Father (for Chris Cornell)

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, is not a big deal in our house. (If it was, we’d be in trouble, because as Canadians living in Britain, we have two Mother’s Days to deal with.) It was a big deal growing up – and sometimes a raw deal, when it would fall on the same day as my mother’s birthday and then my brother and I were on the hook for two breakfasts in bed with no help in the kitchen. So I have some residual feelings, stoked by all the advertising propaganda that’s been building for a few weeks now, reminding me how funny I am and how I am always there. Apparently.

But this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of another dad – one who is no longer there. That would be Chris Cornell, once the singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter for Soundgarden, and a corking big influence on me as a little grungey kid on the West Coast in the 1990s. Found dead in his hotel room after a gig in Detroit, Michigan just one month ago, Cornell leaves behind not only a legion of fans and some crushed and confused bandmates but three children.

So really, when I say Cornell is in my thoughts, it’s his kids who are more heavily in my thoughts. I found a video this week that broke my heart, clicking through YouTube as I do from time to time over lunch break. It was posted just three days after he died, but the video comes from a concert in Seattle in 2007. Continue reading

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That’s When the Hornet Stung Me

Summer’s here, and I’m on annual leave. Kids are out of school, and when my wife isn’t bashing away at the keyboard upstairs, we’re finding lots of time for other good things. Picking blackberries, riding bicycles, eating/making hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon. Reading Tragically Hip think pieces (including my own).

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon.

It’s also a good time to reflect on summers past, and share a few stories. The one I’m sharing here was inspired by my wife’s blog from a few weeks ago about a wasp trapped in her office; she melds it with a memory of a wasp from her childhood, full of danger and suspense and blessed maternal rescue. I’m biased, of course (reader, I married her), but I think the writing is exceptional.

One afternoon, I sat on the swing, kicking my sandaled feet, and a wasp settled between the straps. I froze. I couldn’t swat it away because I had to hold on to the chains of the swing. I tried to kick, very gently, to dislodge it. The wasp crawled over the strap and down along my foot. Then it crawled onto the bottom of my foot, its tiny feet and buzzing wings moving between my sandal and my skin.

Sometimes, speech is impossible, but I must have said something because my little brother ran for Mum. I gripped the swing’s chains tightly. The wasp explored. No wind moved the leaves above my head. Everything stopped. Except for those tiny, tickly feet.

-Katie Munnik, “Wasp”

I have felt those tiny, tickly feet. Continue reading

Quick

So my last post was about how long it took to get a blog published (not on this site, obviously). Just thought I’d ad a quick counter-narrative about a guest blog that got published superfast.

My wife keeps a regular column on the Presbyterian Record website. Notionally, it updates every Monday. Sometimes, that competes with other things, and a couple of weeks ago, we had very dear Canadian friends visiting – Presbyterians, to boot, so when the kids were all in bed and we were having a cool drink around the kitchen table, it was time for her to sigh and start to crowd-source some ideas for the blog. (Or canvas lots of, “No, no, just write it tomorrow” comments; sadly, the Presbyterianness of our visitors meant they cared a lot about what she wrote and thought it would be good to put something up on time and in good order.)

So in my typical offhanded way, I start spouting off things she could write about, and after just a couple of minutes of this, she says, or I say (I can’t remember, and that’s probably what’s good about being married) “Why don’t I just write it? Another guest post – when was the last one I did?” It had been over six months, and that was a Christmas present and something I had already plotted and planned.

Rather than retiring to the upstairs office to write, which is what my wife typically does, I just gassed up the ol’ laptop and started typing right at the table while the other three laughed and told funny stories about when we used to live in the same neighbourhood or cute stories about what our kids do. No more than twenty minutes, it was done, even with me interjecting once or twice in the conversation. She vetted it: it looked fine. Some writing I thought was actually quite clever (my wife noted that this had some similarities in tone to Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, which we had been reading as a bedtime story).

Here’s a sample:

“Were you and Mummy confirmed?”

“Yes,” I say. “I was just a bit older than you are now.”

“Some of the kids who were confirmed today are in the same year of school as me,” she says.

“Hmm.” We pedal a little further on. “Would you like to be confirmed?”

“Well, I’d like to taste the wine,” she replies. Now that’s an honest answer. “But they said the bread tastes like cardboard.”

“No, it’s not like the bread your mummy bakes.”

The whole thing is here.

Daddy, the Champion of the World

Picture of me by my toddler

We don’t make a big deal of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day in our house. Sensitive to the greater cultural environment, my eldest son had prepared a glitter-filled piece of art about a sunset as well as a loom band in the Daddy Approved colours of green and purple; my daughter improvised a puppet show which included a crocodile eating a dragon and finished with me being knighted; my youngest gave me a picture that he had declared earlier was a crocodile – and it very much was, in a not-yet-three kind of way, though the real Father’s Day treat, such as it is, was the portrait he made of me on his chalkboard a few days earlier (see above).

What really made it good for me was doing the things I always and already do that make me a father: going out in the rain to do errands for the family, trading silly jokes, and best of all, reading the bedtime story. The celebration, for me, is in the doing. Continue reading

“We All Cherish Strange Things”: A Meditation on Ukulelevangelism

100_6369Last night, I would have been giving my middle child a ukulele lesson. I taught his sister when she was his age, and she has augmented this with violin through school and, this year, singing in the church choir. I would have been teaching him, only last night, he joined his sister for choir practice, a step he’s really excited about.The author on uke and his daughter on violin

We’ll have to find another time for uke lessons, though, because he’s been progressing really well and there’s still so much to learn. But with a vacant hole in my early evening, I picked up a book by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White – I’d thumbed through it when I bought it, but I was writing up my PhD at the time, so I didn’t give it a proper “look”. It’s fun and good advocacy, and maybe I’ll pop a review of it up here shortly. But reading it sent me back to an old piece of writing of mine. Before I started “maintaining” this blog (that may be too grand a word for it), I would put occasional longer pieces of writing on Facebook in the “notes” category – remember those? Thing is, those don’t always get a lot of reading, and they’re rather buried. But I thought this was a rather good piece of writing that deserved a second public.

So, it’s a recycled blog post (20 January 2012), reviewing two records – one dated even at the time and the other largely inaccessible outside the snug Ottawa market. Obscure, as the ukulele itself is. But not small: it’s a long read, so grab some popcorn.


“We all cherish strange things”
– Neil Gerster, “Set Me On Fire”

This is partly a review of two albums – Neil Gerster’s Hearts and Other Shipwrecks and Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs – and partly an essay on the ideas these records inspire for the strange thing that I, or we, cherish, the ukulele. (Vedder’s record barely qualifies as “new” anymore, but both were released in 2011, so I’ll take that as “recent” enough to give me licence for writing this.)

First, my own interests on the table: I am a ukulele performer, and so my appreciation of these records is overly informed and rather biased. I like the instrument, and I want others to like it, too. As well, I am personally implicated with both these artists. I’ve known Neil for 13 years – though we’ve not been in close contact for all of that time. But we played at Carleton University’s sadly (for all intents and purposes) defunct pub, Rooster’s, and shared a love of good lyrics and melodies. More recently, he played bass and sang on my own record, I Am with the Hunters; and while he was putting his own record together, he asked me for thoughts on arrangements and such. Whilst I have no such direct contact with Eddie, I might as well have done. From the release of Pearl Jam’s second record, Vs, I have faithfully followed his musical progress, memorising and personalising his words, learning his changes and riffs, and letting myself get swept up with thousands-strong audiences during his performances. Continue reading

Primary Socialisation

Religion in Life Certificate

Started young, I did.

My dad sent me this scan of a certificate I got when I was in Cubs. I needed images of me in any Beavers or Cubs kit to go with a blog I was writing for the Messy Table. Seeing it now, there’s an eerie resonance with the MA I took at King’s College London in 2010-11 (Religion in Contemporary Life). Maybe I could be cheeky and call my Master’s degree “II Stage” of the programme. It cost a chunk of change, but there’s a qualitative difference between Zone 1-2 of London and the Cub Camp near Bragg Creek in the Alberta foothills…

Could I have imagined then that I would now be lecturing on religion and the media at a Russell Group university? We don’t know which from among our early experiences will have an impact on our later ones – and maybe, to a degree, we’re complicit in writing that script. That’s a bit of what the blog post is about, musing about a friend who is torn over enrolling his child in Scouting when he doesn’t believe in the God his child would be asked to profess.

Here’s some of what I had to say in the post:

The fellowship my friend wants his child to encounter in the Scouting programme, as well as maybe some groovy skills that include cooking beef, potatoes, and carrots in tin foil on a fire he helped make, is one set of experiences that will shape him. The utterance of belief in God is another, and the way the child is brought up in his home is yet another. The dream of a seamless meld here is a fantasy, because we are ourselves contradictory, before we even get to the contradictions we experience when we meet other people.

You can read the full piece here.

Inside Out

School is back in session here in Wales, but not so for my kiddos. We moved down from Edinburgh over the summer, and although there have been many things to love, a frustration is the wait for open spaces for the elder two most-certainly-school-aged kids. In the meantime, they’ve been doing Home School with Headmistress Mummy and Class Gerbil Little Brother.

And as a, er, special treat, they got an assignment this morning from Guest Lecturer Doctor Daddy. Though I toil at my new office Monday to Friday, I was able to take the elders to the local arts centre Sunday afternoon to watch Disney’s Inside Out.

I’d heard just a little about the movie – we’re rather a little bit “those people” and don’t have a telly at home, and going out to movies… well, I mentioned the Class Gerbil Little Brother, right? Scotches that kind of thing except in the most exceptional of circumstances, or when we divide and conquer. As we did Sunday. But as you can see from the clip above, there’s a lot going on here that merits unpacking. I was really struck by the supremacy of Joy and the denial of Sadness, which you can see at 0:51. Just talking tonight after dinner, I realised that the treatment of Sadness is something I’ve just been working with on a blog post I wrote just a couple of weeks ago for a groovy group of UniEdinburgh postgrads.

So, in true now-I-have-my-PhD-and-everything-must-be-considered-more-deeply fashion, I didn’t just take the kids to the movie. I gave them an assignment. And here it is – names replaced with age designations cuz that’s how I roll. Also, watch for the Bonus Question, as there is a bit of a SPOILER. Continue reading

Piggies the Brave

This is mostly a reblogging effort. My wife has a real and proper online column which she writes once a week, and on the rare occasions where I’d like to write about something that she also wants to write about, her space takes precedence.

This one truly was a whale of a story: the missing guinea pig we were charged with minding, on the eve of our move from the neighbourhood, from Edinburgh, from Scotland itself. You can catch it all here, but this paragraph higlights the nub of the sadness:

It is terribly difficult to be tucked up in your bed, warm and dry, and to know that somewhere out in the dark, there is a little lost creature, shivering and terrified. And that there is nothing whatsoever you can do.

-Katie Munnik, ‘In the Garden’

What I can share here – and you know I’m a guy who likes a good joke – is that I knew,  rooting about in the dark, the wet, looking for the one pig hardest to find in the dark (the others had white patches, whereas Toffee was black and toffee-brown), was that this would be a very funny story to tell if and only if we find the pig again. Otherwise, there’s just no fun. So I’m glad to have a funny joke to share with our new friends in Cardiff. “So, just moved here – how were things on your way out from Edinburgh?”

Let me tell you…


The title doesn’t make any sense unless you know our neighbours’ song, which they wrote about their guinea pigs to the tune of “Scotland the Brave.” It starts like this:

Hark, when the night is falling
Hear, hear the piggies calling!
Loudly and proudly calling
Out of the hutch.
Out in the grassy garden,
Down in the laundry corner,
Panda and Patch and Toffee –
Piggies the Brave!

Last Walk

Panoramic photo of Edinburgh skyline from south of the Meadows

My morning walk

It’s the last day of school for my eldest two kids – not just for the summer but, at least in this jurisdiction, for like ever. I have secured a job in a different city, so we’re moving over the summer. The goodbyes are significant; the lasts more meaningful. They’re both excited and mournful, as you would expect.

We’re really happy with our current neighbourhood, and the people, the places, and yes the school are all important to us and a big part of what made us love Edinburgh and feel at home here.

But the walk to school in the morning has been a special treat for me. If I’m honest, it’s the walk after the walk to school. Getting out the door is almost alway fraught – full of grumbles, inducements to hurry up, and sometimes forgotten bags, lunches, and violins. We hustle through the neighbourhood, past doors of classmates. Drop-off is a mass (often a mess) of small and large huddled bodies getting in and getting organised. Some parents are lucky enough to get hugs and kisses before the kids go in.

And then, for as long as I had an office at George Square, during my PhD, I would walk to it. Through the Links, and across the Meadows, to the low-storied buildings on the west face of the leafy square. Barclay Viewforth on the left, and the undulating Links rolling down to the Meadows. Over the roofs of the buildings, the castle sticks up – solid and exciting, every morning. Follow the skyline to the east and you see the Quartermile development, with the old infirmary wards interspersed with square glass towers; it’s actually a remarkably attractive blend of old and new buildings. Amid church spires the minaret of the Edinburgh Central Mosque is just visible, and away to the right are the imposing and inviting humps of Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat.

As commutes go, this one certainly didn’t suck.

The picture above is so compressed and undynamic as to not only not do justice to the walk but actually to do it injustice. Well, it’s what I can muster for you. I took it this morning. We’ll see what the new commute has to offer.

A Heartwarming Christmas Story from the Miners’ Strike

So, I did my Superman bit today. I’ve been donating platelets for over a year, now, because I fit their bill. It’s a sort of blood donation amped up: they take less stuff out of you, so you can do it more frequently, and as a result, you’re in every month rather than every three months; also, the period of the donation is about an hour and a half altogether, about 55 minutes of which is being hooked up to the machine with blood cycling in and out, rather than the 20-30 minutes for a standard pint of your finest A-negative. When they gave me the brief on how it all worked, I was most impressed to learn that, should they need platelets, they spin that standard pint to separate it, and they get about a quarter of a useful unit. Four donations are therefore needed to do one job at the hospital. When you give platelets, they usually take two units, but it is possible to give “a triple,” which would mean you’re really doing the work of 12 human beings over the space of half an afternoon.

Punch line: today I did my first triple.

I’d tried before, but it hadn’t worked out for whatever reasons. They have computers and such that work out of it’s going to go ahead or not, and despite my willingness, conditions were not right. Until today.

Give a little extra at Christmas, sez I. Chatting about Christmas with one of the nurses as she unhooks me, and somehow it gets round to one from the past. “You weren’t here in ’84, were you?” she says. Charitably, I just say, “No.” I don’t need to add that I was five.

“Well, that was the time of the miners’ strike, and my husband was a miner.” Tough times, and they had a bairn, too. She knew it would be long, and she knew that Christmas would be tight. But she put aside her coppers–her ones and twos; she couldn’t stow five-pences in the jar, because they were too precious, too useful in the day to day. Because every day was tight, not just Christmas. Continue reading