Friday, October 26, 2007

Canadian Thanksgiving

Canadian Thanksgiving

In Hope, on this Thanksgiving weekend (October 5 - 8, 2007), I attended the Rambo “First Blood” 25th anniversary celebrations. On Friday night at the Silver Chalice Pub, I watched the premiere showing of the documentary about making Rambo in Hope. The film producer from Seattle was there. Everyone laughed at the character on his quest, and listened to Hope people talking on the film. Inge from the visitor center and Tom, the fire chief, were interviewed.

Oliver, a young man from Germany who has a website, was on the film and at the pub. One man sitting at the table, Ray, from Cold Lake, Alberta, makes Rambo knives. Another man at the table had flown all the way from Ukraine.

On Saturday, we walked around the town for five hours and stopped everywhere a scene in the movie was shot. "All I wanted was something to eat." A Rambo-look-a-like stalked us through the woods. "Give it up! Give it up!" At night in the theatre hundreds of people listened to memories of the time the movie people were here in town and then we watched the movie together on the big screen.

On Sunday, I was too tired to hike to the tunnels or to go to the pig roast so I had a Thanksgiving dinner with friends—one from Taiwan, one from the Czech Republic, and one from Scotland. In a way, it was a typical Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. The world had come to visit us here, and we had so much for which to be thankful.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cult Fiction

Check it out!

Cult Fiction I: 25th Anniversary of Rambo FIRST BLOOD

Cult Fiction I: 25th Anniversary of Rambo FIRST BLOOD

Hope, BC celebrates the 25th Anniversary of the premier of the movie First Blood on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, October 5 – 7, 2007.

First Blood introduced movie audiences to John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who cannot stop fighting for what he believes is right. In the twenty-five years since its release and the thirty-five years since the publication of the novel, Rambo has become an icon. Hundreds of travellers inquire about Rambo at the Hope visitor information centre every year.

In the twenty-five years since it premiered, First Blood has become a cult classic. Fans on amateur review sites such as or rave about it:
“One of the best action movies ever made.”
“One amazing movie.”
“Simply one of the best films ever made.”
“Stallone is about as good as he has ever been here.”
“This small film by Carolco is about as perfect a film as you can get.”
“This movie has kept me entertained for years.”
“A classic and powerful action film and one of the best out there.”
“An under-rated classic.”

What is it about this film that elicits such superlatives from fans? What inspires such passion? What are the good reasons to watch it again?

The Hope community celebration includes: a Rambo look-alike contest, film location tours, a Rambo art contest, a premier showing of a REEL Places documentary on the filming of First Blood, an anniversary screening of First Blood at the town cinema, and (how appropriate!) a wind-up Pig Roast.

Read more about the movie and the book in Cult Fiction II, III, IV, V, and VI.

Cult Fiction II: The Literature of Our Time

Cult Fiction II: The Literature of Our Time

In the words of Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison, “Film is the literature of our time.” But what is literature? If we accept that film is, or can be, literature, and that literature is different from non-literature (journalism, biography, documentary, or junk), what qualifies as literature?

Literature is the art of writing incorporating imagination and emotion. Prose literature implies telling a story (narrative) in which something happens (plot) to certain people or creatures (characters) about whom the audience cares, set in time (past, present, or future) and places (real or imaginary), told in a way that suggests meaning beyond the action or character development (ideas, issues, values, motivations, themes) and using techniques associated with storytelling and writing (allusion, foreshadowing, flashback, imagery, symbol, metaphor, pathetic fallacy, etc.) Stories may vary in plotting structure (chronological, cause and effect, flashback, shattered time lines) and points of view (from the all-seeing “I am a camera” inside-the-head-looking-out to an internal or external narrator).

Films may be adaptations of stories or books, or written directly for the screen. Additional techniques including casting, acting, costume design, sounds of music, special effects, and voice-over, lighting, or camera work are used to help tell the film story. Films may be emotionally uplifting or depressing, depending upon plot, characters, and themes. Contrary to some popular definitions, it is possible for literature to have a happy ending as well as inconclusive or sad resolutions of the plot.

Films and novels as literature are forms of entertainment. Films in the Action genre tend to appeal to audiences with masculine and adolescent interests because of their conventions--thrills through speed, chases, explosions, weapons, and anger triggering retaliation and revenge. Feature films as literature target an audience for whom explorations of feeling and thinking are part of the enjoyment. Literary entertainment implies depths of meaning or elements of style which continue to give pleasure when re-visited, in memory or conversation, or by re-viewing or re-reading. A film as literature is a banquet; it offers courses, layers of life experience, with a dessert of idea or theme that viewers enjoy long after they have left the theatre or turned off the power switch. A good film provides a lingering glow, like wine, that makes us feel good to be human, glad to be alive. Literature, no matter which medium transmits it, highlights our shared experiences and celebrates what it means to be here, human, of this Earth.

Surprisingly, for some viewers, First Blood meets the literature criteria. Although undoubtedly an action movie, John Rambo is a rounded character, troubled, idealistic, who reluctantly confronts injustice when it will not leave him alone. Rambo’s character develops; he himself changes as his actions change the world around him. A closer reading also detects literary allusion, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, and the inclusion of serious themes which help make this movie a feast worthy of celebration. ©

Read more about John Rambo and his creator, David Morrell, in Cult Fiction III, IV, V, and VI.

Cult Fiction III: Rambo in Hell

Cult Fiction III: Rambo in Hell

As most movie buffs know, First Blood was filmed in Hope, a small British Columbia town on the edge of the Cascade Mountains less than two hours east of Vancouver. Although the novel First Blood is set in Madison, Kentucky, a town on the edge of the mountains, in the movie, the name Hope is retained. Visual details--licence plates, mailboxes, state banks, a gun store, the Stars and Stripes--transform Hope into a believably American town in the Pacific Northwest, somewhere “north” of Portland, Oregon. Many of the businesses visible in the film are still in Hope—the Hope Hotel, the Fields store, the Dairy Queen, the Chevron, the Shell station; Greyhound still stops in town. The drizzle and rainforest locations depict a typically BC winter, and the spectacular Coquihalla Canyon, the site of the cliffhanging helicopter battle, is a provincial park a short three-kilometre hike from downtown, along a Kettle Valley Railroad section of the Trans-Canada Trail. So the actual movie setting is very Canadian, although dressed to pass as America.

The choice of setting for the film serves a literary purpose as well. In the second scene in the movie, just after he has learned that another army buddy is dead from cancer “brought home from Vietnam”, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) walks into town. He has lost his original bounce; his muscles are slack; his shoulders and wrists are bowed. His jaw is set in anger; his eyes are bloodhound sad. He seems to have lost his voice; it catches, low, deep, and muffled, as if stuck somewhere in his chest.

“Welcome to Hope” the sign says, in an irony that may turn to bitterness. A second sign at the bridge where Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) confronts Rambo, refusing him admittance, repeats: “Entering Hope.” Both are allusions to another famous sign, one which reads “abandon hope all ye who enter here” [Dante, H. F. Cary translation]. Indeed, the flashing red lights, the extreme darkness in the forest and the mine and the town, the omnipresent fires surrounding Rambo are images which evoke this allusion to hell. Writer David Morrell acknowledges a creative debt to Rimbaud and his A Season in Hell in an interview on Writers Thus, the setting and lighting reflect the protagonist’s psychological state and signal something about what the creator wants to say.

The characterization, the literary allusion, imagery, symbolism, and the suggestion of a legitimate theme help propel First Blood beyond a simple film in the “action” genre into the realms of literature and art. ©

For a comparison of the novel and the film First Blood, see Cult Fiction IV.

Cult Fiction IV: First Blood vs. First Blood

Cult Fiction IV: First Blood vs. First Blood

So who is John Rambo and why has he gone to hell? Rambo started out as literature, debuting in David Morrell’s first novel, First Blood, published in 1972. A former Green Beret, a Vietnam War veteran, destined to become a serialized action hero, Rambo is much more in this first movie than the bandoleered, greased, buff bod with the big gun of the iconic poster. Alienated from fellow citizens, scarred by his experiences “in country”, Rambo drifts, unable to find or hold a job. Too angry to back down, convinced that he shouldn’t have to take abuse, looking for excuses to pick a fight, victimized by his own countrymen, Rambo hunts his abusers down. First Blood offers an early depiction of a psychological condition euphemistically referred to at the time as “the Vietnam-vet syndrome” (Coming Home, 1978, did show the same anger and emotional imbalance in a veteran who came home physically wounded).

The aggressive stance of the US administration and military is equated with the tactics and abuse of authority of Chief of Police Teasle in the novel. Yet the book itself maintains a balance which the movie abandons. Chapters alternate between Rambo’s and Teasle’s points of view as they take turns being the hunter and the hunted. We learn much more about Teasle’s character, his Korean War-hero past, the disappointment and pain which haunts him, the personal issues that he plays out on the public war-games stage. “[T]he intention was to make him as motivated and sympathetic as Rambo, because the viewpoints that divided America came from deep, well-meant convictions.” [David Morrell, First Blood (FB), London, Headline Edition, 1992; p. x, author’s introduction]

Chief Teasle is less of a bully, more of a hero in the novel, an establishment hero, while Rambo is less admirable, killing fifteen or twenty of his fellow citizens (he loses count), and, what is more important to him, killing them for the wrong reasons, for personal and emotional rather than ethical reasons. [FB, p. 297]. In the film, all figures of authority are challenged. Sheriff Teasle is less sympathetic, more like the abusive Chief of Police in In the Heat of the Night. Although in the novel, both Rambo and Teasle express sorrow for their actions, in the film, neither one verbalizes regret. So differences in characterization are one of many changes between the novel and the film.

Other changes between novel and film seem relatively minor. The Chief of Police becomes a Sheriff, perhaps suggesting the Sheriff of Nottingham, nemesis to another outlaw. There is no Rambo knife in the novel. Rambo steals a police cruiser in the novel, an army truck in the movie, suggesting that different representative authority figures are being targeted. The Captain becomes a Colonel, giving the military man increased authority. The bat cave becomes a rat cave. Rats are probably easier to wrangle, but they also allude to other earlier war movies.

Writers expect changes in the transformation from page to screen. “Stephen King once told me that in the movie First Blood I had been treated about as well as Hollywood could treat a novelist inasmuch as the plot was recognizable. The only major plot change is that Rambo dies at the end of the novel and lives at the end of the movie . . . The interpretation of that plot is another matter. In my novel, Rambo is furious about what he’s been through in Vietnam. He’s confused and tormented and in many ways causes the small war that he fights. In the movie, though, he’s a victim, a reluctant warrior.” [David Morrell interview,]

The many changes of interpretation between novel and movie can be explained in different ways. It is possible that the changes reflect changes in American society between publication in 1972 and film production in 1982. These changes include: the end of the war, the withdrawal of troops, the fall of Saigon and its renaming as Ho Chi Minh City, and the eventual return of prisoners of war. The defeat of the nation has been borne by returned veterans who are shamed, hounded, demonized. The establishment has lost some credibility--protesting students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State (May 4, 1970) and President Nixon was forced to resign for ethical deficiencies (1974). American citizens have been held hostage in Iran. Ronald Reagan has defeated Jimmy Carter. Foreign affairs attention has turned from Asia; covert American military interventions have shifted to Central and South America. Veterans who have not been wounded are still sick and dying, although the government continues to deny any connection to Agent Orange and other toxins dumped on the enemy.

And, by 1982, several movies have already begun to explore what went wrong and what we should have learned. Indeed, Roger Ebert’s review of First Blood complains “we’ve heard all this before, the ranting against the unfair treatment the vets received upon their return”. [] Like the opening scene where Rambo learns that the last member of his team has died, this “ranting” final breakdown scene was added for the movie.

In the novel, Captain Trautman, the Green Beret who trained Rambo, arrives to help with the manhunt for “the kid”. In Trautman, the military is represented as a caring individual rather than as a faceless bureaucracy. He chastises Teasle for his sloppy police work and for causing the situation by mis-reading Rambo’s needs, for labeling him as “trouble” rather than as “troubled”. He accepts responsibility, admitting that Rambo is “his boy”, he has trained Rambo to kill, sent him overseas, and brought him back with no skills except killing, and now he has killed many Americans.

In the novel, when the Captain finds Rambo after the shootout in the playground, Trautman “took the top of his head off with this shotgun.” [FB, p. 307]
“What’s it like for you?” Teasle asks him.
“Better than when I knew he was in pain,” Trautman replies.

This scene of military compassion, where Rambo is executed as one would a traitor or a wounded animal, never happens in the movie. Indeed, the says that Kirk Douglas reneged on a contract to play Trautman because he objected to the plot change. He wanted to shoot Rambo. Instead, after Rambo has shot the sheriff and has broken into the police armoury, he is confronted by Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) who role-plays into his hallucination/fantasy: “This mission is over, Rambo. This mission is over.” The Colonel’s challenge breaks through and stops the action; it provides an opening for Rambo to explain why the mission will never be over, the horrific images he lives with, the pieces of his friends he is unable to brush from his body. In a shocking change from the mumbling inarticulate hero “sucking it up”, stitching his own wounds, never letting on that he may be afraid or that anything is wrong, Rambo breaks down and cries at the Colonel’s feet.

The breakdown scene represents a recognition that the mental health issues evident in so many veterans can no longer be dismissed as “personal” weakness and idiosyncrasy. By 1982, a name, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is being applied to the symptoms Rambo exhibits. The wounded protagonist has increased in credibility, and changes to the plot make it easier to accept him as the hero. Indeed, in the movie, Rambo kills no one; he has the weapons, he has the opportunities; he chooses not to kill. He may be more of a victim; the charges against him are trumped up, but he is no longer the killer outlaw of the novel.

In the movie, after the Colonel listens to his breakdown, falls to his knees, lets the broken Rambo embrace him, almost touches him, almost comforts him, he walks Rambo out, in custody, handcuffs and torture scars hidden beneath the officer’s military trench coat. Thus, the armed forces in the movie accept responsibility in a more humane and compassionate way, and cover up the shame.

In First Blood, the movie, the establishment rejects the death penalty, or, in this case, summary execution. And the wounded hero speaks his piece, is heard, and lives to fight again. Ultimately the movie is suggesting that there are alternative solutions, that violence is not the only strategy available. And that bad or troubled behaviour may stem from illness which deserves treatment rather than from moral choices that require punishment.

So changes of characterization and of interpretation in the movie could be the result of the changed context, of the times and of earlier Vietnam movies, but they could also reflect a less American, a more outside, international, or Canadian interpretation, challenging what America was doing both at home and abroad. Of course, Canada has no ethical monopoly on higher order moral reasoning, but as a nation we do choose peace and treatment and rehabilitation over aggression, revenge, and capital punishment. At least so far. The “why?” is more important to us than the “what?”; “why people do things” can be addressed and changed. ©

David Morrell, Rambo’s creator, is a Canadian. Read about how the writer’s background influences his work in Cult Fiction V.

Cult Fiction V: Rambo's Creator

Cult Fiction V: Rambo’s Creator

War is Hell, everyone can agree. But “America as Hell” is a cultural grenade tossed to stir things up on the homefront. However, Rambo’s creator, David Morrell, is a Canadian. Born in 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario, Morrell convinced his pregnant wife to give up her career and move with him to the States in 1966 so that he could study American literature with one of his heroes, Philip Young, at Penn State University. [] Morrell wrote his Masters thesis on Ernest Hemingway and his doctoral dissertation on John Barth. First Blood, his first novel, begun in 1968 and published in 1972, has been translated into eighteen languages. There have been twenty-eight other books since, including four non-fiction titles. More than thirty years after its original publication, First Blood is still in print, an incredible statistic which seems to prove that his Rambo character has reached cult status and continues to attract fans.

When he began the novel, Morrell was inspired by the juxtaposition of Vietnam War news reports and returning soldiers attending his English classes with political protests and race riots in America. He wondered: “What if I wrote a book in which the Vietnam war literally came home to America? . . . With America splitting apart because of Vietnam, maybe it was time to write a novel that dramatized the philosophical division in our society, that shoved the brutality of war right under our noses.” [FB, Introduction, p. viii] Thus, war is hell, and hell is here. So, the artist is asking readers/citizens to imagine what it would feel like if this hell were happening to you.

Although Morrell remained south of the border after he completed his studies and appears to have achieved the American dream, he has never abandoned his Canadian roots. When contacted through his website, Morrell responds:

"I am still a Canadian, but I am also a US citizen. In other words, I have dual citizenship. My Canadian roots very much influenced my writing, particularly with regard to First Blood. When I came to the US in 1966, I knew nothing about Vietnam. I watched [as] the national turmoil about the war reached higher and higher states of frenzy—riots etc. Finally I decided to write a novel in which a small war takes place in the US, a war whose escalation mirrors that of the Vietnam War and involves a returned Medal of Honor winner. I think the story required a writer with some distance from the conflict. For example, as a Canadian I wasn’t in danger of being drafted, so I could observe with some objectivity. It’s a complicated situation."

As a student of literature, Morrell named his hero after a favourite French writer and placed him in settings reminiscent of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. As an outsider in America, Morrell wrote about the nation’s trauma with the luxury of distance and objectivity. Indeed, the story is very challenging of American values for the late 1960s, questioning in symbolic ways America’s choice to fight in Vietnam on the enemy’s own territory. [FB, p. 205] The stance of the US administration and military is equated with the bully tactics and abuse of authority of Chief of Police Teasle. Yet the book itself maintains a balance which the movie abandons. Chapters alternate between Rambo’s and Teasle’s points of view as they take turns being the hunter and the hunted. We learn much more about Teasle’s character, his Korean War-hero past, the disappointment and pain which haunts him, the personal issues that he plays out on the public war-games stage. “[T]he intention was to make him as motivated and sympathetic as Rambo, because the viewpoints that divided America came from deep, well-meant convictions.” [FB, p. x, author’s introduction]

By the time First Blood the novel became First Blood, the movie, things had changed in America. Other movies about Vietnam had been made. Other artists, including other “outsiders”, had become involved in transforming the story from page to screen. ©

Read about the differences between the novel and the film in Cult Fiction IV; explore the possibility that outsiders challenge American values through the arts in Cult Fiction VI.

Cult Fiction VI: Values Conflict--A "Just" War?

Cult Fiction VI—Values Conflict –A “Just” War?

First Blood, the novel, was written by a Canadian who was able to look at America through a frosted lens. First Blood, the movie, is a successful feature film with a surprising Canadian pedigree. The first of the Rambo series, First Blood was a blockbuster, a hit feature film. The film was shot in Canada. Its lead credits describe it as “A Ted Kotcheff Film”. Kotcheff is a famous Canadian director who worked in early CBC television and directed his friend Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Kotcheff’s name is most often seen now on credits for the television crime drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, both new to America, were Executive Producers. The screenwriter credits list Michael Kozoll of Hill Street Blues, William Sackheim, and Sylvester Stallone, based on a novel written by David Morrell. The final song that accompanies the credits is sung by Dan Hill: “It’s a long road / when you’re on your own / and it hurts when they tear your dreams apart.”
“It’s a real war right outside your front door. . . . It’s a long road and it’s hard as hell.”

The novel First Blood is much more violent than the movie yet both are talking, in a symbolic and allegorical way, about American attitudes—the lack of respect for personal boundaries and human rights, and the nation’s aggressive decision to ignore national territories and international jurisdictions and to invade another country far from home. “The final confrontation between Rambo and Teasle would show that in this microcosmic version of the Vietnam war and American attitudes about it, escalating force results in disaster. Nobody wins.” [FB, p. x, author’s introduction] Like Teasle, the United States, for the wrong reasons, chose to fight an unknown enemy, in its own territory, an enemy which history says America in some ways created, without fully realizing what he/they are/were getting into. Thus, the novel challenges the opinions and actions of the establishment while creating a wounded American hero who becomes a martyr to the ideologies of freedom and democracy.

But is it literature? Many who mock or criticize First Blood will admit to never having watched it. They “don’t do” action movies; they abhor violence; they would never kill anything, let alone another human being. Yet democracy relies upon the authorized use of coercive force. In First Blood, the novel, Captain Trautman corrects Chief of Police Teasle with: “You tolerate a system that lets others do it [kill] for you.” [FB, p. 209] So, even if we may not wish to see the ultimate human consequences, to have our attitudes towards the use of force challenged, to experience the hell for ourselves, First Blood warrants a second look as a great feature film made in Canada.

With its literary allusions, symbolic atmosphere, allegorical characters, and serious themes, First Blood warrants a second look, even if you choose to watch it with your eyes covered and the sound muted. It’s a Canadian take on a wounded American hero who went to Hell and came back with a story to tell. First Blood, as its title implies, is a story about the rules of engagement, about respecting human rights. It is a story about attitudes toward authority, about boundaries and jurisdictions, about abuse of power, and accepting responsibility, because whoever draws first blood is responsible for starting the war, for the killing. First Blood has given us a hero who has become iconic, an angry wounded man, alone, alive, and fighting for what he believes. And the issues from which he emerged bombard us daily in the news-report images and the sounds of war. ©

Thursday, September 20, 2007



In one of the vases of tools on my desk, standing tall with the straight-edge and scissors, the letter opener, the exacto knife, the Canadian flag, is a plastic star. The kind you find at a dollar store, silver with rhinestone diamonds embedded along the lines linking its five points and all down the handle. The kind of sparkly thing that attracts my “magpie eye”. A child’s toy really, for a fairy godmother costume. And that’s in a sense why I bought it. As an instructor, a workshop facilitator, I want to impart the magic of words, to tap participants on the head and, Pouf, You are changed forever. Enlightenment. To awaken them to the numinous, the way God’s finger sparks Adam on Michelangelo’s chapel ceiling. The way Tinkerbell sprinkles the Magic Kingdom on television every Sunday evening. The way the turning of the Earth makes us believe that the stars of the whole sky are falling, every August. I watched the Perseid meteor shower once from a boat on Okanagan Lake when both my parents were still alive and both my brothers were there with us. When the world still seemed complete and the sprinkling of stars into reflective lake water whispered, hissed, not of loss but of wonder, at chin-dropping awe, at eye-frying recognition of this beauty within which we live.

Of awakening to this world’s beauty Proust said: It is not in discovering new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. My summer travels took me on a return visit to the Leo Mol Statue Garden in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. With eyes wider-opened, I noticed statues I hadn’t noticed before—the bush pilot, the log-boomers, the wrestling bears, a fiery Moses, finger to the stars, looking like Wordsworth’s Druid on Salisbury Plain. And DA ZAAIER. Da Zaaier. As a Scrabble player, every Zed catches my eye. The phrase must be Dutch, with the double A. The statue is of a farmer with a bag slung over his shoulder, walking (outstanding in his field) and broadcasting seeds. Up closer, I could see the English caption: THE SOWER. And then: 100th Anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch in Manitoba. Celebrating a centennial of a people settling in Canada with the symbol of the sower of seeds seems most appropriate. Da Zaaier. The Sower.

Being “so-o” literal, having an artist’s eye for connection, a human desire for revelation, I stopped short and I took a snapshot for future reference; then, I pondered the juxtaposition for days. Say it out loud. DA ZAAIER must read as DESIRE. What does desire have to do with seeds? Surely not that biological imperative again. Surely not that Desire = Sex = Reproduction (seeds). Desire is so much more; and so not tied to reproduction in my mind, or body. Associations have their own logic. Desire. Longing. For connection. For meaning. For meaningful connection—heart, mind, and body. Foot to earth; eyes to sky. Longing for home. For feeling at home.

When I got home to my computer, I began to explore the DESIRE/SOWER connection. My dictionary is a Book of Revelation. The origin of deSIRE is the Latin DeSIDERare—de meaning from, and SIDERER meaning Star. Literally DESIRE means to await from the stars. Waiting for something? Longing for something? I don’t get it. SEEDS and STARS? Go to CONSIDER, the book hints. This is a LEXICON CACHE; a SYNTAX TREASURE HUNT. CONSIDER? From the Latin CONSIDERARE, to look at closely; to observe attentively, the way we gaze at stars, it implies. Con meaning with, SIDERIS meaning star. Wow. I’m thinking of the Pleiades, a star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, changed into stars by the gods to evade the amorous hunter Orion. Another old story says that the Pleiades are our real home, our original home, our place of origin, and that in our heart we long to return. But is there a literal connection? Are SEEDS really STARDUST? Are we watching, waiting, for the spaceship to take us home? Or is longing merely the seeds of desire within us? Desiring that which we have lost?

I look up SEED. Indo-European, SEI meaning to cast, to let fall. Latin, SERERE, to plant. The Latin for one who plants is SATOR, the sower. Back to the biological again. So my dictionary has given me the word cluster: DESIRE, SIRE, SIREN, CONSIDER, STARS, STARDUST, SEEDS, CAST, SATYR, SOW. Now my brain wants to enfold, to encompass more. What about GRAINS? Are GRAINS SEEDS? Are the GRAINS in GRANITE really SEEDS? OR BETTER yet, STARDUST? Quickly, I check SILICA. From FLINT. From SILEX, SILICIS, for the way it chips, breaks, and falls down. SILICA is the STARDUST winking in the beach sand, signaling, desiring the stars, longing to return home. Art as epiphany; the artist made me see the connection.

I pick up the snapshot of the row of steel bins, granaries, in my best friend’s childhood farmyard, the foxtail grass flashing in the wind, shining in the foreground like shards of fallen fire. At my last workshop, when I handed out the mystery bags, each hiding an individual rock, to practise relating to the elemental, touching the earth, to trigger associations, I asked the participants to brainstorm, to make a word cluster. Of the huge chunk of white granite fused to green/black basalt, a contact zone, a student associated NAPPING. Napping? I’m always fearful they’ll be telling me, This is so boring, I’m falling asleep. (Another reason to go in armed with the wand.) Yes. Knapping, he says. Knap. To chip, to strike, to break off, the way people make arrowheads out of flint. Ah, yes. KNapping. What a great word. Likely Anglo-Saxon, with the K, the KN. Onomatopoetic, the book says, in Old Scots.

And isn’t that the fun of this writing game, this star-trekking, this playing? English is so eclectic, abducting terms from everywhere. The magic is in the origins. Word-napping. Eloping. Acting upon our desire. Scattering seeds.

Sunday, August 19, 2007



It’s after the August long weekend, and I haven’t posted since before July First. My unplanned SUMMER HIATUS was stereotypically BC—going away on a short vacation, recharging after travelling, revelling in the summer music and arts festivals, and hosting the stream of summer visitors. (As Grandma used to call it: managing the Dew Drop Inn.) I did finish and mail four reviews, prepare and present a workshop, and read a couple of books for pure pleasure (Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and his Atonement).

One of BC’s surprise summer visitors dropped into a small community off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island. Borne in her friend Jimmy Pattison’s yacht, American media icon, Forbes Magazine’s most powerful celebrity in the world, OPRAH WINFREY stopped for a short visit in Alert Bay the Friday of the long weekend. Oprah accepted an invitation to a potlatch, made a short speech, shook hands, kissed babies, hugged people, and posed for photographs. A visitation. A star descending, shining in our midst.

Oprah is absolutely one of my heroes. She’s intelligent and compassionate; she laughs, she celebrates, she educates, she models worldly and spiritual generosity. She uses her celebrity and her connections and her wealth to instigate positive change in the world.

But I stopped watching the Oprah show about seven years ago. I admit I do flick in to check what the topic is, and sometimes I’ll stay. Maybe for Dr. Oz. Or for Oprah and Gayle driving across America (because it’s about travel and friendship). Maybe for a good booktalk or author interview. But mostly, not. Not interested. Not interested any more.

I abandoned Oprah as a daily mentor back in 2000 when George Bush charmed the pants off her before his first election. Not that I’m a partisan or anything like that; as a Canadian, I can stand aloof, and peer over the border and shake my head at the shortcomings of their system, painfully aware that they do not even know how we cherry-picked from them when Canada was invented in 1867.

The main reason I abandoned the Oprah show is political, because, by allowing George II to charm her viewers, she played into the stereotype, the argument against extending the franchise to women because we are not smart enough to participate in important decisions, that we will vote emotionally, based on looks and charm, without really searching below the surface for the underlying issues. I’m not saying Oprah’s the only media person who has fallen for this, this dumbing down, but when she did it, back before 9/11, when the election was so close the winner wasn’t known for weeks, the results were pivotal, and have changed the course of world history. It paved the way for a weak president manipulated by interest groups acting out in ways that are illegal in international law and immoral to people who believe that violence against a by-standing nation was an inappropriate response to non-state terrorism.

The second reason that I am no longer a loyal watcher is cultural. Oprah seems like a wonderful person; she is a living embodiment of the American dream of equality of opportunity--that it doesn’t matter where you come from, where you start from; that any woman, by working hard, can become the richest woman in America; those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. (Isn’t this the cultural tenet upon which the American health-care system is based?) Now that Oprah has her program, and a world-wide audience, and her own company, she can push her own agenda. One of her goals seems to be the increased integration of African-American culture into the American mainstream and thus, on to the world screen. This is probably a good thing, and noble of her, thinking about “her People” in the States as well as in Africa. But it can make many shows seem to be just infomercials for other media, American films and Broadway plays. Dream Girls, The Colour Purple, American Idol are not ones I am likely to watch or likely to get to see.

American media culture just isn’t that interesting to me, as a Canadian. I have enough already and I’m not looking for more. I’ll watch APTN whenever I can, for alternate perspectives, and listen to CBC radio for some world news not filtered through America. I do watch some CNN, but I see no evidence of better critical thinking there. The yelling, the presenting of opinion as if it is fact, is really offensive. I do like Anderson Cooper’s take on America, “keeping them honest”, showing how government fails the people, and, by public exposure, trying to shame elected officials into action. His stance highlights more that is great about Oprah, who tends to present the stories from the point of view of the people who are impacted, and tries to empower those people to take control and make change happen.

The fourth reason I’ve abandoned the Oprah show is the excess of pity parties, the emphasis on painful topics such as poor health, crime, irresponsibility, and abuse. I’m uncomfortable with the often not-so-subtle suggestion that a fairy-godmother is going to alight, sprinkle some stardust, and solve all problems by providing a new house or a decorator or a car or an organizer, etc. This emphasis on the charity of individual millionaires may make people feel good, but it does nothing to address the systemic issues which allow or create the inequalities in the first place. So maybe what I react to is the ultra-conservatism, the emphasis on individual responsibility and not on systems analysis and reform.

I really object to the insertion of emotionalism into the criminal justice system, the “public flogging and execution” mentality of the hunt for child molesters. Demonizing pedophiles risks turning them into murderers, the better to avoid detection. It is such a wrong and dangerous message to suggest that putting specific individuals in jail will ensure child safety. Not! Street-proof kids, protect them and teach them to protect themselves. No one can be “the catcher in the rye”. Analyze the origins of the perversions; every pedophile had a mother. What went wrong? Address the causes before the symptoms appear. Thoughts precede actions. If she chose to do so, Oprah could make the connection between the attitudes and errors of thinking of a pedophile and of an invading nation—the arbitrariness, the lack of empathy, the solipsism, the issues of control and being controlled by an outside force.

The final reason I abandoned the Oprah show is reruns, although one benefit of reruns is that they remind us of the cultural impact Oprah has in America. She introduces phrases that become part of pop culture—“you go, girl”, “this I know for sure”, “it takes a village”, “when we know better, we do better”. And she recognizes talent and gives others opportunity. Oprah has introduced stars such as Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and her annual garden party celebrating African-American women has become an American “event”.

As Canadians, don’t we have our own culture, our own myths and icons? Can’t we leave America to its own choices and concentrate on the issues at home? I wish we had a Canadian Oprah who would show us things we don’t want to look at about Canadian culture. Marilyn Denis does a comfortable job out of Toronto, but even she is bored with the repeat themes of decorating, makeovers, fashion, and food on CityLine. Are all women that limited, that only these superficials matter? CBC’s Gill Deacon is still finding her C-legs. She did a roundtable about the Slate article that attacked Oprah’s values for starting a school for girls in South Africa rather than doing something at home in America. They talked about the dumbing down, but I didn’t hear any mention that Oprah-bashing is woman-bashing. Donald Trump deserves values-scrutiny way more than Oprah, but who ever tries to challenge him? (Well, maybe Rosie, but look where that got her.) And Oprah-bashing, criticizing what the rich choose to do with their money, is really America-bashing, bashing the American dream. Oprah seems to want to make African Americans the same as rich white Americans, to even out the inequities rather than to think about the defining values of her nation.

My reasons for abandoning the Oprah show are about me, not about Oprah’s right to make the choices she makes. So what if they’re not always to my taste? I’m not even her target audience; no big deal. I still think she is the best and most human being on television. I respect her values. I do still buy the Oprah magazine, and is on my favourites list, mainly because being able to get the recipes off the Internet allows me to recycle the magazines, which I do once a year. That way, I’m saving a few Canadian trees while letting more readers enjoy Oprah’s wisdom. The glossy pages of the August edition are a perfect souvenir of a summer surprise. Who knows when she will drop back to BC in person again?

Sunday, June 17, 2007



I whipped into the city to relax and visit and borrow a fast Internet connection. I live in a province where people go INTO the city to go to parks and to the beach. Walking downhill, down to the water, the bus that almost ran me down at the crosswalk was smiling and flashing SORRY SORRY SORRY across its forehead. And I thought, How Canadian! Like the way I habitually say THANK YOU to a canned drink dispensing machine, when the cold pop can kerPLUNKS.

The Seabus was disgorging its load of commuters just as I attempted to cross the walkspace so I had to wait and wait until the crowd thinned and the halt and the lame were sparse enough and slow enough to let me pass. My coffee cup was burning my fingers so I found a bench on the quay to sit and drink. I was waiting for film to be developed. Sorry. That’s so techno-obsolete, but soon, soon I’ll take the plunge and choose a digital camera.

Walking back up the mountain, I paused to rest at a convenient bus stop bench in the middle of the rise, hoping I wouldn't have to wave off a bus. Sorry to you!

And I stopped to take a picture of Mother Nature's garbage, giant hot pink blossoms littering the grass and the hedge beneath some tall flowering tree. Like the wild rose petals on my great room floor in the morning; the flowers are ephemeral, so delicate, so sweet-scented, so short-lived, but I have to bring some inside every June. It was the flowering trees that overwhelmed me when I first moved to this province. Whole trees in bloom. HO-LY. And this is Canada?

The Seven Wonders of Canada were announced this weekend: Pier 21, Old Quebec, Niagara Falls, the igloo, the canoe, the Rockies, and the prairie sky. BINGO. I got them all, or I would have if I had voted. Not that it was meant to be a horserace or something to place a bet on. Competition isn’t the point; it’s the excuse such ventures offer for us to come together, to strut our stuff, and to puff up our pride. Contests like this allow us to do something that we long to do, but something which in some ways we are still awkward doing—showing our LOVE, saying how much we LOVE this country.

My slow connection isn’t the real reason I didn’t vote. I just felt bad about voting, or not voting, for some nominations just because I’d never experienced them myself. And a majority vote isn’t really FAIR, because the more remote wonders would surely have had fewer visitors than say, Niagara, or Pier 21. Pier 21 hadn’t really been in my thoughts before, but when I think about it, probably both of my grandmothers arrived there, within a year or two of each other, a year or two before World War I, to begin new lives half a continent apart. It’s true; we do all have ARRIVAL stories.

Two on my STILL TO SEE Life List didn’t make it to the final seven, but both are World Heritage Sites and I’m still determined to see them someday. Haida Gwaii, BC, the misty isles, and Gros Morne, NL, where two tectonic plates almost meet. Bookends. Wondrous bookends for this beautiful land. But that’s just me. Wonder and books will always be connected. Like Wonder and Nature. Sorry, if that’s just SO CANADIAN.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring

It has been quite a while since I had time to sit and think. The rites of spring seem to include end-of-semester and exam-time stress, weekend work, administration, and typical institutional SNAFUs. Soon. Courses will all be over soon.

My rhodos are in full glory, plus the late tulips, and the dandelions are dug. Dogwood blossoms like mini-moons light the new green of the wildwood. Picking annuals for the hanging baskets and deck pots was fun; I planted them in spite of the anxiety about frost. Today I was driving home through a blizzard of pink; strong winds had ripped the petals from the plum trees and were blowing them in curls and swirls along the grey pavement and into drifts along the curb. The slinking curves tracing the breath of the wind are like flakes gliding down iced roads in the coldest of prairie winters, their white on silver equally as beautiful in a yin and yang sort of way.

A bundle of books for review arrived; I finished three; my favourite so far is The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks by Robert Bringhurst who points out, in one of the lectures, that the word “human” has the same root as “humus”, meaning “of the earth”. I like the idea that “humans” are “earthlings” and “humanities” are “earth studies”. I’m rewarding myself with a week to read the bookclub book—Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Loving it. A Ulysses/Mrs. Dalloway third person stream of consciousness. One day in the life of a London neurologist named Henry Perowne--an intelligent, articulate, “a-motional” scientist, a biological determinist, whose every speech and action is driven by intention. Who is connected to the world through television news, driving, and shopping, and to his wife, his poet daughter, his mother in the home, colleagues, patients, the men who crashed into his Mercedes, the squash partner he attempts to dominate, his blues-playing son. It is a luxurious read, topped with the luxury of reading outside on the warm deck. The yard still smells heavenly green.

In the interim between blogs, since Imas was news, there was another mass shooting on a campus and more discussion of how to protect the innocents and a little bit about how to help the mentally ill. Angry disaffected men shot the Kennedys, Dr. King, Malcolm X, John Lennon, students from a Texas university tower, at Montreal’s Ecole Polytech, at Columbine high school, at Dawson College, at Virginia Tech. Not to mention the massacres in New Zealand, and the kindergarten children in Scotland. And those who bombed the Air India flight and the Oklahoma federal building. And trashed the WTC towers. It is as if these guys know the rules to some perverted game. Celebrities score high; for ordinary victims, you have to rack up the hits to grab media attention, to make the news. Why? What does it mean? How can we prevent it? What has to change?

The best thing I heard in my inter-blog days was an interview on CBC radio with the psychotherapist Barbara Coloroso. She is an expert on bullying [The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander] and has just written a book on genocide, Extraordinary Evil; she makes connections. She says it is a mistake to view bullying as a “conflict” and to call in the participants as if they are equals for a conflict resolution, with the mediator trying to maintain objectivity. I’ve seen this with television therapists dumping on a partner struggling to free her/himself from the domination and disrespect of a bullying spouse, and not getting a fair hearing from the “objective” doctors. Giving each side equal respect and benefit of the doubt condones the bullying and re-victimizes the victim for attempting to stand up for and defend him/herself. Everyone knows that bullies seek out those they perceive as weaker, those who have no backup; often, bullies push their targets to react just to get them into trouble. Even calling the police and threatening charges can be part of the bully’s repertoire. Is building a bomb or picking up a gun the same pathology? All show lack of empathy, lack of respect, cruelty, yet there seems to be some difference in the displaced anger.

It makes me think too about the rules of hockey, the players who overreact to a bully, the relationship between bullying and enforcing, and between enforcing and the bench—the expectations of coaches and managers, of owners and of fans wanting to win the Cup. How to be a winner and how to be a man. Checking. Shooting. Aggression. Violence. Inflicting pain on others in order to achieve your goals. It’s the way the game is played. Yet it seems a pretty safe bet that none of the disaffected shooters ever played hockey. This could be a clue.

I’m still reading Saturday on the deck. Set in February, 2003, post-9/11, Henry’s flights of memory and diagnosis and analysis are triggered by sensory experiences sparking something chemical within his brain. And in his world, that’s how everything happens. Chemical and physical signals trigger all actions, including violence. When a professor tried to teach his daughter that “insanity is a social construct”, Henry took her to a locked psych ward and cured her with evidence to the contrary. To a biological determinist neurologist, madness is chemical and physical, not something that will disappear if we start to think differently about maladaptive behaviours. I feel myself not wanting to finish the book, wanting to stay in Henry’s world as long as possible. It is somehow comforting to know that there are men like him in the world. Oh, right. This is fiction.

The wind which had been blowing the pink drifts came up stronger than ever and I went inside to avoid flying trees and branches. I slid open the window, the better to hear it with, and to invite in the scent of rain on wet moss and earth. And the phone rang with news of the arrival of a baby on one of the young branches of our family tree, a girl with a beautiful green name, Jade. I wrapped the gift I had already bought on spec, a pink cardigan with a pink flower, and tucked in a card saying “welcome to this world”.

Collage Workshop

Collage Workshop

The Collage Workshop two Saturdays ago was wonderful. Organized by the art gallery for Arts and Culture Week, twelve of us sat at a big table cutting and pasting for seven hours straight. This is an art form I love, making something out of nothing, recycling, appropriating the beautiful images from magazines and using them for something other. And there were twelve totally different results. It’s the creative process that interests me. Why do this? Because it’s fun and challenging. What to do with the end project when it’s made? Well, in this case, they are framed and hung in the gallery for a while, and then ready to hang at home. So the collage will have a decorative element, and must be appropriate for public display. No problem. But what to do? What image? What colours? What will it look like? What will it say?

We looked at examples in the gallery’s Collage Exhibit, which included some three-dimensional sculptures. The facilitator suggested that we could pick a favourite photograph and “transcribe” it into a different medium; we could make a montage of words or images; we could do something inspired by the special papers or the clippings we find. I checked the list of ideas I had before the workshop and decided to go with the Breakthrough engraving. I don’t know the artist’s name but I think it’s an engraving from the Renaissance, of a man on his knees crawling away from the civilized fields and the one tree and bursting through the circle of the globe into a light-filled heaven. I call it Breakthrough but it’s probably meant to be a “pilgrim’s progress” genuflecting, prostrating oneself into heaven.

I know I respond especially to colour; I found myself collecting clippings of gold, sand, white, and blue. An abandoned cheese tray was the template for the circles. My collection of bride images yielded only one suitable clipping. I found a beautiful bare tree in shades of midnight blue. When I tried to explain what I had done to some at the table, I realized that in my “restorying” of this image, a female figure is moving in the opposite direction, up from a white seashell beach through music into an earthworld of darkness and pain and beauty. I cannot say that evolution was my intended theme; it was just that I couldn’t find a figure facing the other direction. That might be biological determinism, as our magazines are all laid out to open on the right. Whatever the reason, in my collage, earthlings emerge. Such is the creative process.

I check my dictionary. Collage: a kind of surrealist art in which bits of flat objects, newspapers, cloth, pressed flowers, etc., are pasted together in incongruous relationship for their symbolic or suggestive effect. Montage: the art or process of making a composite picture by bringing together into a single composition a number of different pictures or parts of pictures and arranging these, as by superimposing one on another, so that they form a blended whole while remaining distinct. Why didn’t I look these up sooner? The title of my montage is ReStorying.

The dictionary also reminds me that my favourite medium is words.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Verge

On the Verge

I’m on the verge of cancelling my cable television—at least for a “summer hiatus” and not solely out of spite for the fact that Coronation Street has been usurped for the hockey playoffs.

What exactly is a verge? Something like a curb? But we use it as if it means an edge. So, my Webster’s says, a verge is: a rod, wand, or stick carried at the beginning of a procession. Nope. The edge, brink, or margin of something. OK. The line, border, boundary enclosing something, especially something inside the circle. OK.

This week on cable television CNN the big American story is “Shock Jock Don Imus Fired for Shocking Words”. A shock jock is by definition a disc jockey who tries to be edgy, to push the boundaries. But rather than pushing the boundaries of thought, they seem to make a virtue out of pushing the boundaries of taste. Like the attention-seeking neediness of an adolescent class clown, these guys (all right, there are a couple of gals in there too, like Dr. Laura and Ann Coulter), these commentators see which powerless person or group they can insult today and how much that will increase their ratings with their listeners. Imus, about whom I would never have heard if he hadn’t been a guest on Larry King, insulted a women’s basketball team with comments, ripped from hip-hop lyrics, that were racist, sexist, ageist, and elitist. (He was laughing at their skin colour, their tattoos, their hair, their looks, and their assumed sexual availability). The media debate is about where the line is and did he cross it. About whether the line shifts depending on which race you belong to. About the unintended effects upon the victims of the so-called jokes--“These girls didn’t need this stress at exam time when they should be celebrating a great basketball year”. About being a good person but doing a bad thing (Imus’ defense). About being fired from two networks, CBS & MSNBC, for doing what he has been hired and paid to do for years. (Imus was fired after the protest from Black American media people prompted advertisers to pull out, not because of any ethical guideline or verge of decency or human dignity he crossed.) Finally, the media debate is about corporations making billions of dollars selling the same words to white teens buying hip-hop music.

This is such an American story, reflecting adolescent attitudes and focussing on celebrity and personality rather than on anything important. The shock jock phenomenon puts “freedom of speech” above all other American freedoms. In Canada, our values and our laws are different. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (celebrating twenty-five years this week) guarantees freedom of opinion and freedom of expression but it also guarantees equality and the protection of human dignity. It stresses that tolerance defines a multi-cultural country. In the same way the Charter makes it illegal for any one group to pass a law which would take away the human rights of another group, so too we expect that no individual, no matter how much he or she wags about ‘free speech’, would be allowed to disparage the human dignity of another individual or group (with one exception, if it is said in parliament). We expect people to be tolerant and respectful. We expect that, if a person is prejudiced and the prejudice leads them to discriminate against others, they will not be allowed to do so while holding public positions of authority. We do not encourage the public expression of intolerance and prejudice (perhaps Don Cherry is an exception); we do not seek out or encourage the public expression of unprocessed anger (with the exception of those television stations which specialize in sticking microphones in the faces of grieving victims). We have laws against hateful speech.

Laws of libel and slander are similar in both countries; lawsuits are only successful if it can be proven that the ‘free speaker’ INTENDED to cause harm. Intending to cause harm is not the same as intending to grab media attention to increase your ratings and to bring in more advertising dollars by seeming outrageously ‘free’. Does free speech mean freedom without responsibility to others? Does it mean the freedom to pursue the almighty dollar no matter who gets hurt? Does it mean the freedom to perpetuate the worst of the way we used to be--hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist, ageist, and “other”-phobic? Not in Canada, please. I can exercise the freedom to change channels or to sever the cable completely.

Webster lists seven noun definitions for verge, covering everything from watch-making and roofing to feudal law. And the verb to verge means to lean towards, to be in transition, to approach. And a verger is the person who carries the verge. The word arrived into English through Old French from the Latin for twig, virga. So this is the best reason of all for cancelling cable. All those untended virgas all over my lot, and all the sprightly dandelion greens hiding beneath them. And the glorious spring smell. Here in BC they call it the balm of Gilead, which is a fancy name for the smell of cottonwoods in spring, when they exude resin. It is so beautiful, it feels as if I’m on the verge of bursting with too much pure pleasure.

Friday, April 6, 2007


JUNQUE—Creating a So-called Life

Good Friday, and I'm going to a friend's for supper. Yesterday was cheque day, so I permitted myself to cruise the secondhand stores again. This is a bit of discipline for me; I have no money, but years of habit mean I still crave “retail therapy” for fun and profit. So I limit my cravings to the secondhand (junque, thrift) stores and garage sales. It is a throwback to “hunting and gathering”, I am sure. If I had more productive hobbies, it would be something like gardening—growing flowers, producing vegetables. The lack of topsoil and the rocky creek bed that is my lot is my excuse. The last time I visited Winnipeg, my best friend Karen and I hit every junque store in the city. It was a great day. Even though we live 3000 kilometres apart, we still stay connected. The time she visited me here, last spring break, was one of the highlights of my life.

Junquing (as is antiquing) is also a form of treasure hunting, and today was a good day. At New2You I found a paperback book that is the script for FARGO, one of my favourite movies, because of the humour and the characters and the twisted plot and, to be truthful, the incredibly beautiful snow and blizzard scenes. Minnesota and North Dakota are just American versions of southern Manitoba; even the accents are similar. I feel so at home in Fargo (the movie). It has a great introduction about story-telling by Ethan, one of the Coen brothers. It is not easy to find scripts. The only other one I have is PULP FICTION, another of my favourite movies, which has absolutely nothing to do with Manitoba. Anyway, I bought the script and an elegant looking mug in my new great-room colours, for a quarter.

Then I went to the art gallery to check out the collages again. I spoke to the artist-on-duty, a wonderful painter from Agassiz, who said that she often works on ideas in her head for three to ten years before the actual painting on canvas emerges. This was reassuring, as I have only 22 days left before the collage workshop. These are the ideas I am mulling so far: a personalized version of the Breakthrough engraving; something about the 200th anniversary of Simon Fraser’s shooting the river; and maybe an introvert/extrovert triptych. If I do some prep, maybe I can make more than one at the workshop. New Idea: maybe I could work my two article themes into a collage—Lions in Vancouver, Who Shot Rambo? I’d really need a colour printer to do that effectively. I have already gathered my gold flakes, old collages (placemats/book covers, canisters), illustrated poems--Bridal Falls, stickers. The Breakthrough engraving would make a good pattern. I've found a Gary Snyder quote that fits it. “I go to meet that blundering, clumsy, beautiful, shy world of poetic, archetypal, wild intuition that’s not going to come out into the broad daylight of the rational mind but wants to peek in.” (from a poetry calendar my friend Carol gave me). I must remember my visuals files and other stickers.

After the art gallery, I walked to the community services thrift store. The volunteer clerk was the woman who had the first garage sale of the season (where I grabbed her coffee cup and spilled coffee all over the table). Neither of us mentioned this detail, but I did ask her whether the square plates had sold. She said there were still some there; pause; so I asked “And are you having another garage sale?” to which she said, “Yes, in May” so I said “I’ll watch for the announcement.” I need to see them in good light and to pick ones that will look good on top of my Solitude pattern (Mikasa) dishes—white with a black and platinum ring. I love dishes even though I rarely entertain any more. It has to do with being a Hestia woman. ( see Jean Bolen, Goddesses in Every Woman).

Tenth anniversary of the Art Gallery; so crowded I had to leave. But not before I had checked out the Backroom, the Collage Display. I remember On Grandma’s Back Step with kids, house wall, and birch logs woodpile. A globe with I Am A Rock, No Man Is an Island, & Marshall McLuhan quotes. Mount Hope computer enhanced series with close-ups and day/night views. A Tower. Boxes. A corrugated cardboard exercise painted silver and a brown one “free to a good home”, both very pleasing. A “garden” of giant abstract flowers (made of round shrimp trays, I hear). A clothesline collage. Some photos re-done in paper—waves and beaches. And a yellowed collage newsprint behind a red filter. And a collage definition of Collage which I wish I had copied down. Now I’m totally confused. Too many choices. I won’t know what to choose to do, at the gallery’s collage workshop which I registered for for April 28.

This morning I braved the horrendous traffic (two highways closed; spring break weekend) to go to the FIRST garage sale (GS) of the season, on Skylark. I had to look up where the street was (but that’s partly why I love garage saleing, learning the streets, and inexpensive entertainment). I have a $2 limit, unless some special circumstances make an object irresistible for me. I never go for the start time (too crowded, too much rushing of tables and fighting for bargains). It was a good one (GS), with a lot of variety and even some new stuff. I bought a new sheet that hadn’t been unfolded for $1.50; black and white looking gray with red surprises, which I will use for re-decorating. I’ve been trying to switch the great-room colours from forest green to blacks, grays, and taupes, with scarlet surprises. I also bought a small black ceramic vase, for the colour, and as part of my vase collection which is still mostly in boxes. The embarrassing part was when I grabbed this large pottery coffee mug (on my list, grande size) and spilled hot coffee all over the table display, because it was the owner’s morning coffee, and not for sale. The second embarrassment was when I was leaving there was this horrible smell and steam wafting off my car hood so I popped it and looked but could see nothing out of the ordinary. (What did I expect to see I’m not sure? But there were no flames, or bubbling oil puddles, etc.) A guy was walking to his car and I saw him twitch his nose so I asked him: Can you smell that? Is it my car? He was polite and helpful and said, I can smell it and it’s not your car, as it was here before you got here; I can’t figure out where it’s coming from. But that was all the info I needed. As long as I’m not going to explode, or burst into flames. . . I waved and smiled as I made a Uie and headed back to the crowded highway and Exit 170.

It’s a good day on television too, as March 17 seems to be more and more an Irish, American, and Canadian celebration day. Bravo Channel 43 has an all-Ireland film day. Early in the morning it was something called The Last September? about the Black & Tans and British occupying army around WWI. Then Dancing at Lughnasa with Meryl Streep; I’ve seen it before and some famous writer wrote it, but I’m still not clear about the story. Women’s tough lives in papist-1937 Ireland, pagan rites, madness, irresponsible men. Then it was Far and Away with Tom and Nicole; I didn’t realize it was so much set in Ireland, in the 1890s, and their running away to Boston where patterns repeat themselves. Way too much boxing and wrestling for my taste. I only remember seeing the land rush scene before, so I guess that’s why I didn’t think it was set elsewhere. Lots of famous faces (Clint, Colm) but characters seem a bit cartoonish. I guess that is true to the American stereotype-Irish. The ones (Irish movies) I would like to see again are Ryan’s Daughter (Robert Mitchum, Julie Christie), The Commitments, and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, because I can’t remember the story (but still love Sean Connery). I’d like to see for the first time the Liam Neilson political bio, was it called Michael Collins? And I loved the one In the Name of the Father, with Daniel Day Lewis, about the wrongly convicted / falsely imprisoned, but there wasn’t a lot set outside England. The prison scene of the fire memorial is fantastic.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Rivers and Bridges

Rivers and Bridges

I was born in Rivers, Manitoba. I love the sound of it—borne in rivers. I grew up near Oak River, Manitoba; I have ties, emotional and ancestral, to the Kettle River, and now I live along the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. I graduated from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English and History; Certificate in Education; Master of Arts in English (Canadian Literature). I have a Permanent Professional Teaching Certificate.

I have travelled much of Canada, from Whitehorse, Yukon and Vancouver, BC to Montreal and Quebec City; Newfoundland and the ancestral home in New Brunswick are still on my life TO DO list. I’ve been to western, northern, and central states, and to the southern tip of Florida (to see Hemingway’s Key West, of course). I’ve visited Ireland (Dublin, Tullamore, Mullingar, Clonmacnoise, Galway, & Clara, County Offaly; don’t you just love the sounds of them?), Cornwall (Land’s End, Tintagel), and Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Peterhead, the Isle of Skye). I have worked in rural, northern, and urban Canada, in education, social services, and corrections, before devoting myself to writing. It took me a while to realize that what I was really doing was collecting stories.

My passions include narrative, the literary and visual arts, photography, human rights, nature, spirit, and Canadian identity. I love words and word play, and Scrabble. If I weren’t a boring ex-teacher and writer, I imagine myself as a stand-up comedienne. (People laugh when I tell them that, as I am the most un-funny person they have ever met.) Who makes me laugh the hardest? Norm Macdonald. I also admire: Jim Carrey, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Shawn Majunder, the Indo-Newfie, and in his own perverted way, Sean Cullen. And Billy Connelly. Oh yes, and Steve Burgess, because he was born in Rivers too. I don’t know him, but I follow his columns in The

For music, give me Lyle, Loreena, and Leonard (Lovett, McKennitt, and Cohen), Neil Young, Jim Byrnes, and Jann Arden. My next purchase will be Tom Waits. I watch way too much television—-news, traffic reports, CNN,
Coronation Street, Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds, Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, Heartbeat, and House. And of course, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. If I’m not watching television, the radio is always on—CBC only. Radio One. The last movies I went to see: the Leonard Cohen documentary I’m Your Man, made in Australia, the Prairie Home Companion, and Capote (shot in Winnipeg). My favourite actor is the guy who played Hamish Macbeth, and Hitler, and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, and The Full Monty, and Trainspotting, and Angela’s Ashes. It’s coming . . . RC, Carlyle, Robert Carlyle! And Juliette Binoche, especially in The English Patient. And Judi Dench, especially in Mrs. Brown. I re-watched recently The Lion King and The Last Emperor, for research. The next movies I want to see will be: The Queen and Casino Royale.

I read about one book a week, some of them for reviews. I just read The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacob; I think our book club will be discussing it next. We went to the launch. Before that, I reviewed a book of lit crit, Margaret Laurence’s Epic Imagination. Margaret Laurence is my favourite writer, partly because the places and the people she wrote about are “my people”. The Diviners is my favourite novel. I also enjoyed Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You, which covers similar themes of adult female emancipation and self-actualization. I also just finished Nicole Kraus’ The History of Love and have just started Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Both are wonderful. I have several manuscripts circulating and I’m working on a short story about the Green Man.

I tutor every day and I spend too much time at my computer, sometimes just playing Solitaire. It helps me to switch channels in my muddy stream of consciousness. The river’s current is swift. “I have been a bridge for the crossing over of three score rivers.” I can’t remember where I found this quote but I love the sound of it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bully For You

Bully for You

Can you believe it? I just heard it on the news--that still at least a third of the school districts (meaning countless numbers of individual schools) in our province have not yet drafted and implemented a no-tolerance-for-bullying policy, after all this time and all this talk?

Why could this be?

Denial? We have no bullying here?

Ignorance? That’s not bullying! We haven't yet clarified the difference between freedom to speak, freedom to express personal opinion, legitimate evaluation and bullying.

Apathy? Is this our job? Will it be on the exam?

Fear? If we acknowledge that it exists, then what do we do?

Fear? Where does the buck stop? Bullying of student on student? Bullying of teacher on student? Bullying of student(s) on teachers? Bullying of adult on adult? Parent on teacher? Coworker on coworker? Supervisor on worker? Administration on supervisor?

Bullying occurs on all these levels. Bullying is abuse--abuse of the fundamental human right to dignity and respect. Bullying reflects an attitude that fear rules, that might is right, that power equals dominance. Anti-bullying builds upon countering fear, knowing where to go for help and support, clarifying existing rules and positive expectations, drafting codes of conduct, reinforcing respect for rules, laws, and individual conscience. Discussing universal ethical principles. Empowering individuals.

If I were a principal, I would:

  • Call for volunteers and form a committee to draft an anti-bullying policy.
  • Insist that this committee include representatives from students, teachers, parents, administrators.
  • Insist that they collect or I would provide them with the relevant background information—CCC, School Act, Charter, District and School Mission statements, examples already in effect, etc.
  • Set them a reporting deadline.
  • Explain that their recommendations will be brought to an all-school assembly and workshopped with everyone who has an interest before any policy is finalized.
  • Add that the policy should include recommendations for how to implement it to ensure success.
  • Add that you expect them to use a problem-solving model and to demonstrate all the characteristics of critical thinking in their explorations, beginning with a clear definition of bullying behaviours, an exploration of who bullies and why, and ending with clear guidelines on confronting and countering bullying behaviours at all levels--individual, family, groups, classrooms, staff rooms, principal’s office, and the criminal justice system.
  • Suggest that you expect the range of bullying includes everything from Columbine and teachers convicted of crimes against students to shoving, name-calling, and subtle exclusions.
  • Suggest that their policy recommendations will be based upon a clearly articulated positive description of what behaviour is expected and what social atmosphere is the ideal for their school.


Helen Humphreys. COVENTRY . HarperCollins, 2008. A story of Harriet and Maeve who meet at the beginning of WWI and reconnect the night Cov...