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The Lamp Is Burning Low …

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Winter almost ghosted us here …

As we creep alongside the start of a new month, there is finally a tiny white cupcake frosting layer on the ground.

Typically by this point, the Okanagan Valley has reliably weathered through a bum-chilling cold snap (or two) where the temperature slips downwards to -15C, occasionally even -18C or so.

Even though the temperatures haven’t dipped much below -5C this season, and snow has been virtually non-existent, the vistas outside my windows are at long last those that resemble true winter. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

It’s in these greyer days of winter when my mind absorbs the darkness and wanders to the family and friends and acquaintances whose footsteps can no longer be heard treading the halls of real life.

In many ways, it’s surreal, like maybe they never truly existed, like whispers in the forest.

I know they did, but it still feels dreamy, water slipping between my fingers.

I had grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, neighbours and friends; real fleshy, imperfect people who lived the same as me, ones that breathed and worked and fucked and worried and laughed and shit and sweat and dreamed…

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I dreamed of my boyhood friend Frank the other night.

When Frank died in a motorcycle accident in 1989 (age 32) I sobbed my memories and smiles and worries as I read the mournful letter his Mom sent me.

Her writing was a grief-laden waterfall of tears in words.

I washed over that painful parapet along with her in the bittersweet memory of youth lost. Heartbreak poured across the page from her pen.

I once saved Frank from the certainty of high school suspension when he was falling down drunk at a Grade 11 dance … we played touch football in the summer and street hockey beneath winter street lights … he and I shared a strange enjoyment of growing Venus Flytrap plants … he trounced me regularly at chess and ping-pong matches … we ate up the love in his Mom’s Hungarian cooking whenever – day or night – we walked through the door to his house … we consoled each other when our hearts were broken by pretty young attractions …

Thirty years on, and he, and others, still live inside me, the laughter and the tears.

We all carry an inner vision of those who mattered to us and are gone, those who were a part of shaping us from rough pieces of clay … I never met 3 of my 4 grandparents and yet I still envision them as components of my real world … a puzzle piece in my creation.

When I play my guitar quietly in the dim light of wintry evening darkness, my mind and heart wander the bygone roads where so many have travelled, where so many have faded into the fog.

These lives are the profusion of faces and voices I’ve known or known of … those whose memory lamp is burning low but not yet extinguished … within me.

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The Sunshine in Artistic Endeavour

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Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows… do you thrive on sunshine and luxuriously lengthy days like me?

Know what? I’m really missing them. I do every year at this time.

I’m addicted to bright, long sunlit days as thoroughly as I’m addicted to smooth milk chocolate and cheesecake. It’s all soothingly warm yumminess inside.

But at this time of year the sweet chocolate is frozen solid and hard to bite; I realize that those chocolate warming rays must come from a different star when the days are so damned short.

Over time, I’ve figured out that the sun radiates in my world when I participate in a kaleidoscope of new and old experiences, a clutter of things.

Just this week, I’ve had lots of sensory input to excite my eyes and ears and tastebuds and make me partly forget about the hulking, smothering darkness.

Sitting here in the early morning 50 shades of grey, I hear an occasional Canada goose honking in the distance over Okanagan Lake. I’m pondering how all this input ties together in some sort of seamless fabric, even though on the surface, it appears tattered and fragmented… like thin sheets of fragile ice on the small puddles perched at the end of my driveway.

So, here’s a sampling of my week’s inputs:

  1. Musical harmony practice with guitar and voice. We’re working on pieces like this and this.
  2. Volunteering at the soup kitchen with a crazily productive chef and a large crowd of chilled and hungry lunchers.
  3. A night of salty popcorn munching at the theatre while absorbing Charles Dickens’ world in the flick, “The Man Who Invented Christmas“.
  4. A college inservice for volunteer tutors like myself, all about knowing and understanding the “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP).
  5. A saintly church visit for Christmas Musaic choral harmony for my heathen ears.

Shake it all up and whaddya got? Hmmmm….

Are there gossamer webs and connections in the things that we do and interest us at our core?

As a person trying to be curious and understanding of the relationships between seemingly unrelated events i.e. Idea Sex… I’m sitting back, looking for commonalities in these occasions, a lovely ribbon that ties and makes some sense on a scale of creative output.

Using that concept of Idea Sex, I’m seeking glimmers of order in the chaos.

Music… volunteerism… cinema… learning and new insights… more music.

Yes, it’s a random muddle but the mere fact that I’m writing about it here I think shows some blend of creative thinking, where I jostle and mingle ideas looking for connections.

For instance, suppose I’m wanting to connect “music to learning and new insights“, or “volunteerism to cinema“. Rather than asking how they can be connected, I picture both of them in my mind and ask, “How am I feeling, seeing them together?

“Does playing and listening to music build my childlike enthusiasm for general learning and growth and vice versa?”

“Are there moments when I’m volunteering that make a dramatic or comedic impact within me like a well-crafted movie?”

OK, maybe there isn’t a correlation here at all.

I could, and usually do, arrive at a minimalistic solution to this question that contains the least baggage and explains the most (otherwise known as, and I love this term… Occam’s razor). 

Occam’s razor would likely come up with a simple trashy response like, “it’s a random jumble much like Billy’s walk across the yard in The Family Circus.”

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Really, it makes sense.

Some thoughts and ideas belong in the shitty cesspool. Do you think the correlation graph below is a keeper?

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Maybe not, but some correlation is important.

It really comes down to the creative process. Writers, musicians, and artistic sorts of all types need to find fresh approaches to their craft, uncovering metaphors that smell like fresh bread arising in the heat of the oven, drawing the consumer of their art to the alluring scent.

Idea Sex or finding connections isn’t easy. It’s friggin‘ hard.

Art, like life, is hard.

Done with an attitude of enthusiasm and gusto, art, of any sort, like life, can be deliciously pleasurable.

In my seething brain I’m seeking beauty and sunshine in the darkest days of December because the sun adamantly refuses to give it to me directly.

I have to make my own brightness through writing and music and cinema and volunteering.

Occam’s razor had it right. That’s a simple correlation.

Sunshine… on my shoulders … makes me happy….

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Canadian Winter and Snow Music…

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SNOW DAY!

This morning I awoke to the first snowfall of the winter season here in the Okanagan Valley… Car windows coated with a duvet blanket of white cotton… Pine and spruce tree boughs lightly sugar-dusted like shortbread cookies at Christmas…

Snow is dreadful, frightening.

Snow is exhilarating, cheerful.

Canada and snow are inseparable like Gretzky and hockey… Favre and the Green Bay Packers… coffee and Tim Hortons (or Starbucks)… Messi and FC Barcelona… U.S.A. and apple pie…  you get the picture.

Falling snow can be like the gently bobbing sea: warm, inviting, a comfortable friend… but like a revolutionary turncoat it can swing vicious, all gnarly and nasty and powerfully scary, a demon in downy disguise.

I’ve seen human corpses frozen blue-toned stiff and lifeless in snowbanks in Yellowknife, sad remnants of alcohol-induced sleep on a -40C night under the emerald dancing blaze of the Northern Lights.

I’ve inched my old Rambler American cautiously towards a January intersection in Hamilton, Ontario, lightly tapped my brakes to obey a red light, and unheeding she kept on rambling, rambling, sliding, right into the middle of the skating rink crossroads … luckily no other cars decided to tango … or tangle with me on the slush-laden icy street.

I’ve motored along through whiteout blizzard conditions on midnight highways near Brandon, Manitoba and 100 Mile House, B.C.  Unable to see 10 feet in front of my headlights, I hoped, I prayed like hell in my very best heathen form that no other car or 18-wheeler truck would suddenly materialize out of the ether – the snowy fog – where I’d have no chance of stopping outside of plowing into their personal space, a twisted mess of metal and bone and blood.

I’ve tumbled ass-over-teakettle unexpectedly to the hard ground, and watched (while snickering guiltily) others nose-dive dangerously from the slickness of snow-ice underfoot.

Yes, snow can be dangerously terrible.

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But I’ve also felt an icy chill on my cheeks and heard the wush-wush glide of my cross-country skis on hard-packed trails under glorious sunny skies, vistas of snow-laden conifers lining my way, grey whiskey jacks laughing and squawking down at me from their branches.

I’ve sipped steamy hot chocolate around a bonfire as Charlie Brown fluffy snowflakes flittered and danced in the mandarin-orange glow of firelight.

I’ve taken a bow saw to the trunk of a bushy, snow-covered Scotch Pine tree in the frosty wilderness to drag it back as a celebratory Christmas tree in William’s Lake, B.C.

I’ve watched in serene fascination at the feathered airforce: dark-eyed juncos and quail and pine siskins – an occasional hungry hawk – winging and dipping and chirping in my yard as they devour as many seeds as they can to fill their high energy needs for a cold cold day.

I’ve sat in the evening darkness listening to one of my favourite guitarists Bruce Cockburn play his melancholy song of snow and winter chill and missing a lover on “The Coldest Night of the Year“.

I’ve savoured the child-like delight of listening to a caffeine-hyped CKOC radio announcer utter my two very favourite words as a 10 year-old…”SNOW DAY!“… no school.

Yes, snow can be invigoratingly wonderful.

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Part of that wonder and pleasure is snow music.

Bundled warmly in parka and mukluks you can eavesdrop – silvery breathe fogging the still air – on the crunchy sound of intensely cold snow beneath your toasty feet.

Snow walking is snow music with a steady rhythmic beat. Swoosh-crunch-swoosh-crunch… the metronome ticks time to your motion… Swoosh-crunch-swoosh-crunch…

Have you ever noticed how Charlie Brown’s (Vince Guaraldi actually!) music “Christmastime Is Here” has an insistent incessant snow-drifting brushes-drumbeat at its base. That’s snow music.

I don’t hear snow music often anymore. I don’t immerse myself in snow the way I once did. I miss it sometimes even though I’m growing more cold and snow-phobic than ever. That’s the curse of aging. I think Leonard Cohen sang about such things.

By Canadian standards I live in a tropical enclave – Canuck Hawaii – where the pain of Arctic chilblains lasts only a few weeks before mild springlike breezes and green grass and daffodils materialize once more.

My kids never had the delight of experiencing a snow day here in mild’ish B.C. I feel sorry for what they’ve missed.

Ice and snow continue on for months in places like Edmonton and Saskatoon and Hamilton and Halifax. Children in those and many other chilly cities are able to wake up, stretch little kiddie limbs, then smoosh their noses against their windows and smile excitedly.

Smile because a thick blanket of fun white stuff has smothered their yards and streets overnight.

Smile because they can put on their coats and boots and scarves and toques and mittens and instead of sitting at their school desk, they can slide down hills and build snowmen and throw snowballs.

Smile because it’s a SNOW DAY!

And they can also smile because they can turn off their iPods and iPhones… and listen in to the brisk seasonal tunes of SNOW MUSIC.

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A Canadian Boy’s Wintry Night …

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Early December was an exciting time for me as a kid.

Sure, Christmas was coming soon.

Christmas tree lots jettisoned broad, bright beams of light into the dark night sky to announce their Scotch Pine locations.

Mom mixed and baked multi-coloured fruitcakes, punched out warm, buttery-scented shortbread in Santa and bell shapes, and Food For The Gods squares were layered with sweet pink icing.

Black and white versions of Charlie Brown’s mournful Christmas tree and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s stop-action encounter with Misfit Toys were the latest TV phenomenons.

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But even more important than all of that Christmas magic? MORE important!

I could finally put on my hockey skates once again.

Ice formed on the rinks, in the ponds, and Mom flooded the backyard rink after we went to bed.

I would lace up my hand-me-down, beat-up leather CCM skates and transform into Davy Keon, or Jean Beliveau, or Bobby Orr or Boom Boom Geoffrion. I’d fold newspapers into a long narrow bundle and slip them under my pants for shin pads and I was ready.

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I was a star on ice.

Nothing … I mean nothing … was better than feeling those skate blades come into contact with ice for the first time of the year as I stepped through the rink’s gate. It was a full blown kiddie orgasm.

To feel the slide … to hear the intoxicating swoosh of a freshly sharpened skate blade on hard ice. Wushhhhhh ….. wushhhhh … getting ever faster as you swooped around the corner of the rink.

Chill winter air rushed over my ruddy pink cheeks, a Montreal Canadiens toque kept my head toasty.

School would let out at 4 o’clock, and I would deliver my Hamilton Spectator newspapers to my 35 customers. Then I was free.

Remember how summers lasted for years when you were a kid? Two months would go on and on and on … it was fabulous.

Just like that, winter evenings lasted hours and hours.

This allowed oodles of time for under-the-streetlights road or playground hockey with my neighbourhood buddies.

And if we were lucky and the city workers were active like midnight elves, an ice rink would miraculously appear out of nowhere in the park across the street, complete with old wooden boards fashioned into a hockey arena structure.

With or without ice, most times we would just set rocks or pieces of wood on the ground to mark the goalposts.

And occasionally, just occasionally, one of our group would come into a shiny red-posted goal complete with netting as an unexpected gift. We were terrible opportunists too. We’d invite someone to play with us just because they had their own net. No other reason.

Such a treasure. A real goal to shoot balls and pucks into.

With a real net, when you scored a goal there was no need to run 50 metres down the road to retrieve the wayward tennis ball “puck”. It stayed inside the net. Luxury. 

School homework and projects had to wait until 8 or 9 pm so that the last slapshot – the last slapshot that scored the settling goal, aimed at Dave or Hugh or Larry or Jerome playing goalie – could be enjoyed in the chilly night air.

When it was time to wind up the night’s play, we’d all agree that the next goal would be the winner. Didn’t matter if the score was 7-2. “Next goal wins!” The excitement of scoring that winning goal was intense.

And finally, when the cold weather had settled in with determination in Southern Ontario, there was ice on the outdoor skating rink at Parkdale Arena. Organized hockey could begin.

The Parkdale Steelers, my hockey team for the season, would contact me and I had a schedule of upcoming games.

In my really young years I was a hockey star.

This was mainly – solely actually! – because few kids had spent enough time on skates to stay on their feet for more than 5 or 10 strokes across the ice.

My Mom’s homemade backyard rink and a couple of season’s skating help from my sister Betty and brother Gord had me well trained for remaining upright and also to hold a puck on my stick blade for a trip the length of the ice surface.

I had done my 10,000 hours of preparation with icy-frozen toes to show for it.

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Hockey Stars in backyard training… brother Gord and me in my CCM’s and newspaper shin pads dropping the game puck …

By default I was the “hot” scoring ace for a few years. Nobody could stand long enough to stop me. To this day I still possess and treasure my MVP patch as the Wayne Gretzky of my Atom hockey league.

With each passing hockey season, the magic drained from my skates and I became just another body on the team. Other kids grew bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me. I loved playing still but my “star” turn was over.

I stopped playing hockey a few years ago.

Nowadays I only skate a couple of times each winter, usually indoors but sometimes I get up into the Okanagan hillsides where outdoor skating is still a winter pleasure.

When my skates come into contact with the frozen water and I hear the cutting, swooshing sound beneath my feet, I feel the same elation I felt as a kid.

The ice rises up and gives me a warm sentimental hug and says… “get out there kid and score some goals“.

And for a few moments in my mind, I hear my friends’ echoing voices shouting under the streetlights with snowflakes rushing past, I see the satisfying swish of a tennis ball in the back of a net, I smell my Mom’s vanilla-scented shortbread.

I feel a happy December warmth inside like James Stewart returning to Bedford Falls after his fateful winter’s night with Clarence the Angel.

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