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.

Living a Life of Honour

In Canada, and in many countries around the world, Earth Day occurs in April, at or near the beginning of Spring. Earth Day is especially relevant these days because of the nature of Climate Change on our planet. One of the most symbolic aspects of Earth Day is something called Earth Hour. During Earth Hour, people are encouraged to eliminate electrical use from their lives for one hour. This means leaving lights off and using candles, for instance, just for that one hour. It is a visible gesture that lets other people know that you are supportive of good practices when it comes to the environment.

I can remember when Earth Hour first started, fifteen or twenty years ago. It was a fairly big deal. On the late newscasts that night, you would be able to watch notable structures like The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, The C.N. Tower, etc., all go dark. In school, we would practice going non-electrical by turning off our computers, our overhead lights and working quietly with only the daylight to illuminate our work space. Those were heady times when it came to raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens to take action. However, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer people pay attention to Earth Day and to Earth Hour. Those who no longer participate will tell you that turning your TV off for an hour really makes no discernible difference to one’s carbon footprint so, why bother. Those who don’t participate but have a more positive outlook will reply that caring about the Earth is not a one-day event. Every day should be Earth Day. It should be a lifestyle of positive choices, not just one single day of showy displays.

I will admit that in my house, we no longer light candles and power down our devices during Earth Hour. Instead, we have opted for a full year of positive environmental choices including virtually eliminating the use of plastic bags and straws, planting pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, using rain barrels to capture rain water and reduce our water consumption and so on. We are not environmentally perfect but, we are making good choices and are on the right track 365 days of the year. To our way of thinking, living an environmentally friendly lifestyle trumps the showy symbolism of participating in Earth Hour. Most of our friends and family members agree. Most of our neighbours do, too. Lifestyle choices and systemic national choices are what will save our planet in the end and since I believe that we have ourselves a nice, little old planet, I advocate for living an environmentally friendly life all year long.

There are many other days on our calendar, like Earth Day, that are really not that important. For example, I love my wife all year long, not just on Valentine’s Day. I love my children all year long, not just on their birthdays. I love my mother all year long, not just on Mothers Day. I am a proud Canadian all year long, not just on Canada Day.

For each of those “days”, I have opted to take the longer term view and incorporate the message that each day brings, into a lifestyle that spans the year. I’m a loving, generous person to everyone I care about. No one has to tell me to treat my family nicely. I care about each one of them and do as much as I can to make their lives better, each and every day of the year. Doing so is an attitude that permeates everything that I do each day. For example, I am retired but, my wife isn’t yet. So, everyday, I do simple things like running errands and doing housework so my wife doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing when she makes it home from work. This isn’t the showy, red roses kind of gesture that happens on Valentine’s Day but, it does make a difference in the life of someone I care about and it happens every day of her working life. It is a way of living one’s life for the benefit of others and doing so all year long. Because of that, those special days such as Valentines Day, seem forced to us. We almost feel obligated to make some sort of public gesture toward each other so that other people will be ok with it. For us, our love is deep and true and we feel it all 365 days of the year. We don’t need a special day in February to know that we love each other, despite what advertisers may wish us to feel. We live a love-filled life and that trumps the showy symbolism of Valentines Day. I can say the same about birthdays, Mother’s Day and Canada Day, too.

My reason for writing this post today is because of certain events that have transpired in Canada this past week. On Monday, we marked a special day known here as Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a day set aside to honour all people who have worn a military uniform for Canada and have fought, in some capacity, in wars around the world. Like caring for the Earth or loving those members of your family, showing respect to those who gave their lives so that we can all live a rather free and democratic life, is something worth doing. Like shutting off your lights for an hour on Earth Day or giving your loved one a box of Belgian chocolates on Valentines Day, there has come to be a socially-acceptable way of symbolically showing respect on Remembrance Day in Canada and that is, by wearing a poppy on the lapel of your coat, over top of your heart.

Remembrance Day is rooted in our History. For example, we observe Remembrance Day on November 11th at 11:00am because that is the date and time that the Armistice agreement was signed, ending World War 1. We wear poppies because of a famous poem written by medical doctor, Lt. John McCrae called In Flanders Field, about poppies growing on the battlefields near where he was tending the wounded. As a country, Canada came of age, in part, because of our participation as our own nation in the Allied Forces that battled on the Western Front in Europe. All through my life, until this year, Remembrance Day has always been a respectful and solemn observance that has always helped to remind everyone of the incredible price paid by some so we can live as we do.

This year in Canada, Remembrance Day didn’t feel like that. It felt divisive.

Increasingly, we seem to be living in a culture of “us vs them”. If you aren’t with us then, you’re against us. There is no common ground anymore. These days, we dig ourselves into our respective social media trenches on either side of our partisan demarcation points and we launch barrage after barrage of verbal grenades at those who aren’t like us. It is all so very ugly and it is a stain on the memories of those we used to seek to honour with our solemnity and decorum. This Remembrance Day was an ugly affair that ended up having very little to do with honouring anyone’s memory and everything to do with creating a patriotic litmus test over the showier aspects of the day. It was very much an “us vs them” yelling match over that ubiquitous notion of what constitutes “Canadian values”. The powder keg that ignited this blast? The little plastic poppies sold by The Royal Canadian Legion.

Apparently, fewer and fewer people have taken to wearing a plastic poppy. Like attendance in Church, poppy use has been on the decline in Canada for several years now. There are various theories on why this is; all of them containing some measure of validity. But, for many Canadians, a decrease in poppy use struck them as just one more attack on the history of Canadian culture. That our country is changing and evolving over time was cloaked in rhetoric that described that change as being a threat from “them” to “us”. In the process, TV personalities and media pundits all got involved in demonizing those bringing change….immigrants…….and the ugliness of it all erupted in volcanic proportions. Somewhere, lost in the muck and the mire, the dead bodies of those soldiers left behind in Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, rotated on a slow burn.

This is the danger when we, as a society, invest all of our energies into symbols instead of practices. The real-life litmus test about how to honour our fallen soldiers is no more about wearing a little plastic Belgian flower in November than buying my wife flowers in February is about how deeply my love runs for her. It is all about lifestyle choices and the attitudes that colour our lives all throughout the year. If we really want to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, here is a list of things we should do:

1- Vote: If the crux of why Canada went to war twice this past century was to preserve democratic values for those of us left behind then, it is our responsibility to help maintain democracy by voting in the elections that are held. Voting is one of the main ways we can all ensure that our country is run for the benefit of a majority of its citizens. So, if you want to honour a fallen soldier, whisper their name as you mark that “X” on whatever ballot you happen to have. Participatory Democracy is a wonderful thing and something that thousands of soldiers felt was worth fighting for. So, vote!

2- Listen/Read as a Critical Thinker: Somehow, in the poppy debate that sprang to life this week, a lack of critical thinking skills was on display for all to see. Somehow, all Canadian soldiers who fought in wars were white men and we can’t say Merry Christmas anymore and our Prime Minister wore black face at a party in his younger days and so, what ya going to do about that, eh?! Logic disappeared down the rabbit hole and it quickly became very difficult to have a sensible conversation with anyone about Remembrance Day at all. The talk all became about TV personalities and immigrants who, if you follow the Alice-in-Wonderlandesque logic displayed in most online comment threads, aren’t real Canadians and they are the cause of change and we don’t like change now, do we?!

Sometimes a news story is what it is about and, sometimes, it is about something bigger. There was, obviously, a political aspect to the debate about poppies and immigrants and Canadian values. Anti-immigration views are held by right-wing political parties around the world. Seeing as we get so much of our news online these days, it is important to know the spin behind the post or tweet you read. It is equally important to understand how media ownership in Canada shapes the way stories are reported and/or not reported at all. Being a critical thinker and understanding how information makes its way to your screen is a very important skill to have. Sometimes, a simple sound bite is easier to digest than to actually take the time to examine an issue but, if you really want to honour the memory of a fallen soldier then, take the extra time to read critically so you completely understand what you are debating and what is at stake. Because, let’s be honest, the poppy controversy this week was never really about poppies.

3- Be a Decent Human Being: If you are ever read a survey of citizens of foreign countries being asked about Canada and Canadians, you always get the same results: Canadians are nice and friendly and kind and caring and have good education system and healthcare and lots of beautiful land. Our image in the world remains very positive. We can honour the memory of our veterans by helping to keep Canada that country that is a such a role-model throughout the world. One of the best ways to do that is by being all of the things that we are known for. Be kind to those you come into contact with. It costs nothing to smile and be pleasant and polite. Live an environmentally friendly lifestyle because it helps preserve the wonderful countryside, of which there is so much in Canada. Be thankful and grateful to those who work on your behalf. If you want to thank a veteran or honour a memory, do so but, as well, thank your waiter/waitress, thank the cook who made your meal. Thank your child’s teacher. Thank a police officer or fire fighter or nurse for all they do. Be thankful and positive as your go-to option in life. People appreciate being treated nicely. Raising the tenor of our social conduct is a wonderful way to maintain a Canada that the world loves and that millions died to protect.

4- Be Receptive To Change: Change is a part of life. I know that I certainly live differently now that I did half a lifetime ago. Some of those changes have come at my discretion but, others have come because of age or finances or external factors such as the environment. Regardless of how I arrived at each new point in my life, each new point appeared and I was tasked with accepting said change or fighting it. When it comes to the poppy debate, this is one of the fundamental underlying aspects: change and how people react toward it.

Those who stoke division as a political tool will tell you that change is to be avoided at all cost. Change is a threat to a way of life that deserves protection and continuation. For example, green energy is portrayed as a threat to those who favour fossil fuels. Immigration is portrayed as a threat to those who believe that a white, Christian culture is the foundation of our History. There is never room for blending options; one is good and one is always bad. One is to be treasured, one is to be feared. In the poppy debate this week, immigrants were used as a political tool to reinforce the notion that change is bad and is to be resisted. I have had several conversations this week with people about this and each of them said, at one point or another, “I wish things didn’t have to change.” It was said with a sigh and a sense of resignation that “others, who are different from us” will be defining how we live our lives going forward. That is too bad because that is not how it needs to be. Change can be wonderful.

Meeting my wife changed my life in a significant way, as did, having children. But, in both instances, that change bettered my life. When I grew up, I did so in a house that served a meat-and-potatoes meal almost every night. I loved those foods and still enjoy ham and steak and roast beef, etc. today. But, moving away from home brought me into contact with people who came from different cultural backgrounds and who introduced me to things like pirogies, curry, homemade tortillas and so much more. My diet is richer and more varied because I accepted change into my life. The biggest recent change for me has been retirement and the greatest positive consequence of retiring has been a complete revamping of how I spend my time during a day. I am more relaxed/less stressed, I do more of what I am interested in doing, I still get to be helpful to others and because I can get things done around the house during the day, it changes how family time is used because that time is no longer having to be spent on errands or chores as much as it once did. Change has given me a family and good food and time to use as I see fit. Change has been good and I am thankful to all of the various kinds souls who have come into my life and helped me grow as a person.

As we move onward with our lives, it is my belief that we need to do so with a greater resolve to move away from placing too much importance on symbolic gestures such as wearing a poppy or turning off your lights on Earth day and move toward developing a year-long set of lifestyle choices that demonstrate our commitment to a healthier environment, a more loving and positive social life, a more involved and aware sense of civic responsibilities and a broader, deeper appreciation for the changes that life throws our way.

I will end with the following: at the beginning of the movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, in the title role, famously said, “No one ever won a war by dying for their country. They won the war by making some other dumb, son of a bitch die for his country.” Our soldiers fought their wars with the belief that they were the good guys. They believed that they were representing a nation that was good, as well. They fought against oppression and cruelty. They fought for freedom and democracy. If we want to honour their memory, wear a little plastic flower on your lapel if that so moves you but, more than that, honour their memory by living a life of honour and charity and faithfulness. Be a good person. Last time I checked, good people came in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, genders, and cultures, too.

Sesame Street Turns Fifty!

In 2014, when Sesame Street turned forty-five, I wrote this blog post about the importance of a television show for children that, for my money, was the best of all time. Not only did the show teach academic skills such as letter recognition and counting but, it taught life skills to children in a very natural and respectful way. As an elementary school teacher for 27 years at the time of the creation of this post, one of the lessons I had learned is that children want to understand their world and that they are capable of understanding weighty topics when the adults in their world take the time to explain things clearly and with respect. The episode on Sesame Street that dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper is the best example of how to help children deal with important issues. Please enjoy this important post from five years ago. Thanks.

M: M is for Mr. Hooper

North American network television is a vast intellectual wasteland…..with all due respect to those who consider The Jerry Springer Show to be fine investigative journalism or Honey Boo-Boo to be wholesome family drama.

But, one area where North American network television comes off shining like new dimes is in the area of producing quality educational programming for children.  Throughout the entire history of television broadcasting in North America, there have been plenty of examples of shows that were created to help children learn basic skills such as counting and reading, as well as, lessons in life such as how to be a good friend.

In Canada, we have had shows such as The Road to Avonlea (based upon Anne of Green Gables), Mr. DressupThe Friendly Giant, as well as, the whole segments of their daily schedules allotted to children’s programming by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C.B.C.) and TV Ontario (T.V.O.).

In the United States, there have been excellent programmes such as Captain KangarooMr. Rogers Neighbourhoodthe Electric Company and, today’s great shows such as the Magic School BusSid the Science KidSuper Why and many, many more.   All of these shows are well-written; mixing the teaching of facts with adventure and humour. All are respectful of the intellectual development of their audience members and always talk to them at a level appropriate for them to understand.  All of these shows deliver good messages such as believing in yourself, never giving up and doing the right thing, even when no one os looking.  They are all good shows and, as a parent and a teacher, I can, wholeheartedly, recommend them as good viewing for today’s children.

However, there is one show that towers above the rest in terms of the depth, breadth and impact of its’ programming on the cultural landscape of North America.  That show is Sesame Street.   The cast of characters from this show is a veritable who’s-who of cultural icons:  Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, just to name a few.   Sesame Street has been on the air for over forty years. In that time, countless children have learned to count with the number of the day, learned to spell because of the letter of the day or, to read because of the word of the day.  But, just as importantly, the characters all live together, in harmony, in their own neighbourhood.  If nothing else, Sesame Street has provided a visual demonstration, day in and day out, of how communities and neighbourhoods should be.  We should all care about our neighbour’s well-being.  We should all pitch in and work together to help maintain our neighbourhoods.  We should willingly join together to celebrate the good times and commiserate during the bad.  They did, every episode, on Sesame Street, in the most natural, unobtrusive way.

Being a parent and a teacher, I have found that, often, the best way to help children develop into well-adjusted, positive-minded adults is to treat them with honesty, fairness and respect.  There are plenty of moments that provide opportunities for the teaching of life lessons along the way.  Knowing how to handle such sensitive moments properly can help to lay a foundation of trust that will bear fruit, later in life, when the consequences of our children’s decisions may leave more permanent marks on their lives.   

Sunny Days
Under a cotton ball sky, A nest is discovered, One egg left unhatched. Tiny hands reach out to cradle newfound treasure. Lessons in life and death ensue. The price of growing up: Innocence.

When I think about moments life this, I recall one time when TV actually led the way. In what is widely considered one of the finest moments ever in all of broadcasting history, The Children’s Television Workshop accorded children everywhere the ultimate compliment by treating them with respect and compassion and believing them capable of understanding one of the most sensitive of all topics: Death.


When one of the long time actors on Sesame Street passed away in real life, the writers decided to use his absence as a teachable moment. They did so by having the rest of the adults on Sesame Street help Big Bird understand that Mr. Hooper, his friend, had died and what that actually meant. The airing of this episode was a watershed moment in Television history and one that still is used to help explain the concept of Death to children (most recently during the Sandy Hook tragedy). If you want to see television at its’ best then, watch “Big Bird Learns About Death.” Sorry, in advance, for making you cry.

You can watch this special scene here.

I always, always lose it right after Big Bird says that he is going to go into the store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing and the rest of the people gathered there react with uncomfortable silence.  I cry and I cry because Big Bird is about to lose some of that most precious of childhood treasures; his innocence.  But Death is a thorny issue, strewn as it is with emotional land mines all around.  In my opinion, the producers of Sesame Street handled this episode perfectly.

First of all, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was old.  Many children view their own parents as being old. To equate age with death would needlessly worry millions of young children the next time one of their parents coughed.   Secondly, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was sick.  Children get sick all of the time.  No one wanted them to become scared that they were going to die just because they developed a routine illness. 

No, Big Bird was told several important things:  Mr. Hooper died just because it is a normal part of life.  Big Bird was told that his friends would still be there for him and that life would continue to go on as normally as possible.  Big Bird was told that it is normal to feel sad and that the adults did, too.

I have been alive on this planet for fifty years and have watched tv shows, of one sort or another, for almost all those years.  In my opinion, as a seasoned consumer of television shows, those six minutes on Sesame Street are the finest moments ever to air on network television.  It just goes to show the power of television when producers create shows with thoughtfulness and respectfulness at the core of their broadcasting philosophies.

Did you have a favourite tv show when you were a child?  As parents, what does/did your child like to watch?  Do they watch tv at all or, is everything viewed from the Internet these days?  Whatever the case, please feel free to share your feelings in the comment box below.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  πŸ™‚

17- Grace, Too.

The Tragically Hip were about to experience their big moment in the spotlight of American television. They were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, hosted by their friend and fellow Canadian from Kingston, Ontario, Dan Ackroyd. It was a star turn, ten years in the making by that point. Yet, for the most part, it was their national debut in the United States. For a band that had always believed that they would forge their creative identity by sticking to the roots of Rock n’ Roll….“The Blues are still required”…..as it were, appearing on SNL was a pivotal moment in their career. As it turned out, it was a moment that is remembered by many who watched them that night as the time when Gord Downie appeared to muff the opening line of “Grace, Too”. Canada’s rising musical stars appeared nervous as the cameras rolled and a continent watched. But, in reality, how Gord opened “Grace, Too” was as crafted as anything he had ever done on any stage. He was the master of calculated improvisations for a reason. On this night, the reason had something to do with a birthday party for his eleven year old nephew. For Gord Downie and The Hip, family always mattered, even on that night in Manhattan.

Dan Ackroyd was one of the original members of SNL when it debuted waaaay back in the 1975. He is a cast member emeritus. Consequently, when he agreed to come back and host the show it 1994, it was with one condition…..that The Tragically Hip would be the musical guests. Traditionally, the music slot on SNL is reserved for a big name act and/or a hot new act that has a lot of momentum or cache associated with their name. The Tragically Hip checked none of those boxes. In Canada, they were coming off of the huge success of the Fully, Completely album. They were something special back home. But, with the exception of some U.S. border towns like Buffalo and Detroit, The Hip were relatively unknown in America. But, thanks to Dan Ackroyd, there they were as the musical guest on the biggest stage in Television.

There are many ways for a band to approach such a moment. They could have prepped and preened and put on the kind of rock set that they felt an American audience would accept and understand. They could have played safe hits such as “New Orleans is Sinking”, which had received moderate airplay south of the border. But, instead, they stuck to their roots and their penchant for being somewhat contrarian when it came to the U.S. and decided to debut a new song. That song was “Grace, Too“.

Grace, Too” was the opening track on their new album called, “Day for Night”. The second song they played during the show was “Nautical Disaster”, also from their new album. It was a bold, risky move to use their golden moment on the biggest stage of their careers to debut two unknown songs. But, sometimes, the biggest statement any creative person or group can make is to have confidence in their work, regardless of how well it is known. The Hip had been rehearsing “Grace, Too” for awhile and they knew they had a powerful song on their hands. So, they opted to trust their own instincts and go with the best and freshest music they had. As a band, The Hip always played their best music and gave every audience their best show. That night in Manhattan would be no different. New song or old, The Hip took the SNL stage prepared to take on America on their own terms. They trusted that they, and their new songs, would be enough.

SNL came back out of commercial. Dan Ackroyd appeared wearing a white shirt with a huge red word CANADA emblazoned across his chest. He smiled and staked our national claim to that 30 Rock stage. He introduced, with pride, his friends from Kingston, Ontario, The Tragically Hip. The audience applauded then, grew silent in anticipation of what was to come from this unknown band. The now familiar opening guitar chords of “Grace, Too” were struck, Gord approached the microphone and launched into the song. Only, he said the opening line wrong! In the video of this performance, you can see Gord shake his head afterwards, as if to say, what the heck did I just do.

The opening lyrics go, as follows: “He said, I’m fabulously rich! C’mon, just let’s go! She kinda bit her lip, Geez, I don’t know“. When Gord’s opening words were, “He said, I’m Tragically Hip” it seemed almost cringeworthy. It reeked of the opposite of confidence. To name-drop yourself is the height of self-absorption. I can remember watching this at home, being so disappointed and thinking that The Hip’s moment was over before it had even really began.

But I was wrong.

In interviews afterwards, Gord admitted to being distracted prior to the start of his performance. Gord had always been a good family man. He was very loyal to those he loved. His personal generosity and charitable nature were legendary. So, it was in 1994, as The Tragically Hip were about to be given, potentially, the biggest opportunity of their career, that Gord Downie made a promise to his nephew. His nephew was about to turn eleven years old. Gord would have been there for the party if time had allowed but, he was to be in New York instead. So, he promised his nephew a secret shout-out from the SNL stage. Among the million and one thoughts coursing through his head as he hit the stage and listened to Dan Ackroyd’s introduction, was that he had to, had to, had to remember his nephew off of the top of the song. When you watch the video, you will see Gord bring his fingers together to make an “11”. That was the shout-out. That was what he was thinking most about as he mindlessly repeated Ackroyd’s final words.

As Gord realized his error, he quickly regrouped and gave a ferocious performance. Gord is at his finest, frenetic self throughout the remainder of the song. How he fails to bang his head into the microphone in all his flailing about is amazing to me. It is a showcase performance for everything that made Gord Downie the mesmerizing front man he was. While Gord thrashed about the space in front of the mic stand, the band played on. “Grace, Too” is a song filled with powerful, growling, driving guitar chords. Rob Baker turns in a virtuoso performance on stage-right from Gord; his notes revving Gord’s vocal engine from the start to the finish. One of the hallmarks of all great bands is the level of collective skill that the band brings to bear but, also, how well the individual talent of the players serves to raise everyone’s game. On a night when Gord experienced a rare stumble out of the gate, the band picked him up and helped Gord right himself and then, rise up above it all. At the time, I thought the SNL performance was a disaster but now, looking back at it with more mature eyes, it has become, for me, the definitive live performance of “Grace, Too“.

On the Monday morning following the SNL show, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The Toronto-area DJ was raving about how The Hip had “killed it” on Saturday Night Live and that all of Canada must be so very proud of how they did. At the time, I had tuned into the SNL show because I wanted to see a Canadian band do well in America. Many Canadians felt the same way because that was an inherent measure of the worth of any of our creative talents. We appreciated them at home but, if they made it big in the U.S. then, we would reeeeeeally love them. The fact of the matter was that The Tragically Hip sought to change the metric by which success was measured for Canadian acts. They did this all throughout their career. They did it on that night in Manhattan, too. They took to the biggest stage in America and trusted themselves, as musicians, as songwriters and as performers. The lessons embedded in this translate nicely to real life for all of us. If we want to be liked then, the best way for that to happen is to be ourselves. We need to trust that who we are is enough for others. Those who like who we really are will be the ones to become our good friends and our family. Those will be the people whose opinion matters in the end.

The video for this great song, “Grace, Too” can be found here. Remember to watch for the secret shout-out as Gord starts to speak and then, the shake of his head and the roll of his eyes as he realizes his opening error. Then watch him work. What a tremendous live performance!

As always, I thank you for reading my words. If you have any comments to make about this song, this particular performance on SNL, on what you think this song is actually about (because it has been the subject of more debate than most Hip songs) or whatever you heart desires, feel free to do so in the comments box below. If nothing else, always remember that the essence of who you are is more than good enough to be welcomed into the lives of others. You are worthy simply because you exist. That, for me, is the lesson of “Grace, Too“.

The Tao of Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone! It is All Hallows Eve in our neck of the woods. The pumpkins stand watch on our front step. The treats have all been readied to give to any nasty little Spirits of the Dead who dare to darken our door tonight. Costumes have been donned. Trick-or-treating plans have been formulated. We are all prepared. Except for one thing…….it is raining.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for our town that speaks of damaging winds and torrential rainfall and possible flooding. There has been some talk that communities in our area may dare to postpone Halloween for safety reasons and have it later on during the weekend. The children are having none of that talk. My youngest daughter has railed against the injustice of it all and this, being her final year of knocking on doors, has demanded to head out into the maelstrom regardless. As she stomps her feet and folds her arms, she looks to her mother and says, “We’ll go together, right Mom?!” Mom is not as enthusiastic.

Mom is a teacher. She still has to spend the next six hours of her life at school with several hundred costumed children; all out of routine, all amped up in anticipation of the sugar high to come, all without the benefit of the usual recess breaks because, as mentioned, it is dark and stormy and no one is going outside on this day. Teachers and students, alike, will all experience this day together for Halloween, in school, on an indoor recess day, is a day like no other. It is the perfect storm, as school days go.

A “perfect storm”, by definition, is an unusual event, characterized by the coming together of elements that usually remain apart. This day has it all! Children gorging on unhealthy food. No fresh air to stimulate young brains. Visual distractions everywhere the eye can see. The unrelentlessness of being trapped for six hours straight in classrooms that smell so much like sugar that your teeth begin to ache. The noise. The endless stimulation. It all can be too much and, it often is. It is a fairly safe bet that, before the school day ends, there will be vomit and tears and lost costume parts.

And yet, at the end of the school year, when students are asked to reflect upon all that they have experienced, many will point to Halloween as being their favourite day of them all. The overwhelming sensory stimulation will have been forgotten. What will remain is the memory of doing something special with people who are special to them and, most of all, that this day was fun. Every adult who works in a school for the benefit of young children deserves an extra bonus in their pay packet on days such as today for today, the magic they wield is very real.

If you have ever watched someone in a canoe battling to stay upright as they descend through a series of rapids then, you may have some idea of the awesome energy at play today in classrooms on Halloween, on an indoor recess day. A good teacher accepts that energy and absorbs it into the fabric of the class schedule for that day. For example, in many schools, one of the very first activities on Halloween is some sort of costume parade throughout the school or, if applicable, through the neighbourhoods that adjoin the school. This activity is very much by design and holds an important purpose. As the children first enter the school building on Halloween morning, they are, quite literally, pulsating with excitement. Fifteen minutes or so later, they are walking in a straight line for half an hour and they couldn’t be happier doing it. They think they are doing something grand and glorious; visiting classroom spaces normally off limits to them, seeing how other classes decorated their rooms, hearing the feedback from other students regarding their costume choices and yet, while excited, the kids are all calming down and settling in to the routine of the day…..a different kind of day, yes but, a school day, still.

By the time Halloween arrives, good teachers will have spent many weeks establishing consistent classroom routines. If they have been successful, a school day for their students will have a certain feel to it. That “feel” can best be described as a sense of comfort and familiarity for the students. One of the reasons that students like coming to school is that they know what to expect will happen to them throughout a day. There is little in the way of unfamiliarity to provoke anxiety. All is relatively well known. Establishing a consistent structure to each day allows the day to flow seamlessly from one activity to another. Halloween is the first real test of this in the school year. For Halloween at school cannot be six hours of straight unbridled partying. Six hours is a loooooong time when there is no structure to a day seemingly devoid of structure. But, there is always structure. That’s how educators make the day memorable for students and sane for themselves.

By the time the students have walked in a line for thirty minutes, they are ready to return to their own classroom space. They are ready to start their party. But, it is funny, young children do not know, instinctively, how to party. Unlike adults, they don’t tend automatically crank the tunes and commence with drinks and dancing. Young children tend to wait to be told how their party is going to work. What are the rules of this party? What order are things going to happen? When do we get to eat? If a teacher has done a good job of establishing the classroom routines prior to this day then, anarchy will remain a stranger and, instead, the kids will sit down on the carpet, as they always do, when they start their day. They will wait to start their day because that is what they have been trained to do.

A good teacher will design a different, looser day for their students because, despite their training, small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day are still small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day and their capacity for studious, industrious work is limited. No doubt, there will be Halloween colouring sheets and word search puzzles. There will be jigsaw puzzles and opportunities to build scary things with blocks. Students will be allowed to make Halloween crafts, draw spooky pictures, paint scenes that would make your hair curl. There will be computer time and story time, too. Of course, a classroom pumpkin will be carved, seeds extracted and counted and baked.

Then, of course, there will be snacks to eat along the way, as well. Healthy snacks first. Always healthy snacks first! This is when good classroom routines bear fruit. Prior to this day, whenever it is lunch time in class and the students open their lunch bags, a good teacher will always insist that students eat their healthy snacks first. Not all students have the healthiest of lunches. But, you want to honour their parents for sending in whatever they could afford so, you allow the child to eat everything in their lunch bag but, you always start by having them eat the healthiest foods first so that, if they are to fill up on anything, it will, at least, have been healthy for them. Halloween is no different. Food is one of the main attractions to this day for children. But, a good teacher will work to stem the tide of sugar intake by building on good classroom routines and inviting the kids to graze on fruit while they “party” at their Halloween activity centres. Once the fruit is gone then, there will be time for cupcakes. But, there is always lots of fruit to eat first.

You know, as well as I, that when our bellies are full, we tend to slooooooow down. So, time spent in the first half of the school day inviting children to fill their bellies has the added benefit of causing them to sloooooow down as well as the day progresses. Usually, around the half way mark, the kids begin to tire of their party and will want a break. This is when it is a good time for a movie and for some healthy popcorn, too. Keep eating, little ones, keep eating those healthy snacks.

By the end of the day, most small children are spent. Costumes are half on and half off. Their body posture can best be described as wilted. Not very many muster any level of excitement when the teacher brings out the big, heavily iced cupcakes just before home time. At the end of the day, the classroom will smell badly, there will be wrappers and crumbs around the room and no one will really care about taking home their Halloween worksheets and crafts, either. The kids actually do more resemble zombies than whatever it was they were supposed to be while getting ready for home. All in all, it will have been quite a day for everyone concerned. A day that, as tiring and overwhelming as it may have been; for many, it will be a day that they will cherish throughout the rest of the school year.

So, as my daughter looks to my wife for support on her determined quest to go out trick-or-treating in a storm, my wife looks back with an expression of weary wisdom on her face in reply. Much will have happened between this moment and the next moment they meet, eight hours or so, from now. So, Mom says, “I suppose but, we’ll see.” That seems a more realistic answer on a day that may turn out to be like no other. But, then again, it may, in fact, be a day of memories for my daughter who, years from now, will say to her Mom, “Remember that day I was a cow girl and your braided my hair for me and took me trick-or-treating for the last time? That was an awesome day, right?” And Mom will look at her daughter and say, “Yes. Of course it was. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

16- Little Bones.

This is the start of a second, fifteen-part series that highlights songs by the Canadian musical group, The Tragically Hip. *A simple scroll through my archives will reveal songs #s 1-15 in this series. In each post, I will focus on one song and will tell you the back story of how it came to be written, what the meaning is behind the lyrics and any other interesting tidbit that I think you might want to know. I wish to stress that I am just a fan of the band and not, in any way, an expert music journalist. The information I present will be my own thoughts, feelings and ideas with, two exceptions. I have learned lots about The Hip from two external sources; (1) The book, The Never Ending Present by author Michael Barclay (#NEP) and, 2- a website for Hip nerds like me called The Hip Museum (#HM). When I use information in a post that I obtained from either source, I will credit them accordingly. Other than that, I hope that you enjoy this post, my past Hip posts and all future Tragically Hip posts to come.

“Little Bones” is an interesting song in The Hip’s musical catalogue for several reasons. First of all, there is the story of the song’s lyrics, themselves. For that, I turn to (#NEP). “Little Bones” was part of an album called Road Apples. For those who may not be aware, the term “road apple” is uniquely Canadian and refers to frozen cow or horse dung which is, then used, as a hockey puck in pick-up hockey games. Now, I am a Canadian boy and I played my share of road hockey games in my youth and I can swear that I never played with frozen poop. But, in many rural, farming areas, where the games are played on frozen ponds or lakes, having access to cheap, disposable “pucks” is helpful and road apples are, indeed, a thing.

For many bands, the first album or two come to fruition in a burst of adrenaline and hopeful ambition. As bands tour with their early material and try to make a name for themselves in the public eye, they learn to hone their skills as individual players and then, collectively, as a unit. The Tragically Hip were no different. By the time this album came, The Hip had arrived at some important decisions; first of all, they decided that they were going to take control of the production of each album and, consequently, each song on each album. Secondly, the band members made a decision that, from our perspective seems obvious but, at the time, was a hold-your-breath moment for The Hip and that was, to let Gord Downie be the principal song writer. Up until then, Paul Langlois had written or co-written many of the early hits. But now, the poetic aura that emanated from Gord had become apparent to everyone. As Langlois stated, Gord had a way of taking the common, shared experiences of the group and then, creating universal messages out of it. He said, “Little Bones” was a prime example of how Gord worked his magic. Here is that story.

As part of the band’s decision to take control over the production of their work, the group scoured North America for a recording studio that was in sync with the mindset of the group at the time. The Hip settled on a gothic mansion in New Orleans that was being restored by Canadian producer, Daniel Lanois. At the time, Lanois was a hugely respected producer, having helped famous bands like U2 define their sound during the 80s and into the 90s. The mansion he was rehabilitating in New Orleans possessed interesting architecture and an even more interesting history….it was said to be haunted. The building was creaky and dark and had multiple floors, with rooms off of rooms that led in all manner of directions. It was an easy place to become lost. And The Hip loved it!

Anyway, in getting to know the city, the band members were all struck with the humidity and how it affected their ability to play their instruments, as well as, how much harder it was to play one of their favourite pastimes…pool! They were, also, becoming acquainted with the local cuisine and came to love Cajun dishes; especially those involving shrimp or chicken. From these everyday experiences sprang the inspiration within Gord Downie’s mind to write the lyrics that became, “Little Bones”.

β€œIt gets so sticky down here, better butter your cue finger up. It’s the start of another new year, better call the newspaper up. Two-fifty for a hi-ball and a buck and a half for a beer. Happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here.”

Out of the minutiae of life while recording an album in The Big Easy came “Little Bones”. Sources of inspiration appeared almost effortlessly for Downie. A book he was reading at the time, Last of the Crazy People, by Canadian author, Timothy Findlay, made it into the song. *(the cat in the story was actually named, Little Bones). As did a controversial news figure at the time, Dr. Shockley, who promoted a view of creating genetically superior babies by excluding, what he considered to be, “inferior” genes from society’s gene pool.

The long days of Shockley are gone, so is football Kennedy style, famous last words taken all wrong, wind up on the very same pile. Two-fifty for a decade and a buck and a half for a year. Happy hour, happy hour happy hour is here.

In addition to how Gord parsed together the lyrics for “Little Bones”, a second aspect of note about this song is its musical construction. Many fans consider the guitar work to have “an edge” to it that was new, at the time. Well, just as Gord Downie was soaking up the atmosphere of New Orleans for source material for his new songs, the rest of the band was revelling in the musical atmosphere of being in the home of The Blues, as well as, enjoying bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were breaking big with their funk-driven sound. When you listen to “Little Bones” in this context, it is easy to pick up on the funky, bluesy influences that made their way into the song. Between the lyrics and the music, “Little Bones” is one of The Hips least Canadian songs but, one of their most powerful and driving of rock songs. This is what comes from being open and receptive to new ideas, people, places and cultures.

The video for “Little Bones” can be viewed here.

As always, I welcome your comments about this post, the particulars of this song, about New Orleans, Gord’s writing style, the band’s musical leanings or whatever you wish to discuss. Thanks to The Tragically Hip for their openness to experience new ways of living and learning. The fruits of your labours are a joy for us all to behold.

1- Nautical Disaster.

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

This is my favourite Tragically Hip song. This is a song that I like for many reasons. I love the history behind the song. Like “Lake Fever”, it is actually a story within a story….a retelling of a dream…..a conversation between the narrator and Susan, who is either a lover or a therapist, take your pick. It is based, on all accounts, upon the sinking of the German battleship, Bismarck during the second world war. But, the story of the song actually begins a few decades prior, during World War One.

The most famous ship sunk during World War One was the passenger ship, Lusitania. It was sunk by a German U-Boat. U-Boats changed the way naval warfare was fought in a very significant way which influenced what happened years later when the Bismarck was sunk and which inspired my favourite Tragically Hip line of them all. You see, what initially happened in WWI when a ship was sunk was that other ships in the area would stop and rescue any survivors who had ended up in the ocean. Humane treatment of prisoners was one of the unwritten rules of battle at the time and thus, the rescuing of survivors was a time-honoured tradition. However, with the advent of U-Boats, that tradition became deadly. What changed was that once a U-Boat sunk a ship, it would wait where it was until another ship in the convey stopped to rescue survivors. Then, as the rescue was being completed, the U-Boat would sink the rescuing ship, as it was sitting “dead in the water” as the term has come to be known. Such was the alarming rate of ship loss that the Royal Navy passed a new rule: no ship was to stop for survivors any longer. If they did, their safety could not be guaranteed. 

Leaving fellow sailors to die in the ocean went against the moral code of seamen on both sides of the conflict. But, that was modern warfare in those days so, survivors were left in the water as ships sailed away to safety.

Fast forward, I once saw a documentary about the discovery of the wreck of the Bismarck. It was a National Geographic documentary featuring Dr. Robert Ballard (who discovered the wreck of the Titanic). In this documentary, Ballard set sail, along with a British sailor who had been in the battle that sank the Bismarck, as well as, a German sailor who, despite all odds, managed to find rescue. After the wreck was discovered, the two men, along with Dr. Ballard, held a peace ceremony and dropped flowers in the water. The sailors were interviewed about their memories and both said that they were haunted by the screams of the men left to die in the water. It was stated that some British ships left rope ladders down as they sailed past so that some men might be able to latch on as the ship sailed past. This is how the German was rescued.
When Gord Downie was interviewed about this song, he mentioned having watched “a documentary”. I know he saw the same one I did because the lyrics match the eye-witness testimony so precisely for it to be a fluke.

Anyway, Nautical Disaster is a song about the callousness and inhumanity of war and what war makes us all capable of doing to our fellow human beings. Yet, it remains one of the most popular and requested Tragically Hip songs of all time.

Then the dream ends when the phone rings
You’re doing alright he said, it’s out there, most days and nights,
But only a fool would complain.
Anyway, Susan, if you like
Our conversation is as faint as a sound in my memory
As those fingernails…scratching on my hull.”

The video for “Nautical Disaster” can be seen here.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and, if you have checked out all fifteen then, I hope you enjoyed the whole series. If you like what I did with these posts, let me know and, perhaps, I will be able to do something like this again with other Tragically Hip songs and stories. For now, I will thank you for being here and reading my work. But, most of all, I will thank Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker for making such good art. I am changed for the better because of your efforts and your personal and professional integrity. This series of fifteen posts doesn’t begin to say Thank You in the depth required but, it is a start. Thanks, Boys! I appreciate it all!

2- New Orleans is Sinking

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

While not the first song to get the band airplay, “New Orleans is Sinking” is widely regarded as The Hip’s first big hit. Lost in the warm glow of nostalgia, many people, today, think that this song is about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that storm caused the city of New Orleans and the surrounding towns. It is not about Hurricane Katrina.

What “New Orleans is Sinking” is all about was a thematic undertone of much of their early work and that is, the band declaring their intention to not play the Pop Music game but, instead, to stay as authentic to the roots of their craft as possible. The first clue to this is the fact that the sing is set in New Orleans which is part of a geographic area hailed as the birthplace of The Blues. The Tragically Hip always felt that The Blues were an integral part of the music that wanted to produce. The sweat, the craftsmanship, the heart-and-soul nature of the lyrics and notes that swell up from the depths of the totality of one’s experiences, were all a source of inspiration and attraction for the band.

Secondly, The Hip spent part of their own song talking about what they see as what ails the Music industry. “Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on? Can’t tie yourself up for a deal.” Colonel Tom refers to Colonel Tom Parker, the man who managed the career of Elvis Aaron Presley. Many people say that Elvis rose to fame on the backs of the Bluesmen and women who came before him and who, in his wake, never fully received their due. The Hip didn’t regard Elvis as being an authentic Bluesman and they didn’t want to chart the same path as he did. In the same verse, The Hip have Colonel Tom respond to their criticism, “Hey North! You’re South! Shut your big mouth! You’ve gotta do what you feel is real.” The Tragically Hip kept it real, including having as much say as possible about the production process of their records. After recording this album, The Hip purchased a farm in Bath, Ontario, which became known as Bathouse Studios. They recorded much of the rest of their musical catalogue there, under their own roof, on their own terms, working with people they respected and, as always, The Blues were still required.

This would be me, standing at the foot of the driveway at Bathouse Studios in Bath, Ontario, this past summer. I was fanboy enough to stand were I stood but, not fanboy enough to knock on their door. But, never-the-less, that is where much of The Tragically Hip’s magic happened. The search for that magic was on-going at the time that “New Orleans is Sinking” was written but, it is clear from the lyrics that The Hip knew where they were going. They were going home. This is where they went. This is home.

The video for “New Orleans is Sinking” can be enjoyed here.

Thanks for coming along on our musical journey this day. I hope your enjoyed this post. If you have any comments about The Blues, Elvis, this song, New Orleans or Bathouse Studios, please feel free to drop me a line in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, to The Tragically Hip for having the confidence to, among other things, make God a woman.