Tagged: memoir

“Becoming” (Personal Essay)

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 Burns familytimes, 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 Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you.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.

Sis & me 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.Kafka tribute

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.”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”

Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”

Happy couple

Latest news from Black Dog Press

A flurry of activity around here, finishing projects and scheming new ones and, meanwhile, trying not to over-do it on the work front.  That means maintaining a regular regimen of stretching, getting out of the house at least once every day for a walkabout, even if it’s only to the library and back. That also means reading more and trying to familiarize myself with this notion of “relaxing”. Re-lax?

I’ve been devouring lots of memoirs of late, a genre I usually wouldn’t touch with a fully charged cattle prod. But I’m not talking about the recent crop o’ crap—whining, self-indulgent wankfests—I’m referring to stellar efforts by Bernard Cooper and Frederick Exley. Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is an amazingly accomplished and courageous book. Two titles by Daniel Pinchbeck have also impressed, Breaking Open the Head and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. I find his ideas and conjectures far more lucid and comprehensible than the late Terence McKenna’s; I predict Monsieur Pinchbeck is gonna be a star. He’ll alter more than a few consciousnesses before he’s through…

I’ve been bringing in lots of hard to find books via interlibrary loans…but, unfortunately, I’ve acquired a rather formidable stack, all of which must be read within a finite, prescribed time limit. No pissing about. Brilliant stuff like Graham Robb’s Parisians, Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell), The Good Soldier Svejk (Jaroslav Hasek) and an anthology of modern German poetry edited by Michael Hamburger. And more on the way…

Ah, but don’t think I’ve been devoting myself entirely to leisure. Surely you know me better than that.

I have not one but two major projects nearing completion. You heard right.

It’s always bothered me that much of my early work (pre-1997) is out of print. There were a number of limited edition chapbooks produced during that interval (That First, Wound-Bearing Layer and Genuinely Inspired Primitive), poetry (violins in the void)…and none of it is available any more. Sold out. A cursory check on-line tells me that a few enterprising souls are offering these hard-to-find editions at a pretty steep price.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months assembling, culling and editing two short volumes, clocking in at around 115 pages each.

The first, which should be out in mid-July, is New & Selected Poems (1984-2011). Over 25 years of my best verse brought together in one nice, compact tome. These poems are personal and revealing, condensed almost to the point of combustion…I love them but they scare me. I think the short Afterword I’ve provided at the end of the book explains why.

The other volume is a compilation of my short prose pieces and monologues. I’m calling it Stromata and the material it covers dates back to 1992. Stromata will be available the end of August.

The two books are intended to be companion volumes and their design will reflect that. You’ll see what I mean—I’ll upload the covers once our pal Chris Kent has put something together.

Both books will retail around $12 and, no, before you ask, no advance orders. Nothing until I have the first shipment from Lightning Source sitting in my front hallway.

Looking forward to an exciting summer…although I wish this mix of sun and rain we’ve had so far would be replaced by two weeks of hot, dry weather. A real Saskatchewan summer. Ah, well, it’s still early days. Other than the horrendous mosquitoes, last summer was just about perfect. Here’s hoping for lots sun, fun and reading in the months ahead.

See you at the lake.

Remember to bring a good book.

Here are ten poems, excerpted from New & Selected Poems, just posted on my Scribd page.  Click on the link and go have a look…

“The First Room”, CBC Radio “OutFront”

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Okay, Kelley Jo Burke,  producer of my adapted radio play “The First Room”,  just  e-mailed me with the date and time it will air on CBC Radio’s OutFront program.

OutFront is a nationally broadcast program so this is a real coup for me.  What makes it triply pleasing is that Kelley Jo has done a brilliant job with the piece, blending and cross-cutting the voices, creating a powerful and intense listening experience.  I listened to the final mix she sent me about ten days ago and was absolutely gobsmacked.

I don’t write memoir, detest it as a vehicle for whinging, suck-ass apologists who’ve fucked up their lives and expect our sympathy for their travails.  Or else they lie and embroider to lure in more suckers.

“The First Room” is not factually true but it is emotionally accurate and that’s an important distinction.

I hope you’ll get a chance to tune in–either listening to your radio at the appointed hour or streaming it from CBC.  As well, Sirius Satellite (137) will be broadcasting “The First Room” throughout North America.  I believe there’s also a podcast.

“The First Room” airs from coast to coast to coast Friday, February 6th at 8:43 p.m.  For further information, here’s a link to the “OutFront” page.

If you do manage to catch it, drop me a line afterward with your thoughts.

I’d appreciate hearing from you.