SFContario 2

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Recounting old battles and savouring past victories is a pleasant way to spend the evening whether with old friends or new acquaintances. The latter have the advantage of never having heard your war stories before and – even better – can’t correct you when you stray into hyperbole. But sharing stories with those who were there and took part has a sweeter flavour.

Indeed, there is a certain pleasure to listen to people swap stories even if it involves something you were no part of. Watching them jogging each other’s memories and sharing credit (or shifting blame) can be a fascinating dance to watch. Last night, I spent the evening at SFContario doing exactly that. It was great fun.

After a day of panelling both as an audience member – the one on First Contact stood out – and a speaker (I skipped my last one, mea culpa) I slipped out to dinner with some of my fellow con attendees and a few friends who happened to be in town. We shared a few drinks and more than a few stories while we dined on unhealthy but delicious pub food. It was great fun – particularly when stories began to riff off each other as old friends crafted a lovely simulacrum of past events from their own particular remembered perspective. Sometimes I was one of the sculptors and sometimes I merely listened and observed. New friends – or in this case, more recent ones – had their own stories to tell and, if they were at first reluctant to speak out, it didn’t take long before conversations began to dance around the table.

A lot of times it was not a matter of telling shared events but rather recounting parallel stories. That reminds me of… or I had a similar experience/epiphany/fright when… And that’s how friendships are built and maintained, one story at a time.

Later, I went back to SFContario and hung around the Swill party. Swill, as I understand it (I’d had a few glasses by then), was a fanzine that had its origins some 35 years ago among a group of – shall I call them loveable rascals – who took great pleasure in writing outrageous commentaries and satires on the Powers That Be in organized SF fandom of the day. The details don’t matter. What was fun was listening to the stories of various scandalous adventures they had perpetrated and the upset they had caused. Recently, Swill was revived – though whether from nostalgia or a renewed sense of outrage, I was never quite sure.

Eventually, the others gathered there trotted out their own stories of youthful or not so youthful rebellion, lessons learned, mistakes made, victories – however small – won. It reminded me of all the great convention parties I’ve gone to over the years – places where common culture and loves are shared and explored and new initiates welcomed into the great long conversation SF fandom has been holding – sometimes jovially, sometimes with bitter rancour – for nearly a hundred years.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

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If I Could Catch Time

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When you are young, time has little meaning. This is reflected in the plaintive question which has plagued so many parents on long drives: Are we there yet? For a child, anything past tomorrow lies in the unimaginable future. Anything past last week is ancient history.

Time weighs increasingly heavy on our minds as we slowly grow up – and doesn’t that seem to take forever – and come to realize that we will in fact live until we are thirty. Maybe even older! Still, there seems to be endless time to do something, be someone, combined with a tremendous impatience for it to happen right now.

I think that feeling stays with us into our thirties. It seems that – any time now – something will happen that will change everything. We will finally know what we want to be when we grow up and we will finally get busy accomplishing things. For some of us it happens early; for others, it never quite congeals.

We get married forever. Some people succeed – they never cease to amaze me – but others have to get married forever several times before they finally get it right. Some realize they are better off alone. Time passes as we settle into our skins and accept that we are who we are.

Eventually, you realize that you have accomplished things, that you have become the person you were meant to grow up to be. For most of us it is a relief; for others, a disappointment. That yearning – much like that of an unhappy child who longs to discover his real parents were royalty – continues to eat at us. In the worst cases, we throw away everything we have for one last chance at the brass ring. It only comes around so often.

Occasionally a few of us grasp it and life is indeed better; others miss and tumble off the carousel. For them, life is merely different.

It all comes around again. You come to a point in your life when you realize that there is much more behind you than there can ever be in front of you. One person might cling to religion and the promise of another life; another might plunge into new activities, new situations. Or they may revisit something they always wanted to be but never got around to becoming. A return to school is not an attempt to recover youth but a desire to fulfill youth’s dreams. Without the consequences of future responsibilities.

Time does run out. We narrow our focus and limit our dreams. Hedonists pursue that which might give them pleasure in the moment. Practical hedonists dole out pleasure in coffee spoons, knowing they still have to pay the rent and buy dogfood to eat in their final years. Everything becomes a balance on the knife edge of eternity.

Eventually, last week becomes a distant memory (even while the experiences of childhood become crystal clear) and anything past tomorrow seems like a blessing. And then…

Which is all to say that I’m feeling a little old today. Time to buck up and see what the next moment holds.

And that’s ten minutes.

Hemingway

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I have this photo over my writing desk. It is Ernest Hemingway with his son, Greg. Both came to hard difficult ends. Though that’s not why I keep it on the wall. That is more complex.

Of course, the simple answer is that I am a big fan of Hemingway, an aficionado, if you like. I’ve read all his novels and short stories, even his few poems and plays. I’ve also consumed a half-dozen biographies – all of which provide a different perspective on his life. I’ve used examples from Hemingway when I’m teaching as well. You can learn a lot about writing by seeing what he did and didn’t do.

The more complex answer is that, knowing all that, I can still learn things by looking at that picture. Some days it is nothing more than a man sharing time with his son. Neither of them knows what lies over the horizon. For the moment, they are at peace. Perhaps they’ve been hunting – but if so they were unsuccessful; there is no evidence of game on the bridge where they sit. Perhaps the lake has been empty all day as it is at this moment. Perhaps none of that matters because game is not what they’ve been hunting for.

The boy in any case is unshod, not ready for a hike through the brush, not ready for anything. His father is always ready – but maybe not ready for this moment. He doesn’t touch his son, even though the boy is sleeping bedside him. Rather he looks away, trying to see, perhaps, what he is meant to do. Is he thinking about his own father, a man by all accounts distant from his children, content to leave them in the hands of their mother while he goes about his business as a doctor? Is he thinking about the way his father died and about how he threw the gun into the water?

But for now it doesn’t matter. Father and son are together and even though they are not speaking – perhaps have barely spoken all day other than rough instructions or admonitions – they are teaching each other about their respective roles. They are teaching each other about manhood – ironic given the secrets of the older man and the fate of the younger.

I keep the photo above my desk for all these reasons; as a reminder of what words can do even when they are unspoken; as a lesson about men and their sons; as way of kick-starting my own writing when the words seem distant and unexpressed.

I keep it there because I like it. I like the simple lines and shades of grey. I like the expressions in the faces and the bodies, the ease they have in the present. Because clearly they do not know the future, none of us do. They only have the weight of memory and the present pleasure. And I am reminded that this is enough.

And that’s ten minutes.

University

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My nieces and nephew are starting University this week – hard to believe that the triplets have all left home to start the next stage of their life journey. It must be quite a shock for my brother and his wife to go from a full house to an empty nest in just a few days. As I look at their posts and pictures of orientation and dorm rooms on Facebook, I can’t help but think of my own first weeks at Mount Alison University, forty three years ago.

Life was easy for me back then – maybe easier than it ever was again. I was on full scholarship – with enough money to cover tuition, room and board, books with a few bucks left over to buy a stereo and some records. Okay, the latter were bought with my savings from work but at least I had savings. That first year I worked in a pizza place for 8-10 hours a week, so I was pretty much on easy street.

Orientation was perhaps a bit more robust than it is today. We went through most of a week of lectures on how to live at university combined with relentless hazing from the sophomores. It was never too harsh, though occasionally frightening. It culminated with a walk through a swamp chest-deep in mud, before we came out dirty and tired but in possession of our freshman tam. It was the last year for the swamp – it wasn’t exactly hygienic and a few people got some nasty infections. I still remember the joy I felt when we started chasing the sophomores who had tormented us, covered in muck and with bottles of ketchup and honey in our hands. I particularly liked having football players run away from me.

That first week or two was quite an experience. I’d never really been away from home for more than a week or so and I’d never had a roommate – other than when I shared a bunk bed with my brother when we were kids. Randy and I got along great – people thought we’d known each other for years when in fact we met for the first time in our shared dorm room. It was a friendship I kept for the rest of his life (he died much too early from cancer). There were lots of other friends made too – and a few sort of enemies.

At least I wasn’t trying to learn the dating scene. My girlfriend from high school was there as well and we married at the end of our second year. It didn’t last but it seemed right at the time.

But that didn’t stop me from learning how to party – those first few weeks were a wash of alcohol (and bad aftermaths) and eventually grass. I learned how to handle it though. At the end of the year, I retained my scholarships with an 80+ average while half of my first year friends were flunking out. But that’s a story for another day.

‘Cause that’s ten minutes.

Statues

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Conservatives seem to love statues. And why not? Statues can be about anything you like – they don’t have to reflect real history; they can support any myth you want to attach to them. And statues can’t talk back. And they are sturdy. Build a statue and you can point to it and say: See I accomplished something. Even while there are so many real jobs that would help real people that aren’t being done.

In America, conservatives particularly like religious statues placed in or near government buildings. It doesn’t have to be Christian – a lot of Americans want to put of Jewish statues too. You know, plaques with the Ten Commandments on them. Too bad about that pesky separation of church and state in the Constitution.

In Canada, our current government really gets hard for stone. Or bronze. They plop up statues at a moment’s notice, either building them themselves or supporting some crackpot millionaire with a chip on his shoulder. Most of those guys have more dollars than sense and hopefully, after the election, they will simply fade away.

The statue that bugs me most is the one near my office on Parliament Hill. It commemorates the War of 1812, which the Conservatives claim was the founding event of Canada. Never mind that almost all of the soldiers were British and the few locals that got involved were either Aboriginal or some farm boys dragooned into the combat. No-one really took it seriously – a few building were burned and, at the end, the borders remained pretty much where they were. Both sides claim to have won so I guess that makes it a draw. A bit like kissing your sister.

This final skirmish of the American War of Independence was hardly a founding moment for Canada – that came in the uprisings of 1837 when McKenzie and Papineau demanded responsible government. Present day conservatives are hardly likely to want to commemorate that cause. Or remember when the people rose up against the conservatives of the day.

I hate the statue to 1812. To tell you the truth I have to resist spitting on it every time I walk by. Unlike real war memorials which celebrate the sacrifice of soldiers and remember the horrors of war, these soldiers seem almost gleeful as they fire their cannons toward the Chateau Laurier (named for a former Liberal Prime Minister) and point their muskets toward the actual War Memorial across the street. Pretty ironic in light of the events of last October.

This is a celebration of war, nothing more and nothing less. It is about what you would expect from a Prime Minister and Cabinet who like to prance around in semi-military clothing, pretending to be one of our men and women in the forces. It’s no wonder so many real veterans oppose them.

And that’s ten minutes.

Writing About Place

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It is said that one of the distinctive things about Canadian literature is that landscape is part of the narrative; a character as much as the people who inhabit it. Yet, having read great fiction from around the world, I suspect it is not as distinctive as one might think. It is the emptiness of the landscape that stands out but even then, the writing of Tim Winton, for example, set in the vast empty seascapes of Western Australia might as easily be mistaken for Canadian as anything else.

Writing about place is, I think, what often distinguishes fiction from literature. Take mystery novels. The really good ones are set in specific places; the rest are set in a kind of stylized New York or Los Angeles. In fact publishers often encourage writers to re-write their works to reflect those particular film-identified places. Hell, movie producers do everything they can to make Vancouver or Toronto or even Denver look like one of those two cities – as if readers and viewers can’t tell the difference.

But sense of place often shapes character and character drives plot. Travis Mcgee would not be who he was if Florida didn’t live inside the novels of John D. MacDonald.

Still, it is a complex process. Too much detail and the reader can become lost in a morass of unfamiliar places; too little and the location can be anywhere. Or New York.

Recently my wife and I were discussing the book Suspended Sentences whose author Patrick Modiano just won the Nobel Prize for literature. The stories are so rooted in Paris they couldn’t take place anywhere else. The lists of street names and landmarks seem almost overwhelming – especially if you’ve never been to Paris. If you have, it soon becomes a map in your mind but even if you never have been to the City of Lights, Modiano succeeds in creating a mythical place for you. Soon, you know what will appear around the next corner and how it would be to stagger from this particular bar to that particular address.

Other writers succeed in different ways. Alice Munro, writing, ironically, from Paris in the New Yorker, created towns in southern Ontario that you simply know must exist, places you are sure you will find right beyond the next turn in the highway. But of course it is only a map of the mind – as real as any place built of wood or brick.

In my own writing, I’ve tried to build places both real and imagined. It is sometimes surprising to walk down a street in a town or city that I’ve written about and discover that this particular building is no longer there, or, more surprising, never was. But, to me, the imagined places of my stories are more real than the places they were modeled on. Because that is where my characters live. What could be more real than that?

And that’s ten minutes.

Comic Books

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When I’m nostalgic, I think of comic books. Not graphic novels, not movies or Marvel Universes but comic books – those slightly dusty smelling 32 or 48 page magazines with glossy covers and newsprint interiors. Those are the things of my childhood.

I can’t remember the first books that caught my attention but by the time I was 10 or 11, I was accumulating comics of every kind. I was as likely to be reading cowboy stories from Dell, a Gold Key Tarzan adventure, a Classic adaptation of Robinson Crusoe as I was to be following the heroics of Superman or the web-crawling angst of Spiderman.

I collected them and traded them with friends. My earliest intense friendships were built around a common love of comic books. Age didn’t come in to it. My best friend was three years older than me – a huge gulf when you are 12 years old.

Being a comic book collector in a small town in Nova Scotia was not an easy thing. Only a couple of stores carried them – usually in a single rack in the corner of the store. You soon learned which store was most reliable in getting the books you wanted – even knowing when the books would appear on the shelf. I was such a regular at one store that the owner set aside my books for me so I wouldn’t miss an issue.

I was an enterprising lad. I mowed lawns, shovelled snow, sold greeting cards door to door, delivered newspapers and eventually, when I was fourteen got my first part-time job at the town library – a natural haven for a book worm like me. All that effort driven by the love of comics.

But local purchases weren’t enough. They kept you caught up on your favorite stories – I was buying 25 comics a month – but what about back issues? Some I got through trades – giving up lesser favored lines for back issues of those that obsessed me. To fill in the gaps, I started hitchhiking 40 kilometers to Moncton to find piles of used comics in the United Book Store. I was 14 by then and it was a good thing my mother didn’t know – I suspect my comic book days might have been numbered if she had.

Still, I found plenty of treasures: the first appearance of Thor in a Marvel comic and a #3 issue of Spiderman. I planned my weekends around trips to used book stores and even garage or estate sales in the hopes of finding a rare gem. I even once bought the entire collection of a boy who was moving away – just to get a couple of issues I coveted. The rest made great trade material.

I joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society – complete with membership card and special subscription rates. For a while I had comics come by mail direct from New York but didn’t like the way they were folded – creating a permanent crease up the middle. I’d lie awake at night hoping to hear Cousin Brucie on WABC give one of his occasional insights into my favorite heroes.

By the time I went to University, I had 2000 comics; raids from fellow students soon reduced it to 1500 and I kept them locked up after that (and spent a fortune replacing the missing issues). Then came my first divorce and my collection went away like a puff of smoke. And I’ve never felt the same about them since.

But that’s ten minutes.