James Barnett’s Captain George Vancouver in Alaska and the North Pacific is notable not for the writing, but for the use of primary sources.
The book documents the 18th Century exploits of George Vancouver’s quest for the Northwest Passage, a shortcut between Europe and Asia, so that everyone could buy and sell more efficiently. This era of exploration and imperialism was much celebrated in the 18th-20th centuries as a time of map-making and discovery, but is now coming to be understood as a toxic, devastating period in modern history.
As Barnett writes, Vancouver’s British crew took possession of the Alaskan shores “by displaying the flag, turning the turf, burying a bottle with some coins and papers, and drinking port to the health of the king.” Barnett adds, “About a dozen natives were present and behaved very friendly but had no idea what we were doing.”
Another ceremony, taking possession of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, mentions that “all hands were served a good dinner as well as a double allowance of grog to drink to the King’s health”. More cruelly and to the point, George Vancouver had three native men apprehended when he was in Hawaii and, with little evidence in relation to a murder of a crew member, had them “promptly executed”.
These superficial and cruel moments in history are by no means unique. Consider America’s systematic slaughter of the American Native population, as conveyed in Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or the ongoing news of systemic violence against black people of this nation.
It is stories such as these that are guiding us to understand that justice and equality damn Western Civilization. As much as we have celebrated these ideas throughout our history, they don’t actually exist in this society beyond the childish understanding of playing an awful game by our rules.
Cross Canada Hitchhiking Trip, Day Two: Montreal to Halifax (Mileage 344-1116)
Ride One: West to East end of Montreal; Brown bakery van. “You’ll get murdered.”
Ride Two: Across St. Lawrence River; early 70’s car. Spoke only French.
Ride Three: To Boucherville; 2-door escort. Man with crumbs on sides of mouth.
Ride Four: To Victoriaville; forgot make of car (too tired). Belgian chef who loves Canada.
Ride Five: To Quebec City turnoff; VW Rabbit. Saw a moose.
Ride Six: To St. Jean Port Joli; large old car. The driver was a woman in her late 20s with her mother and grandmother, also another hitchhiker names Clairmont. No one spoke English, but all very loving and Catholic.
Ride Seven: To Riviere Du Loup; blue Chevy van. Told stories of his hitchhiking days including “being fucked by horny broads” and the tale of hitchers on bad acid in Wyoming who ate their ride.
Ride Eight: To Hwy 17; Camper van. WWII veteran who once drove border to border across Ontario in one day.
Ride Nine: To Truro, Nova Scotia; red Mack truck. All-night drive with non-unionized driver named Ed Haggerty. Married for 39 years to woman from England who “never said boo to anyone.”
Harassed waitress at diner because she was new. Intentionally mumbled, pretended not to understand, changed his order, complained about the service and then gave her a 25-cent tip. I saw signposts turn into cyclists. I stayed in the sleeper of the truck. Ed prepared a full breakfast and then drove me into Halifax. I wandered around and then stayed at the hostel.
I am a kinetic thinker. By that, I mean that my brain works best when I am doing something active, moving in some kind of direction. It is this motion that helps me though problems of not only day-to-day concerns but, more importantly, the logjams and black holes of writing a book. I often can’t figure out what a character is going to say or do until I get moving.
Living in New York City, I am most often compelled to use the elliptical machine or stationary bike to give my brain the illusion of going somewhere, just as the father, John, does in an earlier work, Black Ice.
John liked this part – pushing the red switch, climbing on, setting the program, everything the same – 200 pounds, Level 5, 30 minutes, Mountain Program – the dread in him strong. He knew himself in the bright little room, not alone, but inside himself and ready. His knees felt weak, nerves, how it came out of him. He could feel his breath coming up, deep, hollow, the sweat leaking out, itches dotting his forehead and across his face, already at Nine, serious about it, his breath getting hard, eight minutes, 210 calories, 765 feet and feeling good, flushed, not touching his skin, a perfect heat, his.
His feet were cramping, wanting to come in, up and down with the silver and black piston, he was into the Seven, fast too soon, scared at that, the hill and speed ahead, sweat streaming into itself, down the edge of his nose, from his eye and falling, into the Three, fighting, nothing but his sweat, wet stars dripping on the rough black, dripping into a messy constellation, pooling down the sides, and only if he pushed harder, knowing that, that he could. He was at the top and coming down, the hill little, his legs tired, ready, the back of the Three and Five just ahead and the Seven and Nine. He would make it.
I have also biked across Europe a number of times and found that the ideas can flow very well, especially on the long tough uphill climbs. I wrote about this in autobiographical trilogy entitled Buzz.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed. Buzz was sick of the wind and wanted the climb. He attacked the first ascent, eyes straight down at the road, standing all the way, up to the switchback and then sitting, gearing down and settling in. Trucks toiled past, not another cyclist in sight. Nobody dared the ascent over Paseto de las Pedrizas. He would be the first. He drank, finished the bottle; sweat streamed through his sunglasses. He would make it to the rise. It was just ahead, just ahead, after the next switchback, the next. It didn’t matter where it was, another hundred switchbacks, he would make it, back and forth, climbing, climbing. And there it was, too soon, the sign, Paseto de las Pedrizas, 780 metres. He slowed, leaned forward over the handlebars, stretched out his back and held his legs and arms taut as he glided around the first bend and down the steep slope between sun-bleached rock.
A car and another and then nothing, the air still, the sticky speckled asphalt foaming past, he leaned down, his thigh tight against the crossbar, stomach and arms flat, stretched out, face tucked into the handlebars, beside the singing wheel, the silver hub still, forever like this, his hand to the ground. He would never fall, faster, toward everything, around another long bend and a tunnel – a tunnel! – darkness, screaming cool, insane into it, faster, and for a moment nothing, not the road, not the bicycle, and out again, heat and light, a hurtling thing, flying into another tunnel, singing into the heat and light, a sheep and more, everywhere on the road. He braked, swerved, toppled over, a complete somersault, into a bush, a fence and lay still, his face against the ground.
The best place for an active mind is hiking. There nothing else but the trail ahead, albeit the occasional creeping fear, as evidenced in the second section of All In.
I went along the trail and then stopped at a cliff and leaned over to see anything in the mist and trees. I went back on the trail and then followed a water pipe that went up the rocks. It was starting to rain. Water was dripping and then running down the rocks. I stepped up again and looked through the bushes. There was something green on the ground, a green shirt tag. I went around a hollowed-out stump and into the underbrush. The sun was pushing through the clouds. The forest arched down, and there was a crow coming up from the ridge and then through the gap in the trees. The path curled off into nothing. I was moving quickly, going up toward the cliffs, and I was back on the trail going toward the saddle before going up to Crown Mountain.
There was a chain hanging down part of it. I was feeling better here. I knew the bears wouldn’t bother with this steep rocky part, and then I heard a sudden crash, like a tree being snapped up, and stopped. I went along the rock edge to a small muddy section by a pair of bent trees, their roots bulging up against the rocks. It was a bear, staring back at me. It wasn’t big. It looked more like a dog. “Hey! Hey!” I clapped my hands, and it sprinted down the ravine. It was gone; I couldn’t hear it anywhere. My legs kept going ahead; it was just automatic. I was almost at the saddle, and it was getting darker in the trees, going down to where the bear might be.
Young Chronicles I-IV details a 1972 school trip to Northern Ontario, while Young Chronicles V-VI offers a brief account of a family car trip to Prince Edward Island in 1974. This section of Young Chronicles jumps ahead nine years to my hitchhiking trip across Canada. The adventure took 71 days, covering over 10,000 miles in 110 different cars along with two extensive bus rides. I made copious notes, much of which is embarrassingly trite, but that’s the point of this, right? Anyway, I aim to share the most interesting and amusing bits and see where that takes me.
I had just finished my first year at university and I thought I knew everything there was to know and decided to set out to discover “The Canadian Soul”. Yes, I wrote that phrase down. My aim was to ask everyone what they thought about Canada, what it meant to them, where the country was going. I think I asked a total of five people in the end. That said, I did document every ride and many of the things I saw and thought (ad nauseum) along the way.
Day One (June 3, 1983) Mileage 0-344
Ride One: Toronto to Ajax in Rally STX van (blue) with John Hulme, who told me that picking up hitchhikers was “against company policy”.
Ride Two: Ajx to Hwy 115 Turnoff in VW Rabbit (beige) with Buecklie, originally from West Germany. He gave me a Medallion cigarette and told a long anecdote about ordering what he thought was a chicken sandwich because the word “Der Schinken” sounded so much like chicken. It turned out to be ham. He and the waiter thought this was very funny and later became friends.
Ride Three: Hwy 115 Turnoff to Ottawa Turnoff in 1977 MGB with a large red-bearded man. His daughter did Pepsi commercials but hated the stuff.
Ride Four: Ottawa Turnoff to Cornwall in a 1979 Thunderbird with Eugene Bugala who was a Catholic priest. He liked Canada because it was free and nice with a European flavor. He also considered the maple leaf a satisfactory symbol for the country.
Ride Five: Ottawa Turnoff to Montreal 1977 Dart (brown) with Tim Paquette. He lit a joint, played Peter Gabriel’s San Jacinto on his car stereo and then explained his video concept for the song which involved blue spotlights and children running through the jungle. He took me around the neighborhood as he delivered pizzas and then picked up his girlfriend Cathy before heading out to The Maples Tavern. It was a low-key place that was later busted by the Quebec police who were arrogant, their thumbs in their pockets and hats tilted back. I stayed the night at Tim’s house.
World building is writing hell. As incredible – even fun – as the idea might sound, it isn’t. By anything being possible, there is no place to start. Even if it seems like a matter of just picking and choosing and away you go, it isn’t. Not for me. While I might have the germ of an idea – such as using dark matter to fuel an inter-generational spaceship – fleshing that out is akin to chronic constipation. My writing practice is centered on the small things – an image or line of dialogue – and going out from there. It is an inductive approach to writing, finding the bits of evidence to create the whole, such as the serval image at the watering hole that begat My Bad Side.
I didn’t know what that image meant at the time, but I knew it meant something and used it to find what might be next.
Building worlds demands the opposite to my approach to writing, a deductive method, going from the big picture to develop the small, focusing on time machines or warp drives, creating a story from those. This is what grinds my flow to a halt. If I can’t see where I am – the details of what it looks like to live on board a spaceship – I am perpetually stuck.
I got into the world of speculative fiction by accident. The protagonist in an earlier book, Dee Sinclair, stumbled ahead and wondered aloud if she might venture on to something else. As far-fetched as her world appeared at the time – a sex performer holed up with her pet serval – it was nothing compared to Greenland where she witnesses a fledgling world constructed before her eyes. This is the outset of Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy.
The crux of the speculative/sci-fi genre is world building, something beyond what we live in today. It isn’t just a matter of a propping up a couple of rocket ships and having characters walk about in space suits. Every detail has to be in tune. My most effective world building elements in Anori are Holoweb and Second Skin because they were simple to envision – a three-dimensional version of today’s internet and a spray-on fashion statement – and only a step ahead of what we have now.
I raised the world-building stakes in the second book of the trilogy, Aqaara, where Dee boards a generational spaceship bound for a planet light-years distant. Daily life aboard the spaceship took a long time to create, not just the details of the sleeping quarters and gatherings places but, more importantly, the mindset of leaving Earth to never return. I was in the Highlands of Scotland while mapping out this world, a far cry from outer space but at least isolated and quiet.
I planned the design of the ship while hiking, soaking wet, through the silence, but could not attain a genuine sense for what it felt like to live in this space, to sleep and eat, to lose all sense of time with a lunar or solar cycle, to see people every day – there was no day! – and to not know when, if ever, the journey might come to an end. That took another two drafts – in Puglia and then New York – to get it so it seemed like it really was so.
The final book, Mina, demands a literal new world. That’s where I am now. The temptation to settle for lunar landscapes and prehistoric beasts remains hard to resist. After all, what do I know about another planet’s flora and fauna? I have settled on a leopard seal/hedgehog hybrid as the creature atop of the food chain, as well as string of camera-stealing starlings. Who knows what the deep seas will offer? Something astonishing should happen soon.
My challenge with world building has given me pause. As transfixed as I can be in the fantastic landscapes of science fiction – where absolutely anything is possible – the writing craft must remain the focus. In other words, while the visions presented in this genre might be spell-binding, the characters, dialogue and construction of the narrative remain the foundation. My aim in writing The Cx Trilogy is to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction, and not just build worlds but build worlds where we can literally picture ourselves alive and wondering. We will see what Dee’s progeny find next.
The Fear struck again in early 1986. This time it would stay with me for quite some time. I flew to California with my girlfriend. We were to spend half the time in the Bay Area for a few Grateful Dead concerts and a couple of university interviews at Stanford and San Francisco State for my intended M.A. program in film, and the other half in Burbank for an interview I had scheduled for my thesis at Walt Disney Studios. I felt off from the moment I stepped on the plane and found myself incredibly agitated while renting our car.
We got to a hotel in Oakland and walked to the concert hall. The show was all right; it would have been a lot better if I had avoided drugs. The notion of trying anything again – this was my first attempt since that dreadful night in Columbia – was a source of great worry for me, but as my belief in confronting fears was a bit of a mantra, I had no other choice. I suffered through waves of intense fear and doubt, but felt quite calm and somewhat relieved by the end.
I had a bath and found was horrified by the blue tiles. They were too even and clean, too polished for a sane person to consider. Panic descended. The worst part of it was I couldn’t corner it, couldn’t explain it; it was a shadow cast from nothing. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life. All of my writing belittled human existence. I was always trying to get outside of the human context. Who the hell did I think I was to do that? The notion was asinine. I had just something called Bare Cage which reduced humanity to a seventeen page one-act play with a naked man and woman, a dead bear and a machine housed in an impenetrable cage, while I was at work on a screenplay entitled Home which featured a house as the main character and the people that moved through as incidentals, while thirdly, I was writing notes for a proposed novel I had entitled Popo Know, the piece from my cat’s perspective. It was as if I didn’t think I was human, like I was above it all, like my vision was beyond the grasp of any other. It was totally fucked.
The next day when I went to the corner bakery, I felt as bad as ever. I was panic-stricken when a stranger asked me a question. I had no idea what he said. I just looked away and pretended he didn’t exist. I pointed to some buns and left as quickly as I could. I was supposed to get ice as well, but didn’t feel up to it. The rest of the day went fairly well. I looked at a couple of the sights in San Francisco, visited San Francisco State University – they had a decent program even if the campus was horrendously ugly – and went to the beach. We went to our second show; it was Chinese New Year’s and, for the event, the Dead had lined up the San Francisco Chinese Orchestra as the back-up. I weaved my way to the front and then thoughts of death and suicide crashed upon me. I wasn’t about to commit suicide, but my understanding of the notion was extremely precise. The gun, the knife, the rope, they were all emblems of clarity. Life was a waste; anybody with a mind could see that. Why the hell not wipe it out? All was blackness and doom. Concepts such as love and freedom were lies to make the imminent collapse of the universe digestible. The wise and loving gods were salesmen speculating on preferential stock. Music was a waste of time; life was a waste of time.
“Shit.” I lost my balance. The last thing I saw was a girl blacking out; I collapsed on top of her. I desperately tried to stand. I opened my eyes to find them clouded and the stadium shrouded in blackness. The houselights had gone out. The band was coming on. Some people helped guide me from the floor and out into the concourse area where I listened to the music float through the halls and watched the crazies and their children dance.
The next day I drove down to Stanford. I fought the feeling all the way down. It was pushing me very hard. We came onto the main, palm-tree-lined avenue into the campus. Sunshine blazed onto the impeccable scene of lush beauty. Hordes of happy cyclists crowded the paths…and then it assaulted me. What was stopping me from swerving the car and plowing through these joyous curs? What the hell was the point of staying on the road? The road was a fucking waste of time. These self-satisfied fuckers needed to understand the precious gift of life…and so did I. This was a farce. My little role in this pathetic jumble was a wasteful pursuit. All the cloaks and masks…why was I supposed to value this mass of conceit?
I slowed the car, forced simple thoughts of hockey and sex into my head and parked. We visited the film faculty, found out my program had been cancelled and left.
A couple of days later I had my interview at Walt Disney studios. I asked the woman my prepared questions and, as she answered, thought what a waste of time her and my life really were. Amazingly, I managed to ask her all of my questions and, a few hours later, when the necessity of the answers returned, wrote them down. I learned to control the feeling over the next few months until early that summer, when I went tree planting, and it finally went away.
We drove right to the border of Nova Scotia and Dad said, “Let’s go to Nova Scotia.” So we did. It was cool.
We came to Hartland which has the longest covered bridge in the world. So we went into the covered bridge. It was neat-o.
We had to go across the Saint Lawrence River. Montreal is on an island. Well, instead, of going on a bridge over the river, we went under it via highway.
After we watched the election – which Stanfield lost and Trudeau won (Boo! Boo! Boo!) – we changed the channel and watched The Lucy Show and Dick Van Dyke.
This morning I woke up and somebody was knocking at the door. So mom got out of bed and opened the door. It was dad with the dog in his hands. Then he said, “She was sleeping on my stomach.” So we took her and mom went to the other room with dad.
Three years after going up into Northern Ontario with my school, I went on a family car trip to Prince Edward Island. It was 1974. I kept another chronicle, this one with post cards glued in. I threw that out long ago but still have a few notes.
Mom said, “One of you kids will have to come in the front seat.” So we were quiet the rest of the way.
Deadline: We are halfway to Montreal from Kingston and I just saw an old train station! End of Deadline.
Martha came out to where we were and picked up an Ajax bottle and a stick and started whamming the Ajax bottle with the stick. Soon me and Bobby went back and caught smelt. Of course we threw them back. Martha thought we ate them.
We were arriving in Charlottetown and we never got there because we never got the right course. Well, we were turning around and dad backed the car right into a ditch and there was a house right there. The man came out and told us about more accidents that have happened there. Soon the tow truck pulled us out of the ditch. It was probably easy.
It rained so-so-so-so hard that you could barely see through the windshield. It was raining so hard, some cars had to stop. But my dad kept going.
The next day, I woke up with the dog on my bed and the door was open! Well, I had breakfast.
Listen, I understood from the beginning that the pandemic was going to be a tough thing. I knew that I would have to stay indoors, wear a mask and carry on the good fight against depression and gloom.
What I didn’t know was that the rewards for The Aquarist Club (Level 793 of Fishdom) would be basically nothing.
Truth be told, I expected that I would have to grapple with the horrifying statistics of so many deaths, to talk with friends and colleagues suffering through their grief and, indeed, only be able to attend my mother’s funeral on-line.
But if The Aquarist Club is going to take 35 levels to achieve, including four timed rounds, five Hard Levels and three Super Hard, there would have to be more than a Bonus Hammer and Bonus Hand. Right? At least three times that, ten times!
And even if my knee replacements have been delayed another week and I have to do the Covid test again and a Cat Scan to find there is bullshit in my lungs, and then have to self-inject blood thinners into my gut twice a day, I can do that. I can.
But…but if you have to decorate an entire Aquarist Club with rugs and chairs and pictures and everything else, there absolutely has to be more than an fucking sailboat as the premium reward.
The ongoing racism of this conflicted country was inevitable too, as was the social upheaval, the protests and anger at least a hundred years overdue. I wasn’t even surprised that I lost my job, like so many other people did, even if the Values & Beliefs Chair went too far and called me discriminatory – not in the good way. And I can cope with all of this. I really can.
But, holy good god, there’s got to be more than 78 lousy gold coins for finishing the Aquarist Club. What does 78 gold coins even buy? A third of the cheapest decoration, if that. And that is simply too much. Too damn much.
8:45 am Waiting for the train from Toronto. We were one hour and five minutes late.
1:15 pm We have been on the train for four hours and 45 minutes. I have seen two moose and seven rabbit. And the trip isn’t that exciting.
3:30 pm We came to Moosonee on the train. We took a boat to Moose Factory, and it was raining hard. I got a headband at our hotel.
We had breakfast. Then we walked to the train station. It was raining really hard. We left Moosonee and are going to Cochrane.
2:20 pm We came to Cochrane and now we are going to New Liskeard. 8715 is the mileage now. I was drawing two pictures on the train.
Arrived in New Liskeard and we had a pajama party. And this is what we did. 1. Cooked marshmallows 2. Played horseshoes 3. Tried to skip rocks 4. We would launch a board in the water and then see how many times we could hit it 5. We had Kool Aid 6. We began to try to get the a grownup down 7. The grownups would try to get us down 8. We had super fights 9. We gave three cheers for Mr. Fleming because he thought of the trip 10. We played Hide and Go Seek, but in a different way. If you were caught by Mr. Fleming, you would have to go to bed. Soon I was caught and went to bed at 10:40. I went to sleep at 11:00