August 2009

Good year to all our family and friends.  Photos of every linked item will open if you click on the highlighted text, so you can enjoy a virtual tour of our local hang-outs:

Here we are. At home.  In August.  We should be in the North Channel by now, or on the Trent Severn Canal system somewhere, but as the time approached, we simply "lost the will to leave", so to speak.  Early in the spring we bought a trailerable sailboat called Tiger Moth, and a GMC Sierra Hybrid to pull it; but after a July highlighted by family visitors, including my parents Tom and Kathleen (here with my cousin Tom on his staircase, his father Tom and his mother Janice, my mother's sister, on the top step - three Toms in close proximity, we could have played the drums), and my sister Dianne, brother-in-law Kris and their new daughter Miranda, we began to consider a confluence of reasons to stay home.  We'd been to Niagara Falls twice in July, and to our own local Rosetta McClain Gardens twice.  It rained every other day (and do we want to be camping on a sailboat in the rain?), but it was also very sunny, cool, green and beautiful right here in Toronto when it wasn't raining, and our garden was entering the harvest phase...so after a June of strawberries, we're entering an August of zuchinni, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, raspberries, and squash, plus many herbs and flowers.  In the photo you can see a variety of types of tomatoes we've been eating, including sweet cherry tomatoes and the odd-looking but most delicious of all, the Russian Krim, with the green tops. 

The temperature has been astonishingly comfortable for land-lubbers - averaging 25 degree daily highs, with only one 30 degree day all summer so far.  We have friends to visit, especially those who also have the summer off, and we don't get to see much through the winter; we have tennis courts (I'm struggling with a weakened ankle right now, but I love to play), and sailing; I have my musical pursuits, described in a postscript, below; and we have another excuse not to leave - most of what we'd look for on a vacation exists right here with no effort to get to them.  Let me explain, only slightly tongue-in-cheek:

Our modest home-that-looks-like-a-cottage is a fairly trouble-free place to hang out, with a good shed and a fine garden, including a relaxing patio table and chairs in a private back yard.  The house that backs onto our property has been silently and peacefully vacant for a decade, as bizarre as that seems.  We eat Deborah's good cooking, watch new movies every night on the living room wall, and we're gradually getting rid of stuff we've collected over the years by advertising it all on Craigslist and Kijiji - and that process takes being around to answer phone calls and emails, and arrange appointments for people to come and see, and hopefully buy, the items they're interested in. 

When we need a change of scene, we drive for five minutes to our lakefront cottage-that-looks-like-a-home - now this is, admittedly, a shared facility (and therefore very inexpensive for us, although the city is trying to tax us as a $5 million property), but it isn't a time share; we can be there year-round, twenty-four hours a day, and most of the others that we share this facility with just aren't there or spend most of their time on their boats, so we never feel crowded; but at the same time, we have a dock community of acquaintances to share a story and a laugh with whenever we're in the mood for that.  It's a great recreation model.  Our "cottage" has various rooms, like the Sailor's Lounge, a great kitchen, showers, a Great Room where the community gathers to play darts and euchre on Wednesday evening and they open the bar - and the drinks are less than half of the cost in a restaurant.  There's a downstair deck with umbrella tables and chairs, and a wrap-around balcony deck on the second floor, as well as lovely corners to retire to everywhere, like the huge weeping willow trees out on the point. There's a two story workshop for everyone's use,  a huge parking lot for our guests who come for a visit, a BBQ or a sail, gardens, picnic tables and BBQ's everywhere including right in front of our boat.  Speaking of which, where is our bedroom in our "cottage"?  Why, right here, of course.  And we share an island (across a bridge and behind a locked gate) with three other clubs at which we have reciprocal privileges, one with a terrific restaurant with a view, and another where we store the trailerable boat, and good friends at the third, including some musical friends.  We're connected to a large park, a commercial marina nearby, and on the other side a great supervised swim beach and trails out along a wooded peninsula to a lighthouse (the trees are being thinned out somewhat by the denizens of a local beaver lodge, mind you).  It's really like an Ontario lakefront resort, and it's all ours, minutes from the door of our house.

So, here we remain, having turned back at the doorstep of a summer adventure.  Is it a case of age and hormonal decrease...or as Dad said about things he doesn't feel like doing anymore, "Been there, done that..."?  (or is this just another case of the chicken or the egg?)  I think it might also be that we know we will soon be able to travel wherever we want and for as long as we please, since we're planning to retire at Christmas of this year.  And because we want to be free to travel, it feels important to deal with reducing our possessions and making sure we complete our summer home maintenance projects.  Maybe it is a combination of all the above, as well as my painful ankle ligament which is healing over several months.  Whatever it is, we're blissfully content to let the days flow by without going anywhere at all, for now.

Kitty Lemieux finally died of an unspecified age-related illness at the beginning of the summer, so we have no more pets to worry about, except for the semi-feral Siamese cat who I call Jasmine that had her kittens in our furnace room and who is now in no hurry to leave her lovely, safe new home.  We've moved her food gradually out the door and up the stairs toward the kitchen, a little further each day, to encourage her to expand her horizons, and maybe one day soon she'll slip out the back door and only return for grub.  She prefers to remain out of sight, although she'll come upstairs to us to be hand-fed and petted twice a day.  Right now she is my nervous metaphor...I feel I must be like her to a distressing degree, no longer willing to leave the comfort of my home and neighbourhood now that the summer is finally here, even though I looked forward to the opportunity while I was at work and couldn't go anywhere.  Or maybe I just realized that my cup is more than half full right here and right now, and there's no need to go somewhere else to try to fill it up.  It's the good life...

I hope you are all having adventures and blissful summer days.  Deborah and I love to hear from you all whenever we can, and we love to host visits from friends and family.

Yours truly,

Stephen and Deborah

P.S. My musical life, a mini-essay:

I played music all summer with a variety of people and instruments, and the emphasis was on "play" and on friendships.  I worked with a four piece band called Night Flyte, which has a decades-long history of playing gigs in Toronto.  The guitarist and lead singer John Hope was resurrecting the band after two years of dormancy. It was good to play again with someone who can "hit the ground running", competently performing a wide range of songs without a year of rehearsal preceding gigs.  I had plenty of time to help him develop his "book" with the new group through the summer, but I bowed out when I got busy at work again in the fall, and realized I would likely be travelling during the winter when he hoped to be busiest.  He needed to find players who'd be around and were hungry enough to want to give up weekend evenings in the cold winter driving to modestly paid gigs, lugging heavy equipment, etc, while I needed more variety, spontaneity and "fun" in my music-making. 


I played various kinds of music with various other combinations of people all summer, including jazz with trombone and sax players; a jamming group of guitars, bass, drums and keyboard; a finger-picking guitarist and slide guitarist duo for which I worked on blending in muted trumpet parts; and two friends who formed a fiddle, mandolin and keyboard combo.  My guiding focus in this pursuit has been friendship first, musicianship second.  As men age, the camaraderie they had in sports fades as their athleticism declines; playing music is one group activity which can replace my lifetime sequence of sports: rugby, soccer, cricket, softball, volleyball and finally tennis, curling, ping-pong and racing sailboats (progressively less physically punishing sports!); and when you retire, the friendship of your still-working colleagues largely evaporates. Something has to replace all of that, so when it comes to playing music, friendship and sincerity are more important to me nowadays than money from gigging, or the embarrassing delusion of recapturing a lost youthful dream of local rock stardom, which is a disease that seems to infect too many musicians of my vintage who are coming back out of the woodwork as the importance of sports and career-building recede. 

Right now I'm enjoying the release from deafening (literally!) volumes in small rooms at rehearsals, and slavish adherence to trying to sound like each hit recording, as if those songs could never be played in other way, even though a small amateur group just doesn't have the same level of technology, talent and instrumentation; and with no room for creative expression that allows the unique musicianship of each member of the group to emerge.  When creativity is allowed to happen, sparkling moments of pure musical magic, of creative collaboration, spontaneously fill the air.  Mind you, it takes a certain foundation of experience and musicianship for those moments to spring from - it isn't common for amateur musicians of limited training and performance experience to have the talent that those improvizational musical connections are grounded in, but it starts to emerge when musicians are open to the concept, at least.  When it happens, it's a genuinely playful and joyful "peak experience", a natural high.  A background that includes singing, especially harmonies, and jazz studies, in addition to rudimentary and classical music lessons on your instrument, and listening to top forty hits and pop groups all your life, is most likely to provide the fertile ground for those acoustic flowerings.


For the fall, I considered rejoining the concert band, but ended up being invited into the Scarborough Teachers' Choir, who were short of male singers, particularly tenors.  It's a bit painful for me to sing in the higher tenor range, but I agreed to help them out, especially when I realized that this is a musical pursuit that Deborah could enjoy doing with me.  She's singing alto in the choir, and thoroughly enjoying the challenge. There's a once a week teacher's pop band at my school, and pick-up rock group at my yacht club (we have a six channel mixer and speakers built right into the clubhouse).  Looking beyond, I have a music contact on cruise ships who provided me with a repertoire list to work toward playing keyboard and trumpet in a cruise ship orchestra, which is one of the items on my bucket list.

In some of the groups of musicians I play with now, I am the keyboard bass player in addition to being the trumpet, harmonica and synthesizer keyboard player, and relief singer plus harmony back-up singer. It's amazing what range and quality of bass guitar sound you can get on a synthesizer, and a little bit of reading up on the subject uncovered a surprisingly long list of popular hits over the years that used keyboard bass rather than an actual guitar bass, a fact which most rock musicians are not aware of.  Of course, a keyboard player learns to play bass with his left hand as part of his basic training, and with a good ear for harmonies (from singing baritone and bass harmony parts) and a knowledge of scales and chords, a keyboard player can put in a bass performance that surpasses that of any guitar bass player.  It is usually forgotten that historically, guitar bass simply grew out of the need for a bass line in a group of guitars, and it was generally the least talented guitar player who got assigned to play those simpler lines.  Bass lines have also traditionally been played by tubas and euphoniums, organs, and other instruments, depending on the kind of group that needed them.

I never considered this as a young musician, and most amateur pop musicians would consider it anathema - it's amazing how we get locked into conventional "rules" about how bands should look and perform, as we do with so many other aspects of our lives.  We admire the innovators, but we shy away from it ourselves.  A guitar bass seems required for a stage visual by most amateur bands, maybe because of our early memories of the Beatles, Stones, etc, but keyboard basses produced by Fender Rhodes (used by the Doors, who never used anything but a keyboard bass) and the Hohner electronic Basset have been used in studio and on stage since 1960 by Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Stevie Wonder, B-52 and many other top groups.  That was a revelation to me.  With the range of bass sounds on my synthesizer, I've enjoyed this new dimension to my musical outlets and will continue volunteering as a bass player for groups.  My next step may be to look for a "keytar", one of those synthesizer keyboards that you wear like a guitar, standing up, with effects buttons up the neck and a strap over your shoulder.  They were big in the '80's, went out of fashion for two decades, but now appear to be coming back, with Herbie Hancock and many other groups playing the Roland AX-7 or AX-Synth, among other models.


I also use acoustic piano, Lesley and blues organ, Fender Rhodes, sax and harmonica sounds for example, to create familar licks and covers of original recordings, and a variation of sounds from song to song.  Here's the practice space where I've been working all this out - taking over our small dining room!  It's a comfortable spot, close to the kitchen...you can see my trumpet, computer, practice amp/drumbox combo, etc.  The flat screen monitor over my keyboard is interesting: it allows me to pull up Youtube music videos by various artists, lyrics, Band-In-A-Box files, Finale music writing software, Word, and digital ultimate fakebooks all at once - I would have died to have this capability when I was a young working musician in my twenties.

I'm not sure what part music will play in my retirement.  As long as I'm travelling, the keyboard isn't a practical companion, unless I can find a light, cheap little one that'll run on 12 volt, but the sound on those is usually pretty tinny and unpleasant; but I'll take my trumpet with me, and play on pianos found here and there along the way.  And I'll probe my travelling companions and the people I encounter along the way for those who can sing, and like to do that - maybe I'll take some favourite song lyric sheets with me.
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