Friday, June 24, 2011

Learn How to Live

Photo by Brun Gossen. Album Design by Luke VanVliet.

Every once in a while, a collection of songs comes along that just makes sense to your musical ear, to your heart—to you. Every once in a while, you put on an album—sometimes anticipated, sometimes stumbled upon—and the beat moves you, and the words move you, and the music feels good to listen to.

Then the songs remain in your head, waking you from your slumber, sound tracking your day, rocking you to sleep. You don’t mind. Why? Because the music is good. Catchy, honest, real, high-quality, good.

I was very excited to hear the new music that the band, which my husband happens to be in, is set to release in a 6-song EP. Imagine how I felt when my expectations were exceeded so far that the songs kind of crossed some metaphorical bridge from being “cool songs by the band my husband plays bass for” to being “songs I really, honestly love” (in other words: “songs just as good as songs by other, famous and/or well-known bands l love).

How does it feel? It doesn’t just feel “good” anymore—it feels awesome.

This week, I’m going to tell you about this EP.

Learn How to Live is a 6-song EP that was self-recorded and self-produced by folk/rock artist Scott Normandy and the Newark City Band. Scott Normandy released his first album (My Future. My Past.) in 2007, produced by Derek Elliotson. His second album, No Regrets, was recorded in Montreal and released in 2009. Now, because his band has become so tight and solid that they have succeeded in independently recording and producing an EP (mixed and mastered by Derek Elliotson), the band has a name.

The newly-named Newark City Band pays tribute to its hometown of Niagara; Newark City was Niagara’s original name.

2010 New Vintage Wine Festival (Niagara). Photo by Jodi Taylor 

In the same way that the band has unified both in name and by working so closely together on their most recent project, the songs also reflect the similar situations all band members have found themselves in, in recent years.

Learn How to Live is a collection of songs about just that: about having growing responsibilities such as families, raising kids and working to pay the bills. Life is full of blessings, challenges and surprises—we don’t know all the answers, and we can’t see the future; we can only learn as we go (or learn as we grow). In the band’s case, the other fundamental theme of the album is balancing these responsibilities and blessings with their innate passions and dreams for writing, recording and performing music. How do you balance both? What I like about the album’s position is that they don’t profess to know all the answers—they are riding the learning curve.

The album begins with “Restless Days,” which sets the tone for the album. It’s upbeat and fun, while the lyrics work to ground and balance the song by lending a serious hand. 

“Learn How to Live,” the title track, ties the whole album together. This song is very honest, and I can feel a strong emotion coming through the lyrics: “Well I don’t really know/ Where to go/ What to run to/ What I’m supposed to do…”

“So Cold” closes the album with a raw, acoustic ballad. Even though in earlier songs, Scott honestly confesses that he doesn’t know “where to go, what to run to,” he offers great wisdom and insight in a very quiet, humble song. I have, in my wondering mind, pondered the line, “Everything that you possess/ I’m sorry, but I must confess /It piles up just the rest/ Your status is so meaningless” over and over. In a quiet, humble song, listeners are gently prodded to take a step back and evaluate what really means something in their lives.

One of the qualities in this album that stands out to me is the way that Scott sings certain lyrics. He creatively puts emphasis on unexpected syllables, which makes the words sound really interesting. For example, it took me a few listens to catch what he was saying in the second verse of “Get Close”: “When I’m lawn-mowing, When I’m lawn-mowing/ I think a lot.” I like the way he sings it because it invites you to think about the words a little more. Another example is the way he says “…computer screen” in the first verse of the same song, with the emphasis on the first part of the word (com-puter) instead of the second.

As soon as you hear the electric guitar strumming the first chord of “Restless Days,” it will become very clear to you that the band is comprised of talented musicians. For example, occasionally in the EP, all instruments break down into a Wilco-esque kind of jam (such as in “Feel”).

Every part of every song fits together seamlessly. By actively listening, you can distinguish between different instruments and different riffs, and interesting lines and beats within those instruments, but even after a quick listen, you can tell that each part contributes to a solid whole—a unified band that plays together so well that they sound really impressive live. The album recording sounds quite the same as their live performances.

Scott Normandy and the Newark City Band. From left: Scott Normandy (lead vocals, guitar), Joel Durksen (bass, backing vocals), Mike Tuyp (guitar), Allan Campopiano (drums, percussion).

They’re not trying to be anything they aren’t, and in being true to themselves, profoundly succeed in being the kind of music that deserves to be heard. The kind of music that is light but has heart. The kind of music that is easy and fun to listen to, but also continually surprises the astute listener with Scott’s unique voice, brilliant guitar solos, various rhythms, solid yet active bass lines and effective, strategically-placed harmonies. If you haven’t heard their music, you should check it out. Scott Normandy and the Newark City Band offers something for everyone—especially in the topics they cover in Learn How to Live. I’m sure you will be able to relate many or all of their songs to your own life experiences in some way.

The CD release party is going to be held at the Merchant Ale House in St. Catharines on Saturday, July 2 (next Saturday) at 10:00 p.m. Why don’t you try and make it out?

If you can’t make it, don’t you worry. The album will be available on iTunes (search “Scott Normandy”), or if you’d prefer a physical CD, message me and I can get you a copy. 


Web Site

(Listen to "Restless Days" by going to the band's Facebook page!)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Scrabble Exercise

This week, I’m going to share with you a creative writing exercise that I’ve been wanting to try for a while (i.e. every time I’ve played Scrabble in the last four years).

Every time I play Scrabble, once the game is over, I wonder at the interesting collection of words that the players put on the board. Some are simple, and some are great feats of Scrabble smartness. Isn’t it kind of disappointing to destroy the words and put the tiles away after so slowly and carefully considering and creating each word?

So here is a fun way to keep the Scrabble board alive for a little while longer, get your creative juices flowing and practice your writing.

Here’s the exercise:

1.       Play an actual game of Scrabble.

2.       Make a list of all the words on the Scrabble board, once you're done the game. To make the writing part easier, put nouns in one column, verbs in another, and all the rest in a third column marked “Other” (adjectives, etc.)

3.       Write a story using all the words on the board. The story must have a proper introduction/setting, climax and resolution/conclusion.

4.       My story, below, is less than 500 words. You could increase the difficulty by creating a story with fewer words (400, 300, 200, even 100 or whatever), or make it easier by writing a story with more words.

5.       If you are of a competitive nature, you could even make this into a competition with other people! The person with the "shortest/most concise" story (based on a word count) or "best" story (based on a vote) could be the winner. You could also award bonus points for any Scrabble word used more than once in the story.

That’s it!

This Scrabble exercise is great because:

·         The creative side of your brain is used to make up a story.

·         The logical side of your brain is used to make reasonable connections between the words by stringing random words into a logical narrative.

·         While when you played Scrabble, you had to make letters into words using other words’ letters, in this exercise, you have to turn words into a story using the words played in Scrabble—it’s like Scrabble squared or something!


If you don’t care to “write” a story, try using the list of Scrabble words and verbally tell a story to your friends or kids or whatever, as you make it up. Cross off each word as you use it. This variation, because it's more spontaneous, would probably be even more hilarious!

Without further ado, here’s my example. The words from the Scrabble game I played recently (with two other people, not just me!) are in green:

The Pointy Poet's Preposterous Plan

Once upon a time, a crazed poet got the crazy idea that he could win the affections of a pure, beautiful dame named Artemisia. He was determined to win her with his wit. He certainly set high goals for himself!

The poet did what he did best: he lit a candle, took up his quill and wrote a poem.

The poet then rode through the ivy-covered gates of the village and into the rural country where Artemisia’s estate was located. With a nod of his pointy head, topped with a pointy poet hat, he delivered his poem to the butler. With a turn of his pointy shoe, he pranced confidently back to his horse. “Ha, ha!” he exclaimed, “She will not resist me after she reads that!”

                                                                             ~ ~ ~ 

Within the estate, Artemisia received the poem. She read it to herself:

I have run to you
My heart is at war with my head
The web of my quad muscles tightens
As I think of you
As I dream of you
As I ache for you
For you zig through my heart
And you zag through my head
Please come and see me
Before I’m gone

-your anonymous Lover

With a pale hand to her chest, Artemisia re-read the poem, confused. Who could this beautifully-written poem be from? The mystery piqued her interest. She felt she had a connection with this person. Was it too soon for her to molt from a young woman into a young lover?

The pure, innocent dame noticed a clandestine meeting place and time written at the bottom of the page. #3 Loony Lane. Tomorrow!  She had better get to bed early and get some beauty sleep!

                                                   ~ ~ ~ 

The next day, Artemisia arrived at the meeting place with jags of nervous energy and a stomach brimming with butterflies. It was a little house, and the only notable item was a sack of fennel in one corner.

As she looked around, she saw two pots coming at her head, felt them hit her and then saw only blackness.

                                                   ~ ~ ~ 

Artemisia awoke in bed to the sound of fennel being chopped up with a little herb ax.

“Well, hey! How are you feeling?”

Artemisia turned to see an odd, pointy man standing near the fennel.

“Some less-than-clever men tried to ambush you, but I saved you! I was happy to see them fail. What’s your name?”

Artemisia, quite confused, scared and astonished, found her rescuer to be a little off. Something didn’t make sense, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

One thing she knew was that she had to leave. So she left, a little unsteadily. She didn’t trust that pointy man. She didn’t even know if he tithed or not.

“Where are you going?” the poet cried, prancing to the door. Unfortunately, as he crossed an uneven floorboard, the pointy toe of his shoe caused him to trip and fall, and thus he was powerless to stop Artemisia from leaving.

                                                                            ~The End~

That's it!

Friday, June 10, 2011


As interesting as it is to think about an idea or concept is the thought process (fed by experiences and observations) that contributes to the formation of that idea. Here’s one of these thought processes:

Last week, when I dropped Emmett off at my mother-in-law’s, I noticed that something was missing around their shed. I asked my mother-in-law, and she told me that they had their big evergreen cut down because it had been compromised by the windstorm. I said to her, “Wow. I never really noticed that tree before, but I noticed right away that something was different once it was cut down.”

A couple of days later, when Joel and I were in the north end of the city, Joel pointed out where a few houses had been bulldozed. I looked over, and it definitely looked like something was different (i.e. dirt and bulldozers and nothing more), although I could not picture the houses that had been there, even after having driven by them probably hundreds of times.

Last weekend, one of my friends and I were talking about how much you ache for someone when you hear that he or she has died. For example, she explained that if a loved one goes on vacation, they are gone—as in you don’t see that person, you probably don’t talk to that person, you live your life without that person around—but while you might miss that person, you are reassured by the knowledge that he/she will return, and you will see him/her again. However, if you get a call about a loved one passing away, the finality of death—that you will not see that person again on this earth, although abundant memories linger—makes the absence much more extreme. You might not even realize how much you loved someone until they are gone.

Then, two days after that, I watched Shrek Forever After, and Shrek’s realization halfway through the movie, “I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone,” resonated in my mind.

Since then, “Big Yellow Taxi” has played in my head constantly. “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone…”

My thought process caused me to wonder,

When I am gone, my absence will be clear
But will you notice me when I’m still here?

The fact that we don’t realize what we have, or notice what we have, until we don’t have it, and the fact that people often take their blessings for granted, are both old topics of conversation. We’ve heard them before.

I wonder, But why? Why?

If all of these statements are true, do they mean that the wonderful qualities of appreciation and gratitude are not natural but must be learned? How many of you feel the same way?

I get that the absence of something causes us to long for its presence. But I don’t want to wait until I lose someone or something to really appreciate him/her/it. I also want to appreciate who and what I have every day—but I don’t want to appreciate everything by thinking about what life would be like if a loved one passed away  or if I lost my house. That’s kind of dark and depressing.

What do you think? What can I do? Do I just need to be more observant? Do I just need to pay more attention to the people around me?

Several years ago, Oprah started urging her audience to keep a “thankful” journal. She told us to every day, write down something you are thankful for, in order to realize how many things we can truly appreciate in life.

The thankful journal is a nice idea. Apart from the fact that it’s unfortunate that some people would have to deliberately keep a journal and make time to write stuff in it to be appreciative of what they have, I would think the purpose of this thankful journal exercise is to hopefully create a habit in people to be thankful—that a conscious act of writing in a journal would eventually become an automatic response and a way of life.

Again, why does it work this way? Why do we have to make a conscious effort to be grateful and observant of our blessings? Shouldn’t honest and sincere appreciation come naturally? Do we fail to notice the wonderful positives around us because we grow accustomed to their presence?

If that’s the case, I don’t want to get used to the great people and things in my life. I mean, I want to expect great things, but I don’t want to take them for granted.

Here’s one idea. Maybe this is because we live in a selfish society. We are bombarded with ads and entertainment that focus on “me.” Society tells us to do things for ourselves, to get recognition for our own efforts and to indulge ourselves via consumerism. This would definitely make it easy to be selfish, right?

Keeping this in mind, it doesn’t surprise me that in order to be thankful for things before they disappear—in other words, taking the focus off ourselves to think about others—we would have to consciously fight to be selfless in a selfish society.

So I guess we just have to accept the fact that many (not all, but many!) people don’t automatically and always notice what exists and what blessings abound around them. I guess to accept this allows the next step to be taken: active appreciation. I guess instead of deploring about how selfish I have been, I ought to start working at becoming selfless.

Let me start now: I am so thankful for all of you—my readers. You are wonderful to me. I am so happy that you have taken some of your time to read this. I hope that I have left something positive for you to ponder. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

In Bloom

Blue centaureas smell fantastic: fresh, fruity, sweet, divine.

Ever since I moved out of my parents' house seven years ago, I have absolutely loved gardening. In spring, as soon as the perennials start popping up from the ground,  I become a rubberneck driver, looking at everyone's gardens as I drive along. I definitely like to get my Dutch green thumbs out there in the garden (all ten of them). Yes, I'm OK at gardening, but I'm kind of clumsy and, I work in a slightly haphazard manner.

If you were to drive by my house, you might see me hopping on one foot, losing my balance as I put my other leg inside a yard waste bag to open it up properly. You might catch me randomly pulling a few weeds and throwing them at either the side of the house (so they are hidden by the bigger weeds that grow there) or under one of our mammoth spruce trees out front. You might see me almost lose my balance and almost fall into the pool as I try to duck under the cedar tree that is bent over the pool right now (windstorm damage - we still need to cut it down). You'd also notice that although I usually start weeding and working with gloves on, I usually pull them off in favour of feeling that good old soil between my fingers. Besides, how on earth do you pull the stubborn weeds with clumsy gloves on? How do you really know the soil is properly packed against a new plant with gloves hampering your sense of touch?

These neon hostas are eye-catching even without blooms.

Very old cedars - very hard to walk around and not fall into the pool.

My parents have a nice yard with beautiful gardens, and unfortunately for me, I use their garden as a benchmark, so my gardens always seem sub-par compared to theirs. I have to remind myself that they have been "tweaking" their gardens for over 15 years...and still find something to improve upon every year. Anyway, this year, I finally consider my garden satisfactory.

I think my plants are finally growing into their surroundings, and I have finally learned to major in perennials with a minor in annuals. If you barrage your beds with high-maintenance annuals, you are in for a lot of work.

All this gardening has got me thinking about the lovely blooms that we are now able to admire. I've started wondering about how I only notice many plants, shrubs and trees when they are [in bloom]. Have you ever noticed that?

Magnolias are breathtaking when they blossom, which is only for about a week in the spring. Their blossoms are like eye magnets--you can't help but notice their beauty--but what happens when the blossoms fall off? Do you notice magnolias anymore? Last year, I actually made a few mental notes of where some local magnolias were (i.e. the brown brick bungalow at the corner of such-and-such a street and such-and-such drive) when they were in blossom, so that I could go back to them once the blossoms fell and see what the tree looked like without them. They're nice, but kind of unremarkable without the pink-and-white blossoms.

What about annabelle hydrangeas? They have huge, white, ball-shaped blooms in late summer. When they start to bloom, I see them everywhere. I think, "I didn't realize so many people had these things!" (Perceptual vigilance, perhaps?) When hydrangeas are just leafy clumps, though, our eyes pass over them.

The last plant I always notice when it's in its prime is the burning bush. OK, its glory isn't in the blooms, but the leaves turn from green to bright red in the fall. All of a sudden, I see those everywhere, too.

Plants are the most visible when they are in bloom.

Snowball bush - I love 'em.

I wondered about this.

No, I am not going to refer to how girls blossom into beautiful young women in their teens. Nor am I going to mention the fact that people really "bloom" or are in their "prime" in their mid-twenties (because why would I bring attention to that? According to that statement, I'm past my prime!)

I do think that people bloom, but unlike plants, who have only outward beauty, we all have inward qualities that make us noticeable and different from the next person. We have gifts, talents and abilities, and once they are put to use, they make us bloom and become the best person we can be.

Thankfully, unlike plants, which only bloom for a little while (especially in regions that have four seasons), we have the ability to be constantly [in bloom]. We all have talents and passions and things we love to do--things we are brilliant at doing--and when we do them, we shine. We bloom. We are appreciated.

Don't let your passions dry up. Don't let your petals fall. They don't have to.