Christopher Columbus and the manufacture of identity

You can’t believe everything you’ve been taught.

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

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The Old Man and The Sea

I’ve heard about this famous Hemingway book, but have never read it. Now I am reading it, and am pleasantly surprised by a few things:

  • It’s short, like a novella, but without chapter breaks. It’s really more like a very long short story.
  • The story format makes it immersive – you are deep in it, continuously, until the end. No chapter breaks, breathers or reminders of the format. You remain in the story, almost like it is one long sentence.
  • The writing style is very simple and direct. It feels like a short, straight line between the character and the reader, with the observational aspects almost all from the Old Man’s mouth and mind. The third-person is there, but minimized.
  • The themes of challenge and struggle, of man versus nature, and life versus death, are not framed heroically, but more personally, intimately. He is small compared to the ocean, he is battling his opponents (marlins, and later sharks), and he respects their power. This is very different from the matter-of-fact, somewhat detached rendition of bulls and bullfights in “Sun Also Rises”.
  • The Old Man respects the Marlin, and almost reveres it. There is religious imagery and santification in the act of fishing. He prays to God while fishing. Maybe for him, seeing the marlin come up out of the water could almost compare to seeing an angel fly down from heaven. Many descriptions of fins as wings, and swimming as flying, and flying fish.

I haven’t read any Coles Notes or Wikipedia on this story (yet), but to me, this story feels deeply personal, rooted in love, fear, faith, and belief. It feels like Hemingway is deeply staring at himself in the mirror, confronting his fears and his mortality. It feels very personal and very beautiful.

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The Impotence of Reading Ernest

I’m starting a run through Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. Boy, I’m really late to this particular party – reading Hemingway, that is. In fact, I’m probably more interested in the man than his art, but they’re intimately connected, so I think I won’t learn something about one without learning something about the other.

I’ll be first to admit that I’m an amateur, quibbling, scribbling hack as a writer. I’ve hardly written very much at all, and I’ve rarely had anything published by others (just some comic book reviews). I wrote some short stories that you can read here, and, back in 2009, self-pubbed a novella, mainly to see if I could do it – from the story to cover design to limited online marketing. Overall, creatively, I’ve enjoyed hiding inside of the familiar warmth of my main character and avatar, Jack Owen. I wonder if other fiction writers feel that way. I wouldn’t know, because i don’t know any.

Through my first major novel project, I brute forced my way into learning a new art form, but I think I still understand the medium in only the most superficial sense. I have no real underlying knowledge of literature, and I tend to write in a “workman-like” way, as Ian Fleming once described his own style. I tend to read the occasional fiction and, like my taste in music, I tend to stick with a small number of artists whose voices resonate with me the most. As a teen, Ian Fleming and John LeCarre introduced me to spy thrillers and cold war intrigue, and later Chandler and Hammett gave me a taste for setting, vernacular, and the cold lives of lonely gumshoes. In fact, movies triggered my interest in all of these authors.

But reading Steinbeck changed many things for me: in high school, his brief but beautiful “Of Mice and Men” struck me powerfully, and only five or six years ago, his epic “The Grapes of Wrath” floored me and reduced me to tears with its powerful, universal themes. But, like Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway never was one of the voices I bothered to seek out – until now.

A recent, brief email discussion with a friend made me realize how little I knew about Papa. My friend is well-read and well-educated in literature, and I am, decidedly, embarrassingly, not. So, for some internal reason that I still don’t understand, her brief and pointed descriptions of Hem’s background and influences struck me like a kind of personal challenge. I decided to start reading Hem and to study his background. Something in him started to scratch at the inside of my skull…

As a kid, I absorbed references to Hemingway in pop culture (an episode of M*A*S*H, with an overly-adventurous journalist who caused damage and drama while trying to recapture his past glory), and in the stories my father used to tell about himself, or which were sometimes told about him by others. So, it’s come to pass in my head that I may explore some tenuous mental associations: “Ernest” is my first name (after my maternal grandfather), and the persona of “Papa” resonates into some of the self-aggrandizing stories that my Dad used to tell about himself.

As my post title might imply, there may also be issues of “maleness”, sincerity, and the loss of power which I could explore through absorbing Hem’s fiction, and in comparing or relating it to the males who’ve been the biggest influences in my life, primarily my Dad. As a boy, I loved and feared my Dad, as a young adult, I loved and pitied him, and in my middle age, I truly began to resent and even despise him.

What an emotional pendulum, going back and forth from sunny idealism to cold realism! Perhaps it’s just a byproduct of the emotional divorce that’s part of truly saying goodbye and letting someone go.

Maybe digging in on Papa Hemingway will actually help me to remeet and redeem my old man…

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Dear Dad

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

Here we are again. It’s been a long time since I wrote you last. I wanted to say something like “I hope you’re okay”, but I figure you’ve got no worries. 🙂

Last time I wrote, I went on about physics a fair bit. It was something that we talked about once or twice before, maybe back when I was in Foundation at Emily Carr or some time. Physics, or something technical or scientific – these were things we could talk about a little, I guess. If there wasn’t a topic like that in play, you’d just end up telling me some colourful story from your past. One of those ones where something funny happened, or where you saved someone from something bad, or where you knew better than someone else.

What was hard to talk about was feelings. We never talked about that stuff much. We’d just have to watch each other and try to figure out what was going on. I never was able to figure it out much. We were all taught to hold that stuff inside. That’s how you seemed to be, and that’s how me and Kim were raised, by example.

Anyway, I’ll put that aside here Dad. I like thinking about the stuff that got you enthused: the way you’d talk about the size of the Cyclotron at TRIUMF, or the speed of particles, and what mesons were. I was so gawddamned curious, and asked a lot of questions. You were always the smartest man in the room to me, and it was always good to see your enhusiastic side – to see you jazzed up about an iea. I also think you were, deep down, a creative thinker who had no outlet, and who hadn’t found anyone to really talk to. I think about that a lot.

Did you ever hear about the “many universes” theory of reality? It says (basically) that for every possible change of events in a timeline, a new timeline branch is created in which that decision was carried out. This leads to an infinite number of worlds in which an infinite number of James Evan Loves did an infnite number of things that they might otherwise not have done.

You never had much use for a creator God, nor their various agents. The many universes theory is as close as my athiest mind will come to accepting an afterlife. That theory, courtesy of physics, gave me a dream of infinite possibilities and infinite combinations, and that’s how I like to think of you (and of Mum too). Anyway, time is both infinitely long and short for you now. You have all the time in the world.

Happy Father’s Day Dad, wherever and whenever you may be. I love you. Maybe from time to time, I’ll send some words out to you and see if you have something to tell me.

John.

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On Joe Buck, the Midnight Cowboy.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp, in fact.

This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.

On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, but in the novel, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as flat and fleeting as a film frame.

In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enobles him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, a lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.

He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York city are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.

Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, or up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.

Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.

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Ernest Huntley and Ernest John

The cold morning air shocked Ernest John’s cheeks as he followed his grandfather down the five wooden steps from the back porch. The chickadees stopped arguing and scattered away, creating a rare moment with no sound at all. Ernest John was the namesake of his grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, whose nickname in the family was “Poppy”. To Poppy’s slight amusement and disappointment, six year old Ernest John had recently stood on the fireplace hearth in the livingroom and declared that he preferred to be called John, instead of Ernest.

Poppy stopped before reaching  the white gate at the sidewalk and waited, watching John poke along the narrow path with his head down. “C’mon. Let’s go son.” Poppy always called him son instead of grandson, and John liked it. It made him feel special. “Okay” John agreed, trotting a few steps to return his small, freezing hand into the security of Poppy’s large, gloved, waiting one.

Kitty-corner across the street from Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland stood the bus stop sign where they caught the Lake Hill bus everyday. It took Poppy downtown to his Manager job at the Yates Hotel, and took John closer to his private school in Esquimalt.

After about five minutes of knocking his knees together, feeling the frigid morning air creep uncomfortably up into his private school short pants, John saw the bus coming up the street. It had felt like forever.

The driver greeted them with a familiar smile and a deep, gravelly “Hello, Mr. Clarke”. John smiled at the driver and got a quick wink in return. Poppy knew everyone on their route. Victoria was a city, but in 1972 it wasn’t too big for familiarity and good morning greetings.

Shuffling towards the back of the bus, they passed a girl sitting with her big brother. She was blonde, tied back in pigtails, with a round face and a sour expression. The girl recognized John and stuck out her tongue. He didn’t understand the reaction and tried to ignore it.

Poppy had noticed the little exchange. As they sat down, he leaned over and whispered “What was that all about?”

John didn’t want to say, but the girl had stuck her tongue out at him a few times before, and then pouted when he didn’t respond. He pictured the girl sitting in her desk in their little classroom, two rows in front of him and one row to the right. He pictured how she always loved to put her hand up first and answer the Teacher. She thought she was cute and maybe she was. Maybe he hated her, he thought. He wasn’t sure how he felt, and finally just shrugged. “That’s Tracey,” he told Poppy. “She goes to my school.”

Poppy watched her squirm and squabble with the boy next to her, and looked down at his grandson, who seemed so passive and distant most of the time, but especially now. “Hm.”

Poppy sat back and closed his eyes, remembering his wife Edna, and how she used to make the boy his oatmeal. She’d only been gone for a few months, and Ernest sat as straight-backed as he could in spite of how lost he really felt without her. At seventy-four, he was long-past retirement age, but needed the money, and anyway, what else could he do? The job was practically the only thing he had left to call himself a father and a provider.

After a few minutes, he heard John singing quietly to himself, and listened to his grandson’s small soprano singing voice ringing quietly until they got off by the Yates Hotel. It was a pure, high-pitched echo of the voice that John’s mother Angela had once had. Angela, who had been the apple of his eye. Angela, who at 41 now spent most of her time sleeping and drinking, having surrendered her joys and creativity to manic-depression and alcoholism. Ernest Huntley didn’t know if he could truly ever help his daughter, but he knew that he could help her six year-old son and her four year-old daughter. He pictured John and little Kimberley laying on the living-room carpet, talking and colouring together peacefully, and he smiled to himself. They were good kids with an uncertain future.

Later, as they stood on the pavement waiting for the second bus which would take John to the front door of his school, Poppy straightened John’s cap and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The second bus pulled up and the large Irish driver greeted Poppy and waved John aboard.

“Have a good day and be a good boy,” Poppy said. He really meant for John to have a happy day and to remember that he was already a good boy.  John looked up into Poppy’s blue-grey eyes and loved him, and tried to smile. He hated going to school. He climbed aboard the bus and waved from his seat, and worked up a fake smile for his grandfather.

Poppy would never tell his grandson how he’d been shipped over to Canada from West Sussex in 1910 at the age of twelve, “transferred to another family” in Canada” under an English Home-Child program which lessened the burden on large poor English families by paying them to ship their youngsters overseas to work in other people’s farms and gardens. The lad waving back to him was too young to understand how some families just unravelled from the outside-in, or in the case of John’s mother, from the inside-out. Hopefully, John would never need to know.

All that mattered was the family that he had today, and the bus which would come for them again tomorrow morning.

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Listening to the podcast “Serial”: comprehensive research, or boring and gossipy?

Today, I’ve been listening to the podcast Serial, that now-famous online audio series that’s garnered record numbers of listeners. It has been both praised and reviled in the press.

In recent years, I think that podcasts have taken a back seat to other online media, particularly social media and especially online video. Some reviewers have claimed that Serial has raised the profile of podcasts, attracting loads of new listeners to what was considered an old medium. You know, like from ten years ago, when people still thought iPods were revolutionary.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Serial, but I’ve also found it to be a bit less than formal. It feels unstructured, running along like a continuous conversation that we’re overhearing or listening to from the sidelines. Maybe it’s too conversational in format?

It feels like an editorial piece where the author’s points of view, questions or self-doubts become a major aspect in the story, competing with whatever objectiveness there may be in the story. Despite my concerns,  find myself still listening to it.

The thing is, I’ve loved listening to old-time radio programmes, especially comedies, and detective dramas. The dramas especially tend to put you in the head of the main character, where their thoughts and speech as rendered as equally important. It was first-person, in the “Raymond Chandler” sense.

After listening to the first few episodes of Serial, I found it difficult to stay engaged with the story. There were so many players, people who were involved, or who knew people who were involved, or who might have seen something. I found myself feeling a bit bored at times, drifting off mentally. I began playing episodes while I did other things, picking up the important points, and hoping the rest would just sink in. Maybe all my years of surfing the web for quick answers have destroyed my ability to absorb and enjoy long-form narrative. I’m ready to accept that possibility.

It’s not presented in a sensationalized style at all, but from episode to episode, it’s compelling enough to keep me listening, and like the chapters in a good detective novel, ending with a dangling question – a challenge to the audience – which sets up new mysteries and proposes new possible answers.

I think that many people like to play detective, to listen in on lurid details, gossip-style, and to speculate on all the pieces of a vast puzzle. This format is not unlike the lurid “true crime” detective magazines that you can still see on some magazine racks, and all over the web.

Serial also has a few other marketing and publishing characteristics that have greatly accelerated its popularity: it’s freely available at serialpodcast.org, and being online, it’s easily republished via social media.

Anyway, check it out for yourself, and listen to the first of the 12 episodes:


Related Links:

 

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William S. Burroughs: The terrible truth-telling Orifice.

I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often he’d tried to cure himself) and an acid-tongued cyncical editorializing on the Doctors and approaches that had failed him. Burroughs’ voice is cold and smart and sharp, but soaked in a bitter backwash of pain and regret. But, as much as I liked his observations in the intro and the epilogue of Naked Lunch, I’ll be damned if I could get into the guts of the book in any meaningful way. I wasn’t ready for it, I guess.

The closest I ever got to seeing the whole Naked Lunch novel rendered was by watching Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie, which was a collage of Burroughs’ stories and experiences, framed in a narrative featuring cockroaches, centipedes and throbbing anthropomorphized typewriters with talking assholes for mouths. I think the first talking asshole typewriter reveal was the biggest moment in that movie for me. It still makes me laugh.

Cronenberg captured or interpreted a lot of Burroughs’ imagery, and did his work as much service as possible, I think, while making somewhat necessary concessions to his own film tropes. I’m still crawling through Naked Lumch the novel, and digesting it slowly, while regurgitating scenes from Naked Lunch the Movie.

So, flash forward another 16 years, and I found myself reading Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time (and generally liking it), and getting a sideways introduction to Burroughs via Kerouac’s “Old Bull Lee” persona. Now I’ve restarted reading Naked Lunch, and it seems I’m ready for it now. Burroughs writes in this crazy, satirical voice with these cut-up chunks of narrative that mostly use a terse, clipped style, resembling a secret agent’s espoionage report, or a detective’s telegram. I found myself picturing him in his fedora and long overcoat, banging out reports in his almost anonymous, government worker voice, with hints of vernacular from the streets of New York or Tangier. It began to feel like watching a documentary film about a Raymond Chandler detective who was addicted to morphine, and whose cases were just falling apart in his face.

So, the writings of Burroughs are very interesting to me because of his challenging style. But Burroughs the man seemed a dependent, fucking mess. The portrait drawn of him in the book “Call Me Burroughs” demonstrates his ample wit and dry humour, but also his itinerant life, co-dependence in relationships, his many (many) addictions, and all the complicated pain that he endured as a gay (or bi?) man. I really don’t know what to make of his life from what I’ve read so far, except that he was probably fortunate to have survived it into his eighties. Burroughs took a beating, but a good deal of his misfortune arose (I think) from his own bad judgement and misadventure.

I started to envision something of a lineage growing down from the post-WWII Beats, down through later poets like Bob Dylan, and especially Jim Morrison. Old Beats like Ginsberg and Lucien Carr quoted Rimbaud’s idea of pursuing a “sustained derangement of the senses” as a path to finding the truth, or perhaps, as a way of escaping a rigid, distasteful reality. I could never do that, personally. I have often wanted to escape reality, but not through drugs or alcohol – just through my imagination or mental escapes into fantasy.

In my teens I loved Jim Morrison, and now after reading about the Beats a bit more, and relistening to “American Prayer” by the Doors, I truly think that no child of the Beats pursued a sustained derangement of their senses like Jim Morrison did. “Break on Through to the Other Side” was Morrison, singing about that same break with conventional values and ways of thinking that drove Burroughs, Kerouac and the Beats.

William Burroughs used a cut-up, collage technique in Naked Lunch. That is very intriguing to me. I’ve played with collage with images from magazines, comics and photos, inspired by Gary Lee-Nova, my art school multimedia instructor (himself a life-long fan and scholar of Burroughs). But I’ve never done it with words. Sometime, I want to look at different ways to derange my thoughts after I put them down on paper or record them.

These days, with composition and acquisition being commoditized into microscopic electronics, there might even be an app for that.

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Creating a Character Profile for Mike Coffey: #StoryMOOC Week 3

To finish Week 3 of the MOOC, “The Future of Storytelling”, my creative task is to publish a detailed profile of an original character. I must also provide a bit of “evidence” – some artifacts – of my character’s online presence.

This is an exercise in Transmedia – creating fiction across multiple media simultaneously – so that a character has resonance and persistence in social media and elsewhere, outside of his/her fictional universe. This, I believe, gives the character some extra depth, and can also assist online marketing efforts as well.

I have chosen to profile “Mike Coffey”, a significant character from my first novel, “Owe Nothing”.

Here’s Mike Coffey’s Character Profile:

StoryMOOC_Chap3_Character_Profile (PDF)

Here is Mike Coffey’s blog, where he describes some of the events in his life:

Mike Coffey’s Blog

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Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.

My hopes for an amazing, uplifting Superman movie have been sucker-punched by “Man of Steel”.

It’s really disappointing to say that too, because I’ve considered myself a Superman fan ever since the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie. I think I was hoping for a kind of mythical, spiritual reboot from this new movie franchise. (Is that too emo of me?)

[Spoiler alert: I give up a few key points from the movie’s plot. STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to be disappointed.]

Continue reading “Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.”

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