Eulogy for Gilly

December 15, 1944 – February 4, 2022

The shiva for Dad ended a week ago, and I elected to spend some time alone up north at our cottage.  I was going to need to be at Dad’s bank in Huntsville as well as his main floor apartment at my brother’s place about 45 minutes northeast of there, so heading up there made sense.

In that time, we established a few things, not the least of which is that he had no valid will.  The Gilly Paradox.  On one hand, his obsessive need for fairness, organization and documentation should have indicated at least several up-to-date copies within easy access.  One the other hand, his complete and unwavering denial that he would die.  Not just now – I mean EVER.  And with that in mind, he would never need a will.

The Gilly Paradox indeed.

We will start with this:  The old man drove me nuts.  Pretty much always.  It was never a secret.  Most of the time we weren’t playing on the same field.  Or town. Or country.  Sometimes planet.   We just didn’t see things the same way.  At least at the beginning.  I was – as he put it – an artsy fartsy and he was all business.  He was always pretty clear that the liberal arts were fine in your spare time, but it would never make you money.  Once we had a long discussion about my philosophy classes at school and he grabbed the classifieds and busily started looking for philosopher jobs.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized that he had been pushing against his own incredible creativity and projecting it on to me.

Fathers and sons are complicated – or at least we were.  There is a lot of stuff to unpack as they say.  His own relationship with his Dad was strained at least and bizarre at best.  I have vivid memories of him having many fruitless discussions with my Zaidy Al about the care he required, and how Zaidy insisted he didn’t.  I was with him at his father’s deathbed as he watched him die.  Gilly’s behaviour in his final few years mirrored this, and the way he died was virtually the same.  The black irony of the Gilly Paradox once again showing its face.

He wasn’t always this way.  He met my Mom when she was 12 and he was 14.  As she recollects, “He was on his bike and I was walking home from Essex P.S. It was in his neighbourhood as I lived south of Bloor Street on 553 Markham Street. Dad lived on 154A Christie Street. I had gotten to know him at the Y… now known as The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. We were just friends first but by the time I got to high school, Harbord Collegiate , we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I really enjoyed high school a lot because of that. In those days there were so many social activities you did at school and we would go to them. Tea dances in the gym every Friday were my favourite. It was so nice to be part of a couple in high school.”

They loved each other a lot back then.  So much so that they were married in 1964 – my Mom was 18 and my Dad was just shy of 21.  They got an apartment on Raglan Ave as Dad headed toward completing his degree in Chartered Accountancy from Queens.  I was born in 1967, followed 21 months later by Carey in 1969.  Jared came 20 months after that in 1970.  For those following the math – 3 boys in 3.5 years.  Mom was 24 years old.  As a Dad looking back – I find that an astounding accomplishment.  Add to that my father’s unhealthy obsession with success at work despite all else was just beginning to emerge, and the writing is on the wall.

When my sister Nikki was born in 1974, we were complete.  The perfect young, middle class Jewish family.  At least that’s how we were seen.  Even to us it seemed true – that’s how convincing we were.

Gilly was plagued with near-crippling anxiety decades before it became a thing.  Looking back now it was so acute that it had a profound effect on everything around him – his kids, his marriage, his business.  He never recognized it.  I guess no one really did back then.  But to him, everybody had an underlying agenda – including my Mom and us.  He would tell us what that agenda was and what he was going to do about it.  He always claimed to know exactly what people were thinking and why and would treat them like they had already acted on the thoughts he was claiming they had.

As idyllic as the Rismans appeared in the 80s, as my parent’s marriage disintegrated, we all started falling apart in our own special ways.  Mom removed herself.  I immersed myself in recreational pharmaceuticals. We all found harbour in high-risk behaviour.  And Carey tragically began the descent into madness that would eventually claim his life.

What it must have been like for Dad to finally see his own mental health issues personified in his son, and to get an objective view of the collateral damage.  It must have been devastating and frightening because he couldn’t understand it in himself let alone my brother.  He really struggled to get it.  And when Carey finally took his own life in 1996, Dad’s lifelong wait for everything to be fine was gone.

You don’t bury a child and stay the same. Dad was the one who called me after they found Carey. I was at work, and he just kept screaming into the phone that Carey was dead. Over and over. My boss threw me in a car and drove me to Dad’s place to try to keep him together. But I couldn’t do it. It seems none of us could, no matter how hard we tried. Dad nearly gave up on everything, including us. It felt like he doesn’t want real relationships with anyone. People die after all. Even your kids.  He left the family in Toronto and moved north of Huntsville, where he lived a life of relative seclusion in a room at my brother and sister-in-law’s cottage year-round.  Even when the whole family was around, he would often hole up in his room.

The last 25 or so years saw us rebuilding, settling into our own “new normalness” and creating new lives.  Dad tried his best to stay limitedly involved – just enough so it wouldn’t hurt.  Of course, no one escapes pain.  But Dad was an artist when it came to denial – a personality flaw that became more and more pronounced as his health became worse and worse.

I don’t pretend that this is the truth about Gilly.  This is just what I saw and perceived and interpreted.  My sister and brother had their own relationships with him, and their own understanding of the man he was. The truth is somewhere in there I’m sure.  But for me, our relationship was as complex as it gets.  I felt abandoned as a child when he was completely immersed in work and missed many if not most of the milestones my friends’ fathers were present for.  I felt misunderstood and demeaned when he reduced my dreams to a dollar value.  And I felt abandoned again when he ran away after Carey died.  I carried this for the past quarter century, and it affected everything between me and Dad.  I was constantly frustrated and angry with his decisions – whether it be his health or whatever – and I wasn’t subtle about it.  But it was only the past year or so that I realized that Gilly hadn’t changed – I had. He was always like this.  And he was ok with it.  It was me that kept weighing him against the standards I set as a child.  And it wasn’t fair.

Gil Risman was a real person.  He was not evil or bad by a long shot.  He was gloriously flawed and knew it.  But he had a fierce adherence to his obligations as a provider for our family.  By his own admission he was a lousy husband, but he had an authentic and enduring love for my Mom.  And as his son, there wasn’t a second that I didn’t know that my Dad loved me intensely.  He was imperfect but he was keenly aware of those imperfections.  And despite our greatest efforts to change him, he lived his life on his own terms for better or for worse.  And he died that way too.

I stood over the grave throwing dirt on a man I adored, and cherished, and worshipped.  A man that was to me a shining example of humanity – both of what to do and what not to do.  A man that never recovered from the loss of his son.  A man that loved and laughed and felt everything so intensely that it constantly overwhelmed him.  I had prepared myself for this for years, but still I cannot believe how absolutely lost I feel without him right now.  We don’t love the people we love because they’re perfect.  We love the people we love because they are.  Even after they’re gone.

I really hope there’s some peace for you Dad.  I really do.

Solos & Duets

Join me and Lisa as we take you through an evening of stories and songs – both together and alone – in this virtual concert benefitting the Find Your Light Foundation at The Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

Please donate generously at http://give.camh.ca/goto/findthelight

Radical Workplace Episode 1 Drops!

First episode of The Radical Workplace drops now!! David Cubitt and I reminisce about the old CD Plus days and chat about his proven entrepreneurial philosophy of passion vs. money and his latest success with Wasaga Beach Brewing Company!

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The Big Epiphany – That’s Why I’m Here

“Fortune and fame’s such a curious game.
Perfect strangers can call you by name.
Pay good money to hear Fire and Rain
Again and again and again.
Some are like summer coming back every year,
Got your baby, got your blanket
Got your bucket of beer.
I break into a grin from ear to ear
And suddenly it’s perfectly clear.
That’s why I’m here.”

One of my faves James Taylor wrote this 35 years ago. He had an epiphany about his purpose on the planet. He spent years working on his career to the detriment of everything else around him, constantly fighting against the legacy of incredible music he had created to focus on the music to come. After a slew of personal tragedy, he realized the simplicity of his existence. His main job was to entertain, to enlighten, to relieve the burden of everyday life from the world – if only for the 2 hours he played. People “paid good money to hear “Fire and Rain again and again and again”. So that’s what he would do. He said himself that he hasn’t been the same since.

I’m taking my lead from old JT.

I’ve been very reflective the past few weeks. A lot has gone on. And through it all, something became very clear to me. My Mom always said to her children that the only way to guarantee a legacy is to positively influence at least one person. Of course, like everything else in life, the gravity of this statement never really occurred to me until I got much older. I always doubted this about myself. I always felt like a bit of an imposter – that people’s expectations of me were far higher than I could ever achieve. But recent events have since brought me to the realization that I have left a positive mark on this earth – no matter how small – and that focusing on those things will lead me to a fulfilled future. So I am taking it seriously.

A lot of you will have noticed that I have doubled down on promotion the past few weeks. I know it may seem self-serving, but the reason is plain. I have been very lucky in my life, and I am profoundly grateful. It’s time for me to focus on using that gratitude to ramp up my ability to make positive change – whether through business podcasts, mental health advocacy, or other creative endeavours. It’s become very clear that – just like JT – that’s why I’m here.

So here’s my new FB Page, which will allow me a better audience reach to help me facilitate that change. It will also allow me to keep my personal profile a little more private because who the fuck wants to take the chance of being hacked again lol.

I’m hoping you will all like this new page and follow me as I try to make a difference. I can’t guarantee success, but I can assure you that we will have an amazing time trying 😊

https://www.facebook.com/shaelrisman/

SURFACES now on all Streaming Services!

Hello friends! For those who have been asking for years – my indie album SURFACES is now on Spotify and all other major streaming services!!

Originally recorded in 1988, this album was a collection of some of the songs I had written since 1984. I pretty much locked myself in the piano room at my parent’s house with a Fostex 4-track recorder, beat-up keyboard, microphone and trusty black Yamaha piano – and tried to capture the essence of the songs as best I could. I was very proud of how SURFACES ended up, and it really gave me confidence to start performing live whenever I could. People started hearing the album, and soon I couldn’t press them fast enough. Nearly 1000 were sold over a period of 2 years. Even more surprisingly, I was hearing stories about copies being made as far away as the Middle East.

Listening to the songs again, it’s easy to identify the poor recording quality and the shameless sentimentality that soaks them throughout. I’m not making any excuses – I was in my late teens after all and everything was a crisis. But, at the time, I really put my flesh and blood into these songs and they took me through some difficult periods.

Anyhoo – the more you listen, the more money goes to CAMH (all proceeds go to them) so listen and share and like and review and whatever else you do. Thanks for the support!!

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2AM at Windsports – The Origin of a Camp Song

2021 marks the 35th anniversary of (I Wanna Go Back To) Tamarack. Howie (the original camp owner) announced to the camp that I was writing the new camp song. Which was cool. Except that it was the first time I was hearing it too.

1986 was a bizarre, wonderful, tragic summer. It was the year we lost Jonathan Miller to a freak boating accident, and suddenly the camp was in mourning, which – as I’m sure you can imagine – is about as strange and foreign an emotion as you will ever have at camp. It seems to rise above that somehow. After Howie announced it, at about 2AM that night, I ventured out to windsports on my own with only the night sky lighting my way. I sat down on the picnic table with my yellow legal pad and a pen and could not for the life of me start writing. I was 19 years old and well established in my own emotional turmoil. I was on the cusp of starting university, which I was not looking forward to as I did not have Clue One about where I was going. My parent’s marriage was also slowly slipping into oblivion, so I was about to head back to more chaos than I could bear. All I wanted to do was stay at camp. With my family of friends. Who would shield me from the rest of reality while we idyllically breathed in an endless summer.

So that didn’t happen.

But what did happen is that I found myself immediately writing. About leaving friends, about things I would miss, about tumbling with unforgiving speed from a child to a man. And somehow, it all got flavoured with my overwrought feelings of longing, and sadness, and dread of the future and what it held for me. Suddenly the page of my yellow legal pad was full all the way to the margins with these little thoughts, and within an hour I had the song. And what was most surprising to me was that even though I had written it with sorrow and doubt and fear, it was overwhelmingly filled with joy when I put it to music.

I wish I could explain what it feels like to hear 35 seasons of staff and campers sing that song. My mom always taught me that the only worthwhile goal in life was to leave this world a better place than you found it. If you can have a positive effect on just one person, your life was worth it. That is the camp song for me.

Recently (for obvious reasons) Rob Cooper (the first Head Of Video at camp and now an award-winning writer and producer (Wikipedia Page here) sent me a long-forgotten video he shot for the camp song in 1986. I was surprised by how emotional it was to see myself in all that youth and angst and vulnerability (and hair), but it was a humbling and loving reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I will play that song for as long as I am asked to. Because it takes me back to a snapshot of comfort and safety and belonging. It always will.

The Continuing Radiance of Marc Cooper

Well you did it again, you vile fuck.  You took another one.

I get it.  He was one of the greatest humans alive.  Always putting others first.  Always.  No matter what.  He built his entire existence around it.  Gleaning joy from the joy of others.  But that is not anything you tolerate or even understand, do you?  The whole joy thing.  You shit on it every minute of every day.

I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since Ellen called me yesterday morning, as I suppose most of the people who knew him are doing.  I’m no different.  The past 10 years we had grown super close, though, after my daughter Sophie started at Tamarack.  I could always count on receiving random pics of him and her all summer, in various states of hair or hat or attitude.  We spoke endlessly during the year, mostly about our mental health and trying to help each other with it.  There is a very basic connection between people with mental illness who share similar lives.  We were both fathers, husbands, leaders – blessed with the voice and the opportunity to affect our communities positively and driven by creativity that could barely be contained.  But it was you that monopolized our conversations.  You were inescapable as usual.  But somehow, gradually, and in tiny ways, we would fight you off.  Until the next time you showed your ugly fucking face.  And you always did. 

Plenty of people are going to be writing eloquently about Marc Cooper.  And they should.  He was indeed among the greatest humans alive.  He touched thousands with his unique light and unceasing positivity.  He changed people.  He changed me.  And that’s just the kind of shit you hate.  The better they are, the more you need them.  I know this very well because you killed my brother in the same way.

My other brother is a psychiatrist who has dedicated his own life to stopping your vicious crusade.  He deals with your shit daily, even hourly.  And he has said to me many times in the past, and again yesterday, that the only certain thing about determining if someone is about to cause harm to themselves is that there is no certainty.  There is no way to jump in front of you at that singular moment when the decision is made.  It can happen anytime, anywhere, no matter who you are or what you do or how profoundly your kindness, charm, generosity, and humour have affected the people around you.

Carly and Jack, the real tragedy of all this is you. There is a lot of collateral damage to families. It is the hardest road you will ever walk. Just know that your community – the one that Marc had a profound hand in building – are right here beside you always. And forever – even if it’s just to remind you of the kind of incredible person he was.

All I know now is this.  To the thousands of people – children and adults – that Marc has left his glorious imprint on, this is their time to shine.  Talk about him.  Loudly.  They must talk to their children about their own mental health, and about suicide, and about how Marc battled the darkness until he just couldn’t anymore.  And talk about how there is no shame in that. We must fight the stigma of suicide more than ever, and talking about it will do just that.

The last text message I got from Marc was a few weeks ago, saying simply, “I love you.  That’s all have in my tank right now, and I wanted you to have it.”  That’s the kind of guy you wiped off the planet.  But I will tell you this, we will figure you out, you unredeemable, useless fuck.  Eventually we will.  And when that happens, no one will enjoy watching you die more than me.

Nobody.

ANCIENT ALBUM VAULT – 30th Anniversary of Road Apples by The Tragically Hip – 1991

I remember the day the play copy of the Tragically Hip’s ROAD APPLES came into the store in 1991. I loved Up To Here and was stoked to see if they were going to worship the “Sophomore Slump” myth and fail hard or kick it into high gear. And then Paul Langlois’ opening riff from Little Bones exploded across the store like it was kicking in a door. Holy Fuck. Nothing makes me bang my head more than that song. And every tune that came after it was equally as awesome. Just a joyously exhausting listen from end to end. And Fiddler’s Green – good god it ate me up and spit me out. Anyway, it’s become a Canadian classic and it’s the 30th anniversary of it’s release today. Watching and hearing Gord in the video below is a poignant reminder of his stunning magnetism – both lyrically and physically – and a tragic memento of an icon lost too soon. Listening again for the first time.

Watching and hearing Gord is a poignant reminder of his stunning magnetism – both lyrically and physically – and a tragic memento of an icon lost too soon.

Also, I bought 24 of these, because, well, The Hip.

ANCIENT ALBUM VAULT – Change Everything by Del Amitri – 1992

Justin Currie and band just nailed the shit out of their sophomore release CHANGE EVERYTHING. We played it endlessly in the store when it came out in 1992. From the opening chords of Be My Downfall through Surface Of the Moon and right to the final glow of Sometimes I Just Have to Say Your Name, Del Amitri truly delivers on the blissful power pop I loved in the 90s. Nothing special about the lyrics – which is weird coming from me I know – but the catchy hooks and soaring melodies make them almost unimportant to the joy. It was huge in Scotland where they are from, but it was almost completely missed here at the time.

Agree? Disagree? Like it? Hate? Let me know what you think in a comment below. I can take it 🙂