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

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The Darkest One

Gord Downie at K-ROCK, Kingston

Photo by David Bastedo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Where the wild are strong,
And the strong are the darkest ones,
You’re the darkest one.”

It says something that a friend of mine – a journalist back in Ottawa with a vigorous Twitter account – could write this, and I would know exactly what he was referring to.

Residing in Britain, I had been living with the news of Gord Downie’s brain tumour for five hours before he and other friends found out. In a year that started so hard and has kept being hard, this one is particularly hard. Like Bowie for all the freaks and weirdos in Britain and then beyond who needed someone to attach to, Gord Downie and his mates who make up the Tragically Hip were epochal, giving an indigenous confidence to young, pop-oriented Canadians just as the alignment of music video television, more accessible recording and distribution, and government regulation made it possible and even acceptable to dig Canadian music.

But that would say little on its own about the courageous, enigmatic, smart lyrics and Gord’s absurd performances. The band was more than special – it was unique. Looking now at their performance from 1995, when Dan Ackroyd introduced them on Saturday Night Live, it amazes me that their management thought this could work. Think of all those Americans watching the screen – who is this guy? What the hell is he talking about? I mean, grunge made opaque lyrics cool (hip?) but there was an intent behind these words that just did not compute:

“I’m total pro.
That’s what I’m here for.”

At dinner last night, we told the kids about when they were smaller – our nearly-ten-year-old not yet four – and we were in Nanaimo, visiting my folks. My dad got a gig down at the Port Theatre filming a dance company that had arranged a show Beside Each Other to Downie’s music and poetry, and he had tickets to spare, so my wife took our daughter to the show. We reminded her of how physically she responded to the dance. The words, I expect, flew by her.

After the kids were in bed, I put on some Hip, of course. It’s difficult, because most of our CDs are back in Canada, including almost all my Hip. We made some tough decisions before that first flight and took only the double-disc Yer Favourites, a best-of collection that is, at least, curated in its order rather than arranged chronologically. (Why do I even have a greatest-hits collection? Necessity: our last road trip across Canada as a family, I realised just before Mattawa that we hadn’t brought any Hip with us – an essential feature, for reasons I’ll explain in another post. So we bought it at the WalMart as a corrective.) I put on disc 2 – the better one, I think, as disc 1 seems to go a bit more for the obvious hits, in a more requisite order. Starts with the obligatory “new” track, then “Grace, Too” (which should be first), then “Music@Work” (which in my opinion shouldn’t be on there at all but which they insist on putting near the top of sets because of its thematic appropriateness).

Disc 2 instead starts with the dark horse, “Fully Completely”.

“You’re gonna miss me,
Wait and you’ll see.
Fully… and completely.”

Quite. And then this, holding the same place in the second chorus:

“Either it’ll move me
Or it’ll move right through me.
Fully… and completely.”

This is followed by throw-away bar-rocker “Twist My Arm”, which nonetheless has Gord’s shrill, paranoid delivery of the complementary line:

“It won’t hurt if you don’t move.”

We can only hope.

Then, of course, “Courage”, which already takes the brave step of name-checking mid-century novelist Hugh Maclennan in the title (go on, mass public: I dare you to stop paying attention.)

“There’s no simple explanation
For anything important
That any of us do.
And, yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure.”

Every song in the corpus contains a consolation for the desperate fans all reaching back to the old albums, hoping to find one there. It’s a great gift, as is their vow to take Gord on the road one more time and connect with the fans who have connected with them. “We are all richer for having seen them tonight,” he said of the Rheostatics, but of course we say it of them. I hope he makes it. I wish I could be there.

Put Yer Ukes Up: Ukevangelism, Part 2

Michael playing the uke at a tribute concert for Bob Froese, May 2009

Photo (c) Laure Kolk 2009

So I wrote about a change in my ukulele fortunes a while back, when Child Number 2 started singing in the choir and I lost my Monday night pupil. (We still have not fixed a new time for lessons, and this is really bad, but he can still play the hell out of “Taps”, so all is not lost but merely on hold.) I referred to a book on the uke by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White, and I sorta intimated that I would write a review of it soon. Sooner, later, whatever: here it is now.

The book is called Get Plucky with the Ukulele, and it’s a gift to the modern world, coming at the right time now that the second wave of ukulele has crested and the Good Ship Jumping Flea has come down the other side, not upturned. The wee instrument got rather faddish, to the point where US comedian Ria Lina could sing “Not Another Ukulele” at the Edinburgh Fringe on the ukulele with as little irony as is possible in such a setting. You still see them in shop windows, but I think the surprise factor is gone. Those who bought them in the swell of the hype may still have them kicking around the house, so when you talk about playing it, the response is no longer a) are you kidding?, b) oh, I do that too!, or c) ukulele? pfft, that’s so Hackney-three-months-ago now where’s my beard oil? We can confront the instrument as it is, unironically and neither undersold nor overhyped. Continue reading

(Dis)United Kingdom

Daffodil by Dave Morris

Daffodil, (CC BY 2.0) Dave Morris, found on flickr.com

So Happy Saint David’s Day, or as they say here in Wales, Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, though I’ve also seen a Gwyl in there, and I may have the order wrong. I’m mostly relying on Twitter for these things; my children, who are being educated in the English system but are of course learning Welsh as a subject, are not really better placed to correct me yet.

We’re figuring it out.

The move from Scotland, which as I’m fond of saying is distinct because of its institutions, to Wales, which is instead distinct due primarily to its language, is full of opportunities to learn. In fact, Wales has always been about learning for me: I remember doing a class project in Grade 3 about Wales, drawing the flag (ineptly), making a map full of mountains and castles, and drawing Sir Percival in his red-gold armour. In truth, I’m all about Wales.

Our first St David’s Day in Cardiff was grey, windy, and wet. Really, it felt like we hadn’t left Edinburgh at all. These things should unite us, but every St David’s Day, I can’t help but remember an object lesson of disunity.

In 2013, I was in Glasgow, doing field work for my PhD, and I had to get from one site to another rather quickly, so I took a taxi. We pull up outside Location #2 on a gloriously sunny March day (yes, in Glasgow), and I ask the driver for a receipt.

“What’s the day?” he says to himself as he fills it out. “First of March.”

“Yeah,” I say (in my Boy Scouty Canadian accent). “Happy St David’s Day!”

He snorts. “If you’re Welsh.”

“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

Shrove Tuesday, or On the Plasticity of “Fixed” Culture

Tough Gig

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Sad days for the newspaper industry – in my current home, the UK, with my beloved Guardian, but also in Canada, the country where I learned and practised journalism. The bleeding at Postmedia was painful and shameful (and, thanks to the dubious blessing of social media and the courage of people like Jana Pruden, completely exposed in all its personal minutiae), and then Friday saw the shuttering of the Guelph Mercury and, less significantly for the country (we all know where the power sits) but more significantly for me, the Nanaimo Daily News.

My parents gave me the drop on the Daily News by Skype this week. Nanaimo’s their home, the Daily News their daily, well, news. They knew I’d care because it’s big news from where I grew up, because I study media for a living, and because I used to be a journalist myself until, as happened to so many of my fellow travellers in this reporting game, the axe fell.

But my history with the paper is more entangled even than that paragraph suggests. Barring a mighty letter to the editor of Maclean’s when I was in Grade 9 (yes, I was That Kid), the Daily News was my first gig in journalism. 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.

Ultreia

Cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaFor some people, this is the goal. This is what they are walking to. Whether from Saint Jean Pied de Port, their front door, or the Galician town of Sarria, a convenient 106 kilometres from the cathedral and therefore just far enough to “count” as a pilgrimage – from any of these points of origin, this is their destination. To stand in the Plaza del Obradoiro and gaze up at the ornate facade is to stand at the foot of the holy mountain. Only, you don’t climb up, you climb in; it is your eyes, and your heart perhaps, which ascend the peak.

For some, this summit is only a plateau. It is not enough – they feel, as we use the word sometimes, that they have plateaued: reached a height and flattened out, with the unsatisfying feeling lurking inside that greater heights are possible if only they can keep going. They arrive at Compostela and feel that their peregrinations cannot possibly be over. They have reached their ostensible destination, but they keep on walking.

For us, it was neither. We walked into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on 29 October 2005 neither overawed nor underwhelmed. Our Protestant leanings may have had something to do with this: pilgrimage “proper” is one of the traditions the Reformers were wary of, and the piece of paper we received from the official office will not, in our estimation, be of much use in clearing our own or our sinful forebears’ souls from purgatory.

So what was it all for, then? Certainly it was still, as they say, a mountain-top experience. Three mountains stand out for me, and I guess I’ll relate them chronologically. Continue reading