Dad Gives Me the Talk

When I was eight years old, my father sat me down and said, “We should talk about what you want to be when you grow up.”

I remember that shirt. I don’t remember owning that face.

It turned out there were only three things a man wants from a career. He wants to make a decent living, a reasonable amount of money, so that he can support a family and live well. He wants respect of his peers and the community. And he wants to feel that what he is doing is of value, that it’s worthwhile.

So Dad started with the manual laborer, the guy digging ditches or shoveling coal. He doesn’t make much money, barely enough to live on. And sure, he deserves respect for working hard and being a good person, but really, how much respect is he going to get? Not much. And finally, is he doing something worthwhile? We need ditches dug and we need coal shoveled. But anybody could be doing that. It’s not like it’s special work.

So next we considered, or Dad considered, the trades. You could be a carpenter, or a plumber, or an electrician. Men working in the trades make a bit more money, but not all that much more, not enough to live in a big house and drive a new car every year. It’s still generally hard, dirty work. As for respect, a good tradesman is valued. People appreciate his work, and he gets a little more respect. But still, he’s “just” a plumber or an electrician. Nobody special.

That brought Dad to talk about the professions. In 1958 when this conversation was happening, there were only three professions. Can you name them? Nobody can name all three.

Everybody gets that one of the professions was law, and one was medicine. Nobody can name the third. And no, it wasn’t teacher or chiropractor or salesman or writer or artist…. it was….the clergy.

Those were the big three: doctor, lawyer, and priest. And being in one of the professions made you a somebody.

My father hated lawyers. They were just scum of the earth, dishonest, no integrity, and it didn’t matter how much money they made he wasn’t going to give them any respect. So forget being a lawyer.

Being a priest was a good thing, an honourable thing, but it’s not much of a life. Too much time attending tea parties and officiating at marriages. A secure living, but not a lot of money. No, you wouldn’t want to be a priest.

But a doctor? Now there was something to aspire to. Talk about the respect of your peers! A doctor is treated almost like a god. (Yeah, I know, but this was in 1958). You check into a hotel and it’s, “Will you be getting any calls, Doctor.” Make a reservation at a restaurant and it’s, “Oh doctor Scott, so good to see you here. We’ve got a good table for you.” And money. My god, a doctor can earn as much as fifty thousand dollars a week. (Again, this was 1958 when a new car cost three thousand dollars; when my father might have been making eleven thousand a year as middle management of an insurance company.)

As for doing something of value, what could be more valuable than saving lives, life and death.

So it was decided. From that day on, I was going to be a doctor. My father warned me that I had to start getting ready for this career now, because if I didn’t I’d never make it. There was too much competition. My future, my destiny, was set.

For my twelfth birthday I asked for, and was duly given, a copy of “Blacks Medical Dictionary”. I cultivated an attitude and solemn authority that I assumed a doctor should have. By fourteen, I had a good bedside manner.

And then I hit the teenage identity crisis. I found myself at university in pre-med, arguing with people who were far smarter than me, with far more life experience, and I found my fathers words and attitudes coming out of my mouth. Suddenly, everything I thought about myself and the world was open to question. I had no ideas of my own, no viewpoint of my own. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

In my father’s eyes, I was right off the rails. What do you do with a kid like that? You send him to Europe to let him sort himself out and get his head on straight. To be clear here, this was incredibly generous of my father. He was not a wealthy man. He worked hard, and paid for what needed paying for, but he was always under serious financial pressure. I will always be forever grateful for that trip to England to meet my Aunt Mary and Uncle David, my mother’s brother and his wife, and then on to France, Holland, and Germany. I spent endless hours in the Louvre, and in the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam, and someplace else where I could admire the Rodin sculptures in the flesh. I will never forget the unrestored Opern Platz in Frankfurt, bombed to a shell by the Brits during the war because the Nazis had holed up in the basement, or the castle at Konigstein, with granite steps worn to a slippery ramp by centuries of leather shoe soles. It was a great trip, complete with shipboard romances and my first experience of having sex in an actual bed. With an actual woman.

After a couple of months of desperate loneliness and soul searching, my head was a straight as it was ever going to get. And the conclusion I reached was that I didn’t want to be a doctor. That was my father’s ambition, not mine. So, what did I want to be?

I have always loved literature and admired writing. Ah hah! That’s it. I’ll be a writer.

I told my father that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a writer. He said,”Well, congratulations. You have chosen the only career I can think of that’s harder than selling life insurance.” And I knew he was right.

From where I sit today, an old man, I can’t think of anything dumber for me to want to be. The thing is, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t necessarily want to write. Writing is hard work. I didn’t even like writing. Still don’t. I didn’t want to be a journalist, or the writer of advertising copy or equipment manuals. I wanted to be a novelist. But… let’s get real. Nobody was buying short stories. Writing a novel took years of lonely, dedicated effort with a tiny possibility of success after all that work. Besides, I had no idea what to write about. I recognized that I got a good idea once in a while, maybe every five years, but I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I might be able to bullshit the world that I was a writer, but I knew the truth.

Looking at the world in a slightly more realistic frame of mind I decided that the big market for non-fiction writing was not short stories or novels. The market now was film and television. So I joined the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop to learn more about film and television and my fate was sealed.

I still wanted to be a writer, to tell powerful, inspiring stories. But I could make a living doing technical work like sound recording and editing while I wrote scripts and worked toward becoming a director, the author of the movie.

For years, as I struggled with financial insecurity and self doubt while trying to write, produce, or direct something meaningful, I would lie awake at night in horror at having wasted my life. I was supposed to be a doctor. Too late now to chose a different path. A profound despair would close in on me, a feeling of loss, regret, unleavened by any redeeming consideration. Fool. Loser.

Passing the Torch

A couple of years pre-pandemic, I was yearning for the good old days of my university life, back when coffee shops and folk music was the thing. I told my wife, Ruth, that I wanted to find a space and start up a coffee shop that could have open mike nights once a week. Ruth, ever the moderating influence on my enthusiasms, suggested that this would be a big time and money investment and might not be the fantasy I want to live. So we came up with an alternative.

Our first poster/announcement.

Wellington Community Hall is just a short block from our home. It’s a classic building, rich in heritage, and still in constant use for seniors dance classes and Brownie meetings. We came up with the idea of putting on an open mike night there once a month, just to find out whether I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the fantasy. Thus was the Stage Fright Cafe born.

The name was suggested by my friend Timothy Von Boetticher, a brilliant song writer and musician with a history of running open mike nights, plus a family of talented wife and children. Among my favourite people.

The hall reeks of history, but it’s a very stark environment for a coffee house. It did have a great sound system and plenty of small tables and chairs. I made red table clothes. We brought in our own lighting – my Chinese photography lights, a couple of work lights, electric tealights for the tables, and a rope light to add some colour. We decided not to use the stage. I wanted a more intimate relationship between the performers and the audience, so our performance area was set up in front of the stage at floor level, defined by two long tables where instruments cases could be left. The transformation was pure magic. But the best part was the support from friends and neighbours.

Two of our regulars in performance.

Dave Merchie, who was in charge of the hall at the time, volunteered to run the sound system. Kerwood and Jess, who had owned a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to Nanaimo, volunteered to take charge of the drinks and snack food. I explained to our first audience that they had returned to 1962, and the coffee would be ten cents a cup. The snack food was similarly low priced – banana bread with blue berries that I baked the night before the event, cookies baked by Ruth, fresh popcorn, a veggie platter, hotdogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing costing more than a buck or two.

My famous blue berry and banana bread. An open mic night favourite.

These three wonderful people, Dave, Kerwood, Jess, plus Ruth and myself, became the operational crew. Ruth took charge of the performer list and the cash. The hall gave us a great deal, since we were contributing to their mandate of community involvement. So the rent was eighty bucks a night, but only if the donations at the door and the food money covered more than our expenses for food.

The next thing we needed was performers. The concept, as the name implies, was to provide a venue for amateurs, and my old friend J. Douglas Dodd had students in need of microphone and audience experience. I didn’t really appreciate how terrified some of his students were at the very thought of standing alone before strangers and performing, but it was delightful to see the change as they settled down and became more comfortable.

Nico Rhodes doing piano back up for one of Doug’s students.

We attracted a few pros from my pool of friends, most memorably Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes, Joelle Rabu, Timothy Von Boetticher himself (who used the occasions to try out new songs), the entire Von Boetticher family band, and Sue Averill who runs another open mike night with a different agenda. But most of the performers were seasoned amateurs who had played for years in their dens and living rooms without ever showing off what they could do. It was an eclectic mix, and amazing, joyful fun. We ended up with both regular audience members, and regular performers, with delightful surprises each session.

Tom and Jerry in performance, followed by Barry Farrell, one of our regulars.
Zale the MC. My job was to do stand up while performers prepared. I tell stories.

But… after a couple of years of setting up and breaking down and acting as the M.C., I was frankly getting tired. I think our regular audience, for whom I am eternally grateful, were also getting a bit tired. Many of Doug’s students aged out of classes, some moved on to professional training and careers. The pandemic gave me an excuse to shut the show down and take a break. I was not sure whether I would ever want to do it again. Been there done that, eh.

But the, last week, Hank Ketler, one of our regular and much admired performers, he of the mellow voice and competent guitar, called me to say that there was a new musician in town who wants to get involved in the scene here. He brought Linda Lavender (real name. Really!) over to meet me. She is just a delight, both in and as a singer song writer. So plans are in the works for another revival. It’s too early, with Omicron filling hospital beds and spreading, but I’m confident that the show will go on, eventually.

Linda Lavender with my kind of music. Give her a listen, eh.

I told Linda and Hank that I would support their efforts, but I don’t have it in me to be the main man any more. Too many other interests taking my time*. But they have agreed to take charge of the management. Ruth and I will set things up, at least for the first couple of shows. We’ll see how things go.

Linda and I are also talking about teaming up to rehearse her new songs and fine tune my fiddle backup. It’s exciting. All of this is exciting.

*So, what is it that is filling my spare time these days? What could be pulling me away from community involvement and public music? Well… here’s a short list of current projects. I’m going to take another run at making bodhran rims. I made two of the Irish drums before I went to China, but I didn’t manage to get the traditional steamed yew rims perfectly round, resulting in slack rawhide goatskin heads. Since returning home, I’ve taken two cracks at making good rims, with no real success. So that’s on my mind. Then there’s my plans to make a wooden pasta rolling machine. The shiny stainless one I bought on line is simply too small and inadequate. Next I’m going to make a fretless gourd banjo. I’ve got the gourd seeds in potting soil right now, and by the end of the summer I’m hoping to have a selection of gourds. But lately I’ve been killing myself down the Sketchup rabbit hole, staying up until five in the morning to learn that challenging CAD program, an effort that has my neck and shoulders in pain. Of course there’s still the fiddle group once a week in Qualicum Beach, Oceanside Jammers, and zoom sessions with my friend Dave Clement in Winnipeg every Monday to work up new Celtic tunes. I don’t lack for interests and excitement.

My young fiddle buddy, Kipling, in the center of the Ocean Side Jammers session. I think my next post may be about our Scotland trip. She’s now the owner of my wonderful Mauritzio Tadioli violin.

And there’s more, but that’s for my next installment.