Category: travel

Two memorable photos

We took a lot of photos on our trip this summer. That’s the curse of digital photography: you can just keeping snapping away, deleting the duds later. Much later…

I won’t be posting many pictures of our trip, but there are bound to be a few, marking the high points of our thirty memorable days in Greece-Turkey-Czech Republic.

Me 'n Troy VI

Here I am, touching the stones of Homeric-era Troy. Can’t put into words how powerful it felt visiting a place I’d read about since childhood. Glorious!

Me and Franz

I also got the opportunity to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the grave of one of my literary heroes, Franz Kafka. Sherron snapped this one, then discreetly wandered off, letting me have a few private words with my old Master. No touristas about, no unwelcome intrusions. Special, special moment…

Letter From Istanbul

TaksimRecently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:

 

The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.

We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.

That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.

For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.

We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.

We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.

All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.

Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.

President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).

And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?

After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?

As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.

He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.

 

August 1, 2016

The drawbacks of the “examined life”

Journal 1I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.

Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.

But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.

However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.

First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?

Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?

Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident Journal 2your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.

The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.

I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.

I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.

This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.

Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Rome. Athens. Constantinople.

Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.

Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.

My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.

What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?

Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?

wall (abstract)

“Gulag”


"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

Montana Sojourn

Back from my trip to Montana and I’m ten days older, a helluva lot wiser and a great deal more appreciative of the beauty, wonder and diversity all around us.

I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous.  But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive.  On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.

The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state.  I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood.  There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long.  The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now).  I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there.  The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case.  When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.

Montana had worked its magic on me.

This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively.  The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too:  we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt.  A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it.  And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer.  I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.

Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming.  Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up.  Lee, you’re a gem.

Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest.  And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.

Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured.  Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak.  We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place.  A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old.  Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.

“Come on downstairs.”  We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear.  John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.

Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years.  We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat.  I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you.  Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction.  And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it.  After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”

I think I might have stopped breathing.  Of course I had.  I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…”  Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”

I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar.  What a lost opportunity.  Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”

Well.  There it is.

Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes.  Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted.  Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit.  Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it.  “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor.  “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply.  There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons.  While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—

And there he was.  James Crumley.  Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness.  To me, Crumley is the man.  For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen.  He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well.  Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking.  Ah, Jim…

I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture.  Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait.  To your good soul

Met any number of terrific people in our travels.  We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell.  I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures.  Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.

Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent.  They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business.  People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington.  They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors.  I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.

Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back.  I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan.  The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive.  I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.

Author photo courtesy Ken Harman (Thanks, Cap’n!)

Book #50–“On the Natural History of Destruction” by W.G. Sebald

My “100 Book Challenge” progresses.

Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.

Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).

The latter left me especially shaken.

What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?

Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.

Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.

In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.

Sometimes only a scream will suffice.

We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.

Try.

On the road…and back again

Yes, indeed, I’ve been away, a rare trip that took me out of my home office and transported me across vast distances to exotic, terrifying centres like Calgary and Edmonton.  Gather ye around and I’ll tell you all about it:

It’s a journey I should have taken long ago but, what can I tell you, I’m not a travellin’ kinda guy.   Sherron and I have been talking this over for some time, debating the pluses and minuses of a road trip so we could take copies of my novel So Dark the Night around to bookstores and beg, threaten and/or bribe them into stocking it.  It took some work but Sher finally convinced me we had to do whatever was necessary to get the book somewhere it’s going to get noticed, start some buzz.  I did some research and identified around 10 bookstores, many of them indie, in Calgary & Edmonton that would be a good fit for So Dark the Night.

I have to say, the booksellers in Calgary and Edmonton treated us with exemplary courtesy and respect.  They always listened to my pitch with patience and a fairly convincing display of attentiveness.  We made some great sales and contacts and even the places that didn’t take the book outright asked for either a sample copy to look over or a promo flier (which we just happened to have on hand).  Certain bookstores and staffs stand out:  the folks at Pages, in Calgary’s Kensington district, and the dudes at Greenwood’s Bookshoppe in Edmonton.  Liz Janzen at the stunning Chapters/Indigo store on Whyte Ave. in Edmonton (Liz, I could’ve chatted with you all day)…book lovers and enthusiasts, trying to keep the printed word alive and vibrant.  I salute you and I hope you sell gazillions of copies of So Dark the Night.

But the trip wasn’t all business.  July 28th marked our 20th wedding anniversary and Sherron and I celebrated in fine style at a luvly cabin just outside Jasper (a place called Pine Bungalows).   Lots of wildlife…including roaming elk and the resort’s mascot, a chubby white cat Sherron dubbed Harold.  Harold found us one night as we were star-gazing and hung around until we returned to our cabin.

On the way to Edmonton, we picked up our son Sam, who had been attending film camp with his crony and collaborator Sean.  The two of them shot and edited (they’d completed the script ahead of time) a 20-minute short about a botched caper called “Newton’s Cradle” that is smashing.  Look for it on YouTube—or over at their blog—one day soon (they’re going to give it a final tweak before releasing it).  Fantastic job, guys.

Of course, visiting so many bookstores I couldn’t resist picking up a few titles for my personal library:  Wandering Star by Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio; Wonderful World by Javier Calvo; Already Dead by Denis Johnson and Andrew Collins’ Where Did It All Go Right?

One of the high points of the trip was buying a new hat, a Barmah, made in Australia and built for abuse.  Found it in a store at Lake Louise while we were waiting out a downpour and Sherron twisted my arm until I bought it.  Okay, I exaggerate slightly.  I threw a fit in the store and screamed until she gave in and said I could have it.  Not quite accurate but a lot closer to the truth than the first version.

Yes, I know:  pathetic.

It was a marvelous trip and that is entirely to Sherron’s credit.  I’m more than a trifle agoraphobic and the idea of being away from home for any length of time fills me with dread and foreboding.  But Sher made this trip fun and stress-free and I have to say I enjoyed being away from my desk for a few days, taking a breather and soaking up the beauty of our Rocky Mountains.

I feel better, re-charged and back in balance.  New projects beckon and a good chunk of the summer is gone.  Time to get refocussed and into a good groove.  Busy times ahead.

Watch this space for further developments…