Nostalgic Interference

Nostalgia can be a good source of inspiration. As you might have noticed from the past few blogs, I have indeed been waxing nostalgic these days. When I’m blocked (creatively that is), I find that I drift back to very specific moments and things from my childhood. I tell myself that ‘m searching for inspiration – and sometimes this is true as those feelings can be raw and whole – but too often it just a way to avoid the hard work and focus of writing.

My favorite ice cream was called Checkerboard, vanilla and chocolate in the shape of…? Guesses anyone? That’s right, a checkerboard! (It’s not pictured above sadly.) I have vivid memories of eating this remarkable stuff at the kitchen table, my fat little legs sticking to the vinyl cushions. I remember the heat. I remember the window just open onto the neighbor’s driveway, the sound of their car coming in. I carved the edges of each square carefully, first vanilla and then chocolate – I always saved the best for last – going sharply down the line with the edge of my spoon, eating tiny bits, and then boldly, rashly gouging out a scoop and then carving and cleaning slowly again. I couldn’t be too meticulous though because the ice cream would melt. I hated that.

I bought a Whacky Watermelon Pull Toy at a school flea market when I was ten. I thought it was an amazing thing. I mean, it was a watermelon on wheels that flapped out slices like wings. It also made a crazy clicketing racket as it rolled along. It was only 50 cents. I would have paid a dollar. But when I got it home, I didn’t know what to do with it. It was boring pulling it around my room and I wasn’t allowed to drag it around the house. It was too loud! And so I took it around the block, all the way around the entire block. I suddenly had no idea what I was doing with this Whacky Watermelon, making such a racket behind me. I felt like a goof doing it. It clicked and clacked crazily. I passed two teenagers and a woman with a kid. I couldn’t make eye contact with any of them. What was I doing? I almost picked it up and carried it home, but decided that I needed to finish my odyssey. I don’t know why. And I did. And then I put it away and never played with it again.

My drawer was full of crazy kid crap from souvenir shops. I bought it all: magnets, buttons, stickers, plastic animals, giant erasers, bendy figure pencils…but the best thing was a frog on his lily pad made out of shells. (The picture above is close but lacks the color, lily pad and pipe cleaner arms.) I named the frog George, and I talked to him. He was patient. He listened to everything I had to say. George was always there…until his lily pad cracked and he got dumped.

My favorite cookies were Pantry ginger snaps. (Neither is that me eating them, nor are those the cookies.) They were discontinued 25 years ago, and there hasn’t been a cookie as good since. Time to get back to work.

Making a ‘Bad Side’ Movie

It looks like we might make a short film out of the opening scene of My Bad Side. Yesterday, I met with Mike, a filmmaker, to discuss this possibility. The opening scene (written in Blog #1 “The Beginning”) runs like this: Dee comes home in a cab, talks with the doorman and then confronts Derek in her apartment, and when she realizes that Derek has shot her exotic cat Apollo, she wrestles the gun from him, shoots him, and flees the building (and city) with her wounded serval.

Serval in the wild

It was a dynamic discussion, focusing on how to shoot each scene: cab, outside building, elevator and inside apartment. Is it a yellow cab? How old is the doorman? Is the TV on in the apartment? Exactly how does she get the gun? We also discussed how to light, costume and cast. One thing we decided immediately is that we will not be using a serval for the shoot (as exotic pets are illegal in the New York) and are considering my dog Biba instead.

Biba cast as a serval

A Moral Center to the Universe

I had dinner last night with an old friend; she made a most spicy and delicious tilapia and recommended the mini-series Battlestar Galactica. She said that it was a thoughtfully constructed show and maintained a moral center to the universe. “I know you like that kind of thing.” I was not only intrigued by this idea but more so that it was apparently obvious that this is what I liked. I had never put it in terms like that to myself. I had never really thought about it so specifically. However I realized that she was right. I do like stories with this idea at its core, that develop a clear sense of right and wrong, not in the Walt Disney sense – although I must admit to doing my Undergraduate thesis on this institution – but in a manner that exposes injustices and even might help us work towards some version of harmony and understanding in our lives.

“Life isn’t fair.” My mother proclaimed this all the time – mostly when I was denied the TV or a trip to an exotic land. I knew she was right not just because she used it as her default motherly excuse but because that’s how everything seemed to work. Mean kids always got their way, and grownups didn’t seem to care. They said they did, but I knew there was more to it, that they always had good intentions and rarely if ever followed through. I read Orwell in Grade 10 and Kafka in college, and it all made too much sense. People cheated, lied and stole…and nothing happened to them. The rich got richer, the good died young, and the bureaucrats always remained atop looking down. Life wasn’t fair, nor was it just or moral.

Painting by Tetsuya Ishida

My favorite authors expose this world of injustice with precision and misery. J.M. Coetzee offers a stark view of humanity throughout his fiction. In Waiting for the Barbarians, he states “The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves…Not on others.’” Raymond Carver writes of our inherent flawed nature in his short story, So Much Water Close to Home:

They saw the girl before they set up camp. Mel Dorn found her. No clothes on her at all. She was wedged into some branches that stuck out over the water. He called the others and they came to look. They talked about what to do. One of the men – my Stuart didn’t say which – said they should start back at once. The others stirred the sand with their shoes, said they didn’t feel inclined that way. They pleaded fatigue, the late hour, the fact that the girl wasn’t going anywhere. In the end they went ahead and set up camp. They built a fire and drank their whiskey.

Cormac McCarthy is scathing in his thoughts of humanity, most notably The Road:

The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell,

And yet each author does offer some kind of hope, bleak as it might be. Even if the man dies, the boy lives; even is the husband is a drunk, the wife cares; even if the magistrate is a shell of himself, he survives. There is something to live for. As empty and awful as the world might appear, there is something to believe in.

In my own novel, My Bad Side, Dee with her older sister Crystal, have suffered the tragic loss of their mother. Their lives seem to be defined by it:

I remember the door closing, a gate snapping with a click. I was eleven months and Crystal was almost three. People stayed at the house, my mother’s sister Molly, and Nani, and they looked after us. They bought the groceries and helped change me; they told my mother about what to do. But they left – Nani said it had been four months – and called to check in. It wasn’t enough. My mother drank after our father was killed. It was how she slept. She was taking pills too. And so that night, the way everyone says it, she probably lost count of how many green ones she had had and she’d forgotten about having too much gin and how much she meant to us. Nani thought Aunt Molly was calling and Aunt Molly thought it was Nani, and by the time they realized that it was no one, we had been locked in the house with our mother’s body for four days. My sister tried to get out, but she couldn’t turn the lock and then took what she could off the counter and sat beside my mother, waiting for her to get up and gave me something too, bananas and cookies and flour, and finally opened the fridge and found the milk. She says I cried all the time. That’s because I wasn’t changed. But she saved my life. That’s how she always told it, and that’s how I think of it.

Dee and Crystal survive the tragedy at the beginning of their lives…and so the question becomes: ‘What are they are going to do now?’

I am going to watch Episode One of Battlestar Galactica tomorrow. Not only does the idea of a moral center to the universe intrigue me, but apparently there’s a lot of sexy robots too. I’ll get back to you on that.

Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot appeared in over 40 films in the 1950s and ’60s, most notably Godard’s Contempt as well as her breakout film, Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman; however she was not known for her acting talents, her ability to create a character, as much as for her to-be-looked-at-ness, as the film theorists would frown and say.

She knew how to strike a pose, how to highlight her eyes, how to part her lips, and she certainly wasn’t shy about showing her body. Popularly referred to as a ‘sex kitten’ by the paparazzi, she did not hide the fact that she had many sexual relationships. “I leave before being left. I decide.” Also known for her singing duet with Serg Gainsbourg, Je T’aime, she accentuated the music with breathy moans and hence furthered the conception of her profound sexuality.

Bardot retired from the entertainment industry in the early ’70s and devoted herself to the cause of animal rights. “I gave my beauty and my youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals.” She created a foundation and has waged many battles since, including those against bull-fighting, seal-hunting and the slaughter of dolphins.

Dee, the protagonist in my novel The Bad Side, is inspired by Brigitte Bardot and her foundation. She wants to be an inspector for the foundation and writes to Ms. Bardot, receiving the following reply:

Thank you so much for your lovely letter. I am so sad to tell you that you must live in France to be an inspector for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. I know you will always be a friend to me and the animals all over the world. I wish your life to be filled with love always.

While Dee is disappointed by this response, she is fascinated by Bardot’s lipstick signature.

There was a lipstick kiss at the bottom, the lips slightly apart. I touched it, my pinkie just against the red. It was real. The lips had made a mark on the back of the folded page. I read the letter again and folded it and slipped it neatly back into the envelope and then opened it again and peered at the lips. I wanted mine to be like hers. I stole a lipstick from Nani and kissed a blank piece of paper. It didn’t look like anything, just a messy smudge. I tried again, pressing less. They still weren’t much, just lines. I kissed my arm and then the mirror. I did it all along the edge of the glass and looked at myself through the marks. My face was surrounded by my kisses. I liked that. But then I couldn’t get the smudges off and got in trouble for that.

Researching Brigitte Bardot for the book was quite interesting. While a great many continue to be enamored by her image, she has remained distant. Is that what it is to be a sex goddess?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master is worth seeing. Like There will Be Blood, this film is not so much a narrative as a study in human nature. Utilizing the acting talents, to say nothing of the frightening expressiveness, of his actors Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson takes the viewer on a disquieting journey with commanding personalities through gorgeous images to…I’m not sure where. More than anything this film is a series of moments that will stay with you for days and days and possibly a lifetime.

Regarding the themes of the piece, there is of course the savage nature of Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and the brooding explosiveness of Seymour’s Lancaster Dodd, but it is the underlying repressed sexuality, the stark images of nakedness that haunt both of these men that seems to be a key to this film. These guys are not happy. Their sexuality seems to be tied very tight, in ruins, destroyed by some trickery of long lost love. This is not something these characters really want to address. They would rather stare you down – there is no doubt about that – or yell or punch you or make you a drink again and again.

Animals, animals, animals

I have a thing about animals. I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was a kid. I collected animal cards and magazines. I was obsessed with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, on every Sunday at 6:30pm. And I loved the nature programs of Walt Disney, both live action and animated. There was a familiarity to this world, a kindness, a safety. We got a dog when I was 5, even if it was miniature poodle. Celeste lived to be 13 years old; she was faithful and fun. I actually remember the moment she died more vividly than the death of my father. I sat on a bench and stared out at the street; she wasn’t coming home. I couldn’t get that to make sense.

Animals featured prominently in my first published work when I was Grade Three. (I say published because my teacher, Ms. Helliwell, typed and posted it for me). It is called A Trip in the Forest:

“One day I was walking in the forest with my dog when we saw a little cabin. It was fully lighted and there were shadows passing the windows. But all of a sudden the lights began flashing — my dog began to growl. So we both rammed the door. Then I got my flashlight out and flashed it on the cord for the light switch. And there was a chipmunk munching on the cord.

“Then I heard a voice…It said, ‘Come upstairs…then turn left and go into the room.’ I did it. In the room it was very dark. Then I heard the voice say ‘I will get you.” Then the light went on behind me…I turned round…and THERE was a giant white footed mouse saying, ‘Would you give me a nice home to sleep in like your house?’ I said, ‘Yes, you may…but you must stay in the basement.’ So he agreed. ‘I was that voice you heard.’ Then the white footed mouse said, ‘You are in Nature Land.’ ‘That’s good,’ I said, ‘because I am going to go home to get all my things and live here. I will bring 2,000,000 pounds of food with me.'”

Now I realize that there are some narrative flaws in this story, starting with the motivation of the main character in agreeing to take the white footed mouse (why the basement?) and then changing his mind and moving to Nature Land with 2 million pounds of food, and further, the question of the shadows, what the house is doing in Nature Land and why the chipmunk is chewing the cord, and just how big is this white footed mouse…but forgiving all of this, there certainly are a lot of animal characters, including my dog, the chipmunk, white footed mouse and all of these mysterious shadows. I not only converse with these creatures but also want to live with them. It comes across as a childlike nirvana to me, a simple place of chewing and eating and hanging out, no people problems…except for that electrical cord!

An animal also plays a major role in my latest novel, My Bad Side. One of the main characters is in fact a serval, an African Savannah cat. This exotic cat doesn’t speak or live in a magical land. He is a serval in a real sense of the word. He lives with the protagonist, Dee. He is her companion.

This image, from National Geographic Magazine (Michael Nichols), is of a serval captured at a water hole through a motion detector device. I remember first seeing this picture. I was sitting on a plane. I didn’t understand it. There was something about it that was indeed magical…although I still can’t say what that is. Perhaps it is something to do with how the creature looks back, its posture so straight and alert. Or perhaps it is something to do with its comic expression, a little unsure, maybe curious or surprised. Or perhaps it is something else, something pure serval, something just there, not captured at all but still a mystery, more than a wildlife picture, more than the anthropomorphism of Walt Disney or Wild Kingdom, and more than a 1,000 words, more than a 100,000…a 110,000 at least. That’s the word count of my novel at the moment.

A Moment

My apologies for the time lag between entries. I got distracted and lost and weighed down by non-writing things. It happens I guess. I’m new to this. It’s not like anyone is reading this yet, although sometime soon I will have to connect to a bigger server, something like that. Anyway I was thinking about my last entry, what I was aiming at as a kid writer and what the entries I posted might mean. And I’ve come to a small conclusion. The thing is the moment. That’s the core of writing – imagining, identifying, recreating, detailing the moment, making it live not just for the writer, not just that flash in the mind with my fingers hitting the keys, but constructing it so it’s something more, so it has depth and breadth, so it lives for others too.

That was what I liked as a kid writing the entries for my Moosonee and Prince Edward Island journals, that feeling of making what I had just experienced something substantial. True, I did spend a lot of time counting moose and barns blown over, but I also tried to describe what I saw so that it might be pictured later and then maybe made into another thing on its own. Looking back, I remember the feeling of being in that motel with all of that yelling and screaming more than the bottles on the floor. I just didn’t know how to describe it.

I had the same problem a year before (1972) when writing about Game Seven for the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviets. I was in Grade Three and we were allowed to watch this historic game during class as long as we wrote about it. I was very happy about that. But I can’t say that I really seized the moment. Instead it just reads like a summary – with spelling mistakes and incongruous verb tenses – documenting which Canadian scored or, more accurately who made ‘sizzling’ and ‘slamming’ shots. It was an amazing series of moments for me, but I missed the feeling of it. I was too literal.

However one thing I do remember is going home absolutely elated after the last game, Game Eight, when Canada won the series. I ran into my house ready to share the joy with my mother. She was listening to the opera. She looked up and smiled. “What game?” I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. That moment of emptiness is something I have not forgotten. The kitchen was cold and empty, like I’d never been in it before that. The opera sounded like tin and hollow, nothing. My mother was someone else, definitely not my mother. I went out back and took shots on net against the garage. I was the hero for Canada (Paul Henderson) again and again. I never got tired of it. And then my father arrived in his big Buick. I knew I could share my excitement with him. I was wrong about that too. He knew about the game, but he was tired and needed a drink. I took more shots – on the net. I celebrated the historic goal a new way each time. And I was happy about all of that. I just didn’t understand why I was the only one.

I had a moment like this – empty, not what I expected – at the beginning of this week, the reason for the lengthy gap between entries. I went into my doctor for an exam and was told that I had a blood clot in my leg. The clot had been there for three weeks and had been life-threatening. I had just never known it. When the doctor told me, I knew it was one of those moments to capture. My mortality was being held up raw in the little office. It was cold and clean like my mother’s kitchen. The words sounded important but not like I thought they should. I was just watching and listening to what to do. Get the cat scan, take these injections, take these pills. My blood will be thinned. That will be that. Okay. That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing just that. More than anything, I would have liked to go out back and take shots on a net.

Moosonee bog blog

It’s taken me a couple of years and some prodding, but I’ve come to realize that I just might be a blogger. This blog will focus on the development of my current novel, The Bad Side, as it ferments from third to fourth and fifth drafts and also offer some elements of research that go into the background of this work as well as into the back of my head. It is hard to separate the two – the writing and self – as one depends so much on the other. It’s not such a clear thing, but it is deep and real.

My interest in writing began when I was in Grade 4. I went to a progressive school,The Institute of Child Study in Toronto, which allowed for a lot of lateral learning including a two-week school trip in May up to the remote town of Moosonee on the shores of Hudson Bay in Northern Ontario. We visited many things along the way, including an abandoned mine shaft in Cobalt, a paper mill in Iroquois Falls and even stayed in a hotel where there was drunken fight. “There was a bad fight in our hotel. So the cops had to come and sent 2 men away because they were hurting a lady. When the 2 men left, the room was a mess. Bottles were on the floor and the bed was torn apart.” Early on in the trip, I decided to write a daily journal. The teachers were impressed with my initiative and made all the other kids do it as well. While this did not make me the most popular kid on the trip, it made me weirdly content. The journey made more sense to me when I had written it down. “In Cochrane, we went to an agricultural farm. We saw cows first and one cow went to the bathroom on her baby. It looked like a hairdo.” For the last leg of our journey, we took a train (“The Ontario Northland”) through hundreds of miles of bog to Moosonee. “We have been on the train for 4 hours, 45 minutes. I have seen 2 moose, 7 rabbits and the trip isn’t that exiting (sic).” I even added a picture.

You can see why I stuck with the words and not the drawings.

The following summer, I went on a family driving trip from Toronto to Prince Edward Island. I asked my parents to buy me a journal for my musings (although I doubt I used that word), and they decided to get one for my brother and sister too. My sister never got into it, instead just listing what she ate for each meal – usually peanut butter sandwiches – while my brother did as little as he could. I didn’t get their reticence. How crazy could they be? This was fun. This was what made the trip something real. “There was a storm before we had lunch and it was very bad in Charlottetown. It blew over around six trailers, 100 trees, three barns and injured a good many people. Then I looked up to where we were going  and there was a giant cloud as dark as midnight. Well, we went straight into it to get back to our cabins. And then it started to rain so-so-so-so hard that you couldn’t see through the windshield. You could only see about 10 yards it was raining so hard. Some cars had to stop, but we…” The next page has been lost.  I think we made it.

Anyway, my point is that I have always liked the idea of creating a stream of ideas with a sense or coherence, a direction, but not with the end so clearly in sight. I’m hoping this blog will help me make sense to you as well as make it all seem as real as those ‘exiting’ moments going through the bogs to Moosonee.

the clock

See The Clock by Christian Marclay. It is playing in Toronto at the Power Plant September through November 2012.

It is a 24-hour film that runs real time using clips from thousands of films (and some TV). As many have said, it is a hypnotic experience. See it for as long as possible. I planned to attend for a 2-3 hours and stayed for over 14 and really wanted to stay longer…but they closed it at 10pm that night.

More on the film can be seen here.

My watch on rocks

21st century Sartre?

There has been a bit of hype around French author Michel Houellebecq. He’s been praised as the next Sartre/Camus! I suppose they mean that his prose are supposed to be bleak and existential and convey the mindset of people completely adrift. While there might be some truth to this in his desperate tone and voluminous scenes of alienated sex, the writing just doesn’t work. It’s more preachy (and repetitive) and nothing happens in the end. I made it through 2 1/2 books, hoping the next would be better than the last, but instead the opposite was the case. Platform was okay but still left me shrugging at the end.

Nothing to say?