Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Lee As Pain

                When I was in Grade 11, I drew a picture of Robert E. Lee in pencil. The photo copied is a perfect capture of the man’s eyes, of their mixture of stern command and sadness. I drew this picture because I admired him. I hung it in my highschool locker.

                Twenty-five years later, a group of white men, also admirers of Lee, gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of his statue from the newly-named Emancipation Park. They clashed with counter-protesters, and one of them drove his car into a crowd, murdering a 32-year-old mother. At a press conference, The President spluttered some words in Lee’s defense, asking reporters if they also wished to pull down statues of other slave-owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
                In his lifetime, Lee was a central figure of The United States’ Civil War, and his story is one of heroic contradictions. He was a soldier who abhorred violence, and totally obedient until he betrayed his country. He was a racist slave-owner who disliked slavery. He commanded the Confederate Army in its most glorious victories and ignominious failures. For Northerners, he was both traitor and honored adversary.
His legend began in The Civil War, but it has been rewritten many times since. After the war, he joined the American pantheon of heroes. Politicians used him as a symbol of reconciliation between North and South, a hero to salve the wounded pride and sorrow of a defeated South. He became an avatar of the Lost Cause, a narrative of the Civil War that highlights noble soldiers defending their homes and State’s Rights, while downplaying or ignoring slavery. In many ways, Lee is The Lost Cause, a noble soldier who fought for his homeland, while disliking slavery and secession.
Lee has also become an icon for intolerance. Former Confederate soldiers, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, formed the Ku Klux Klan to thwart The Reconstruction and punish newly-freed slaves. Their numbers swelled in the 1920s and 30s. They were joined by Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville. To them, Lee is a hero of the white race, who battled a tide of uppity niggers, race-traitors and weaklings.
A new Lee narrative is circulating. You can find it easily by Googling “Who was Robert E. Lee”, and finding one of the many copy-paste articles about his history. It casts Lee as a cruel slaver. Here, he is a blunderer who just couldn’t figure out them gol-dern military tactics, his greatest victories credited to the even-greater incompetence of his rival, George McClellan. It goes out of its way to point out that Lee wouldn’t have wanted monuments of himself. Its sole aim is to justify the removal of statues.
All over the South, Confederate statues are being removed, including images of Lee in Charlottesville, New Orleans, and Baltimore. To the architects of this movement, Lee is a symbol of the violent racism that caused the Civil War, and endures today. The public statues of Lee, mounted on Traveller, are a reminder of the humiliation and suffering of slavery, and the enduring institutional racism that came after.
None of the narratives about Lee is completely true. Too many stories claim him. Only Lee knew the full narrative of Lee, but we can come close to discovering his true character by studying history.
If you take the time to read many different accounts, you will see a creature of perfect physical and moral discipline, tortured by his own deficiencies. You will meet a truly gentle person who was also a killer. You will see a man unlearning outdated military tactics, and quietly mourning thousands of deaths he caused. You see him take responsibility for failure, and his soft-spoken humility. You must reconcile a man of such heroic character fighting on the wrong side of history, for an immoral government founded by proud and greedy men. You will come to learn the pain behind those stern, sad eyes.
In 1861, Lee was forced to make a terrible choice. He could either command the Union Army, or return home to fight for his native Virginia. His choice was personally heartrending. And yet, Lee’s personal pain at his decision to fight for the Confederacy caused far more external pain. It filled thousands of surgeons’ buckets with sawed-off limbs. It crowded thousands of graveyards. Would the Confederacy have lasted long without his talents?
The pain did not end after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It spoke through generations, inspiring some, and inciting others to violence. Rip down all the statues of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Roger Taney, Braxton Bragg, or the rest of those Confederate losers, and it will elicit hardly a peep from the public. Target Lee, and it’s a different story. It is no coincidence that the violence of August 12th was fought over his statue. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War ended, people are still dying because of Robert E. Lee.
In Grade 11, I made a monument to Lee in my locker. Knowing what I do now, would I keep that pencil drawing on display? That’s a tough one. When I drew that picture, I didn’t give a thought to slavery. I admired Lee’s self-control and self-denial, his cunning in battle, and his resolve in overwhelming adversity. But, if I could explain to myself that other people might think it an endorsement of slavery, or that I was a Klansman, I would be embarrassed. I’d be defensive, then guilty. Then I’d probably take it down. The process would be painful.

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!” ~ Robert E. Lee

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Privileged in Toronto

In a red, folding audience chair of Studio Theatre at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre sits a white man.  He is in the wrong place.  

He is attending an event at the Canadian Writer’s Summit of 2016, titled “Grants for Writers.”  But the white man should have read the summit’s website more carefully.  If he had, he would have learned that this event is about the Ontario Arts Council.  He’s from Saskatchewan.  When he finds out, he feels dumb, but decides to stick around anyway.  

Jack Illingworth, Literary Officer for the OAC, sits at a folding table, centre-stage.  In his opening remarks, he thanks the Mississauga First Nation, on whose traditional lands downtown Toronto is built, for hosting.  This is not the first time the white man has heard these words.  Writer Lawrence Hill began his keynote address with them.  At the time, the white man thought these words were a nice concession to First Nations people.  Toronto is progressive, and the writing community is at the vanguard of The Culture of Inclusion.  

This time, however, the speech strikes the white man as meaningless.  If The Mississauga First Nation asked Jack Illingworth to vacate his house, would he be waxing this eloquent?  Would he thank them for the previous use of their ancestral homeland and pack his bags?  

Desperation rises from the audience like stink-lines.  Destitute writers itch to discover the secret of the elusive Arts Grant.  Every one of Mr. Illingworth’s ums, hesitations, and miscellaneous speech disfluencies ramp the tension.  He pauses to take questions, and hands flutter.  Complaining ensues.  Illingworth apologizes, then commiserates, saying how hard it was to write all those rejection letters.  Funding has been shrinking for decades and people who deserve grants cannot get them.  

Another writer queries Illingworth about a new OAC policy: “Is it true blind juries will be abolished for arts grants?”  The embattled Literary Officer confirms.  “Why?” asks another woman, without raising her hand.  Because, says Illingworth, blind juries overwhelmingly choose projects from privileged artists.  The crowd gasps.  Soon, the OAC will consider an artist’s background, colour, creed and culture as well as their project.    

Tired and troubled, the white man leaves the talk early.  He strides down crowded York Street to the Union Station Subway, pondering.  How can privilege penetrate a blind jury?  Are white men really that good at manipulating the system?  Is the new OAC policy fair?  Is it discrimination?  Is it legal?  Will blind juries be eliminated in Saskatchewan?  

His survival instinct stirs.  He’s a writer, and when he sells a story, he makes an average of $25, USD if he’s lucky.  That’s no way to make a living.  He needs an arts grant, and fears extra competition. 

The next morning of the summit, the white man is in the wrong place again.  The panel discussion he was most anticipating was “Writing from a Remote Area”.  His home village, on the remoteness scale, ranks somewhere between Midway Atoll and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  He cannot wait to hear some valuable tips.  Arriving late at the outdoor tent, he sits in the front row and readies his notebook.  He should have read the website more carefully.  The panel begins: in French.  Apparently, in Toronto, the word “remote” means “Quebec”.   

Disappointed and feeling stupid, he wanders until he finds a panel discussion about collaboration.  He tries to take notes, but cannot.  His mind wages civil war.  His survival instinct rages, combining with self-hatred and his sense of dislocation.  The Culture of Inclusion threatens him.  He feels: 
  1. Stupid, useless and hopeless
  2. Excluded and ignored at the prevailing culture at the summit because it threatens his survival.  It calls him privileged, when he feels he is not.  It has no interest in his stories because of who he is.  It reinforces itself with catchphrases like "European narratives" and "colonialism", and its perpetrators compete with each other to see how loud they can clap when they are mentioned.  
  3. Furious with himself for thinking a series of bigoted thoughts (which I will not publish here)
  4. Angry with truly privileged people - the ones who get all the grants.  
  5. Like he wants to go home and quit writing forever. 
  6. Like he is in the wrong place. 

The white man tells himself to shut up; these are the thoughts of a victim and a bigot.  But he cannot bottle them.  Trembling, he flees the panel during question-period and eats a sad lunch at the cafĂ© overlooking Toronto Harbour.  

Willing himself past the old power plant to the Fleck Dance Theatre, he trudges to his next event, “The First Page Challenge”.  He has anonymously submitted the first page of a short story to the organizers.  An agent, an editor and a professional writer will critique it and judge whether they would keep reading or put it down.  He dreads this event, for his self-esteem is in the toilet, and he is sure his writing will be lambasted.  He enters the dim theatre anyway.  

Two hours later, the white man emerges, transformed.  He received accolades from the onstage panel.  His writing is good.  Again he is competent and capable.  Again the universe is a place of abundance.  His survival is threatened by nobody.  

Most important, the encouragement has restored his clarity.  He remembers his list of itemized complaints against the summit, Toronto and the Culture of Inclusion, and sees that he was only a tourist in it.  Some people live that list.  Every day they struggle against privilege and feel like they are in the wrong place.  

The white man’s day at the summit concludes at a reception.  Some kind of LGBTQ awards are being presented.  He’s not sure which: he didn’t read the website that carefully.  Again the Mississauga First Nation is thanked, and again he notes overenthusiastic applause when the names of past winners are listed, but it doesn’t bother him.  It is only encouragement.  Encouragement helped him at exactly the right time.  It is the antidote to bigotry and hatred.  If he had not received it at his critical moment, he might still be thinking that white men are victims.  He joins the loud clapping.  

A man in a dress accepts his award at the podium.  The white man stifles a chuckle, not because men in dresses are funny, but because he cannot imagine this scene back home in Saskatchewan.  Yet he knows that if The Culture of Inclusion is so entrenched in Toronto, Canada’s most important city, it will be mainstream in Saskatchewan in a few years.  When that happens, it will change how writers interact with funding agencies and with government.  It may mean preferential treatment for some.  It might mean the end of blind juries for arts grants. It may be more difficult for the white man to get the money he needs to write for a living.  Even though they are privileged, men like him will feel persecuted.  

The privilege-party must be crashed, and space must be cleared at the table.  Though painful, it is necessary.  The white man vows encourage everybody he can, privileged or not, during the process.  

That evening, the white man decides to walk to his lodgings instead of taking the subway.  His route takes him across Bay Street, through the throngs of Yonge street, and along the circus that is Bloor.  He absorbs Toronto, and sees every conceivable culture, class, flag, and self-identifying gender during his stroll.  He is a lone human amongst millions, but feels inclusion in the smiles he meets on the street.  He is in the right place.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is Magic?

During World War I, three Portuguese kids met the Virgin Mary.  I'm not sure why people paid attention.  Kids say a lot of dumb stuff.  My kid, for instance, claimed to have an invisible sister named Marceline last month.  I laughed at her, and I was correct to do so.  Early 20th-Century Portugal was a different time and place, and for whatever reason, these kids were big news.

The kids told people to go hang out in a field and await a miracle.  And over the course of months, people waited.  About a hundred thousand of them travelled to Cova da Iria.  Newspapers sent reporters to cover the event.  

Then, on October 13, 1917, something happened.  Nobody is sure what.  The Catholic Church now refers to this event as "The Miracle of the Sun".  Of the people who experienced it: 
  • One third of them saw something freaky happen to the sun.  It flashed different colours, or zig-zagged across the sky, or two suns appeared.  
  • One third of them experienced conflicting weirdness, like their wet clothes drying spontaneously.  
  • And a third of them saw a bunch of crazy idiots losing their minds over nothing.  
My grandpa Charlie, were he alive for me to ask, would tell me that those religious nutcases saw what they wanted to see.  He was a rocket scientist and physicist, and science was his faith.  Religion and magic are the realms of crooks and crazies, he might say.  He would have said that atmospheric dust created the illusion of The Miracle of the Sun, or that the loonies saw a parhelion rainbow, or maybe they were just staring at the sun for too long and hurt their eyes.  

Charlie failed to get any of his kids to become scientists.  But I inherited his sceptical mind.  In the aughts, I was burned by unsourced left-wing, libertarian websites, and I honed my bullshit sensor.  I like my ability to sniff the false garbage that circulates on Facebook, and I like the idea that we can prove stuff by testing it.  I like the label of "sceptic".  

I also want to believe in magic.  When I was a kid, I loved the stories of trolls lurking under mountains in D'Aulaire's Book of Trolls.  In my twenties, I became entranced with H.P. Lovecraft's tales and their moral that unspeakable terror lies beyond the borders of human knowledge.  Now, I write my own stories, and all of them are supernatural.  

That, and I've seen some weird shit.  I  had an out-of-body experience when I stopped breathing on an operating table.  I've seen ghosts.  I've felt tingling energy flowing through a woman's fingers into my back. I've stepped into rooms and glades, knowing that their was an invisible presence with me.  These are not the words of a sceptic.  

I desperately want magic to be real.  My senses tell me that it is.  Yet science consistently refutes ghosts and energy and chi.  My cousin once shared somebody's theory with me that since science never detects the supernatural, it must be very rare.  Brain misinterpretation of data and mental illness, however, are very common.  Therefore, most people who see supernatural things are either mistaken or crazy.  

So that's me.  I couldn't have seen my dead friend Nick looking down from his old apartment window on Broadway.  I saw some other guy who looked like him and my brain filled in the rest.  

At this point, I want to repeat a phrase beloved by alternative and pseudo-scientific therapies everywhere.  If you're a sceptic, you'll hate this: "(fill in the blank) harnesses the body's remarkable ability to heal itself."  This phrase makes my skin crawl.  But it's pretty much the only scientific evidence for magic that I can think of.  

I'm talking about the placebo effect.  If you give a sugar pill to a group of people and tell them it will cure their illness, a bunch of them will get better.  Who do placebos affect?  Henry K. Beecher, the scientist who practically wrote the book on the placebo effect, said that they affect about one in three people.  Here's another funny one.  There's also such a thing as a noncebo.  This is a harmless substance that, if the patient believes it is bad, will have detrimental effects.  

What is central to placebos and noncebos is that they hinge on belief.  They help or harm because people believe they will.  The reason it works is something to do with expectation, but the science seems really fuzzy.  The point is that your health is, to a large part, subjective.  If you truly believe that acupuncture, reiki, or cutting gluten out of your diet will make you healthy, it might.  Even if you think that you will be healed by sneaking into the Vatican and taking a draught from the Pope's toilet, there is a one in three chance that it will work.  Belief!

So let me express my own beliefs.  I believe that the placebo effect is magic.  I believe that the Miracle of the Sun was magic.  I believe that ghosts and chi energy are magic.  And I believe that these things can exist alongside science.

The immanent physician, Dean Ornish, made a quote about science that I like.  He said, "A valid scientific theory is predictive, verifiable, and replicable.  To me, that's beautiful."  In the spirit of that, allow me to give magic the same treatment.

Magic is unpredictable, unverifiable, and subjective.  

Magic can never be quantified by science, because there is never any guarantee that it will work, even in the hands a master.  When it works, it sometimes doesn't work as advertised.  Furthermore, because magic is subjective, the presence of sceptical minds makes it less likely to work.  One person will see two suns rising and be moved to prostrate tears, while another will observe nothing.

Science is great.  It has elevated our humble species.  We live longer, we build astounding things, and we rule the planet.  It provides a great baseline for existing on earth.

However, sometimes weird shit happens.  When magic occurs, it is awe-inspiring, terrifying and cathartic.  It is wonder at seeing two suns rise.  It is inexplicable terror in a lonely place that makes your heart pound.  It is a terminal cancer patient beating the disease.  It can change your life, or become your reason for living.  If you refuse to believe in miracles, it makes them less likely to happen to you.

So believe.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015


I'm a mess.

It has been about four years since I wrote anything about Stephen Harper.  It's election time, so I feel I must say something.  That something is, “I told you so.”

Four years ago, I wrote that until now, Stephen Harper has been playing nicey-nice.  He needed to compromise his vision because Parliament checked his power.  I told the world, on this very blog, that if he is given a majority government, we will finally see his true agenda.  And I was right.  

In Canada, we have a tradition of parliamentary politeness.  Our politicians must appear composed and prime-ministerial.  In the past, I've tried to sound at least respectable, too.  But I'm through being reasonable.  I can quote a bunch of facts, but it would just be regurgitation of information expressed by others more eloquent than me.  I feel I have to honour the raging emotions in me to find relief.  This election has taught me that votes are not won by intellect.  Emotions are the true currency of politics.  So I will say what all three of Stephen Harper's opponents desperately wish to say about Stephen Harper's agenda, but cannot.

Stephen Harper is evil.

Not just evil, but Eeeeevil.  Like, “Devil”, except he's so evil that he had the letter D's citizenship revoked.

What is evil?  Most definitions say that an evil person is a transgressor.  Harper is a proud transgressor.  Our country has a British parliamentary tradition, with many unwritten rules and things that are “just not done, old boy”.  But Harper does them, and he does them to win.

“But Jeremy,” you say, “It's easy to denounce someone is evil if you disagree with them.”  I will admit that Stephen Harper's policies are disagreeable to me.  But it isn't just that I disagree with him.  There's something else.  You see, he is not a stupid man.

It is easy for me to laugh at conservative buffoons like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.  They rush from catastrophe to catastrophe, blurting embarrassing things and flailing at anything they perceive as weird.  Such men are conservative out of ignorance.  Not Stephen Harper.  His conservatism is informed and cynical.  I believe he may be a genius.

It is a calculating, shrewd genius.  It is an intellect that seeks control.  He wields power by breaking rules and surprising his foes.

Carl Jung would say that I believe Stephen Harper is evil because I see my shadow-self reflected in him.  The things I hate most about Harper - his ruthlessness, his sneakiness, his control-freakishness, his ambition - are qualities I have and hate in myself.  I too yearn to rule with guile and cunning, to paint my vision upon Canada while quietly grinding the faces of my vanquished foes in open sewer drainpipes.

If this is so, it takes one to know one.  Take it from me, a man who struggles with grandiose dreams of narcissistic power and vengeance: Canada is Stephen Harper's game of Civilization IV, and to him, we are all just units.  He has the cheat codes and loves using them on us.

Since the election was called, dread has been welling in me.  What if he wins again?  It keeps me awake at night.  I am so scared.  How can I live in Canada for four more years, watching him gut programs I care about, like national parks and the CBC?  What else that I love will be on his chopping block?  How much more damage can his corporate friends do to the planet under his watch?  How can I listen to him and his weasels thwarting the House of Commons with their empty talking points, barely concealing their Duper's Delight?

His supporters bother me too.  I have family members and acquaintances who love Harper.  Despite the glut of information about his evil, how he has been hurting us all, there is always some distracting, emotionally-charged rumour going around about “How the NDPs have a guy who did the same thing as Duffy but didn't pay it back” or “there are these Sikhs down the road who just came to Canada and they're getting our health care and how is that fair” or “I heard there's this woman who collects ten welfare cheques under different names”.  Where are these stories coming from?  The ignorant believe them and their anger keeps them ignorant.  They get more angry at a made-up story than a far more expensive, and factual, story about tar sands companies getting free billions from Harper.

Just today I was at an auto dealership and overheard some slick-looking greyhair joking with the guy behind the desk: “At least it's better than the government, where you put money in and don't get any services back!”  Interesting.  How about I break your pretty face so you can collect some free healthcare?  You ungrateful fucking barbarian.

I may have mentioned I'm a mess.  The thought of Harper in office again twists my stomach.  I sometimes feel like I'm having a panic attack.  Some days I want to stay in bed.  Other days, I carry my fear with me, slouching under it like a heavy camping backpack.

So, to sum up, Harper is evil, don't vote for him.  Although, the way the internet works, you will likely not see this post unless you already agree with me.  I have one prayer, offered to God, or the Universe, or Eris, or Elvis, or the uncaring stars, or anybody, anything that will listen.  Please please, oh please, let us not be so goddamn stupid this time.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

For Ricky

On February 12th, 2015, Richard Enns went into the hospital for the last time. I saw him at my mother's house the day before. With painful steps, he hobbled from the bathroom to the kitchen and opened a container of apple sauce, mumbling. After he finished eating, he addressed a vacant chair in the living room.

"God, that was cold. When you get down to that hambone, you feel it. That sucker hurts."

"What was that, Ricky?" I asked.

His eyes focused on me, and with tiny steps, he staggered forward. The nonsense switch in his brain shut off, and with clarity and lucidity, he explained what the doctors were going to do to him the next day. The first shunt in his liver hadn't quite done the trick, he said. The tumour was pressing on a vein and fluid was still collecting in his body. A second shunt might divert the fluid so he could live comfortably for another few months.

He refused my arm to help him to bed. He told me he had to sleep, would take a few more steps, and turn to tell me something else. Rick loved talking, and that was obvious from the first moments I met him.


Suzi took me to Nipawin to meet her parents for the first time in the summer of 2006. Her dad had arranged a motorboat ride on Tobin Lake. It was the first time I had ever been in a real motorboat. My parents had always paddled canoes when I was growing up, and on the one occasion they rented a motorboat, it was old and doddered across the lake with a disappointing chug-chug-chug.

Rick's boat roared forward. I felt pine wind rush past, felt spray on my hands. The sunlight on the lake dazzled me. I tried to play it cool, but I could see Rick watching me. He saw my grin, and knew I was pleased. I had fallen into his trap: he loved arranging vehicular excursions into the woods north of Nipawin, and just watching his victims smile.

He landed on a beach and I stepped from the boat. I found a driftwood pole on the shore and claimed it. Both ends were gnawed by beaver teeth. It was a good pole, the kind that vibrated a musical note when dropped. I explained to Rick that I needed a new walking stick and wanted a souvenir to help me remember such a perfect day.

I eventually lost that walking stick. What stayed was an image: Rick beaming behind his tinted glasses, the tiller in one hand, and his crummy shi-tzu, Amos, cradled in the other arm. He seemed a perfect man in that moment, in cool control of his world, pleased to be sharing happiness with others.


I brought my 4-year old daughter with me to the hospital after his operation. He beamed, just like he had on the boat, when he saw her. He explained to the nurse who was changing his shirt, "This is my girlfriend, Zoey." The nurse raised an eyebrow at me.

"My name's Kara," corrected my daughter.

The nurse was done in a moment, and I sat near his bedside. "So, ya takin' off, Jerry?" he asked.

"No, I just got here. I'll hang out and keep you company for awhile,"

We held awkward conversation. Mostly, he watched Kara play in the window. She talked about icebergs forming on the roof of the hospital. "That little girl... sure is astute," he said, before drifting away to sleep. It was the last thing I ever heard him say.

"Is he always confused like this?" asked the nurse as I was leaving.

"Yeah, it's the encephalopathy," I replied. "It's been worse lately."

The nurse queried me about his medical history, because Rick had been unable to answer the questions himself before the operation. "Liver cancer of course," I said. "And hepatitis C and the encephalopathy. Type II diabetes. History of alcoholism."


In 2013 I went for a drive to Lost River and Teddington with Rick. I had expressed interest in his family history, and after loaning me a book on Mennonites in Canada, he invited me to view the land where he had spent his childhood.

The land southwest of Nipawin was deep green, and rain threatened to delay the new harvest. A muddy grid road blazed west through low hills, sheltered by patches of aspen, then curved south, away from the Saskatchewan river. Kara twittered to herself in the backseat of the car.

Only a church and cemetery remain standing in Teddington. But as we drove the grids, he pointed to a patch of poplars and said, "That's where the brown church was, the old one. We used to go there until they built the new one. It was kinda scary." He would talk about this or that farmhouse that used to stand, and the names of people who lived there. He talked about slaughtering day, when all the Mennonites from the countryside would converge on somebody's farm and slaughter their animals, then have a great feast.

In the cemetery, we came across the new grave of his stepmother. Somebody had half-buried a stuffed animal in the mounded earth. Kara's eyes lit, and she rushed to grab it, but I stopped her, for it looked like it had erupted from the grave, decaying, pink and soggy, then expired in the mud.
Rick's mother died of tuberculosis in 1948, when he was two years old. His father needed somebody to help raise his two boys, and he remarried quickly. Rick remembered his new mother chasing him and his brother with a butcher knife. She would beat them if they spoke German in the home. She instilled in him a sense of fear, sadness and anger that would last him the rest of his days.

As we walked through the Teddington cemetery and he groused about his stepmother, I saw his life anew. He started his life as a wounded little farmboy, and could have stayed a wounded little farmboy in this dying little community. But somehow he broke free and started thinking for himself, despite his pain. Yes, he used and abused substances, including alcohol, to dull that pain. Yes, he got into fights and got in trouble with the law. And he could not help inflicting some of that anger and pain onto his own children. But as we walked in the graveyard, I saw him in his new equilibrium, conscious of his own pain and his failings, but somehow having found a twisted little bit of contentedness. He had found a woman to love him. He had made peace with his children. He had seen rough times, but they were over, and now life was quiet and happy.


A day after the operation, Rick was kept in the hospital. An infection had developed in the fluid in his abdomen. In the following days, he drifted in and out of wakefulness, speaking less and less, mumbling and putting his hands to his face, battling internal demons.

The doctors soon ceased the antibiotics. His liver and kidneys had failed, his immune system was destroyed. All that could be done was watch him drift away.


A lifetime of intemperance had given Rick hepatitis C and diabetes, but by the time I got to know him, his greatest sin was liking hockey too much. He would often alarm me by quietly watching the game on his computer with a set of headphones, then bark "YEAH!" when his team scored.

He ate mounds of sweets, oil and salt, damn his internal organs. He managed his blood sugar with injected insulin, and the various other complaints of his body with a bag full of drugs and vitamins.

Rick mislabelled his uncommon problem-solving talent as “common-sense”. He clearly saw solutions and mentally worked his way backwards, not stopping until his vision was satisfied. Most stubborn people build a cocoon of ignorance around themselves, but Rick's curiosity would always coax him out.

His office was filled with old electronics that he had taken apart or upgraded. He bought game consoles to hijack them and get free games. All his computers had their protective cases open, exposing wires and components.

In 2013, he created a little still out of a pot and a large plastic bucket, brewing and drinking his own alcohol. He was so proud as he showed me the various flavour packets he added to make amaretto, rum or rye. When I visited, he offered me alcohol from his still, and for some reason, I refused him most of the time. I promised him that I would get drunk with him some day.

That day will never come now. As he drank from his little still, the alcohol assaulted his scarred liver, accelerating the growth of the tumour inside it. The tumour squeezed his hepatic arteries, causing him pain, depression, lack of energy, fluid retention, and eventually, starvation.

By Christmas of 2014, his skin hung loose on his crooked form. He cradled a bloated bellyful of fluid. It was obvious that he was dying. And then he smiled. In his mouth gleamed a new set of dentures. It was so absurd that I felt sick.


It was a years-long fading, crowned with disconcerting indignities. In his confusion, he accidentally crushed our canoe, backing into it with a trailer. He gave up on the “piss stain” he wanted to leave on the world, his straw-bale house. As he lost control of his life, he got overly worried about international terrorism and immigration. He began spending hours in the bathroom. He couldn't work anymore, forgetting what he as doing mid-chore. He spent more time in bed, then was bedridden. Reality abandoned him.

On February 18, 2015, he breathed his last breath in his hospital bed. By his order, he was not resuscitated. His last words were either, “Hey buddy,” or “Oh, fuck.” With his earthly remains chilling in the hospital morgue, all I had left of him were questions.

The night of his death, I tried to understand where he went. I tried to figure out why he was. I tried to distil some essence of him, some lesson to be learned from his life and death. I talked to my wife about it.

"I don't even fucking care about that," she chided, lost in greater grief. "What's the point? Why do you want to make it simple? It was his life!"

She's right, of course. I am a writer, and a dealer in stories. Stories comfort me, because they make the world simpler. By trying to make his life conform into a simple "life story", I was robbing it of some of its meaning. It is messy and contradictory. It needs an epic, not 1800 words.

He was by turns a clever thinker and a bigot. He was a loving father and a cruel father. He could be a stubborn asshole, but he never stopped learning. He got under my skin, he pushed me, he made me think. I pitied him and I admired him. I resent him for not preserving his life, yet I feel that his death was good, that a restless soul found peace.

I love him and I scorn him and I love him.

Friday, February 13, 2015

On Being a Writer, and other Silliness

It was eight years ago, around this time of year, that I put in my notice at SaskTel. I was going to be a professional screenwriter, and I couldn't have work interfering with my time anymore. I was going to do like Stephen King and many other writers told me was the only way to become a professional writer: I would devote myself to the craft, and write like it was a full-time job. In the meantime, my generous girlfriend, Suzi, had offered me a place to stay for free and buy me food.

Fast forward to last summer. I was not earning a living as a professional writer. My wife had been working to support me for years, and wanted the freedom to realize her dream of becoming a BodyTalk practitioner. So I took a job as a scheduler.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Sparrowhawk,
It was good to be earning regular money again, but at night, my dark other would come and whisper things to me. So much for your great experiment, he said. You are not a professional writer, and therefore you are a failure. You wasted years of your life for nothing.

That voice in my head often tells me rotten things like that, so it's usually a terrible idea to listen to him. But it's hard not to notice, because the things he says are based in truth. I had set out on a quest to be a working writer, and I wasn't, so... mission failed, right? There are any number of intellectual arguments to counter this, but the voice that says, “You are a failure” is based in deep, unconscious emotion, and impervious to intellectual attack.

The mission isn't over. I'm still writing. I'll be headed to a week-long writing retreat at St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster in a couple weeks, in fact. I'm full of short stories and working on a novel. I still love what I do, so my dark other can take a hike. However, this is a good time for reflection on the closing of a chapter in my personal story.

What did I get from all that time without a regular job? Let me tell you, it was great to be freed from drudgery. I loved to wake when I pleased and go to bed when I wished. I was lucky that I got to taste that freedom in my prime, when most people have to wait until they retire. But there were also difficulties that I didn't expect. Believe it or not, having these obstacles actually made life as a freelance writer, and I hesitate to use this word, difficult!

It was Hard to find Motivation

Writing full time... in theory, it's an easy thing to do. There are any number of activities I used to fill my time. Aside from from actual writing, there are writing exercises which took me out my regular writing patterns and taught me to compose in different ways. Then there was reading, for learning the craft, for research, and for enjoyment. As a screenwriter, I could also just watch movies. I could blog. I could market myself.

So why is it that so many of my hours were sacrificed to dark goddess, Facebook? Why is it that so many quests were completed in Oblivion, Dragon Ages 1 and 2, Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, while my own quest went unfulfilled? Why did I spend so many hours feeling bad about writing instead of actually writing?

Good question. It would appear that it is way easier to work when somebody is telling me what to do. I made lots of plans. I was my own boss. At one point I planned my days. I stuck to it for a week, but my habits slipped and I stopped. My dark other popped by and told me I was a failure for being unable to follow my own plan. I felt bad, and I wrote less.

How did I overcome this obstacle? I didn't, exactly. I slowly, slowly got better at working on my own, for longer periods of time. I also had to learn to stop beating myself up if I didn't hold my discipline, because some days, I couldn't. As hard as I tried, I couldn't wave a magic writer-wand and become disciplined. Over a period of years, I just kept trying, succeeding and failing.

In the end, I am not a model of self-discipline. I still love goofing off, ignoring my goals, and playing video games. But I also know how to write better, I know how to write more quickly, and I can spend an afternoon doing it without worrying if I'm doing it right.

I Hated not being Self-Sufficient

I was lucky during this period. My girlfriend, who would later become my wife, was my patron. She looked after my needs, so I never had to worry about my next meal like many of my starving-artist brethren.

But like them, I didn't make much money. Less than a year after I quit my job at SaskTel, I depleted the savings in my bank account. I had gone from being my own man to being a dependant. I was no longer a self-sufficient good citizen. I was a drain on the woman I loved. Quietly, I began to feel terrible about myself.

While I worried about my discipline and writing habits on a daily basis, my feelings of financial inferiority sneaked up and inflicted a more insidious wound. I was unmanned.

So how did I deal with this issue? Once again, I didn't really. I guess I got tired of it and got a job. And here I am. I'm still writing, but at least now I'm making some money. How long will I continue at this job? That depends on my own whims and the whims of fate. For now, I'm happy with the compromise.

I got Dopey

When spending so much time working with my right brain, and without the activity of a regular job to stimulate the left, I became imprecise. I spent so much time in my head that I stopped paying attention to the real world. And with these things, time became less important.

At SaskTel, I carried a calendar and cellphone with me everywhere I went. I always knew the date and time. As a writer, days began to melt together. I lost track of the date and the day of the week. Hours would drift past without me noticing. I forgot appointments and promises. I would forget what I was doing. Math got more difficult.

It seems funny to me that I should go from this state into being a scheduler, but life is odd. Time and the real-world have come back to me. And with my scheduling job limiting my life, time has become more important. My days seem packed with activity, even my days off. And somehow, I seem smarter.

Marketing was Harder than I Thought it Would Be

It will be fine, I told myself, I can do it. Marketing will come naturally. But when it actually came showing my creations to the world, for years I discovered that I couldn't actually manage it.

For a start, my self-esteem was in the sewer. How could I, an undisciplined, financially insolvent failure produce anything worth reading? I was inexperienced. Even if I had something worth showing, how was I supposed to interrupt the lives of total strangers and ask them to read my work? If my writing was bad, they would surely resent the time I wasted.

Coupled with this was the fear of rejection. When I first started writing, I thought I was good at taking criticism. But I wasn't. I would be devastated for days, weeks, months after I heard it. If I put my work into the world and heard criticism or even silence, I took it very personally.

This was a difficult one to overcome. But, unlike many of my problems, I think I've actually fixed this issue. The only way to break through this wall of fear was to actually do it. I did it cautiously at first, with short stories and screenplay competitions. I would submit my work one piece at a time and wait expectantly for the results. If my work did well, I felt great and did it again. If my work was rejected, I would be devastated and wouldn't submit again for months. But eventually I got used to the fear of rejection. It became easier to ask. I began to submit more frequently and it became easy. I've had two stories published in the last year, and I see no reason why there will not be more.

When I Wrote More, I Failed More

Part of practising writing is to become better. And this happened. I can say that I am a better writer than I was eight years ago. However, what surprised me is that by increasing my writing volume, I also increased my output of failures.

After abandoning a screenplay project because I could see it was going nowhere, in 2009 I started laying the groundwork of my Necromantic States of America project. I spent a year worldbuilding. Then I started writing my fourth screenplay. The process was painful. I put everything I had into it, and I told myself that THIS WAS THE ONE. I would sell this one. I would break out with this one. It took me two years to complete.

I submitted it to screenplay competitions and waited. The results slowly trickled in, and I began to see what I had long suspected: my inner critic had been correct. I had written something which, at the very best, nobody understood, at the worst, was bad.

I was heartbroken. My previous screenplays had finished well in the competitions. How could I have written something bad, something into which I had poured so much love? My dark other told me that I had wasted my life. “I'm thirty-six!” I told my wife through tears one night. “I can't afford another fucking three-year learning experience!” In the months that followed, I couldn't write at all. I considered going back to school for a career, and abandoning writing.

I didn't abandon writing, obviously. It was just as it was, a fucking three-year learning experience. And one of the things I learned is something I should have already known: they can't all be winners. Continuing to write increases my chances of success, but inevitably, I will write stinkers. And that's okay. That screenplay is still written, and one day, maybe I'll come back to it and improve it. Or not!

Being a Writer is Bullshit

As I mentioned before, I had ideas about what exactly it means to be a writer. A quote I heard in Throw Momma from the Train stuck with me, “A writer writes. Always.” I took that literally. I heard many writers, including Stephen King, say that you should write like it's a full-time job. Ray Bradbury told me to sell lots of short stories and make it big that way. Katherine Atwell Herbert told me, in her soul-crushing book, The Perfect Screenplay, to move to Los Angeles; it is the only way to be successful as a screenwriter. Writers worked in coffee shops. They drank tea and listened to CBC, and wore sweaters. All you had to do is try really hard, and you could be one.

I couldn't and didn't do these things. Yet my dark other used them as an excuse to skewer me. “You're not a writer,” it said. “You're a fraud. Look at all the time you've been given and you squander it. You'll never be a writer at this rate.” My preconceptions about being a writer became a way for my subconscious to torture me.

Sometime last spring, I came to a shocking conclusion: being a writer is bullshit. I found that I could just BE. If that being included writing, I was happy. Once freed from the preconceptions of being a writer, I could do other things like hanging out with my kid, like playing video games, like housework, or like getting a paying job, all without guilt. Why does it matter if I'm A Writer if I enjoy my life? I still write.


This post was difficult. I had to revisit a lot of old shame and fear. But I think it was necessary to mark that time in my life and see its good and evils. Thank you for reading this far. Be sure that I'm doing okay, I'm feeling good, and that just because I'm getting a paycheque doesn't mean I've given up my dream.   

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Sadness, and the Lie of Success

After a day of musical rehearsing which should have been enjoyable, I got home last night feeling like I wanted to be somebody else.  I laid in bed and wondered to myself why everything has to be such an effort.  I wanted life to be easy.  Then, my wife, who was browsing Facebook, told me that Robin Williams committed suicide and I cried.

Robin Williams was not my favourite comedian, nor celebrity.  Rik Mayall died recently, for instance, whose comic work I hold in higher esteem.  While upset, I was not moved to tears.  Normally, a dead celebrity produces a shoulder shrug and a "meh".  In fact, I've spent much of my life chortling at Robin Williams' roles in sappy dramas like Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, and that concentration camp movie, the name of which I care not to remember.  Yet I cried when he died.  Here's why.  

The first reason is obvious.  He spent so much of his life trying to cheer people with his comedy, to improve lives, and make life on earth better.  Those dramatic roles he chose were often inspirational people who taught us the importance of joy, laughter, and life.  To suicide himself seems to render his work fraudulent, like he was lying to us the whole time and in the end, sadness wins.  

It is not as simple as that.  His death should not be the entire meaning of his life.  

He battled depression.  I know what that's like.  I know what it's like to obsess over joy and sadness.  The depressed always do.  We wonder why we're not as happy as we should be, we wonder when we'll stop being sad, and we worry about the happiness ending.  An evil self-critic is constantly nattering at us.  Yet when that voice is silenced, the joy we taste is overwhelming.  Its memory sustains us through the brutal times.  I suspect, though I'll never know for sure: the non-depressed do not, and cannot, appreciate joy the way our fellowship of the sad experiences it.  

In short, he was more than just a sad clown.  Yes, that was really Robin Williams rolling on the ground, weeping and pouring gasoline on himself in Death to Smoochy.  He drew on his personal despair to make the role of "Rainbow" Randolph real, so real that many viewers were disturbed.  But that was also him in Dead Poet's Society, drawing on his energy as a nurturer, trying to help us live and see through all the bullshit that makes us unhappy.  

However, this is not what made me cry.  

What made me cry is this: Robin Williams had a huge house and tons of money.  He had talent.  He had fame.  He had children.  He had work whenever he wanted it.  He had professional respect.  His acting roles inspired and moved millions of people.  In short, he had success.  Yet he still hated himself.  

His death exposes a great lie: Success = Happiness.  I was taught that if I strove to improve myself and my lot in life, my reward would be happiness.  But it's just not true.  Wealth, fame and power did not save Robin Williams, and it cannot save me or you or anybody else.  

This is either the saddest thing ever, or the most freeing.  It's sad because I will constantly be duelling my personal demons.  But it's freeing as well, because I now see how little Success actually matters, and how little Failure matters conversely.  I can stop worrying about it.  A life of happiness can be lived without them.  This leaves me with more time to pursue actual happiness instead of stuff that doesn't matter.  

As I lay in bed last night, talking about Robin Williams with my life, I could see how easily I could die like him.  Someday, I could hate myself so much, be so full of despair and regret, that I asphyxiate myself.  If that day comes, it won't matter how famous or rich I am.  But just thinking about it has made that future seem more dim and distant.  I can be happy this instant, regardless of the success of my career.  Right now, the trees are green, the cat is fuzzy, my kid wipes the table by herself, and I love them all just a little bit more.  

When Robin Williams killed himself, he was not thinking about me or my happiness.  Yet his life and death have touched me and instructed me in a profound way that none of his movie roles ever could.  Thank you and farewell, O Captain, my Captain.