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I’m sitting in a shady yard and, as I watch, the leaves are starting to blush red, rust and yellow before making their downward drop to become a colorful quilt on the ground. I’ve been here in southern Ontario for the last month, taking care of business but also enjoying an eclectic potpourri of music and art provided by some of the great performers and artists in the area.
Back in late August, I went to the (first annual?) Daniel Lanois Harvest Picnic at the Christie Lake Conservation Area a few miles outside of Hamilton. The local-boy musician, international über-music-producer invited a bunch of his musical friends (and no doubt worshipers) to this leafy-green-and carrot-top friendly event. The weather cooperated, the stage ran smoothly, the vibe was relaxed and the mix of music was fantastic. Dan and his associate Jean-Paul Gauthier put together this day to celebrate local family farms and I would describe it as a kind of low-key Canadian-grown Farm-aid. They raised money for some local gardening initiatives but mostly gathered a crowd to celebrate the fresh produce that grows nearby, the people who tend it, and the sweet music of the performers.
Instead of MCs, a number of farmers and their families spoke about their lives spent providing us with healthy, often organic, food in this age of agro-business and industrial farming. Some were quite political and blunt about the disturbing realities of trying to survive in this corporate chemically-consumed age, while others were simple and sincere with stories of their love for the land, sharing tales of several generations in one family working the same fields.
My friend with the sweet voice and rockin’ spirit, Lori Yates – who we will revisit a few times in this post – played her poignant songs with the great Brian Griffith and her new bassist, Peter Sisk. Cocky and I got to the daylong show early to be sure to see Lori and this enabled us to have a good position right in front of the stage.
It meant that we could later see the stunning Emmylou Harris up close. She sang both solo and with Dan Lanois’ band, her voice still pure and her face still lovely. You know when you are in the presence of a queen. She was as gracious as her long, slender hands strumming her guitar.
Another musical icon I got to see for the first time was Canadian Gord Downie, famously known as leader singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip. He was with one of his other bands The Country of Miracles featuring Julie Doiron and radiated the same energy and wit that he is known for.
A band I saw for the first time and really enjoyed was The Reason. Great name for a band (“Well folks, thanks for coming, we are The Reason.”) Alt-country, attitude, good licks, stage presence…yup, liked them.
From California, Dan recruited a young soul man named Rocco Deluca. First time many of us had seen him and he was beautiful with stirring music that stirred you up. Apparently he has been touring with Dan, opening his shows. Don’t know, maybe he’s a famous guy south of the border, but I think he just got himself a new buncha followers up here in Ontario.
There were a number of other acts – John Ellison, Sarah Harmer, and the very enigmatic and powerful Ray Lamontagne – but the hardest working musician of the day was definitely Dan Lanois. Besides putting the show together and being our affable host, he played with Rocco and later performed a set with his own band Black Dub as well as backing Emmylou’s set. And during stage changes, he was jamming in the sound booth with his two musicians, Jim Wilson and Steve Nistor, pulling the crowd into center field for some spontaneous combustion with the South American dancers who accompanied much of his show. Depending on how you saw it, they added either world beat colour or feathery female distraction.
It was a perfect day and it’s hard to imagine that they could create the same magic though I expect they will try. There was lots of green energy and smart thought put into the organization and no corporate sponsorship nor plastic marketing garbage – the biggest logos screamed “RECYCLE HERE”. Instead local artisans and small food vendors had a captive audience. Food wise, I fell in love with Feng’s Dumplings, juicy tasty nuggets created by Hsaiao-feng Wu, who came to Guelph from Taiwan a few years ago and started her small business. I was so enamored with these “titillating Taiwanese temptations” as she calls them, that I recently went to the always wonderful Guelph Farmers’ Market to meet her. I thanked her for making them, devoured many more and took some frozen ones home. I am now going to try to find her a place in Hamilton to sell them otherwise I’ll be returning to Guelph from time to time. Check her out at www.fengsdumplings.com and if possible taste her dumplings – for you too could fall in love.
A couple of weeks after the Picnic, there was a convergence of music and art with community in the Hamilton area. The mid-September weekend began with the arrival of the Pride of Baltimore, a tall ship that sailed elegantly under gusty winds into Hamilton Harbour, blasting her cannons as she arrived.
I got to spend a glorious afternoon on a sailboat myself – thanks to Francis and Jeff – that included cruising close to the tall ship, views of a couple of submarines in dry dock and another large ship visiting the harbour from the Canadian Navy, amid all the other happy boaters out enjoying the early autumn weather that still resembled a perfect summer day.
A four-day run of music began in Toronto at the Lula Lounge. Lori Yates has been part of a Patsy Cline Birthday Tribute held annually where several great vocalists share the mic to belt out those songs that make you wanna weep or drink or maybe even try your luck at love again. They do Patsy proud. The hair and outfits were priceless, including those that came from our favorite local designers, Blackbird Studios. They make dresses for roller derby queens, real women and glam-punks and were well represented that night, lending some glamour and shine to the stage.
The next night, I took a tour down to Port Credit to Chuck Jackson’s (of Downchild Blues Band) Southside Shuffle, an annual blues festival at the mouth of the Credit River. There was a great group of six loud ladies – most notably the phenomenal Lady T and Cheryl Lescom – called the Motor City Women. Cheryl covered Etta James’ “I’d rather go Blind” and it sent shivers through the crowd. But the night was made truly memorable by the Blind Boys of Alabama. Only three of them are blind and only one of the original five still performs but after over seventy years of singing gospel and the blues, those boys and their band know how to raise the congregation’s spirit just fine. Jimmy Carter, the 80-year-old original, was jumping like a teenager and you could see that he was gathering more energy as the night went on. As part of the show he comes down into the audience, aided by the sighted guitar player, and people reach out to touch him like a talisman – whatever that man’s got, we all want it. You could tell that he would have stayed on singing all night but maybe those younger musicians were pooped. Glad I got the chance to testify at one of their revivals.
Back in the Hammer, on Super Saturday the city was celebrating Supercrawl on James St. North, the Locke Street Festival, the Canadian Country Music Awards, Festitalia in Westdale, the Pegan Fest in the east end…well, the list goes on. It all brought tens of thousands of art and music lovers to the city. There were a number of large public art installations such as these blown up bodies on the top of the Mixed Media building and the metal collage pictured earlier….
…as well as the knitted panels-for-siding on one of James Street North’s friendly little bars, The Brain. Wandering the street through the day and night, I ran into crazy people (often friends), soaked up music, pondered the depth of artists’ imaginations, mused over amusements…well, the fun never stopped. I was so overwhelmed by the options that day that I almost didn’t go out at all, but fortunately I got it together and caught a rag-a-ma-tag bunch of art and sound. It is getting that one hardly recognizes the old Hamilton – knitted brick buildings? Very cool – or cozy.
The outskirts of James Street North may have been quiet as usual, but the heart of it was pumping. There was only positive energy all around, great chaos and good will. And just to finish off a perfect weekend, we went to see one of the Hammer’s best bad boys Tim Gibbons rocking This Ain’t Hollywood for the Sunday matinee. My time in Hamilton isn’t complete without a little Tim, and I ain’t talking coffee.
A few days later, Lori was on stage once again, this time with another hot rockabilly chick from Texas, Rosie Flores. Lori and her band The Nashville Rejects hit the stage full tilt and played one hot set of I’d-be-crying-if-I-wasn’t-having-so-much-damn-fun music. It was Lori as I haven’t quite seen her since back in the 80s when she was royalty on edgy Queen Street West in Toronto. Her band – Stephen Miller, Ted Hawkins and Peter Sisk – were as tight as a G-string on a steel guitar.
Rumor had it that Rosie, the headliner, said “How the hell am I supposed to follow that gal?”, but of course she just kept us rocking with her guitar licks and Texas attitude. It was truly a smokin’ night with Lori and Rosie and their bands – in both cases, newly put together, one rehearsal, but no one could have known. It was a red hot ending to a great summer of music and good times. Thank you Hammer-town, you continue to amaze me.
Can you believe it? Almost the end of July 2010! Whether time is passing quickly or trudging slowly for each of us, we still arrive at the same place together – ten years into the not-so-new millennium, two years short of the perhaps fatal 2012, and just one month away from Wolf Guindon’s 80th birthday when I’ll be returning to Costa Rica.
Just north of that Tico-paradise, oil has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months now, poisoning the waters and smothering local life. The responsible say that they’ve perhaps capped the leak, but so much damage has been done there is little to rejoice about. With tropical storms brewing, the future remains an industrial nightmare. A few days ago, when a pipeline burst and oil poured into the waters off of China, it barely made the news. The bar for oil disasters has now been raised so high that the media – as it does with so many other issues – doesn’t linger long in the small stuff.
Here in Canada, there are still more questions than answers about what happened during the G8/20 fiasco in Toronto a few weeks ago. Somehow the government and police seem to be avoiding an inquiry into their own very questionable and abusive actions but are now daily releasing pictures of young activists assumed to be responsible for the destructive violence during those couple days of social unrest. There are many stories of police misconduct that will never be investigated without an inquiry as well as the much bigger question of our government which put this billion dollar show on in a vulnerable downtown Toronto against expert advice. Like the oil-coated fish in the gulf, the criminal records of those caught in the police nets may be the only reminder of a very troubling and twisted event.
In the past couple of months, the Canadian government tried to pull another fast one by mixing some very important legislation into a seemingly benign budget bill – in short, they tried to have the requirement for environmental assessments on new projects taken away and the ability to sell nukes broadened. I heard nothing about this, as I’m sure many didn’t, until I went and saw Elizabeth May, the brilliant leader of the Green Party of Canada, who was here in Hamilton at a fundraiser. She left early to return to Ottawa and address the committee looking at the passage of this bill but first informed us of what was going on. I believe the bill didn’t pass until they changed these outlandish aspects, thanks to the diligence of politicians such as her. I remember Elizabeth from the 1980s when she was a young environmental lawyer working with others to have the requirement for environmental assessments, along with public participation in the process, entrenched in government policy.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica the government has recently granted permission to the United States to send 7000 marines along with numerous planes and dozens of warships to Ticolandia for an accelerated campaign on the war-against-drugs. There are very few good examples of countries allowing other country’s armies to carry out their business on their sovereign soils. Costa Ricans are in the streets protesting, being citizens of a country that doesn’t support the international drug trade but certainly doesn’t support a military presence either, having abolished their own army back in 1948. I can envision being visited by camouflage-coated creatures rising out of the swampy jungle near Cahuita, (scene from Apo-calypso Now?) with the right to question, search and detain anyone who appears suspicious to them. I’m suspicious that this is another military move being made in response to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s oil supplies, and their less than sympathetic nature toward the Americans. It feels a lot like a military maneuver being put in a strategic place for a more serious conflict – that war-on-drugs has been a farce going on for decades, supplying the American military machine with money and an excuse for a continuing strong presence south of their own border while the drug trade continues to keep everyone high.
The world, both large and small, seems increasingly insane.
Here in the Hammer, as throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern US, the weather has been hot, record-breaking hot, frying brain cells and raising tempers. They say it is the hottest, driest July on record and is going to stay this way for a while yet. They say that the temperature of the Great Lakes’ waters is up between one and five degrees, depending on the lake, something that can cause a serious effect on lake health – increasing vegetative growth and toxic pollutants as well as affecting fish populations.
Down in Monteverde, our good friend Wolf is dealing with a variety of health issues. I will be writing about this again soon, once I’ve had a more recent update from the family. In short, he can’t have his knee operation he so desired, but needs to have cataracts remove and some other issues taken care of. And he has been taken off the insulin they started him injecting last July for his diabetes, as either the insulin is the wrong kind or the amount has been out of whack. This explains the dizziness, confusion and dangerously low sugar counts he’s been having. I am anxious to get back to Monteverde in time for his 80th birthday and hope that his new doctors and treatment changes are going to help him enjoy life again.
In the meantime, I’m packing up my house so that when I leave, renters can move in. I have been purging the past, tossing the trivial, and surrendering the superfluous. I plan on being in Costa Rica for a longer period this time, to be closer to Wolf, to oversee the renewed effort on the translation of Walking with Wolf, and to close the deal on the land next door to Roberto’s. If all goes as planned, I’ll be constructing a little casita and settling down to write. After going through what is basically a smallish house here in Canada and still being overwhelmed by the stuff I’ve tried so hard not to collect, I will build the simplest structure possible – no walls, no storage – just efficient living space and one secure area for locking things up. Only hammocks and love will make my home.
Thank goodness for music, friends and sunshine. That is what restores me after a day of filling cardboard boxes and listening to the nightly news. Amongst other sweet musical moments, I went and saw local talented wild woman, Carolyna Lovelace, rock the house here in the Hammer, during her brief stay in between international gigs. She has also been packing up a lifetime and is moving on. Good luck to you Carolyna, see you in the south.
I indulged myself with the world cup. My original prediction was only half right – Holland was in, but not Argentina as I thought. I was happy that Spain took it – especially when Holland lost its cool and went aggressive - and especially happy that little Iniesto scored the goal. I got to watch some of the games with my great friends, the Bairs, along with some beautiful Tico friends, the Solanos, who were visiting. I thoroughly enjoyed the maleness and international flare of it all. I then spent the final game with a bunch of great women in a very mixed fan crowd in Toronto and paella pandemonium reigned. Now the world can relax once again – at least as far as futbol. Oh, to be in Brazil in four years.
We each swirl in our own little orbits, each given day shining gloriously for some, while for others, they can barely see through the darkness. Re-reading this post, I find myself sounding quite melancholy. It is the heat, it is the transitional moment of my life, it is the global condition. I am much more affected here in Canada by the whacky world. Although I will miss my great friends, the groovy scene of the Hammer, and the autumn artistry in the forest, I’m glad that I’m returning to Costa Rica. Maybe things will look brighter through the green filter of the jungle and love will soothe my skittish soul.
Two weeks ago I arrived back in Hamilton, Ontario. After more than two months on the long road between my tropical home in Costa Rica and my northern nest in Canada, I was both relieved and overwhelmed. I had issues to deal with in my house, my backyard is, once again, a jungle, and I realize that the two months I plan on being here may not be sufficient time to accomplish the things I need to.
Sadly, my trusty little camera pretty much died on the journey, so except for the odd image from my files or pulled off the internet, there will be less pretty pictures until I break down and buy another camera. Anybody got a slightly used digital for sale?
Since getting here, my mind has been absorbed with various themes, but for the sake of writing, there are two big ones – the World Cup and the G8/G20 Summit. Both are internationally-based, one drawing the world’s attention to South Africa, the other bringing the world’s political leaders to Toronto, just down the road from where I live; one incited fever and fun, the other incited rage and frustration; one will result in a clear winner (even with the probability of controversial referee calls), the other has already left a smashed-up city in rage with many questions where it feels like everybody has lost.
I’ve been watching the soccer games each day, surprised at my own accumulated knowledge after twenty years of exposure to the beautiful game in Costa Rica. If you have the slightest capacity for watching sports, it is impossible to ignore this game when you live in a country where it is the only game. Here in North America, I think people suffer from sports fatigue – people follow baseball, football (American and Canadian), basketball, hockey, Nascar, golf, tennis – one season overlaps the next and there is never a break.
In Costa Rica there is only one season – futbol – and though it ebbs and flows throughout the year, in the end people are pretty much only watching this one sport. Men spend their Sundays on and around the “plaza”, which isn’t a mall but a soccer field, and by the end of the day their wives, children and parents are all there watching the game and visiting with each other.
In other countries there may also be rugby or cricket, huge sports outside of North America, but definitely futbol is the universal game that only requires a ball and a somewhat flat area to play in. It provides hope to youth living without privilege everywhere that if they are good enough, they can make their local team, then a national team, then be picked up to play in the big leagues overseas and one day possibly play in the World Cup. This year, there were more countries in contention to go to South Africa and represent their homeland’s team than there are countries in the United Nations. World Cup indeed!
We are now down to the elimination round and the South American teams are going forward. The big European leagues draw the most attention throughout the year – as their star players get paid massive sums of money (think David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo) and take on the lives of celebrities (think the same boys again) – and the international media, the original celebrity gawkers, is paying attention to them. So the expectations have been that these are the best teams and Spain was crowned the favorite. Many of the great players that fill the European leagues are from South America and now they are back home and playing the poetic kind of futbol that they were raised on and it is carrying the Latinos to the top in South Africa.
Brasil is the perennial favorite but Argentina is putting on a huge show this year. Their star-player-gone-bad, Diego Maradona, is now their coach. He was the world’s best and then fell into scandal from too much fame and money, got fat then went on a diet, and has now come back as the coach of his country’s team. Although he is generally not considered a great coach, his team is winning. I love watching his passion sizzling at the side of the pitch – he looks like, with the blow of a ref’s whistle, he’d strip off his Italian designer suit, throw on a team shirt, run onto the field and take off down the field with the ball if he could get away with it.
So my prediction is this – I think that Holland will play Argentina (Brasil will unfortunately fall out of the competition a game before) and Argentina will win. Maradona will be re-crowned King of Argentina and his picture will show up next to their other chosen one, Che Guevera, on T-shirts and coffee mugs all over the world. I would prefer a Brasilian/Argentina game (so hope I’m wrong on my prediction) but would have a hard time watching either team lose.
Speaking of Che, I expect he’d have been a keen participant in the chaos known as the G8/G20 Summit that took place this last weekend in Toronto. These gatherings of political leaders have proven to attract all kinds of activists objecting to corporate political and economic control and the subsequent diminishing of human/environmental rights. I expect if he was alive today, Che would be fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised and to remove power from the ivory corporate towers. And no doubt, Che would’ve been arrested, probably punched and roughed up for being an insolent if innocent protester, and held under a secretly-instituted temporary (and apparently misleading) law that gave the police undemocratic and frightening short term powers.
Although blame is flying and everyone is under suspicion for who caused what and what was intentional as opposed to random, spot-provoked violence, one should look to the leaders who set up this expensive ($$ billion-plus) circus, erected a huge fence ($5.5 million) to make sure the division of power over people had a focus, built an $$ million-plus artificial lake to keep the international media in Toronto (instead of letting them know our beautiful natural lakes and countryside) close to what became out-of-control street destruction and great photo-ops, with an outrageous security bill (the bulk of the $$ billion-plus budget) that then seemed to be justified by what happened in the streets. If you build it, they will come.
What transpired in Toronto was a massive mess of provocation and power abuse. It also managed to move the focus away from the intelligent, important messages of the many thousands of peaceful protestors who had been assembling for days in Toronto. Throughout the week, while they held events concerning human and environmental rights, the fence was being erected. As the G8 leaders came into town and with a minimum of fanfare headed north to Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka for their meeting, more people poured into the downtown core of Toronto. By Saturday, when the G20 were gathering inside the downtown Toronto Convention Center, there had already been days of organized and peaceful gatherings according to the right that we have here in Canada to organize, gather and protest.
Then things started going wrong and this is where the onion gets really smelly and the layers pull back to suggest something much more deeply sinister. By all accounts, on Saturday there were up to 25,000 protestors who marched between the fence and the government buildings, continuously chanting their messages in a typically-Canadian orderly calm. At some point in the afternoon, several hundred protestors of a different kind – call them Black Bloq, call them anarchists, call them revolutionists, call them angry suburban youths given big sticks & free reign – started using tactics of a very different kind that resulted in burned out police cars and smashed storefronts. According to eye-witnesses and youtube images, the police did little to stop this wanton violence – in fact, it would appear that they brutally instigated much of the violence. While letting the destruction rage on on some streets, they formed lines in other areas that corralled groups of peaceful demonstrators and herded them, often with abusive language and physical violence, towards holding cells. They also raked in joggers, tourists, journalists, and protestors who remained peaceful and non-aggressive.
I have no doubt that among the anarchists who (whether I agree with their message and methods or not) have a very strong anti-corporate ideology, there were just youths raised on computer game violence and a desire for thrills, given the chance to trash the downtown – photos of marauders with expensive clothes have emerged. And I don’t think there is any question that there were also agitators – supplied by the police, the government or corporate interests – who helped get the destruction rolling. Photos of these undercover provocateurs have also come out. As these crimes are exposed, the Toronto Police and the RCMP will have much to answer to. I also don’t believe that all the police were acting inappropriately or with bad intention, though put into this kind of insanity, calm heads seldom prevail and adrenalin, power issues and a big stick can cause a lot of damage. Just as people have pointed out how many innocent bystanders were picked up in the huge sweeps that resulted in over 900 arrests, I expect that there were also non-aligned people who were happy to take part in a violent free-for-all. Growing up in a wealthy suburban city, Iwitnessed this early in my life – destruction for the fun of it - and I really don’t see why this circus atmosphere would be any different. Tigers living in cages will go nuts when the cage door is opened.
Amongst all this mayhem – eaten up and regurgitated by mainstream media which thrives on conflict and violent images – there were well-respected journalists who were close to the action and either twittered or blogged their observations. One of these is Steve Paikin, a journalist of 30 years and host of a very sane and intelligent public television show called The Agenda. Here is the link to an interview that he gave following what he saw as police provocation and brutality. I appreciate that someone I consider a relatively conservative journalist is speaking out. Perhaps his comments will be listened to by some of the middle class masses who look at it all in pure disgust but don’t know where to lay the blame.
If you want to see a huge selection of images from this fiasco, just go to youtube and look under G8/G20 Toronto. I couldn’t begin to tell all the stories that have been coming out, including wrongful midnight arrests of innocent citizens in their homes and gender-based trauma on the streets and in the holding cells.
The media discussions continue looking at the actions of the police – as they should – while more stories of abuses on the streets, during and following arrests, appear. I am a firm believer in peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience and although I can understand the anger of the more aggressive protestors, I don’t have any interest in joining in that kind of negativity. I don’t believe in war under any circumstance, and would rather see all this energy put towards finding peaceful resolutions. It is how I have approached more than thirty years of some kind of activism.
An inquiry has been called for – perhaps it will figure out who was behind the curtain. My outrage lies with our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who, against security experts’ advice, chose to set up this warzone in downtown Toronto. In the face of the experiences of past summits held in large cities inevitably leading to violence, arrests, and destruction (Quebec City, Seattle, London UK, etc.), he still decided to spend a phenomenal sum of money to create this circus, most of that money going to security. My outrage also lies with Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s Premier, who passed regulations under the cover of darkness that allowed police to use measures and harass, detain, and arrest people in ways that aren’t consistent with Canada’s constitution, democracy or freedom to gather.
If ever it felt like the Conservative government of Canada, very much advocates of corporate and multi-national economic power as opposed to a more national socialist view, was moving its agenda forward to empower police and to marginalize the voices of sanity and the rights of the poor, the environment, natives, workers, women, gays & lesbians, the time is now. The fiasco of Toronto has pushed people into corners. The extremists have new fodder to keep their agendas moving – they certainly aren’t going away. The middle-class may not like what the police did, but no doubt will blame “activists” who they think should just stay home and they will ultimately hold responsible for bringing this mayhem to their beautiful city (you just have to read Facebook posts and letters to the editor to know that many don’t agree with social activism taking to the streets). The hard-working, committed social activists who saw their messages lost in the barrage of burning police cars and broken store windows (and many traumatized by violent arrests) must be highly frustrated, angered and disillusioned by their sincere intentions for change getting so lost in the mess. And depending on what an inquiry says about how the police conducted themselves, the police forces involved will certainly be starting at square one in rebuilding their relationship with the citizenry of Toronto. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper goes off on a gentile tour with the Queen of England who is visiting Canada and leaves the fallout to the local and provincial politicians.
Once again, I believe strongly in the right to organize, gather and protest. I also believe strongly in peaceful protests, because it is a peaceful world I want to live in, and so, to me, every action must be intentionally non-violent (even when one’s anger and disgust prompts something different). If it weren’t for activists being willing to step up to the line, indeed crossing it, we would never advance human, civil and environmental rights throughout history and throughout the world. One has to be disgusted by what happened in Toronto. The problem is how the blame will be transferred and what will come out of this. I fear that Harper’s corporate/police state agenda will rise to the top as all the pawns on his chessboard spin around in anger, disbelief, self-righteousness and confusion. Harper should never have brought this circus to town and then released all the animals into the streets. I doubt that he will ever apologize for a poor decision or even enter into the discussion. I think he got exactly what he paid for and wanted.
It has been a glorious autumn here in Ontario. I wasn’t here in the summer, having been down in Costa Rica, but by all accounts it was literally a wash-out. Autumn’s warm sunny days, served up with a minimum of moisture, have helped to bring a bit of balance to 2009. In just over a month, we’ll be in 2010 and though I guess I shouldn’t be counting my chickens before they hatch, I can already hear a busy year crowing.
This is my last weekend here – Monday I’m on a plane bright and early and by mid-afternoon I should be sweet and deep in the arms of Roberto in San José. A few days to chill in the hammock in Cahuita, to check up on the state of the papayas I planted in July, to get my calypso mojo working. Then I’ll be up in Monteverde, working on the history of Bosqueeterno and waiting to hear the first CO-CO-RI-CO of the new year (no doubt supplied by Mr. Wolf.) 2010 is a World Cup year but unfortunately Costa Rica lost her chance to play soccer with the big boys in South Africa. She’s a bit of a deflated hen, her tail feathers dragging. There’ll be some serious consoling to do.
As I’ve been preparing to leave my Canadian home for about six months, I’ve gone out to hear as much local music as I could fit in, most of it within walking distance of my house. At The Saint’s Tuesday night singer/songwriter gathering last week, my good pal Lori Yates gave an impromptu thirty minutes of new and old songs with an inspired, hilarious monologue. It was perhaps the best half hour of performance that I’ve seen this year.
The other singer/songwriters who were out that night – our affable host Paul Reimens, Rae Billings, Shelley Adams and Carolyna Loveless – also rose to the bar Lori set. It was my first time hearing Carolyna and she kicks it. After having a conversation with her over lunch a few days later, I realized that not only has she got big talent but she’s also got this outrageous energy and over-active mind -she could probably take over the world with if she was so diabolically-inclined. I’m ready to see more of her – maybe even in the 11th hour Sunday night when she is performing again at The Saint. Trying to convince myself that I can go out and still get up at 4:30 Monday morning to get to the airport. I can always sleep on the plane.
Another night I headed out with friends to see local blues guitarist Steve Strongman in a new venue outside of town known as The Barn. Music producer and drummer, Dave King, built this as a place for him and his friends to play and record music and now he has started a concert series. Steve was the first show and it was an beautifully intimate place to see a great performer. The backdrop for the stage is one of the phenomenal metal creations by local artist, Dave Hind.
We finished off that night with a trip back to our local pub, Fisher’s, who was celebrating their 16th anniversary with the regular band, the Sugardaddies. It’s lucky to have such a friendly crowd and hot band guaranteed for dancing only two blocks from home.
In 1999, the Sadies recorded an album, Red Dirt, with a cat from Alabama, André Williams. Mr. Williams has been making music since the fifties, R & B, punk blues and something called sleaze rock. He’s in his 70s and still has a cool stage presence. His stylin’ shiny blue suit and shoes fit the Sadies’ metallic blues that accompanied him. They performed songs together from several decades, including some great raw numbers from the 40s. I doubt that a song called Jailbait, one of Williams, is politically correct these days, but the men in the crowd seemed to identify as Andrew growled out the lyric about the temptations of the forbidden underage fruit. It was a night to shake yer money-maker and I did.
I spent a couple of days down in the Kingston area. I took Walking with Wolf to the Kingston Field Naturalists and had a wonderful evening with them. Told Wolf’s story to an interested crowd, sold a few books, was treated to a beautiful dinner at Aroma’s Café (highly recommended) and visited some friends in the area.
It’s necessary for me to get out in the Canadian countryside, balancing out the gritty urban life of my home in the industrial wasteland.
Here in the Hammer, I ran into my friend, Isaac Hendricksen, a musician from the Caribbean island of Nevis who lives locally. We had coffee one afternoon with Larry Strung, the brilliant photographer behind the Hamilton 365 project that I have written about before – he shared with me this photo that he took of us. Isaac writes songs of peace and love, lullabies for the soul. It was wonderful to see him, and absorb some of his wisdom regarding the intricacies involved in balancing the cultural weights in my relationship with Roberto. It’s a challenge to put together two genders, two histories, two cultures, and make it stick, even with the soldering glue of love. But I gotta tell ya, I’m anxious to be taking up that challenge again soon.
The three months since I returned here have gone by quickly. What a beauty season too – the glorious fall, the finale of the year. The Hammer continues to amuse – the music scene expands, the James Street North art crawl explodes, a new creative energy has taken over from the dying steel pulse that has driven this city for a century. I have a lot planned for the coming months in Costa Rica, but hope to spend next summer here in my home, in the fiercely proud north end of Hamilton. I’ve got to get control of the jungle that has consumed my yard during the last two summers . While I’ve been hanging out with the monkeys and the Rasta and the Wolf in Costa Rica, the vines have taken over. Even though I hate leaving my Tico friends behind when I get in that northbound plane, thank goodness I don’t ever mind returning here. If the key to a good life is finding a happy balance, then smokestacks and strangler figs, black leather and brown skin, punk guitars and tribal drums – these are but a few of my favorite things, all taken in equal measure.
Here in Canada, we had our Thanksgiving a couple of weeks ago – in the United States, it will be next month. Our Thanksgiving Day is the same day as Columbus Day in the US which celebrates those ships sailing in with the conquistadors. Life was forever changed on Turtle Island and it is hard to mix thanks with what became the destruction of natives throughout the Americas. In both countries, Thanksgiving weekend implies a lot of destruction of pumpkins, football players and turkeys. Holidays in general have pretty much spun out of control with commercialization, expectation and general gluttony.
I keep my own spin on things and choose to enjoy these special days from the bright side of life. I don’t need these big moments to remember to give gifts, say thanks for my good fortune, or eat too much. However, I appreciate the opportunity holidays give us for getting together with friends and family. Particularly in this season when the air is starting to blow cold, gathering around a table of hot food nourishes the soul as well as our desire to seek warmth and start laying on the winter fat.
For years I was a strict vegetarian, but returned to a carnivore diet. I’ve grown lots of food naturally, fished local waters (though never hunted), milked goats and made cheese, baked bread after grinding the grains and patted tortillas after milling the corn, picked various kinds of fruit in orchards including the grapes that make the wine. My most recent gardening involves papayas, corn and bananas in the jungle on the hot Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
My conscience has dealt with the issues of eating organic and local, whether or not to eat meat or fish, to be a polite guest or a politically-correct one, how to grow food in spite of bugs, and whether vegetables too have rights. The answers to the big questions, as in all things, are both clear and elusive. I bumble along, doing my best, but if I let it, the worry and guilt of not always keeping to what I know is right in the politics of food would probably kill me. Instead, I just try to stay aware and be smart. I don’t need to hear the reasons, I know them. I just need to keep trying to live simply and continue walking softly on our earth.
Then there’s Thanksgiving! I admit to partaking in five scrumptious meals with close friends, long lost friends, and friends leaving on adventures – and readily agree that it might have been more than one person should consume. Sunday dinner was with my big pretend family, the Johnston-Poags. It was the biggest table with the biggest turkey, with all the wonderful traditional dishes that include each person’s favorite. There is a new generation, bringing their own likes and dislikes – the table will have to grow even bigger!!
My second turkey dinner was with friends in Toronto, some who I haven’t seen in years. The table came with the golden bird and many of the same vegetables, but everything was cooked different from the night before, including the stuffing. It was at my friend Deb’s house and included old friends Sally and Rob and their daughters, Robin and Clara. The family had just returned from years living in Halifax for a year’s schooling in Toronto.
We lived together in the north years ago, in these funky old log cabins in the bush. Sal and Rob are phenomenal artists, talented painters who have also built a number of large outdoor sculptures such as a memorial for miners in Kirkland Lake. They’ve passed on their talented souls to their daughters who are both destined to a life of creativity. Robin is at a performing arts school and they both are in the Canadian Opera Company’s children’s program. Although I haven’t seen them in years, we resumed what we always did as if no time had passed – ate Deb’s great food, talked a lot and laughed endlessly.
Two Toronto friends, Barb and Peter, also great visual artists, were also with us. Barb brought this incredible pumpkin cheese cake creation. When you think you can’t eat another bite, it’s a testament to the irresistibility of the food when you can’t stop yourself from eating more.
On the third night, I went out to Nvelte, to my friends Treeza and Rick, who were soon leaving for their second home in Guatemala. A third delicious turkey, a third stuffing, and new versions of different vegetables. It was really quite amazing that I ate all this food over three nights, and I swear no two dishes were identical, all just glorious homemade food cooked with lotsa love.
A Canadian who also lives in Guatemala, Bob, was there as well as our friend Gloria, the only one of us not about to be back in Central America quite soon. Out of respect, we kept our musings about warm weather and tropical treats to a minimum.
A fourth night I was with my old pals the Pepall brothers, Andy and Mike, along with Mike’s wife, Lisa and their kids. The Pepall’s and I met in the Temagami bush on the blockade in 1989, spending seven weeks at the bush camp together. Andy was just at the 20th reunion, which I didn’t get to, and brought some stories from Temagami for us. Looking at photos of the mist floating on that cold northern lake in the rising sun made me weep. It is a land I need to return to often for a dose of pine scent, wood smoke and loon songs. A dose of the Pepalls was almost as sweet as a trip north.
Another dinner was with another friend from the blockade, the woman who did the initial lay out for Walking with Wolf, Laurie Hollis-Walker. Along with her husband David and her longtime mentor in psychology, Dr. Harry Hunt, we continued the feeding frenzy. We also watched the show Survivor. I studied these funny but focused academics studying the social interactions of the participants. Laurie and I met in a Survivor kind of situation, along with those Pepalls and hundreds of other activists. She now teaches a life-altering course at Brock University – Eco-psychology – and is doing her doctorate work on the activists in the Californian redwoods.
This week of respectful but relentless gluttony was followed by several days of very humble and simple foods and then it was the International Day for Climate Change or 350 Day. I was the guest speaker that night at a fund-raising dinner at the Toronto Zoo for COTERC (Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation). They have a remote biological station near Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and do important research on turtles.
It was a friendly, committed crowd full of very interesting people, including Peter Silverman, a well-known investigative journalist and ombudsmen from Toronto, and my always dynamic friend, Lynda Lehman, from Guelph.
Earlier that day, I drove my bike downtown to see what 350.day events were going on. I couldn’t linger long as I was leaving for Toronto, but I did manage to walk into a very interesting workshop at one of our local and smart food cafes, the Sky Dragon. Karen Burson, a woman I met on a dance floor recently, was hosting this discussion on the ever-increasing importance of eating locally and organically. We must pay attention to all stages of our foods, including how they are grown, where they are grown, how they are packaged, transported and then disposed of, including all that packaging. There was a table of green vegetables in front of me, brought from one of the local organic farms for their Saturday morning market.
Karen spoke the truth with passion and intelligence. I commend her and all folks like her who work daily for a healthier and therefore happier planet. I was sorry that I had to leave before people gathered to walk through Hamilton as they were doing all over the planet that day.
It was one more day to be giving grace for the bounty, our blessings, life. And appreciation for every wonderful person who fed me, hugged me, made me think, or kept me laughing in this, the season of thanks giving.
It’s been five months since I was on the monthly art crawl on James Street North here in Hamilton. Things are changing on the street at the same accelerated rate that I have witnessed over the last twenty years in Costa Rica. Down there, if I let a couple years pass before returning to a beach or town that has caught the eye of foreigners and developers, there will be no end to the new restaurants, hotels and attractions that have sprouted up in my absence.
I’m now watching this same change coming to James Street North. A few months means there will be a lot of new entrepreneurs – artists, shop owners, restauranteurs – taking a shot at being part of the big wave of excitement, taking advantage of what will probably be a great investment in their own future as well as in the health of the city around them. I suspect that the price of the old buildings right on James is increasing as the availability is decreasing, and some of the new businesses are around the corner or one block further down from the main part of the bustle. That just means that the neighbourhood grows a little longer and wider.
The James Street North Art Crawl has been building its head of steam over about three years (I’ve written about it before – see post: The James Street North Art Crawl.) Now the good folk at Sonic Unyon and other neighbourhood businesses got the idea to blow a little harder and created the SUPER Art Crawl. Part of the idea was to keep bringing new people into this part of the downtown of Hamilton, the urban core having been under attack from within and without for years.
It is common to hear people complain about Hamilton in general and its downtown specifically. The city council has been either hopelessly inept or simply without a modern intelligent vision that will work in rejuvenating the urban core. Instead of bringing life back into the old buildings they are left to partially fall down so that they can then be condemned and torn down. Eventually the brick-strewn empty lot might be replaced by a shiny, new building. This might satisfy the needs of developers but doesn’t do much for the soul of the city.
What has happened on James, which is an artery connecting what should be the heart of the city at King and James to the great new waterfront, has happened because of the grassroots -creative believers who have worked hard to bring art, music, buzz and business to the street – while using the grand ol’ buildings. Because of them, new blood has joined with the traditional Portuguese cafes and Italian businesses and now the street feels diverse and lively and joyful.
I arrived back in the city nine years ago, just in time to witness this change. The waterfront development and the James Street scene is what makes me happy to be here (besides friends, local music and proximity to airport.) I talk to people in Burlington and surrounding areas, and they still talk about the downtown of the Hamilton like it is ground-zero for the plague. But I’ve had many folks come from afar – the northern bush, the US, Costa Rica, England, Guelph, even, gasp, Toronto – who have been duly impressed by what is going on in downtown Hamilton. They want to come back. Now folks are telling me that they are reading about this rejuvenation in national newspapers and on blogs (hi there) and so it would appear that the word is truly spreading.
With this in mind, the Super Art Crawl was developed. The organizers soon got Bob Bratina, our local town councillor, on board and he helped get a portion of the street shut down for the day so that tents and stages could be erected for the live music and vendors who would come out to play at night. Then one of the local music festivals – the C&C Music Festival that originated with Mohawk College and McMaster University’s radio stations – joined in. All of a sudden (and according to what I’ve read, the planning happened very quickly), there was a full roster of local musicians along with well-known national bands, playing on three outdoor stages as well as in some of the galleries and local bars, as well as the usual art show openings – all for free.
My friend Lynda, who has done a crawl or two with me before, came down from Guelph, bringing her friend Anne, who decided to celebrate her birthday with us here in the Hammer even though she is more apt to head to Toronto for her cultural fixes. She went away with a huge appreciation for the steel city, her faith in grassroot collaboration renewed. She loved the gritty energy, the versatility, the diversity that she witnessed. She particularly commented on how many “normal” people there were, middle-age suburbanites, mingling with young black leather piercites or graying hippiesh artists. I know she’ll be back as, try though we might, we only saw a portion of what is available on the street and, as I explained, it will all be different next month.
The gods put the Hammerheads to the test for this mid-October outdoor event, and the cold rain started falling early in the day. Such a shame as the days before and since have been spectacularly sunny. I’m sure that the gang working out on the street that day assembling stages and tents must have been pissed, but the good news is that the crowds still came. Surely not as many as would have on a starry starry night, but enough to fill the galleries to shoulder-rubbing room, while a sea of umbrellas bobbed up and down the street and a look in some of the restaurants and bars confirmed that many tables were full.
Where can you simultaneously watch cadets doing their formations in the armoury, electronic magicians playing with their instruments on the pulpit of an Anglican cathedral, and buy fresh local organic vegetables while one of the hot new bands in the land performs behind you and original art adorns every other storefront? Why, in the Hammer - may not be the most obvious answer, but it is the correct one!
A big applause for John Ellison, the composer of Some Kind of Wonderful (made famous and paying him royalties by Grand Funk Railroad.) I met him and his drummer Dean last year at the Hamilton Music Awards and they were out playing on one of the stages on Friday night. He announced that he would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Hammies. I’ve worked backstage for the last four years at the awards but the date has been moved to December 3-6 weekend, and I have to return to Costa Rica before that. I wanted to say congratulations to this talented, gracious and eloquent man who lives locally but has written and performed lots of music all over the world. Even if that wonderful song was his only composition, with it he did his part to put some musical joy on the earth.
And more applause to all the organizers, musicians, volunteers, shop owners, artists and everyone who grabbed their umbrella and came out to play in the rain…the Hammer continues to make one proud.
Try as I might to hunker down and get to the piles of writing work I have waiting for me, I seem to be caught in a vortex of distraction. Although I’ve been “home” for a few weeks, I’ve actually been gone at least half that time, so I’m blaming my inability to focus on not quite having my feet firmly planted yet. I can sit down at my laptop but that new addiction in cyperspace, Facebook, proves a reliable source of neglect for all things of actual importance. I find it a wonderful tool for keeping up on what’s going on in the world around me and staying in touch with friends but when I realize that I’m using it as an avoidance tool, it’s time to start putting serious limitations on my time spent wandering around the Facehood.
I was supposed to be up on beautiful Lake Obabika in the Temagami region of northeastern Ontario last weekend. It was the 20th anniversary of the blockade of the Red Squirrel Road, a political action I was very involved in that is discussed in Walking with Wolf. Unfortunately, automotive difficulties changed our plans at the last minute and I wasn’t able to go. Having just returned from a road trip a day before, I was relieved as well as disappointed – now that the weekend has passed, I’m just disappointed. I’m truly sorry that I wasn’t there in the north with old friends – activists, natives, and bush folk – breathing in the pine-scented air. I hope they had a wonderful reunion.
Once the plan changed, my time filled with alternatives which turned out to be great consolation prizes. The first of these was a photography show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. In 2008, a newly- transplanted-in-the Hammer photographer, Larry Strung, dedicated himself to photographing a person each day of the year (which turned out to be a leap year hence there were 366 photographs) to illustrate the character and diversity of this cool little city of ours. He had spent four years in Liverpool England just prior to moving here and compares our red-brick working class town with its very solid and growing artsy base to that famous home of the Beatles.
I met Larry while he was taking another woman’s photograph and ended up being one of his models (February 26 at http://www.hamilton365.com). No matter where I was throughout 2008, I would go online and see beautifully-shot faces in a very familiar landscape. I knew so many of these people – either personally or simply from seeing them on the street – that this website became a lifeline to home for me. And Larry became a good friend.
Larry has taken all those digital photographs and developed and framed the prints. There is now a colorful display of his artistic photography and all those endemic faces of the Hammer hanging in the city’s art gallery. There was a gala for his “models” on Friday which I attended with my friend Susan Peebles, bumping not only into Larry and his patient wife Monica (who watched him head off on his bicycle or by foot every day of 2008 in search of a model, without ever bringing in a penny for his effort), but also a number of other friends and acquaintances. Two of these were Barbara Maccaroni and Peter Ormond.
Peter renovated an elderly little house in our fiercely proud northend neighbourhood, paying close attention to recycling materials, sustainable construction and eco-sound systems. It is now known as the Green Cottage. He’s run for the Green Party here in the last couple of elections, is a tireless campaigner for our earth, and can be found at pretty much every activity in the city that has to do with smart-living, besides playing a mean piano. Barbara has just started her own raw food catering business out of the Green Cottage (see http://www.blove.ca), is a yoga-instructor and also happened to house-sit my own abode last winter when I was in Costa Rica (as I recall, I came home to happy plants and the place being cleaner than when I left!) When these two hooked up, they created quite the dynamic-duo-of-wise-living, besides being just a little too cute for words (but pics don’t lie).
I got out of the big city for most of the rest of the weekend, returning to see my friends who live in a little camp north of Toronto. I hadn’t seen Treeza and Rick since visiting them in Guatemala for Christmas last year so there was lots to catch up on. I love being with friends who live their lives in alternative ways – besides their little cottage in Nvelte (once a camp in the wilderness now an oasis of simplicity surrounded by out-of-control suburban development), they are in the process of building a home in San Pedro in Guatemala. I fell in love with this place (see: In the land of the Mayans and the Hippies or The Magic of San Pedro blog posts) and know that I will return on one of my trips back and forth between Canada and Costa Rica.
Treeza and I went to The Dominion on Queen Street East in Toronto on Saturday night for a great night of rockabilly. My pal with the honey voice, Lori Yates (www.loriyates.com), was singing a set with a very hot rockabilly band, the Royal Crowns (www.myspace.com/theroyalcrowns). Rockabilly is the music that merged rock and roll, blues and hillbilly but I think of it as the punk of the country world.
The Crowns have a sophisticated and smooth-as-hairgel jazz sound mixed in as well. Lori added her sexy voice and another layer of kickass attitude to the trio of Danny Bartley, Jason Adams, and Teddy Fury. The place was packed, the costumes were vintage, old cars were polished and lined up on the street and the music – well, it rocked this filly.
I spoke with Wolf this morning. He is getting over a cold but seems to be getting his medication situation under control. I’ve been gone long enough that he’s starting to miss me – Wolf has learned to equate my arrival in Monteverde with “work”. We are both excited about getting steps closer to the publication of the Spanish translation of our book but are practicing patience. What we were very sad to discuss was the passing of our friend Rachel Crandell.
Rachel and her late husband Dwight worked enthusiastically for years to raise funds for the Monteverde Conservation League through their organization MCLUS, providing protection for the area known as the Childrens’ Eternal Rainforest. She was also a talented writer and photographer who produced beautiful books such as The Hands of the Maya and The Forever Forest: Kids Save a Tropical Treasure. Back in 2003, Rachel was responsible for Wolf being nominated and then receiving the international Conservation Action Prize in St. Louis, Missouri for his own dedication and lifetime of hard work for the future of tropical forests. She was a teacher and a mother and a great inspiration for how to get things done.
Both her and Dwight will be greatly missed not only in Monteverde but I’m sure in communities throughout the world. I’ll end with the words of Edmund Burke, words which provided Rachel herself with inspiration:
“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little”.
It seems I’ve only had minutes here in the Hammer before it’s time to head out again. I truly lucked out in having a week of glorious summer weather since arriving from Costa Rica. The blue skies and sunshine just won’t quit. I’ve unpacked and am now repacking to go to the northeastern US for a couple days – heading to a Quaker retreat in Vermont on a lake, so I sure hope this weather will follow me there and make the lake swimmable. Will then visit again with Cocky and Peter on the coast of Maine and stop in to see Carlos Guindon, who is moving forward with the final details of the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf.
Between preparing to head out, juggling my book event schedule (have just added a talk on November 19 for the Kingston Field Naturalists), and meeting up with friends who I haven’t seen for a few months, this week has flown by as quickly as the planes that keep appearing above my house as part of the Hamilton Air Show. As is usual when I’m here in the Hammer, I’ve managed to catch a lot of live music this past week.
There is a new music venue that opened up while I was in Costa Rica, just a two minute bike ride from my house. I can see myself becoming a regular here when in the city. What used to be the old Copperhead Bar on James Street North (or the Copper John or Copper Corner or something like that – a place I’ve passed for years but never really taken notice of) has been given a new life as “This Ain’t Hollywood” – more affectionately known as The Saint. Hammerheads Lou Molinaro, Glen the Hamilton Kid and Gary Daly have taken over this ancient beer hall (slinging beer since 1893), done a few smart renovations and added a big sound system. The new stage is filling with rock, punk and alternative acts passing through the area as well as regular open mic nights where local musicians and their friends and fans gather.
Local singer-songwriter-music producer, JP Reimens, has organized a songwriters’ soiree at The Westtown over on Locke Street for a few years, but last week moved his Tuesday night gathering to The Saint. I’ve managed to catch the shows. It is a real nice room to see musicians play with good sightlines and there is a full clear sound. There is so much great talent around and you never know who will show up to perform or just drop by to see what’s going on: from the sultry sirens Ginger St. James, Lori Yates and Buckshot Bebee to guitar wizards Brian Griffith and Dan Walsh to the city’s songwriters with attitude Tim Gibbons, Linda Duemo and Dave Rave.
Last weekend was “the biggest Ribfest in the country” on the Burlington waterfront. With my friends Jeff (no last names please – the CIA is watching) and Heather, we went over to hang out on the beach in the late afternoon and have a barbeque, waiting for the sun to go down before heading up to the biggest pig-out in the land.
It’s a very different beach than the Caribbean shore in Cahuita I just spent the last two weeks on – chilly Lake Ontario sipping at its sand, just as often lashing it with serious waves. But the lake was calm and the full moon was rising and the city startled to sparkle as a gorgeous night came on.
We rode our bikes up the waterfront path to the big rib-affair to see Tom Wilson, another of my favorite musical beasts of Hamilton, along with some great musicians, including Jesse O’Brien, keyboardist extraordinaire.
Tom’s son Thompson and friends have a band – Harlan Pepper – as well as a big self-promoting father who gets gigs and press, so these four young guys are getting some exposure (opening for Tom’s show as they did on this night.) Some talent, some good songs, but still young and could do with some attitude. But the papa-musician, Tom, rocks as always and is guaranteed to be playing with hot talent no matter who he is at the moment – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond, or he himself with an assembled band.
That big full moon continued hanging over us the next night when I went to Sonny Del Rio’s birthday party. Sonny’s the father of the sax here in the Hammer – been playing forever and at 66 is playing more than ever and loving it.
There was a backyard full of musicians and they stepped up to the mic, including Gord Lewis of Teenage Head who played a few with Sonny and friends. It was a real nice evening spent with my good friends Mike and Freda as well as Dean and Gary Duncan and his brother Randy, folks I love but I don’t get enough chances to see.
It is so great to come back to this happening little city where good friends reside and I never need be bored – not a word in my vocabulary anyway. Yet it is all on a scale that makes you look at the central core of Hamilton as truly down-town, as in the backbeat of a town, not the staccato of a big city.
Now I’m hanging my sign on the door of this blog:
GONE ON ROADTRIP…THE DOOR’S OPEN…MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME…BACK SOON
Aah, my last week in the Hammer. She’s been an attentive hostess this last week, our fair city. Blue skies, warm sunshine, no pollution (well, maybe that’s a relative thing), the bursting of bulbs and buds - all a perfect backdrop for getting my house and yard ready to be abandoned (well by me, not my house guy Ben),
assisting my pal Gerry to take down the rest of the crumbling poplar tree in my back forty, spending some last precious moments with friends, doing my taxes to the tune of a good return, gathering things for jungle living, and spending the second Friday of the month on the ever-fascinating James Street North.
This once maligned street – the original road up into town from the harbour of the Port of Hamilton - has traditionally housed all kinds of storefronts, bars, and restaurants as well as the Canadian Forces Armoury and the original train station which is now a large dining room and conference center. There’s also a whack of Portuguese and Italian mens’ clubs and cafes which is where I went to watch games with the old European men during the last World Cup in 2006.
I’m sure at one time the street would’ve drawn sailors off the big boats pulled into the harbor – I’ve met a sailor or two at Fisher’s , my local eatery & pub at the most northernly end of James Street North. When I grew up, across the bay in Burlington, and for most of its existence, the neighbourhood had a reputation for a mafia presence. It certainly has always had a tough spirit and a working class energy.
The original Portuguese restaurants, the Wild Orchid and Ventura’s amongst others, have continued to thrive and the little Gates of India restaurant that consistently gets great reviews is still here. There are still a few long standing family-run businesses, Millers Shoes and Morgensten’s Department Store, that have survived the years. Now a larger variety of cultures are represented, East Indians and Koreans and West Indians included. But the biggest new crowd in the area has to be the arts community.
Sometime around the turn of the century (this last one), people starting buying up the old, now fading buildings, and turning them into art galleries and studios. Torontonians with dreams of owning their own gallery or studio could actually do it here in the Hammer as the prices were hillbillyish compared to the over-inflated costs of the Big Smoke which is only about 45 minutes down the highway.
So bit by bit the face of James Street is changing – to the point that one is beginning to wonder where it will all end (besides at the bay to the north and the steep climb up the mountain to the south. ) As in, how long till Starbucks realizes a good thing? James Street South, which cuts across the upper ”mountain” of Hamilton, has already filled with car dealers and is working on collecting big box type stores. Lower James Street, here in the heart of the city, holds the life of the Hammer.
There are many characters responsible for the most recent turn of events – Bryce Kanberra, Dave Kuruc, Cynthia Hill, Jim Chambers – who first saw the possibilities for the street and were smart enough to take advantage of the cheap prices involved in renting and buying. Once people started coming to their galleries and shops – the You Me, Mixed Media, the Blue Angel and James North Gallery – they were intrigued by the possibilities and, well, the rest is modern history.
On the second Friday of each month, the street opens its doors for the Art Crawl. I think this has been going on for four or five years. In the beginning there were maybe ten small galleries, mostly simple renovated spaces created within old funky buildings with an abundance of red brick and ubiquitous white drywall backdrops to hang paintings. In the last two years, there have been many other artist-held spaces opened and you could no longer do the street at a crawl – you now have to scurry to get through all the openings and exhibitions. This last Friday night saw the opening of about five new or renovated spaces – and the bar keeps getting raised each time with the effort people are putting into their new ventures.
The street was teeming – I mean, I was recently in New York City on a Saturday night in July-like weather and, well, okay maybe there were a few more people wandering the streets of the Big Apple, but in a relative kinda way (NYC – 10 million people – Hamilton 500,000) James Street North was packed and the atmosphere was exciting.
With my friends Freda and Susie, we wandered through the galleries and couldn’t believe the buzz on the street. I’ve always found it hard to catch everything: the art openings, the occasional busker or performance artist, the friends you bump into, and now add the local fashion designers’ studios as well which could demand trying on clothes! Sheesh, you need a weekend to do the whole street anymore, not just the evening.
I have talked before about Blackbird Studios, just off of James North on Wilson Street - Kiki and Buckshot have a dramatic line of clothing that has a sense of humor as well – it was one of their hot dresses that I wore to the Hamilton Music Awards last November. I stopped by their shop and was amazed at the racks of clothes and the new styles – and Kiki told me that it was empty compared to a few weeks ago before they had a big sale. Prolific gals these two, charged with dressing the hard rock Hammer girls, and obviously starting to attract good attention.
Just down James North, there is a new clothes designer who also does alterations and custom tailoring – Olinda, a young woman from El Salvador. With her extended family present, she had the grand opening of her shop, Olinda’s, with free pizza and cake and a beautifully redone shop.
This building used to house a tattoo parlour and now it has a rose-coloured paint treatment and curtained dressing rooms. The care that Olinda and her family have put into this is a good sign for the quality of work she must do. I doubt that she will be a direct competition to Blackbird – these are two very different styles with Olinda bringing in that Latin flair – but hopefully they will augment each other’s business and bring in women looking for original designed clothes (and in Olinda’s case, tailoring and alterations) that aren’t outrageously priced.
Another changed space, just across the street, is The Clay Studio. Grazyna, who does fine and interesting ceramic work, has moved down from a large space on the third floor of the building into a more reasonably-sized room that incorporates her studio and gallery. I have spoken with this friendly artist before, and am happy to see that she has moved into this space and it looks to fit her just right. She’s bound to get much more attention at street level whereas the galleries that lurk in the upper floors of these buildings take awhile for people to discover yet are always worth the walk up.
In a short two blocks there was a bit of art theatre going on at Artists Inc, one of those bizarre scenarios that you have to watch for awhile. There was also Gord Lewis, of Teenage Head, and Chris Houston, another Hamilton rockero, accompanying a photography retrospective of punkers and rockers at the Sonic Unyon building - I think Gord was going to play but we had to leave. There was also a duo singing at the James North Gallery and an intense anti-smoking display at another new space put on by a group of university students . With a pig’s lung hanging in the window, they were intent on making a harsh point, but I got the impression it was mostly non-smokers hanging around anyway. The street is nothing if not eclectic.
There is a new boutique selling African and Indonesian art and imported items, the Tribal Gallery, just two doors down from the Woodpecker, which seems to me to sell basically the same stuff. It is wonderful to see a mix of cultures here though I don’t know how two such stores will survive in the same neighbourhood but I wish them both well.
Barbara Milne, at the Pearl Company, runs the Art Bus, taking people to openings around the Hamilton area on the first two Friday nights of each month. The second Friday the tour visits other local galleries in the central city with openings but also takes in the James Street North Art Crawl. I truly appreciate the Art Bus service – if you are in Hamilton on one of the first two Friday nights of the month, pay the $15 and leave your car at the Pearl and join the bus with Barbara’s enthusiastic commentary – it’s always a real enjoyable evening.
The warm summer evenings have always been busy on James Street North. Now that there is more and more to experience during the Art Crawl, and each new business brings in a new mix of followers, these Friday night events will be just that – big events. I hope that it spills over into bringing in good business throughout the month to the shops and galleries that line the street. Many of them offer locally produced items – like Mixed Media which is an art supply store but also carries local artists’ and writers’ work (including Walking with Wolf.) I have barely touched the list of artistic endeavours going on. I can’t imagine what James Street North will be looking like when I return in September. I hope it doesn’t outgrow its grassroots and start getting a corporate, chainstore effect going on. It’s magic is in the individual personalities of the businesses, their enthusiastic, energetic and talented owners, and the historic, funky character of the buildings that have come back to life on James Street North.
On a book related note, I received the new shipment of 2nd edition Walking with Wolf books. The truck was supposed to arrive on Friday – a day calling for pouring rain that had me worried - but there was a knock on my door Thursday morning (luckily I was home) and a trucker telling me that his great big tractor trailer wasn’t meant for my narrow residential street. Well, I coulda told him that if someone had asked me. When he opened the doors, there was my lonely little skid of boxes in an otherwise big ol’ empty trailer – carbon neutral be damned. My neighbour Bev came out and helped and we got those boxes of books into my house lickety split under a blue sky with no threat of rain. There’s a shipment of books headed to Costa Rica as well and Wolf and I will soon be visiting our old pal Eliecer, our customs man in Alajuela, to get them out of customs purgatory.
I’ve been working on my yard – the before and after pictures show my progress – and because of the tree that went down, it has now turned from a shady to sunny space. My yard consists of a terrace, beach, gardens, campground and work compound – it’s an oasis in the city and keeps me sane whenever I’m forced to be here and live like an urban animal.
I’ve had some real nice visits with friends who’ve come to say goodbye and know that I will be missing them soon enough.
So now I’m on my way, floating down a sweet stream and letting the current have its way with me. I am truly excited to be heading back to Costa Rica and Cahuita and Roberto and his jungle home. And to see Wolf again and take care of details involved in Caminando con Wolf, the Spanish translation of our book. The next time I write I’ll have monkey songs in my heart and wolf howls on my brain.
But I know I will be thinking fondly of the humble but hot-headed Hammer, wondering how she is doing – like a ragged mutt who has finally found love in a new home and is starting to shine with the attention. The prolific growth of creativity that is happening here is taking the Hammertown down her own stream (not the way of the Red Hill Creek I trust) – hopefully to an interesting and bright future. Shine on my Hammerhead friends! See you in the fall.
It is snowing outside. The rooftops are cold enough that the snow is turning them white. Lucinda Williams is on the stereo and singing about snow covering her streetlamps too but she’s talking about Minneapolis in December. This is Canada in April, the spring bulbs are out of the ground and shivering, and you just gotta love it. I should have known that the weather I came home to last week was too good to be permanently true.
One of my favourite Canadian pastimes – helping someone else stack their firewood…
I’m a few days away from heading to Maine. I hope the weather smartens up so that the highways and turnpikes and interstates are dry and quasi-sane. At the same time I’m preparing for this trip, I am also contacting people on the west coast for the book tour out there in July. If you are reading this and living between British Columbia and California and have a good idea of a Quaker meeting, naturalist group or bookstore who would be interested in hosting a Walking with Wolf evening, please send me a comment to this blog. I’m also making a few corrections to Walking with Wolf, preparing it for a second printing of the English edition to be done in the next weeks. And I’m helping with the details of the production of the Spanish translation in Costa Rica. I’m also making my plans to return there in May. I think I’ll be home about one week a month all summer. It’s a busy time.
With Lauren Schmuck and her mother Patricia Reynolds and Grandma Reynolds
I did a presentation of the book to the McMaster University Biodiversity Guild – a nice group of people, mostly with biology backgrounds. There was a good little crowd and it was a nice evening. One of their members, Lauren Schmuck, put it together – she has a burning desire to go work or volunteer in Costa Rica and I expect I’ll see her down there one day. I told her that any volunteer work I have ever done has paid off in spades - and it is true, many of my lasting friendships and most valuable contacts have come from being a voluntary grunt worker with a smile on my face (that last part is important.)
I’ve managed to hear some great music in the week I’ve been home – por supuesto. I went out and danced away a night when some of the top musicians in town (Jesse O’Brien, Brian Griffith, Joel Guenther et al) got together for a great gig of blues, funk and reggae tinged music to make ya dance. Love those guys.
My four dates for the night - Randy, Pete, Kevin & Jeff (taking photo)
The other night I went and saw Lori Yates, backed beautifully by Brian Griffith and Lisa Wynn, break our hearts with her tunes and that honey voice – she writes some hurtin’ songs, but she is very funny and irreverent and outrageous and she makes us cry as much with laughter as pain. Then Tom Wilson did a great show, fitting this hometown concert in amidst a very busy tour from coast to coast in Canada and the US – it was a Hamilton proud night. Followed by Jesse, Brian and Mark LaForme keeping it moving at the Westtown. I need those nights of music – my soft little soul is feeling all aflutter and music always soothes me.
I also saw the great Charly Chiarelli – a Hammer-boy with Sicilian roots who also happens to live down near my friends, Kingston way. I’ve heard him play his harmonica and tell great stories over many years. He has written a trilogy of plays about growing up Italian here in Hamilton and Sunday afternoon was the last performance (at the good ol’ Pearl Company) of the third play, Sunamabeach. He is a very talented, funny, charismatic actor/musician/story teller – and the local crowd of Italian offspring were loving it. So were we who have not a drop of olive oil in our blood. Charly got in trouble with the Sons of Italy (no doubt the daughters too but that would be a different story) in the United States over his last play, Cu Fu. They felt he was negatively stereotyping Italians when really he was just telling stories from his life with great passion and amusement.
I also saw, at the same ol’ Pearl, a rehearsal for their next play, Tobacco Troubadour, written by the art director of Artword Theatre, Ron Weihs. It is about local musician, songwriter and music producer, J. Paul Reimens. When Ron heard Paul’s songs, he decided he needed to write a play around the stories that Paul tells in them. I had gone out on Thursday to see Paul playing at a local pub (with Brian Griffith – how lucky was that, hearing the best guitarist in town play four times in a week) and we got to talking about this play, written about his life growing up in the tobacco country of southern Ontario and just wanting to play the guitar. Since I won’t be around for the performances, I went and sat in at the rehearsal and am truly sorry I won’t be here for the real thing. It is going to be a very poignant and entertaining play with Paul’s sweet songs throughout.
This all takes place at the poor ol’ Pearl Company, where my book launch was back in September. Gary Santucci and Barbara Milne have poured their energy, soul, money, and heart into creating this very alive art center in an old three story brick factory building that once was home to a costume jewelry business. They also run the popular Art Bus that takes people around to arts events throughout the city twice a month. They both received Arts Hamilton Awards last autumn and Barbara just received a Woman of Distinction award recently.
Against this very successful backdrop, sits the big purple elephant of stubborn and stupid bureaucracy that is attempting to close them down due to zoning. For many years this old neighbourhood was zoned commercial, sitting about four blocks outside of the downtown core. It then went residential, but the commercial use of the building (along with paying commercial taxes) continued for decades. Now the city is issuing a new zoning plan and one of the biggest problems is parking spaces as well as a very expensive re-zoning application process. Considering that the Smart Plans and Green Plans or whatever plans that cities issue these days do a lot of talking about minimizing the use of automobiles and promoting public transit, the requirement of parking spaces to allow an arts center to exist is mind-blogging – and the spots do exist, just not in a neat parking lot adjacent to the building. The Pearl folks may have to take their struggle to keep this center going to the national press if the city doesn’t step up here soon and support what is such a happening community place. The Pearl Company drives a big part of the cultural scene of Hamilton. Anybody who wants to read more and support their cause can go to their website at www.thepearlcompany.ca
In late great breaking news, the local newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, has finally put a small article in about the book. Jeff Mahoney, a real nice journalist who writes an always interesting column about local people and cultural things, interviewed me last November. He also read the book and told me he loved it. I had asked that they don’t print anything while I was away in Costa Rica – so today there was a small piece and picture about my presentation to the Biodiversity Guild and singing the praises of the Canadian embassy’s financial support. Jeff told me that he’ll try to get his review of the book in the paper in May. I’m very appreciative that the local, under-staffed and over-worked newspaper finally found a couple of inches of space for Walking with Wolf.
I feel like I’ve mostly been sitting in front of my computer, contacting people, working on book stuff, feeling lovesick, but when I read what I’ve just written here, I realize that I’ve been enjoying myself too, taking advantage of being in this very dynamic, culturally-rich city lovingly called the Hammer, formerly known as Hamilton the Steel City. I continue to sing its praises wherever I go, invite my friends here who inevitably fall in love with it, and try to get out and support as many arts events while I’m here as possible.
In a moment of extreme stupidity, I managed to erase all my photographs off of my laptop – all the more stupid because, yes, I do have an external hard drive in which to download everything but, no, I didn’t do it since I got home. I then decided to make room on my laptop by taking out the photographs from one program – and they disappeared off all programs and I emptied my recycle bin and well, it wasn’t pretty. I paid a man to recover them and have them all on DVD in messed up files but at least I have them for when I need to access the photographs for my power point presentations or my blog!
That was definitely a low point.
The rest have been high, except for the cabanga, which will go away as soon as I go back to Cahuita in May.