Erin, you have spent your first ten years showing your family, and the world, that if you run headlong at life’s boundaries, sometimes the boundaries leap out of the way. Your daring is inspiring.
Erin, you have spent your first ten years showing your family, and the world, that if you hold your heart wide open, it fills all the others around it without emptying itself. Your kindness is inspiring.
Erin, you have spent your first ten years showing your family, and the world, that if you close your eyes and sing, sometimes the quiet world around you takes up the tune. Your spirit is inspiring.
We cannot wait to see you run, love, and sing your way through the next ten years. You are inspiring, and we want to run, love, and sing along with you.
When we left the Silicon Valley for Sacramento on Friday night, I felt a cold sore forming on my bottom lip. I’ve been getting them my whole life, and I know what happens when I don’t pay attention and put some ointment on it: my lip erupts into a painful, grotesque mockery of healthy skin. I’ve been tending to it all weekend, and it seems to have subsided now, but it cracked a little on Saturday night and I tasted blood.
Across the continent, The Tragically Hip played their final concert. Lead singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. He announced this fact to the country, then went on a nationwide tour to say goodbye. The Hip returned to their hometown, Kingston, Ontario, and blew the roof off an arena on a street named The Tragically Hip Way. The street had another name once, and the arena wasn’t there when they were high school students at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in the 1980s. On Saturday night, all of Canada welcomed The Hip back home.
I am Canadian, so I watched as I could. I was in a car on Saturday when they took the stage, so I streamed a bit on my cell phone, and caught some of the CBC feed later in a hotel room. My high school self probably wouldn’t believe me if I told him I’d do that someday. My high school self was pretty skeptical. And he didn’t really like The Hip.
By the early 90s, The Hip were on the national stage, college radio darlings with real hits and fans who were certain they’d break into the U.S. market any day now. They were hometown heroes in Kingston, Ontario, and at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute we were reminded by our teachers that they also used to teach The Hip. My high school self, attending Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute a few years after the last Hip left, resisted declaring his allegiance.
I didn’t know who The Hip were until I was at KCVI. A combination of youth and reservation living perhaps accounts for this blind spot. Or maybe Kingston-born kids my age didn’t know who they were either, not until they got to high school and the KCVI teachers let it be known who taught The Hip. Road Apples came out just as I started high school, and high school me never really noticed. He liked doo-wop, Led Zeppelin, and Green Day. Sometimes he liked Blue Rodeo. He watched the video for The Hip’s “Courage” and just got annoyed that it was on all the time. “Wheat Kings” didn’t even enter his consciousness. “Little Bones” was okay.
The Hip were KCVI kids, and that was too close. My high school self and his friends had a terrible basement band, but they weren’t trying to be The Hip. They were trying to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe Moxy Fruvous.
My dad, a local lawyer, appeared before Hip guitarist Rob Baker’s dad, a judge, pretty often, and teased that Judge Baker would fall asleep in court, while claiming to only rest his eyes a little. The Hip were too familiar. Our fathers knew each other. You couldn’t aspire to the familiar, could you? I think similar reasoning kept me from going to Queen’s after graduation: it was across the street from KCVI, so it was too familiar. I’m the only one interested in something I didn’t do.
In 1996, after living in Toronto for a year, an American girl asked me to move in with her in California. She could see the future. She had a hundred-year plan, way ahead of me. The Hip had just released Trouble At The Henhouse, but I never heard it. At the same time they were turning directly toward Canada, winning a Juno for Album of the Year and becoming unofficial poet-laureates of the country they were singing about, I was facing the other way, breaking into the U.S. market.
I’ve been an ex-pat Canadian for twenty years. In the early ex-pat years, I began to care fiercely for Canadian things I had barely noticed while I lived there. I started going to minor league hockey games in San Diego California, though I hadn’t really followed hockey at all for most of my life. Knowing which actors were Canadian became a big deal. I formed very strong opinions about good poutine. And I clung to the Canadian music I brought with me.
I had some old tapes, The Arrogant Worms and Moxy Fruvous and Barenaked Ladies and Stan Rogers. The tapes were eventually replaced by CDs, in some cases, and later by MP3s. Blue Rodeo appeared in my collection, and so too did “Little Bones” and “Courage”, by the Tragically Hip. Just those two songs, though. I didn’t know their later stuff, and I didn’t remember their earlier stuff. “Little Bones” and “Courage” were my high school self’s Hip, and The Hip had become just another ornament for displaying my Canadian-ness here. For many years, I have been certain those were the only songs by The Tragically Hip I would recognize at all.
Leaving Canada shortly after high school means in my memory it is a fountain of youth. I was young in Canada, and remembering it makes me feel young. It heals. Being an ex-pat means always having Canadian-ness somewhere below the surface, ready to erupt. If it goes untreated it could explode into a painful, grotesque mockery of healthy cultural pride. Down through the years, music has been a salve. I can hear about Saskatchewan pirates and fields behind plows and things that haven’t yet hit me and things that didn’t come but didn’t matter, and reconnect a little bit not only to my homeland, but also to my youth. It is healing. But now that youth has brain cancer, and he is saying goodbye and on Saturday the salve wasn’t working anymore because it was the hurt.
I didn’t stay in Canada long enough to earn the grief I felt I ought to share in, as a patriotic Canadian, watching The Hip. I missed out on two decades (about five bucks’ worth) of growing together. My own emotional response was more about what I had traded, all those years ago.
You can’t go home again, right? My high school friends scattered all over the world when they graduated. My father is still in Kingston, and I go back to visit, but when I do it is not a trip back to my old house. It’s a new place, in a new community. You can’t go home again. Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute was closed for good a couple of years ago. It no longer exists, except in the memories of those who attended. Sir John A. Macdonald and The Tragically Hip don’t have a high school anymore. Neither do I.
Why did I leave? The girl. The American girl who asked me to join her, and I did. My high school self would not have minded, had I told him that someday he’d be missing that concert. He didn’t really like The Hip, and Canada was losing its grip on him anyway. He chose the girl.
Twenty years later, almost to the day, she was sleeping next to me in a Sacramento hotel room on Saturday night as I watched old videos of The Hip performing song after song. It turns out I did recognize a lot of them; more than just the two I’d always believed were the only ones I knew. Somehow, The Hip had been a sort of background soundtrack even for me before I left to move in with the girl I’d marry. I guess I could join in a little bit with the rest of Canada. But just a little. The Hip aren’t mine to welcome home or bid farewell.
Our kids were asleep in the other room. We had spent the day visiting apple orchards and watching a cousin perform in a play at the community theater. I was a long way from my house, but an arm’s reach from home. Sometimes you can’t go home again because you never leave it.
All of Canada welcomed The Tragically Hip home on Saturday night, and I watched it too. My lip cracked a little, and I tasted blood.
Adrian sat in the grass at the park, bawling and clutching his ankle. It was the fourth time he had fallen from his bike in fifteen minutes, and this time he had struck one of the pedals with his ankle on the way down. I could see there was no scrape or major injury, just a lot of frustration. He had not been successful at getting the bike moving. He would pedal once, then fall. Pedal once, then fall.
“I don’t like this. This bike is too big. I want to go home!”
He was exhausted, hot, defeated, and angry. I had let him pick out a new bike for his birthday a few months earlier, but at the time he had been a hair too short for it. Noticing how much he’d grown since the end of the school year, and being home from trips and camps for once, today, I decided, would be Big Bike Riding day at Camp Dad. I regretted my decision quite a bit as I looked at his reddening face.
The new bike, with its gears and hand brakes, was a significant leap not only in size, but in technology, and I wanted to give him some safe practice with it before the new school year began and we started riding bikes on neighborhood streets. I have either a healthy respect for or an unhealthy paranoia about my kids on bikes. I was hit by a van while riding on a country highway when I was six, and the memory of that, how quick and severe an event it had been, has always made me less than enthusiastic about my kids riding around these much busier streets. I admit I am the roadblock in their cycling careers, so every once in a while I will steel myself and try to teach them something.
Seeing Adrian on the ground, ready to give up, I wanted to let him. I hate the thought of him riding a bike. He’s still too short for this bike, maybe. He won’t be safe on it for months. Maybe a year. Maybe we’ll try again in the spring. But at odds with my desire to put the bike back in the garage is either a deep well of parental patience, or an inexhaustible mine of bullshit-proof ore: I don’t let my kids talk themselves out of trying, or talk me into letting them quit. I sit through tears and pleading, but if I am certain they can do something, I insist that they try. “Endeavor to persevere,” I think to myself, and then I laugh.
“When we finished he shook our hands and said, “endeavor to persevere!” They stood us in a line: John Jumper, Chili McIntosh, Buffalo Hump, Jim Buckmark, and me — I am Lone Watie. They took our pictures. And the newspapers said, “Indians vow to endeavor to persevere.” We thought about for a long time. “Endeavor to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”
~Chief Dan George, “Lone Watie”, The Outlaw Josey Wales
Someday they might declare war on the Union, but today they are going to ride bikes.
Two women had entered the park just before Adrian fell the last time. They sat at the picnic table, and the scene they witnessed must have seemed bizarre: a child, evidently hurt and crying; his father standing some distance away, not moving toward him, not comforting, just watching; eventually the child stops crying and the father, still not comforting or sympathizing, insists, “Up on the bike again.” What kind of monster just stands there?
This is a common tactic I use with my kids: I wait out the frustration rather than trying to deflect attention or sweeten the deal. They’re allowed to be frustrated, and I encourage them to express their reasons for the feeling. If the frustration inspires arguments against an activity, I address those. “I’m too little. The bike is too big!” Maybe. “No, I’ve seen you pedal. You can do it. You just need some help to start.” But I don’t let the frustration itself move me to make promises or concessions.
Adrian picked up his bike, arranged the pedals to his satisfaction, then swung a leg over again, hoping this would be the last time his implacable father would insist on this torturous activity.
I held his seat while he starting pedaling. Of course I did.
He built up speed and I steadied him. He looked over at me, jogging next to him, and he started smiling. He pedaled faster.
He didn’t notice when I let go.
He flew for a time, then slowed in the grass, then toppled over, left foot reaching down to catch the ground and save himself from tumbling. He had learned from his earlier falls. That was the point.
This time, instead of being frustrated the he had fallen, he was excited that he had ridden. He bounded over to where I was standing, the same place I’d been standing when I insisted he get up and try again.
“Will you help me get started again, daddy?” he asked. And I did.
Of course I did. I’m not actually a monster.
“I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”
Chief Dan George, “Lone Watie”, The Outlaw Josey Wales