Years ago, I once saw a loudmouthed nonagenarian on a streetcar in Toronto who shamelessly (and very audibly) insulted every new female passenger under the age of 45 by calling her a “whore” (for no reason at all), and similarly greeted all the non-Caucasian commuters she saw with the N-word. I saw more than a few cranks and oddballs on Toronto Transit Commission vehicles during the number of years I lived in Hogtown (aspiring hip-hop artists are a dime a dozen on the subway), but that woman in particular sticks out in my memory more than most. Her overall appearance and demeanor were very reminiscent of the titular character from filmdom’s forgotten classic Throw Momma from the Train. Nobody threw her from the streetcar, though. Not even the driver, despite being well within his authority to eject her from the vehicle. In fact, most people just wrote her off as a loony old crone and ignored her. Canada is chill like that.
But I remember the way my heart sank that day, with the realization that a certain someone I knew would eventually turn into that loony old crone. My mother lived her life according to opinions (which she always had and always expressed) about how things should be, as opposed to what is. As if Nature was somehow obliged to give a damn about her opinions. There was only one right way to do things (her way, of course) and a countless number of other ways, all of which were wrong. Hence she was seldom happy and lived her life in a near-constant state of resentful disappointment.
Among her favourite things to whinge about was the manner in which contemporary Canada has deviated from the Canada of her youth. She once complained bitterly in a public place (within plain earshot of at least a few people) that there weren’t enough white faces on TV anymore. One of the most embarrassing moments of my life, bar none. But not at all the most shocking. She said shit like that in private all the time. That’s actually how she thought. Novel things unfamiliar to her fourteen-year-old self (such as an evening newscast featuring an ethnically diverse and gender-balanced team of anchors and correspondents) tended to greatly upset her.
Nonetheless, we can learn as much from the fools as we can from the sages, and my mother was a shining example of what not to do. Pretty much every waking nanosecond of her mortal existence was wasted either worrying about the future or pining for some la-la land of the past. She was never in the present. Ever. The whole concept of BE HERE NOW was completely alien to her, and it showed. She went to her (early) grave a frazzled wreck.
Not sure if that’s a bad thing or a not-as-bad-as-you-think-it-is thing, if I’m being honest. Given the timing of my mother’s passing, I can easily see how things could’ve been much worse. I just can’t picture her outlook becoming rosier at the onset of senile dementia. If anything, she’d become the extreme opposite of rosy. Am I supposed to feel bad about missing out on all that? And forgive me if this sounds crass, but I’m really struggling to find something to complain about this shiny new guilt-free and judgement-free life I’m living these days. It would be great if I could have a war-and-pestilence-free life to boot, but you can’t win ’em all.
My first apartment in Toronto was literally right next door to a Buddhist temple. Every Sunday morning, I could hear the sound of the gongs coming right through my walls. Never saw the inside of that temple, though. Mostly on account of the fact that it was a Theravada sanctuary catering to the diaspora, and I don’t speak a lick of Vietnamese outside of exactly one word. But I nevertheless appreciated the vibrations of those gongs every Sunday. After spending Monday through Friday (and frequently Saturday to boot) catering to the hyper-frazzled demands of The Machine, that weekly dose of sonic medicine was a most welcome reprieve.
The day those healing vibrations stopped came when my building was sold to a new owner, and I ended up getting renovicted. The next apartment after that was something I subletted from the company I was working for at the time. I only called that place home for a mere eight months, for it was inhabited by vast insurmountable colonies of bedbugs (and fleas!) and a handful of very cranky people. One woman who lived there told me the building was haunted. She was probably right.
I recall a foursome of geriatric men who would spend the daylight hours sitting on lounge chairs in front of the Apartment Building of the Damned, wiling away their golden years complaining loudly about things their juniors would seldom think to complain about, occasionally yelling obscenities at random passersby just for the sheer hell of it. Like a cruder version of King of the Hill. I’m not a hundred percent sure if their demeanour was merely because of the bedbug problem or something that could be chalked up to senility (it was probably a combination of the two), but this meditation on cranky old geezerhood manifested itself into what would eventually become SILVER BROWN. Its chosen guise was that of an Eccentric Mentor with a mastery of cybersorcery and certain forbidden knowledge sought out by the main characters in their quest for the Secret Ingredient.
The warlock Elmýr Garfield was a cursed character from the very beginning, but after several rewrites his curses have only multiplied. In the second or third draft I introduced the idea that the story starts off with him being dead, necessitating a cybermagickal trip to the netherworlds of the Environment to retrieve his innate isness and bring it back to the Sea of Joy to reboot it. Yet he is not so much reanimated as he is reborn. The audience is first introduced to him as a seventy-five-year-old man in the body of a seventy-five-second-old infant. An allusion to old stories of Gautama Buddha that told of him walking and talking on the day he was born. Or to Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Either one works. Take your pick.
As a result of the cursed nature of his existence (or more likely, because Florys errs slightly when she casts the spell to bring him back to life), Elmýr ages very rapidly after his rebirth, advancing through all the different life stages over the course of several chapters before finally exiting the story as a withered lifeless husk. At an inopportune moment in the narrative that greatly inconveniences the protagonists. If his final wilting occurred at a more convenient time, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
Well, this has been a craptacular year for me personally. It had a few highlights and memorable moments. Every year usually does. I’ll get to the highlights later on in this post, I promise. But there were a lot of lows too. Some lows a little lower than usual.
It started off with the death of my mother, which most would agree is not the best way to kick off the new year. I spent much of the rest of the year attempting to join the military – a life decision my mother would have been deadset against if she were still with us. Her whole life was defined by fear. Fear was to her worldview what flour is to bread. I think I’ve eaten enough sandwiches made with that kind of bread in my day. We all remember what a certain legendary sage told us a full two decades ago about this very topic. Funny thing is, he wasn’t kidding…
My mother had a very strict happy-clappy evangelical (Baptist) upbringing. Immersed from birth in a profoundly toxic religious doctrine whose very bread and butter is tinfoilhattery, alarmist hysteria and morbidly irrational phobias concerning things that are demonstrably not worth losing sleep over in light of hard statistics and scientific fact. An anti-vaxxer among religions.
True to the sickly subculture in which she was raised, she lived her life in a near-constant state of anxiety. Sober rational thought untainted by emotion or personal passions was for the most part an alien concept to her. I could never engage in any rugged outdoorsy activities such as hiking without being forced to listen to some inane diatribe afterwards about how hiking is so dangerous (“You’ll get eaten by bears!”). During my teenage years, dating anyone who was not of unsullied European extraction was all but forbidden, as was befriending anyone who was Anishinaabe or openly gay. My mother saw people of cultural backgrounds different from her own (non-Christians or cultures with no historical association with Christendom, especially) as nihilistic savages with no reverence for life or any moral compass, and “practicing” homosexuals as sexual predators, without exception. Some big-haired fire-and-damnation preacher on TV who porked hookers and fleeced old ladies out of their life savings said so, and and he was undeniably a Man of God† because he shared my mother’s contempt for heavy metal music, so why would he ever lie? Speaking of heavy metal, my Judas Priest albums were self-righteously thrown in the garbage until I graduated high school and moved out on my own, because my mother gullibly fell for the 1980s Satanic Panic and all that bullshit about subliminal messages. Hook, line and sinker. Never renounced belief in that bullshit even decades after the rest of civilization had long since done so. Like a musical flat-earther. She forbade my brother and I from playing with cap guns as kids, because she actually believed such toys were capable of causing serious injury or death. Who needs evidence or facts when you’ve got Mother’s Instinct?
I always got that feeling that my safety was way more important to my mother than my happiness. As long as I was encaged in several layers of bubble wrap at all times and was never placed in any situation where anything could possibly hurt me, all was right with the world. I was desperately miserable underneath all those layers, but that didn’t matter. I was safe. Nothing could hurt me. Nothing at all. So you can imagine what her reaction would’ve been to the idea of me going off somewhere to be trained in the use of military-grade weapons. She would’ve instantly turned white as a sheet. All her hair would’ve fallen out, her days thenceforth being spent drooling and mumbling incoherently, attempting to sever her own limbs with a rusty old hacksaw.
† For those of you who don’t happen to be fluent in Happyclappese, the term “Man of God” translates to someone who faithfully toes the party line and hates all the right people. Things like empathy or loving thy neighbour or turning the other cheek are not necessary to be a Man of God. In fact, that sort of thing is outright discouraged. Toeing the party line and hating the right people are way more important, by a long shot. If you’re a suithiestic serial rapist who cheated on your third (trophy) wife with a porn star whose silence you subsequently tried to buy, that’s no big whoop. You still get to be a Man of God as long as you’re a stark-raving loutish bigot out to take on the so-called Homosexual Steamroller. Locking kids in cages? Meh. Big deal. That’s perfectly sane social policy as long as it happens under the watch of a Man of God who shares our dearly held respect-worthy conviction passed down from our malnourished disease-ridden Bronze Age forefathers that homosexuals are a lower form of life than termites. Blatant racism and antisemitism? Misogyny, misogyny and more misogyny? Behaviour more appropriate for a three-year-old than a seventy-three-year-old? Glaringly obvious signs of mental disorder? It’s all good. Hell, we’d be perfectly cool with armbands and public beheadings. As long as you’re a Man of God working towards the righteous cause of depriving homosexuals of the right to breathe oxygen, none of that shit is any cause for alarm whatsoever. Nosiree, Bob. If you’re on our side, there’s no possible low you can’t sink to. You could cut open babies and eat their raw entrails on live television and we’d gladly look the other way. But if you’re not on our side and don’t believe homosexuals are the spawn of Satan and happen to favour outlawing at least some forms of discrimination against them, then using a cigar as a sexual prop with a willing (albeit extramarital) participant is cause for unfettered moral outrage. Pathological homophobia is the foundation on which our whole faith is built! Lord have mercy on us if future generations inherit a world where homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as everybody else! Who in their right mind would want to live in a world like that? The horror!
My mother didn’t mellow out with age. In fact, the older she got, the more irrational she became. In her final years, she wore a permanent scowl. A facial expression that said: I hate everything that moves and want the whole world to die!!! Not just saying it, but shouting it high on the mountain with a voice of triumph. Her own grandchildren could see it. They would ask her questions like: “Grandma, why do you always look so sad?” A question that would be brushed under the rug, never to be answered. Probably a good thing, too. The answer had something to do with immigrants.
All that crippling fear didn’t exactly do wonders for my mother’s health. That should go without saying. She ended up predeceasing her own mother by eleven months. Funny how shit that happens to you when you’re young has a way of fucking you up for life.
If there’s a silver lining to all of this, the Universe has granted me Her blessing to live out the rest of my life completely guilt-free and shame-free. A few short years ago, I had a ball and chain on each ankle. But today, I find myself unshackled at long last. Over ninety-nine percent of the guilt and shame that plagued my existence was force-fed to me by a mere two people, both of whom are now worm chow. My mother died exactly a year and two days after the expiration date of the other depressing ball and chain in my life. More on that in a bit. But first, the good stuff.
In that new spirit of fearlessness, I enlisted to join the military. A decision I know I will never have any regrets about for as long as I live. Just the experience of applying was a gas and a half. I paid several personal visits to an Army training facility, at one point spending an entire morning there. The atmosphere of the place was electric. Something about the facility spoke directly to the inner cockles of my heart, saying: Hi, there. We’re the military and we kick ass. Pleased to meet you. In the midst of all that kickassitude, I underwent several aptitude tests. They would test me on my mathematical skills and vocabulary and my ability to spell words correctly. That part of the test was a slam dunk for me, of course. The recruiting sergeant mentioned as much when he debriefed me on the test results. I even did well on the part of the test where they had me lifting sandbags, and those weigh fifty pounds each.
Alas, my aspirations to serve queen and country ultimately didn’t pan out. I received a letter from National Defence a few weeks ago telling me that my application had been rejected, for medical reasons. Ottawa raised concerns of a preexisting condition that could potentially be exacerbated by the rigours of military life. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me then. There were a couple of positive takeaways from the experience, though. One, it deepened my respect for the military and what they do. I always did have that respect. You can’t do any work for the NATO Association for any length of time and not have that respect. But the experience of going to that facility and taking those tests bumped up that level of respect a few notches, without a doubt. Secondly, I can now say with absolute certainty that the ghost of my former boss no longer has any business haunting me.
Ellis Kirkland was in many ways the polar opposite of my mother. Urban. Worldly. Articulate. Well-read. Well-educated. Catholic. Extremely adverse to any form of racism or homophobia. Never spoke ill of religions that were not her own (with the possible exception of Scientology), and in fact was romantically involved with a Hindu throughout most of my tenure in her employ. She had a completely different set of fears than my mother did, but most markedly absent was my mother’s fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. The scant traces of hayseed that stuck with me into the early years of my adulthood were beaten out of me with violent gusto when I started working for Ellis, to such an extent that my brain has been completely rewired and I can never really go back to being the guy my parents raised me to be. These days, I find the political discourse at family gatherings repugnant and infuriating. Embarrassing, even. There used to be a time when racist ways of thinking were as much a part of my daily reality as the air I breathe. I didn’t necessarily indulge or agree with such sentiments. But many people I knew were overtly racist, and I oft found myself forgiving and tolerating their racism for the sake of keeping the peace and maintaining good relations. Those days are long gone. Now, racism just makes me violently ill.
In stark contrast to my mother, Ellis had no qualms whatsoever about putting me in harm’s way. I was one of only a handful of members of the staff who had never served in the armed forces of any country. I was therefore a pussy. Ellis would actually call me a pussy to my face. On multiple occasions. Her attitude was that service in the military was some kind of ultimate measure of manhood. If you had never served in the military, you were a boy. Not a man. Even after she died, I could still hear her voice calling me a pussy somewhere in the back alleys of my mind. It would curse at me throughout my one semester at Fanshawe College – a semester of Spinal Tap-like proportions. After Fanshawe I decided to enlist in the military just to shut that voice up. I didn’t get in, but I honestly gave it my best shot. Haven’t heard much from that old ghost since. In the end, that’s what really matters.
While awaiting word from Ottawa, I spent some quality time up north, navigating forest-encrusted waters in this humble vessel…
…and finally finished all that meticulous editing to the first act of SILVER BROWN. Something I’m personally proud of. It’s amazing how far this book has come since I first started working on it.
When I write, I never throw away any of my early drafts. Instead, I let them collect in a special folder squirreled away somewhere on my laptop, so I know where to look if I ever need to resurrect or recycle an excised passage. I dug up one of those early drafts a number of months ago, just for shits and giggles. What I saw was a manuscript so radically different from the project I’m currently working on that it’s barely recognizable as the same book. You can definitely see where I was trying to be George Orwell. Now it’s almost comical how my original vision for this project was that it would be an “important” book. A work of Nobel Prize calibre. Something that would be studied in high school English classes for generations to come as an exemplar of highbrow literature, like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That vision would gradually be abandoned when composing such a work proved to be easier said than done. After numerous edits and rewrites, it would evolve into something more lighthearted and satirical. People who have read SILVER BROWN tell me it’s “entertaining”. That’s hardly an adjective I would use to describe the books my teachers made me read in high school. I consider that a win.
Another area where 2019 notably did not suck for me was on the sports pages. One of the few things on TV that’s still worth watching, methinks. I could care less about keeping up with any real housewives and don’t give a rat’s ass who gets the final rose. That bullshit dumbed down the whole culture and paved the way for Emperor Cheeto to enter the White House. If that’s not reason enough to despise it, I don’t know what is. Give me a good hockey game over that nauseating reality TV drivel any day.
Sure, the Toronto Maple Leafs were underwhelming as always. As were the Jays. I think I summed up the Jays’ season nicely with this tweet from last week…
…but baseball and hockey aside, there was very little mediocrity to be had. We were treated to a whole trifecta of crowning moments of awesome. First, this happened…
Later on that summer, Bianca Andreescu. Her year ended on a bummer note, what with the whole knee injury and all. But defeating Serena Williams to win that fancy-ass Grand Slam trophy is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Well done, young lady.
A couple of months after that, the year’s biggest crowning moment of awesome yet. At least for me, personally. The Blue Bombers WON THE MOTHERFUCKING GREY CUP!!!