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 Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you.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”
Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
The latest communication from Lightning Source indicates the proof of my novel So Dark the Night will be printed tomorrow (Tuesday, April 20th) and, if there are no obvious glitches, sent off to me a short time afterward.
(Sound FX: Fingers drumming anxiously on desk top.)
In the meantime, I’ve decided to post more of my strange, ambient music—it’s on my “Audio” page, just scroll down past the spoken word stuff and you’ll get there. Really love these pieces, which I’m calling (collectively) Intervals. There’s been a big progression since my first offering and one tune from this latest batch in particular stands out for me: can you guess which it is?
Busy days around here: Sam, Liam and a number of their friends (shout out to Sean, Dylan, Jess and the rest of the crew) are deeply involved in a short film project that keeps getting bigger and bigger. I applaud their ambition. Sherron has her own film on the go, an abstract bit of business for which I’ll be supplying music. But the deadline for the local, library-sponsored film short film competition is looming, so I hope their post-production efforts go well or they’re gonna be scrambling.
Meanwhile, I’m fretting over the impending arrival of the proof, beating my brains out trying to find ways to better promote and distribute my independently produced books. I welcome your input and advice on both these points.
Let me know what you think of Intervals too. And keep watching these pages for more info on the release of So Dark the Night, a supernatural thriller with a heart of gold. Your summer reading is on its way. And I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
Or…maybe you do.
Living in abject fear, a state of near unbearable suspense, day after day. How wearing that can be. Because that’s what we’re talking about here. A mindset centred around dread, a soul-sucking sense that things are about to fall to pieces and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
How can someone exist like that? How can they face getting up in the morning? What keeps them going?
Questions only the uninitiated, the smugly secure would dare ask.
Y’see, what the preceding sentences have failed to convey is the intoxication someone like me feels when a potential crisis peters out into insignificance. The surge of relief that provokes can’t be matched or simulated by any mind-altering drug I’m aware of.
And on those rare occasions when my worst fears turn out to be justified, the sense of relief and vindication I experience is…sublime. I actually tremble with the sick pleasure a junkie must feel just as the needle hits its mark. I’m like Chicken Little, running around, clucking with excitement and joy as big chunks of the firmament crash to earth around me.
“Rawwwwk! Told you so! Told you so!”
I’ve always been a worrier, possessed by the certainty that happiness is transitory and danger lurks around every corner. My childhood was like that, perhaps even my infancy; the baby who always makes strange, no matter how many funny faces you pull. Filled with such foreboding when faced with each new encounter or experience that I was literally sick to my stomach. Vaccinations, the first day of school, a trip to the dentist; preparing for these minor inconveniences as if they were a very public and brutal form of execution.
I can recall nearly wetting myself whenever I was called down to the principal’s office. It invariably turned out to be something mundane, a message from my parents, a form that needed to be picked up. I’d exit the office and immediately make a beeline for the nearest washroom.
My high school years were no better. So fraught with painful anticipation, consumed by a nervous energy that burned off every ounce of my frame; I weighed about 125 pounds the day I graduated. A long, thin stick insect, whittled down to the quick by neuroses. Not an attractive figure.
There’s been some improvement since then but I still get thrown into a tizzy over relatively commonplace occurrences:
* A stopped up drain means ripping up the basement floor and paying an astronomical fee to some greedhead plumber (it turns out ten minutes of roto-rooting and a $150 touch does the trick)
* A stalling car means replacing the engine, maybe even being forced to buy a new(er) vehicle (no, actually the spark plugs need changing)
* One of my sons having a grumpy day is an early manifestation of a depressive personality (nope, he just got out of bed on the wrong side that morning)
And did I mention that I’m a borderline hypochondriac? Now there’s a lovely combination. So every ache, every twinge is magnified in importance, exaggerated, fretted over. A belly ache could mark the onset of pancreatic cancer. A rare headache could mean a malignant brain tumour. See what I mean? And what about this latest development, waking up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning with low-grade nausea. Not out and out sick-making, just a weird, unpleasant feeling in my lower gut. Does this mean anything? Is it significant in any way?
That nervous energy sometimes manifests itself as a racing heart. Occasionally I get little jolts and twinges. And with a family history of heart disease that could be an indication of a problem. Or not. But, let’s be candid here, one day–it might be tomorrow, it might not happen for decades–my fears will be realized, my body at last betraying me and those small aches and pains will coalesce into something genuinely life-threatening, something that keeps on growing until it blocks some vital pathway or invades and compromises a critical organ. Punishment (or reward) for all those years of waiting for something serious to crop up, a final confirmation of the bad news I’ve been expecting all along.
Each day I pray for release from the irrational fears that afflict and bedevil me. I place myself in my Creator’s hands and repeat my personal mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” over and over again. Not only for myself, but also for family, friends and loved ones.
I know sooner or later it all comes to an end. Each one of us, at last, runs down, ceases to function, the machinery wearing out with a grinding of gears, sparks, smoke pouring from our ears. No one here gets out alive.
Funny, I don’t really fear growing old. That doesn’t factor into my thinking. As a catastrophist, of course, I have serious doubts I’ll live that long.
Frankly, knowing the end is nigh will undoubtedly come as something of a relief. It takes so much fucking energy and strength constantly fretting about money, not being able to properly provide for my sons’ education, what if something happens to the house. Etc. etc.
The sense of panic that almost unmans me when I can’t shake the thought that I might not be up to the task and that, inevitably, life is going to present me with an intractable problem, something I can’t solve, hide or ignore. I am hounded by the knowledge that I’m really not that smart or strong or brave. And that the time will come when my weaknesses and vulnerabilities will be exposed (Christ, better anything than that). The worst feeling, the greatest terror I have is that I won’t be able to save the people I love or prevent some terrible personal apocalypse that will consume them while I watch, helpless to intercede. My resolve failing me at a crucial juncture, my faith evaporating away as I face on-rushing danger. Something I glimpsed a long time ago.
Remember? I tried to warn you of its impending approach, tried to make you understand the severity of the situation…but you told me it was all in my mind.
I know, it’s ridiculous.
I am, by a significantly large margin, the most cynical person I know. At times, I border on misanthropy. Show me a miracle and I’m sure to be the one who runs over and yanks back the curtain, revealing an elaborate projection system and its red-faced operator.
My philosophical role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Swift–heavy on the satire, please, and spare no one the whip hand. When it comes to contempt for our species, I make Stalin and Mao look like a couple of octogenarian nuns. It’s time to own up to it: humankind is a failed experiment, rinse out the petri dish and start again.
Except…around mid-December my normally un-sunny demeanor undergoes a marked change. Having kids has something to do with it but, when I think back about it, I’ve always loved Christmas. The closer it gets to the 25th, the more excited and tingly I get. This reaction is completely unconscious and involuntary but, regardless, I offer no defense for the shameful sentimentality that overcomes me every December. True confession: if I could, I’d spend the last two weeks of every calendar year walking around, giving money to orphans and kissing old ladies on top of their wispy, age-spotted pates.
The origins of this revolting affliction are not known to me. I have hesitated to share it with you lest I provoke the ire and scorn of my fellow curmudgeons. We aren’t exactly known as a tolerant, open-minded bunch.
I can remember very clearly, the recollection dating back over 35 years now, sitting in my pajamas and listening to an announcement on the local news that Santa’s sleigh had been picked up on radar and he was definitely on his way…
My fondest childhood Christmas memory was when I was nine (ten?). I contracted a mild form of hepatitis and missed two months of school. As an added bonus, I cleaned up at Christmas time: a couple of Hardy Boys books and one of those electronic football games, which ended up maddening me because most of the magnetized players spun in slow, futile circles on the vibrating field. My one regret was that my specialized diet meant I couldn’t have any chocolate. Watching my sisters stuff themselves just about killed me.
As I’ve gotten older, the holiday season became an opportunity to sit back and assess the year; tote up the amount of work accomplished and berate myself for everything left undone.
During that week between Boxing Day and the New Year there’s always a strong sense of something impending. Maybe 2009 with be the year. Just like 2008 was supposed to be. And 2007, come to think of it. Oh, well…
Anticipation. Expectation. Something is coming. Something important.
Waiting. Waiting. Sam Beckett made a whole career out of it.
The curmudgeon in me curls up his lip when the Hallowe’en decorations come down and the Christmas displays start going up. People have staff Christmas parties starting in mid-November. And the Santa Claus Parade often takes place a month before the fact–as a kid I often wondered how the Old Man could take time off during the busiest part of the year to haul himself up on to a float and wave inanely for two hours.
Christmas specials on TV start the first week of December. It’s the old favorites that still appeal. “Charlie Brown Christmas” and the animated “Grinch”, with Boris Karloff narrating. Alastair Sim in “The Christmas Carol” (although, in a pinch, the Muppet version will do).
We’re big fans of the “Wind in the Willows” series too so that one will likely resurface during the holidays. Anyone who has ever seen me trying to assemble something or figure out printed instructions quickly recognizes that I am the very spitting image of Toad. And my friend Dan is undoubtedly a Badger…
I haven’t seen either “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” so I’ve promised my family I’ll sit down and watch those two with them; I miss out on too much, sequestered away upstairs in my office. All the movies Sherron and my boys have sat through without me…
We’re not a family who believe in big, extravagant presents. It’s just not us. Small, heartfelt gifts…combined with great food, friends dropping by, the chance to spend lots of time together, no school, no work, no obligations or duties.
Sprawled on the couch or draped across the big arm chair, engrossed in a new book. My boys are teenagers now so, admittedly, there isn’t the same sort of excitement present as there was when they were little gaffers. Up until a few years ago, the house would rattle with their excitement as the big day drew ever nearer. A friend used to buy them an advent calendar and after breakfast the boys would get the calendar down and pull open the little hinged hatch to retrieve their allotted square of chocolate. It became part of our ritual, like scones on Christmas morning (we tried champagne and orange juice once but I ended up passing out at 11:00 a.m.).
Well, we’re all older…but we still enjoy sharing time and space with each other. We laugh a lot and if I was a betting man I’d say this old house will be fairly ringing with mirth in the next couple of weeks. And if this cold snap ever breaks, we’ll get a game or two of shinny in and go for long walks, gawk at the gorgeous river valley, pristine in the sharp, white light of winter.
It’s hard for even a confirmed curmudgeon to maintain an appropriate air of disdain when he is perpetually surrounded by good cheer, a loving family and devoted friends. The barbed remarks and wisecracks stick in my throat, refuse to budge.
There will be other opportunities to prick balloons, pontificate gloom and doom. This is a chance to give thanks for the blessings and good fortune that sustain me even during my darkest moments.
We’ve had enough despair. Now let us sing songs of thanks and praise for what has been bestowed upon us and be all the more grateful and deferential, knowing it can’t possibly last.