Geoffrey Smedley, continued

On February 22, 2018, Geoffrey Smedley celebrated his 91st birthday without his dear wife Brigid, who had died of cancer seven months before at the age of 70. On the table stood the card she had written him for his 90th... "My darling and ponderous Geoffrey," it began. Their dog Oscar would die a couple weeks after the birthday, but Geoffrey continued/continues.

Continuing was something he thought about a lot, and something we discussed often, the physical boundary of the body and the limitlessness of spirit/mind. A year ago today, on May 9, 2018, he woke remembering a dream he told me about when I picked him up from the Stormaway passenger ferry around noon. "I dreamed that all my sculptures were fully and brilliantly realized, that they had reached the limits of what they could be."

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Imagining the Imaginary

An archaeological park, a stone cave that had meaning only if you knew that Aeneas, the hero that Virgil imagined as the father of Rome, had entered it in search of a prophetess who would tell him how to reach his own father, Anchises, in the Underworld. The Sybil told Aeneas that he would first have to find the golden bough to present to Charon, the boatman who would ferry him across the River Styx.

The cave of the Sybil has throbbed in my imagination since I first read Virgil's Aeneid, and here I was at last at Cumae, the largest mainland colony of Magna Greece, first settled by Euboan Greeks in the 8th century BCE. The Greeks sure knew how to pick their sites, this one on a height above a long beach where the azure Mediterranean ruffles onto shore, and from where you can see the fabled island of Ischia. Oak groves, fluttering bay leaves. Stones scabbed with the growth of millennia. Tranquil paths that lead to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the nearby Temple of Diana, so situated because the full moon beams directly onto it on August 13, the feast of Diana who is the goddess of the full moon. Tender-aged Diana's were strolling the paths the day I visited, part of a historical exercise that serendipitously boosted my fantasies.

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Travel notes: Italy

Bright globes of citrus and pomegranates, tiers of newly harvested grapes artistically arranged on street corner carts, or the back of pick up trucks. Shiny aubergines alongside purple cauliflower and radicchio, fat onions, and walnuts and chestnuts.

Too much plastic, too much garbage. So much so that Romans recently demonstrated against the city's lack of waste management. Wild boars had been seen foraging on the street. Palm trees, oleander in bloom in late October. Pampas grass. Cactus.

Galileo, Dante, Plato, Caravaggio, Archimedes as street names recalling the the giants who once walked there. A fallen column, huge tumbled building blocks important enough to be fenced off as historical treasures, but not identified. The pale grapefruit-peach of the buildings that glow golden in the bright and usually dependable late October sunlight.

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Travel notes: Brittany

On my second last visit to La Brétagne, France, searching for the roots of French-Canadians, I explored the home of the explorer Jacques Cartier near St. Malo, then dipped just below Brittany to La Rochelle, on whose docks gathered les filles du roi, women from all over France who had signed on for the voyage across the wild Atlantic, to marry settlers and mother the legions of Quebecois to come. Most Quebeckers can trace their lineage back to one of those courageuse filles.

Something about Brittany fascinates me, and although it is hardly a month since my second visit to the region, I am already daydreaming about a return. The introduction to this year's experiences in Breizh (which is Brittany in the Breton language) culture began at the ferry terminal in Ringaskiddy, Ireland, where a group of twenty or so Breton travellers concluded a tour of their sister Celtic country with an impromptu sing-song. One man played a squeeze box that looked as if he had bought it on the trip. Another lead a call and response, while the rest of the passengers in the waiting room, from wherever they were, clapped along. When it was time to board the Brittany ferry, Pont Aven, for the sail across to Roscoff, each member of the tour group planted kisses on both cheeks of the tour guide.

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Travel Notes: Vancouver to Dublin

On a stunning morning in lovely Cobh, the departure point for some storied disasters--most notably the Titanic, but also the coffin ships aboard which so many Irish perished as they fled from the murdering famine--I am sitting in the lovely reception room of the historic Commodore Hotel, trying to figure out how to write the sound of the way my friend's cousin Pat pronounced but. Not simply but, more bhut or bhuht, except those spellings don't convey the breathy conjunction she emitted so often as she talked and talked about Irish politics, about Mikey and Michael D and the crime of homelessness and how Sinn Fein freely criticizes the sitting coalition government, "bhuht" has no real ideas of its own to offer.

Aside from the music of her speech, it could have been any of us talking about local politics anywhere.

On my first visit to Ireland, decades ago, a fellow named Seamus O'Cinnaidé, who wrote in Irish for the Irish Times, told me that the Irish don't care if a story is true as long as it's a good one. But times change…

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The Magical Vision of Eugene Burger

Although my latest novel, The Reason for Time, was not published until 2016, I was deeply into researching it at least ten years earlier. Spring cleaning has turned up notes from research sources dated 2005 and 2006, one from the dear Peter Beirne, County Clare local history specialist in Ennis, Ireland, and another from the late, fascinating Eugene Burger, who called himself "Magic Beard".

At the local launch for The Reason for Time, in my town of Gibsons,  a man in the audience asked where I'd found the magic I use to fill out the scenes at the Chicago Magic Company, where my character, Maeve Curragh works as a clerk. It was Eugene Burger, I said. He was my main source. Have you heard of him? It turns out the man had heard of him, and seen him perform more than once. Small world, and/or an under appreciation of this classic magician's impact. Because Eugene's appeal depended on more than just tricks. He encouraged his fellow magic crafters to develop a personal magical vision.

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It's the book, not the writer

The bigger you are, as they say, the harder you fall, and in the fickle literary world, no one has fallen harder lately than Junot Diaz, a writer whose work I loved so much that I gave away multiple copies of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Accusations of sexual misconduct have landed him in a kettle of roiling disgrace, so much so that the Pulitzer Prize Committee is reconsidering the award it gave him for that novel.

In Canada, the writer Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda experienced a similar tumble from grace, not because of sexual misconduct, but for having claimed to be a First Nations writer when it is doubtful that much First Nations blood runs in his veins at all.

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Beginning to Continue

     A beginning, but also a continuation. A step closer to what will be the next book. Started on the third draft this morning.  It's hard to distinguish one complete draft from another when working on a computer, literally processing words, because a thought in the night often sends me to the desk to change just a line for which I hoped to find a more interesting word, a better sentence rhythm.


But in this latest iteration of a novel I have tried to write many times, and have written, and have had no luck finding a publisher for, this is probably the third full draft. I waited until I got to some kind of end, all the balls in the air, as George Saunders once put it, and tentatively falling towards what might be their final places. I am going to leave the actual end until I reach there again, after reconsidering the first 85, 000  or so words. Could be more by then, even less, for I once heard Leonard Bernstein talk about transformation by deletion, and even though I have never been too long-winded a writer to begin with, the potential to so transform intrigues and inspires me.



Ninety-eight years Ago in Chicago


Almost a hundred years ago these first weeks of August, Chicago was mopping up after the worst of the race riots that hit the United States in the "Red Summer of 1919". Twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites were killed, 500 people injured, well over 2000 houses destroyed.

A personal angle on the tragedy comes through my character Maeve Curragh, in The Reason for Time  A broader perspective is provided by David Krugler's book, 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African-Americans Fought Back.

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Speaking of theatre...

From my newest favourite book, Travels with the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinkski.

"...Herodotus was the contemporary of the greatest Greek tragedians -- Aeschylus, Sophocles... and Euripides. His times were the golden age of theatre (as well as much else) and stage art in those days was influenced by mysteries, folk rituals, national festivals, religious services, Dionysian rites. This affected how Greeks wrote, how Herodotus wrote. He explains the fortunes of the world through the fortunes of individuals. The pages of his book, whose goal is the recording of human history, are full of flesh and blood people, specific human beings with specific names who are either powerful or weak, kind or cruel, triumphant or despondent. Under different appellations and in different contexts are Antigones, Medeas, Cassandras and the servants of Clytemnestra, the Ghost of Darius and the lance-bearing knights of Aegisthus. Myths blend with reality, legends with facts. Herodotus tries to separate one from the other, without neglecting either or presuming to establish hierarchy. He knows to what great degree a man's way of thinking and his decision-making are determined by an inner realm of spirits, dreams, anxieties and premonitions. He understands that the phantom which the King sees in his sleep can decide the fate of his nation and millions of his subjects. He knows how weak a human being is, how defenseless he is in the face of the terrors born of his own imagination."

Passing on the Program

Reading the show notes for a theatre production before you see the show is like skipping to the last chapter of a book. Same with reviews. I try to avoid both reviews and programs and read them only after I've attended a performance. That way I can decide for myself what I think of a work. But last week in Chicago I got to the Steppenwolf Theatre early, for a rush ticket. By myself, without a book, I suspended my usual practice and opened the program, where Anna B. Shapiro, the artistic director of Steppenwolf, discloses the personal and artistic reasons why she programmed "Pass Over," a play by the gifted Antoinette Nwandu about the plight of young black men in inner city U.S.A.

A friend had recommended the show and also reported that the theatre community had risen in revolt against the Chicago Sun Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss for what was considered a racist review.  So it was with loaded anticipation that I took my seat and waited through the opening music, a series of mid-century American musical comedy tunes that, on the surface, would have been better suited to "Ah, Wilderness," a revival of the Eugene O'Neill comedy which was playing downtown at the Goodman Theatre.

But "Pass Over" is all about the historic dominance of white over black. The show tunes were meant to be ironic, something Samuel Beckett, Nwandu's inspiration, might have enjoyed. In her own notes, which I also read before the show, Nwandu explains how the Book of Exodus played into her dramatic concept and says that Beckett "was the beginning of everything for me". She uses two African-American characters, Moses and Kitch, as the stand-ins for Estragon and Vladmir. The set suggests a ghetto street corner from which Moses and Kitch hope to "pass over" to better lives. I loved the biblical and Beckett allusions, some very sharp poetic dialogue and the brilliant acting. The characters (Jon Michael Hill as Moses, Julian Parker as Kitch and Ryan Hallahan as the white Mr. Master, and the cop) elicited both fear and empathy. The racial cracks in North American society, particularly in Chicago, need more consistent exposure and theatre is an excellent way of bringing them to light. Danya Taymor directed this production.

I happened to be in the city for a couple events related to my recent novel, The Reason for Time, whose climax occurs during the 1919 race riot, the worst of 25 in U.S. cities that summer. The recommendations that came out of the Governor's Commission into the riot's causes, if followed, might have mitigated the situation that developed in Chicago. Why did things get worse instead of better? "Pass Over" did not exactly satisfy my hopes for insight, except in its confirmation that the police still contribute to the problem. Nevertheless, I found the play compelling until near the end, when a tortuous scene involving Moses and Kitch's desperate idea for how to truly get to the promised land devolves into a sort of gratuitous simplicity at which I can imagine Beckett groaning.


In the reviews I did wait to read after the show, The Chicago Tribune calls it a promising play whose last quarter stumbles because of too much symbolism. Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun Times objected to the same part of the play because, in her view, the show directs us to believe that the police kill more African American than gang members of the same race. While that may or may not be true, I feel she hit the wrong nail on the head. The reason the last five to ten minutes sputter in my view is because the team abandoned art in favour of politics. The beautifully unrolling metaphors (or "megaphores," as Kitch says) were choked by heavy handedness, and, as seems so often these days, it came down to a "which side are you on?" situation.


On the way out, I heard a man say to his friend that the original ending  of the play had been changed. Even more food for thought. I wish I knew what Ms Nwandu had first intended, and why the company altered it in favour of didacticism. Maybe my opinion would have been different if the program notes and my friend's comments had not filled me with expectations. Next time...

Japan in Athens

A rich man who wanted to honour the memory of his wife built the Odeon at the foot of the Acropolis, in Athens. A rich man named Herodes Atticus, and the 2100 year old performance space is still packing them in. What Herodes may not have anticipated, however, were cherry blossoms falling across the ancient masonry. The blossoms, and of course butterflies, and also Hokusai's classic wave painting on some kind of video loop, with a U.S. navy ship imposed on the famous breakers. All these images were thrown on the gorgeous facade above the narrow stage and it was quite a sight, sight, sight. Repetition has an honoured history in art, but the otherwise beautiful new production of Madame Butterfly by the Greek National Opera Company was at times diminished by overkill on the visual effects.
The satin-jacketed conductor Myron Michalidis energetically led the musicians through Puccini's score, and Celia Costea as Butterfly was magnificent, her voice both delicate as a petal and strong as stone. Dimiti Plataneas as Sharpless was also very effective as the worried consul. Watching this classic story unfold reminded me of the importance of personal stories as vehicles for larger themes, including political statements. Again, however, the visual effects made the symbolism so blatant. Pinkerton dressed like a sloppy North American tourist, in obvious contrast to the lovely Chio Chio San and the nattily outfitted Sharpless. Why didn't the otherwise creative costume designer dress Pinkerton like a sailor? Why didn't Stefano Secco's voice consistently rise above the orchestra, for when it did, I found it thrilling.

Endless flag combat, both in the projected images and some actual props, underlined the message with a magic marker that might as well have said, "get it"?

But to sit in that theatre on a warm night, under a gibbous moon and imagine what performances originally took place there. The soft air, the cushioned marble benches, thoughts of Euripides, and Aeschylus. In ancient Greece there were regular drama contests, as popular as games and athletic events. All that and "One Fine Day.


There are things you wish you'd done, but, jet lagged after a fourteen hour flight, it's lucky you were even sufficiently alert to find your way from the bus station through the warren of little streets that led to the guest house where your host, Iannis, greeted you. For example, you wish you'd taken his picture. What you recall is a stocky man with a beard and bushy hair, and the images of Greek men gleaned from Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi: the olive skin, the wild hair, the mustache, the larger than life presence. Memorable phrases, too, such as:

"Greeks don't pronounce, they just say."

"When you say classics, it's not the same: classics is philosophy, Plato and Socrates. Homer is poetry, music."

"What you find around here (referring to Chania's -pronounced HAN-ya's old town) it's not Greece. My recommendation, you go to Theriso. That's real Greece, that's where you get real Cretan food."

His suggestion for a sandwich to hold you over til the morning is souvlaki, but not "down there," again meaning the old town, the beautiful Venetian harbour that is so wildly popular with tourists, even before tourist season really begins. So you venture up a block or so, out of that labyrinth of centuries-old buildings onto a main commercial road. The smell of grilling meat leads you to a gyro shop where your first encounter is with a young man who appears to be one of the refugees so sadly flooding onto Mediterranean shores. Please lady, he says, pointing to his stomach. He holds up two fingers, and you figure that means that whatever you buy, you should buy one for him, too. How can you refuse?

A day after learning what Iannis meant about the tourist focus of Chania's old town, you find a seven am bus to Theriso. The only passenger on a bus whose driver skillfully manoeuvres the twisty climbing road, you get off at the town square, and two shy schoolchildren climb aboard. Quiet. Still dim, the sun has yet to break over the lower ridges of the White Mountains. The plan was to find a coffee, walk in the gorge, see what the day would bring. But in this village of 100, no one but roosters and dogs seem to be awake. There is a single shop, closed. Two or three tavernas around the square, closed. But it is thrillingly beautiful. Perfect. For you, morning always brings a sense of possibility, of discovery and this morning does so especially. You wander around the village first, admiring the potted geraniums, the climbing roses, then find the Museum of Resistance up a few stairs. There's chair outside the entrance of the museum and the sun is finally besting the ridge, creeping just high enough to find the chair, then the still dew-damp bench where you lie down, thinking to catch up on some of the sleep you've been missing. Bees awake now, too, and swallows embroidering the air. Like the sand mandalas created by monks, the complex patterns swallows stitch disappear instantly.

An hour or so after arrival, back at the village square, a grape-vine covered taverna, with rooms to rent, has some action. Three Greek bikers, big, bearded--one of them wearing a do-rag-- order beer. When you ask the sleepy owner if this means he's open, he stops sweeping the main room, and rocks his hand back and forth in the universal gesture that says, more or less. Fortified with fresh orange juice and the more liquid portion of the sludgy Greek coffee, you head down the road to the gorge, stopping often to photograph the wild artichokes, the red poppies, the wild thyme and rosemary, and the plant you later discover is a dragon lily. Green foliage, threatening purple blossom that looks more like a spear tip than a flower. An occasional car passes, but mostly there are the bees, goat bells tinkling on the rocky mountainside, goats and sheep maa-ing and baa-ing, birds still whistling and chirping, and the sound of your footsteps.

 Perfect. What you imagined when you thought of the western end of Crete. The peaceful exterior that belies its often violent history. Kydons, one of the Greek tribes that fought at Troy, according to Homer. Kydon was the son of Minos’s wife Pasiphae (the one who also gave birth to the minotaur), and Hermes. The name Kydon means "glorious"," proud" and the old part of Chania is still known as Kydonia.

Nostalgia for the morning as you pass the now-open dairy with a single broken-English-speaking dairymaid, who points to the blocks of goat and sheep cheese for sale. The shop on the square is open, too and offering some trinkets and packaged herbs, the ubiquitous olive oil soap. Finally that authentic Cretan meal, of wild greens and lamb in olive oil, complementary yogurt with honey, and raki to finish. Maybe that is the reason you miss the return bus, or it could be the political discussion you had sworn not to get into with the couple from NY. The thoughts of regret that distracted you. Or perhaps the hypnotic zzz of the bees, the blanket of sun, a little nap on the still mostly empty square.


Oh those first drafts!

"I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived even after years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all is left is the work of writing it down. This goes quickly, according as I have the time, for sometimes I have several compositions in labour at once, though I am sure never to confuse one with the other. You will ask me whence I take my ideas? That I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in Nature's open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods, which in the poet's case are transformed into words and mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes." (From Diagnosing Genius, The Life and Death of Beethoven, F.M. Mai)

Blame it on Beethoven?

According to our music professor, it was about the time of Beethoven that society came to perceive composers, and by extension artists in all genres, differently, more special than had been the case when works of art might not even have been signed, since they ultimately belonged to the church, king or nobleman who commissioned them. Artists who had formerly been considered tradespeople of sorts, producing music, paintings, operas and theatre pieces upon the request and with the patronage of one of these higher ups, became individuals, specially blessed individuals, given the gift to create music, art, and literature by a generous God who had singled them out. Gifted them. Perhaps artists even had a direct link to the Divine, however you might define it. In the so-called Modern period, after 1800, "The high value placed on the individual, which emerged in ancient Greece and Rome and then again in the Renaissance, became the primary value of Western culture."

I don't know how long it took before this turned out to be a two-edged sword, with which some artists have come close to killing themselves in modern times. Because how can anyone stand up to such adulation, really, what would it do to a person to think herself or himself an actual sort of deity?

I've wondered if Beethoven might to be blame in a controversy that unfolded where I live. It involved a perceived wrong foisted on a popular writer and head of an important university writing program. Allegations of sexual harassment were part of it, though not just those, and after a lengthy investigation, the university fired the fellow. Here's where Beethoven comes in, sort of, because I never think of him as a real collegial guy, but more a brooding loner. Not like the prominent and not so writers who waded in to the rescue of the allegedly wronged professor. A group of about one hundred, including a deck of the best known Canadian writers, joined forces to defend the guy and call for an investigation into the investigation the university had already conducted. The controversy continued to bubble over social media, in Canadian print journals, even the New York Times and The Guardian, as well as some outlets I probably have not seen, and led to a second controversy, concerning the identity of the fellow who had initiated the letter his fellow prominent writers signed in support of the fired writing professor/novelist.

Watching this play of egos made me squirm. Most artists will admit that they're not sure where their work comes from. The mysteriousness of inspiration, the stops and starts unrelated to routine; days when, like today, I started a work session clueless and half an hour or so after sitting there fooling around, a new scene came to mind and out my fingers. It's moments like these when you think, maybe it is something else, maybe I'm just loaning out the fingers, the keyboard, the notebook. That's why I felt so uncomfortable about the group stepping forward with demands, even hinting that because the accused professor was a successful writer, he couldn't have perpetrated such wrongs, and if he did they were minor, excusable. Celebrity culture at its worst.

Beethoven was rebelling against  the yolk of those who had been paying the piper, though he needed them to survive while he composed pieces that had more to do with pleasing his musical vision than the high and mighty ones. He was expressing individualism as an artistic as well as a political reaction to the top down organization of society the French revolted against in 1789. Perhaps the kindest interpretation of the matters here would be that the literary protestors were also challenging authority, misguided though their efforts may have been.

Cheer up!

Oh boy. On the heels of an especially dreary fall, I had to watch "Manchester by the Sea," and that while I was in the middle of reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Thank God I'm a naturally optimistic person, one of the lucky ones who is not easily depressed. Even so, I was sad for hours after seeing "Manchester..." At a time of year when people talk about renewal and hope, the main character seems about as far from those possibilities as fire is from water, two elements that dominate the picture.

As for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by the wonderful writer Richard Flanagan, while I knew in general about the horrors the Japanese Imperial Army wrought in forcing through the Siam-Burma railway late in WW2, Flanagan's descriptions of the privations suffered by a group of Australians are so good that empathetic readers can't help but feel the pain. Not the writer, though. In a Guernica interview Flanagan said:

"An interviewer told me once that I was very empathetic, and I said I hope not. I think empathy’s a terrible danger for a writer. A writer has to stand outside the page. It’s not for the writer to shed tears onto the pages for these characters. It’s not for him to suffer or to laugh or to experience ecstasy or agony in the manner of the characters on the pages. It’s to find the words to convey ecstasy or agony in a way that’s true."

If it is true that art is uplifting, in the case of these two works, it is the artfulness that uplifts more than the subjects. The movie impressed me with its structure and characterization. The novel for both those reasons, and also because of the sheer power of Flanagan's prose. Despite what else may be looming, art has once again delivered on its promise to lift me up, given me a reason to greet the coming year with cheer.



The Magic of a Travelling Book Café

My most recent Travelling Book Café featured The Reason for Time as the travelling book, and an unlikely pair, Anglican rector Clarence Li, and magician Gerardo Avila, who joined me to talk about something "we have no language for.." as Rector Li put it, magic and belief.

Early into the discussion that followed my reading, and Gerardo's performance, an audience member offered her experience of the strange, the unexplainable, as in how, as a child in England, she sang the verse: Land of the silver birch home of the beaver... long before she knew she would be living in Canada.

The magical, mysterious. What makes one person a skeptic, another a believer? My character, Maeve Curragh, works at the Chicago Magic Company, in Chicago, 1919, and comes from a superstitious rural Irish culture. She is enchanted by the vaudeville illusionists she sees on Chicago stages, but more so by the mind readers and the spiritualists, such as Anna Eva Fay, who were so popular then. A simpler time maybe? When people were more disposed to believe? Or was it just her? Because, as Clarence Li pointed out, there are personality types who are more likely to "believe." One audience member described herself as exceptionally sensitive to the supernatural. She talked about having gone on a vacation at a time when she really needed one, except, her body remained at home, in bed.  The experience was so vivid she can still remember the smell of the trees at the mountain resort. It scared her.

Gerardo, our magician, dressed in a dark suit and a floppy bow tie, pressed the button on his boom box and music trickled forth at just the right volume to establish a different ambiance in the library's community room. He worked with strings, balls, and cards, deftly making them disappear and re-appear. He even had a trick that was designed to convince the most unrelenting of skeptics. It's about bringing people into the present, he explained, with music, with comedy... with a sense of possibility. He performs tricks that sometimes surprise himself. Magic happens when something unexpected elevates a trick to something, well...unfathomable.

The eloquent Clarence Li doesn't think belief is anything that ultimately exists or doesn't, but that it comes and goes. It's a journey, he said, and while, as a minister, he is in the God business, he regrets the post-Enlightenment rejection of myth as fanciful. It's why we struggle to explain, why we chalk some experiences up to being just plain inexplicable; everything is quantified, must be proven. "People say seeing is believing, but for me believing is seeing." Don't worry about believing, just be, he said, echoing, if in different words, what Gerardo had said about being present.

Audience members used words like serendipity and coincidence. We talked about the power of suggestion; we talked about how people believe what they want to believe, for various reasons. We talked about trust and its cultural roots. If you come from a suspicious society, can you ever believe anything but what you can see, touch, hear, or verify by some branch of science? Do aboriginal cultures have a natural advantage over us in that department?

As we were wrapping up, the woman who forgot that, less than two hours earlier, she had opened the discussion, supplied an identical coda: "When I was a child in England, I used to sing, Land of the Silver Birch, home of the beaver, and so forth, and I never imagined I'd end up living in Canada." The repetition of the song in her flutey voice brought us full circle, as if to emphasize the mysterious ways our human minds work, sometimes according to an enigmatic logic all their own.


Creepy and yet...

It had been a beautiful retour to a city j'adore, la ville de Québec, golden in the magic hour lightthe Plains of Abraham. On the train ride south I had planned to reminisce, possibly make some notes about my short stay, indulge in nostalgia for the place where I have spent so much time over the last six years. But my seat partner had a persistent cough. And it is flu season, and I have been travelling...

I lowered my computer screen, turned my head to the window and was trying to nod off when he tapped me on the arm. Pardon me, but I am a curious person, and I saw your name and I checked out your profile. Do you mind if I ask you a question? What? He'd been spying on me? Could he have found my name so easily? Mon Dieu! What had I opened, what tab exposing me to some kind of violation?

Of course my website is public and I encourage people to visit it, and it turned out that his motive was to gather material for a talk he is giving to his MBA group on the definition of success. Noticing via my site that I have been a longtime writer he couldn't resist asking my opinion, he said. And while I still think it is creepy that someone should assume he has access to my screen, his question nourished some thoughts I've been having about my recent surrender to stats.

Success? Can't measure in terms of best sellers, because none of my seven books have sold enough to qualify for those lists. Prizes? A couple. Publication? I've succeeded there and reviews, while not often widespread, have always been good, sometimes very good, and for my newest, The Reason for Time better than that. But now there are other measures. As my friend Allan Ludwig says, it's a numbers game. In his case, a Flickr account, through which he has amassed more than five million views under a nom de plume, Elisha Cook, jr. Despite my scepticism regarding social media, yet also knowing it's join or be beaten, I can now check how many hits/likes/plays/followers I have on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Blogger, Soundcloud and ITunes. I try to discipline myself about checking these sites, and maybe I will get better about that when they are less of a novelty.

Is it that Descartes still dogs us with his insistence that everything can be reduced to numbers? (Okay, okay... oversimplifying.) There are other views, including a well articulated summary of the Aztec view of happiness, for example, in a recent Aeon article. But would such philosophies persuade the cougher's MBA colleagues? From what I know, it's all about the bottom line with them, not as in the bottom line of a drawing or an I Ching hexagram, but the line that reveals how much money is left after expenses have been subtracted from profits. Yet I have heard of companies that encourage work-life balance and provide opportunities for employees to improve their health and education, I admitted, and then our conversation drifted towards cliché territory. He put on his headphones and I re-opened my laptop, being careful this time to angle it away from him.

I used to tell my students that spontaneous insights, the gift of a fictional voice that just seems to come, that making what you imagine real for readers, those are the things you get instead of money. Then there is what one of my favourite writers, Walker Percy, wrote in The Moviegoer: 

"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes God himself is here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus?

It is impossible to say."

Th Passion of the Writer

From an interview with Elena Ferrante in The Paris Review, 228:

On sincerity:

"As far as I’m concerned, it’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.


How does one obtain this truth?


It definitely comes from a certain skill that can always be improved. But to a great extent, that energy simply appears, it happens. It feels as if parts of the brain and of your entire body, parts that have been dormant, are enlarging your consciousness, making you more sensitive. You can’t say how long it will last, you tremble at the idea that it might suddenly stop and leave you midstream. To be honest, you never know if you’ve developed the right style of writing, or if you’ve made the most out of it. Anyone who puts writing at the center of his life ends up in the situation of Dencombe, in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” who, about to die, at the peak of success, hopes to have one more opportunity to test himself and discover if he can do better than what he’s already done. Alternatively, he lives with the desperate feeling ­expressed in the exclamation of Proust’s Bergotte when he sees Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall—“That is how I ought to have written.”

Then boom, it was over

They would never have heard the classic labor song, "We just come to work here..." if they had not attended the annual, late April worker's memorial day, and they would not have been there had it not been for him. Twenty-three years ago he was in his early 40's, working in a road construction plant, saving money to start his own business. Long hours, dirty work. Then boom, it was over. Hit by a Caterpillar front-end loader, crushed so that his thoracic organs were found extruded from his body. His heart lay on the gravel floor of his workplace.



Another death on the job, the ensuing dance between worker's compensation agencies, health and safety regulators, machine manufacturers, plant ownership, fellow workers, the union. Everyone felt bad, of course. He was a good guy. No complaints.

A state investigation into the causes concluded by placing some blame directly on him, for not having worn a hard hat, for example; but most blame on the machine operator who was driving with his bucket raised too high off the ground to see anybody, much less the man he struck. And, by association, with the Caterpillar machine he operated, which could be, and had been, driven in third gear, leaving the operator completely blind. The general lack of supervision at the plant was another factor.  A single fine was laid on the company, $20,100. The company appealed and won and ended up paying only $7000 in fines. That was it.

Except for his family, including his daughter, who was seven at the time, and would continue to pay the emotional cost.

In the U.S. in 2013, 4405 workers went to work and never came home. Comprising a big part of the total number were transportation incidents, i.e people killed by machines.

In Canada in 2012, 977 workers were killed at their workplaces and nearly 700 injured each day, most in construction and mining incidents.

The majority of these statistics come from workers compensation agencies, which base their fatality reports on the number of files they have opened for fatal injury compensation. The figures are incomplete and have never included deaths due to the cumulative effect of toxins, for example.

"The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself1. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur. It dates to approximately 2050 B.C. 2. The law of Ur provided monetary compensation for specific injury to workers' body parts, including fractures. The code of Hammurabi from 1750 B.C. provided a similar set of rewards for specific injuries and their implied permanent impairments. Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger. The loss of a penis was compensated by the amount of length lost, and the value an ear was based on its surface area3. All the early compensation schemes consisted of "schedules" such as this; specific injuries determined specific rewards. The concept of an "impairment" (the loss of function of a body part) separate from a "disability" (the loss of the ability to perform specific tasks or jobs) had not yet arisen." (A Brief History of Worker's Compensation)

As it now stands, the fact that there is a state-sponsored worker's compensation system means that companies found culpable in workplace deaths cannot be penalized. This is referred to as "exclusive remedy".  Of course large and small corporations can be fined, but they can and do appeal those fines. The relevant agencies promise to more closely monitor companies found to be have been negligent -- as in the case described above - IF the workload is not too heavy for the limited number of inspectors. So much to do, so little time.

The principle of "exclusive remedy" was introduced in Prussia in 1871 and has been applied ever since with virtually no changes. Seems long past time to take another look at it. The worker may be responsible for his own safety, as all the public service announcements remind, advising people to work safe, but the outfits that employ them may make working safe next to impossible.