52 Donuts.. errr.. Performances in 2018

I came to an important conclusion this week as I played the open mic at Cartems Donuterie. (When I have donuts, they’re seasonal eggnog donuts) Jess Vaira hosts the weekly shindig and was kind enough to show me all the tech specs on her PA system so I can bring my keyboards and electronic nerd gear next time.

My conclusion came in the form of committing to a new goal – to perform 52 times in 2018! That’s once a week for a year, and I’ve got some weeks to make up – consider it my late-in-the-game New Year’s resolution.

Actually, this is an old goal. In 2013 back in Winnipeg I was determined to overcome my major stage fright once and for all with my homemade brand of exposure therapy. I got the idea from my Sports Psychology class at UofM, which could have just as easily gone by the name ‘How to Use Behavioural Psych To Train Anyone To Perform Well Under Pressure’.

And it worked! Big time.

Studies show (my eyes glaze over when sentences start with this phrase, but it’s true) that athletes (performers) who engage in deliberate practice in environments as close as possible to the way things will look and feel on “game day”, benefit multiple times more from their training. Makes sense – get the real thing burned into your habitual mind so there’s less to process when it counts.

So, playing in front of real strangers, singing into a microphone, hooked up to a PA, plenty of noisy interruptions etc etc.. that’s high quality practice compared to playing in my basement. And in 2013 when I put this method to the test, the benefits became clear.

Not only did I get over my stage fright, but several other invaluable things happened that I never could have predicted in my wildest dreams – all stemming from what I thought was a minor personal aim.

The first 10 performances were the hardest. They killed me. I had played in plenty of bands in the past on guitar and bass, but singing – and singing songs I wrote myself – *and going up there alone* is a different level of vulnerability.

Most of the first 10 were at the Le Garage Café open mic. I showed up an hour early every Tuesday night just to get that flood of anxiety to wash over me early, to get it out of the way. Then once I actually had to go up, I had been there for a couple of hours so it felt a little more gradual. A little more voluntary.

Le Garage Café Open Mic in Winnipeg, MB

(***If you want to get geeky about it, that approach allows the parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system to kick in which relaxes you, and lets your brain experience the thing you fear while also being kind of relaxed. Which can neutralize the fight/flight response over time. Wash, rinse, repeat.)

But it still felt like jumping out of a helicopter from 10,000 feet in the air. My hands and legs were shaking. I would forget which chord comes next. I forgot entire sections of songs I had been playing for years, and all the lyrics from others.

I survived. And it was a messy gong show. Accented with the occasional sublime moment of connection. Accidental beauty beyond the fumbling and struggle. Which was enough to keep me going.

It didn’t get any easier, until about the 15th time. I was still shaky and forgetful.. but something changed. I had been up there enough times that.. well.. being afraid of performing started to get old.

Fearing the worse case scenario was a huge expenditure of mental and physical energy, one that my brain started to rev up but ultimately say “Meh..” to, and plop back down on the couch with it’s bag of dill pickle chips to watch another episode of Storage Wars.

I had conquered the sharpest point of my fear. Ground it to a dull edge through repetition. Something I don’t think would have been possible without doing it again and again and again. It started to become as fun as it was terrifying.

By the 20th time, people took notice that I was playing a lot. I was out there. For better or worse, I was looking for excuses to play to rack up the numbers in my goal. It was around that time that two killer musicians in the folk scene, Patrick Boggs (standup bass), and Donovan Locken (mandolin), agreed to form a trio with me to play shows (thanks of course to an introduction by Dianne Martineau).

Tim and the Twelve String Band
Tim and the Twelve String Band at Frame Arts Warehouse

It was way more fun than playing on my own.

Because we were so active, all kinds of doors opened up to us. We started getting invited to play coffee shops, bars, house concerts, and showcases. I don’t remember “applying” for single gig, but inevitably one gig would lead to the next through someone that saw us play.

By my 40th performance, Tim and The Twelve String Band (our trio) was all tuned up and ready to play a full set gig at the Frame Arts Warehouse.

It was there that I met British expat Emily Senyk (Wood). She showed me some ukulele cover songs she had been working on. We shared an obsession for all things UK music and DCI Gene Hunt from Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes. So naturally we formed an acoustic duo on the spot.

We played a number of gigs and even filmed some videos, like this cover of The Decemberists we shot in the St. Boniface Cemetery. Which wasn’t us being gothy, it was lyrically relevant to the song. 😉

By my 50th performance, it was hard to contextualize how far I had come as someone with major stage fright, to now being able to perform in front of a crowd of any number with relative confidence.

To use the helicopter metaphor again… if the 1st performance was like jumping out of a helicopter at 10,000 feet, the 50th was like stepping gently out of a grounded helicopter into an abandoned Salisbury House Restaurant parking lot in the summer and being handed a refreshing Dr. Pepper Slurpee from 7-11. Anyone from Winnipeg knows what I’m talking about here.

Mission accomplished!

It’s crazy to think how something as simple as setting a time limited goal can lead to so many intended, and unintended wins. So why would I commit to 52 shows in 2018? Why do pretty much the same thing again if I already got what I wanted?

The reason is because of everything great that came along from pursuing my goal back then. The very act of trying to crunch the numbers of those shows gave me momentum. People sensed that. The world seems to open up when you’re on a mission. When you’re on your way somewhere specific and that you know to be important, people want to help you, and more than that, they want to come along for the ride.

At the end of the day, that’s one thing I’ve found to be better than the music itself. The people who care, too, who I might not have met otherwise.

So, 51 more shows to go in 2018. What changes, lessons, and friendships might await me on the other side? It will be fun to look back on this writing next year and be able to answer that with specific examples.

Wish me luck!


Destiny and her two boys
Destiny and her two boys

I intended on sitting down today to write about the song I just finished working on and to show you the equipment setup that I’ve been piecing together to play live since getting back to Vancouver.

But those words aren’t coming. And I know that’s because something really bad happened. A tragedy. I’m not sure if its my place to write about it, but for the past few days it’s been hard to think about much else. So I guess those are the things that have to be written, and I hope that these words land by illuminating rather than stepping on anyone out there who is suffering and mourning.

Brett is a friend of mine back in Winnipeg that I’ve made music with over the years. He’s got two awesome kids with his ex Destiny.

On the morning of Dec 31st, Destiny tragically passed away in a fire.

Yesterday was her funeral. The outpouring I see from her friends and family is astounding. Nobody can believe she’s gone. And they’re reeling in pain. I don’t know all the details of what happened and part of me doesn’t want to know. The point is that she’s a kind and hilarious woman of 30, in her prime.. and now she’s gone. The waves of sadness keep creeping up on me.

Everything she has ever set out to do in her life, is done. Left as it is. Wherever it stands. To be carried on without her.

Her two young boys are going to continue growing up, without a mom. She’ll never see the great things they accomplish (these kids are total weirdos and super smart) or meet the families they may end up themselves having one day. It’s just.. done. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, everyone around her is devastated, and I don’t even want to know how hard it is for Brett to be a dad right now.

For their kids to have to process something this senseless and absolute, it astounds me. Their course plotted on the map of life has now been slammed 100 degrees off course, nobody knows what it’s supposed to mean, and everyone touched is helplessly lost.

Anyone willing to put up with a houseful of musicians practicing the same 9 songs day after day, is already a saint. I remember practicing all summer long for the Forks Market busking license competition with Brett (we won an A class license!) and she never wavered in her patience while we occupied the living room.

She told me her secret strategies for flipping garage sale items on Ebay.. and how much she loved her (then) new job as a paralegal.

One night Destiny and a group of us friends and family sat around the kitchen table playing songs – Brett has always been a human jukebox and will play just about any existing song on command. Their oldest boy came downstairs right before bed and he was in a bit of a mood. Destiny said that she’d let him sing along to his favourite song if he promised to go to sleep immediately after. He was 100% into the idea. Everyone at the table went into a special rendition of Pumped Up Kicks just for him – his JAM! – he sang… er.. more like yelled the chorus at the top of his lungs. Cranky kid crisis averted and turned into the highlight of the night for everyone, thanks to her.

I didn’t know her that well but she’s always been.. around. There in periphery of my Winnipeg life. Doing things. And I thought it would always stay that way. Until eventually the Langoliers come to feast on the best and brightest of our (one day) elderly generation.

In my teen years I was out for coffee at Salisbury house with my friend Dale and his closest pals from school. Long before Destiny and Brett had ever met. She was there with another group of kids, with her bright coloured hair, being a goofball. She was cool. Dale told me that he knew her, and he felt cool.

I wish there were more meaning around this, some kind of purpose to what happened. But it reminds me of the book Slaughterhouse Five (WW2/aliens/timetravel)..

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

‘So it goes’, the narrator also says this throughout the book anytime someone dies. Which is often. And so where there might be a lack of understanding and meaning in a real life tragedy, a river of meaning can still be visited in the memories and moments that came before. Intact.

I probably shouldn’t end with this story but it makes me laugh. During a mid-practice break Brett looked into his kitchen sink and his face turned beet red. “EVERY TIME!! She leaves the dishcloth soaking wet in the bottom of the sink. Every. Time. It has stuff growing on it and smells so bad.. how am I supposed to wash my fork with this?”

I tried not to laugh, but I knew that feeling. Of a room mate, a friend, or a lover who you’ve known for so long and can make almost anything work with… but there’s always that ONE thing they do. It creeps up on you, and it shouldn’t bother you. But inside it makes you want to tear out your hair and karate chop through a brick wall.

It’s usually a little thing.. and we know it’s small. But it gets us. Maybe because they’ve been around and doing it for so long, that the assumption is – they’re going to be around and doing it FOREVER. How are we supposed to take a FOREVER of that wet dishcloth in the sink?

Only, we don’t get forever. And sometimes we don’t get tomorrow.

I can only speak for myself, but I feel like everyone who knew her would gladly keep a wet dishcloth in their sink for the rest of their days if it meant we got to say hello to her face again. Or at least, a proper goodbye.

So it goes.

Destiny’s cousin Crystal is running a “Go Fund Me” campaign for her two kids during this brutal transition because the house fire didn’t leave the boys with much. It has over 20 donations and more than $1,500 in support as of this message. Click the link if you have $50, or even $5 to pass along and help lighten the burden on two cool kids.

An America without Walmart

Ukraine and Canada have had strong ties for most of our history. There are over 1.2 million Ukrainian immigrants in the prairies, I grew up around a lot of perogies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

I don’t know if it goes both ways, are there Canadians over here too? I found an awesome flea market where just about everything is $1 (~20 hryvnia) and 9/10 items of clothing were Canadian made.

In fact I think the cardigan I bought is.. let me check..

Er, no it’s German. Fine then.

Like most countries in the world, the United States have a big presence here. There used to be an embassy building for government affairs, but the embassy itself has moved on to a swank upgrade.. and the building they left behind has been converted into an American cultural center.

It’s called America House. And it’s awesome.

They have fresh food being cooked all day in the kitchen for cheap (yes, perogies) and a café, there’s a co working space with fast wifi, and an art gallery. There are items you can take out for use like laptops, a hoverboard, one of those VR headset things, and devices to make music.

Best of all.. it’s all FREE. Well, after you factor in the cost of your dignity going through a metal detector and airport-like security any time you show your ID to enter the fortress.

America House

Check out my sweet ID card, I feel so.. American.. in Ukraine… from Canada. This is all so meta.

Oh I didn’t mention the best part of America House, there are several rooms where they host daily workshops and activities. People come to give talks, they screen documentaries, and from what I heard they throw a mean 4th of July party!

I saw that they were having a group movie night and showing ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ with Steve Martin and John Candy. Classic American meets Canadian comedy, there was no way I was going to miss it!

It felt way more dated than I thought it would. What year was it made anyway? The pace of the movie was so much slower than what we’re used to today. But a handful of the funniest scenes still hold up. So well.

We had a group convo after the movie. It was a packed house, I was one of the only 3 non Ukrainians there so I felt like I was obligated to raise my hand and speak up when people were off base, like when someone called John Candy a “famous American actor”.  I can’t just let that happen. RIP Johnny.

I shared with the group how John’s mom was Ukrainian. He was a fellow lover of perogies, so much so that a Ukrainian restaurant in Winnipeg’s North End called “Alycia’s” got him obsessively hooked.

Her perogies were SO GOOD that he had them flown to him to eat on set while filming movies abroad. Whaaaaat?! I need to try some of those, stat!

(If anyone goes looking for Alycia’s, her family reopened it further north in Gimli after Alycia passed away)

The convo was winding down with a conversation about Black Friday, what the holiday is all about, and what you might see in how it’s celebrated. LOL. I pointed out that you can search YouTube for crowds trampling each other at Walmart for a minor bargain on flat screen TVs.

More than one person gave me a puzzled look. A guy in front of me raised his hand and said “Until last week, I didn’t know what Walmart was. So I don’t think people know what you’re talking about.”

My eyes opened wide.

Didn’t know what Walmart was??

I had one of those moments where the camera zooms into an actor’s face as their jaw drops and the background accordions in towards the foreground to give a sense of the world radically changing in a single moment.

You mean.. this is untouched territory? Your cities haven’t been ‘Walmarted?’ and your local small businesses swallowed into the cold pit of future progress? You don’t even know what Walmart IS?

I hesitated. And made a choice. I backtracked.

“You aren’t missing much.” I added. And left it at that.

I looked around me, all of these young people excited to learn about the finer points of American culture. It’s really beautiful. Because as complicated as the US can be, the ideal version of itself that it aspires to be is fun and kind of magical.

And so here, in eastern Europe, as the battle of Black Friday raged on halfway around the world.. I got to visit a different United States. A kinder one. An America without Walmart.