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The Nite Owl

Here in Long Branch we’re fortunate to have a really fantastic barber shop called The Nite Owl. Brian Hurson and the gang at Nite Owl have been cutting my hair since I was hobbling about on crutches after breaking my ankle a couple years ago.

When you step into Nite Owl, you’re stepping back in time – to a time when customer service mattered, details were important, to a time when you learned skills through apprenticeship. They care about traditional barbering. It is a seriously cool place. Even the music is awesome, and on any visit you might find yourself listening to anything from Conway Twitty to a jump band right out of the 40s.


Me at The Night Owl with Jara

Today Brian gave me my usual haircut and Jara, one of the Nite Owl apprentices, trimmed up my beard and shaved all the bits around it.

The Nite Owl space was an old school barber shop for many years, but after its original owner passed away it sat vacant for a decade, until Brian came along and revived it. Now the place is thriving again and just a few weeks ago they opened up a second location – The Lakeview Barbershop (in you guessed it, Lakeview) – also on Lakeshore.

If you’re interested in a Nite Owl haircut, book online for either location to avoid disappointment, as they are usually booked up all the time.

27th Street recommended.

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Backstep Cindy

Here are Joe Newberry and Brad Leftwich performing Backstep Cindy. I was at this concert. This performance was at one of the two faculty concerts at the 2016 Midwest Banjo Camp.

MBC is quite an event. Banjo freaks abound, along with various fiddle players, guitar pickers, bass thumpers and yes even mandolin pickers. There are loads of old time players as well as bluegrass pickers. Sometimes the bluegrass people and the old time people even talk to one another and (gasp) even play together.

This is Janet Beazley and Adam Hurt….

One more from banjo camp, just because….Bob Carlin with Tony Trischka, sporting the latest in banjo fashion….

I’ll be making the 6 hour drive to Olivet Michigan for the 2017 banjo camp at the beginning of June. It’s so much fun, and a great learning experience.



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The Dying Detective

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The Dying Detective was written in Swedish and published in 2010. It was translated into English in 2016. This page-turner is quality Nordic crime writing with some underlying character-driven humour.

The protagonist is an out-of-shape retired ace-detective who suffers a stroke just before devouring a sausage from the best hot-dog kiosk in Stockholm and winds up in hospital. His neurologist, aware of his previous career, asks him about a 25 year old cold case. Our hero, Lars Martin Johansson, begins to sniff around the case, and soon becomes obsessed with it.

The author of the book, Leif G. W. Persson is a well-known criminologist and a psychological profiler as well as a novelist. I half expected this novel to be full of technical police procedural detail, but not so. The Lars character is distanced enough from the police force in his retirement that he freely criticizes some of the police leaders he once worked alongside, portraying at least one of them as a bumbling fool. Much of his own investigative work is accomplished while lying on his sofa at home, about to have a nap.

Although this book surrounds a gruesome crime and the chief character is debilitated by a stroke, it comes across as somewhat lightweight crime fiction, certainly not as dark as I expected it to be. It’s an enjoyable read.

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Hockey Night in Canada – the Punjabi edition

I’m a bandwagon jumper. I admit it. I don’t watch hockey or any sport during the season, but at playoff time I do watch a little bit of hockey – and baseball too if the Jays have done well. I’ve been watching the playoff series between the Leafs and the Washington team, surprised at how much heart the young Leafs have been showing.

I tuned into CBC at 7:00 last night, only to find there was no hockey. What the Hell? We don’t have cable anymore so we don’t get whatever the sports channel is. I flipped through the channels and saw that the game was in fact playing on another station, but with commentary in Punjabi. Perfect.

As it turned out, although I don’t understand a thing in Punjabi, I enjoyed the broadcast. The commentators get suitably excited and there are enough idiomatic hockey words tossed in, and of course the names of the players don’t change. I suppose this is a comment on how little English play by play actually adds to the game. I didn’t miss it, even a little bit.

Too bad about the Leafs, though. I guess that’s it for me for hockey this season.

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Sneaky Robins

I was out messing about in the back yard this afternoon, doing some early garden work, when I noticed robins flying over to a basket which is part of our first Imagination Station.


Basket on the top right side of the Imagination Station

The birds were perching on the edge of the basket then hopping right in. I thought perhaps there was some good nesting material they were taking away. In between robin visits I had a look inside the basket. The robins were actually making a nest in the basket.


robin nest in basket

Hopefully it turns out to be a safe place for them. It is certainly well disguised. Had I not noticed robins jumping into the basket, I never would have even looked inside.

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What Painting Is

I’ve just read a fascinating, eccentric, sometimes frustrating, and very passionate book called What Painting Is by James Elkins. Mr. Elkins is an art critic and historian based at the Art Institute of Chicago. The sub-title of What Painting Is is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy. It was published in 1999.

I don’t read a great deal of art criticism these days. I think sometimes of Dennis Oppenheim’s fireworks sign, proclaiming Go further with fiction. However, when my friend Jacob, also a painter, recommended the Elkins book to me it caught my attention. After all, who thinks about alchemy these days? I was not sure I even understood what alchemy is – or was – much less its history.

What is Elkins going on about? Let’s start at the end: “Above all,” he writes, “alchemy is the record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning. And for that reason it is the best voice for artists who wrestle every day with materials they do not comprehend and methods they can never entirely master. Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.” I’ll buy that.

And now skipping back to the beginning: “So painting and other visual arts are one example of negotiations between water and stone, and the other is alchemy. In alchemy, the Stone (with a capital S) is the ultimate goal, and one of the purposes of alchemy is to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as stone. As in painting, the means are liquid and the ends are solid. And as in painting, most of alchemy does not have to do with either pure water or hard stones, but with mixtures of the two. Alchemists worked with viscid stews, with tacky drying films, with brittle skins of slag: in short they are concerned with the same range of half-fluids as painters and other artists.

Sometimes art criticism and art history writing seems foreign to me, as if it were about something besides the activity I’ve immersed myself in for many years. Elkins begins with a recognition of the studio and what happens there. He even writes about painting studios in terms of filth, reminding me of photos of the famous squalor of Francis Bacon’s studio.

Here is the thing, the secret. We start with nothing, “a head full of ideas, driving me insane” as Bob Dylan wrote. Blank canvases, boxes of paint, images all over the walls and the floor. Books. Music blasting. Somewhere, somehow, in the stew of it all, all this stuff becomes painting. Creating stuff is some kind of magic. There is a moment, a split second in time when all this coloured goo becomes something else. I know. I’m a painting junkie. Like a fiend with his dope, I need that magic again and again. I’ve tried to pack in painting I don’t know how many times. Then I think, hey I’m just going to work on this one painting. That’s all. I’m not really going to start painting again. It’ll be OK. I can stop anytime. Philip Guston wrote, “Sometimes I scrape off a lot. You have on the floor, like cow dung in the field, this big glob of paint… and it’s just a lot of inert matter, inert paint. Then I look back at the canvas, and it’s not inert – it’s active, moving and living.” There is the rub.

I was quite taken with the chapter on “Steplessness”. He writes about old master paintings made in a sequence of steps, but without becoming systematic. Some of these techniques are permanently lost to us today. Elkins writes,”Like alchemy, painting has always been insecure about its most basic store in information.” And…”In painting, it may be that the scattered painting manuals and the old letters and anecdotes are mostly right, and that classical painting was an elaborate body of knowledge, something that had to be learned slowly, from the ground up, in a four-year curriculum or a long apprenticeship. But it may also be that painting is intuitive, and that studio instruction only provides hints and strategies. Perhaps a great painting can happen suddenly with no planning or working by stages.”

But what of paintings made from the Impressionists on, when paintings have been made without separate steps at all? Elkins: “The unease that many parents feel when their children set out to study art is partly because they sense that there is no systematic technical instruction in contemporary art schools. In a large sense, that is correct because there is no longer a succession of definite kinds of information that must be learned in a certain order. Painting might take years of preparation and experience, but a truly great painting might also happen in a few minutes of intense work.

The comparison between painting and alchemy is apt. Elkins runs mighty far with this though, and writes much more about alchemy than I can digest. In fact, I put down the book several times. OK I get it, that’s what I thought. Still, it is a fascinating if eccentric way in, a way to begin to talk about painting with a recognition of the struggle in the studio, a recognition of how meaning can emerge from the substance of paint.

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Fiddle Faddle


I’m fascinated with fiddle music, but the fiddle scares me. Having heard some mighty fine fiddle players close up, I know there is only one possible explanation for how they do it. Obviously, they’ve made a deal with the devil. I mean, humans can’t possibly play like that, right?

Many times I’ve thought, OK I picked up the button accordion as a middle-aged guy and did OK with it, and then I picked up the banjo and I think I’m doing OK playing some clawhammer too, why not buy a previously loved fiddle and give it a go? After all, I’m familiar with a lot of old time music and surely the fiddle is just a different machine? The obvious reason is it looks hard, really hard. I’ve got hands like canned hams and fiddles have a small fingerboard and no frets to help along the way. And then there is the whole matter of bowing. Clearly it is impossible to learn fiddle without intervention. I don’t know if I’m more afraid of failure or of a visit from a sinister guy you says, you know I can help you out with that. Let’s talk.

Last year when I was at Midwest Banjo Camp attending classes last year, Byron Berline was there as an instructor and he is one helluva fiddle player. At one of the faculty concerts he did a piece called Fiddle Faddle, demonstrating how simple playing the fiddle is. Of course I don’t believe him.

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Soup of the week at the Comfort Food Diner

I’ve been making a different soup each week over the past few weeks. Today it was split pea, one of my faves. Split pea soup is super-easy to make and it is delicious. Today I did it with just a slight twist.

When I was growing up, my mom would make split pea after we had a ham dinner. This is because she used the ham bone to add depth to the broth. I didn’t have a ham bone today, but when I stopped by Starsky’s this morning, I saw they had smoked pork ribs. I figured they would add the same kind of smokey goodness to the broth that mom’s ham bone did so I bought some. Some people will tell you that you don’t need any bones or meat to make a great split pea soup. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. I do know that you need them if you want to create a soup that will evoke my childhood memories and all that entails.

Here’s how I made my split pea soup:

I chopped up an onion and sauteed it gently in my soup pot. While it sweated, I added salt, pepper and dry thyme leaves. I had some celery in the fridge. It was starting to lose its crispness but was still fine for soup, so I chopped it all up and added it to the onions. There is no need to chop things super-fine for this soup by the way. Coarsely chopped onions and celery are just fine. If you wanted to chop in a carrot or perhaps a red or green pepper, that would be fine too. Use what you have available.

I diced up a couple cloves of garlic and tossed them in as well. The thing with the garlic is you don’t want it to brown and burn and get all harsh on you, so I add mine once I judge the onions and celery are sauteed enough. For this soup I don’t caramelize the onions. I just gently cook them for 5 minutes or so with the celery then another minute with the garlic.

At that point I added some stock and some water for additional liquid. Then I rinsed about 3 cups of dried split peas and tossed them in. I can’t tell you a ratio of liquid to split peas, only that for a pot of soup in my soup pot, 3 cups is about right. This is about half a bag. I cut my strip of smoked ribs into a few pieces and added them in. All you really need is a piece, but I got a little carried away.

Once I got this concoction simmering slowly with a lid on, I let it be and went to play the banjo for a while. While it isn’t necessary to play banjo to make a good split pea soup, I recommend it. At some point, be sure to taste your soup to make sure the seasoning is right. By the way, don’t let anyone tell you split pea soup needs to be pureed or even partly pureed. In my world, the finished texture is just right without messing with it. I let my soup simmer for about 2 and a half hours and served it with some fresh ground pepper and plenty of crusty French bread.

It doesn’t get much better.