Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Journey to Leacockland 4- Gasparini and Mirolla

Journey to Leacockland 4- Gasparini and Mirolla

The last event of the Leacock Festival I attended was the Guernica Editions Showcase. All the readers were wonderful, but I want to comment particularly on Len Gasparini and Michael Mirolla. These two grizzled veterans, though I am far from young, made me feel like a fuzzy-cheeked toddler splashing around in the wading pool while they cavorted in the deep end of literary accomplishment. Perhaps 'cavorted' is a touch too nubile a word, as these gentlemen did not exude a rosy aura of good health. Gravitas, passion, and humor they did have; all of these in abundance. 

Mr. Mirolla told two stories; one was about bandages; one about a holy man and a sand flea.  The were so well wrought, so impressive- in the truest sense of the word- that I think I could do a fair job of re-telling both of them. They did what good stories do: penetrated my guts and changed me inside in ways difficult to explain. Len Gasparini's work had the same effect. I'll not forget his praying mantis named Goliath, nor the Port Hope woman who chose to end her life high in a tree, shielded by leaves that fell and died in their turn, revealing her scarecrow shell months later. Young writers, all writers, would do well to come and listen to these men if they get a chance. You aren't likely to be dazzled, but you are sure as hell going to learn a thing or two.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Journey to Leacockland 3: On the Tomson Highway

Journey to Leacockland 3- On the Tomson Highway

The morning after the banquet, as I made my left turn from the waterfront bike path onto Mississauga St. (Orillia's main drag of patios, cafes, stores etc.), I breezed by none other than Tomson Highway. The keynote speaker from the previous night's banquet was walking alone towards the lake. I raised my arm, palm forward, elbow akimbo, in greeting. He did likewise. As it was the morning after the night before and I for one had not yet had my coffee, it is a safe bet that neither of us was feeling too chatty. Not a word was said. Yet the thought, spurred by the palm-forward greeting (like something out of the old Lone Ranger show) immediately occurred as I continued past the Legion Hall at the foot of the street: What if I had deepened my voice and said 'How'? Would Mr. Highway have been insulted by my egregious lack of political correctness? Would my liver have been imperiled?

No. Of course not. And I am (as a certain friend often points out) a f***ing idiot for thinking and writing this way. If Tomson Highway's keynote speech is any indicator, it is far more likely that he would double over with laughter rather than take offense. For this is a man who knows (as far too few Canadians truly do) what it is to laugh. To fall down helpless on the ground and laugh. My faux-pas would be nothing for a man who told us his father was born in 'Sasquatchewan' and that the biggest problem with going above the tree line is that there is nowhere to go to the toilet. He also pointed out that there is no laughter in the Bible and that the meaning of the Eden story is that the English are afraid of the garden of pleasure. This is so true that it is, well, laughable. It is this connection to and evocation of the fundamental absurdity in all things- an example he gave is that the government spends fifty-thousand dollars a year to maintain each prisoner, yet only a lucky few artists get a mere twenty-thousand in grants- wherein lies the indispensable value of Mr. Highway to our country's literary life. This is the reason that his speech, though 'narrow-casted' from his own life and concerns, hit a 'key note' in this writer's ongoing creative life.

next- a few thoughts on some grizzled literary warriors.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Journey to Leacockland 2

Journey to Leacockland-2

I'm now in the Brownstone, a small cafe/pub in downtown Orillia. Black and white checkerboard floor, view of the street, very quiet air conditioning. This morning it was breakfast at the Mariposa Marketplace. I sat outside with my strawberry banana muffin and some impertinent sparrows while Orillia's Sunday morning came to life around me. This followed a pleasant waterfront bike ride from the magnificent Bayview Inn into the heart of touristy downtown. I'm not saying the Bayview is lower class, but there are two dogs tied up outside my room and when I left for breakfast there was a very hung-over looking twenty-something sitting and smoking on the balcony opposite mine. When I returned over an hour and half later he was still there, still smoking, as were the dogs- though they were just there, being too busy barking at me to smoke.

But what about the awards and readings you ask? The unquestionable highlight was that Peterborough's own Shelagh D. Grant won the Lela Common Award for Canadian History for her book Polar Imperative. She was also one of the very few who were there to receive the award in person. Which brings me to some general observations.

Firstly, the overall event was enjoyable  and well done. What a great setting! The afternoon CAA readings were in a big white tent. There was a cool breeze on a hot day and seagulls and crows squawked in the background. All this amidst the gardens and grasses of Stephen Leacock's home on the shores of Old Brewery Bay. But, truth be told, there were barely as many or fewer people than at last weeks modest book launches by Brenda Baker (Sisters of the Sari) and Larry Tyldsley (Momentos) back in Peterborough. And at the banquet- which featured delicious food, keynote speaker Tomson Highway and the awards presentation, all for $40 (plus the Harmful Sales Tax) I don't think there could have been more than sixty people. These are national awards. Important honors. The MP and mayor of Orillia were there. I have to admit I don't know much of the history involved, but though Matthew Binn, Anita Purcell and the Leacock Festival did a fine job hosting the event, one is left with the impression that the CAA awards (at one time the organization oversaw the Governor General's Awards) have become over time rather marginalized.

In the afternoon Steve and Donna Thompson and I also watched a presentation of readings by published Penguin authors. This was most interesting in terms of assessing what it takes to be a published author and in appreciated the various degrees of presentation skills the authors displayed. In short, though the audience was, as previously mentioned, sparse, all impressed this listener to the extent that if time and money permitted, he would be interested in checking out their work. Perhaps the most compelling of these was Keith Ross Leckie's "Coppermine" a novel based on a true incident in the early 1900's where two Inuit hunters killed two priests on the northern tundra and ate their livers.

coming next: Impressions of Tomson Highway

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Journey to Leacockland 1

Journey to Leacockland- 1

We've arrived on Orillia and I am being sumptuously chilled by the air conditioning in the not-so-magnificent but nicely functional Bayview Inn. A very short bike ride away is the Leacock Museum, site of this evening's Canadian Author's Association awards. Orillia this far looks like a section of Kingston Rd. at the east end of Toronto has been transplanted between two magnificent lakes. Brewer's Bay, where the Museum is, is remarkably charming and beautiful. To get there one must briefly drive through a modern subdivision which is decidedly not. Charming, that is. At any rate, I must now drag the bicycle from the van and go and absorb Canadian culture, hopefully at a rate that won't prove overwhelming.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Journey to the Lakefield Literary Festival-2

I re-mounted and soon arrived at my friend Brenda's house which is happily located very close to the bicycle trail to Lakefield. Brenda, author of "The Sari Sisters"  "Sisters of the Sari" (her blog is linked to this one) was bummed because the first week sales of her book were only (not to give away any trade secrets) in the low four figure range. Fresh off and downright giddy after doubling my own sales from one to two hard copies, I could only commiserate and do my best to comfort the poor creature. (If you look up Bren's picture in the who's who of Canadian authors you will see the image of a half empty glass- and it is not beer in the other half because she never has any.) This last-mentioned fact was doubtless instrumental in sending me dauntlessly on my way.

As I hit the gravel trail north of Trent University a sign said Lakefield 7 kilometers. The sun was hot. The trail unpaved. Time was running short as I had a dinner date back in Peterborough with certain yogic goddess. My fifty-six year old legs, despite the rigorous conditioning of recent bicycling in Holland were tiring. I asked them what I should do. They told me to turn back and go to Reggie's Hot Grill and get some freedom fries and something cool to drink. I never argue with my legs. It looks too silly.

Reggie's Hot Grill is a chip trailer just south of the university. It is on a dead end street beside the Ottonabee River. The order-taker was a pretty girl with multiple visible piercings and semi-visible tattoos. The cook was curly haired, equally pierced, and remarkably cheerful. I sat at a picnic table thoughtfully set on the angled road bank so I feared my tin of Diet Coke was in danger of toppling. The low angle of the sun caused the shade of its umbrella to cant, so I had to sit at the end of the bench and crane my neck to be even partially out of the still-hot sun. But I was happy there, watching the seagulls, listening to the punky heavy rap metal blaring from Reggie's Grill: You lie when you breathe, you blink when you lie, and you blink when you breathe or some such nonsense over and over and over until my legs and I, in making peace with each other, began to sense a certain profundity in the silence between the verses. And the big seagull panted and stepped daintily on the pavement of the road which, due to the slant of the picnic table was close to eye level, so the seagull and I were damn near seeing eye to eye, or more accurately, eye to tongue. The hot pavement is hurting his feet. Why does he keep walking back and forth?

At that moment the psychic fumes funneling southwards some eight or more kilometers from the Lakefield Literary Festival doubtless mixed with the savory aromas from Reggies' Grill, invaded my nostrils and infected my brain. I imagined the story of a man, a man much like myself, sitting watching the seagulls and their bean sprout tongues panting. Then the largest of the pink-eyed creatures lands hot-footed on the picnic table in front of him. The seagull's tongue, as it lashes out like that of a moth-catching frog and stings the hero directly between the eyes, is forked! The man, forever and disastrously transformed in ways we dare not speak about here, with trembling hand picks up his plastic Reggie's Grill fork and proceeds to feed his feathered brothers and sisters every last remnant of his freedom fries. Then, picking up his plastic Reggie's Grill knife he braces his left pinkie finger flat on the picnic table's surface. The seagull's cry hungrily as one as he begins to saw...

Such inspiration.  I want to produce a book of short stories next. Maybe the seagull one can be in it. I'll tell it in first person, from the protagonists point of view. But get this: there will be no a's q's or z's in the entire story! Brilliant. And I'll owe it all to the seagulls and the Lakefield Literary Festival.

Journey to the Lakefield Literary Festival-1

Journey to the Lakefield Literary Festival- 1

 I didn't know it would end this way: clinging to a scrap of shade, watching a seagull pant. I didn't know seagulls panted. Hell, I didn't even know they had tongues. But the big, white, pink-eyed fellow tip-toeing over the tarmac in front of me with his beak held wide was pointing his, like the living tip of a bean sprout, straight at me. He was trying to tell me something about literature.

It began with a notion. A crazy, inspired notion on a hot, hot Saturday. I would journey on my bicycle to the Lakefield Literary Festival, a mere fifteen or so kilometers away. The people who ran this august event somehow missed my status as a newly minted novelist and failed to invite me. With the generous spirit of the true artist I decided to overlook this blatant snub and go anyway. Writers would be there. And readers. I would go, mingle, have a beer on a patio and leave my author's calling card where the right eyes might find it. At the very least I would absorb the literary vibes from so many finely tuned minds conglomerating in one location. I would prepare myself for that inevitable day when I, J.R. MacLean, will actually be invited to present, read, and be fawned over by the assembled literati at the Lakefield Literary Festival. But first I had to call my mother.

But my phone wouldn't work. OK, not the phone per se, but the computer into which my Magic Jack is plugged. I could go on about the immense satisfaction I had over a year ago giving Ma Bell and Papa Cable the boot and going pure wireless for all our communication/entertainment needs. That progress, however, involved a little regression, something like needing to turn the crank on those old wall phones you see in shows on the Deja Vu channel. Our Magic Jack is plugged into a little-used netbook that has to be booted up so we can make incredibly cheap long distance calls. The netbook wouldn't boot. It wanted to scan first. Fine. It wouldn't boot. It want to scan first. Wouldn't boot. Scan. Fine. Wouldn't. Scan. Crap. Wouldn't. Scan. Half hour wasted. Forty-five minutes. Do I simply use my cell and pay for the charges? Generations of my Scottish forebears forbore that possibility. I got another laptop, booted it up, plugged in the Magic Jack, downloaded the software, made the call, well over an hour wasted. No worries. This way I've missed riding in the strongest heat of the day.

A few copies of WUG safely stashed in my new waterproof saddlebags (just in case) I began my northward journey through the metropolis of Peterborough. It was pleasant riding. Why not make a mild detour and visit the Silver Bean Cafe, an idyllic enclave on the shore of Little Lake in downtown Peterborough? My shaggy-haired friend Lloyd was there at the Boathouse, carving canes and renting out kayaks and canoes. Lloyd bought a WUG, the second hard copy sale ever. We sat and chatted about the weather down east. Ducks bobbed in the water. Waves lapped at the dock. Time slipped away.
...to be continued

Friday, July 15, 2011

First Hard Copy Sale

The first hard copy sale of Waking Up Gilligan, let it be noted and known here for posterity (or for my personal reassurance) was made today to Mr. and Mrs. Ted and Alex Cranfield, very nice people and new clients of mine. I warned them about the profanity and sex in the novel, but that seemed to only make them want it more. Thank-you, and long may you run Ted and Alex of Olympus Dr., Peterborough.

Hard copies

I now possess hard copies of my novel. They come snug in a box between tic tac toe cardboard dividers. I lift them out by their edges, like phonograph records. Just a few. I close the box and tuck it away in my van. It displaces my plumbing tools. They'll be safe there. Freshly pressed and waiting for their readers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Journey to the land of tulips and windmills 5

I'm in Schipol Airport outside Amsterdam. There is no free internet here, presumably the Dutch will catch up to Pearson International and the Canadians at some point. They lagged behind in anti-smoking laws as well, though progress has been made to the extent that Schipol is finally smoke free. One occasionally wonders how certain people persist in continually translating the prefix 'Euro' as meaning 'progressive' or 'superior'.

I'm near a mournful display encouraging people to avoid buying ivory and so save the elephants. Eminently politically correct and commendable but the background soundtrack of elephant moans or wind between massive, bleached bones (or whatever) is losing some of its toe-tapping cachet. So too, the images of sagging, tusk-less elephant corpses are not aiding the digestion of my travel sandwich of smoked salmon, gouda cheese (so good and so cheap here, now that's progressive) and fresh cucumber which was grown in pots in my mother-in-law's darling little greenhouse. The beer and gouda diet I've been on is incidentally not recommended for those who would like to return less hefty from a vacation than when they departed.

The gong has sounded; the journey to gate G9 begins. Other travelers must take their turn hearing the elephants' mournful songs while we head for a distant cheap flight gate that is hopefully somewhere this side of the Zuider Zee.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

On why the laughing Buddha got it right and why meditation is like a BSG computer virus

  OK. Let us, in the spirit of Zen Paradox- (if you think that a paradox is where you put your two boats, please move on to another blog; this one is going to address abstruse spiritual matters that are going to have you looking at your watch and hoping it will end, though strangely enough, we’re coming to the end now)- so let us, as I was saying, in the spirit of Zen Paradox begin with the ending: Bodai, the belly-laughing Buddha, did indeed get it right. Humour is the flesh on the bones of meditation. There. It’s over. Conclusion reached. If you are now saying to yourself, Wait a minute. I am an incredible meditator. I was with Osho from the beginning and have done sixteen Goenka groups and I find very little to laugh about in myself or in the world, then stop reading; close your eyes; watch your breath or whatever it is you do. There’s more work to be done.

Yeah. Meditation is work. If you’ve tried it, really tried it, you know it is. Oh sure, there can be those special times where you sit, go inside, feel the oneness in all things, the dazzling joy arising out of every molecule in existence and blah, blah, blah. For my part, meditation generally confronts me with my thoughts: my sneering, snivelling, resentful disaster-laden imaginings or guilt-riddled regrets. And if I manage, through years of practice and intense effort to stay present, then I get to go into my feelings: the constrictions, the holdings, the neuroses, the tensions, the anger, the rage, the existential alienation and angst that are the sine qua non of my ego’s existence. That’s Latin! (I warned you this was going to get abstruse: you can google it or check out Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica  for the sin qua non of sin qua non).

So where does humour enter into all this suffering, you ask? I will tell you, but first let me illustrate (in a sly bit of promotion) how the ego-mind can avoid the real work of meditation with a brief excerpt from my novel, Waking Up Gilligan. The protagonist, Swami Satyam Gilligan, has found himself in the political nerve centre of the Divine Bhagwan’s commune with some time on his hands. He decides to meditate:

“Fine. Deela's not here. I'm expected to wait. I'll wait. I'm surrendered, I'm in the flow. But what to do? No TV. No reading material… I’ll meditate! Here in the very heart— the political heart anyway— of the Buddhafield. What a day I'm having! Seeing the Master for the very first time, the assassination attempt, acceptance as a worker in the commune, now summoned to head office. Here, I will sit and hone my awareness, plumb the profound depths and scale the heightened vibes of this very special place.  
  He chooses a spot on the far side of the dining area, beside the vertically-blinded patio door. He peeks between the blinds. No deck, just a drop of six feet to the sun-drenched soil. The door to Chloe's office swings shut. She must be taking another meeting. The muffled sounds of hammering and the roar of one of the old school buses that are the primary means of transportation at the Ranch pulling away in the front of the restaurant reach him through the glass panes. It is pleasantly cool, despite the intense sunshine. From overhead comes the drowsy hum of air conditioners.           
Should I settle into the lotus position, show how adept I am? No. Too painful. Besides, I've never been able to hold even the half lotus for more than a few seconds. Buddhafield or no Buddhafield, I doubt I can do it now.  
 He eases his butt to the floor, uses the paneled wall, cool and faintly redolent of lemon scented cleaner, to support his back. He breathes deeply.

 It's good to be accepted as a summer worker in the greatest socio-spiritual experiment the world has ever seen. Here we will create the New Man, a man who is not ruled by the petty, grasping ego-mind. A man who lives authentically and in the moment. After my nauseatingly comfortable bourgeois upbringing, this is more like it. Meaning. Importance. And chicks. So many chicks. 

He closes his eyes, turns his attention inwards, lets out a self-satisfied sigh. Now which method to use? Vipassana? Humming? The Secret of the Golden Flower? Or should we just do the Lounging meditation, where you hang out with as much awareness as possible? The Master has taught so many. He is still trying to decide, choosing one method and then another, as he drifts off to sleep."

Any number of obstacles to meditation are illustrated by this, especially a core one of sleepiness—our perhaps innate desire to become or remain unconscious. We may laugh at this because we see and have experienced the same foibles in ourselves. But in laughing at our hindrances there is the possibility of gaining new perspective on them. New perspective means awareness which is the opportunity to let go of said hindrances. We see we choose to sleep instead of to wake up. What a joke! Enter the laughter. Enter the role of humour in meditation.

Humour breaks down the firewall to Truth. Meditation is like a computer virus which wants to undermine all those logical and not-so-logical beliefs and psychological/emotional constructs which form the ego-mind and so reach the ‘core processor’ ie. the silent realm of pure being. Humour, especially the type that combines a measure of insight along with a teensy bit of release from suffering, is unquestionably a sign that the meditator is getting just a little bit closer. Keep those grinning pac man meditative efforts chomping away at your Cylon firewalls and it stands to reason that you’ll get there in no-time, with plenty of pain and belly laughs along the way.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Journey to the land of tulips and windmills 4

I've arrived in a certain corner of Holland at a certain brother-in-law's house, both of which shall remain nameless for reasons I'm about to describe. There are those who are seasoned travellers, those who can seamlessly meld into the customs and mores of whatever place they are in. Then there are those like me.

My task was simple, perhaps too simple. Myself and my niece and nephew- whom we'll call Diede (age almost 14) and Rik (12) mounted bicycles (that is the way of the Dutch) and rode into the nearby nameless, albeit charming medieval town (wtf, let's call it Grave) to buy some provisions (let's call them food and beer) for our stay in their domestic territory. In the supermarket, while Diede and Rik scurried around making themselves useful, I wandered the aisles squinting at labels and wondering what they meant. Our cart filled at an alarming rate and, with the foresight of an untrained novelist, I realized that we were buying too much to carry in the saddlebags of our bicycles.

We had twelve bottles of water and twelve bottles of Duvel, an exquisite Belgian beer at less than half the price in Canada. The water was duly chucked. As we stuffed the saddlebags of my brother-in-law's bike- which he kindly gave me the use of- I realized through my jet-lagged fog, that keeping myself and the bike balanced was going to be a challenge. Unfortunately the overloaded contraption chose the moment I was moving my hands from saddlebag to handlebars to topple over. It crashed to the sidewalk, sending something plastic and broken (a flashlight holder?) skittering from the handlebars onto the street. There was only one thing I dreaded more than facing the wrath of my brother-in-law (let's call him Henk): that was seeing a stream of delicious golden Duvel tracking its way into the gutter. Fortunately the latter did not happen. The Duvels survived. It remains to be seen whether I survive the former.

Because there is more, much more of my bumbling tourist act to come, more that will sorely test the patience and hospitality of the brother-in-law we are calling Henk. You see I picked the bike up (including the broken plastic pieces of whatever it was) and in my euphoria at finding the Duvels unscathed, mounted the bi-wheeled machine and attempted to leave. Problem. Bike still locked. Locked with a key the Dutch cleverly build in above the rear tire. No problem. I will unlock it. Problem. Bike won't unlock. No problem. I'll turn the key a bit harder. Problem. The key has snapped off in my hand. The over-loaded bike was still locked. Huge problem.

I'll not bore the reader with the denouement to this problem (let's call it a challenge). We have another nine days of seamless melding to attempt (including the authentic Dutch wedding of my niece) and I, along with my Duvels, intend to enjoy them as fully as possible, though I do see a great deal of walking in my near future.