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The Lost Tone That Repaired a Life
farewell to the CBC long dash, anda a rebuilding of the spirit
I can smell the coffee, the beans loose and forgotten on a piece of painted white plywood, suspended over a mini fridge pushed hard against the wall. The beans that went into the red plastic pour-over cup my dad always used, water gently delivered via the white and sun-stained yellow plug-in kettle that looked like the first one ever made. The chord cut and spliced back together with electrical tape carefully wrapped around its delicate frame. My dad has never been one to throw things out. Everything, given enough time and care, can be fixed.
The to-go coffee mug my dad always used, never a ceramic mug always a steel cup, red with the paint peeling away revealing raw metal underneath and a well-worn rubber handle. I can smell the coffee first, warm and inviting and intoxicating. The promise of the notes it left in the air. And then I can smell the lingering musk of sweat, the iron of blood new and old, the lifeless smell of dirt and work and all things. The layers of reality hidden under the aroma left behind by fickle vapours of hot caffeinated water.
I walked into this shop to work for the first time in my late teens, with work boots on that barely fit and blue jeans I didn’t yet know were not long for this world. Medium blue Levis 501s still stiff from the display wall at the clothing store I had been working in, until my dad advised me to quit working somewhere that was wasting my time. My dad has always had this uncanny ability to see me even when I cannot. Sometimes he just doesn’t say anything about it until the time has become right.
I felt lost at first in here, in a shop meant for men who worked so hard they sweat and bled with careless abandon, often all at once. I was tall and gangly and unsteady on my feet, like Bambi trying out new legs for the first time but every day of my little life. There was no confidence in every foot that found pavement. But I was here, and I had to learn how to survive. There was no throwing me away either, in this house everything is fixable.
Above the coffee station — my dad's private area of kettle and coffee beans, filters and his red plastic pour-over cup — was the radio. A black dual-cassette stereo with AM/FM radio and detachable speakers. We didn’t use the two tape decks, or many of the stations on the dial, mostly the radio was there to play the CBC on a low volume so we could hear each other talk and swear and mutter under our breaths as we repaired broken windshields and cut glass and ourselves and got angry and threw things in garbage bins or on the floor. The glamorous chaos of the working world. Anger and dirt and blood and sweat and the smell of coffee and the sounds of the CBC.
We listened to CBC at home when I was a kid too, when my dad would come home from work for dinner before he had to go back, and Peter Gzowski was on the air, his steady voice filling the void left by people not speaking unless the time was right or the situation warranted it. The sound of something calm, the serenity of memories half-recalled as I sit and sift through them now decades later. As a blackout drinker for long enough I have learned to sidestep the blank spots and accept what recollections still remain. In my mind, I can see the room, the air is tinted in amber, filtered by Kodachrome and time. A shag carpet that has long been removed, wallpaper that doesn’t exist anymore and a couch that had to be thrown out when it sunk in on itself like a dying star. I can see the room; I can see the stereo and I can hear the tone emerging from the speakers on the floor that my dad had built from a kit he bought in a magazine before I was born. I think I remember my mom telling me about that, but maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t really matter, does it.
We listened to the CBC at work, and now I wasn’t in school anymore, so I worked during the day and my dad and I who never spent much time together in my youth due to the nature and ambition of his work now spent long full days together. My dad who had worked in this trade since he was 13 and me, a lifeless teenager unsure of my own feet and clumsy with a tool in my hands. Both of us learning how the other moves through the world. The coffee and the sound of the CBC in the background in the moments of rest and respite.
In the morning, CBC played the news, and then music and interviews and for an hour or two classical, which we listened to if we were too busy to slide the dial into something a little more current. But we always returned, close to noon and into the afternoon and the sound that rings through the glass shop and in my memories is the tone keeping time at 1 PM, sparse beeps and first, and then a sustained tone. Watches were double checked, or the stereo on dashboards to make sure we were on time, the right time. Our time.
And here we weren’t alone either. We lived in the Yukon, in the middle of the upper-right hand part of absolutely nowhere at all. But everywhere else in the country, at the same right time, tones were beeping and then held. Watches were checked, dashboards and stereos and wall clocks were checked and maybe they were drinking coffee too, maybe they were in a glass shop surrounded by sweat and blood and dirt and noise and chaos with tiny pockets of calm and rest. Maybe we were all connected. Maybe I could leave this and travel somewhere new, rebuild myself from broken and have a connective tether by way of a single tone that let other people know I was like them too. Different, but nonetheless the same. Driven by the same tone.
A single tone that at the time was so undeserving of conversation we never gave it much breath. Sometimes it served only to let us know the day was moving and there was still much to be done. And as I grew, I grew in confidence. Learning to hold tools and move my feet with rhythm and confidence and I found strength and soon my own sweat and my own blood and my own coffee and I was never broken, just needing repair. And my dad never threw anything away if it could be fixed.
We learned to work together, we learned to trust each other. Everyone always said I look like my mom, which I always liked to hear because I wanted to look like my mom, but I act like my dad. We laugh the same, even now. My dad's laugh is the most genuine sound in the world, it fills a room and lights all the dark corners and I hear it in my own which never sounds as full as his, but it’s the part of my voice I still like. I walk a little like he does, and I learned to talk to people, to listen to them, to see them when they couldn’t see themselves sometimes.
The tone on the CBC has been discontinued now. Put out to pasture with the soul of what once was the radio that played in the background of my memories of times before all things changed or went away. Never perfect and never clear but always there all the same. A single tone, reminding me that things were moving still, and to keep going. To rebuild.
It’s fine that the tone is gone, it’s fine that all things are gone or misremembered. It’s fine that I don’t work in a glass shop anymore where I bleed and sweat and yell and drink coffee and listen for the tone to tell me it's the afternoon. It’s fine I’m not a man like I was pretending to be and it’s fine that I had to find new ways to repair what was broken instead of throwing it all away.
When I started my own construction company, my dad helped push me out of the nest to do so, because he could see I needed to grow and command my own fate. When he saw it eventually eat away at me until I was breaking apart and crumbling, he told me that too, he told me how he could see the stress eat away and carve lines too early in my face. We sat in his kitchen, the kitchen I was raised in, where there once was a radio in the background with a soft-spoken host speaking into the void of conversation and he poured me coffee into a ceramic mug that grounded me in this space, and he told me that he could see me breaking. And the tone would play then too. Time was moving. There was still work to be done.
As I got older, and the stress of the work broke down my body and the stress of keeping up a life built on strong and sturdy lies broke down my spirit and I had complete and absolute breakdowns he saw this in me too. And said only what was needed to keep me going, to repair and fix as best he could. A single tone. The mark of time.
And eventually, I saw what was needed myself. Eventually I came out and I left the world we had worked in together for so long, where we learned each other's rhythms and movements, our strengths and weak spots. And he told me when I came out that he was only mad that I thought he would reject me for it. He only ever wanted to see me fixed. My dad doesn’t like to throw things away after all.
I hear the tone and I think about all of these things. Someone asks me to fill out my skills and qualifications on a list and I become self-defeating. I say that I failed high school and went into the trades because I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know anything, I have nothing. I hear the tone and learn it’s going away, and I panic for a second because now I am on the other side of the world and that tone was the one thing that existed in all places, even the glass shop my dad works in now, and the space where he makes coffee in a red pour-over. I think about all the things I learned in workshops, with all the sweat and blood and coffee vapours and how I found my strength and footing and learned just what a tool is capable of. How I grew. And I think about the disservice of not considering this an education to draw from.
I learned so much in that world, where the CBC marked our days and my dad made coffee just the way he likes it, just for him. Where he taught me how to fix things that you might just want to throw away, showed me how to use tools and how to hurt myself and how to keep going. How to be steady even when you want to shake, how to slow down and how to hurry while doing so. I think of my dad working in trades, the work he has spent a life doing with admirable talent and unrelenting drive. I think about how it sounds when I make self-deprecating jokes about being uneducated and how that’s not really true, is it. There’s no divide between working in trades or getting a classical education. We all only learn what we find in this world and all the most formative lessons I could have only learned by getting my hands dirty and bloody and sweaty over the course of many years.
I need to remember to be proud of who I am, and the things that built me. The skills that repaired me. I need to remember so much but I drank it away or lost it trauma and all things. But maybe there’s so much of it there still, I just need to find my way back to the smells and the Kodachrome filters of the visions of them in my mind. A single tone that rings memories back to life from where they have slept for longer than I care to admit.
I do a different manner or work now. I don’t cut myself or work with tools or my hands much anymore. I sit and I type and I write. I send emails and check in with my editors, I chase stories and sources and I build things. I build a career. I stress about not being as good as my peers or being overlooked or not good enough. The stress is different, the sweat and the blood is different but the drive is the same, the confidence is the same and the aroma of the coffee is the same even if the beans and the delivery are different and the tone may be gone now but the tether remains, that which ties me to where I was broken and fixed so many times before and the reminder to never throw anything away if you can help it. How much I have learned to fix, and the skills I have honed and sharpened in spaces unconventional but no less real for the job I have now.
The tone is gone, the memories are imperfect and missing in places, but they are there all the same, the memories of all the cracks that needed to be repaired to make it here.
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