Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.

Bowie

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David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69; another icon of our collective youth has passed into the void about which he sang so eloquently. I was never a huge fan of Bowie but was always aware of his music and his transformations. Even if you didn’t listen to his music you could see it reflected in the work of others – talking back to him or following along.

Tributes are flowing in from around the world – fans, fellow artists, even politicians are talking about what the man and his music meant to them. Everyone seems to be able to find something in his music. He explored science fiction and sex, politics and love. It was an impressive body of work.

But what impresses me most is not how David Bowie lived but how he died.

Most people were unaware of his on-going fights with illness. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became somewhat reclusive, focusing on his art and his family. Perhaps he began even then to think about what the last days would look like.

Clearly he had no intention of simply fading away. After nearly a decade away from the music scene he released a new album in 2011 to critical acclaim. Another was released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead. He had to have known the end was coming, even as he recorded his last songs.

A lot of people, faced with illness or death, become closed in, smaller. They disengage from the world. They focus on the end to come instead of the life still left to them. Some turn to the consolations of religion – the hope for a life to come.

Maybe there is a life to come – though I don’t think so. But even if there is, it is another life, not a life of the body or the senses but a life of… well, who can say? No-one has reported back.

Perhaps it would be better to believe there is only this life – the one we are living right now.

I’m not a big believer in spirituality (I honestly go blank when people bring it up) or meditation. But I do believe in living as if this were my last moment. It may seem bleak but it’s not. Though it’s not always easy. The past creeps in; the future looms large but in the end, what does one do but put one foot in front of the other? Whenever I feel like nothing is worth doing, I think of when I will be able to do nothing at all. It helps.

We all face our own demons. I’m sure Bowie had his. But he chose to wrestle with them to the very end. Maybe the best way to remember him is not to grieve at his death but marvel at his life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Jazz

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One of the highlights of my musical life took place in a small club in Boston where I saw jazz legends Charlie Haden and Joe Henderson play together in a tight little trio. There were only a few hundred people jammed into the small dark club and, for the most part, everyone there was tuned into the performance.

Except for this one guy, a loud mouthed schmuck from Texas who felt he had to let everyone know that this jazz was nothing but crap and he was pissed off at having paid thirty bucks to hear it. I suppose he was talking in a Texas whisper — but since everything is bigger in Texas, you could hear him half way across the club.

In a country bar, it probably would have resulted in a brawl but here the manager came by and offered the entire table a refund if they wanted to leave. Now, the guy didn’t want to stay but he didn’t want to leave either. He wanted to complain. Fortunately, his humiliated wife and his two friends prevailed and the entire group quickly made their way out, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the music in comfort. The musicians, through it all, never missed a beat. I suspect they were so in the groove, they never even heard him.

Still, it was a great lesson to me. I was a relatively recent convert to jazz, having discovered its roots in my last year of university but only becoming immersed in the form in my early thirties. Like all coverts, I was a proselytizer. I was exploring the deepest reaches of improvisational progressive jazz and I wanted to drag my wife and all my friends along. They showed remarkable patience but I suspect they sometimes felt like that loud-mouthed Texan.

It was shortly after that I adopted this motto: De gustibus non est disputandum. (Well, of course, I would adopt a Latin phrase — I was a JAZZ fan). To save you clicking Google translate, it means: There is no accounting for taste; or more precisely: Concerning taste, there can be no arguments.

In other words, people like what they like and while their tastes may change over time, there is nothing you can do to persuade them to like what they don’t like, whether it is Brussels sprouts, fantasy novels or jazz. Dorothy Parker put it a little more puckishly. “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.”

Now I’m not saying that people who don’t like jazz are somehow inferior, less sophisticated or intellectually developed (though maybe you should take a nice long look in the mirror) but I am saying that the next time you try to persuade me or anyone else that this book or that film or some style of cooking is the best in the world and you would like it if only you tried — maybe it’s a waste of time.

Some people aren’t for turning.

And that’s ten minutes.

Longing (Cuban Diary)

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The most painful of emotions is longing. It implies an irredeemable loss, a choice made that is forever regretted, a love abandoned.

I was sitting in a bar in Cuba. There was a piano player – not one of those great Cuban jazz geniuses, just a journeyman musician making a living from tips. Two couples walked by, intent for the most part of going from one place to another, intent on the next thing, supper perhaps or a better bar. But one of the women, an attractive blonde of a certain age – maybe 42 – turned her head as the rest walked on. Her eyes were fixed on the piano player, her head turning as the rest of her party — the man holding her hand— continued on, oblivious to her intense interest.

Her face was almost expressionless except for the longing in her eyes. It floated there on the surface of her gaze, almost unbearable to see. Then, with the slightest gesture of her head, the faintest of sad smiles, she turned away. And carried on with the life she had. That’s what you do. Time’s arrow flies in only one direction. And you move forward or you wilt in the dead soil of the past.

One of the songs the piano player performed was “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. When you looked around the bar – you could see that some people didn’t know it, some did and for some it was an anthem that either defined their life or denied it. Men and women listened with smiles on their lips or shining eyes.

One of the lines of that song: Regrets I’ve had a few – is for some people unbearably sad. Regrets. Lost opportunities, lost loves, lost ways. To do it my way is often a choice you only understand in retrospect.

My life has not been without choices and, of course, I think sometimes about the other paths I could have taken. I could have been a chemist – I have a B.Sc. and could have gone much farther – or I could have been a professor – I had a full Ph.D scholarship in political science (which I turned down). I could have been a father or even a man who stayed married. I have been none of those things.

Do I regret it? How could I? I have the life I love. I’ve written books, I’ve travelled, I’ve loved and lost and loved again – never more deeply than now – and found peace with all those choices.

Do I ever suffer from longing? Perhaps once or twice. Who doesn’t wonder – from time to time – what might have been?

Time’s arrow is a prick. But the life we have is the only life we can ever have. Not much point of longing for more.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Christmas Music

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People who think they know me are often surprised to discover that I like Christmas music. They are shocked to learn that I have nearly 200 albums. This, of course, is a paltry collection — Manny Jules, former chief of the Kamloops First Nation once told me he had 900. My mind boggled and my secret Santa got jealous.

How can someone who is not only an atheist but a secular empiricist, who demands that nothing— whether in science or politics — should be taken without proof, like Christmas music so much? It’s not for the mystical qualities. I’m not in the least connected to anything that can’t be measured; people who have called me spiritual may recall the blank bemused stare I gave them and my remark of: You’re projecting your own insecurities.

Yet I do like Christmas music. I find it entertaining, often moving, sometimes amusing, And fun to hum along with. Though what I call Christmas music might not pass muster with those whose experience is limited to Church choirs and shopping malls.

One of my favorites of all time is from rocker, Melissa Etheridge whose riff on O Holy Night is truly divine. It manages to merge pure secular values of optimism and action with both pagan and Christian themes of the solstice/Christmas season.

Then there is Little Drummer Boy — one of the most often performed but frequently most annoying of all songs of the season. It shot up my list as a seasonal favorite because my friend, George Roseme, who walked into the woods and died about seven years ago, hated it so much. He would moan and cover his ears when it played and curse the musician for performing it. So, now, whenever I hear it, I think of George. It is one of the bittersweet memories of Christmas for me.

There are some strange ones too. Every one points to the Pogues, “Christmas in New York” as particularly disturbing but it has nothing on Henry Rollin’s recital of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Some music is so bad it holds a weird fascination. All of Bob Dylan’s Christmas album is strange, some of it horrifying and it is hard to know if he is being sincere or sinister. Then there is the Jethro Tull Christmas. The less said about that, the better. And I certainly have my limits when it comes to rank sentimentality: I can’t listen all the way through to “The Cat Carol.

I also love the ethereal beauty of the classics when they performed with delicacy and grace. Libera, the international boys’ choir, is particularly good at that but I’d also recommend Katherine Jenkins and the Canadian Measha Brueggergosman.

But one of my favorite songs is the little known ‘Boy from the Woods.‘ For me it captures the purest secular values of kindness, charity and altruism and the philosophy of ‘pass it on.’ Yet, if you want, you can accept it as a religious song, too. The writing is so clever that either interpretation works and is emotionally satisfying.

But that’s ten minutes. (Merry Christmas)

Christmas Cheer(less)

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I spent last evening at a Christmas concert at the NAC. The Skydiggers, a band that has been performing for over 25 years, promised a slightly different take on the Christmas season — the one experienced by the lonely, the ill, the destitute, the unhappy. As the lead singer, Andy Maize, said: you can’t have joy without understanding sorrow.

There is a real truth to that. While we  — most of us , or at least the most visible of us — go around, eating and drinking and shopping and partying, filling the churches in some cases, singing songs and being with friends, we should remember those for whom this Christmas, maybe every Christmas (and substitute whatever holiday your culture might celebrate) is nothing but misery and heartbreak.

I thought about the family of Nathan Cirillo, for example, who must carry on despite the terrible murder of their son. But they are not alone. Many families struggle at the holidays when someone close dies in the weeks or months before this great celebratory season comes upon us.

My sister-in-law’s mother died a few days ago and I know that she and my brother and their kids — all of whom are great lovers of the festive season— will have a blue Christmas this year. I still remember the struggle my family had when we had to carry on with Christmas a few weeks after my father died suddenly — us boys going through the motions while my mother sat red-eyed on the sofa by the tree.

It all seems hollow in those circumstances; your grief overwhelms all your traditions. Yet, we tried to carry on (that phrase keeps coming up) because we didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time. Sometimes I feel that the entire cheeriness of the holidays is one big fake — everyone feeling miserable while trying to appear jolly for the sake of those around us.

I personally am the most Christmas loving atheist you will ever meet. I love the music and the decorations and the gift giving. But I also love the feeling for others that seems more intense at this time of year — though these are feelings we should embrace and welcome year around. The spirit of giving can extend beyond our own small circle.

But not everyone wants to be given to. Some people want to be left alone to their sorrow, not the addressee of your insistence to be merry. Try sympathy instead. And some people don’t want to be the Bob Cratchit to our generous reformed Scrooge. Receiving charity often feels diminishing. No one wants to go to a food bank; no one wants to see their children hungry either.

If the Christmas spirit really meant anything it should mean that justice prevails — not mercy, not charity, certainly not mere hope. But those are useful, too.

So, on that cheery note, merry Christmas. There are still a couple of weeks to go. Go out and do something. Give a present to the world by making it a little more just and a little more kind. Hold a food drive at your Christmas party (as my friend Marie did). Listen to your better self and do something. It’s what Santa would want.

And that’s ten minutes.

Tango

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It may take a village to raise a child but it only takes two to tango. Or so you might think.

I’ve always found the tango mysterious and obvious, exciting and repulsive, liberating and vaguely fascistic. Really, all that slicked back hair, the quick quick slow slow rhythms. The locked gazes and perfectly still shoulders. All the while the hips slipping and grinding above the staccato of leather clad feet.

The tango — the perfect Latin expression of suppressed sexuality.

So what the hell is it doing in bars in the south of London? Well you might ask.

During my last visit to London I had the pleasure of spending a weekend or two with my wife’s daughter and her boyfriend. One evening they had a few friends over and it was suggested we all go down and check out the Tango lessons being given at the bar beneath our very feet. Why not? I had, many years ago, taken Tango lessons from a lovely Filipino lady in Yellowknife who had carefully explained the origins of the dance as a way to flirt under the watchful eyes of chaperones. Because the upper body stays still, in a crowd you can’t really tell what the lower body is doing. Ah, the folly of youth.

My dancing is generally described as — eccentric. I have a sense of rhythm, a well-defined one but my dancing is often to a different drummer than the one who is currently playing. Fortunately, Liz is a trusting and talented partner who can pretty much follow wherever I lead.

In any case we heard the music and leapt to the dance floor, much to the delight of the much younger members in our party. But wait, said the instructor, you can’t dance like that. You are disrupting the flow of the other partners. Indeed we were, or could have if we weren’t occupying the empty middle of the floor while the pasty English couples moved scleroticly in a tight oval around the perimeter. We were shooed from the floor.

Outrage ensued. Not from me. I’d been banished from much better places than this — and not for dancing. However, our table mates were furious and soon discovered that it was not our dancing per se that was the problem but rather the fact we had not paid for lessons.

We had bought a bottle of wine so we had to stay until it was done, glaring furiously at the rather sad folks following the stern demands of their English mistress. Then we went upstairs, put on jive music and danced as loudly as we could above their heads.

Take that Eva Peron!

And that’s ten minutes.