I’m grateful I was born into a pre-digital society. Give me the wonder-filled Space Age over the Information Era with its rapacious consumerism and surveillance capitalism any day. I am a true analog kid and, like most people of that television-raised generation, I was/am at least partially ADHD (or whatever the hell the correct acronym is these days). My concentration frequently wandering, needing something to focus on, even if it’s only a scatter of shiny dimes.
Luckily for me, I discovered books at a relatively early age and ended up happily addicted to the printed word, which soon became my primary source of entertainment, opening doorways to other realities, while simultaneously educating me on the fine points of being human.
Reading was an escape in more ways than one. My home life could be a trifle tumultuous at times, particularly if money was tight and dad had been drinking. The rows got awfully scary and rather than coming together as siblings and drawing comfort from each other, my sisters and I retreated to our separate corners and went into full self-preservation mode. Every child for themselves.
My identity was set early: dreamy, distant, possibly smart, but since I didn’t talk much, it was hard to tell. All the evidence you’d need to diagnose a troubled home life. Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you. Those pictures of me at five, seven, nine. Pale skin and sunken, dark-rimmed eyes. I had trouble sleeping, anxious and fearful, bedeviled by nightmares, prone to bed-wetting. Displaying wary, watchful behavior, not just toward strangers but everyone.
A loner by temperament, not choice, existing independently of neighborhood kids, relying on my own resources. A vivid, far-reaching imagination, if I may say so, and that undoubtedly saved me. To all outward appearances I might have been thin and delicate as a sparrow but in my mind I was captain of a spaceship, first man on Mars, steely-eyed and fearless, undaunted by gruesome aliens and lurking danger.
Ray Bradbury is the first author I can recall having an impact on me. Ray was a dreamer too and could convincingly describe the topography of Mars, the peculiar customs of its denizens, while at the same time authentically portraying the hopes and dreams of two thirteen-year-old boys one magical summer when a traveling carnival came to town…
By the time computers and video games began to nibble at my awareness, I was already a devoted bibliophile, poring over whatever I could lay my hands on, even stuff I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to; I’d rather read than play outside with my friends. Libraries and bookstores were holy temples and nothing in the known universe could compete with that special feeling I got when I cracked open a book for the first time.
Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Being born in 1963 meant I was denied the pleasure of spending my formative years surrounded and inundated by social media, wedded to certain platforms, chained to some sort of personal device (laptop or cell phone), obsessed with my status, the way I present myself to far-flung “friends” and a host of complete strangers.
And as a result of my odd upbringing, I found that I had sort of dispensed with the need for affirmation or acceptance from others. That stood me in good stead whenever I interacted with my fellow homo sapiens; I wasn’t seeking their approval and, thus, was largely indifferent to their opinions of me, good or bad.
Upon reaching adolescence my personality developed an extra layer of protection: a wicked sense of humor. It was all those years of watching people, witnessing their many foibles, taking note of their effortless stupidity. When challenged or threatened, I now had a formidable weapon in my arsenal which I learned to use judiciously (otherwise, some troglodytic thug might’ve murdered me).
I had my first intimation of it when I was around eleven years old. It was during a sleepover at a friend’s place with four or five pals, probably a birthday party. It was long past midnight and we were all giddy, unable to sleep. I remembered a joke I heard my father tell, one of those traveling-salesman-stopping-overnight-at-a-farmhouse routines. Either we were all really, really hyper or I absolutely nailed the punchline (I’m guessing it’s the former), because I earned a huge, gratifying laugh and from then on blossomed into a regular smartass; not quite the class clown but definitely someone whose bent humor could provoke a reaction among his peers.
Childhood taught me grownups couldn’t be trusted and authority figures were either despots or dingbats. Is it any wonder that I gravitated toward comedians like Richard Pryor and Cheech & Chong…and, a bit later, with more long-lasting consequences, the genius of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? For some people a healthy dose of the absurd isn’t something they’re born with but instilled by experience and circumstance.
You need something. A coping mechanism or self-defense strategy to keep the wolves at bay. A mask or a shield (or both).
As for career aspirations, I had come to realize that my two earliest ambitions—becoming a cowboy or an astronaut—were likely not in the realm of possibility. But…how about acting, directing or even (gulp) writing? Could I ever make a go at something like that?
Well, I guess I have my answer to that particular line of inquiry.
I had already intuited that I was physically and emotionally unsuited for most real world vocations (a summer employed in a huge factory, making and bagging bread and related products confirmed that), which is why I spent, yes, eight years working as a dishwasher in an upscale Regina restaurant. Making like my hero George Orwell, getting down in the trenches, slogging away at a low-wage, part time job with no benefits, surviving if not thriving.
I kept a stack of paper napkins on top of my Hobart (dishwashing machine) so that whenever an idea for a poem or short story struck me, I could snatch one up and scribble some notes as the steam rose around me, the air filled with delicious aromas from whatever was on the menu, a waiter snarking at the cook because an order was late and a customer was complaining…
Some of the best of my early tales originated in that kitchen.
And then, during that same time, after years of hoping and praying, I met someone who was perfect for me. Call it a miraculous confluence of planetary bodies, a rare alignment of stars with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” thundering in the background, two fates colliding.
Before her, I was lost, then I was found.
And, y’know what, that twisted sense of humor came in handy because this gal appreciated a good joke and her laugh could shatter a Pyrex glass. I could be as uncouth and crude as I wanted to be and she’d not only keep up, but do her best to top me.
Let’s give her a name: Sherron.
Sweet, kind, good-natured Sherron. That’s the impression she likes to give but it’s far from accurate. Warning: when you’re around us there are no allowances made for the timid or thin-skinned. There are bouts of jocular barbarity that would make yours ears melt. No, there’s no point asking, I won’t repeat a single word. There are reputations at stake. Discretion must be observed.
She’s the only one who never recoiled from me. Before we hooked up I dated, irregularly, but there was no magic, no great rapport, and sooner or later they got that look on their face: you’re weeeeiiiirrrrd.
Prior to meeting Sherron, I lived and breathed and ate and defecated and got high. And I wrote. I was always writing but it wasn’t good. Bad poetry and meandering, self-referential short stories. Tales of an uneventful life, with secondhand accounts of sordid episodes related to me by friends spliced in. I was always the observer, never an active participant, hiding in the wings, where the perspective was clearer.
But Sherron changed all that. I started writing stuff to entertain her, widening the scope of my work, stretching my meager talent to the breaking point. I became a better writer and a better human being. All because of her. Credit where it’s due.
Decades later, how much has changed?
I’m still bookish, tending toward reclusiveness, but I also share time and space with the finest, funniest human being I’ve ever known.
And we’ve managed to retain our goofiness, still love a good laugh and smart talk and the occasional debate, never missing an opportunity to startle, surprise or disgust our better halfs, reminding them never to take anything too seriously in this chaotic, irrational, messed up world.
Because we both know: it could all change tomorrow.
In our mid-fifties now and very much aware that from here on the path grows shorter, a steady decline that quickly gains momentum, since we’re on an increasingly steep downward slope. We find ourselves being herded toward an inevitable future, fixed and unavoidable. Our legs growing tired, breath short, and, meanwhile, up ahead something huge looms into view, bearing down on us, becoming clearer and more defined with every passing day.
I’d like to tell you what it is, but, frankly, I hate spoilers.
Let’s just say there are no guarantees of happy endings or a better and brighter hereafter, but there will be a cessation of pain and worries.
In that respect, could whatever happens be all that bad?
“Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”
Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”
Skull Island wasn’t the same without him. The indigenous inhabitants, denied their traditional object of veneration and sacrifice, disintegrated into sects and internecine squabbling, nearly eradicating themselves. Survivors fell victim to the missionaries who inevitably follow in the wake of white explorers, displacing pagan idols, substituting ones more to their liking.
Robbed of its apex predator, the jungle lost coherence and structure, descending into chaos. And then came invasive species, animals and plants foreign to the closed ecosystem, devastating the pristine wilderness.
It wasn’t long before a consortium of Far Eastern financiers and venture capitalists bought the beachfront and lagoon for the equivalent of some beads and hand mirrors, evicting the natives, erecting exclusive vacation resorts catering to jet-setting millionaires and trust fund slackers.
Gift shops featuring statuettes, t-shirts and keepsakes commemorating the Island’s most famous denizen did brisk business, affluent tourists sporting colorful gear celebrating a fearsome creature once dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Descendants of the original islanders toiled in service industry roles, existing precariously, pining for the days when their god still lived and breathed, uprooting trees, bellowing his defiance, exacting regular tribute for the privilege of viewing divinity in the flesh.
“I hate ’em,” I snarled, “they are lower order creatures, on par with ambulatory trilobites.”
Words to that effect.
But on one occasion, I was reminded that during the summer of 2016 my wife and I spent an entire month overseas, visiting three countries and soaking up the atmosphere like parched sponges. Didn’t that make me, ahem, a tourist?
Immediately after the accusation was leveled at me I became angry, defensive, denying the charge vehemently.
See, my notion of tourism is that it’s a necessary evil, like gut bacteria or liberal politicians. Yes, it can greatly benefit the economy of a nation but, in so doing, it also exacts a certain psychic toll. I mean, there were some parts of Prague that reminded me of Disneyland (and that is not a good thing).
For myself, rather than tourist, I prefer the term “visitor” or perhaps even “guest”.
Let me illustrate what I think is the difference between a visitor to a foreign country and a tourist with this analogy:
After a perfunctory knock, a stranger enters your home, basically brushing past you as he marches over to the table, seats himself and waits to be served. He doesn’t look right or left, doesn’t check out the pictures on the walls, the arrangement of the furniture; there’s no small talk, this person just wants to be fed.
And so you bring forth the courses you’ve spent all day preparing, but the food is unpleasant and exotic to the stranger, who loudly bemoans the lack of familiar favorites. The water tastes funny too and they can’t understand your weird accent.
Then, finally, the stranger glances at his watch, bolting abruptly because they have another dinner appointment further down the road (hopefully boasting better fare than this sorry joint). No real human contact, no effort made to immerse themselves in their surroundings and engage with their host. Only interested in stuffing their fat faces as quickly as possible and then moving on to the next trough.
See what I mean?
I personally think it’s quite easy to make distinctions between feelthy touristas and those who are genuinely interested in their chosen destination, doing their research, learning a few words of the language ahead of time, apprising themselves of some of the historical and cultural features specific to the region in question.
Visitors have bucket lists, tourists have checklists.
A visitor will seek out a nondescript street corner once glimpsed in an obscure “B” movie; a tourist goes on inclusive, all-you-can-eat-and-drink junkets, spending hours trying to tan their pasty bodies on a private beach, the only locals in evidence the ones employed as service personnel.
Tourists patronize expat bars and seek out others of their kind; visitors deftly avoid anyone reeking of their home country and venture far afield to escape their idiotic compatriots.
Visitors seek experience, interaction; tourists are after visuals, placing themselves front and center in every picture they take, “selfies” amid the ruins, egos the size of the Parthenon.
A tourist never gets deliberately lost or risks chance encounters.
A tourist is rarely pleasantly surprised or jolted by insight.
A tourist secretly despises the countries they visit and can’t wait to get back home and pretend otherwise.
A visitor gamely struggles with the native dialect; tourists insist on talking their own lingo in A VERY LOUD VOICE.
To a tourist, any place worth seeing has to look like it belongs on a postcard.
A tourist says “cool”, meaning worthy of yet another picture, and “quaint” when they mean old and useless.
A tourist can enter a thousand-year-old church and completely ignore the gorgeous, stained glass windows, hand-carved pulpit and ancient aura, instead fixating on a middle-aged nun praying near the back who’s a dead ringer for their aunt Gladys.
A visitor never completely shakes off the places they explore and inhabit; a tourist takes nothing from the sites and monuments they see and leaves nothing of themselves behind.
A visitor is respectful, tolerant, gracious; a tourist vain, easily bored, rude, suspicious and disdainful.
A visitor departs with regret, a tourist with relief.
Visitors smile, tourists grimace.
Visitors say “thank you”, tourists begrudge even a modest tip.
Visitors try and fit in, tourists don’t bother.
Visitors are pilgrims, tourists consumers.
In my latest book, Mouth: Rants and Routines, there’s a particularly virulent diatribe against idiots. You know, people with the minds of boll weevils and the imagination of stone outcroppings.
I am not tolerant when it comes to morons; in point of fact, I eat them alive.
I floated my mini-essay “Stupid People: A Case for Eugenics” among family and a few selected friends, and my oldest son Liam identified it as a particular favorite. He requested a recorded version and I have acquiesced.
I also recorded several other pieces that same day, added some incidental music and posted them on my Bandcamp page. You’ll find quite a bit of my work there, both readings and ambient, spacey music. All of it free for listening and downloading. Be my guest.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to download the complete ebook of Mouth: Rants and Routines—it’s available dirt cheap in both major ebook formats—and, once you read it, please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads or Librarything or…wherever. I can’t emphasize how important a good review is for an unheralded book by the weirdo, cult writer from western Canada.
Here’s “Stupid People”, on MP3. Anybody else out there have similar problems putting up with the dummies in their life? Tell us all about it…
Christians and Taliban
My assertion that a fundamentalist Christian regime would be indistinguishable from the Taliban’s brutal reign in Afghanistan doesn’t sit well with some of the Jesus freaks I know, but I defend its essential accuracy and challenge anyone who believes otherwise to make their case.
C’mon, let’s hear it.
Because, to me, any theocracy, regardless of its creed or region of origin, will claim to be ruling on behalf of, or in accord with, its sacred deity. Which means all of its laws and edicts come stamped with the seal of approval of their chosen god—how can you possibly debate or amend a piece of legislation boasting the smoking signature of the Almighty?
Let’s take this one step further: if those in power believe themselves to be, literally, official spokespeople for some divine spirit, what is the point of opposition parties and free and open elections? Wouldn’t any expression of dissent, however mild, be the equivalent of willful defiance against god’s personal representatives? Wouldn’t that constitute heresy?
And you know what happens to heretics.
Theocracies aren’t big on laughs. Our great comedians and satirists wouldn’t fare well under sharia law; they would be among the first to be rounded up, for mocking the official state religion, daring use humor to make their point. Think of the former Soviet Union—some poor sonofabitch makes a joke about Stalin’s moustache and the next thing you know he’s on his way to a gulag, never to be seen again.
Know any great comedians working during the Third Reich? What are the stand-up acts like in Saudi Arabia or Iran—pretty toothless, I’m guessing.
Once a theocracy is installed, suddenly capital punishment comes back into vogue, have you noticed that? The more gruesome the method of dispatching wrongdoers, the better. Gouts of blood and torn bodies make a strong impression on the plebs.
Why stop there? Why not resurrect the lost art of stoning for dealing with adulterers and miscreants of every stripe? Chop off the hands of thieves, burn witches (and other troublesome females), bring back the Inquisition and, what the hell, crucifixion for the really intractable cases.
In some Moslem countries there are religious police who confront truant worshippers, shaming or arresting anyone who isn’t suitably attired or fails to conform to their puritanical standards.
I can see whack-job Christians nodding in agreement. “Great idea, let’s steal it…”
Yeah, like you did the virgin birth, the Great Flood, resurrection and a good deal more of the details and tenets of your faith.
Liberal education? Fuggetaboutit. Schools and universities will have their curriculums rewritten, bowdlerized, ensuring that nothing contrary to scripture makes it into young, impressionable minds.
Science? Are you kidding? The religiously inclined don’t believe in nonsense like dinosaurs or evolution or (guffaws of laughter) the moon landing.
Health professionals will be constrained by statutes outlawing abortion, birth control; we will no longer retain autonomy over our own bodies. Human rights and individual freedoms amount to nothing when they run afoul of dogma.
Sounds good to me, pipes up a grey-haired, fat, ugly, white man, speaking on behalf of the religious Right.
Fundamentalists believe we have strayed too far from our simple, god-fearing roots. We’ve forgotten our Sunday school lessons about what a jealous, vengeful deity demands of his flock and the genocidal horrors awaiting us should we wander from the appointed path into the surrounding wilderness.
The Taliban used to execute criminals and political enemies in soccer stadiums or other public venues. I’ve read reports of gay men and women thrown off high buildings, sometimes by their closest relatives. The Iranians, I recall, in the aftermath of their 1979 revolution, used to string up dissidents (“terrorists”) from cherry pickers.
But, of course, no innocent parties were ever punished by mistake.
Theocracies don’t make mistakes.
Theocracies are fair and impartial and unmarred by even the suggestion of corruption or scandal. God keeps his priests and officials on the straight and narrow. Each of them a paragon of virtue, no one abusing his/her station for personal gain.
And so any kind of oversight is an absurd concept. God watches over the ruling caste, not some outside agency (and they can quote chapter and verse why this is so). An independent media is similarly irrelevant.
Religious fanatics making laws and rendering “just” verdicts. For some, this is the best possible scenario as far as governance goes; for the rest of us it is a prison without bars, a conversation where everyone is listening, a stagnant, oppressive society directed and administered by fiery-eyed preachers and homicidal zealots.
No privacy (that grants the possibility of critical thought).
Public displays of loyalty are mandatory.
The buses to the killing ground constantly filled to overflowing.
One stone each, wait until you get the signal.
God himself has sanctioned this punishment and, therefore, you’re not in a position where you can safely refuse to take part. Any hint of reluctance or expression of doubt is tantamount to treason.
A single tear could give you away.
And they’re always, always watching.
* * * * *
This essay appears in my collection of diatribes and broadsides Mouth: Rants & Routines, which will be published in e-book and Kindle formats later this month (Black Dog Press)
I confess to feeling nervous—how would people, even enlightened, progressive types, react to my rants on subjects that would strike many as too close to home?
As the clock wound down and the reading date we’d chosen inched closer and closer, I felt my nerves twanging like guitar strings. On the day in question, I set up chairs in our living room, cleaned the house from top to bottom and wondered if I’d be a few friends shyer once the evening was over.
My latest book, Mouth: Rants and Routines, is a no-holds-barred attack on political correctness and its dim-witted minions, except this time, the criticism is coming from the far Left. This will be considered unconscionable by some, a betrayal of my roots.
PC and its accompanying trendy social causes have diverted the attention of progressives and advanced the agenda of people only interested in narrow, single issues, rather than trying to build a giant tent that would encompass all those who struggle in the crushing grip of capitalism, men, women and children who lack food and health and shelter security. I’m talking about folks working two or three part-time jobs in a precarious economic climate; single mothers, people living on fixed incomes that amount to no incomes at all, once the rent and bills are paid.
And then there is the existential threat presented by climate change: while some of us fuss about, wondering where we fit on the sexual spectrum or fret over what bathroom is most appropriate or which personal pronoun to use when referring to ourselves, half the world is burning.
Mouth is a bitter pill to swallow, no question, and will offend a lot of individuals who like to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, visible to everyone, a display of righteousness and piety and sanctimoniousness that would make a medieval Pope blush.
As my Introduction to the book warns:
“If you’re a wishy-washy liberal, someone who sits on the fence until their ass is black and blue, this probably isn’t the book for you. Likewise if you recently enrolled in a Gender Studies program and/or believe that one day, God willing, Caitlyn Jenner will win a Nobel Prize for…something. If you frequently use the words ‘men’ and ‘rape culture’ in the same sentence, if you self-identify according to a particular animal clan, or consider your pets surrogate children, well, there’s the door, please use it.”
The folks in attendance that night were surprisingly receptive to my heresy and in the recording we made you’ll hear lots of laughter and noises of agreement. I was thrilled and very, very relieved.
I know I’ll take some stick for daring poke at some Lefty/liberal causes that many people hold as sacred, inviolable, untouchable. But I also know there is a strong undercurrent among political progressives and contrarians who agree with me and cheer my decision to slay these sacred cows with as much invective and sarcasm as I possibly can.
Here’s a link to that reading, recorded in our home earlier this week. I have quite a bit of spoken word material and ambient music posted over at Bandcamp, all of it available for free listening and downloading. Please, tuck in.
I welcome your responses, whether you agree with me or not.
We need to have this discussion. The Left has no hope of defeating the entrenched interests opposing us unless we act in a unified, cohesive manner, refusing to allow ourselves to be hijacked by special interest groups and a tiny, vocal minority who eschew Big Ticket issues (income inequality, poverty, hunger) in favor of identity, gender politics, etc.
Stop the atomization and division and come together in one massive plurality of those who demand fairness and equality for ALL.
It really is our only hope of slowing down or, at least, humanizing the capitalist juggernaut bearing down on us, the horrible future it portends.
- Special thanks to my pal, Laird Brittin, who bravely agreed to open the evening with some of his new, original songs. He set the tone early, warmed up the crowd and, oh, yeah, played a helluva set. A true and valued friend…
Audible Books seems to be doing all right these days, adding a few more pennies to the vast coffers of Amazon.
Feeling a bit chagrined for patronizing a site owned by one of the mega-companies that are gradually taking over the world? Reluctant to add to Jeff Bezos’ ballooning net worth?
Well, allow me to offer an alternative.
I charge absolutely nothing for these recordings, even though I devote a lot of time, energy and creativity putting them together. There’s accompanying music, sound effects…and the short stories and novel excerpts I feature are a good bit more original, entertaining and literate than many, if not most, of the offerings you’ll find with my corporate counterpart. That I guarantee.
A word to the wise, however: my recorded prose may well be a gateway drug to the rest of my oeuvre. Once you get drawn in, you may find it impossible to stop, unable to resist immersing yourself in my dark, demented visions. Allow me to indulge in a maniacal chuckle as I imagine you downloading an MP3 of a tale like “Daughter” or “Walt Disney in Hell”, with no idea of what you’re getting yourself into, the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled down.
My writing will definitely liven up a long car trip, I’ll tell you that.
Try some of it on for size, see if it fits.
What do you have to lose?
Except a few preconceptions and maybe one or two nights of sleep.