Playing the April Fool

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I must admit to being, somewhat, reluctant to post anything today because it is April Fools Day. My thinking was that if I posted something today….and, I do like to post on Mondays…..that you would all be reading along in breathless anticipation, waiting for the moment when this post turned into one, big joke. The problem that I have with that is that I am not an epic prankster. I am not good at pulling the legs of those closest to me. When I have tried to do so in the past, my efforts have ended up being more cruel than humour-filled. So, over time, I adapted by not playing April Fools jokes but, instead, by willingly playing the fool.

In classrooms all across Canada, children are entering their school armed with plastic vomit or poop props, rubber spiders or sticky notes that they will try to place on their teacher’s back by giving an exaggerated hug. None of their jokes are ever any good but, to them, they are hilarious. In most cases, plans have been hatched in the schoolyard so these jokes are never played out in private but, instead, in front of an eager audience, ready put one over on the person who carries authority in their world. There was a time, early in my career, when I would challenge the kids to try and fool me but because they never could, they never seemed to get the pleasure out of the experience that they should have. So, as I matured as a teacher, I relaxed when it came to April 1st. In later years, I would actually peer over my shoulder when someone cried out, “Look! There’s a spider about to land on you, Mr. MacInnes!” As I turned to look, the kids would smile and laugh and think that they were incredibly clever and funny.

As my career progressed, I came to view April Fools Day with affection. I knew that the months that I had spent building up a trusting relationship with these children would bear fruit on days such as this. Their simple jokes were only played because the kids felt safe enough to do so. They trusted me not to over-react in a negative or violent way. They cared enough to stray from the regular academic routine in the hopes of creating a personal memory for themselves, with me as the star of their show. In the end, I took these pranks for the compliment that they were. In turn, I never did anything sillier than switching desks around on them or hiding their chairs and saying they’d been taken for repairs by the custodian so everyone was going to have to work standing up that day and so on. Nothing cruel or hurtful in the name of comedy; especially when it comes to the trusting nature of a child.

I truly believe in the therapeutic nature of a good belly laugh. I, especially, enjoy the sound of children laughing freely and honestly from the bottom of their bellies. Life is good when you can see the humour in it. So, my wish for everyone today is that you find your jokes funny and that, if your jokes come from the mind of someone you love, that you shed tears of joy borne from shared laughter. As that noted comedic mind from days of yore, Thomas Aquinas, is quoted as saying, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”

Have a happy April Fools Day, my friends.

PS: just for your information, our kitchen is almost finished. I am just waiting for our window treatments to come in and be installed and then we are done. I have been promised that they will be ready today or tomorrow. So, hopefully, by the end of the week, I will be ready to share with you all, our kitchen transformation, from beginning to end.

After that, I will be creating a post about the family who sent me those beautiful sleigh bells at Christmas time. I promised the man who runs MagicalBells.com that I would “repay” him for the bell by sharing his family’s story with my friends via this blog.

Beyond that, my writing slate is wide open. If there is anything you wish for me to write about, don’t hesitate to make a suggestion in the comment section of this post or, any other post, for that matter. Until then, have a super day and thanks for being readers of this blog. I appreciate your support.

Believe

I have been a writer since I was a kid. I have always loved telling stories and, more importantly, I have always loved using my words to make other people happy. Believe me when I tell you how humbled I am any time someone contacts me to say that they were moved by something I wrote or that they learned something or else, that they had a laugh or two that brightened their day. Those comments fill me up and inspire me to continue writing words for others to read. It is a large part of the reason why I created this blog.

The thing about having a blog, at least for me, is that I rarely actually meet the people I interact with. Those who comment and share my work do so, most often, on the Internet, from the comfort of their home. I never see them and they never see me but, just the same, a familiarity comes to be and a relationship starts to take shape. While we never meet, my social media “friends” help shape my life. I am enriched by their cyber presence. I am comforted in their binary embrace. Over time, they have become “real” to me. I consider myself the better for having had that happen.

So, I write. I create. I share. And, hopefully, I help make things a tiny bit better….for my friends and, because of my friends.

The story that I wish to share with you today involves a recap of a story I posted just prior to Christmas and a more, in-depth look into the circumstances of something unexpected that spiralled out of that post. That post was entitled, “I Hope Your Can Hear the Bell” and can be found here.

In “I Hope You Can Hear the Bell”, I talked about a dozen or so Christmas books that I had used in my classroom during the course of my thirty-year teaching career. These were books that had become beloved by my students over the years. Books that I wanted to share with my readers so that they, in turn, might share them with their children and grand-children. I have always considered good books to be like treasure and, as such, I have always wanted to share them with as many people as possible so that the magic and beauty they contain can extend ever onward.

As I listed the books, I saved the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express, for last because it was the most requested and loved Christmas book in my collection. Children in every class I ever taught were drawn to the message of believing in something greater than themselves. They loved that the first gift of Christmas…..Santa’s sleigh bell….only sounded for those who believed and, since they were all young kids and truly believed in the magic of Christmas, to them, the book felt like a special secret that only children knew. It sought to validate their belief system. It reinforced their willingness to trust.

I selected The Polar Express as the most popular of all of my Christmas books because experience had proven that to be true. I found reading the book aloud to be very special. If truth be told, I always considered it an honour to invite a new group of students each year into Van Allsburg’s wonderful world; to share that secret that only a child can know. Whenever I read aloud and got the end of the story, I would grow silent. Then I would reach into my pocket and pull out a cloth bag. Inside that bag would be a tiny sleigh bell. The kids always inched forward as I pulled the little bell out. I always gently shook the bell. The kids always heard it ring. The magic was always, always real. They believed and so did I.

So, when the writing for that blog post was completed, all that was left for me to do was to find a suitable photo to act as my “cover photo”. I try to use my own photos as much as possible, for copyright reasons. But, I no longer had the little bell so, I could not take a picture of it. My next course of action was to go to the public domain photos that are available. But, try as I might, I could not get the photo that seemed worthy of my post and how I felt about The Polar Express. So, as a last resort, I simply Googled “Santa’s Sleigh Bell” and the photo above came on to my screen. THAT was the photo I had been waiting for. So, even though it was not my photo, I copied it, attached it to my post and hit the “PUBLISH” button and sent my story on its way to my loving readers.

Not long after that, the guilt set in.

Some people would have ignored that guilty feeling; rationalizing that the odds were slim that the owner of that photo would ever come in contact with my post. But, what if they did!? What if they were checking out other sleigh bell photos and saw their picture on the link to my post. I knew in my mind that they would have every right to be upset and that I really wouldn’t have any excuse for having done what I did. So, with my conscience suitably guilty, I decided to try and make things right.

That afternoon, I found out that the photo belonged to a company called Magical Bells. On their website, they had a “Contact Us” page. I filled out their form, explaining that I had written a post that included a section on The Polar Express and that I had wanted a beautiful sleigh bell for my cover photo and had used theirs. I offered to pay them a fee in order to keep the photo but, I said that I understood if they were upset and told them I would remove the photo if they directed me to do so. I hit the “SUBMIT” button and then, I waited for a reply.

I must admit that I was expecting the worst. The Internet is a wild and woolly place, at times. There are lots of angry people out there, eager to argue for sport. There are dangerous people, too. Folks who want to gain access to your world in order to steal your information, your money and even your identity. There are lots of competitive folks out there in cyberspace, as well. These folks wouldn’t think twice about denying a favour to someone who might, as a result, take marketshare away from them once the favour had been granted.

So, I sat there by my computer and wondered about the reaction of the person on the other side of the screen, as they were being notified that “You Have Mail”. I waited and I waited. Finally, a day or so later, I had my answer. I had mail ……from the owner of Magical Bells.

As I clicked on the email link, I did so in the same way that The Grinch did on Christmas morning, high atop Mt. Crumpit. He listened for the sound of crying and of sadness but, instead, what he heard was merry….very! He found that sound puzzling. For me, I opened that email and was prepared for a finger-wagging blast but instead, I found gratitude and thankfulness and compliments. Like the Grinch, I was momentarily taken aback, too.

The author of that email, and owner of Magical Bells, was a man named Mike Frueh. He reassured me that he wasn’t upset about the fact that I had used his photo without permission and that, in reality, he felt flattered that I thought it was beautiful enough to use in the first place. He said that he had read my post and thought it was wonderful. He talked about how important The Polar Express was to him and his family and how thankful he was that I was promoting the same view. To top it all off, he offered to send me one of his special Polar Express sleigh bells, free of charge, as thanks for writing the post, using the photo and for including a link to his website within that post.

Wait!? What!? No! I didn’t deserve that. I had broken a rule and wasn’t deserving of a reward. I wrote back to Mike and told him how gracious his offer was but that I did not do what I did in writing the post and using the photo in the hopes of obtaining material reward. I did it because I believe in the magic of a book and I told Mike that he owed me nothing. I was just grateful that he wasn’t upset. But, Mike would not take “No” for an answer and insisted on sending me a bell, free of charge, from the U.S. to Canada.

A few weeks later, as promised by Mike, there sat a pretty little box in my home. A little piece of him and his family to be enjoyed by me and my family, despite the many miles between us. The box was sturdy and clean as a whistle, the green ribbons lined up perfectly from the lid to the bottom of the box. So, before even opening the box to see what was inside, the attention to detail evident in this box spoke volumes for the care that goes into every Magical Bells product. As first impressions go, Mike had made a good one on us.

I had assumed, prior to opening the box, that I would find a lovely bell inside. I did find a lovely bell inside but, I found several other thoughtful things, too. For instance, the first thing I pulled out was a two-sided card; on one side was a picture of the sleigh bell and the words, “The Ultimate Symbol to Believe”. On the other side of the card was a message from Santa Claus, himself! It talked about the importance of believing, too, not just of Santa but, of yourself, as well. What a wonderfully empowering message to receive….and, I still hadn’t opened the bell yet! After reading the card, I next pulled out a golden train ticket needed to board the actual Polar Express train! How cool is that!? Then, I went for the red, cloth bag that lay nestled inside the box. As I began to lift it up, I noticed a smaller red, cloth bag underneath so, I opted to open that first. Inside was a pin or brooch that had one word engraved upon it…that one word was, “Believe”. Finally, it was time for the bell! I opened the larger red, cloth bag and held that glorious silver bell for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was perfect. Not a mark of any kind on it anywhere. Shiny, clean, well-constructed and, the sound…..oh, the sound that rang out when I shook the bell for the first time. It was phenomenal!

As I spread these gifts out before me, I felt very honoured to have been considered worthy of such kindness and such effort. This is especially so because Mike and I have never met, nor have we spoken on the phone. We only know each other via email, the post I wrote on my blog and through his Magical Bells website. And yet, this man and his family extended a hand of friendship to me and my family across borders and Internet wires. As I held that bell, I felt the positive energy emanating from it.

As I said earlier in this post, the Internet is filled with unsavoury characters and can be a very dangerous place to lay your soul bare for others to see. But, Mike and his family do just that with every bell they make. Each bell is handcrafted and its creation is an act of faith and of trust and of love. The story of how these bells came to be in one worth telling and, in the telling, a story will emerge that attests to the quality of the character of all involved at Magical Bells. It is a story born out of a moment, quite common in scope, that proved to be a turning point in Mike’s family’s life. It all began with the search for the perfect Christmas gift for his son.

Back in 2006, Mike and his wife, Christina, had a son named Evan. Evan loved the story of The Polar Express and had asked for a sleigh bell of his own, just like the one in the book. Christina looked everywhere for such a bell but ended up empty-handed. So, not wanting to disappoint her son, Christina created the very first magical bell herself and gave it to Evan for Christmas. It was a gift created from her heart. Evan could hear its sound when he shook the bell. The magic of a mother’s love was real.

That first bell spawned others and Christina went on to create a company called Magical Bells. Unfortunately, several years later, she passed away. It was a devastating blow to Mike and his son. But, when the foundation of a good life is built upon love, as Mike and Christina’s had, goodness follows pain and beautiful possibilities remain. As things turned out, Evan had two friends who were brothers. Their names were Owen and Gavin. These boys were dealing with their own challenges, as their father, Chad, had cancer and, eventually, succumbed to that disease, leaving the boys alone with their mother, Jenna. The two families understood the grief that each felt and found comfort together in ways that can only be when empathy truly exists. Eventually, over time, empathy turned to love and the two families became one. Mike and Jenna now live with the three boys, together, as a family. But, new beginnings cannot erase old memories completely. Mike and Jenna sought to channel that ache that wouldn’t go away despite their newfound love. They did so by turning to the magic of a mother’s love, as symbolized by a sleigh bell from a children’s book. Mike and Jenna agreed to continue operating Magical Bells in the memory of Christina. Each bell they make themselves is infused with the love they hold for those who still exist in their hearts. That’s why the bell I held in my hand shone so.

I write words and the Frueh’s make bells….both of us trying to make the world a little better, a little more loving and positive. And, while it is easy to find negative people in cyberspace, it is possible, as well, to find wonderful people, too. Thank you, Mike and family, for gifting me with the beauty of your family’s love, in the form of that bell. I am beyond humbled to possess it. I will end with a promise from me to you; for as long as I have that bell, I will ALWAYS be able to hear its sound because I will ALWAYS Believe.

I Think We Are Done!!!

It took from the final Monday in January to the first Friday in April but, I think that our kitchen renovation is finally finished. Ten weeks, 68 days, 13 trades people later, I think I can say we are done. It doesn’t seem real, to be honest. Even as I sit here in a peaceful, quiet, settled house, I am still, somewhat, ill at ease, feeling as though I am waiting for some worker to arrive to do some aspect of what they do best. But, no one is coming here today to work. Those days are over. The time to enjoy the fruits of a lot of labour is upon us. Our kitchen is ready to be revealed. It has been quite a journey. Come on along and let me give you an insider look at the transformation.

I have always believed that a kitchen is the heartbeat of any home. For the first sixteen years that we lived in this house, our heartbeat looked like what you see in this photo. Not in the photo, on the other side of the room, was a fridge (directly across from the stove) with two overhead cupboards and then, an empty space that we used as an office (with a desk, floating shelf and file cabinet). The cabinets that you see are oak. The counter top is laminate. The floor vinyl. There are no window treatments, aside from the valence ruffle thing at the top. The walls are beige. There is a built-in hutch-style cupboard at the end of the room. The kitchen looked out on to our backyard. This photo was taken from the doorway that leads to our dining room. At the other end of this room, to the left is a stairway to the basement and backyard and, to the right, is a doorway that leads out to our front hall and front entrance.

From a functionality point of view, this kitchen had served us well. A lot of memories happened in this space; cookies baked, hot tea steeped, meals prepared, babies crawled and explored, art work adorned many surfaces, many hugs, touches and squeezes were given and received here, too. This kitchen did not owe us anything. It was a good kitchen and we were thankful for its service. But, as we worked to modernize and update the rest of our house, (everything from the roof, to the insulation in the attic, all the way to sealing and waterproofing our foundation), the kitchen stayed as it was, bearing silent witness to the upgrades. Finally, after paying off our mortgage and saving for the better part of a year (i.e., investing what would have been used for a mortgage payment but, instead, putting that money in a renovation fund), we felt financially and emotionally ready to tackle the kitchen. So, during the Christmas break, we initiated our contacts, made our arrangements, signed our deals and waited for the end of January to arrive.

The first part of our kitchen renovation happened before any worker ever set foot in our home. It started with the emptying of the kitchen. I am not sure why we were so surprised but, the amount of stuff that poured out of that kitchen stunned us. Every fork and knife, pot and pan, spice bottle, soup tin, cereal box, mug, baking pan and so on had to be removed and stored. We ended up taking two shelving units from the basement and placed them in our living room. We filled both shelves completely! The really funny thing was that we told ourselves that this would be a good opportunity to purge some things that were old or weren’t being used that often but, truth be told, we purged very little, relative to the massive amount of things we piled onto those shelves. Kitchens require crap and, lots of it, to run effectively. A lesson we learned before the renovation ever began.

This was our kitchen on the morning of Day #1. Right from the very beginning of this process, our kitchen designer, Mandy Rutherford, told us that, if we wanted, she could probably sell our old cupboards, counter-top and sink for us. That money would be used like a discount toward the cost of our cabinets. We went with that option. So, instead of the cathartic experience of demoing the cabinets with sledge hammers, our old oak cupboards were carefully removed and taken into storage; eventually being sold to a home renovator who was remodelling a home only two streets over from ours. We didn’t get a king’s ransom for the cupboards but, we were happy to see them re-purposed and we made a bit of cash that got put toward the cost of the new cabinets so, the reno got off to a good and cost-effective start.

Our appliances were still working fine so we have kept them for now. As we move along and they start to falter, we will replace them with stainless steel but, for now, our white appliances have survived the renovation and are still here, as you shall see in the photos that follow.

One thing that Mandy said right away when she visited us was that she thought our renovation was a good chance to unify the look of the flooring in our house. At this moment in time (in the photo), we had ceramic tile at our front door entrance way, that gave way to carpet in the hallway and then, to vinyl flooring in the kitchen and hardwood in the living/dining room areas. Mandy suggested we leave the hardwood as is but, remove the rest and put in one floor material throughout all of the rest of our upstairs. We thought this made sense so, we contacted Dickson’s Flooring in Cobourg and had them put in a new flooring for us, which you will see in a moment. Before they could install the new floor, they had to prep the old floor. So, in this photo, they have done, what they referred to, as feathering. Essentially, they primed the vinyl floor by coating it with a compound that filled in all of the indentations from the pattern on the vinyl floor. The black muck that you see is that compound. It took several days for that to dry, after a couple of coats were applied. But, it did, eventually dry and then, the new floor went in.

Dicksons recommended a flooring material called Luxury Vinyl. In this photo, you can see the flooring as it appears in our front hallway and leads into our kitchen. The floor colour is a grey marble style, with wispy strands of light brown in it. The floor feels terrific and has made a big difference in how our home “flows” now, at least in the upstairs, anyway.

Once the floor went in, our custom cabinet folks from Frank Bouwmans in Cobourg started installing the cabinets. Not surprisingly, they did the lower cabinets first. As you can see in this photo, even though we did not have countertops yet, the cabinets had a solid surface so we could use the space in a limited way to prepare our meals. This photo was taken on Valentine’s Day, as Sophie made Valentine milkshakes. If you look in the background, you can see the walls are still beige, as is the built-in cabinet. But, once the lower cabinets went in, we could start to see the shape of what our new kitchen was to become.

Once the lowers were all installed, the upper cabinets were placed and put in. This photo is important because it showcases much of what is better about the design of our new kitchen. First of all, the area from the stove back to the end of the far counter, was where our office used to be. These cabinets are all new storage space for our kitchen. Because we have far more storage space than we ever did before, it has allowed us to store things upstairs that, until then, had previously been stored downstairs. So, the impact on storage, alone, has rippled through our whole house. You will, also, notice the built-in microwave. Our old microwave had been sitting on the counter. But, both Mandy and Frank Bouwmans made the point during our initial consultations that they wanted a design that would free up counter space for us. Placing the microwave where it is now, takes a big appliance out of the way. A third thing that this design does is it makes our kitchen much more efficient to use. We use this side of our kitchen now exclusively for food preparation. Our plates, mugs, cutlery, baking bowls, cereals, soup cans, etc., are all in these cabinets now so, cooking is much simpler than it had been. I hardly need to move at all to reach everything I need for most meals. The other side of the kitchen, is used for cleaning and storage.

Once the cabinets went in, our counter tops arrived. We went with a company out of Scarborough called Vogt Industries. The man installing our cabinets called them “The Russian Mafia” and he wasn’t far off the truth. The counter top installers were big, burly guys who spoke Russian the whole time they were in the house and they insisted upon being paid in cash. Anyway, I was happy when they were gone but, in their wake they left behind three dark grey quartz counter tops and a stainless steel, under-mounted, double sink. We really like the counter tops and sink. At the time, we hmmed and haaaaed about settling for another laminate counter-top because it was cheaper but, I am glad we didn’t. Even though it was the second-most expensive part of the whole reno (the cabinets cost the most), the quality of these counter-tops made it well worth the money. There is just something really special about stone.

One thing I really haven’t mentioned yet but, it was a big part of this renovation, was the fact that, up until the time that the Russians installed our counter-tops and sink…..we didn’t have a real sink! This is a month or so into the renovation! A temporary sink was installed but it wasn’t much bigger than what you would find in a camper. So, while we could wash dishes in the kitchen, it was not an ideal situation at all. So, getting the new sink installed and then, hooked up by a plumber a few days later, really made our kitchen functional again.

Once the counter-tops and sink were finished, I painted the walls, ceiling, all of the trim and the built-in cabinet. The walls are now grey, to complement the floor and counter-top. Everything else is the same white as is on the cabinets; which is a pearly white. The room seems so fresh and clean now.

For the finishing touch, we went back to Dicksons Flooring and Tile and had them install a white, subway tile backsplash. As you can see, the backsplash extends the full length of the cabinets and counter-top on the stove-side of the kitchen. We put the same backsplash on the other side of the kitchen, too.

This is the window-side of our new kitchen. Here you can see the new double-sink and faucet. The backsplash goes along the wall, from one end to the other and, as well, up and around the window, too. For a window treatment, we went with a cellular blind set from Home Depot.

The main part of our renovation is complete now. What is left for us to do is to add the homey yet, tasteful touches. We will probably add a small plant or two, as well as, some art for the walls. As you can see from this photo, I have installed two of the SnapPower guide lights that I mentioned a week or so ago on Facebook. These lights are glowing from the bottom of plates that go around the electrical outlets on the wall. They add a nice ambience to the room and were super easy to install.

Our old kitchen
Our new kitchen

Our kitchen renovation is now complete. We love being in our new space. We look forward to a lifetime of new memories happening in this room.

Now, it is time to build up our bank account back up and move on to the next project because, as you know if you own your own home, there is always something calling out for attention. At least, for us, it won’t be the kitchen crying out any longer. I think I can truly say, we are done.

Throw Your Arms Around Me

I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.

We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.

For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.

Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.

When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!

https://youtu.be/0ZbqV_qfWfg

Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.

As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.

John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.

As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.

For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.

https://youtu.be/ZvlMMEKV3Qk

I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.

The Best Big Sister

I have a dear friend who is about to give birth in the next week or so. It feels funny to say that so matter-of-factly because, as many of your know, childbirth is one of the great miracles of Life. But, my friend is calm and well-organized. Those around her are excited but, controlled. There is an air of familiarity to the process because this is child #2 for my friend and her husband. The experience of bringing a living, breathing human being into the world is not so mysterious as it was when they had their first child. They feel ready. Soon their baby will be ready to make his or her appearance and then, life for my friend and her family will change. I am confident it will change for the better.

This post, today, is about helping to increase the odds of that change going well. Specifically, this post is not about the new baby….bless its little heart……but, instead, it is about the person who is, potentially, most affected by this new miracle of life and that is, the child who already exists….the first born. In my friend’s case, her first born is a girl, just like it was for my wife and me when we had our second child. So, this post is about how to prepare your first born from being an only child to being a big sister. Let’s check it out.

Not long after we arrived home with Leah, our first born, Gramma and Poppa showed up. They couldn’t have been prouder of their first grand-child.

Before we can look forward, it is instructive to go back a bit and see things from the perspective of the one you loved first. There is an air of mystery to childbirth when you are doing it for the first time. Everything seems intense, you often second-guess what you are doing as parents, you are tired and emotional but, most of all, you are head-over-heels in love with your child. In short order, your world begins to revolve around them. They are doted on by you and everyone else around you. Your focus is entirely upon your new child and they, in turn, drink in your attention and bask in the warm glow of the love they feel beaming their way. It is a mutually-intoxicating relationship.

Leah is “astronauting”

When you are the only child in the house, everything becomes yours and yours alone. All of the snacks are yours. The toys can be played with whenever your child feels like it and in any way your child desires. There are no distractions and no competition. The whole world is theirs. It is an easy situation to get used to. It is, also, a tough situation for the child to lose.

When my wife became pregnant for the second time, we realized how much we would be asking Leah to accept. We anticipated that it would be difficult for her to suddenly have to vie for our affection and attention. We knew that the sharing of possessions would be an issue. We understood that the loss of personal space and privacy would be tough. Most of all, we correctly guessed that Leah would have a hard time simply giving up some semblance of control over how she spent her day. It wouldn’t be all about her anymore. Sometimes things would happen or, not happen, because of someone else being there. We knew we had to prepare Leah for the impending arrival of her younger sibling. So, here are a few of the things we did before Sophie was born and some things we did after she was born that helped Leah transition from being the only child to being the big sister.

Dolls became an important part of imaginary play.

When babies are born, they are often doll-sized humans. So, we made a point of surrounding Leah with dolls than would be about the size of a newborn and we encouraged her to be the Mommy and to “care” for her babies. We did this in conjunction with reading lots of library books about how babies grow in a mother’s tummy, how families change when a second child comes along and so on. We watched lots of tv shows on Treehouse TV (a children’s channel, here in Canada) that dealt with babies and having younger siblings. We talked a lot about what was happening to Mommy’s body as the baby grew inside her. In short, we talked with Leah about the new baby and helped give her as much information as we could to prepare her for Sophie’s arrival. We, also, gave her opportunities to practice being a big sister by using her dolls in imaginative play scenarios that we helped with but that she controlled.

Leah reads to her “baby”, as the swing gently rocks and music softly plays.

But, you can only prepare your firstborn so much for the arrival of their sibling. Eventually, the second child is born and life becomes different. In this photo, Gramma is now beaming all of her love onto Sophie, in the speckled hat. For me, this image captures the moment when Leah began to realize that it wasn’t all about her anymore, as she turns away slightly from Gramma’s display of affection for Sophie. But, to help prepare Leah for this exact moment, we did two things; first, she was given the shirt that she is wearing which says something like “I’m a big sister now” and, secondly, we had a trophy prepared for her that said, “Best Big Sister” and then her name. We had that trophy ready for her in the hospital room so that there would be something special for her that was just for her and her, alone. Leah proudly carried that trophy all throughout the hospital wing adjacent to our room.

Bedtime story time is Leah’s uninterrupted time with Daddy.

Eventually, Sophie came home. Leah’s world now became a shared space. To go from having the run of the joint and the attention of everyone in it, to vying for space and cuddles is a harder transition for small children than most adults realize. Keri and I always try our best to act as a good team in all matters of our home and family. So, one of the deliberate decisions we made when Sophie came home was that Leah still needed and deserved her own special one-on-one times with us. For me, that became our nightly reading time together. When bed time approached, Leah had my full attention for as long as it took us to read our stories. That was our time. Sophie did things with Keri at that time. Leah never had to share me with her sister for that block of time. It became a constant in her life. This is not to say that I never read with Sophie or Keri never spent time with Leah. Of course, we spread ourselves out. But, we knew that Leah was experiencing a great change in her life and we wanted to cushion that blow as best we could so, her bedtime became our reading time, no exceptions, for most of her life. Now that Leah is almost a teenager, our shared reading time has become less consistent but we continue to share our interests in books, history, the mystery of Oak Island and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. Leah is as important to me as she was the day she was born. Sophie’s arrival did nothing to diminish my affection. I am lucky because, now, I have two incredible daughters to love and experience life with.

The girls are lucky, too, because they now have each other to share life with. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t moments between them when harsh words are exchanged, doors slammed and hurt caused because that does happen. But, overall, Leah and Sophie are good sisters to each other. They are each their own person, with differing interests, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses. But, when out in the world, they tend to find comfort in each other’s company; often holding hands as they face new adventures and challenges together.

Strawberry picking. We have lots of photos like this one, with the girls holding hands and heading off together

Keri and I give Leah a lot of credit because she has grown nicely into the role of Big Sister. Being the centre of attention can be addictive. But, Leah has done well in understanding that she is still loved, fully and completely and that Sophie can be, too, without that taking anything away from her. It is a sign of maturity and personal growth and we couldn’t be prouder of our “first loved”.

So, I end this post with a hopeful wish that all goes well for my pal, Cuyler, in the coming days with the birth of her second child. I wish her and her husband luck as they learn about what it takes to care for two children instead of just caring for one. But, most of all, I want to congratulate their “first-loved”, Riley, on becoming a Big Sister for the first time. You are about to begin a very new and special chapter in the story of your life. Hopefully, your new baby brother or sister will become as much a friend as they are a younger sibling. If so then, maybe when you are about to turn thirteen yourself, you will have a moment like my girls had last week when Leah automatically stepped in to help Sophie adjust her angle so that she could get the absolute perfect Toronto skyline selfie. Sisters, eh?!

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Leah turns 13 in April. Her trophy continues to sit proudly on her bedroom shelf. She remains the “Best Big Sister” in our house.

You Can Take the Teacher Out of the School But…..

I have been retired from teaching for 114 school days now or so, my wife informed me this morning at breakfast. The time has gone quickly. I enjoy being retired. I like being more in charge of how I spend my day. I like wearing comfortable clothes most days….you know, the ones I used to change into whenever I got home from work…..those clothes. I like being away from the stress of working for a living. Being retired is good.

But, as much as you can take the teacher out of the school, it is still not possible to take the school completely out of this teacher. I still love reading about the latest children’s picture books, I still enjoy helping out at my public library and I still care about kids.

I find it hard to not care about kids. Kids are such amazing human beings. Their energy, their innocence and their kindness have filled me up for most of my adult life; an addiction, of a sort, that isn’t easily rendered mute by the passage of 114 days. I still smile in their company and draw satisfaction from the relationships I maintain. I remain important to them because they continue to view me as their teacher and, to them, that means I am someone who cares. To me, they are “my kids”, even though some are now young adults out in the world while others remain in the school system, merely older versions of the kids I knew when I still wore work clothes to start my days. I am “friends” on social media with many of my older, adult students. I cherish the connection we maintain. For my younger friends, I walk with springs in my step after seeing them at the Mall or in the grocery store or the Library or wherever. Their hugs are always a tonic to cure whatever ails me.

Children have value and are deserving of respect, simply because they exist. It matters not that they don’t vote yet nor have an income that translates into purchasing power. The measure of their worth is not any company’s bottom line. To some, this makes the worth of children questionable; to be regarded as an expense, as opposed, to an investment worth making. To me, it makes them priceless. I am rich beyond measure for having spent the bulk of my adult life in the company of little humans. It matters not one iota to me that some of them needed help zipping their zippers or tying their laces (when kids still had shoes with laces) or wiping their noses. They were all unique and wonderful and memorable and valued by me then, as they are, now.

The year before I retired, I went to a Retirement workshop that was put on by my Union. A few weekends later, my wife suggested we spend the afternoon going through all of the education-related documents we had on file so that I would have everything ready when it came time to fill out all of the forms that would need to be filled out to process my retirement application. Amid the various job performance appraisals and pay stubs and benefit notices, was a folder that held treasure. It was a folder that contained every single kind letter and note that I had received over the course of my career. I had kept them all. That afternoon, I read them all. It was the best afternoon I had spent in years! While I appreciated the wonderful letters from Principals, co-workers and organizations I was associated with, it was the letters from children and from parents that touched me the most. In particular, there was one letter, written on a scrap of torn green construction paper, written in black crayon, by a Grade 3 student. It simply said, “My mother wanted me to thank you for being so nice to me. She says I am lucky to go to this school. I think I am, too.” That student’s mother was illiterate, struggling in poverty and could not have written that note herself. Her 8 year old daughter had borne the responsibility of speaking on her family’s behalf. It was a small note that had required a big effort and it meant the world to me. I still have it safely tucked away. The presence of that letter and, all of the others, serves to remind me of a life spent in service to children and their families and how the residue of that experiences colours my life to this day.

I type these words at a time in Ontario’s education history when public schools are under attack from the same forces of corporatization that have cut massive swathes through the U.S. public school system, to devastating effect there. Cuts have been announced and the doors to privatization have been opened here by a government that does not value the worth of children. It has announced cuts to programmes aimed at helping support children with special needs. It has announced cuts to programmes aimed at helping students with gender identity challenges. It has announced cuts to programmes that help regular kids zip their zippers and wipe their noses, too. It is attacking Kindergarten children because, after all, isn’t that just glorified daycare anyway? Through it all…and this is just the beginning…..we have adults in charge who view our greatest treasure as mere collateral damage on the road to financial prosperity for themselves and their backers.

Today, educators and their public school allies have been asked to wear black in a show of solidarity against the government’s phony austerity-driven cuts to public schools and, more specifically, to the children who go to them each day. Children deserve champions who will act on their behalf, even when wearing comfortable clothes. Today, my comfortable clothes are black. I wear black because I still care about children. How can you not?

As The Cookies Cool

 

 

 

It was snowing in slow motion yesterday in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.  As the snowflakes fell lazily from the sky, cookies baked in my oven and the house filled with their delicious aroma.

On days such as this, the falling snow muffles the ambient sound and all becomes silent and calm. As the cookies cooled, my world turned peaceful and white.

Serene. With a hint of chocolate.

Days like these are glorious to behold. May your world have been wonder-filled as well.