Running in Canada, Heading for Home

Generally, I don’t miss the traffic-dodging adrenaline or the lung-scrubbing atmospheric particulates that are involved in getting out for a run in my eastern hometown of Dalian, to say nothing of Beijing. Still, running was sometimes good for me in China. Running is like writing is like prayer, for that matter: frequently, it doesn’t feel like something I want to do until I’m already in the act. (And hey, don’t you assume that, after arrival in today’s Dedicated Writing Niche, I just spent the first 95 minutes hunting Web distractions and brainstorming vision statements for non-existent basketball clubs! Sheesh. You people get so personal sometimes.) So here I am, talking about what I think about when I think about running, especially back home in a Canadian summer.

There’s lots to ponder about running, and about what happens between the ears when we do. I think about all kinds of things when I run. (I also play stale pop tunes in the jukebox of my brain.) I think about the differences between China and Canada. (I rehearse what I should have said in decades-old conversations.) I think. (I think I think.)

I think: I never went for runs like these in China.

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Where It’s Art

“But Wayne, how did you get into this?” Perhaps this question came from my wonderment at a quiet man going into retail in the first place – and not just any sort of shop, but one selling original paintings, sculptures, stained glass, woodworking and pottery. I’ve been in the Ethel Curry Art Gallery many times over the past couple of decades, as family ties have drawn me regularly to the small northern Ontario town that is its unlikely host.

The Gallery from outside, reflecting a northern summer sky.

I’m a small town boy, and I love these places, but they’re not noted for their devotion to and support of the arts, if I may risk a generalization. Haliburton, about three hours northwest of Toronto, is a pretty little place, perched by a lake and surrounded by wooded hills. The surrounding county of the same name, bordered on the north by Algonquin Park, contains an absurd number of lakes and a surprisingly large roster of artists among its 16,000 citizens.1 One of them was Ethel Curry, whose nephew Pete owns a woodsplitter and a small retail building in Haliburton village. Wayne is a woodworker, and as he tells the story, it wasn’t long before conversations about wood led to others about art and display space which led, 18 years later, to him explaining the genesis of the gallery to me. Again: the whole thing thrills and bemuses me, and I can’t believe it’s around the corner from Jug City convenience and the “Aprons and Soaps” shop. And how does a veteran of African development work, a confirmed loner, dog-lover and crafter of meticulously detailed model ships and other wooden delights, become the owner of an art emporium about an hour south of Nowhere?

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Holiday Tourism of the Local Kind

I can almost imagine a year when late December finds me breaking the pattern. Maybe I’ll jet my carbon-neutral way to sun and beaches, or more likely to visit some holy place or natural wonder. Maybe I won’t go anywhere at all, just batten the hatches and gorge myself on the movies I haven’t seen, whittle down the stack of books that implore me to fondle their pages. A guy can dream.

But neither of these extremes is likely. This is the time of year when I can curl up with a good movie; at this point, it looks like that may be confined to finally having seen The Queen, which reminded me of Ray, oddly enough: an okay movie but a superb central performance, here by Helen Mirren. Good reads have come more readily, with a second reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a month being the recent highlight. But, inevitably, it’s never the cinematic orgy or literary bender that I imagine. And though the last ebb of December is not some spectacular foreign getaway, we do travel to two outstanding Canadian counties. Haliburton and Haldimand. Who’d want to be anywhere else?

As per usual, our pre-Christmas routine found us heading westward along winding, hilly and ever-more-obscure blacktop to visit my mother-in-law in her lakeside retreat near the town of Haliburton. The road to late December is traditionally fairly frantic, especially in my busier years of teaching and coaching like my shoes were on fire. (Thankfully, though, Christmas shopping is a pretty low-intensity imperative for us, as we put more emphasis on Baha’i holy days. If my bride hadn’t been born on the 23rd, I’d have boycotted the malls utterly and religiously.) By the time we descend on Portage Lake, where the nearest neighbours are birch trees and looming hills, things are suddenly languid. Lazy. (This is much easier for me than for HyperBride, but I’m just saying.)

A couple of days before the Day, we had the usual low-key celebration of my bride’s birthday. The princess was happy with her usual perquisites: beef fried in a fondue pot, another song-filled and weepy viewing of The Sound of Music. (Report: The Von Trapps escaped. Again. People regularly broke into song at the oddest moments.) Christmas Eve is another subdued tradition, where Mum-in-law Margery places a shrimp ring gobblefest just before The Main Event: the Portage Lake Plum Pudding Massacre. Flaming brandy. Three sauces. Think you’re ready? You’re not ready. Not even the loons will hear you groaning…

One of the subtle joys of late December is how blissfully predictable and serene it all is, especially on the Haliburton end. On Christmas morning, we eat fresh-baked scones and have the most gentle exchange of gifts among the four of us. No tree, no invocation of sacred rituals and bearded elves. (With my first three, we’d ask them if they wanted to play “the Santa game”, worried that they’d feel left out. Sam is unfazed, though, perhaps in part because about half the kids at his school and all his bus buddies are Muslims.) I predicted: socks for Margery, a low-tech toy for Sam, something warm and fuzzy and hand-knit for Diana, and a gently-broken-in book for me. (Margery has great taste in books, and never leaves crumbs or bent pages or reads it in the bathtub. But THIS time, I am shocked and awed and slightly bent to report, she had believed reports of unread books from Christmases past and broke the pattern!) And more. I got to watch one of the annual Christmas Day NBA games, a much older tradition than Haliburton, but didn’t have the father/son sitdown to absorb the hardwood genius of a genuine Canadian idol, Steve Nash. (He always makes me want to coach again.) Supper was duck rather than turkey, an abrupt and fowl departure from orthodoxy, and a visit from Margery’s basket-weaving friend. Talk and warmth and not much else. Sweet.

Then we drove to suburban Cayuga on Boxing Day aft, where the Howden clan gathers in such numbers (and with such a copious food frenzy) that Haldimand appears, next to the somnolence of Haliburton, like Union Station at rush hour. People, people, people, and so dear. But here, changes are more the order of the day. Nieces and nephews come with new romantic interests in tow. (Some even survive for a second Christmas inspection.) We have finally limited the gift exchange, so it wasn’t the interminable round of consumer delight that it once was. It was also our second Christmas without my Mum. We remembered how absurdly and endearingly and predictably overjoyed she would be at the gathering of such a large, goofy and thoroughly wonderful crew. And for the second straight Howden Christmas, not coincidentally, alchohol has returned after our Noels were decidedly dry for decades. The teetotalling curmudgeon of a Baha’i uncle don’t bloody like it. (Stoical but dramatic sigh.)

As I predicted in my holiday crystal basketball, my Sam got as much cousin-time as he could fit in. As I also predicted, I have failed to encounter quite as many old friends or profound conversations as I’d hoped. And after a couple of days to lounge, recover from big sister’s carefully organized food marathon, maybe run by a corn field or two, we’ll soon be ready for the trip back home. My wife will be frantic to get DOING things. I’ll be worrying about whether the backyard rink survived the rain, and cursing myself for not writing more. Sam will be missing his snow-fort and friends. And all will be right with the world.

In Search of the Real Artist

“So are you a Real Writer yet?” occasionally comes the smirking blonde query.
“Well, no. Not today. That’s a definite Someday,” squirms the wannabe.

Brian Smith is a Canadian portraitist that I’d never heard of. That’s no insult to him, for my knowledge of the visual arts is sparse. And by his own account, figurative artists like him don’t get much cutting-edge attention in the contemporary art world. What I do know is that he speaks well about the arts, especially that important task of de-mystification and encouragement for all those who linger hungrily around the edges of creativity and wish they knew the occult secret.

I wandered into a lecture he was doing, after-hours, at the Haliburton summer School of the Arts, held in a sparkling lake district at the base of northern Ontario. It’s pretty here. Every summer, this small town of ball caps, cigarettes and chain saws becomes a stock-up depot for the cottagers and boaters, and a magnet also for those who want to seek out creativity instead of the perfect tan. There’s an unusual number of painters, potters and sculptors in the area, and a fine school for the dabblers and the nervously ambitious makers to enhance their skills and confidence. Confidence is where Smith comes in.

He gives an animated lecture annually at the school, and this year’s edition was a wry but ultimately earnest assessment about what makes for a Real Artist. His conclusions were not surprising, but the road there was fun. (An early video-screen projection: a New Yorker-style cartoon has two gallery-goers, one of whom murmurs, “His work hovers between neo-classicism, impressionism and crap.”) In preparing his talk, Smith had run across a Website that would be gut-bustingly mockable if it weren’t aimed at such a place of human yearning and vulnerability. Apparently, you can call 1.800.REAL.ART, or go to its companion on the ‘Net. A series of questionnaires, which Brian Smith filled out on-line, resulted in an e-mailed letter of fulsome (and ungrammatical) personal praise from the – wait for it – Real Art Certification Board.

I am delighted to congratulate you on…certifying yourself as a Real Artist. All of us at RACB sincerely hope that your new-found vocation will change your life in a positive manner [glad that was clarified!] and expose you to wonderful world [sic] of Real Art…

Smith had gobs of fun with this and other expressions of the antique, exclusivist, fairy-dust notions we have of what makes an artist and what such a creature actually is and does. But his message was plain: art is about INTENTION. He scoffs at dichotomies like high art versus low art, or art versus craft. (I liked the simple truth in his quote from the potter Harlan House: “Craft is what I do all day. Art is what I have at the end of it.” If you’re lucky, Mr. House, I must say. If you’re lucky. And good. Democracy’s a pretty cool concept, but not everybody can be an RA.) To the assembled group of mainly female, mainly grey or greying pilgrims seeking to believe in the art in themselves, he proposed a simple catechism:

Anxious, spiritually yearning question: “Am I a real artist?”
Pragmatic, possibly encouraging but very likely reality-inducing answer: “Did I make any art today?”

When Smith spoke of the importance of art, and the value of allowing oneself to pursue some expression of our creativity, he was preaching to the choir. This was an audience – many of whom were already his fans from previous years – who were more than ready to laugh with him and mine a small vein of courage along the way. I expect nearly anybody would pass the Real Art Certification Board quiz and “qualify” for their specially-priced Internet “master classes”, but even in that crowd of people paying to act like artists for a week, not many would pass Brian Smith’s dauntingly simple test.

Still, I found something of what I was looking for, including chuckles and an excuse to make a little verbal mess like this one. And I liked Brian Smith’s conclusion: When we look at paintings or any media, we are the arbiters. What moves us as art is entirely subjective. We decide what is art, including OUR OWN. Don’t worry about being original. Just be authentic, true to your own vision of whatever it is you’re doing. And MAKE LOTS OF ART, be it good or bad.

Show up at the easel. Be true to your keyboard. Keep your appointments. Fulfil your own promise.

Moms for the Holidays

Home again after the holiday trek through Ontario. Haliburton was quiet, homely and the wee traditions of the season were observed: dinner for my bride’s birthday on the 23rd ; Dylan Thomas on tape reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on the 24th (sweet stuff — “I said a few words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept”); a few small gifts and, in the evening, plum pudding (with three kinds of sauces!) on Christmas Day. Quiet dealings, no reindeer, and modest gifting, though Sam loved his Whirly-O thingy with all the fun of its “gravitational, magnetic and centrifugal forces!” Somehow, I got to watch crazy amounts of sport, two basketball games and even parts of two NFL games, thus increasing my 2005 viewing percentages by infinite amounts. On Boxing Day we drove away, waving goodbye to Mother Margery and her beloved front porch SnowTroll™.

The Haldimand County homing was sweet, even if part of it now has to happen at Mom’s residence in Hamilton. It ain’t the same, but the Ol’ Girl loves to see all of us, even if she sometimes mixes up which grandchild is which (or whose). The idea of an entertainment review for her was a beauty, though there was a lot of avoidance behaviour on the part of the granchildren. Thank goodness for Christy, whose dramatic flair with Robert Service saved the rather dull offerings that some of the rest of us made. Or didn’t! Too much food back at Big Sister’s, but the conversation was as lively and interesting as I can remember. The New David (isn’t it remarkable how often SigOthers share the same name, hair colour or laugh as their predecessors?) stirs the Howden stew very engagingly, and his curiosity and interest in people pushed the conversation to very interesting and very funny places. It’s good to have our collective conversational cage rattled in such a friendly way.

The trip back to Ottawa yesterday was a long one, partly due to freezing rain and partly due to a satisfying stopover in Toronto, where I was able to interview Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General (my once-upon-a-boss), and her husband John Ralston Saul. They had agreed to give me an hour each for an infant  series I’m hoping will grow up into a fine book one day. I got more than my hour from each of them, and had an altogether sweet several hours at their new Toronto digs, which are lovely and busy and almost feeling like home. And the dreary ol’ 401 got us back home safely again. Looking forward to ’06.