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 Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you.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”
Image by Liam Burns
Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall
Franz Kafka: Lost Writings edited by Reiner Stach (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson
Cascade (Short Stories) by Craig Davidson
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit by Mark Leyner
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel
Quicksand by Emmanuel Bove
Appleseed by Matt Bell
Things About Which I Know Nothing (Short Stories) by Patrick Ness
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison
Phase Six by Jim Shepard
Joe’s Liver by Paul Di Filippo
A Man At Arms by Stephen Pressfield
Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis
Berlin by David Lutes
Love and Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx by Mary Gabriel
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Dark Money by Jane Mayer
The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens
Pictures At a Revolution: Five Movies & the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris
Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen
Germany: From Revolution to Counter Revolution by Rob Sewell
Essays After Eighty by Don Hall
After the Apocalypse by Srecko Horvat
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann
What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott
Image by Liam Burns
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.
It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.
I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.
But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.
* * * * * * *
- Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
- More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
- The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
- My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
- There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
- Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
- Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
- That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.
Copyright, 2021 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
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…