Tag Archive: music

intangible pleasures

Coffee Cream

Photo Credit: Krishna; Licence: Public Domain

On Monday, I wrote about my youngest son’s inexhaustible fascination with throwing leaves into the river rapids.  On Tuesday, I talked about the simple delight of flowers.

Writing about these things got me thinking about simple but intangible pleasures in my life: impalpable experiences that give me a brief burst of delight, but which might go unnoticed.  So, today, I started compiling a list. It’s only 3-long so far but I hope to add to it over time.  There is no intrinsic reason why these things should bring me pleasure.  They just do. I don’t even want to analyze it.  Here’s the list:

  1. cream in my coffee: I love watching cream as it is poured into coffee. The way the cream folds into the rich, dark liquid, sinking first to the bottom, and then funneling up the sides in an upside-down mushroom shape.
  2. warmth in the centre of frigidity: have you ever been stuck outside in the dead of winter, with a frigid breeze sucking away all of your body’s warmth. Then suddenly the breeze dies down for a few seconds and it happens right when the sun is shining directly on you?  I love that.
  3. the secret chord: “I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord” — so goes the Leonard Cohen song.  Every once in a while, there is a progression in a musical piece to which I am listening that just blows my mind and fills my chest with excitement.

Today, I am thankful for intangible pleasures.

What are some of your intangible pleasures?  Tell me about them in the Comments.


Nearly a decade ago, while visiting a friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, I decided to step out and take a stroll at dusk.  The air was fresh and fragrant with the scents of summer, the temperature was ideal, and I felt generally happy and at peace with my life, which lent me an unusual sense of spontaneity.  I hadn’t the foggiest idea where I was going or where I would end up, but trusted my fate to the city.

As darkness descended, I found myself near the waterfront, which was buzzing with overwhelming activity.  Inquiring of those around me, I discovered that I had stumbled upon Celebration of Light, an annual musical fireworks competition.  The competition features spectacular fireworks set to a musical score.  I was near a high-rise condominium, several of whose residents had their radios tuned to the station broadcasting the soundtrack, and who were blasting the music at sufficient volume for it to be heard against the thundering boom of the exploding fireworks.  I arrived just as the show was beginning, and took up a patch of grass to take in the colourful display.  It was an entirely unexpected boon, and one which made my holiday so much sweeter.


Photo Credit: Vicki Nunn; Licence: Public Domain

Yesterday, we arrived in Gatineau, Quebec, for the tail end of an annual family vacation which begins with camping in Algonquin Park.  We have a few friends and family who live in the Ottawa area, and this is our chance to catch up with them.  The streets and parking lot outside our hotel were nothing short of chaotic.  A man with security stenciled across his shirt intercepted us at the entrance to the lot to confirm we had legitimate business at the hotel.  I thought at first that some political personage must be staying at the hotel and there were concerns of assassination.  (I realized later that this was silly as, although the hotel is of reasonably decent caliber, it is not quite so high as to attract people worthy of assassination).

It turned out that the Casino du Lac-Leamy Sound of Light program was being featured in a place visible from our hotel.  Without intending it, we ended up in a place of such convenience that we needed only to set up our fold-up chairs on the lawn outside the hotel and a marvel of human ingenuity was executed seamlessly before us in dazzling bursts of light.

serendipity: the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things unsought

As I have aged, I have found myself losing some of the pure excitement of my childhood — the fascination of a virgin mind exploring a world filled with wonder.  Having children helped me regain some of it, as I found joy in their wonder, but I nevertheless feel that, compared to my childhood, my blood has in many ways dried to dust when it comes to feeling that sense of amazement at the world around me.

Not so with fireworks.  When I see them, it’s like I’m a child again.  I feel no shame in admitting it: I get giddy.  I just sit there with a goofy grin on my face, my gleaming eyes reflecting the vibrant, chromatic explosions before me.  You can understand, then, that happening upon an opportunity to see a world-class fireworks display when it was not even planned made our family vacation infinitely more perfect than it already was.

Today, I am thankful for serendipity.  Whether you believe that fate brings us to these places, or that it is all just happenstance, I feel immense gratitude for the small opportunities that arise in life through perfectly unplanned timing.


I have the good fortune of living just on the outskirts of a small city.  We are within walking distance of the city amenities, I have a two-minute drive to work, and a large city centre is only a 15 minute drive away.  But, while our house puts us close to city life, our home is also backdropped by an expansive ravine complete with winding river and forest.  The ravine isn’t part of our property, mind you, but we are close enough to a decent habitat for wildlife that we have some of the benefits of living in a more rural location.

When I was young, my grandparents lived along Halls Lake in Haliburton County, Ontario.  When visiting, I could look out their dining room window and see a variety of birds which were otherwise foreign to me in my city dwelling.  Most memorable were the hummingbirds.  I was fascinated by their mesmerizingly fast wings and their apparently effortless ability to hover in mid-air.  To some, the sight of a hummingbird might not be all that remarkable, but it was enough to help form in my mind a dream of living in a place where I could see nature up close.

hummingbird in flight

Photo Credit: Elaine R. Wilson; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Our goal is ultimately to live farther away from the city but, for now, where I live will do. Not long ago, as Sandra and I sat on our back deck, we were amazed to see a hummingbird appear.  We had no feeders to attract them — simply good old-fashioned wildflowers in the garden. I felt blessed, chosen. This small marvel had flown from who-knows-where and had chosen my yard to visit.  It seems silly, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel that something special was happening.

In a similar vein, a more frequent benefit of having a treed property closer to nature is that a number of birds have taken up residence close by.  I love waking in the morning to the sound of a light breeze blowing through the window, billowing the curtains, and the music of songbirds raising the morning from the depths of night.  There is so much variety in their song.  To some, this might not seem like such a great thing, but it brings me a sense of peace and timelessness.  Other times, sitting outside, I am pleased just to hear the wind blowing through the trees, rustling the leaves, and creaking the branches.  That happens when my children are not in proximity, their shouts and screams consuming whatever other sounds I might hear.  But, even when the kids are close, there can be pleasure in the sounds of their play — unfettered laughter chief among them.

Other times, when I am travelling in my car, it is rare for me not to have music playing, and I feel excitement at the ebbs and flows and highs and lows of an operatic aria or symphonic movement.  And when music or nature does not surround me, I am fortunate just to be able to hear others speak to me and to know what they are saying.

In every second of my life, I find benefit in sound — a phenomenon so much more meaningful than the simple displacement of air which forms its physical properties.  Today, I am thankful for the ability to hear, because it is not something to be taken for granted when there are so many people who cannot.


I took a couple of linguistics classes in University and they nearly slayed me with ennui.  And I’m the type of person who loves doing a lot of things that other people find agonizing: reading law, discussing grammar, filling out surveys, memorizing things (just for the heck of it).  Give me a statistics formula to sink my teeth into and I’m a happy man.

My issue with linguistics was that it took what was, at essence, a really deliciously messy topic and boiled it down to a science, scrubbing it clean with words that sounded like they were made up just to annoy me (agglutinative, antonomasia, litotes…).  It’s like when your Mom has some sort of departure from her senses and encourages you to play in the mud.  It takes all the fun out of it.

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I am a proponent of evolutionary psychology, the school of psychology that believes human behaviour can be explained in terms of survival benefit. It is beneficial for the species, for instance, that we do everything we can to ensure our offspring survive. We deposit infants into the world, completely vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. It makes sense, then, that parents should care for their offspring until the children are able to care for themselves. If you’ve spent much time with infants, you’ll know they don’t exactly ingratiate themselves with you through their behaviour alone. Charming traits like waking you up every two hours to feed and eliminating waste at any place, any time, might have made our neanderthal forebears inclined to toss these screaming tyrants to the wolves. That would never do, of course, so the capacity for love evolved. (I realize this is a severe oversimplification, but you get the point).

But music! No matter how many theories I read on the evolutionary benefit of music, it still feels like an anomaly. Sure, it might be a by-product of the evolution of another behaviour, or it might have evolved as an adaptive mechanism to promote bonding.  But none of that explains the way music makes me feel, like an explosion of feeling has gone off in my chest, and sometimes an intensity felt throughout my entire body.  None of that explains the complex neuronal light show necessary for musical appreciation. To listen to music uses a multitude of cognitive functions, and our brains must be just like a fireworks display. All of that from an evolutionary by-product?  Hard to believe.  And there are already several other simpler human behaviours which promote bonding.  Why would music ever be necessary?


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil, Licence: Public Domain

Yet there music is, in us and around us and in every culture, in every inhabited place in the world.  Somehow, the inadequacy of science to explain music to me makes music seem like a mystery unwilling and unable to be solved.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  As much as I love science — and I really do adore science — there is some small measure of comfort in feeling that there are things science can’t explain, though science may strive to do so.

Today, whether I am sailing down the highway singing along with some classic rock, snapping my fingers to the rhythm of some jazz, or glorying in an operatic aria — today, I am thankful for music.  Music has transformed my life, permitting me to leave behind drudgery for a little while and enter a unique and remarkable realm filled with inexplicable feelings and sensations.

How do you experience music?

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