I had Patrick DeWitt’s short novel, Ablutions, with me while I was in the hospital, but I learned very quickly that I am incapable of reading while taking uber-strong pain medication. I’ve been backing off the pain pills (I still need them occasionally and especially at night) and last night I gobbled up this book.

I chose to read Ablutions on the strength of DeWitt’s brilliant The Sisters Brothers. Ablutions, his first novel, is written in a format of notes for a novel written by a central character, a barman, who works in a seedy Hollywood bar. He befriends the various characters, most in various states of alcohol and drug-induced decline. Along the way, the barman experiences his own descent into the world he is observing.

It’s a dark book, a bleak book. Beyond the barman, the characters are treated in a sketchy way and so some of them seem clichéd. The drunken underbelly of urban California has been well-explored by others from Charles Bukowski to Tom Waits. DeWitt does Ok in this crowded space and the short novel format is deftly handled. There are no surprises, but I still found the big slide downhill to be strangely compelling. It isn’t for the squeamish and it isn’t pretty. Still, Ablutions is a pretty good first novel, and even if it is not in the same league as The Sisters Brothers, it’s worth the read.

Tough work?

The other night I watched a bit of one of those cooking game shows. It was one of those shows hosted by a panel of so-called celebrity chefs, in which home cooks subject themselves to a great deal of humiliation in their quest for a piece of the celebrity chef action.

It got me thinking that the restaurant game must be pretty tough work when some of the best in the business jump at the chance to become game show hosts instead of spending their energy doing restaurant work. On this particular show, the host judges seem way out of place trying to cobble together the game show, even with the assistance of aggressive editing, a tight formula an plenty of dramatic music.

I have never worked in the restaurant business. As someone who enjoys cooking I can see why some people would be drawn to doing it at a high level. At the same time I can see that being a line cook must be a very difficult, hot and nasty gig, and being a chef must be a management gig above all else.

This reminds me of a discussion with a working musician a number of years ago. She had played in various orchestras and was respected as a strong player. It turned out she disliked doing the orchestra work and eventually she stopped doing it altogether. Even though she was a top rate player, she found no room for creativity in her job. She had to play out somebody else’s interpretation of the music and she was frustrated doing it the same way every time. She had to sit in the same spot each performance and simply execute time and again.

Perhaps for the celebrity chef it is simply a chance to lever some experience and expertise to get out of the game. I’m sure the television money is great, and for those chefs doing high-level management of a number of restaurants, the publicity might add to the bottom line. Still, when I watched this show, I felt bad for these guys who seemed to be fish out of water.

A Canadian Art Controversy? How unusual.

Perhaps you have read about it. the Vancouver Art Gallery has come into possession of 10 “new” works attributed to J.E.H. MacDonald, a member of Canada’s hallowed Group of Seven. Some doubts have been raised as to the authenticity of the paintings as reported by The Globe and Mail.

The story around these paintings suggests that MacDonald wrapped up and buried the pictures in the 30s to protect them, and they remained buried – safely – until the 70s. I find this part of the story to be incredible and fascinating. I’m a painter and I know plenty of painters. We all have storage problems. At one time I destroyed many of my paintings because I could neither find homes for them nor afford to continue to pay to keep storing them. Still, it never occurred to me to wrap up a bunch of them and go dig a hole in the garden and send them to a temporary grave.

Considering how to go about wrapping up 10 painting in such a way that they do not succumb to the various creepy-crawlies, moulds and fungi, all determined to turn them into a compost heap, makes my head ache. It is very peculiar behaviour. Stranger still is that the painter’s son must have known they were in the ground all those years because in the end he dug them up.

Why were only these paintings buried, and not others? Or, are we to expect other Group of Seven paintings to appear from various Ontario gardens. I’m very interested to see if this art controversy has legs.

A Week Later

It has been a week since I slipped and messed up my ankle. Sheila, my family, friends and neighbours, my boss and my workmates have all been super-supportive.

The whole business continues to be uncomfortable, and it is difficult to focus really well on the pain medication. For instance, at this point, reading a newspaper is fine but I can’t get very far on something like a novel. I expect that will change as I am able to back off the medication. I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs for now. I’ve tried playing the banjo for short periods, but again it has been hard to focus well enough, and my usual drive to play just isn’t there.

Over the weekend, quite a few friends did a great job of keeping me distracted and laughing. I have mission control set up here with everything I might need around me. Not much else to report. It seems hard to believe my injury took place a week ago. Thanks everyone for your support.

Arse over Teakettle

I looked for ice on the steps. It was that kind of weather. I thought of the Wade Hemsworth song, The Shining Birch Tree…’twas the in-between season of freeze-up and thaw. of course I wasn’t in the north woods, just on my way into the office.

I didn’t see any ice at all and didn’t know it was there until I took a flyer, arse over teakettle. I recall heading head-first down and thinking this is bad, so bad. somehow my foot caught on a stair and bent back in a way feet aren’t supposed to bend. I tried to convince myself I hadn’t broke a bone but my ankle extended several inches out to the side. Sheila brought out a chair for me to sit on then called an ambulance. I assessed the damage – a minor scrape on my hand and The Ankle.

The ambulance took me to Western rather than St Joes. “They got better bone guys”. Ok. the hospital calls the process of setting and casting the injury reducing it. They tried three times during the day to reduce my ankle, unsuccessfully. The first time they gave me some kind of trippy sedative. I remember strange voices and shadowy figures but no pain. the second time they tried with pain meds only. I mostly recall the pain. The third time, a surgeon came to see me. He said I was going to need surgery for sure, but he was going to try one more time to reduce it. When this was not successful they had me ‘on call’ for surgery, and I went in at about 9:00 pm.

I was given a choice of anesthetic…either a spinal or a general. This was accompanied by detailed descriptions of the risks, rendering a decision next to impossible. I finally went with the spinal, which worked just fine. hardware was installed. since then bearing up to the discomfort has been my main activity. the degree to which this is coherent has a lot to do with being past due for a blast of painkillers. Yes it is throbbing but my brain is not swimming and drifting. My reward for completing this post will be medication. I’ve been told the first few days are the worst, and I seriously hope that is the case. I won’t be posting nearly as much as usual here at 27th Street but I’ll try to check in often enough that you don’t entirely forget about this blog. See you soon.

In the car… #dog-a-rama

Georgie and Memphis love going anywhere in the car. All I have to say is “the car” and they’re up and ready to go.  It was a beautiful crisp morning so I loaded up the partners and headed to Jack Darling Park.

Memphis and George at Jack Darling Park
Memphis and George at Jack Darling Park

There are closer dog parks. We can easily walk to the one at the R.L. Clark Filtration Plant, and there’s one at Marie Curtis just west of us as well. To the east there is an excellent park at Humber Bay too. Jack Darling is special though. It’s huge, designed as part of the filtration plant renovation (which took years to complete), and offers a remarkable variety of terrain. We drive west, through Long Branch, Lakeview and Port Credit. Jack Darling is located just west of Lorne Park, south of Lakeshore.

Conditions were great. The snow was packed down and walking was easy. There were all kinds of dogs to play with, big and small. The dogs had a great time and I did too. Now they’re hunkered down for a late morning nap.

Banjo Practice (Sandy River Belle)

I mentioned the other day I was working on the tune Sandy River Belle on clawhammer banjo. Learning this tune is my first experience playing in the Sandy River Belle, or Old G tuning (gDGDE). I like the tuning and I’m going to figure out how to play some other G tunes that way.

I recorded a practice session this morning and picked out one attempt at the tune to share here.


Imagine one of those cooking competitions in which Gordon Ramsey yells at all the contestants and makes them feel small and inadequate. Now translate to a music school. That’s Whiplash in a nutshell.

I don’t have any admiration for abusive teachers. The idea that such a horrible character would be allowed to teach people about something so rich in spirit is a disappointing one. And yet it would not surprise me if people like that are out there.

Parts of this film were difficult to believe. I would think, for instance that most if not all the students at the best music school in the country would be able to keep tempo without being slapped silly.

There were some strong performances in this film, but I’m not going to recommend this one.

Did you see Whiplash? What did you think?

Sandy River Belle

Sandy River Belle is a well-known fiddle tune, but it also has a special distinction. There is a particular banjo tuning – The Sandy River Belle tuning – named after it. I should say tunings with an s because there are variations on the Sandy River Belle tuning. I’ve been learning one of those – the one that’s also called “Old G” tuning (gDGDE). Among other things, this tuning is well suited for the tune, Sandy River Belle. Curiously enough, this tune is also played in good old G tuning by a lot of players. I’ve been learning the tune on clawhammer in Old G, and one of these days I’ll try recording myself playing it on video – but for now, here are a couple excellent versions.

Let’s start with April Verch, a fantastic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley. There are not many April Verch videos around that do not show her playing fiddle. In some she plays fiddle and dances, but in this one she dances and the music is driven by her banjo player.

Next, I stumbled into a version of the tune featuring squeezebox. Here is Sharon Shannon…very nice.