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August 9, 2013

Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell


Where do ideas come from? How does an individual up with an idea that starts a whole movement? Does he or she think it up in a momentary flash of brilliance which causes them to have some sort of magical insight? Or is their insight born of a natural progression of events they have experienced up to that point in their lives combined with the environment they find themselves living at the time? Artistic movements don't just spring out of the ground without any antecedents, so the people, or person, who are the motivating force behind them must have come from somewhere as well. What is it about a person, what type of personality does it take, to be the individual who shapes an entire genre of artistic expression?

As it turns out, not very different from the rest of us in the beginning. According to his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, recently published by Harper Collins Canada, Richard Hell had a pretty much normal first few years growing up in America of the 1950s. So how did this guy who was weaned on Howdy Doody and other staples of middle class America stolidity become the person most now credit with founding the look and sound of punk rock in 1974? How did this person turn into the guy behind the short spiky hair, ripped clothes held together with safety-pins and the unbridled anger and irony which was copied so faithfully by punk rock bands and its fans from the early 1970s until today?

According to Hell his life started out conventionally enough. Born Richard Myers in 1949 in Lexington Kentucky, the son of two academics. His father parlayed a PHD into a professorship at University of Kentucky and his mother put off a career to raise her family. Who knows how he would have turned out if his father hadn't died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. For he describes an incident which occurred just a few weeks before his father died. Hell and a couple of buddies were planning on running away to sleep in a cave near by. The plan was they would meet up at midnight. When his father stumbled across his preparations for running away - a stash of cookies and other foodstuffs under his pillow - instead of punishing Hell he made him a deal. He would drive his son to the cave for midnight and if his friends showed up he could stay with them. However if the friends didn't show up he would have to come home with his dad.
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According to what Hell writes his academic career peaked in grade six and it was all downhill from there. Even though standardized testing in grade seven showed him to be one of the smartest kids in school throughout junior high school he was consistently close to failing. Although he would stay up all night in fits of anxiety over not being prepared he still couldn't bring himself to do the work properly. He describes the feelings this evoked in him in words akin to those one would normally use to describe the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs. Even then he resented the authority teachers had over him, and he says he elicited a promise from his future adult self to never forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules were. He promises himself a life of adventure as an adult. The most important thing to remember as he grow older is to never let anyone tell him what to do.

However tempting it is to dismiss this as the self-fulfilling prophesying of somebody trying to impress readers with how deep his anti-authority roots were planted, he wouldn't have shown us how they were rooted in his resentment of those who were accepted by authority or the anxiety his refusal to bow to authority caused him initially if this the case. The behaviour is in keeping with a lot of kids - resentful of having to do work just because someone has told them to, but being too concerned about the consequences of not doing it to do anything about it. He shared the concerns, but still refused to do what was needed to assuage his anxiety shaping a pattern which was to continue for a good chunk of his life up until he quit music.

When he went onto high school the pattern of behaviour only intensified especially when he found another out cast to partner up with, Tom Miller. This was the beginning of a relationship that would see the creation of the seminal band Television in the early 1970s. Myers and Miller would eventually become Hell and Verlaine and be the founding fathers of New York's punk scene. What I've described is a compressed version of Hell's his early days and meeting with Verlaine. On the surface his story reads rather simplistically. Two young guys, far too smart for their own good, bored out of their minds by what the world has to offer, go looking for something, anything to stimulate their minds and imaginations.

While Verlaine was able to get some satisfaction out of forming Television and trying to perfect it, Hell was a different kettle of fish. Once the initial thrill of creating something was complete, he needed to move on to the next challenge and the next one after that. Of course the other problem with Television was the fact neither of its founders were willing to submit to anybody's authority which resulted in inevitable conflict, If either of them had even a semblance of emotional maturity they might have been able to resolve their problems, but the truth of the matter is both Hell and Verlaine come across as emotionally crippled and completely lacking in the ability to communicate any emotion aside from contempt.

Hell is brutally honest about himself. For while his younger self is busy sneering at those around him, the Hell who's writing the book tells us he was every bit as arrogant and self-serving as those he's busy deriding. We watch as the downward spiral which began in junior high continues to plunge him deeper and deeper into a pit as he descends into the abyss of heroin addiction. What's terrifying is how easy it was for him to go from lost teenager to adult searching for the next great adventure he promised himself as a youngster. It's hard reading about how he would degrade himself and others in his search for adventure. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance which illuminate the pages and make you understand just what a gifted artist Hell has become.
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It seems like it's almost in spite of himself Hell was able to make an impression on both his peers and others in the music industry. Music critics from local rags to the New York Times raved about his final solo album, Destiny Street, with Robert Palmer of the Times going so far as to name it the best album of 1982. In 1976 Chris Stein, lead guitar player in the band Blondie, showed him a picture of four British musicians saying, "hey these guys all look just like you".

It was the Sex Pistols. Their manager had been in New York in 1974 and had been taken with Hell's look. He'd even offered to manage his career, but Hell didn't want anybody telling him what to do. So Malcolm McLaren went home to London and created his own band based on the template provided by Hell. Maybe punk would have happened without Hell, but he was definitely a major catalyst. No matter how inert he might have thought himself, he was the ingredient the music industry needed to shake itself out of the lethargy it had fallen into after the fall of the hippies.

Hell cuts the story of his life short at 1984, the year he quit music and began the serious quest to stop heroin. As he says there's nothing much more to tell - he's still alive and a writer, and there's nothing really exciting about the life of a writer. You do much the same thing day in day out. Aside for a little trouble at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s he was drug free from that day in 1984. His life of running from adventure to adventure was over. If one didn't know better you could say he had grown up.

While its by no means an easy read, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is worth every moment spent in its pages. There are moments of sheer poetry among the dirt and grime which shine out like beacons guiding us ever onward in the hopes we will find something redeeming in this story of self-destructive genius. However Hell isn't interested in redeeming himself in our eyes. He concludes by saying if he had died at the point where this book ends, 1984, "there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale... My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

This isn't one of those life affirming autobiographies designed to inspire any of us in our own work. Instead its a glimpse into the creative mind pushed to its extreme in its search for stimulation. Anyone who still might have stupid romantic notions about artists and drug use will soon be cured of them after reading Hell's book. It's impossible if you're a creative person of any sort not to identify with at least parts of Hell's story and at some point I guarantee you'll think - there but for the grace of who the fuck ever, go I.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell)

August 7, 2013

Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young


Most celebrity autobiographies I've had the misfortune to read have been self-serving exercises in ego flexing and self congratulations. The worst are the ones where the subject confesses to all sorts of sins in an effort to portray themselves as some of sort humble person seeking redemption for their evil pasts. Not only do these confessionals smack of self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, I usually end up feeling like the person in question is trying to sell me on how brave and heroic they are for having managed to stop behaving like a spoiled rich brat. Who really cares how many and what drugs they took or how many people they slept with?

Thankfully there are some famous people out there who understand they aren't the centre the universe; not their's or anybody else's. The especially aware ones manage to tell the story of their lives as part and parcel of the events going on around them at the time. They may play a major part in the proceedings, but they're not the only player and they can talk about more than just themselves. Even when they do talk about themselves it's only because they want to tell you about somebody else or to try and share some of the wonder they have experienced during the course of their lives.

When I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, just released by Penguin Canada in trade paperback after a successful run in hard cover, I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be a typical celebrity autobiography. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much he would be willing to reveal of himself. Considering what an intensely private person Young is, I was extremely surprised at how casual he was about letting readers in past his defences. I'm not sure if he's even aware of how much he's let readers into his life and how much of his soul he's left on the pages of this book.
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I say this because of the wonderfully casual way the book is written. Reading it is like having a rambling conversation with a close friend. When you pick the book up after putting it down, it feels as if he's been waiting for you to come back into the room so he can pick up where you left off. No matter what he's been talking about it doesn't matter, what matters is the book makes you feel he's talking directly to you. Although he talks about the people, his friends and his family, throughout the book, you still end up feeling like your one of his closest confidants.

Like the best conversations this book covers a lot of ground. It wanders through time and geography from Northern Ontario in the 1950s to Hawaii and California in 2011. One of the first things he tells us is he's stopped drinking and smoking pot. After the surgery to repair the aneurysm in his brain his doctor recommended he stop smoking and he decided to follow his advice. We then learn this is making him a little nervous as he hasn't written music straight in over 40 years and he's concerned with what will happen. So to distract himself from worrying he talks about the various projects he's undertaken over the years which have served to give him a break from music whenever he's felt like he's needed it.

While he's no longer a majority owner of Lionel Trains he still loves the trains the company produces. Occasionally he and you will retire to his train room where he will regale you with details of his set up, the advances in train technology and his dreams for their future. While model trains have been a passion of his since childhood and is something he's quite willing to share with anyone who is interested, it's still something very personal. On the other hand the other two projects, outside of creating music and his family, which take up most of his time have the potential to be much more far reaching.

Lincvolt is the name he's given the project to create a luxury, full sized series hybrid electric car powered by biomass. Using a vintage Ford Lincoln Continental as the prototype he's set out to prove a car doesn't have to be small in order to be safe for the environment. He's perfectly aware North Americans are in love with their big cars and nothing anybody does will convince the majority to give them up. So he's made it his mission in life to sell people on the idea you can have your big car and save the environment too.

Naturally music is very important to him even when he's not making it. His biggest concern these days is the loss of sound quality caused the use of compression technology. The old analog sound we used to listen too when we bought records was much fuller than anything produced digitally. However, instead of just whinging about the good old days, Young is actually trying to do something about it by creating a new type of digital technology called PONO which will offer listeners as close to analog sound as possible with all the convenience they've grown used to from the digital age.
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Of course Young talks about his other plans for the future. Every so often he mentions how he's going to prepare for his next recording with Crazy Horse. He talks about how he and the band are going to set up their gear and spend a year with the music and seeing what they're able to create. However, every time he starts to talk about this he shies away from the subject and diverts off to something else. Eventually it comes out he's worried about over thinking the music. He doesn't like to think about creating, preferring to let it flow naturally.

However, the situation as he's writing the book, having given up pot and alcohol, is making him think more about it than it seems he likes. So every time he starts to become excited by the idea of making a new album, he always manages to change the subject. He lets on he's worried about what will happen but tries to tell us he's happy with what he has. However you can tell he will be devastated if the music is gone. No matter how much he tries to convince himself and us that writing this book is a substitute for creating music, and maybe he'll write more books, or how he needs the other things in his life to keep music fresh, without music his life will be irrevocably changed.

Having been around music as long as he has Young the majority of his friends are in the business. However, this isn't either a name dropping kind of book nor a book about other people. He talks about the people he's loved as friends who've passed on, his lasting friendship with Steven Stills, and occasionally mentions his friends Paul, Bruce and Bob with the same sort of casualness you or I would talk about the people we know. It's not name dropping, these are just happen to be the circles he moves in. These are the people who send him gifts in the hospital when he's recovering from brain surgery, who help him and his wife out when they want to raise money for a school for developmentally handicapped children like their son Ben they have created, and who can understand and appreciate the type of life he leads. There aren't many people who life in the same strata as Young, who have survived this long in popular music, and it's only natural for them to know and respect each other.

Unlike a number of memoirs, Young's book is firmly planted in the present and looking towards the future. Sure he talks about how he got to where he is now, and over the course of his book he retraces his career, but he continually comes back to the here and now. This isn't a conclusion to a life, rather a pause to refocus and evaluate before he starts out on what's next. Young has never lived his life attempting to please others by giving them what they want, one record company actually tried to sue him because his music wasn't enough like what he had done before, and he's still as mercurial as ever.

Waging Heavy Peace is a wonderful trip inside the mind of one of popular musics most enduring figures. He doesn't have any axes to grind - when someone asked him whether his trying to find a way of creating better quality digital music was a declaration of war on Apple his reply was he was waging heavy peace - he just wants to share with us his gratitude for having been able to know some incredible people and being able to do what he wanted to do. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet take the time to spend some time with one of the more intriguing and interesting minds in popular music. You won't regret it.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't


You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2013

Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs


I hate self-help books. It's not just because I feel they are basically about taking advantage of other's misfortune or on the whole useless. No the real reason I hate them is what the words self-help implies. It always sounds as if you don't get better after reading the book it's your fault because you don't want to help your self. Calling a book self-help is like saying to your readers you can cure yourself if you really want to. Which carries with it the cavil of, if the book doesn't help you it's not the author's fault it's yours because you didn't really want to be well. Nothing better than making someone who has serious problems feel guilty about them on top of everything else.

I'm a recovered substance abuser, have dealt with post traumatic stress syndrome brought about by being sexually abused as a child and live with a chronic pain condition. I had lots of help from two therapists, a yoga teacher and a acupuncturist with the first two issues and I see a doctor regularly for treatment of the latter. There was, and is, no quick fix and I might never completely heal. The one thing I never did was consult a self-help book. I read a couple of books by people who had been through things similar to what I had survived, but that was it. They made me realize others in the world had had similar experiences and had found ways to recover.

All of which might make it sound strange I would be interested in Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, being released by Picador Books Tuesday April 23 2013. However, in spite of it being promoted as a self-help book, all that I knew and had heard of Burroughs made me suspect it wasn't going to be anything like the "I can cure you if you do exactly what I tell you to do" crap lining the shelves of every book store in the world. I didn't even have to get through the first chapter before I knew my suspicion was right: this is not a self-help book at all.
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What it is is a book for people interested in really helping themselves instead of looking for some sort of band aid which will make them presentable to the world. I knew I my first impression of Burroughs was right when he made the claim so called positive affirmations do more harm than good to people with low self esteem. I've never believed standing in front of a mirror telling yourself a lie in the hopes it will convince you to feel better about yourself would benefit anybody. Burroughs not only agrees with this, he quotes a peer reviewed scientific study which proved affirmations actually made people with low self esteem feel worse about themselves. The only people affirmations actually work for are those who already have a high self-esteem. The rest of us only feel like failures when we can't live up to the lie the face in the mirror is telling us - which doesn't do anything for our self-esteem.

Burroughs rips through the New Age gobbledygook pop psychology bullshit that has been permeating the airwaves since some moron said "I'm OK, Your OK" back in the 1970s and passed it off as a cure for what ails us. He shreds jargon with humour and compassion and dispels the myths we have been conditioned to believe about how we're supposed to feel and what our relationships should be like. Along the way he talks about love, death, illness, dieting, addictions, child parent relations and almost every other hot topic you can think of. However, don't come to this book looking for platitudes or expecting to find ten simple steps to a happy life. What you will find are some very simple, basic, common sense truths which might not make you happy, but will certainly make your life better or, at lease more fulfilling. However, be prepared to face another truth, they're might not be anything wrong with your life at all and dealing with that might even be harder than anything else.

Unlike most people who write one of these books Burroughs doesn't have a plan for you to follow. Instead he addresses each of the topics mentioned above individually and head on. He doesn't mince words or sugar coat anything when he gives his opinions. Instead he dissects everything about the subject and lays bare some very simple but breathtaking truths. If you've been dieting for twenty years trying to lose twenty pounds maybe it's time to question your obsessive behaviour? Or as he puts it "If you spend twenty years trying to get something and still don't have it, is it admirable to keep trying. Or did you pass admirable several miles back and it's getting close to straightjacket time" (Burroughs, Augusten -This Is How Picador, New York NY 2013 p. 31)

If dieting hasn't worked after twenty years isn't it obvious by now its never going to work? His suggestion of stopping dieting and just eat what you want and accept the results may not be what people want to hear. However, the reality is you'll be a lot happier and healthier. As he points out once you allow yourself to eat whatever you want (as long as there are no health issues etc involved) you will first get bored with overindulging and second, your body will take care of itself. The reason, he says, diets don't work is because we only want them to work, we don't need them to work. You must want to lose the weight more than you want the comfort you derive from eating.
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Of course this applies to almost anything. If you want to stop drinking, if you want to stop smoking, if you want to stop whatever, you must want to more than you want what ever pleasure you derive from the thing you're trying to stop. It's in this chapter on dieting he says one of the things which convinced me Burroughs knows what he's talking about. "If willpower is required to achieve this goal, that's how you know you don't want it enough on a deep, organic level. Mechanical failure will eventually occur." (ibid. p.35) I've been able to give up drugs and alcohol because I wanted to more than I wanted what they had given me, but I've not been able to give up cigarettes. Willpower got me through the first few months a few times, even a couple of years once, but each time the need for the comfort they provided has sent me running back to them.

Burroughs throws truths like this up in our faces all through the book. Sometimes it makes it extremely uncomfortable to read because, whether you know it or not, you start looking at yourself in the mirror he holds up. However, what's wonderful about this book, is you never feel like you're being judged. Its filled with humour (I now know the two things you never say to an Italian man about members of his family and they both make my wife laugh until she pees), but most of all you can feel his genuine compassion in every single word. Reading this book is like having a conversation with that friend who has never been afraid to tell you the truth but always does so with love in their hearts.

Burroughs doesn't have any letters before or after his name nor does he make any claims to having some great mystical insights (thankfully) into the mysteries of human behaviour. What he does have is a seemingly innate ability to draw upon personal experiences and observations of other's behaviour and distill from them carefully thought out conclusions. Occasionally he backs up what he's saying by quoting a scientific study, but even without substantiation you can't help trusting what he says. Best of all, while he's a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for their lives, he never once makes you feel inadequate or in any way to blame for your circumstances.

We live in a world of instant gratification. Financial empires have been built around the reducing of human emotions to a commodity sold and packaged on day time talk shows by modern day snake oil sales people. Public self flagellation is not only encouraged, its rewarded with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. So when someone like Burroughs comes along and says what he has to say many will not want to listen. Of if they do, won't like what they hear. However, for those who are willing to listen they won't find a more understanding and compassionate voice anywhere. No one book will instantly make your life better, and neither will This Is How. However, it will point you in the right direction so you can begin whatever journey you feel you need to take. Which makes it worth its weight in gold.

(Article first published as Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs on Blogcritics.

March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight


The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)


December 23, 2012

Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack


I've written the occasional poem, but under no circumstances would I ever consider myself a poet. There's a world of difference between writing a poem and being a poet. However, trying to articulate exactly what separates poets from the rest of us, from other writers even, is not the easiest thing in the world either. In her latest book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle, published by the University Press of New England (UPNE), poet and author Kathleen Spivack, has managed to pull the veil back on this mystery through her look back on her years with the great 20th century American poet Robert Lowell.

In 1959 Spivack received a bursary to study with Lowell in Boston in lieu of her senior year at university. Through the process of recounting her days as first his student and then friend and confidant she not only paints a picture of this great, and greatly disturbed artist, but introduces us to the other brilliant minds she came in contact with as a result of her relationship with Lowell. From her fellow classmates in that first year's seminar, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to other lessor known but equally gifted artists, each of them are lovingly remembered as both individuals and as poets.

Initially we see these great figures through the eyes of the nervous and insecure student who finds herself alone in a strange and cold city. Boston, Harvard University, Boston University and New England are characters of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the individuals she meets. Intimidating, cold, rigidly bound by its conservative class structure and rabidly misogynist attitudes (as late as the 1980s Harvard University would boast it would rather face law suits than give equal opportunities to women) the atmosphere wasn't one guaranteed to set a young woman at ease. When combined with showing up in Boston only to find her teacher "unavailable" due to having suffered a nervous breakdown, it didn't make for a very auspicious start to her dreams of being a poet.
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Even when classes finally start she finds herself at sea. Lowell isn't what any of us would call a typical teacher. Our initial impression is of someone who is as far removed from reality as we can imagine. He obsesses about the meaning of a single line in a poem asking "What does it mean" over and over again. However it appears he's holding a conversation with himself as almost none of his students dare to interject. He also appears to be incredibly judgemental, asking whether some poet is "major or minor" with the answer being based on criteria nobody else is quite able to fathom. Imagine being a young and almost painfully shy student even daring to bring her own work to this class and having it put through this type of analyses in front of you.

However, Lowell, for all his eccentricities, does take her in hand and introduces her to those he thinks will be of help to her. In this manner Spivack is brought into the circle of poets who are both his students and associates. Through her meetings with Sexton, Plath and other female poets we are introduced to the horrors societal pressure can wrack upon a creative woman. The picture Spivack draws makes it clear how much the New England disdain, and especially Harvard University's, for women led to their downfall.Trying to conform to the dutiful housewife image expected of them by the society they found themselves in must have been bad enough. Compounding this was the indignity of seeing men of no greater talent receiving the recognition denied them through publication and acceptance. This must have been an incredibly bitter pill for them to swallow. Maybe both Plath and Sexton would have taken their own lives in the end anyway - Sexton seems to have had a fascination with suicide - but the circumstances they found themselves in couldn't have helped.

Of course it wasn't just the women who suffered. As we watch Spivack get to know Lowell over the course of the years, from 1959 until his death in 1977 from a sudden heart attack, we learn the breakdown he was suffering from when she first arrived wasn't an isolated incident. A manic-depressive, Lowell was in and out of institutions for most of the time Spivack knew him. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an approaching breakdown she would deliberately start to distance herself from him when they started to manifest. His behaviour, erratic at the best of times, during these build ups made him unbearable for her to be around. Ironically once he was committed, her house was one of the few places considered safe enough for him to visit on day release.

If Lowell was obsessive in his analysis of others work, it was nothing compared to the rigours he subjected his own writing. Spivack tells of knowing of upwards of 200 drafts existing in the case of certain poems. Even after a poem's publication Lowell would continue with his revisions, searching for the absolutely perfect word and line. Yet it wasn't necessarily the search for perfection that was so harmful. Like his contemporaries among the women poets the need to conform to society's expectations of gender played havoc on Lowell and other male poets of Spivack's acquaintance. Men were supposed to be hard drinking, stoical and above all unemotional beings who followed manly pursuits like hunting and definitely didn't do anything so effete as become poets.

While the men might have had the support of the academic establishment and those behind the scene in the literary world, they were still expected to be "men". Is it any wonder Alan Ginsberg wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in his great poem Howl? Men and women poets, people with minds beautifully tuned to the rhythms of the universe like nobody else, were slowly driven mad by having live almost dual lives. Those among them who were homosexual suffered even more, but it was just as bad for the straights as well. Poets were all in the closet as they were forced to hide sensitive natures or steal seconds in which to write the poetry that allowed them feel alive.
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Spivack was blessed, and is wonderfully honest about admitting this, with being in the right place at the right time. Initially I was rather disconcerted by the fact the book seemed more autobiographical than about those whom the title suggests its about. However, as the book progresses and we see how the lives of these amazing poets come to interweave with her own I began to appreciate her decision to take this approach. Many of the figures in this book are known to us only through poems in anthologies or through dry academic biographies. Meeting them through Spivack's memories not only lifts them out of the books and off the page, it turns them into people of flesh and blood.

It also has the wonderful effect of breathing life into their poetry. After reading about the sweat and blood they would pour into each of their creations I want to go back and read their work again. For when I do, they won't just be words on a page anymore written by some anonymous person whom I'm supposed to admire because history tells me to, they'll be poems by a real person. Somebody whose kitchen I've sat in, who I listened to as they agonized over whether a line or even a word was right and who laughed and cried like any of us, but then had the bravery to attempt to put those feelings down on paper.

Spivack does the extraordinary of making the poets in her book both ordinary and special at the same time. Ordinary, in the fact they are her friends whom she sees on a regular basis during the 1960s and 1970s, and special for the legacy of brilliance they have left for us. Lowell, who mentored Spivack and other writers, suffered and struggled to overcome the antipathy the world around them had towards his passion not only managed to produce works of genius but take others in hand and help them fulfill their potential.

Spviack's portrayal of Lowell in particular, but the others as well, is both heartfelt and honest. Unlike an "official biographer" who is boringly objective in their depictions, she has no qualms about letting her affection for her subjects shine through or letting us know how much she admired somebody. However, she's not blind to their faults either and is unstinting in her honesty when listing them. At the same time she doesn't try to hide the fact these are her impressions of these people. She does give us indications of other people's impressions of them, Lowell especially, by including quotes from her contemporaries at the end of almost every chapter which address an aspect of their character.

While this book is by no means a definitive study of the work and lives of the poets you'll meet within its pages, it provides an even far more valuable service. It allows us the chance to look behind their reputations and the myths that have grown up around them to see them as the complex and interesting people they were. This book is probably the best introduction to the world of American poetry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s you're liable to read.

Article first published as Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2012

Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good By Kevin Smith


You know a book by Kevin Smith, a guy famous for making movies about "dick and fart jokes", is bound to be crude, lewd and rude. However what might surprise most people, especially those who believe he makes movies about dick and fart jokes and never look further than that, is beneath the bluster and foul mouth of a twelve year old boy from Jersey are a brain and a heart. As he himself says in his latest book, Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good published by Penguin Canada, as an overweight kid from Jersey he had to find a way to prevent himself from being made everybody's favourite punching bag. If people are pissing themselves laughing it's much harder for them to beat the crap out of you. So in many ways he's never stopped being that twelve year old kid trying to make us laugh.

Now most people who pick up a book by Smith already know what he's about and aren't about to be offended by anything he's got to say. The thing is that a lot of people who pick up this book in the hopes that's it just like the movies he used to make are going to be somewhat disappointed. Oh sure there's more use of the word pussy not in reference to the family cat than in most works of non-fiction and not many people dedicate their books to their wife's sphincter, yet even excesses along those lines aren't gratuitous. The book is exactly what the title claims it is, except just like his movies there's far more to it than you'd expect. As with the majority of Smith's work it's up to you what you take away from it. With his movies it was laugh at the puerile jokes, enjoy the gross out moments and appreciate the overall anarchy as epitomized by Jay and Silent Bob, or you can go a little deeper and dig his love for the misfits up on screen and the statement that makes.

Of course Smith would have you believe he's the biggest misfit of them all; an overweight, lazy dude from the armpit of the nation who managed to make it as an outsider in the ultimate insider industry. The thing is he's right. For all intents and purposes this is not somebody who should have been able to make a career in movies. His first movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast made up of friends and local community theatre actors. Clerks should have disappeared without a trace and Smith with it. However through sheer balls and faith in his own work he managed to secure a screening for it at Sundance which led to a distribution deal with the then kings of indie cinema Miramax. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but if he hadn't had the chutzpah to make the movie in the first place, to risk it all on a dream, none of it would ever have happened.
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As you read through Tough Shit and listen to him recount the various stages of his career and what he considers the important turning points in his life, you're struck by the size of the risk he took in each of the incidences he describes. The other thing you realize is no matter how many self-depreciating remarks he might cast his own way, this is a guy who has great faith in his own abilities and the huge amount of courage required to bring his dream of doing what he loves to make a living come true. Of course he also has his own unique context which helps him keep things in perspective.

The opening chapter of the book is about his dad and three lessons that were to influence Smith junior's life. The first being the freaking miracle that out of all the sperm from his dad that ended up inside his mother, it was the one with his name on it that survived. The way Smith figures it winning that race with the odds so strongly stacked against you means you've already won half the battle. The second was his dad hated his job with a passion. Now most people would have accepted that as their lot in life and followed their old man's example of taking a job they hated to put bread on the table. Not Smith, he looked at how unhappy his dad was and thought there has to be something better, why can't you do what you love for a living? The final lesson he learned from his father was from how he died. His father died screaming in pain having a massive heart attack. The lesson Smith took from that was if that was his dad's reward for years of self-sacrifice and hating his job, than he might as well make as much a paradise for himself in this world as he can.

While that might sound like a sure fire recipe for self-indulgence, and maybe some can't see the difference between that and a life dedicated to self-expression, for Smith it provided the motivation for keeping as true to himself as possible. During the course of the book he describes what happened when he let his life drift off that path. The worst of those experiences was directing Bruce Willis in Cop Out. While it earned him the respect of executives of the studio he did the film for, and led to more offers of directing work, he realized that even if he never had to work with a prima donna like Willis again, simply directing somebody else's material wasn't for him. It would eventually turn into a job he would hate, or at least resent, and that's not what he had set out to do when he embarked upon finding a way of making a living doing what he loved.
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Smith is nothing if not honest. Throughout the entire book he's upfront with readers telling them there's nothing easy about the course he's chosen and if they want to emulate what he's doing they're in for a hard slog. This is the tough shit of the title, "Security, normalcy, convenience, protection, and identity are opiates you've gotta wean yourself off before you can be an individual. You can't stand out if you're blending in." Now that might sound easy but it has to be the hardest thing in the world to actually follow through on. He's talking about giving up everything from normal relationships to anything else you can think of that all of your friends will be doing.

Maybe that's why he's dedicated the book to such a specific part of his wife's anatomy. He goes into details for you in the chapter talking about her, but that's just his way of making the real point. Which is that he's been incredibly blessed not just because as he puts it "she's way out of my league" but because she willingly gave up her career as a journalist to join forces with him. That she allows him to be who he is warts and all and accepts that he won't change for anyone is a miracle and he knows it. Being an artist is an incredibly selfish endeavour and to find somebody willing to go along for the ride with you is fucking amazing cause they know they're never going to be first in your heart, they might tie for top spot but will never come out on top. If they asked you to chose between them and your art you'll either chose your art or hate them for the rest of your days.

The great thing about reading a Kevin Smith book is its like having a conversation. True it might be a bit one sided as you're hard pressed to get a work in edgewise when dealing with a book. Anyone who has ever listened to any of the commentary Smith includes with the DVDs of his movies, watched a DVD of his speaking tours, listened to any of his podcasts at Smodcast.com will understand what I'm talking about. He doesn't belabour a point or come across all heavy and intellectual, but still manages to make more sense and talk more intelligently about art, movies and life than ninety percent of the called self-help gurus out there. His recipe for happiness might not be right for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it all for their dream, it's a damn good one to follow.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith on Blogcritics.)

May 2, 2012

Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an By Michael Muhammad Knight


I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur'an, Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else's work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight's theme.

The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. "The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?" That might sound like he's being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he's coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he's the answer to that question for themselves.

In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably lead him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he's destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson's Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
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While I can understand Knight's attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson's life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn't until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as "a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult" whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.

However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight's mind, it's not where or who Wilson studied with that's important. It's how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher's credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect were famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws which according to Wilson was a call for all Muslims to realize the "Imam of his own being".

For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group The Five Percenters who he identifies with. However there's a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson's Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of the book shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson's writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can't escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor's disturbing writings.

Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering he's becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They've taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father's "Unabomber" shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text's hidden meanings on the Qur'an. This involves literally cutting up a work's text and then putting it back together randomly.

Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight's part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he's written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there's a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
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Perhaps the most telling point in the book is his description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them and how they try to "live" it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own "sect" but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers into stark relief.

A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won't matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and be willing to accept your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn't tell anybody they should follow his lead, this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like The Five Percenters, it seems like its more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make. His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do - he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.

(Article first published as Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

April 7, 2012

Leap In The Dark Has Moved


Well Leap In The Dark has a new address and host. After five years of being supported by my good friend Ashok Banker through his Epic India portal I've broken down and purchased my own domain name and home for Leap In The Dark. So here we are at www.richardrbmarcus.com and here we hope to stay for the next little while. It will still be the same content as before - mainly reviews with the occasional bit of fiction and even more occasional bit of opinion - focusing primarily on music and books. So if you've bookmarked the old site make sure to change the address. If you do happen to come across this post and are wondering where the home page might have gone, well I'm still ironing out a couple of bugs - like having the index page open at the right address. But hopefully that will come once the long weekend is over.

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
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Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
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How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2011

Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen

Over the past ten years the market has been flooded with an outpouring of memoirs from people who think the rest of us want to hear their tales of woe. While some have been written from a genuine desire to assist others struggling to come to grips with their own recovery, far too many have been self-serving attention seeking grabs for a flicker of celebrity. Unfortunately the numbers in the latter category have come to so outweigh the former many of us cringe upon hearing yet another "brave story of one (insert gender here) struggle to overcome past" has been unleashed upon the public. All of which means those few voices which might have something of value to say, aren't receiving a fair hearing.

Personally, I'm one of those whose instinctive reaction upon receiving a press release containing anything close to the "brave story" phrase is to hit delete and move on. As a survivor and a writer I find most of them either tedious or downright offensive. Having gone through years of therapy and dealt with my own shit, frankly I've little interest in wading through other people's manure, especially when they have nothing new to say about the subject at hand. That's especially true about those who are looking for their Oprah moment by telling the world about how miserable they were as a child. What are you trying to accomplish by spilling your guts to the world without putting it into any sort of context beyond self-pity and the confessional? No matter what anybody might say to the contrary there is nothing "inspirational" in reading somebody's tale of woe. What would be inspirational would be for you to have the courage to go to a therapist once a week and deal with your problems, but that makes for pretty boring reading and won't garner you any headlines.

So to say I was surprised to find myself intrigued enough to not only read the entire press release, but to request a review copy of Storm Of The i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen, published by her own Art Review Press, is a bit of an understatement. However, there was something about the attitude expressed in the release, and the outline of the concept for the book, that intrigued me. That the kiss of death "brave" catch phrase was nowhere to be seen and the author, a visual artist and graphic designer, was unabashedly proud of her other work, implying she was anything but the victim type, helped convince me this might be a story worth reading. However the real clincher was the fact you could tell that Ms. Collen, in spite of whatever her story was, had never lost her sense of the absurd and was still able to laugh at the world in spite of what it may have done to her.
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As a graphic and visual artist Ms. Collen has elected to tell her story utilizing the skills she is most comfortable with as well as the written word. (Hence the sub-title "An Artobiography") Having grown tired of the standard format of both biographies and autobiographies, with their written equivalent of the talking heads in a documentary movie telling a person's story and passionless listings of events in neat chronological order, even somebody daring to consider an alternative was exciting. It was the obvious question of how she would do this which first sprang to mind. However the answer wasn't anything as neat and tidy as I thought. Instead of the book being filled with images either reflecting her emotional state during the process of recovery or recently created works that looked back on her life telling the story in hindsight, she has done something far more revealing.

Any creative person, but especially one working in the visual arts, tells their own story through their work whether they are aware of it or not. No matter what the subject matter part of who they are and how they are feeling at the time they worked on a project can't help but being communicated in the finished result. While Ms. Collen had always known her relationship with her father was a source of grief in her life, it felt like everything she did, from dating to having children, angered him and that he was constantly belittling her, it was in her work that the true impact of their relationship was manifested. Looking at various pieces she had created throughout her life she began to notice recurring themes of emptiness. The void inside of her created by her father's apparent lack of love that she had repressed and carefully hidden from herself and the world had been on display for all to see if they, and she, had only known what to look for.

Even more frightening, in some ways, was coming to the understanding her ability to lose herself in her work, to become immersed in whatever she was working on, was in fact a means of running away from dealing with the issue. While all artists lose themselves in their work to the extent they can block out the world around them if their focus is sufficient, some of the examples of Ms. Collen's pieces included in the book border on obsessive in their need for attention to detail. She created a truly brilliant and witty series of works where she painstakingly created very realistic pictures of flowers by using body parts cut from pornographic magazines as the material. (For more on these works check out the Fleurotica section of her web site)

To the world she exuded confidence and bravado, always able to make those around her laugh and delight in her creativity and intellect. But she was crippled by back and neck pain and swamped by tidal waves of guilt, remorse and grief that began to manifest in debilitating as periods of depression so deep she wouldn't want to leave her bed. But this is not solely a tale of woe, its also a celebration of a life filled with creativity and a zest for experiences. Unlike other tell all confessions filled with self-abasement, recrimination and negativity, Collen doesn't leave you feeling like you're on a guided trip of the nine circles of her personal hell. In creating this map of her journey she details the whole process not just the negatives. She even owns up to having taken pleasure out of her life, not something you'd expect to find in this type of book.

One thing, and I was ever so grateful for this. she doesn't claim to have are the answers. She's very careful never to cross the line between telling her story and telling people what to do with their situations. While she does talk about the various therapies she has attempted in her search for relief, she refrains from becoming an advocate for any particular one. Even her description of attending an intensive seminar/lecture series whose methods very obviously don't work for her, makes sure to point out how it works for a number of the participants. What she does make clear is that no matter what therapy you use, recovery from any type of early life trauma is ultimately dependant on whether or not an individual is willing to be completely honest with themselves and do their own work. A therapist is only a guide, they can't change your life for you, only you can do that. Not only does Collen make that clear, she also makes it obvious that each of us are different and that her story isn't to be taken as any sort of guideline for recovery.
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So what was her purpose in writing this book if it wasn't for that reason? She's honest enough to even tackle that question. At one point she wonders out loud if the process of writing this book. with all its little intricacies and design features, isn't just another means of escape. However, she doesn't try to justify its writing by saying things like, I hope my story will inspire others or some such crap. She's doing it because she needs to, it's part of her process. She's a creative and intelligent person who thrives when making pieces of art. This book is simply one more of her creations, this time it just happens to be a very realistic, multi media, self-portrait. While other artists might have painted out the wart on their chin, she's more inclined to follow in the footsteps of people like Van Gogh who had no fear of showing the world their true state when putting their own image onto canvas.

Some of the reviews for this book I've read warn this style of memoir might become a trend, with people publishing scrap books of their lives in an attempt to tell their stories. All I can say is I sincerely hope not. In the hands of an artist gifted with the honesty, humour and integrity of Tina Collen, this book works. While some might find its lack of traditional book structure - one page might be pictures of events in the past with little written explanations of the events depicted while the next deals with something completely unrelated - confusing because its not divided up into neat chapters nor told in what appears to be a chronological order. Yet, if you think of it as a really large canvass made up of the multitude of experiences that exist inside her brain right now - after all we are inherently cubist as everything we have ever done lives on somewhere inside of us making us all multifaceted whether we're aware of it or not - you'll realize you've actually been given more of a complete picture os a person's life than either an autobiography or biography would normally supply. Like a collage it's all laid out in front of us to look at and absorb as individual images and ideas catch our attention.

Tina Collen has taken the staid and boring world of biography/autobiography and blown it wide open. While you may never have heard of her and her work before, with Storm of the i she has created something both remarkable, for its bold and fresh approach, and worth taking note of as a piece of art. In a digital age with the Internet at her disposal, she has chosen to utilize two of humanities oldest means of expression and combine them in ways that both challenge and engage the reader. Asking what purpose does it serve is no more relevant than asking what purpose any painting, novel, song, dance, opera or sculptor serves. Remember all art has its roots in the autobiographical, this work is just a little bit more obvious about it than others.

(Article first published as Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiogrpahy by Tina Collen on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

April 19, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It was a late fall night in 1981 and six of us were jammed into car cruising through Toronto's streets with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting from the car's stereo. We all joined in as she tore into the chorus: "Outside of society. We were young and artists and the lyrics fuelled, along with whatever we had taken earlier in the evening, our excitement at being alive and ready to conquer the world. Patti understood what that meant - we could tell by the way she sang about being an outsider - and there was no one more special, or outside, than someone still in love with the idea of being an artist who hasn't really begun to experience the complete reality of what that entails. Hard lessons and rude awakenings still lay on our horizons, and we could abandon ourselves to the wild joy of knowing we were different and celebrate it.

We were at the stage where being an outsider was part of the romanticism of being an artist, so it was only natural that we'd latched onto the song's chorus as almost our battle cry that night. Look out world here we come - young middle class kids with dreams of doing something more than sitting in an office, of having something more to give to the world than just being another cipher or cog in the wheel. Maybe we weren't all that sure what that was, but we knew, oh yes we did. It sounds more than a little arrogant when said that baldly, but there's actually more innocence and naivety to it than anything else.

At the time I knew almost nothing about Patti Smith save for her music, and its only been in the past year or so that I've begun learn her story. It turns out that of all those who seemed to come out of New York City's 1970's punk scene centred around CBGB's, it makes the most sense that Patti Smith would be the one whose music celebrated being an artist. In the past couple months I've watched two movies, Dream Of Life and Black, White + Grey which have touched somewhat on her early years. However, as the former was more about the last eleven years and the latter only about her in terms of how her life had intersected with the famous American curator Sam Wagstaff, they didn't offer very complete pictures. Well, all that changed with the publication of her book Just Kids by Harper Collins Canada January 2010.
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Just Kids is not your typical autobiography. Sure it contains all the usual stuff like where she was born, Chicago; how her family moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey when she was a child; and how in 1967, realizing there was little or no chance of even attempting to realize her dreams of becoming an artist while working in a factory, she left New Jersey for New York City. For its also the story of how her life intertwined with Robert Mapplethorpe's, the other kid of the plural in the title and one of America's best known contemporary photographers, until his AIDS related death in 1989. Almost the first person she meets upon her arrival in New York City, they began living together, as soon as they were able to afford a place and stayed together until the early 1970's.

Smith writes with a clarity and straightforwardness that is deceptive at first in its simplicity. When reading prose its easy to forget that the person writing is a poet, and has a poet's gift for words, so what on the surface might appear to be a simple recounting of an occurrence ends up being far more. You don't just read what she has written, you somehow end up living and experiencing it with her. We share the small comforts that make their days more bearable - the baker who slips them a couple of extra cookies because she feels sorry for the two waifs - and feel the pain of their hunger when they go days without food. Mainly though we share their excitement as they discover their talents and start to push and pull them into shape.

They are a team - us against the world - and together they are unbeatable as nothing, lack of money, lack of food, or even a lack of a place to live can conquer them. For a while they drift from dive to dive, until Robert almost dies when Patti takes an extended vacation with her sister and returns home to find him rotting in a junkie hotel. He's not sick from drugs, but he has trench mouth, lice, and gonorrhoea. She gathers up his belongings and together they move to what will be their final shared home - The Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 The Chelsea attracted artists like a magnet, and they meet everybody from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Bob Dylan to Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. Smith recounts a wonderful story of going to an automat to buy a sandwich and having Alan Ginsberg pay for her lunch when he mistakes her for a pretty boy. Years later he asks her how she would describe their first meeting and she says simply "You fed me".
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Having been raised a very strict Catholic Mapplethorpe was carrying a lot of baggage when it came to his sexuality. In fact, he and Smith had to pretend they had been secretly married before he would even take her to meet his parents, or else face accusations of living in sin. Both of them are in fact so innocent, that neither really understand Mapplethorpe's homosexuality. While there are some obvious rough spots, including him being jealous of her relationships with other men, they are able to transcend them through the bond forged between them by their respective arts. Put baldly like that, it may sound cliched, but as you read the book, you see and feel how their connection is forged. We see how they struggled and supported each other through everything, encouraging and pushing the other along in they developed as both artists and human beings.

Obviously being in New York City in the late 1960's didn't hurt, as they not only had the benefit of being exposed to the great ones of an earlier generation for guidance but the example of those around them who were already succeeding for inspiration. They moved in what can only be called rarified circles as they were invited to hang out with The Band in Woodstock, the opening of Electric Ladyland Studios (where an equally shy Jimi Hendrix joined Patti in lurking on the fire escape and encouraged her to join the party), and the back room of Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol's inner circle from The Factory. Although already minus Warhol by that time and almost reduced to a caricature of what it once was, this circle of intimates still provided the two young artists with introductions to people who would help their careers.

What's most amazing about Just Kids is how little it feels like an autobiography. Smith writes with such direct honesty and love that it's impossible not to be caught up in their story and find yourself wanting them to succeed. She captures the incredible mixture of fear and exhilaration that occurs when you give yourself over to something as completely as they did to their goals of becoming artists. What some might have tried to romanticize as bohemian, she brings to life with a sense of innocence and wonder that makes it sound like she still can't believe she could have been so blessed as to not only have the opportunity to do and be what she wanted, but actually have succeeded at it on her own terms.

Just Kids is a love story; of two people and their love for each other and their mutual love of art. Beautifully written, its both joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Smith doesn't shrink from describing both the harsh realities of the life she and Mapplethrope led together as well as the moments of celebration. However, even more importantly, she manages to convey what motivates a person to make the choice to be an "Outsider of society", and how its worth the price no matter how steep it might seem to an observer. Anyone who has ever wondered what it really is to be an artist and why anybody would go to all that trouble, reading this book will give you some idea as to the answer. Most of all though, no matter who you are or what you do, it will remind you that life is worth celebrating and to make the most of what you have while you're here.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

November 5, 2009

A Book Signing For What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

Well in about ten days I'm going to be doing my first appearance as a professional author! Who'd have thunk it? Not me - at least not in this fashion. By now most people who read this page will know that last January Ulysses Press in the US commissioned me to write a book predicting what would happen in the fourth instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. The main reason such a fuss is being made over the fourth book is that he had originally only planned on it being a trilogy, but was half-way through writing the third book, Brisingr, when he came to understand that if he wanted to do the story justice he needed an extra book.

Naturally his fans were disappointed that they weren't going to be seeing the conclusion to the series immediately, but once they had devoured the third book they quickly recovered and speculation has run amuck since as to how things were going to turn out. Which is why Ulysses Press thought there was an opportunity for a book like What Will Happen In Eragon IV? to be of interest to some people. Of course there are going to be those who see this as a shameless attempt to cash in on somebody else's fame and creativity, and I did wrestle with that for twenty-four hours. However also saw it as an chance to have some fun and exercise my brain in a direction I've never tried before.

I had no idea whether I could write about something like this and make it interesting to the people who like Paolini's books, and I still don't. What I do know is that it was much harder work than I anticipated it being, and if I were going to try and exploit somebody else's work and ideas I'd have found a much easier way of doing it - Believe you me!
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Now the purpose of this post isn't to justify my writing of this book, it's to invite any of you who are going to be in Kingston Ontario on November 14th to come down to Indigo Books at 259 Princess Street between 2:00 pm. and 4:00 pm to for the opportunity of having your book signed - or purchasing a copy and having it signed if you haven't already done so, and maybe even taking some time to talk about the book and what you think is going to happen and why.

You can also leave your comments about my predictions at the books own web site if you can't make it down to the store to give me a piece of your mind. Hopefully though I'll see you there. Indigo shipped in forty copies of the book and I'd really like to make sure they're not stuck with any of them after Saturday the 14th - in fact it would be really cool if they have to order more. You can also pick up a copy just down the street from Indigo at Novel Idea - corner of Princess and Bagot - as they have a few copies on the shelf ( in the young adult section at the back of the store right next to their copies of the Inheritance cycle)

Please, do not, like those poor misguided souls at amazon.com who have left negative reviews, confuse my efforts with the actual fourth book of the series, I'm not sure how you could as it clearly states on the cover of the book my name as author and that the book is not associated with, authorized or approved by Christopher Paolini or his publishers ( Well they did approve it - at least so much as promise not to sue me for stealing Paolini's intellectual property as it's obvious any of his work I've quoted has been purely for analytical purposes)

So hopefully you'll read the book and at the very least it will make you think if not even change your mind about what you think will happen. Remember there is a big difference between what you think and what you hope will happen.

October 3, 2009

Grief, Willy DeVille, Me, And Michael Jackson Too

The past year has seen the death of quite a number of public figures, with Michael Jackson's being the most prominent, but there have been others as well. However Jackson's was the death that prompted the worst excess of public grief. It seemed perfectly acceptable for people who had never met him to collapse into paroxysms of grief in public. Television cameras all over the world recorded scenes of people with tears pouring down their faces laying flowers at the impromptu shrines they had created for this person who they had never met. Nobody questioned their behaviour or wondered as to why they would have such a violent reaction to the death of someone who in recent years was better known for his suspicious activities than any artistic creations.

Earlier this year my wife's uncle passed away leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. They had been married for more then thirty years and in that time had grown inseparable - one never thought of one without mentioning the other. So it was perfectly understandable that she was devastated when he died. Yet, even at his funeral there were whispers of - why doesn't she control herself, who does she think she's trying to impress - in response to her grief. However, the real whispering didn't start until a couple months after his death and she was still liable to burst into tears at any time.

My wife and I were at a family dinner some months after her uncle died and the subject of her aunt came up. We hadn't been in contact with her since the funeral so we asked how she was doing. I was shocked by the vehemence of the disgust that was expressed over the fact that she was still crying over the loss of her husband. "She gets one glass of wine into her and she's off" was said with great scorn.

I couldn't believe it, the woman had lost the person who had been the biggest part of her world for close to thirty years and people were being impatient with her because she was still grieving. I couldn't help thinking how I'd feel if my wife was the one who had died and how I'd be reacting. How could they expect her to be able turn off the grief she was feeling from her loss as if it were something she had any control over? I would have been more concerned if she hadn't still been crying over her loss. Yet here were this group of so-called adults, supposedly her family and support, sitting around nodding wisely and saying it was time for her to get on with her life.

According to who I want to know? As I was trying to figure out what was so wrong with her crying about losing the man she'd loved only a few months ago I caught hold of a key phrase floating around amongst the conversation, "It's just so embarrassing". For a second I couldn't figure out what was so embarrassing, and then I realized they meant the fact that the poor woman was still crying about the the loss of the love of her life. Her grief was too real for them and they didn't know what to do about it. Why it didn't occur to them to comfort her I wondered instead of criticizing her for being upset?

When the conversation turned to Michael Jackson a short while latter and comments were made about how moving it was to see all the people crying for him, I was even more confused. In one breath they were criticizing a women for crying because her heart was breaking, and with the other they are exclaiming at how wonderful it was to see people crying over a total stranger. Why was the one so acceptable and the other wasn't? What made the one moving while the other was embarrassing? Why was it more acceptable for there to be a public outpouring of grief for a famous person than public grief from a private person?

I think people are scared of grief when it comes too close them and they don't know what to do about it. It's one thing to watch it on television, but another thing all together to sit and have it on display in your living room. There's no such thing as controlling your grief either - you either feel something or you don't - and if you do why should you be made to feel ashamed for feeling?

When Nina DeVille wrote to tell me that her husband Willy had been diagnosed as having stage four pancreatic cancer last May she said "we try to pretend everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal again". A part of you has been ripped away for ever and you're expected to carry on as if everything was normal, or to get over it and get on with your life. How can anything ever be normal again? Is it even possible?

While I still don't pretend to understand the mass hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson's death, Willy DeVille's death this past August has given me a little more appreciation for people's need to share their grief over the loss of a public figure with others. In June I started a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the person who started the petition I had to make an e-mail address available and as a result I've been hearing from individuals from all over the world about how Willy's music affected them.

I have to admit I wondered why people would write a total stranger in order to tell them about their grief, but after a while I simply accepted the honour they were according me. Maybe they had read some of the things I had written about Willy and realized I too was moved by him personally as well as professionally. Maybe because I had interviewed him on occasion and was in contact with his wife Nina periodically they felt I was the closest they could get to telling Willy how they felt about him. I don't know, but I do know that I heard from people who had been close to Willy when they were young, people who had never known him, or people like me whose lives had intersected his briefly outside the music and were changed forever by the contact.

I then remembered back to 1980 when John Lennon had been killed, and how I had gone down to Nathan Philip's Square in Toronto Ontario to join thousands of others standing around in the cold to remember and celebrate John's life. Whatever it was that I was looking for there that night I didn't find. Whoever had organized it made sure to play the right music and there were speeches from people like Ronnie Hawkins who had known Lennon, but it didn't do anything for me. I realize now it was because we were all there as individuals and nothing was done to bring us together or make us feel we weren't alone in our grief. The person standing next to me could have been feeling the same things as me, but the event was so impersonal I never found out.

So when I received an e-mail from somebody wanting to know if I could help organize a memorial for DeVille in New York City, I was only too glad to have an excuse to pass - I live in Canada and can't travel to the States for a variety of reasons - because I couldn't envision it being of benefit to anyone. However I've recently had cause to change my mind as I've found out more about who the people are behind the event and why they are doing it. Three people, from different parts of North America, tied together by their appreciation of Willy DeVille's music have decided to meet in New York City on October 10th/09 in Tompkin's Square Park on the Avenue B side at three in the afternoon to remember Willy and have invited anyone who is interested in doing the same to join them. If you can't make it to the park, or if the weather sucks, they plan on meeting up at Bar On A, 170 Avenue A, where their will be white roses for everybody and Willy's music played through-out the night.

It doesn't sound like there will be any speeches, just a group of like minded people getting together to tell stories and talk about what Willy meant to them. Missing somebody is a very personal matter and we don't often have the opportunity to talk about why we loved somebody or why we miss them even with those who supposedly care about us. I think of my wife's aunt and how much she would appreciate the opportunity to sit around with a group of people one night listening to them talk about her late husband and what he meant to them. I think how it would be nice for her to have the chance to do the same with people who won't be judging her for feeling pain at her loss, and I can see how this memorial for Willy DeVille could be of benefit where others haven't been.

Grief is nothing to be afraid of but nor should it be the spectator sport that it seems to have become in our mass media world. When you lose somebody you care about nobody has the right to tell you how to feel or when you should "get over it", nor should you be made to feel guilty for your grief. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn't have your best interest at heart no matter what they say. Only you know the size of the hole that was left in your heart, everybody else can only guess at it.

For those interested in attending the Willy DeVille Memorial in New York City on October 10th you may RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com, but feel free to show up whether you do or not

September 6, 2009

What Will Happen To What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

January 2009 will always be notable for me as the moment when my aspirations of being a published author were finally realized. True it wasn't going to be quite how I imagined it, but my name would be appearing on the cover of a book on bookstores across North America. I had been approached by Ulysses Press and asked if I would be interested in writing What Will Happen In Eragon IV?, a book predicting what would happen in the fourth and final instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle (Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr)

They had had remarkable success with a similar book about J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, and although Paolini has yet to duplicate her popularity, he's been pretty close. Brisingr, book three in the series, sold a half million copies the day it was released in North America, a new record for it's publisher, Random House, for a young adult title. Another reason why Ulysses figured there would be interest in our book, was the fact Paolini had originally intended to only write a trilogy, but half way through the writing of book three a press release was issued announcing that he wasn't going to be able to finish the story properly without creating a fourth book.

The cynical among you might think that this was merely a ploy to try and milk a golden goose by either the publisher or the author, but if you've read the books as closely as I have (and believe me I've read them closely in the past few months) you'll know he really didn't have much choice in the matter. The story had become so large that for him to wrap up all the lose ends he had developed over its course the third book would have needed to be close to 1500 pages in length to cover everything. Even before the third book was published speculation about how the series would conclude was been rife in forums, blogs, and social networking sites, so there's definitely a market for a book on the subject.

My initial contact with Ulysses Press may have been in January, but I wasn't given the go ahead to start writing until the end of February. Initially I had been told that my deadline for submitting a first draft - they asked for a minimum of 50,000 words - was May 1st/09, but by the time I signed the contracts that had been shifted back to April 1st. I ended up handing in 55,000 or so words by the end of March. That very rough draft was sent off to some readers whose comments were passed back to me and I was given an opportunity to make any changes I wanted to the text before it was sent off to the editors. So roughly two weeks later I handed in a second draft - this time closer to 57,000 words and sat back to wait.

Now I've heard plenty from various authors who I've talked to about the challenges a writer faces in getting his or her book published. However I don't think anyone can really appreciate any of them until you've worked through them yourself. Obviously I didn't have to deal with the first hurdle of having to find someone to publish this book, but there were specifics associated with this work that I don't think many other authors have to face. Of course the first thing I discovered is probably something all first time authors experience; handing in the manuscript is only half the battle.

Now in most cases there is the whole editing process where your pearls of wisdom are picked apart and put back together by the editors assigned to your book by the publisher. Now I know editors get bad press, but I have to tell you in this instance these people were saints. You have to remember what I submitted was at best a clean first draft which I had had very little time to check for typos and continuity. So when they sent me back their edited version of the text with changes marked via the word processing software's "show changes", I simply checked the box marked accept changes - and then proceeded to deal with the questions they had on content. However that process was remarkably easy compared to what came next, the lawyers draft.

Obviously I had referred back to the original books on many occasions, and for each reference I had to make sure that the page and book they came from were cited. So in order to ensure that Random House, Paolini's publishers, had no reason to accuse us of any sort of intellectual theft I had to scour the pages ensuring that all references from the books, no matter how oblique, were properly cited. One of the more tedious things that I was forced to do was count the number of words directly quoted from the books. It seems that only a certain percentage of your total word count being quotes is allowable under the fair uses laws of copyright. I had quite the headache after that was all said and done.

Finally it was time for the proofs, normally the last stage before a book goes to press, The author is sent a copy of the book laid out in its final form and told to scour it for any mistakes that might have been missed and take this last chance to request any changes he or she might want. In my case though there was still one more stage for us to got through - due diligence. We had to send off samples of the book to Random House for approval so if they decide to sue us at some point in the future we can stand up in court and say "Hey they had their chance to object before we went to press and they didn't".

I had finished with the proofs back in July/09 and the days gradually ticked by closer to September 1st/09, our publication date. Near mid August I heard from Ulysses' publicist as she was preparing for the book's launch so I assumed everything was still on schedule. I decided that it couldn't hurt to do some local publicity and contacted the branch of Indigo books where I live, Canada's biggest chain of bookstores, to make inquiries about a publicity appearance. I also got in touch with the book's distributor in Canada to see what they would be willing to do to help out with that event. Happily, I've written quite a few reviews for them in the past and they were great, promising not only to ensure the store had enough books on hand for my appearance but to also create posters for the event.

Then, on September 2nd, the day after the book was supposed to have gone on sale in the United States, after I'd already set up a web site for the book and announced its publication, I heard from the publishers that the book was not due back from the printers until September 8th and wouldn't be in book stores until the first week of October. Talk about your false climaxes. Now I have to post an announcement on the web site telling everybody not to bother looking for the book just yet, contact Indigo and let them know we might have to reschedule the event, and be grateful that I hadn't mailed out the press releases that I had planned on to the local media.

It's been a long strange trip this whole experience, one which I'm extremely grateful to have experienced, but I was still looking forward to its conclusion. However at least now there's a definite end in sight, and soon enough I'll be finding out what will happen with What Will Happen In Eragon IV? Yet, until I actually see it siting on a bookshelf in a bookstore with my name along the bottom of the cover I won't truly believe any of it.

June 25, 2009

Forgiveness & Abuse

I've written rather extensively about things of a rather personal nature in the past in order to offer people an example of some of the processes available to those who have suffered from some sort of trauma. I'm no expert or psychologist, all I've been able to offer is a sample of the things I've experienced and the protocols that have been employed by my doctors to help me deal with how the past continued to impact on my present in order to give me a better future. Some of them had to do with finding more appropriate means of expressing my emotions, others dealing with behaviour that might have been appropriate for survival but that could now be discarded, and others helped me in assimilating the events of the past so they wouldn't live on in my mind and my emotions.

While it's been a long slow process to deal with the crap that had accumulated; there were times I had assumed I was done only to find more buried away which required excising; after being in therapy on and for fifteen years I can finally see that I'm getting to the point where I'm capable of coping on my own. The emotional scarring and wounding may never heal completely, but I have reached a point where I'm no longer controlled by events that occurred when I was a child. Ironically the length of time it's taken to get to this point is roughly equivalent to the length of time the abuse lasted in the first place.

Now in spite of what you might have seen and heard on various day time talk shows specializing in the dissecting of people's emotions for the enjoyment of their audiences, or that believe themselves capable of dispensing the wisdom to heal everybody of what ails them, there are no cut and dried happy endings to this type of thing. While time isn't going to be able to heal all wounds, it's only through time's passage that you're going to get relief from their pain. There's no magic formulae that will speed up the process of recovery, nor is there any one method that will solve all of your problems. Anyone who says that they have discovered a system that will "cure" you is deluded at best, or at worst a liar.

Sure there are all sorts of panaceas that can make you feel better about yourself for a moment or two, but there no better than any of the other things that people take to suppress their emotions so they don't feel any pain. There's no difference between what these hucksters are offering and the drugs and booze I used for years to mask my own pain. Reciting some silly mantra, calling upon a guardian angel, or reciting an affirmation about you being worthy of love won't stop flashbacks of the abuse from occurring or help you deal with any underlying behavioural problems caused by the abuse.

However there's something even more misguided and dangerous that occurs on some of these shows. How many times have you seen staged reunions and reconciliations between long estranged family members? Great weepy scenes where people fall into each other's arms forgiving each other for past misdeeds and vowing eternal love for each other. The implication being that if only you can forgive the person who caused you pain, if they would only apologize, everything would be better.

One of the hardest things for the child of abusive parents to deal with is the reality that the happy family society tells us is the norm, was so comprehensively denied them. Most of us spent years trying to figure out what was wrong with us that made our abuser break that promise, only later understanding that it was them, not us, who were the problem. After years of trying to figure out ways of making someone else happy so they would love us, or at least leave us alone; years of being told we were only getting what we deserved; or years of having the love between a parent and child perverted into something awful, the idea of family being a shelter and a haven from the world takes quite a beating.

It's probably difficult for you to imagine what seeing one of those scenes described above feels like to somebody who spent years forgiving their abuser in the hopes tomorrow would be better. Maybe, you would tell yourself, after they apologized for what seemed like the hundredth time, they really mean it this time. Maybe the tears they shed after forcing you to have sex with them are real and they really feel remorse for their actions? Even if as a child you weren't capable of comprehending what it was you were doing exactly, by trying to love them because they were your parent, you were practising a form of forgiveness.

Therefore, the idea that forgiving somebody years later for what they did to us as a child will make things better when they didn't respond to our gestures of forgiveness at the time can't help but seem unrealistic if not stupid. Sure it makes for great television and appeals to everybody's sentimental nature, but it fails to take into account that in order to forgive someone there needs to be some sort of reciprocity of feeling. How can you forgive someone who never showed any remorse for their actions or never took any steps to change their behaviour?

There have been things I've done in my life that I've had to apologize for and I know how hollow some of them were until I was able to change my behaviour sufficiently that my actions suited my words. While there is a school of thought that says unless we learn how to forgive those who have hurt us we will never fully recover from the damage inflicted upon us, it sounds far too much like the same behaviour we practised as children in the hopes of making things better. It still feels like we're not standing up for ourselves and giving the abuser power over us. People can say all they like that forgiveness doesn't mean you condone what somebody did, but quite frankly I'd rather just have the strength to tell them to fuck off out of my life and leave me alone.

As a child I didn't have the power to do that and was forced to do whatever necessary to survive. I no longer have to surrender anything of myself to my abuser and I no longer have to try and make them happy. Asking me, or anyone to forgive their abuser, no matter what shape that forgiveness comes in, would be like asking us to return to being a victim. That's not about to happen anytime soon.

February 26, 2009

Published At Last

Way back in October of 2005 I began writing the series of articles for Blorgcritics.org called NaNoWriMo Notes. The NaNoWriMo of the title refers to something called the National Novel Writing Month competition in which participants attempt to write 50,000 words towards a novel in the space of thirty days, or the month of November. NaNoWriMo Notes started off as a record of my efforts to make the deadline in 2005, and then evolved into a record of taking what I started that November to completion and my continued efforts to find a publisher for the final manuscript.

It's been getting more and more difficult for unpublished authors to find a publisher, and I was no exception. So I put the manuscript aside for a bit and focused on writing as much as I possibly could, because it's what I liked doing. Then the strangest thing started to happen: people began approaching me to buy my work. It started off with the German edition of Rolling Stone magazine asking me for permission to reprint an interview I had done with American singer/songwriter Willy DeVille (I ended up providing most of the copy for a special feature they did on him for their February 2008 issue) and continued that fall when the web magazine Qantara.de approached me to contribute articles on a freelance basis.

Finding my work in demand, I decided to re-visit my manuscript and began the process of going through it again with an eye for making edits and re-writes to prepare it for publication. I had come across a new publishing house whose web-site said they were actively seeking new authors, so I figured it was worth the effort to polish it up and send off the standard query letter. I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that if I wanted people to read it that I was probably going to have to go the self publishing route, but it couldn't hurt to make one last effort at having somebody else publish it for me.

Much to my surprise, and delight, not only did they respond positively to my query letter, after reading a fifty page excerpt they requested the full manuscript. That was at the end of January/09 and although they said they would get back to me in a week or so, I'm still waiting to hear from them as to their final decision. I'm not sure whether that's a good or a bad sign that they're taking longer then they said they would, but for the time being I'm not all that disturbed by their slowness, for as it turns out I'm going to be a published author anyway.

The day after I received the e-mail requesting the sample pages from the publisher I had sent the query letter to, one arrived in my inbox from Ulysses Press in California asking me if I would be interested in writing a short book, 50,000 words, predicting what would happen in the fourth book of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. It seems they had experienced great success with a similar book they had published for the Harry Potter series, MuggleNet.com's What Will Happen In Harry Potter Seven, and felt there was a good chance of repeating that success with Paolini's series.

To say I was taken aback is an understatement as it felt like the equivalent of winning the lottery. Needless to say the first thing I did was follow the link to their web site in order to make sure this wasn't one of those, congratulations you have just been selected by Bill Gates to receive a chunk of his money things, and discovered they were for real. It turns out they had read my reviews of the first two books in the Inheritance Cycle and been impressed enough by it, and other work of mine that they read on line, to think that I'd be a good fit for what they wanted.

Needless to say I was, and am still, immensely flattered and thrilled, but that didn't stop me from having some hesitations. First of all there was the whole issue of legality - I didn't feel comfortable with writing something like this if it wasn't with the approval of the original work's author. I had genuinely like and appreciated Ergaon and Eldest, the two books of the series that I had read at that point, and wanted nothing to do with something that was being done behind his back and that didn't respect his work. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be sure it was more than just an exploitation of another person's creativity.

The letter I received in response to the one I sent them expressing those concerns was very reassuring as they told me they were in the midst of negotiations with Paolini, his publisher, and their representatives in order to make certain there were no problems. For although they obviously wanted the book completed as quickly as possible, my deadline is April 1st/09, they didn't want it to be some quickie exploitative thing that diminished the original. Not only did the content of the letter make me feel better about the project, but the way in which the editor who wrote addressed my concerns convinced me that they were sincere in wanting to publish a book that honoured the original more than anything else.

Now everyone knows how popular the Harry Potter series was, but the other concern I had was whether or not there really was an audience for a predictions book about the Inheritance Cycle. I hadn't been keeping up with any of the news surrounding the series, as is obvious by having to ask that question, so I didn't know that Paolini had originally planned to write a trilogy. It was only when he started writing Brisingr, the third book, that he realized he wouldn't be doing the story or his characters justice if he stuck to his original plan. About a year before Brisingr was due to be published he and his publisher announced that a fourth book was going to be necessary, which when you think about it was quite a risk. People could as easily been turned off by the fact the series was being extended as they were excited by the prospect of another book. It turned out that it was the latter, as Brisingr sold around half a million copies in North America on its release date, a record for a young adult title published by Random House.

Needless to say once I found that out, and began checking out the Internet and seeing all the blogs and various web sites devoted to discussions and analysis of the series, I saw why Ulysses Press figured there was a market for a book predicting what would happen in Book Four. So since the middle of January I've been immersing myself in all things Inheritance Cycle, and began seriously writing in the second week of February. This means I've not had time for much else since, and probably won't until I've finished. I'll still be writing the occasional review, and I hope to write a few articles about the experience as it happens (no spoilers though as the publisher has requested I don't talk about the content).

If I'm really fortunate, once I finish with the predictions book for the Inheritance Cycle, my own novel will be in editing and final preparations for publication. Maybe that's a little too much to hope for, going from unpublished author to having two books published in one year, but all of a sudden it's a very real possibility. This could be a very interesting year.

January 24, 2009

Book Review: Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For MiguelBy Henry Eric Hernandez

Henry Eric Hernandez is a historian even though you'll not find his name listed as the author of any text book or learned article about the subject. For he doesn't "write" the kind of history that deals with dates, battles, or famous historic figures. In his book published a couple of years ago, La Revancha (Revenge), Hernandez documented a series of what he called interventions where he and a group of people carried out renovations on buildings in Cuba where events of historical significance had taken place. Through these restoration projects he brought history to life as he recalled what it was that had originally made a building famous; what is now a rundown toilet in a school was once the military barracks that both Batista and Fidel Castro had used as their the staging grounds prior to marching on Havana during their respective revolutions.

While the work he carried out in La Revancha focused primarily on events that took place in the earlier part of the twentieth century, either before Castro had taken power or in the early days of revolutionary government, his most recent book, Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For Miguel), published by Perceval Press brings us into the modern era. This time though he has turned to the people of Cuba in order to paint a picture of the effects its involvement in the Angolan, Ethiopian, and Somalian civil wars of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The focus is split between stories that reflect the economic impact of the wars and personal accounts from women left widowed.

In his introduction to the book Kevin Power provides us with the basic facts surrounding the civil war in Angola, and the circumstances which led to Cuba's involvement first there and subsequently in both Somalia and Ethiopia. This being the height of the Cold War, Russia and America were up to their usual tricks of vying for influence in the region. Russia, instead of deploying their own troops "asked" Cuba to send advisors to the side they supported in Angola, while the US, South Africa, and China backed the other side. In excerpts from speeches given by Fidel Castro that are included in the first couple of stories, we see that in the late 1970's Cuba was considering normalization of relations with the United States as part of a plan to expand their industry and economy. Instead, they involved themselves in the civil wars in Africa and deepened the split.
Another Island For Miguel.jpg
There are two parts to Otra Isla Para Miguel, the stories included in the book and a DVD of Cubans telling their stories. Like the book, some of the people in the DVD talk about loved ones lost in the wars in Africa, while others detail the economic hardships they face and what they have to do in order to survive. In an interesting twist both the book and the DVD combine visual elements with "words" to tell the story of the impact these wars have had on Cuba and her people.

Throughout the text Hernandez has scattered photo's celebrating people's contributions to the cause of Cuba. Tawdry certificates commemorating years of service and charitable contributions, pictures of men and women posing under banners celebrating agricultural triumphs, and images of men in uniforms either at training facilities in Cuba or in action in Africa are juxtaposed with a widow's reflections on losing her husband or an account of a woman working as a prostitute because she has no other way to raise her family.

In the DVD interviews with individuals talking about their lives cut away to footage of life in Cuba. We see row after row of buildings crumbling in disrepair, dirty streets with garbage heaped in mounds against the sides of buildings, and aimless groups of people wandering, sitting in desolate groups on street corners, wearing the blank expression of the hopeless poor the world over. While the individuals we see being interviewed are animated, the primary emotions that appear to be driving them are anger, fear, and grief, as they recount what they have been though and what they continue to experience.

Without using any of the usual characteristics of a history text book, dates, statistics, and the names of famous people, Ora Isla Para Miguel gives the reader/viewer a history of Cuba. While the picture that gradually develops isn't positive by any means, at the same time you never once get the feeling that anybody involved in the project has a particular political agenda in presenting this information. This is a people's history of their day to day lives, not a rant against the horrors of Communism or the "evils" of the Castro regime.

In the 1970's Cuba's government made the decision to become involved with a series of wars overseas with results that have proved catastrophic for the country. Not only did they leave countless of people bereft of fathers and husbands for reasons they still don't understand, they took the country down a path that has resulted in their near economic ruin. Not only does Ora Isla Para Miguel bring that reality to life in a way no text could, Henry Eric Henandez reminds us of the human face that resides behind the events that are called "History". In the process he has rendered one of the most accurate histories of a country and its people I have ever experienced.

October 4, 2008

Give It Away: One Solution To The Book Publishing Blues

It's been slightly over two years since I finished writing my first novel, The Paths Life Takes. Since that day she has sat quietly in various computer hard drives, on CD data discs, on a floppy disc, and even in a cardboard box awaiting shipping to a publisher. She's been very patient waiting to see if I'll ever help fulfill her purpose of having people read her. Not once has she raised a fuss when I've let months go by and not even made an effort to find her a publisher. Even when I've ignored her completely, forgotten her existence entirely, she has continued to wait for me without a word of complaint.

Every so often I might open one of her files and dust off some of the language in an attempt to pretty her up, but my heart isn't really into it, and I think she must some times know it. Yet, she is very understanding and doesn't take it personally, accepting my cowardly behaviour without criticism. For what else but cowardliness can explain my inertia when it comes to seeking out publishers for her more actively? If, as I claim to do, love her so greatly, why am I unable to commit myself to applying to one of the many publishers still out there who look at writings from new writers, if not because I'm afraid of something?

Once in a while I'll make the effort of looking up the submission guidelines for various publishers, and will even go so far as to bookmark the page on their web site where they outline exactly what they want from writers. For a half hour or so I tell myself that I will really do it this time, send off the thirty pages that they want, with the synopsis and covering letter. Yet in the end I don't - there's always some excuse. I don't have the postage to pay for sending off the required number of pages, I'm too busy to write the chapter by chapter breakdown that one publisher requires, or the marketing plan that another requires are three of the most common ones I've used recently.

I don't know what happened, because it never used to be like this with me and her. When I first finished the manuscript I had no trouble motivating myself to do anything required by a publisher - heck I even paid the postage required to send a three hundred page manuscript to India on the chance that Penguin India would be interested in it (no). Even the four rejection letters that I've received by mail and by e-mail were like badges to be displayed in honour as they proved my gallantry under fire, and only made me more determined to win a place for my beloved amongst others of her kind on shelves.

So why than do I now feel such an overwhelming sense of disquiet, a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, whenever I contemplate another publisher's submission page? Why has the strength of my desire dissipated to such an extent that all I end up doing is saying "What's the use"? I went back and read over the first chapter again, and realized I still liked what I had written - so it's not a matter of doubting her quality. I still think she's a good as most of what's on the market, if not better, and don't feel the least bit of embarrassment in saying so either.

Yet still I stall and refuse to do anything about publishing her, so I have to figure that a part of me is afraid, but afraid of what? If I'm honest with myself the fear is that I will be found out as a fraud and somebody will finally say it to my face that I'm not a writer and should seriously consider finding something else to do with my time. That this flies in the face of all the evidence that's been accumulating over the past year or so that says otherwise does little or nothing to console me. Deep seated insecurities quickly overwhelm concrete evidence when left alone to dominate your thoughts in the middle of the night.

So what if the German edition of Rolling Stone published /commissioned me to write a feature article and interview with Willy DeVille last February? Who cares that I've signed a free lance contract with Deutsche Welle to write an article a month for their English language "Qantara.de - Dialogue With The Islamic World" web site? It all sounds very impressive but it means absolutely nothing to the inner demon who whispers in my ear, "Who do you think you're fooling and how long do you expect to continue to get away with it?"

The standard advice that is normally given when dealing with fears like this is that one should face up to them in order to prove them wrong. I can understand the logic behind that as I've done just that in the past with other things that have required a leap of faith, a leap in the dark. The problem in this case is how can I get people to read the book if there is no means available for them to do so? Sending thirty pages to a publisher to have them write back and say its not what we're looking for at this time, or words to that effect, isn't going to tell me whether somebody liked reading my book or why they didn't. What I need is a way of getting people to read the damn thing so that I can face the people who matter - readers of books, but without a publisher how do I do that?

Well I guess the answer would be obvious to most of you, but it had to be pointed out to me. Yesterday I reviewed on these pages the novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow that I had downloaded for free from his web site. Even though Cory has a publisher, Tor books, and his books are available for sale in book stores and on line, he has free download sites for all his books and encourages people to translate them and distribute copies of them in countries where they're not available for publication.

He cites as his inspiration for doing this somebody saying to him once that his problem is not people pirating his work, but his obscurity. Reading his site, and reading about what he does with his books, inspired me all over again. True I don't have a publisher for my work, but I do have the potential for putting things on the market if people want to buy a hard copy through any of the print on demand options available to writers these days. Why couldn't I do what he's doing and offer copies of The Paths Life Takes as a free download in PDF format at my web site? I could give them the option of also purchasing a copy through Amazon.com, or maybe even making a donation through my PayPal account for the download?

Supposedly I receive around a thousand unique visitors to my Leap In The Dark blog every week, and there must be a few people who read me here at Blogcritics.org. Some of them could be curious enough to download a free copy of a novel I've written, just to check out what I've done. They won't be risking anything, all it will cost them will be the time it takes to read enough of the book to decide whether they like it enough to keep reading it or not. I don't expect everybody to like it, but maybe some of them will, and maybe some of them will like it enough to translate it into other languages for me so it can be made available for other people to read in other countries. The possibilities are endless - heck there's even the chance a publisher will notice me and offer to publish, if not this book, but it's sequel. Heck if this works out it will even give me the motivation to finish writing the sequel.

Look, I know, the reality is that probably very few people will actually download her, what motivation will they have for doing so other than the fact that I'm offering free copies. In all likelihood the fact that I'm offering it for free will turn most people off because they'll think if its free it can't be any good. However, as it stands right now, nobody is reading her, and at least this way somebody might. I've recently opened my own Facebook and My Space pages where I can create download centres and promote the book as well.

What have I got to lose? I'll feel better about myself for having done something, and I'll be facing up to my fears. A writer isn't a writer unless he or she is willing to let people read what they have written. I'm willing to let people read what I've written - now the question remains are people going to be willing to read it? Well, are you? As soon as I figure out how to go about setting up download sites I guess I'll find out.

August 6, 2008

A New Beginning Writing Fiction: Maybe

Near the beginning of 2006 I finished the final draft of my first novel. I had started writing it the previous November during something called the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where the objective is to write 50,000 words during the month. Of course 50,000 words is barely half way towards finishing a decent sized novel, but by the end of my thirty days I had topped out at around 80,000. It took me until the following April to produce the final twenty thousand, and go through the laborious process of edits and re writes, but eventually it was whipped into a shape that I thought presentable enough to send off for publication.

One of the catches was that the book might have been finished, but the story wasn't. I had left my characters halfway through their adventure and was going to have to write a second instalment to get them over the hump. Unlike the first book where I sat down and wrote with no real idea of where it was going, trusting in the characters to find their way through the story, I'd planned book two out in some detail. I know exactly what should happen when, to who, and where, and so in theory it should have been a piece of cake to write.

Yet, aside from writing some pre-history for the first book that I felt it needed to give it more texture, I've got nothing to show from the last two plus years but an opening chapter and the first paragraph of the second chapter. It's not for lack of trying either, for the first few months I'd sit down everyday and stare at my monitor and write, but more often then not I'd just end up deleting everything I'd written before shutting down the computer. To say it was frustrating would be somewhat of an understatement I suppose, but there really isn't any other word for it.

The problem was that what I was writing on the page didn't sound like it sounded in my head. In my imagination I knew what I wanted the words on the paper to create but I couldn't reproduce it no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to create magic but all I seemed capable of were banalities. I can be stubborn on occasion, and for a while I persisted in sitting down every day. Eventually I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm for opening a file everyday and writing a thousand or so words only to erase them again, so I gave up.

Now obviously I didn't give up on writing as since then I've published around 1000 articles on line, and nor did quite give up on writing fiction either as I made periodic stabs at it. However, nothing ever came of those attempts and each new beginning petered out without going anywhere. Occasionally I'd try continuing the original story from where I left off but had as little success with that as all my earlier attempts. I was genuinely terrified that I had lost whatever ability I might have had as a storyteller.

I tried to convince myself that I was okay with this, and that I would be perfectly content to spend the rest of my writing days talking about other people's work and writing non-fiction opinion pieces, but a part of me deep inside knew that I was only kidding myself. Maybe I only had to wait for the right story to come along in my head and then I would find myself back on track? The trouble was how would I even know the right story when it came along?

After about a year of fretting and worrying about it, I decided there was no point in belabouring the issue as it was only making me even more frustrated. Instead I decided to focus on making the work I was doing as good as I possibly could make it. When I was offered the chance to edit Epic India Magazine by a friend of mine early in 2007 and I had accepted in the hopes that reading other people's work with a critical eye would help me be more objective about my own writing.

It's been a good sixteen months; I had a piece published in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine, a couple of authors have used blurbs from my reviews on the dust jackets of their books, I've received appreciative letters from publishers, writers, and musicians regarding the quality of my work, and had the chance to interview some amazing individuals. I've even made a little money from the writing along the way, not enough to make a living with, but enough to occasionally buy myself or my wife something we wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford.

The other day something happened that took me by surprise. I felt the spark of an idea for a story. In my mind's eye I saw what looked to be the starting point and the potential paths I could follow to bring a new world to life. Now in the past when this has happened I've always immediately sat down and began forcing myself upon the idea in the hopes of bludgeoning it into submission, with the result that I've usually ended up squashing the life out of it. I don't think I'd ever appreciated just how fragile an idea is at its earliest conception. and had ended up crushing it under foot like an eggshell.

So I've decided to quash my natural inclination to plunge merrily into the unknown without really knowing where I'm heading, and am curbing my impatience. For any spark to become a fire it needs to be properly fed fuel, you don't just dump a huge log on it and hope it catches. That might work once in a million times if the conditions are exactly right, but most of the time all that will happen is you'll be left shivering in the dark. This time I will try and coax a flame from the spark, before I attempt to build the fire.

I'm a firm believer in magic, I think you have to be in order to tell a story that hasn't been created before. What other explanation can there be for having an idea that creates life out of nothing and provides the impulse that puts words on a page in just the right order that they fascinate and enthral people? It's been a long time since I've felt like there's magic in my life, but now I'm beginning to see its faint glow again. For all I know this could be another blind alley that will lead nowhere, but right now I have to believe that once again I've found my way back into the world where anything is possible and fiction is stranger than truth.

May 21, 2008

Residential School Legacy Lingers On

I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress syndrome induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.

He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.

On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.

What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870's and the last one closing in the 1970's we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?

There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate - the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% of them had been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.

For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask, or if it did the figures weren't reported, what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system, but I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparent's generation, if not their great-grandparents.

In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.

For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?

For the first three hundred years of Canadian history governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.

If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just like all previous government's have by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.

March 27, 2008

Book Review 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa Stephanie Nolen

I'm sure most people have noticed how numbers play this strange trick on the human mind; the higher they get the less meaning they have. I mean when somebody mentions the size of the American government's deficit as being in the trillions of dollars, does anybody really understand what that means? Or if they do why aren't they as upset about it as let's say you or I are about our personal debts that may only amount to a few thousand dollars?

The whole, the higher the number the less it means is especially telling when dealing with casualty figures. While we can get whipped up into a state close to hysteria when we read about the killing of one person, the deaths of millions of people won't cause us to turn a hair. Is it simply a matter of protecting ourselves, in that if we ever let ourselves feel the horror that we should feel from that many deaths we would never stop crying? Or is it because numbers that high are just incomprehensible?

When the death of one person is reported in the news we are usually given details of that person's life. We learn about those left behind to grieve, what they had accomplished to date, and what they have been prevented from accomplishing by their untimely demise. When the death total is from an earthquake or other natural disaster we might be told something about the town or city which has suffered the calamity, and be shown pictures of collapsed buildings, but we won't learn anything about individuals and the grief will stay impersonal.
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Currently there is somewhere between 26 and 30 million people infected with the AIDS virus in the continent of Africa. To give you some idea of what that number means it's the equivalent of saying that nearly the entire population of Canada has AIDS, as we have a population of around 33 million. Those numbers are only estimates, as many governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to provide an accurate count of the numbers of people with the virus.

A trade paper back edition of Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa, that was first published last spring by Random House Canada, being released this coming April 15th, is a timely reminder that there are faces and lives that go with each one of those 26 to 30 million people. Each of them have families, had hopes and dreams that are now withering, just as surely as anyone who is killed in a car accident or a house fire.

In the introduction to the book Ms. Nolen explains her rationale behind choosing twenty-eight as the number of people she would profile in the book; one person for roughly every ten million infected with the AIDS virus. She also says in the same introduction that she fears that even the thirty million figure quoted above is a conservative estimate based on how deeply rooted AIDS has become in Africa and how often she witnessed case numbers far exceeding official estimates in areas she visited researching this book.

In 2003 Ms. Nolen convinced her editors at The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, to allow her to investigate the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent four years travelling across the continent and attending international AIDS conferences, as she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the situation facing Africans of every race, creed, nationality, and social status.

The amount and depth of her research is obvious when you read the introduction to 28; its probably the best written history of AIDS, not only in terms of Africa, but the disease period, that I've ever read. The disease did not spring up overnight among North American homosexuals in the early 1980's as I'm sure many believe. The first known human cases of AIDS can be traced back seventy years ago to Cameroon. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is a disease found in Chimpanzees, an animal that used to be fairly commonly eaten and hunted in Africa. A virus that is non-lethal in one species, can be death to another, and such was the case with SIV which was not particularly dangerous to chimps, but as HIV has proved incurable in humans.

Scientists figure that it would only have taken ten or twelve incidences of hunters butchering infected chimps and becoming infected themselves for HIV to take root successfully among humans. Once that happened it was only a matter of time before it spread. Thankfully HIV, in spite of any propaganda you might hear to the contrary, is not one of the easily transmitted diseases and requires the transference of bodily fluids in order to have a chance at survival unlike airborne ones like TB, Ebola, influenza or the common cold.

There's no way of knowing for certain how many people were infected with the disease prior to the discovery in the mid 1980's of the test we now have to detect its presence, but Africans were dying of what they called "Slim", a mysterious disease that caused people to waste away since the 1950's. As we learned in North America when people caught HIV from tainted blood products, there are many more ways than sex and drug use to catch the disease. In Africa, mass immunizations where thousands of people were vaccinated with the same needle, looks to be one of the ways AIDS was able to establish a firm grip among the general population.

While Ms. Nolen's skills as a journalist make the introduction invaluable reading, what makes 28 Stories Of AIDS In Africa so compelling are the stories of the twenty-eight people of the title. Some of them will be known to you, like Nelson Mandela, who in 2005 announced to the world that his son had died of AIDS. Since his retirement from the presidency of South Africa has dedicated himself to the fight against the pandemic. Others, like Manuel and Philomena Cossa, a migrant gold miner from Mozambique and his wife, you'll have never heard of, and their stories will break your heart.

From 1967 until 2005 Manuel would spend two years at a time away from home and family working in the gold mines of South Africa. Most of those years were spent working under the iron fist of apartheid for little more then slave wages, but it still meant he brought money home to his family. But in 2005 he came home sick, and both he and his wife have now tested positive for AIDS. They now have no income; because Manuel did not test positive until he was home the mine owners don't have to pay him a disability pension as they would if he had tested positive while on the job. No income means their children have to drop out of school, or can't even start school because they can't afford the ten dollars for school fees.

Alice Kandzanja is a nurse in a hospital in Zomba in southern Malwai that operates at 400% capacity, meaning that each bed has three patients laid out head to foot. She has seen 2,000 of her sister nurses die since the AIDS epidemic hit Malwai. In 2006 Cynthia Leshomo of Botswana won the Miss HIV Stigma-Free pageant by taking her medication as part of her traditional wear portion of the competition. In Botswana, which used to have a lower infant mortality rate than most of Eastern Europe, people didn't get AIDS because it was only a poor person's disease. Yet in the year 2000 37% of pregnant women were HIV positive.

That is the real face of AIDS in Africa, how it effects more than just the person infected, and cripples the futures of so many people. Governments don't have the money to provide free education to their people thanks to the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have demanded they cut social spending if they want to get any aid money or debt forgiveness. A country like Mozambique doesn't have enough doctors and therefore no way to distribute drugs to people who need them even if they could afford to buy them.

One of the most common questions that Stephanie Nolen reports being asked is how can the world let this happen to us? Even when they do finally cough up money, as the Bush administration admirably has done to the tune of $15 billion dollars over five years, it's a case of too little too late, and with far too many strings attached. How can you insist that money for AIDS prevention not be given to groups that advocate condom use or planned parenthood or stipulate that only expensive patent protected American drugs can be purchased with the money?

From South Africa to Egypt in the north, tens of millions of Africans have been diagnosed with AIDS. Each day there is a good chance that a baby is born somewhere in Africa who is HIV positive, and the numbers continue to grow. Although conditions have improved since the early 1990's when governments in Africa refused to acknowledge AIDS even existed and in 2000 when funding was non existent, the hole that has been dug is so deep that it might take decades just to reach the surface.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa helps you remember that behind the numbers in the headlines, and behind the politician's talks of costs, are human beings who are suffering. I defy anyone to read this book and still feel that governments the world over are doing enough to make a difference.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa is being released as a trade paperback on April 15th/2008 by Random House Canada and can be purchased directly from them or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

March 11, 2008

Book Review: My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith Kevin Smith

I remember a time many years ago when I was directing Samuel Becket's play Waiting For Godot and being surprised at how so many people still didn't understand what it was about. We had been booked to perform it at a private school where the senior class was studying it, and before the show I got up to introduce the play and asked the kids to tell me truthfully how many of them found the play boring. After a little hesitation nearly all of them raised their hands, and I told them, well you're right, it's really boring.

I then told them a little of the play's history, how the first time an English language audience understand the show, really related to it, was when a production of the play was mounted at San Quentin prison for guys serving long term or life sentences. They had immediately understood, and identified with, the way the characters were so desperate to find something, anything, to do that would pass the time waiting for a day to end so they could get onto the next day and do the same thing all over again.

It was Beckett's contention that the majority of us spent our time exactly as his character's did in vain search of something to fill the hours of the day with meaning. Our jobs, our religious beliefs, and everything else that we feel or do all derive from that impetus. In Waiting For Godot he has taken that to absurd lengths with his two characters as they contemplate everything from suicide to violence in an effort to fill that emptiness.
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What, you must be wondering, does Waiting For Godot have to do with Kevin Smith's book, My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith? Isn't it just a collection of entries from the online diary that he keeps where he talks about the his day to day life and all the boring details there in?

Well, yeah, the book is made up of just over a year of entries that were previously published at Silent Bob Speaks.com, and there is day after day of I got up, let the dogs, out went to the can had a shit while doing this on the lap top, went down to the office and answered e-mail until it was time to take the kid to school; stopped and picked up breakfast for the wife at such and such and came home. The entry would continue on in that vain, until he would fall asleep watching episodes of television he'd bought through i-Tunes.

Of course since he is Kevin Smith the film director, he does occasionally lead a more exciting life than most people and periodically there are entries that deal with his life in film. The year or so in question that makes up this book includes an account of his first appearance in a film playing somebody aside from Silent Bob, when he made the movie Catch And Release, describes appearing opposite Bruce Willis for one scene in the latest instalment of the Die Hard franchise, and relates the making of his own movie, Clerks ll.

Oh and he does other stuff, like appearances at comic conventions, radio interviews about Star Wars: The Revenge Of The Sith, fundraisers he and his wife do for their daughter's school, signing shit-loads of merchandise to be sold at his comic stores or through his View Askew company's web site, and going to the Cannes film festival with Clerks ll and receiving an eight minute standing ovation at the conclusion of its showing. You know trivial, boring, day to day stuff that all of us experience.

Of course there has to be something about Jason Mewes in all this too. For those of you from another planet, Jason has played Jay, the long haired, loud mouthed, foul mouthed, moronic, stoner, whose a fixture in the world where Clerks 1 & ll, Mallrats, Dogma and of course Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back take place. Inseparable in real life as they are on screen, Kevin's description of Jason's descent into the hell of addiction, and the years he took to climb out again are probably the most devastatingly honest description of the helplessness one must feel when you feel like you're losing a loved one to drugs.

I think what blew me away the most about that part of the book is not once did I get the feeling that Kevin was making himself out to be anything special or any kind of hero because of what his friend went through. I doubt he would have ever even written anything about it if it weren't for the fact that he felt it important that the truth be told about what happened instead of second hand crap turning up in the tabloids. He doesn't make it out to be more or less than what it was, offering no excuses for Jason, (he does offer us the explanation though that Jason's mom was a junkie, he never knew his father, and his mother had him running drugs when he was nine years old, and later became his major supplier for prescription medicines) and taking none of the credit for Jason's recovery.
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As a former drug abuser myself whose been clean for fourteen years and still has to say in one way or another, I'm not going to use today, I understood the significance of Jason being able to say "I don't need to do that today, and probably not tomorrow either". When Kevin recounts those moments, they aren't famous people from Hollywood, they are two guys from Jersey - close friends who cared deeply enough about each other that the one had the strength to say no when it was needed and the other to go clean.

That's the thing about Kevin Smith and his movies; he is one of us. I don't mean we're all medium height, husky, white guys who wear shorts and high-tops, but that feeling that has permeated all his films from Clerks through to Jersey Girl (Which I thought was a wonderful movie by the way and am proud to say that I own a copy of the DVD) that it could be you or me up on that screen.

Yes, even Dogma. Suspend your disbelief about angels, apostles, and devils walking the earth for a second, and think about the way Bethany feels about life. We've all been there haven't we? Wondering what the fuck, and if this is your idea of a big plan God, well I don't want to play anymore. I know there are plenty of film types out there that have said Smith's movies only appeal to a certain type of people, and Kevin says he understands if people don't share his skewed view of the world, but there's more to his movies than I think he even gives himself credit for.

I was about a third of the way through My Boring Ass Life, still wondering what the hell was so interesting about reading about some guy talking about spending his hours watching DVDs, going to the toilet, and making runs for fast food when it hit me that it was like watching one of his movies. While this book is about the details of his life, the things he does that fill his time, his movies are about what the people in them do fill their time, and that's something we all do.

Hanging out at the mall, playing video games, dealing drugs, dreaming of the opportunity to be something else, might not be what you do to fill the hours of your day, but you have the equivalent in your life. I know I do. You may not want to identify with Randal and Dante at the Quick Stop, or Jay and Silent Bob, but you can't deny that on some level there's a chord of recognition that's being struck as you watch them. You may not be any more like them than you are like Vladimir and Estragon, but that doesn't mean they don't mirror some part of your life.

The candid honesty in Kevin Smith's My Boring Ass Life that everyone refers to isn't the fact that he admits to masturbating or that he and his wife enjoy having sex together. What takes real guts, in this work ethic, always have to be doing something productive society that we live in is his willingness to admit that he's perfectly content to play on line poker for hours on end, curl up and watch movies with his wife and daughter, write a boring ass diary on the web, or sit and talk for hours with a friend.

To some people that might be a "boring ass life" or seen as wasting time, but I think anybody who makes time in his or her day to do puzzles with his child or let a friend know that he's important is making fine use of his time. Randal and Dante might be "losers", and even that's debatable, but Kevin Smith knows what's important in his life and take care of it. His life is anything but boring and nowhere near a waste.

January 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.

Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.

Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.

But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
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One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.

Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.

Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.

In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.

But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
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Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.

The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.

The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.

The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.

The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.

The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?

Canadians wishing to buy The Complete Persepolis can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or pick up a copy from an online retailer like Indigo Books

October 31, 2007

No Excuse For Addictions

You don't know how much of an asshole you've been as an addict until after you're well into recovery. It's one of the more crushing of the revelations you have to deal with when the scales finally drop from your eyes and you see just what a self-centred, whining, little git you've been. If it wasn't about you it hadn't mattered, and didn't everyone know that the world revolved around you anyway?

Oh there are all sorts of excuses for becoming an addict, I should know having used most of them with varying degrees of justification over the years, but there aren't any excuses for the behaviour and other shit that you did while addicted to whatever it was you needed to make your existence seem meaningful. It's amazing the rationale you can come up with for stealing anything you need to feed your habit, and the lies you tell yourself to pretend that it's not stealing.

I mean to replace this, I really will replace this money as soon as I'm able, I'm owed this money so it's not really stealing, look at all I do, if there were any justice in the world this would be my money anyway. Nothing like the self-righteous resentment of an addict, it allows you to justify anything.

Then of course there is the unpredictable behaviour of addicts. Talk to anybody who grew up the child of a drunk and they'll say one of the most vivid memories they have of childhood is being told to be quiet and not do anything that might upset the drunk. There's always the potential for violence when you're dealing with some drunks, and the not knowing, walking around on tender hooks when you're around them, is almost worse than any violence they might perpetrate.

I don't normally wallow in those parts of my life that I'm not proud of; it doesn't serve any purpose that I can see. I've always thought people who spend their time talking about what drunks and drug addicts they were still haven't recovered because they still want the world to revolve around them. Oh poor them they were drunks and we should all feel sorry for them.

As far as I'm concerned, the only people anyone should feel sorry for are the people who suffered because of their actions as a drunk or a drug addict. Nobody can say they didn't know what they were doing when they took their first drink, stuck that first needle in their arm or whatever. It was their choice to live like that and if they had wanted to stop they would have.

What, you think they had no control, that they couldn't stop? Anybody who tells you that is a liar. How do you think they stopped when they finally did? They did so because they were able to and chose to, not because anybody forced them to. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that usually the only way an addict stops is because of the most selfish act of all – self-preservation.

If they had cared about the effects of their action on the people they supposedly loved they would never ever have started in the first place, or at least stopped when they first realized the pain they were causing. So there is nothing saintly about anybody making the choice to go clean, and if anybody even implies otherwise they're lying. But as it's the only way most of us have of getting clean, I guess we should be grateful that at least one of our negative characteristics can be responsible for helping us to at least start to heal.

Making the decision to go clean is of course only the first step; you still have to do it after all and that's where things get difficult. Not just because of your own desires, cravings, wants, or whatever you want to call them, but because we have to live in one of the most addicted societies in the world. In fact, most of our economy is built upon the premise that we are addicted to the products that are produced by our manufacturing sector.

Every media outlet we watch, read, or, listen to is filled with advertisements trying to convince us why we should spend money on their product not somebody else's. All the commercials we hear act as though it's not a question as to whether you are going to spend money, if you have it or not, but to convince you to spend it on their version of

Of course than there's the way we treat the rest of the world, as if we are the be all and end all and everything revolves around us. Between Canada and the United States, we account for the most fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources used per capita annually and we produce the most non-biodegradable waste per person. Most of us don't even have the decency to be embarrassed by these facts, preferring to point out how environmentally conscious we are because we participate in our communities recycling programs and on Earth Day we pick up garbage in our neighbourhoods.

Of course, the rest of the world also has to give us everything we need to ensure that we can continue to live like we do. If they don' we'll just come and take it. Remember what I said about not wanting to piss off the drunken family member because of the potential for violence? Well the majority of the world treats us like we're that belligerent bully, trying to keep us appeased so we don't get mad at them and get violent. All they have to do is look at what we've done to Afghanistan and Iraq recently, and other places around the world prior to that, to have a fair idea of what happens to anyone who defies us.

One of the things they tell you when you stop drinking and doing drugs is your going to have to change the people you hang out with. You're going to discover that you're not going to have very much in common with them anyway. What's even harder then that to cope with though, is how much you have to change the way you live period in order to rid yourself of addictive behaviour.

There are no half measures, you can't just stop drinking or doing drugs and not deal with the behaviour that are characteristic of the addict. It means changing yourself significantly at a personal level in terms of the way you treat people and the world in general. You can no longer assume the position of being the centre of the universe, or act without thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Simply going from one day to the next without having a drink or doing drugs is not stopping being an addict; it's stopping drinking and doing drugs, which although admirable, hasn't done anything to cure you of the problems that started you doing them in the first place. It will only be by figuring out the root causes of your addiction that you'll be able to start dealing with the behaviour that is the result of being an addict.

There's never an excuse for being an addict, but there's always an explanation.

October 18, 2007

Change And Fear Of The New

Routines are something all of us depend on, if it wasn't for routine, I'm sure half of us wouldn't be able to get out the door and get to work everyday. You get up and you go through the same sequence of activities that you do every other weekday, from going to the bathroom at the same times each morning to eating your toast only after finishing reading last night's game results in the sports section.

Your routine is all about timing, without even knowing it probably, it's your routine that ensures your day runs like clockwork. Each little component just naturally fits into the one that follows it, in your mind at least – others may not appreciate the connection between the second cigarette and the trip to the bathroom – but for you they are all essential cogs in what makes you tick along.

God forbid anything should go wrong in the routine; you're screwed if it does. One day the paper isn't delivered and you go to eat your breakfast and you can't figure out when to eat your toast, drink your coffee, or have your cigarettes. You get so flustered that you lose track of time and you leave home late and miss the bus you usually take to work.

Because you missed that bus, you don't have time to have one more cigarette before you go into the office for the morning and that means you're distracted and in a rush. You go through security and forget that you have to sign in everyday, and they stop you and make a big deal of reminding you, even though it's the same two jerks who've seen you for seven years, five days a week.

So now you've been held up as a figure of ridicule and you're late for work, something you haven't been in all your years of working for this company. Of course today is the day that the CEO has decided to make an example of people who are habitually tardy, and you happen to burst into the office conspicuous in your lateness, just as he's half way through his speech to the assembled office staff on how much it costs the corporation in dollars and cents for every minute a person is late.

Fuck, right about then you wish the floor would just drop out from under you as you make your into the room with the eyes of all fixed upon you like lazar beams. The day of course gets progressively worse, because by now you're as jumpy as cokehead at a southern cop convention and when your boss comes up behind you to commiserate over what happened, he startles you so much that you throw your coffee at him.

As that went down such a treat, you decide to spend the rest of your day finding ways to screw up that defy believability. You have no logical explanation for why you were caught with your fly stuck in the fax machine's send button or one arm past the second bend inside the pop machine on the second floor. By the end of the day you're just grateful not to have been fired and to still be alive (the bit when you were about to board the elevator only to find when the doors opened the elevator had gone somewhere else will feature in nightmares for weeks you figure)

It really makes you wonder how much of history has hinged on somebody's routine being screwed with and them ending up having an awful day. Maybe Caesar's paper wasn't delivered on that fateful 15th of March when he ended up looking like a pincushion? Who knows, he might have had it a little more together and noticed the guys closing in on him with knives drawn if only he hadn't had his routine messed up?

Is it any wonder than with routine being so important that most of us are terrified of change? Routine represents order and control, a way of ensuring that we know exactly what will happen at almost any given moment of the day. If we change anything about our routine, it means we open ourselves up to the possibility of anything happening, or at least something that's never happened before.

But the real problem is that there is always a part of us that desires change; that is frustrated and bored with the day in and day out routine of our lives. It might not be something that we are even aware of, but periodically it will express itself either through depression or what we call a mid-life crisis. In the latter case, a person will let the pent up frustration act as a catalyst for making a drastic change in their circumstances. Its most common expression usually comes in the form of leaving a longstanding partner and establishing a new and supposedly different relationship.

The depression usually comes about due to our inability to make changes in our life. It's not unusual for this to coincide with the Fall, all around there are visible signs of the world changing, while you're staying the same. I know people usually link seasonal depression to the depletion of light as winter approaches, but the loss of light is just one indication of the overall changing of the season.

The majority of cultures still consider Fall the end of one year and the beginning of a new. It's the period in temperate climates when our year's growth is ready for harvest and the world is preparing to become dormant. It doesn't matter how far removed we are from the rhythm of the planet; Fall is one of the few changes we can't help but notice as everything around us appears to be dying.

What more tangible reminder could you want of how life is passing you by than seeing the world change while you stay stuck in the same routine that you've followed for years? All of a sudden, what seemed like comfort and safety becomes a trap from which there appears to be no escape. Is it any wonder that people become depressed?

Yet, we continue to fear and resist change as something dangerous and unwanted in spite of the evidence that change is good for us. Maybe if Julius Cesar had walked a different route to the Senate that day and come in an hour earlier or later then normal he wouldn't have been bumped off?

After that horrific day at the office where everything had gone wrong, because your routine had been screwed up, you decide you can never face those people again. You accept a severance package and take a year off work in which you finally write that book you've always meant to. You're happier then you ever were and you discover that you quickly establish a routine wherein your able to do a certain amount of writing each day and have plenty of time for yourself.

Of course, if anything happens to mess up that routine...

October 16, 2007

Willing And Disabled

When someone says they are disabled what does that make you think? Do you automatically get a vision of a person who is confined to a wheelchair? What do you think if you meet a person who has been described as suffering from a disability but they have nothing discernibly wrong with them?

Do you find yourself stealing glances at them when they're not looking to see if you can spot what's wrong with them? Like they might have an extra arm they've secreted around their person, or some other sort of deformity that you failed to notice at first glance? Do you talk to them slowly and in short sentences because maybe they suffer from a mental deficiency that has robbed them of some of their intellect? Or, do you worry that they are suffering from a mental illness and every time they laugh you check them for hysterics or other signs of an unstable mind?

When you suffer from a chronic condition that is disabling to the extent that you can't work, but that hasn't incapacitated you completely, you get used to a wide variety of reactions. I get the feeling that some folk are disappointed on meeting me when they discover that I look like a reasonable facsimile of normal. I'm not missing any limbs, nor am I in a wheelchair, foaming at the mouth, falling down in fits, or bursting into tears inconsolably for no reason what so ever.

If you meet me at home the only thing you'd notice out of the ordinary is that I don't seem to be able to sit for any length of time, or that I spend a lot of time stretched out in bed. Other than that, around the house I don't seem any less capable then the next person. Of course you don't know that I haven't been able to get into a shower for close to five years on my own, or any of the other things that happen behind the scenes that are the result of my symptoms.

To be fair I'm just as capable of forgetting myself as they are of misinterpreting my appearance. When you've established a routine that allows you to utilize what few resources you have to maximum efficiency it can be easy to forget that you suffer from limitations. It's only when you push the boundaries of your comfort level that you are forcibly reminded that you are disabled.

What's really upsetting is that no matter how many times this happens, each time is as unpleasant as it was the first time. Somehow or other I forget the previous experiences and suffer through the disappointment and frustration of the failure with the same intensity. It could be something as simple as not resting in the afternoon for a couple days in a row and forgetting what happens as a result, or the difference between writing while sitting up at a desk and lying in bed writing on my laptop that shoves my face in it.

It doesn't matter what the cause is, because the result is the same, and it takes a number of days to recover both physically and psychologically enough to get back on that even keel where I look "normal". While the body doesn't usually take any more time to heal from one occasion to another, the head is another story. The less it takes to remind me of my disability, the harder it is to overcome it's debilitating effects psychologically.

As I have a chronic pain condition caused by damage to the muscle wall of my pelvis, there is normally a direct correlation between the amount of physical activity I do and the amount of pain that I'm in. When I can logically tell myself that I'm feeling worse today then yesterday because of what I did I have no trouble accepting the consequences, and can usually believe I'll be better in a day or two.

But sometimes there is no logical reason that I can see for the pain to increase, and in those circumstances the feelings of frustration are such that it is difficult to believe myself capable of accomplishing the simplest of tasks. That is a dangerous place to find myself in, because those times are when it would be easiest to surrender to the condition and let it define my life completely.

Nobody expects a disabled person to do anything; you're given an allowance by the government and pretty much forgotten about after that, except when they decide to check and see if you're still incapacitated. (As a friend of mine who had lost the majority of one hand in an industrial accident put it – they want to make sure my hand hasn't grown back) So, if I were to retire to my bed for the rest of my life to take analgesics and gradually turn into a vegetable I'd merely be fulfilling everyone's expectations.

People talk of acceptance, as in accepting your limitations or accepting who you are and your situation in life. But what you have to decide is what you are willing to accept. Since I'm not willing to accept the definition of disabled as being unable, while at the same time I can't say that I'm fully able, I have had to develop my own standard of what is acceptable.

The hardest thing to accept, and I still don't do a very good job of this, is that there are times when there will be rationale explanation for how I'm feeling. It won't matter if I had done barely anything or walked two miles the day before, and I'll still barely be able to get out of bed and need to take my pain medication on a regular basis. On those days, I have to accept that I can't do very much and that it would be foolish to make the effort and waste the energy.

At the same time, I have to accept that it will require a little extra effort on my part even on the good days to do the things that I want to. If I want to write, I will have to exert myself to focus through the pain, but learn how to pace myself so that I don't overdo it one day and end up unable to accomplish anything the next day. Since some days it's impossible to tell how difficult it will be to accomplish anything, I have to be willing to accept the fact that I could have to stop what I'm doing, whether I want to or not, at a moment's notice.

What it comes down to in the end is having the ability to accept the fact that I can't predict from day to day how I'm going to be, and that I have to accept whatever it is each day gives me, whether I like it or not. It's either that or become what most people imagine a disabled person to be; and that's unacceptable.

October 8, 2007

Violence And Generosity

I had to replace my laptop a little while ago. The old one had put up a good fight, but after two years, a thousand articles, two drafts of a novel, and two books of compilations, she finally surrendered to the inevitable. For a hundred dollars I couldn't have asked any more from her, but it still meant that my wife and I would have to share our desktop.

Now she has often said that she thinks what I do is important, for a lot of reasons, and I appreciate that. However, that doesn't mean I'm not going to feel guilty about monopolizing the computer and preventing her from doing the things she enjoys doing. So it meant there was a certain amount of urgency to find me another computer.

Not so long ago a friend of ours had offered us an old tower to use as back up for music and graphic files. I figured if that offer was still available it would make a good stopgap until I could find another affordable laptop. I called our friend and she said no problem she'd have it ready in a day for me; she wanted to completely dump the machine's hard drive.

Ten minutes later she called me back and said: "Let me buy you a lap top, I've got some extra money and I can afford "x". To say I was taken aback and grateful has to be the understatement of the year. This is a person whose finances up until a year ago were so bad that she almost lost her house. But through some fortune and luck she found herself solvent and with money to spare.

As she put it, one of the great things about having extra money was that she was in a position to be able to do things like buying me a new used laptop without having to even think about it. What I find amazing is that a person whose existence has been fairly hand to mouth for years – a single mom raising three boys – is able to understand the concept of extra money while people who make thousands of dollars a week can't.

The money she spent on my laptop would have bought food for a month for her and the one son who still lives at home, or she could have just frittered it away on things. I wouldn't have begrudged her a penny of it, because she'd been so long without money to spend on herself. But she had bought everything she wanted and needed for her self, given each of her sons money to do with as they felt, and that was enough for her.

So this was all wonderful, I ordered a slightly newer model of what I had before, with a little more power and a slightly bigger hard drive. It also came with a DVD player, something I thought would be very useful for reviewing purposes as I can now watch movies anywhere I can plug in. But most important to me was the fact that it came with a dial up modem.

I know for most people that's not usually high on their list of priorities, but we haven't been able to afford the jump to high-speed yet (although that might be changing soon) so a dialup modem is an essential. Needless to say when the laptop showed up and I couldn't find any place which even looked like you could plug a phone line into it I was a wee bit perturbed. I double-checked the advertisement on the website, and the receipt they had sent with the laptop, and they both included a 56k modem as being part of the computer.

I immediately phoned the store and was told by the gentleman who answered, that there was a modem, and the inputs were on the right hand side. I said that unless they were making 56k modems without phone jacks anymore there wasn't one, and what did he plan on doing about it?

First he made the generous offer of allowing me to pay for shipping it back to him, which I declined. I suggested that he send me out a 56k modem for the removable card slot and I'd be happy with that. He agreed to that and said "by the end of the week". That was August 27th. For the next four weeks I phoned; I was polite, I threatened, and I begged and still received the same answer – we're waiting for a reply from our head office.

I finally had enough and phoned the credit card company whose card I had used to order the machine. They assured me that if worse came to worse they would go after them for the money needed for me to purchase the modem. The next time I phoned them I managed to find out where their head office was, and when they refused to do anything I sent a threatening email to the head office explaining the circumstances and what I would do if I hadn't heard back from them in two days.

Ten minutes later I received an email back saying they would express post the modem directly to me from Vancouver the next business day. "We had no idea you wanted the part so urgently" was their excuse. It took all my willpower not to write them back and ask them what they used their brains for, as it obviously wasn't customer service. Instead I simply said yes that would be fine.

They obviously had plenty of removable 56k modems in stock, and brand new ones at that, because when it arrived last Wednesday the box was still shrink wrapped and all the parts were brand spanking new. Why then did it take them nearly six weeks to send me one? Why did they only respond when I threatened them? Why couldn't they just have sent me out the part I needed as soon as they knew it was missing?

Maybe you'll think I'm over reacting, but to me this is indicative of so much that is wrong with our society. If you don't use violence, or an equivalent, no one pays any attention to you. That doesn't strike me as being the sign of a caring society, or at least any I'd recognize as such. Come to think of it, there's not much proof of us being that caring anywhere you look.

Would a caring society allow corporations to charges thousands of dollars to people for a drug that could keep them alive? Would it spend trillions of dollars on war and weaponry when people all over the world go to bed hungry or live in the squalor of refugee camps? Is it any wonder that people all around the world think the only way they can get our attention is through violence?

I'm not saying I agree with that tactic, but all they see is so much evidence of our ability to ignore the plight of other people. With that in mind, it becomes easier to at least understand how people can find themselves so frustrated with waiting for a peaceful resolution to their plight that they resort to violence as an answer.

I know it seems like I've take a huge leap from the business of buying a computer to terrorist attacks, but the one is just a milder instance of the same flaw in our society that causes the other. We have forgotten what generosity means, and I don't just mean being free with money. It's about being receptive to other people's plight and responding to it with positive action and not passing the buck.

Why is that so difficult for us to understand?

September 29, 2007

Confessions Of A Review-A-Holic

Somehow or other, without noticing, I've become something that I never even considered possible: a reviewer. When I first started out writing for Blogcritics.org back in July of 2005 it was for the opportunity it provided for my writing to be seen by a wider audience, and to hopefully generate some interest in my own site.

It took a while for me to get comfortable with doing things the way someone else wanted. I eventually clued in that there was probably a good reason for keeping spelling mistakes and typos to a minimum, and that you could have a distinctive voice without run on sentences. There might still be a sizable gap on occasion between understanding and implementation, but at least I started heading in the right direction.

When I began realizing there were only so many articles that you could write trying to change the world before the sound of your own voice starts to grate in your own ear –heaven only knows what it was doing to other ears – is when I knew it was time for a change. Due to a gag reflex problem I knew writing about celebrities or heart warming human-interest stories was out of the question, so I'd have to find something else.

As the universe does revolve around me, I knew that people would be only too fascinated to read about my efforts as a novelist. Who wouldn't be thrilled to read about what a first-time author had to say about the process of writing? Once I had got that piece of conceit out of my system – and it went on for an embarrassing long period of time, culminating in me even having the nerve to publish the collected articles at Lulu.com. I was back to square one again, looking for things to write about aside from my life and me.

I had been lucky enough to have some health issues able to provide decent fodder for a few articles without sounding overly self-serving or pitying, but unless I kept developing new and interesting symptoms that was a finite topic of conversation. Up until then I had taken only sporadic notice of the material companies sent into Blogcritics for review on its pages, so I decided to start checking those listings out on a regular basis to see if that offered what I was looking for.

I thought I had known what cutthroat was, but that was before I started competing with my fellow Blogcritic contributors for review material. I also quickly realized that being on dial-up and having an old slow computer meant that I was at a disadvantage. Unless I got blind lucky I would never be able to get my hands on any material that was in high demand.

I took to waiting until after the initial feeding frenzy was over when new material was put on offer and come in after to pick up any juicy looking leftovers. That ended up working out well for me as my tastes have never been inclined towards the popular and others' discards were my meat and potatoes.

I started out doing one or two reviews a week initially, but that soon began to prove insufficiently gratifying. I began exploring the possibilities of obtaining review material on my own from various publishers and music producers. My timing seemed to be awesome, as many book publishers were just starting to use the Internet as a means of publicity on a full time basis. Using the credibility of Blogcritics I was able to start establishing connections with book publishers all across North America, and specifically the Canadian versions of Random House and Penguin.

At the same time, I was also building a network of contacts among music distributors and publicists. From those innocent beginnings have grown a monster that I no longer control: CDs, books, and DVDs show up at my door on an almost daily basis. Some of them from people I've never heard of who have grabbed my name and contact information from somebody else, but the majority is stuff I've requested.

It is highly possible that I can have five or six books, seven or eight CDs, and a few DVDs in piles around my bed waiting for me to read, listen, or watch, and then write about. Unless something is abjectly horrible I will read, listen, or watch the whole thing because I can't conceive of being able to give it a half way decent critique otherwise. You just never know what someone might be saving for the last act anyway that might serve as redemption for the soul destroying shit they had served up until that point.

I love reading, listening to great music, and watching interesting movies and concert footage, and I never want to get to the point where I'm even tempted to start skimming material for the sake of posting a review. Maybe before it even gets to the point where I even consider doing that, I should start cutting back – not offering to review so many items from the Blogcritic list, or not going to publisher's web sites and selecting five or six titles from each of their upcoming releases list.

Except every time I say I'm going to do that everybody gangs up on me from my favourite authors to the most interesting musicians and exciting filmmakers. They all decide to release items simultaneously and I find my resolve weakening. I've tried limiting how many I take from each list, but one is never enough. There's always something I know I will regret not reading, listening to, or watching.

I have to face facts, I'm not the type of person who can review just one item and leave it at that, it's as many as possible or nothing at all. Nothing can match the thrill of a new book showing up at my door, or ripping the wrapping off a new DVD or CD that very few people have heard. (Now there're even personalized review copies from some record companies – I know it's to prevent you from uploading them and selling the tracks online but I still think it's cool to get a CD with my name on it)

They always say that the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that you have one publicly, and I can't think of a better place to come clean than this. My name is Richard Marcus, I'm a review –a –holic, and it's been twelve hours since I last reviewed.

If you'll excuse me, I have a book that came in the mail today that I have to read...

August 27, 2007

Forgetting Your Inner Child

If there's one phrase guaranteed to set my teeth on edge it's "get in touch with your inner child". Maybe it's because I've heard it come out of the mouths of so many people who have no idea what they are talking about, or who say it as if it's the be all and end all to curing what's wrong with you.

You're unhappy with your sex life – get in touch with your inner child; you hate your job – get in touch with your inner child; or you think your shrink is full of shit because he keeps telling you to get in touch with your inner child – get in touch with your inner child. If I had a dime for every book by every New Age quack that I've seen that talked about getting in touch with your inner child – I'd have a lot more money then I have now.

What's especially galling is how few of these self-styled "healers" ever even tell you what they mean by that. It's as if saying the magic phrase is enough and if you're too stupid to know what they mean by that, well than, you obviously need to get in touch with your inner child. From what I have been able to understand them to mean by it, is if only you could go back to the carefree days of your childhood, where you were free to play and exercise your imagination, you'd be able to rid yourself of the stresses that plague your adult life.

Return to those days before you were crippled with the burdens of responsibility brought on by adulthood and having to deal with the real world. Return to the fun of the playground where you spent the days on swings or in the sandbox playing with your friends. Ah yes, those were the days when you were terrorised by the bullies, terrified that you'd commit some social faux pas that would see you ostracized by the rest of your classmates, and where any originality of expression or thought was punished ruthlessly as being fucking weird.

Thankfully, people have cottoned on that perhaps things weren't so hot shit back then and have begun to realize that childhood wasn't the nirvana that some people seem to think it was. To that end, quite a few therapists and psychiatrists have started coming up with methods to try and help people overcome the traumas that they experienced as children. The theory being as that stage was a key part in your development as a human being you've retained patterns of behaviour established based on conditions that you were living through at the time.

If you spent most of your childhood constantly being afraid that you would be rejected out of hand for no discernable reason, it stands to figure there is a good chance you still carry the same fears around with you. For the person who suffered any type of abuse, sexual, physical, or mental/emotional, the chances of there being a carry over in behaviour from childhood are even greater, especially if the abuser was a parent or other trusted figure.

The basis for most methodologies is something called Behaviour Modification, which pretty much means what it says. In the begging they used to just try and work on modifying the behaviour that a person was exhibiting, but that didn't do anything about addressing the core issue of what caused the problem. What was needed was a means of travelling back in time to deal with the trauma that caused the behaviour in the first place.

One of the things discovered is that a person's emotional or mental development was actually stuck in the moment the trauma occurred. Instead of being able to grow up believing they deserved to be loved, for example, they developed a corresponding negative belief that has stuck with them to adulthood.

That belief fostered patterns of behaviour that became ingrained as part of the patient's personality and the only way to truly modify that behaviour would be to return to the time period where the belief was fostered and offer evidence that it's not true. I know it sounds sort of weird; travelling back in time to change your own future by changing your past sounds like a cheap movie with Michael J. Fox, but try not to think of it like that.

Shirley Jean Schmidt, developer of The Development Needs Meeting Strategy, postulates that the neurons of our brain fire together to form neuron networks. States of mind, which can consist of emotions, body sensations, beliefs, and behaviours, can become engrained in a neural network when a positive or negative experience is repeated, or when the mind cannot make sense of a traumatic experience.

An engrained state of mind is a part of self with a point of view, or an opinion of who or what we are. A part of self formed by a positive event lives in the present, while ones formed by negative events are stuck in the moment of the experience. The negative parts of self residing in the past are the root source of the behaviour problems that the adult patient is experiencing. In order to excise them they have to be cut out at the root.

Jean Schmidt's solution is to have the adult self draw upon what she calls resources to meet the needs their memory believes were never met as a child. To this end they utilize experiences of them selves being protective towards another person, being nurturing for another person, and remembering a moment that made them feel particularly connected to the world around them, what she refers to as a spiritual core self.

It then becomes a process of convincing those "stuck" parts using those recourses, or positive images of your self, that the conditions that caused them to be stuck in the first place no longer exist, and they can let go of negative beliefs they have about their worth. The theory goes if you can convince your inner deprived child that his or her needs are now being met, you will be able to deal with the feelings of rejection or abandonment that have been stashed in your memory banks for years and years thus eliminating the need for the behaviour that causes you problems today.

I have long ago learned what the human memory is capable of doing, and what unresolved data stored in it can do to you. Chronic pain comes about because the memory overloads and won't forget the pain no matter what you do, and that any little thing can trigger a memory no matter how seemingly unrelated one to the other might appear. So if this procedure is able to clear up any of the loose ends of thought that continue to hinder me than I'm all for it.

Thankfully the only "inner child" that's involved with this is one who I want to be rid of, or at least teach how to be like me. That seems to make a lot more sense then living my life according to what he can teach me.

August 24, 2007

Take A Leap In The Dark

The name that I've used for my personal blog, "Leap In The Dark", was chosen for one reason, but as it happens, it's turned out to be much more relevant to my life than I ever could have known. When I chose the name it was because of the connotations for creativity, not being afraid to take risks and not letting fear of failure prevent me from doing something.

That was all very well and good, and has stood me in good stead for reminding me not to be complacent with my writing, to fear looking like a fool, or to worry about what other people thought, and most especially not to worry about change.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Tarot, but one of the cards depicts a man, usually dressed sort of like a beggar with a hobo's stick and bundle over one shoulder, his head in the air not looking at where going, and one foot is on the verge of going over a cliff. He's known as The Fool in the more traditional decks and I'm sure there are all sorts of interpretations that are attached to his appearance, but I've always been attracted to the card and taken it as a sort of personal talisman.

He might look like he doesn't know where he's going and to be heading for the proverbial fall, and I'm sure more then one person has looked at me with the same thoughts in mind, but to me he has always typified the ultimate in the living life in the moment and not fearing for the future. He's not afraid where his foot is going to land having supreme confidence that whatever he does will be the right thing to do.

That doesn't necessarily mean that what happens is going to be nice or particularly pleasant, but it is what needs to happen. In some ways there's a type of blind optimism that everything will work out for the best, I won't deny that element exists, and that can get a fool in trouble if he isn't careful. But the times they do happen are when he or she loses track of who they are and tries to be what other people what him or her to be.

You can't step blindly forward into your future when you are trying to fulfill somebody else's vision of who you are, because you don't really know what it is you're trying to be, and it's not who you really want to be in the first place. Of course, you don't need anybody else's help in getting confused about your direction; we're all capable of doing that well enough on our own.

Unfortunately, those are the truly terrifying times because you can wander lost for ages and not know it before it's almost too late. There are so many things that can distract you from your own goals that you could possibly live your whole life very unhappy without ever understanding why. In a lot of people, it comes out as what we love to call a middle age crisis, when a man or woman will seemingly lose his or her mind and try to regain their past in the arms of a younger person or a sports car.

If they were to stop and think about it, they'd realize that it wasn't their youth they were trying to regain, but the missed opportunities to do what they wanted, or be who they wanted to be. According to the rules we are all supposed to live by we must surrender ourselves to follow the path that's been laid out to keep the wheels turning over.

Otherwise known as growing up or accepting responsibility, you can be assured that for must of us it will involve giving up a part of ourselves. Any time you do that you lessen your chances of living live the way you would have chosen if you kept all your options open. The more that happens the more chance you of have of being one of those unhappy people who feel the need to blow up at mid life.

When you end up that lost and confused, you lash out in a desperate attempt to find your way back to where you started. Instead, by that time most of us have forgotten how to live and are lost without a map leading us back to where we should have been. It's only if you have the courage to stop completely and look at yourself dispassionately that you can find a way home.

Every time we consider making any change in our lives, no matter how small takes a degree of courage, because it always involves a step into the unknown. Deciding to change your life takes more then just a step; it's a leap – a leap into the unknown – A Leap In The Dark.

If you've ever seen a high wire act when the person walks along the a wire suspended hundreds of feet in the air, and watched them take the net away and felt that sensation in the pit of your stomach that's part fear and part excitement then you have a good idea what's it like to consciously change your life. Even if it's to change from being the victim of an abuser, to stop using drugs and alcohol, or any other change for the better there is fear involved because it is going where you've never been before.

No matter how horrible it is, the familiar is at least a known and there is a degree of comfort that can be drawn from that fact. It's why so many people don't leave their abuser, not for fear of retaliation, but for fear of the new. Not knowing what the future holds is scarier to most people then the fear they have in the present.

Living is a terrifying experience and it's very easy to give in to the fear and not live at all. It so much easier not to feel at all than risk being hurt, so much easier to do nothing than risk being a failure, and so much easier to continue on the safe path of the familiar and not change. So why change at all, why take that risky step off the cliff into the unknown?

Not being able to speak for anybody else, or feel like I have the right to tell anybody else what to do, all I can do is tell you what guided my choice. I needed to leave behind old habits and ways of being that were governed by what happened to me in the past. It meant surrendering all the coping mechanisms that had kept me safe from hurt and stopped me from feeling. It also meant having to deal with all the reasons why I had developed all those habits.

Once I made the choice I felt like I was free for the first time in my life. Of course there were moments of absolute fear, depression, and feeling completely lost. There are times when I'm still beset by doubts, but each time those moments last for shorter and shorter periods. But the thing is, all of these moments were mine and weren't governed by anyone else or their perceptions of how I should be. I was free of my past and free to choose my own path and I was, and am still willing, to risk a little pain as the price I need to pay.

Taking the first step off the cliff is always the hardest, after that gravity takes over and it becomes easier. It may sound like a joke and I guess it is somewhat, but in all seriousness there is a momentum that builds when you take the decision that works just like gravity and you aren't able to stop the process whether you want to or not.

Now when I look at the title of my blog, "Leap In The Dark", not only does it remind me to take risks creatively, but it also helps me to remember to keep moving forward no matter what I think I fear, or think will happen to me. I long ago reached the decision that I'd rather feel something uncomfortable than feel nothing at all, because what's life if you don't feel?

August 20, 2007

Disassociation Blues

All of us do plenty of things throughout the course of our day on automatic; where we just let our hands or whatever body part is involved get on with the job while we think about other things. Usually it's mindless jobs like washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or anything else we can pretty much do by rote.

I'm sure that most of you are also familiar with the sensation of all of sudden becoming fully aware of what you're doing and how much of a shock that can be. If you're washing the dishes with a good chunk of your brain shut down and all of a sudden your hands slip and the dish you're washing makes a loud noise as it bangs against the side of the sink your reaction is unusually strong considering the circumstances.

Having been in an almost meditative state the abrupt return to reality is the most likely reason for your shock. The noise was the trigger that caused you to be returned but wasn't necessarily what you reacted too. Suddenly finding yourself standing at the kitchen sink with your arms up to their elbows in soapy water and a sink full of dishes after you had been daydreaming about who or whatever is bound to catch you more then a little off guard.

Now here's something else to try and get your head around, and it's sort of akin to the sensation I was just describing, but a little more extreme. First suppose that your whole life has been similar to the way you feel when washing dishes; that here but not here sensation. But, and this is where it gets tricky, you don't know you're in that state of mind.

Well, it's something like that anyway; you're not in a state of mind where you're blanking things out while doing something mindless, you're blanking things out that you don't even 'know" exist. Of course since you don't know that you're blanking things out, you can't be said to be blanking things out at all – or can you?

Damn this is harder than I thought it would be, all I've probably done is confuse the crap out of everybody. Maybe I should try a different tact…hmm how about this? Have you ever been in a situation where you've wished with all your might that you were somewhere else or that you can't believe what's going on is happening to you? All of a sudden everything begins to feel like it's taking place a long way away and you begin to feel disembodied? Its like your body and you have separated and you're able to watch the proceedings without being involved.

If that's something you've ever felt than you have experienced what it is like to disassociate at its most basic. Disassociating is a reaction among people who have suffered a severe trauma at some point in their lives and can be as short lived as the scenario described above, or can be as long lasting as being in a permanent state akin to the one you've achieved while washing the dishes.

Disassociating is also the name now used to describe what used to be known as Multiplicity, or Multiple Personality Disorder. In this worst case scenario a person, usually someone who was habitually sexually abused as a child for on ongoing and protracted basis by their nearest and dearest caregivers, would disassociate so completely as to cease to exist in that moment and another "person" would live through the horror. Dependant of the severity of the trauma a person could have from a minimum of two up to, well I know one woman who was diagnosed with at least forty personalities.

There has been a lot of bullshit written about Multiplicity or Disassociating to the point where people expect some sort of Jeckle and Hyde, or other obvious manifestation in a person suffering from this illness. The truth of the matter is that most of the time nobody would ever be able to tell the difference except if they were intimately familiar with the person or the person was triggered by circumstances that brought one of her abused selves to the surface. (My use of the feminine pronoun is deliberate because the majority of cases where sexual abuse has been severe enough for these circumstances to develop have been in women)

Some of what you've heard about the illness is true; in most cases the person has no recollection of what happens from one personality to the next, a person suffering from severe trauma can "switch" between personalities right in front of you, and a good many people who suffer from this disease do themselves physical harm. While there is no hard and fast rule as to why a person 'cuts' themselves one of the theories is that the personalities who suffered through the abuse lack the ability to communicate their anger and fear and are lashing out at the person they blame for abandoning them to their abuser, their core self.

Among women who were ritually abused, (their abusers used them as part of perverted religious ceremonies ranging from Satanic rites to Christian sin cleansing rites) there is a tendency to mutilate their sexual identity. The child personalities know it was something to do with their being a woman that made them a target so they try to remove signs of femininity, or damage themselves sufficiently to reduce their appeal.

Recovery is a long arduous process known as integration where the patient and counsellor work to try and get each personality to communicate with everybody else and the core person. In most cases this involves controlled switching so the therapist can find out what each personality requires to feel safe again. With these sessions being taped the client can familiarize herself with her other selves fears and begin to devise methods of offering assurance that their fears are no longer valid and the personality is no longer needed for protection.

Of course multiple personalities are an extreme form of disassociation. More commonly it will take the form of a person believing so strongly that an event isn't happening that they will enter into a state similar to shock in order to escape the experience and will also not remember it happening. Sometimes they are so successful that they forget that it ever happened at all.

All of us have disassociated on occasion, whether from boredom or shock, but for most of us the experience ends when the moment that caused it finishes. But for other less fortunate people it can haunt them for years to come and is a symptom of having suffered traumas too horrific for the human mind to cope with. Like all defence mechanisms it served a purpose in it's time, but will quickly outlive its usefulness and needs to be deactivated before it causes as much damage as that it was originally protecting against.

After all, it's not just the unpleasant things that you lose out on, you lose out on everything.

July 10, 2007

NaNoWriMo Notes: More Fun With Publishing

In November 2005 I entered the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest just for the fun of it. The idea of the contest is to attempt to write 50,000 words within the month. Obviously 50,000 words isn't enough for a novel, but it's usually enough to tell you whether you have something that will turn into a novel eventually.

At the time I was also eager enough to write a companion journal, called "NaNoWriMo Notes" and published weekly instalments of it online at Blogcritics and my own site, before, during and after the contest. I kept publishing because instead of it just being a journal about the contest it had evolved into a record of my attempts to complete a novel.

You see by the time November had come to a close that year I had written somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words and was too far-gone to stop. I've had plenty of fitful beginnings before, but none had ever cleared the thirty thousand-word mark, let along gone as far as this one had, so I was determined to finish. I couldn't let all those words languish in obscurity; I had a duty to them to see them published.

Since I was already in the habit of keeping a running commentary it wasn't that difficult to continue. In fact there were weeks when I managed to get more accomplished writing about what I didn't accomplish, then actually accomplishing anything. I have to admit that not only were those particularly frustrating weeks, they were also the ones where I know I came perilously close to self-pitying navel gazing.

Even when I had finally finished the manuscript, including re-writes, edits, and proofreading, I continued to monitor my progress in attempting to find a publisher via the "Notes". But there is only so much you can write about that without repeating yourself.
R's new front-3x5-72.jpg
Since I was still without a happy ending for "Notes", getting the book published, and I was contemplating self-publishing it through Lulu.com a print on demand company I decided for publication purposes that NaNoWriMo Notes: An Exercise In Creative Insanity would end with the completion of the novel so it at least had the illusion of a happy ending.

In April of 2006 I sent off my first submission of a chapter and synopsis of the novel to a publisher. Almost immediately I received a request for the next three chapters of the manuscript. To say I was excited was putting it mildly. They must have really liked it if they wanted more within a week of receiving the first chapter.

After three months of not hearing a word back from them since that request for more chapters my excitement began to ebb substantially. Friends who had been published many times over reassured me that it meant nothing – publishers can take up to year sometimes to respond to even a query letter. But when the rejection letter eventually showed up I wasn't surprised at all, it had become inevitable.

As I had decided only to apply to one publisher at a time it wasn't until October of 2006 that I sent off another submission. This time I called in a favour and asked a friend of mine if he would write a letter of support for me to his publisher. I hoped this would at least guarantee it being read. He had no problem with doing that and so I sent a full manuscript to the offices of Penguin India.

What with getting the manuscript copied – 300 plus pages would have been too much for my desk top printer to handle and the ink alone would have cost more then the commercial print job – and mailing, it cost me eighty dollars to send it off to the publisher. As recently as just a year prior to my submission Indian publishers had jumped at the chance to publish the work of foreign English language writers, so the money looked well spent as far as I was concerned.

Of course a lot can happen in a year, and Penguin India had recently changed management and policy. With burgeoning Indian nationalism the company's focus had switched so that now they only published a limited number of foreign nationals. I had already started picking up signals to that effect so wasn't overly surprised to find a lovely piece of stationary in my mail one day from Penguin India regretting they wouldn't be able to use my manuscript.

That was in December of 2006 and I've only now sent off another unsolicited manuscript. Oh I've been busy, true enough, but even to my own ear busy sounds like a feeble excuse. How long does it take to stick a chapter and two letters in an envelope and mail it? Even sorting out which publisher you want to send it off to next shouldn't take seven months but that's how long it took me.

One of the sticking points was trying to find the publisher most likely to publish the manuscript before submitting it. Now of course that's a sensible precaution within reason. You're not going to send a piece of fiction to a publisher that only puts out non-fiction obviously, but I was going a little further then that.

I would go to a publisher's web site and before I'd even check to see if they were accepting unsolicited submissions I would check out what type of books they sold. I'm not even sure what I was looking for, but I do know that if I didn't like the feel of their site, or their work struck me as being not the type I'd want to be associated with, I'd pass.

In other words I could always find an excuse not to send off my manuscript: too intellectual, not intellectual enough, wrong type of attitude towards publishing, too big, too small, and so on. If you try hard enough you can always find a reason not to do something.

I finally clued in that I had fallen into that trap, and from there it wasn't such a great leap to figure out that I didn't want to send my manuscript off again because I was scared of being rejected again. That might not sound like much of a revelation, but it actually took me by surprise that I felt that way.

After I recovered from the shock, and accepted that's what had been happening, it became surprisingly easy to send off a submission. I found out the name of a the contact I needed to write too, and sent a package off to one of the smaller presses who's books I've been reviewing. That may sound like an easy route, what with name recognition and all, but it will also make a rejection all the more bitter.

So why, if as I just said I'm so afraid of rejection, have I submitted to someone whose rejection would have an even more devastating effect on me than another publisher? For the simple reason that if I can work up the courage to submit to them I'll be able submit to anyone. Of course it could also be that I'm hoping, that because they know me and what I'm capable of, that they might be more likely then others to at least consider me.

If I'm being honest I have to say it's a split between the two. I guess you could almost call it a paradox – submitting to someone you know because you hope it helps your chances while at the same time being even more afraid of submitting to them because the rejection will feel that much worse. Of course the real problem is most likely that I think too much and should just get on with it (I heard you out there in the peanut gallery – don't think I didn't).

So here I am sitting waiting for an answer and not expecting much in the way of anything. It's been almost two years since I finished the book and although I've been pecking away at its sequel there's times when I read through it and it feels like someone else wrote it. Of course if they write back asking to read the full manuscript that will all change and you'll see how quickly I'll start to care.

But for now I'm going to at least hold on to the illusion of sang-froid and just continue on with my daily business as if my life didn't hang in the balance based on someone else's opinion. Which it doesn't, really it doesn't, I couldn't care less one way or another…And if you believe that I've got some great land in Florida I'll sell you sight unseen

July 5, 2007

The Childhood Sexual Abuse Hangover: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

I've written about issues pertaining to suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by childhood sexual abuse in the past and in doing so have touched upon my own personal history. Each time I've emphasised that I'm not looking for sympathy from anyone, it's just that I happen to be a handy example to use for the topic at hand.

There's still not a great deal written about men who suffered from being abused as children, or men willing to talk about it publicly because of perceived stigma's attached to it. Being raped by a man as child has as much chance of "making you gay" or making you les of "a man" a falling down the stairs would. Being rapped, especially being rapped as a child has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with exerting control over someone else.

It's all about power and being able to exert it without any fear of repercussions. How many young children, no matter what their gender, are going to go running to somebody to say that their father was raping them? The rapist usually makes sure that it won't happen through a combination of threats –"If you tell anybody everybody will know that you are lying and you'll get in trouble" and the use of cajoling lies –"Don't you love me, this is how all good little boys (girls) show that they love their father"

The last statistics I read about this subject were something like one in four young boys are sexually abused by somebody they know as a child, while the figure is doubled for young girls. Of course these are only reported cases, and I'm sure the figure for men would spike significantly if we were to know the real numbers.

Although the event is horrid enough as it is, the individual who is abused really begins to pay his heaviest price in adulthood when they begin to discover how fucked up they are. It's like a time bomb had been planted in their mental/emotional systems during the events and was set to go off when they had to start dealing with adult emotional stimuli.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse establish coping mechanisms based on what happened to them. Love, violence, sex, affection, caring, abandonment, and neglect have all become mixed together in their heads and they lack the ability to separate one from the other. They will either be continually waiting for the person they are involved with to either lash out at them or leave them.

This will lead to vastly different modes of behaviour; either they will be completely subservient in the hopes of making the other person happy enough that they will never hurt them or leave them, or they will find excuses to end relationships early in order to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

There is also the potential for a survivor to go the route of becoming an abuser and carrying on the work started by his tormentor on others. I'm eternally grateful that I have no personal experience in that matter so can't speak to it, although I can see how given the right circumstances it is highly possible.

Abandonment and neglect can leave behind such residual resentment that a person would feel that they were justified in doing anything they had to in order to get their own back. The world did this to me, it owes me, and so I'm going to do it back to the world. Don't get me wrong; I'm not excusing that behaviour just offering an explanation. I know from personal experience how resentment can twist your thinking and corrupt your heart.

Unfortunately I've not been able to avoid the other consequences of being a survivor and have had to deal with more then my fair share of shit over the past fourteen years. As it stands I'm still peeling back the layers like one would work to expose an onion's core. At times and element of frustration sets in, and I wonder if it will ever stop and if I will ever find something akin to peace.

Where I've been fortunate is that I have a very good doctor to work with and have been able to isolate the base elements that are the root cause of a lot of the emotional baggage that I'm carrying. So instead of being overwhelmed by a huge barrage of emotional symptoms, I have only a few things that I need to focus on that make me feel like there's progress.

This is so important for a person who is going through this type of experience, be they male or female, because it is so easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. A survivor is usually a series of raw nerve endings where almost anything is a potential trigger for an abuse memory. Reducing the amount of stimuli, or even learning to recognize what they are and what they do is the first step in being able to recover control over you're emotional stability.

From there it becomes a matter of understanding that your reactions are being controlled by events that happened in the past and aren't necessarily the ones you want to have in a situation today. If for example the person you love says "I love you" and your reaction is to wonder what they want from you, it isn't coming from you, it's coming from how you were treated when you were abused.

Realizing that is the major step in reclaiming you life and overcoming the effects of what happened to you. Gradually you learn how to have reactions based on present circumstances not on the past. It's a lot of work and it doesn't happen overnight; reactions you've had for thirty plus years are not going to disappear on demand. But at least now you know who you are capable of being and have the means to become that person.

This is not easy work, nor is it very enjoyable; who likes to realize that what they've thought of as normal behaviour for years has actually caused no end of grief. I sure as hell didn't. But ultimately the feeling you'll have is one of immense freedom and relief.

So if you're still at the stage where every little thing, no matter how trivial, can send you into orbit, fear not, there is a means of escape and I'm proof that its possible. Find someone you trust who you can work with and learn who your really are and what you really feel. You'll love yourself for it.

June 17, 2007

"In The Dark Of The Night" A Father's Day Poem

In the dark of the night,
when I'm alone in my room
I remember you Father of mine.

When I'm alone in my head,
and the fear comes along
I remember you Father of mine.

The hand that should
have brought comfort,
the touch that should
have been love,

The voice that should
have been gentle,
the words that should
have been kind.

The face that should
have brought calming,
the eyes that should
have been gentle.

You came and you took
what didn't belong,
You left behind
fear, shame and hate.

Fathers and sons,
play games by the light
of the day, but yours
were in the blackness of night.

Our love, it was special,
it had to hide,
under covers and
behind blinds.

I wasn't to tell,
not a word, not a sound
not even to mom,
was it allowed.

So for years I was silent
even to me,
but now that is over,
I will say it out loud.

In the dark of the night,
when I'm alone in my room,
I remember you Father of mine.

April 20, 2007

Worlds Apart

It's always very humbling to find out how much you still lack in awareness when it comes to being respectful of others in the world around you. You think of yourself as being fairly aware and try to take into account various beliefs and ways of living yet you still take things for granted and make assumptions that are wrong.

A prime example of that happened to me just the other day. I've set up a writer's group for the people who are contributing to the Epic India web site. It's for the usual thing; a place where people can post announcements and where I can list any items that people want reviewed. I don't know if other groups have this option, but Google groups allow you to restrict access to those eighteen year of age or older.

In a semi-serious, semi joking manner I labelled the group adult only. I was trying to pass on the message to my people that I didn't want any childish behaviour on the board. But there was something I hadn't taken into consideration. Some countries block sites labelled adult only routinely in attempt to maintain their strict moral codes.

Which is exactly what happened too one of my writers. He's living in one of the Gulf of Arabia states that are particularly strict about enforcing a Muslim lifestyle and as long as the adult designation remained on the site he wasn't going to be able to take part in the group's discussions.

When he wrote to tell me about it he was very apologetic, which of course there was no need for him to be. In fact when I wrote him back to tell him that I was changing the designation, I apologized to him for not having realized that the possibility of that existed. Here I had been going on about a multicultural international magazine and I do something without considering the full implications of my actions in other cultures.

Well, you say, how were you to know that the country this guy lives in was going to do something like that? To me that is the wrong question, I should be asking why didn't I know or consider the possibility that someone in the group would find themselves in that situation?

No I don't think I'm being too hard on myself either. Think of what we expect people to know about us. The least I can do is remember that Muslim societies aren't as open in some ways as ours and act accordingly. It's called understanding and respect for the way others live, something noticeably thin on the ground in our age of intolerance and unreason.

It doesn't matter what it is, groups with an adult designation, a house rule that demands all heads be uncovered all the time, or making everybody recite the same prayer in school, it all comes down to the same thing. Make allowances for other people's differences and they will respond in kind. It's amazing how just a little respect goes a long way.

March 30, 2007

Let's Put On A Web Page

Do you remember the old "Andy Hardy" movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland? They used to show reruns of them when I was a kid, and what distinguishes them in my mind was that in every one of them they always "put on a show" to raise money for something or other. Somebody's dad always had a barn or the equivalent that they could stage their remarkably professional productions in.

It always looked so easy. Sets and lighting equipment would mysteriously appear as if out of thin air and the orphanage would be saved. Of course anybody who ever had anything to do with trying to "put on a show" knew that not only were the chances of making money from the venture limited, but it usually took a hell of a lot more work then was ever seen in those movies.

Now being an and old hand at putting on shows you'd think I'd know all this; that I would be prepared for the amount of work it would take for doing its modern equivalent – building a web site. But back in January when my friend Ashok Banker approached me with the idea of taking over his Epic India web site and turning it into an Arts and Culture magazine I immediately forgot every thing I knew about how difficult any project could be.

I mean what would I have to do? We had a technical whiz kid at our disposal named Banwari who knows more about HTML code than I even realize exists who would handle all the tech side of things, and Ashok's name as the author of the modern Ramayana would at least guarantee an audience; nothing for me to do until it was up and running.

I think I held onto that illusion for about a week, or until Banwari had installed the new system we were going to be using for publishing. Textpattern works pretty much the same as any of the other blog and multiple blog publishing systems. That meant we had to build templates for each page of the magazine with HTML code.

In order for that to happen I had to be able to articulate what I wanted the site to look like to somebody in writing. Which meant of course that I had to decide what I wanted it to look like. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than it sounds, at least for me it did. (It didn't make matters any easier for me that both Banwari and Ashok are in India and if I wanted to talk to them and get a response I had to be awake in the middle of the night which made coherent thought even more difficult).

Oh and then you have to worry about content on top of that too. Articles are easy enough; I've got close to 800 from almost three years of daily writing that I can use to fill up space with for now, and there are some other folk out there who I know are interested because I sent them out passwords and usernames on Monday. (Last time I had checked I'm still the only author who has anything on line – maybe someone will have put something into pending by the time I finish this – but I won't hold my breath)

(ASIDE: If you want to write at Epic India head over to the site and you'll find an email address that you can use to get in touch with me – check the Blogcritics Yahoo group as well. We want a very specific kind of work, so we might not be for you, check it out first.)

Like I said that's not the type of content I was concerned with anyway – it was what the pages were going to have on them aside from the articles that concerned me. For now we've limited page size to seven article headlines on each section page, and a headline box and article headlines on the home page. So I had to figure out what to do with the header, the sidebars, and the footer.

It's been a long time since I've done any design work whatsoever, but I was able to come up with a logo/title for each section page and start seeing the page in terms of it's components instead of the actual content. So I've got a rectangle across the top, a long skinny rectangle down each side, and another one like the top along the bottom.

We had some necessary text of course that filled up some of the space in the sidebars, links and such (always make sure you use the site's final address for the links; they don't work if they still have the test page addresses assigned to them when you go live) but that still leaves lots of room to play with. I'm still looking to add some colour in the form of some more pictures similar to the ones seen in the right hand side bar. I'm open to suggestion if anyone knows of any that can be used on a semi-permanent basis.

At one point we had thought we would be ready to go live on March 1st 2007, well we were 90% ready on Monday March 26th/07 and both Banwari and I were still madly tying up loose ends up until today. The problem with an international site of course is there is no real down time when you can do upkeep and be sure the site is empty of visitors. When one side of the International Date Line is asleep the other is up and about. It makes it kind of hard to do any edits when nobody's looking.

Of course there is the plus side to all this. The amazing feeling of accomplishment I felt when it went live on the Internet and I saw that it worked and looked like I had envisioned last January when Ashok asked me if I were interested in doing this. You don't get that when you put a show on in your Dad's barn withr little or no effort.

Now if only there were other writer's names on the pages and not just mine – that would be ideal.

February 11, 2007

Family History: Facts And Hopes

Family History Award.jpg
Family histories are strange things some times. Just when you think you have a handle on where your people have come from, a spanner gets thrown in the works. In my family we've always known about my father's family to as far back as 16th century Portugal for his mother's family, and the days of Wallace and his gory bed for his father's family in Scotland.

But my mother's family has always been a little more mysterious in that although we know where in Europe they were living when they came to Canada, we don't know what path had taken them to that final destination but one. As Jews they had been on the move for generations. Always being afraid to settle in deep enough to put down roots of belonging because who knew when the winds of change would whisper in the ear of the King/Prince of the city telling him it's time for the Jews to leave.

My mother's maternal line had settled in Poland just outside the city of Crakow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Poland and Russia were in continual conflict over a piece of land that lay on the Eastern edge of Poland. That the Pale, which was the name of the area, also happened to the only place in Russia that Jews wee allowed to live meant that their poor Fiddler On The Roof type villages were right smack dab in the middle of a battle field.

I know my mother's maternal grandfather came to here to avoid being canon fodder for one side or the other for a fourth time. ("Enlistment" parties would ride through the Jewish settlements rounding up any male that could walk and conscript them for whichever army happened to hold control over the village at the time) In 1911 he brought over his wife and four kids to settle in Toronto.

Like most of their fellow immigrants they had lived in Eastern Europe for centuries prior to finally having had enough of the persecution and poverty and making good their escape. At the time it was an occasion for sorrow, of course twenty odd years later they would consider themselves fortunate to have got out when they did before the doors of the camps were thrown open.

On her father's side of the family is where the mystery begins about my mother's family tree. Although we know they were living in Romania prior to coming to Canada they were far more educated than would be normal for poor Jews (they spoke French on top of Yiddish, Biblical Hebrew, and Romanian) which has long made us wonder about where they had lived prior to landing in Romania.

My mother has long suspected that her father's family are descendants of the Jews who had thrived as part of the Ottoman Empire and even Christian Iberia (Spain and Portugal) up until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The year 1492 not only marks the beginning of the end for the native peoples of North and South America; it was also the year that Jews were given the choice of leaving the Iberian Peninsula or converting to Christianity.

Jews who had seen the writing on the wall had retreated in front of the Christian armies as they had taken the land back from the Moorish empire that was based out of modern Turkey. After having enjoyed status as equals in parts of that empire they weren't interested in all of a sudden being subjected to limitations on their life and culture. As the retreat continued back through the Balkans and Eastern Europe people like the King of Romania would assure the Jews that they were welcome to stay in his country.

Unlike their cousins who spoke Yiddish, a hybrid language made up of German, Slavic, and Hebrew, they used Ladino as their common tongue. Ladino incorporated many elements of the Romance languages (Ones descended from Rome – Latin- like French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian) so it would not have been hard for them to acclimatize to Romania..

Most monarchs were always glad to welcome Jews into their countries because they were a source of money and they were the only people allowed by church law to lend out money. While their ability to be users would have made them popular among the wealthy and the aristocratic the common man would have easily resented their wealth and ability. This was one of the major reasons that the church was able of whip up hatred against the Jews so easily,

Without any accounts of how my mother's father's family got to Romania we can't know for sure whether they were part of the Sephardic people's (Jews who are from Spain and the Middle East, while the European Jews are the Ashkenazi) migration back through eastern Europe with the Ottoman Empire. Both my mother and I have done some cursory research on the matter, with few conclusive results.

The last name of Marcus is listed as a Sephardic name in the genealogy sites, but it also shows up in the Ashkenazi lists as well. For all we know it could just be a romantic notion on our part with nothing concrete to back it up. It even sometimes feels like an extension of typical Romanian Jew feelings of superiority over the peasant farmers from Poland, Russia, and the other Eastern Balkan states.

One of the stories in our family is that when my grandfather went to marry my grandmother, one of his family, (it's never been said who) took him aside and said, "Remember to hold your head high, you are a Romanian and they are only Polacks". My grandfather used to take great delight in repeating this story in front of my grandmother. As long as none of her family were around she didn't mind, even joining in by saying, "The only thing worse than a Polack was a Litvak (Lithuanian)"

So perhaps thinking our family is descended from a long line of intellectual mystics, who under the rule of the Moors in Spain were elevated to positions of authority so great that one even was senior advisor to the ruler of Cordova, is just another sign of our snobbishness. Who wouldn't prefer claiming them as ancestors to saying we've just been scrabbling around for the last two thousand years trying to survive wherever they will let us live?

But although there is no proof, I keep stumbling across little things that revive my belief in the theory. I was sent a couple books by the Israeli author Haim Sabato to review, and he is a Sephardic Jew. His family had lived in Syria for two thousand years until they moved to Egypt and then Israel. On the cover of the one book Aleppo Tales (Aleppo being the area where the Jews came from in Syria) is a picture of a family gathering. Staring up at me from the page are the faces of young women who are identical to my mother when she was their ages. I do mean ages, from toddler to it looks early twenties all the young women look identical to what my mother looked like at those times in her life.

Just to make sure it wasn't me making something out of nothing, I handed the book to my wife to see her reaction. Her first words were –"they look just like that picture of your mom as a young child, and also that one of her as a teenager".

So, it's not really proof about anything, but it did make my heart beat a little faster for a few moments and revive my hopes that maybe we are indeed descendants of the wise and the gifted on one side of the family. It's a nice fantasy family history that every so often looks very real.

February 9, 2007

I'm A Time Traveller

Mathematics and I have never been the best of friends. The same mental block that causes me to invert the letters in a word or construct a sentence backwards can't make any sense whatsoever out of the way numeric formula work. While over the years I've gradually been able figure out some basic things like fractions (you just can't do any baking unless you can figure out how many times one eighth goes into six, thirty seconds) and can sort of find my way around the circumference of a circle anything more advanced than that and I'm lost.

On one hand it's not been any real great loss, I wasn't planning a career as an engineer or computer scientist anyway. But it's also cut me off from understanding things like the physics of light, sound, and time. I've always been fascinated by those three subjects and would have loved to have at least been able to understand what E=Mc2 means.

Oh I know the words are something like Energy equals mass times something squared, but that doesn't mean a thing to me. What does relativity mean anyway? What's relative to what? Did Einstein mean that time was relative to something and that something was represented by the famous formula? I've never known and no one has ever been able to explain it to me in terms that I can understand.

I know all sorts of theories about the relative nature of time but I doubt any of them have anything to do with what Albert was talking about. For example there's the time that moves at an ever-decreasing rate of speed relative to the boredom of a high school French class.

A double period that was the last class of the day in the end of May when the sun shone brilliantly bright and the sky was the colour blue you only see from inside a classroom was guaranteed to affect the speed of the clock in relation to the number of times that you looked at it. Then of course there was the amount of time that actually passed relative to the number of hours that it felt like you had been sitting in the aforementioned double period.

Of course all of us were familiar with those expressions of relativity as teenagers, and probably assumed once we had escaped the confines of school time would revert to behaving in its docile pattern of sixty seconds to a minute and sixty minutes to an hour. It just shows how naïve we were about its workings. If anything time became even more capricious.

There was the pause at the end of the phone after you worked up the courage to ask someone one out; the wait for a decision on whether you got the job or not could make one night last an eternity; and finally the way time stretched seconds into forever as your car spun off the road. As an adult you discovered that school was just time's training ground as much as it was your own, time was everywhere now, and not just a clock on the wall to be watched.

Now while most people have experienced those concepts of time in one form or another some of us have had the joy of experiencing the way in which time and memory can intermingle to bring the past to life. People who have suppressed memories of abuse will all of a sudden start vividly reliving an incident from the time of their abuse and swear it's happening in the present, even thought it's a memory. While that's an example of time slipping her moorings it's only a beginning when it comes to the tricks she can get up to especially with memory so ably attending her.

Past and present mean nothing anymore to a survivor with suppressed memories. Everything is in the present and there is nothing she or he can do about it except try to deal with the fact that the memories exist outside the confines of our traditional definition of time. How else would you explain the fact that a person is able to be an adult at the same time as they are living out their experiences as a child?

In order to break the cycle of being stuck in your childhood you have to be willing to walk into the past with your eyes open and rescue your self. Does all this sound a little New Age for you? Walking into the past sounds a little spacey I guess, but there is really no other way to describe what I'm talking about.

I've been working with a psychologist for the last year and a half in an attempt to clear some flashbacks that seemed to have lingered after more then twelve years. We've been using a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, better known as E.M.D.R. to help me stop regressing back to childhood every so often.

With E.M.D.R. a client is first asked to bring the memory to mind, then the psychologist will induce a type of hypnotic trance either through rapid eye movement, a steady pulse of sound, or a pulse in the hands. The client then talks through what they are experiencing and responds to questions and suggestions offered by the councillor conducting the session.

The idea is that by bringing the present and the past together in a controlled manner, the client will begin to be able to exert their will over the situation and explain to themselves that the abuse existed only in the past. As silly as it sounds this sometimes involves talking to the child in the memory who is being traumatized to reassure him that his life is not without hope, and it will get better.

Then, dependent on your mood and the circumstances, you can confront your abuser and threaten them for a change if for no other reason then to make you feel good about yourself and to help reassure your memory self that things will get better.

This is an instance of how a person can become stuck in time and be forced to relive a specific moment over and over again. Unlike time in the other instances I've described which actually does move forward without active intervention from the present, time won't flow past this point ever without help.

Time is not always the linear thing that clocks describe as moving in a neat circle with seconds following seconds and minutes following minutes, turning into hours, days, months and years. Like I said at the beginning I wish I had the knowledge and know-how that would allow me to describe how that works so that I could offer you some scientific proof of what I'm talking about. But I'm afraid you'll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that I'm a time traveller. Perhaps not the way H. G. Wells visualised it in his book The Time Machine, but I am one just the same.

Although, I could think of places in time that I'd much rather have visited then where I do have to go sometimes and wish that I had some choice in the matter.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

Camps Award.jpg

Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

January 2, 2007

No Need For Anger

I had a startling revelation the other day. It may not seem like such a big deal to some of you, but it made me understand another little piece of the puzzle that's me. I've been picking up a variety of differently shaped segments for the past twelve years and slotting them into what seems like the appropriate places.

I've tried not to resort to using the "if it doesn't fit use a bigger hammer" technique, and in general I've had some success in building a fairly accurate and honest picture of myself. Some of the time I haven't been necessarily thrilled with what I've seen, but at least that way I know what I need to fix to make the picture a little more pleasant to look at.

Yesterday I sent a really angry email to somebody who is supposedly a friend of my wife and myself. Last winter my wife had worked with him on a recording project and after the CD was finished had offered to help with some of the mailing out of review copies. Her job was to label envelopes and stuff them with a CD and promotional material.

This meant boxes of CDs, mailing envelops, promotional material, and bubble wrap for protecting the discs in their envelopes were dropped off at our apartment. She was told it was very important that stuff be ready to mail as soon as possible. The first wave went out in June and that was fine, but we were still left with a significant number of boxes and material cluttering up our apartment.

The second wave was to go out in mid August and the labels were delivered to my wife so that she could prepare eighty more pieces to go out in the mail. As some of you may know from reading some of my other articles, my wife is not in the best of health, suffering from a sever anxiety disorder and benign positional vertigo.

Unfortunately it seems that the heat of the summer exasperated both of her conditions, so by mid August she was not doing very well at all. But she takes her responsibilities seriously, and had promised to take care of this mailing for our friend. She spent two nights prior to the labels being delivered folding the promotional material, wrapping CDs in bubble wrap, and stuffing them in envelopes.

That way when the labels came all she would have to do was affix them and the mailing would be ready. Our friend came by with the labels and stressed how important it was to have them ready to be mailed as quickly as possible. They are still sitting in our living room along with sufficient material for another God knows how many more mailings.

She tried phoning for a week and leaving messages to say they were ready to the person who was supposed to come pick them up. When that elicited no response she started emailing our friend. He didn't even email back a reply. Occasionally we have received an email from him that was part of a mass mailing either complaining that no one was helping him with the work involved with promoting the CD or telling us how many visits the CD's Myspace site had received that week.

Yesterday I walked out into the living room and saw the boxes still sitting there and got really pissed off. We've been forced to rearrange our living space to accommodate them and they take up room that we can't spare. I snapped and wrote him an email saying that our apartment was not a storage space and I didn't like being taken advantage of.

If he couldn't be bothered to even reply to emails from my wife about what she was supposed to do about the mailing she had prepared for last August, I didn't see why I should bother storing the stuff for him. I was also nasty enough to say that I knew he was busy, but if he had the time to do all the other things he was doing, he surely could have spared a few seconds to email my wife in answer to her question.

I told him that he had to January 16th of this year to get them out of here or I would start disposing of them in any way that I could: implying the garbage.

I started thinking about it later in the day and realized I was upset by something else aside from the situation. I was upset that I had been forced into the position of being an asshole and getting angry with him in an effort to get him to pay attention. It was such a pointless thing to be angry about. But he seemed willing to take us for granted for as long as he could ignore my wife's emails.

However, in spite of the circumstances, I still felt disappointed because I've responded in the manner I have. It felt like I was failing somehow or other because I had to resort to threats and anger in order to be treated with respect. What really bothered me was that the other person involved is one of those people who talk about community and co-operation all the time yet they couldn't be bothered to answer an e-mail.

When I look for something that could be positive from the experience I can't find much, but there are these two things. No matter how much I'm upset with myself fro using anger I've had the good sense to place the blame where it belongs and not at my own feet. Secondly is the fact that it did bother me that I had to write the e-mail in the first place.

I figure that I'm on the right track if even doing that little bit form anger upsets me. Maybe someday I'll figure out how to handle the circumstances in such a way that anger won't be necessary. But for now I'll settle for being pissed off about made to get pissed off.

December 23, 2006

Moments Of Magic

I think I've always wanted there to be magic in the world. I'm sure that as a child I would have dreamed that there was something that could be called upon to change my life. If I could only discover it or find the right clue that would lead me to the place where it existed then everything would be perfect.

But the type of magic I was looking for and the type of magic that exists in the world have very little to do with each other. It wasn't until I was much older that I faced up to the fact that there are no magic wands we can wave to whisk us away when we wish.

Bad things happen to children, adults have to deal with their problems, and each of us is forced to bear the burden of our responsibilities. The avoidance techniques that we do have are far less wholesome than broomsticks and only delay the inevitable. But in spite of these reality checks I've managed to keep a tenacious hold on my belief in magic.

Maybe it was because of the fact that I worked in theatre for a period of time and in some ways we created magic each time we gave a performance. There's always been something about the theatre that is somewhat magical, perhaps because of it's previous association with travelling shows during the renaissance, or it's even earlier associations with the god Dionysus. Anyway what else would you call it when a person becomes someone else before your very eyes if not magic?

No matter what the reasons I am as certain of magic's existence as I am of the fact that I'm dependant on oxygen for survival. Does that make you uncomfortable to hear a supposedly rational man admit that he believes in magic? Well I can't say that I blame you, I have a fairly good idea how ridiculous that sounds. Like some new age psychobabble I 'm sure leading up to some stupid talk about guardian angles or something equally nauseating.

Fear not, it's nothing to do with guardian angles, whether you consider it new age psychobabble is another thing I guess, but that is something we'll all have to live with. Those of you who wince with embarrassment when you read this, will consider yourselves the most martyred I'm sure, but I think I've given fair warning and you've had plenty of time to turn aside so you've only yourself to blame.

However I don't think anyone really needs to worry that much because the magic I'm going to talk about is readily available to anyone with eyes and ears willing to use those senses and keep their mouth shut for a short period of time. In other words using your powers of observation not the ones for making observations.

Walk down almost any block in a residential neighbourhood and you'll see at least one or two front lawns adorned with some sort of ornamental hedge or shrubbery. As you approach from down the street, if you are paying attention, you may notice a fair amount of activity going on within and around the piece of topiary. The air is full of the small, feathered bodies of sparrows and the sound of their excited voices.

As soon as you get to within two feet of the bush it's as if something has pulled a plug. All the bird sound stops and nothing is moving. If you were to only give a causal glance, as you walked by you'd wonder where they all could have dispersed to? There's only one or two visible now.

But if you look closely you can see them all perched on the branches that shouldn't support even their weight. They are stock-still and not a sound can be heard save the occasional "peep" which is quickly hushed. Yet continue on only for a few feet and the air is once again filled with sound; a quick glance over your shoulder reveals that the action you had interrupted has continued as if it had never been interrupted.

If you were to continue to walk and head out onto a main street, you'll be grateful to see that because there are few buildings taller than four stories high that the sky is laid out for you like an expanse of ocean. Except of course no sea on this planet could be that colour blue or contain clouds that tower in quite that manner.

For just a second you see why the Hopi of the South West say the Kachina spirits live in a mountain range in the sky. It appears to be running on a diagonal over your head, magnificent piles of solid white flecked with grey. Streaming off to the side are the insubstantial veils that the sun is using to partially shield his face with today.

The unexpected sound of bus engine engaging almost pulls you back to the earth but out of the corner of your eye you see a ballet group of pigeons take flight in their tight spiral formation. Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty of them are attempting to scale the heights of the sky momentarily. But as if they are attached to a string, or are bound not to climb further, they invert the motion that took them aloft and settle back onto the roof they had been roosting on a moment before.

All the way down the street as far as you can see the same pattern is repeated as group after group respond to the flight of the one prior in line. Wave after wave crests against the lower breakwater of the sky before returning to their point of origin until all you see are black specks at the far end of your vision.

Continuing to walk you veer back away from the traffic onto another residential street and from nowhere appears a flock of starlings to settle in a tree some twenty feet from you. There is no way of knowing how many of them there in front of you, only that they blacken the tree and the sounds of their voices are a cacophony that mysteriously attracts no one else's attention.

At some unseen signal they lift off as one unit and if the pigeons were a dance troupe the starlings are a brigade on parade ground formation, so sharp and tight are their turns, and precise in their intent. This is no mere reaction flight; it is a deliberate manoeuvre that lifts the whole flock to their next feeding location or roost.

Ask yourself how can the sparrows know when to turn on and off; how do the pigeons take off into those spirals every time; and most especially how does a flock of starlings obey such precise movement commands?

In our pre rational days when we didn't look to science for every explanation, when we were dependant on the generosity of the planet's bounty for survival, we believed in the spirits of the game we hunted and that the earth beneath our feet was a living breathing entity. But in spite of our new ability to offer reasonable solutions to puzzles like those I've posed above, I can't help but wonder if we might not have been on the right track all along in our "primitive" times.

You can offer me any number of words of scientific explanation, but they won't quiet the feeling inside of me that when I watch these occurrences, I'm witnessing a type of magic that goes beyond anything a human being could hope to create. It may not be exactly what I hoped for as a child, but it does the trick now every time.

November 22, 2006

Yesterday's Idols - Today's Fantansy

I was recently asked who my idol was when I was a kid. What I thought interesting about the question was that it was assumed, correctly as it happens, that I had an idol when I was a kid. It's just one of those things that goes with the territory of growing up, having a person we look up to for some reason or another.

Like a lot of young boys my idol when I was a kid was sports figure. But unlike so many other kids who picked the real popular players of the day, my favourite's best days were long behind him. Henri (don't pronounce the H and make en sound like on and you'll have a good idea how to say his name) Richard's glory days had been in the fifties with his brother Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and the sixties with Jean Beliveau.

By the time I found out that a player on my favourite team had a last name the same as my first name his career was beginning to draw to a close. He did score the game tying and game winning goals in the 1971 Stanley Cup championship against Tony Esposito and the Chicago Blackhawks. But the real story that year was Montreal's rookie goalie Ken Dryden. He'd only played six games in the regular season, before coming in and starting every playoff game and stoning the opposition cold.

Four years later, Henri retired after winning his eleventh Stanley Cup, and his first as Captain of the Montreal Canadians. He had been a small elusive player who could skate circles around the bigger players looking to make him part of the boards. He never had the most powerful shot in the world, but it seemed to be able to find the back of the net anyway. Maybe not with the regularity of his more illustrious brother, but his goals always seemed to be important.
Henri & Maurice Richard.jpg
They were the goals that would put the team back into the game when it seemed the game was lost, or the goal that broke the spirit of the other team in a tight playoff series. His goals always seemed to carry a little of the team's past glory with them, and you could almost see the other team wilt when he scored, as if all of a sudden a Canadians' win was now inevitable.

As a child it was easy to have a sports figure as an idol, especially back in the more innocent days of the late sixties and early seventies prior to endorsement deals, steroids, and all the other disillusionments that have come with the passing of the years. Of course we also didn't know the intimate details of our heroes' lives then as we do now.

I can still look back on Henri Richard's career with the rose tinted glasses of the young kid who thought he was great because I never found out whether or not he drank heavily, beat his wife, or slept around while on the road. There was usually one or two reporters who followed the same team each year from their home town newspaper and they knew if they ever said anything about stuff they weren't supposed to they'd never report on another game again.

Anyway they were just as much a member of the team as the coaching staff and the management. Sharing the train rides and sitting up with the players, drinking and playing cards as they travelled between games. They had as much to lose as the players did by talking; it was a pretty exclusive club in those days and nobody wanted to lose their membership.

As a kid a sports hero made sense, they did something you would like to do, and they did it really well. Your world wasn't cluttered with the things that adults filled theirs with. All that mattered was whether your hero scored on Saturday nights and his team won. It could mean the world in terms of bragging rights at school on Monday, but by Wednesday focus would have shifted onto next Saturday's game.

Henri Richard retired when I was twelve, on the cusp of adulthood, and I don't think that I've had a person who I'd call an idol since. At least not in the same uncomplicated way that he was to my young self. The Montreal Canadians of the later 1970's are considered one of the benchmark teams of the NHL that others are compared too.

Like the New York Islander and Edmonton Oiler teams that followed, they were the class of the league. Each of those three great teams had players on them worthy of idolization, but not one of them seemed able to strike that chord with me. Wayne Gretzkey, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, and Mark Messier were all gifted individuals whose talent could and did elevate hockey to artistry on occasion but it didn't seem to matter.

It wasn't that hockey had lost its attraction, that would come later; in fact it was watching people like Gretzkey that kept my interest alive for as long as it lasted. Instead it was the fact that my own horizons had expanded. I could see the potential for other people, professions, and skills to be worthy of emulation and respect.

The thing is though it's a lot harder to idolize your doctor or plumber for their skills than it was the athletes who you followed as a kid. There is nothing truly spectacular about what either of them do, no moments when they will show off some particularly incredible move that will leave you with your heart in your mouth and awestruck.

But you also know that you have more practical use in your life for a plumber or a doctor than a professional athlete, pop musician, or movie star and you know which one you can live without. An idol is someone you fantasize about being, not somebody you actually become.

Whether scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game, or wining an acting award, or singing on stage in front of a hundred thousand people, you can look at them and say what if. As a child you can even believe in it for a while, and even as an adult you can hold on to a dream for a time. If you're lucky and talented, or sometimes just lucky, you might even become something akin to those you idolize.

As you grow older though, you realize the chances of that happening are remote, and the fantasy of becoming your idol fades. Some people continue to live vicariously through the lives of celebrities using their experiences to augment their own, but they have mostly stopped trying to be them.

As a child we pick out an idol for any number of reasons, but mainly for the purpose of allowing us to create a fantasy involving dreams of fame and glory. As we age we realize that those dreams are usually beyond our reach, and that is the beginning of the end for our need of idols. There are plenty of people who I respect and admire, but I don't dream of becoming them anymore.

November 13, 2006

The National Novel Writing Contest 2006: A New Approach To An Old Friend

I suppose I could write about the ongoing fiasco that is Iraq. Or I could rail against the amazing hypocrisy of the Canadian government pledging 40 million dollars in the fight against world poverty and paying for it by cutting spending on programming for the poorest and most at risk citizens of its own country. I could even idly speculate on when the Pope will issue a Fatwa against Elton John for saying that organized religion condones homophobia (I know that the Popes don’t do that sort of thing, but I bet this guy wishes he could – he's the type who looks like he regrets the revoking of the Inquisition's charter.)

But quite frankly that's far too depressing and we've all listened to everybody, including me, enlighten the masses as to our considered opinions on most of those subjects anyway. So instead of boring you to tears with stuff you hear about all the time, I'll take some of your precious reading time today to bore you about a subject dear to my heart, me and my writing.

Okay so I write about that almost as much as I write about anything else, hell I've even written a book on it (Shameless plug/link warning), NaNoWriMo Notes: An Exercise In Creative Insanity, but it's been a while since I've exercised that prerogative so I thought you might be prepared to indulge me a little. (If not, that's why "back" buttons were invented)

For the second year in a row I've decided to participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest. For those of you who don't know, the purpose of the contest is to write 50,000 words of a novel during November. While 50,000 words don't a novel make, they are barely a novella these days, they do represent a good start on a manuscript.

The organizers behind the event had wanted to come up with word count that they considered both challenging and reasonably obtainable. For people like me who are able to devote a whole day to writing the challenge isn't quite as extreme as it is for those who have other responsibilities like employment and rearing children, but still it represents a meaningful out put of creative energy.

The problem that I experienced last year was that I had become so focused on the event and producing as many words as possible in November, that even though I finished the month with two thirds of a first draft completed, around 80,000 words, it took me to nearly February to finish the final third. I had concentrated so much energy on the November deadline that once it passed I lost a great deal of my motivation for the project.

In the end I managed to finish the manuscript, and in fact even as we speak its merits are hopefully being debated in the offices of Penguin India. (You take a publisher where you can get one these days and with India having one of the largest English speaking markets in the world its as good as any other market to be published into. Penguin of course has access to pretty much the rest of the English speaking world, so if they choose I can also find my way into the Canadian, British and American markets that way) I had ended that book, tentatively titledThe Paths Life Takes, in such a way that makes a sequel a foregone conclusion. My intent had been that with this year's NaNoWriMo I would attempt to accomplish much the same as I had last year and break the back of part two in order to have a draft ready when the publishers approved book one. (Such an optimist!)

Up until about the week before the contest was to begin I was still sticking to that plan, but I wasn't feeling all that inspired. In retrospect I see that I was resigning myself to write that story because I didn't have any other ideas, not because I was particularly inspired by it at this time. So I guess I shouldn't be so surprised at how easy it was for my mind to be changed.

An author friend of mine has been bugging me for a while to write a fictionalised version of the events of my childhood, my subsequent struggles to recover from the trauma of being sexually abused by a family member, and my more recent adventures in dealing with the resulting physical problems that have only now surface as a chronic pain condition. Although I realized that he had a point and that it had the potential for being a good story if properly written, I had serious misgivings about the idea.

My primary reason for being hesitant had nothing to do with being reticent about talking about the circumstances, but the fact that I questioned the validity of yet another "look at my hard life" story being inflicted upon readers. It just smacked too much of day time talk show fodder, with Oprah being all sincere and her audience clapping enthusiastically right on cue or bursting into tears at appropriate moments.

So when he suggested the idea again just recently I again dismissed it out of hand, but instead of it vanishing from my brain as usual, I found myself turning the idea over in my head. How could I make this work in a way that I would like? So that it wouldn't read like a tell all confessional and would sound like a story and not just a fictionalized retelling of events with names changed to protect the innocent, while at the same time being factually correct. My interest was piqued.

When I mentioned the conundrum to another writer friend (who else am I going to be friends with if not writers, and don't worry there are only two of them) he said that NaNoWriMo sounded like the perfect place to try it out. See what you have at the end of thirty days and if it's got potential to be something keep working on it, if not scrape it. What have you got to lose?

The more I thought about it the more appealing the idea sounded. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't really give you time to think once you get started on the writing and it forces you to write pretty much on instincts alone. Trying to write a finished novel in thirty days is almost an impossibility so you do the next best thing, write as much as you can about your topic in as coherent a manner as possible and see what you end up with. In other words it's the perfect venue for testing out an idea's potential without committing yourself to anything.

Last year I went into the contest with the idea that I would be able to write a novel based on the work I accomplished during the month of November. After a great deal of struggle, much more than what was involved in the initial process, I was able to accomplish just that.

This year I'm taking a different approach and am utilizing NaNoWriMo as my sounding board for an idea. The conditions under which the contest operates are ideal for that as there is no pressure on you to produce a product, only to achieve the objective of meeting a word count. Last year I hadn't appreciated what a luxury that was and got far to hung up on finishing the story.

This year I plan on taking full advantage of the opportunity to experiment and not worry about the results. So far after twelve days I've written slightly over 22,000 words and am having a great time. Who knows, I might even produce something worth reading, but that doesn't really matter. As long as I don't end up sitting on a couch with Oprah exchanging heart felt opinions I'm happy.

October 22, 2006

Reading From Writing: Rediscovering The Joy Of Books

Sometimes I can't believe how fortunate I am. In spite of so many real world considerations, like health and financial circumstances, in some ways I'm in the position I always hoped to be in. Able to devote the majority of my energy to doing what I love doing most: reading and writing.

It's just one of those ironies of life I suppose that it took becoming ill to be able fulfill my ambitions, but hey I'm not going to complain. The circumstances aren't that much different from those of a person who has a full time job of some sort who is trying to do the same thing. The only difference is where we have to expand energy not devoted to what we want to be doing.

I've talked a lot about writing in the past, but one of the benefits that I haven't really mentioned is how it has brought back my pleasure in reading. Prior to starting my online writing I was going through a fallow period where I was having difficulty in finding anything of interest to read. I almost felt like there was nothing new left to read.

I was slow to start reading, even though I could read better then most people my age, it just wasn't something I was interested in. One of the problems was the level of reading that was expected of you in school was so basic that I just assumed all books were either along the lines of Dick and Jane or those my parents read full of small type and no pictures. It wasn't until someone finally had the good sense to introduce me to Paddington Bear by Michael Bond that I discovered books could be of value.

By the time I was seven or eight it was obvious I had outgrown the children's section in the library so the librarians consented to give me an adult card. It was a different world through those doors to the other side of the library. The bookcases towered over my head so instead of being on eye level most of the books were well beyond my reach and literally unobtainable.

That didn't matter because at least I had a far greater selection to choose from. From that time on till I was out of high school I read anything and everything: Flaubert, Tolstoy, Joyce, Miller, Kerouac, Durrell (Gerald and Lawrence) Hemingway; pretty much the whole gamut of 19th century naturalist/realism and 20th century modernism. From there I moved on into the beats; Ginsberg, Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and all the Algerian expatriates.

Of course there were also the poets; cummings, Ferlinghetti, Elliot, Pound, Stein, Plath, Cocteau, Beaudalaire, Rimbeau, and Bukowski. On top of this were all the textbooks for my university courses that were mainly literature and theatre (being a theatre major). In high school I had studied Latin and read the classic Roman literature, and in university I travelled back to the earliest days of the written and performed word when writing was young and printed materials were almost non-existent.

By the time I had come to the end of this period of my life, in my mid twenties, it felt like there was nothing new left to read. Even if there were I just wasn't interested anymore, I was throwing myself into my work in theatre full bore and they're just wasn't time enough in the day for reading. I was either in the theatre or sleeping for 90% of my time. In that other ten per cent I tried to cram the rest of what's commonly known as a life.

It was only after leaving the theatre did my mind start to turn back towards the written word. At first it was only sporadic attempts that didn't usually result in many finished pieces. It wasn't until I started writing my own blog in March 2005 that I began to find the confidence that assured me I could finish anything I started.

Almost as important as the discovery of my own capacity for creative writing, was the rediscovery of an appreciation for reading the written word. How else was I going to be able to judge my own work if I wasn't constantly comparing it with others? With this in mind I began to search out books that I could review.

By having to look at all the particulars of what it was I liked about a book not only did it help me understand what my own writing needed in order to improve, it also helped me rediscover all the things I liked about reading. Some people claim that analysing a book takes all the joy out of it for them, but it depends on the intent.

When I reviewed a book I was looking for the things in it that made me like it or dislike it. I wasn't trying to dissect it, the author's intent behind writing it, or any of the other things academics do that take the joy out of reading. I went looking for the heart that beat within the story and in doing that I rediscovered what it was about reading that caused my pulse to race.

Of course there have been other perks that have gone with reviewing books. I've had the pleasure of coming into contact with some very interesting and intelligent authors who have not only allowed me access to their creative process by exchanging correspondence with me, but have also given me access to their writings in the rawest of forms.

As a reader I thought I had achieved the ultimate satisfaction when I was sent someone's galley proofs to read. For me it was a thrill knowing that I was able to read the book well in advance of the rest of the reading public. But recently something even more exciting happened, another author has asked me to be a reader for his newest work. He sends me pages by email the moment he finishes a draft.

I read it and send him back my spontaneous impressions and thoughts; as a reader what did I like about what I read. I'm not reviewing the book; in fact I do my best to shut off my critical faculties so that I can react more directly as a reader in regards to like and dislikes.

I love it because it's freeing me from the shackles of my rational brain while I'm reading, which means I'm reading purely on instinct. So not only I'm I having the opportunity to play a role in helping somebody else create something, but I'm also remembering what it was like to read for no other reason but the joy of reading like when I first started as a child.

It's funny how things go in circles like this isn't it? I began writing in the hopes of being able to write something that I would like to read, but the results have far exceeded my expectations. Not only have I succeeded in my primary goal, but I've also been able to rediscover my own love of reading for the pleasure of reading.

What more could a person ask for; to not only find what they are looking for but extra treasure as well.

October 19, 2006

NaNoWriMo Notes #34: The End

"So now the end is near…" or something like that anyway are the lines from that old Sid Vicious classic "My Way". There he is in his white tux jacket standing at the top of the big staircase crooning it out for all he's worth, for the opening lines anyway, then it's the Sex Pistols/punk/howl/thing that comes screeching out of his mouth.

Well Sid did it his way, but that's not the way most of us choose to go out, in the Chelsea Hotel on bad Heroin and in a bad way. But old Sid must have been pretty much D.O.A. when he checked in the Hotel anyway – maybe even when he checked in with Malcolm and the boys back in the beginning. He was too much punk for most tastes – nihilism to the max – and made sure of the no future part. Because in reality he didn't have much of a future and a part of him knew that, somewhere in that fucked up drug and alcohol riddled brain he knew after this – this being Nancy and the Chelsea Hotel – it was downhill on a bumpy roller coaster to hell.

So what's Sid got to do with anything, except that I was thinking about finishes and endings, and doing things the way you plan on it and the whole "My Way" thing popped into my head. Which of course brought the late Mr. Viscous to mind and caused my mind to start wandering down the path of the choices made that brought me here instead of maybe my version of his lonely hotel room and empty life.

Which in turn might prompt some among you to wonder what any of this has to do with NaNoWriMo Notes and the price of bread. Probably nothing for the latter, but something that my tortured brain says has to do with the former; at least in terms of bringing things to a close – ending – making a finish.

Last year in October, perhaps a little earlier in the month, I began the first of two projects that have preoccupied, if obsessions can be said to preoccupy, me for the greater part of the ensuing time. Bless Dr. Pat's head (former esteemed Books Editor for this site) for his forbearance; allowing a relatively green writer the freedom to sink or swim in the potential pool of self-indulgence that became "NaNoWriMo Notes".

Initial objectives of the series was to provide updates and reports on my progress in the November nuttiness known as the National Novel Writing Month. Of course with its now close to 75,000 participants worldwide the National part of the title is obsolete, but why change a good name and all the memories of a young Robin Williams it evokes.
NaNoWriMo Front Cover
The object of said contest (NaNoWriMo for short) is to write a minimum of 50,000 words during the course of November for no other reason then to say you did it. Sure some people have used it as a springboard to make a rough start on a novel, but for the most part it's just an exercise in spontaneous creation: how far can one bit of inspiration be carried.

For some people it can feel like running with one of those medicine balls that sadistic phys. ed. teachers used to make pre-pubescent kids throw at each other in an attempt to show that they could stand up to the weight of the world being suddenly tossed in their direction, tucked under your arm. To others it's no more weight than one of those plastic baseballs that seem to have more holes in them than plastic. Pick it up with one finger and run with it for days leaving the medicine ball haulers far behind.

Ask anyone who has any experience with me and they'll gladly tell you I've some strange peculiarities, which if you're being nice you'd call eccentricities, but could also be called psychosis. (Is there no plural for this word psychosi, psychosises? According to my spell check it's one of those annoying plural is singular is plural words which I never even know how to say let alone use properly in a sentence) Tell me to write 50,000 words of a story in a month just for the sheer hell of it, something no obviously sane person would attempt, and it's like offering me a treat. What, how can you be stressed by this, I can't think of anything that could be more fun!

Ask me to go out to a mall, walk down a busy street, or even go to a social gathering where there are going to be people and noise, and I'm a basket case. I don't want anything to do with it, them, or whatever. I come over all faint, I make excuses, and if I do go I hide under clothes and a hat with a brim. In fact ask me to have anything to do with the normal goings on in the world and I could easily be reduced to a quivering mass of jelly.

It's not even like I'm some classic serial killer social misfit "he was always so quiet and kept to himself" type of guy. I'm happily married, have one or two close friends, and am reasonably personable; it's just that modern life and most of the people living it freak the shit out of me. I take some drugs to help me cope and see a shrink whose job is to try and ease me back into the swing of things, but I'm not overly interested in doing that, thank you very much.

I think this is where we can fit in the hotel room and Syd Viscous now. You see quite a number of years ago I was defining myself by imagining me through the eyes of others and always, of course, finding the results wanting. (Whether they did or not is another thing all together) Living like that requires a great deal of outside "assistance" in whatever form you feel like at the time and puts you on that down elevator to a cold slab in the morgue unless you hit the emergency stop button.

I was close to the basement before I even found where the stop button was on the control panel, and I still had to choose whether or not to push it. Hitting it and starting to walk back up the stairs was probably the hardest decision I'll ever make. Making it was only helped me see the stairs; climbing them is another matter all together. Lots of people stop but never climb out, but I couldn't see any purpose to that.
NaNoWriMo Back Cover
But to make the climb you have to find a reason inside yourself, for yourself. If you do it for somebody else, or because the gun to your head has someone else's finger on the trigger you're just going up the down staircase. In my case it started as just simple survival instinct. Not wanting to check out caused me to hit the stop button in the first place, and once pieces of the past started to click into place and I came to understand the whys and wherefores for me being how I was, there was sufficient motivation in that basic urge to get me climbing.

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is the fancy name they give to the way you feel after having your whole system; physically, emotional, spiritually, and psychically, put through a meat grinder. The longer you were tenderized the finer you were ground the harder it is to recover. The grit that saw you through surviving the storm gets you to the first couple of landings but that vanishes and soon you're bereft of everything, including excuses.

If poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you – nobody else – who determine your destiny and decide your fate. (e.e. cummings)

There it was in black and white spelt out for me in a book I'd carried around for years. Hell I'd quoted those lines to people many a time to show off what a great fucking "artiste" I was, but hadn't ever taken them to heart in any shape or form. I was stuck on the landing and all along the answer was right there waiting for me to remember it. I could do whatever the hell I wanted, but I'd have to do it and commit to it whatever it was.

Or, I realized, it meant that anything I did, work, personal relationships, etc. had to be given that type of consideration. I was the one responsible for my part in everything I came in contact with and there could be no excuses ever again. Let me tell you it's one damn steep climb, and I've got plenty of cuts and bruises from where I've fallen along the way and I've had to re-climb the same time set more then once.

It would have been very easy to decide I had no future like Sid, but instead I opted to keep trying. I found the means to help me climb the stairs and that was doing the one thing that had always been a constant in my life, writing. But now I started to write for the sake of writing and myself, not to get people to like me or earn their respect or whatever else might be offered as a reward.

The idea of NaNoWriMo appealed to me because it was a perfect example of doing just that. Nobody really cared what it was you were writing, just that you were writing. I had tentative plans for the story I was writing and thought I could see where it was going beyond the 50,000 word quota, but at the same time I didn't even have a title for it until after the first 10,000 words were written.

The idea behind this series initially was to try and let people share in the excitement and drama, if any, of being involved in a contest like this. But when I spoiled that plan by hitting the target mark with something like ten days left in the contest, I began to shift the focus. Eventually it became a sort of guided tour through my process of actually taking this thing I started with no expectations and turning it into a novel.

I'm sure at times it appeared self-indulgent and bordering on naval-gazing to some people, and I'm the first to admit that there probably were elements of both involved. But writing is a self-absorbing process, not something you do as part of a team usually, so that was as inevitable as bears and popes.

Everything about the process was fair grist for my mill including whining about the industry and the difficulties involved in getting an agent let alone published; the drawbacks of self-publishing and why I wasn't interested in that route for the novel; the tedium of editing; and even a rejection notice from my first tantalizing query. (They had actually requested further chapters after my initial submission before ultimately turning me down)

The "Notes" managed to take on a life of its own independent of the novel it was supposed to be commentating on to the point where I self-published the first twenty-four instalments in a book form. NaNoWriMo Notes: An Exercise In Creative Insanity is now for sale at Lulu.com and I think I've sold two or three copies. The irony isn't lost on me that the commentary might be the only thing published from the whole exercise, but since I didn't expect anything, something is a pleasant surprise.

But a year has rolled by and November is almost upon us again which means it's NaNoWriMo season again. The Paths Life Takes (the title I ended up with for the book this was supposedly all about) has been mailed off in its entirety to a second publisher and I'm awaiting another verdict on its relative merits. So it's time to shut this down before it turns into something you'd see on Oprah on a slow day. (Judging by the content of this last instalment it's not a moment too soon I'd say)

There's not going to be any big production number to end this off with, I'm most definitely not going to sing "My Why", but I will say thank you to all those who bothered to peak in now and again and I appreciated most of your comments. These were fun to write, and also helpful in that they would help me clarify thoughts about things. Hopefully those of you who read them laughed occasionally, and not just at me but with me as well, and they made you think on occasion. If not than why the hell were you reading them?

Joyce ended Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man with that memorable quote about going forth to recreate the conscience of his people in the smithy of his soul, or something along those lines anyway. My aspirations aren't quite that lofty, but I'm going to keep writing and keep seeing what comes of it for a while yet. It's only the end of this series after all, not me.

August 30, 2005

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing (EMDR)

I don't normally talk about personal issues. I have a wife and a therapist for that type of stuff, besides most people have their own shit that they are dealing with and don't need to wade through mine. But since I want to talk about a type of treatment, and give a first hand account of its effectiveness, you are going to need some background to better understand what I'm talking about.

This won't be one of those, oh my life is so hard things, so don't take it like that. I've lived with it for my whole life and I don't think that, so there is no reason for you to either.

As a child I was sexually abused by my father for a period of about ten years: infancy to until I was around twelve years old. The dates are bit unclear, because I am unclear about the whole time period. You see I had blocked everything out until I was thirty-three.

Drug and alcohol use started when I was thirteen, and closing down was pretty easy with their assistance. My folks wondered why I was so fucked up and kept sending me to shrinks and a variety of councillors when I was in my teens and early twenties. But nothing ever came out of those meetings except some of those glib assessments one associates with seventies psychobabble.

One of the reasons everything was so buried were the coercive tactics of my father to ensure his secret was kept safe. Another was anyone else's refusal to believe me when I told them. The one time I worked up the nerve to tell my mom, she called me nasty and threatened me with reform school.

I was a problem child: shoplifting, lying, etc, traits which continued on through until adult hood, along with the addictive behaviour I picked up as I aged. You must remember this was the sixties, I didn't really understand what was going on, except that talking about it was bad, and my father wouldn't love me if I said anything.

Imagine what that combination would do to the mind of a kid, and you can see how I ended up not remembering. It was a lot easier than having to figure out what to do, at least that's the way I see it now. Anyway didn't everybody's father act like that? Who was I going to compare notes with?

Okay, fast forward to when I've just turned thirty-three. I'm a mess; emotionally and physically. When I was thirty-two I had undergone a fourth surgery on my left knee, a previous reconstruction and two arthroscopies. This last reconstruct was to reverse what they had done in the first one. (Don't ask) Well there was only so much my leg could take and I developed a form of nerve damage known as Reflex sympathetic dystrophy

By the time my aforementioned birthday had rolled around the skin on my left leg from my knee down was turning black and I was in continual agony. As a birthday present a friend had arranged for me to visit an acupuncturist to see if there was anything that could be done that way to assist me.

Do you know what a healing crisis is? It's when the body kicks into overdrive in order to solve its own problems. It usually means you get a whole lot worse before you get better. It often occurs in the holistic methods of healing that rely on the body's corrective abilities to effect a cure.

Well I knew nothing about it at the time, so on the day after the treatment and it felt like I was going to die from the pain to say I was shocked was an understatement. I phoned the acupuncturist to ask what the fuck? That's when she explained the concept, apologizing for assuming that I knew what to expect.

But I don't think even she expected the nightmares I would start having. It was like opening the proverbial Pandora's box. When the flashbacks started I thought I was going crazy. There's nothing like reliving rapes that you don't remember to make you question your sanity.

I was lucky. I had a housemate at the time who worked for a sexual assault crises centre in town, and although they only dealt with women, she recognised what was happening and lent me the book that saved my life The Courage to Heal Written for women, I changed the pronouns and finally understood what was going on.

I went through my first bouts of therapy than, and it helped me with some of the behaviour modifications I needed at the time. I stopped booze and drugs, and thought things were going great. In fact they were, I met the woman who has since become my wife a couple of years later and started to really get my shit together.

Than a couple of years ago it all fell apart again. To ensure that I'd never forget his loving attention, it seems my father has managed to inflict permanent damage on the muscles of my pelvic wall. For years I had been troubled by mysterious pain in my lower abdominal region that no one had ever been able explain.

In 2001 this pain elevated to a crippling level. After having the right half of my colon removed failed to solve anything, (the surgeon had warned me in advance that there was little hope of success but I was desperate) it was finally diagnosed properly. The pain had only been representing in the abdomen, not originating there.

Than the flashbacks started again. They were trying to treat my pain with nerve blocks, which meant injecting the effected area with a mixture of steroids. That could have set them off, but maybe they were just waiting for a chance to come out again, and like a time bomb whose clock strikes they went off.

It was the doctor treating my pain condition who first mentioned Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E. M. D. R.) as a means of treatment. Fortunately enough I was able to find not only a therapist who practiced the treatment, but also one who was covered by my medical plan.

Now for the $64,000 question? What the hell is E. M. D. R.: how does it work, and does it work? Well I had no idea about it and quite frankly if anybody aside from the doctor who suggested had told me about it I would have probably dismissed it out of hand. As it was, I was inclined to believe it was just another one of these pop psych. bullshit things like: I'm O.K. and You're a Fuck Up!

Keeping that open-minded approach in place I went on line to check it out. The more I read, the better I felt about it. The best place to start of course is with the person who started the whole thing: Francine Shapiro Phd. This site gives you the theory, the history and all the information you require to get a good understanding of what it is all about.

In a nutshell it is a process similar to hypnotism but different. The idea is to allow the client to analyse the flashback without reliving the experience. When you relive it you stay stuck in that moment and continue to experience all the emotions and stress that the original event caused.

The client selects a "target" for working on. This could be any scene that they remember that causes a severe emotional reaction. He or she then identifies the emotions it triggers and any physical reaction it causes. Does it make your stomach cramp? Does your chest hurt?

Once the target is established the client is asked to picture the event. When they are ready the therapist begins the process of alternating stimulation of both sides of the brain. By either inducing the eyes to move from side to side, using hand pulses, or listening to a tone in alternate ears over headphones the client should be able to "watch" the memory play out dispassionately.

By watching instead of re experiencing a person is able to escape the trap of endlessly reliving the same moment. By processing, analysing and keeping track, of how you feel between sessions, and discussing those results with your therapist, you begin to connect the behaviour and coping mechanisms that have resulted from your abuse

Therapists love to say, and for good reason, awareness is half the battle. Knowing that your fear of the dark is caused by the fact your father used to sneak into your bedroom late at night and rape you in your dark bedroom gives you a logical explanation for something you could never explain before.

With E. M. D. R. neutralizing the effects of the flashbacks you can combine that with your knowledge of where your fear came from, and overcome it. The rapes were in the past, not now, so there is nothing to fear. That is a rather simplistic example but it gives you the general idea.

E. M. D. R won't work for everyone. A good indication that it will work for you is if you are able to meditate with any degree of success or have proven susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. There's also no guarantee that it will work on every occasion either, it all depends on your state of mind that day.

I have found that on days when I've over tired, or am dealing with some other external distraction that I can't control, like my pain level being too high, that there is no point in attempting it either. You have to be able to concentrate or hold a point of focus to some degree.

E. M. D. R. has worked wonders for me. I have accomplished more working with my current doctor in less then a year, than all the years of my previous therapy combined. It's not a miracle cure by any means, but what it does is establish the things you need to work on.

Unlike behaviour modification therapies, you go deep enough to find the root of what causes you to behave in a certain manner. It's much easier to change inappropriate behaviour when you know there's no longer any need for it.

It's been a difficult year, thinking about shit that I haven't really wanted to think about, but E. M. D. R. has made it easier. The onus has still been on me to want to change, but at least I feel like I'm really doing it this time, and won't have to go through this again in five to ten years time.

Every year seems to bring a new sure-fire cure onto the market. From Chicken Soup for your Gall Bladder to I'm Hot Stuff, Your Not somebody is always willing to guarantee they know how to make you "feel good about yourself". E. M. D. R. doesn't come with any guarantees, and it's definitely not a self-help therapy. What it does do is offer you a means to find your way clear of a past that could be crippling your future. For that I'm eternally grateful.

cheers
gypsyman


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July 3, 2005

Traditional Family Values

There's a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days. "Traditional Family Values". It's guaranteed that you will here it said at least once in any speech by someone whose fighting against changes in the social order. Whether issues about sexuality, schooling, or even health and welfare are even relevant doesn't seem to matter. It's an emotional catch all that can be used to pinpoint a speakers place on the political map.

Three words that actually mean very little at all but that say a lot. Through inference they imply that what is being spoken against will somehow harm you and your children. Without even having to define how or what the damage will be an emotional trigger is pulled to make people rally round the flag of and pull up the drawbridge.

"Traditional Family Values" translates into, The Barbarians are at the gate. Hide the women and children because they're coming to rape pillage and burn. Visions of your teenage daughter being sold into white slavery, your son being ganged raped by rampaging homosexuals and your wife and you being forced into acts of depravity dance through your head. You thank God for the N.R.A. and head for the bomb shelter out back with the Uzi and AK47.

What are traditional family values anyway? Just whose tradition are we talking about? Well a safe assumption, given the gender, race, and class of most people who use the phrase, that we're talking about white male protestant family values. Sure there are the occasional women who have been heard saying those words, but they're usually the ones who mistook feminism for the right to act like a man instead of the freedom to be a woman.

I'm sure for most of those who hear those words and are philosophically allied with the speaker, they bring visions of Mom, Dad, two kids, a mini-van, and a house in the suburbs to their head. Dad goes to work five days a week and on Saturday works around the house mowing the lawn and other Dad stuff. Son is older and plays football, has a steady girl who he holds hands with and take out for a burger and coke on Friday nights, while younger sister has giggly friends she talks too much with on the phone. Mom stays at home cooking and cleaning and whipping up meals from Campbell Soup labels.

Every Sunday they all climb into the mini-van and go to church where they are filled with words of praise for their way of life. They hear warnings about the depredations of the world and count their blessings for the wholesomeness of brownies and milk. Depending on the time of year Dad may try and get in golf after church, or he and son will toss around the football, while Mom and sister do whatever it is they do.

The only minorities they know are the jovial fat black women who comes and cleans house once a week, and the Mexican who does the yard work. You have to keep your eye on them because they may steal, but as Mom tells daughter

"It's because they haven't had the same advantages as you and they don't know any better."

Dad and Mom will have Martinis after work and maybe cocktails on Saturdays if the neighbours come over. Sometimes there's even beer at the neighbourhood barbecue. The Dads gather in a group around a side of cow charring in various chunks over kerosene induced flames. Moms stand around a pristine kitchen making salads and dissecting those not there with knives of Christian spite. Teenage sons and daughters stand around in groups talking about each other and school, maybe the boys will throw the football around at the foot of the garden.

A life right out of a Norman Rockwell painting from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or a 1960's sit com come alive. In this ideal world of theirs there are no drugs, no unemployment. Illnesses are never serious and the friendly family doctor is always there to make house calls in case of flu or a cold. Everything is in it's place and all is right in the world.

The post World War Two economic boom that hit North America gave rise to the first real middle class. Prices were low, jobs were plentiful, and housing was cheap as the suburbs around major cities were developed. It was the beginning of the end of life in the city for all but the poor and the very rich.

As the fifties and sixties progressed more and more money and people moved out of the cities leaving services to degrade from lack of a strong tax base. Disparities in education and health care began to develop, and as new housing starts slowed in the inner core the cost of rents began to soar. Those who couldn't afford to move out to the havens of the suburbs were forced into worse and worse housing and confronted with less services.

Those traditional values that are so extolled refer to that brief flicker of time when the white middle class were kings. The effects of migration from the cities hadn't yet put demands on the economy by increasing the welfare rolls and unemployment insurance payouts. The war in Viet Nam was just starting and not yet dividing the nation or depleting it's young people and financial resources.

America, and Canada for that matter, were in an artificial economic bubble caused by the lack of any real competition from other industrial states. While France, Germany, and Japan were retooling and rebuilding industry in North America was the major supplier of manufactured goods. Every free market in the world was supplied with items made by the hands of workers here, and most of the dollars were floating back this way.

But by the early sixties that all started to change as both Germany and Japan entered into the fray and began mass production of high quality, cheap, in demand products. As North America's market share decreased and the cost of materials rose profit margins slimmed. Wage growth slowed while the cost of living increased. By the nineteen seventies it became harder and harder for one wage to pay the way.

Simultaneously social changes and liberations were underway. The children of the middle class left their homes for school and became aware of the inequities in the world. They looked at the lives of their parents and rejected those values as being one of the causes of injustice. This led to experimentations with alternative lifestyles and an embracing of a more accepting belief system.

Sexuality long repressed became open and issues such as birth control and abortion became relevant. With the new openness the closet door on what were formally considered deviant behaviours swung ajar a crack. Gays and lesbians took their first steps on the long road to acceptance.

Young women realized the limitations that their mother's lives offered them and wanted something more them simply serving men as their role in society. Equally educated they saw no reason why they should not be equally employed. With those demands came calls for new definitions of the relationship between a man and woman.

If they were to no longer be servants then men could no longer tell them how to live and what to do. This should extend to control over all aspects of their life including their bodies. If someone else could dictate whether or not they could have an abortion how could they be considered free?

In the space of twenty-five years huge social upheavals caused earthquakes in the status quo. Even while some people of colour remained trapped in the inner cities others managed to ride the crest of the civil rights movement and establish beachheads in business, politics and education from where they have worked to enable a better life for themselves and other blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

It is no longer unusual for both husband and wife to be working, or to see a single mom raising a child. Sometimes the latter is a choice, often though its is forced upon her. But at least her opportunities are no longer limited by stigma and lost job opportunities. Day cares offer some easing of the burden for a single parent. Far from sufficient at least there is something offered which wasn't there years ago.

Those who call for a return to "Traditional Family Values" know today's realities and are scared of them. The erosion of values they're talking about is their position of power in the world. They know that they can't turn back the progress that has been made in the last decades, so all they can do is hope to repress it as much as possible. They may be able to change laws and temporarily steal rights that have been fought for and won, but they can't change the way people think and feel. Too many people out there have tasted freedom to let it be taken away on a more than temporary basis.

They play on the fears people have of things that have nothing to do with the issues at hand. Spurious claims are made about drug usage and crime to scare people into believing that a nuclear family will solve all society's problems.

The values that have been lost with the dissolving of the family unit are to blame for societies ills. The values of intolerance, repression, ignorance, and xenophobia are certainly ones that are sorely missed by people like the Klan and other neo nazis.

There are no guarantees that a good Christian home of Mom, Dad, son, and daughter will produce anything better then another home with a single mother or father. It's families just like these where the wife is beaten by the husband, or sexual abuse happens and is gotten away with because nobody looks beneath the facade.

How do I know? Because I grew up in one just like it and my father raped me for eight of the first eleven years of my life. When I tried to tell people they wouldn't believe me, or threatened me with reform school (that was my mother). In 1960's Toronto who is going to believe that a little boy is being raped by his father?

Now in this morally lax age we live in if a child were to tell the same tale people would listen and investigate. Which is the better world to live in? The one where because people pretend stuff like that doesn't happen it continues unchecked or the one where people accept that it happens and try to deal with it.

The people who preach for a return to "Traditional Family Values" want to turn back the clock on progress and hope. They want to pretend that the past twenty-five to thirty years haven't happened. The world has changed and they are unwilling to change with it. Let's not let them destroy what we've tried so desperately to build.

cheers
gypsyman


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May 14, 2005

Learning To Take My Time

Sometimes I just don't get it. I mean I don't even know what "it" is that I don't get I'm so far removed from what other people do with themselves. I've lost track of the number of times I say to Eriana (my wife) I don't understand... It could be in reference to people using power tools, men hanging out in groups watching one person work, why people prefer to complain then do something about a problem.

The list goes on. I don't understand television, radio shows, political motivation, sexual and racial intolerance. I don't understand one country's need to go to war against another, food that's packaged and will keep on a shelf for three weeks (and that people eat that stuff and then wonder why they never feel well), or accelerating a car to full speed to get to a stop sign quickly. I don't understand the fascination with the minutiae of stranger's lives just because they make movies or play sports, I don't understand talking endlessly on the phone when your going to see the person on the other end in half an hour.

Eriana usually has one of two responses to my plea of I don't understand: either I'm glad you don't or why would you want to. That I can understand, and while I accept the compliment of the first it still doesn't prevent me from being confused by the behaviour of beings who look like they're the same species as me. I know that I'd be considered the one that's odd because of my questioning. Maybe I slept through more of school then I thought because most everybody else seems to adhere to a code of conduct that they only could have been taught en mass somewhere along the line. It's become so bad that I don't even understand why it should matter to me what others do, but it does. I do care.

Whether it angers or saddens me depends on the mood I'm in that day. Angers me because of the effects their actions have on everybody around them and the little they care. Saddens me because the pathos of the meaninglessness of it all overwhelms me. I think how empty people's lives must be if this is how they fill those hours allowed outside the struggle to survive.

Three years ago an illness that I've been fighting (a chronic pain condition) finally over took me. Not being able to work has resulted in my perspective of time changing. I no longer have my life segmented by how time is to be utilized as either work or non-work. To the extent my body and pain medication allow I'm free to do with time what I will. The irony of this is that for the first time in my life time is far too valuable a commodity to be wasted. Instead of a fixed schedule that blocks life into segments, I'm at the whims of a capriciousness that forces me to literally seize the moment. Every able second must be utilized to it's fullest or I feel like I'm short changing myself.

In the days when I worked in theatre the separation of work and leisure was non-existent because the creation of art is a full time vocation. Time only existed in as it related to the movement of the hands of the clock or the passage of days. It was something to use to it's fullest, whatever you were doing. Talking about nothing, passive entertainment, and the other acceptable diversions just seemed like such a waste. Even now Eriana and I only have a television for use as a monitor for our D.V.D. and video machines. For us that is the major concession to our illnesses, accepting that there are moments when we can not function to the fullest of our capacity, but still need something to provide stimulation when we are not capable of providing it for ourselves. It feels like such a last resort.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what my point in all this might be, but it all seems to centre around what we do with what we are given. Living up to our potential as a species. I don't feel like I'm superior or anything like that, and like I said before I'm sure most consider me the freak, but it appears that we live in a society which encourages people not to strive, but to accept. Have you ever noticed in oppressive regimes that the first peoples rounded up, or brought under state control are the artists? Is it because these people are the ones who will not be limited by the convention of acceptance, are not satisfied to just while away the hours without at least dreaming or listening? Maybe its because that lack of compliance leads to questioning, and the last thing that a dictatorship wants is people asking questions?

An artist is continually doing, even if not actively working, because every little experience is something that can be drawn upon for latter inspiration. Perhaps I'm different and should give up trying to understand why people are the way they are. The wonderful British playwright Harold Pinter wrote a short piece called "The Last To Go". In it two elderly men are talking about newspaper sales at a particular kiosk. For four pages of dialogue they say absolutely nothing more substantial then which paper sold last, and have you seen so and so. It remains to this day one of the most realistic pieces of theatre I have ever seen performed.

Well I hope you don't feel this was too much a waste of time.

May 7, 2005

The Joy Of Gardening

If you had happened to look out in the backyard of my building over the last two weeks you would have seen me toiling away building a new garden plot. First there I was out in a soft rain ripping up turf in the mud; joyously mud-splattered and a little wet. As any gardener knows its far easier to take up grass before the roots get a good chance to set after winter, so the first good rain of spring is the best time for the job. Then there was the tilling. I was able to borrow a lovely tool from a friend which is sort of like a squared fork on a long handle which you can twist around and break up clumps of clay and packed earth. Following this came mixing in the peat moss to ensure drainage, then four inches of top soil over top the mess. A generous neighbour gave me some limestone flagstone which have made a nice retaining wall for three quarters of the plot, and so I'm all set for flowers.

This is what spring is for me: renewing my connection with dirt, and the natural order of things. In my own way I feel like I'm restoring some of the mother's vitality by taking soil that has been rendered useless through neglect and abuse (I dug up huge chunks of concrete, pieces of glass, rusted nail, and other debris from the ground). Planting a garden is one of the ways that we can give back for the gifts we receive from nature. I always try and maintain a certain respect for the wildness of the area, harming as little as possible and working with what's there. No hacking down trees because they block the sun for daisies, or anything intrusive like that. Defiantly no effort made for artificial landscaping either: well kept lawns are such a waste of resources, give me a field of wild flowers any day of the week. No fertilizer, lawn mowers or other noisy contraptions like weed eaters needed to keep everything looking trim, and the water wasted on keeping a lawn green, sheesh.

So there I am, communing with nature, getting my fingers dirty, talking to worms, and listening to the birds, just generally relaxing when the curse of nice weather rears its ugly head. The first warm breeze in the air invariably causes that species of human that I refer to as " Homo Penis lacking " to stick its butt ugly head out of its cave. Easily identifiable by the ball cap perched on their head(younger members of the species wearing in backwards emblazoned with ball teams and brand names while the more mature male usually has beer brand, farm machinery or trucking company apparel) behavioural patterns vary but all seem to centre around the creation of as much noise as possible.

The youngsters of the species seem more inclined towards mobility, propelling themselves around in contrivances designed for noise and speed. Multiple amplifiers and speakers combined with a bass setting guaranteed to sterilize at twenty paces reverberate across multiple city blocks. The body works rattle offsets the grinding of exhaust and squealing of tires that propels the vehicle at high speed from one red light to the next.

The older members of the species are more sedate, but compensate for the variety of means at their disposal for noise creation. There are two major categories of devices, of which there are many sub headings: Portable and stationary. Portable encompasses anything from an electric drill through to a lawn mower and include such lethal items as weed wakers, hedge trimmers, chain saws, leaf blowers, and a battery of cutting, hacking, bludgeoning, boring, and ripping tools(many available in the equally smelly gas powered variety) The stationary product is slightly less obtrusive in that it has to remain fixed in a den like location(usually referred to as a "garage" or "shed" sometimes even the more optimistically named "workshop" thus implying something useful is under way) but compensates with its abilities for destroying a wider range of materials and generating larger volumes: table and band saws, belt sanders, drill presses, and grinding benches graduate up to compressor driven nail guns and power washers.

After one week of May I'm already thinking with fondness of the cold dank days of January when the only tools at their disposal are acquainted with snow removal. Its amazing how less of a tool a tool is when they are tool-less.

May 6, 2005

Some Simple Truths About Reiki

I have touched on things to do with New Age and complimentary medicine in past postings, and I believe that I've mentioned that both my wife and I are Reiki Masters(meaning we can give treatments and teach) in Usui Tibetan and Karuna style Reikis. Recently I've become frequently embarrassed to admit that I have anything to do with these modalities. While my opinion of their validity hasn't changed, I'm finding it harder and harder to associate myself with others who are practitioners and teachers.

Maybe at heart I'm a conservative when it comes to certain matters, but it seems to me that when you are given a present as potent as Reiki to work with a certain amount of humility should accompany the gift. Instead too many are beginning to believe in themselves as on some sort of divine mission to heal the world, and in a effort to validate themselves have begun to incorporate religious symbols, icons and imagery into their practices. It has come to the point that numerous brands of Reiki are springing up all over the place: Be attuned to the angels; feel the divine ray of purple light; ascended master are with us and so on. The original concept of what it was all about has been forgotten, its become more important for too many people to become attuned to the latest fad brand then to actually due anything with their education.

Reiki was designed to help facilitate self awareness and growth. A serious of symbols acting as a means to aid a person in tapping into the universal flow of energy and stimulate energy centres in your body in order to focus intent. Gradually it was expanded into a modality that could be used for treatments along the same line. The facilitator and client would agree upon an intent, and then the former would utilize the symbols to focus energy, and work with the client to fulfill that intent. There is nothing magical or mystical about it, no divine intervention was promised that would change your life or make you a new person.

The process of becoming a Reiki Master is a matter of being "Attuned" to an increasing number of symbols. These serve the purpose of aiding in focusing and channelling(I don't mean talking for some star being here, but the original meaning of the word: acting as a means of passage) with ever increasing ability universal energy. By keeping the practice without basis in any religion this allowed individuals to utilize their own beliefs to formulate the means to create a way to do this that was most comfortable to them.

The four levels of Usui-Tibetan Reiki; one, two, Advanced Reiki Training, and Master, are a process involving a minimum of two years of study and practice. Like any of the meditative arts it was considered essential that a student spend time with each level of study learning and assimilating, before continuing. In order to become a Master a student must be willing to under go changes that free themselves to be more open receptacles of universal energy. Ideally they will learn to be nothing more then a transmitter, allowing a unadulterated flow to pass through them to who ever they are helping. Ego and any other motivations ulterior to this purpose have to be set aside to successfully obtain this goal.

Karuna Reiki is a more recent evolution of the older form. It was developed by the International centre for Reiki under the leadership of William Rand. This organization has been dedicated to the preservation and teachings of Dr. Usui's family for over twenty years and William Rand is one of the few people in North America who was taught directly by Dr. Usui's wife. When I first heard of Karuna Reiki I admit to having some skepticism, oh great someone trying to cash in and make a name for themselves. What they are though is a series of symbols that help to focus energy to deal with the traumas specific to twentieth century western culture. They are a legitimate addendum to the original work and have made the whole more applicable to our society. The Reiki Centre will only allow people who are proven Usui-Tibetan Masters learn Karuna Reiki, and they carefully monitor the certification of all teachers and practitioners, ensuring the integrity of the modality.

You may wonder why they are so uptight if as they say they want as many people as possible to experience Reiki. Like me they have become increasingly disturbed by the dilution of Reiki's character through the birth of so many bizarre hybrids. By strictly controlling the issuing of licenses I think they are hoping to distinguish themselves from a host of pretenders, and not lose the respect the modality has earned with other fields through the actions of flakes. With Reiki being accepted by hospitals as legitimate therapy, some even having practitioners on staff, the last thing that needed is to have its credibility strained through association with the worst sort of new age Babel speak.

Reiki is not a religion, it won't change your life unless your already working on changing it, and its not going to save the world. What it can do is help you focus your mind, attune you to the universal energy that flows through all life, thus strengthening your own abilities to aid yourself and others through the same process. But remember, there is no such thing as a quick fix no matter who or what anyone claims to be channelling.

April 30, 2005

My Cat Children

In an effort to prove that I'm not all cynicism and anger I've decided to dedicate today's page to some pictures of my "kids" Yep I'm going to prove that an iconoclast can be just as mushy and sentimental as the next person. Now everyone has already met Pippen, who gave his name to the address of this illustrious page, but still has not had the pleasure of everyone else's company(unless of course you've linked over to my web page...Speaking of links have you been to my store yet at Lulu. com-I've got a new booklet of poetry going slow and a couple more chapters of the novel uploaded HINT HINT)

To start will have the eldest of the bunch: Star turned 13 in February, but still maintains a slightly demonic streak, one only has to see her run down the hall of our apartment via the wall to understand she a special relationship with gravity. I have always thought that there was something snake like about cats, and Star has a characteristic quite unique to her in that she can lower nictitating lenses over her eyes, an inner eye lid that looks like a naked layer of skin. Its actually quite revolting. Thankfully she's not doing that in this picture. Here she is eating some tuna in the "Kitty Hammock"

Star in the Kitty Hammock!

When my wife Eriana and I got together she brought with her four cats, with Star being the youngest. Unfortunately illness took its toll her brother and sister; one we lost to diabetes after two years of insulin shots, a second developed cancerous tumors in her ears that gradually became too much for her, and the third got badly scalded when a pitcher of boiling water blew up in my hand. Although she survived the accident, thanks to some wonderful vet work by the people at Beardal's Animal Hospital in Kingston Ontario, we think she never recovered from the shock of the experience and her body shut down a year later. She stopped eating and drinking, and we were trying to keep her alive by force feeding and home intravenous, but after she stopped passing fluids we let her go.

After the diabetic cat passed we waited a year until we found someone to adopt. Eriana had started dreaming about a grey cat named Ely about a month before we found him. One day she went into a pet store near at hand to look around and as she walked by a cage a little grey paw snaked out and swiped at her. She looked in the cage and the same paw reached out and bopped her on the nose. She came home to await my arrival from work and told me about him. I looked at her and said "Let's go" The first year was difficult to say the least. Ely has some wild cat in him, and he was what you would call an exuberant kitten("I'm going throw him out in the street if he doesn't calm down" was the frustrated comment of my wife one day after fruitlessly trying to study with him destroying the house) Anyway he has since settled down and is now 3 years old and huge. Not heavy but muscular. I'm just glad he likes us.

Ely curled up in a small ball in the kitty hammock

(Note the size of the shoulders and neck)

Eriana and I were married in July of 2003 after living together for seven years. In September of that year her oldest cat left her. She had been plagued with cysts in her ears for years, small growths that did her no harm but filled her ears with dirt. What we didn't know(and neither did the vets) was that this condition could and did develop into an untreatable cancer. The surgery to remove them actually caused them to multiply and spread. We decided that we needed to find a replacement for her immediately. With that in mind we headed up to the pet store to look for a new female cat.

Upon entering the store we proceeded back to the glassed in enclosure where the kittens were living and each immediately spotted a cat. Not the same one. My eye was caught by a little black female sitting in the back of the enclosure casting a disdainful eye upon her fellows who were pushing and shoving in the food and water bowls, while regally cleaning a paw: definitely royalty. Meanwhile on the other side of the partition, the case was split into two halves so as separate litters, a small black form had plastered himself belly first against the window upon seeing her. We asked if we might see both of them. We stood there with one on each shoulder while they greeted each other like long lost siblings(they were from different litters) cleaning each other and purring happily. I asked Eriana what she wanted to do, knowing full well what the answer was and so Pippen and Bridget came home with us.

Queen Bridget Anu Marcus on the throne!


Pippen in the Kitty Hammock

(Note the tongue hanging out)

Well there you are, you've now met the kids, and have another piece of the puzzle that does or does not make up the picture that is me. Is he bitter and angry, raging against injustice and the general stupidity of the human race, or is that all a fraud and he's really just a sentimental softy? Well, don't ask me how the hell should I know, and its not any of your business anyway.

cheers

gypsyman


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April 28, 2005

The Myth Of The Artist

First things first, and this is relevant to the topic, you will notice a new link in the links section on the side bar, Old Voices. This is my wife's website. Here you'll find examples of her poetry, photography, and art work. Because she is trying to earn some money from these works they have all been "right click protected". Don't take it personally. If you are interested in any of the work just leave your name and e-mail address in her guest book and she'll get back to you. Ignore the instruction about contacting a certain location concerning her work as that is now out of date. In fact they are the inspiration for this article. Sometimes your muse comes from the oddest sources.

If you read my profile you know that I made my living working in theatre for a good long time. That appearance shaped my perspective about what the nature of being an artist is all about, what it does and does not entail. I've become so sick and tired of coffee house artists whose only creative talent seems to be attitude and costuming themselves, that I'd thought I would dispel a few of the myths that have sprung up about artists.

First, and what I would think most important, is that not everyone can be an artist. Sorry that's the truth no matter what a majority of wanabes say to make themselves feel important. Its not that everyone doesn't have some spark of creativity within them, or aptitude for something, but that's not the same as being an artist. Whatever your medium there are intangibles that separate the dilettante from the real thing.


If poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about selfstyled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you-- nobody else-- who determine your destiny and decide your fate...e.e.cummings


To me what that quote has always meant is that you better not being doing your work for any other reason then you need to. Don't be doing it for position, status, recognition, or any other reward because a true artist will get no satisfaction from any of that. The social niceties of the coffee clache pale in comparison to the satisfaction of easing the urge to create. If you spend more time talking then doing, if your more concerned how you are perceived instead of creating perspective, and if your not prepared to dedicate your very life's blood to it then you are something other then an artist.

Myth number two: Its easy. This ties in with the first one, in that those who observe don't see what came before the finished result.They think it merely involves picking up a brush and applying paint to canvass, or sitting at a typewriter and clacking away. They don't see the years of preparation that has gone into that moment. How the painter has worked on her technique for years so that she no longer has to think about what she is doing; that brush stroke that looks so casual is actually the accumulation of experiment after experiment to find a means to achieve a desired result; the poem banged off in a half hour comes from writing day in and day out to develop a voice on paper that expresses the one in your head.

If you want a sure fire way of telling an artist apart from others, look for those who dismiss technique as important. They will have excuses such as it interferes with their creative flow, it stifles my impulses, or grammar limits what I can express. There's more a long those lines but you get the picture. You'll also find that most of them, especially the "visual artists" have never taken a class in their lives, or those that have will tell you that the structure stifled their creativity. This is equvilent of a surgeon saying that anatomy classes interfered with his surgical style.

Myth number three: I'm different therefore I'm an artist. The reality of this one is that an artist is different because of who and what they are. They don't set out to be different, most suffer because of it, spending years of frustration and hurt trying to fit in and be accepted but never succeeding. Its not until they find the comfort and solace that their creative expression brings that they are offered some release. The tortured artist is not a role to be assumed, taken on and off like a beret and sunglasses, rather endured with occasional moments of release offered by the fulfilling moments of creation. Pretend idiosyncrasies, crass behavior, and odd dress are not prerequisites for being an artist anymore then they are for being anything else. Some of the most accomplished artists I know dress as conservatively as bankers and it doesn't seem to affect the quality of their work.

Being an artist is like being a priest. It is a calling, an urge to worship at the alter of the capricious Goddess of creativity. She's a tease who flirts with your emotions and mind and can leave you a total wreck. But you keep coming back again and again because you can't resist her charms. Its no coincidence that the Greek Goddess of inspiration is named Eros- erotic-. But to be an acolyte in this temple requires more then just simple attendance and minor genuflections. If you are not slavishly devoted to it's cause, willing to sacrifice all to the point of no return, then please a simple request. Leave those of us alone who are devout. Keep your insecurities about who you are and what you want from life to yourself and don't inflict them on an unsuspecting public by calling it art. There's enough pretence in the world already without the one bastion of true human individuality being besmirched through association by posers and dilettante.

I'm not trying to discourage people from writing and painting and doing creative things. The more creativity in this world the better. The more people learn about the arts and appreciate them the easier it will become for artists to be accepted by society as full members. But those of you who pose and pretend are doing more of a disservice then you can imagine to those that struggle on a minute by minute basis with creation. The image of elitist intellectual snobbery, the I belong to an exclusive club that only a select few can join attitude, has done more to alienate people from genuine art and artists then any government policy and funding cutbacks. Its hard enough being an artist without having to worry about bad publicity caused by wannabes.

cheers

gypsyman


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April 22, 2005

Ad Boxes From Google

The observant ones among you will have noticed something new about my blog pages. At the very top on the right hand side you'll now see an ad, while on the bottom you'll find a googol search box. I hope I didn't shatter anybodies illusions about me, but then again I do say that I'm an Iconoclast, which of course means somebody who breaks icons, or to translate that into modern terms goes against the accepted norm of expected behavior.

As far as I'm concerned that applies to everything, including being someone who rails against the society we live in for being crass and consumer driven. I'm not about to justify who or what I am or my actions, but I've decided to experiment with these ads for the time being for two reasons. One is very simple I need any extra cash I can get. I'm on a disability pension that barely covers basic needs(so's my wife) and every little bit helps. The other reason is I'm fascinated with the whole process of the technology of the web. They say over at Google that they will ensure the ads will be appropriate to the content of my pages, and I'm fascinated to see what they will considers appropriate to what I write. So far this had included an ad for a recycling company, very cool, and an alternative fuel source supplier, even cooler. So if these adds help support the very things we need to change the world for the better I think its more then appropriate.

If it turns out that all I'm doing is giving a forum to things that don't work for me then I'll scrape the whole idea, but for now you'll just have to cope. It's no different from those of you with web sites who place ad content on your pages, but here I'm in control of the content visa via my content. I find it appealing to be able to exert control over what is being advertised on the net, and as long as that's the case and it helps me to continue to promote alternative means of living then I've no problem with one little box of text in the top right hand corner.

Update a day latter. At the top of the Blog under the title you'll now see some more ads. These are for other blog sites. Each link takes you to a blog, in turn my blog address will be appearing in similar ads on other peoples pages. I've got to try and figure out if I can make the thing look any less jaring. That's the code they sent me by mail and to frank I'm not too thrilled, takes up a lot of space and looks pretty butt ugly. If I'm not able to change it for the better it's not staying.

cheers
gypsyman


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April 17, 2005

"The Lonely Blogger"/Enemy Of The Environment#2 Canola

Yep that's me "The Lonely Blogger" Maybe I never should have got a site meter and kept myself in blissful ignorance that there might be someone out there reading what I have to say. But being the masochist that I am I went out and installed one. Now each week I get an e mail which delineates my lack of traffic on a daily basis. Yep one whole hit a day, from my publishing page.

I've done all the right things you know to raise my profile. I've linked my blog with my web site, I've listed everything with Google search engines, I've used nifty catch phrases to catch the eyes of random browsers in the submitted descriptions. Hell I've even stooped to baiting the hook with celebrity names(I've written about Viggo Mortensen) But nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Maybe its all a hoax and there's no internet out there. You know we all sit at home posting our thoughts and photos and whatever and it goes nowhere. Nobody is actually able to travel or visit other pages? Nah, because no one could afford to perpetrate a hoax of that size. So it all comes back down to nobody visits my site. Lets be honest, who is going to visit the site of a unknown Canadian writer who hasn't published anything of note and writes really unpopular stuff.

Dissing the pope, suggesting banning private ownership of cars, pointing out what idiots we are in general. Probably not many out there want to read about how screwed up the world is, at least from my perspective. I bet I come across a some radical, long haired, iconoclastic crank. Hmm, well that's a pretty could description isn't it. Maybe I should change my blurb describing the blog to that. Rantings of a long haired iconoclast! Yeah that's the ticket to bring in the crowds. Finally the Throngs and Hoards will show up in their Multitudes. My site meter will go through the roof and I won't be able to keep up with the demand for request as a public speaker.

Oh well, maybe I'll just e mail links to some friends, and be happy with that.

ENEMY # 2
The second member of my enemy list may at first glance seem a little strange and I should preface it with a mention that I do not hold it responsible, rather those who make use of it. Therefore I give you. Canola

This plant has brought about some of the worst agribusiness crimes of the last ten years. Responding to the suspiciously fast growth in popularity of canola as an ingredient in oil based products more and more land is being turned over to it's production. Where as plants such as soy, peanuts, and corn have multiple uses outside of oil and margarine as a food, canola seems primarily single purpose. Therefore land used for its growth is begin used to simply feed the profits of whatever company is producing the plant and not feed the people of the world.

Given the plethora of canola based margarine and cooking oils on the market it must be easy to produce and render, why else would there be so much of it. It leads me to suspect that the producers have created the market for it for that very reason. Its easy and inexpensive to produce, from the crop up, so as long as its insured that it becomes popular we can make a killing from. Ten years ago had you heard of canola? Did you care? All the claims about saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated fats aside(people were living long healthy lives before we knew about this stuff so I can't see what difference it really makes) there are really only two types of distinct cooking oils that I can see(aside from speciality items like sesame and almond) and that's vegetable and olive. In a blind taste test could you tell the difference between something cooked in sunflower, canola , Soya, corn or any other oil? Not me, well maybe peanut oil, but that's it.

So now the world is flooded with this stuff for no other reason then it will increase someone's profits, but the cost to us seems to be plenty. They actively encourage the use of pesticides in the growing of canola by creating a strain called "Roundup ready" which means the plant is immune to one of the most virulent poisons on the market. A grower is thus encouraged to spray entire crops with this stuff, safe in the knowledge that it will kill off everything but his precious canola. Has anybody checked out what the half life of this poison is. What happens to us when we consume it over a long period of time? What happens to the surrounding environment when it's sprayed and their is the least amount of wind that carries it past the boundaries of the farm? What happens to wildlife that eats seeds sprayed with this stuff, and then it works it way up through the food chain? What the hell are we doing? Didn't we learn from DDT? I guess not.

So here's what we got: ariable farm land being used up to grow a single crop being sprayed with a poison that will prevent anything else from growing, thus ensuring that only "roundup ready" canola can be planted on that field for who knows how long all to produce a vegetable oil. Do you think its worth it? I don't.

March 31, 2005

Shamless Hustle/Questioning The Norm

It only took me two days but I finally got the link to my store front on Lulu.com to work. I can hear the laughter. They spell it out for you, how easier can it get. Well first I had to find the place in settings to show that piece of code in my template, then I had to learn how to read. Yep, learn how to read instructions. Sometimes I get overexcited and miss bits, bits that turn out to be important. Like which way the tag is supposed to go.

SHAMELESS BEGGING TIME!!!

My paypal account is stuck at $8.00 and it won't let me take the money out into my greedy little hands until it hits $10.00, so please buy something, anything for $2.00 or more. Hey you may even like it. (smug note: I couldn't get the bold to shut off and was getting pissed when I said to myself why not see if you can do it in the edit HTML tab above, and lo and behold I was able. Will wonders never cease)

Me and society in a microcosm. I know I've made clear that I'm at odds with the way mainstream minds but I'd thought you may like an example of what it is your dealing with when you come to this page. Over Easter weekend in Kingston Ontario(that's March 25th -27th) we had a perticurlarly nasty incident. On Friday a young man had his throat cut in a bar, and he subsequently died. He was from a fairly affluent sub-burb, high school and local University football star so the outrage was quick and loud. "Brutal and cowardly" were the words used by the police officer leading the investigation on the day after. Initial word was that they were looking to charge someone with first degree murder and the public was warned the man was armed and dangerous. Then we were deluged with praises for the young man: fine athlete, team leader, admired by his friends and quotes about his playing ability. Phrases like promising future cut off before it could start.

So all set up like a brutal unprovoked murder that shocks and apalls: A community saddened etc. But buried in the stories details are revealed. One the suspect turned himself in the next day and the charge has been dropped to 2nd degree murder(In Canada we, thank everything, do not have the death penalty, but the distinction between 1st and 2nd degree murders is premeditation and ten years in jail)Two the murder weapon was found in the immediate area of the crime scene and the police aren't revealing its nature which raises questions about what whether the accused was armed or merely grabbed a knife up off a table.(the bar in question does serve food and had lots of cutlery available. Third the bar in question is known for its disposition for fights fueled by alcohol. Each summer there is at least one major altercation outside or inside the bar. When close to a thousand people are packed into a place and large amounts of alcohol are consumed it doesn't take much of a match to set off a fire. Then there are the circumstances, which are just starting to come to light and right now its impossible to know how much credence to place on the stories that are circulating, but they are not painting the victim in a very good light. It seems he may have been threatening the accused's girlfriend with a beating.

Now here's where my personal bias comes into play. First I've looked at pictures of both men in the papers, and of the two the one who feels the most threatening is the dead football player. Having been the receiving end of verbal abuse by drunk obnoxious jocks many times and knowing their propensity for violence, maybe I'm colouring my views, but still he is a very scary and intimidating man. If I felt he was threatening my wife I don't know how I would react. The accused's(what I can only assume is a mug shot) picture looks a lot less threatening. I don't feel threatened at all.

Now comes the final bit. The dead man is white and the culprit black. Oops a nice white high school and university football hero killed by an big city out of town black man. When I moved to Kingston form Toronto(one of the most racially divers cities in the world) the first thing I noticed was the almost complete absence of colour. Canada has always prided itself as not having the race issues of the United States, but the reason for that is simple, we have far less people of colour up here, save a couple of major metropolitan centres. Instead of overt racism we get it doesn't exist because they don't exist. The reality is that we are just a lot more genteel and covert. (My upper middle-class mother in law from small town eastern Ontario still uses Jewed to describe be cheated with out noticing that she saying anything wrong) Its the old liberal I've got nothing against them but not in my neighborhood attitude. The further you get from the major centres the more prevalent it gets. I guess what I'm leading up to with this is the possibility of racism being part of the mix can't be ignored.

No one deserves to have their throat slit and the grief of the young man's family and friends can not be denied, but it also seems that everyone has decided that he is some innocent victim of a dastardly persons actions before we even know circumstances of the incident. When ever I hear someone being praised to that extent I begin to wonder if they ever even used to go to the bathroom. I probably wouldn't be very well liked in my community for these types of comments but when I hear prejudicing to the extent that has happened in this case, it gets my back up.

gypsyman

oh yeah I don't think you'll being seeing my picture anytime soon, I can't be bothered downloading more software, lazy sod huh. I'll try to set up a web page somewhere else and link you to images that are important to me.


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