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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”.
If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.
In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown. Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing. As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here - and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.
Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned. I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city - from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay. From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles. When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich. That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager.
Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all. I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.
I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living - an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly - people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly. About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport. When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.
This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music. This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage. I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here.
Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of - Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics - or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban - but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers. Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly. The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.
Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about. So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies. They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….
Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble. I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party.
The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that - he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year. Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country. He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer - in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – ”He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away. He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.”
A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes. So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.
I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith. Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well. That’s in his genes too.
So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core. In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine. Yaaaaawwww - excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.
Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.