Category: independent writing

Mutant Thoughts (iv)

CaneIt’s been hectic again of late…which is tolerable, for short periods of time. I very much prefer ordinary, mundane routine. Much better for my creative faculties.

Finally got the word and will shortly have my second hip replaced. Just in time too. The right side had collapsed and I’ve been walking like a peg-legged pirate. More pain manifesting itself, my upper body out of whack, so when the surgeon’s office rang me up, I felt nothing but relief.

I think I sensed something coming. The COVID numbers were down, I’d heard elective surgeries were restarting…something must have clicked. For the past month-six weeks I’ve been working like a dog, writing and editing a new one-act play, as well as toiling on three other, separate projects. Haven’t been this productive in awhile—and now I’ll have to take an enforced break to recuperate and rehabilitate my right leg. No use trying to write anything with a Dilaudid-clouded brain; I’ve tried it before and the results weren’t pretty. Get off that shit ASAP and on to a regimen of Tylenol, Ibuprofen and, possibly, CBD oil.

Brought up some treasured movies from downstairs for comfort viewing and have found three or four old sci fi classics on YouTube I intend to giggle my way through. Stuff like “This Island Earth”, “Invaders from Mars” and Jack Arnold’s “The Space Children”. No superstars, no CGI, no production values (sometimes)…and whole orders of magnitude more fun and entertaining than today’s empty-headed, multimillion-dollar blockbusters.

* * * *

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching events in Ukraine with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Putin still thinks he’s living in the 1950s and 60s, that a powerful country can just roll into another and impose its will. But these days the world is far more connected than he supposes and this episode will not end well in terms of his imperial ambitions.

As for those beating the drums of war or, at the very least, demanding a more active role for NATO/EU in that volatile region, a (God help us) “no fly zone”, let me remind you that since the end of the Second World War the major superpowers have scrupulously avoided a direct confrontation. The results could escalate too quickly for either side to control, with horrific results. Putin and his minions are vulnerable to sanctions, especially if the West gets serious about cleaning up its banks and financial institutions so they are no longer able to launder the ill-gotten gains of the oligarchs.

The reliance of the European Union on Russian oil and gas was always worrisome, valuable leverage that Putin could employ at his discretion. Now is the time for the E.U. to act dramatically to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, accelerating Green energy initiatives, becoming entirely self-sufficient.

The Russians have also finally raised enough alarms that NATO seems prepared to reinvigorate itself, member states pledging more money to their armed forces, adding life blood and relevance to what was previously a sleepy, moribund alliance. Even Finland, long an outsider, is thinking of joining up. Surely not what Putin intended when he embarked on this quixotic quest to return Europe to its pre-1989 boundaries.

That isn’t the only unpleasant surprise he’s experiencing and it won’t be the last.

In this instance, his reach has far exceeded his grasp and he’s about to get his fingers very badly burned.

Ukraine

“Becoming” (Personal Essay)

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 Burns familytimes, 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.

Sis & me 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.Kafka tribute

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.”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”

Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”

Happy couple

My new office space (and a new beginning)

Yes, can’t hold back any longer. The second floor renovations almost done, the restored hardwood floor an enormous improvement over the ancient, dusty, shag carpet that once covered it (said aged, toxic carpet being one of the suspected “hot zones” for the initial onset of COVID-19, report from the CDC still pending).

My office is now up and running, stocked with some new book cases, hundreds of volumes surrounding me…and yet there seems to be more space than ever, each square foot fully utilized. Gone is the clutter and torn, sagging posters. Even minimized my display of toys and miniatures. This is the space of a grown, mature artist, not a terminal juvenile (that stuff goes down to my “man cave” in the basement). 

Here are some pictures to show you what we’ve done. First a “Before” shot, once the carpet had been ripped up and the office virtually emptied out:

Now here’s a couple of pictures taken this morning:

Just looking at these snaps has my left hand twitching in anticipation of some serious writing. I’m talking about a binge that leaves me emotionally and physically mangled (ah, the good old days). Imagine having a space completely designed around your wishes and specifications. It’s a dream come true. The beautiful little touches that make it completely mine—

Including, as a grand finale, one wall that my wife and I layered with papier mache…incorporating fragments torn from an old, tattered copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I had lying around.

I call it the “Joyce Wall” and a closeup looks like this:

Work on the upper floor still isn’t complete—there’s scraping and crack-filling and painting…and then all the furniture has to be put back in the proper rooms. It’s been a process but we’re getting there.

My new creative play area excites me beyond belief. There’s a sense that my career and approach to writing are getting a reboot, a fresh beginning, distant, unexplored horizons beckoning.

What dreams may yet come

Poem of the day

September 19, 2020

I begged you to linger
because you kept the chills at bay
but you insisted you had
business elsewhere
and took leave of me
with an air kiss
that brushed my cheek
with the last warm breath
I’d feel until Easter
paid its ritual visit
on bended pagan knees

ELECTRIC CASTLES: The Road to Publication

Final edits and proofing completed, my short story collection Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends is currently being prepped for publication.

Once the manuscript was corrected and perfected to my satisfaction—three months overdue but that’s par for the course—I immediately logged in to my Upwork account and posted a job listing for someone to handle the interior design and formatting for the book.

It’s always a tricky process working with someone outside my creative bubble but because of the complexities associated with using Lightning Source as a printing service, interior/text layout is not a job for amateurs and bumblers. The Lightning Source templates are very unforgiving and inflexible and the slightest glitch will get your formatted file tossed from the system. And there you are, back at the drawing board.

I’ve always had good fortune with Upwork: you post a job description and graphic designers from around the world bid on it. I tend to use people who have a lot of experience, especially with Lightning Source/Ingram Sparks. Communication is essential so folks must be very fluent in English (not too mention tolerant of my perfectionism).

Electric Castles is the 14th book to be released through my Black Dog Press imprint and other than my first book (So Dark the Night), I’ve always had someone else handle the formatting of the interior text. We tried it ourselves with So Dark and the experience was so miserable and difficult, I swore I’d never do it again.

Once again our old pal Chris Kent will be handling the cover design. I found the perfect image purely by accident and secured the rights from the artist in question, a London-based chap, Gabriele Marras.

I’ll be “leaking” a sneak peek at the cover in a couple of weeks and you’ll understand why I’m so pleased to have stumbled across Gabriele’s work.

I know I can count on Chris to deliver another beautiful looking book—he hasn’t failed us yet.

Random Thoughts

As I made my last pass through the manuscript, scrupulously checking every last comma, I couldn’t help thinking it’s a good thing I publish my own work and therefore not beholden to anyone else or subject to their taste.

The stories in this collection are amazingly diverse, veering from crime fiction to dark fantasy to mainstream literary. How that would go over with an outside editor/publisher, I don’t know. The only thing these tales have in common is that each features an urban setting of one kind or another. That’s it.

There’s always a dialogue between my inner publisher and inner author and sometimes the exchanges can get mighty ugly. I mean, Jesus, my last three books were: a volume of poetry (The Algebra of Inequality), a non-fiction book of satirical tirades against the minions of political correctness (Mouth: Rants & Routines) and, now, a collection of short stories.

All pretty much guaranteed to sell poorly, none of them featuring the kind of crowd-pleasing tripe the vast majority of readers seem to prefer.

My inner publisher wonders why I don’t come up with something more commercial and the author inside me tartly insists that the point is to release good work, not popular fluff. The publisher’s response to that point of view is too vitriolic to reproduce here.

I don’t tend to write cheery tales with happy endings. I don’t utilize common tropes or adhere to accepted formulas. Not my bag. There are plenty of other writers out there who are only too delighted to play that game and I leave you to them.

I feel more at home in the dark…a familiarity I assure you I’ve earned.

And finally…

I get a bit, ah, strange when I’ve reached this phase in the publishing process: a book in the pipeline, a few weeks from publication. I exhibit symptoms of agoraphobia, part of me believing if I venture too far from home something untoward might happen to me and I’ll never live to see the book in question published. It’s a hard feeling to shake; I fully recognize this mindset is not rational or defensible, but it is, nonetheless, persuasive and insidious.

So you’ll pardon me if I reluctantly decline your dinner invitation, offering a rain check with no date filled in.

I’m this close to releasing a brand, new book.

It’s a heady time for me and nothing will distract me from getting it into my readers’ hands.

Back to work…