Sometimes I start writing things which I then put away on the shelf and forget about indefinitely… and sometimes I remember it much later and pull it out again. I’ve written a couple of letters to Stuart McLean, but I’ve never sent him one. For the uninitiated, Stuart McLean is the creator and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe. I really don’t know enough to say, but I have the feeling from somewhere that if you like Garrison Keiler, you’d like Stuart McLean. Anyway. I called up an email I never sent in to the Vinyl Cafe, edited a little, and am publishing it below… in praise of a family breakfast and as a reminder of the things which feed the soul.
I don’t know how long it’s taken me, but I think I’ve finally figured something out. It’s “Radio for the Soul.” That’s why I listen to your show, Stuart. That’s why I listen enough that it sometimes annoys my wife… or maybe that’s because of when I listen. Your show is not always conveniently timed, but I find if I make the effort, I am rewarded for it.
Listening to stories about fathers sitting on the hoods of their cars or on the roof of their homes clutching TV antennas listening to their sons play hockey in faraway places does something for the soul. Your stories about Dave and Morley do something for the soul. There’s a line near the end of the movie “Shadowlands” about the life of C.S. Lewis, when one of the students recounts something his father told him: “We read to know we are not alone.” I’ve thought about that, and as an avid reader, I think it’s true… and it’s the same with your stories.
So I figured out something this morning. This morning was Saturday, and not atypical for a Saturday, I was listening to your show. [That is, the morning I originally wrote the letter]
For Christmas my wife got me a pair of wireless headphones. Wireless headphones are a wonderful thing, Stuart. Wireless headphones mean that one can listen to one’s favorite jazz radio station or CDs, or even a television show… at whatever volume is deemed most appropriate for the occasion. Whatever volume is low enough to form a pleasant backdrop while you sit and read or type away on the laptop. Whatever volume might otherwise disturb your wife but through the magic of these devices, does not. Whatever volume is necessary to tune out the noise from the kitchen. Whatever volume is necessary to tune out the 293rd viewing of your kids’ favorite cartoon. In my case that’s 2 girls, aged 2 1/2 and 5 1/2. [Again, at the time I wrote the letter] Whatever volume is necessary to carry you away someplace that’s just your own, someplace where you’re not disturbed by whatever’s going on around you at the time. Someplace you can’t even hear your wife and kids… I’m speaking hypothetically, of course (<wink>). There are three great things about my particular set of wireless headphones. They let me hear what I want or need to hear from the TV, CD, DVD, or radio tuner at a reasonable level rather than requiring the volume emanating from the heap of electronics in the corner to outshout whatever else is going on. Second, they were a gift from my wife, and like all perfect gifts, one which I didn’t even know I needed. And finally, they were free even to my wife, for the mere exchange of a few leftover Air Miles.
This morning I was listening to your show on my headphones, in the kitchen. This morning I was making pancakes. The tradition around our home is that my wife mixes the batter and I man the frying pan. Saturdays when we have the luxury of a late breakfast with the whole family together, sometimes that’s what we do. Today there was also applesauce simmering in a pot on the stove, to pour over the pancaces. Sometimes there are just pancakes, sometimes there are blueberries, sometimes there are chocolate chips, sometimes there is applesauce. On very rare occaisions there might be whipped cream, and sometimes there is ice cream. That’s right Stuart, there are times when in full posession of all our faculties, we feed our kids ice cream for breakfast. I like to think that it’s not the rules, but the exceptions that make one a good parent. I may be wrong on this, but I’m firmly committed to it. Sometimes, there are even strawberries, fresh ones that we’ve picked together as a family on some Saturday when we’ve headed out early before it got too hot, when we’ve gone to a u-pick strawberry farm just outside the city, and filled several ice-cream pails with fresh strawberries and trekked back to the car with a load of berries… and between us, 40 red fingers, red with the spilled sweet juices of hundreds of strawberries – some in the buckets and others in our bellies.
Of course, this is February in Winnipeg, and there aren’t any strawberries today, just applesauce. And “bear pancakes.” My girls had them at a Perkins restaurant once, and it’s been a regular request ever since. There’s a bit of an art to it, to get the pancake batter in the shape of a teddy bear’s head, nicely rounded, with two round-ish ears adjoining at the top. For the eyes and the nose, as you already know, sometimes there are blueberries, sometimes there are chocolate chips, and sometimes it’s just two syrup eyes and a smile. A really special nose is a small scoop of ice cream with a chocolate chip on top. The secret is that you have to pour the batter for the ears on at just the right moment, when the head is nicely round and fully formed. Always a hit in our house. [Photo here]
Life has been stressful lately, Stuart, so it’s a joy in those times to listen to the music on your show and the stories you tell. I discovered your work perhaps like a million other Canadians, on Morningside with Peter Gzowski, which show I still miss by the way, but I remember more specifically when I first discovered the Vinyl Cafe. Listening to your stories about Dave and Morley, I remember asking myself, “Where does he get this stuff?” I wondered, “Could Dave be somehow autobiographical?” It hit me right away, of course: “Good Lord, I hope not.” I’ve come to realize, of course, there’s a little Dave in all of us… he wouldn’t be funny otherwise.
Also for Christmas this year, my wife got me a copy of your latest, Vinyl Cafe Diaries (she paid real money for it, and got great value). Two weeks ago I had to travel out to Peterborough on a business trip, and I sifted through my stack of recently-acquired books, needing something for the flight. I had your book in my hand, Stuart, and I put it back in the pile. Not because I’d heard all the stories, but because I thought I’d look a little odd sitting on an airplane with my nose in a book laughing out loud a sheer inevitability, of course. As it happened, my return flight was delayed, and somewhere between our 5th and 6th gate change at Pearson’s Terminal Two, I heard a woman laughing near me in the lounge where we were all waiting for our flight information to change yet again. I looked to see a woman with her nose in a book, laughing out loud. I checked, and I think you already know what she was reading. It made perfect sense to me… she didn’t look at all odd, and I wished I’d brought my own copy along after all.
So life has been a bit stressful, and listening to the poignancy of some of the stories you read somehow touches the soul, and strengthens it. Whether they’re someone else’s selling a painting to a blind man or your own about Peter O’Toole or Dave & Morley you seem to consistently find just the right thing to touch the soul. I would have to say that some of your finest work is around the themes of Christmas and Remembrance Day… but somebody really needs to tell you that the account of Kenny Wong’s childhood was simply brilliant, and I dearly hope I’m not the first to say it.
The year of Rasheeda and Ahmeer’s first Christmas, you were in Winnipeg, and we haven’t seen you back since. Glad to hear you’re coming back, I’ll have to squirrel away some cash in the hopes of attending. [I never did manage to set aside the required admittance, and missed that show] So Stuart, I wanted to thank you for making radio for the soul. Anyway, with some reflection over breakfast, I begin to put my finger on it. Somewhere between hotels in Foxwarren that give you “your own” bottle of tomato juice and “Knights in White Satin” – I think maybe in the middle of “Fret no More”, it dawned on me, how your show and the stories therein feed the soul, which….
“Daddy, you make yummy pancakes.” A late family breakfast on a Saturday morning feeds the soul too.