This Music-loving Dave Reads About The Other Music-loving Dave…

The art of storytelling is not necessarily a dying art, but is one which is getting a little gray on top and wheezing a little. In the last week or so, I revisited one of its finer recent practicioners, reading Stuart McLean‘s Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. It was the third compilation of his “Vinyl Cafe” stories which he put out with some regularity for over 20 years until his death in 2017.

McLean had decent careers as an English professor, then a news journalist before settling in to become one of Canada’s most beloved media types by telling stories about folks who felt like family. If that sounds a bit familiar to Americans, it probably should. McLean’s often been referred to as “Canada’s Garrison Keillor.” The comparison is obvious, with both telling stories of ordinary small town folk on public radio then publishing them in compilation form. Of course, while Keillor’s stories were set in his fictitious Lake Wobegon and was mainly heard on NPR, McLean’s were set in Toronto. Now, Toronto is anything but a “small town” but it is also a city of neighborhoods, and McLean made us feel like residents of Dave’s little corner of it.

For those unfamiliar, the Vinyl Cafe stories center around Dave, a middle-aged proprietor of a vinyl record store, and his family, wife Morley and two kids. The stories flip back and forth between his record store, his home life and quirky neighbors and the odd reminiscence of his youth in rural Nova Scotia or his career as a rock roadie when young and single.

The stories are generally relatable, sometimes warm, sometimes witty. The term which seems to fit is “gentle humor”. Not many of these stories will make you fall on the floor laughing, but in general they do make you feel like Dave and Morley are family, have you cheering on their little victories and nodding along with their foibles or frustrations of having a teen girl and ‘tween boy to shepherd into adulthood.

The themes are familiar, lower-case ones. Dave’s buddy’s wife doesn’t like him much and doesn’t realize he didn’t go with said buddy on a run to the beer store when she dashes to the kitchen in the nude to get a drink. An old customer comes back to his store after being away for seven years and the most valuable record Dave owned ( a 1930’s 78 by Geechie Wiley) has them reminiscing and catching up on each other’s lives. A stodgy old aunt comes from Britain to visit and go to a Due South fan convention – she’s obsessed with the Canadian Mountie show – but ends up being taken away for an impromptu fling on a little fishing boat. The family decide it would be nice to make each other Christmas presents but find the idea is nicer than the stressful reality of doing so. Nothing earth-shattering but then again, nothing that causes us to have much “suspension of disbelief” nor to flinch or have our hearts miss a beat. No Stephen King scary clowns or rabid dogs in the Vinyl Cafe.

I’ve read a number of his books (there are around 10 different “Vinyl Cafe” titles, although some of them are essentially “best ofs”) and enjoy them. I like his style, I like the references to my homeland and a city I’ve strolled the streets of and shopped the stores in, and feel no small amount of kinship with a 50-ish year old guy called Dave who loves Blue Jays baseball and mostly, music. However, as I got further into the book, my honest assessment was … “this is OK, but it’s a bit weak for McLean.” To put it into parlance Dave of the store would understand, it’s like a compilation of B-sides. Worthy enough, but not representative of the heights he could attain. No “greatest hits” this one. Until I got to the final short story. “Love Never Ends.”

Love Never Ends” sees Dave take a side seat to his old childhood baseball coach, and wife. It’s astonishing. It’s not one of McLean’s funnier tales, but it may well be his crowning achievement as a writer and a person. It says in about 14 pages as much about the meaning of life and the Human Condition as many philosophers and theologians have been able to deduce in a lifetime of work and pondering.

So the overall review is, a decent enough set of stories, and a pretty good introduction to the Vinyl Cafe for a newcomer, and if you come to it first, you might be pleasantly surprised with other books in the series you read later. If you like Garrison Keillor, you probably will like Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. But if you want to be moved, touched… made to feel, track down the “Love Never Ends” story from it, at a library, online, while sitting in a bookstore. But have a Kleenex ready.

Boffo Beer Blog : Week 12 (or so) Vanilla And Beer Together Again

Week 12…or so. I think we missed a week or two in there. Anyhow, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe out there. And treating yourself to a nice meal and bevvie from time to time.

This week I taste tested something that sounded a bit different – Breckenridge Brewery’s Vanilla Porter. If it sounds like a drinkable candy for adults… well, it’s not quite. But it isn’t far off either.

Breckenridge is a Colorado brewery begun in 1990 in the town it was named after. Apparently the little craft brewery and restaurant/tasting room is still there, but they quickly outgrew that spot’s output capability so they moved. They built a large brewery in downtown Denver in 1992, right across the road from the Rockies’ baseball stadium, but in time that too became too crowded to meet demand so they relocated to 12 acres in nearby Littleton where they now have their main brewery and a farmhouse restaurant featuring “dining …indoors or a leisurely outdoor experience around fire pits, playing bocce ball” and enjoying their majestic views of the Rocky Mountains.

The company is, like many smaller craft breweries, altruistic and donate to any number of local charities including a local conservation group, Metro State University and food banks, of which they proudly have donated over 100 000 meals to. Most unusually, they also say they last year donated over 500 cases of their beer to non-profits! And why not? After a hard day volunteering handing out some boxes of food, or planting trees, why not reward the folks with a cold one?

Breckenridge seems to specialize in darker, heavier or more unusually-flavored beers than many of the larger competitors or even than some of the IPA-focused other microbrews of the Great Plains. The vanilla porter is one of their regular mainstay brews, along with Hop Peak IPA, an oatmeal stout and Agave wheat beer as well as “nitro” nitrogen-charged cans which just about explode the beer out with “velvety cascading heads.” Among the flavors that come nitro-blasted are the vanilla, Chocolate orange stout and an Irish stout.

Speaking of which… porter? Stout? Draft mag says they are very similar but porters are a little less bitter than stouts, both are “well-hopped and dark” due to their use of unusually brown malts. Guinness is probably the quintessential stout.

So that leads to my Vanilla Porter. I would have liked to pop open one of those nitrogen-exploding cans but settled happily for a conventional 12 ounce bottle. I had it with a mighty fine jalapeno-topped cheeseburger and a few finger-food veggies on the side.

Popping open the bottle,and pouring it, I was reminded very much of Guinness. Why not – remember, stout, porter, tomatOH, tomAHtoe. It was very dark, and produced a thick, caramel-colored head that filled half the glass. Swigging the remaining ounce or two from the bottle, it came across as intriguing. Definitely a strong flavor, but with a hint of sweetness and a remarkably smooth, creamy feel to it. It rates at 5.4% alcohol, about average to a Canadian like me but just a bit stronger than norm in the U.S. Kicking into the burger, the beer really ramped it up a notch … while still strong enough to taste, it blended wonderfully and cut the heat of the jalapeno which had a lot more character than I expected! Somehow, it added an unexpected layer of flavor to both the food and the drink and left a decent feel to the mouth. It did still have a bit of an aftertaste, not unpleasant but odd , both bitter and a wee bit vanilla at the same time. And to note, while there is a definite vanilla hint to the flavor, this is not like a dark, melted ice cream.

All things considered, a nice drink that seems to do well with a strongly flavored meal. I give it 8 out of 10 for strength and 7 out of 10 for flavor and

goatgoatgoatgoat

four out of five mountain goats for the Colorado brew.

Time To Be Like A Crow

A CNN headline grabbed my attention this week – “Birds that learn new behaviors less likely to go extinct.” Being a birder and environmentalist, I  was hooked. I read it and found that a study by people at McGill University in Canada found that birds which adapted their diet or hunting techniques to the situation they were in did better and were less endangered than ones which didn’t. It cited examples like crows, which have been known to pick up nuts and drop them on roads so cars would run over them, with the birds eating the innards when the coast was clear, and cormorants which would follow fishing boats in hopes of getting some of the catch the boat would drop or throw away.

My first reaction was “duh!”. My second was “how do I get in on research money to do a study like that?” Maybe I could spend a few years getting paid finding that “people prefer cuddly kittens to feral rats for pets” or “people prefer a nice breeze to tornadoes ripping the roof of their houses.” I mean it seems abundantly obvious enough, doesn’t it?

Maybe I felt a bit jealous. Not to toot my own horn… oh, OK, “toot toot”… I said exactly the same thing about five years ago in my first e-book, The Mockingbird Speaks. In that, I suggested that many life lessons could be learned by watching Mockingbirds and one in particular was that the adaptable thrive, be they birds or people. I pointed out that the birds were expanding their range and increasing in numbers at times when many other birds were becoming scarcer by the year. Mockingbirds eat almost anything – I’ve personally seen them consume everything from wasps to wild cherries to millet seeds at feeders and records show they won’t turn down cut up oranges, baby lizards if they find them, suet, and almost any kind of berry known to man or Mother Nature. They’ve learned to live in our city gardens, the edges of forests and along the weedy right-of-ways along rail lines. That’s adaptable.

Similar success stories are birds like the Cooper’s Hawk and Pileated Woodpeckers. The hawks have skyrocketed in population since DDT was banned in the 1960s partly from that helping their health but also in part due to a sudden change in habitat. The bird-eaters used to live almost exclusively in dense woods. In the last thirty years, they’ve somehow come to realize that they do equally well in suburbs. Feeders and populations of city robins, sparrows and pigeons ensures them a steady food supply and as long as there are a few big trees around for their nests, they seem to thrive. The Pileated Woodpecker is similar in that they’ve somehow changed from needing vast tracts of forest to living in and feeding in neighborhood trees in green towns and cities.

Contrast that with well-known endangered species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Kirtland’s Warbler. The woodpecker, a larger version of the Pileated, lives – or lived – in dense, old southern swamps eating pretty much just one type of beetle found in decaying trees of a certain age in only certain floodplain trees. When most of the forests that fit the description were felled, their populations crashed and now a record, even if accompanied by grainy video, is viewed with a lot of skepticism.

The colorful little Kirtland’s Warbler is similar. For whatever reason, they seem to only eat select insects that inhabit only Jack pine forests of a certain age. That type of forest only occurs in a small area of northern Michigan and a few hundred acres in Ontario. One large fire could potentially wipe out the species. The individual birds, I’m sure aren’t being obstinate or dumb… they aren’t making a conscious choice to only eat one type of bug and saying “I’d rather die than live in a different variety of tree”… they were just dealt a bad genetic hand.

The implications, to me, were obvious. Birds which adapt do well, those which didn’t were not much better than doomed.

By extension, the message carries over to us. As I put it, yesterday’s expert typewriter repairman is today’s chronically unemployed person. We need to adapt to changing times and situations. If a type of food becomes scarce, we need to be able to substitute something else for it in our diet. If our employer goes belly-up, we need to be able to take our skillset to new ones. Needless to say, the more we can learn and adapt our skills (be they job related or personal ones), the better off we are. It was a message that made sense in 2015. It’s imperative now.

This pandemic is challenging all of us, and I don’t think anyone is liking it much. Maybe it’s doing your 9-to-5 at a bedroom desk, maybe it’s getting shopping done before work instead of late at night. Maybe its shopping less and being less picky about what brands of soap or toilet paper we’ll accept. Even when this eventually calms down and we go back to a new “normal”, adaptations may be called for. Dr Fauci already suggests that business meetings won’t be opened by everyone shaking hands in the future. Some stores won’t throw the doors open again after Corona virus is a distant memory and maybe the person coughing and sweating away across the corridor from you at work won’t be considered an admirable example of work ethic and rather, a selfish sickie down the road. It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that we need to be flexible. Need to be able to adapt like a crow. Or Mockingbird.

I’m off to round up some fuzzy little kittens and angry rats…

Local Celeb, Universal Messages

I’m walking through this world not in search of a trail to follow but in recognition that the trail is waiting for me to blaze.” Wise words to live by from Clint Harp, in the latest book from my reading list, Handcrafted.

I love nice furniture, but have little interest in the process of how it gets made. Given that, my latest read might have been an odd choice for me, and could’ve been dull as mud. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Handcrafted by Clint Harp is much more than a biography of a carpenter…I’m sure he’d say that the New Testament is much more than a biography of a carpenter as well, so it pays to be curious. Although then again, I doubt Harp would want to compare himself to Jesus in any way.

Harp is the carpenter sidekick of Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper, and host of his own slightly less well-known show, Wood Work which ran on DIY Network a couple of years back.

I was given the book by someone who knows how much I liked the Fixer Upper show and what the Gaineses- Joanna and Chip – have done for their hometown of Waco. I didn’t grow up in Waco, so it’s hard for me to imagine just how run-down and deserted the downtown was only a couple of decades back. Now, it’s a hot tourist destination (well, not now…thanks Corona Virus!) full of trendy little bistros and clothing stores, a busy renovated theater and crowds of people from all over. Although the success of the university football and ladies basketball teams have helped as had the mere fact the city is about half-way along the highway between the exceptionally fast-growing cities of Dallas and Austin, a great deal of that newfound popularity owes itself to just one thing – Fixer Upper and the charimsatic Gaines family. Their Magnolia companies. renovated some old grain silos downtown, turned it into a store and food truck center and have since opened a bakery and cafe (with plans to add a church, softball field and whole row of new shops soon). It’s been amazing to see the city catch on in the past few years and the likable couple of Joanna and Chip go from being home renovators you’d sometimes glimpse standing outside a construction site to regulars on magazine covers and on TV shows like Today.

They play a huge part in Clint’s book and success too. Clint was the go-to carpenter on the smash reno show, and as a result his own business, Harp Design has become a tourist spot in its own right and he’s hired on a busload of helpers to keep the shop and his resultant store running. But as the book shows, it’s not been an easy road for him, nor a destination he foresaw.

And that’s the interesting part of the book. Clint never aimed to be a professional carpenter as a kid… in fact, for some time he figured maybe he could become a professional musician (and hey, he’s an REM fan apparently…more reason to like him!). He did fine as a high-paid salesman, which was great except he hated the job. Handcrafted outlines just how odd, and difficult a walk for him and his family. Be it God or good luck, Harp’s followed his gut so to speak, and it seems to have turned out quite well. At times when many would turn around and backtrack, he’s pressed onwards. But there’d been arguments along the way and sleepless nights working away to meet deadlines which loomed large. Along the way, he learned how little he knew, an important lesson the wise among us all come to find out sooner or later..

In short, the book shows the value of following one’s goals, and priororitorizing one’s life. An ordinary guy who believed in himself, was lucky to have a wife who did the same and has fumbled on through, not getting sunk by the losses and appreciating the little wins along the way.

I once saw Clint trying on shoes in a local department store, just as Fixer Upper was starting to take off. I recognized him from the show, but didn’t approach him. I rather regret that now. I hope now I’ll have the opportunity again some day. The guy’s wasn’t born with a silver spoon and has a lot of lessons to teach… and hey, two R.E.M. fans are seldom at a loss for conversation!