At The Hundred-Twenty-First Meridian

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.

Christmas in Massena (29)

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.

Shawn's High School Graduation (Shawn)

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.

Fucking Canadians!

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 will close for good soon, after 225 years. 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.

Stratford Trip--1993

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.

Emily (Shades)

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.

Tunnel View

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.

The Voyage of the Three Hermiones

“Are you doing magic? Let’s see, then.”

“Sunshine, daisies, butter, mellow…”


“Come to Greece,” my friends said, “we’re getting married.”


There are worse reasons to travel across the sea than to attend a wedding. The Greeks did it once because of a wedding too, though their reason was less celebratory than ours, and involved more horses. An even better reason was in the offing, however. “We’d like you to marry us.”

You don’t say no to this if it is at all possible to say yes, so I said yes.

“Kids, we’re going to Greece.” How do you sell the idea of Greece to children? Stories work wonders. Erin, through a friend and her Goddess Girls books, was well on her way to a more-than-passing interest in Greek mythology. She knew names like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena. She was an easy sell. Adrian presented more of a challenge.

But yo, turns out we have a secret weapon. One of my favourite books, a book my own parents had read before I was born, and then I had read when I was old enough to tackle 375 pages on my own, was about a young boy growing up during the Trojan War: Whom The Gods Would Destroy, by Richard Powell. I took my copy down from my shelf and started reading it to Adrian, a few pages each night, for a couple of months. He learned about Achilles and Hector (and discovered why a family pet was named what he was named), Priam and Paris (and discovered why a French city was named what it was named), Helen and Hermione (and discovered why a young witch was named what she was named). He wondered about Bronze Age armor, and if any museums in Athens would have a set like the Dendra Panoply so he could see what Achilles might have been wearing. He learned about the Golden Apple, and Paris choosing Aphrodite over Athena and Hera. He learned that Poseidon was also called the Earth Shaker.

The story is the thing.


We spent a week in Sounio, a town south of Athens right on the Aegean, where Helen and Paris would have passed by on their way to Troy, leaving Helen’s daughter Hermione behind in Laconia. The Temple of Poseidon still stands on a hilltop overlooking the bay, and that was where my friends wanted to have their wedding. So that’s what we did.


Are you doing magic? Let’s see, then.


From Greece and its Hermione we flew to England, where another waited.


We spent days wandering the city, and meeting up with friends (one of my oldest friends lives in the city; Erin’s oldest friend happened to be there at the same time). We were there for the start of Wimbledon, and the Brexit vote, a West End show and the crown jewels.

Both Erin and Adrian love Harry Potter, but Erin…Erin has been method-acting as Hermione for some time. Her accent is getting pretty good, and at the end of the school year I had, on more than one occasion, to remove excess books from her arms, props she wished to carry with her to feel more like Hermione Granger (“Grane-jah”). She is enraptured.

The story is the thing.

Erin fantasized about meeting J.K. Rowling, or scoring tickets to the (not-yet-performed) play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Such encounters were not meant to be.


But yo, turns out we have a secret weapon. The Warner Bros. studio where the films were, well, filmed is a short train ride outside of London.

We saw props from the movies, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. The kids rode brooms, walked through Number 4 Privet Drive, boarded the Hogwart’s Express, and took Wand Combat lessons.


Are you doing magic? Let’s see, then.


From England and its Hermione we took a train to Paris, where another awaited.


We spent days eating croissants and crepes, butter and cheese flying everywhere. We saw the Mona Lisa and Disneyland Paris, the Eiffel Tower and an exhibit on furniture design. We were there for the Euro 2016, Canada Day, the Fourth of July, and my own birthday. That day coincided with another event, happening in New York: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s last performance in Hamilton, a show whose protagonist-antagonist meeting is deliberately modeled after Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy.

The story is the thing.

I mention this because at the same time the kids were discovering Greek mythology and the Wizarding World, we were all, as a family, growing obsessed with Hamilton and it just so happened that our trip involved Independence Day (the day, not the movie) and we were thinking a lot about Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution and the kids’ favourite character from the show…

Yo, turns out we have a secret weapon.

An immigrant you know and love

Who’s unafraid to step in.

He’s constantly confusin’, confoundin’ the British henchmen.

Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fightin’ Frenchman!


Lafayette, who sailed across the sea on his ship, the Hermione, to fight a war far from his home, is buried in Paris, in American soil from Bunker Hill. Every year, around the Fourth of July, in a private military ceremony at Picpus Cemetery, a new American flag is raised where Lafayette lies. It is the one day of the year the cemetery is closed to the public.


But yo, turns out we have a secret weapon. Did you know you can just email the U.S. State Department? That’s true! And they might even email you back. With their help, I contacted the Sons of the American Revolution, who host the flag ceremony, and asked if maybe a traveling American family might pay their respects to Lafayette on this day and…

Erin stood next to the Ambassador to France during the ceremony, with a better view than anyone.


Are you doing magic? Let’s see, then.


From Paris and its Hermione we flew back home, where the events of the month would settle somehow, turning into memories, and then, if they were good enough, into stories.

The story is the thing.

Super Dad, vol. 37

Something told me someone needed my help. Call it instinct, or a danger sense, or a well-trained neural network performing helpful vector completions distributed through hidden layers of connected neurons in response to some set of inputs into the system. Labels aren’t important right now. I checked to make sure Adrian would be okay if I left him for a minute, then I dashed off.

When I entered the room, she had sharp metal and suffocating pillows pressed into Erin’s mouth, and Erin choked, and coughed, and cried around them. Erin reached up to try to force her assailant’s hands away, to free herself. “It’s okay, it’ll be over soon,” the masked stranger whispered, forcing Erin to breathe more gas as she grabbed a syringe and plunged it into Erin’s mouth.

Erin cried more, and fought, and succeeded in forcing a gloved hand away from her face. Her enemy hesitated for the briefest moment, and Erin took advantage of the uncertainty. She wrested control of her mouth back, and used her tongue to free her airway, sitting up and reaching for me as I made my way through the door.

“I can’t breathe!” she protested, and reached for me.

I turned to the woman in the chair. “That’s enough. We’re done.”

“But she…” she started to say. I didn’t let her finish, “No. We’re done.”

And that’s how I saved Erin from the dental hygienist who was trying to apply sealant to her molars. That kid needs to learn how to breathe through her nose.