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 Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you.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”
This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.
- Recently received a note from an Italian digital musician wishing to use images from one of my strange, short films to accompany a piece of music he’s been composing. Why not?
- Things like that happen every so often. Like the two individuals (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include my photos of the “cut-up” method for inclusion in a scholarly book or as part of a presentation at an academic conference. Happy to oblige…always in the hope that exposure in different venues will help draw attention to my literary work (well, a fella can dream, can’t he).
- Some good, smart discussions on Twitter lately regarding books, writing process, films, politics, etc. (Shout out to Shaun Hamill, Steve Savile, Geoff Andrew, among others.) The trolls seem to have gone into hiding for the time being, leaving room for rational discourse. A refreshing development.
- How do my fellow progressives feel about the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency? Anyone who was expecting massive policy changes, a sudden lurch to the Left, an administration to rival FDR’s is either soft in the head or has only just awakened after a fifty-year coma. “Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.”
- Go out today and either buy or borrow a good book. Just this once treat your frontal lobes and higher brain functions with the respect they deserve. Enough with the empty-headed, escapist fare. Remember: you are what you read.
- The fact that Justin Trudeau and his cabinet declined to join the rest of their parliamentary colleagues in a motion condemning the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese shows just how morally bankrupt and hypocritical the Liberal Party of Canada has become. An absolutely disgraceful display.
- We’ve signed up for a three-month tryout of the MUBI movie-streaming service. Great selection of cinema from around the world…but the goddamn thing keeps freezing and buffering, even during a 15-minute short film. I’ve contacted them and they’ve reached out, trying to effect a fix but so far, no good. And if they don’t solve the problem soon, hasta la vista MUBI!
- Is it just me? It seems like my fingernails and toe nails are growing at an accelerated rate during this extended lockdown. Please apprise if something similar is happening to you.
- Sherron keeps trying to get me to explore the wonders and benefits of kimchi…but I still recoil from the stuff. It looks like the material that gets caught in our kitchen drain; it may be a miracle food for some, but my rising gorge says otherwise.
- Back to the Big City (Saskatoon) soon to check the state of my new hip. Hopefully will have a bit of extra time for a side trip to Peryton Books and, later, some tasty ethnic cuisine before heading back on the road.
- Making excellent progress on what will be my next Black Dog Press release, Notebooks: 2010-2020. Printed up a draft and will give it to Sherron for proofing in about a week-ten days. And then final tinkering and polishing. Still anticipating an early May release date (perhaps even sooner, but don’t you dare quote me on that).
- Listening to a couple of newish Bob Mould CDs in my office the past few days. Ol’ Bob still rocks, the spirit of Husker Du lives on!
- These days half the time when the landline in our house rings it’s either a “robocall” or a scammer. This is what our society has been reduced to.
- One Twitter post in particular caught my eye the other day. A high school student was seeking advice on how to publish their book. Excuse me? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse? How about learning the rudiments of grammar and syntax first, gaining a basic understanding of language or, like, paying your fucking dues? We don’t need more books published, we need to identify and weed out the absolute shit that’s already being churned out at an accelerating pace. Most of it produced/excreted by sub-literate tits with no notion of just how terrible they really are. Sorry, kid, you won’t be getting any help from me.
- I’ll close this first installment with an appropriate quote from Aldous Huxley: “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” Yep, that about sums it up. See you next time!
Ever since I picked up my iPad a few months ago I’ve been obsessively listening to podcasts. To the extent that my reading has dropped off to next to nothing and there is no way in hell I can reach my usual 100-book threshold by the end of the year. I’ll be lucky to make it to 75, for Chrissakes.
I can see why more people are listening to podcasts, while fewer and fewer find time to pick up a book.
Podcasts are immersive, well-produced (the ones I listen to) and frequently riveting. You find yourself binging and, whoops, there goes the morning.
Favorites? Well, I’m a big fan of Pod Save America–the cast is made up of bitchy, ex-Obama staffers–The Daily Show, Intercept (Jeremy Scahill is one of my journalistic heroes), Mehdi Hasan’s Deconstructed (never miss it), Science Vs., Planet Money, Hidden Brain, This American Life…
But if I had to list the podcasts that have had the most impact on me in recent memory, that roster would include:
“In the Dark: Series 2” (The Trials of Curtis Flowers)
“The Caliphate” (featuring the great Rukmini Callimachi)
“The Caliphate” is an extraordinary ten-part series (affiliated with the New York Times) that traces the growth and spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East, their recruiting tactics, life under their regime, etc. Ms. Callimachi bravely skirts the front lines of a violent conflict in order to gain further insights into the mentality driving its members, the perversity of a “faith” that permits followers to murder, rape and terrorize with impunity. When she meets with survivors of the Yazidi movement targeted by ISIS, hears their harrowing accounts, I almost couldn’t bear it. But at all times Ms. Callimachi behaves with impeccable civility and respect, her integrity and humanity shining through even the darkest moments. She and her team are to be commended; nothing else came close this year.
As an author, I’m troubled that more and more people would rather listen to amateur storytellers offering rather polished versions of some strange but true episode from their lives (“The Moth”, “Beautiful Anonymous” “Risk!”, etc.), than tackle a consciously literary offering . On the other hand, as an artist I’m challenged by a medium that was previously unknown to me. Sure, I’ve recorded lots of spoken word stuff, but an actual venue that allows me to directly address my audience, grant them an inside look at the life of an indie artist, struggling on the margins, trying to draw attention to my work in a 500-channel universe, while, simultaneously, venting on political matters, airing out pet peeves…well, I can definitely see some attraction to that.
I believe I shall ponder this further…
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.
What am I looking for? What do I want, as an artist and human being living in these strange, dangerous times?
I have a shelf of books devoted to religion and spirituality and I paused in front of it, scanning titles, seeking a message or—
Consult the Bible? Too obvious. But I have a collection of Sufi writings compiled by Idries Shah, so I plucked it off the shelf, opened it to a page at random and found this quote:
“Detach from fixed ideas and preconceptions. And face what is to be your lot.”
-Sheikh Abu-Said Ibn Abi-Khair
If the universe was trying to communicate something to me, it couldn’t have been more direct.
No more pissing about, Cliff, time to accept your fate, don’t shy away from whatever destiny has in store for you.
No fame and fortune for me, I’m afraid. I’m not a mainstream artist, I present my works to people undiluted, without apology, an alternative to the pap and kitsch mass-produced and excreted on a daily basis.
My oeuvre is not for those who prefer their diversions light and facile and entertaining. I despise escapism; my visions are darker, offering no comfort or reassurance.
Instead, I adhere to my hero Franz Kafka’s dictum:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.
Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.
We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.
Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.
Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.
More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.
We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals. We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…
What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.
There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.
That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.
Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.
“Forever and ever…”