Saturday, December 24, 2011

And so this is...

Am I even allowed to say the word? Will some politically correct police officer come and throw me in the clink for wishing you a Merry Christmas? So be it. I've been spreading that phrase around quite, uh, liberally lately and quite intentionally. Some are pleased to hear it while others appeared stunned, like: "You didn't just say that, did you?" Ah, more and more, it's the holiday that dare not speak its own name.

I always add, "And I mean that in a good way." And I do.

Christmas comes with baggage, for me and for most people. It's not something you can easily lay aside, even if you wanted to.

I am at that (un)fortunate stage in life when I have many Christmases to call upon and many more that arrive unbidden on the doorstep of my bedecked mind like those ghosts of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. There was the year of making construction paper chains in Miss Dakins's Grade Three class, which also happened to be the year of singing Snoopy's Christmas for all the parents just so I could earn an extra bag of candy to bring home to my older brother, who was sick when the party went down. There was the year I learned how to skate, more or less, and fell flat on my nose on the frozen brook. A few hours later, one of my drunken uncles used a salt loader from the Department of Highways to rip the wires from our house while I gazed in fascination and horror, thinking how strange, awful and exciting it would be to spend Christmas without power.

Years later, there was the first year off to school in the city, going home to Placentia (the New Orleans of Newfoundland, being at or below sea level and often flooded) and being unable (or so I was told) to get across to the bridge because the tide was in and the moon was high, and the water was knee deep wherever you want. I needed to get to Gander because that's where my new girlfriend lived (we're married now, going on twenty-five years) and I swore I'd get to her by Boxing Day come hell or high water. I braved both, in fact, and got there on the Terrible Transport (or "Terra Transport" as they liked to be called) to a joyful girlfriend and a welcoming home with gifts piled so high I had to ask whose they were. Apparently, they were all for me, since Christmas Day had already passed and all other gifts had been opened. The sheer quantity both thrilled and embarassed me--and still would.

Then there were the university years--getting by on hard work and dreams, the kindness and cameraderie of friends, drifting further and further away from a perpexed family back home in Placentia. I'm not exactly sure how or when it happened. I just knew that I started to dread traveling around the holidays and longed to just stay home with my girlfriend (soon wife) and bask in the glow of our over-sized real trees that were annually decorated with the products of her own hands, as she'd been making ornaments and saving them since she was a child.

Not long after that came the poverty years--like wanderers through a dark land, we waded through a cesspool of poverty, year after year. I taught high school for a while, but only on contract and getting teaching work was tough in those days. Ultimately, even the substitute work dried up--partly because I couldn't stand it in the least, the uncertainty of ignominy of the situation. I took to playing and singing in bands, deciding--at my young wife's behest--that I would, in the daytime, pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Christmases were hard in those years, especially because I often had to leave home to make a living (such is the heritage of being a Newfoundlander, it would seem) and at Christmas and New Year's, in particular, I had a chance to earn more sheckles than usual. With times so hard--and my wife working at a downtown bookstore--I took the gigs where I could get them and found less and less time for writing.

I'll skip the details of all that followed, including eventually being chased from those bands by the spectre of Student Loans. There was the year in Chilliwack, B.C., with family who had sworn to us that the Lower Mainland was snow-free and warm at Christmastime. That was the year they had to call out the army to clear the roads because nearly 300 cm of snow fell in short time. With no snow boots to be found anywhere, I bought a pair of green rubber boots that did me for trudging around town in the slush until the snow melted in early February.

After a couple of stops in Nova Scotia in a couple of years, we came back to Newfoundland and nearly starved. But that first year was my favourite. We had no furniture to speak of--a computer desk with only a broken computer on it. A wobbly, borrowed kitchen table, and no bed to sleep on for several months. Just before Christmas Eve that year--with the food bank beckoning--I landed a short term contract teaching English at the local university, a gig that I eventually parlayed into a Ph.D. and teaching career. With no one else around, we revelled in every movie and enjoyed our first vegetarian Christmas dinner, went for walks in the snow and talked to each other endlessly about our plans for the future. I never wanted it to end.

In all those years, we never had much in material goods. And I can't say it wasn't hard on the nerves. Poverty, once experienced, becomes baggage that can never truly be put down, much like Christmas itself. One tends to wear lack like a sack of spuds laid across the shoulders that forces you to walk as if you were the lead actor in a passion play.

And Dickens was right: It is at this time of year that "want is most keenly felt and abundance rejoices."

I have always felt abundant in matters of the spirit, matters of love, matters that matter. And Christmas--not in spite of, but because of the hustle and bustle--has always meant a lot to me. It's been a time of marking where I am in life, how far I've come. It's a time of remembering both good and bad. A time to reflect on what constitutes a life well lived, experienced and felt.

Christmas helps me feel. I make no apologies for it. It's Christmas Eve as I write this, and I am so tired of the banter about how Christmas is too commercial, too this, too that, or that it's meaningless or silly or stupid or that it's only for children or for Christians alone or whatever.

I care for none of it. I am not a relgious man. I doubt I'm much of a Christian, because of my best efforts. I like Christmas. I like everything about Christmas. Even the Nativity story has a magic and endurance about it that most writers can only dream of.

So sue me.

And if you don't like Christmas, why in hell's bells are you trying to ruin it for someone who does? Keep it or don't keep it in your own way. I really don't care. Just as I don't care if you're vegetarian or meataterian, gay or straight, religious or not. I'm just trying to get some peace here.

'Cause really that's all I want. The entire year is filled with things to be done, questions to be answered, essays to  be graded, stories to write or publicized, people to see--and I would much rather be in a cabin in the woods by a lake, sipping something good and watching the sun rise. That's sometimes. Other times, I like  being out there among the shoppers, feeling the moment and wishing they'd take it a little easier, be a bit more peaceful, in keeping with the situation.

I don't try to keep Christ in Christmas. That's for others to do. But I still call it "Christmas" because that's what it was when I was a boy; that's what it was called when I first met my future wife; it's what it was called when I went through my formative years and became who I now am.

I see no reason to change it or to stop speaking the name aloud. I won't tell you what to call it or whether you should speak of it at all.

But I do wish you peace and happiness, now and throughout the rest of your days.

I've said my piece--as I've been wanting to for a few days now--and now I'll withdraw for an evening of peace and friendship and a glass of something fine.

Good evening all. And Merry Christmas, whether you keep it or not. And I mean that in a good way.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

And the winner is...

PERRY OLDFORD, whom I distinctly remember playing football on the streets of Gander on New Year's Eve in the early 1990s when he was a teenager, is the winner of a personalized copy of my short story collection, Moonlight Sketches. I know this (that he played football, not that he won the book) because Matt Walters, Kurt Mahle and I also participated in that notorious event. It was all for posterity's sake, as I recall, and hardly anyone got hurt, although I do remember some of us (possibly me, can't quite remember) falling directly in front of a moving vehicle. It's the blare of the horn and the yellow wash of headlights that stay in my memory. Did I mention it was during a New Year's Eve snowstorm? The Snow Ball, I guess we should have called it.

Anyway, enough nostalgia--Perry, you won the prize and if you'll send me your mailing address (somewhere very out west and very north, I think), I'll get it in the mail to you tomorrow morning.

Thanks everyone for entering. I had fun doing this--all in the spirit of giving--and I suspect I'll be doing it again soon. I hope you'll considering entering your names again.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Giving it away from my underwear drawer

I'm not quite finished my work for the semester, but I'm in a grateful mood. I've just signed the contract for my first novel, Finton Moon, which arrives at book stores in Spring 2012, and I've also just received my first ever royalty statement from my publisher. Today, in an article in The Telegram Chad Pelley (talented  and generous author of "Away From Everywhere") mentioned Moonlight Sketches as one of his "Hot Reads," and I got to thinking I should do something for someone. I mean, yes, I've been doing all the charitable stuff we all should be doing if we can, but I wanted to do something for that most cherished of souls: the reader.

Ever since Moonlight Sketches appeared in April this year, I've heard from a lot of people wanting to know where they can get a copy of the book and a great many who have bought the book but would also like to have it autographed. I can't afford to get into business of pesonally sending people my book (there's just too many and the cost of postage is just too prohibitive, no matter who pays for it), so here's what I've decided to do:

I'm giving away a free, signed copy of Moonlight Sketches this Sunday evening. All you have to do is email me either in Facebook or at and put "Moonlight Sketches Draw" in the subject line, and I'll enter your name for the contest. I call it a contest, but there'll be no bloodshed and certainly no hurt feelings at the end of it. I'll put all the names I receive in my underwear drawer and on Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. Newfoundland time, I'll turn off the light in my bedroom and by the mere glow of the street lamp outside, I'll pull open the underwear drawer and draw a name. The winner will receive the signed copy of my short story collection, which I'll put in the mail first thing Monday morning. Wicked or what?

Really, I just wanted to say thanks--in a symbolic way--for everyone who bought my book, sent a note of congrats, a word of encouragement, showed up at a reading or signing, told a friend about it or mentioned it on Facebook. There are even people who come to readings but can't afford to buy a book. My heart goes out to you, but I understand the need to buy food before buying a book. Well, okay, not really. I think I'd starve before I'd do without books, but I realize that's just me.

Okay, I'm getting off track, as I am wont to do now and then.

Just thanks, luh. So you've got exactly forty-eight hours from now, as I write this note, to get your name in for the draw. Who knows--if you win, maybe the book will arrive in time for you to read it over the holidays (or give it to someone you know will enjoy it).

Meanwhile, for the many who have been asking lately, Moonlight Sketches is available at Coles and Chapters bookstores across Canada, as well as Downhome outlets in NL (including certain airports, last time I checked). You can also buy it directly from Creative Publishers: .  You can also purchase it from Amazon or, althought the wait time is a fair bit longer.

There are reviews, interviews and other details available on my website:

Merry Christmas. And I mean that in a good way. :-)


Friday, December 9, 2011

Bully for us.

I hardly even know what to say. So much information coming at me all the time. You know what I mean, don't you?

Some people seem to swim quite easily in these cold, murky waters--constantly plugged into the cellphone, laptop or iPad 2. Nothing wrong with that. I admire it, to some extent.

But what I'm really craving lately is some peace of mind. Or maybe just some peace.

At the risk of sounding like some strange kind of nut--a charge I gladly accept, since I have always felt greatly out of step with this world that values conformity and sameness above all else, even while it sometimes pretends to appreciate difference. Okay, that's a whole other thought there. "Digression!"

At the risk of sounding like some strange kind of nut, I will admit to not feeling very peaceful lately, even though peace is what I mostly seek. I'm not even sure what I'm about to say, but it feels like it could be a doozy since I haven't blogged much lately. I need to have clarity in order to blog, but that's ridiculous since writing really can help you sort things out. So in the interest of experimentation, I hope you'll bear with me as I sort some stuff out.

Here's what's been going on with me lately, and the things I think about. These will probably appear in random order, but will jump out of my head in the order that seems most crucial.

Went to lunch today with my wife in downtown St. John's. It was brutally cold after a wild and windy night in which (gasp!) our cable nearly got knocked out. I don't know how we survived at all. The TV screen froze several times when things got really intense, and we missed the last five minutes of The Big Bang Theory, just as Leonard was about to confront the guy who had bullied him in high school and still turned out to be quite an arse in adult life, someone who only wanted to use him for profit. Another digression. It's all digression.

My wife's father died 29 years ago today and I can tell that, for her, the wound is still as fresh as it was then. She was only a teenager when he passed away, and I can only imagine what that must have done to her mindset for the next few years. I won't dwell on it, but that was the reason I decided to put all else aside and just hang out with her today, doing things I thought she would enjoy. But the restaurant was crap. It was a place we've gone many times before and usually the service is quite good and the food generally acceptable. Today was not that day. The service was horrible, the seating was awful and generally speaking, it was not a great place for lunch today. Every time I asked for something, the waitress said, "No." She brought us our meal, which was passable, but the portions were incredibly small compared to what they used to be. I didn't complain, but I won't be going back there again, ever.

So why can't people just be nice? Why can't restaurants offer a decent meal at a fair price, served by a waitress who knows how to pretend to give a damn that you're sitting there? Sure, maybe she had a bad day. But it's like those drivers who take up two lanes with their SUV's or think the rules of the road and common courtesy don't apply to them--everyone can have a bad day, but that doesn't give you the right to ruin someone else's bad day.  Stay home.

Now, I realize I'm risking ruining a few days of my own with this blog entry, so I'll put things in perspective. I'm a fairly even-keeled person. It takes a lot to make me angry--I mean really angry. I would never hurt anyone intentionally. I genuinely like people and, in fact, I'm in a good mood today despite the way people behave.

But I feel more and more that the world is becoming less kind to those who are kind.

Having said that, we stopped in at the Anna Templeton annual art and craft fair on Duckworth Street around noon today and the atmosphere was lovely and vibrant--I love hanging out with creative people. They have such a different take on the world, one that I find inspiring to behold. Sometimes I think I could easily have lived my entire world in such a culture, never having to breathe the musty air of an office of any sort. The first book I ever read was "Little Women." I was in Grade Two and completely on my own because I had finished my math assignments before everyone else (I did the entire year's work in a weekend and just presented it to the teacher as she asked for it). It was a sunny morning in November, and I chose the book because of the opening lines which presented Jo March and her sisters preparing for Christmas without the presence of their father, who was off to war. I remember wanting to be a member of the March family, which is why I liked Laurie, the boy next door who had similar designs. But I mostly identified with Jo because she wanted to be a writer, wanted to break from the restrictions of society, was always arguing against authority or putting on a play to illustrate the injustices of the world, the foibles of humanity. And then, near the end of the story, she publishes her first book, a copy of which gets delivered to her house. Before that, of course, her little sister burns her manuscript and Jo must begin again, but not before swearing her infinite hatred for the young scourge.

Where is this going? First, I admit that I had my own version of Jo's story come true today when I received the contract for Finton Moon, my first novel. I'm still that seven-year-old boy at heart. I read and reread the email from my publisher, even though I've known for a few weeks now that the novel would be published. As I told her, it's the difference between living together and being married. I won't explain--you know what I mean. But I've been working on Finton's story for so long--one that I'm sure has some of its inspiration in Alcott's story--that today was very much a special day for me. It was the best of times and oh yes, the worst of times. Publishing a first novel, with such great news coming just before Christmas. My first royalty cheque for Moonlight Sketches is in the mail to me. And then there's the darker side--that sad anniversary, that strange lunch downtown. And the bitter cold sweeping up Duckworth Street as we shuttled towards the car, having had to park at the very end of the street for lack of parking spaces.

It was also a week when it cost us a thousand dollars to fix a problem with our car. Easy come, easy go (sort of). A week of having to get our toilet taken apart and practically rebuilt by the plumber because the dang thing didn't work. A week of much much.

And here I am, having written so much and not really sure what I'm trying to say.

The university semester is winding down, and I'm getting tons of emails from students who want meetings or a few wonder if I'll read their revised paper or whether it's okay if they pass in the paper that they didn't submit back in October when it was due. People wanting reference letters. Emails upon emails to answer.

I also had a three-hour meeting with my editor. Lots of work to do. Enough said.

And there are many among my friends who have had a difficult week. I won't go into detail, but suffiice to say that I feel for them all and wish I could help them all.  So I try. The only thing I really have to give--the thing that is most precious to me of all because I am constantly aware, like Tristram Shandy, of the ticking clock that pursues me through life--the only thing I have to give is my time. And so I give it. It's not much, but it seems to help a little.

And Christmas is coming, in case you haven't heard. I'm not one of those people who despises the season. I'll blog about it another time, I'm sure, but the fact is that I love Christmas--I love its difference, its reminder to slow down in life, to be kinder to one another, to light up the world with our song and lights, our laughter and dance. To me, it's not a religious holiday, despite its moniker. It's a time of hope. A reminder of the best that we are capable of. There's a dark side too, which for now I choose not to acknowledge in this entry.

But, above all the hustle and bustle and noise, noise noise, is it any wonder that I feel strung out, that I can barely sleep when I put my head on the pillow, that I hear above it all the ticking of that clock, like some hook-handed pirate in one of my favourite adult fairytales.

All boys grow up except for one.

Maybe what I'm feeling is that pull towards growing up--something the world keeps reminding me I should have done years ago. But I simply refuse. So I write. I choose to be artistic. I choose to express myself. I choose to kick at the darkness. I choose to laugh in the face of inadequate service and treat the feelings of my fellow creatures as if they were important. Because they are.

Occupy. Occupy. Occupy.

I'm sick of it. Sick of the protesting. Sick of the need to protest. Sick of those who protest against the protesters. Can't we just give people what they want and call it square and fair? They're not asking for the moon. Among other things, they're asking for jobs.

Oh, how greedy is that! How unfair that they expect jobs and affordable housing and three square meals a day and the chance to send their children to a good school and not have to worry about whether they can afford books or pencils or lunch, or whether they're being bullied without the parents' knowledge. Or whether they actually are bullies themselves. Strange how it all comes back to "The Big Bang Theory."

I think that episode of the returning bully struck a particularly raw nerve last night. (I'm aware of the over-simplification here--but I'm also aware of the public's propensity for over-complication. It comes down to mutual respect and human dignity.)

I've never been bullied per se. Not in high school, not by guys bigger than me or people who wanted to steal my lunch money. But, as a writer, artist, gentle soul who wants only the best for those around me, I sometimes feel that the world is a bully. Life in the twenty-first century is a bully. Advertisers are bullies. Banks are bullies. Teachers can be bullies. Other writers--the ones who judge you badly and even turn their backs--if you're not a member of their clique, or haven't won the right awards or written the kind of work that they would have written--they too can be bullies. Even those artists who insist that the world owe them a living can be quite tyrannical and self-righteous. The world owes us nothing, but we owe much to the world.

Getting closer to a point here?

I think so, but I'm still unsure of what it is. I think I'm just tired. I feel like Charlie Brown who is generally happy with life but feels a little bit too much of the sadness and commerciality of it all. It's not a phobia I have, though. I genuinely feel that change for the better is possible. I see good things in the world, good people, even great people, who act with the courage of their convictions and bring light to an all-too-dark world. I don't even fear that the darkness is winning. It's not really about that. I think that if we're still alive and have some hope for humanity, then we're actually winning.

That might sound hopelessly optimistic, but maybe that's just what I am. I know that "in the end dark is right," but I also believe that the night is "good" and "gentle" as it is infinite and harsh.

This blog entry changes nothing. It does get some stuff out of my head. And that's enough for now.

Peace, everyone.