(Re)Learning to Listen



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A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a bright young man. At some point, the discussion turned to music, then to listening to music.

He told me that he had tried something new recently. He put on his headphones, closed his eyes and sat still, doing nothing but listen. It was extraordinary, he said. Listening without doing anything else was a revelation. He found subtlety in the recording that he’d never noticed. He found himself immersed in the music in a way he’d never experienced before.

I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that someone could not have had this experience until his mid-20s.

We continued the conversation, agreeing that music is deeply gratifying when it absorbs our whole being. Our thoughts may wander, but we are alone with the music, and the experience is wonderful.


I relayed this story to a friend, a musician and music teacher. She touched my arm eyes open wide, not sure what to say, other than “John”.


I have since looked, listened and thought quite a bit about that day. Music is everywhere and nowhere. Kids enjoy time together, one earbud for each friend. People walk, talk, cycle, while half-listening to tunes. Road noise makes in-car music barely musical. And, of course, music has been cheapened in every retail shop for decades. Fragments of music pour out of every imaginable medium.

Is anyone listening? I mean really listening.


But after a bit of general sadness for music and our psyches, I realized that I have largely abandoned listening. I listen on a computer, or tablet, or phone. Or I put up with sonic crap in the supermarket. But I’d stopped stopping to listen.

So, I made a conscious effort to listen. To listen while doing nothing else but being alone with music.

Now, I set aside some time to sit in my big comfortable chair, and listen to a full disc on my stereo. Just me in the room. No books, no work, nothing to twiddle in my fingers. Just music and me. It’s been a revelation.

The music brings me more joy than it has for years. I am peaceful during and after listening. I am focused. And I am happy.

Most startling of all is how clearly I hear music when it is not playing. Like everyone else, tunes and fragments of remembered music pop into my head at unexpected times. But during these past few weeks, music has been presenting itself with greater clarity and for a greater duration than it has for years. I had not noticed the decline until I was presented with the ascent.

Do yourself a favour, please. Go listen to something. Just you and the music all alone. No distractions.

It’ll be beautiful.

I promise.


Ryan Heavy Head


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The online world is full of nonsense. But hidden in the corners of this crazy place are little gems waiting to be discovered.


Southern Alberta, represents the northernmost range of a number of animals. Turtles eke out an existence in the Milk River watershed, but cannot survive the winters any further north. Red-sided Garter snakes can overwinter in the northern regions of the province, but they are the only reptiles that can make it. If you want reptiles in Alberta, head south.

The two big snakes in the south are the Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer) and the Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis viridis). I grew up in Calgary, sort of the northern tip of southern Alberta, and although there are historical records of these snakes, they haven’t been seen in the Calgary area since the mid-20th century.



I was indoors, avoiding another cold winter weekend and my thoughts turned to summer snakes. I turned to Youtube and found Ryan Heavy Head.

I’m not sure who Ryan works for, but he spends much of the summer picking up rattlesnakes that have found their way into Lethbridge yards, garages, golf courses and buildings, and safely relocates them near known dens in Lethbridge coulees.

I think snakes are cool, but I like Ryan a lot. A real lot.



Each video opens with a welcome in Blackfoot, the Gregorian date, and the month of the Blackfoot lunar cycle. Ryan, wearing his GoPro, finds and gently lifts the snake into a traveling bucket—he added a bucket cam a while ago!—and then moves and releases the snake.

The plots are pretty much all the same, but what stays with me is Ryan’s calmness, his dedication, and the respect he shows every character in the drama, including the snakes.

It gives me hope that we can peacefully coexist with our surroundings.

Christmas Memories–More Music


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I wrote yesterday about my mom’s singing. She sang all year round, but Christmas brought forth a few more joyous sounds than usual.

I’d like to share today a record than I never heard anywhere but our home. It was called “Organ and Chimes”. If artist names are anywhere on the disk jacket, I never noticed them. This record was a celebration of Christmas played on, yes, one organ and one set of chimes.

I found the entire record on Youtube recently. Well, maybe. There are a couple of candidates. I think that the record I (almost) remember was recorded by Charles Smart and James Blades.

Who says memories have to be perfect to be worth having?

Christmas Memories—The Music


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So many of our childhood memories are associated with the senses, or with fragments of experience. For me, much of the Christmas preparation I remembered with my mother’s vinyl records.

Harry Belafonte

My mom loved to sing. Any time she was awake was a good time to sing. But she didn’t listen to the radio or to records very often. Perhaps she enjoyed the freedom of setting her own tempo and letting nature give her sweet, natural alto the most comfortable key.
But there were a few LPs that came out at Christmas time. Youtube has given me a chance to engage the memories.
I want to begin with a single from a non-Christmas LP. Mom loved Harry Belafonte, and his rendition of “Mary’s Boy Child” remains by far my favorite.
Belafonte was born American, but spent much of his childhood with grandparents in Jamaica. He was a (perhaps the) central figure in the Calypso rage of the 1950s. Belafonte’s clear voice and crisp diction bring the text to the front of a gentle Calypso rhythm to create a song that simultaneously is humble worship, and infectious rhythm.


Mom, wherever you are, let’s enjoy Harry Belafonte together again this year. Merry Christmas.

My Pet Block


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I’ve recently added a new bit—a very old magical idea, actually—to my children’s/family show. Allow me to introduce Woody, my pet block.

Isn’t Woody cute? Such a shiny coat. And a beautiful leash made of rope. Awww.
And smart too. Woody does tricks.
“Sit Woody! Good boy!”
But wait, there’s more.
Woody can climb and jump.


And even though Woody can escape any time he wants, he’s a good boy, and only slides out of his leash when called.


Good boy!


Today’s Joy!


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No deep thoughts, just pure unadulterated joy.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Yes, it’s a real thing. A really awesome thing since the mid 1980s. And they play all kinds of great stuff. Surprisingly strong musicianship and an incredible sense of fun and the pure joy of music.


Bobcaygeon: Hidden in Plain Sight


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Sometimes as we discover the most amazing things we discover that we could have, should have known them long ago.

Canadian rock and roll icons The Tragically Hip released the song “Bobcaygeon” way back in 1998. I heard it from time to time without knowing the name of the song. It wasn’t that long ago that I managed to place the sound of the title “Bob Cajun” to the tune, but I never bothered to listen closely.

Perhaps it’s because I was old enough, and busy enough with raising a family in 1998 that I simply didn’t pay attention. Or maybe I wasn’t ready, and knew somewhere in the back of my mind that patience would be rewarded.

Just this week I learned that Bobcaygeon is a small community in cottage country north and west of Toronto. And when I learned that, I decided to give the song a closer listen. And was rewarded by a delight hidden in plain view.

The tune I’ve always found catchy. But the lyric!

The song touches a deep place in the Canadian heart. The latter half of the 20th century saw Canadians abandon the rural life and move to the cities. Yet part of our hearts, part of our imagination of ourselves is in the country. No, most of us will never leave the city, but our mythological universe sees us in canoes under the dancing auroras.

Bobcaygeon encourages a look into our rural hearts from our urban realities. Makes us yearn for the quiet solitude that makes us whole. The city is simultaneously homogenizing and dividing. We yearn for freedom, but also for order. And we are torn.

Gordon Downie / Johnny Fay / Joseph Paul Langlois / Robert Baker / Robert Gordon Sinclair

I left your house this morning,
‘Bout a quarter after nine.
Coulda been the Willie Nelson,
Coulda been the wine
When I left your house this morning,
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time
Drove back to town this morning,
With working on my mind
I thought of maybe quittin’,
Thought of leavin’ it behind
Went back to bed this morning
And as I’m pullin’ down the blind,
Yeah, the sky was dull and hypothetical
And fallin’ one cloud at a time
That night in Toronto,
With its checkerboard floors
Riding on horseback,
And keeping order restored,
Til The Men They Couldn’t Hang,
Stepped to the mic and sang,
And their voices rang with that Aryan twang
I got to your house this morning,
Just a little after nine
In the middle of that riot,
Couldn’t get you off my mind
So, I’m at your house this morning,
Just a little after nine
‘Cause, it was in Bobcaygeon
Where I saw the constellations reveal themselves
One star at time

And as the constellations revealed themselves one star at a time,  I found the video for the song.

It’s hard not to see Bobcaygeon in the context of today’s continuing struggle with race, with exclusion, the tensions between civil order and freedom.

The Eclipse


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The Eclipse

Monday, August 21, 2017, an enormous part of the USA will have the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.

Not a partial eclipse. We get those pretty frequently. The total is special.


Consider this: we have special eclipses on earth. The apparent sizes of the sun and the moon are almost exactly equal. No other planet in our solar system has this lucky configuration. For some planets/moons, the sun appears much bigger, so every eclipse is partial. For others, the moon appears much bigger, so their eclipses are total, but lack the drama.

Ours are perfect.

Which brings me back to Monday.


I’m in Canada, and only 70% of the sun will be covered by the moon. This means a two things. First, it means that I regret not taking a vacation to be in the totality. My bad.

Second, it means that the day will not get darker for me. In fact, if I didn’t know there was an eclipse happening, then I’d never notice. Still, for those of us out of the path of totality, we can still observe the eclipse either directly or indirectly. Indirectly is easiest. Take something solid, say, a piece of cardboard, and poke a hole in it. Stand with your back to the sun and focus the sun’s image through the hole onto a wall, or a sidewalk or other convenient spot. The eclipse will be perfectly visible. It’s really awesome. If you show anyone, they’ll object and say that the black spot covering part of the sun is due to the imperfection of the hole in the cardboard. Calmly rotate the cardboard to show that the spot doesn’t move. For kids, it’s a good idea to take the whole box and poke a hole in one end. Then the child puts the box over her head and stands back to the sun. The box is adjusted until she has a perfect little cinema inside. This prevents any risk of her looking directly at the sun in excitement.

You can watch the partial eclipse directly through welder’s glass, or through a properly filtered telescope. I’ll be out with my scope and filter.

For everyone who can experience the total eclipse, this is not something to be missed. Yes, I’ve heard a few soulless cretins complain that the eclipse is overrated. Don’t listen to them.

If you’re in a city, go to your local planetarium, science centre or astronomy club site and take the experience in with others. There will be telescopes, big screens and people who know what they’re talking about. Take advantage of this. (BTW this also applies to those experiencing the partial eclipse.)

But if you can get to a more natural spot, you are in for a special treat. Observe the coming eclipse, following appropriate safety measures. And BE QUIET. At the anointed hour, as the moon completely covers the sun (for between 30 seconds and 7 minutes, depending on where you are), feel the change in heat on your face. See the world plunge into an eerie darkness, rather unlike the night. Listen to the reactions of the birds.

Experience the wonder of the world experiencing our planet’s special treat.