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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Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Father’s Day has come again, and I’ve been thinking of you. I have a little photo of you on my dresser, from when I was a little guy, when you were working on the Hollic’s farm that summer. I think it’s my favourite photo of you because you look suntanned and happy.

Anyway, I was chatting with Kim the other night, and she was very excited about a cancer treatment that was based on research done at TRIUMF at UBC. I know you were proud to have worked there, and we’re still proud of it today. It’s very cool to know that you were part of the team of RF technicians and engineers who helped to maintain equipment for the Cyclotron. In Grade 5, my teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, asked me if my Dad worked at the atom smasher at UBC. I didn’t really know what she was referring to until you explained how the particles get whipped up to near the speed of light, and then get smashed against gold targets so that the various particles break off and can be studied. Atom Smasher makes me picture a big hammer and anvil arrangement, which is kind of funny and old. Even back in Grade 5 I think I understood that if was really high-energy beams going through special pipes. You explained it as best you could. I’m sure I asked way too many questions. 🙂

You always seemed to have an interest in physics, and things electro-mechanical. Since we last spoke, I’ve read a *lot* of physics by many of the big thinkers. I’ve read Einsein’s book on Relativity a couple of times. I think it was rewritten for a general audience, but some of the calculus near the end was very cryptic and hard to follow (the Lorenz Transformation, and his final arrival at the famous equation, e=mc^2).

Stephen Hawking is also an incredible teacher of cosmology and large-scale physics. A lot of these fellows seem to get very philosophical and even a bit religious in some of their wider views. I think that means that the science they’re exploring is hitting on the same big questions that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with over the centuries. I think that in the future, science, philosophy and religion will continue to merge.

You and I never really talked about big ideas like that, but I have a sense that you thought about some things like that on your own, in private.

I really wish you and I had talked more.

Anyway, happy fathers day, Dad. I love you.

John.

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Getting closer to writing again…

Other than the occasional blog post, I haven’t written anything of consequence, personally, in close to a year. So goes my on-again-off-again relationship with creative writing.

The stopper (or slower-downer) for me this time has been a preoccupation with  money (re: earning more) and enduring a series of extensive repairs and renovations to our condo.

Our building was built in 1995, and that, coupled with the fact that our suite is on the ground floor, makes us prime targets for receiving water from the world outside (a cracked cement planter adjacent to our bedroom), and from the upper floors (a broken pipe a few stories above).

These leak damage repairs began in November, and were finally completed in February, so we endured a few uncomfortable months living in our guest bedroom with all our master bedroom and en-suite bathroom contents piled up over our ears throughout the rest of our place.

My inner grateful voice told me many times “at least you weren’t unemployed this time”. Yes, dear inner grateful voice, that is true and I am indeed grateful. When things break and you don’t know how long it will take to fix them, it’s a good time to count your blessings.

Reading fiction is one of the best forms of escape from stress or grief that I know. I have been trying to finish Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables”, and it’s reminded me of the meaning of true suffering and sacrifice. How can one compare a leaky condo to being homeless, ostracized, or physically and emotionally beaten down? I had a hard time beginning this novel, and at first found Hugo’s writing style rather hard to take, since his voice tended to switch from narrative, to period history, to philosophy, or to personal polemic. It requires a great deal of patience and perseverance,  but the reward is a deeper comprehension of his characters and the world in which they live.

As inspiring and beautiful as “Les Mis” is, it’s a monumental novel for a part-time reader like me. After months, I’m not even halfway through the epic.

The only writing I’ve been doing in recent months is business communications, and editing/reformatting training manuals for a much-appreciated contract. My inner creative mind has been eclipsed by my inner pragmatist. Of course, this delights my inner grateful voice no end, since in addition to blessings, it can also count a few new dollars among its reasons to keep on smiling.

I’v finally started to hear the voices of my own characters calling to me as well. I haven’t worked in the world of Jack Owen for a long, long time, but it’s starting to feel like writing time again. I’ve neglected Jack’s world for too long.

God, it’s getting crowded in there with all those bloody voices. But, they’re telling me good things. I just have to keep listening.

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How and what will I try to say today?

With just a little time, there’s a chance to flex my mind…
How and what will I try to say today?

Will it be words, peeping out from pigeonholes?
Scraps of memories in my ear…

Will it be pencil scribbles or little points of light?
In a way that you can see but not quite hear…

I guess it’s a wealth of riches – raw materials with nowhere to go.
I’ll give it up for now, and try some other day.

Maybe a little poem – painting pictures with words?
If only I could think of something clever to say.

 

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Sandwiches by the Lake

I just had this image of my Mum and Dad, not as they were in most of my memories, but from a time years before me and my sister were born, a time when they were younger, healthier and happier – maybe a time when they were truly in sync and in love as a couple.

In my mind, I expand it out into a littLe fantasy, where they’d rent a cabin at a rustic little vacation spot, adjoining a campground, near a lake.

Dad’s hair would still be mostly black with just a touch of grey near the temples. He’d wear a white knit pullover with a vee neck and short sleeves, and he’d be trim and in good shape, the way he was when they first got married in 1961.

Mum would have curly dark brown hair that was worn up off her neck. She’d wear a knee-length dress that had the colour and pattern to remind you of autumn leaves.

They would be on a vacation that they’d been looking forward to for months, and both of them would be smiling the whole time.

At lunchtime, Mum would cut a fresh loaf of white bread into thick slices and butter them, while Dad sliced up baloney or corned beef. They’d bring their sandwiches outside to their cabin’s tiny little front porch, and sit on a bench made from a split log, while munching away, talking and sipping on sodas. They’d watch the campers in their tents, and listen to kids splashing in the lake about fifty yards away. Maybe there’d be a nice sunset, and later, a clear and starry night sky.

I only have some snapshots of them in these clothes, driving to some location together on some bright sunny day. Why not complete the story, and wish this for them? At earlier times in their lives, they surely must have had it. They really did love each other once.

This is the kind of afternoon that I enjoy with my wife, at home or away, in our hearts, whenever we want. Just some food, some peace, and some good loving company.

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Meeting Michael Slade and talking about eBooks

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Canadian author Jay Clarke (aka “Michael Slade”).

He’s a former lawyer and the author of over a dozen crime novels, in a genre sometimes referred to as “Mountie Noir”. (It’s a great label – almost as good, IMHO, as “Tartan Noir”, which refers to Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin.)

Mr. Clarke is currently doing a Writer in Residence at Vancouver Community College, and during that time is making himself available for one-to-one’s with students and staff, as well as conducting some presentations or classes. Check out his personal “Special-X” website.

What did I learn from talking with Michael Slade?

Michael Slade appears highly energized, with a laser-like focus and a rapidity of speech akin to a machine-gun. In answering my questions, he flowed breathlessly from one story to the next, in effect raising me up out of my chair a little, buoyed on his waves of enthusiastic patter. The man has a lot to say, and says it with a quickness and precision that had me picturing him sweet-talking many a jury back in his day.

I had hoped to ask him some questions such as who his favourite writers were, what fiction had influenced him, etc. I had considered my questions around in my mind, but I never asked them. I never even got close to ’em. That’s because when I spoke, my mouth began telling him about how I hoped to find an Agent or a small publisher to help me repackage and market my first novel. I suppose this is what I was really frustrated by – a lack of success in selling my books.

What he told me was this: the eBook revolution is still a work in progress. The market will soon “tip over”, and eBook sales will eclipse print book sales entirely – not just at Amazon, but everywhere in the market. The tablet and eReader markets are making this happen, and the traditional publishing industry will be changed forever.

What does it boil down to?

My efforts as a novelist are split down the middle by an important boundary, One the one side (the side I love and am blindly devoted to), there lives me, the caring creator, trying to formulate and legitimize a mythical world of characters and events through the written word. On the other side, there’s this realm of unknown results and lack of predictability, where I stuff little messages into bottles and fling them out into the sea, hoping for one of my books to get purchased. On the first side of the boundary, the one where I’m synthesizing out of fragments, I’m in familiar territory. I know I can do it and have confidence that my skill will improve over time with lots of practice. On the other side, it feels like a no-man’s land, with me flailing around in the dark.

All the same, the aspect of both those things is the concept of me remaining in control of the work and the process. Above all, that is what appeals to me the most.

The books I’m trying to write (and Jay, if you read the copy I handed you of my little novel, Owe Nothing, then bless you sir), are vastly different in content, pace, and tone from anything by Michael Slade, whose last novel, Red Sun was described by one reviewer as “Ian Fleming-esque in its narrative drive”. I am still developing my voice.

But, we’re all working in the shadow of the same industry-changing technological tide that is putting more emphasis on writers becoming their own publishers, and paper turning into pixels.

The stigma attached to self-publishing (“vanity press”) is eroding as more readers and writers get involved online, and as the barriers to “getting published” continue to transform.

Jay Clarke also named quite a few famous authors who initially self-pubbed (Mark Twain?) or who had struggled for decades before their big book came (Elmore Leonard!). He mentioned that every author tends to compare himself to another whom he admires, whether newer or older. We’re all influenced or inspired by somebody else.

I believe what Michael Slade was telling me was essentially this: Don’t quit. Keep trying, and keep control of your work, because the sea change is coming…

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On Creativity: Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”

I first read this piece from designer Bruce Mau about a dozen years ago. It’s still good to read these words from time to time, and take them as a personal challenge…

Incomplete Manifesto for Growth (brucemaudesign.com)

“This design manifesto was first written by Bruce Mau in 1998, articulating his beliefs, strategies, and motivations. The manifesto outlines BMD’s design process…”

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On Research and Creativity: Archetypes and Inspiration…

I’ve been revisiting and researching famous stories and hero myths, starting from the most recent, pop cultural stories and their influences, and then digging down deeper into personal territory, furrowing paths that lead me to my mother and father, and to my images and beliefs of myself.

I’m a fan of pop culture, comic books, and sci-fi – not all of it – and during the years when I grew from a kid into a teenager, I absorbed a lot of pop culture stories and artwork. Here are the particular works that affected or influenced my outlook as I was plodding through my angst-fueled tweens through teen-hood:

Star Wars:
I had just turned eleven, and this movie was a religious event for me. I read magazines about the movie’s plot and its production, collected every bubble gum card in the series, and collected some of the action figures. It had aspects of the Wizard of Oz, along with a somewhat gritty “used” aesthetic that made it feel worn and lived in. I wanted to live in it. It was the last movie I ever saw with my mother, and the last movie that she ever saw outside of a hospital television. For Mum, Dorothy left the farm in Kansas to see the world. For me, Luke left the farm on Tatooine to find his destiny.

Superman, the Motion Picture:
A year after Star Wars landed, another big cinematic event for me. Christopher Reeve inspired me that a man can be an honest, virtuous hero, impervious to negative influences and corruption. He gave the most convincing, wonderful performance, and the movie’s physical and optical effects had reached an amazing level that convinced me that a man could fly.

Famous Monsters of Filmland:
This was a science fiction/fantasy/horror movie magazine that showed me that movie monsters were brought to life by actors, designers and writers, and that movie monsters could be funny as well as shocking. The magazine’s editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, was lovingly referred to as “Uncle Forry” by me and a whole generation of young fans and future movie makers. Real life provided me with enough real scares and true monsters, but Uncle Forry made his world fun and safe.

Archetypes – Parents and Other Important Grown-ups:

My parents, only one generation younger than their wise elders, seemed to contain all the chaos the world had to offer, and served it up around me far too often. Mother and Father were the seat of drama and hot emotions in my life. My father could be gentle, but when challenged or threatened would become authoritarian and rigid – someone to fear and obey. My mother could sometimes be fun or spontaneous, but was most often depressed, uncommunicative or just unavailable.

My grandparents were all dead by the time I was twelve. I only got to know one of them really well (my maternal grandfather). I’m also grateful for the careful attention of my father’s aunt, who gave me and my sister quiet, safe times to learn, draw or just hang out. I had learned from watching how each of them lived that life could be uncomplicated, rational and peaceful, with simple joys like a brisk walk while sucking on a fresh peppermint.

Later on, a couple of years into adulthood, I’d encounter a teacher who provided me the educational and professional mentorship I had craved. He began as a kind of “Obi-wan Kenobi” to my eager young “Luke Skywalker”, showing me new ways to look at the world around me, and in the years to follow as I matured and accumulated more of my own wisdom, I saw him more clearly as a man, idolized him less,  and liked and respected him even more.

Wise elder figures in fantasy (Obi-wan Kenobi, Gandalf) or familiar celebrities (like Uncle Forry), represented safe and reassuring proof that there was fun, reassuring elder wisdom to be had for uncertain youths.

Each of These Figures Goes into the Mix…

For me, I suppose that the symbolism of my family and life sums up something like this:

  • Parents teach more by the example of their lives, than by anything they tell you about them. Do as they say, but watch out for what they do. In my life, I learned what not to do and how not to live, by watching their living examples.
    • Father: Strong, fearless except when his fearlessness is in question, and moral, except when his morality is in dispute. When he’s good, he’s Superman. When he’s bad, he’s Darth Vader, or Dracula.
    • Mother: Beautiful to look at, a songbird to hear, but unstable and unreliable. Tragic and flawed. Someone to love en absentia, and then posthumously. Referred to in the past tense, even during her life; zombie-fied and burnt out, like a poor, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster
  • Grandparents tend to be wiser than their children, and tend to mourn and regret their antics, even into their adulthood. Because of their roles, they can provide comfort, but are often ineffective at being parents to their adult kids. The old wizards and warriors have had their day, and must yield the field to their younger counterparts – for better or worse.
  • Teachers tend to be the most objective and reliable source of information and inspiration. They also represent the emotional oasis that is school and higher learning in general. They don’t get involved directly with any of the above.
  • The Hero/Heroine of your life is you (in my case, me). You take everything you can get, learn all the lessons, suffer all the trials, and watch all the examples of each of the above people in your life.

This is the raw material that has gone into the characters and events in my own fiction, such as Owe Nothing, and its sequel, The Two Sisters.

In looking back at my life, and what I’ve made of it, I acknowledge the roles and influences of my parents, grandparents, teachers, idols, and fantasies. They all represent parts of a tapestry (if you’ll indulge me in a weaving metaphor), the threads of which I’ve extracted to knit into something new. The individual threads (snippets of a personality, an action-reaction, a core value, feeling or sense-memory) don’t reveal much of their source, but careful composition allows me to create figures, worlds and events that can resonate for a reader, without devaluing the original threads and those who spun them for me.

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