Monday, December 30, 2013

One Last Breath

One comment you often hear about grief is how different people grieve in different ways.  Well, not only do people grieve in different ways, they grieve differently for each loss, whatever that loss may be.  It can be a still, quiet kind of grieving over a long period of time.  Some people cry and cry, others do not.  Some take time away from things, other people jump right back in to work or school, finding comfort in ordinary tasks.

I experienced my first death when I lost my mother.  I was only 14, and I didn't know much about life, let alone how to grieve for the loss of it.  I didn't see her die, I was kept away from it.  The loss of my mother at such a young age was enormous.  It was terrifying.  What is death?  Where did my mother go, if anywhere?  Why did she have to leave me?  What do I do?

I was off for a couple of days from school but eventually I had to return.  My home room teacher assigned someone to watch me, to make sure I was okay.   Other kids looked at me funny.  They didn't know how to talk to me, what to say.  It was almost like I had some kind of death disease and they could catch it.  I remember coming home from school one day and just calling out to my mother, just to hear the sound of myself saying it. It took a lot of years to figure it all out for myself, and I took many paths trying to find answers to all of my questions.  Every year on the anniversary of her death, I would count back.  One year, five, ten years, fifteen years.  I would cry almost every time I added another year.

When I lost my Dad only a couple of weeks ago, my feelings were equally as profound, but not about the same things.  I am 56, not 14.  The world is a whole different place at this point in my life.  I'm not terrified, the way I was the first time.  I know what death is, and I know my father didn't go anywhere.  He just died.  And it was simply time for him to leave me.  I'm not sure I was prepared, however, for what dying really looks like and watching him go through it.

I experienced the loss of many others in between the deaths of my parents;  relatives, friends, acquaintances. Almost every time, it would be like revisiting my mother's death.  Not as intensely, of course, but something of it would remind me of being 14 again.  That fear would come back, that sense of how utterly vulnerable we are, and how it could happen at any time to any one. Where did they go?  What does it mean?  For a long time after my mother died, I was afraid to ask my Dad what it looked like to see her die.  I kept envisioning some sort of terrifying, thrashing, screaming event, having only ever seen it in the movies.  It was always curious to me to see obituaries saying that people died "peacefully".  What is peaceful about death? I heard people talking about it as if it were a kind of "high", experiencing someone's death.  I never got that.

Last year I think I had a sense that it wouldn't be long before my father was also gone.  I remember I started to have anxiety attacks and heart palpitations to the point of going to the doctor, which is a rare thing for me.  I thought it was physical, and then realized it was about me coming to terms with the fact that my father was going to die soon too.  What was that going to be like?

When I went over to the mainland for the last time, I was relieved to hear the doctor say that my father would likely have an easier time of it because he had pneumonia in one lung.  He said "If there's any easy way to go..."   Dad had been refusing medication and food for several days, and the nurses had begun to give him regular doses of morphine to keep him comfortable.  He was pretty much asleep most of the time, except for occasional twitches.  On the last morning, however, as soon as we got there I could hear that his breathing was somewhat more laboured than it had been the day before.   And by the late afternoon, he was twitching and moaning from time to time.  I was worried that he was suffering, so the nurse gave him another dose of morphine and said she would do so every hour from then on.  I asked her how long it would take the morphine to kick in, and she replied it would take about fifteen minutes.

It was the longest fifteen minutes I'd ever experienced.  And when we reached that goalpost, he didn't stop struggling.  At one point he opened one eye, and seemed to be trying to communicate. We kept talking to him, trying to calm him.

Then his body suddenly seemed more quiet.  I wondered if he was breathing at all.  And that's when it happened.  He took in one big, deep, final breath, and let it go.  I knew right away.  "He's gone," I said.  I remembered hearing about that at some point in the past, about a person taking one big last breath and then dying.  That's how I knew what it was.  I ran out to the hall to try to find a nurse.  When a group of them saw me coming, they came running.

It took a long minute checking for a pulse before the nurse finally said "He is gone."  The next few minutes and hours were a blur...we were trying to call people, trying to grasp it had actually happened, someone brought us tea and sandwiches, we made more phone calls.  I kept thinking about that last breath and how profound it was to watch him take it.

I spent some time all alone with him once everything else had been done and everyone was gone.  I tried to say everything I needed to, I hugged him and kissed him and hugged and kissed him some more.  I didn't want to have any regrets.  I didn't want to leave him.  But then I had to.

I was walking down the hall of the care facility a little while later when it hit me.  That last breath.  I remembered.

A few years after my mother died, I finally got up the nerve to ask my Dad what it was like.  He said it was not anything like the movies, it was very peaceful.  She was there one minute, and then she took one long, last breath, let it go, and then she was gone.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What's In A Blog Name?

I tossed and turned last night because I decided that I wanted to change the name of my blog.  Why on earth would I do that?  Toss and turn about it, I mean :-)

At first I created this blog because I wanted to express my thoughts outside of songwriting.  I have had songwriting articles online since 1996, which translates to aeons in the web universe, but I decided awhile back that I wanted to have another place to write about things that interested me outside of songwriting.  So the name became IJ's Blog because a lot of people followed the links from my website and already knew me as IJ.

A few articles ago, I wrote about my father's battle with Alzheimers and a couple of fascinating discussions we had in between his foggy moments.  I called it From The Inside Out because I was finally getting a glimpse of what his world was like these days under the influence of that disease.  On a walk yesterday, it occurred to me that everything I write about in this blog is more or less from the same perspective, from my inside out.

As I thought about it, I realized that we all experience our lives from the inside out.  Not only that, but our outside is very much a reflection of, and affected by, our inside.  None of us experiences the same thing in the same way.  When I sit with my husband's many siblings, for instance (he has five of them), and they talk about their childhoods, they each remember different things about events they all experienced together.  This boggles my mind, having no blood siblings myself to reminisce about my early childhood with;  that they would each see the same event so differently, and sometimes one or two not even remember it at all!

As time goes by, I realize more and more that not only does my inner self affect my outer experience, but I can work to change myself to affect a more positive experience of my life, from the inside out.  This has become more important to me as I see so many changes happening around me and become increasingly aware of what Buddhists call "impermanence".  If we hang on too much to the way things were, we suffer.

My friends have always considered me somewhat of a "philosopher", and as far back as I can remember I've been fascinated by what makes people tick.  When I was a little girl, instead of the usual stuff, I wanted to be a "wise old woman" when I grew up.  Not a nurse or a teacher, but a wise old woman.  I imagined myself helping people with their problems, having answers for them. Thinking of that now it sort of astounds me.  Either I was a weird kid, or I had an inkling of what was going to be required to get through life, not just for myself but for everyone around me.  Perhaps I should have been a psychologist or a social worker.

But I'm a songwriter and a musician.  And I have spun the "wise old woman" idea into simply trying to understand and reflect the world around me.  From the inside out.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Everybody Can Sing

It drives me crazy when I hear of another incident of a teacher saying or doing something to belittle a student because of their less-than-perfect musical skills.  But it still happens, and it happens all the time.  And students don't just hurt for a minute and get over it;  they often carry that scar for the rest of their lives.

I first experienced the sensitivity that people have when it comes to musical ability many years ago, when a good friend of mine and I were having what I thought was a pretty mundane conversation about singing.  She asked me why she couldn't find the right note when she was singing, and I told her it was because she had a tin ear.

Yes, I said that.

I immediately realized what a stupid idiot I was when I saw her eyes well up with tears.  I was probably twenty years old and had been singing and playing music all my life with little or no idea of how lucky I was to have it come so easily to me.  It's not that I thought everybody was the same, I knew that wasn't true.  I would often get picked to sing a lead part in a choir, and even though I wasn't a particularly talented clarinet player (I got impatient with reading notes, so I made things up by ear!), I could pretty much pick up any instrument and make something musical come out of it.  I knew that other kids couldn't necessarily do that, but it never occurred to me that they cared much.

When I first started teaching guitar back in the late 80's, I belonged to a local non-profit organization that was a group of music instructors.  We once held an open house in the basement of a local church, where people interested in taking lessons could come and meet us all.  One of our teachers taught voice, and she had an almost holistic approach to her lessons.  She gave a talk about her teaching style and mentioned the fact that many people are particularly sensitive about their voices and whether or not they can sing.  There were several people there who had come that afternoon because they were interested in voice lessons, and after her talk I could see that a couple of them were particularly emotional, openly crying.  When I spoke with that teacher awhile later, she told me that it happens all the time with her adult students.  In working with them, she finds they often become extremely emotional opening up and singing out, and a lot of it has to do with having been belittled or ridiculed as children because of their voices.

One of our mottoes in that little non-profit was that everybody can play and everybody can sing.  We wanted to bring the joy of playing and singing back into people's lives, instead of this idea that if you weren't a Mariah Carey or an Eric Clapton, you were wasting your time.  The person who started that organization those many years ago, Becky Bernson, died of cancer in February 2000.   But if it hadn't been for her and that group of people, I don't know that I would have understood as much as I do today how deeply people feel about their ability to sing and play an instrument, and how devastated they become when someone tells them they can't.

I've been teaching guitar now since 1989, and I have witnessed this from time to time in my own students.  They tell me that they WANT to play or sing but they really can't because someone, a teacher or a parent, told them so.  I've also heard horror stories from my friends and from my friends' children that have so angered me, it's hard for me not to go and find those teachers or choir leaders and simply rake them over the coals myself!  Do they realize that all they have to do is to give a child (or an adult, for that matter) one dirty look when he or she sings off key or out of time, in order to give them a life long inferiority complex?  What they are "teaching" is that these people are not good enough!  What kind of a life lesson is that?  The Simon Cowell's of the world, and those who fancy themselves as being musical experts, have done more damage than they will ever realize to those who were not born with natural musical abilities.  That's why I don't watch those "talent" shows;  all I can imagine is how horrendous people must feel when they are considered not good enough.

It won't be  long before it is Christmas again, and we all know what a huge part Christmas songs and carols play in the joy of that season.  What can more beautiful than seeing a happy, smiling, enthusiastic class of young children belting out a Christmas song at the school Christmas concert?   What is more joyful than your friends and family playing or singing some silly or sentimental tunes, sipping eggnog by the fire?  That's what it's all about!

Those many years ago when I realized what I had done to my friend, I apologized profusely to her.  To this day, I hope she can forgive me for being so stupidly insensitive.

Because the truth is, everybody can play.  And everybody can sing.


Monday, November 11, 2013

My Grandfather The "Slacker"

I bought a poppy the other day, as I often do this time of year.  A red one, not one of those anti-war white ones.  I'm sort of peeved that this movement grabbed the very symbol of Remembrance Day and twisted it to their own political purpose.

It's not that I love war, or accept it or even simply tolerate it.  I don't.  But the poppy, to me, represents the people who have sacrificed, often everything, because of war.  And that's it.  It's not about politics to me.  It's about life.  And often death.

My father served in World War II even though he considered himself a pacifist.  His father, my Grandfather, as I found out very recently, was actually a draft dodger.  The war he was refusing to participate in was World War I, and in those days the dodgers were referred to as "slackers".  He was in the U.S., having been sent over by his family in Denmark to be educated by his wealthier aunt and uncle in Montana.  It didn't work out too well between them, so my teenage Grandfather left and wandered around the northern states, hopping trains and getting work where he could.

I never could figure out what made him cross the border into Canada, until my cousin recently uncovered a U.S. document that showed he had been drafted.  We more or less put two and two together;  he came to Canada to avoid the draft!  It actually made me chuckle to realize that my Grandfather had the guts to run.  Some might see that as cowardice, but I believe it's a lot more brazen to avoid being herded into a horrid war.  I can imagine how he viewed it;  he was not an American citizen, so why would he fight as one?

Not long after spending time in Canada, he went back to Denmark and married my Grandmother and they both came back to Canada to settle.  My father, the first of four children, was born in Calgary.

I wonder how my Grandfather felt about my Dad enlisting when he did.  Did he agree with it, or simply accept that there was not much that could be done?  My Dad never saw any action in World War II, he was stationed in Alberta and here on Vancouver Island and basically just worked on fighter planes testing instrument panels.  Although he was, as I said, a pacifist, I think he felt he had to do his duty, as much of a contradiction as that was.  He was a history nut, and could tell you something about any and every war on the planet since the beginning of time.  I might be exaggerating, but not by much!  In that respect, he knew more than many what war was all about.

These many years later, his favourite grandson, my nephew has had five tours in Afghanistan and is now training troops elsewhere in the world.

I respect my Grandfather for not wanting to be in a war.  I respect my Dad for enlisting.  I respect my nephew for risking his life in Afghanistan not once, but five times.  I'm never going to stop hating wars and the effects they have on so many.  But every November, I'm going to wear a red poppy because I don't ever want to forget what so many have done for all of us.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

What's The Story?

It surprises me sometimes what I will discover or uncover while I'm out for a simple half-hour walk. Sometimes I experience little moments that surprise or entertain me.  More often than not, I come across objects about which I don't really know the whole story, so I'm left to ponder.

Things found on the side of the road are common.  On just one such walk last week, I found a toddler's bright white sock on the side-walk, a child's toque stuck on a fence post, and finally, thrown across the back of a bench at a bus stop, a pair of man's pants.  It wasn't too hard to imagine how the sock and the toque got left behind, but the man's pants?  As the expression goes, some things are left best to the imagination.

Lately we have enjoyed an extra stretch of sunny days, spotlighting all of the gorgeous fall colours. And the pumpkins!  So many houses have pumpkins proudly displayed on their front porches and fences, some of them carved, some simply left in their bright orange original state.  Halloween decorations are everywhere too, some of them store bought and others home made and entertainingly original.  On one front lawn, there are nothing but graveyard headstones with obvious names of historical figures.  Except one, which is marked "Usher".  Not a fan of his music? :-)

Yesterday on my walk, I was crossing a quiet intersection, passing a little girl on her tricycle accompanied by her mother who was carrying an infant in a snugly.  The little girl asked "The cat is just a decoration, right Mummy?" to which the mother reassuringly replied "Yes, sweetie, it's just a decoration."  I realized that they were looking at something behind me.  I wondered why she'd be scared of a cat decoration until I turned around and saw the giant blow-up black cat, menacingly perched on the roof of a house.  No wonder she was scared!  

Today, heard a cyclist coming up behind me as I was walking...when she passed by me, I noticed she was wearing butterfly wings that flapped in the wind.  Probably on her way to school, to a special school Halloween party, I surmised.

Soon after, I passed a house where someone had posted a piece of paper with a warning to dog owners.  I have seen that post for a few weeks now, and I often see posts like it, telling people to pick up after their dogs.  There are a lot of dog walkers in our neighbourhood, and most of them are kind enough to scoop the poop, but there are those rare few who have no such sense of decency.  I didn't read that particular post previously because I was sure it was another exasperated home owner who had hit one too many piles of poop while mowing the lawn.  Today, I decided to stop and actually read it.

I was wrong about its content.

The text below the title may be hard to see.  It says:  "Please do not walk your dog too close to the hedge, as our cat is very territorial and protective of this lawn you're walking on!  She hides in this hedge!  So walk on this lawn at your own risk! She does not discriminate by dog breed or size either!  Have a great day!  Woof! Meow! :-)"  

Below is a cartoon with a cat chasing a dog, who is exclaiming "There's something wrong here..."

Having had several "territorial" cats, I can well understand the warning!  The picture in my head of that cat chasing dog after surprised dog made me laugh out loud.

Quite often people intentionally leave things on their boulevards that they are hoping to get rid of.  I've done that myself a couple of times with varying degrees of success.  But I've never understood the couch thing.  Why do people leave stinky old couches out, some of them for days IN THE RAIN?  How can they even imagine that someone would want to sit in something like that, let alone bring it home?  It defies logic.

Lastly, on one of my walks a couple of weeks ago I noticed something white on the ground.  On closer inspection, I saw that it was a note.  I walked past it, and then decided to turn around, pick it up and actually read it.  What it said surprised and delighted me:

I could only imagine the story behind that note.  There are no names anywhere on it.  Were they neighbours, family, or friends?  Why couldn't the recipient cook?  Perhaps it was an elderly person or someone just home from the hospital, or otherwise incapacitated.  What struck me most, however, was the generosity of the person who wrote the note.  Somebody knew the recipient's situation and went out of their way to make them a meal.  This wasn't really what you would call a "random" act of kindness, rather it was a thoughtful and deliberate one. And it doesn't get any kinder than that.

I still have the note and I think I will keep it to remind myself of all of the special moments that take place--the extraordinary events that quietly happen between people.  These moments may never make the local news or YouTube, but I am made aware that they are happening all of the time.

Whoever said walks are boring must be doing it with a bag over their head.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Perfect Pumpkins

It was hard to pick one...they were all so perfect!
Many years ago, when my girls were only tots, someone from the same daycare they went to told us about a small farm off Blenkinsop Road where an older couple sold pumpkins every year before Halloween.  For some reason that intrigued us and we found the place and bought our pumpkins there that year, and every year after that.

The pumpkins weren't cheaper than store bought ones, in fact they were more expensive.  But they were beautiful because they were taken care of.  They had been turned a number of times as they grew so that they weren't as flat on one side.  They were hand washed and perfect;  once they were picked they were set out in a small garage, dozens of them, all shapes and sizes.  It was a beautiful sight to walk into the garage, into a sea of lovely, bright orange pumpkins.  We would take our time and find exactly the right ones.  Then the elderly woman, bent over with osteoporosis, (I always imagined somehow that it was because of her bending over for months turning the pumpkins before they ripened) would price them out, we'd pay for them and pile the pumpkins and ourselves into the car and head home.

As time went by, it was only the elderly woman who was there to sell them.  We never asked, but assumed that her husband was ill or had passed away.  As more time passed, it was the elderly woman and her daughter who attended the pumpkins.  Finally, it was only the daughter who came out to sell us our precious pumpkins year after year.

It's a funny how traditions come to be;  over time the little ritual of going to the small farm every year to pick our pumpkins just became part of the fun of Halloween.  Cutting them open and taking a big whiff of that wonderful pumpkin smell, collecting the seeds for roasting later on, and carefully carving their faces--happy, scary or silly, was such a joyful thing to do.

As usual this year, the girls, who are now adults, and myself piled into the van and headed out to the little farm.  The sun was out and it was a perfect afternoon to pick our pumpkins.  Along the way we passed another, larger farm where dozens of families picked pumpkins, enjoyed hay rides and walked through a spooky barn.  Not too far down the road was our smaller, quieter pumpkin patch.

We almost missed it.  Actually, we did miss it and drove right past and had to turn around further up the road.  I realized later that we missed it because there was usually a stand with some of the pumpkins out front, and this year it wasn't there.  We slowed down as we drove past.  "Maybe they ran out of pumpkins", one daughter speculated.  "They've never run out before," I replied, noticing that the barn was all locked up and no signs of pumpkins anywhere.  "Maybe they had to leave for a bit and locked everything up," I offered.  Slowly, it dawned on us that maybe there would be no more pumpkins from our favourite place at all.   We grudgingly opted to go to a local grocery store and get our pumpkins there.

Of course, it just wasn't the same.

The pumpkins were already starting to get mouldy and they certainly weren't as beautiful as the ones we were used to.  They were unceremoniously thrown into large cardboard boxes, flies buzzing around, many of them too rotted to be of any use.

I suppose we could have gone somewhere else, like the other pumpkin patch we drove past.  But it would have somehow felt like a betrayal!  One of my daughters decided not to pick a pumpkin at all, the other one and I finally settled on two pumpkins we could live with and hauled them into the store.  Standing in line, we kept remarking about how weird it felt to get our pumpkins in such an boring and ordinary manner.

After we got home, one of my girls did a little research on the farm and found that it had been on the market and was sold last spring, which confirmed our sad realization.  It was the end of our wonderful little tradition.  All good things must come to an end.

Years ago, I included our little tradition in a song I wrote called Simple Life.  One of the verses went like this:

There is a woman, must be in her 90′s 
She sells her pumpkins every Halloween 
She’s all bent over with the weight of something 
And every year her crops' the best I’ve seen

I actually remembered to bring the daughter a copy of the CD that song was included on one year.  It's not that the song was about her, but I thought it would be nice to know that there was a reference to her in the song.  The chorus of the song is:

Don't be unkind
Live a simple life
Laugh at yourself sometimes
Look at me now,
You'll be here someday
So love a little bit along the way

It was based on the idea of that little expression "live, laugh and love", and how simple things count the most.

We'll never forget the simple joy of picking our pumpkins from the old couples' farm.  Even though we never knew their names, we thank them all for giving us such a wonderful tradition to remember. Picking our pumpkins will never be the same!

A "perfect pumpkin" I carved one year.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

From The Inside Out

As some of my readers know, my 91-year-old father has dementia, "probably Alzheimer's" as his medical chart says.  In the last few months his health has declined considerably.

It's not that this has been unexpected, of course.  But I more or less made the decision a few years back that I wasn't going to "study" Alzheimer's.  You might think that is counter-intuitive;  why not understand the disease as much as you can so you know what to expect?  A friend even loaned me a book, a fictional account of someone dying of the disease, but I chose not to read it.  It's not that I am in denial, although in the very beginning when he was first diagnosed I had trouble accepting it.  I can see very well what the disease has done to him over these past ten years.

No, it's more because I don't want to be sitting here anticipating every symptom of decline in him.  I won't drive myself crazy watching for signs that the disease is progressing because I worry enough as it is.  I just want to make the most of the moments when he seems his old self...those moments still do happen, but with less and less frequency.

I've been travelling to the mainland every three weeks or so lately, spending time with him when he is awake or just sitting with him while he sleeps.  He sleeps a lot.

About a week ago when I was there, I arrived around 9:30am to find him in bed, which wasn't a surprise.  The nurses let him sleep in because he's "less grumpy" if he does.  He has become more easily agitated in the last few months, some of which has been calmed by low doses of a new medication, but he will still have outbursts every now and then when he's confused or embarrassed or simply tired.  He is also physically very weak, his old legs barely holding him up whenever he moves around.  He has lost considerable weight because his appetite has declined.  It's not that he isn't hungry, but often he just gets confused when there is more than one thing on his plate.  He doesn't know what to eat, as if there is some mysterious order to eating that he can't figure out.  So he gets up and walks away.

He heard me when I entered his room, so I sat down on the edge of his bed.  I found him curiously engaged that morning and we held hands and ended up talking on a variety of topics for a good forty minutes.  It was uplifting for me, because he hadn't been as talkative or interactive for a number of visits before.  His nurse came in to help him get up and dressed, so I left his room and waited for him down the hall.  He finally came out, fresh and dressed with his walker and the nurse beside him.  I walked with him to his seat in the dining area and watched him eat breakfast.  A few tables away, a resident was calling out, over and over, as many of them often do caught up in the fog of their dementia, not realizing where they are or what's going on.  Most of the time the other residents pay little attention because it happens so frequently, I suppose, that they stop hearing it.  Not all of the residents have dementia, but many do.

When my Dad had enough breakfast, we spent a little more time together in his room, and then I had to leave.

The following morning I went back, not expecting to have the same interaction with him, and at first it looked like I was going to be right.  It was a little later in the morning when I arrived, so I assumed he would already be up.  As I came off the elevator I heard someone calling out again and at first paid no attention, until I realized that it was my father's voice.  I followed the sound, and found him sitting on a piano bench in the common area, his hands cupped around his mouth, yelling "Could someone please tell me where the hell I am?"  I hadn't seen this behaviour in him before, so for a moment I was taken aback.

I walked up to him and gently took his hands in mine, bending down to be at eye level with him.  "Hi Dad.  It's okay.  You're at home."  "Where's home?" he asked, a little surprised at my sudden appearance.  "Home is Rosewood." I said, naming the care facility he's been living in for the last several years.

"Rosewood?"  "Yes, this is your home.  Would you like to go back to your room?"  "Okay."

I helped him up and held his arm as we walked gingerly back down the hall.  On the way, he suddenly said "Sometimes I feel so useless and stupid."

I was surprised to hear such a revealing comment and tried to reassure him that he was not useless or stupid.  When we got to the door of his room, he expressed relief at recognizing it.  Once we were inside and sitting down, the conversation continued.  I said it must be scary to not know where you are sometimes.  He said it wasn't scary, just frustrating.  I told him that he had dementia and that's why he was having trouble remembering.  I've told him on other occasions that he has dementia, but of course, he doesn't remember.  "Dementia?" he said and I nodded my head.  "It sounds too close to the word 'demented'," he smiled.  I laughed at that little hint of my old man who had always had a cheesy sense of humour.  He repeated the joke a number of times to his own delight.

"Sometimes I'm in a movie and I can't tell what is real." he said, revealing something again about the life he has been living.  And the conversation continued on in fits and starts over the next hour or so.  I didn't want to leave or let go of this experience of finally hearing my father's description what dementia is like from the inside out.  Finally, the topic changed to other things, family, the weather and more mundane subjects.  He was tiring, his eyes sometimes closing when we weren't speaking, and I knew that the window of opportunity was closing too.

When I had to leave to catch the ferry home, we hugged and kissed and I told him how much I loved him and what a good father he is.  "And you're a good daughter," he said, "say hello to Michael and the girls."  I know he doesn't remember names very often, he often calls me by his sister's name, but it was nice to hear that he still knows who we all are.

The next time I visit him, I don't know what I will be able to expect, and I don't particularly want to know.  But I will be happy with even just a moment or so, just a hint, of my "old" Dad.


Monday, September 30, 2013

What You Can't Bank On

Don't get me started about banks.  Okay, I can't help myself.

Today I got a phone call and I answered because the caller ID was from my bank.  Not my local branch, but a main branch as I could tell from the phone number.

But it wasn't really from my bank, it was from a telemarketer who apparently had permission from my bank to call me and offer a new service.  That alone cheesed me off, but I listened anyway.

She went on to tell me that this new service was to protect my accounts against identity theft and described how my accounts and credit cards and credit rating could be compromised by identity thieves in many ways.  This new service is supposed to alert me if that happens and protect my accounts and credit cards.

I have no doubt that identity theft is a huge problem.  I would actually like to think that I could have some kind of solid protection against it.  But then she told me that the cost was $8.99 a month.  And that's what put me over the edge.  If this is such a concern for my bank, why do I have to pay for it?  I already pay through the nose for lots of things because I have a bank account and banks make billions of dollars a year from people like me.  So why should I have to pay more for something I would hope they would already have in place;  protection against identity theft?

I know identity theft exists because I've had friends who have experienced it, and it is a pain in the butt to resolve.  It is a certainly concern of mine, but to have the bank offer to protect my identity and then to ask me for more money to do it is just a slap in the face.

Okay, I'm mad right now.

Don't banks have an obligation to protect your money?  I mean, what is the reason you use a bank in the first place?  It is meant as a safe place to keep your money.  What other reason would there be to have bank vaults?  And now that banks have created websites where you can do transactions online, don't they have the same obligation?  I realize there are stupid people who sign up for things or give their personal information which compromises their accounts, and banks can't do much about stupid people.  But if I haven't done anything wrong, why should I pay $9 a month to make sure my accounts are safe?  Did they call me up to scare me so I'd sign up for it?

Oh boy, I'm really getting riled up now!

What this tells me is that the only thing you can bank on is that banks will spend a lot of time and effort to find alarmingly new ways to take more of your money.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Shoeless Jackson

Unlike my shoe-crazy daughters, I don't buy shoes very often.  In fact, I tend to pretty much live in the same shoes every day.  My excuse is that I go for a daily walk and I don't want to have to change shoes. The only time I wear different shoes is on a special occasion.  Like Christmas.

I've been wearing the same kind of white athletic shoes for at least twenty-five years.   I want to call them "runners" because that's what we called them in the 70's and of course, they've come a long way since then.  Some of them don't even look like "shoes", more like foot gear from Mars.  Something out of Star Trek.  You've seen them.

Mine have always been white.  I like the clean look of white shoes.  My most recent pair are at least two or three years old.  That's two or three years of almost daily wear, so they are not really white any more, but they are very comfortable.  My daughter's boyfriend's mother has exactly the same kind of shoe and swears by them like I do.  But realizing they were running out of time (ha, a pun there), a month or two ago I searched high and low to find another pair exactly the same to replace them.  But you know, shoes styles change as often as you change underwear.  Bad comparison, but that's all I could think of.

The other day I was out for my usual walk.  It had been a particularly wet day, with thunder showers and puddles galore, but I was in my comfortable runners and I didn't care.  And then I realized I had a soaker in my right shoe.  Arrgghh!!  I carried on with my soggy walk and when I got home, I looked at the sole of the offending shoe and realized it was half coming off.  I decided I needed to go out immediately and get myself a new pair.

Being the time of year when kids are getting back to school, I thought there would be lots of runners out there for me to choose from.  Well, there were, but they were not white.  They were neon colours;  neon pink, neon orange, neon green or a combination of all three colours and more, with all sorts of weird bits and pieces attached to them. And then, much to my delight, I found a pair of white ones.  They were on sale too, my lucky day!  So I excitedly had the sales lady check in the back for a pair in my size.


I went from shoe store to shoe store in the mall and nowhere could I find what I was looking for. Not only that, but many of them were $150 a pair or more.  Ouch.  I briefly entertained the notion of a pair that were neon pink and black.  But I just couldn't do it.  As I was going from store to store, I started looking at other ladies walking around the mall and noticed what kind of shoes they were wearing.  My research on the subject brought me to a stunning conclusion:  the only women wearing white athletic shoes were at least my age or older.  Mostly older.  Crap.

I went home shoeless, and pondered my predicament.  I was either going to have to give in to a new style or wait until I could find what I was looking for, which didn't seem very hopeful.  I was forced to change out of my wet shoes and into a pair of leather shoes, which totally threw me. But I bravely carried on with my day in spite of my discomfort.

Yesterday I decided I had to go out and look yet again because leather shoes weren't going to do it for me, so I chose another mall further away.  I visited every shoe store in the mall with no luck and finally ended up in the only one I hadn't yet visited, a Foot Locker.  Much to my surprise, a customer, a lady about my age, was trying on a pair of those neon ones, and then another pair, and then another, all under the watchful eye of a young male employee.  I scanned the wall of single shoes.

Eureka!  They had a lovely pair of bright, white Nike's.  The only thing on them that wasn't white was a very pale blue Nike logo.  I could live with that. I grabbed the single shoe and patiently waited for the young man to be finished with the other customer.  She was taking a long time, which in turn gave me time to think.  Suddenly I felt really old, standing there with my bright white Nike shoe.  I sombrely put it back on the shelf.  Was I going to be the last person on the planet searching for bright, white athletic shoes, or was I going to finally come into the twenty-first century with my footwear?  I started to walk out of the store, depressed and defeated.

As I was leaving, there was a rack of newer model shoes just past the doorway.  I looked at them and saw a pair that I thought just maybe I could live with.  They were not neon, but they were black and grey.  Black would be a real departure.

But winter is coming.  No white after Labour Day, they say.


Moe found a use for the shoe box.  Beside her are my old, worn, sort-of-white runners.


To the right are my new athletic shoes.  At least they look like runners and not those strange Mars-like foot apparel.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Wrath of Auto-Tune

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had a recording studio in Nashville was telling me a story about an experience he'd recently had in the studio. Every year, all of the smaller recording studios used to hold open houses on the same day, where artists and managers were invited to come and check out the facilities so they would potentially record their next project there. This guy told me that at one point during the day, several well-known country artists were sitting in a room in his recording facility, jamming together as a couple of them played guitar. What struck my friend at the time was that some of them could sing, and some of them really couldn't! He made a quip about how you could tell which ones needed Auto-Tune when they were recording and performing :-).

Some of you may have heard the word "Auto-Tune" before, but most, if not all of you have heard its effects if you listen to music. For those of you who don't recognize the word, Auto-Tune is a digital technology that corrects musical pitch. To simplify that, music producers use the software to "fix" the pitch of vocals or instruments so that they are perfect. Even the best singers can be slightly off pitch when they are recording or performing, so the software could save lots of time and effort by simply correcting it either while it is being sung, or afterwards in post-production.

The first time you might have heard Auto-Tune in its extreme was in Cher's hit song "Believe", recorded in 1998. It was used as an effect to make her voice sound robotic in a few places in the song's chorus, particularly on the line "do you believe in life after love?" If you remember that song, then you've heard Auto-Tune. But the fact is that Auto-Tune is used in pretty much every single pop song these days. Everything you hear in this genre has been "fixed" with Auto-Tune. In fact, if you go to a live performance, particularly pop or rock, rap or hip hop, Auto-Tune is used as part of the performance. At music awards shows, many "live" performances of songs are run through Auto-Tune. You don't hear the actual, raw, live voice of a performer.

You might think, well, what's wrong with perfect?

A few years back, there was a music awards show broadcast live on television where Taylor Swift did a live performance. She appeared to be one of the only performers who DIDN'T use Auto-Tune that evening. As a result, her voice was raw and real, and it was not pitch perfect. Immediately afterwards, social media came alive with comments like "Taylor Swift can't sing!" and other, more critical responses to her performance. At the time, I remember applauding her for her guts, but I think since then she has probably given in to the use of Auto-Tune in her performances.  The pressure to be perfect these days, has become too great.

From a performer viewpoint, anyone and their dog can "sing" now, and YouTube has had many, many videos with animals or public figures "singing" songs that they actually aren't, the creators using Auto-Tune and some fancy editing to create these videos.

But what has happened to listeners, particularly younger people, is that their ears are now conditioned to desire "perfect" sounds, and when they hear something that isn't, it's aurally offensive to them. Anything that is real and imperfect sounds like a mistake.  Not only that, but it becomes impossible to tell real talent from manufactured, certainly when it comes to recording.  And performers become so reliant on the software, they can't live without it.

There are, however, artists who refuse to use it and a campaign against Auto-Tune that is growing.  In a 2009 performance on the Grammy Awards, for example, Deathcab For Cutie wore blue ribbons to protest the use of Auto-Tune in the music industry.  Even some recording engineers and producers are now trying to wean artists off the thing in an attempt to bring "real" back into recordings and performances.

So what's wrong with perfect?  It makes everything sound the same.  Perfect pitch, perfect timing, perfect everything, creates perfect garbage.  And who needs more of that?  Let's keep it real!


Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Not To Do List

I'm on my second-to-last day of holidays and the itch to write a to do list is driving me nuts.  I was going to wait until Monday, but instead I thought I'd throw out a "not to do" list (see below) just to satisfy my hankering.

My three week's of vacation has been quiet, which is good.  I got back into meditation, I read a couple of fiction books, which I haven't done for a very long time, we went for a few days to the mainland and saw family and friends.  We played a little golf, did some "tourist in your home town" kind of things, and we spent a lot of time just sitting in our little backyard haven.  We set up the backyard to be just that; we created a nice garden, built a little patio with some comfortable patio furniture, all to give ourselves a space when the weather is nice to sit and relax.  And it has come together quite beautifully.  So I would say, all in all, it has been a good and restful vacation.

It's not to say that I'm going to be overwhelmed with students come Monday.  They will trickle back, actually, because many of them are still on vacation themselves, or are planning to start back in September which is a couple of weeks away.  Instead I will be working hard on scoring several television shows, which I very much enjoy doing, although it's quite time consuming.  I have a website where you can listen to some of those compositions I've written over the's called Moonstone Productions.

But before I get back to work, here are two lists based on my holiday reflections:

7 Things NOT To Do When You're On Holidays

1. Quit counting down!  Only two weeks left, only one week left...I mean, you're on holidays, how dumb is that??

2. Email is a curse.

3. Stop reading weird things to keep you from being bored.  Like the obituary column in the paper.  You're not in there yet.

4. Impatience is meant for when you are in a hurry, not on holidays.

5. Avoid mirrors and reflective store windows at all times.  Just in case you're getting fat.

6. Don't upload your photos to Facebook until AFTER your vacation.  Yeah, what are the chances of that??

7. Don't answer the phone when you see it's from THAT number.  That'll ruin a holiday state-of-mind quicker than anything.  In fact, turn your phone off altogether.

7 Signs My Holidays Have Had An Effect

1. Driving to my golf game yesterday, I was singing along with my iPod playlist in the car at the top of my lungs.  With the top down.  People could see me.

2. It's now exactly 11:18am and I'm still in my pajamas.

3. The house is a mess.

4. There was an embarrassing amount of empty wine bottles when we took everything into the recycling depot for a refund the other day.

5. I can almost recite the dialogue from every episode of Downton Abbey, I've been watching them so much.

6. I broke Rule #5 of things NOT to do.  Ugh.

7. I have no idea what day it is.  Oh yeah, it's the second-to-last day of my holidays :-(  Back to reality...


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's All About Me

Is it sad that the first thing I did on my recent birthday was to log in to my Facebook account to see how many birthday greetings had been posted on my wall?  As much of an adult as I think I am, there are still those moments (and occasionally days) when I get all caught up in myself.  Who's thinking about or remembering me today?

I remember once seeing a titillating Facebook ad that asked "who's been reading your profile?", tempting me to click on it.  And of course, it lead to something else that I had to sign up for in order to see who was looking for me.  Which I didn't.   But I'll just bet you that they got a lot of hits, all because we're so often obsessed with ourselves and we want to know who else might be!

Having said all of that, I do think that a certain amount of time and space is required to nurture and care for our "selves".  When I first became a mother, I was overwhelmed at the amount of time and attention an infant took, and at some point I became aware of the feeling of having lost my "self" in the process.  As much as I wanted to go back to my old "me", I couldn't after that. Even as my children grew and my circumstances changed, it was like un-ringing a bell;  it couldn't be done.

Over time, the same thought and attention was given over to my work, and also to my parents who became more and more dependant on my help.   My needs became less and less of a priority.  The problem is, of course, that we all need a little healthy time spent on ourselves in order to be able to do the best we can for others.  I have had guitar students who were new mothers, and I've encouraged them to get rid of any guilt they feel for spending a half-hour a week playing guitar to do nothing more than simply to please themselves.  A half-hour is nothing, but when you are totally detached from the "real world" for that thirty minutes, it can completely re-energize you.

Which brings me to the point of this post...

Last summer when I took time off from teaching, I had a To Do list as long as your arm.  And although I may have accomplished a couple of things on it, I didn't come anywhere near completing it.  Ultimately, that had the opposite effect of "time off" because I felt bad at not having done what I set out to do!  And what good is that??

We have some plans for a quick getaway, but only for a few days, so the rest of the time is up to us.  And I've decided that the travesty of last summer's To Do list should not be repeated, so my slate is utterly clean.  It sounds deliciously self-indulgent, doesn't it?  Especially when you spend most of your week day time preparing for the next job, student, task, client, customer...whatever your job may be.  My time off this summer is all about me.

I'm used to teaching in the evenings, so last night, Monday, was my first weekly evening off.  And I had no idea what to do with myself.  I tried sitting out on the back deck and reading.  I spent time on my laptop, perusing this and that.  But I was restless.  My husband, who is used to spending alone time in the evenings since I'm always teaching, said that I would eventually figure it out, but I think this "me time" is going to take some getting used to.

Simply going from one moment to the next is a different way to live, even if just for a little while.  It makes me realize how much of my life is lived habitually.  You get up, you read the paper, you shower, you have breakfast, you get on with your day.  I'm still doing the first four;  it's the "rest of the day" that I'm not used to having unplanned.  Is this what retirement is going to be like?

I'll let you know how it goes.

Now I've got to get on to whatever the next thing is...dum, dee dum...


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Life Must Be Lived "Forwards"

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
-- Soren Kierkegaard

I came upon this quote today as I was perusing my usual website "hangouts", and it helped me to put this past week in perspective.  It was a difficult week for me, mostly because of my father who is struggling with dementia.  Rather than going into what happened, let's just say that I came to realize that his disease has progressed and his health has declined moreso lately.  When we first brought him to the care facility several years ago, I was sad at the thought of him losing his independence.  But gradually over these years, he has also been losing himself, which is saddest of all.

Last night I got into a conversation with two friends who are also experiencing the difficulties of elderly parents and their various physical and emotional struggles.  This helped me to feel not so alone in my fears and my need to have your friends and family around you sometimes to know that you are not the only one.  It was also a big help when I came home to my two daughters who hugged me for a long time when they saw how upset I was.  I kept thinking that one day, they'll have to go through this with me and with their father and that even though they are sympathetic to my situation, they really don't know and won't know what it's like for a long time yet.  Hopefully.

That expression "youth is wasted on the young" came to mind as we hugged and I thought about the freedom they have from the worries I have.  But the truth is that youth is not wasted...thank goodness we have times in our lives (hopefully!) where we are so utterly oblivious to the problems of the world.  Thank goodness.  I am so grateful that I had days when I had no, or very few concerns.  I want my daughters to enjoy their young lives as much as they can, because everything around them will continue to change and evolve and sometimes you don't even realize how much things have changed until you look back, just as Kierkegaard said.  No, youth is not "wasted";  hopefully it is simply well spent and enjoyed.

Then I thought of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi line "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?"  Because many times you don't realize what you had when you had it.  Ain't that the truth?  There is a tendency, when we are going through difficult times, to want to look back to when days where happier and when life was easier, and why wouldn't we? It's just that the chances are that we have long forgotten there were also difficult times back then, they were simply different problems or struggles.  My daughters think they have bad days and rotten experiences from time to time, and they do.  It's just that their bad days are different from mine. Youth is not necessarily as great as we remember it was!  And remember how when we were much younger, we longed so for the future and what it would bring us?  Well, here it is!

If I spend too much time looking back, then I am not fully engaged in the present.   So although I want to occasionally look back in order to understand my life and put things in context, I don't want to spend too much time there.  And that's why I'd like to add to Kierkegaard's expression, with apologies to his much higher intelligence.  Life must be lived forwards, but it also must be lived "presently".   I am increasingly aware of what I actually have to look forward to in my old age, for lack of a better phrase, and as I age my perspective changes considerably.   So today I'm thinking more about the line from Carly Simon's song "Anticipation"..."these are the good ol' days."  Because they ARE!

Where are you Irene?
I am right here :-)


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Should You Hate Ads?

I swear that my dear Uncle George invented the first "mute" button for television.  He was a very clever and electronically savy guy, and I remember going to my Aunt Edie and Uncle George's house many years ago and discovering that he had found a way to electronically mute the television when commercials came on.  It was amazing!

These days, with the flip of a switch, or a click of a remote or mouse we can ignore television or online commercials to our hearts' content.  We love to hate ads.

But here is my confession;  our family income for the last 30 or so years has mainly come from commercial production because that's what my husband does for a living.  Sometimes he turns to me after showing me a new spot (that's television lingo for commercial) and asks me "But do you think it  will sell (fill in the blank)?"  He genuinely wants his clients to succeed.

Now before you write us off as sleazy "Mad Men" ad types, let's take a step back and think about it for a minute.  There are a lot of people you know, perhaps including yourself, who work for or own small businesses or big companies who create services or products that all of us require or want.  How do you let anyone know that you even exist without some kind of advertising?  If you don't get customers or clients, you fail.  If you don't sound your horn as loud or louder than your competitors, nobody hears you.  Our economy succeeds when businesses, big and small, thrive.  And as much as you might hate to admit it, advertising is a big part of that.

Word of mouth is certainly one way to succeed in selling a service or product, sticking out a sign or knocking on doors might work to some degree, but that would confine you to a very small, local circle at first and take time to spread.  Newspaper, magazine, radio and television, and more recently online advertising is a way to spread that word more quickly and to more people.

Now I know, there are some pretty annoying commercials out there, whether it's the voice over (that's lingo for the voice you hear "over" the video you see in television), the weird music, the actors, or just the overall concept of an ad.  Sometimes I watch those over-the-top, big budget national car or perfume spots and wonder "what the heck was that all about??"  I'm sure you can all recall a commercial that really got on your nerves or left you with a ?.

But you have to admit, you've also seen some very creative and entertaining commercials over the years (those of you who have been actually watching or listening for years!).  There are some really clever creative people out there, my husband included, who spend all or most of their time thinking of ways to draw your attention, whether it's by making you laugh, cry, surprising you or simply introducing you to something new and exciting.  And what if you hadn't found out about that great sale at ____? You would never have saved all that money!  When you're in the market to buy something, you are paying a LOT of attention to ads because you want the best deal you can get!

Do commercials succeed?  Well, if they didn't, they would have fizzled out a long, long time ago.   And as little as you might consider it, much of what you hear or view, your favourite programs, online content, radio talk shows, whatever you like, is there for you to enjoy because of advertising dollars.  

I know I'm not going to talk you out of that mouse click or that PVR fast forward, but the next time you see a commercial that makes you laugh, remember that some people went to an awful lot of trouble hoping that you would!


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Quit The Drama

Victoria BC, where I live, is a pretty quiet city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and also lays claim to being the provincial capital.  It seems pretty far away from terrorism, Al Qaeda, or anything like that.  Sometimes I think we really don't know how lucky we are to be where we are and to lead the privileged lives that we do.  Oh sure, nothing's perfect, but I digress...

On the morning of this past July 2nd, spokespeople from the RCMP held a news conference announcing that they had stopped a terrorist plot and had arrested two people who had planted pressure cooker bombs on the lawns of the legislature.  It was pretty shocking.

The next thing you knew, the premier was holding her own press conference, exclaiming in somewhat dramatic fashion how we were not going to be changed by terrorists, how we would carry on with our lives as normal so the terrorists don't succeed in doing what they want to do---scare the crap out of us.  Well, she didn't exactly use the word "crap".  But you get the drift.

Over the past week, we've learned a few more things about these terrorists.  They are a couple who live in a basement suite on the mainland, both having had trouble with drugs, the male having also had several arrests and charges mainly for petty crimes.  They don't have Muslim names, but apparently became enamoured with that religion over the past year or two via a family that befriended them.  They did not belong to a mosque, nor was there any evidence that they had ever had any connections or interactions with terrorists groups on line.  The pressure cooker "bombs" had been made inert before they ever got to the legislature lawns, so no one was actually in danger.

Do you know where I'm going with this?  It was the RCMP themselves who used the words "inspired by the Al Qaeda ideology" and "self-radicalised" at the initial press conference.  This begs the question, who is trying to scare who?  They apparently spent months following these two as they allegedly taught themselves how to make bombs, they must have known everything there was to know about them;  they had little money, the woman was on a methadone treatment program, they guy had his run ins with the law, the fact that they DIDN'T have any connections with ANY terrorist groups.  Should I say that again?


And our premier was too soon caught up in the hype too...trying to be "presidential" in her dramatic speech at the legislature.  Come on.  Could you have found out more about it first before you did your Bush-like mount on the 9-11 rubble?

Don't use those kinds of words.  Especially when they aren't true.  These two were idiots, that's all.  Why they did what they did (if they actually did it), is anyone's guess.

THAT'S what we have to stop;  pretending that everyone who does something stupid is somehow "Al Qaeda" inspired.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Guns Are Not Culture

I barely paid attention to the news story about the shooting at Santa Monica College the other week.  Here we go again, I thought.  And then I went about my usual routine.

It's actually a horrible tragedy.  But you find yourself thinking that the numbers are the real reflection of just how tragic.  If only five people died, well, that's not as many as in 9/11, or at the movie theatre shooting a couple of years back.   Not as many, so not as important.

Which is the real tragedy.  Since then, that story has faded from the news.

Last month when my husband and I were in Las Vegas, I noticed that one of the "tours" you could take, according to a pamphlet, was to a shooting range.  They even have pink guns for the girls, someone told me.  Pink guns?  One day we set out to find the old Welcome To Las Vegas sign and saw about 30 military guys in uniform, complete with their automatic weapons, running toward the sign.  At first I thought something bad was up, of course.  But when I saw the smiles on their faces, I realized that they were just heading over to the Vegas sign en masse to have their picture taken.  Yikes.  One of the last "tricks" in the Penn & Teller show we saw in Vegas involved the firing of guns in the theatre.  That was the only thing that turned me off in a show that was otherwise very entertaining.

I guess I will never understand what some call "gun culture".  Kind of an oxymoron, really.  I can only imagine, however, that if you were brought up around guns, being without them would be equally as strange.  There's a kind of casualness that comes from people who own them and use them that makes me uncomfortable;  an indifference in the shrug of their shoulders.  So what?  And that casualness is why the U.S. will continue to lose 32 people PER DAY to a homicide by firearms.

"I wouldn't mind firing a gun", someone said to me recently.  She was just curious as to what the experience would be like.  I can kind of understand that too.  But I would be leery of even that temptation.  What if it made me less determined to be against them?  What if I actually enjoyed the experience? That's what would scare me most.

Guns are bad, they are just bad.  They were made to kill, and how could anything...ANYTHING be good about that?  Then I read this story today, about a 5-year-old girl in New Orleans:

"A preliminary investigation indicates the child was home alone and had somehow come into contact with a .38 revolver and accidentally shot herself in the head," police said in their statement."

Well, that is pretty much the only argument you need to make about not having guns.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Writing

Grade 4, Miss you see me? (Answer at bottom of this post)

For some strange reason, at the age of 9 years, in the spring of 1967, I was gripped with emotion when our (Canada's) Governor General, Georges Vanier, died.  To this day, I can't tell you why.  I didn't particularly know what a Governor General was, nor did I understand what his position or title meant.  But he died, and that somehow moved me.

So I did something I'd never done before, but have done many times since;  I wrote about it.  And I handed it in to my teacher, Miss Logan.  It wasn't an assignment, I just handed it in.   In fact, I started to write about things whenever they struck me, and each time I would put it on my dear teacher's desk.

Miss Logan must have been the most patient, understanding teacher in the universe to take the time to read my stories and encourage me.  She had fiery red hair and was of Scottish decent, and I thought she was so beautiful.  I remember the big thing in Grade 4 was to have autograph books, and to collect friend's and teacher's autographs.  I must have made or bought ten different ones over that year, and each time I did, I asked for Miss Logan's autograph.  By the last one, she finally smiled and said "Again?", and signed for the umpteenth time.  "Keep on writing stories, Irene", she wrote.

My stories eventually morphed into songs which became my way of explaining and expressing the world around me to myself, and they were my therapy, especially after my mother died.  In 1996 when I first discovered the internet, I started writing about songwriting too.  My thought at the time was that if I wanted to draw attention to my newly-hatched website, I needed to create content.  So I created a songwriting tips page that still exists to this day.  I've changed the design a few times over the years, and when I came across this new word "blogging" a couple of years back, I realized how it could save me a lot of time if I didn't have to continuously update each and every article I had written every time I wanted to change the look or add more links.   So the songwriting tips have turned into a blog.

Since then, I have created a guitar blog too, and of course, this one.  I guess I just like writing, but I never seem to have enough time.

Although I still like to write about songwriting and guitar playing, my real joy is this blog, the one you're reading right now.  That's because it can be about anything that strikes me, not just limited to one subject.  My grandfather and my father both sat down to write their memoirs, mostly in an informal fashion, long-hand and relatively short in length.  My grandfather's memoir was especially short...the most he said about his mother was that she had "bad legs"!  I think the point was to put to paper the important dates and events of his life before he died.  My father fleshed his out a little more and added some personal perspectives.  I think mine, when I finally get to it, will be especially wordy :-).  But I see this blog as being part of that;  a way of having my thoughts and my experiences out there for my kids to read long after I'm gone.

I don't consider myself a particularly good writer, it's just that I like to do it.  There are far better and more popular blogs out there.  There are even songwriting tips blogs, many, many of them now.  When I came across another blog the other day that had a title something like "Writing About Songwriting", I wanted to tell the young person who owned it that she wasn't the first to do that.  But why bother?  Good for her for finding a way to express herself about something she loves.   
There is a Facebook group I am a member of, full of people who grew up in Richmond, BC, in Canada.  It's been fun to come into contact with some old friends, remembering our childhood and the way things used to be in our old neighbourhoods and schools.  So it struck me that I should try to find out whatever happened to Miss Logan.  Sadly, I discovered that she had passed away a few years back.  But, for what it's worth, I just want to publicly thank her for encouraging me to write. 

'Cause I'm still doing it, and I can't imagine that I'll ever stop.  
Well, you know, until I have no choice :-).


(oh, I'm in the second row from the front, third in from the right :-))

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Over The Top in Vegas

I'm sure many of you reading this have been to Las Vegas, and maybe even more than once.  I discovered before and after our trip that many people think of Vegas as a perfect little getaway with all kinds of things to do and see.

And it is.  But when my brother said "Once was enough for me.", I kind of wondered what he meant.  My husband and I had never been there, and since we had missed our trip to Hawaii this past winter, he decided that we should do something different and a quick trip to sin city was planned.

The landing at McCarran International Airport wasn't quite as turbulent as some of my friends had described, so I was happy.  Since the knife incident earlier at Victoria International, you can imagine why I'd be worried about what kind of trip this was going to be.  We disembarked and headed to the long line of people waiting for taxis to the Vegas strip.  In that line was a client of my husband's, who described what we should see and do during our visit.  In fact, I noticed that pretty much anyone I spoke with before the trip had all kinds of advice for us.  Not just advice, but enthusiastic, over-the-top, almost giddy, advice.

It was late morning when the taxi driver dropped us off at our hotel, The Flamingo.  As we entered, I immediately noticed a smell which was kind of perfumed and smoke-laced at the same time.  Over the next few days, I noticed that many of the hotels had similar smells.

We got into our room earlier by upgrading, of course, which was the first hint that the "cheap" getaway might not be so cheap.  The 20th floor hotel room was recently updated, and yet it was a throw back to the 60's version of Vegas with an old-fashioned chaise lounge, a box of mirrored lights over the king-size bed and a switch that opened the curtains and sheers, exposing us to Bally's, a hotel across the street, and a great view of the water show at the Bellagio, kitty corner to our hotel.  We sat on the chaise lounge and stared out in wonder.  Wow.

Our first venture out onto the strip reminded us a little of our first exposure to New York City;  a kind of in-your-face senses overkill.  In the streets, alcohol and cigarettes, beggars and sex show pitchers mingled with music blasting from speakers and noisy traffic congestion.  We hung on to each other and chose to start walking to the south.

The super-sized hotels appear deceptively close.  It isn't until you try to get to one that you realize it's going to take longer than you thought.  I swear that a two minute crossing of the street turned out to be more like twenty minutes.  I'm still not sure why.  Maybe it's the escalators and overpasses you have to manoeuvre (you rarely actually cross Las Vegas Boulevard), and the crowds and street people all trying to do the same that conspire to make it such a trek.  And then there's the size of the hotel properties.  On our second day we walked for 6 hours and only covered maybe a third of the strip.

Irene in the "mall" of the Venetian
You can't just walk by a hotel, you have to walk into it.  Then you have to walk through two or three city block's-worth of casino before you get to the mall.  Every hotel has a mall.  Not just a little stretch of stores either.  They are theme-based, sometimes multi-level malls with dozens and dozens of stores and restaurants.  The Venetian has a canal running from outside street level to the inside mall, complete with gondolas and opera-singing gondoliers offering rides from one end to the other.  That's just one hotel.

We were somewhat stunned at the excess.  The volume.  The extreme.

On our first night we bought tickets to see Penn and Teller.  I am embarrassed to admit that I watch Celebrity Apprentice (for the record, I detest Donald Trump), and Penn was one of the finalists this year which prompted us to go and see their show.  If you don't know them, they are magicians, but that really does not describe them.  They reveal their secrets, they almost laugh at their own industry, and then they dazzle you with unparalleled trickery.   It was a fabulous show.  Afterwards my husband had to prod me to stay so that we could get our picture taken with Penn...I was exhausted from the 3am rise, the knife incident, the flight and the venture so far.  But I gave in and we got our picture:

Oh, and he autographed our fridge magnet.  Yes, we buy fridge magnets.

We also went to an unbelievable performance by Cirque du Soleil called "Love", which is based around the Beatles' music and their story.  Absolutely amazing, and a show I would highly, highly recommend.

By the fourth day, we had had enough of the excess, so we rented a car and drove along the strip to the outskirts, where we came upon the Neon Graveyard.  This little non-profit organization has taken it upon themselves to recover the old neon signs that originally graced many of the hotels on the strip.  The hotels don't actually own these signs, they are leased from and maintained by a company until they become too old or outdated to be of any use.  The Neon Graveyard takes them and keeps them on a city lot, where they preserve them and give tours.  They are in the middle of installing electrical outlets throughout the lot so that the signs can be lit up for night tours.  That will be really cool!  I would certainly recommend taking the tour if you are at all interested in the history of Vegas.  We learned a lot and the tour guide was excellent.

We also found our way (eventually, and after some heated debate, but that's for another story) to Red Rock Canyon, a national park that consists of a thirteen mile drive and a number of hiking trails all through the colourful rocks.  It was spectacular, and reminded me that what I love about travelling has more to do with the "flora and fauna" as they say, than anything else.  We were in a desert and this was an opportunity to pay some attention to that for a few hours.  We also ended up at a couple of ranches, saw some "wild" donkeys, and I actually saw a roadrunner running across the highway which prompted us to sing that old cartoon theme song "Roadrunner!  The coyote is after you!  Roadrunner!  If he catches you, you're through!"

Aside from the previously alluded to heated debate, that was a wonderful day.  And it was also the last full day of our tour of Sin City, so it was a nice way to end it.

And what did I learn in Vegas?

  1. A TV built into the bathroom mirror is really cool.
  2. I can still get blisters, even in my best walking shoes.
  3. A desert could actually have been under the ocean once.
  4. The mob were sort of a fun bunch.  Kind of.  In a way.
  5. Pawn Stars have a huge following.
  6. Guns are fun?  Yikes.
  7. Hotel pools are not for relaxing.
  8. Margarita glasses come in much larger sizes than I knew.
  9. Evil Knievel had a lot of guts.
  10. The rat pack is long gone.
  11. Now I see why the coyote could never catch that bird.
  12. The "one arm" on the one arm bandits are just there for nostalgia.
I'm sure there's more.  But that's enough Vegas for me.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Knives On A Plane

Irene in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, having survived the knife incident.

I couldn't believe my eyes as I watched the officer in security at the Victoria International Airport slowly pulling a very large kitchen knife from my carry on bag.

What?!  Is this a joke??

It was about 4:30 a.m. and my husband and I were on our way to Las Vegas for a few days for a little get away.   We had decided not to bring our suitcases and just stuffed everything into carry on bags instead, careful to put shampoo bottles and toothpaste and anything else like it into clear, plastic ziplock bags just as the instructions tell you to do.  Nothing to hide.

I had been picked out randomly to be either patted down or go through that full body scanner contraption, and I had chosen the pat down.  In the meantime, my bag was slowly going through the x-ray machine.  Once the pat down was done I walked over to retrieve my bag.  "We're going to have to open your bag and check it,"  the security officer said.  "Sure, go ahead."  I casually answered.  I looked around to see where my husband was, and then looked back as the officer was pulling out the knife.  Knife??  Then he pulled out a carving fork.  Carving fork??  I stared at the implements in a stupor.  "Obviously, we can't allow these on the plane."  Oh.  My.  God.  I looked over at my husband.  "Irene!"  he said, staring at me in compete shock.

It took me a few more seconds to shake off the brain fog before I suddenly remembered.

I had hurriedly stuffed the kitchen implements into a side pocket in my bag a few months earlier in the middle of my parents' move out of their townhouse, and had completely forgotten about them.  Since I never go into that side pocket, I hadn't even opened it when I was packing for Vegas.

I looked up at the security officer, but he didn't seem all that perturbed.  "Do you want to put them in your car or something?"  he asked.  "No, no, just get rid of them." I said, relieved that I hadn't been arrested, or something worse.  He took them and handed me my bag.  I was still stunned as I walked toward the door, where another female security officer stood.  "I had to stop from laughing!"  she said, and continued on to tell me how many people often forget what they've got in their bags and get caught at security.  "It happens all the time," she smiled.  Yeah, but not to me!  I thought.

And so began our adventure to Vegas.  It took me an hour or two to get over that one.  One older lady who was on the same flight as we were, eyed me suspiciously several times while we waited at the gate.  I saw her go up to the flight desk at one point, and wondered if she had asked where I was sitting.  Or maybe that was just my imagination.

And Vegas?  How to describe Vegas?  It was our first trip there, and many of you reading this have likely visited Sin City already.  I'll save THAT story for next time :-)


Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Joy of Small Gestures

Many years ago when we were in our late 20's, my husband and I were lined up in a local Dairy Queen one evening to pick up a treat on our way home.  It was not too busy, and we had just put in our order when we both noticed something on the ground at about the same time--a $20 bill.  We picked it up, realizing that a woman had just left with her order and it must have been hers.  We hesitated for a brief moment, and then finally went outside to try and catch her.

That hesitation was just long enough that by the time we got out there, she had already driven away.  But the guilt at not having tried harder to catch her stuck with us.  We felt so bad that the next day we took the $20 and donated it to the Salvation Army, because we couldn't bear to keep it.  It wasn't a perfect solution, but we felt better at not having spent it on ourselves.  It taught me a lesson, I guess, because I still remember that incident to this day.  I wouldn't hesitate for a second now under the same circumstances to get the money back to its rightful owner if I could.

But it made no sense to me the other week when I looked outside my living room window to see that someone had come along and destroyed every last lovely red tulip in our front garden.  I couldn't believe my eyes and had to go outside to confirm it to myself.  I nearly cried!  Just careless and self-serving nastiness, and for no good reason.  The tulips had been particularly bright and beautiful this year...I guess the temptation was too much for someone.

Later on that Sunday morning, I decided to post my experience to Facebook and received many responses from my friends which gave me some comfort.  But two responses were unexpected.  A couple of days later, my oldest daughter saw some tulips in a grocery store so she bought them and brought them home to give to me.  And several days after that, a friend gave me a chocolate tulip because when she saw it, she said she thought of the tulips I lost.  It's amazing how little gestures like that can just make your heart swell with joy!

Another recent incident also restored my faith in human beings;  this past week a package arrived in the mail for my daughter, the one who had given me the tulips.  It had no return address on it, which was curious.  When my daughter opened it, she found her change purse, which she had somehow managed to lose a few days earlier.  Someone actually took the time and spent the money to mail it back to her, with not a cent missing.  I could see that my daughter was genuinely touched at the fact that someone would go to the trouble, just for a change purse.  And it seemed to bring everything full circle...she did something nice for me, and someone did something nice for her.  Good karma, perhaps?

Life is full of so many little lessons if we're paying attention, never mind the big ones.  The loss of tulips and change purses are hardly front page news, but the small gestures they inspired somehow felt huge and life-affirming.  I'm hoping that the person or persons who destroyed the tulips will eventually learn what I did, all those years ago.

That a stupid guilty pleasure doesn't feel nearly as wonderful as a good deed.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Where Are You At?

An excerpt I was reading from Scott Peck's book "The Different Drum" yesterday was describing four levels of spiritual development or growth. If you'd like to read it yourself, it's here: Stages of Spiritual Growth I will do my best to give a brief summary of the levels myself, but of course, the writer does a much better job :-)

The first and lowest level is described as chaotic and out of control, and includes people who are repeat offenders and/or those who have trouble with addictions and money, etc. These people might even have the outward appearance of being "good" or "friendly" but their intentions would almost always be insincere, self-serving and heartless. They would normally not be spiritual in any active way or have much use for it.

The second level, as Scott Peck described it, includes people who are strictly religious, who see and use religion as a set of rules rather than a way of understanding themselves and the world. God is not so much about love to them, but more about having a "cop in the sky" who rewards and punishes accordingly. They are intolerant of any other religion, or those who have no religious leaning at all, such as the third level, because it is a threat to their beliefs and ideals. They are often caught up with trying to convert people at level one, the lowest level.

The third level includes atheists, agnostics, those with a scientific leaning who see religion as either a crutch or a deluded fantasy. They are the skeptics, the nay sayers and feel no threat at all except that they are often intimidated by those on the fourth level, which I'll describe in a minute. These third level people have no use for those on the first two levels, although they might occasionally try to confront the second level people about their "delusions". They are very knowlegeable and intelligent and usually well educated either by their own studies or more formally. 

The fourth level, Scott concludes, include Buddhists and Christians and other religious practitioners who have transcended the extremist, narrow-minded spiritual attitudes of Level 2, but who are equally as intelligent and developed as the third level, non-religious people. The main difference between Level 4 and Level 3 people is that those at Level 4 find no contradicition between science and the supreme...rather they compliment and support each other. These people are what he calls "communal"...that doesn't necessarily mean that they are out in the community always helping, although they often are. But they see the world and humanity as one community, rather than a bunch of separate countries, religious practices and cultures. They are inclusive, open-minded, patient and forgiving.

The reason that Level 3 people are intimidated by those on the fourth level is because they recognize that somehow, Level 4 people have the same intelligence and scientific mind, but have somehow managed to merge that with their faith, whatever it is, where as those on Level 3 don't know how to.

At the end of the descriptions, Scott says that we are all capable of being in more than one of those levels at different times in our lives. In fact, he says all of us as small children start at level one. Over time we are influenced by our environment (i.e. parents, etc.) and then eventually we come into our own where we have to make a choice to either stay with what we were brought up with, or move on to something else.

He also says that there are times, even if we have advanced spiritually, that we might revert to the other levels. In other words, I might occasionally feel the chaotic, out-of-control, level one part of me come to surface, or become intolerant and narrow-minded as a level two person. Scott Peck was a psychologist (he died in 2005), and he said that throughout the years of his practise he saw and worked with people at all of these levels, and watched them sometimes "convert" from one to the other, or backslide from time to time.

I thought his evaluations and descriptions were very interesting, and I certainly recognize where many people I know (or THINK I know!) might be. So where are you? :-)