Sunday, December 22, 2013


            One of these Christmases I plan on spending the holiday season down south. Somewhere warm – Cuba, the Dominican Republic, doesn’t matter, just so long as I can attend Christmas Eve service in short pants.
            It seems that whenever I mention my dream to people, someone feels the need to offer a bit of wisdom along the lines of, “It won’t feel like Christmas without snow.” Let me offer a simple rebuttal. This is a fallacy.
            All those classic holiday specials where Bing and Perry sang Christmas carols in the falling snow were actually filmed in California studios where nobody ever suffered so much as a cool breeze. Irving Berlin wrote his classic song “White Christmas” while enjoying life in his Hollywood mansion. And don’t get me started on his other lyric from the White Christmas movie, “I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow.”
            I often speculate that our need to idealize the wonders of snow is probably some sort of defense mechanism. Holiday songs extolling its wonders, and picturesque cottage scenes by Thomas Kinkade, have combined with our very human sense of self-preservation to convince us that sub-zero temperatures and snarled up traffic somehow constitute a winter wonderland. Just because Santa Claus chooses to live in a frigid climate, do we all have to suffer?
            It feels like I have spent almost every Christmas of my adult life either struggling though snowstorms to get home for the holidays, or shoveling myself out once I got there. One year a raging blizzard managed to make my return drive from Montreal to Toronto into an 11-hour trip.  Another time a storm knocked out the electricity on Christmas Day, making dinner preparations a bit challenging. Last Boxing Day Montreal was pounded with the largest snowstorm ever recorded in that city’s history. 
            Before I come across sounding too Grinch-like, let me say that I do have fond memories of many Christmases; walking to midnight service in a light snowfall, tobogganing down snow-covered hills, enjoying the warmth of a fireplace and the twinkle of a brightly lit tree as I watched the flakes cascade gently past the window. 
            Magical moments, one and all; but strangely conspicuous by its absence is the memory of how unpleasantly cold the weather no doubt was. It’s almost like my brain discarded that information in order to make the recollection more festive.
            I am not speaking purely hypothetically here; rest assured I have actually experienced warm weather during the holiday season. A few years back I found myself wandering along the streets of Fort Lauderdale one late November evening, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, admiring all the houses beautifully decorated in anticipation of Christmas.
            It was dark, the colored lights were magical, and I did not miss the cold and snow for one second. If anything, the warm weather enhanced the experience by allowing me to marvel at the wondrous lighting displays at my leisure. I didn’t need to enjoy them through a frost-covered windshield or be forced to retreat into a heated car seconds before hypothermia set in.
            In short, it made me realize that I could quite happily spend my entire holiday by the side of a pool, sipping a tropical Christmas cocktail. In fact I believe Christmas morning would be just as festive if the exchanging of gifts was followed up with a trip to the beach, and I am positive that the aroma of turkey wafting through the house is equally compelling when the temperature outdoors is 30 above rather than 30 below.
            I got married this past July, so Christmas trips must now be divided between my family in Quebec and hers in Manitoba. That’s right, I married someone who comes from an even colder province than I do. Why she could not have been raised in some tropical climate is beyond me, but rest assured I intend to bring up the topic the next we find ourselves digging out of the inevitable Christmas blizzard.
            So for this year at least I will relinquish my dream of a tropical Christmas and instead pretend that the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without bitter cold, icy roads and howling blizzards. However I will continue to promote my theory that everyone should head south next December. After all, it only makes sense. There must be some reason that the traditional choice to add to eggnog is tropical rum.
            Merry Christmas…or should I say Mele Kalikimaka!

Monday, September 2, 2013


If anyone ever tells you they intend to buy a house, pack, move, and get married all within one month, send them to me.  I will be happy to set them straight.
On June 14th my fiancé and I took possession of our new house; on June 27th we packed up our respective former homes and moved way across town; on July 12th we got married. All this happened as we both continued working and undertook renovations (don’t get me started on installing the kitchen floor). Between the real estate agents, banks, lawyers, mortgage companies and movers, I think the least stressful part of the entire summer was our actual wedding day.
            My fate was sealed back in 2009 when I was asked to run a singing class with a voice teacher. The moment we met I knew she was something special, although it seemed to take her a little longer to realize what a treasure I was.
              We got engaged last Christmas Eve 2012. On Boxing Day we drove to Quebec, just in time for that province to be hit with the biggest winter storm in 40 years, breaking the previous record from 1971.
Now some might call this a bad omen, but I chose to see it as the weather gods’ way of celebrating our engagement. Clearly I don’t put much stock in portents because we then chose July 12th as our wedding day. As any Irishman can attest, The Glorious Twelfth, or Orangemen’s Day, is historically one of the most contentious dates in the calendar. Again I chose to put things in a positive light by considering this the ideal opportunity to encourage peace between Protestants (me) and Catholics (my fiancé).
We chose a beautiful Victorian era building in Toronto for both the wedding and reception. Thankfully this time the weather gods favoured us with a gorgeous, sunny day; not too hot so we could take lots of photos out in the gardens without any relatives suffering sunstroke.
            I work in music and comedy and my wife is a classically trained opera singer; between us we have an abundance of amazing friends who are professional singers, actors, musicians, writers and comedians. We corralled many of them to be part of our wedding celebration, starting with our church accompanist who has been a composer and producer for everyone from Tommy Hunter to Roger Whittaker to The Muppets.
It was a beautiful ceremony full of wonderful music that included our hand-picked choir and Daniel Giverin on violin. The entire thing seemed to fly by in an instant, marred only by the fact that, much to the priest’s amusement, I accidentally signed the Marriage Register on the line for “Officiant.”  
The reception was hosted by David Gale, one of my oldest friends and performing partners, with Mark Kersey on piano. It was a joyous event that culminated in an hour of outstanding entertainment provided by more of our cherished friends. In our speech we joked that we were happy we knew so many entertainers who were willing to work in exchange for food and an open bar. My only regret that day was that my dad could not be with us to share in the celebration.
            My father spent a good part of his life as a columnist and author. His humourous stories and poems seemed to resonate with readers everywhere, a fact of which I am reminded each time I deal with another reprint request for his work from around the world.  Most recently I have enjoyed numerous phone conversations with American singing legend Connie Francis, who has just recorded a spoken word version of my father’s well-known poem “Just A Common Soldier (A Soldier Died Today).”
            Although my fiancé never had the chance to meet my dad, she knew how much he meant to me so I was extremely touched when she suggested that we choose one of his poems to be read at our reception. While browsing through some of his published collections she came upon a work that seemed ideal. The words so moved her that she immediately burst into tears…which would have been less awkward if she hadn’t been riding the bus at the time.
The moment she showed it to me I knew it was the perfect way to make my dad a part of our special day. It only seemed fitting to ask another dear friend, himself a popular columnist and television actor, to read the poem at our reception. Between his moving rendition and the subsequent fiddle duet performed by one of my childhood friends and my new father-in-law, we knew Dad was right there with us. 
Now if only I had been able to actually taste a piece of our wedding cake…


By A. Lawrence Vaincourt

You say you need no one, that you are a man 
and can make it quite well on your own,
But you have a long route ahead of you, son – 
much too far to travel alone.
From the home of your parents to one of your own, 
and the knowledge that you are a man,
To the freedom you have from the love you have known, 
is sometimes a terrible span.

No man is an island, so goes the old saw, 
and those who have lived know it’s true,
And life’s heavy burdens, which now weigh you down, 
are lighter, divided by two.
If it’s only a hand you can clasp in the dark, 
or a warm, loving voice on the phone,
Which says you’re important and that you have worth, 
it surely beats being alone.

Don’t punish yourself for mistakes in your past, 
don’t say you can never go home,
But look for that someone who’ll share your long path, 
for it’s too lonesome walking alone.
The star that you follow, you may never reach, 
but you’ll know at life’s end that you tried;
And that on your way, you’d the love and support 
of the person who walked by your side.

So don’t try to do it, son, all on your own, 
for that path should be trodden by two;
And somewhere out there is a person who’ll share – 
that someone who’s just right for you.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Now that 2012 is in the past we can finally put behind us the multitude of documentaries, special reports and TV miniseries about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It was a horrible tragedy and 1,514 passengers lost their lives that night of April 14-15, 1912, so it’s understandable that our fascination with the story seems to keep growing with each passing year.           
Of course I share an interest in the story of the Titanic and its passengers; who perished, who didn’t, and the various reasons why. But the people who really fascinate me are the ones who survived by missing the boat that day. The famous people who, for one reason or another, didn’t get on board that infamous voyage and no doubt lived to be very thankful.
Inventor Guglielmo Marconi, chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, financier J. Pierpont Morgan and Goodyear Tire founder Frank Seiberling, had all booked passage on the Titanic. For various reasons each one cancelled or postponed their voyage, thereby ensuring the safe future of candy, radio and rubber tires. Just think about that the next time you’re driving along the highway while listening to the traffic report and chomping on a chocolate bar.
One of the reasons I am captivated by their stories is that I had a similar experience back in 2007.  It also involved a cruise ship, an iceberg and a sinking, and I too survived by not being on board.
I had been offered a job playing piano aboard a tourist ship. Many of my friends have made great money entertaining aboard cruise ships, spending their winters sailing through warmer climes, playing in piano bars or performing in musical reviews common on such trips. However the M/S Explorer, nicknamed the Little Red Ship, was by no definition a luxury cruise liner.
Designed for sailing the waters of the Arctic and Antarctic, the boat looked more like a low-rent ferry than the Pacific Princess. To be fair it was intended for adventure tourism, taking a small group of 100 passengers across the Drake Passage and on to the South Pole.
As I contemplated accepting the contract, I had visions of experiencing the thrilling voyage of a lifetime. Me, a modern day Roald Amundsen or Robert Scott, albeit one who had to spend each evening entertaining passengers with sing-along versions of American Pie and Piano Man.
But think of the adventure! I planned to keep a journal and turn my experiences into a book. I even had the title ready: “Playing At The Bottom Of The World.”
A month before we were to set sail, my brother casually pointed out that the ship would have to cross the Drake Passage, the body of water that separates the southern tip of Chile from Antarctica, twice each journey. I was scheduled to make 8 trips, for a total of 16 attempts to navigate what is known as one of the roughest stretches of water on the planet.
I am not what one would call a good sailor. I get queasy on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World, so needless to say I was a bit concerned about tackling such an infamous expanse of ocean – particularly 16 times. I decided to do a bit of research and was horrified at what I discovered.
Articles with names like, “Waves Of Terror” and “Horror On The High Seas” did nothing to dispel my fears, but when I eventually stumbled upon video clips taken by other adventure tourists, my stomach started to do flips. Waves of up to 30 metres (almost 100 ft) tossed ships back and forth at 45-degree angles. And the trip can take up to 2 days!
My mind was made up – I couldn’t accept the contract. Let some other poor guy be squashed behind a rolling piano. Every musician knows the story of how the orchestra played “Nearer My God To Thee” as the Titanic sank. Call me a coward but my Musician Union card makes no mention of going down with the ship; that’s the Captain’s job. First to the buffet and first to the lifeboats - that’s the musician’s motto.
November 11, 2007 the M/S Explorer set sail from Argentina, without me, on a 19-day trip that was meant trace the route of famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Saturday, November 24th I sat down with my morning newspaper and noticed to my surprise the M/S Explorer was on the front page. The headline blared, “CRUISE SHIP SINKS OFF ANTARCTICA.”
Apparently the ship had hit an iceberg that tore a 25 X 10 cm (10 X 4 inch) gash in the hull. While the initial damage was being examined it then drifted into a second iceberg. Its fate was sealed, certainly better than the supposedly watertight compartments in its hull. Thankfully all the passengers and crew made it safely off the sinking ship and into the lifeboats, where they drifted for 5 hours until a Norwegian vessel came to their rescue.
There were some subsequent reports that the story of the sinking didn’t make sense, as the M/S Explorer was specifically designed for navigating through ice. Of course the Titanic was also unsinkable, so it’s difficult to cast aspersions. The whole affair was eventually ruled an accident following an investigation by the good folks at the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs.
Why Liberia, you may ask? A huge number of the cruise ships that rake in millions of tourist dollars annually are actually registered in Liberia, a small West African country where there is no minimum wage and less-stringent labour laws.  “Flags of Convenience” is what the industry calls it, which anyone thinking of booking a cruise might want to consider.
Even though I never got to write my book or play piano at the bottom of the world, I don’t regret my decision to decline the trip any more than Messrs. Hershey or Marconi probably did. For 5 hours in 2007 the terrified passengers of the M/S Explorer no doubt wondered if they would survive. If I want to experience that sort of terror, all I have to do is go on stage without rehearsing.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Winter in Canada; there’s nothing like it. Although it does come around each year with some regularity, it always amazes me that it seems to be an annual surprise to so many. The first snowfall inevitably leads to careening cars and multiple crashes on our roads, as if people are experiencing these conditions for the first time.

Canadians have a history of helping each other out in times of bad weather. We push stranger’s cars out of snowbanks, shovel neighbour’s walkways and offer shelter when the electricity inevitably fails.

I grew up in a small town near Montreal and well remember the Storm Of The Century in March 1971, when we got pounded with 43 cm (17 in) of snow in one day. It was the largest single-day snowfall on record in the Montreal area up to that point; conditions were so bad that for the first time in history the Montreal Canadiens actually cancelled a hockey game!

That winter we went on to receive 380 cm (152 in) of snow and I recall walking along the streets in my hometown, unable to see the houses for the snowbanks. It made for a terrific winter of sledding, and we even spent some time jumping off the roof of our house – which to be fair wasn’t much higher than the snow.

I happened to be back home this past December when we broke that single-day record. Between 45-50 cm fell on December 27th, which made me very happy that I had traveled there on the 25th. Of course as I was leaving the province a few days later I still saw cars driving into ditches and sliding into poles, as if totally oblivious to the poor road conditions.

Coincidentally (and now I’m beginning to suspect I may somehow be to blame) I was also in Quebec for the holidays just before the Great Ice Storm of 1998 walloped that province, Eastern Ontario and New Brunswick. Thankfully I had the great good fortune of leaving town on that fateful morning of January 4th, and missed being stranded there by a mere few hours. That storm eventually required calling in the army, making it the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War.

Yes, that’s right. Toronto is not the only place in Canada, or even the first, that ever called in the army to help out in cases of extreme weather, although one wouldn’t know that by the mockery it has had to endure ever since the storm of 2000.

I must confess that I have lived in Toronto for many years, so I got to enjoy first-hand our very own “Snow-mageddon” when this city was pummeled by 80 cm. Yes, 80 cm of snow...almost twice the amount of Montreal’s largest single-day snowfall in history. Traditionally not a city that has had much experience with such large storms, Toronto had less snow clearing equipment, and budgets a good deal smaller, than some other Canadian locations.

The city came to a standstill. The limited equipment (which had been loaned to Quebec two years earlier when that province needed help) just wasn’t up to the task. Closing down the economic engine of our country for any length of time could have been a financial disaster, so the mayor made a difficult decision.

Granted, that particular mayor was a bit of a buffoon (hmmm – I’m sensing a pattern with Toronto mayors) but as someone who lived through the experience I still believe it was the right thing to do. A paramedic friend of mine told me at the time that if it had not been for the army vehicles helping ambulances move through the clogged streets, several of his patients would have died before reaching a hospital. I imagine those folks, and their relatives, never regretted the mayor’s decision.

Coming from Quebec I understand that many Canadians need to dislike Toronto. In fact before I moved here I had assumed Montreal and Toronto had some sort of bitter, long-standing rivalry. Or so The Montreal Gazette always led me to believe.

Imagine my surprise to find that this rivalry is entirely one-sided. In my 30 years here I have yet to meet one Toronto native who doesn’t speak excitedly about taking a weekend trip to Montreal, visiting Vancouver or traveling our eastern coast.

So to the Quebec driver who, as I was pushing his car from the snowbank into which he had inexplicably driven, asked where I was from. I responded, “Toronto,” and he laughed, “Have you called in the army lately?”

I trust he’s still in that snowbank.