Category: Essays and Non Fiction

Finding Normal (Blog Post #499)

Only a few days left to go, the countdown on, people across our home and native land waiting with bated breath for October 17th, the day recreational cannabis will officially be available for sale in Canada.

Actually, to be honest I detect very little sense of anticipation or concern, even in my small prairie city which is, ah, conservative/redneck, not exactly pothead central. But I wonder what overall effect the normalization of marijuana will have on the Great Green North, how long it will take to defeat the pervasive stupidity of the “reefer madness” mentality that has poisoned legalization discussions for the past century.

Will it be a non-issue, like the legalization of casinos a generation ago? There’s a similar mentality involved, cash-strapped governments seeking coins for their hungry coffers wherever they can hoover them up. If they can’t raise income tax, they’ll raise consumption taxes, make us pay for every item or service we require. Remember when gambling was bad? I can, but only just, and the same thing will happen with demon weed. All the doom-sayers and worry-mongers will be shown to be full of hot air and other than a few more red-eyed people walking around and pizza sales shooting through the roof (at least initially), I predict pot legalization will produce a general feeling of “So what was the big deal?”

And after pot, what next? Has to be prostitution—government-inspected brothels, sex workers better protected from predatory johns…and the Feds and provinces gain yet another tidy, dependable revenue stream.

They’ll need it because they’re going to be forced to inject more capital into a system that is currently running on vapors. It will be necessary to prime the economic pump, and soon. That’s why you’ll eventually see a $15 minimum wage AND, not long afterward, a guaranteed annual income for every Canadian. There’s just not enough money going around, not enough offerings being shovelled into the hungry maw of Mammon. Trickledown economics NEVER worked and that fact becomes ever clearer. When people can no longer to afford the basic goods and services of capitalism, the machine crashes and burns, chaos results.

The poobahs in charge don’t want that. They’re going to do whatever is necessary to perpetuate their power structure, the benefits they enjoy. If that means skimming off some spare change and casting it at the feet of the plebs, so be it.

Except I have a feeling that poor and struggling workers will no longer settle for morsels. They’re falling farther and farther behind, their wages stagnant, their kids can’t improve their prospects because post-secondary education is so expensive, they’re on the downward spiral AND THEY KNOW IT.

Legalizing pot is a temporary—and, frankly, cynical—holding measure. Buying off the electorate with pseudo-progressive policies and symbolic concessions while doing next to nothing to actually, y’know, address economic inequality and health security. Surely our masters aren’t foolish enough to think the rest of us don’t see through their transparent ploy.

Real change is required, to preserve social mobility and address fundamental flaws in a self-perpetuating system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.

That system is not democratic or sustainable and, in light of the current climate crisis, quite demonstrably insane.

What will it take to convince our political masters and elites that we’re serious this time?

Must they hear the awful roll of the tumbrils once again?

Quote of the day: Jim Shepard (Blog Post #498)

Longtime patrons of this blog know of my deep and profound respect for American author Jim Shepard.

He’s one of my literary heroes—he and George Saunders are the two best short story writers in the English language.

For a number of years he wrote a column for The Believer and in 2017 Tin House Books (great little press) released a collection of those pieces titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.

It is, needless to say, a smart, articulate book and I wanted to quote a passage from Shepard’s Introduction to give you an idea of why I revere the man so much:

“The Republican Party has for decades claimed that the American government is the implacable enemy of the American people. This administration (Trump) is working to make that statement true for the first time for a very large majority of citizens.

That leaves the streets, and we can already see what’s in store for us there. The militarization of the police over the past forty years, begun with the war on drugs and amped up a thousandfold by the war on terror, was never really about threats from without and has always been about anticipating threats from within: as in, What happens when economic inequality and political irrelevance become so grotesque that they lead to civic unrest? The solution to the problem, for the Republicans and the corporate Democrats who have held power, has never been, So I guess we should do something to alleviate economic inequality. It’s always been, When the have-nots have nothing left but the streets, we need to be ready to take the streets away as well. And of course the exponential growth of the surveillance state will help with that. Hence our leaders’ seeming lack of concern over the last decade or so about all the metadata about US citizens—citizens who haven’t been suspected of a crime—that’s being hovered up.”

 

Blog Post #496: Automatic Crap Dispensers

My wife sent me a picture she took while waiting in Edmonton International Airport.

At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I was hit with a wave of nausea…a short story machine? Tales pumped out of a dispenser like junk food?

Dear God.

Sherron, bless her heart, anticipated my reaction and printed up a number of stories to bring home for my examination. Without exception, the offerings were inept, tuneless, unoriginal, poorly executed, childish. There was no professional vetting in terms of quality and it showed. Apparently the company in question, ShortEdition, has over 80,000 stories, of varying genres and length, for potential readers to choose from. Based on the examples I scanned, you’d get more aesthetic satisfaction reading the back of a cereal box or instructions for using a pay toilet.

Awful, awful stuff, printed on thin tape for speedy consumption, as disposable and forgettable as most of the other crap we produce these days.

And the horrible thing is that we’re living in an absolute golden era in terms of the short story format. Geniuses like Jim Shepard and George Saunders are gracing us with tales that can move us deeply, while maintaining the highest literary standards. Daring, innovative prose that shatters preconceptions and offers entirely new perspectives of the world around us.

This ridiculous gadget is yet another example of the dumbing down of society, offering blatant mediocrities and tone-deaf amateurs a platform to exercise their egos. It is junk food for the post-literate, the mental equivalent of fucking Pez.

Anyone who pays for this service is a moron, anyone who enjoys the “writing” needs to stop wearing their hats so tight.

How about spending your money on real authors, men and women who devote an enormous amount of time and effort ensuring their prose is as tight and polished as it can be? Masters of the printed word.

They deserve your support, whereas the ShortEdition wannabes warrant only a snort of derision and a sad shake of the head.

 

March comes capering and leaping in, like a giddy lamb

Yes, there are definite signs of spring in the air. Above zero temperatures, melting snow, slushy streets…and a rare sighting of yer author, out and about, taking tea at Cafe 4 U, our new downtown hot spot.

But hold on, folks, this is Saskatchewan. Winter isn’t done with us quite yet. Don’t put away your parka and Manitoba mukluks just because of a few balmy days. Surely you know this part of the world better than that.

A lot to report since my last post.

I’ve been grinding away on my poetry collection, The Algebra of Inequality, spending long hours going over each poem beat by beat, breath by breath, making sure, as Don Delillo puts it, I’m find not just finding the right word but the right sounding word. That distinction is so vitally important, the difference between good writers and those who merely string sentences together. I’ve trimmed five years’ worth of verse down to a hundred pages. For the first time I’m actually arranging the poems into groupings, rather than merely printing them chronologically. Trying to create a flow of thoughts and images, dramatic highs and lows. It’s been something of a slog but the end is now in sight.

I should have the manuscript of Algebra of Inequality finalized by the end of this month and then I’ll get our longtime designer, Chris Kent, slapping together some ideas for the cover. Hoping for an end-of-April release date and, naturally, there will be more info as we move the process along.

I’m over the moon about this collection. I’m improving as a poet and have an ability to cram the most complex and mind-bending notions into a four or five-line poem.  There’s a concision and sharpness to my verse that’s hard to find elsewhere. I think the brevity of my poems often works against them, folks thinking you have to write something the length of The Wasteland (complete with helpful footnotes) in order to be taken seriously.

I think only two of the poems in Algebra of Inequality were published elsewhere. About a year ago, I subscribed to a service that sends me weekly market updates, letting me know what publications are looking for poetry, fiction, personal essays, whatever. But I noticed many of these markets demand reading fees, even for three or four short poems, and that made me bristle. The point, as someone like Harlan Ellison has been saying for decades, is to pay the writer. Authors shouldn’t have to pony up hard-earned shekels in order to have their work considered for publication. That’s a rip-off and a scam and if we all refuse to have anything to do with it, editors would stop trying to flimflam us.

Some of these places are making quite a score. Charging $3.00 or $5.00 per submission, getting a thousand or more suckers—er, writers—to respond each and every issue. Do the math. And many of these places can’t even claim the expense of a print component, they are purely digital editions, a format which is dirt cheap to maintain.

Editors should be paying writers, not the other way around. Trust me.

What else?

Ah, yes, Hollywood North has come calling. Longtime friends of this blog will know I’ve had less than cheery experiences with people wishing to adapt my work for films. I had a particularly ugly episode with those idiots at—ah, never mind. Time to let bygones be bygones.

Honestly, I have high hopes for the company who picked up the rights to my novella “Living With the Foleys”. My son Sam is a budding film-maker and when he heard who was interested in “Foleys”, he immediately emailed me with the information: “Dad, these guys work with Guy Maddin!”.

Zang!

Well, say no more. We’re big fans of ol’ Guy’s, love the originality and utter madness of his oeuvre. The man’s a certifiable genius—or should that read certifiable and a genius?

So, yes, I signed the contract and now they have a couple of years to see if they can make something out of my novella.

Finally, I’m abashed to note that I recently put more money into the pockets of Tim Cook and the corporate scum at Apple Computer.

I bought an iPad.

I needed a portable device, something I could have with me when I’m away from home, a word processor slash reading device slash music player. And then there are podcasts. It hasn’t taken me long to get addicted to them. “S-Town” was amazing and I’ve been tuning in regularly to “Invisibilia”, “WTF”, “Risk!” and numerous others. Hat’s off to NPR, they seem to produce or collaborate on some of the best stuff out there.

Since picking my iPad up a month ago, we’ve become just about inseparable. It’s constantly playing something—this morning while I was shaving I listened to “The Daily”, a program produced by The New Yorker.

I’m sure the habit will taper off eventually, but between my editing and tooling around on the iPad, the cold days of February zipped past.

Well, it’s much cheaper than flying to Cozumel, catching dysentery and spending a week in intensive care, pinned to an I.V. bag of antibiotics. Less invasive too.

I shall endeavor to update this blog more often. Kind of a weird beginning to the year and it’s taken me awhile to retool and get back on the bicycle (so to speak).

The days are brighter and longer, the chill lifting from my bones.

Better times ahead. New life and new hope just around the corner.

I’ll raise a glass to that…

 

Somber Days

I won’t lie to you: it’s been a grim month here at Casa Burns.

We lost a couple of people very near and dear to our hearts and that’s never easy.

Awhile back, I posted a poem titled “The Grief Path” that did a good job of alluding to the sense of emptiness and pure anguish one experiences with the death of a loved one. It exposes the rawest emotions, the agony reaching right down into your soul, the seat of your faith. Only the passage of time offers a slim promise of solace. There is simply nothing you can do for it except keep putting one foot ahead of the other and wandering up that long, lonely track. Keening your song of sorrow and woe.

And then just when it seemed like the atmosphere was lightening, some of the spiritual and emotional pall lifting…

…the decision in the Colten Boushie case was handed down.

I had the privilege of meeting Debbie Baptiste, Colten’s mother, last summer, within weeks of her son’s senseless death at the hands of Gerald Stanley. I was immediately impressed by her poise and dignity, despite the weight of the incredible burden that poor woman was bearing. I couldn’t help wondering how she felt when she heard that terrible verdict read, realizing that in the eyes of a court of law, a fundamental Canadian institution we have been taught to honor and respect, her boy’s life was deemed worthless.

What can we say to her?

Is it sufficient to remark that sometimes Justice really is blind…and deaf and dumb too? Somehow, I doubt that will cut it. She has been let down at every point of this ordeal and at the end of the day, whatever happens next, she won’t be getting Colten back.

She and her many supporters have every right to demand answers regarding how the RCMP handled the initial investigation and their behavior toward Debbie and her grieving family in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

I’m pleased to hear talk of altering the rules of jury selection, but don’t foresee any speedy or significant changes to a system that has failed, disproportionately, our First Nations people since before Confederation, compounding the misery that everyday, casual racism inflicts on them, the stereotypes they must endure.

The only thing that gives me hope are the on-going efforts we’re making—through education and increasing knowledge of aboriginal history, cultural exposure—to reach out to each other, share our stories, growing together as a nation of nations. I know people intimately involved in this process, men and women who recognize the power we can tap into whenever we collaborate, combining our energy and spirit on meaningful endeavors that celebrate our diversity, the collective strength of the many.

That’s why I grieve, but I do not despair.

I know in my heart the good guys are on our side and the better angels within us will prevail.

It will take time, tremendous effort but we cannot fail, cannot allow the small-minded, the vulture-hearted, to steal the future from us and color it blood red.

We’ll do it for Colten and all the others who die without fulfilling their promise.

We’ll do it for Debbie and the mothers who weep for the children taken from them.

And we’ll do it for ourselves, to prove we are worthy of our roles as stewards of Creation and the children of a wise and loving god.

 

Naming the affliction

I finally have a diagnosis for what ails me.

For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.

The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.

Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:

saudade (SAH-u-dah-deh)

Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)

Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.

A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.

I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.

Come visit me sometime.

Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…