December 28, 2010

Sh*t My Dad Says -- The Right Book Review

After a failed relationship, 29 year old Justin Halpern returns home to live with his Dad and sort out his life.

He begins to document all of his father's crazy bits of wisdom and cultivates a large social-media following with Twitter and Facebook accounts called Shit My Dad Says.

He also lands a book deal.

If that doesn't make every struggling novelist want to choke someone, nothing will.

December 13, 2010

Winter Driving -- To Suffer Fools Lightly

To negotiate winter roads in St. Catharine's -- or Ontario in general -- requires a twofold method: patience and the ability to suffer fools lightly.

And they seem to come out in spades when visibility is at a minimum.

November 29, 2010

Best Art Vinyl 2010 -- Time to Vote has once again offered its nominees for Best Art Vinyl 2010. This means you can hit up the website and vote.

The selection is decent, though not quite as spectacular as the nominees for Best Art Vinyl 2009.

November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day Canada 2010

To my Opa, Johannes Bernardus van Leur, who fought in the Dutch Resistance, and had to leave his home country for a new life in Canada. Who died when I was nine and took his stories with him, much to my deep regret.

To Robert Bates, or Uncle Bob -- a surrogate grandfather to me. A man who prefers to be anonymous most of the time. Who joined the war because he needed a job.  Who told me stories of carting body parts from a bombed-out theater in France to temporary morgues for identification, and still looks at his service in Europe as the greatest time of his life. Who stood at Vimy Ridge.

To the man next to me at the cenotaph in St. Catharines today, who identified the planes by their sound, long before any of us could see them. Who hummed along to the old Protestant hymns being played by the brass band.

To the Highlander who played the bag pipes brilliantly.

To the veteran whose hand I shook after the ceremony. A face so mapped with age, and hands so large I imagine them crushing stones in their prime.

To the local men and women who have never come home. From my home town Grand Forks, or from anywhere else.

All of whom are sources of my Canadian pride.

November 6, 2010

Ontario versus B.C. -- What Happens When one Moves to St. Catharines from Surrey?

Three weeks in and the initial "oh man, what have we done?" phase is beginning to subside. A move from B.C. to Ontario, benign as it may sound, is a bit like changing worlds. Politics, social concerns, health, awareness...all different.

And while I by no means have a concrete grasp on the varying climes of St. Catharines, where I now live -- it's not too difficult to point out the immediate differences

October 8, 2010

BlackDiamondSkye Hits Vancouver -- Alice In Chains, Mastodon, Deftones

Too Loud! So said the Rogers Arena employee after the BlackDiamondSkye concert last night. A casual comment as we languished on the Sky Train back to the confines of suburbia. 

At least I think he said that; my ears were still ringing and I had to read his lips (not recommended on late-night Sky Train excursions, for the record). 

September 29, 2010

Vocals and Music's Seduction -- Harry Tournemille

Vocal tracks. For as long as I can remember they've been the "make or break" criteria for me when considering a song's excellence. 

Take great instrumental work and watch it become spectacular when the vocals are spot on. An unspoken connection between vocals and music's seduction. It crosses genres too. 

July 12, 2010

Hendrick's Gin Please

Alright, a Sunday afternoon in the pub makes one feel a little more European. I suppose if I had gone to mass beforehand...

Watching the World Cup Finals and sipping assorted drinks, my friend, and pub manager extraordinaire, queried if I had tried a Hendrick's gin and tonic.

I had. A few times. With positive vibes afterward.

But, he amended, had I tried it with cucumber? How unusual in such times.

What followed was a string of identical drinks, downed with great aplomb and luxuriated over as if some long-forgotten key to universal pleasure had been found.

Nevermind that Oranje behaved atrociously and deservedly lost to Spain.

There, on the dark wood table, amidst the careless flirtations of servers and customers alike, the requisite jokes about barbiturates and border crossings -- there lay a drink as fine and brilliant as... well you get the idea.

God caressing your tongue, I said to a friend nearby.

The anthropomorphism required to piece that into an image too great a burden.

June 20, 2010

On the Subject of Fathers

In an interview a few years back, the big yin, Billy Connolly spoke about his tormented upbringing, outlined in a biography written by his psychotherapist wife, Pamela Stephenson--a book about healing more than anything else. 

The abuse was terrible: abandonment, sexual, violence. But in the interview--which covered far more than his tumultuous upbringing--he was adamant about not harboring resentment about his past, nor being portrayed as a victim.

When asked about his father, who sexually abused him for several years, Connolly spoke on forgiveness, and how it allowed him to continue to love his father now as he did growing up. How the betrayal that occurred was not the dominant feature of how he saw his dad.

The interview was remarkable to me because of how difficult forgiveness comes to many (myself included at times). How easy it is to carry resentment deep in your gut and allow it to color the way you see the world. Especially when it stems from such scarring trauma.

My life in comparison to Mr. Connolly's is almost innocuous. I had caring parents who did their best to raise four children. My father worked too hard for too little and that made him tired and short-tempered. But there was never any doubt that he was dedicated to his family--that the lack he felt in his own upbringing would not carry over into the one he helped create.

He wasn't perfect--wasn't easy to please. But he was and is a great teacher. Even today, kids gravitate towards him, his strange and silly humor, his willingness to engage with them at their level. And his capacity to forgive and not be tied down by resentment is paramount to this.

It's difficult to place value on these traits, but when I look at my daughter--the single greatest achievement of our lives--I know I take these traits to heart. Somewhere, in the convoluted world of parenting, I know a few things will stand true.

June 16, 2010

Anyone Up for Some LARP?

LARP, as defined by Wikipedia, is a form of role-playing where the participants physically act out their characters' actions. The players pursue goals within a fictional setting represented by the real world, while interacting with each other in character. 

The outcome of player actions may be mediated by game rules, or determined by consensus among players.

Cornwall Park, Bellingham (pdf)--a series of trails and playgrounds under the cover of cedars, elm, and the occasional maple. On a whim, I stopped there to hike one afternoon, wife and daughter in tow. After negotiating a well-worn trail we found ourselves on a small incline, looking down on an oblong and asymmetrical grass field.

At the base of the incline, directly below us, a cluster of people. Larpers--at least thirty. All of them dressed in peculiar fashion, and carrying weapons--of the home-made sort. Now, if this were Los Angeles in the 60's, we'd be buried at the park somewhere by now. But in 2010, the weapons were...well...odd.

Large foam jousts, duct-taped to hockey sticks. Papier-mâché swords, helmets with sagging viking horns, capes made from shag carpet, wiffle-ball bats, plastic katanas. One guy had a makeshift spear that would have given Goliath a hernia. The best item: an old pair of goalie pads, wrapped in tape, colored with jiffy markers, and sporting two handles not unlike those seen on a pommel horse.

Such refined weaponry only begged closer scrutiny. We stared at the herd of combatants now trying to assemble into two opposing teams. Again, Los Angeles in the 60's and we'd see muscular, tattooed bad-asses, dividing on lines of colored handkerchiefs. The people on Cornwall Park field? Not so much.

Basement dwellers, but not the, "hey it's all I can afford" kind. I'm talking those people who prefer the dark, stuffy confines of their parents homes, where the only light permeating their finger-smudged glasses comes from an out-dated CRT monitor. Slender wrists and Cheeto-bellies. Side-parted hair and a bespectacled unfamiliarity with sunlight. Harmless, friendly geeks with a penchant for choppery.

Why so many of them would find it acceptable to meet together, I'll never know. Safety in numbers perhaps? They divided into groups based on proximity and I think who had the most Dungeons and Dragons clout.

A few minutes later and two wheezy troupes had formed. Some "maidens" remained near several large coolers, no doubt harboring Jolt Cola and Slim-Jims. Someone yelled an incomprehensible word. Klingon perhaps. And all nerd-hell broke loose.

Lumbering towards each other they flailed with their swords, rammed their jousts into doughy mid-sections, and shouted phrases not unlike those imagined in Tolkein's personal diary. Some feigned heinous deaths. One fellow, upon being battered in the back, clutched his head and collapsed to the lawn, bemoaning his scalp.

By now a group of bemused walkers stood with us. And I heard the query, "what in the holy hell?" upon the arrival of each new spectator. A legitimate question, when you think about it.

But such shows are short-lived. Especially when put on by those who rarely traipse into the outdoors. Within four minutes, the battle was over--ending with a prolonged, confused murmur. Most of the nerf-warriors collapsed around the coolers, begging for grog. A few sat in the field, waiting for Mel Gibson to ride up on a horse and lug them to safety.

Perhaps the strangest thing I have ever seen. Coincidentally, perhaps the most entertaining too.

May 24, 2010

John Steinbeck and Setting

Been thinking about setting a lot lately, especially in my own work. I'm also reading Steinbeck's Once There Was a War which is providing a lot of necessary musing. Setting, or at least its implementation in a story, can be tricky at times--but it seems to have a direct relation to the believability of a character. A way to make them more present.

I tend to use setting as a means to convey an immediate context for a protagonist's actions. Generally, my stories take place in the same town--an older, darker version of where I grew up. I establish social lines and divisions, often using the town's geography and physical landscape as a way to make them more believable. Whether that works or not is up for grabs.

But setting is not just geography or weather or texture. It is also comprised of the social structure within it, the interaction, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies of its inhabitants.

I don't think a writer can afford to take setting for granted. One cannot simply announce the city in which characters are interacting and expect a comprehensive knowledge from the reader. I find a precise picture is necessary, with intentional details with an agenda (though the agenda can be ambiguous at first). At least that's what I gravitate towards.

An overlapping commentary on how setting relates seems to help as well. Washington Ave. may be full of gangs, but knowing their motivations (for at least some of them) helps prevent the sense of broad-stroke generalizing.

Steinbeck's non-fiction accounts of his experiences during the Second World War bring it together nicely for me. In particular, a description and summary of the people of Dover (small UK town facing France along the narrowest point of the English Channel):

Dover, with its castle on the hill and its crooked streets, its big, ugly hotels and its secret and dangerous offensive power, is closest of all to the enemy. Dover is full of memory of Wellington and of Napoleon, of the time when Napoleon came down to Calais and looked across the Channel at England and knew that only this little stretch of water interrupted his conquest of the world.

Then Hitler came to the hill above Calais and looked across at the cliffs, and again only the stretch of water stopped the conquest of the world. It is a very little piece of water. On the clear days you can see the hills about Calais, and with a glass you can see the clock tower of Calais. When the guns of Calais fire you cans see the flash, while with the telescope you can see from the castle the guns themselves, and even the tanks deploying on the beach.

There is a quality in the people of Dover that may well be the key to the coming German disaster. They are incorrigibly, incorruptibly unimpressed. The German, with his uniform and his pageantry and his threats and plans, does not impress these people at all. The Dover man has taken perhaps a little more pounding than most, not in great blitzes, but in every-day bombing and shelling, and still he is not impressed.

Jerry is like the weather to him. He complains about it and then promptly goes about what he was doing. Nothing in the world is as important as his garden and, in other days, his lobster pots. Weather and Jerry are alike in that they are inconvenient and sometimes make messes. Surveying a building wrecked by a big shell, he says, "Jerry was bad last night," as he would discuss a windstorm.

April 30, 2010

Hermann Hesse

"I do not consider myself less ignorant than most people. I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams--like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves."

April 12, 2010

Bukowski - Crude truths?

Is it ironic that Bukowski made such commentary on other persons? I don't know. But there are days when I am sympathetic to his indictments.

“There is a time to stop reading, there is a time to STOP trying to WRITE, there is a time to kick the whole bloated sensation of ART out on its whore-ass.”
"There's nothing to mourn about death any more than there is to mourn about the growing of a flower. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don't live up until their death. They don't honor their own lives, they piss on their lives. They shit them away. Dumb fuckers. They concentrate too much on fucking, movies, money, family, fucking. Their minds are full of cotton. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can't hear it. Most people's deaths are a sham. There's nothing left to die."
The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, 1998

“Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually clean kitchen, and 8 times out of 9 I'll show you a man with detestable spiritual qualities.”

March 24, 2010

A Meeting With Joel Thomas Hynes

Met Joel Thomas Hynes today and had a nice chat about writing. The guy is as stand-up as they get. No bullshit with him and if you've read Down to the Dirt you know he's from a rough side of the tracks and unlikely to coddle you when you sit down with him.

What I like about meeting people like him, people with hard, knuckle and bone pasts, is how perceptive they are about others. Not to mention how much empathy they often have for humanity in general. A universal acceptance not always evident from those of us with less-difficult upbringings.

Before we met he read several pages of my latest project, tailoring his advice to what he saw. It appears I'm on the right track (whatever that is), but I thought I'd mention a few suggestions he offered--at least this is how I understood them:

1) Write your ending and paste it into the body of your piece--no matter where you are in the story. Even if the ending changes by the time you're finished, write it into the story anyways. Why? Because it marks an end point, a goal to progress towards.

Writing a story is not always a linear process, so write the ending down as soon as you have an idea of what it is. If you have it and the beginning, you essentially have your story. What is left is bridging the gaps in between.

2) When you get bogged down, try changing POV. Move to 1st person for awhile, even if the rest of the story is told in 3rd. Perception is key--not just how your protagonist perceives others, but also how others perceive him/her.

Often helps flesh a story out, by incorporating the viewpoints of several characters, perhaps making a particular event more (or less) reliable by revealing it through the eyes of many instead of just one.

3) Pare down every sentence to the bare essentials. Man I know I need to work on this more. Consider each sentence and reduce it.

4) Play on the readers' emotions and fears. Whatever you're working on, there will be people who identify (for good or ill) with what your story is conveying. Work with that, make the story use this potential to your advantage. Not pandering to the reader per se but realizing the emotional connection. The trick is to avoid the sentimental or melodramatic. Easier said than done.

5) Find your real title. Seriously. It should embody your entire work down to a few words. I'm working on this right now and it's proving to be more difficult than I anticipated. It also makes me wonder--especially when I look at some book titles on shelves--how many people don't spend enough time on this.

General advice, in some regards, but important I think. Check out some of Hynes' work, if you're interested:

Down to the Dirt
Right Away Monday
Down to the Dirt (film)

January 31, 2010

J.D. Salinger in the New Yorker

Yes, he's dead. Not that it makes much difference when you think about it. For a man who disappeared from view--at least in the "I want to be with my adoring fans sense"--decades ago, and whose writing disappeared with him, people sure make a fuss.

But that's not to say he couldn't write. Hell, even if you don't like The Catcher in the Rye, you can't take away from its impact on American culture--its ability to speak to the disillusioned on a massive scale. I assume Salinger lived off of the income from this one book alone, as it continues to sell thousands of copies every year.

If you want to see what else he wrote, you're better off heading over to the New Yorker's JD Salinger Archives, where he published thirteen short stories from 1945-1961. I haven't read through them all yet, but it's always a treat when rarities are posthumously offered for public consumption.

I'm sure Salinger would have consulted his lawyers already, trying to find a way to prevent such an affront to his good name--which is what he seemed to consider any effort to circulate his work.

But what a way to create demand. Tell the masses they can't have something and that's precisely what they scramble to get. And you have to admire a man who carried so much disdain for those who wanted what he had to offer. Can you imagine writing something like Catcher and then dealing with the continuous aftermath of disenfranchised youths making pilgrimages to your front door? I'd become a recluse too.

Or maybe that's part of the myth. There are plenty of accounts that indicate Salinger was not the recluse the rest of the world wanted him to be. He probably just got sick and damn tired of being hounded--maybe felt his work was being exploited somehow (I don't know). So he became solitary, which is cool. He wasn't a jerk or a hermit. People in his town knew him--and protected him too. It's an important distinction: solitary vs. seclusion.

But none of that matters now.

January 24, 2010


The Mennonite Historical Society asked me to write a small blurb about what it was like growing up as both a Doukhobor and a Mennonite. That's right, you heard me. I was born half the former and inherited the latter via upbringing in the church. Your guess is as good as mine what this makes me--especially considering I have virtually zero connection to either community these days. But the request piqued my interest.

These two cultures are similar to the point of absurdity at times, but their theologies are such that there is very little shared ground. Whereas Mennonites (Anabaptist) have a heavy emphasis on the "risen Lord", Doukhobors deny this tenet and suggest a working God within all humanity; each person being a reasonable incarnation. So, being asked to somehow identify with both is not an easy thing to rationalize. Well, if I'm focusing on theology at least.

The piece I wrote, a 1300 or so word synopsis, emphasizes the manufactured quality of how one typically views their family heritage--and by heritage I refer to things we inherit from our ancestors (physical attributes, recipes, a propensity for rye etc). A person will arrange their understanding of this heritage in a way that suits them and present it to others as a living mythology--something that explains their inherent traits. But the importance is whatever they want it to be. The weight added solely by their opinion and the historical back-tracking merely a malleable context.

One can say the historical violence of their people has hardened them against compassion. Another with the same story may find themselves overwhelmed with it. The uniformity being in word alone, though each conclusion appears to be valid.

In the Mennonite circle, there is the oft-played game of trying to find a common relative (much like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon) when you meet someone--family being an essential part of Menno identity. If you understand their history and the shit they had to go through, it makes sense--though it can annoy the hell out of you when they make that the hinge point for their existence. Oddly enough, the Doukhobor community carries many of the very same historical traits. And they play the name game too.

When I was growing up, I remember being stopped by complete strangers who had stories about my father--a volunteer fireman who walked into a burning hotel to rescue someone and never came back out. In their stories would be these minute connections: so-and-so's 2nd cousin, how I looked just like my father, how he came from good people, sang in the USCC choir etc. It was alarming then, as I knew nothing of him and had almost no contact with his side of the family, but now I think I get why they wanted to stop me.

Heritage is linear in its chronology. It is a means for those of us in the immediate to retain something of potential from the past. In doing so we add to our own sense of identity. And some of this requires speaking it aloud. But I think what is also important, and sadly lacking from my own perspective, is that one has to remain immersed or connected to this possible past. They have to live their immediate lives with the gravity of those who lived before them. But I don't really do that.

It is of no use for me to say "I am Doukhobor" and demand these words to attach me to the history of these people. Do you know how much Russian I speak? Da, nyet, spaceba, semechki, zhopa. That's it. I love borscht--could it eat every day for the rest of my life. I believe in treating the earth as a living entity, not a commodity. I have short-ass legs and broad shoulders. Doukhobor traits, to be sure, but is that enough to say I am?

If anything, the side of my family I pridefully champion the most is being Dutch. And that's directly because of my Oma and mom, and the exposure I had to their experiences. So maybe that's it then? Exposure. One is connected by the exposure they have to their possible past?

I don't have an answer.

What I do know is that in writing the piece I found myself curious about the aspects of cultural history I didn't know, and somewhat flippant about the stuff I did. I don't look back on my church upbringing with animosity, but I don't exactly aspire to retain any of it. Yet when confronted with the stories of people separated from their loved ones for decades, their children placed in orphanages for "correction", their lives scattered and held together by a singular flame of faith--I am moved to tears.

Maybe that's the heritage yes? That we are sentient and emotionally aware of others stories, and their weight implores us to make sure others hear them too.

January 18, 2010

Anonymous Postcard In the Mail

Arrived today, with the quote "Arrivederci". But I recognize the handwriting on the back.