Islands in the stream

Apple Music Subscription ends

For those of us Apple faithful who jumped right on the bandwagon of Apple Music when it was let out into the world, the three-month trial ends today. Much as I’m a pretty strong Apple nerd, I will not be resubscribing. Thought I’d write a little of the journey to this point.

I’ve had this weird relationship with music as I’ve aged. I think I long ago stopped being cool and up on what’s new in the world of music. As Douglas Coupland once said, (to paraphrase) you sort of reach a certain age, sometime in your late 20s or early 30s when you kind of just have your box of vinyl and that it–you don’t stray too far. I’ve found that to be very true. After I left University and I wasn’t steeped in all the latest and greatest being blared from all the University hangouts, I went back to what I knew best. I went back to all the beloved 70s and 80s tunes that I grew up with, and that ushered me into my adulthood. I really don’t stray too far from there. And even though it hurts me when Suz points out that many of my favourite “Yacht Rock” songs sound like opening music for sitcoms, I’m not going to justify or apologize anymore–it’s where my heart lies.

What has changed, more through duress than anything else, are the ways in which I consume music. I started at an age where it was perfectly normal to have a collection of 45s that you’d take out and play, and a healthy addiction to Top 40 radio. I grew up on Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 charts. I sat in front of our family’s 21″ CRT TV and watched Marilyn McCoo sing cover tunes on Solid Gold, and I taped everything I could so I could hear it again when I wanted to. It didn’t matter a whit that the quality was crap.

I guess it all changed when CDs finally came around in the mid to late 80s. They were something wholly different. Even before I got to the music part of the experience, I loved the look of them. That shimmery, rainbow-glinted silver disc. I couldn’t believe, looking at it, there was actual music on there. I remember pining for a CD player for a good long while before I somehow scraped up the cash to buy the absolute bottom-level one I could afford. I spent literally all of my money on it–I couldn’t even afford to buy a CD to play in it when I got it home. My dad took pity on me and fronted me for one CD. I didn’t even think about it–I ran right out and bought Dark Side of the Moon. I just had to hear my favourite band’s most awesome record in all that crystal clarity. Gone was the hiss, gone was the horrible dolby noise reduction that made everything on my tapes sound like it was being played on the other side of a pillow. Gone was the crackle-pop-skip of the vinyl (which I would later come to love for what it was). From that time, for the next number of months, any time I had the money, I’d buy a CD. I thought they were the cat’s ass.

The next change came when people actually were able to record to CD. That was something–I recall following my friend Jake to his office where his boss had the only CD burner we knew of, and he let us try it. It took hours, but I did get a disc of music out of it. Amazing. We listened to the CD we created on Jake’s car CD player (another rarity at the time) on the way home. It felt like the future was here.

Finally came MP3, which didn’t do a thing for me until the rise of Napster, at which point I and everyone else I knew turned into a kid in a candy store. It was the first time music was ubiquitous. I could get whatever I wanted. I heard songs then I hadn’t heard in forever. And it’s been that way ever since.

The only change really is that the physical media slowly went away. My extensive CD collection sits boxed up in the basement, having been ripped to iTunes years ago. All new music (what little I buy) I still get on CD, but I rip it almost immediately and stock the disc. I can enjoy it on my iPhone that way anytime, anywhere. I also sometimes just buy the album directly from Apple and there’s no physical media at all. This totally removed the ritual aspects of listening to music for me, but I think that’s another post sometime.

That was a hard hurdle to overcome for me. For a while there, I was arguing that we as consumers were paying for a sub-par product. The lossy MP3s sold on the iTunes Music Store only contain a third of the data on the CD. It couldn’t possibly sound as good. But then, I realized first of all that the humble record store was becoming extinct, and I couldn’t get the CDs anymore if I wanted to (unless I went to Amazon, which is my current go-to), and second that the music I grew up listening to–the very same that has the strongest emotional hooks into me with the most powerful nostalgia connections–sounded like crap when I first heard it. When I was a kid, it was about the song, not about how good it sounded. It was icing on the cake if it sounded awesome, but it never stopped me from getting my music any way I could. I was never snobbish enough to say, “yeah, I’m not going to tape it–it’ll sound like ass behind all that hiss”. I took what I could get, and I was far richer for it. I’ve been seriously rethinking my audiophile snobbery of late. The equipment I have sounds every last bit as good to me playing a 320 kbps MP3 as it ever did playing a CD. The argument has always been that the equipment clearly isn’t good enough then. But honestly, the more I think of it, the more I think that even if that is true, it’s not going to make me feel any happier or better to get that miniscule improvement that I wouldn’t ever even know I was missing.

So I guess you could say that I’ve been becoming much more happy with having my tunes with me in the quality I can get, which let’s face it, is probably plenty good enough–certainly far better than what I had when I was a teen. To that end, I’ve been thinking more about streaming music. The only thing I still don’t like is that I don’t own the music anymore. If I stop paying, the music is gone. Somehow, this is still a hurdle for me, although I can’t see why. I own most of what I like to listen to, and the rest is supplementary, and a good way to shuffle play what I enjoy. It’s taking time, but that hurdle seems to be going too.

It’s Apple’s fault. Streaming music isn’t anything new, but it took Apple to give me a taste to bring it into my mind on any kind of serious level. As with most things, it took longer for the services to get to Canada–Spotify and Pandora still reign in the States, and their Canadian offerings are only now getting good. I don’t even want to wade into the hell comprised of the reasons why Canada can’t get good streaming media. Apple seemed to have it mostly together though, so I tried it. I liked it, but the focus on Beats doesn’t do it for me (because I’m apparently an old fart and not the demographic anymore) and the way the service works its convoluted little self around my local library of music, my music stored in the ‘cloud’ and the streamed music was just too damned confusing to me. Finally, they didn’t really have everything. As I said, my little demographic has been left behind more than others by Apple. They absolutely want the 13-25 crowd. I’m thinking that’s where most of the energy goes. I decided it wasn’t for me.

But I did like the streaming. I mean imagine it–a library that is literally millions of songs large. Pull up almost anything you want to listen to from the newest to the oldest and enjoy. And all from something the size of an iPhone? Yes, please. The same setup that required tens of square feet of my space in components and media gets reduced to an iPhone. That’s kind of nuts. So, I thought I’d look around to see what is available for us here in Canada. I think the best bet, and the way I went ultimately, is Rdio. They have as good a selection as any (and in some cases better–no one else could give me Sheriff’s “When I’m With You”, although their omission of anything by Ben Folds is a tragedy–but I’m willing to bet that’s more Ben’s fault than theirs). And their UI is really pretty, and I like the way they implemented making playlists.

Actually, the playlist thing is one of the funnest parts so far–I have been remaking the mixed tapes I created along the way as playlists in Rdio. It’s working about 95% of the time–not everything is there.

That’s really the only place it falls over. Some of my musical loves aren’t going to be in any streaming service. Canadian one hit wonders are particularly susceptible to being missed, to say nothing of the just plain weird stuff I found and loved during my stint on RGD. But, that’s what I have iTunes for–I mean, the local library and the songs that I keep in their ‘cloud’ as matches.

Overall, I’m happy with the way it looks right now. I have come to a place where I can’t really imagine wanting more. And the cost per month is about what I paid for a CD. If I could afford more than one of those a month back in the 80s, then I can afford it now. Pretty decent deal when you think about it, in fact.

So yeah, stream on!

This happened…

September 2015 edition. Check out all the things that have happened.

My commute got pretty wet.

A new nearly full-contact board game was tried.

Our backyard harvest started to come in.

Parkdale Plaza felt the burn.

RIM started to come down.

Suzie flipped me the bird.

Autumn started firing on all cylinders.

Melissa Etheridge rocked Centre in the Square.

Aliens invaded our garden. Thankfully, they were friendly.

iPhone day came for Suzie, and I finally got a new toaster.

The harvest happening made feeling blessed pretty easy.

The Supermoon Eclipse got clouded out.
Super disappointment

Spiders and rain made my home office window art throughout the month.

See you next month! :)

The coming of the harvest

Ah, autumn.

Seems it’s finally here. In the past few years, I’ve had largely mixed feelings about autumn, and it’s entirely because I weigh it based on what comes next. Yeah, I really don’t like winter, and autumn seems to be the “get ready–brace yourself” moment. That is, it is when I actually stop to think about it.

Last year, I got through almost the whole of autumn without knowing it, and that was a damned shame. I got up, I went to work, I came home, and as the days got shorter, I stayed inside more and more. The changing of the leaves (arguably one of the very best things about this time of year) seemed to happen overnight for me. One day they were green and lush, then they were colourful for a weekend, and then they were gone, leaving only the depressing gray tones of winter that seemed to stretch into forever. In my mind, it feels like autumn is a week, and winter is about a half year.

This year, I wanted to change that. I knew when I saw that my autumn was ruined last year that it was a simple lack of mindfulness. I didn’t pay attention. This year, I felt autumn coming in subtle ways before it even was obvious, and that’s made a good difference. It has also helped that I have been bicycle commuting for the last number of months.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is just how ‘on time’ nature seems to be. In addition to this blog, one of my other writing projects is a daily journal/photo. I took a picture of the trees outside my office last year at this time, and they look exactly the same now. It’s pretty amazing that down to the day, things look the way they do. Nature moves on a very set schedule, even though you’d think that it doesn’t with all the ‘most brutal winter/most dry summer’ talk. This past week, I went for a walk out on the Avon trail. I like to call it the Wideman Trail, because the trail head for me is just where Wideman road ends at Wilmot Line. Going here was truly lovely. It was autumn at its very best. The best part was a pause I had in a meadow that looked like this:


I mean seriously, how could it be any more quintessentially Canadian autumn like? All that goldenrod and asters. And the place sounded just like this:

It’s so nice to stand out in a field like this and hear nothing but the buzzing and look at the plants and know that although the garden at home is very much on the decline, there’s still a lot of life on the go.

When I was a kid, I never put together that things have their time, even within a season. For me, summer meant robins, and apples and cherries and grass and thunderstorms and biking and it all just wrapped itself into a huge homogeneous thing. But there’s nuances that I never put together until I got into my fourth decade on the planet. Seems so stupid to have never noticed, but the Robins are only truly active and singing in spring, and there’s no grasshoppers until September.


The season for strawberries is shockingly short and the ash tree leaves are the first to show, and first to fall. I never noticed these things before. They were always just wallpaper. I am trying more and more to look at this stuff. It’s important because it grounds me in time, and stops me from thinking that any one time is longer or shorter than it really is. For me, the emotional and psychological effects, both good and bad, come in how things seem more in how they are and I think that’s the lesson the seasons are trying to teach me.

If any of you want to check out this lovely walking trail, here’s where I was:

Where I was

Overall, I feel a true sense of gratitude at this time of year. The harvest is such a wonderful time. It’s appropriate that it’s called Thanksgiving. I feel like I’m finally more in tune with why it’s good to give thanks.

My heart had abducted my mind

View from the cheap seats
Melissa Etheridge at Centre In The Square September 21, 2015

It all began with very little fanfare. The lights went down on the stage and you could see the six lava lights they’d set up in various colours (I have the exact version of one of them) along with a few other candles on shelves in the back of the stage. In front of these were a very wide assortment of guitars, behind a grand piano (a Steinway, apparently). Out in front, close enough to the edge of the stage for the audience to grab it, a single drum and a mic set up.

The lights went down at 8, and a single chord rang out through the theatre, and then there she was. Melissa Etheridge wandered out from behind everything, her signature Ovation 12 string slug over her shoulder. She stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, and with a single “Hello!” by way of greeting, launched into a fully acoustic version of “Ain’t It Heavy”.

So began Monday night’s concert at Centre in the Square. Melissa Etheridge has been a favourite of mine since she broke onto the music scene in 1988. I’m not sure how I got deeply into the music–I’m not really her demographic these days–but the gateway drug was likely “Bring Me Some Water”, like it was for almost everyone else. I liked what I heard enough to buy her CD though, and that was a big deal. In 1988, CDs were a substantial investment, and music wasn’t just grab and go. Her self-titled album was probably among the first 10 CDs I owned. I played the hell out of that disc. I loved the rawness of her delivery. I loved the way that she was able to just put it all out there in music, and it felt so cathartic to experience it. The album was uniformly awesome too. People stopped after the big hits, but I enjoyed the whole thing. One of the best parts about the concert this week was her performance of “Don’t You Need”, which to the best of my knowledge got no air play, but stood out as a great little tune on the first album.

This was the third time I’ve seen Melissa in concert. The first time was at the Molson Ampitheatre in the summer of 1995 for the “Yes I Am” tour. That concert lives in my mind as one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was a brilliantly hot and beautiful day. Melissa appeared in tight fitting black leather pants, and decreed in the middle of a song, to the beat, that her legs couldn’t breathe. It was really funny if you were there. That concert also featured her doing a cover of AC-DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which rocked just about as hard as I could have imagined. All that firepower and passion. There was one time in the latter part of the concert where she was introducing her band, and when they got to the drummer, the bassist and guitarist ran to the kit, held up thier instruments and he actually played the strings. I have seldom had my mind blown like that. It was a truly incredible concert. As I recall, it went on for something like 3+ hours. I’ve never had value like that out of a concert since. This week, during one of her chats with the audience between songs, Melissa said she had the best job in the world, and that nothing made her happier than performing. I guess that has never changed.

Last night’s concert was a little more laid back. The Centre In The Square is not open-air, and is more intimate. A suitable venue for the show she was putting on. This concert interested me more because it was the first time I ever saw Melissa solo. She’s pretty much always been backed by a full band the times I’ve seen her, and her albums are always that way, too. I was interested to see what stripped down versions of the songs sounded like, and I was really hopeful to hear the classics more than the new stuff, which I haven’t kept up with as much.

It was a both great and okay. I’m a fan, so it’s hard for me to be critical of her. I’ll gush first and get it out of the way: Melissa sounds as good today as she did in 1988. I mean, seriously, her voice is such that absolutely no time has passed at all. She’s still got the rawness, still got the passion and the subtle tones that her brand of folk-rock is just so perfect for. I couldn’t be happier. And, she’s an absolute rock veteran. She’s completely no-bullshit. That is, she sounds live exactly like she sounds on the recordings. It’s an honest sound, and you can tell it springs from raw talent. This woman needs no help from fancy electronics or vocal modifiers or anything. I have a feeling if she were in my living room with a 12 string on, and no amps or mics, she’d sound just the same. I love musicians who are like that. Melissa is like that. The setlist was brilliant. Again, I could not be happier. I went in hoping for the classics and I got a heaping helping. In fact, she played only two tracks from the new album, which may have been selling herself short, or may have been simply catering to the reality of what her fan base wants. If it’s the latter, it’s a mature artist who can do that. She knows what the fans want, and she gives them what they want. That kind of egolessness is rare. It’s hard for her to hit all the highs given the length and success of her career, but there were many highs hit: We got to hear “Like The Way I Do”, “Come To My Window”, Bring Me Some Water”, “No Souvenirs”, “I Want To Come Over”, as well as the less-known but much loved “I Take You With Me”. She performed “Like A Preacher” and “Monster” from the new album, and peppered in the lovely slow tunes “The Letting Go” and surprizingly “Don’t You Need” (which is a lesser known from the first album, that none the less was awesome). She even threw in a beautiful cover of Joan Armatrading’s “The Weakness In Me”, telling us that it was one of her favourites for a long time because it spoke to her, and I totally get that. And it so worked as a solo performance.

But there were tradeoffs to having Melissa on stage alone. For some reason, she felt that just her and an acoustic guitar wasn’t enough. Or it’s possible that they tried it at some point and it felt enemic. So, she turned, as many musicians do these days, to what she referred to as “magic” but what was really something known as Live Looping. The first time I ever saw live looping performed by a band was years back at some club whose name I totally forget. I was there in Toronto to watch Ember Swift perform with a few friends. On stage, Ember used the gear to create harmonies and extra layers to her music, and I thought it was just great. It added to the music in a wonderful way. I’ve seen it done since to greater and lesser degrees and honestly I’m still on the fence about it. In the case of Melissa, she had what looked like a standard Djembe to create some good bass hits, a Tambourine for the high end, and a Cajón for the rest. Throughout the concert, I’d say on about 2/3 of the tracks, she’d build a beat with these three items that would then loop throughout the song offering a structure and backdrop that would otherwise have been provided by a band. Honestly, I don’t think it works for the type of music that Melissa makes. A live loop provides an extremely rigid structure, and it forces her to perform in it. The kind of passion that Melissa puts into the music is in no small part nuanced. Her music flows like a river, not like an assembly line, and I felt that nuance was lost each time she stood there whacking away at the tambourine to create the beat. It reined in the passion–in performance it felt like she was holding back where even she didn’t want to.

(Digression–I’ve noticed on more than one occasion–including this one–that artists refer to the act of live looping as ‘creation’. That is, they couch it in terms like, “the music I will create for you”–it’s a deliberate attempt to step back from the term “sampling” because many artists who have real talent like Melissa probably don’t want to be bunched into the talentless hacks who abound these days and subsist entirely on their reliance of software and re-use of existing material to ‘make’ music. Like I said, it’s a hairy line, and I don’t know where I come down on it with regard to ‘classic rockers’. I think it can and sometimes should be used to augment performances, but in the case of solo acts, it probably defeats the purpose. The only place I would have seen it used perfectly for this concert was in her version of “Chrome Plated Heart”, whose beat is that of a military march anyway, and it worked great.)

Melissa also used the live looping on her guitar to create a more rich loop which she could then use for soloing. That explained the myriad guitars behind her. She went through most if not all of them, selecting a different one for each song that had a full live loop created. At the end of the song, the looper would loop away, and she’d solo overtop of it. Honestly, this didn’t do it for me. Melissa, bless her heart, is not the world’s best solo guitarist. It was all rudimentary, rough picking. I’ve seen and heard far better from people with far less fame. Melissa isn’t in her element soloing, and all these long drawn out looped song endings did was exemplify that.

Thankfully, we didn’t see that all the time. I honestly still think Melissa is at her very best and most honest when she’s got that beautiful Ovation slung over her shoulder and a microphone in front of her. I just love the way the light glints off those 12 strings and they shine so you’d think there were no frets under them. The sound is insanely rich, and a handful of Supertramp songs aside, in my mind that sound belongs to her. Her voice, as I’ve already said, is timeless. There is nothing better than that moment in “Chrome Plated Heart” where she sings, “And I’ll dance in time/and the time is rough/ and I’ll pay the price/ and I’ll pray that it’s enough” and then she does this awsome 7 beat strum of that chord on the 12 string and the whole world just goes SQUEEEEEEE!!! with awesomeness as she sings with such honest force and passion about polishing the scratches and stains on her chrome-plated heart. True artists live to be able to reach out and just grab someone else by the raw strings of their emotions and pull them in so that they can vibrate at the same level. Melissa does that so well, so much better than the vast majority–man, that’s the shiznit, Melissa. Take my word, you don’t need to loop a damned thing if you don’t want to.

All that said, my review is overwhelmingly positive. I think the ticket prices these days are nuts, but I paid to see this happily and I got a great show. What Melissa did up there this week–that was hard, and it was magic, and I’m so glad she’s still out there doing what she does. Third time was definitely a charm for me.

Vox Humana

cassette tape
From such humble beginnings…
My voice has been recorded for longer than even I can remember. That sounds like a exaggeration, but I kid you not, I have a recording of me when I was probably barely able to speak, and I don’t remember making that recording. Back then, my dad had a cassette recorder, which looked a lot like this. I think he had a weakness for new tech that he passed on to me after I was born, because at that time, he mostly stopped buying tech, and I in turn started to lust after it big time. He was among the first to have a Super-8 movie camera, and even had a medium format film camera a while back. Now that I’m thinking of it, I wonder what ever became of that thing? Hm. Before the cassette recorder, he even had a reel to reel recorder. I don’t know that I ever really used that one, but I know my older brother did. There’s unplayable reel to reel tape of him singing when he was just a kid.

I don’t know why dad bought these things. I’m glad he did, but to me, they seemed entirely underused. We didn’t really have a purpose for them, and buying them given our mostly blue-collar family income that was strained with trying to keep the house paid for, seemed extravagant. It was out of character for my dad to be extravagant, but there you go. I recall that on a handful of occasions, we sent tapes to my relatives in Germany, and they would send tapes back. It was a good way to send a lot of news in one fell swoop, and a heck of a lot easier than letter writing. I’d say there’s a good chance that’s what he was thinking when he bought these cassette recorders. But honestly I don’t remember doing that much.

What I used them for was to tape things off the radio–songs I liked and wanted to listen to again at will. I remember for a couple years my brother would record the whole of the “Best Top 40 Songs of the Year” on new years eve from one of the local radio stations. On one occasion, I set up the mic in front of the TV and recorded “A Charlie Brown Christmas“, and then listened to it over and over until I had the silly thing memorized.

Those things aside though, I also used it to simply record my voice. Something about being able to play all that back was really cool to me, and it made me happy to listen to things I’d said. One year when I was something like 11 or 12 I think, I asked my Oma if she’d be willing to buy a little boombox for me for my birthday. Then I would have the ability to play tapes and record them in stereo (which was quite a novelty). She did, much to my delight (although I imagine the poor old woman had zero idea what she was getting for me–she only knew that it made me happy. Bless her heart for that forward thinking). I seem to recall it cost 60 dollars from K-Mart back in the day–a pretty big ask (thank you again, Oma, you’ll never know how much joy that thing brought to me). Once I had that, I would often rope my friends into making recordings, and those times were some of the funnest I recall from my childhood. Thank all the gods, I still have those recordings–most of them survived, remarkably enough. I think I need to create a better backup strategy for those–they’re too precious to simply be sitting in one place on a hard drive, and another on a cassette tape (a technology for which I am sure the days are very numbered).

There was a slight pause in voice recording in favour of video in the late 80s and early 90s for me. Most of that stuff is still around too, but I’ve found in trying to archive it (an arduous task if ever there was one) that there’s a lot of filler. I can usually distill one event, like say Christmas eve, into something like 5-15 good minutes from more than three hours of video. Video is a hard beast to manage–maybe fodder for another entry sometime.

Voice came back though in the mid 90s when audio recording came to computers in a huge way. I discovered that it was possible to create multi-track recordings using the computer. Given that I was always interested in music and recording, I started to do that. That stuff continues to this day. It’s so much fun to enter “the studio” and put down some tracks to create a cover tune or something. It feels so great when it all comes together.

And then in the late 90s, there came radio. I got in on Radio’s last death-rattle gasp. It’s been limping toward its end for years now, and I imagine it’ll linger on for some years yet, but the internet is making radio virtually obsolete. You can pretty much have on demand anything you desire these days, and room for radio shows is just not there anymore. No one wants to allot time to simply listen to a transient creation like a live radio broadcast. But for a time, it was glorious. I was a DJ and on the air for just over a decade when it became clear that there was no one out there anymore, and that no one cared. But for that time, every week, I’d plant myself in front of a board of sliders and a mic, and I’d send my voice out there. I just loved it.

After radio ended for me, I sorta became lost. I wanted to try podcasting… I still do. At the time the radio show ended it was prohibitively expensive by way of bandwidth to host a podcast though, so I never did. I could easily do it today, but I’ve never found a focus, and I do not have anyone to share the journey with. I’ve found when it comes to shared audio, it’s always better with two or more. It’s still on my list of things I’d sorely love to do. Maybe someday. Hopefully someday.

Recently Suz started listening to audio books. She likes older works of fiction–Brontë, Austen, Wilde, etc. and read all of them years ago, but sometimes she likes to revisit that time. She went out and found a site called LibriVox. This site is devoted to older works of fiction, poetry, text books, journals and whatnot that are over a certain number of years since publication and have thus entered the public domain. So that means that anyone can download or read them for nothing. Librivox has taken this a step farther, and sources volunteers to read these texts and then houses the finished audiobooks so that anyone can download and listen. It’s a great little resource.

When I learned of it, my antennae immediately went up, and I thought about possibly doing some readings for them. It’s a fun way for me to get back to recording my voice, and it’s for a good cause. Since the radio show ended, I haven’t volunteered my talents (such as they are) to anything, and this is a good thing. I have all the equipment I could ever need for this, and by and large it has sat around for years. I also have some time to do this. It allows me to scratch the itch for recording and for editing and at the end of it, unlike my dubious forays into music creation, someone might actually enjoy it.

So, this past week, I went through the process of signing up, and going through their vetting process and I am now set up to read a couple chapters of a book called Demos. I’ve never heard of the book or its author, but I aim to give it a try. It’s going to feel so good to scratch this itch. :)

Memory burn

This entry is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote the weekend following the fire at Parkdale Plaza. I thought I’d share some of it publicly, because it seemed to fit.

On Friday, just as the day was about to end, and I was looking forward to this weekend, there were sirens. They seemed closer than usual, and somehow more urgent. I got up from my desk, and looked out the office window, and I saw smoke. Clearly, there was a fire happening, and it wasn’t a small one that no one cares about, either. As it happened, the Dollarama at Parkdale Plaza was on fire.


I hadn’t been in that place in, I’m not sure, maybe not at all since it became a Dollarama. The plaza has changed a lot over the years, and I don’t have much cause to go there anymore. I only ever really go to the pharmacy during the day when I need to get something, or I need to mail away some letter or something at the post office there. My ties to the neighbourhood are well and truly cut at this point. I’m sure I’d probably never come to Lakeshore area anymore at all if it weren’t for the fact that I work there.

But the plaza has some pretty hefty history for me. When I was just a kid, from birth to sometime in my early youth, that was our plaza. It was the little collection of shops where we went to get the things we needed. It was the closest place to our house, and I think we often would walk there when we needed things. The plaza had everything we needed for the basics of stocking the house on Cardill with goods.

There was the Shoppers Drug Mart, which is one of few things still there—it and the beer store are the only things that I remember from the old days. My mom used to get all the prescription drugs we needed as well as some shampoos and whatnot from the Shoppers.

My dad frequented the beer store. I remember going there with him, and it was one of the first ‘man’ places I recall ever being in. That and the Walper Hotel barber shop. The beer store was cool for me when I was a kid because I loved the little rollers that you’d put the empties on to get them to the cashier for the refund. I liked the wall of bottles that indicated the beers they had for sale. I especially loved the little curtain above the rollers on the other side of the room where the new case of beer my dad bought would come whooshing out of. There’d be this rumble, so I’d know it was coming and then it would shoot out past the plastic curtain (there to keep the back cold I imagine—they refrigerated the whole back end of the place to keep the beer cold for when you got it, I think) and then it’d roll to a stop somewhere along the rollers… the little metallic sounds of rollers still in motion from the inertia after the case came to a stop. Going to the beer store really was fun for me. Too bad I never actually learned to love (or even to like) beer. There’s a silly story of Suzanne and I going the Lion Brewery once to try to buy a bottle of beer… that’s for another time, though.

There was also a liquor store there. In recent years, it became a dart store… I had it on my list to go visit that place for a long time, and now it seems that I won’t be able to. I think it was probably totalled in the fire, as it was adjacent to the Dollarama. Sigh. The liquor store for the kid version of me was less fun than the beer store, but it was still pretty cool. I loved to look at the bottles; the way they all looked different, and the curves and all the cool coloured liquids in them. It was fun to look around, much as mom always told me not to touch anything. The place felt fragile to me. It was more like a museum to the kid me than anything else. But I did love a couple things. I loved the little shopping carts–the liquor store had these little carts that looked like scaled down versions of the shopping carts they had at Zehrs. To me, that meant ‘kid-sized’, and I totally loved the feeling of imagining what it was like to push a full-sized cart around. Mom seldom let me push the cart though—too much danger of my careening into a bunch of bottles somewhere. The real fun thing came when we went to pay though. The liquor store, for whatever reason, had this awesome change dispenser. I’ve spent the past 20 minutes on the internet trying to find even something like it without success, which is another saddening thing. I’d love to at least see it again, although it’d be so much fun to actually acquire such a thing someday, just as a fun centrepiece. Anyway, as I remember it, it was this coin dispenser that kind of sat either entirely detached from, or as an add-on part to whatever cash register they were using at the liquor store. It was all metal, and had this cool little trough that ran from the top of it about 10-20cm down to a little change tray at the bottom on the counter. When you got change from your purchase, the coins would appear at the top and roll down on their sides like some kind of monetary water slide into the round, concave coin tray at the bottom. It was so much fun to watch the coins come down, and mom would let me retrieve them from the tray. I totally loved that. It’s such a fun memory of the 5-8 year old me. I’d totally go in for something like that if I could find it today.

There was a laundromat at Parkdale Plaza, too. I remember going there with mom when our family washer was on the fritz for whatever reason. We didn’t do it often, but we did. Again, I recall all the cool little dispenser machines for soap and the little single-serving sizes of the products we had at home. Everything was kid-sized and cute and kind of fun. The place had a ‘clean’ smell to it—soaps and fabric softeners of all different kinds mingling together, and the floor often had these slippery sections where the soap had gotten away from someone. There were carts there, too… these cool ones with wheels that rotated freely on all four corners and had bars across the top where you could hang your shirts or whatever. Those things were serious fun because they were so much more chaotic than regular shopping carts—you couldn’t get them to go in a straight line. And the dryers had these huge windows in the front of them, which made it possible to see the clothes drying—something I couldn’t do at home. To this day, I find something hypnotic about watching the clothes go around and around in the dryer. Yeah, I know, I’m weird. Truthfully, even though I could do that at home today, I don’t. Much. Teehee.

Our bank was there. The Royal. I remember my Oma opened an account for me when I was just a kid, and I still have that account today. The bank wanted to close it on me once because it saw pretty much no use for a couple years, and offers nothing in the way of interest (and that’s saying something, considering the ones that apparently do offer good interest are offering pretty well nothing in my opinion). My account number is five digits. These days, account numbers have at least seven–probably more (been a while since I opened an account at the Royal). I keep the account strictly for nostalgic reasons. I’m sure someday, someone will close that account wondering to themselves why I’d ever want to keep it at all. There’s your answer, It’s my Oma’s gift to me—I want to keep it because it reminds me of her. She opened it with me one autumn day, and put 50 dollars in for me (which was an inconceivable amount of money to me when the account was opened) and told me that I could have it, and all the rest of the savings I’d theoretically put in there, when I was 21. Seemed like a million miles away, so I didn’t give it too much thought at the time. Going to bank was pretty boring for me at the time. I didn’t get it at all until much later. Although if you ask me I don’t think I get it now either… not fully.

On the other side of the Plaza there used to be a little diner called Mickey’s where Nat and I would go to play table video games after school. I played a lot of Galaga there, let me tell you, and I imagine that I totally pissed off the owners, because all we really did was take up space. We seldom bought anything for the privilege of hanging out there. For a while, it was the place to hang though. That’s when I was older.

And when I was still older, there was Mac’s Milk. That’s the convenience store where we used to hang out and where Nat worked for quite a while. The things that went down there are too much to write about here now.

Lots of history all over the place in that Plaza. But the Dollarama. Well, that place is gone for sure. I don’t know how much damage the plaza as a whole will suffer, but the space occupied by the Dollarama is a complete write-off. It’s utterly destroyed. I went there to see what it looked like yesterday, the day after the fire, and while I couldn’t get near to the place because they were still working on keeping the ‘hot spots’ down, the air had that contradictory smell of wet burning wood all around, and the back was a charred mess. It’s totally destroyed. And that’s sad for me. The memory I have of that particular space is of Zehrs.

When I was a kid, that was our grocery store. The space went from Zehrs to Mr. Grocer to something else to the Dollarama in my time. At least, I think that’s all. I guess it’s possible there’s much more changing of hands that I don’t recall because I haven’t been there in forever. But when I was a kid, I’d say for about the first 10 years of my life, the place was a Zehrs. I could tell you the layout of the place from memory—I went there with mom all the time to shop, and I wandered about the aisles and helped out when I could on many occasions. I knew that you came in, and went to the right, past the smoke counter and lines of carts to the opening, and you were dumped into the produce, and the milk and stuff was at the back. The meats were kept along the far wall, and you could walk along the back through the various aisles till you got to the other side where the breads and cereals and stuff were kept. The place felt huge to me. The last time I was there, I remember thinking how incredibly tiny it was. The Zehrs that currently exists at Conestoga mall has to be 5 times the size, at least. It’s kind of nuts.

Anyway, I have two memories. The first is going to the washroom there. For some reason, on more than one occasion, I had to use the washroom while we were at Zehrs, and whenever we asked to do so, they let us. That was strange, because it meant using the staff washroom. To get there, you had to go in a door that was kind of somewhere between the meat and cheese displays, and then you had to walk down a metal staircase to the basement. I remember making this walk, and then you had to go down this hall to the end of the walkway, and along the way, you passed some kind of staff room where I guess people took their breaks. The place usually had one or two people who were surprised to see a kid walking by. It smelled of cigarette smoke in those days. When I got past, the staff washroom was off to the right. It was weird to me to be in this world-within-a-world when I was a kid. The grocery store was one thing, but it was entirely another to be under the store somehow. I don’t remember a thing about how that particular bathroom looked. I just remember going there in this weird otherworld way. It was like finding some secret bonus level in a video game or something.

The other clear memory I have is the one time we were there on November 11. I know this because as I was off in some aisle away from my mom, there was an announcement on the loudspeaker of the Zehrs. The loudspeaker was used only sometimes to give instructions to the staff, I think. I’m not sure it was used all that much there—it was used way more at K-Mart or HiWay Market to tell shoppers of sales or whatever. At the Zehrs, I think it was more rare. Anyway, they announced that it was nearly the 11th hour, and would all the shoppers please stop for a moment of silence to honour the men who lost their lives in the war. I didn’t have a clue what that was all about when I was a kid. Suddenly, all the adults stopped. No one was grabbing food off the shelves anymore, and all conversation halted. They all just stood there. It totally freaked me out. I remember I started to cry and ran to my mom amidst the statue-like adults, and my mom put her arm around me and told me to shush and just be quiet for a moment. The voice on the speaker eventually came back, simply stating “thank you” and then as if some spell was broken, all the adults started to move again. I remember there was this older gentleman in a trench coat and hat who looked at me kindly when we went by him. I think my mom apologized to him for my sprinting by during the moment of silence, but he was totally cool with it, and I think he looked at me and gave me a wink or something. But yeah, I think that was my first Remembrance Day memory. And it happened right there in the Zehrs, somewhere in the coffee aisle, I think.

These places have history for me, and so it’s always really sad when something like this happens. I know I never go there anymore anyway. If the place hadn’t been destroyed, I probably wouldn’t have had cause to go there ever again. Even if I could, I know it wouldn’t look the same as it did when I was a kid—it wasn’t even a food store anymore. Still, it sort of means something to me that these structures, these places, exist. It’d be nice to sit here and remember these things and know I could go there. Hell, I may have even done it. But people don’t keep things around anymore. All these personally historic places—Parkdale Plaza, TCs at Waterloo Square, Waterloo Bowling Lanes, the whole of Cardill Crescent, HiWay Market, The original St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market building, Northdale Public School. I have vivid, happy memories of all of these places. I would have loved to be able to go there and show them to people someday. But now, I think there’s nothing left to show. I dread the day they knock down our old house. It’s gotta happen sometime soon. Sigh.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but possibly in the same vein—David Suzuki once told a story about when he was telling his grandkids about the places he went fishing. They wanted him to take them there, and the fact is, the places don’t exist anymore. You can’t go there. There’s a feeling of loss that goes with this. I know the world marches forward and everything changes. If I didn’t know that, then I really have missed out on some learning. I sometimes think though that we aren’t marching forward mindfully. We’re just charging. It doesn’t feel right. Ah well… fodder for another time. I just wanted to write a little bit of a swan song for yet another of my long-lost places.

Unexpected horticultural Anglophile

Big day for the Queen this week. Longest reigning monarch in history, and that’s a long history. Given the state of the monarchy, and how fast the world is moving, it’s unlikely we will ever see this record bested, I daresay in my lifetime or any other from now on. I think the monarchy will be dissolved long before any of them can sit on the throne for longer than sixty-three some-odd years, assuming there’s a throne to sit on at all anymore, apocalypses being what they are.

I’ve never thought too much of the monarchy. I don’t mean that in that I have a bad opinion of them, but that I really don’t have much of an opinion at all. I imagine we in Canada (as unqualified as I am to speak on behalf of the whole of my country) tend to think of them peripherally on the whole, much as we love it when they come for a visit. I’m old enough to remember singing “God Save The Queen” in Kindergarten in our little white bread town, before it was given up in favour of “Oh Canada!” with newly-minted verses to make it all official. I didn’t understand the connection of the monarchy to us here in Canada until much, much later in life, and to be honest, I probably still don’t know what it all means.

I’ve flirted with English culture from time to time. When I was very young, I remember the whole host of Red Rose tea commercials with Brits supposedly disappointed that Red Rose was only available in Canada. I remember the whole business of the Royal Wedding when it happened back in the 80s (my then sister in law was a huge fan of the royals for reasons I still don’t know). I totally loved the Bond movies and still do (can’t wait for Spectre). I remember the London bombings a few years back and the whole “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing that got so huge. With that, I remember getting a sense of the culture more. The ‘stiff upper lip’ kind of mentality, the awesome clothing (when done well), the spectacularly stupid clothing (when done poorly). The jokes about bad teeth. The British music scene (dear god, where would I be right now without Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or the Beatles). My brother has taken to travelling nearly annually to Oxford, and he assures me that I would utterly love it there. I don’t doubt it at all. The point is, it was always there in some periphery way in my life, and likely will continue.

Surprisingly, it’s been a little-known Brit who has wormed his way into my consciousness more than any other. I’m talking about Monty Don. Heh. Well, I should back-track a bit. I can’t just jump in, I ought to give a little context.

It all started when Suzanne got truly interested in farming thanks to her degree, and started up a little side hobby of gardening on the balcony of our then apartment. It was disastrous. The enclosed space pretty much guaranteed any of our veg didn’t get the ventilation it needed to be happy, and we lost most of what we grew to one disaster or another–the pole beans didn’t stand a chance. Thankfully, that changed when we moved into Woodcock Pocket back in 2012. Suddenly, there was a huge back yard, and every year since we moved, it’s been getting more and more cultivated.

My friend Erik was over once, and knowing Suzanne’s interest in gardening, he recommended a couple of shows that he’d seen on public television recently. One was Victorian Farm, wherein a trio of folks lived out a year on a farm as though it were Victorian times—they went in whole-hog (literally!), from dress to farming implements and practices. The other was a show called “Around The World in 80 Gardens”, hosted by none other than Monty Don. Suzanne took to these shows like a honey bee to a Physostegia plant. We found them all on YouTube to watch. As it was the tail end of winter, we had the time to consume them all, and we did so at a pretty fast pace. When we were through with them, we looked for more, and a strange obsession with Gardening programs was born, spearheaded by Monty’s weekly gardening program, “Gardener’s World“.

Funny thing was, it seemed that all the good gardening shows originated in Britain. It’s clear these people just love their gardens. So much so that there’s no end of shows you can watch, from gardening advice shows to grade trade shows, to shows that are like ABC’s Extreme Makeover-Home Edition, except for gardens. There’s at least a score of good gardening personalities that host all these shows. Monty’s my favourite though.

In fact, it surprises me how much I’ve enjoyed watching these shows with Suzanne. I enjoy them so much that I go out of my way to see if I can find what we want to see. It got to the point where earlier this year, I subscribed to a private VPN service for our internet, in large part so I could spoof the IP from England so we could watch BBC programming shortly after it aired, thereby getting the best quality and not having to worry about YouTube taking all the stuff off the site due to copyright violations (which happened on more than one occasion the first year we were watching—nothing is more frustrating than being on “R” in the A-Z of Gardening and having the remaining episodes disappear). These days, we wait to Friday to watch Gardener’s World with the same excitement I imagine many in the UK do.

Monty's FollowersThat probably makes us pretty rare. Monty recently posted a twitter map of his followers, and only 1.6% of them are in Canada. I expect they’re all recent expatriates, and Suzanne and I. The audience for gardening doesn’t appear to be all that big in North America. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to be the case. Recently, Family Guy included a little spoof on Gardener’s World that speaks volumes:

Seems that the idea of gardening programming isn’t engaging enough for a North American audience. There’s no sex, people don’t scream at one another or use base language, and things typically don’t blow up. All the hallmarks of the things you need for successful entertainment here don’t exist in Gardener’s World.

But maybe that’s why I like it so much. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that I like to watch gardening shows. I mean, beyond the fact that I learn a little bit about how to better our own little piece of Earth out there. The CBC has a show called Ontario Today that airs once a week featuring a guy whose knowledge of plants is downright creepy. Still I loved to listen to the show. Sadly, I seldom get a chance to anymore because it’s always on when I’m at work, and then I forget to find it afterward. There’s something oddly compelling about learning about plants to me. I’m not a gardener by any means, that’s Suzanne’s department, but I do love the idea of gardening and I love to see it well-executed. I think that shows like this are probably the most hopeful thing I consume these days. It’s about the cycle of the year, and about stewardship of the Earth and how everything works with everything else. There’s no precipitating apocalyptic event that serves as the basis for a story. There’s no one who is out for revenge, there’s no screaming about the end of the world or people getting killed or hating each other or anything like that. There’s only plants, and how they can beautify a space, and benefit the wildlife, and feed us, and how with a little effort you can nurture them. There’s even some good philosophy in there about the way of life—you can learn a lot from a plant if you let it talk to you. Maybe it’s the Hobbit in me or something—“…but where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth; for all Hobbits share a love of things that grow.”

It really is as nice as that. In a recent episode, Monty stated the obvious–that we should take time. Simply sit in our gardens, enjoy a cup of tea, and see what we see. Our little garden, humble as it is, never ceases to surprise me with all the things going on. From our bunnies to our butterflies to the bees on our Physostegia. Our tomatoes, our sunflowers, and our apple trees. Gardens are wonderful. Little reminders of the good things that still happen out there while we’re busy behind screens; lessons in the circle of life.

Speaking of our bunnies, butterflies and bees, here’s some of the video from our back yard. It’s been a wonderful summer. :)

Special visitor

Captain! The Reality Distortion Field is failing!

Couple thoughts post-Apple event:

Well, it was mostly what I was thinking. And yeah, I will get me a new Apple TV come next month–it looks good enough to tempt me, and not having to click around that awful silver remote anymore is a good thing. I can totally see us using the “what did she just say” and the “who is in this?” features. Assuming of course that they aren’t forever entirely locked in to only the movies bought from the iTunes store.

All the rest? Meh. It isn’t that Apple didn’t release things that were awesome… they did. I just can’t seem to keep up with it all anymore, and what’s more, I find more and more as time goes on that I don’t care. Time was when Apple told me about a new doodad I was lusting after it immediately. Maybe it was because I could still imagine what the device would do for me. These days when new things are announced I find myself trying to think of ways that I could justify purchasing the new stuff, rather than honestly knowing it would improve the way I do things, and that’s just silly. It’s not a bad realization–I guess I’m just happy with the stuff I have for the most part.

Take the new iPad Pro for example. Do I think it’s cool? You bet. But then, I also think my iPad Air is pretty damned cool, and it does what I need it to do. I can’t think of the benefit I would reap from laying down over a grand on a new iPad when the one I have works great. All the things the bigger one can do my current one can’t aren’t all that alluring. If I didn’t have an iPad already, I’d be all over it. But I do. And I guess that’s the change. When I bought my current iPad, I already had an iPad then, too. And the thing is, I think that I could still happily be using the iPad Retina today and not see a whit of difference in my satisfaction. The Air was a purchase I made just because I could, and because Apple made the thing. Sure I’m happy with it, but it probably wasn’t necessary for all that improved my usage.

The iPhone is just what I thought. I think all the stuff they added is way cool. I like the 3D Touch function, and I love the new camera tech, and I’m sure I’d use them. But once again, would it really improve my life to upgrade at this point? Not really. So, unless Suz wants to step up, I won’t either. I actually like my iPhone 6, and I’m happy to keep it for another cycle.

Seems to me that Apple has been my bugaboo for years now. I watched them and snapped up everything because that’s what Apple fans do. I’d wander into an Apple Store with no intention of buying anything, and wander out with a device because I thought it was so cool, and because it made me happy.

I guess that’s true for anyone with an interest. I know people who consider dropping insane amounts of money for bicycle parts and clothing that I didn’t even know existed… and I’ve been biking for years. Does that part make the bike better? Sure, I guess. Will it make any kind of tangible difference to my life? That’s a good question, because the fanatic will always say yes, and always have a way to justify it–and are they wrong? For them, probably not. But in reality, my bike does what any bike does. And, at base level my phone does what any phone does.

I’m starting to wonder at this constant striving for the latest and greatest, presumably because I believe it’ll make things better, or make me happier. I don’t think that’s true anymore.

I think it might be better to just stop for a minute and appreciate what I have and what it does do, and learn how to use that well, and then just use it.

I totally still believe that Apple makes the best toys. I don’t think anyone will ever beat that out of me. I still think you can’t buy anything better made or have a better user experience than you can have while using Apple stuff, so I will keep getting it, I know. I just don’t want to play the latest and greatest game anymore. It isn’t even that I can’t afford it (which I can’t, let’s face it). It’s more that I just don’t need it, and I know that because the newest things no longer make me any happier than the things I have.

So yeah, great job Apple. Love what you’re doing and look forward to owning it someday when my current stuff stops working for me for whatever reason. But I think my days of replacing for sake of replacement are pretty well done. It’s a young rich man’s game.

You know what’s funny? I keep coming back to a time a year or two ago where we were visiting a friend of Suz’s family. She lived alone and had a townhouse. Her space was totally clean, her possessions sparse, and the items in it were well cared for and everything had it space. You could tell from the space, and what things were more prominent that she liked to sew and garden. And I recall she had an iPhone. An iPhone 3GS. The device was ancient for the time, but there it was, in its spot, lovingly waiting to be used, and I could just tell it was used, for exactly the reasons she needed it. There was simply no reason for her to upgrade. And you know, it looked great.

I still aspire to that way of thinking. I want to live in a space like that someday. It requires a mind shift though. I still haven’t figured it out. Maybe I should work on turning off my own reality distortion field, now that I can see what they look like.

Thoughts before the Apple event

So we’re hours away. Here’s what my little Apple-geek heart is thinking, taking into account all that I know at this moment:

Clearly, we’re looking at a threefold event:

  • Information about WatchOS and some new stuff like straps for Apple Watch
  • New iPhones (6s and 6s+)
  • New Apple TV

The watch is of zero interest to me. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true–I do have some interest, but I don’t have any intention to jump on this bandwagon until at least the second revision. Brand new products like the watch need some time to cook, and with Apple, the second or third revision is always way better. I did this with the iPhone (my first was the iPhone 4S, in fact–although this was partially due to the silly thing not being available in Canada for the first couple iterations) and I’ve been glad for it. My first iPad was the iPad 3, after they finally put a Retina screen in the thing, and my first Apple TV was the second generation as well. I’ll either get the watch next year or the year after. Right now, it’s just not compelling enough to me.

The new iPhones… well… mmmmmaaaaaaybe. Apple really needs to sell me on them. From what I’ve read, the new feature set is probably not enough to get me to jump to the 6s. I am extremely happy with my 6, and it works flawlessly. I don’t think the bump will bring enough to the table for me. The only reason I’d switch up is if for some reason Suz wants to finally ditch her ancient Blackberry for my iPhone, in which case I’d get the new one, obviously.

The Apple TV. Now that’s where my interest lies this time around. It’s funny. The first time I bought the Apple TV I had to sell Suz on it. She figured that it was yet another piece of superfluous technology that I wanted to acquire just because it was new and cool. Fair point, but the thing that happened was, we brought it into the house and it became one of the most used pieces of tech we own. It’s practically indispensable for us at this point. So, selling me on a new one isn’t hard. Particularly if it addresses the complaints I have about the current generation. To be honest though, I’m not as interested in the new television options that may or may not be coming down the pike, (we’ve worked hard to rid ourselves of everything stupid that comes with cable TV, most paramount of which are the dumb advertisments) I just need it to be able to stream stuff that we watch in such a way that the device offers a better experience. The box would be an instant sale for me if Apple just gave me a usable remote control. So yeah, you can be pretty sure I’m first in line for whatever Apple TV they announce.

So, c’mon Apple. Show me your cards. My wallet is ready. :)