January 11, 2016

I planned to get up at 6am and go for a run, despite the forecast noting a windchill of -16C. What happened is that, because I’d played my first indoor soccer match of the year the previous night (I headed-in the game equalizer) my better sense woke me up and I switched off the alarm on my smartphone at 4am to get some rest and heal my muscles.

Ingrid’s radio alarm went-off at 7:26am. It was the usual: CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning broadcast. But something seemed off. For one thing they were talking a lot about David Bowie. But, I thought, he just had an album out on Friday so it didn’t surprise me. And then it dawned on us that his name was being used in the past tense. I distinctly remember them playing Sound and Vision, a song I would never imagine Metro Morning otherwise playing.

I didn’t want a Canadian or journalistic perspective. I didn’t want to hear about how “strange” Bowie was. I didn’t want to hear the inevitable and inevitably earnest interview with astronaut Chris Hadfield. We spent the rest of the morning listening to BBC Radio Six which had put together a very thoughtful program, including reminiscences from musicians and Bowie collaborators. We went about our morning routine – namely, drinking coffee and reading the Globe and Mail – but it seemed like we weren’t paying attention to anything but the radio. I eschewed social media. I did not want other people’s words in my head, I didn’t want to find myself summarizing my feelings about Bowie’s passing in the sort of facile way that social media can render even the most heartfelt words. I didn’t even want to write that I was avoiding social media. I wanted none of it.

We had some breakfast and I finished some email correspondence for my practice. And then I went for a run. I needed to, even though this was probably the first time I’ve ever stepped out in plain daylight to do so (note: seeing your shadow is weird when you’re running). It was neither my fastest nor most laboured 10k. My head wasn’t really focused on anything, expect for maybe some of the songs BBC Six had been playing: songs plainly inspired by Bowie (Down Here by John Grant), songs which had plainly inspired Bowie (1-2-3 by Len Barry).

Lou Reed was the musician/performer who most likely kept me from killing myself when I was a teenager. His voice came through the speaker and consoled me in its plain cadence, and hinted to me of an alternative universe that I could only dream of seeing back then, living in the suburbs as I did; darker, sure, but more real. I don’t know if David Bowie saved my life but he made it infinitely more interesting and colourful, pulling influences out of his sleeve like a Harlequin-magician and transforming them into a succession of mesmerizing and artistically inspiring songs intended for a wide audience. He largely succeeded because he stayed ahead of trends. Both of them are gone, and while I may have felt more gutted about Reed’s passing, Bowie – whose songs, cool and fragile, rollicking and romantic, I sang to myself regularly – was another artist I had communion with, as do we all with those who deeply influence us when we feel alone.

 

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RIP Lou Reed

I don’t want to come across as melodramatic, but I’ve been preparing myself for the day that Lou Reed passed away. That day came today.

When I say “preparing myself”, I don’t mean with an end in mind. I suppose the point was being mindful that he wasn’t going to be around forever. No one is.

The photo to the left is the first album of his I bought (on cassette). It introduced me to both Lou and the Velvet Underground in equal measure, taking the listener to his Street Hassle release. His voice lingers in my head, his words undoubtedly. He was as much a writer as a musician. He created settings for his songs, surrounded with strange people. It was impossible to feel lonely with his voice in my ears.

 

 

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Remembering Michael

It’s the 32nd anniversary of my uncle’s murder. Details here: http://www.amw.com/fugitives/brief.cfm?id=44215.

Sad, numb.

I was in a mood when I wrote this – hard not to be, I suppose. However, I don’t want it to come across as maudlin, so I thought I’d add some context.

I chose this year to make a statement about it, on social media especially (Facebook, Twitter). Why? Because, outside of the initial blog posts I published around the time of the America’s Most Wanted episode, it’s been a source of untapped grief. In making it public, I was unabashedly putting it out there – to friends and acquaintances, and strangers alike – instead of it being this twisted little secret which swims around my head.

The fact is, my uncle’s death has nothing to do with me. I never had the chance to meet him. I am involved in the sense you would be involved if you were researching a stranger from another age, another country, who just happened to be related. And yet his story is woven into mine, distant though our two lives were. I am older than he was when he was shot. I wasn’t even 9 years old back then, and I didn’t learn about it until I was 17. The tragedy was delayed for me: time-released.

In any case, this is my sorrow, shared briefly with you. It is, I should add (in all fairness), a necessary exploitation of a crime, in the faint hope someone will happen across an old Guild D40 guitar, or know what happened to a burglar with a Leica fetish. Faint hope, for sure, but it’s part of the process of grief.

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Ticket Stub: Spalding Gray

I have this ticket stub (above) from a one-man-show – Spalding Gray at Massey Hall. It was good. I don’t know how to describe his “show” in practical terms: he didn’t sing, he didn’t dance, he didn’t perform in the traditional sense. He talked. About himself. He was a monologuist. And his stories would encapsulate, in ever widening circles of narrative, the great many wonderful and (more often) terrifying things going on with his life.

He was an actor/playwright whose home was primarily New York. I’m not sure if New York makes people like Gray anymore. These performances were not “actor/playwright” shows – these shows were, in retrospect, a form of therapy. Gray talked about the things – worries, revelations, lost epiphanies – which affected him as a regular human being; the things which happen around the things we do with our lives.

His best-known performance, captured on film by Jonathan Demme, is Swimming To Cambodia. In it, with a desk, chair, and glass of water he discusses the events which surrounded the time he played a small role in the critically-acclaimed film, The Killing Fields. He talks of his research for the role in the film, of what actually happened during the reign of terror in Cambodia during the early-to-mid 70s.

Gray was a man given to self-exploration, perhaps painfully so. His mother committed suicide while he was in his 20s, and he exhibited symptoms of bipolar depression himself. Her death held an eerie fascination for him. In subsequent performances (also made into films), Monster in a Box (about writing a novel) and Gray’s Anatomy (about his fear that he was going blind), he explored his neuroses and anxieties and how they filtered through his relationships with those close to him.

The key to Gray is that he was funny as hell, which turned all of his painfully honest accounts, his public descriptions of private contortions all the more enlightening for the viewer, as opposed to merely sympathetic. Gray was neurotic, but he wasn’t looking for sympathy from the audience, and I think this is the second key to understanding him (as a performer, at least). When I saw him at Massey Hall in November of 1996, I don’t remember a lot of details (it was his It’s a Slippery Slope tour), with the exception of his description of sitting outside, trying to have a soulful discussion with his distant father while a fog horn sounds in the distance. I remember this because I was laugh-crying throughout most of it.

When I heard in 2004 that Spalding Gray was missing, that it was suspected he had jumped off a ferry into the East River, I was not shocked. Suicide – as an objective event, as a subjective idea – was something he had discussed since Swimming to Cambodia. Add to this that he had been in a terrible car accident a few years earlier which had left his right leg partially disabled (not to mention having a fractured skull), and you could see (in retrospect, of course) how, given his frame of mind, it might have pushed those dark thoughts further toward the limelight of contemplation.

It is a shame.

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Art & Suicide

As reported in the news over the weekend, spilling into the papers this week, American novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace took his life. He had hung himself in his home, only to be discovered later by his wife.

To be honest, I’ve only read one piece by Wallace – an essay in an issue of Harper’s almost ten years ago on the release of the revised Oxford English Dictionary – and yet it left an indelible impression on me. It made me laugh out loud with its quirky honesty and his style was unique and strong; in short, it made me take notice of writing and writers at a time when it simply was not on my radar (for various reasons). I always swore I would read one of his books, but the prospects of picking up the one he is best known for, Infinite Jest, all 1,000 pages of it, was intimidating. It still is, but that has more to do with the fact that I’m in the middle (or, factually, just past the middle) of War & Peace with Joyce’s Ulysses staring at me from the bookshelf longingly.

Wallace’s suicide is the second in the last few years by an artist who’s work I’d kept an eye on. The first was that of American humorist and performer, Spalding Gray, who – it is assumed – leapt from a ferry into the Hudson River and drowned. I saw him at Massey Hall (one of the most venerable venues in Toronto) many years ago. As with Wallace’s essay, I remember crying with laughter during Gray’s droll monologue.

Which brings us to the question of artists and suicide.

Someone on Bookninja had this to say in reaction to the story:

In my work (psychiatry) I’ve seen so many creative people who are so tortured inside. I’ve often wondered if, given the choice, they’d choose peace over creativity. Maybe suicide is exercising that choice.

I thought about this. I wanted to respond, because I had something to say, but in the end I decided it would only be a tangent and while tangents are allowable in most online situations, an obituary is not exactly the place for one.

The answer is that artists do not want peace, or at least an artificial peace. To do so would be to abandon the tension which is inherent in art (and science, for that matter). In their art, over the course of their lives, artists attempt to resolve this tension; to articulate what it is that is at the centre of a storm which motivates them to create. The tension is the artist. Them against an outside world which does not work. Art becomes a philosophical expression of an existential dilemma. With this as the case, how many artists would willingly barter peace for creativity if such a trade were even possible? Not many, I would wager. What is peace when art allows you to reach higher than ever before, to touch the cookie jar of euphoria with your fingertips?

Like Wallace and Gray, I too suffer from depression. Their passing gives me pause, to put it lightly. Last night over dinner, Ingrid and I had a long talk about this – Wallace, Gray, art, and suicide – and she used a quote from Wallace that she’d read in one of the obituaries, that suicide happens very slowly. He is right. It is not, as commonly portrayed, an impulsive decision, but rather something which gestates very gradually within the mind of the sufferer. The danger is that this internalized dialogue, over the course of years, may eventually lead to the rationalization or acceptance of suicide as a logical option or self-fulfilling prophecy.

Art, however, is not depression, and depression should not be construed as something which only afflicts those in the arts. When you are depressed, anything can inflame the situation. Both the fire and the water used to douse it. It is for this reason that I take a moment to bring this up. So that people may understand what is, for lack of a better term, a mental illness. Allow me to suggest a wonderful series in the Globe and Mail, perhaps the best collection of stories and first-person recollections on the subject to be found in any newspaper.

I tip my hat to Wallace, to Gray. I mourn for the grief experienced by their loved ones.

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Update – July 7th

A slightly bitter-tasting but substantial smörgåsbord for you today, dear reader…

  1. The last week and-a-bit has been a little hard on me. Found out over a week ago that a good work-friend I hadn’t been in touch with for a couple of years had passed away in his sleep. By the time I’d found out, the memorial had already happened. Everything that could be done or said had been done and said. And so, one has no choice in this situation but to simply accept the fact that, like it or not, sad or happy, the last chapter in a sub-plot has been written without my consent or input. I think the thing which upsets me most about sudden deaths is the lack of control. I’ve had relatives who have died of cancer or carried on weakly after a stroke, and it was clear to everyone that the pen nib of fate was scratching out the last bits of their narrative; as the living bereaved, we had time to digest what was happening in our own way. With Trent – my friend and workmate – I was left with nothing but the unavoidable metric truth of his death.

  2. Foolishly, perhaps owing to my Chinese astrological tendencies (Dog), I’ve been patiently waiting for a response from a Toronto lit mag to get back to me on a short fiction submission I’d mailed to them almost a year ago. Owing to fatigue, I finally emailed the editor last week, only to find out from his response that “We would have responded to that a very long time ago, so I’m assuming it got lost in the mail/E-mail. I’m also assuming it was our response that got lost, and not your submission, as the title sounds familiar. “. So, in other words, I’d wasted a year not submitting the (admittedly solid) piece elsewhere. This upset me to no end. Nobody likes to be rejected – something I’ve accustomed myself to – but in this case I was left wondering whether they’d actually bothered to send anything out. I don’t lose incoming mail, nor is my email spam filter so prejudiced as to reject anything addressed directly to me (unless of course they put something like “rejection letter for Cialis” in the subject header). I drank a lot that night and complained bitterly to friends who consoled me, particularly those who caught my Facebook status message: “Matt wonders what could be worse than finding out a form rejection letter with your name on it got lost in the mail.”

  3. Not willing to let “the shit” (he says, in the collective sense) get me down, I continued to revise the novel, having finished going through to the (current) ending, thus completing my first full pass on the book as a whole. I immediately went back to the beginning, which I’d barely looked at in months, and started full-revision #2. I think it’s coming together nicely, and the feedback I’ve received on excerpts given to my peers in the writing group I run have been very positive. I just wish there was someone I could bribe in order to get one of my short fiction pieces published, because it’s a bit of a hindrance approaching an editor with a novel having a big fat “0” in the previously-published department. I’m also looking at doing more story submissions to non-Canadian publishers, as I find the atmosphere in this country a little stifling. Make of that what you will.

  4. A good tonic for these doldrums was to be had when my wife and I took a drive through the Niagara peninsula (after an absurdist trip to Niagara Falls – don’t bother asking – thankfully, we had two good friends to help us drink away the memories). We both love wine, and as firm supporters of Canadian wineries it was great to get out (only an hour’s drive from the city) and see the vinyards, the countryside, and quaff vast amounts of the best vino North America has to offer. So much so, in fact, that I’ve considered starting a new blog specifically geared towards Canadian wine. We shall see.
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May (pt. 2: My City Was Gone)

“I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And Muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Said, a, o, oh way to go Ohio”

– Chrissie Hynde

May was a time for me to explore: my self, my past, what has changed, what hasn’t. As all things similar, it starts with necessary rhetoric and then is up to the tenaciousness of the individual to sort out.

I rented a car and drove to Brantford.

I don’t have a hometown; our family moved much too much for me to lay claim to such a thing. Yet, if pressed, I will say Brantford, Ontario. Technically, we didn’t even live in Brantford proper, but rather on the outskirts, off a rural highway, where we had a house which stood near the bank of the Grand River, on the edge of Onondaga Township.

It was here where I spent my childhood years, which I’m only able to accurately map in terms of school rather than age or calendar time (Grades 3 through 8, to be exact). As regards my family life, this was the part which I sometimes refer to bittersweetly as The Camelot Years. We lived in a big, red brick Victorian house detached from the world, with a huge apple orchard behind us and acreage aplenty. Eventually, my father took advantage of a small barn on our property and we ended up owning hens, and subsequently more fresh eggs and Macintosh apples than we knew what to do with. I could go on, but you get the point.

School was another matter. To quickly summarize my scholastic life, I didn’t have a very good time until college. Part of this can be blamed on the cruelty of youth(s). Part of this can be blamed on me being who I was. Part of this can be blamed (if one could really use such a word) on the simple complexities of life and the logistics of time.

I went to find my old school – the last place I remember seeing my classmates who I loved and hated. I drove. I drove more (faster). Went back over my tracks, wondering if my memory had betrayed me.

It hadn’t. It was gone: Onondaga-Brant Public School was no longer there. Instead, the smaller one, the place I’d spent my introductory Grades 3 and 4 was still standing; furthermore, the town had renamed it from Brant Public School to the same moniker as the one I was searching for in vain.

In other words, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know – the one might as well have swallowed the other. I took pictures of what remained – the imposter school – and later found out from my mother that it too was slated to go. It really couldn’t be more metaphoric.

I drove by our old house, thankfully still standing, but of course everything around it has changed. The cattle barn on the property beside us had been replaced by several ugly houses, sitting there as if defying the logic of the land. The palatial (to the eyes of a child) homestead on the other side – the Bournes’ house, as we knew it then – is now a yoga retreat.

I went to capture something I didn’t quite know, me being an older version of the child who oscillated between having the best and worst times of his life there, and in the end I left it all with a handful of photographs and an emptier heart.

I drove into downtown Brantford and visited my grandmother’s grave, something I promised myself I would do on my own, without my mother’s prompting or my inability to schedule enough time on family visits. I knelt by her stone, having bought some long-stemmed roses, and spoke to her quietly.

The truth is that when we moved away long ago – to Alberta of all places – everything in Brantford went to shit. Two major manufacturing plants went bankrupt, laying off thousands. The city council then approved the replacement of the central downtown square with an Eaton’s Centre (a giant, ugly suburban mall placed in the middle of a beautiful classic town as if to clearly defy logic). It bombed and still sits there half-empty as a textbook lesson for how not to plan a city, Brantford now trying to dig itself up from “ghost town” status. There is a telemarketing centre in the mall; those people who call you from the 519 area-code during dinner are calling from Brantford.

It pained us to move away, but – similar to what happened a few years later when we abandoned Stony Plain, Alberta – it was probably a good decision no matter how difficult it was for my brother and I to swallow.

I drove home from Brantford, and on leaving felt closer to the past if not in full agreement with how it has shaped me, nor with the terms on which I am to live with it. I live in Toronto, but in some respects I think I’ll always feel rootless; grasping for something which historically has always been pulled away from me, even if for good intentions.

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As if the horrific fire which afflicted the Queen West and Bathurst-area earlier this year weren’t bad enough, I found myself today doing errands in those parts and, expecting to see the tobacco store – Westside Tobacco on the northeast corner – with its trademark wooden “Indian” out by the sidewalk, I instead happened upon a closed shop with a candlelit memorial in front of the entrance.

I looked up again and saw notes posted by the community on the windows and on the door. It didn’t take much time for the tone of the notes to surrender the truth, that the owner was dead.

A note I read, the one which carried the most context for me, was printed from this blog.

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