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Three Funerals and a Wedding.

October 10, 2014

That dreaded moment. That moment when someone of your generation dies. I can’t think of an event in my life that has struck me quite so profoundly as this one. He wasn’t a close friend, though was someone I respected tremendously and someone who admired me for some reason. He was quite a bit older than I am, but was the life partner of a close friend nearer to my age. I feared going to his funeral, not just because I was sad and am usually reduced to a heap of water at these things. But because it was the first send-off I’ve experienced of someone who was associated with people I associate with every day. So there I was in my car, on my way to honour his life, also thinking about how very short life is no matter how many years we’re here, and how foolish some of our daily or hourly worries are. A few of my own here…

“Will anyone come to my concert?”
“Why am I working harder than ever and making less money?”
“I don’t have time to walk the dogs tonight.”
“I’m too busy to cook supper or have a date night out with Joan.”
“What can I post on Facbeook next that will get a lot of ‘likes’?”

As I was driving to the gentleman’s funeral, I was feeling a bit empty and those sorts of worries seeming pointless. Not to mention that I was distracted by a hearse coming towards me. Another funeral procession. Great. What a joy this day is shaping up to be. Because all traffic headed in my direction ground to a halt out of respect for the soul in the back of that hearse, I had a brief moment of fearing I’d be late for the funeral I was headed to of the important Gentleman whose reputation as a cultural scholar was immeasurable. All of the important people were going to be there and I was about to traipse in late. But while I was physically stopped in my tracks by the funeral cortege coming towards me, I was also emotionally stopped in my tracks. Directly behind the hearse was a huge procession of the entire fleet of a local taxi company. Dozens of cabs with their flashers on, driving slowly, the drivers all looking sombre. Quite honestly, I got all choked up. I had no idea who died, but he or she was obviously important… very important… to a lot of people from another walk of life. These taxis weren’t hurtling through the city to get their customers to a destination on time. This was a very noble, respectful, powerful honour guard. When I was finally able to start moving along, I was thinking only about that total stranger and not the person I was going to honour. I wondered what he/she did to earn such enormous respect. How old was this person? Did he/she have a family? I wondered if this person ever gave me a lift to the airport or downtown and I just sat as a silent passenger without giving him/her the respect or attention that might have been deserved.

So anyway, I made it to the funeral I was attending. I ran up the hill, arrived just in the nick of time. And there it was… an honour guard of academics. All wearing their university robes. Dozens of them very slowly, sombrely making their way up the aisle behind the urn. Somehow, after seeing the cavalry of taxis a moment earlier, this honour guard seemed less moving. Less powerful. I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all. On the contrary. All I’m saying is that I sat through the service still thinking a lot about the deceased taxi driver and how his/her honour guard of taxis was every bit as meaningful and representative of one life well-lived as this honour guard of professors representing another’s life. Which one is more important? Neither. Which one accomplished more? Again, most likely, neither. They both clearly did things in their lives to command a huge amount of respect and attention. About 45 minutes later, the service was over and I overheard one of the honour guard say to another, “Let’s go across the street for a coffee. I’d love to catch up.” The sad farewell was over. Time keeps passing. The world keeps spinning. We pick up where we left off. Off to the next appointment.

Just a few days earlier, I was playing music at my church for a Sunday morning service. One of the members of the church band asked me if I know the chap who’s funeral I would be attending a few days later. I said I did and that I’d be going to the funeral. The band member paused and recounted his observation at the funeral of a local media mogul who also recently passed away at an old age after a long life as one of the most influential figures in the province’s media, culture and politics. The band member said, “You know… When his casket left the church, everyone just left and went back to their daily lives. No matter how rich he was, he was here. Now he’s gone. And that’s that.”

Well now that I have you all depressed, I should say here what I should have said at the start. I didn’t have one moment of depression through any of this. If anything, I was experiencing a bit of introspection I suppose. I’m slipping quietly and surely past middle age and simply taking stock of people and things. Those three passings impacted me in this way: I realized that it is absolutely pointless, worthless, a complete waste of emotional energy, to worry about the small stuff. It’s a sometimes tired, overused, old cliché, “Life is too short.” But, is it ever true. It’s not too short in that we all want to live to be 500 years old. I think it means that it’s way too short to get annoyed at the weather, worry about who likes us, or allow yourself to get mired in work you don’t enjoy anymore. There’s not a damn thing any human can do about the weather, so there’s no benefit to anyone in complaining about it. No one needs a thousand Facebook friends and it’s highly arguable if we need any. It’s a great life if we can get from start to finish with just one or two people who like us a lot.

Last month, shortly following that flurry of funeral experiences, I MC’d a wedding of two close friends and had the most fun I’ve had in front of an audience in my life, and there wasn’t even a piano in sight. I made a point of reminding everyone that no matter how messed up the world is these days, how lucky we are to be in a place where we can get together, have some laughs over a few drinks, party our faces off, debate, agree, and talk about anything we want without dodging bullets or being tossed in jail. I’m sure my two young newlywed friends are worried about job prospects, money, how the heck they’re going to afford this & that, etc. Joan and I went through it too. We still do sometimes. But the work they desire will come. So will the money, for whatever that means in the long run. Along the way, they’ll work with and get to know hundreds or thousands of people who’ll come and go, but there’ll be those few who’ll be there from now on.

Dad just directed me to a fabulous website of a retired friend of his who now dedicates his time simply reflecting on what’s important to all of us at the end of the day. Ken Connelly (www.kenconnelly.ca) focuses on “the necessity for everyone to reflect on the basics of life – how to live a decent and authentic life while struggling to survive financially with all the pressures of work, love, parenting and personal morality.” So, whether you’re a cab driver, an accomplished academic, a wealthy entrepreneur, or a young newlywed who fears what lies ahead, the only things that matter (in no particular order) are to be satisfied in your work, to have just a person or two around you over the long run who can be counted on to be with you for your journey whenever you need them, take care of your mind and body, be friendly, be loyal, be patient, be generous, and be comfortable without feeling the pressure to be extravagant. Think about the biggest moments in our lives for a second. When people gather to celebrate you, whether for a wedding, birth, graduation, birthday or end of life, no one is counting your money or measuring the square footage of your house to see if you’re worthy of praise. At least I hope not. Quality trumps quantity. Always.

piano keys

Summertime, and the living is interesting.

June 16, 2014

Here in St. John’s, 2014 isn’t going to stand out as our finest year for weather. A bounty of snow well into April, followed by a Spring of chilly temperatures, rain, drizzle, fog, with the occasional shock of sunshine. But not one moment of it has bothered me, except for people who complain about it. At the end of the day, there are two things we have absolutely no control over: The weather and when we die. Mind you, I have been trying to take hold of the latter by doing something I once thought laughable - going to the gym several hours each week. I’ve paired that not with slowing down and sniffing the dandelions, but instead heaping more work than ever on top of myself. Now why on earth at my age would I push my mental and physical endurance to the point of nearly bursting? Well here’s the thing… I’ve never… ever… been happier and more relaxed in my life, in spite of this shitty weather.

Yes, I explore the depth and breadth of profanity when feeling on the verge of a near-death experience at the gym… or at the piano. But I’ve finally learned to recognize those moments of frustration and angst as little bits that contribute to the shape of something much larger. Call it my midde age (though, I’m pretty much at the point where I’m not at the middle of anything anymore… on that slippery slope towards being just plain old)… But I’ve somehow managed to figure out how to fashion fits of torment into experiences that fit the big picture. How I came to arrive at that earth-shattering realization isn’t exactly mystical. I started listening to people. In a really big way. Here’s a few instances which I think have helped me realize that playing a wrong note in a performance doesn’t matter as much as the overall musical experience, and in fact might even contribute to a stronger performance, oddly enough.

I happen to be in the middle of a lengthy and fascinating process in my PhD program where I’m interviewing a steady parade of musicians about their work experiences. Just when I thought I knew all there is to know about the music profession, I really have known only my own tiny little world all along. Simply by listening to people, I’ve learned more about the world beyond the end of my nose over the past one month than I have over the past fifteen years of worrying about myself. That outcome alone has been shocking and refreshing. I can hardly wait to have my dissertation completed so that I can have a document that clearly shows what it’s like to be a musician in St. John’s… and based on other people’s experiences, not mine.

Next week, I’m recording an album with a trombone friend and colleague, Stephen Ivany, who’s about half my age yet teaching me more about collaboration, patience, perspective, and music than I’ve experienced in years. Funny thing about that - We have been talking for a year about recording but wouldn’t have been able to manage it without funding… which I didn’t think was going to happen. So there I was, plugging away at a solo piano recital program all year, planning to record a solo album, driving myself cracked in the process because all I had was myself to listen to (and talk to sometimes, but that’s another story). Then, lo and behold, Stephen and I got some funding to record. As a result, my solo work is sidelined until sometime later, and will be stronger because of this bit of teamwork currently underway which is pushing my piano-playing to new outer limits.

Here’s my favourite one…
My fitness trainer at the gym is a young woman who emigrated to here from Thailand. She too is half my age, and literally about a foot shorter than I. She could snap me in half like a twig if she wanted… but that’s beside the point. The thing is, I’m not going there to get all bulked up. I’d look ridiculous if I did. I just was at a point in my life where I wanted and needed someone to kick me in the ass on a regular basis and make me do things without complaining (much) and think about everything more sensibly. In the ten months I’ve been working with her on my physical endurance, my mental endurance and general outlook have also improved drastically. She never yells (at least not at me). She’s this zen-like person who quietly tells me to do however many more repetitions of whatever routine I’m doing. When I started trying to lift heavy things, analagous to how I used to manage life’s little weights, I would hold my breath and grip with all my might and had a very narrow focus on my body and mind. She turned that on its end by telling me to breathe (what a concept), keep my chest out, head high, back strong and tight, and move slowly. In very small increments, over a slow process, I have become able to do increasingly more in shorter periods of time and I’m sweating less. Do I really need to draw a line from that advice to a life lesson? I don’t think so.

Okay, so I did catch myself a couple of nights ago feeling down in the dumps about what I felt wasn’t a solid performance. But I am doing today what I wouldn’t have thought to do even a year ago. Channelling that energy into making more music, not less, and doing it better.

I hope you don’t think I’m saying that the only way to manage life’s little stresses more patiently is to do a PhD and hit the gym. All I’m saying is that… no matter how you do it… by ripping off the blinders and seeing “problems” in the context of place, time and other people… and by really paying close attention to those other people… “problems” all feel much, much smaller and get re-labelled as “experiences.” Especially if you breathe normally and move at your own pace.
And don’t forget to keep your chest out, even if people look at your strangely.

David's Next Performance

The Night Caps Go Caroling!

December 20th, 2014 at 12:00pm

Throughout St. John's

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David's Debut Gospel CD

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