You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Saturday, June 18, 2011

This is real. This is your life. In a song.

I need to get something out in the open. Country music makes me cry like a baby. I can't help it and I'm pretty sure I know why.

You need to understand that I love all kinds of music. I don't love them equally, but I can honestly say I have a very open mind when it comes to the things I listen to. Rock, alternative, country, folk, ska, reggae, big band, easy listening, classical, Broadway, jazz, blues, hip-hop, metal, you name it, I can probably listen to it. My iPod play list goes from The Animals to The Emeralds to Eminem to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Neil Young to Zac Brown, with lots of stops between. While my late father-in-law liked music that had a good beat, I'm a lyric guy. I am tone-deaf and have only recently gained the ability to read music. I have no talent or rhythm, but I definitely understand how to put words together.

The lyrics don't need to be particularly meaningful or evocative, I just love the way artists assemble words. My favorite band of all time is The Tragically Hip and I honestly believe part of the reason they have not experienced worldwide success is the Canadiana that is infused in their lyrics. One of my favorite Hip tunes starts with a reference to the Group of 7 painter Tom Thompson and that line evokes Thompson's paintings, a canoe and images of a place that is on my bucket list (Alongquin Park).

The lyrics of a song don't need to be particularly profound to elicit a powerful response. The Counting Crows' debut album has a track called "Time and Time Again." It was never a hit, in fact, I'm not sure I have ever heard it played on the radio. The opening lyrics, though, send shivers down my spine.

I wanted so badly/
Somebody other than me/
Staring back at me/
But you were gone. 

I listened to this song repeatedly as I drove to and from a good friend's funeral. It framed the entrance and exit to a monologue I wrote and performed to deal with how profoundly Jeff's passing changed my life. Even today as I write and listen, my eyes fill up and I'm transported to my old SUV
(The Millennium Falcon).

Aside from a few tunes that Gordon Downie would refer to as "weepy little things", most of the music I listened to in my teenage years did not reduce me to a puddle. I liked big, brash, fun music and particularly liked tunes with interesting lyrics. When I met my wife, things changed in a few ways. I started listening to country music.  We bought a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. It was all downhill from there.

After a big all night party at a teammate's house, we were killing time and watching CMT. Now, I'll admit that I was a bit fuzzy and compromised to begin with, but when my buddy Hammy said "This is the saddest song ever", I was a bit interested. The band was called Pirates of the Mississippi and the song is called Feed Jake. It's written from the point of view of a 20something guy who drives home to attend a childhood friend's funeral. In spite of cheeseball lyrics like "What we are and what we ain't/What we can and what we cain't", the video had me fighting back tears.

My next weak moment came on a Friday night when I was in university. My best friend Jeremy came to pick me up and we were having our usual warm up drinks before heading out for the night. The CMT Top 20 countdown was on and a new video by Travis Tritt came on. We were transfixed to the television, sipping a Lucky Lager. The video tells the story of a paraplegic war veteran named Mac Singleton who struggles to readjust to society with the help of his wife Annie and a fellow veteran named Al. By the end of the video, we simultaneously glanced at one another and realized that we both had the waterworks turned on. It was a true "I Love You Man" moment.

More than anything, though, fatherhood has rendered me completely useless in the face of songs about families, dogs, and being a daddy. Even when the songs are meant to be funny or tongue--in-cheek like Lonestar's Mr. Mom, they can make me weep uncontrollably because they remind me of a long-lost time when my kids were still babies. Nothing evokes a greater response in me than my family. Last year, I wrote a post (My Most Important Job) that explains how being a dad is more important than anything else in my life. Songs like Gord Bamford's Little Guy and High Valley's A Father's Love hit on themes that are the heart of how I see myself. I joke with my wife that these sorts of songs are inherently "unfair".

Even when the song does not directly connect to my life, if it tells a story and has a video that expands the story, I will watch it over and over again. Songs like Here Comes Goodbye and Colder Weather tell stories about relationships and loss. Jason Aldean's Amarillo Sky shares the story of proud farm families, Brad Paisley's Whiskey Lullaby tells the tale of lost love and alcoholism. These are not the stories of my life, but they make connections to my experiences and the people I love the most.

I suppose that the stereotype about country music is somewhat true. There are plenty of lost jobs, dead dogs and broken relationships in the music I listen to. On the other hand, though, being a parent and a husband is precisely "what I do". It's a good place to be and I'm glad that the musicians I admire and enjoy are providing the soundtrack.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Millennium Falcon

I imagine that most of my readers remember the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. In the Star Wars films of my youth, Han Solo piloted an old ship that (almost) always came through tough situations. It didn't look like much, but it was Han's pride and joy. I am proud to say that I also owned a Millennium Falcon. Both of them carried beautiful women, hairy creatures and precious cargo. Both were driven by rugged dudes with sketchy backgrounds and plenty of scars. Both of them took part in plenty of amazing stories..

The main difference is that my Falcon was an SUV. A decked-out 1993 Nissan Pathfinder SE. In true early 90s fashion, it was teal green. It had custom-moulded running boards and a tint package that I paid way too much money for. Like many young professionals, as soon as I signed a continuing contract, the first thing I bought was a new set of wheels. All of my roommates at the time had taken the plunge. The truck I started my teaching career with was a gift from my parents, a nice little Ford Ranger with jump seats and a cool box cover. I really liked that truck, but it was 2 wheel drive. During my first year of teaching, we went on a New Year's ski trip to Whitefish and I couldn't push my little Ranger up the hill to catch our last day of skiing. I swore that day I would buy a 4 wheel drive vehicle (and I've owned one ever since.)

I clearly remember the June day I picked up the Falcon. We were into our middle school exam week, so we were going out for lunch. I picked up my new wheels, then sped back to the school to pick up "the boys". On the way, it sputtered and spat. Like Han Solo's Falcon, my truck couldn't reach the speed limit, let alone light speed. It was probably a vapour lock of some sort and it NEVER happened again. Nonetheless, I could see obvious doubt in the faces of my colleagues. I'm sure they believed that dumb old Ted got taken to the cleaners on his Japanese P.O.S.

From that day on, though, my truck never let me down. Ice fishing, off roading, long journeys on the highway, scooting around town, pulling trailers, trips to the dump. None of it fazed the Falcon. I went through several sets of tires, a transmission,a few fender-benders and my fair share of repairs. For the most part, though, I tried very hard to keep it running smoothly. Mechanically, it was a dream. Right to the end, it started happily in the winter and hummed like a top. It was a very sure-footed and well-balanced offroad vehicle, too. I never got it stuck (and I pushed it through plenty of scary spots.) It had all kinds of extras like "sport suspension", an 8 speaker stereo, a sunroof , plus power locks and windows that didn't like cold weather. My brother-in-law, a complete car junkie, loved the look and smell of my Pathfinder. This kind of compliment, coming from someone who has owned so many vehicles, always made me extra proud of the Falcon.

From a memory point of view, it was also fully loaded. I proposed to my wife in the Falcon. We took it across western Canada and through the Pacific Northwest. The console was extra worn because our pooch would stick her head between the seats so she could see where we were going. It seems fitting that our pup took her last breath in the Falcon. She went with us almost everywhere and when we had two car seats filling up the back, Bailey had to ride in the hatch with the luggage, but she didn't mind. It's a good thing my truck saw me through plenty of sad drives, because the day Bailey died just outside of Sherwood Park, I needed the Falcon to run on autopilot back to Red Deer.

More than anything, I remember going fishing in my Millennium Falcon. Ice fishing, fly fishing, lake fishing, bellyboating, canoeing, fly-in fishing. It had a second sense for finding fish and getting me home safely. Sometimes, it was my accommodation for the night. It was always a place where I had great conversations with great friends. My good friend Wayne called it the "Finder of Paths...Fishing Paths" and my buddy Dave immortalized it in a song about fishing on the North Ram River.

At times, my Pathfinder stunk. I usually had a Vanillaroma stinky tree dangling from the rear view mirror, but there were certainly times when other stenches overpowered the faux vanilla. A hatch full of wet neoprene or hockey equipment would billow the rankness of man sweat. After a night of eating red meat and drinking draft beer, it smelled like ass.. Following a ski trip where we tried to drink every Corona in the town of Canmore, the Pathfinder reeked of limes and onion rings from Peter's Drive In for a week.

The worst smell, though, was provided by the Falcon's most frequent flyer, Bailey the Chesapeake Retriever. My buddy Brian and I took her fishing on the Red Deer River a couple days after a freak September snow storm. We must have timed the trip to coincide with the arrival of the water from the Blindman and Medicine Rivers to the west of town, because our poor pup came out of the river smelling like manure. She could barely stand herself and we had to drive home with the windows, sunroof and rear hatch wide open.

I believe that you can tell a great deal about people by the vehicle they drive. Even when the rust started to wear though, I was proud to hop in my Pathfinder. It was me, from the roof rack to the upgraded stereo to the various dings, scratches and dents. When I sold it for $1000, it had over 320,000 kilometres on it. If you approached from the rear, it definitely looked worse for wear. The moment I got inside, though, I couldn't help but smile and think of all the great adventures made possible by the Falcon.

In my lifetime, I have not owned many vehicles. A '69 Olds Cutlass, an '80 Olds Cutlass, an '89 Ford Ranger, a '99 VW Jetta (The Red Rocket) and a '10 Subaru Forester. My present truck is an '06 Nissan Frontier. Each vehicle has special memories and I'm sure that many of them will appear in a blog at some point.

None of them match up to the Falcon and none of them ever will. Get ready for the jump to lightspeed, Chewie!