Category Archives: stories

Confessions of a Pack Rat

My memories are captured in thousands of files, folders, emails, and websites – and somehow, my pack rat nature has allowed me to preserve most of the digital evidence of my life since about 1998.

The Digital Studio Space

My desktop is a collection of hardly-used capturing tools: a flatbed scanner (that also does slides), a graphics tablet I used for one illustration job seven years ago, a digital camera that has been supplanted by my smartphone, and various bargain audio and video analog-to-digital conversion devices. I still have VHS tapes and audio cassettes that testify to past projects.

It must be something in the blood: my grandfather (and namesake), Ernest Clarke, was a prolific photographer, and I have his prints, negatives, slides, and 8mm film to prove it. His mission seemed to be to immortalize his wife and especially, his daughter Angela. He was somewhat compulsive about it, from the scores of evidence he left us, ranging from photos of native elders probably taken in the 20s, to colour home movies he shot in the 1970s. He’d have gone crazy with digital.

Recently, I upgraded my windows PC to windows 10, and bought myself a 3 terabyte external drive for backups. My desktop PC and all its peripherals and programs constituted my modern digital studio space – my personal workplace for explorations, communications, study, and networking. my grandfather Ernest had a little painting easel tucked in a corner of his basement for working in oil. The tools are different, but I suppose the drive is similar.

With the advent of mobile touchscreen devices, something happened that I didn’t expect: my tablet and laptop took me away from my desk, and kept me either on the couch or in a Cafe (and often digging through Facebook).

Soon enough, I found I was using my smartphone and tablet for almost everything, and rarely ever using my PC for anything (except for banking). That shift in behaviour seemed to change me from a creator into more of a consumer. For quite a few years now, I’ve spent more time surfing and consuming other people’s bytes than I have creating and promoting my own. I think. So, with the spiffed-up desktop environment, I’m probably now in a better position to focus on building my own content again.

So, that covers tools, but what about content? Who and what am I writing and imaging about?

Preserving People, Real and Imagined

I have worked, side-by-side or remotely, with hundreds and hundreds of colleagues since 1992, when my full-time career really kicked into gear. Each person I have met has taught me something about them, and about myself. Some of them were characters, and some of them are bound to become them one day.

Sometimes it’s true that “Hell is other people” . In some social groups, there are always manipulators and cajolers, liars and criers, who use your niceness against you, or use sympathy to gain your confidence and trust. If you don’t let these folks, damage you too badly, they can provide valuable learning regarding human nature. I’ve found that once I recognize the evils and virtues in somebody else’s character, I begin to see them in myself.

Thus, the memories of people you’ve known can be great inspiration for personal memoirs, or raw material for fictional characters.

Space, the Final Frontier

In my profession, I have treasured my semi-private offices or cubicle spaces. Having a little bit of solitude and at least some form of blinders provides an emotional and mental buffer zone, and helps one to concentrate.

However, too much isolation tends to raise stress levels in me, most likely my mind needs a break and a little interaction with someone every few hours. I often forget to do that. it’s important to listen to your heart and mind, to recognize when you need to be alone, or when you need to socialize.

The Real Undiscovered Country is Inside

(Well, I’m on some kind of Star Trek riff, now.)

The value of forming bonds with friends and family is obvious: we need to belong with and to someone, and want to feel part of something bigger and more secure (perhaps) than ourselves.

The hard lessons for me were learning to listen to the voice of my internal judge, to know how much sharing, emotional intimacy is enough with each person, to say enough, but try not to say too much.

Generally, I have a hard time discarding people and objects once I have assigned some sentimental attachment to them. So, I tend to collect people and things.

Interpersonally, I can’t always judge my emotional boundaries and moments quite right, but I tend to keep my doors wide open for anyone to walk in.

What would Angela have done…?

What would Angela have done with a day like this? What would she have felt here, now?

I feel her beauty when I taste the colours in the autumn leaves shimmering in the breeze above my street.

I wonder if she’d enjoy watching people pass by outside this cafe window. Was she a people watcher like me?

Would she like strong coffee? Would she prefer tea? Would she feel groggy and grumpy in the morning too?

I never knew her that well, but always wanted to. In my questioning kid mind, I’d guess blindly at her thoughts. She always kept them to herself. No clues, but she remains an archetype for me – a mold, a template – a model I can contemplate.

Would Angela have enjoyed this world today, so different from the one she knew? She would have been eighty six by now. If she’d been physically and mentally able, stronger, or had more help in her life, maybe this world could have been a happier place for her.

I can picture her in an alternate reality, a different world, maybe in her mid-sixties. Her grey hair would be short and curled, held aloft by some stylist’s magic. Angela would have her own sense of style, and clothes that fit, that she’d bought with her own money.

She walk with her nose tipped up just a little bit, looking back on some sort of career involving music. Maybe she would be going out to meet a lady friend for coffee or to shop.

Maybe she’d be unmarried, child-free, and okay with it. Over the years, she would have had many suitors and maybe one serious engagement, but she’d have remained her own person and now be happy on her own.

She’d go browse an art gallery on Granville Street, or go down to A&B Sound and buy some new vinyl. The Sound of Music, or something sweet by Burt Bacharach.

The good things don’t go out of style easily.

Memories are subjective, elusive, permanent, and recurring…

Memories are like dear friends, and bitter enemies. Both burrow down under your skin. They find your emotional nooks and crannies, remind you of your strengths, and expose you to your weaknesses.

Memories can seem as immutable as stone, as unchanging as the mountains, and as permanent as the Earth.

But I have learned that memories are more like chameleons: they take on the colour of your current outlook, and their themes and tone  reflect your own. They’re my own little constructs, my personal little fantasies, a performance that I continually re-stage in my own private playhouse.

The stories that I’ve written for myself probably started in my head as soon as I could think. Like James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the language and models I built have evolved with me, over time.

Memories age and mature with you, like your reflection. You just can’t trust them- they’re as slippery and subjective as you are. For me, memories are the ghosts whom I live with, the echoes of old events and past ideas, reflections of my life and past visceral emotions.

Some memories used to be exceptionally strong, but have waned with experience and considerable reflection:

  • The chest-puffing pride when I was eighteen and would talk about my Dad, or hear his words come out of my mouth. I demolished his pedestal years ago, and put the pieces to better use in rebuilding my own.
  • The bitterness and mistrust I held against richer, happier kids and their functional families. I secretly resented every other kid I saw, certain that they were so much better off than me. Eventually, after high school, I got over it.
  • That feeling that I was unique in my life experiences, wiser and more resilient than my peers, and just plain special. This was mostly my own defense against self pity, isolation, and misery. It worked sometimes, but it was mostly a mask behind which I hid my fear and insecurity. I don’t worry about hiding that much anymore. After the ago of 45, me and my insecurities began to feel much more secure in each other.

Each of these little treasures have waned with time, going from opaque, well-rehearsed scrolls to delicate, dried-out parchments that have degraded with age, and worn down to near transparency.

I can see right through those old narratives now. They’re not very convincing anymore.

What gets passed down…?

Here are some questions and thoughts I’ll put down while they occur to me:

What gets passed down?

From father to son: is it that men don’t show weakness, or admit to making mistakes? Is it that boys don’t cry?

From mother to daughter: it is that the mother’s relationship with her own father is the only father–daughter bond worth tending to? 

From father to daughter: is it that the parent’s needs outweigh the child’s? 

From mother to son: is it that no matter how much you search for me, you won’t find me. I was never there to be found.

Souls chase each other, maybe endlessly, seeking answers to their private questions, demanding that their anguish be recognized by someone.

Proxies may play the role at different stages.

An old drama, never finished. Conversations seem to barely begin before the actor gets yanked from the stage.

The Director has a sick sense of humour.

I really want my money back.

Days of Wine and Regret…

Movies or music that speaks to you plucks old strings that are personal; a matter of past influences and conditioning, present circumstances, and futures you used to want.

The movie “The Days of Wine and Roses” is (IMHO) overly dramatic, a sixties romance, showing people drowning in alcoholism, and in their binges, reverting to helpless, childlike despair.
It had been recommended to me, and I ran across it tonight on TCM.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Days_of_Wine_and_Roses_(film)

But among its hollywood love-theme about a couple trying to rebuild their lost love and innocence, it did surprise me with a few paralell themes from my own life:
A drunken mother who accidentally sets fire to her home,
a father who loses his job, then loses his wife, and then struggles with sobriety.

Those kinds of things happened around me and my sister.
But real-life leaves scars on top of and under the skin that Max Factor can’t conceal. No retakes. No redemption.

Nobody talks, reconciles, or gets back together. They just stay hurt, and gradually go numb in their respective neutral corners,
and leave their loose ends for law enforcement, healthcare, and social workers to sort out.

Just days and days of Sherry and Port. No romance. No sweetness.

Be the light.

Digging down a bit, processing in prose, some images, themes and feelings from my recent weeks, and stories from friends and colleagues who’ve been struggling.
(If we’ve spoken recently friend, know that I’m thinking of you.)
———————-
How do you react when your peace is threatened?
How do you calm the fear in someone’s eyes when they’re afraid?
Each of us hits a fucking wall of emotional exhaustion at our own limit, in our time.
Sometimes, it’s a major disaster in a very bad year.
Sometimes, it’s dark, scared moments in your head in any given month, where nobody else can see.
For some, loss is a way of life, like the pain and pace of a marathon hike.
For others, loss is a looping internal pain, a black hole to be repeatedly filled and emptied, or avoided.
We’re each of us incomplete, finite, looking for something external to fulfill us.
We’ve all had loss. We all share some truths, and maybe we see them, and maybe not.

Happiness and love are the light source you cannot see.
Light itself is invisible: it can only be seen by its effect on other things.
Sunlight lights up pollen and swirls of dust in its beams, reflecting the path to light the way.
“Got to be an Invisible Sun. Gives its heat to everyone.”

So, my best advice is to be the light.
Don’t worry about not knowing what to say in some crucial moment.
Don’t worry about being shone on yourself, being lit up by the embarassing frailty of your heart.
We all have that. Nobody is any less scared than you are.
Be a way to help someone else shine, even if it’s just by being comforting company – a presence, a companion.
Bear witness, lend a hand, an arm, a shoulder, a hug, a kiss.
Be the light, the warmth, that the moment needs.
Help others find their way, and your own path will never be unlit.

That closet, full of moments…

It’s a metaphor for storage, for the past, or for things that may remain hidden away: the closet.

It’s a place for some people to emerge from, because they’ve been hiding in it for protection from someone or something nasty.

It’s a place to hide your past, your insecurities, and those bad memories.

It’s a smokescreen, a duck-blind, a refuge – a place to hide the truth from yourself, a diversion to pretend things are better than they are.

I’ve prided myself on being honest and straight-forward, on being someone who doesn’t feel shame for past mistakes. And yet, you cannot wear the past on your back everywhere you go. That’s for stronger beings than me (like crabs or snails). It has to be stashed somewhere, packed up, tucked away from your current life (therapists are really closet organizers – everything’s still there, just easier to recognize and manage).

All this is just so you can *have* a current life, and rebuild new healthy contexts and interactions. The present must transform into the past, eventually. Otherwise, you’ll make people roll their eyes and feel uncomfortable at parties. Leave that shit at home, please.

So, I see my past as a large walk-in closet, behind a thick door. The door gives direct access but opens outward, and there’s a lot of stuff piled up behind it. My conceit is also my fear: when opened for someone, all my crap will spill out, and simultaneously impress and alienate whomever sees it.

The thing is, I’m fooling myself into pretending the closet is secret or private. In actual fact, I’ve been spilling my guts in one way or another for almost 20 years. The other side of the closet is made of magical glass walls, like an infinitely large display case. From the outside, it’s a huge diarama: an organized, staged display of various wonders and horrors, which I weakly attempt to curate like an amateur PT Barnum, or that Ripley guy. (Step right up, folks!)

But I do want to share it with you. I want you to spend time looking around, but I guess I’m afraid that after you do, you might never want to visit again.

Anyway, thanks for your interest. Here – let me stamp the back of your hand. Don’t worry, that mark should wear off in a few days.

Have a good time, my friend.

A beautiful blossom, and a community to nurture it.

These words will be my attempt to capture the joy and delight of watching a friend and former colleague unfurl like a crisp, white sail on a very special day.

I first met Carol when she interviewed for a co-op programmer position at Vancouver English Centre (a large ESL school in the Yaletown district of Vancouver). We needed a programmer and DBA, and I’d convinced my boss to hire a co-op student. Carol’s grades and programmng training were strong, but having interviewed a number of enthusiastic young students in the past, what stood out for me was her interpersonal skills; she had a sensitive emotional intelligence which I’d not seen in her peers. So, Carol signed on for an eight-month co-op appointment and she rapidly became not just a technical resource to me and our staff, but also a warmly-liked (and to some, beloved) member of our school’s little technical team.

Still in her mid-twenties at that point, Carol had many observations about life, and was still in the midst of deciding which path she might take in her career. As she told me about her life in China before her family came to Canada, and about her life as a student at Simon Fraser University, she aways emanated a hopefulness, lightness and buoyant optimism that easily eroded any of my jaded experience and cynical world-views. In short, in spite of any worries or questions that may have been facing her, Carol always smiled, appreciated her life, and held a hopeful, positive approach.

Over those eight months working together, Carol became a joyful “little sister” figure to me, inspiring me to be at my best as her mentor and supervisor. I’m about ten or eleven years older than Carol, and have had some experience managing small teams in other companies, but I’ve always wanted my working relationships to be that of equal humans who happen to have different experiences. I try to remember that regardless of our different backgrounds, each of us is an expert in something, and so, each is worthy of respect. Carol would sometimes tease me and refer to me as her teacher or mentor, and we’d laugh as I stroked my long, imaginary wizard’s beard.

I cannot recall if I ever gave her advice of any real value, but we talked about beliefs a lot – belief systems, values that were important to each of us, and events in our families or personal experiences that influenced us. Carol had her own ideas about values and morals, and her inquisitive nature and life experiences led her to consider Christianity as her preferred value system.

After her co-op term was completed and she graduated from SFU, she found employment nearby, doing programming and testing for a large software company. She had settled into the beginning of her career and transformed from a student-learner to a skilled knowledge worker and engineer.

After that point, Carol and I generally lost touch for many years, finally connecting again in the last few years via LinkedIn, and then Facebook, where I discovered that she had an eye for beauty and a talent for photography. It was in Carol’s close-up photographs of flowers and plants that I caught a glimpse of her curiosity and her idealism: her love of simplicity, purity, and iconic symbolism. Maybe all the world might be found in the heart of a flower, or in the right moment of light cast upon a statue in the park. I could see that Carol had calm patience, a good eye for detail, and a steady hand.

When we finally shared lunch at my work a couple of months ago, my little Chinese sister bounded into the foyer like a reindeer on Christmas morning. Rarely have I felt so touched and welcomed as by Carol in that one, enthusiastic greeting. Once again, I felt that familiar glow of unbridled joy that was dear Carol. She told me I was still her mentor, and we laughed about my continued yet unlikely candidacy for that position. After we had a happy lunch catching up on each others lives, she invited me to attend her wedding. As my jaw hung open, she laughed, telling me that her fiance was also named John. I beamed, telling her how very happy I was for her. Now, her joyous leaps and bounds became even clearer to me: this was the major happiness in her life, and she was truly the happiest I’d ever seen her. The young lady who’d wondered to me about philosophy and values had found them within her Christian faith and, through her church community, she’d also found her life partner. Carol had indeed resolved her personal patterns and closed her circles. She seemed to truly  have found the things that she needed to complete herself on a personal level.

My wife and I sat in the church, and witnessed the community and camraderie around us. The mothers of the bride and groom held hands as they walked to the front and lit a candle together – a most heart-warming and beautiful symbol of family unity. We watched the groom and his party walk with head held high to the front, and finally, Carol and her father walked gingerly down the aisle, walking in carefully-timed steps, as if on eggshells. Carol was an elegant, beautiful vision in white satin and lace, and she seemed in that moment to embody the idealistic virtues that she’d demonstrated in the past.

My impression is that this new couple are surrounded by loving family and friends, and grounded in a very strong community. Such caring support bodes very well for their future happiness and success. What a lovely couple they make, and how happy I am for dear Carol.

It’s indeed a joy and an honour to witness the moment when someone you’ve known is unfurled into their fullest, best self, like a crisp white sail in a strong wind.

You are the tapestry you’ve been trying to create.

You’re born into the middle of someone’s else’s life; pushed out onto the stage during the middle of someone else’s big monologue. That’s their spotlight that’s warming your tender skin and blinding your sensitive eyes, kid.

Your lines are not your own to speak until you’ve owned them for a long time. How much of your personal dialogue – your own story – was subtly embedded within you by your parents, or by their parents? Where do they end and you begin?

Plans – words- are just intentions, not guarantees. Everyone you know is really just making it up as they go along. Anyone who claims otherwise is bullshitting you.

Life can strike a hard line for you to cross. The proof’s in the pudding. Actions speak louder than words. Put your money where your mouth is. Shit or get off the pot.

It’s up to you to take all your little threads of memory, the little scraps of life from your past, and weave them into something new. If you’re artistic type, you’ll feel compelled to externalize it all – to make some artefact that others can see. That’s your inner gut-animal crying out “Look at me! See me! Join me!”

Maybe, whether or not you create an artefact, you are still creating something real and new each day, just by living your life. You are still adding to the fabric of life just by being there.

Maybe you are the tapestry that you’ve been trying to create all along.

Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say…

My god, of all the things that I could call important in this life, perhaps authenticity (or perhaps better stated as sincerity) is the most important thing.

When people say you are real or the real deal, this is what they mean.

When people know where they stand with you, it’s because you are this way.

When their eyes say that they care, even if their words don’t, it’s because you have been this way with them.

When they reciprocate with support, honesty or integrity, it’s because you have demonstrated those values to them.

With anyone of good character and compassion, you will get out what you put in.