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

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mr. Hutchings, What's a Metropolis Noir?

When I need to process significant events in my life, I write. Yesterday, my family attended a Tragically Hip concert in Edmonton. I need to write about it, and here's why.

I first heard The Tragically Hip on an Edmonton radio station in 1990. After my first half year at the U of A, I was working at a toy factory, assembling educational toys. My coworkers were hard working, interesting people. For most of the day, I worked beside a fellow named Dieter, who smoked a lot of weed and loved music. When 38 Years Old finished playing, he looked at me and said simply, "That is a f***ing poignant song." He was rough around the edges and I'm certain that Dieter regretted many of his life choices, but he knew his music.

I couldn't help but agree with him. The fictional tale of a real-life event struck a chord with me. That fall, I hoped to attend the Hip's show at Dinwoodie Lounge, but it didn't pan out. When I learned that they would be playing Edmonton's Convention Center in the summer of 1991, I knew they were a band I had to see live. Last night, I saw them in person for the last time and I'm filled with emotion. I hope this blog helps me figure out why the news of Gord Downie's cancer and the Hip's farewell tour has hit me so hard.

The Hip are to music as hockey is to sport. You need to be Canadian to completely "get" them. In one of my older blogs, Great Canadian Gordons I wrote

Their music is laced with references to Canadian culture. Hockey themes abound, most notably "Fireworks" celebration of the 1972 Summit Series, the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko in "Fifty Mission Cap" and a dirge about being a goaltender in "The Lonely End of the Rink". Their lyrics celebrate notable Canadians like Bobby Orr, Pierre Trudeau and David Milgaard. Distinctly Canadian terms like toonie, CBC, prime minister and the "crown" pepper their lyrics. Even Donald S. Cherry makes an appearance as a chicken delivery man in the video for "The Darkest One".

The Hip's songs tend to mention Canadian places. Niagara Falls, Bobcaygeon, Toronton, Kingston, Cape Spear, Clayoquot Sound, Sault Ste Marie, Northumberland Strait, Churchill, Thompson, Lake Memphragog, Isle Aux Morts. I'm not completely sure, but I have a feeling that "The Paris of the Prairies" mentioned in "Wheat Kings" may be Saskatoon. I am certain that many essays and perhaps Master's theses have been written about the Hip's connection to Canada through music. Beyond the stage, Downie and the band have had cameos in uniquely Canadian television shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys.

For me, though, the quintessential Gordon Downie moment is the role he plays in Michael McGowan's film, One Week. The film is profoundly Canadian as it follows its protagonist, who has terminal cancer, on a motorcycle pilgrimage from Toronto to Tofino. Downie has a brief role as a man who meets the doomed Tyler and shares his experience of battling cancer. When I think of Canadian icons, people who have helped develop my generation's Canadian identity, I think of people like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. When it comes to people who reaffirmed my love of all things Canadian, I cannot think of a more iconic figure than Gordon Downie.

On a personal level, Downie's illness hits me hard. Like most of us, I've lost loved ones to cancer. Like Gordon Downie, I'm a father. The Hip have been a huge part of most of my adult life. It makes me incredibly sad to know that I've seen them live in concert for the last time. Fortunately, I got to enjoy yesterday's show with the people I love the most - my wife and two sons. I hope that a small part of my passion for The Hip lives on in my boys. To quote Don't Wake Daddy, 

We teach our children some fashion sense/And they fashion some of their own

The title of this post is a reference to a line from Greasy Jungle, and an unforgettable question a student asked me. As a beginning teacher, I used the Hip in class whenever possible. From trying to interpret New Orleans is Sinking in English to Drama tableau projects with 38 Years Old as the soundtrack to Wheat Kings in Social Studies, my love for the Hip extended to my students. For a few years, my home room was the Drama room and you could usually hear The Tragically Hip playing on the CD player. One day after school, a student asked me what "metropolis noir" meant. I've never forgotten the question, and I clearly remember seeing Ryan at Tragically Hip concerts years later. It makes me smile to know that a few of my students latched on to the important lessons I hoped they would find in The Hip's music.

When I really think about it, I'm sad for Gord, his family, and his closest friends. Last night's concert and the band's reaction since his illness went public demonstrates the depth of the band's friendship. And that, I think, is the root of my deep emotional connection to the Tragically Hip, their music, and their live shows.

I have so many incredible memories of seeing this band play. My first Hip show was July 26, 1991 at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Since then, I've seen them at Clark Stadium, Edmonton Agricom, Camrose, Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Jubilee, the Centrium, Saddledome, and The Whiskey in Calgary. When I think back to each show, I definitely remember the overall event and how watching them play filled me with joy. I remember a few specific Gord Downie rants and moves. I've evolved personally. In the early years, pre-Hip warm up meant a lot of beer. The last time I saw them in Red Deer, we had third row seats. Instead of planning the pre and post-concert party, I had to think carefully about wearing good shoes because I would be standing for the whole show.

More than anything, though, I remember the people I attended the shows with, listened to CD's, and discussed their music with. Brad, Brenn, Brian, Dave, Deneen, Grant, Ian, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Kevin, Pete, Rochelle, Ryan, Sandra, Sharon, Steve, Todd, Wayne...the list goes on.

My wife has been with me the most. She is the first to admit that she didn't really appreciate the Hip until she saw them live. Every time I hear It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, I think of her and the first time we heard it live. My best friend, Jeremy, has been with me for many shows. Last night, we talked before the show and fired Hip lines back and forth throughout. Jeremy was with me for the 1991 Convention Center show, so memorable, fuelled by lots of beer and a few unexpected complimentary drinks. We've seen them in Red Deer, Edmonton, Calgary and Camrose. Like my friends Dave and Wayne, we can trade Hip quotes for hours. And here's the great thing about the Tragically Hip. I guarantee that there are thousands of Canadians who have a story just like mine.

Last night, my emotions were unbridled, and I was not alone. My final Hip show was full of shouting, clapping, dancing, and singing out loud without a care in the world. My good friend Brian is hosting a back yard Hip party on August 20 when the CBC broadcasts their final show from Kingston.

I can't wait, but I don't want it to end. To close, I will borrow the opening line from Live Between Us.

Thank you. We are all richer for having seen you.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

For the Love of Joe

I've thought about how to start this a few times, and not many of them seemed to hit the mark. It's been a long time since I have written anything here, and peeking through some of my own posts reminded me exactly why I needed to write this. You see, the world lost a beauty today, and the most fitting way for me to reminisce about Joe Bower is to write a blog.

Joe's blog, For the Love of Learning, is incredibly influential. His popularity on Twitter and as a speaker about redesigning education is undeniable. The tributes Joe has received on social media since he suffered a massive heart attack speak volumes about his prominence. His understanding of how to harness emerging media to spread his ideas was absolutely cutting edge. I was always impressed and astounded by the reaction he elicited from people, particularly people who only knew him online.

I first met Joe Bower when he was 19 years old. Many people his age would have just graduated from high school, perhaps taken a year off to find themselves, and just dipping their toes into post-secondary school. Not Joe. He was already in his third year of his BEd, accepted into a highly competitive Middle Years Program at Red Deer College. Joe came to my school for his four week practicum and student taught with a good friend and colleague. From the outset, it was clear that Joe knew who he was and what he wanted to be. He loved teaching and sincerely wanted to be the best teacher possible.

Part of Joe's passion stemmed from his own experience as a student. When I found out that a good friend of mine taught Joe in high school, I casually mentioned it. Joe's reaction was typical. He didn't care about my relationship with this teacher outside of school. To Joe, this person was not a good teacher and he didn't care what a nice person he was. Joe always told you what he thought and you never had to guess where you stood. Joe would tell you, in no uncertain terms. One of my former students, now a school administrator, said "what a lot of people don't know is that Joe's brutal honesty is just an invitation to be honest ourselves." So true, Everett, so true.

As a student teacher, Joe jumped right in to the life of our school. In those days, we had a lot of younger staff who had not yet started families. The end of a work week often required a serious debriefing at a local establishment or someone's home. We played as hard as we worked, and Joe was always eager to be part of the fun. Joe started joining our Wednesday night teacher hockey during those years. Even better, Joe loved to play goal and he quickly became a mainstay of our group. Oddly enough, part of the teacher hockey ritual included rehydration at a local pub, and Joe lost a lot of sweat during our late night shinny sessions. Once Joe graduated and started teaching, he continued playing goal with us, despite the good-natured ribbing that comes with being a goaltender. At times, Joe would forget his long underwear and have to his big black protective cup with nothing underneath. He could have auditioned for the Showcase series Kink and received a role!

Another great memory I have of Joe is through skiing, or more specifically, snowblading. As a student teacher, he jumped right in to supervising the weekly ski club. Even though he started teaching at a different middle school, our ski clubs often booked the same nights at our local ski area, Canyon. Joe grew up next door to Canyon and he was a machine on the slopes. It was Joe who first introduced me to snowblading, a guilty pleasure I wrote about in a previous post (Confessions of a Shortboarder). Riding a chairlift with someone you know means you have 10 minutes to just talk. These 10 minute visits allowed me to really learn who Joe was. Our visits at Canyon evolved into an annual ski trip at Teacher's Convention that we called "Weekend at Fernie's".

The details of these ski trips should remain in the memories of those who participated, even though the details might be a bit foggy. We had a solid crew of participants and Joe was always front and center. He loved to ski, he loved to talk, and he loved to have a great time. He never missed a trip and some of my absolute favorite memories involve trips to and from the mountains with Joe. In another post (The Millennium Falcon), I reminisced about these trips. Joe was definitely one of the many hairy creatures my Falcon transported.

It was during these times that I learned exactly what a complex and admirable man Joe really was. He loved teaching, he loved sports, he loved life, and he loved Tamara. From the time I knew Joe, he knew that Tamara was going to be his wife. She understood, admired, and tolerated him. His love for her was resolute. I was honored to attend their wedding and watch them as they started a family.

As we grew older and busier, I didn't have as many chances to visit with Joe, though we still crossed paths regularly. One of Joe's first speaking engagements came when I ran the ATA Middle Years Conference in 2007. When I taught in the Middle Years Program at RDC, I invited Joe to my class to share some of the things he was doing in his classroom. Joe's early presentations were passionate, profane, and always elicited a strong reaction. I always admired Joe's willingness to swim against the mainstream to support what he truly believed in. It may not have made him popular with his employer, but that is the beauty of who Joe was. Joe could be incredibly abrasive, particularly if you didn't know him well.

My last conversation with Joe Bower fits the mold of my entire relationship with him. We were playing in a memorial hockey tournament last September. Joe played for an opposing team, but we found time for a drink and a chat in the parking lot, between games. Instead of a political or educational discussion, we talked about our families and baseball. We reminisced about a time he "slept over" in my basement following a Wednesday teacher hockey session, and we realized that 14 years had passed since that night. In those fourteen years, our families had grown. Joe had written a book and was the author of a hugely influential blog. I left Red Deer to become principal of a K-12 school similar to the one Joe attended as a student. Fundamentally, though, nothing had changed.

Joe would still literally give the shirt off his back to help a friend. He still believed passionately that our education system could be so much better than it currently is. He loved sports and having a good time with his friends. He wanted a better world for his children and family, who were the center of everything he did. As I said earlier, the world lost a beauty today. I know you can't comment on this blog, Joe, but I do hope you know how much I think of you.