Friday, February 14, 2020

A performance only a mother’d love

En route to work yesterday I called in to a Toronto FM radio-station quiz show, I actually got on the air (!) and I won!

Radio station Classical 96.3, at 7:46 a.m., invites listeners to play The Quiz of the Bumblebee.
ONE AL OF A GUY:  If nothing else, this photo of my
mom and nephew will get my brother Alex to read this blog
It works like this: While Flight of the Bumblebee plays in the background, one of the hosts rapidly asks 10 trivia questions; the whole thing takes about three minutes tops and it’s always a hoot.

For one thing, nobody ever tires of that piece of music.
For another, the questions are the exact right level of difficulty. As a listener, I’m usually pretty pleased with outguessing the caller on some but never feel dumb when I get one wrong. It’s a delicate balance.

Best of all, with Quiz of the Bumblebee,  no matter how many questions you answer correctly, you always win. 

The hosts, Mike Duncan and Jean Stilwell, get all excited with each caller and after the quiz is done, one of the hosts tallies up the score and says something like: “Let’s see, you got four out of the 10 right; and you came close with Oscar Peterson when the answer was really Oliver Jones, but what the heck, you did great and you win! Congratulations!”

And get this:  the winners – and I can speak from experience now – are thrilled. Callers respond with an enthusiastic version of “Oh wow! Thank you so much! I love your show!” Even if they got'em all wrong.

COMEDIANS'N'CARS: A Pete-perfect prize
In all the times I’ve listened, the absolute least number of right answers a winner got was two! But yesterday, when I went to the radio station after work to pick up my prize (a pair of passes to the Toronto Auto Show and two tickets to see the very funny Shaun Majumder live, next week)  the receptionist  who handed me my prize  told me she once heard somebody win even with zero correct answers.

After playing the quiz yesterday, I arrived at work, eager to share my exciting news with colleagues. I admitted I scored a middling five out of 10.  

The following questions, I flubbed:   

“Which Vancouver Canuck hockey players had their numbers retired this week?
“What state was Abe Lincoln born in?
“Who, along with Jerry Seinfeld, co-created the Seinfeld show?
“Which country was the third to test the atomic bomb?”
Finally--and the fact that I blew this one I attribute to the biological phenomenon called Cerebrum Crepitus which translated from Latin means “brain fart”--“What kind of fish is lox?” (Cut me some slack here. It wasn’t yet 8:00 a.m.)  

One of my co-workers then asked what questions I got right.

Me: “I knew what country Machu Picchu was in, I knew who Muhammad Ali beat to get his first heavyweight title and I knew, er..  I knew. I can’t remember the other three.” Her: “What does that say about humans? We remember our mistakes but not the stuff we get right.” I am surrounded at work by whipsmart colleagues. (A few minutes later when I told my daughter Ria about my on-air performance, she had the very same response.)

But what I forgot's not important.

What’s important is that from the very first time I heard this contest some years back,  I  thought that the Quiz of the Bumblebee, with its lively music, laughs, dead-easy answers and most of all prizes for everybody no matter how badly they performed—is the kind of thing my late mom Huena would have loved.

Especially the part about everybody winning.

As my brother Ed—the ninth of her 10 kids once pointed out — Huena — who died 15 years ago today—was the only person on earth who could make “coming second last” sound like an accomplishment.  

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Singalong with Billy the Kidder

When I was a kid, we went to church a lot and at Sunday Mass, the ushers took up a collection. On some days, when the church was involved in a special project somewhere  — like  helping lepers, say —  there’d  be a second whiparound, and the priest would tell us, it’s “for the missions.”

Last night, in a bar near my house, I heard that same story. Ish.

CHARMING BILLY: He puts the impress into impresario
The band’s second set of the evening was about to wind down and a guy with a sailor’s hat, sailor’s beard and wielding a big glass jar told the packed bar about the church collections of his Catholic childhood then added “and now we’re taking up a second collection — for the musicians.” He made “musicians” sound like “missions.”

You had to be there.

The man who made the joke is Bill Heffernan, and if I had time, talent or energy I could write a book about him.(Read more about Bill’s adventures here but don’t even think about it until you’ve finished my blog.)

But this isn’t about him as much as it is his party; a party, that is, that I think you ought to attend next time you’re in Toronto.

I was at one yesterday, Saturday afternoon. At a bar about 700 giant steps from my house called the Inter Steer Heffernan once again hosted a weekly musical event I shall refer to as“Billy’s Thing” because I don’t know what else to call it.

If somebody asked me to choose five of the most memorable attractions for a recently arrived tourist in this city, Bill’s Saturday party at The Inter Steer would top the list.

THIS HIGH: The answer to your question, "how high
does the Inter Steer set the bar?"
He’s been running the whatchamacallits for going on 13 years. What they are are late-afternoon jam sessions featuring an ever-changing troupe of some of the most talented folk, bluegrass and celtic musicians I’ve come across. 

Admission is free but as I said a few paragraphs ago, they pass the jug a few times. The Inter Steer bar (or as regulars call it, The Steer) is unpretentious and the crowd’s welcoming. Food’s good too.

I don’t go to Billy’s thing every Saturday but some people sure do and I don’t blame them.

Last night, when I arrived at about 6:15, the performer was rocking out an acoustic version of Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down” and get this: The entire bar was singing along.

Right now, you’re thinking, “does life get any hokier than that?"

Meantime, I’m like, “I love it.”

RANKIN FILE: Mary Rankin, another Caped Breton
I was immediately yanked back to my home in Sudbury, where my older brother Tom’s friends — Joe Nichols, Moe Sauve or my cousin Gerard MacIsaac — hauled out six strings and got everybody singing and drinking and laughing. (Regular readers of this blog know I grew up on Walton Mountain. We Carters were a big sprawling church-going party-loving family and just like John Boy, the handsomest and funniest of the bunch grew up to be a journalist.  But I digress.)

Back to Billy’s Thing.

Every time I’ve attended one of these jam sessions, I’ve made friends and yesterday, I met singer Mary Rankin who — it turns out — has roots in the same part of the world as my mom; i.e., Inverness County, Nova Scotia. Around those parts, the name Rankin is synonymous with angelic voices and talent; Mary’s carrying on the tradition with grace and charm. 

Plus she was as friendly as one of my down east cousins.  (Believe me, not only does that bunch set the hospitality bar high, they open it way before noon.)

Another performer from yesterday’s thing looked like he could have just pulled up on a fishing trawler but sang some Irish ballads so beautifully he’d  make a rock cry. His name’s Kevin Kennedy.

One after another and sometimes together, for three hours they played. In addition to Heffernan and the others I mentioned,  yesterday’s players were Michelle Rumball, Michael O’Grady and Alex Fraser. The last guy — Fraser  — plays the Steer I think every Wednesday night and he’s Spotify personified. Name a song. He’ll nail it.

The last piece I heard before heading home yesterday was an inner  ear-worming rendition of what I think should be Newfoundland’s National Anthem — Sonny’s Dream by the late Ron Hynes.

Got home by 8:15. Which is not a bad thing.  Like Yogi Berra might have said, “it sure gets late early these days.” 

Billy’s thing: Saturdays at The Inter Steer Restaurant. 357 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto.  

You can crash at our place if you like.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Canadian Tire: A lot lot more than tires

When the triage guy at Canadian Tire booked me in for my left head light repair, he estimated it’d take maybe half an hour, 45 minutes.
CANADIAN TIRED? The service department's waiting room
welcomes you weary travelers

I thought: “Perfect. An hour in the Canadian Tire waiting room! What more could a guy ask for?”

I’m not being sarcastic.  

It was about 10:00 a.m. Forty eight hours earlier, my wife Helena and our three children Ewa, Ria and Michel, along with dozens of other family and friends, had been at St. Bernadette’s Roman Catholic Church in the town of Elliot Lake, Ont., about 6.5 hours north of our Toronto home, at my brother Tom’s funeral.

The morning we were to head north, I realized my left low beam didn’t work. I figured if I scheduled right, I could drive during daylight, nobody would notice I had my high beams on and I could wait until after the funeral to get the light repaired.

My plan worked. We arrived back home early Saturday afternoon and Canadian Tire is open Sunday mornings. I welcomed the opportunity.

Lake, division. I hope I never stop forgetting he's gone..
Here’s the thing: After a family gathering like Tom’s funeral, there is much morning-after (mourning-after) quarterbacking to do. You have to contact everybody involved to get their interpretation of whatever everybody else said and did.

“Why did Jim mention Jack’s old boat within earshot of Dirk? He knew it would be a sore point!” 

“Why would Beth get up and say that stuff about her stupid dog right in the middle of the funeral home?” (I’m faking these examples because if I reported what was actually said after Tom’s funeral, mine would follow shortly aftwards. But you already knew that because nobody related to me is a Dirk.)

What better base to contact everybody from than  the forced exile of a Canadian Tire waiting room?

I like Canadian Tire. I still think perfume that smells like a Canadian Tire store would be a huge seller;  I also made up a joke: Do you ever find yourself exhausted after a long day’s drive on icy roads, worrying if you have enough windshield washer and stressing that your head light’s out? If that describes you, you are  ... wait for it ... Canadian tired. 

At Tom’s funeral, I met up with one of his oldest pals — Joe —  who told me that after retiring from a long career with INCO, the mining company that dominated our home town of Sudbury, Joe responded to a Canadian Tire help-wanted ad that said the store was “looking for pensioners.” 

He applied and loves it.  At Tom’s wake, he and I were joking about his red shirt being a chick magnet.

A good funeral has huge upsides. People like me and Joe get to catch up. 

Long-overdue hugs get hugged. 

In my world, you can tell a good funeral because people are laughing. And many saying “let’s not wait until the next funeral to get together” only to say the very same thing at the next funeral. 

Except for the fact that he was the centre of attention, I believe Tom would have given his own funeral 10 outta 10.

But enough about him.

Back to me.

Forty five minutes into my cross-country Carter family check-up, the CT service tech reluctantly informed me that the problem was more complicated than they’d originally thought. Hesitantly, as if he didn't like delivering the bad news, he said the procedure was going to take a little longer and cost a bit more.
He estimated an hour.

I was like, “great!”  

Here’s what my brain thought: “What a world!  Here we are, bumping up against $200 for a measly light bulb and we can afford it without taking a breath.

“Look at us! We can get new head lights put in on a Sunday morning! We don’t have to wait for the shop to open Monday and then for some courier to deliver a replacement bulb. We don’t have to miss work or so much as a coffee break. I don’t have to get my hands dirty. We’re so stinking lucky it hurts! We never even run out of exclamation marks!”

Then I was like, “Tom loves this kinda crap. I think I’ll call and make him laugh...”


I’d forgotten — for half a second — that Tom would not be picking up. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.

I dialed my sister Bertholde instead. I warned her: In the coming months, there’s probably going to be times when I feel like ringing Tom so she has been named the designated call receiver. She was fine with this.

About a half hours later, when the service guy presented me told me the car was ready and the total was less than I'd anticipated, I asked myself whether I should call Bertholde or just let her read the good news here. I opted for door number two.

Coming from me, Bertholde, I guess you won’t be surprised to hear that if you’re talking about replacing headlights — especially after a particularly dark couple of wintry days with a big brothers’ funeral thrown in —it’s really easy to see the bright side.