Summer’s End

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This may have been the best summer of my life. Certainly it is a transitional summer, moving me from one place in my life to another.

In June, I was guest at the NorthWords writing festival in Yellowknife, sharing the stage with Robert J. Sawyer, Dave Bidini, Bileh Nickerson, Todd Babiak and Monique Gray Smith. The line-up of local northern writers was equally impressive. I was happy that my wife, Liz Westbrook-Trenholm was able to join me and also take part. It was a wonderful four days and I will always look back on it as one of the highlights of my literary life, no matter what else I may achieve in the future.

The rest of the summer unfolded in a similar way. We travelled down to Toronto for a five day writing retreat at the end of June. I worked on several short stories and did some serious thinking about my publishing company and about what new adventures on which I would like to embark. It was a celebration of writing and friendship and reminder that life is an endless cornucopia of possibilities. All you need to do is reach out your hand and choose.

July whirled by in a rush of work and writing and pleasant walks by the river, long days filled with words – my own and others – friendship and all the assorted pleasures that an aging body can still find to indulge itself. August has passed in a long slow flash – with only three days in my own bed, it has been a wondrous panorama of sights and sounds – some familiar and some brand new.

August also brought me this blog – 10 Minutes of Words started as a playful experiement but has now become an important part of my daily routine. It is a gateway to the next thing in my life, an exploration of ideas and a summing up of lessons learned.

These are not the thoughts of someone who is getting ready to shut down, to go quietly into that good night. I’m not going anywhere my friends, but onwards and upwards. There is so much left I want to do, books I want to read and write, books I want to publish. There are people I want to meet and places I want to see.

I know my world is changing – I can hardly wait to see how.

And that is ten minutes.

 

Drink

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I don’t do extreme sports. Or, for the last 15 years, sports of any kind. It’s not that I couldn’t. I could. Though I’d resent every minute I spent training, let alone doing them. I’d almost certainly hurt myself. I would probably kill myself. Sports, especially extreme sports, are not for everyone.

It’s the same way with drinking. I took my first drink when I was seventeen. In fact, I took 9 of them that night – all different. I was at a political convention but I missed most of the debates on the final day because I was too damn sick. You might think I would have learned from that experience. I did. I didn’t take another drink for 10 days. By then I was in university.

I drank a lot in university, usually starting on Thursday. Sunday through Wednesday I seldom took a sip. Well, a beer or two now and then but it hardly counts as drinking. But I never missed a class and I got three degrees. I’d like to tell you that I quit drinking after that but it would be a lie. Not the quitting part but the idea I would have liked to quit. That would be the lying part.

I like drinking. I’ve learned to do it well. Some people might say I have achieved Olympic level competence. But they would be wrong. I never push myself that hard. I don’t get hangovers; I never get sick.

I love the taste of bourbon on my tongue, the bouquet of wine in my nose, the tingle of beer, the sweetness of port. I love the sensation of putting the glass to my lips, letting the flavours and aromas and feelings linger. I like the softness drink gives to my vision, to my thoughts. When I drink I am more myself. I like myself when I drink. I am more jovial, more loquacious, more romantic. I am not a mean drunk.

I am, of course, not an alcoholic – I simply refuse to go to all those meetings.

In all my years, I’ve never missed a day’s work or a deadline. Some might say I could have done more, reached higher. Pshaw! I’ve done everything I wanted. Had a decent career, published four novels and a raft of stories, thought deep thoughts, travelled and loved and made great friends. Drinking was and is a part of that. Soon I’ll lie back and take it easy. Sit on beaches or in palazzos, drink beer and red wine, write more novels, enjoy life and love and friendship.

But it’s not for everyone. Some people hurt themselves with drink. Some are hurt and think drink will make them better. You have to know yourself. You have to know when the mountain is too high or the slope too steep.

Know yourself, control yourself and everything else will take care of itself.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Con Artists

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Paris is a city of many things. Monuments that exist in an offhand way, relics of a former regime or way of thinking that become institutions. Paris even exports its monuments – the Statue of Liberty comes to mind.

Paris is full of food and wine and works of art. The museums of Paris are matched by few cities for their breadth and depth of culture.

Paris is also full of con artists. Some of the cons involve art; some mere artifice. Let me describe a few of the classics.

You will be walking along a city sidewalk or a path in a park. A woman (almost always a woman, usually dark complexioned and poorly dressed) will suddenly bend down and come up with a gold ring. Well, it looks gold and when she presses it into your hand it feels heavy. Did you drop this? No, you say. Well, it is too big for me (or, I have no way to sell it), why don’t you keep it for good luck? A souvenir of Paris. You hesitate but then agree. Now comes the ask – could you help me out? I’ve given you good luck, could you give me 5 Euros so I can buy lunch? You, out of guilt or gullibility, hand over some cash. Really almost anything will do, as the ring is worthless and she has a pocketful of them. Well, at least you have a souvenir of Paris.

In another, a large man, almost always African, will greet you and offer you his hand. You shake it, a bit perplexed and the next thing you know he is braiding colorful threads around your fingers – a charm to increase your fertility. You say, no thanks I have all the children I want but it is too late. You would need to yank your hand back, breaking the thread and the good will. Pretty soon a bracelet has been woven and the ask is made. 20 Euros for the art work. There are several of the men now, all smiling. No threat is made but you feel it nonetheless. Another souvenir of Paris.

You are drinking in a bar. An older man approaches – very French, with beret or leather cap, a weathered face, an artistic haircut. He chats you up in a mix of his broken English, your broken French. He asks if he can draw your picture – for his collection. You sit and pose, flattered perhaps but suspicion begins to grow. The drawing is finished – a passable likeness. The ask is made. 50 Euros. Another souvenir.

Ah, Paris.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Fame

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It’s official. I am now the most famous person you have never heard of. I have obtained my 10 minutes of fame – not even 15 as promised by Andy Warhol. How did this come about, you ask.

Let me explain – no that is too long, let me sum up.

Every writer has those moments in his or her career that mark a passage through the lower echelons of the pantheon. The first story written is the first and sometimes the hardest. I don’t just mean 5000 words strung together in a more or less linear fashion but an actual honest-to-goodness STORY with a beginning, a middle, and an end that makes someone other than your mother smile or cry.

Step two might be winning your first writing competition – maybe for a cash prize, maybe just for the honour. Or it might be your first sale, where a complete stranger or distant acquaintance offers to pay you cash money for something you wrote. Then you see it in print.

Later you may get a play professionally produced or have a novel published. You cannot imagine the thrill of excitement and fear when you hear an actor say your words or see them in print between actual covers. There is no doubt satisfaction to having your e-book listed on Amazon but it cannot come close to the electric shock of having your professionally printed book placed in your hands.

As a publisher, there is nothing more that I like than to physically hand an author the first copy of their book. Even the most experienced of them will start to glow with pleasure. It never gets tired.

Later you might win an award for your writing – not for simply the writing but for its public presentation. It is one thing to win a contest but quite something else to win an AWARD. A recognition from the public or a jury of the excellence of your work.

So I’ve done all that – had each of those experiences, most of them four or six or even 20 times. I have obtained a measure of success and recognition.

But yesterday, in a bookstore in Paris near to where my hero, Hemingway, lived and wrote and drank and loved, I found a copy of my first novel, translated into French last year. You cannot imagine the feeling of picking it up, seeing my book with my name on it, holding it (taking a picture of it) and presenting it to the bookstore owner with a smile: C’est moi! Je suis l’encrivain.

She smiled in return and I put it back on the shelf. Thus passes 10 minutes of fame.

I should have signed it.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Dead Celebrities

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People love celebrities. They talk about them on social media, follow them on television shows or in the newspapers (especially the tabloids). In worst case scenarios they actually follow them – until the restraining order kicks in.

But as much as they like live celebrities, they are fascinated by dead ones. I spent yesterday at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It is full of famous dead people or people famously dead. You can buy maps of the stars, just like in Hollywood and traipse around (in the rain, as it was yesterday) to gawk at their tombs. Of course, there are lots of other dead people there – nearly a million in over 70,000 tombs. Those people are not famously dead, merely dead.

Many of these other graves have flowers or other memorials on them. These dead people matter to their family or friends. But unless someone like me comes along who likes to take pictures of neat memorials, they don’t matter much to the general public. Some – gone to ruin – don’t even matter to their families anymore.

There are some famous dead people who attract little attention – war heroes, politicians, scientists, builders, even most painters and writers. For example the grave of Collette (French writer) and Baron Haussmann (who basically created the Paris you see today) have no memorials at all.

They are not important to those who really care about dead celebrities – North Americans. You can spot the “famous” among the graves. Rossini (the most romantic of composers) has bouquets of flowers around his tomb. But it is all quite restrained.

Oscar Wilde has a Plexiglas fence around his rather large monument (placed there some years after his actual burial). Yet people have clambered on neighbouring graves to press their lips to his tomb. The side is painted with the marks of lipstick. I make no presumption as to the sex of the kissers, Oscar appeals to all genders with his wit, but don’t they know that he is beyond kissing or caring by now?

Jim Morrison is tucked away behind several other larger tombs but nonetheless has to have a metal fence around him to keep the gawkers off. Instead people have tossed flowers and other memorials onto his grave (or snuck over the fence when no one was looking). Others have affixed chewing gum and notes to a nearby tree or written memorials on any surface they can find – even other people’s tombs (though those periodically get washed off.)

Yet for me, they are all just dead people – no more worthy of respect or forgetfulness than any other. Their work matters – but really do they anymore?

And that’s ten minutes. (And after three posts about death, I’ll try to be more lively tomorrow)

 

Paris Dead and Alive

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Paris is beautiful in the rain – or pretty much any other time you might have the good fortune to be here. There is something remarkable about Paris. Despite being at the heart of two world wars – almost captured in the opening days of World War I and occupied for four years in WWII – it suffered little damage and so remains much as it was during the glorious days of La Belle Époque.

Indeed the most damage Paris ever suffered was in peacetime when Baron Haussmann, under the command of Napoleon III, rebuilt the entire centre of the city. Tearing down ancient neighbourhoods to build the great boulevards, he transformed a medieval warren into the broad and open city that now graces France. Traces of old Paris, dating back more than a thousand years, remain, tucked into corners.

The city bears the marks of so many changes commanded from above. In the central part of Paris, the 20 arrondissements, there are only three cemeteries. All the remaining dead were transported by order of the first Napoleon, removed from their resting places to lie deep within the underground caverns below the placid streets. You can still visit them if you choose to climb down into the Catacombs.

The three graveyards are packed tight with bodies, sometimes 20 or 30 to a single tomb. Famous men and women have their graves marked so tourists can drop by and have their photos taken with such icons as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde or Chopin.

There is, in fact, a fourth burial spot. The Pantheon holds the remains of the most famous of Frenchmen, some like Victor Hugo (who chose a pauper’s grave for himself) buried there against their will. Except of course that once you are dead your will counts for nothing against the demands of the survivors or the state. Fame transcends choice in that case.

But for all that, Paris is for the living and no-one knows how to live like Parisians. Restaurants, art galleries, parks – these are as important to them as banks or offices. Beauty, not business, is the first command.

Some think that makes Paris a lesser place. They are wrong; Paris will still be alive long after their tawdry obsessions have turned to dust.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Second Chances

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A few years ago I was camping in Glen Canyon, not far from where the Grand Canyon starts. I was on a long slow loop that eventually took me down to Santa Fe before swinging back through Colorado and up to Calgary. I was in no particular rush – I had the site booked for two nights.

On the first morning there I was walking around the campsite, looking at the river and the modest stripped cliffs that served as its banks. A fellow in his forties was working on his motorcycle. He was a good sized man, travelling with a pretty blonde – both of them with long hair and tattoos, him more than her. This was long enough ago that tattoos on a woman were slightly unusual.

When I finished my walk, he was still struggling with his bike. I asked if there was anything I could do. The clutch is shot, he said, I’ll need to go into town (about 25 miles away) and get a new one. He seemed a trifle taken aback when I offered to drive him. But he quickly agreed and we piled into my rental car and set off.

Along the way he told me how he had been a biker for years. Never did any of the seriously criminal stuff, he said, but he did run shipments of drugs from the border up into the northeastern states. Seemed serious enough to me but I chose not to say so. He had been driving a ton of hashish north when he was pulled over by the Vermont state police right after making the delivery. He said that was the lucky part. If he had been caught in Arizona or crossing state borders, he might have gotten 8 to 10 years. In Vermont he got two years, the last to be served on weekends if he could find a sponsor. He even got to serve it close to home.

As the time came he began searching through his telephone book for a friend to sponsor him. Beside every name was marked – dead, in prison, paralyzed, dead, dead and so on. As it happened an elderly couple made it their mission to visit prisoners and when he told them of the situation , they offered to take him in on one condition. The husband had Parkinson’s disease and needed help to get out of bed, into his wheelchair, with bathing. If he would provide those services they would take him in.

In the end he became nursemaid, handyman, gardener and security for them. He went back to school and got a diploma in nursing. He gave up alcohol and drugs (where he met his girlfriend of six years). He stayed with them for 8 years until the husband died and now he worked as nurse in an old folk’s home. He kept the bike but only took it on camping trips.

When we parted, he offered to pay me but I asked him to pass the favour on instead. He seemed quite pleased with that.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Like This

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We live in a culture of like. Like my blog; like this picture, like liking. The polite west has always been like that a little. So middle class, really. No politics, no religion, no sex, it’s not polite. Tough luck if you object, disagree, put up with it. I used to think it was a Canadian thing – oh, so cautious but, really, none of us like disagreeable things or people.

Strong opinions must be argued with or dismissed. Unpleasant images cause us to look away (or stare in sick fascination – we are an inconsistent animal). We all want to think we are nice people. Even the vilest scumbag will be offended if you tell them they are not ‘nice.’ In our own minds we are doing the right thing, thinking the right thoughts, feeling the right emotions. We are nice and we deserve to be liked.

Saw a play last night, called Muswell Hill. It had six characters, all of them self-absorbed narcissists moaning about their mortgages, their problems at work, their fucked-up relationships, the sad fact they might be ordinary while they drank wine – copious amounts – and ate prawns and monkfish stew in a lovely London flat. The background chatter was about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – terrible thing really, all those people dead, always happens to the poor.

The only relief was the tremendous outrage of one character – convinced of the utter injustice of the world and of the culpability of the system and the people who run it for these terrible continuous oppressions. The others found him not nice. ‘Obama seems a decent chap’ was the depth of their analysis. Even Simon had to dismiss his own anger as a kind of mental illness, a result of a peculiar personality and too much drink.

These were not nice people, certainly not likeable – at intermission we bemoaned the fact we didn’t like any of them and went back for the second act ‘because we had no better place to go.’ Yet, in the end they were interesting people – they were able to change just a little, to discover something new about themselves or the world. Or at least two of them did; the other four fell back into the same old sad patterns, weeping for their own petty losses while listening to the news of 100,000 dead.

The other two moved on a little, learned that outrage and loneliness are two sides of the same coin, that the world doesn’t care for our sadness but maybe, if we try, we can care about its.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Country Life

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Sailing through the British countryside on a train is so different from the same experience in Canada. England has a kind of domesticated wildness. Everywhere you look there are well-tended fields or bright green pastures, separated by hedges or piled stone fences. Yet there are also tangled copses of holly bushes or stands of thick forest, not large but clearly not constrained either.

When you are in town, you are clearly in town and then you are in the countryside once more. This clear demarcation of town and country through much of Britain is a striking feature of social organization. In Canada and much of the USA this distinction is constantly blurred. Bungalows and trailers stretch out from villages and towns along the highway or are plunked down in unserved developments, a vast cluster of nearly identical houses existing as satellites to ’real’ urban areas. They possess all the disadvantages of country life but none of its charms, their citizens slaves to the automobile and the one hour commute.

Worse still are the acreages – scraps of land big enough to mow but hardly large enough to be called an estate. With a good arm you can smash a neighbour’s window from your front step. These faux mansions – plywood palaces we used to call them though today they are mostly made from particle board – provide a semblance of upper class living to people who mostly have no class at all.

You’ll never catch me living in one. Even if I won the big lottery I would never spend it on a fifteen bedroom tarted-up house in the near rural suburban wilderness. Give me an out-of-the-way penthouse right down town. A matter of taste perhaps but also a symbol of the need to ostentatiously display one’s wealth (or as often, one’s debt) as if that somehow justified the shady means that it was obtained.

A bit sour today, I suppose, but the more I see of the wealthy, the less I like them. At least as a class – some millionaires I’ve known are quite nice people. But they knew where they stood in relation to their fellow man, luckier than most but no better. Too bad about the jerks who think they are John Galt, waiting in the wings.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Dancing

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I am not by nature a musical person. I can carry a tune in a bucket but I usually spill a few notes. Rhythm is another issue. When the beat of a song infects me I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to move – not necessarily to the beat but at least to a diffident drummer.

Dancing is sometimes an option. Even dead sober, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to get me to the floor if I’m in that particular mood. The mood is not a constant thing but it comes over me regularly enough that I’ve been known to do a few steps and turns even when walking alone with only my Walkman to keep me company. Put a drink or two in me and I’m hard pressed to stay in my seat.

I can either dance alone or with a partner willing to follow where I lead. My style is a weird amalgam of jive, two-step, salsa and slide step. I can even work in a few taps. Hard to say what it looks like when I ‘m moving across the floor but people watch, take photos, occasionally even ask where I learned to dance like that. I’m never sure if ‘like that’ is said in italics.

The partner is the key. My wife is the one that ensures that I don’t look the fool or, if I do, I look a happy fool that brings out the best in everyone.

Last night, in Dublin, the mood was on us and we danced our knees and hips off. The young people were amused – until we tried to get them up dancing too. Some of the girls joined us but the lads looked away. One tall fellow begged off, saying he had a sore knee. And me, with the cartilage long gone in both of mine. But the girls had fun – even if they gave all the credit to Liz; a good woman they called her. And they were right about that.

This morning we were a little rocky – from the drink and short night but mostly from the memory of the beat. Still alive after all these years.

And that’s ten minutes.