Saturday, 15 July 2017

stretching myself



Funny couple of weeks it’s been. 
I’ve finished the new book. Pause for applause. Not a sausage. (Apologies, Spike Milligan.) The reason I’m writing this is because the first draft of the story – and that’s all we’re talking about here, the first canter round the paddock -- has taken me just the longest darn time.  And it’s not been easy writing.  Way better to look back on now than to live through then. I couldn’t seem to get it done.

This is not my first, or even fifteenth, rodeo.  I am no stranger to deadlines.  So why was this book so hard to finish?  I liked the concept hook, and was comfortable and confident in the cosmology of my world.  But the last knot or two of story simply would not unravel.  

The others were done – even Lesley who has another big book series on the go – and I was still at it.  Family holidays were approaching fast.  The days dwindled down to a precious few.  June. July. (Apologies, Kurt Weill.) And still the story wouldn’t end. I drank coffee, refused invitations, eschewed sleep, finally sinking into the frenzied dream-writing state of my university days.  
In the twenty-four hours before my plane left, I must have written 10,000 words. I wrote, discarded, wrote some more, and some more, packing suitcases, finding passports, and gulping peanut butter and apples in between sentences. At 11:30 pm, with my daughter sleeping over so we could head to the airport together, I poured my eleventy-third coffee and sat back down at my desk.  When I emailed the completed first draft to my editor, it was 2:30 am.  The plane to Tokyo left five hours later.

Whew! And also, WTF? Memories of all-nighters past.  I am way too old for this shit.What the heck was going on? Why was this one trickier than usual?
Glad you asked.  I wondered too, and I think I have the reason.The last time I ran late and stressfully was Ink Me, the first of the ‘7’ books. I was the last guy writing, the one holding up the line for everyone else.  That book stretched me.
As a story-teller, I’m usually a first-person smart-ass. That’s my comfort zone.  Bunny, the hero of Ink Me, was a switch.  Though he’s a lot like me, he writes a phonetic slang that took me the longest time to regularize and standardize. By now (I’ve written 3 Bunny books) I move from his head to the page easily, but it took me a while to find that path.
And this new book is another stretch.  I’ve never had an in-your-face narrator before.  Sooo easy to drift off story and get lost.  I spent a lot of time reining in the narrator, trying to focus less on him and more on Archie the hero. Archie’s a lot like me, but I find it hard to describe myself from the outside.
Is the book great?  Not even close.  It might get closer over the next few months. My editor has said some positive things, but she’s a nice person and she knows we have to work together.
Great or not – and it may never be great – the book is me stretching myself.  And that’s why it took so many hours and sighs and cups of coffee. 
If art is failure (thank you, Samuel Beckett) I have tried hard to fail in a new way.

By the way, Tokyo is astounding. In case you were wondering.  I’ve been back a day and I am still adjusting to Toronto, that quaint little town.  The only pic I took is one of my kids sleeping in the airport.  This isn't it, but the image is darn close. 





Sunday, 21 May 2017

playground politics

I caught the end of a stand-up routine, and it made me think. I won't have the words exactly right, but it went something like this.

Canada is the bully's friend. The bully beats the shit out of you, and his friend stands next to him, laughing, and when they walk away the friend turns around and says, Dude I'm so so so sorry about what just happened.  That's Canada.

Fair comment. America swaggers around the  schoolyard, elbowing little kids off the swings and taking their candy.  We caper in the bully's wake, telling jokes, sympathizing with victims, but mostly happy not to be picked on ourselves. In the picture there, we're the guy with the backpack.

My question to the angry comic - and the world, for that matter - is: what would you have us do?  We can't beat him up. (I'd use a gender-neutral pronoun but America seems so darn macho - a typical female bully would act different.)  And we can't run and tell the teacher, because the bully won't do what she says. 

There are a couple of other bullies on the playground.  (They won't obey teacher either.) We try to make friends with them, but America lives next door to us so we'll probably walk home with him.  And anyway the big bullies are more interested in each other than us. 


Mostly we are trying to get through recess with clean pants and an unbloody nose. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

madeleine anyone?



A random post occasioned by irrationality.
My irrationality.
Whenever I react more strongly than the situation warrants – when my emotional landscape is, as it were, suddenly out of drawing – too much anger, sorrow, fear, shame, whatever -- I pause and try to work out why. Usually it turns out to be something from my past, something I am reminded of.  I want to yell at the woman dithering in line ahead of me at the supermarket because I am mad at my little brother for displacing me in my mom’s affections.  See?  (This is a for instance, by the way.  I love my brother. And the blethering change-purse fumbler ahead of me deserves a swift and terrible fate.  There are people in a hurry, dammit!)
Ahem.
Speaking of anger, I was at the YMCA this afternoon. I love watching sports during a workout – no sound to distract me from the stair climber and a simple age-old story: winner, loser.  I’m keenly aware that I’m doing my physical best while younger more talented performers on the pitch or field or ice or diamond are doing the same. 
My Y has a pleasant urban ambience.  Here a young dad urging his kids gently along the track.  There a superfit striver on her 450th sit up. (Whoa!  Could you slice deli meat on those abs?)  A susurration of commentary all around.



(I would have used an actual photo here but everything I found was too distracting.)




And then –  a half hour later during a commercial break, sweat dripping into my eyes --  I become aware of one particular conversation.  It's been going on all along, without break or variety. I shoot a quick look over my shoulder.  Am I overhearing a training session?  Nope.  It’s 2 old guys resting comfortably on adjacent machines, arms folded, legs crossed, chins wagging, shooting the breeze.  Not a drop of sweat on either of them. 
They’re not in my way.  They’re not in anyone’s way.  And yet for some reason they begin to bug me. 
Is it a justice issue?  This isn’t what the Y is for.  Nope. 
Is it envy? Gee I wish I had someone to talk to.  Nope.
Is it disgust at flabbos who won’t even try to get on shape?  Nowhere near.
Is it the language?  Closer.  That’s part of it.
Language and attitude?
Bingo! 
There it is. Nothing to do with the Y at all.  Listening to these 2 guys sneering at everything takes me right back to university, when I’d walk past coffee shops full of idle men passing judgment – usually of a crude and sexual nature -- on every female who walked by.  Didn’t matter if it was afternoon, evening, or late at night, they’d be there, staring, with their espressos and smokes and sneers.  Obviously there wasn’t much going on in downtown Toronto in 1980.  
I had no idea what they were saying but my Portuguese girlfriend would get angry at being called a whore – loudly -- because she didn’t wear a kerchief and her skirt was short.  



Bosch captures the effect pretty well. 









This memory is from decades ago, but it comes back crystal clear, thanks to the guys behind me.  An aural madeleine.  I can practically smell the little cigars the geezers all used to smoke.  I don’t think these 2 guys are saying anything dubious.  There’s a lot of Portuguese spoken at the Y and they’d be in trouble for sexual harassment of any kind.  Maybe they're sneering at Trump or Ronaldo – hey, maybe they're sharing feelings – but the dismissive tone and stance is spot on.  The attitude is exactly the same:  relaxed, superior, aggressive. 
It’s the reason for my anger.  And now that I see it, I’m not angry any more.  Those rude old misogynists from  my university days must be dead anyway. And serve them right, the bastards! (Hmm.  Little anger remains, I guess.)
Gentrification causes problems of displacement.  We know about the displaced poor.  Has anyone given thought to the displaced geezers?  Those monoglot coffee clubs of my youth are gone.  Where do you go to kvetch now?  There’s lots to criticize about today’s kids – they’re so fit, so happy, so damn tolerant.  Got to hate them. 
I guess you go to the Y.


Sunday, 19 March 2017

cost of business

I've been talking about transport a lot the past couple of months, and here we go again. This isn't about my aunt's car. I'm still tootling around in it, still causing passengers to blench (kind of like this guy) when I mistake 3d gear for 5th, or stop on a hill and start to roll backwards when I declutch.  Actually, a fair bit of blenching goes on during a typical outing.  I blench along with my passengers. I figure it's good for us.  Gets the heart rate up.

No no, this post is about my bike. 
 Just kidding. I don't own one of those. You know, I don't think I've ever even sat on one -- no no, wait, my one time pal Dean drove me home from a restaurant we both worked at, way back in the 80s. I remember now, I leaned the wrong way in the middle of a turn and we almost crashed.  That was my Easy Rider moment.

No, when I write bike I mean one of these.


Almost literally that kind of bike -- it's heavy and slow, with a coaster brake and no gears. I bought it on Kijiji last year. If it were red and a bit smaller, it would be the dead spit of my first 2 wheeler, the bike I learned to ride 50 years ago.

Toronto is a biking city. It has mediocre public transit and terrible traffic. And it's pretty flat.  Three seasons out of four, a bike is by far the quickest way to get around. I remember having downtown appointments a half hour and maybe 5 miles apart.  It was rush hour.  The TTC was too far away.  My boss offered taxi chits, but they would have been no good to me. The ONLY way to make both appointments was by bicycle.

So imagine my chagrin the other day when I found that my bike had been stolen from the rack.  (Yes, it was locked.) Chagrin but not a lot of surprise. Thieves are all around.  They have good tools. Gone in 60 seconds?  More like Gone in 3 breaths.  Lightweight, highly-geared, expensive bikes are prime targets, but even crappy ones like mine go.



Theft is the cost of doing business.  Which I why I buy beaters.  Even if I have to get one every year, I am still way ahead of the public transit user.

Next week I'll start trolling the internet and local bike shops for deals. For now, I'm back to public transit and shank's mare.  And my aunt's car.  There will be blenching...


Friday, 3 March 2017

take that, Thomas Wolfe

Wolfe claimed that you can't go home again. Yeah, he's an important writer and he's got a stamp and all that, but so what.

I just finished a draft of a new book about Norbert, a smart-ass alien who comes to live in the nose of a small-town kid named Alan Dingwall. Norbert and Alan dominated my literary life for a few years in the late 90s and early 2000s. I wrote four books about them. Had some success and a lot of fun. And then put them aside. That was ten years ago.

A lot has happened in the last decade. Not in Toronto team sports -- we still haven't won a title -- but other things have happened in the world.  Some good, some not so good. Some downright awful. On a personal level, I have written a bunch of books that don't feature Norbert or Alan.

I left them on Jupiter in the middle of an adventure.  And, a few months ago, after umpty-thousand questions from fans about whether I would ever write another Norbert book and bring Alan home, I found myself without a deadline and decided - for no particular reason - to give it a try.

I don't write the same way I used to. Yes, my stories are still quirky with some darkness underneath, but I'm different.  More gray hair, less certainty.  Could I go back?  Could I find Alan's voice again?  I re-read parts of the old books to remind myself of the groove, and started in.

I finished last week.  I had fun, which is an important part of writing.  Will Tundra publish the new book?  Wait and see.



OK, don't worry too much. I think I did most of what I set out to do.  The story is called Boy To The World, and it's about Alan finishing his quest on the planet Jupiter and getting back to earth where - surprise, surprise - he comes up against a problem that requires him to use what he learnt on the faraway planet. The plot is full of action and goofiness, as usual.  There is an upside-down castle.  There are bird-fish and snake-women, vacuum hatches and a rocking horse who poops all the time. There are knights with punning names, and useless footnotes.  Maybe the book is not as clever as earlier ones.  (I may not be as clever myself.)  But it might be wiser and simpler.

In writing, I learned that you can go home again -- not to stay, perhaps, but to visit.  Your folks are frailer, and they've changed your bed for a pull-out couch.  But the cabbage rolls taste great, the air smells springy, and you can still get a good night's sleep.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

salutary moment


And we're back.

Updates.  I am still driving my aunt's car - badly. (Stalling, finding 6th gear instead of reverse, you know the kind of thing.)  But honks and eye rolls are better than torches and pitchforks, so it could be worse.


Kids are fine. Work is, well, work. (I'm travelling now, trying to cram teaching and editing and creativity into a series of air bnbs.) Love life is at the intersection of Risible and Complicated.  (A corner I know pretty well.)  What else is new? 

Apropos of car ownership, I had a great life lesson the other week. I haven't felt this proud to be Canadian in a long time.  (That's why the picture, if you were wondering.)

I was in line at Service Ontario.  Nothing to be proud of there. You know what it's like.



When I got to the head of the line, the clerk who was free held up a hand for me to wait. "Sorry, no English," he said. And gestured to the woman behind me. I stepped aside for her, and she and the guy proceeded in Cantonese or Mandarin (I guess).  I checked: was I the only Anglo in line? Maybe.  It took another few minutes for a clerk who spoke English to get free.

I've had to wait for a translator before, but I was always on another continent. This was a first inside my own country.  I wasn't angry.  Not even close.  A little startled, I confess, aware that the joke was on me.  We Canadians are proud of our (mostly) welcoming attitude to brave souls making a new life here.  Waiting for someone who speaks your language must be a near-universal immigrant experience.

I am glad to have had a small taste of it.