Thursday, September 6, 2012

Courting Nanabush

In the summer of 2010 I decided to build a basketball court in our backyard. It was admittedly somewhat of a strange choice as our children had grown up and moved out years before. The hoop was already there, installed back in the late nineties when my son Jesse was still a young lad. He used it seldom though, as did I. Installed solidly, complete with concrete-filled post, on sloping, mossy grass, it remained something of a lonely beacon for many years.

Then, in 2009, my literary leanings brought me, through a writer friend, to join the Peterborough Old Boys basketball league. This is a Sunday morning conglomeration of aging jocks and pseudo-athletes (I put myself firmly in the latter category) who compete throughout the winter for a motley collection of ramshackle trophies. Despite the fact that the participants are older and far more ramshackle than the trophies, I found that most of those old geezers had skills far in excess of my own. I wanted to hit shots, make layups, get to the foul line. In short, I aspired to be far better than I was. I wanted, and still want, to at least be an average player in that ramshackle league.

An number of issues impeded my progress in that direction: lack of confidence, lack of endurance, lack of skill, lack of ability, lack of competitive spirit, lack of size and lack of experience. What I do have, however, is spunk. A plucky willingness to beat my head against a stone wall until one or the other gives in. Some might call in stubbornness, pigheadedness, or being willfully delusional. But I prefer spunk. The word has a nice ring to it. Like the sound of ripe fruit hitting a concrete surface. Which brings me to the apple tree in our backyard.

If I was to build a basketball court, part or all of the apple tree would have to go. Its trunk was out of bounds but a good chunk of its foliage would impede any kind of baseline shot. The tree was not a top producer, yielding only a handful of hard little fruits suitable only for the squirrels. Considering all the facts, me and my hard little Darwinian heart went and got the big pruning shears. The tree remains, obligingly growing its remaining branches to the east, away  from the court- a sacrificial monument to the difficult choices yet to be faced.  

The first of these was where and how to begin the actual court. I was but one lonesome, aging man, handy, even super-handy at times, but one busily neglecting his home improvement business in order to write that novel that we all feel we have within us. Finances were limited, but pent-up energy from hours spent tapping laptop keys was not. I would compose the court in pieces, one concrete square at a time. Like the journey of a thousand miles, like the building of Rome, it could only be begun at the beginning. My starting line was the foul line, a row of bright blue tiles traversing a cement square. This grew square by square into an oblong island that encompassed the vestigial beginnings of the three point line several feet behind it. By the end of 2010, I'd created another island of squares under the basket.  Practice was possible, if one didn't mind the crazy ricochets of the air-filled sphere into parts of the yard where no sane basketball should dare to go. Parts such as my wife's gardens, the ones she had lovingly built up over the twenty years we've been domiciled in this particular location. With about twenty squares completed, and a mere eighty or so to go, with the land still badly sloped, I was looking at a completion date of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2015 A.D.. But that reckoning did not take into account 2011, which became a year of lassitude and darkness.

 A Dylan song lyric: "They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn". But in the summer of 2011, the brightest hour was right before the volcanic ash swept in, obliterated the, sun and rendered my world view into a dull grey murk. My novel, my beloved, precious book over which I had labored for so long, which, when finished, I had exulted over so excessively- mercilessly selling it to near-strangers- was not taking off as hoped. In fact, it never even sniffed the runway. Oh, the disappointment. The injustice. That my wonderful novel, reviewed so well, enjoyed by so many early readers, would suffer the same fate (wretched obscurity) as ninety-nine percent (at least) of the novels born into this world. There was only one course of action: to man-up, go into a shell, and be miserable. I would likely have done this more fully if left to my own devices, but there were still some niggling responsibilities, along with a disposition that does have a sunny, optimistic side, that prevented me from sinking completely into a morass of self-pity, online poker, and self-medication with fine Belgian beer. Responsibilities such as being husband to a terrific wife, father to two terrific children, son to an aging mother, proprietor of a home improvement business, and creator of the incipient awesomeness of an all-concrete basketball court. So, in a relatively robust moment, I ordered enough gravel to level the back third of our backyard and had it dumped in our driveway.

The mountain of gravel, delivered at the expense of a furrowed row or two worth of lawn trashed by the dump truck's wheels, was so large that it blocked a good portion of my garage door. Even the dubious joys of the the beer, the poker, and of wallowing in being an under-appreciated author could keep me from ameliorating this situation for only so long. In less than two weeks I was out there shoveling and wheelbarrowing this mountain of gravel into the backyard, spreading it into a plateau which one day would be my basketball court. But, as the book sales floundered, so did the level of my industry. You might say that once the plateau was done my efforts...plateaued. Though a few more squares of concrete appeared at sporadic intervals, by the end of the summer of 2011, the vast majority of the future court was still composed of gravel. Gravel in which, unbeknownst to myself, the seeds of an even deeper discontent were being sown.

 to be continued but not here because the rest of the piece is published in our book THE KAWARTHA SOUL PROJECT which is a collection of true 'soul stories' and related poetry and fiction set in our Kawartha area.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Brenda L. Baker's The Elusive Mr. McCoy

Brenda L. Baker's 
The Elusive Mr. McCoy

I'm not really into chick lit. Something to do with my being a late fifties year-old guy, I suppose. However, those advanced years, assuming an insidious, creeping, level of maturity may also explain why I immensely enjoyed Brenda L. Baker's new novel, The Elusive Mr. McCoy. So much so that on completing it I immediately sent her a congratulatory email (yes we are friends) telling her I was misting up over the last couple of chapters and that, with a couple of minor reservations, I felt the novel succeeded remarkably well. Well, she immediately (and figuratively) wrapped her writerly paws around my ankle and with supplicating puppy-dog eyes and caffeinated bribes tried to extract from me the nature of those reservations. Typical writer. Hit me with your worst shot. Tell me where in the hell I went wrong. Don't embarrass me with the good stuff.

The good stuff begins with BLB's skill as a writer. "McCoy" is well-constructed, with all the action flowing from the opening scene when the book's namesake, who happens to be a bigamist leading a double (or possibly triple) life collapses in a trendy coffee shop. Chapters almost unfailingly end with hooks which ratchet up the reader's interest in the characters and their circumstances. BLB in not self-indulgent as writer. She serves up the reader interesting characters of both sexes, as well as a narrative voice that includes many psychologically acute but humourous observations such as "Middle age may not be as intense as adolescence, but it is much less embarrassing."  Furthermore, she challenges the reader's heart with a moral theme that is of consequence for male and female alike: the nature of forgiveness. Are true understanding and forgiveness one and the same thing? The Elusive Mr. McCoy demonstrates, or more aptly, makes the reader feel, that indeed they are.

This brings me to minor reservation number one. McCoy's wives, Kendra and Lesley- they are both gorgeous in different ways- are supremely insulted because... well, I'm unable to say because it would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that I don't get it. If someone wants to use my face atop an early Schwartzenegger body and have me maliciously enslave some realm or other, I say cool! Go for it. But these women go through quite the conniptions forgiving him for this unmentionable crime- which in one case, he didn't really commit- whereas I see it as perhaps a kind of twisted flattery. Must be a guy thing...

While we are on the reservations, let's move to number two- very minor, but one sentence that makes me want to strangle BLB for writing it and her editor for leaving it in. It is the moment that Kendra and Lesley realize that understanding each other is going to be necessary to heal the pain that McCoy's duplicity has caused  both of them:
"Kendra hesitates, then lightly touches Lesley's fingers, granting forgiveness as though it were a coin."  What a beautiful sentence! So simple and sweet. She hands her business card to Lesley and says, "Call me. We should talk."  OK, I guess. It could have ended with 'call me' and Lesley hesitantly receiving the card. But, unfortunately there is more. Kendra says, "You should know the truth."  Arrgh! Cue the melodramatic organ music.  Throw the back of the wrist to the upturned forehead. Cut to the detergent commercial. Yikes. 'Nuff said.

Rolling right on from the minor to the picayune, though the story is set in Portland, Lesley takes out two cans of 'pop'-  Don't the Americans call that sugared water 'soda'? Or have our colloquialisms infected the Pacific northwest? Then, in one of several artfully done back-story sequences, McCoy tells Lesley he has been working on the cabin for six years, then in the next breath tells her to watch out for the rotten second step. BLB, anyone working on a place for even a month would fix that step very early because they were hauling all kinds of wires, wallboard etc. into the house and would be risking a broken ankle or worse every time.

Now, what's the opposite of reservation? Acclamation? Yes, let me acclaim how well BLB handles her male characters- human, believable and endearing, particularly in the father-son relationship between Jason and Fletcher. Fletcher (Jason's son) earns triple bonus points from this reviewer for being an unlikely fan of Young Frankenstein, one of the all-time comedy classic movies. Then, not to give too much away, a romance blossoms between Jason and one of the bereft wives, a romance which BLB handles with admirable subtlety and deftness:

"The coffee maker gurgles and hisses, signalling the end of the brew cycle. Jason pours coffee into two porcelain mugs with cornflowers that are the same saturated shade of blue as his eyes. 'You could stop the payments. See what happens.'"
Here is a mundane business-like scene where within a sentence Baker subtly shifts the point of view to Kendra's.  Without overtly saying so she lets the reader know that the woman, as a woman, is aware of  the attractive colour of the man's eyes. The rest of the romance, which sneaks up on the reader as well as on the characters, is handled just as deftly and contributes to the undeniable emotional power of the book.

Despite being well outside the target audience for The Elusive Mr. McCoy, I was touched and even transformed by this book. Brenda L. Baker may be writing chick lit, or women's literature, or book-club ballast, but she is also coming from an insightful and very human place that even an ageing, sports-loving, poker-playing guy such as myself can thoroughly enjoy. I'd recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good story.

Monday, April 9, 2012

two poems


on the rooftop
one of those endless industrial
flats from before the ashes fell
beneath layered debris kicked aside
they lay like old squashed raisins
under someone's fridge

once proud and ponderous
now slightly bigger than dinner plates
and not much thicker-
a dried newspaper paste
of congealed stories never told.


it is not known why the giant strawberries
beached themselves on the shore of Silver Lake.

the size of a four-year-old's fist
they glistened in the sun;
the cool waves lapping over them
caused them to enlarge and shrink
like pulpy beating hearts.

the nearby stones were
likely not jealous of their crimson shine
as misplaced fruit
is a mere blink in their timelines.

the delicate snail shells 
sprinkled on the shore 
like rice in a bride's long hair,
from their disintegrating spirals
regarded the fruits as gods
and would happily have corkscrewed
deeply within their shining walls
if only they could.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Journey to Phoenix

Journey to Phoenix

The guy beside me on the plane was interesting. He was at the all star game in Ottawa, at centre ice no less, outfitted in spiked shoes because he was thoroughly un-used to winter sports. He was photographing the crowd for ticketmaster, that is the entire crowd, three hundred and sixty degrees, every single person pictured in panoramic shots. Four rows included in about seventy two shots per swivelling circumnavigation of the arena. Resolution? About twenty two million pixels. Then he did the TFC game against the Galaxy, which featured David Beckham's beer-dodging corner-kick to tie.

Cool job, don'tcha think? Cannily adding value to events in this narcissistic digital age. Now we have the ability to build up a portfolio of images of ourselves watching other people we have paid to watch perform. Not only that but a visit to confirms that we can inflict said images on our friends via twitter etc. A frightening thought as a brief scan of the attendees at the Middle of Nowhere Arena in Ottawa reveals legions of pasty faced drones wearing over-priced corporate jerseys. 'Cheering for laundry' as Seinfeld brilliantly put it. Progress marches on.

Our flight towards Phoenix was matchlessly turbulent. The pilot, sounding as if he had litre or two of Starbucks sloshing uncomfortably about in his lower latitudes, repeatedly came on to inform us which altitude we were going to try next to avoid the hundred and fifty mile an hour headwinds we were bucking. Finally, somewhere over Kansas, well above the wicked witch's pointy hat, we found blessed calm at 26,000 feet. As we descended for our landing, I looked out the window and beheld geography quite reminiscent of the Valley of Mordor.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I've seen the future and...

Well, maybe not seen it, other than in my mind's eye. What about a laptop that folds open to two screens? They could both be touch screens, with the bottom one (which would be where today's keyboard is) having little nubs for touch typing when in keyboard mode, but it could also be used as a second visual for moving stuff around like on CNN's big screen or just as an extended desktop or whatever. Think of video game apps and number of internet poker games you could play at once! Awesome idea, J.R., but does it already exist?

Well, uh yeah. It does. Mr. Jeremy Corke helpfully supplied a link to the Acers dual touch screen Iconia computer- March 2011. Sounds decent but is bulky and needs some software and tactile work. What's Apple going to come up with I wonder? Are keypads going to go the way of videotape and CD's?