Monday, December 21, 2009


My father once wrote, “When I was a child I counted the years of my life not in birthdays, but in Christmases.” There’s a wonderful logic to that idea; birthdays are a solitary concept, whereas Christmas is meant to be shared with everyone. It’s a much more inclusive celebration and lasts far longer than just one day. In fact I’ve always maintained that it’s proper to celebrate the entire 12 Days of Christmas, and I have a real problem with friends who insist on taking down their tree on the 26th because, “Christmas is over.” I am proud of the fact that, should a friend of the Eastern Orthodox faith ever drop by my house in early January, my tree will still be there.

My parents both grew up on farms during the Depression. Neither of them ever mentioned anything about only receiving “a pencil and an orange” in their Christmas stocking, but I’ve heard others tell that story often enough over the years that I know Christmas was a bit different back then. Of course as the annual orgy of holiday spending seems to grow exponentially each year, telling today’s kids that for my generation the biggest Christmas decision was whether to ask Santa for Hot Wheels or a GI Joe with Kung Fu grip probably sounds rather quaint.

When I was a kid it always felt like Christmas couldn’t come soon enough. The annual ritual of selecting a tree, participating in the Christmas pageant, carolling; it was my favourite time of the entire year. The arrival of Santa at our local mall was always a memorable experience, because for some reason our Santa eschewed the traditional sleigh in favour of flying in by helicopter, which I always found odd. I suppose it could have been stranger – I have since seen him arrive, over the years, by parachute and surfboard.

Growing up in Quebec added an additional element to the Santa paradox, because I never quite understood why Santa always spoke with a heavy French accent. Of course no kid is going to worry about such inconsistencies very long when the guy’s handing out candy canes.

Each year the decorating of our home was a major undertaking. The job of stringing the lights on our tree always fell to the older members of our family. As we grew up, each of us would eventually take on part of the merciless task of untangling that mess of lights; but oh, the wonder of colours when they were plugged in! At some point far back, and for a reason I cannot remember, I began the annual custom of lying underneath our tree and looking up through the branches. The mixture of the wonderful evergreen fragrance and twinkling colours was intoxicating; I wanted to live in that magical world completely surrounded by branches, tinsel and decorations.

Back then Christmas lights glowed at a temperature that could actually burn your fingers. And our lights didn’t flash on and off in a long string; oh no, they twinkled, each one separately - some even bubbled. Today’s new LED versions just don’t seem to provide the same experience, although they no doubt create less of a fire hazard.

Each Christmas I try to do one thing that will make the holiday memorable; something that I can look back on and say, “That was the Christmas of...” For many years while growing up I read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every December. As a teenager I dressed up in a Santa suit and visited younger kids in my neighbourhood. In my 20’s I recorded a selection of Christmas songs.

Then in 1993 I was hired to compose the score for a huge Christmas stage extravaganza in Toronto. Modelled on New York’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular, it was meant to be the first of an annual tradition. Unfortunately it went on to become an enormous financial disaster. I recall sitting in the theatre’s balcony with my brother, waiting to enjoy a matinee, when the entire orchestra suddenly walked out because their paycheques hadn’t arrived. Somehow the wonder of Christmas was a little less evident to me that day, even less so the next day when we had to sneak back into the theatre and rescue my sheet music from the orchestra pit. Memorable does not always equal good.

This year I will be enjoying Toronto’s wonderful Santa Claus parade from the comfort of a second story window in a 19th century mansion along the parade route, then watching a Christmas pageant complete with live camels and donkeys. Quite a distance from the farmhouses of my parents’ youth.

Each year my father gave the same toast at Christmas dinner; he was thankful that we were all able to celebrate one more holiday together. He was blessed to enjoy 85 Christmases, all of them (with the exception of his time overseas during the war) with family. For over two decades he only ever missed writing his Christmas column for these pages one time, when I filled in for him.

This year as we all raise a glass and toast Christmas, I’ll be reflecting on the past 12 months. Hopefully I’ve lived them well, but just to be sure I’m doing it right from now on I vow to measure my life not in birthdays, but in Christmases.

Monday, October 12, 2009


As I turn onto Allen Street, the main drag of Tombstone, Arizona, I’m struck by how authentic it appears. Sure, the buildings have a “theme park” air about them, but still there’s something very real about this place. It could be that the busted up road and strong winds give the place a messy, dusty appearance. It might also be that I watch as a real-life lawman physically throws a drunken cowboy out of a local saloon. The cowboy staggers to his feet, swears loudly in a way you’d never hear from a Disney World Cast Member, climbs onto his horse and rides away.

I’ve only been here minutes and I’ve already seen an Old West dust-up. This town is crawling with cowboys, dance hall girls and stagecoaches. Many are simply locals playing the part for tourists, but don’t be fooled. Real cowboys still walk these streets.

I enter a large saloon and meet the owner, an excited Brooklyn transplant who seems overjoyed to see me. Of course it is 11am Monday morning, so I’m one of a small group of people in town. He asks where I’m from and I tell him Toronto. Wouldn’t you know it, his first wife was Canadian and they lived in Toronto for ten years. It seems that his bartender has called in sick today and he needs some help. “You’re Canadian – you must know beer,” he informs me and then hands me a cowboy hat, kerchief and holster.

Suddenly I’m dressed up and standing behind the bar, pouring drinks and chatting with the locals. The lunch crowd soon arrives and as I’m pouring beer I mention to the owner that I’m a musician, so pretty soon I’m playing old tunes on their upright piano. I decide not to mention this to the Musician’s Union back home.

I’ve driven in from visiting Boot Hill, the famous cemetery just outside town. Its name is so well known from Hollywood movies that many don’t believe it’s a real location, but it is. There are other pretenders to the crown, but this is the real Boot Hill; the final resting place of names like Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, all killed at the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Ah, the O.K Corral. Step back in time and experience one of the most amusing recreations I have ever attended. The O.K. Corral became famous for the gunfight that occurred on October 26, 1881, between the Earps and the Clantons. The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday have gone down as the “good guys” in this story, but there has always been considerable debate on this point.

Now I can make up my own mind as I visit the unintentionally hilarious re-enactment this afternoon. Local performers act out the entire gun battle with a “play-to-the-balcony” subtlety, then pose for photos with anyone who so desires. After the show you can go visit another area and watch the same story performed, this time by limited-motion (and I do mean limited) mannequins. I’m hard pressed to decide which performance has the best acting, as they’re both top-notch amusement for your entertainment dollar.

Right next door is the Historama; Tombstone’s history told in a multimedia presentation narrated by Vincent Price – or so the owner informs me. The audio is so poor that I can’t make out anything being said. I report this to the owner following the show, and we wind up in a half-hour conversation about guns. He shows me his collection and I discover that the story of our Canadian gun registry is well known, even in southern Arizona.

I’m walking along Allen Street about 5pm when a local fellow approaches and hands me a menu for a restaurant. He’s got a handlebar mustache and is wearing a cowboy hat and duster. He asks me where I hail from, and when I say Toronto his eyes widen. “I was born there,” he says in a thick Texan drawl. “My parents moved there from Italy.”

So an Italian-Canadian boy from Toronto boy ends up being a cowboy in the Old West. I’m learning you can’t judge a guy by his hat.

I finally decide on a cute little restaurant called Nellie Cashman's. As I sit and peruse the menu, the waitress asks me where I’m from. I’m starting to get a little nervous admitting it, but my reply brings a squeal of excitement from her. “I grew up in Scarborough!” This is becoming strange.

I begin to contemplate these odds. I traveled 3,600 km (2236 miles) to a small area of southern Arizona, only to bump into numerous folks from home. What’s going on here? Is Tombstone a Mecca for people from Toronto? Or is something more sinister at play? Is there some Sirens’ song that won’t allow us to leave this town once we arrive?

I decide to think about this later. I still have to work the late shift at the saloon.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I find myself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon at 7:30 AM, sunrise casting unbelievably stunning colors along its surface. I feel like I’ve already accomplished my goal of hiking the Canyon. Well, everything except the hiking part.

My brother Scott, our friend Rob and I drove into Grand Canyon National Park last night under cover of darkness, and I can now see that the road meanders directly along the ledge of the Canyon. Thankfully we made it to our South Rim lodge without realizing we were only two meters away from certain catastrophe.

Staying at one of the Canyon’s lodges allows you this early morning light show. We’ve all just rolled out of bed and come to the edge to gaze into the abyss; this sure beats a cup of coffee for getting the heart pounding.

Rob spent some years working for the National Park Service, and lived at the bottom of the Canyon doing scientific research. He knows the trails well and his continual sense of wonder is contagious. He tells a great story about getting swept up in the Colorado River during a seasonal monsoon and making a daring escape that involved throwing ropes across the rushing water. This is the kind of guy you want by your side as you first step onto the Bright Angel Trail and stare straight down into the 2 km (6,860 ft) expanse. Too be fair, that’s at its deepest point. We’re only about 1.5 km here; I could survive that fall, right?

My sense of adventure quickly turns into stomach-churning panic at the realization that there are no safety barriers of any kind protecting hikers from plunging straight down into the gorge. Granted the path is fairly wide and feels safe enough, other than when tourist-toting mules pass by, at which point hikers are expected to plaster themselves flat against the Canyon wall.

Perhaps climbing Mount Everest is easier; at least you don’t have to spend half your time avoiding the mules’ calling cards. I’m still feeling a little shaky when I notice a group of schoolchildren cheerfully hike right past us, so my trepidation seems a little misplaced. Now I just have to deal with my shame at being shown up by kids.

Hiking here is down to a fine science; posters everywhere advise how many liters of water and what amount of food to carry. Other posters tell the horrible story of hikers who ignored this advice and never made it out alive, including one woman who’d run the Boston Marathon. As I am no marathon runner, we take the advice and carry enough supplies that we probably won’t need to be Air Evac’d out.

We’re here in cooler weather; spring and autumn are wonderful times to visit the Canyon. The average temperature is far lower than during the summer when it can reach 40°C (104°F), therefore hiking is more endurable.

Some of the path is exposed to direct sunlight, and that can become debilitating during the hotter months. However at this time of year there is the double danger of icy patches, plus a sun that sets in what seems like 60 seconds flat.

We’re hiking in fleece sweaters and leather jackets; it’s so cool here than one park employee informs us, “You boys don’t know how to dress for the cold.” We proudly reply that we’re Canadian – this is July weather to us. I consider asking if they have an outdoor pool.

The blazing colors of the Canyon constantly change as the sun passes overhead. I’ve never seen such breathtaking scenery anywhere. We stop every few minutes to take photos and videos, and as we hike deeper my fear subsides...a little. We begin staging funny shots; laughter in the face of imminent peril. Plus we begin to write insulting little songs about the “Mule People.”

Rob is an excellent guide, pointing out various rock formations and buttes along the way. He tells us surreal stories about living in the Canyon and battling scorpions that got into his boots. Whenever I begin to feel tired, I see the schoolchildren in the distance and they inspire me. I realize it’s not a competition…but I’ll be darned if I’m turning back before them.

We have decided to do a day hike of about 30 km (18.5 miles), which allows us to return to our lodge by sundown. As the sun sinks in the sky the temperature plummets, it’s easy to understand why so many hikers get in trouble here. You can experience heat-induced dehydration and hypothermia, all within one day.

The evening is spent exchanging stories with other hikers and a park employee. It’s amazing how quickly every conversation returns to the tale of yet another hiker who had to be rescued. Not surprising, as over 250 people have to be pulled out of the Canyon each year. Since the 1870s there have been over 600 deaths at the Canyon; accidents, suicides, even an airplane collision in 1956.

Then the employee tells us the most fascinating tidbit yet. He claims that during the last Bush administration, park employees were advised not to discuss the age of the Canyon with tourists; suggesting it was any older than 5,000 years was not allowed, so they discouraged any discussion at all. This seems to fly in the face of the accepted 5-6 million year estimate, or the 2008 study that suggested 17 million years.

We turn in early as we have another hike planned for tomorrow. As I lie there in the total darkness and dead quiet, I contemplate this information. I suppose in the long run the Grand Canyon’s true age isn’t really important. It’s still our elder and it’s wise to show it respect. Plus I make a mental note to shake the scorpions out of my boots in the morning.