefully folded it and placed it into my apron pocket. I’d give it back to John after he recovered, next time I saw him riding his bike or at the soup kitchen window.

Later that evening, I received a phone call from Linda.

Quietly, haltingly, she said that John hadn’t made it. Street Santa was gone.

I hung up the phone and reflected. Our streets are replete with those who appear normal – well-adjusted – on the surface. And yet World War III has been waging all along in the background.

I guess I’ll track down John’s brother and return his Santa hat now.

Santa hat

 

 

 

 

The Tao of Storytelling

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“Tell me one more DAMN story Mommy! PUH-LEEEASE!!”

I know you’d never talk to your mother this way, but I was a sugar-high wide awake ragamuffin and desperate, and of course… I’m joking. I would never have spoken to my Mom like that.

Even before we catapult into this world all wet and wobbly, our excited parents-to-be begin telling us mumbled stories across the shielding barrier of the womb.

And then, once we emerge all pink and gassy-smiley, storybooks become a staple of most of our childhoods. The Velveteen Rabbit. The Cat in the Hat. Winnie the Pooh. 50 Shades of Grey.

We’re born, we grow up, we grow old… on stories. All kinds of stories.

Every day we hear and see stories that penetrate our hard outer shell because in some way they reflect a hazy image on the pond’s surface that shines a spotlight on what we think we look like.

This week I was put to thinking about masterful storytellers when I heard that Canadian raconteur Stuart McLean had died.

Icons are hard to lose.

McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe has shuttered its doors forever just like Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) bookstore in You’ve Got Mail.

Life is stories. We are stories.

My most read blog posts are ones where I recount a story. Stories like a little boy missing his deceased Mommy at Christmas, or a young couple finding romantic love over a fancy mixed drink that I “bartended” for them.

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Listen closely to yourself when you talk to your friends or co-workers.

It’s always a story. This happened, that happened, and this is the end result. Beginning, middle, end. Yup, a story.

I’ve encountered and admired a lot of storytellers in my lifetime.

Great storytelling is a wondrous art and a sacred beauty in the hands and voice of a skilled practitioner. Maybe you’re one of those talented people.

Of course stories come in different forms, served in different recipes and formats. There’s a smorgasbord of ways to convey a story.

Some stories are woven in books, some in campfire folklore, some in visual art, others in movies, and still more in harmonious music.

Stories are the background of our humanity. Each of us is touched by storytelling in ways that are unique to us.

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Steven Spielberg told us movie stories about Oskar Schindler and the Holocaust (Schindler’s List)… how can I ever erase the heartbreaking vision of a little red-coated girl (set against a stark black and white background) entering a concentration camp?

Harry Chapin told us musical stories about desperate love (A Better Place to Be) and misplaced fatherhood (Cats in the Cradle) …

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

 

Peter Gzowski told us radio stories about Canada that made us feel a part of the whole country…

Galt is the setting for a quintessential Gzowski tale, one he told often, about a game of hockey that began in a park. After the puck flew over the boards, the boy who went to retrieve it found the grounds—the whole city, in fact—transformed by verglas, a French word describing fields of ice created by frozen sleet overlying snow. Soon every local boy, “40 of us, 50 of us,” were skating “across roads, across lawns, racing down hills like skiers, out into the country, soaring across farmers’ fields, free as birds.

Garrison Keillor told folksy stories on NPR about Lake Wobegon and its residents in his Prairie Home Companion:

I checked in at the desk and a man at a nearby table said, “So how are you doing tonight?” and that seemed to be an invitation. So I sat down. Two other men and two women at the table. A cheerful group, as people tend to be in winter once they’re warm and in off the road. “How was the drive?” he said. “Almost rear-ended a snowplow,” I said. Other than that, I had listened to the Beatles’ “Because” eight times, which I never cared for because of the dumb lyric, but now I do. A woman at the table didn’t know the song, so I sang her a little of it. “Because the world is round, it turns me on. Love is old, love is new. Love is all, love is you.”

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Garrison Keillor

Stuart McLean told us heartwarming stories about Sleeping Crickets and Dave and Morley (Vinyl Cafe).

Dave, the bumbling protagonist, promises wife Morley that he will take care of their Christmas turkey. Come Christmastime, however, Dave realizes that he’s forgotten to buy a bird. He rushes to a grocery store in the middle of the night to find that they only have one unappetizing, frozen, Grade B turkey left. Dave takes it home and defrosts it with an electric blanket and hairdryer.

“As the turkey defrosted it became clear what Grade B meant,”  the story goes. “The skin on the right drumstick was ripped. Dave’s turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death.”

But Dave’s not out of the clear yet.  After Morley and the kids leave the house to work at the soup kitchen for a few hours, Dave discovers that he can’t figure out how to turn on the stove.  In an escapade that involves a hairdryer, a hotel, and a bottle of scotch, Dave somehow manages to deliver on his promise.

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Stuart in his Vinyl Cafe

Stories.

Multitudes of stories, a few key themes … but a million unique ways of expressing something that crawls inside of us and shakes us like a mini-earthquake until we laugh, or cry, or nod in recognition. Stuart McLean did all three in every one of his stories.

In years past, my old friend John would sit in our living room, cockeyed grin aglow, and recount tales of his experiences, ordinary daily life stories… told in a way that made us laugh and shake our heads. A consummate storyteller.

When John was bravely succumbing to cancer a couple of years ago, when his tales drew slowly silent, I was inspired to write a small-scale story about him that I set to music and occasionally sing to folks (including at Open Mic last night) in his memory … and the memory of his stories…

One John sang sweet about his Annie
When we grow old we sing our Swan Song
One western John we called him Duke
But this verse and melody
are what I’m gonna call for you a John Song  

We drank beer in the Overlander in the midst of a western town
William’s Lake both dusty and brown
where your probation days
melted into music nights
played your Ovation guitar after the sun lost its light

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

The years slipped by and we lived our lives
we drifted in circles afar
I smiled when I saw a pic
of you and Jane overlooking Barnhartvale
with Jesse your new son

One day you were a Kamloops politico
Then I heard you settled onto Vancouver Isle
spent some time on the Indian reservation
and wrote your songs
in southern Nashville style

Bridge:
Your days may seem long now
the years somehow short
Aint forever always shorter than we plan  

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

Life is stories. We are stories.

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