Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

Dazed By Days

My wife asked me the other week whether I planned to cover the Big Apple Crunch Day at our area schools. My initial reaction was that she’d made that event up. Au contraire. She informed me that not only was it a real day, but that thousands of students had been celebrating it for the past seven years. Apple Crunch Day? Really? Hey, I like a red, tasty crunchy apple as much as the next guy, but do we really need a special day to celebrate it? If so, why aren’t we celebrating Grape Day, Nectarine Day and, especially, Kumquat Day?

When you’re in the business of reporting events, you’re expected to be out on Canada Day, Remembrance Day, Easter Sunday, Halloween and most other widely recognized celebrations, along with providing coverage for all the various days, weeks and months that honour both the big and small things in our lives.

There are plenty of very important recognitions – Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), Heart Month (February), Fire Prevention Week (October 6-12), World Diabetes Day (November 14), International Women’s Day (March 8), Aboriginal Solidarity Day (June 21), etc.

Then, there are the ones that, although important to some, make you wonder if they really need their own special day, week or month: International Child-Centred Divorce Awareness Month, Bath Safety Month, Be Kind To Food Servers Month, International Hoof Care Week, Copyright Law Day, Return Shopping Carts To The Supermarket Month and International Sword Swallowers Day.

And, of course, there are the celebrations that fall under the “You’re Kidding Me?” category: California Dried Plum Digestive Month, Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, National Mail Order Gardening Month, National Tempura Day, Women In Blue Jeans Day, National Hot Tea Month, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Week, Tubers & Dried Fruit Month, Camcorder Day, Squirrel Appreciation Day (which is January 21st and shouldn’t be confused with Squirrel Awareness Month in October), and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And that’s just in January. There are 11 more months of the same inanity. Thankfully, National Gin Day is coming right up on November 7th to help us all drown our sorrows. Cheers!

All of which leaves me to believe that either a) people are running out of things to celebrate or b) we need to add more days to the year or c) people have too much time on their hands. Personally, I’m going with option c. I appreciate the fact that those who come up with these goofy celebrations are just trying to have fun, but I wonder if all the joke festivities are taking away from the legitimate ones.

Or maybe we just have too many illnesses and ailments that need more awareness? In November alone, the following diseases and conditions are being recognized: Epilepsy Awareness Month, Diabetic Eye Disease Month, Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, Lung Cancer Awareness, AIDS Awareness Month, National COPD Month, National Alzheimer’s Disease Month, National Home Care & Hospice Month, National Impotency Month, National Marrow Awareness Month, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Prematurity Awareness Month, National Patient Accessibility Week, X-Ray Day and World Diabetes Day.

My point? Enough is enough. As of this very moment, I’m calling for a complete moratorium on any and all additional days of celebration, awareness, recognition, appreciation, enlightenment or remembrance. If there’s not already a day, week or month for your pet cause, you’re out of luck. Sorry about that, Transsexual Spotted Gerbil Anti-Discrimination Week. My apologies, Orphan Sock Reunification Month. You’re out of luck, International Broccolini With Limburger Cheese & A Touch Of Nutmeg Casserole Day.

If we don’t stop this insanity, before you know it we’ll be lighting candles to commemorate World Kanye West & Kim Kardashian Awareness Week – and I’ll be slitting my wrists. So, to honour my moratorium, I’m breaking my own rule and officially naming November 5th as International Day Of No More Special Days For The Celebration, Awareness, Recognition, Appreciation, Enlightenment Or Remembrance Of Anything That’s Not Already Being Honoured. Raise your glasses and let the partying begin!

 

The Day The Music Died

Of all the art forms, nothing says more about who we are than our choices in music. At least that’s the common perception. Generally, you’d never make assumptions about someone who liked action movies instead of comedies – or preferred interpretive dance over ballet. But, when it comes to music, let the categorizing and stereotyping begin.

If you enjoy dance music, you’re probably a fun-loving, party person, right? Anyone who likes punk music is an anarchist who wants to destroy the establishment. Classical music lovers are stuffed shirts who walk around with their noses in the air sipping cognac and smoking a pipe. And let’s not even start on the impressions people have about those who like hip hop or country music.

Although there’s often a close correlation between who you are and what type of music you like, it’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover, as the old cliché goes. Several decades ago, I was staying for a month in England when I met two straight-laced young guys who were accountants from Sweden and looked every bit the part – buttoned down shirts, nerdy glasses, pocket protectors, and every other fashion accoutrement you could imagine.

The first night I ran into them, they asked me if I wanted to go to a heavy-duty punk concert at the massive London Palladium. Honestly, I thought they were joking, but when they began dying their hair blue, sticking fake piercings in various parts of their bodies and donning ripped up t-shirts, I realized they were serious.

Long story short, it was an amazing evening I’ll never forget (although I definitely feared for my life at several points), but the most interesting part was the backstory of these two young punkers. Sure enough, for 51 weeks of the year they played the role of typical, mild-mannered accountants in Stockholm. But, for one precious week, they cut loose, headed to London and became the punkers that stayed buried deep inside them during their day-to-day lives. So much for stereotypes.

However, I digress. Whether you believe that musical choices define a person may be up for debate. But what about people who pick some arbitrary date in their lives and, from that point onward, decide they’ve heard enough new tunes for a lifetime and choose to get off the musical merry-go-round? You know the people I’m talking about. They’re the ones who say, “They stopped making good music in 1979” (or whenever) or “They don’t make music like they used to” or “The last record I bought was Led Zeppelin II.”

I don’t know if there’s a certain age when this occurs or if it’s a random thing where you start looking around and realize that most of the music that’s being made just doesn’t cut it for you anymore. In any case, once it happens, it’s hard to convince those people there’s any new music that’s worth listening to. And, ironically, it often occurs with the people who appeared to love music the most, at least for the first part of their lives up until the time the world of music died for them.

Personally, I’m happy to say that’s never happened to me. I’ve been around for a long, long time and still can’t seem to stop searching out new music, looking for exciting new sounds that get me charged up and make me want to share it with my family and my tune-loving friends. I’m pretty receptive to just about all kinds of music. Sure, I have my favourites and there are some genres I don’t explore too often, but if somebody tells me, “You have to listen to this,” I’m always game.

I had a longtime friend who had a similar attitude. Although he didn’t like everything that crossed his plate, he was always willing to, at least, give it a few spins before he awarded it a definitive thumbs up or tossed it in the reject pile. My buddy passed away about a year ago – and there’s still a big hole in my heart where he used to live. We had plenty in common, but nothing greater than our love of music. Almost 12 months later, when I hear a new band I love, inevitably, I’ll think of my friend and wish he was still here today to share it with me. And the converse is true, too. I miss receiving new music from him just as much – and my life is a little poorer because of it.

Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious decision, I don’t think I’ll ever understand what makes some people decide to pick a particular date after which they shut themselves off from music and climb into a time capsule where the same songs play over and over in an endless loop. I just don’t get it.

When I was a kid, there were maybe a few thousand musical choices when you shopped at your local record store. Over the last few decades, mostly because of electronic file formats and the Internet, those choices have blossomed into millions or even billions of options from all over the globe. Honestly, if you can’t find something from that nearly infinite jukebox, you’re just not even trying. And, for me, that’s pretty sad. Music always has been – and, hopefully, always will be – a huge part of my life. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. Keep on rockin’.

 

You Know You’re Getting Old When…

Last weekend, I had the weird déjà vu experience of interviewing an Emergency Services worker who my wife used to babysit many, many years ago when he was just a toddler. It made me realize that not only am I not getting any younger but, consequently, I also happen to be getting a whole lot older. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

In any case, that encounter, plus a whole lot of other recent experiences made me start thinking about all those subtle signs that start cropping up at some point in your life and make you realize that, hey, you’re definitely on that slippery slope into agedness.

One sure sign was when my eldest daughter and her boyfriend recently made an offer to purchase their first home. It took me back to when my wife and I were doing the same thing 25+ years ago and considered ourselves to be full-fledged adults. When your kids are suddenly going through the identical experience, it makes you appreciate exactly how far along you are on the journey of life.

Of course, there are plenty of other road signs that you’re getting old. Here are just a few:

1)    The music you listened to when you were growing up is now so old it no longer even qualifies to be played on the oldies radio stations.

2)    Not only are you constantly complaining about your aches and pains, your children have started to complain regularly about theirs, as well.

3)    The old expressions you use are so out of date you constantly have to explain them  – and they don’t even appear in the dictionary anymore. Instead, they’ve now become the conversational equivalent of cave drawings.

4)    When you watch “old celebrities” on television or read about them in magazines, you suddenly realize they’re the same age as you are. And, frankly, none of them are looking all that great anymore.

5)    Virtually all the technology you grew up with (tape recorders, VHS machines, CD players, home phones, etc.) is now obsolete. Miraculously, the one technology you figured was gone forever, vinyl records, inexplicably lives on.

6)    Inevitably, you have to compare the prices of everything you buy with what it cost when you were growing up. That’s followed by a sentence that goes something like, “Why, when I was a kid you could buy…”

7)    You enjoy playing the “Dead or Alive” game with all the movie stars, singers, and sports figures you grew up with. Not surprisingly, every time you play, you end up with more on the dead list than the live one.

8)    Crooked, inept politicians from years past start to look more and more attractive compared with some of the choices available today. Richard M. Nixon, come back! All is forgiven.

9)    You constantly need to make a list of where you put the list of the lists of all the things you’re supposed to do today. After much searching, you’re able to locate that list in the back of the refrigerator where you mistakenly put it. Now you start wondering that – if the list is in the fridge – where the heck is that jug of milk you were supposed to put away? Once that’s all sorted out, you begin the search for your reading glasses, which are, obviously, required to read the list of the list of the list. Then you forget what you were looking for in the first place and decide to take a nap on the couch. Repeat as necessary.

10) The hapless Toronto Maple Leafs of your youth are now perennial Stanley Cup Champions. Hmmm. Apparently, I’m not as ancient as I thought.

There’s a silly old expression that goes something like, “You’re only as old as you feel.” In case you’ve already forgotten, check out #3 on the list above and see why it’s an old expression. Who actually uses that phrase when, instead, you start feeling old pretty much all the time and the first question you pose to your spouse each morning is, “How’d you sleep last night?”

In any case, if you’re feeling old today, take solace. You’re not alone. It happens to all of us and it’s pretty much unavoidable, no matter how much you fight it. So, to everyone reading this, here’s to getting old. Cheers! May you enjoy every moment of it. Now, with all due respect, “Get off my lawn.”

Shakin’ All Over: Why I Love The Alabama Shakes

Resistance was truly futile.

Last year, I started reading about the Alabama Shakes and, at first glance, assumed they were some hipster, pre-fab band that didn’t seem worth five minutes of my time.

Not that there’s anything wrong with hipster, pre-fab bands. I have a ton of them in my CD collection, after all.

Gradually, however, as I read more and more about this remarkable band, I figured it was time to put all the hype aside and actually listen to the music they were creating. Once that happened, it took about twelve seconds to realize I’d been missing one of the most honest, joyous, captivating bands making music today.

It’s hard to believe lead singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell started playing together just a few years ago at high school in Athens, Alabama, as they truly seem like old souls, playing 60’s style Southern rock-blues-garage music like they’ve been honing their skills in divey bars for the past five decades.

With Howard as their Janis Joplin-ish centerpiece, Cockrell, Heath Fogg (guitar) and Steve Johnson (drums) have built a band that’s both incredibly tight and utterly soulful. When Howard breaks into one of her signature wails, it’s enough to rip your heart out. In today’s super-processed, auto-tuned-to-death world of music, these cats jump out like party crashers at an undertaker’s convention.

Possibly the most refreshing thing about the Shakes is their genuine surprise about the success that’s currently threatening to overwhelm them. From everything I’ve seen or read, they haven’t courted their critical acclaim or growing popularity, it’s just grown organically through word of mouth, simply because they make great music that’s down-to-earth and refreshingly emotional.

Of course, what would the world be without naysayers?

There are some critics who say they’re simply ripping off older bands and styles, that they’ve got nothing original to say, and aren’t doing what they do any better than their predecessors.

Who cares?

I listen to a lot of music and it’s virtually impossible to find anything that doesn’t have its roots somewhere in the past. That’s not something new – it’s been happening since the birth of music. And the Alabama Shakes shouldn’t have to apologize for respecting the traditions of the bands they grew up with and idolized.

In fact, we should be thanking them for reminding us why we love music so much, because it moves us and nurtures us and gets us through hard times and weaves itself into our souls.

It’s about time that someone shook up the music industry and helped us reconnect emotionally. And the Alabama Shakes are shaking things up just fine.

What music is shaking up your world at the moment? Let me know – because we can all use another good shake-up from time-to-time.