Category: Essay

Letter From Istanbul

TaksimRecently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:


The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.

We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.

That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.

For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.

We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.

We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.

All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.

Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.

President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).

And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?

After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?

As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.

He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.


August 1, 2016

Morning rant

100_0912The other day I was listening to some financial news program and I heard something that absolutely sent me through the roof.

It was yet another discussion about the state of the economy, the various financial crises threatening to de-stabilize currencies, yadda, yadda, yadda.

One of the commentators made an off-the-cuff remark that gobsmacked me. He referred to savings, those little nest eggs we’ve tucked away so we aren’t eating cat food in our dotage, as “money hoarding”.

The inference being that the money we’re saving for a rainy day should be put into circulation (they’re already doing it to our pensions, of course), placing our future at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.

Think about that.

These motherfuckers have got us to the point where we’re stretched to the limit, credit-wise—maxed out on five different cards, our overdrafts and lines of credit bursting at the seams…and now they want access to our savings.

The economy must keep chugging along, doncha know, the machine can only be sustained by spending more, more, MORE.

You talk about bubbles and recessions and depressions and downturns and negative growth.

Money is going to run out long before oil.

Then what?

Maybe Chuck Eisenstein has the answer (or part of it)?

What comes after capitalism?

And, frankly, ain’t the world better off without it?


The Grind

100_0738I’ve been editing my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions since November and, I gotta say, the grind is starting to get to me.

Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.

The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward.  Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.

Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.

I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.

I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.

So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.

It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.

But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.

Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.

However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.

That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.

Ease up.

Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.

Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.

So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?


Defending the best of us

Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

I have, apparently, “that kind of face”

The woman, let’s call her Margaret, pauses at the conclusion of her account, looking up at me with an expression of bewilderment. “I don’t know why I told you all that. You have that kind of face…” She trails off and our conversation concludes not long afterward.

Why did Margaret, a woman I barely know, just spend nearly ten minutes bending my ear about her husband’s fraught relationship with his brother? In the process disclosing many intimate details that should never be passed along to a virtual stranger.

And she’s not the only one.

People tell me things. All sorts of things. Funny and crazy and tragic and personal. People on buses, people who do work on my house, people I’m waiting in line with at the bank…casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Men and women turning to me, a confession already forming in their mind.

“You’re a good listener,” my wife tells me. “That’s part of it. You seem interested in what they’re saying. That’s your first mistake…”

Maybe Yoko Ono is right and there are “a lot of lonely people out there”.  I guess that was part of the attraction of the Post Secret project a few years ago. People dying to get their crimes and misdeeds off their chest…anonymously, of course, their courage only extended so far. Similarly, it’s easier to confess some things to strangers or barely familiar faces than to family members and loved ones. A weird kink of psychology.

I spend most of my time alone, isolated. When I do interact with folks, I’m anxious to talk about anything but my work and dull routine…and that might be at least partially responsible for the true confessions and guilty secrets I’ve been subjected to over the years. Some of them not for the squeamish. And if I make the mistake of admitting I’m an author, there are individuals who immediately perk up:  well, if you’re a writer, you’ll love hearing what’s been going on in my life lately

Er, not really, no.

But once people start revealing their problems and complaints there’s just no holding them back. I’ve heard about failed marriages, infidelity, felonies and misdemeanors, nodded sympathetically as men and women tearfully surrendered indiscretions they should have been saving for their priest or shrink. I have no right to this knowledge and yet, afterward, feel protective of what I’ve learned, a certain responsibility to be discreet. The sanctity of the confessional. I think folks sense that as well; a quiet, lonely, reclusive man: who can I possibly tell?

It’s very difficult for me to be rude. I detest breaking into someone’s train of thought, interrupting them in mid-sentence because something they’re telling me is inappropriate, better kept to themselves. Politeness has its drawbacks and I’ve endured many an awkward, one-sided conversation simply because I lack the chutzpah to clear my throat, give an impatient frown or simply walk away.

And, anyway, how can you walk away from a young clerk, enormously pregnant, helping me find a stencil set and, meanwhile, telling me about the heart defect that threatens the life of her unborn baby. Thirty seconds after walking into the store. What can I say? How do I respond?

But she’s looking at me, describing the diagnosis and proposed treatment, affirming the importance of faith in her life, talking freely, without a trace of self-consciousness.

Something in my manner or expression assuring her, a sympathy that cannot be feigned.

While I, for my part, refuse to deny her the kindness of a stranger, shared concern for a child in distress.

My time is not so important, surely, that I can’t spare a minute or two to commiserate or console. These meetings, though frequently taxing, part of the burden I bear for having “that kind of face”.

Against the Shadows

Excuse me if I speak out of a sense of wonder.

I know the news is bad (as usual), another horror unfolding right before our eyes, brought to us in real time, boasting pools of real blood. Shouts and screams; pandemonium. The gruesome footage first exploited, then preserved for posterity.  There are cameras everywhere these days and not much escapes their notice. The best bits make it on to the nightly news. The ninety year-old grandma fending off two burly robbers with a replica .38. Looters smashing windows and emptying storefronts with the ferocious glee of rampaging Mongols. The fat kid facing down his tormentors in the school foyer, finally fighting back after years of taking it on the chin. Drawing on reservoirs of rage as he batters his opponent. We gape, we weep, we applaud, we shake our heads.

What a world.

But that isn’t all there is to it. There is sanity and normality out there. The crazy shit, it exists, no denying it.  Usually the setting is some big city, concentrations of people leading to explosions and meltdowns with tragic consequences. But not always. Small towns and remote farm houses are just as prone to evil thoughts, the cruelties equally inventive.

I repeat:  that isn’t all there is to it.

This month I’ve done more traveling than I have in ages. Usually, it’s my wife and kids who take off, leaving me alone in my office, grinding away on a big summer project. At it for eighteen hours at a time, no need to socialize or pretend to be human. It’s a ritual that’s been reprised almost every summer I can remember. But this year it was different. I had a couple of projects nearing completion and discovered a desire, an urge, an imperative, to enjoy my summer, seek out company, visit unexplored places, drink in experience. First, it was off to northern Manitoba, visiting Sherron’s brother and family. They live on the shores of a gorgeous lake and we spent several lovely evenings trolling around on their pontoon boat, our hooks dragging in the water. Snagged two lovely pickerels—no, really, here’s the proof:

Er, that’s me in the hat. My brother-in-law would never forgive me if I didn’t clarify that. And he’s a big guy, as you can tell. I caught those two babies literally our last morning there and the relief on both our faces is palpable. Finally...

Returning home, a long, ten-hour drive, barely catching our breath (it seemed) and then heading off to Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan. Stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast that used to be an old Convent (hey, Mette, Robert & Christine!), driving and hiking around the park, astonished by the diversity of the eco-system, having an unsettling encounter with a bison (no fences, folks) and constantly scanning the ground for rattlesnakes. Glorious, just glorious. Visually striking region and perhaps that explains the many artists who make their home in the vicinity. Judging by the work on exhibit at the Grasslands Gallery (hey, Laureen!) in Val Marie, there are some very talented folks in that neck of the woods. Er, bush, actually. Not many trees in those parts. Scrub, rolling ground and vast fields of wild plants and flowers.

It’s semi-arid, hilly and wind-scoured; cowboy country. This ol’ western nut felt right at home there. Wrote that poem you’ll find in the preceding post.  Met a lot of really nice people who didn’t give the impression they were about to embark on an axe-murdering spree or intended to poison their neighbor in retaliation for an incident that occurred decades ago. We walked in the hills and stood on some tall bluffs and buttes that looked out over a land that was beautiful and light-filled and right. Between the sky, the universe and that modest height, there was an unspoken concord, a sense that, whatever else may be going on on the vast, spreading universe, Sherron and I had been granted a short but memorable glimpse of the goodness and majesty no dark cloud can entirely conceal.

This much I know to be true…

I’m a far better writer than James Patterson. James Patterson is a hack and an embarrassment to the English language. A formulaic, dull, repetitious scribbler who has parlayed his insignificant talent into a personal fortune. A pox on him and all he represents.

I’m a better writer than Stephenie Meyer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz, Sophie Kinsella, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks.

I’m a better writer than Suzanne Collins, E.L. James, Vince Flynn, Janet Evanovitch, Stieg Larsson, Rick Riordan and a substantial majority of the authors currently atop the Globe & Mail‘s bestseller list.

Any one of my titles surpasses in quality 90% of the books occupying the shelves of your favorite bookstore.

I write for the sheer joy of creating and make no effort to conform to the current marketplace or ride the latest trend; my freedom to write what I please allows me to produce prose that is original, inventive and literate.

My twenty-five+ years as a creative writer have provided me with an aesthetic that is demanding and uncompromising. The bar is always set high, regardless if I’m writing a full-length novel or an essay on the enduring appeal of “Gumby” cartoons.

If, by any chance, you’re bored by the fare you’re finding as you browse around for something new to read, I hope you’ll search farther afield, have a close look at an indie writer with a long roster of professional credits and a lengthy history of doing things his own way.

Unlike many of the authors I cited at the beginning of this post, I have tremendous respect for my readers and wouldn’t think of releasing sub-standard or second rate material.  The notion of writing the same book over and over again and not developing as an artist repels me; the concept of writing purely for financial gain is entirely alien to my thinking.

There are plenty of free writing samples on this site, in Stories and Novels, so I hope you’ll click over, skim the opening pages of some of my offerings, see for yourself if I have anything worthwhile to say, words that speak to your heart.

Ignore the bestseller lists and take a chance on something different for a change, work that challenges preconceptions and genuinely surprises you (when was the last time that happened?).  I think my tales will appeal to a wide cross-section of people.  A growing number of folks out there agree (and God bless ’em).  There’s definitely a buzz in the air…

C’mon, admit it:  don’t you want to see what the excitement’s all about?