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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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Winter Wedding Bells …

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The darkness is inky and suffocating.

Street lights are almost non-existent, a few stars shoehorn their way through the heavy cloud cover overhead and the moon hasn’t risen yet.

In November it was delightful and peaceful to see my breath in wispy frosted clouds and hear the soft swish of fresh snow beneath my boots. Fluffy, romantic snowflakes materialized magically out of the darkness, inviting me to open my mouth wide and feel the first cold flake on my tongue.

But now it’s early March and the lustre of the fresh chill has long gone; all that awaits now is anticipation, the teasing anticipation of longer days of daylight and the waitful suspense in tulip and daffodil bulbs forcing themselves through the half-frozen soil with spring’s promise.

The shouts of my pals Hugh and Jerome and Larry M. as we play street hockey are a great distraction to the seemingly endless snowdrifts and scarfs over my frozen cheeks.

But who am I kidding?

Those are my memories from living in southern Ontario and Yellowknife, NWT and BC’s William’s Lake where winter storms and frigid temperatures defy global warming now and show up as unruly revellers for the party, maybe just a bit less frequently than in years past.

Today I live in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley where winter usually graces the surrounding mountains, only rarely showing its true face in the valley bottom where most of my neighbours wonder if putting snow tires on their car, despite provincial laws commanding it, is really necessary.

I’ve flown in for my brother’s son’s wedding in southern Ontario this week. – a joyful family event that involves no caskets or urns or “Rock of Ages” hymns thank goodness.

It’s a nice change to put on a suit and tie with a lightness inside and stuffing kleenexes in my jacket pocket not to catch tears of sadness, but only those of gladness.

But winter, the icy, blizzardy winter that I had forgotten existed is still playing itself out in full force here in the populated heartland of the country.

Snowbanks are piled up to my waist all through the residential streets, fleece-lined parkas and down-filled jackets are zipped up to the chin and long lines of vehicles fill the highway air with great wispy clouds of vapour trails like jets passing high overhead.

I laugh inwardly when I ponder and reflect on how my ancestors who forged lives – difficult, harsh lives – in this frigid winter climate, would look at us today.

In great migratory hordes, we pack our bikinis and speedos into rolling closets and cram into airplanes every week by the thousands to join the birds who left in the late fall to fly south for soothing sunshine and balmy temperatures.

We fill white sandy beaches to overflowing with outsized beer bellies and screaming red-skinned shoulders for a respite, a week or two where we can forget our icy homeland.

Just 20, or 75, or 150 years ago, the great majority of us had grandparents or great-grandparents who crowded onto ships and trains looking to escape the challenges of their own homelands – famine, war, persecution, earthquakes, rape, floods – all manner of threats to life.

Harsh, inhospitable, often horrific lives were made livable and hopeful again when they landed on our shores. My own Irish ancestors left on big sailing ships from a land that refused to feed them or allow them to own land and prosper by the toil of their ingenuity and labours.

And here I am today, occasionally bitching about the cold weather outdoors. Woe is me. Oh puhleeeeease…. whine with that cheese anyone?!!!

No one else will, so I pinch and remind myself.

I remind myself of how fortunate I happen to be, living in a 21st century world where colourful, flavourful food from every corner of the world is at my fingertips …

… I awake in a home that comes to a cozy, comfortable temperature at the flick of a switch on the wall …

…. War is something I pay money to see in a theatre, a bag of hot buttered popcorn in my hand …

… Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods? I only visit these on the 10 o’clock TV news …

… Sure, ravaging viral and bacterial plagues are worrisome but tiny in number to those of even a hundred years ago.

It’s so important that I remember that I’m living a king’s life only because countless other of my relatives – and yours – struggled and survived and used ingenuity and intelligence and perseverence.

So when I sit next to my siblings and nieces and nephews, smiling proud, watching my nephew recite his vows of love, honour and betrothal to his lovely bride, I’ll open my eyes and take a moment to look outside at the late winter snows and frigid winds.

And instead of grimacing and lamenting how nasty and cruel the forces of nature are, I’ll take a deep breath in … Namaste!! – and appreciate the incredible dream of a world I’ve inherited.

It’s through the trials and labours of my grandparents, great-grandparents and their grandparents, that I’m typing a blog post on a computer that wirelessly connects me to anyone in the world in an amazingly comfortable, warm chair in a hotel room …. while just 5 feet away through a wall … a late winter freeze blasts away and I’m practically oblivious.

Why would I buy a lottery ticket? I’ve already won the jackpot!!