Category: writing life

Please be patient…renovations currently in progress

In a few months, this blog will be ten years old.

Time to upgrade the old gal, select a new theme photo, clean out some of the clutter, etc.

I’ve paid particular attention to my “Other Media” page, tossing some older efforts and adding fresh renderings of my best, most popular tales, along with a few recent electronic pieces.

More changes to come, but do let me know what you think of the “new look”—your opinion is important to me and, no, I’m not just saying that. Honest.

cliffepidaurus

The author, at Epidaurus (July, 2016)

An Agoraphobic Abroad

Part I

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.

Tsk, tsk.

I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?

I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.

You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.

The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.

I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…

But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…

Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—

Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.

Parthenon (Athens)

Parthenon (Athens)

Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.

The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:

Stargazer

Stargazer

Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.

Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.

Meteora (Greece)

Meteora (Greece)

I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.

Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:

Varnavas

I am here
Lord
find me
on my
lofty perch
do not
deny me
your presence
forgive me
if I err
catch me
if I fall.

From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.

Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.

Istanbul (back street)

Istanbul (back street)

I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.

There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.

We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).

And then there was Troy…

(To be continued)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

“Where’s Jeeves?”

jeevesAh, what I wouldn’t give to have someone like the redoubtable Jeeves in my life.

An individual endowed with almost supernatural competence, intelligence and aplomb. Absolutely unflappable. Capable of quickly and expertly assessing any situation, offering the most expedient and logical course of action, which is all but guaranteed to achieve the desired result.

But it’s more than that. A true Jeeves is able to anticipate setbacks and complications, avoiding them like a poorly disguised tiger trap. His abilities are practically psychic—how else do you explain how he materializes even before he is summoned, showing up the instant his services are required?

P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and his impetuous, dim-witted employer, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, has the perfect word for Jeeves’ sudden, timely appearances: he simply “shimmers” into a room.

Wonderful.

Bertie is excitable, craven, shallow, gullible, naïve, inept; if it wasn’t for his phlegmatic, faithful manservant, he’d be in a pickle literally every waking moment of his life.

For Jeeves is the ultimate fixer—perhaps Bertie is right and it’s all the fish he eats. Whatever the source of his genius, Jeeves never fails to provide unstinting, courteous service and when compelled to suggest some subtle stratagem or artifice, you can count on Jeeves to save the day.

No impasse is so hopeless, no cause so lost that Jeeves can’t provide a ready remedy.

A Jeeves would organize my affairs, ensure the bills are paid, prevent our household finances from creeping into the red. He could fend off lovelorn friends, bossy aunts, irate foes and deal with those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses that keep ruining my quiet, peaceful Saturday mornings.

Bearing in a pot of strong tea and my daily newspaper as soon as he hears me stirring. Reminding me of an appointment or birthday I’ve forgotten. Drawing my bath, making sure it’s exactly the right temperature. Purring words of comfort and consideration while laying out my clothes for the day.

My man, Jeeves.

Truly, he stands alone!

* In my view the best way to experience “Jeeves and Wooster” is to listen to the BBC Radio dramatizations of Wodehouse’s stories. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers are stellar—the productions are first rate, the supporting players well-cast, the end result always hilarious.

hordern

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…

Photo

Our coffee table, earlier this afternoon:

table

 

 

For the record: that’s our buddy Sean Newton’s latest CD, “Fade to Black”.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is one of the most important books of the past five years–I picked up my copy at Turning the Tide, in Saskatoon. An essential read–some of the answers to future shock lie there.

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD: The evolution of the cover design

I had a dickens of a time with the cover of Righteous Blood.

For some reason, I resisted doing what I’d done on previous occasions: go on-line, to a site like RedBubble (or some place similar), tap in “dark fantasy art” as my search term and see what came up.

For So Dark the Night I must have looked through over a thousand images. Easily.

Not only was the effort of actually finding art to match the mood and message of Righteous Blood daunting, if I did manage to identify an illo that appealed to me I’d have to locate the artist (not always easy), secure their permission to use their art for a reasonable fee (ditto) and then, y’know, come up with the money for the transaction.

Earlier this spring I needed a break from writing, retreated to my basement dungeon where I like to paint and shoot my strange, short films, and slopped away happily on a couple of canvases. Both pieces turned out well, but my favourite was inspired by apocalyptic thinking: global warming, the massive wild fires that have raged around the world due to drought conditions and human tampering. I titled it “Red Skies” and quickly recognized how it might be the answer to my cover art woes.

RedSkies

(Click on images to enlarge)

Mark Rothko was definitely an influence, wouldn’t you say?

I sent a Jpg of “Red Skies” to Black Dog Press’s longtime cover designer Chris Kent last week, told him to use it as source material but not feel slavishly bound to the original. We had to be careful with other people’s artistic efforts but I wanted to give him permission to play with the image to his heart’s content.

Chris is a full-time teacher, a husband and father, an athlete constantly in training…but he also has an artistic side that he loves to indulge, a passion for design and art that’s very much a holdover from childhood.

Over the next few days, he tinkered with my painting, spitballing me a few initial notions like this one:

RIGHTOUSBLOOD1

Cool, eh?

But I got a sense these first salvos were sort of tentative, Chris not sure how much license he had to tamper with my work.

But then, with his next flash of inspiration, he abandoned all fealty to the original and just fucking went for it. I opened up the file he sent, sat back and gaped at the shattered, fractured version of “Red Skies” that now graced the cover.

And went absolutely mental over it.

Sent him a few minor suggestions, nothing of any great import, he went away did some more polishing and then delivered the final version. His masterpiece.

What do you think?

Final cover

A “toxic” essay and more

driverEnduring a spring cold at the moment, my neck glands throbbing like the bass line of a Eurotrash pop song.

Never mind, if we are to believe the Buddhists, “life is suffering” and there ain’t a whole helluva lot we can do about it. Just pop plenty of Tylenol, drink green tea and hope for the best.

A philosophy perfectly in synch with our do-nothing times.

A lovely bit of news this morning, Hollywood North has posted (in two parts) my critical essay on the films of Canadian auteur and enfant terrible, Alain Marchant. You can find the article here–Hollywood North is an on-line site devoted to Canadian film-making and thus I was pleased that they recognized the merits of “The Toxic Cinema of Alain Marchant”.

I’ve followed Marchant’s career with a kind of sickened fascination for the past 8-10 years and in terms of sheer hubris and poor taste, only Danish director Lars von Trier can compare with Marchant. Have a look at my feature, you’ll see what I mean.

Great weather of late, which helps pick up the spirits. Hard to stay inside, slaving over a desk, with the sun shining and birds singing.

Sigh.

But such is my lot.

Back to work…