Thursday, March 25, 2010

Inside a Song

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of “I’m Not There” for the past few days; in fact, I’ve been listening mostly to Disc 2 of the soundtrack; in fact, if the truth be told, I’ve been living inside Disc 2 of that soundtrack for almost a week now.

It’s in the car and it plays every time I drive. I listen to the lovingly rendered versions of Dylan’s songs by a variety of artists and am taken especially by the acoustic ones with beautiful guitar picking and the voices that explore the amazing range and subtlety of Bob’s lyrics in ways I haven’t heard before. There are treats waiting throughout this CD and I know now when each is coming, sometimes going back and replaying a song just to be immersed in it again. And again. However, I don’t jump ahead – there must be something in me that makes me go through the somewhat less favourite cuts (I notice that I still inadvertently use the terminology of vinyl when I am talking about the tracks) because those treats I know are ahead are worth the wait.

So it’s clear that I have found this disc of the soundtrack powerful and compelling. But it is cut (track) #17 that is for me the most compelling. I first heard it in St. Catherine’s in the background of our activities there when JE played the soundtrack and burned copies for us, and it engaged me. I heard it again when we were back home and it was playing when friends were over for dinner. I hadn’t yet explored the names of the artists on the CD so I didn’t know whose that lovely ethereal voice on #17 was. I turned up the sound and asked if anyone knew who the vocalist was. JJ who is an amazing vocal artist herself said she thought it was male and possibly African-American but not someone she knew. And no one else knew either.

The next day I looked it up on the trusty wikipedia and learned that it was Antony Hagerty, male, yes, I guess, but neither African nor American. If you want to know more, check out the soundtrack here and the artist on #17 here. You will know if you looked or if you already know the soundtrack that the song is “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”. If you want to know why I found/find this version so compelling, you can watch and listen here.

I have loved that song ever since I first heard it, and my favourite version for a couple of decades has been the one Bob did on his Australia tour with a great chorus of backup singers including, I believe, Queen Latifah (and now I can’t find that memorable video anywhere). It was my favourite, but as I mentioned above, I’ve been living inside Disc 2 for a while and especially inside cut #17.

Actually I decided that if there were ever a memorial event for me I would want Antony’s version of the song to be part of it. Shortly after deciding that, I finished the article I was reading in The New Yorker about performance artist Marina Abramovic, and learned that she invited Antony to a party and announced that she planned to have him sing "My Way" at all three of her funerals (read the article).

No matter, all I want is this CD with this version of this song, not because there’s any heaven with a door in it to knock on, but because that voice and Bob’s words say something about what we might think of, what we might feel, what we might live for. That’s all.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Message from the North Country

I have wanted to try making maple syrup for some time now, so finally I decided to do it. It took a while, since spiles were not easy to find – in fact, most people I talked to in hardware stores had never heard of them, and Lee Valley, the logical choice, no longer carries them. I would have thought otherwise, because various websites I looked at suggested that it was both easy and popular to tap a few trees and make a little syrup, and it was certainly not limited to rural environs, but there were no spiles to be found in the Halifax area. However, I was lucky enough to find a hardware store down in Tantallon that had three in stock, so I decided that I would tap three of the trees that were big enough (I don’t actually have many more than that anyway!).

Our trees are red rather than sugar maple, but the sources said that they also work well, and I now know that they are right. Our maples are not really big, and they have grown in clusters of trunks rather than as single large trees. The ones I chose are from one clump next to the driveway, and they seemed like good candidates – big enough and situated where the sun would shine on them for a good part of the day.
The day I tapped the night had been cold, the day was warm, and the sap was running. The flow started as soon as I made the holes, so I tapped the spiles in quickly and set up my buckets. It was very gratifying. I estimated the blue bucket to be collecting two drips per second, while the other two were about half as fast. I tried to keep the flow from leaking down the tree trunks because I knew how precious every drop was.
The flow was good for the first two days and I poured over five litres of sap into the 10-litre plastic jug I had and stuck it in the cold room to wait for the rest of the sap to come. However, my great initial production petered out, and I got less than a litre over the next couple of days. Then it stopped entirely. I figured that the holes had dried out and sealed themselves, but then I read that sap production can be sporadic, and that you need a good solid freeze at night, something we haven’t had for quite a few days now.

So I decided to boil it down.
I used the little Coleman stove.
And I finished it in the house.
It didn’t make much.

But it’s maple syrup all right, it tastes really good, and I made it myself! And with a solid freeze forecast for the end of the week, maybe I’ll fill that little jar yet!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

(Un)bearable Lightness of Being

A person could, with some justification, accuse me of looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. In fact, my sunglasses, which I have been wearing a bit lately, do give a rosier hue to the tops of the trees that are responding to the warmth and light this spring, and they give a wonderful blue-green cast to the water in the cove. So yes, it may have some truth in it, both literally and metaphorically, but I don’t really care; when small events inspire a small sense of uplift, I say go with it, cherish it, because there’s enough of the other to offset the mood.

As W.S. Merwin put it so well, towards the end of his “A Message to Po Chu-I” in the March 8 issue of The New Yorker:

the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

In the absence of knowing where the goose will go, or where climate change, wars, and greed will take us and our children and grandchildren, there are still some things to lift the spirit, like:

the pair of eagles circling and engaging acrobatically over the harbour when I stopped at the mailbox

the tiny perfect chickadees shifting to their spring song

the whistle in the wings of the two mourning doves in our maples

the return before sunrise of the song sparrows’ songs

the blue flash of jays at our feeders

the small red dot on the downy woodpecker’s head

the crows exulting in sun and wind and sky

the soft grey and bright white of the gull’s glide

Yesterday I joined S and the girls down by the wave sculpture at the waterfront (they sat in its shadow for the photo), and last night, in the black sky, I caught the bright sharp crescent of the newest moon just before it set.

These are all small things, perhaps, and there was the ominous reminder of someone's swastika sign on the wave, but, like our three amazing children, their wonderful partners, and three equally amazing granddaughters, there are things and moments to be cherished here and now and there are the promises they bear for our future moments.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Yesterday the surf was up. We could hear it crashing over on McNab’s as soon as we opened the door. Lorraine had commented on it earlier when she saw the waves breaking across the harbour and out on Thrumcap Shoal, and it had been building on Sunday, but you didn’t realize the full extent of it until you went outside and listened. The roar was distant but constant.

From what I can tell from the weather maps the large swells were comng from a disturbance offshore, probably the one that dumped huge amounts of rain on New York City. It looked like an intense low, and our easterly wind (usually a storm wind) was just a fresh and strong flow from that system. So we had a good day, sun shining, wind blowing, surf crashing, and not too cold (though it was one of those five degrees cooler along the coast forecasts).

Lorraine and I decided to head to Sailor’s Point, the lookoff at Herring Cove, to walk to the cairn and clear our heads after too much time indoors and inside our computers.
I have to admit to a love for the moment when these big rollers finally meet the granite headlands and rocky shores.
Standing next to the edge does clear the head.
There’s the small spruce, the scatter of juniper with its grey berries, and the rusty ground cover in small pockets of the grey bedrock.
And I am constantly amazed at the bright whiteness of the water when the waves crash and the spray flies into the air.
There is nothing like it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Yesterday was March 11 (again)

Today is March 12, and once again I can say, Yesterday was March 11. Yesterday was, like today is, a gorgeous sunny late winter day, with the promise of spring in it, a happy day.

When we came in last night, there was a message on the phone. It started, as JE’s messages so often do, with his gentle and thoughtful voice saying, Hi guys. He went on to tell us that he would be out later and that he phoned because it was his “Champagne Anniversary”. I didn’t immediately figure out the champagne reference, but then I remembered champagne birthdays (mine happened when I was two and I doubt that I noticed it). It wasn’t that I hadn’t been thinking about it often throughout the day, since March 11 is as important a day in our lives as September 11 is in some other people’s; it is, after all, the anniversary of the day we took JE, our second son, to the Emergency Department to try to get some help. We drove past the Abbie Lane yesterday, looked up at the windows on the sixth floor, and remembered. It is the day when he said, eleven years ago, “March 11. It is raining.” And it is the day he was admitted to 6 Lane Long Stay for diagnosis and treatment of something that roughly matched the list of symptoms for bipolar disorder.

Yesterday it wasn’t raining, the sun was bright, and the chickadees had begun to sing their spring song. The song sparrows were also around, also singing. The jays were busy at the feeder and suet cage. A hairy woodpecker stopped by for its feed. And the bright and agile crows were calling some message from the tops of our maples.

JE, who also notices birds and would have happily noticed if he were here, called yesterday on his champagne anniversary. I was sorry we missed the call because there was much we could have talked about: the peregrine falcon that landed on his fence a couple of days ago, what the inimitable M has been doing and saying as her world and the words she uses to describe it continue to expand exponentially, how the balance of the semester is shaping up for S, and how he himself is doing and what he is thinking eleven years after the fact.

We will talk about those things when we connect, but that last one is one that we already know something of the answer to; his March posts give some indication, and our recent visit tells even more. Our son, who has struggled with mental illness and the side effects of medications and who has had to make himself and his condition known to a number of different psychiatrists over the years and then to try to forge a good working relationship with each, has managed through self-discipline, self-reflection, and continued vigilance to establish a life and a way of being that is creative, productive, and filled with love. As our friend Brian, himself a psychiatrist, told us, JE's life is like a miracle.

It may be that, and it is a champagne anniversary, a celebration of a difficult struggle, strengthened by adversity, a day to celebrate.

March 11. The sun is shining.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More on Wind

I have been thinking about that north wind (or northeast wind), the easterly that John referred to (see my previous post), and why it makes you feel so uncomfortable. I’m not sure of the answer, but I do, as you might expect, have some thoughts on it, which I will of course share, since that is what this blog seems to be about anyway. So here they are.

First, there is the weather that comes with this wind. It is almost always grey and damp, cold but not frigid. It chills the bones and depresses the outlook. Sometimes there are storms with easterlies – the blizzard of the northeasterly and the wet gale of the southeasterly – but these usually move through and conditions change. However, this northerly flow just keeps going and going and going, sometimes gusting harder but always going. And you are never sure when it will stop.

So, the second thing is its relentlessness. Other winds, like the happier westerlies, fluctuate. The norwester usually roars in right after the easterly storm moves out, and when it comes it can be fierce. It is a front coming through, and that front can last a few hours, but then the wind diminishes, and when that happens we usually get a day or two of clear skies and light winds, gentler weather no matter the time of year. The souwester functions differently, usually coming up around noon as the land warms up, and then dropping around sunset. This is a time of flat calm early mornings and late evenings, with the gusts of the afternoon wind scudding across the harbour. These are the westerlies, and they are winds we tend to like, because they usually bring clear skies and they have a cycle that is fairly predictable, with quiet times you can look forward to. But not that northerly that keeps going, day and night, with no suggestion of it ever changing (maybe I should have called this “moron wind”).

One Friday afternoon in Istanbul Lorraine and I were driving to the studio in Ortak√∂y for the weekend. As we were crossing to the European side on the Bosphorus Bridge, she noticed a large cloud formation over the Asian side. It was remarkable because we had never seen a dark brown cloud like that before, and when we walked down by the Bosphorus the water was unsettled and a strange warm wind was blowing from the south. We found out later that it was a lodos wind, another uncomfortable wind that can shut down the Bosphorus Strait to shipping, stop ferries from running, and make some people stay home from work. Like our northerly it is a very unsettling wind that can blow for days, and it can lead to a rush of northern air from the Ukraine, sometimes piling up snow in the winter. This wasn’t a winter lodos, the wind did let up, and that night it rained. In the morning our car, and everyone else’s, was spattered with powdery yellow spots from that dark brown cloud, dropping the fine dust the lodos had picked up in the Sahara with its heavy raindrops. We rubbed the dust between our fingers and thought of Egypt and Libya and the Sudan.

The summer we visited Crete we experienced another uncomfortable wind, called the meltemi or Etesian wind. Unlike the lodos it flows from north to south, starting in the Balkans, racing across the Mediterranean, and finishing in North Africa. On the south coast of Crete it came roaring down the mountainsides to the coast and straight out into the Libyan Sea. At water’s edge there was a slim strip of calm before the ripples started, and by the time the wind was 50 metres offshore, there was a serious chop with rainbows of spume being whipped off the tops of the waves. We watched a brushfire burning both down and up the slope through an olive grove on the edge of town and drove to the other side of the island hoping for some respite, but we never could escape the relentless rush of this wind.

I hope you understand that I do like wind; in fact, I like most winds. But there are some, like that pesky northerly, that can truly irritate and unsettle. The good thing is that they are rare, and they do pass, like our wind that did change, the day after my last post, letting the sun shine for three days in a row.

We are still between seasons (after all, this is coastal Nova Scotia), but the sun today was warm and strong, and tonight the lights across the harbour are reflected in still water. No wind. That will change, but for now there is no wind. And I am happy for it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Post #75 – Back Home, Between Systems & Seasons

When I sat down early this afternoon to resume editing a piece I wrote a few years ago and put away, our doorbell rang. It was my friend John with a container of Danish blackcurrant compote, a treat I had always enjoyed for its strong and slightly tart flavour before we went away but something I haven’t been able to find in the stores since we returned. It was a truly thoughtful gift, since I had seen some in their kitchen and commented on not being able to find it. I put it on the counter and thought about what bread I would put it on later and whether or not I would include peanut butter (I had it on Calabrese with olive oil margarine this time, and it was a real treat).

John was doing errands, but he stopped long enough to talk a little, so we talked about the wind. It’s blowing a gale today, it blew yesterday, and it was blowing the day before. He said he hated easterlies. I do too, though I think of today’s as a northerly, maybe with a slight eastern tilt, but still northerly. John is a mariner, and I know the discomfort he feels with easterly winds, even though his slip and mooring are sheltered from almost every wind, because here easterlies are always either unsettling and unsettled winds or storm winds, and I understand including a northerly in that unhappy category. Today Environment Canada tells me that we have north winds at 28 kph, gusting to 74, and it’s those fierce and frequent gusts that have sent a parade of whitecaps across the grey harbour under cold grey skies.
He commented that the tides have been running high but that the barometer’s been pretty steady, and we decided that there must be a trough somewhere offshore, strong enough to lift the tides a little, and the wind is pouring into it. Tomorrow it is supposed to be clear with milder temperatures and the wind shifting to norwest, a much happier direction. I’ll look forward to that, because being stuck between systems and between seasons has begun to wear on me a little.

So we are between seasons here. There is no snow for skiing, no outdoor ice for skating, no signs of budding spring (except for reddish tinges on some anticipatory trees), and no opportunities to work outdoors because that relentless wind just makes you too crazy and too tired. But we are at least back home after our week in Ontario, and it’s good to be here even with the wind! We had a wonderful time with two branches of our family, in St. Catharine’s and Toronto respectively, and nothing can compare with the joy of hanging out with your kids and their partners and being able to share in their homes and their lives, but you can’t do that forever, and one of the pleasures of back home is the familiarity of things. There are the chores, like filling the humidifiers, hauling firewood from the shed, monitoring the stove, making tea, buying groceries, getting the mail – boring stuff perhaps, but our own stuff, and there is a pleasure in that.

And this is Post #75 of Field Days: A Miscellany, the blog I started on my birthday just over a year ago. This post, like the blog, is appropriately miscellaneous, even haphazard, today, just a few comments on a nasty wind, a pot of compote, low pressure systems, seasonal limbo, and the ordinary aspects of being back home. It, and the 74 posts that preceded it, have continued to give me pleasure in their making, so if you’re a reader who made it to here, this is the 75th one, and you can probably expect to see plenty more, if you’re interested, that is.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

They say it's your birthday...again!

They say it’s your birthday, and today it is…again! And again it is Levi’s in St. Catharine’s, though it is this year he turned three, not last, and it is also Lou Reed’s, and Lou is now 66, still exactly a year older than I am. I learned that Lou and Laurie Anderson are still in New York and still together (see my post from this date a year ago for some questions I had back then), that they held a benefit last month for somebody there, and that Anne Carson, whom some of you know as one of my heroes, was part of it.

I missed the benefit – in fact was not even invited – but that is all beside the point because today is my birthday, and Lorraine and I had the chance to spend parts of the day with two of our three amazing kids (and the weekend in Toronto with the third), their bright and loving partners, and all three of our wondrous and inimitable granddaughters. This latter required a little arranging because we started the day in St. Catharine’s, at the tail end of our visit there, and said good-bye, or see you, to our sweet and radiant M before her dad took her off down the street to Stephanie’s day care around the corner. Then we flew to Halifax where we were met by a welcoming committee of two very excited little girls with their dad, helium balloons left in the car because they might have ended up at the airport ceiling, and whispers of chocolate cake they had decorated and birthday surprises.

I can remember a long time ago, perhaps when I was in my 30’s, thinking about the millennium and the fact that it was so far off and when it came I would be 55 – it was inconceivable. How could you imagine making it to there and what it might feel like? Now here I am, ten years into this century, and I am 65, officially a senior, officially able to request seniors’ discounts, and officially at the start of my 66th year.

I couldn’t imagine making it to there or what it would feel like, and I am surprised now to notice how little difference there seems to be from 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago (except that someone else has to put the small children to bed and I am free to sit at my laptop and listen to music, Mercan Dede right now, and not worry if anyone but me is going to wake up in the night or too early in the morning). Of course I am not going to push the notion too far, since I am no kid or young man, but a 65-year old guy with a stoop to my shoulders, grey hair, and a lot less strength or flexibility than I once had.

This, however, is no matter because I have three young granddaughters who will play with me and tell me about their worlds, and three children, with three partners, who are all young adults who will all take the time tell me what matters to them and listen to what I might have to say. It was the best birthday you could imagine, with the best people, and with cards, like M’s above (made a couple of days before she turned 20 months), that spoke of love and being loved. Best gift you can ever get.