Wednesday, 29 August 2007

not a lot of time today ...

I should have a dedicated function key - F12, maybe - that I would push anytime I wanted to say, Not a lot of time today, since I am behind on my rewrite. It's the phrase I seem to be using often these days, along with Sorry, I can't ... and I'd love to come, but ... and How much is that test going to cost (there's a sigh that goes with this one -- I've been having trouble with the car).
So, not much time to chat today, since ... you know. Mind you, I don't actually like the idea of speed keys in life. I'd like to be able to slow down because it would mean I was better organized and on time.
And a speed key would definitely take you away from the moment you were in. I'm against that, I think. As far as choice goes, I'm for enjoying the moments, not wishing I could get to the next one. Even boring moments waiting for overdue airplanes, or scary moments waiting for overdue children. Murdering time is a crime. (Except maybe during dentistry. Painful moments are not worth much. I'd acquit anyone who managed to murder time in pain.)
The topic for today was supposed to be about living my life backwards (speaking of time), since I am finding myself more and more frequently in positions I have not occupied in decades. Part of it is being single again again (oh come on, people! Get your minds out of the gutter. I'm not talking about those positions). And part of it has to do with being carless -- no, that's not a typo, though I am careless as well -- since it's in the shop getting tested for things, and when it isn't my daughter's claims seem more urgent than mine. Living in a small town I can get around by bicycle, and my particular vehicle of choice is a lawn-sale special of a vintage I remember from my own youth. The last Raleigh 3-speed I owned took me to and from a summer job scooping ice cream. Come to think of it, that bike and I were hit by a car too ...
More later. Sorry to leave you in suspense, but I've got to go. You know why.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

dulse et decorum est -- NOT

And now to the weird snack section of our program. who out there has heard of dulse?

Me neither, until last week when a mento of mine (I do some mentoring through Humber College. I ment. I am the mentor and they are the mentos) was having trouble giving me a visceral sense of her character's home town in Nova Scotia. I want to be able to smell the place, I told her. I want to taste it.

My mento asked if I had ever had dulse. No, why? I said.

Because that is the smell and taste of my childhood.

(Our first sidebar today deals with the history professor who used to fire off a pistol at the start of his section on the French revolution. As the smoke eddied around the classroom, he told the startled students that they were smelling the Napoleonic era. My own medieval history prof, quoting this story, threatened to bring in a bag of pig dung and throw it around the class to give us a smell of the middle ages.)

Anyway, my mento sent me some dulse in the mail. It's a plant. It comes in a baggy like, oh, basil, say. Flat leaves. Eat some, she said in her letter. It's an acquired taste, but no one has been able to describe it. There's the sea, and dirt, and fish, and salt. Some say they can taste blood in the leaves.

(Second sidebar. Great title, eh? Blood in the leaves. Could be an autumnal massacre. Or a tea drinker's poisoning. Or a bookseller's stabbing.)

So part of me was wondering why, if this is a rough description, anyone would want to eat dulse? Blood? Salt water? Why would you want to learn to like that? Cigarettes and martinis make you look cool, and a bit like James Bond. But there's no high from seaweed, and I don't know any cool kids or superheroes who eat it. (All right, maybe Aquaman.)

To conclude, I had some dulse, and ... I'm hooked. That's right, I'm a dulse head. I have a sea monkey on my back. A real (davy) jones for the stuff.

Kidding. Sorry, mento of mine. Dulse tastes like death. To get a sense of the flavour and texture, imagine a combination of low tide and human skin. Mmm mmm good.

Not that we needed any more evidence, but this confirms my belief that Maritimers are strange and heroic folk.


Hands up if you read the comics as a kid. Right, me too. Not every kid reads comic books (I didn't for one, why spend candy money on a story when the library was free) but anyone who got a newspaper read the comics. And -- this is my point today -- you read all the comics. Didn't you? I sure did. All the supposed-to-be-funny ones, anyway. I laughed harder at Calvin building weird snowmen than I did at Beetle Bailey taking a nap, but I read every word of every comic, even the ones I didn't really like. Hell, I read about Not Me knocking over a lamp in the Family Circus house.
My question is, why? I didn't watch every animated TV show. I didn't read every page of every book I started. There were no DVDs when I was a kid, but I sure changed the channel if the movie got boring. My kids are the same way. They'll change channels in the middle of a Simpson's rerun to watch another Simpson's rerun in order to catch a particular funny bit, but they'll read all the comics in the daily paper. So ... why are the comics different?

Here's what I think. Feel free to disagree. (Hey, feel free to book a holiday or download music or find a hot date. It's your computer.) What I think is that the newspaper comics represent limited time out. They are a ritualized few moments away from the worries of life, recess, if you will, in the middle of the school morning. The small-scale focussed games of recess assume a large importance -- much larger than they would if the break were longer. TV is almost infinite, like summer holidays. There, with no boundaries, your time out becomes your life. You pick and choose what you watch. You get bored. But recess is a narrow window. You've only got fifteen minutes -- about the same length of time it takes to read the comics. There's no time for boredom. Crouched over the cereal bowl or the toilet bowl (sorry, couldn't resist), you live each and every panel.

Friday, 17 August 2007

successful mediocrity

Typing the swear words for the title to my last entry -- $*&%#! -- takes me back to the character of the Sarge from Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey, who swore almost every week at his poor incompetent troop. Other comic strips used the same form of periphrasis, but Beetle Bailey is the one I recall most clearly.

Can mediocrity be an absolute? I think so. There must be one mark in the dead middle of the bell curve, one ranking perfectly equidistant from top and bottom of the scale. In which case Beetle Bailey might be the absolutely mediocre comic of my weekend youth. There were lamer strips, to be sure: Family Circus and Blondie come to mind right away. There were certainly funnier ones: from the brilliant The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes on down to Broom Hilda and Tank McNamara. I used to read the comics in strict sequence, beginning with the ones I liked least and ending with my favorites, and I'd come to Beetle Bailey about halfway through. On the same delayed gratification principle, I ate my carrots first, then my potatoes, and finished with my meat. (Ah, childhood, when I had time to discriminate. These days I grab whatever I can. I mean, I could have a stroke in the middle of my vegetables.)

If you think about it, you can find a Beetle Bailey equivalent anywhere. Hogan's Heroes, say, or Friends. Dave Matthews or Sheryl Crow. Chipper Jones. Take it further: most mediocre Prime Minister (St Laurent) or President (Reagan, Eisenhower) or ... well, whatever category you like.

It just occurs to me now that I actually read Beetle Bailey every weekend for years. I did not watch every episode of Hogan's Heroes, or buy all (or come to think of it, any) Dave Matthews albums. I have never followed the Atlanta Braves. What is it about comics? I think there may be more to say here. More later.


Yet another watershed moment yesterday, watching my son play soccer. (These days I seem to be hitting watersheds every time I turn around -- middle age is mighty unsettled topography.) You can remember the first time you heard a swear word, right? I mean a real swear word, not the hells and damns that dot the landscape like confetti at a wedding. (For me, it was fourth grade: my first day at my new downtown elementary school, where there was no grass on the playground and the f-bomb was suddenly everywhere, a part of casual conversation. I walked around all day with my mouth open and face aflame. It was the linguistic equivalent of transferring from a convent for a nude beach.)

That was a long-ago watershed. My watershed moment yesterday was hearing my son swear, in public, at a grown-up. It was an intense closely-fought game between talented fourteen-year-old boys. Lot of shoving, close calls, frustration. Ed played a magnificent game, running tirelessly up and down the field, but at one point the pressure got to be too much for him. A particularly hard effort culminated in a pretty good shot on net, which the ref could not avoid. He stopped the shot, and play went on. And Ed, as he put it later in the car, lost it. "What the &*$%@ was that?" he shrieked, in a voice loud enough to be heard all over.

I stood still, waiting for the sky to fall, wondering what I could do to put it back when it did. Other parents gasped or giggled, depending on personality. The ref did nothing, and Ed shook his head and charged after the play.
I was somewhere between impressed and appalled. It wasn't the use of the word. Hey, I use it a lot myself (ended up in real trouble in BC a couple years ago -- remind me to tell you sometime). No, what got me was Ed's angry use of the word in conversation with a grown up in a uniform. There is no way would I have done that at his age. I don't know that I could do it now. When the equivalent of the referee in my life soccer game -- Revenue Canada, say, or the dealership where I take my car, or a traffic cop who thinks I may have been speeding -- gets in the way of my shot, I tend to sigh, and write a cheque. I'm more mature than Ed, and more polite, but am I acting more correctly? I wonder.
Anger can be liberating. It can be therapeutic. And it can be effective. Ed intimidated the ref, who did not give him a card, or indeed make a call against us for the rest of the game (which we lost, alas. Captain Anger did not actually save the day). He was in firm possession of the moral advantage, and he was angry enough to use it. Part of me is upset with him, because he yelled at a guy who was doing his best. But another part of me is pleased for him, and wonders how I can use this power. Maybe I should let him loose on my car dealership next time they charge me hundreds of dollars for running a series of tests that do not locate the source of the mysterious clicking noise.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

more belief

And we're back. As I see it, the third stage of belief (I'm not Kubler-Rossing here; her stages are progressively therapeutic. To my way of thinking the first stage of belief would be the ideal), after Enthusiasm and Zeal, is Bigotry. My way or no way. I love it, and everything else stinks. If Zeal is Enthusiasm on drugs, Bigotry is Enthusiasm after it has overdosed. There is nothing left to say.

Which brings me, finally, to (not her name) Kathy. On morning before class, back in the World Religions segment of high school history, she pulled me aside and whispered intensely, Why don't you accept Christ as the son of God? Now, I was happy to have Kathy's attention, because she was a nice-looking girl. But I had no idea where her question came from. Huh? I said, inanely. You, Richard. (Her eyes flashed. She had masses of dark hair, which she pushed away from her forehead. My heart went pit-a-pat.) Why can't your people accept Christ? My people? What she was talking about? Come on, you're Jewish, right? Why can't you accept Christ? Don't you want to be saved?

I don't know why she'd picked me. It was a downtown high school -- lots of different faiths in our class. A couple of guys wore kippot, for heaven's sake. Me, I had been brought up a strict atheist, so the notion of adherence to any faith was odd. The closest I had come to Judaism was playing Shylock in our production of Merchant of Venice. But what should I say to Kathy? I didn't want to cop out and deny being Jewish. And yet she was awfully pretty.

In the end I took her hand in mine, and stared into her deep blue eyes. Maybe, I said, you could ... help me find Christ, Kathy. Then I couldn't help myself. I burst out laughing. She flushed and turned away, and I never had another intimate moment with her. (Kipling talks about the inopportune mirth of the artistic temperament. I don't know about artistic, but I sure have the timing.) Kathy was not a Nazi, or even a terribly bad person. She cared about my soul. But she was a bigot, and it's such an unattractive form of belief.

Friday, 10 August 2007

belief part one

Today's entry starts with Ruskin and ends with my non-friend Kathy (not her name) from eleventh Grade. (Not her picture over there -- that's a real Kathy.) Whole lot of Kathys in my high school, but this girl was not one of them. Funny about names -- every time the teacher calls out Montana today, a quarter of the class puts up their hand, but you can't buy a Kathy. I once asked Ed if he knew where Montana was on the map, and he said, What do you mean, map? She's in the bathroom.

Sorry, that's where we're ending. John Ruskin, the influential nineteenth-century art critic and sexual sad sack (supposedly so grossed out by his wife's pubic hair that he became a lifelong abstainer from sex with anyone but himself) says that Art requires that you believe in something whole-heartedly. He is theologically sound (Faith makes the miracle), and, on an anecdotal level, I can assure you that my best stuff comes when I can believe in what I'm writing. But there are, I think, various levels or stages of belief. Stage One would be Enthusiasm, which I see as I love it -- whatever it is. On the whole I like Enthusiasm. Listening to someone who really enjoys fishing, say, describe their latest fishing weekend is kind of fun. I don't know one end of a fish from the other, but I'm happy to listen to someone talk about a topic they fully understand and appreciate. Their love shines, and brings out a good side of them. They are taking me on a journey and I am happy to go with them. I'll nod, knit my brows, even ask useful questions. Can you fish sitting down? I'll say. Or, What's the dumbest name for a fish? (Cause there are a bunch. Once at a restaurant I ordered crappie just to say I did. And did you know that half the endangered Chilean sea bass you see on the menu is really Patagonian toothfish? Which I would order in a heartbeat, but doesn't sound like something you'd pay 30.00 for.)

Anyway, next stage of belief after Enthusiasm is Zeal, and here things start to go awry. I love it is great, but Zeal is stronger than that. Zeal is I LOVE IT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE. If Enthusiasm is kind of sexy, Zeal is Enthusiasm on drugs -- still good looking, but there's something a bit off. The anecdotes become boring, or scary. The weekend fisher turns into the Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three. I once left a shirt button behind, turning quickly to escape from the rest of a discussion of the awesomeness of Nirvana (the rock group, not the state of being -- which this zealot was far from achieving.) The sad thing is that zealots often get their way. If you want something so badly that you can't think about much else, you are way more likely to get it. Worldy somethings, that is. Not Nirvana, or even love or happiness or good teeth, but money, promotion, political power, stamps, sexual partners ... whatever you can quantify. The planet is run by zealots.

Finally we come to the third stage of belief. After Enthusiasm and Zeal, we reach ... but you know what? I have to stop here. I promised Ed I'd go for a walk with him, and he's waiting. I'll get back to the third stage next time. Now, I said I'd end with my non-friend. Only way to do that is to drag her name -- Kathy -- in out of the blue water. That'd be a cheap trick.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

my inspiration

A few years ago our local paper sent a form around asking members of the arts community about their inspiration. Please write a brief essay explaining who or what has motivated you to become the artist you are was, I believe, the question at the top of the form. We were supposed to include an appropriate photograph if we had one. I thought deep and hard (well, yawned and scratched my head) and laboured (well, messed around) for several (well, one) hour, and came up with a piece.

And I never heard back from them. When the article came out the following week I understood. Seems like most of my local arts community gets up every morning and goes to work thinking of their mom. That's what gets them going. She is in my thoughts always, wrote one sculptor. There was a nice picture, too. Dad was also prominently featured as an inspiration, as were kids, dogs, Mother Theresa, war veterans, the country, and Madonna (a charming piece from a teenaged actor, who attached a signed photo).

My inspiration is different. Not that I don't care about my parents -- in fact, I owe Mom a phone call right now, though I think I'll wait until later in the morning to ring her. Not that I don't think about my kids all the time, or my country (maybe not quite so often) or Mother Theresa and Madonna (all right, now I'm lying. It's been well over a month since I've thought seriously about Madonna). What I'm getting at is that my piece focussed on another kind of inspiration. You see, I write not from love but from fear. Every morning I get up thinking: I have bills to pay. With four teens running around, the frozen foods aisle of the grocery store is enough to get me going. My piece was all about the motivation provided to me, as an artist, by my monthly statement from the good patrons at VISA. And, yes, I included a photo.

It's crunch time for me right now. Another book deadline looms, and if I don't meet it I don't get paid. Whether I meet it or not, there'll be a VISA bill at the end of the month. That's the only good thing about my source of inspiration -- it will never (sigh) run dry.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

does Honesty still have a perm?

Today's topics are honesty (also a song title, and the name of a girl in my third-year sociology seminar -- and, I think, a plant) and credulity (none of these -- and you can see why. Who'd name their kid Credulity?) and laziness. I remember long ago (back around third year, come to think of it) hearing about a set of conjoined twins who were attached at the head. I'd never heard of such a thing before, and my first response was to say, No way. They must be kidding, I said to my roommate. You misheard, I said. An urban myth, I said, like the alligators in the sewers or the serial murderer calling from inside the house. My roommate shrugged and said that he'd believed the story. Why would they lie? he asked. I don't know -- because they're liars, I said. Too lazy to invent something convincing. And you're too lazy to doubt them.

Of course I was wrong -- in more than one way. The twins did exist; and I was the lazy one. I doubted because that was the easy route. I'd never heard of twins joined at the head, and the picture looked odd, so I didn't buy it. Credulity would have been more difficult. It would have required an active imagination, and my imagination was inside watching TV.

I am indeed a lazy person, mentally. Or maybe self-absorbed describes me better. (Let me contemplate myself for a while, and get back to you.) I think: That's what I'd do, or That's how I'd feel, and proceed on that route, credulously assuming that others act and feel as I do. When people at parties tell me that they will get back to me, I believe them. I have to go now, but we'll get together soon, they say. We'll have a drink. We'll have lunch. We'll hang. Right on, I say. Here my credulity is the lazy act -- I am assuming that these (poor bored) souls are eager to get back in touch with me, because I'd be. Doubt would require me to get outside myself -- again, way too active for my imagination, which is taking a nap on the couch.

I don't watch tennis often, but the other day my daughter and I flipped past a Serena Williams match as they were flashing her height and weight across the screen. And I said, Hey, look at that! She's got my build. And I was puzzled. Because of course she doesn't have my build. We're both 5 foot 10 and 150 pounds, and essentially healthy humans with full heads of hair, and the resemblance stops there. Look at her crammed into that suit, I said. Look at those muscles, like coiled springs. Look at all there is of her. How come I look like me, and she looks like her, and we're the same height and weight? I didn't get it. Maybe the clingy suit emphasized bulk? Maybe the muscle-fat ratio was different? Maybe TV added ten pounds? I felt like Ptolemy trying to explain the universe. And then my daughter did a Copernicus. Maybe she's lying, Dad, she said.

Oh. Didn't occur to me. I am going to have to get my imagination outside more often. Go on long walks. Maybe do a workout.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

mea maxima culpa

Regular readers may remember the hotel bar incident a few posts ago, when a couple of friends and I captivated a drunk lady by claiming (it was Neal's claim; but I went along, guilty by association) to write clown porn. And I felt kind of yeesh about it afterwards because fooling drunks is too easy. (Like trying to embarrass your fourteen-year-old daughter, or teasing an anger-management class -- it's just not a level playing field.)
Anyway, the joke's on me. When I consider the number of people who can not recall my name (including publishers, school boards, and my own father, who routinely mixes me up with my brother) -- and the army of bureaucrats and telemarketers who can not spell it -- I am dismayed to report that this drunk lady somehow did remember me, and find the website, and recognize herself in the clown porn entry. She even emailed me (go ahead and check -- I felt guilty enough to publish the comment). And her letter was not full of outrage and bad language. No How dare you, sir, or I am appalled at your presumption, Richard, or, In the name of everything decent ... No, she is all humiliation and sorrow and mild explanations and such. Oy. Maybe Thumper the rabbit's father was right all along -- If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Hemingway was right too -- Moral is what you feel good after.
So this entry is by way of apology. Next time I meet a drunk in a hotel bar, and a friend mentions clown porn, I will resist temptation. I will not make fun. I will not write about it afterwards. Sorry, Karen. If you send me your address, I'll send you a book.

(Wonder how Hemingway and Mr Thumper would have got on. Their relationship would have been one-sided, I feel.)

Thursday, 2 August 2007

what the wild waves are saying

I've been away from the computer for a few days, unpacking boxes of books while waiting for the Bell people to sort out my phone line, so I didn't realize until now that the picture of George Eliot's Romola did not come out. Sorry, you guys. I'll try again.
Had a sentimental moment, the last night at the old place. Ed and I were together, the others already in the new place. As I took one last look round the empty rooms, and remembered the time the furnace didn't work, and the time the window sill broke, and the time the raccoon got in, and various other times, I was caught up in a moment of finality. Hey, Ed, I said. You want to go for one last walk? One of my favorite memories of the place is getting up early and going for a walk, just the two of us, past the Old Folks' Home and hospital and water tower and WalMart. We'd always go the same way, hopping the fence at the home and cutting back behind the industrial mall (ah, such scenery! That part of Cobourg is like a postcard, I tell you). Anyway, I fancied one last walk for sentiment's sake, but Ed said, Nah. I'm hungry.

I was reminded of a moment years ago, watching a Dickens movie with my parents. Both of them began sniffing and choking up as the oh so typical crippled saintly child coughs and sickens, but my brother and I could hardly restrain our giggles. You guys are so callous, my parents complained. Sentiment, I realize now, is a province full of old people. It's not that the young are callous -- but they do not, most of them, have the same sense of loss. When the dog dies, or the best friend moves away, the child is sad pure and simple. But the misty weepy semi-sadness of the tides of life washing over us and leaving us behind -- that's a grown-up thing.
Fair enough, I said to Ed. Let's eat. Then we can start putting away books. But, you know, I think I'll take that walk, one of these days, and see if I can work up a sniff or two.
I don't know how I'd react to Smike or Little Paul today. Gosh, I hope I'd still giggle.
It's been a very Victorian couple of posts here. Remind me to tell you about the clown porn lady. Is my face ever red now.