By definition

A section in the memoir writing course discusses structure; more specifically, whether or not adhering to a predetermined one assists or inhibits creativity and achieving the goals. Sticking to a plan can be beneficial for some while restrictive and static to others. At the same time abiding by a particular practice, like the writing of letters or the creation of lists, can organically develop into a fulsome story. One chapter exercise was to generate a list and elaborate on the items, perhaps following the letters of the alphabet as a prompt. Nothing immediately popped into my imagination so I decided on another route: I would employ the word of a day, in order, from the first of the month to today (the 24th). What follows is that exercise utilizing the Merriam-Webster word of the day for October (https://www.merriam-webster.com/word-of-the-day/mirage-2021-10-24). I hope it doesn’t sound inauthentic or forced.

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I created my blog as a vehicle to reach a larger audience for my daily writing about a three week trip to India. The subject matter expanded when I began to digitize my deceased parents’ photograph collection, the last vestiges of their life. They became the prompts for a post, generally centered around a theme or a memory sparked by the images. The nostalgia of the early writing might be mistaken as an attempt to cozen readers into believing life was a rose garden. Rather, it reflects my own need for development, as I am not particularly adroit at conveying the difficult times and have lacked the mettle to persist, to work through a seemingly intransigent approach to discussing family matters. I don’t believe the avoidance to be lolling or to reflect a cavalier attitude about their realities.

Part of the hesitancy may be an unconscious minimization of my work and a disbelief in anyone’s interest to read the material. After all, who am I? Certainly not some scion of a famous family whose members would fret about any revelations. Instead my father is remembered as an amicable working man, the salt of the earth who could strike up a conversation with everyone: the staff in the front office, the president of 3M at the annual picnic, or the restauranteur of his favourite dining establishment.

My father was a machinist. This picture was taken at Kelco, a small shop in London, circa mid 1960’s.

Dad was not one to face difficulties directly; he would rather extricate himself from the situation or leave it to my mother to handle. Despite his fervent vocal support for unions and the causes they represent, my father avoided the odious strike at his place of work, the first in the plant’s history. He rationalized that the local leadership reflected a mini cabal which made the decision to walk out, without due regard for the membership. The leadership’s call to action was precipitated by angry words embellishing the divide with management, solidifying the previous gossamer support among the rank and file. Dad could not abide the rancor and vitriol, so chose instead to find other temporary employment until it ended. The income was needed, and picket line duty was avoided.

But I digress.

The discipline of writing, to place my bum in a seat every day putting pen to paper, purported to be the secret to success, hopefully means my inhibitions will not continue in perpetuity (with the added risk of my body devolving into a zaftig figure). I hope persistence, practice, and vulnerability will support my ambitions to be a writer, to be deserving of that nomenclature. My enrolling in the memoir writing course was intended to provide ongoing access to the tools necessary to batten my resolve, to tackle the realities of our lives, the beauty and the untoward.

I believe an integral element of this goal is my devotion to documenting the unrecorded and the unspoken, the myths and the truths; to discern between the actual and the bogus. This motivation certainly reflects my determination to uncover the mid-20th century world of a Catholic missionary Uncle, discovering how much of my father’s admiration was built on the mirage of priesthood or was the genuine love of an older brother possessed of fatherly characteristics.

Father Kees de Cock performing mass in Uganda, I am guessing in the 1970’s.

In a similar vein, the recording of stories generated by family pictures will engender the full gamut of emotions and inspire their expression. And in time, I hope to exhibit the bravery necessary to capture them in my blog and in my writing.

It and me are a work in progress.

Good things come in threes

One of the exercises in my memoir writing course challenges participants to write a story using only three word sentences. There is no expectation to be grammatically correct; rather it is in an exercise in parsimony, being able to communicate your message without elaborate sentences. The exercise is part of a chapter on what to leave out, lessons on selectiveness.

I combined my story with an exercise from an earlier chapter suggesting writing about a blurry picture from our photograph collection, the ones from the pre-digital days which we hung onto because they were the only evidence of the event. I relished the three word challenge and wrote this story. Hope you enjoy it.

Our First Place

Married first October. Purposely small gathering. Wrote own vows. For non-denominational wedding. Catholic ruled out. Not everyone agreed. Not everyone sure. But we were.

Honeymooned in Quebec. City more specific. Drove the distance. Stopped in Renfrew. Enjoyed each other. Stopped in Ottawa. Marriage was blessed. Priest a friend. Provided welcome acceptance. Union was complete.

Only one week. Back to school. Back to work. Back home together.

Olga finishing undergrad. My graduate ambitions. Put on hold. I need employment. For the money. Not my career.

Work pays rent. Cute little apartment. East of Adelaide. Three storey building. Overlooking parking lot. Price was right. Groceries are close. Ice cream nearby. University walking distance.

Our first place. Our first memories.

Sun engulfs rooms. For morning coffees. Reading the paper. And some books. For her homework. For my pleasure. Embraced small things. Walk the neighbourhood. Saturday church choir. Evenings at home. With some wine. Maybe some TV. An occasional guest. But mostly us. Alone in bliss. In all ways.

Inherited a cat. Not my choice. Part of deal. Had dogs before.  Stepped on feline. Middle of night. Middle of hallway. The next day. Paw got caught. Closing the drawer. Another painful meow! Two strikes down. Only one day. Cats have ways. Some new adjustments. Need to learn.

For first Christmas. Tree was small. Stand was crude. Home made decorations. Except the lights. Teddy bear cookies. Shellac, hooks, string. Bright red ribbons. Strings of popcorn. Hung with care. Didn’t need much. Hosted cookie night. Brothers came over. Parents came over. Everyone took part. Making the dough. Gingerbread boys abound. Drink was aplenty. Merriment all around.

Enrolled one course. Introductory French class. On Tuesday night. Could go together. Continue to learn. Not lose touch. Spring was busy. Sixty hour weeks. Could not study. For one month. Assignments were late. Tests were poor. Last one disaster. Thought I failed. For first time. Professor showed mercy. The only explanation. For the C.

Olga’s last exam. How to recognize? Brought the wineskin. Brought the glasses. Poured in courtyard. Outside examination hall. Imagined ourselves rebellious. Toasted an accomplishment. Meant to surprise. And it did. A simple celebration. Still fondly remembered. In our minds. One blurry photo. Only us aware. Of the content. Of the scene. Of the story.

Picture maybe blurry. Memory still clear.

Graduate school offers. Decided on Toronto. Packing up belongings. Friends helped us. With pullout couch. Unfolded in stairwell. Damn @#&%in’ thing. Boxes, beds, chairs. Three flights down. Three flights up. Repeat after me. Into rented truck. Never drove standard. But no choice. Gotta learn somehow.

Said our goodbyes. Will always remember. Our first place. Our first days.

Something New

Fall is the season for new releases and book awards. The Scotiabank Giller Prize announced it’s long list at the beginning of October (including two which had yet to be published) and just this morning, unveiled the shortlist of five finalists. A week ago, the newly named Atwood Gibson Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize (now there is a mouthful) revealed their five nominees. The Governor General’s Literary Awards is next up with their list on October 14; all will make their selection in the first two weeks of November. Keeping up with the new releases is almost a full time job; attaining them becomes increasingly difficult with each passing year and the concomitant reduction in space at home. My future collecting will need to be more focused, purchasing only award nominees or reducing the writers to only my favourite authors.

Knopf Canada, 2021. 251 pages.

That list would need to include Mariam Toews. She first drew my attention with the release of her third novel, A Complicated Kindness. It was a phenomenal success winning numerous awards, including the 2004 Governor Generals’ and was the winner of 2006 Canada Reads competition. I have purchased and read every book since, including a memoir written in her father’s voice and inspired by his suicide, Swing Low: A Life. I have acquired her first two novels through ABE.com and have found American first editions of The Flying Troutmans and All My Puny Sorrows in my US travels. (The latter was turned into a movie which had its debut at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.) I remember when Mariam Toews was one of three writers at a local edition of Read for the Cure. The quirkiness of her writing was evident in her presentation that evening, stories seemingly random all coalescing by the end in a satisfyingly cohesive manner. I brought my books along and she graciously signed them all.

Her latest book, Fight Night, has been receiving considerable press and has been nominated for the Giller and the Atwood/Gibson so far. Fight Night like every one of her previous novels are semi-autobiographical, all containing elements which reflect her life from growing up as a Mennonite in Manitoba, to her father’s and sister’s suicide, to her current situation living in Toronto with her mother and daughter. You will know Miriam Toews life by reading her works of fiction.

This story is told through the voice of Swiv, a ten year old girl just suspended from school whose actor Mother is pregnant with Gord, identified as such even though the sex of the fetus is unknown. The name is that of her father who has left. They live in Toronto with the grandmother who assists in “home schooling” Swiv until she is able to return. Swiv in turn supports Grandma with her daily medicine dosages and by putting on her compression socks. Grandma is a devout follower of basketball, the subject of much conversation, and is a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, with the doorbell chiming “Take me out to the ballgame”. Swiv and Grandma have given each other writing projects, one of which is a letter to the future newborn, Gord. In the meantime, the mother is managing the hormones of pregnancy and the stress of her work and her boss.

Grandma is the real star of the story with her feisty personality and idiosyncrasies, making her one of the more endearing characters in Canadian fiction. In one of Grandma’s many attempts to explain to Swiv the circumstances of their family, she encapsulates the essence of the book and it’s title:

It was protection. What she was doing was forming a team with that guy. We need teams. That was a good instinct. Survival. She was fighting, fighting, fighting . . . to stay alive. To get back to you. And here we are . . . where’s that nitro, honey? Well, that’s the truth . . . you know, fighting can make peace . . . fighting can be going small . . .

And then a few paragraphs later, in talking about their relationship to the church:

They stole it from us. It was . . . our tragedy! Which is our humanity. We need those things. We need tragedy, which is the need to love and the need . . . not just the need, the imperative, the human imperative . . . to experience joy. To find joy and to create joy. All through the night. The fight night.

I loved this book.

Knopf Canada, 2021. 288 pages.

Mary Lawson burst onto the Canadian literary scene in 2002 with her very first novel, Crow Lake, at the age of 56. I remember reading the articles and thought of her as a role model, someone who came to writing later in life and persisted until she was able to land that first publication. Crow Lake was an instant success winning the Books in Canada First Novel Award and published in 22 countries. Her follow-up novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. Mary Lawson moved to Great Britain to pursue a career in industrial psychology. A Town Called Solace, like all her books, takes place in a fictional northern Ontario community, reflective of her rural roots. This latest novel was also long listed for the Booker Prize and reads in the same manner of the other work.

The story is told by three characters in alternating chapters. Clara is the young girl whose older sister, Rose, has run away from home. Clara cannot understand and is standing vigil in the front window of their home in Solace, waiting for Rose to return. Clara is also responsible for feeding Mrs. Orchard’s cat, her neighbour who has been taken to the hospital. Elizabeth’s recollections resurrect much of the history behind the novel, which includes Liam who has just arrived in town after quitting his accounting job in Toronto and separating from his wife of eight years. Between the three narratives, the story unwinds as the reader is introduced to life in a small town and its accompanying characters. To that end, the book reminded me of an old adage: The best thing about a small town is that everybody knows everybody; the worst thing about a small town is that everybody knows everybody.

Unlike many of my other reviews, I have not highlighted a particular quote or a passage to emphasize a point or a perspective. Instead, I found the book to be similar to a home cooked meal. The material is familiar and comforting without the exotic presentation on fancy dishware. Instead the reader finishes satiated from a warm experience, a high degree of satisfaction. Every time I read the title, the 80’s song, Town called Malice kept playing in my head. “‘Cause time is short and life is cruel but it’s up to us to change, This town called malice.” As a result, I thought the book title to be unfortunate until I thought of the meaning of solace: comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness. The book is hopeful and as such provides a dose of solace for the characters and the readers.

Knopf Canada, 2021. 243 pages.

For something completely different, I ventured into Kill the Mall. The author, Pash Malla is not a household name even among prodigious readers of Canadian literature. His first book was a collection of short stories with the curious title, The Withdrawal Method, published in 2008. It was longlisted for the Giller prize which would explain it’s presence on my shelves, and was the winner of the Trillium award. There is more biography on those inside flaps, stating he was born in St. John’s Newfoundland, but grew up for his formative years in London, Ontario, my hometown. A search on Google finds Pash Malla to be the 2021-22 Mabel Pugh Taylor Writer-in-Residence at McMaster University. Convenient since he lives in Hamilton now. I picked up Kill the Mall his the latest book since I already own two others, and I must admit, was intrigued by the title.

The premise of the book is the most unlikeliest of scenarios. The narrator, a writer, has been selected as the artist-in-residence at the local mall, where he must spend the next eight weeks practicing his craft, engaging with the public and writing weekly reports. His name is unclear, never being used in the dialogue, the only hint being an indecipherable signature at the end of his application which opens the book. The remainder is a weekly account of his imaginative misadventures and fantastical encounters. He is watched by K. Sohail, the security with the squeaky running shoes and jingling pants who locks him in every night; he befriends Dennis, who sells him a pair of jeans making him Dennis’s one and only customer. He is haunted by Pony tail, and pony tails; the former as another more popular artist-in-residence; the latter, the multiple apparitions of Dennis’s own, who may have been murdered, which conspire with the cars in the parking garage in an attempt to capture him. Trust me, if these images sound strange, they are….and there are many more in the book.

The book is hilarious, with a very wry sense of humour throughout. You could open the book at almost any page to find a funny passage, sometimes with clever insight, or describing some bizarre scenario. From the first progress report: “Work is the lifeblood of humanity. But love is the lifebones (equally essential). For blood without form is just a red mess on the floor“. In the second report, he talks about his getting a haircut: “You head for the salon confident that you’ll return a ‘satisfied customer,’ for cutting, by its very nature, assures a reduction in length. Little else in life offers such an inbuilt guarantee. Even a lunch, should it flee your system via propulsive evacuation, might leave you hungrier than you were before you ate.” One more example which typified a relentless paranoia: “Wasn’t instinctual behaviour precisely what the mall wanted? For me to be seduced by what felt like intuition and to believe that said intuition was my own, when in fact the mall had infiltrated my thoughts? Six weeks here had no doubt reporgrammed my brain to the mall’s diabolical caprices.‘” However, as much as I laughed and smiled for three quarters of the book, I was getting a little bored by the end.

Followers of my posts will know I am enrolled in an online memoir writing course; my next books, therefore, will be…..memoirs.

Happy reading.

Take a chance on me

“Are you the couple getting married here later this afternoon.”

The woman had wandered over to us sitting in the fifth row, left side, hand in hand, quietly watching the preparations. A number of people were scurrying about St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in London, ensuring the flowers were arranged just right, the candles were displaying enough wick length, the readings were at the ready available at the podium and the microphones were all functioning. Olga and I had just raised ourselves off the kneeling board after several minutes of reverent prayer.

“No, I am afraid not” I began.

“We were merely stopping by before our wedding at another venue”, said Olga, completing the thought.

“Oh, you look like such a beautiful couple. Congratulations. I hope you have a wonderful ceremony.”

We wanted to visit the church before heading to Windermere House where 42 guests were gathering in the library of the old estate, awaiting our arrival. This small homage to St. Peters was as close as we could venture to a Catholic service. The parish priest had ruled out any opportunity of a traditional church wedding when he pronounced the notion to be scandalous.

Our ceremony was going to be very simple, sanctified with our own vows, presided over by a non-denominational minister, with musical accompaniment from the choir from Mary Immaculate Parish of which Olga and I were both members, singing songs of a wedding mass. The day was not going to be the one my parents envisioned, the first son to be married. They were overtly opposed when we announced our intentions three months earlier; eventually they grew into acceptance. Olga’s parents weren’t enamored; her Mom would be the only person attending, her father ill, her brother living out west. Others were subtly skeptical of our age difference, although had it been reversed, few would have noticed.

No wonder I woke in the morning with an unsettled stomach. The beverage consumption last night with my brothers and best man played a part; nervousness would be the main ingredient. A morning of hall preparation before I donned my best and only suit, black, purchased a mere three weeks ago. I drove by the flower shop to pick up my corsage and the bridal bouquet, before alighting upon Olga’s Victoria Street apartment, our future home.

Olga was quiet, also nervous, alone, waiting in her dress. Not the full bridal white gown of puffs and frills. Hers would be a simple, elegant dress, understated in a light beige, befitting the solemnity of the moment. Olga’s hair was pulled up, braided; her face adorned with makeup to enhance a natural beauty. Together, alone, unbeknownst to anyone, we made a detour to arrive here at the Basilica for some final reflection.

“Olga, are you ready?”

We both genuflected to the altar, Olga making the sign of the cross, three times as per Ukrainian practice, bowing our heads one last time. The hours of conversation in the two years preceding, discussing our values, our beliefs, our dreams, filled the silent ride driving past the university, the conduit of our beginning. Our family backgrounds made for shared experiences; our political interests combined for a common front; our personalities were complementary: we loved being with each other. The lingering questions of our individual particulars no longer mattered when we pulled into the parking space at the bottom of the hill. Uncertainty would be overcome together.

At the precise instant I put my hand in Olga’s to begin our walk up the tree lined drive, I knew.

We were blessed. Our marriage was meant to be.

Entering Windermere House in London, Ontario. October 1, 1983

Happy Anniversary, Olga.

With all my love,

The Last Breath

I remember Mom’s last breath. It was more of a heave, a bursting of air, a quick exhalation preceded by days of shallow, open mouthed panting.

We had sent Dad to our house, imploring him to get some decent rest. He had held vigil for the last five days, never leaving the hospital since he instructed all life supports to be removed. Mom’s second massive stroke had ravaged large sections of her brain. Here and here and here, said the doctor, pointing to the x-ray on the screen. Tubes and wires were protruding from her mouth and arms, attached to monitors of flashing numbers and lines. Two days in ICU broke Dad. He lost all hope. Mom would not not want to live in this manner he rationalized. Dad pulled the plugs without consulting with any of us. I was in disbelief, angry at a perceived weakness. It would be years before I arrived at a more compassionate understanding.

Mom’s body was to be left to fend for itself, propped up only by the morphine. A rotation of nurses would stop in on their round, ensure the drip was steady, vacuum out the accumulation of saliva in her throat, raw from the constant cleaning. Mom’s eyes were shut tightly, body motionless, no signs of life beyond the steady gasping. A few days earlier it had quickened, as if in a panic. Dad burst in tears, demanding, near screaming for all of us to stand round the bed, touch Mom’s arms and hold hands because the end was nigh. For an excruciating ten minutes we waited and watched and begged for finality.

Then the breathing regulated, falling back into the now familiar pattern. Dad collapsed into the chair, head in hands, sobbing. He vowed never to leave and would remain ensconced in the room until the bitter end. Exhaustion ceded to our insistence: Mom’s condition has not changed. Here is our key. Sleep in a bed for a few hours. Mom will still be here when you return.

The rhythm of Mom’s breath was steady, relentless, a white noise to which we had become attuned. Then a long silence, and the sudden gasp. We stopped our conversation, looked at each other then simultaneously turned our heads to watch for some sign, a resumption of life.

Nothing. No movement.

I jumped up to find the nurse who sauntered in to confirm the long inevitable. Mercifully, it was over.

No crying, just relief. We recited out loud the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary.

Dad walked into the room minutes later. Mom’s pain was over but his would morph into a new, prolonged phase.

Mary (Reit) Decock (nee van Rooij).
October 7, 1928 – September 28, 2005.

They look like big, good, strong hands

A focused memoir in 200 words.

I wipe the dribble of gravy running down his chin through the three-day stubble, his head leaning to the left. Dad’s eyes pop a little wider to acknowledge the attention, probably feeling embarrassed. He does not want to blemish the new orange soccer sweatshirt emblazoned with the Dutch flag.  The hands which deftly shuffled a deck of cards and splayed a full hand for selection can no longer grasp the cup of juice to bring the straw closer for a drink.

When Mom was alive, they waited anxiously for vacation breaks in anticipation of our two children spending a week at their home, playing catch in the yard, working the garden, picking the vegetables. The evenings would be capped around the table, counting the wins and losses in the penny stakes card game. On other days, the kids would accompany Dad to the Canadian Institute for the blind to deliver the canes he repaired in his retirement as a machinist. Those same hands are incapable of holding a fork and knife. The tools must be managed by the long-term care staff.

I lift another bite sized morsel to Dad’s mouth. He keeps it closed, drops his head. He is done.

I want to go to Miami

Last week I began an on-line writing course with Memoir Writing Ink, thinking it would provide me tips and tools to improve my work. One of my intentions with retirement was to write more, and as you can see from the posts, the material is largely in the form of a memoir. Even though I read considerable literature, I find myself composing non-fiction pieces, much of them about the past and my associated memories.

As the course emphasizes, writers write and the only way to improve is to write continuously. The instructor suggests a number of prompts to help think in different ways, from various angles, at different lengths. There are several exercises each week, some of which will find there way to my blog. The course has a Facebook page for participants to share their pieces with each other and to comment. It is limited to one submission per week so I am planning to post many more on this site as an additional outlet for my efforts. I hope you will find the pieces enjoyable.

One exercise asked us to write about something we overheard. I have entitled this effort, I want to go to Miami. It is a true story. Here goes:

Too late to venture far, too dark to walk along the beach, I decided the sidewalk would be my yellow brick road. The flashing lights of the rainbow were bright enough to read the menus, entertaining enough to turn your head, gaudy enough to invoke a smirk.

Welcome to Miami where English is the second language, music is the first. Pulsating throbs were emanating from every door and patio on my right; booming beats vibrating from each passing car on my left. People were sauntering, seemingly to look and looking to be seen. I was derailed by the “Cigars? Cigarettes?” woman hawking her wares; questioned by a bridal party on a scavenger hunt; stopped by the lights which everyone else ignored.

I had seen enough culture for one evening. Time to head back to the conference hotel.

A nightcap was in order, so I chanced upon a watering hole, just off the tourist strip, exuding local with a name no franchise would ever adopt. The windows were splattered with advertisements for happy hour, two for one wings, and weekly dart competitions. A basketball game was on the monitor just above my seat at the bar, showing the intermission of talking heads, their conversation scrolling underneath.

My pint of the local beer was half finished when a voice from the table behind me of twenty something males planning their next excursion pierced the din:

“As long as it is not France. France is so fucking boring. There is nothing to do in France.”

I smiled.

One more swallow from my glass, I slide ten bucks across the counter.

Keep the change.

Pick me! Pick me!

I have never voted for any Prime Minister of Canada or Premier of Ontario in any national or provincial election; yet I have never missed an election since I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.

In the last election, in fact, only 24,727 people voted for Justin Trudeau, representing 51.2% of the votes in the riding of Papineau, Quebec which has a population of 110,750 according to the 2016 census. Such is the reality of a Parliamentary democracy, perhaps the most confusing electoral system in the world. I did not vote for Justin Trudeau or Rob Ford or any of their predecessors because their names were not on my ballot.

Partial list of results from the riding of Papineau, taken from the CBC news website.

Nor did I vote for their rivals because none of the candidates in my riding have ever been the leader of their respective parties. There have been a couple cabinet members: Michael Wilson was the Progressive Conservative finance minister(prior to the hijacking by the Reform/Alliance) and Allan Rock was the Justice Minister for the prevailing Liberal party. I did not vote for either of them, sort of, which is precisely the problem.

Allan Rock, the Liberal party incumbent, arrived on our doorstep during the federal campaign, oh so many years ago, seeking our vote. The Reform/Alliance/Conservative appeared to be a legitimate threat and given the conservative tendencies in Etobicoke Central in our first-past-the-post system, I decided to vote Liberal knowing the NDP were a virtual non-entity in our neighbourhood. I responded to Allan Rock by saying, “I am voting Liberal to ensure the Conservatives don’t get to power.” To which he replied, “I hope that is not the only reason.”

“Nope, that is the only reason.”

My selection was not for the leader at the time, Jean Chretian; I did not choose the candidate; technically I voted Liberal which itself is a dubious interpretation. So when the analysts come on TV and begin to proffer their version of the results, they realistically have no clue as to whether the votes are for the party, the candidate, or the leader of the party. All three are possible, which makes the reality of who forms the government maddening.

Seats acquired and popular vote results from the 2019 Canadian federal election. Source: CBC news website.

The Liberal party with Justin Trudeau as its leader formed the government after acquiring 33.1% of the popular vote, 1.3 percentage points less than the Conservative party; yet, the seats won were 157 and 121 respectively. Indeed, in only five elections since 1867 did the winning party garner more than 50% of the electorate. In other words, the majority of eligible voters in Canada did not cast their ballot for the ruling government, regardless of party colour, for 38 of the 43 elections held in Canada. By all accounts the 44th parliament will be the same; approximately two thirds of the voters will not have voted for the party forming the next government. Never mind that only 67% of those eligible actually cast a ballot in the last election which means the ruling government was selected by 22% of registered voters and by only 17% of the entire population.

That’s Democracy.

The numbers work out approximately the same regardless of who forms the government. These same issues arise when we examine other electoral systems, but I digress. On Monday, I will walk to our local polling station, bring my own pencil, don the mask and place an X beside one name because my parents taught us early: you cannot complain if you don’t vote.

My parents were exceedingly proud of becoming Canadian Citizens and able to exercise their right to vote. They could not understand why people did not bother and even advocated for a law which would fine those who did not cast a ballot. Mom and Dad had close friends who refrained from voting or could not because they had not applied for citizenship. My parents would bluntly tell them to stop bitching about this or that decision – you didn’t vote!

Dad was open about his choices. He voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) because it is the workers party. Dad became disenchanted with them after the NDP government in Ontario under Bob Rae taxed auto insurance, something they promised not to do during the election campaign. Breaking that promise was the bone my Dad could not let go. Mom was more coy about her choices, never really trusting the NDP, probably voted Liberal most of the time but I would not be surprised if the occasional ballot was for a Conservative party.

Picture of Mom and Dad from a 1983 visit to Storybook Gardens: statement on their election choices?

Neither of them voted on the basis of the candidate in their riding. I expect they did not even know the name, nor cared. Their focus was on the leader and therefore, checked the box beside the associated party, much along the line of proportional representation to which they were accustomed back in the Netherlands. Politics was common fodder for conversations at home over the dinner table, spilling into the evenings and heating up during an election campaign all the way up to voting day. Not voting was a non-starter.

Beyond casting a ballot, however, they did not get involved with parties, campaigns, or issues. On one occasion, Dad and the neighbour, Fred Hoornick, called in sick as part of an organized, one day labour protest of Pierre Trudeau’s national wage and price freeze legislation. It would be the only day Dad would miss work. He and Fred went to the local forest and transplanted several trees on their respective properties to mark the day. One still survives at the back edge of our Kostis Avenue home. I cannot recall any other manner in which Mom or Dad participated in any form of political activity.

My experience has not been much different in terms of participation. Yes, I have voted in every election; I have signed petitions, written the occasional form letter to my local representative; and I have protested in a handful of rallies, one large one marching along University Avenue to Queens Park in Toronto. I have never contributed money to a political party much to the surprise of at least one relative. I keep close tabs on political news, reading opinion pieces, and am aware of the party philosophies and platforms so I can engage in intelligent conversation and make an informed choice.

I am not proud of my own inactivity and am grateful for the passionate few who bring awareness to issues with their efforts and work. Their work is important. Voting is the minimum requirement and represents the most passive form of democracy. The least I can do is cast a ballot in a manner which will help support and reflect my values.

Small is beautiful

I have a penchant for small books. Not measured in amount of pages, rather with respect to the physical size. Small books are more convenient to carry on a journey, fitting easily into the side pocket of my leather briefcase without bulging or distorting its shape. They are comfortably cradled with one hand, left or right, the thumb marking your place, dexterously flipping the page when your eyes reach the bottom. I do not break the spine of the book consciously to avoid any evidence of wear, especially if signed, so this maneuver is reserved for my inexpensive paperback baseball collection.

Small books tend to be more inviting, tempting the reader for selection rather than imposing itself on the shelves by dominating the sightlines. Larger books exude the appearance of substance until you leaf through pages of white and oversized fonts. The beauty of small lies within the precision of type and design into a compact package to entice you with an equally concise and dense story. Some recent purchases of newly released Canadian literature fit this description prompting my theme this month to focus on small books. Each is very different in style and content, offering up a variety to attract a number of readers.

McClelland & Stewart, 2021. 235 pages.

The month started with the purchase of What Strange Paradise, a novel by Omar El Akkad. Born in Egypt, he moved to Canada at the age of sixteen, earned a computer science degree before embarking on a journalism career with the Globe and Mail covering world events including the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay, and the Middle East uprisings of the Arab Spring. His background brings a lived experience with or at least a witness of the people he writes about in his new work. Like his first novel, American War, the subject matter is timely. You can read some of the accolades from the back inside jacket reproduced below.

The story revolves around a nine year old Syrian boy, Amir, who suddenly finds himself aboard a decrepit fishing boat loaded with refugees perilously floating across the Mediteranean Ocean to escape the horrors of their homeland. Crashing onto the shores of a Greek island, all the escapees, Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinians, perish except for Amir who is rescued by a teenage girl, Vanna. She navigates his trek across the terrain, avoiding the clutches of the local military, out of sight of the valued tourist industry and into the hands of sympathetic countrymen. In the chapters which alternate between past and present, the reader is confronted with realities of a harsh world where hierarchy, ranked differently within each context, largely determines fate. In an argument aboard the boat of refugees, the refugees talk about a racist America but are cautioned about their own prejudices: Kamal pointed to the floor, below which the lower galleys hummed. “Look at the skin color of the people up here and look at the skin color of the people down there and tell me we’re any better.”

The novel is compelling. In it’s description of the people and the dialogue between them, the reader is asked to re-evaluate our own beliefs with this understanding of another person’s reality. I was humbled by the plight of one passenger, a pregnant Syrian woman who mothers Amir along the watery journey. Throughout she kept practicing her lines, focusing on correct pronunciation and a western accent, hoping the words would elicit aid upon their arrival: Hello. I am pregnant. I will have baby on April twenty-eight. I need hospital and doctor to have safe baby. Please help.

At the same time, we are asked to consider who provokes change and influences events. In a passage relaying the circumstances leading to the disappearance of Amir’s uncle during the protests of the Arab Spring, we are left to contemplate the potential role of the average person: Perhaps it was not the presence of a revolutionary at a revolution that so enraged the secret police who took them, but the presence of an ordinary man.

No one can read this book and remain untouched.

Harper Collins, 2021. First Canadian edition. 180 pages.

Rachel Cusk is only nominally a Canadian writer. She was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to British parents spending her very early years in Los Angeles before moving to England in 1974, according to Wikipedia. Second Place is Cusk’s eleventh fictional publication along with four non-fiction works including three memoirs. She may be best known for the Outline trilogy, beginning in 2014 with Outline, followed up with Transit in 2017, finishing with Kudos one year later. These books are purported to represent a new approach to fiction drawing high praise from critics and numerous nominations for major literary prizes. I purchased Second Place in part because it has been long listed for the Booker Prize and according to the bookies (yes, they bet on book award winners in England) Cusk is among the current odds on favourite to make the shortlist and win the 2021 award.

The book is told exclusively through the words of M in a book long letter to an unidentified person named Jeffers about the attraction and interaction with an artist known only as L. The reader is introduced to a number of other characters, all with names, all related to each other as family or lovers, cohabitating without ever stating the complete name of either of the main two characters. M is attracted to L’s work, invites him to stay in the second place on their rural property for the summer, where he lives with an art groupie, creating havoc among all the couples; M and her husband, Tony; their daughter, Justine and her boyfriend, Kurt; L and his latest muse, Brett.

Ultimately the book is about the role of art and our relationship with it: For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging. Tony didn’t believe in art – he believed in people, their goodness and their badness, and he believed in nature. He believed in me….

Labelling the two main protagonists by letters, and writing to some unknown entity was strange in the beginning, but I became accustomed to the style. I don’t understand the convention and cannot explain how it adds value to the literature. I find it too abstract, analogous to a painting with splashes of colour called “untitled”. I kept thinking the book to be self-indulgent, a cathartic exercise albeit with pearls of wisdom: “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you”; “Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty [for receptivity] will fail us sooner or later”; “If we treated each moment as though it were a permanent condition, a place where we might find ourselves compelled to remain forever, how differently most of us would choose the things that moment contains.” Although it may not have widespread appeal, the literary lover will appreciate the work.

Harper Collins, 2013. 290 pages

I searched my bookcases for the remaining two small books this month, ones which had eluded my indulgence in the past. Natalee Caple’s 2013 novel, In Calamity’s Wake drew my attention for it’s red colour and hardcover format designed without the paper dust jacket. Now a professor at Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Caple has four novels to her name, several books of poetry and some short story collections as the editor. I enjoyed reading her debut novel, The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World when it was published in 1999 so decided to delve into this one.

The story is the fictional quest of Miette to track down her mother, the real life Martha Canary, famously known as Calamity Jane. The plot is best laid out by the protagonist herself in an explanation to one of the many colourful characters Miette encounters along the way: “Say you had a mother and by all accounts she was a liquor-loving wild whore. And say that in her wisdom, knowing herself, she gave you to a good man and in her wisdom she never contacted you, never wrote to ask how tall you were or if you were still alive. And say the one who had mounted her was a killer and he was dead before he ever knew about you. And say your real father, the man who was both mother and father to you, who made you a safe home and loved you – in his wisdom as he died when you could say nothing but yes to him – set you on a journey to find the woman who chose not to be your mother. Should you follow her wisdom and leave her be? Or should you follow his wisdom and find her and force yourself upon her?”

The lengthy quote also displays the general tenor of the book, replete with stories and characters and situations befit a good western. After several days on the road, Miette is talking to the boil on her foot, asking for advice on setting up camp given the oncoming storm. The description of the Pan-American Exposition, an exhibit of human nature, is hilarious with its endless variety of free soups, samples, sandwiches, cheeses and preserves; straight laced dames and tight laced dames and fair American girls; and the introduction of the latest gadgets like the Kodak craze or the latest thinking that the earth’s surface is concave instead of convex. In another chapter we meet Dora Du Fran who runs a brothel which was shut down by local authorities until her female lawyer convinced Dora to purchase cats for each room in order to demonstrate to the judge how the services were in fact a zoological exhibit, a residence for special felines and their personal guardians. Reminiscent of Chris de Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper, the judge declared, “After reviewing the facts, I find this ordinance is not applicable to cat houses. Case dismissed!”

The humour is deadpan throughout, contained in varying styles. Elements are in song; there are pages of lists, paragraphs of repeated phrases, chapters with only one sentence. If not a tremendous piece of literature, Calamity’s Wake is a very entertaining read.

McArthur & Company, 2007. 219 pages.

The subject of Come Away: Song of Songs by Anne Hines is a semi comedic look at a current state of contemporary religion. The online descriptions of Hines appear to be dated, making it difficult to ascertain her current works. One site describes her as Canada’s answer to Erma Bombeck, stating how Hines began her career as a humour/lifestyle columnist for Canadian Living Magazine and is currently a contributing editor of humorous articles at Chatelaine Magazine. She is or at least was a part-time Masters theology student at the University of Toronto, which explains the content of what appears to be her second novel, Come Away.

The book begins in 537 BC in the ancient city of Babylon during the Akitu, the largest and most anticipated festival of worship in the year. It is a time when numerous gods were worshiped, male and female, led by priests and priestesses. Here we meet one priestess, Shahiroz and her family who were part of the people banished from Jerusalem that eventually travel back to their homeland. Leap ahead to 2007 AD where we meet Professor Reggie Niefeild, pre-eminent scholar and expert on everything about the Song of Songs, an unlikely and largely unexplainable inclusion in the Old Testament. Professor Niefeild’s life work on this scroll represents the last legitimate academic scholarship in the theology department of Hosana College in the University of Toronto. The book attempts to demonstrate the devolution of religion into one god, dominated by men and their interpretations.

Come Away is based on historical records which will have been nourished by Hines’s enrolment in a graduate theology program. The story of Shahiroz is a depiction of the actions leading to the change in worship mixed with subtle humour of everyday life in the time: “Worshipping a single god is blasphemy”; “If the goddess wanted men to be doctors, she would have made them women.”

When the book shifts to today, Hines viciously skewers the world of arcane academia, specifically the department of religious studies. Professors not having published in at least a decade; a renowned Professor Niefeild who publishes regularly but always based on a spin on the same topic; and departmental meetings focusing on how to remain relevant: “You can hardly use public interest to determine what matters, Cullen. Look at The Da Vinci Code. Sex. Titillation. Religion as entertainment. It’s just giving the people what they want.” Watch the mini series, The Chair, on Netflix to get a visual understanding. The two time periods are connected by the Song of Songs, BC with its original existence and AD with its attempt to uncover the mystery.

I found the book inconsistent in approach, wanting to educate on an important interpretation of events whilst entertaining us with moments of slapstick style humour. I certainly learned much about the Song of Songs, making me interested in its existence and ongoing interpretation. The book does read well, offering up a smile and some religious history for the curious.

How do you feel about the size of books? Send a line with your comments.

We are entering into the season of new releases, so September will be dedicated to new Canadian literature. As always, I welcome your suggestions. Until then, happy reading.

How I spent my summer vacation

Summer brings up memories of driving and holiday excursions. Growing up, vacations normally meant visiting locations in Ontario, always involving a vehicle, and most of the time including relatives from the Netherlands.

My parents owned a car for their entire life in Canada. A vehicle was a necessity living outside the city limits with very little within walking distance and no access to public transportation. Dad had to learn to drive in order to work. I recall Mom explaining the process by which Dad obtained his license. There were no mandatory driving lessons or wait periods or graduated testing. He registered for a driving test and promptly failed on his first attempt. When the instructor informed my mother, she said simply, Dad was going to drive regardless because he needed to remain employed; the instructor reluctantly reversed his initial assessment and granted Dad his license.

My parents first car in 1958: a Volkswagen Beetle

My parents purchased a used Volkswagen Beetle, I expect on some form of credit since they arrived in the country with very little. It enabled them to get from A to B but little else. They would laugh explaining how driving skills included the ability to scrape simultaneously the frost from the interior side of the windshield because the fan produced insufficient heat in the winter. There would be bigger cars in the future as the family grew, all used until their last, a luxury they finally afforded themselves in the waning years. Mom also learned to drive early as she became the chauffer for the different Saturday activities when Dad was working. It was Mom who drove us to our swimming lessons, or bagpipe lessons for the 3M marching band, or to the London Gardens to watch 3M play in the industrial league or shopping. Everything required a vehicle. The car was our lifeline.

I can recall only two holiday excursions which did not involve driving or were outside of the province of Ontario. Both were trips back to the Netherlands in 1967 and in 1973. My first vague memory of a family vacation was of renting a cabin up north, on Manitoulin Island, which I know now because of the labels on some early photographs. I would have been four years old. The only incident imprinted in my brain was the presence of a large snake under the cottage which ventured onto the gravel road. The image still haunts me.

More clearly are memories of a week long camping trip to Sand Hills Park, a private campground on the shores of Lake Erie, near Port Dover. We vacationed with the Jansen family: Albert and Riet (Mr. and Mrs. Jansen as I always called them) and their two sons, Pete and Eddie. All the boys slept in the pop-trailer; our parents slept in the hard-top, borrowed from Gordon Appleby, the neighbour across the street who drove it to the site as a favour.

The days were spent on the beach and dunes, playing badminton and horseshoes, flipping knives and carving wood, as well as loud, robust games of cards, capped by a camp fire each night. I remember proudly spending the entire trip in my bare feet, never once donning a pair of shoes or sandals.

It seemed every other summer holiday time involved relatives from the Netherlands. Dad had to schedule a couple of weeks of his very limited vacation to host and escort a brother or sister, sometimes their children, around the province. There were the obligatory trips to Ottawa and Niagara Falls, sometimes to Toronto or Midland and always everyone packing into one vehicle, cramming bodies onto the bench seats, as many as four in the front and the remainder in the back. Cars were bigger, seatbelts were non-existent, and personal space was irrelevant. The trunk was spacious, easily holding the folding chairs, coolers, Coleman stove, luggage and tools, exactly as they said in the ads (a nod to fans of the Wonder Boys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHcwHxzDQDs).

I recall our first trip to Ottawa in the old green car. Given its dubious mechanical reliability, Dad decided to avoid Highway 401, the major four lane thoroughfare, and the heavy traffic of Toronto by following Highway 7 all the way from London, a six to eight hour drive depending on how many stops were required. We needed to have easy access to gas stations because that old green car needed frequent visits when we jokingly asked the attendant to check the gas and fill’er up with oil. The four of us would be on our knees staring out the big window and laughing as the car left a trail of heavy smoke for several miles after each stop, engulfing everything in its wake. You can imagine, as well, how four rambunctious boys could misbehave with all that time and the abundant space in the back seat. Mom would admonish us, demanding us to settle down; Dad would reach back to smack anyone within reach, threatening to pull over if we didn’t start behaving. It was the first of numerous trips to Canada’s capital city.

In the early years, we did not stop at roadside eateries or restaurants. Fast food enterprises were still in its infancy. My parents preferred the traditional picnic alternative which had the added bonus of saving money. The idea of stopping at McDonald’s for a burger was belittled especially when you could enjoy healthier, homemade sandwiches with smoked meats purchased from the Dutch Deli, packed in Styrofoam coolers along with fresh fruit and cut-up vegetables from the garden. Don’t even think about purchasing a coffee from Tim Hortons when a Coleman propane stove could quickly boil some water for a very hot taste of some Maxwell House Instant coffee.

Stop in a park for some lunch prepared, in part, with the Coleman stove. Coffee was instant.

Niagara Falls was another favourite site of my parents. The eighth natural wonder of the world is only an hour and a half drive from London, an easy one day trip, up and down, not costing the price of an overnight stay. No visit to Canada was complete without a trip to the Falls.

I lost any desire to view them again until Olga and I had our own children and we embarked on a driving family vacation around Lake Erie. The first stop? Niagara Falls. My Mom and Dad were so excited by the prospect they decided to meet us there, where we visited the major attractions and shared a picnic lunch. They wanted to relive those earlier experiences, this time with the grandchildren.

We eventually made stops in Cooperstown, New York and Kingston, Ontario mirroring the same kind of trip as in my childhood by driving somewhere. In retrospect, many of my own family holidays involved car travel. Olga and I drove back and forth to Quebec City for our honeymoon; the entire family drove from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Victoria, British Columbia by way of Swift Current, Drumheller, Banff and Jasper National Parks, Vernon, Vancouver, and Calgary, stopping frequently for a roadside picnic with our own prepared lunches.

Lunch stop in Revelstoke, British Columbia

Our first trip to Europe with the kids involved renting a car to trek from Tilburg to Paris and Normandy and back, visiting Brugge, Rouen, Antwerp and numerous small towns in between. Before we departed, Uncle Piet and Tante Franciene lent us a Styrofoam cooler so we could purchase food and eat along the road. We saved money by limiting meals at restaurants, acquiring groceries to eat on the road or in our rooms.

Stop for a picnic lunch out of the trunk of our car at one of many roadside cemeteries.

On another trip, Olga and I drove from Amsterdam to Barcelona via Provence and back through the Pyrenees. I still love a road trip and consider it one of the best modes of transportation to see any country.

Caribbean resorts have their place on a rare occasion to escape; ship cruises don’t have the same appeal. My preference would be to travel by car, stopping at small towns, eating along the roadside, checking out the world’s largest gavel, visiting the ball park, singing to tunes on the radio, getting lost along the way, embracing the journey and the destination.

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