I was sad to learn that jazz bassist Charlie Haden passed away on Friday. I know that with so many great musicians in the world, even in my home town, it is hard to say who your favourite is, exactly. But Charlie was certainly in my top ten, and his album Now is the Hour might well be my favourite album ever, in any genre. You know how it is with certain albums, they find you at difficult times and then they become part of who you are, part of your story. “The Left Hand of God” from the same album is the one song I would asked to be played at my funeral.
No great surprise that I have a story about him . . .
A few years ago, I was writing for the Calgary Herald. I typically wrote a Saturday column on nothing in particular other than myself, but from time to time if something came up that caught my interest, I would ask if I could write about it. And so when it was announced that Charlie would be playing at the jazz festival in Calgary, I contacted my editor and asked if I could write a piece about him and so it was arranged. I was told his publicist (his wife, Ruth) would contact me.
A few days later, my phone rang and I answered it and the person asked “Is Eugene there?” and I said, “This is Eugene,” and then the person said, “Hi, Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
I said, “Fine, Charlie, but give me a second.” I put the phone down and hyper ventilated and jumped around my living room for a minute trying to get it together to have a conversation with one of the greatest musicians on the planet. It was one of the few times in my life when I was totally star struck.
I regained my composure enough to have a decent conversation that I could turn into a piece for The Herald. When we were hanging up, I said, “If there’s anything I can do for you while you’re here, anything at all, just let me know.” He thanked me. I wrote my piece. Other than looking forward to hearing him actually play, I assumed that was that.
A few days later, the phone rang. I answered and the voice on the phone said, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?” I told him I was good and I asked him how he was. Seems he was having issues with the hotel the Festival had booked him in.
“You live there, man, do you think the Sandman Hotel is any good?” I said I thought it was an insult that they were putting an artist of his stature up at the Sandman and he agreed. (I was just being sycophantic, it’s not a bad place, really.) He told me that he didn’t like the look for the place, but he’d been told there were no other hotels available. I offered to make a few calls. He appreciated that. So I made the calls and used what influence I have but everywhere I called it was the same thing: no vacancy. Even for Charlie Haden.
Charlie called the next day. “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man? Any luck finding us a hotel?” Well, it’s tough to let down a hero, but I had to report that I’d had no luck. Charlie thanked my and we said good-bye and I assumed that was that.
The next day the phone rang. My phone doesn’t ring that often, so I was hardly surprised when I answered and heard, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
“Good, man,” I replied. “What’s up?”
“What do you know about the Hotel Arts?” he asked.
“It’s great, “ I said. “A lot of visiting theatre artists stay there. It’s one of our coolest hotels.”
“They managed to find a room there. They want to put us up there,” he said.
“Great!” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve checked it out on line and I don’t think I like it.”
I had an idea. I offered to give up my place for Charlie and Ruth, and I would go stay at the Hotel Arts for a few days. I lived in a beautiful old house in Bankview at the time and as far as I was concerned they were welcome to it. And a few days at Hotel Arts would have been a nice little break for me.
Charlie wasn’t convinced. It was my best offer and so there wasn’t much left for us to talk about. When we hung up, I knew it would be the last time I would hear from Charlie Haden.
As it turned out, he stuck to his guns and ended up getting a suite at the Rimrock in Banff, one of the best hotels anywhere. Well, he’d been touring for over 50 years. What did you expect? When the road is home, you learn to take good care about where you stay.
Charlie and his band played an amazing concert at Knox Church downtown a few days later. It was truly one of the great artistic experiences of my life, a real highlight. Afterwards, I went down to the green room. I walked past the security guard assuring him that “It’s OK, man, Charlie and I are friends.” I was calling everyone “man” by then.
And there he was, Charlie Haden, in the flesh. I approached him and said, “Hi, Charlie, it’s Eugene Stickland, how you doing man?” We had a little chat, but it was clear his performance had taken a lot out of him. That’s when he told me he was staying at the Rimrock. You could tell there was nothing he wanted more at that moment than to be there. And who could blame him?
I thanked him for the beautiful music, and I guess that’s what I’m doing with this post. He was a real beauty, I have always been in awe of his sublime artistry and incredible versatility. He was an artist’s artist, truly one of the greats. He will be missed.
Please take a few minutes to listen to “The Left Hand of God.” I hope it moves you the way it moves me.
RIP, Charlie Haden.
Thanks for reading.
I have an idea for a series of posts along the lines of the series I wrote last summer about ten objects that can be found in my apartment. It’s about the important books in my life, which is something I’m sure I have in common with anyone who bothers to read my blog.
The old Cincinnati Public Library. What a crime they tore it down . . .
I asked myself a few questions that I thought I should try to answer, which got me thinking about the way that books can influence an entire culture. Then I thought it would be interesting to put those questions out there and get your response and in this manner conduct an informal survey.
I would appreciate your response, and assume it would be interesting for you to take a bit of time to consider these questions. You can reply either by writing a comment directly on my blog, then it would be there for the world to see, or if that’s too much bother you can do it on Facebook.
So without further ado, here is my survey. Thanks for taking the time to take part in it. I’ll share the results and begin my series when I feel I’ve had a significant response to the survey probably in a week or so. So, here we go . . .
THE EUGENIUS SURVEY:
1. Which 5 books do you believe have changed the course of history, or at least the way that we perceive the world? Some of these will be so self-evident that no explanation will be necessary, but feel free to comment on your choices if you like. Briefly, briefly.
2. Be brutally honest: how many of these have you actually read?
3. How many of these books do you personally believe? Or believe in?
4. Irrespective of the books you listed, what is the one book that you have read that has influenced you personally the most?
5. Do you believe that a book could still be written, whatever its mode of dissemination, that could wield as much influence as any of the books on your list? If not, why not?
That’s it, that’s all. Enter once, enter often. I’ll get back to you with the results and then I will begin a series of posts about the influential books in my life.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything but maybe it will get your feet moving which is never a bad thing!
Last year I wrote a couple of posts about mentors of mine who helped me along the way, not simply in terms of teaching cold hard facts but more in espousing an attitude towards a life dedicated to the production and appreciation of art. Today, I am switching the focus on the other side of things, and looking at some of my own mentoring activities.
This examination was prompted by an unexpected invitation from a former student, Aaron Coates, to go for lunch recently so he could pick my brain before directing a workshop of a new play.
I’ve known Aaron since he was a student at Winston Churchill High School some 20 years ago now. He came into my student writers group at Alberta Theatre Projects when he was 16 or so, but that was just the beginning. When he was a little older, I became the Canadian Delegate to World Interplay, an international festival for young playwrights. Aaron attended the festival with me one year and acquitted himself very well, making international contacts in the theatre world that he maintains to this day.
Our time together in Australia led to one of the greatest lines in Canadian history, as far as I’m concerned. One evening we were taken to a billabong wildlife sanctuary that had all manner of creeping and crawling things in it, from crocodiles to pythons to – well, to a wombat, which is a kind of big furry rodent (marsupial, probably) that’s kind of cute, but not as cute as a koala bear, say.
We all got a chance to hold the wombat and have our photo taken with it. True to our nature, we Canadians were at the very back of the line, and it’s probably fair to say that by the time the wombat got to us, its patience had worn thin. I had my picture taken with it, then I handed it off to Aaron. From where I was standing, I could clearly see the wombat open its mouth and slowly turn its head and then clamp down hard on Aaron in the area of his right nipple.
Wincing in pain, Aaron turned to our Ranger Rick tour guide and handed him back the animal, saying, “I’m sorry. Your wombat bit me.”
Following the Australia trip, I helped Aaron get a commission from the Alberta Legal Society to write his play, The End of the Rope, which is about the last execution to take place in Alberta. The play had many productions in and around the province and is of great interest to anyone interested in Alberta’s history. (If you’re interested in reading it, or even arranging for a production, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Aaron.)
Over the last decade or so, Aaron’s career has taken many interesting twists and turns. He teaches now at Company of Rogues Studio in Calgary. He is, along with Karen Johnson-Diamond, the co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry, Calgary’s amazing improv theatre company.
And just to show how what goes around comes around, Aaron and KJD have now started a program called Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation, aimed at training and supporting the next generation of improvisers. And so the wheels keep turning from generation to generation.
That he still comes around looking for advice from time to time in immensely gratifying, as I’m sure you can appreciate.
One of the holy writs: it applies to playwriting as well as poetry.
There have been so many others whom I have had the pleasure of teaching and guiding for at least part of their journey, in so many different settings, including ATP, Mount Royal University, Saint Mary’s University College, the National Theatre School, World Interplay, and many other one-offs and one night stands at various universities. And others I am forgetting now.
Another student who comes to mind is Michaela Jeffrey, who is now studying playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
Michaela recently reminded me of her first day in the student writer’s group at ATP. I had agreed that she could take part in the group a year earlier than usual, in her last year of Junior High. She was anxious to impress, and so put her heart and soul into writing a monologue to deliver at our Saturday morning workshop.
And this she did. She delivered the mother of all teen angst monologues, and she put everything she had into it. (There may have actually been real tears. I’m sure there probably were.) And then. she reminded me, when she was done there was a pause, as I sat eating my M and M’s, regarding her coolly, and then finally I said, “No one cares, Michaela. No one cares.”
I could say that to her because she was bright, and even at that young age was clearly a person of the theatre. A little tough love, perhaps, but she’s still at in, and as is the case with Aaron, I am so proud of my small contribution to what seems to be a very promising career.
Just yesterday as I was thinking of writing this piece, I ran into another former student on the street and so we stopped and chatted for a bit. I asked her what she was doing these days and she said, almost sheepishly, “Well, I have a job at a florists.” Then she got a look of true panic in her eyes and continued: “Oh, but that’s just a job I had to take because I needed some money. What I’m really doing is an animation project.” And then she really came to life when she told me about the thing that she is doing that is the thing that matters to her most, the art.
Again, I couldn’t be prouder that she was still at it. That’s all I’ve ever cared about with my students, is that they keep at it, and not give up on their dreams of being an artist. (I once had a former student contact me and tell me that he’d been admitted to law school. “You’re dead to me,” I said, and we never talked again. True story. Perhaps a tad harsh, but sometimes you have to make a stand.)
I could go on and on, I have had the opportunity to teach so many beautiful and talented people over the years, young and old. But I would just finish by saying this, which anyone who has ever taught will know to be true, that I have learned so much more than I have ever taught anyone,and taken so much more than I have given.
And so here’s to the next generation!
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a musical offering that I couldn’t resist . . . .
Now in its 23rd month of renovation
Readers of this blog will remember that our guest columnist Mr. Grumpypants wrote a diatribe about the closure of a park in our neighbourhood a while back. (Please see Mr. Grumpypants Rides Again, August, 2013. I mean, really, please read it otherwise this post won’t make a whole lot of sense.)
A wonderful thing happened as a result of that post. Whereas the park had stood empty, but fenced, for almost a year when the piece was published, the very next day there was a flurry of activity around that park that honestly made me think that someone of some importance somewhere must have read the thing and that heads had rolled and action had been taken and all that jazz.
They didn’t manage to get the park finished before the snows of winter fell upon us, but one could see that at least they had tried, and hope sprang eternal for the opening of the park this spring.
And it did. It did open, for a few glorious weeks, and there were people in it again, and things seemed to be on track for our little park. I wondered if they even considered erecting a statue of Mr. Grumpypants in the park, for all he had done to make it happen.
But then, something happened, I guess, to cause the green fence to come up again, and now, still, in its 23rd month of renovation, the park is separated from the thousands of apartment dwellers in the neighbourhood who would love to feel a little grass under their asses, but for some unknown reason are unable to.
In that brief time that the fence was down and the park was actually being used, which may come to be referred to as the golden age of this particular corner of town, a rather predictable eventuality unfolded, which was witnessed by my friend Martin who happens to live in an apartment that looks down on the park.
The skaters came. The boys on their skateboards. I bet they could hardly believe their eyes. I bet they felt like Cortez discovering the Aztec Empire. Here was a park with a concrete path running around it and low benches perfect for jumping up onto – you probably couldn’t design a better facility for skateboarding if that’s what you set out to do in the first place. But in the case of this particular park, one would have to assume no one ever thought it through enough to come to this eventuality.
According to Marty, one lady in his apartment complained about “those damned kids and their noise” which caused the police to have to come to the park and essentially kick out the only people who had actually used it in a year and a half.
Shortly thereafter, the fence went back up. Some landscaping happened making the inaccessible park look all the more desirable. I haven’t seen a soul working in there for a few days now, but still the fence stays up during these first beautiful days of our all too brief summer.
Well, I’m not a landscape architect or a city planner, but if anyone is out there reading this who has any influence in the matter at all, I have some thoughts. Take down the fucking fence. Let us into the fucking park. And if you didn’t want skaters in there, you should have thought about that before constructing a facility so perfectly suited to their needs.
Honestly, 22 months! It has to end. Just take the fence down and let the people back into the park. Surely that’s not asking too much.
Thanks for reading . . .
I have written a rather unique book, titled Committing, which was launched recently at a special event at Mount Royal University. Committing features a short script and commentary dealing with the sensitive issue of teen suicide. If you know me and know my writing, this might be the last thing you’d expect from me. This is how it came about.
For a few years now, I’ve been associated with Helen McPhaden and the Stardale Women’s Group. (Please see my post Attention Must be Paid, December, 2012, which is actually included in the book.)
Not long after I wrote that post, Helen received funding to create a performance dealing with the problem of suicide among young people in the aboriginal community. She asked me if I would oversee such a project and I was intrigued and even flattered to have been asked, and so I took on the role of, in Helen’s estimation, the artistic director.
A year and a half ago, then, we began the arduous journey of creating a play – or at least a performance piece – dealing with this very sensitive subject. Being neither aboriginal or adolescent, and for the most part quite ignorant about suicide in general, my real goal was to help create a piece using the information and language the girls themselves would provide.
In this project, we were serving (at least) three masters. One was the creation of a meaningful and performable piece, through improvisation and other theatrical techniques. The second was to provide some training for the girls, who knew virtually nothing about the acting process. Finally, we needed someone to direct the play for at least one performance, which happened a year ago in Edmonton. (There were to have been more in Calgary last June, but then the flood happened and we all know what happened then . . .)
Because of the dark nature of the material, I thought it would be a good idea to go against the grain and hire a director with a background in clown and physical theatre. That person was initially Elaine Weryshko, a wonderfully talented performer from Calgary, but she was presented with the opportunity travel and so we lost her. The road beckoned, and who could blame her for following it?
And so the project was handed off to Geneviève Paré, another young and wonderfully talented performer based in Calgary, with what is certain to be a bright future and good career ahead of her.
Any credit for the work that was finally presented must go to Gen. In my mind she did the almost impossible, wrangling 25 – 30 girls to create a text in the first place and then directing them, all the while imparting the basic fundamentals of the theatre and performance – all in a very limited time frame.
While she was doing this, I sat back and took notes. When you hire the right person, there’s not much else left for you to do, unless you want to try your hand at micro-managing which has never interested me.
These notes I took form the bulk of the book Committing. This allowed me to include in the book many of the images and ideas that came up in our improv sessions, but that didn’t make it into the final version of the play. For this reason, I think the book would be of interest to those involved in dramaturgy and collective creation as well as to those who work with youth and for whom suicide is an issue of interest.
The book obviously contains the script of Committing as it was performed that one time in Edmonton, but I think it is really more of an archival record of what happened, rather than a blueprint for future performances.
Finally, the book also contains an introduction by Stardale Director Helen McPhaden underscoring the seriousness of the problem today in our First Nations communities and beyond.
This year, the Stardale girls have created a different performance piece, a dance in partnership with Alberta Ballet, titled Alesha’s Dream. This piece was performed at the Wright Theatre at Mount Royal University on Wednesday, May 21. Following Alesha’s Dream we launched the book Committing. I gave a short reading from the work and copies were available for purchase. All proceeds will go towards supporting the ongoing programming at Stardale.
It’s lovely book, designed by Vincent Joachim, and an important one on many levels. If you would like a copy but couldn’t make it to the launch, I’m sure Helen would love to hear from you. Books can be ordered by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suggested price is $20.00.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s one of my favourite songs by the incomparable Robbie Robinson . . . .
I’m going to let you in on a little secret that very few people know about, at least until now. For most of my adult life, in varying degrees of severity, I have been afflicted with a condition known as prosopagnosia, which means that I have trouble recognizing faces.
Many people I know, especially as they grow older, complain about their inability to remember names. Or even to remember people, period. (Even themselves, in some sad cases.) That’s not a problem for me. I remember people’s names, and often seemingly insignificant aspects of their life story. But that doesn’t do me a whole lot of good if I can’t actually recognize the person in the first place.
I didn’t give this too much thought when I was younger. I thought it was probably normal, common even, and by and large I have learned to live with it. But then one day I came across an article in the New Yorker by Dr. Oliver Sacks titled “Face Blindness.” In this article, Dr. Sacks talks about his own case of prosopagnosia, and says that among other things, he might not recognize his own wife except by context, such as seeing her in their home, or by an article of clothing or a piece of jewelry she’s be wearing that would be familiar to him.
In this short video, he says that in some instances, he doesn’t even recognize his own face:
While I can certainly appreciate that there is something wonderfully and tragically poetic about not being able to recognize even oneself, I cannot say that it has ever been that severe in my own situation.
But that’s not to say I am not afflicted with this condition. There is an online test that one can do, found at http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/. I did at and failed badly. (It’s an interesting test to take and if you think you might have this condition, I encourage you to take it and see for yourself. It’s also a good time-waster.)
In my case, the most common manifestation occurs when, after meeting a person a few times, even in a short period of time, I am capable of walking right by him or her a few days later with absolutely no recognition. This comes across as either arrogance or just plain bad manners, but believe me, it’s not a conscious decision that I make. I simply don’t always pick up on the face. In fact, there have been many cases when I’ve recognized someone by the shoes he or she is wearing, or a coat or purse. But not the face.
This can be particularly disastrous in terms of business and romance, which may in part explain why I am essentially unemployed and totally single. Meetings with people I have only seen once or twice are particularly problematic. In some cases, if I’m not sure of what the person looks like exactly I will study their photos on Facebook before a meeting, if I happen to have them as a friend. Otherwise, I have to hope that they will recognize me. To recognize someone out of context is virtually impossible for me, which in part explains my rigorous adherence to routines. And yet, at the same time, and who knows why, there are some faces that I never mistake and will never forget.
There’s no rhyme nor reason to it. There are no predictors or indicators. I am unable to recognize faces irrespective of gender, race, skin colour, age, etc. etc. Those who know me would surely think that hell would have to freeze over before I’d forget the face of a beautiful woman, but alas, it happens. The condition, in my case, is random and indiscriminate.
I’m working on a novel these days in which my main character suffers from this curious affliction. So far, it’s been an interesting field to stick my literary shovel into. As far as I know, in the realm of fiction, no one has ever done this before. There’s a certain satisfaction knowing that you may be the first to do so. They say “write what you know” and that’s just what I’m doing.
Meanwhile, in real life, I’m dealing with it. It’s not getting any worse, and over the years I have built up many strategies for coping, so by and large I get by. I do get caught out sometimes, and it’s embarrassing. But by and large, I have learned to cope.
So if I walk by you on the street without any acknowledgement, I apologize. As you can see, it’s really quite innocent . . . except for the rare occasions when it’s not.
I leave you with this great old video that has nothing to do with anything, but that features mullets and a trombone solo, so what more could you ask for?
Thanks for reading!
On Thursday, April 10 I gave a public lecture-slash-reading at St. Mary’s University College where I am an instructor as well as Writer in Residence.
Readers of this blog might remember I wrote about the role of serendipity in my life in a post called Brahms, Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations in January, 2012. Obviously, it’s a subject I’ve given some though to over the years and I’m looking forward to the opportunity of expounding on it further.
While the events of the Brahms, etc. post made up a small part of my talk, I focused more broadly on the role of serendipity in my life as an artist, how I ended up writing plays, how I ended up in Calgary and at St. Mary’s University College.
It’s hardly been a straight line, to put it mildly. It’s really been a long, strange journey, as they say, aided and abetted by luck, chance, circumstance and the many wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with along the way.
Without giving the whole thing away, here’s how I thought my talk was going to begin:
Not so long ago I was at a dinner party being hosted by a friend of mine, Marc, a very intelligent and worldly man, a professor at the U of C, originally from Belgium. (A friend of famous chocolatier Bernard Callebaut, in fact the condo where this meal took place once belonged to BC.) Mark’s wife, Susanne, is also intelligent and worldly – and beautiful, I might add. She comes from Sweden. On the evening in question, we were welcoming a visiting mathematician from Germany named Charly, and so over the course of the evening we would shift from French to German to English. (I become much more fluent in all three languages after a few glasses of wine.)
At one point in the evening I mentioned the term “serendipity,” and was surprised that Marc and Susanne weren’t familiar with the term. (Charly knew it well — in fact, it is even one of his favourite English words.) But Marc and Susanne had never heard the word before, in any language. Dictionaries were procured – Flemish, French, Dutch, Swedish and German, but none made any reference to this term that I am reasonably sure any native English speaker would be quite familiar with.
As you know, the English language is comprised of words that originate from many different sources, including Greek, Latin, German and French – to name but a few. And then of course there are the pure Anglo-Saxon words which tend to describe everyday things such as blood, winter and even dickhead – all of these words appeared in the deep mists of time and we don’t really know where they come from.
In the case of “serendipity,” however, unlike most of the words we use in English, we do know exactly where it came from and we even know its birthday . . .
As it turned out, I had far too much material for the hour or so I had been allotted, so this famous passage never was read. But I did talk about various sequences of events in my life that looking back now are down right improbable, and I think everyone who attended came away with just how tenuous a career in the arts can be.
I typed up my thoughts but it became far too long a document to share on here. Still, if you’re interested in what I had to say, let me know and I can email you a copy of my notes.
As usual, thanks for reading. And Charly, I hope you’re happy now . . .
This song really has nothing to do with anything, I just happen to like it.