Thursday, June 11, 2009

A breast? Are you serious?

In doing a writing exercise where I have to think about people who gave me positive reinforcement regarding my creativity growing up, I was reminded of my 4th grade teacher who read to the class a very short story I wrote about early American settlers traveling west.

In this story, there was a mother of a very young baby, and I recall asking my mother what the name of the top of the bottle was that babies drink out of. When she said "a nipple, or teat," I was rather squeamish about writing either one, let alone having my teacher, and then my class, hear it. But, they were in fact the only words that seemed to exist for what the baby sucked on, so I therefore had to use one. (I had to be very specific. Saying the baby sucked on the bottle, I felt, was incorrect, since the bottle was the the part that held the milk. I believe I went with "teat." Funny how I think I censor myself now more than I did then.)

What astounds me is that the idea of the baby feeding from a breast did not cross my mind for a moment. It was not at all a possibility in my mind. I imagine that was the influence of toys and TV, and never having seen a woman breastfeed.

I find that amazing.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


I came back to work from a 2 1/2 week vacation to find that the system our clients use on a regular basis to update all of their information has been down for a week.

Oh, and two days prior to my return, a man had, next to our building which employs hundreds of people, in the afternoon of a work day, climbed on a bench, tied a rope around a tree branch, and hung himself.

Most of the employees were having a barbecue on the other side of the building. The young man who found him, an intern, saw who he thought was someone just standing on the bench looking at the 401 which runs parallel to the street our offices are on. The intern actually yelled out, "Checking out the traffic?" The rope was obscured by the branches. When there was no reply, the intern went back in. Later, someone else came across the body.

Though I wasn't at work when it happened, the fact that my walk into and out of work every day takes me near the tree makes it feel a little personal, especially since I'm one of only a handful of people who take that route. I saw the bench on my way home that first day, and it was gone the next morning. Seeing it once was enough for me to imagine the whole episode and send my mind reeling.

What was later learned, passed down through the only few witnesses, was that he was well-dressed and youngish to middle-aged. Apparently, he did not work at the site.

Our building is not easy to get to, by foot or car. I suppose any reason why he chose that spot is unnerving. He might have scoped out the place and found just the right time to kill himself — while everyone was busy having a BBQ. The idea that he might have planned it that way and had been scoping out the place is unsettling.

However, he also might have just been walking around randomly. Woods border the south and east sides of the building with two paths to the location. He could have been looking for the right branch and decided that that tree and that bench offer the best possibility.

In the latter case, though, he would have had to have known the possibility of being caught before he could finish. This adds a rather sad element in that perhaps he was keeping open the possibility of someone coming along and stopping him.

Of course, there is much more to think about than the "how." Having no idea about "why" is also a pretty stubborn thought. Not why he would kill himself in general — I've unfortunately had moments in my life that make me understand the ways people can get to that point — but more specifically. Why that way, and why then?

That he was well-dressed makes me wonder if money played an issue, but I have no idea. I'm unlikely to find out anything else about the man. Details of people who commit suicide, if not celebrities or not taking anyone else with them, don't tend to make it into the news. So I'm left wondering.

I also think about the young intern who saw him but didn't realize he was dead, and the person who came across him next. In what ways will this change their lives?

I'm having trouble shaking this.

You don't need ghosts to haunt you as long you are alive and able to have thoughts about those who aren't.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Diving Bell, and My Butterfly?

I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly again. It's based on a true story about a playboy who goes into a coma and awakens with "locked-in syndrome." He is aware of all that's going on around him but cannot react. He is completely paralyzed save for the ability to blink his left eye.

After coming to grips with his situation, he ends up writing a book, which is both incredibly uplifting and depressing. This man writes a book with literally the blink of an eye and I can't finish one goddamn poem I like.

After we watched the film, Marion said something interesting in that she wonders if I feel like him at times. I hadn't thought of that, but to some degree, it's true.

I have no major physical infirmities, but often feel like I'm in a mental straitjacket. All these ideas and nowhere to go. I can't seem to take one step without the fear of falling flat on my face. Sooner or later, I let life shove me along and do just well enough to get by until I feel stuck again. I make due and that's about it.

I'm tired of... well... I'm just tired these days. But I'm especially tired of just making due.

I have all sorts of worries. That I can't be as creative as I want to be. That I can't inspire people the way I'd like to. That I've wasted too much time. That I'm not living up to my potential.

I could blame things such as the surprise of having twins putting a stop to some momentum I had going about how I felt about myself, for taking up so much time in my life and pushing me to do what I have to and not necessarily what I want, but anyone who knows me knows that I will try to find any reason to sabotage myself. Yes, having twins is very hard. It eats up so much of my time and energy. But I still have an hour or hour and a half at night to figure things out, and I end up just sort of spacing out and not getting anywhere.

I've tried to cut myself some slack. There's a lot on my plate and I shouldn't put so much pressure on myself to figure everything out "right now." If I don't write every day, don't sweat it. But a day turns into a week turns into a month.

I feel as though I need to write but that my brain is usually too muddy to put anything coherent together. I get frustrated, I stop.

Sometimes I guess it feels counterintuitive that something you want to do so much is so damn difficult. I'm too used to doing things in my life that either come pretty naturally, or I do things just to the point where it would take what I figure is too much effort to improve upon. I will linger in amateurishness for a while before giving up altogether.

I know I have to put in the time to be good at something. Or at least, good at writing. I know I have to write to be a good writer. I'm sure I'm so good at talking myself out of things because I've practiced that an awful lot.

So, I signed up for a writing workshop that will go through all of October and November. I don't have the money for a full-out "course," so I figure an somewhat intensive, course-like workshop will do. I'm hoping it will be good practice. It will force me to write, force me to work consistently and patiently at a skill I want to hone, and force me to deal with criticism. I'm also hoping it will be fun, as I had to promise Marion that it won't just be something else to become all stressed out about.

The workshop is for creative writing, which is not exactly the most practical thing but I'm hoping to maybe start a certification program next year in something that might help me find a career I enjoy. I figure anything that gets me writing is a positive. And I need outside motivation right now.

There have been various butterflies that have come along in my life; maybe this will be another.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Why I don't like to predict

I see Brenna Morrigan, the monster goof; the instigator, getting her sister into trouble; who, as she gets older, will break hearts and not realize until later the ramifications of the power she yields over others.

I see Morrigan Brenna, so the sensitive goof; the one whose heart will get broken; who will be more attached to me in the beginning but, after some years, will turn on me almost overnight, our relationship becoming careful and tumultuous, because we are so alike.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Damn It, Alice Munro Made Me Break My Only Rule

Since I started working at a bookstore, Alice Munro has always been an interest of mine. But only in a cheap way.

I found the woman on the cover of the Modern Classics edition of her Who Do You Think You Are? to be quite striking. I fought the urge to read the book based only on that.

I am sometimes wary of popular Canadian female authors. There's the stereotype of the gritty, backwater tale involving rape and incest and without a decent male character to be found. This seems to ring true at times, though, being a fan a few Canadian female authors, I know is not always the case.

And there's the hype factor. Munro has written many, many short stories, and there is a lot of praise heaped onto each collection. Sometimes I wonder if I'm geared away from such praise because if there are so many people who like her, does it really matter if I join the throng? Shouldn't I, someone who's "in the know," apply my energies elsewhere? To someone who's a little less known? Who could use the support? Who's, okay, fine, cooler?

Of course, there's often a reason for hype.

I saw "Away From Her" a few weeks ago. I had wanted to since flying back from a trip to Newfoundland. I had a choice between that and "X2 - X-Men United." I chose the latter. To be fair, part of my reasoning was that my wife had seen that one already and I hadn't, and I figured "Away From Her" might be a good couple's movie.

I found "Away From Her" to be beautiful and in the end, avoiding overwrought melodrama about a subject that could so easily slip into overwrought melodrama. It was smart and tender, and felt very real. I didn't realize until watching the film that it was based on one of Munro's stories, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." That persuaded me to give her a try.

So, yes, I started with the book with the striking woman on the cover.

In one of my philosophy courses years ago, we discussed whether or not fiction can "teach" us how to be. There was a lot of scepticism. Fiction is, after all, not real. Even non-fictional accounts of events are not necessarily how the events occurred. While most students in the class agreed that reading fiction is beneficial in many ways - it increases language and comprehension skills, stretches attention spans, ignites imaginations - it was hard for many to believe that we actually learned much about the "real" world in a way that dictated how we ourselves do, or should, live.

I felt that the possibility was there, and Munro's work reminds me that I do believe we can become more adept at living from reading fiction, albeit not in the direct way some might think. I think in order for this to happen, there needs to me almost as much work from the reader than from the author.

The more I read, the more I look for myself in the characters. In the past, I tended to only try to relate to their good points. However, as time goes on, I also try to recognize characteristics in myself that are less than appealing.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a collection of short stories following the life of Rose, a resourceful woman who becomes quickly and temporarily sucked into passionate relationships with men based mostly on the attention they give her more than the qualities of the men themselves. There is worry that perhaps the sort of love that comes "totally and helplessly" from another, that her desire "for worship... though she had never asked for it," would never come her way again. So, each time it happens, she holds on for dear life.

The first of these men is Patrick. When they meet, he is an artsy, serious type with the odd romantic streak; who will chance being so honest at times as to leave himself "exposed" and completely defenceless. Then, after years of marriage, Rose describes him as the following:
... he had a habit of delivering reproving lectures, in response to a simple question or observation. Sometimes... she would ask him a question in the hope that he would show off some superior knowledge that she could admire him for, but she was usually sorry she had asked, the answer was so long and had such a scolding tone...
That's me! Sometimes. Ask my wife. So I recognize the latter point and hope to not be like that so much in the future.

Part of recognizing oneself is also, having related to particular characters, seeing where they end up in the future. Patrick, upon asking Rose to marry him and facing the impending responsibility of providing for his family, ends up losing his idealism and takes a ho-hum job through his father's business. He becomes unhappy and bitter as the years go by, trying to retain bits of glory through ill-advised, abrasive rants at parties.

I worry, too, about succumbing to the pressures of familial responsibilities. I have them, of course, and want to "provide," but I don't want to give up on my dreams in the process. It's a hard balance to find.

Patrick also has many characteristics that hopefully I lack. But the point is not to seek that one character who is exactly like you, but to be able to find yourself in perhaps all of them. Surely, that's one mark of a great writer. I think this is one way that reading can help open us up and be accepting of others. Instead of always looking for what sets us apart, it becomes easier to focus on how we can be like alike.

And fiction also allows us to deal with our insecurities and shortcomings in a "safe" environment. It can be hard enough to admit our flaws to ourselves let alone to others. We might worry about the response we'll receive; the possible admonishment, the judgments, or even the gloating of "told you so." If we can think about ourselves in a way that is uncluttered by others' perceptions, then we can make an effort to change and move on without making a big production about it.

Maybe this is asking a lot. By no means does reading fiction have to be such an "active" commitment. Many of us read as a form of escapism. But I think reading is different from TV and movies in this way, as there are more chances to stop and be contemplative - to tweak little bits of ourselves - before moving on and getting lost in the story again. So we get the best of both the thoughtful and entertaining worlds. There is real opportunity for change.

And by the way, the stories were indeed filled with backwater towns, and there was a reference to possible incest. But hey, that's life, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

I Don’t Like Predicting the Future, but I Predict…

I don’t try to treat my girls as though their natures are already determined. I sometimes wonder how many kids turn into particular kids because from day one they were slotted as “the good one” or “the smart one” or “the fussy one.”

However, having two children of the same age growing up in the same environment, I have seen just how much personalities can differ from very early on. While I will try to never label only one as “good” or “smart” – people can be good and smart in many different ways – I do, from time to time, like to think of how they might be in the future…

I see Brenna, the monster goof; the instigator, getting her sister into trouble; who, as she gets older, will break hearts and not realize until later the ramifications of the power she yields over others.

I see Morrigan, so sensitive; the one whose heart will get broken; who will be more attached to me in the beginning but, after some years, will turn on me almost overnight, our relationship becoming careful and tumultuous, because we are so alike.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nintendo Music Makes Me Cry

One of our girls’ swings has music on it that reminds me of the soundtrack to Dragon Warrior, a Nintendo RPG from the late 80s. And damn it if I don’t get so nostalgic at times that I become a little teary.

I’ve worried about my nostalgic kicks before, as being so wistful about childhood always seemed to me something that only old poets do. Yet for years I’ve been rather emotional about aspects of childhood that I miss.

I’m sure there’s some psychological issue tied to this – an inability to fully grow up or to fully accept the responsibility of being an “adult”; or perhaps I am just “one who thinks too much.”

Either way, if I let that music affect me, I will feel immediately, and for a very short duration, transported to the context in which I remember hearing it. I loved watching my older brother play computer and console games, back when we had somewhat of a communicative relationship (perhaps a key to some of my longing). I could watch him do the most banal tasks in the world, as much of that game consisted of fighting the same monsters, and using the same tactics to do so, over and over again. But he persisted without boredom and when it came time to actually do something strategic, he seemed so good at it.

I suppose, then, part of what I miss is watching someone who I admired do something that I thought was very cool and fun, though still hard.

I wonder if any of these feelings have to do with the lack of a father figure in my life, and my brother’s game-playing being one of the few things growing up that, in hindsight, gave me some sense of awe that many boys feel for their fathers.

In the end, it was awe for something that I now think isn’t all that important and something that I’ve moved away from in my life. But there are other losses at work - loss for the relationship with my brother, loss of my father, loss of a particular kind of superfluous play.

On the optimistic side, these are things I can re-establish and create anew with my own children.