It’s That Time of Year

I got mad at a barista last week.

It’s my own fault. I should have known better than to go into a Starbucks in early November. A couple days after Halloween, a couple days before Remembrance Day.

I just wanted coffee. I did not want the Christmas music playing on the loudspeaker. I did not want the green “Holiday” cup.

I told the very pleasant young woman getting me my coffee that I knew it wasn’t her decision, but I couldn’t believe they were playing Christmas music.

She responded, “It’s that time of year.”

I snapped back, “No it’s not.”

It’s November.

November is supposed to suck. Everywhere in Canada. Bitter winds. Driving rain. Long nights. Short days. Cold. Snow. Awful.

Appropriate weather in the lead up to Remembrance Day. Bleak and depressing. We suffer through it in our heated homes and comfortable cars. And imagine the mud and misery of the trenches. The horror of battle. We bundle up and take our families to cenotaphs on November 11th. We shiver, and maybe wish that the wreath laying didn’t take so long. And then we see veterans. Old men, resplendent in their medals. Marching. Sometimes crying. And we are humbled, thankful and blessed.

It’s that time of year.

Time to suffer through November together.

Instead we’ve let companies cheapen Christmas by dragging it backwards into early November. The earlier Christmas comes, the less special it is.

Christmas is special because it’s fleeting.

And it comes on December 25th. That’s Christmas.

I’m not talking about religion here either. For tens of millions of people, the world over Christmas is special because of family and tradition, meals and music, parties and friendship.

And gifts too.

If there was no December 25th, there would be no Black Friday. No Boxing Day sales. No billions and billions of dollars spent by consumers, fueling our economy.

Not only have we allowed companies to extend Christmas into November, they exploit the hell out of December 25th without having the courage to call it Christmas.

There is no such holiday as Holiday.

It’s that time of year.

Your Own Blue Rodeo

I don’t have the words to convey how much Blue Rodeo’s music means to me.

But I’ll try.

I fell in love with Blue Rodeo while I was falling in love. My ex-wife was a huge fan.   Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece “Five Days in July” was released the same year we met, the same year we got engaged, the same year we went to our first concert together. The same year Jim Cuddy sang, “Find the face you’ve seen a thousand times.”

The face you’ve seen a thousand times.

You expect to see that face forever.

When our marriage ended almost a decade later, I went months without listening to Blue Rodeo. I didn’t know if I ever would again. The link between the music and our relationship was so strong that every song was bound to hurt. We’d played “Lost Together” at our wedding.

Instead Blue Rodeo helped me heal. Often on long runs, cradling my Sony Discman, listening to their latest CD.

Time passed. I moved – to a new relationship and a new city – small town Ontario colliding with expanding suburbia. My long runs got longer and longer. Hour after hour, slow and steady along busy country roads with commuting cars speeding past. So sometimes I just stepped out my front door and ran lap after lap around my new home, a 100 acre farm. Peace, solitude, and endless repetitions of songs that left me feeling like Cuddy and Greg Keelor had crawled inside my head and torn their lyrics from my life.

Years passed. Apple conquered the world. Music accompanied all of us everywhere. Blue Rodeo moved with me across the country. A new province, a new job. The same relationship. Another face I saw a thousand times. Until I didn’t.

A break-up that surprised neither of us. Warning signs appeared at a Jim Cuddy concert in Victoria. I was so excited to be there. An intimate venue, a new album, old favorites. She was sad. A death in the family that day. Someone who lived far away. My sympathy was real but perfunctory.  Selfish.  The concert trumped all. I was angry when she didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Or I wanted her to. A great concert. A bad night.

The next day Cuddy’s band was in Vancouver. I didn’t have tickets or any plans to be there. Instead, on a cold January morning, I strapped our Christmas tree to the roof of the car and drove it to a local school. Trees chipped for charity. One of the chippers was a friend. It was early afternoon. Six or seven hours until the concert would begin. Still no plans to be there. I mentioned it to my friend, almost jokingly, “hey do you want to go?” He did. His wife said he could. I raced home, booked tickets, a helicopter ride, and a hotel. Sped back to his house to pick him up. We flew to Vancouver. I saw the Jim Cuddy Band for the second night in a row. Totally spontaneous. A good night.

A memorable weekend. Capped off with an 8k road race back on Vancouver Island on Sunday morning. Hung over, tired and catching the first float plane of the morning back to Victoria just to get to the start on time. A weekend that showed the importance of Blue Rodeo, and running in my life.

The band and running intersected again just weeks later. Early spring, not long before I was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon. A bucket list race, and an iconic experience for marathoners around the world.

Training was going well. I felt as strong and healthy as ever. Including regular one hour early morning runs along the oceanfront in Victoria. A 6 mile run that I always did listening to Blue Rodeo’s album, “The Days in Between.” There’s a song on that album that gives a glimpse of Blue Rodeo’s brilliance. The song is called “Truscott.” I did not expect to like it. The song title itself got my back up. Steven Truscott was a teenager when he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl named Lynne Harper in the 1950s in Ontario. He was sentenced to be hanged. The federal government commuted his sentence to life in prison. Decades later his conviction was overturned.

I didn’t expect to like the song. As cops go, I’m pretty liberal. Maybe very liberal. But Lynne Harper was the ultimate victim. She deserved a tribute. Her once convicted killer didn’t. But then I listened and heard a song about perseverance, strength and love:

When the fever was breaking,

I was sweat soaked and frail,

I dreamed I was Steven Truscott,

A child in jail.

 

And when I awoke,

And I felt your cool breeze,

I wept like an ocean,

Sweet tears of relief.

 

Subtle. Simple. Beautiful.

 

Blue Rodeo has remained with me into the next stage of my life. A wonderful woman, a lovely daughter. Cool breezes.

My love for the band is as strong as ever. I listen to them daily. I see them in concert annually. They are so talented, their set list so deep, that after a three hour concert, dozens of their best songs still haven’t been played. They are that good.

They are more than a band. More than a collection of songs. They are a part of my life.

If you don’t know them, I hope you’ll listen.

If you already love them, you know what I’m talking about.

And if neither is the case, then I hope you have your own Blue Rodeo. Something special accompanying you through your life.

 

The Essence of Summer

Online dating brought my wife and me together. It was inevitable. We had so much in common. A love for running, reading, dogs, history, travel, Victoria.

However, it might have been something that wasn’t in our online profiles that sealed the deal.

Camping.

I think we were the only two people on match.com who didn’t rave about camping. Or at least pretend to love it.

We might be the only two people in British Columbia who don’t camp.

Maybe it’s because we’re both from Ontario.

I’ve lived in BC for over ten years. I’m proud to reside here. Fortunate to raise my daughter in a beautiful and prosperous province where people flock from all over the world to both visit and live.

Yet Ontario will always feel like home. Because it was home for three and a half decades. Not just for my formative years. I was creeping up on early middle-age when I left.

And I noticed differences when I arrived. Subtle but very real.

In Ontario, people go to the movies.

In B.C., I hear, “have you seen that show?”

“No, which one?” I reply, thinking maybe I’m being asked about “Seinfeld,’ or “Breaking Bad.” Thinking I’m being asked about a television show.

Instead, the response I get is, “Star Wars (Episode One Thousand: Attack on the Audience).”

I say, “No I haven’t,” while my inner voice screams “It’s a movie, not a show!”

There are language differences at work too. In Ontario, I heard the word “copper” daily. Because a police officer was a copper. For example, “That guy I just pulled over is a copper with Hamilton.”

No one says “copper” here. Instead everyone is a “member.” I’m still not used to that. Member of what? Rotary? A golf course? The Jell-O of the Month Club?

These small differences appear at work and at play. My ex and I had a cottage on an island not far from Victoria. Except here everyone called it a cabin. An inconsequential difference. Meaningless. Yet it grated every time I heard it.

Because cottages are very Ontario. Going to the cottage – your own, a friend’s, a rental – is for many people the essence of summer.

The same way that camping is here in B.C. Not everyone owns a motorhome or camper. It just seems like it. Which is understandable, because never-ending forests, pristine lakes, and the mighty Pacific offer incomparable beauty.

All things which I want to see. Which my wife wants to see. However, we want to see them and then drive back to our hotel, with indoor plumbing, a kitchen, cable and the internet.

Our daughter is not from Ontario. British Columbia is her home. It’s her culture. Her friends will camp. She’ll want to camp. She should. She should experience the best that this province has to offer.

Sonja and I owe her that experience. We might do it. Next summer. Perhaps starting by pitching a tent in the backyard. Still a pretty big adventure for a two year old (and for this forty-seven year old). And maybe that evolves. Maybe Sonja and I open our minds and try something new. Maybe we embrace our adopted province and start camping.

Or, dear reader. My friends. The ones with little kids, tents, RVs. Maybe you can take her for a few days. Just a few. She’s cute, funny, full of personality, and won’t take up much space in your camper.

While you’re gone Sonja and I will rent a cabin and watch a show.

Hey I’m trying.

One step at a time.

The Essence of Summer

Thankful for the Bus

Victoria is commuter hell.

Hell on a different scale than L.A., or Vancouver, or Toronto. But hell nonetheless.

Bike lanes, mountain views and ocean living, do nothing to tackle the fundamental problem, a car culture where tens of thousands of drivers, a handful of main roads, and many chokepoints make for much frustration.

Most cities experience similar issues. Unlike Victoria, they adapt. In southern Ontario, ‘GO’ trains and buses are part of the fabric of life in the Greater Toronto Area. Quality transportation in the midst of traffic chaos.

Not so Victoria. Train tracks rust – totally unused. And buses are “Loser Cruisers,” filled with the the poor, mentally ill, drunks, creeps, criminals. And students. Few would actually say those words out loud, but that is the popular perception. None of my colleagues take the bus to work, though for many of them it would be an inexpensive and plausible alternative to expensive gas and long delays. The same could be said for most workplaces in Victoria. But for every man or woman in a business suit who steps off a bus in the morning, ten luxury cars speed by, battling for rare parking in the congested downtown core.

I’m part of the car culture. Usually. 40K in, 40K home, 4 days a week, doing my part to clog the lone highway connecting Victoria to the rest of Vancouver Island.

But sometimes I take the bus, one of the few commuter ones that actually service the area. Fewer stops and a little more comfortable than the rest of the fleet. For a price. Ten bucks a ride instead of three.

I run to the bus stop, with a yellow reflective vest on my torso and a bright headlamp leading the way. My arrival is a glowing and infrequent interruption in the daily routine of the handful of commuters who are always there. They see one another every weekday. Nod. Exchange pleasantries. Develop friendships.

I’m the strange guy who shows up occasionally, always sweating. I drop my knapsack, stretch and sometimes duck behind the bus shelter and change my shirt. An oddity disrupting, or perhaps enlivening, their daily routine.

There’s always a seat for me, although it’s not always pleasant. Last week I boarded, found a spot, and, on the seat next to me were the dirty shoes of the guy sitting across from me, sprawled out like he was on the couch in his home. I wanted to smack him. I settled for glaring instead.

A couple of days before that, a lean, rough-looking guy in his twenties smacked my arm hard as he exited the bus. I was pissed. He got my death stare. But he never saw it. He never once looked back to see the extent of my anger, let alone to offer an apology. He just charged off the bus. I wanted to hit him too.

Near assaults aside, I like riding the bus. I read and write. Think or don’t think. Rest and recharge. Remind myself how lucky I am to be travelling to a job that is occasionally rewarding, often challenging, and rarely physically exhausting.

Because the bus is full of construction workers whose job must drain them daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. Their commutes are longer than mine – an hour, each way, morning and night. Toiling in the heat, saturated in the rain, freezing in the cold. The yellow vests they wear are for safety on dangerous job sites. They always look weary, both before and after the long days they spend building roads and homes in Victoria. A city they probably can’t afford to live in. A city many working families increasingly can not afford to live in. Or near.

Last week, as I waited to board a bus home, an intoxicated male fell on the sidewalk. Several people watched. Me and another male went to him. He was okay. Hot on a blistering day. Drunk but not obliterated. He declined an ambulance. And a friend came to be with him.

I boarded my bus, thankful that the drunk didn’t follow.

Thankful to be heading home.

Thankful for the bus.

 

 

 

I Killed It

I killed a tree.

Not intentionally. But my ignorance and indifference sealed its fate.

We moved into our new house last July. It hadn’t rained for weeks and wouldn’t rain for another month. A young Japanese Maple stood alone and unprotected, near the road and beside our driveway. The previous owners must have nurtured it from a sapling to tree adolescence.

A welcoming note greeted us the first time we walked into our new home. Helpful tips and useful information from the former owner. Included in her note was an offer to transplant the Japanese Maple if we didn’t want it. She obviously loved it, and wanted it at her new home.

That tree didn’t ask much of us. It didn’t ask anything. But it needed water. The entire island was dry. Water restrictions in our neighbourhood forbade watering lawns. Some people did anyway, their lush green grass proof of their guilt. But we played by the rules.

Except I didn’t know all the rules. I could have hand watered that tree. But I didn’t. I never gave it a thought. Barely looked at it.

By September, when rain fell, it was too late. My wife said, “that tree is dead,” even though leaves still clung to the branches. It was the first time I’d given the tree more than a brief glance.

It rained a lot last winter. And rained more in the spring. Now I looked at it often. Daily. Hoping to see a bud. Hoping for a sign of life. By April colours and shoots emerged all over our property. But not on the lone maple. I asked my neighbour what he thought. He said the tree was a late bloomer, that it always had been, that it was not dead. But weeks passed and nothing happened.

I took my saw, cut through the base, dug out the roots, hacked it up and threw the remains in a compost bag.

The hole it left behind didn’t remain unfilled for long. We bought another. A tiny one. A different shade of red. It was my daughter’s height. Maybe smaller.

Into the ground it went, surrounded by new soil, mixed with compost and some mulch. And water.

The first few days I looked for signs of death. Brown leaves. Withered limbs. Any indication that the planting had not taken. It grew slowly. Leaves emerged. A lot of them. Small. Muted. Lovely.

Another summer arrived. Another drought, as bad, if not worse than last year. Our lawn is browning. Our yard unbearably hot under the cloudless sky and scorching sun.

Every morning I water our new tree. One or two big cans. Every night my wife or I do it again.

It’s hanging in there. Maybe not thriving, but not dying either. Every day I look at that tree hoping it makes it to the next day.

I don’t want to kill this one.

Our new tree (2)

 

Needles and Blackberries

I like to run before work, especially in the summer when it’s light before 5:00 a.m., never too hot and rarely too cool.

Sometimes I start at the office, head east, battle a steep incline and reach Summit Park. There’s rarely anyone there. Most Victorians don’t even know it exists. Which is too bad, and great. Acres of meadows, beautiful views and guaranteed peace nestled in the midst of a picturesque old neighbourhood. A neighbourhood surrounded by busy arterial roads. Which is probably why Summit Park is little known and never busy.

There’s always something to see. Sometimes it’s a red sunrise, bright and iridescent. Occasionally I see deer, rabbits or other runners. Their presence adds to the magic of an early morning run.

Not everything adds to the magic. Like the junkie, sitting in a battered sedan. He slouched backwards in the driver’s seat, one foot out the door, slurping a Big Gulp while I sprinted past doing intervals. When he drove away – finally – I threw out the garbage he left strewn behind.

Lately I’ve ended my runs at Summit Park by foraging for food. Blackberries, ripened by searing heat and easily accessible despite the thorns that protect them. The first time I saw the blackberries I put a handful into the pocket of my shorts, and hoped they didn’t squish into jam on the way back. They didn’t, although the stains may never disappear. So now I bring a small container, fill it in minutes, and savour the berries, one by one, throughout the day. Something feels natural and right about that.

The run home is a breeze. Mostly downhill. Right past Topaz Park. A bigger park, closer to the office. Closer to downtown. The other day, two syringes, still packaged, lay in the street. Unused. Dropped by an addict. Waiting to be picked up by another addict.

When I moved to Victoria, I was shocked by the prevalence, and openness of hard-core drug use. Addicts clustered around the needle exchange on Cormorant Street. Dozens of them. Openly injecting all night long. Or waiting for their next fix. It was eerie. Like nothing I’d ever seen in suburban Ontario. Not even close. And it was sad too. Broken people, most of them beyond help.

That was ten years ago. Before the fentanyl crisis. I wonder how many of them are dead now.

Addicts are part of the landscape here. Acceptable. Expected. The ‘Sharps’ containers in public places tell the tale – at the airport, in coffee shops, in the vans staffed by medical professionals and volunteers who roam our streets. Helping the afflicted. But enabling them too.

Here are just some of the headlines when I Googled, “needle pricks Victoria”

Child Pricked by Discarded Needle at McDonald’s Restaurant

Dog Walker … Pricked by Discarded Needle Left in Paper Bag

Woman Pricked by Needle Placed in Downtown Victoria Planter

Google didn’t have to scour the archives for those results. All three are from 2018.

Several weeks ago, I spent time in a park in the downtown core. It’s actually a cemetery beside Christ Church Cathedral. The church is magnificent, both in size and beauty.

I found three needles amidst the gardens and shrubs that border the cemetery. Three more potential headlines, in one portion of one park, in a city full of them.

In his most recent ‘Reacher’ book, author Lee Child wrote that, “People are complicated.” The phrase has stuck with me for months, for its simplicity and accuracy.

Not just people. Life is complicated. Cities are complicated.

Morning runs are complicated. Morning runs which bring me so much pleasure and yet remind me that our world is full of pain.

Needles and Blackberries.

Needle

 

Blackberries 2

 

The Wrong Amount of Cynicism

In my last piece, I wrote about how my friend Mark has the right amount of cynicism to enhance his writing.

I think I may have the wrong amount. Not for writing, but for life.

Two weeks ago my wife Sonja and I took our daughter Molly to the beach. Sonja supervised while Molly swam. I took over when Molly toddled to the playground. When I glanced back at Sonja I saw her talking to an older man I did not know. They seemed engrossed in conversation. A couple of minutes later I looked again. It wasn’t a conversation. Sonja was on the receiving end of a monologue.

Molly scampered back to the water and I followed. We built sand castles, waded up to her waist and splashed around. When we packed up ten minutes later Sonja was still being talked at. Molly and I walked over and Sonja introduced me to the man. Probably the first words she’d spoken in fifteen minutes. He was in his seventies. Fit. Amiable. We exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t stick around.

Later, Sonja told me she’d enjoyed talking to him. He’d led a fascinating life. Military service, law enforcement, travel, successful children.

My response – “I wonder if anything he said was true?”

Sonja is kind, smart, and a good judge of character. She believed he was truthful.

I hope she’s right.

My cynicism may be a product of being a cop for almost 20 years. Or maybe I became a cop because it’s a profession where cynicism is a necessary tool. People lie to the police. Normal people. All the time. “I only had two beers officer. I’m fine to drive.” Or, “no I didn’t hit my wife, she fell and hurt herself.” Regular people sometimes do awful things, and, not surprisingly, don’t want to be arrested.

I want to believe people. Whether I’m speaking to them at work, or along a beach in Shawnigan Lake, somehow, my first instinct remains to do so. That inclination remains deep within me.

But I’ve developed a filter. A combination of gut-feeling and analytical evaluation.

It’s a necessary filter at work. It can be helpful in everyday life. But it colours the way I see the world, and I’m not sure I like that. It’s a short step from cynicism to negativity and anger.

A week later, Sonja, Molly and I were in a different park in a different city. Molly played, while we socialized with a friend.

A woman I did not know joined the conversation. A mother, she too was there with her child. I listened while this mother, and our friend talked about children, and nature.

The mother steered the conversation to how this park which we all stood on was on “stolen land” and how she struggled with explaining that concept to her daughter. The mother assumed everyone present agreed.

I didn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately I agreed but with a giant asterisk. Pick anywhere on the globe where humans live and look back in time – sometimes ten years, sometimes ten thousand – and chart the history of civilizations, populations, and borders constantly changing. Nations and nationalities rise and fall, merge and move, live together in peace and devour each other in conflict. History is complicated and messy. Like life.

I didn’t speak up in the park. I was not cynical about this mother’s sincerity. Far from it. Her convictions were heartfelt and sincere.

But I was cynical about her assuming that my friend and I agreed with her premise.

Which made me angry. Quickly. So I said nothing.

It is not my intention to write about Canada’s Native population and the sad and tragic history which has resulted in so much suffering. Except, I will say this. I believe that one of Canada’s great strengths is our multiculturalism. Not the theory of multiculturalism, but the reality of it. We have built a nation in which ethnic groups and nationalities from all over the world live together. And it works pretty well, most of the time. Except our First Nations aren’t part of that. And I’m not sure that we are taking any meaningful steps to address that. I read and hear much about reconciliation. I worry that it is an empty word, comprised of well meaning gestures, and ten or twenty years from now, nothing will have changed.

I read my own words, and worry too, that they lack compassion.

That I am too quick to dismiss the suffering of others.

That I am too willing to believe that a nice man lied to my wife on a beautiful day in the hot sun along a quiet beach.

That instead of remaining silent in the park, I should have spoken with that mother. Engaged with her point of view. Challenged my own assumptions. Opened my mind and considered that maybe she is right and I am wrong.

I worry that I have the wrong amount of cynicism.