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Guided Tour, Subscription Drive, and a Birthday Bucket

One of these little people was me. (Aren't white babies CUTE?) This is just a nudge to read below-the-page-break.

One of these little people was me. (I am the upright one, but I’m not sure I want to know what was in my mouth, either.) This is just a nudge to encourage you to continue below the Read-More button. Trust me: we’re still cute.

[8-minute read if you love me, 3 if you’re still not sure. This will soon make sense to you.]

August is yearning to become September. The world wants to go back to school. (I do, don’t you?) Naturally, every time I prepare to post something here on JHdotCOM, I do go back to school, figuring out some of what I think I think and what I’m nearly sure that I feel. To “see what I say,” as one writer put it.

What immediately follows is a guided tour¹ of this virtual place — good to see you! make yourself at home! and a shameless attempt to nudge you into subscribing to the writing I scatter around it. See the command in the upper right corner? Don’t be afraid to obey it. Thanks for coming. (And please remember to shut the door when you leave.)

¹ Wait, you’re an old friend? Skip down to the ‘Read More’ button if you already know your way around. I had an August birthday. I wrote about it, and have decided to share some of my restlessness, doubt and inextinguishable intentions. You’re welcome.

So, THE TOUR:

Just below where you are right now – in the “At First Glance” section of the site – I most recently was reporting on someone about whom I’ll write more, or call me a procrastinator. (Quick! This is an emergency — get this man a procrastinator!) Marilynne Robinson is a superb writer of luminous and sharply spirited fiction and coolly brilliant essays on everything from science and religion to the culture of fear. (Libraries. Writing. Democracy. Liberty. Grace, too.²) And farther down the “AFG” queue is another sort of celebration: the appearance of my 700th Web-log post. [UPDATE: Not long after this post, the site registered its 30,000th page view, which could be construed as a YUUUGGE number. Just yuge.]

² Bonus points if you got the Tragically Hip song reference there. Your reward is in your heart.

Over yonder on the right, in the “It’s All About Sports!” section (just below the SO EASY TO SUBSCRIBE IT MIGHT AS WELL BE FREE area), I wrote earlier in August about Ottawa’s Carleton University and its brilliant, undersung dynasty of a men’s basketball program, after the Ravens had chaffed the Wichita State Shockers. There, I predicted that the Ravens would finish 6-0 against their American NCAA guests. Last night, they proved me right with their second conquest of the St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans from downstate New York. I also wrote, and not for the first time, about the wondrous women of Canada’s Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro. (Hey, that’s all over now, isn’t it!)

Just below my playground excitements is a collection called “He Said/She Said”, which doesn’t just fire out an endless stream of out-of-context bons mots but meditates on them. (Marilynne Robinson will be making more appearances there.) I just shared a beauty on solitude from American writer Fenton Johnson, and as usual tried to set it up so that readers know where it came from and why it got my attention. And just before THAT, I quoted something profoundly simple from the dying (but not fading away) Canadian rock idol/poetic conscience Gord Downie of the band The Tragically Hip. They just played what is likely their last concert together, and (most of) a nation is still talking about it over a week later.

The fourth and last section, “On Second Thought”, doesn’t get frequent treatment, but I did throw in some Howdy Poetry about a month back, which is a rarity (and not only because it references my long-departed Dad). “OST” is generally for pieces that I’ve sweated over for longer periods.

And would you consider, now that you know your way around, subscribing to this thing? ‘Cause it’s so easy and FREE and everything. Okay, no more nagging.

TOUR ENDS.

And now here’s the Birthday Thing, which got away from me. I was surprised how personal it became – I blame my little sister as much as possible, have from her cradle days – and so you may or may not be keen to carry on. As Neil Gaiman sometimes warns of his blog posts, Contains ME. This has quite a LOT of (possibly self-absorbed) me, actually, but I decided to run it here below the “Are You SURE You Want to Read More of This Stuff?” break. Some of you may identify with the daunting feeling of Another Trip ‘Round the Sun, another non-youthful number attached to your biographical file. Birthday Blues. This one hit me hard, about two thirds of the way through August, right when and how I was afraid it might.

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Gord Downie (on the way, and on the way out)

[2-minute read]
On the (last?) tour, rockin' hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

On the (last?) tour, rockin’ hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

“Canada’s unofficial poet laureate” is what many call Gordon Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Thirty years in to singing — he had, and still has, one of the best set of pipes among rock’s leading men — and growling and screaming and talking his enigmatic and multi-layered lyrics, at least one music writer insists on placing him in the lyrical pantheon with Bob Dylan and “post-Graceland Paul Simon”. Downie is a poet — yes, there is a published poetry collection — and there are many phrases that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can sing along with him, as they have been on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, the one that the band has never said is a farewell.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

But Downie is dying of inoperable brain cancer. He is not the caged stage lion he once was, and there were times in last night’s final show of the tour, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, when we weren’t entirely sure he was going to make it through to the end of the planned setlist. Anyway, here’s the thing: Downie is still a manic stage presence, and he delivered nearly three hours worth of rock ‘n’ roll slamdance poetics, but he’s a quiet dude. Famously private, he had little to say to his adoring fans in Kingston and a national TV audience, even on a night like that. It’s all about the songs, and his band.

But he did tell this little story:

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HimBits: Poems on a Man I Never Knew

[2-minute read, tops]
Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

I was subtly slain by a friend’s quick response to an end-of-July piece I wrote for a trio of birthdays: one was my big brother’s, which immediately followed that of a sorely missed coach and friend, which in turn was the day after the anniversary of my long-dead father’s entry into the world in 1911. My buddy Buck had known them all, for nearly as long as he’s known me, and he was especially moved by the paragraphs about my Dad. He slipped a dagger between my ribs with one brief, benign sentence: “In the years I’ve known you, you’ve never spoken about him.”

Really? Come on! That can’t possibly be true, forgetful and faithful friend! I said to myself, or sin-covering words to that useless effect. Of course, the absolute truth of the thing doesn’t matter a bit, and besides, in that same piece I did confess that, other than oblique and occasional references, I had never written about my father in the fog-bound annals of my Blogdom.

But as a kid – and, incidentally, inspired back then by teenaged forays into poetry that buddy Buck had startled me awake by making – I did write some rarely shared, bemused poems about my Dad. They were clumsy, but had a good heart. I reworked them 17 years later, and they were read by, I believe, three or four people other than me. Prompted by the point of Buck’s gentle stiletto, I took another look at them, and now have officially pronounced them Not Awful. I decided to give them a little air.

I couldn’t help playing with them a bit, but here are two poems about a Dad, mine – businessman, father of five, steadfast husband, demon-fighter, melancholic, man of principle and provision – nearly 40 years gone and still a mystery to me.

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Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Dorothy Parker (nastily, on writing and action)

I was writing a blog post, prompted by a prodding sense of injustice (and by

Check out the (apocryphal?) story of her being able to crack wise even with a bland word like "horticulture".

Check out the (apocryphal?) story of her being able to crack wise even with a bland word like “horticulture”.

the jabbing forefingers of two friends). It was about the ongoing imprisonment of seven Baha’is in Tehran jails for the most lunatic of perceived crimes. It felt good to do something, but I was plagued by a looming appreciation of the void between the high sincerity of my action and the narrow scope of my influence. I felt a little like the acid-penned lit-wit Dorothy Parker, who wrote this “Song of Perfect Propriety” as a roaring declaration of desire, followed immediately by a meek admission of the narrow confines of female possibility in her time. It’s funny, smart and more than a little laugh-so-you-don’t-cry. This was going to be my readers’ Hey, You Read the Whole Bloody Thing! reward for getting to the end of the piece on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, but it didn’t fit no matter which way I turned it.

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Sanai (on pearls, swine, and patience)

Jesus Christ, when he made the famous statement Cast not pearls before swine, must have meant something like “Hey buddy, don’t waste your breath. No sense talkin’ if there’s nobody listenin’.” Something like, “Speak not until ye obtain a hearing”. Something like, Don’t let a precious thing be plopped down into the porking feedlot of distraction.

Sanai, I read recently, put it this elegant way:

“If to the fool my love you’d bring,

Or think my secret can be told

To him who is not wise —

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Hafez (on asking for the moon)

There isn’t enough poetry on this site. In my life. In my notebooks.

In the world.

There I was, though, minding my own business, when a Persian poem of considerable age bounced in front of my eyeballs. You might have heard of the 13th-century poet known in the West as Rumi; a century later, in Shiraz, Iran, came another gifted wordsmith and mystic lover called Hafez. The Persians revere him. Iran has a national day in his honour — imagine, for a poet. What follows, called “With That Moon Language”, is a small piece of why.

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;

Otherwise, someone would call the cops.

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William Butler Yeats (on perceiving beauty)

“The world is full of magic things,
patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Guilty, guilty, guilty: I am a fan of W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, and need this reminder, the all-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten reminder, to LOOK. Or the Yogi Berra  “dumb jock”-as-zen-philosopher koan: “It’s amazing what you can observe just by looking.” It’s amazing how much we don’t see, and discouraging how much natural, wholesome and otherworldly goodness we fail to notice because we’re fixated on the trashy, the tinsel, the temporary, the trite and the televisual. (That’s right, just call me “Mr. T”.)

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e.e. cummings (on love and funky sonnets)

Poetry is where you find it, I’ve heard, but this “found poem” is one I was wonderfully predisposed to be warmly attracted to at first sight. It came from a member of my own family, a family not generally known for its poetic enthusiasms, a member with no previous convictions about verse that I knew of. In a way yet unexplained — and I’m thinking that I very well may not want to know whence it came to her — life brought her a piece of cummings. Her routinely warm and generous heart sent it to me as a birthday tribute to my wife, the same impulse that led me to murder a Paul Simon song for the glory of love.

I do love Mr. Cummings, and while I don’t (not yet, anyway) consider this among his best or my favourites, that doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty darned marvellous. He was 26 when he wrote “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in)”; he generally didn’t title things, so they’re called by their first lines. Here ’tis: 

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E.L. Thayer (“Casey” Turns 125, Still no Joy in Mudville)

On June 3, 1888, the iconic American hymn to baseball, “Casey at the Bat”, was first published. Baseball is so old, and no sport has been written about so much or so well, at least not in North America. Basketball was still only a gleam in Mr. Naismith’s imagination when “Casey” came out, and obviously the game was already a major part of American consciousness, as this poem has also become. It’s a lovely thing to read (or to hear, if you follow the link above to one of its destinations), and is really well made and made to be memorized and recited — oh, for those seemingly long-gone days! Some of these phrases sing: “Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright / The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light…”

So here’s to the mighty Thayer, who apparently wrote little poetry besides this little piece of eternity, spun out when he was 25:

Casey at the Bat

by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, "If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat."

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one!" the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, "Strike two!"

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15500#sthash.EIvjHJNK.dpuf