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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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Larry & Tims’ Excellent Metaphorical Adventure …

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Tims and Canada

It’s a Beautiful Horror.

Take a well-honed knife and slice deep into the gut of any Canadian and it won’t be ruby-red blood that spurts out making hot, thick puddles on the cold, northern pavement.

NOPE.

The first steamy gush you see will be a caramel-coloured double-double (2 creams, 2 sugars) mix of Tim Hortons’ coffee.

I’m not just saying this because I own shares in Tim Hortons (heartbreakingly, soon to be owned by Burger King). Nab any Maple Leaf flag passport carrier you meet anywhere in the world and ask them if they bleed Tims. I know their answer.

It’s a universal truth.

Tims serves about 70 billion cups of coffee a day in Canada. I’m pretty sure that number is accurate …

Like millions and millions of others who live in this narrow band of rocky, tree-laden land stretched out like a purring cat on the shrugging shoulders of the USA border, I visit Tim Hortons at least once each week (or day) for a morning caffeine cup.

Every province and territory of Canada has a Tim Hortons, the northernmost cafe buried in the frigid Arctic capitol of Nunavut, Iqaluit.

 

Iqaluit Tim Hortons

 

I quaff Tim Hortons coffee. Therefore I am. Canadian. And it’s at Tims (Canadians enjoy a certain intimacy with Tim Hortons … Tims or Timmies will suffice) where our Canuck stories originate.

(BTW: I’m OK with branding myself Canadian, but I don’t wear my citizenship proud and smug as a superiority badge. It’s merely a label, a way of identifying where I’m from but not a whole lot more.

I’m rummaging for ways to bring me closer to the other inhabitants of the world; fiercely calling myself Canadian just creates a separation, a boundary that I want to send tumbling down like the Berlin Wall.)

More important than the coffee or donuts and the Roll Up the Rim contests are the stories that take place. Life is lived large and small in the beige and brown metal chairs and tables.

  • When we gather for weddings and funerals, before we head to the church we congregate at Tims – we hug our relatives, smile in pleasure or jubilation, sometimes weep in remembrance or anguish.
  • When our intimate relationships are melting into a soupy mess, we stare hopefully across from each other at Tims to either mold and press the hot molten wax back into a love candle or blow out the remaining wick’s embers.
  • Tims is the second (or first) business office for many enterprises. I’ll bet that most bank or store robberies are planned on cruller-stained napkins at the local Tims. Yup, big drug deals are negotiated, hit terms agreed upon in hushed whispers between bagel bites, business mergers and buyouts between small businesses thrashed out amid bacon grease.
  • Internet dating first-timers settle down at a Tims’ table to explore and examine their counterpoint under the microscope d’amour, deciding if any possible next drink shared should be wine with white tablecloths and candles.
"You don't look anything like your profile shot..."

“You don’t look anything like your profile shot…”

I’ve written a couple of Tims-related blog posts now – one where I sat next to a murderer, the other a bittersweet reunion between two long- and sadly-separated female lovers. The stories are there for the taking and the cost of admission to the theatre is one small double-double coffee or green tea with lemon.

When I sit down at Tims, I search for the smiles and frowns scattered amongst the tables. I try to tune out the humming buzz of activity at the front counter, the warm yeasty smells, and focus on the resonance of conversation taking place in the small groups of wrinkled old men, middle-aged women in Lululemon ass-enhancing yoga pants, or fresh-faced, young couples.

I glance around at the faces seated at the tables: some head down in their cellphones or tablets, some writing entries into small tan-coloured moleskin notebooks, others chatting and laughing in little grouplets, some young families – the littlest members still in their flannel plaid pajama bottoms, hair toussled as if they just arose from their sleepy slumbers.

The mix of ages, gender, and ethnicity is warmly comforting in its variety and reflection of today’s Canada.

If you want to know the touchstone of Canada and its people, Tims is the place to be.

And in the end, how Canadian is it that when I absorb the stories that float on the donut-scented breeze of this coffee shop, I can’t help but think of Tim Horton the man? After all, he is responsible for sending me a dividend cheque every 3 months to assist in paying my retirement wage.

So I raise my coffee cup to you Tim, the great rough-and-tumble Canadian hockey player who didn’t live long enough to see the mountain of coffee-dom he created and the iconic energy source that pulses through the double-double bloodstream of every Canadian.

 

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