Stick Me Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Thanks to The Writers’ Trust of Canada, I’m heading up to Dawson City, Yukon, to be the next Writer-in-Residence at Berton House. I leave just before Christmas and will be there through January and February.

Berton House is actually the boyhood home of the late, iconic Canadian author, journalist, and media personality Pierre Berton. He paid to have it restored, and donated it as a writers’ retreat. The House is now owned and operated by the Writers’ Trust with help from the Dawson City Library and the Klondike Visitors Association. Over 50 writers have bunked at Berton House since its opening in 1996.

Like the vast majority of fiction writers, I typically need to maintain a day job, so I couldn’t be more thrilled to receive this opportunity, albeit temporary, to completely get away from it all and to write full time. I’m hoping to get almost a month’s worth of scribery done each week.

As a born-and-bred city boy, I’m also excited about the prospect of travelling to the Arctic Circle and getting the full-on northern exposure. Sure it’s going to be freaking cold and dark, but it’s also going to be so darn Canadian. Good heavens, Robert Service’s cabin is right across the street. I may be moved to poetry. Being there in the off season, I am admittedly going to miss the tourist extravaganza that the Klondike puts on in summertime — complete with gambling saloons and dance hall girls — but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I am finding some of my friends’ reactions to the pending posting rather interesting, though. Of course, everyone comments on how cold it’s going to be (lows in January can reach -40°F), but there are fur-lined, down-filled antidotes for that. No, it’s the prospect of the continuous darkness that raises many of their eyebrows. During the solar trough of the season, there will only be a couple of hours of sunlight each day, and apparently the sun will not actually shine directly down into the valley where Dawson City sits. Many seem to think that such a prolonged period of prevailing darkness will result in a whopping case of Seasonal Affective Disorder that will drive me into the pits of despair … or at least into the pits of The Pit, the town’s legendary bar.

At the risk of tempting fate, I’m confident I’ll actually enjoy the experience. Oh, I’m fully aware that we humans are naturally tuned to the sunlight, and I’m not denying there will be some psychological challenges, but I say bring it on. It’s actually not fully unprecedented in my own case. I remember having a job where, during wintertime, I arrived at work before the sun came up and left after sunset … and in between I toiled all day in a windowless cubicle. For that matter, one summer I worked in a windowless -30°C freezer hauling around skids of ice cream. Not quite the same thing, I know, but good practice nonetheless.

As a Zen Jedi Phasmatian, I am taught to beware the darkness in the light and to seek light in the darkness. So, towards that end, I am especially looking forward to sitting in the dark on the balcony of Berton House (comfortably wrapped against the cold, of course) and basking in the magnificence of those celestial lights in the dark — the aurora borealis. There will be plenty of opportunities for sun bathing later when I return to my normal routine in Canada’s deep south, but The Northern Lights will be one sight worth going over to the dark side for.

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Blessed, We Forget

My late Mama Dowhal had a different perspective on life than I do. Having lived through two world wars, a revolution, and a great famine, and having been conscripted as slave labor by the Nazis, she constantly preached to me that violence and tyranny could be lurking just around the corner.  As a boy, I didn’t really get what she was going on about. After all, she had chosen to bear and raise her children in a place that afforded us a high degree of freedom, safety, equality, and opportunity. As I matured and started to explore the planet a bit, I discovered how blessed I was to be Canadian … and how unfortunate others can be elsewhere.

Other than the nebulous threat of nuclear annihilation, my only experience with war while growing up was in books, and on TV and movie screens. Then, as I came of age, my generation started to shout about peace, love, and understanding (and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll).

Even after the 9-11 attacks opened the physical possibility of terrorist acts here in Toronto, that sort of violence remained an abstraction. Like the locks I placed on my windows after the first time I had my house broken into, I guess it typically takes direct, personal experience before we takes things seriously. Unfortunately, life does not come with an Undo function.

I don’t know if it’s through the genes she passed on to me, or just from a lifetime of hearing her voice in my ears, but lately Mama’s message seems to be hitting home. Certainly, the perspective I’ve been gaining as I grow older, supplemented with what I’ve learned both as a reader and a writer, not to mention a watcher of live global news feeds, have also contributed to the belief that we should be careful not to be caught living in a fool’s paradise. As much a humanist as I am, the harsh realization I’ve come to is that the world is intrinsically a nasty place, and people can be assholes … in some cases, truly evil ones that mean me harm. I’m a pacifist by nature, but not a patsy. The great trickster rabbit Bugs Bunny taught me that if you’ve turned the other cheek and still gotten smacked, it’s time to fight back. As it says in The Sacred Text of the Phasmatians:

” … where others seek to harm you, it is not wrong to resist that evil, and to act in defense of your self, or to protect those you love, or your society of fellows.”

Which brings us to this day of remembrance. I have to be honest, I’m not big on hype, and know that few things are pure black-and-white. Sorry, generals, but God is not on anyone’s side. I abhor any corrupt military-industrial complex that manipulates mass opinion and sends young people, many of whom are barely adults, off to die or have their limbs blown off, often for the financial gain of an elite few. And yet I believe, perhaps naively, that we have made some progress as a species, just in the period between my mother’s lifetime and my own. Yet, any freedom and security gained came at a steep price — paid by others — and could be gone just like that (insert sound of my mother snapping her fingers here).

So to all those soldiers who do the dirty and dangerous work on our behalf, fighting in defense of our freedom and safety — and especially those who make the supreme sacrifice — I offer a sincere and sacred “thank you,” and promise I will try not to forget.

Between the Covers With Flam Grub

Flam Grub the new novel by Dan DowhalMy new novel Flam Grub launched last night. I guess with this book I’m not a rookie anymore, and certainly I’ve been in the fiction-writing business long enough now to notice some fairly common questions that get posed when you tell people you’ve written a novel.

One thing often asked is: “Where did the idea come from?” I can be a cynical and sarcastic bastard at times, and it takes considerable effort to bite my tongue and not say something like, “I don’t know. I found it in a basket on my doorstep and adopted it, but there was no note.” However, in this case there was an actual “ah-ha” moment. It came as I watched a TV commercial featuring a celebrity name-alike (as opposed to look-alike or sound-alike). It hit me that, with some twists, onomastic synchronicity would make a great subject for a short story, to which I gave the working title of Name Droppings. Well, a couple of years, 39 chapters, and 120,000 words later I had my not-so-short — but I like to think more interesting — story.

The other question you get asked all the time is: “What’s your book about?” That’s actually a fair question, and you might imagine it’s an easy one for someone who’s been labouring away for years on a book to answer. Unfortunately, as I’m sure many of my fellow writers will attest, it’s not. I know I constantly struggle to summarize the substance of a somewhat quirky and multilayered novel into the proverbial abbreviated elevator pitch.

I could say, for example, that Flam Grub is a dark, sometimes funny, coming-of-age story about an abused, talented boy who must come to terms with the name he bears. Then again, you could say the same about Harry Potter.

But, having had to prepare for my book launch, I have had considerable time to reflect on the subject. So, then, let me tell you what Flam Grub is about.

It’s a story of despair … and of expectation. It is a story of abuse, and of redemption. It is a story of spirituality, and of sensuality. It is a story of inner darkness, and of the light that burns within us all.

Flam Grub is about the way we cling to hope, and how things often look hopeless.

It’s about the desire for conformity, and the need for individuality.

It’s about the caprices of fate, and about making your own luck.

It’s about the names we’re given, and the names we make for ourselves.

It’s about the words the hurt us and drag us down, and the words that are crafted into beauty that lifts us up.

It’s about pathological introversion, teen angst, the power of literature, isolation, suicide, lust, odd names, strange fortunes, religion, villainy, love, death, and transfiguration — with some fine tailoring and necrophilia thrown in.

There, that explains it, doesn’t it? No? Okay, try this.

One of the advantages an author has is that, much like a medium can commune with the spirit world, we can commune with the world of our characters. So I went straight to the source. I went to Mr. Grub himself, and asked, “Hey, Flam Chop, what would you say the book is about?” Not surprisingly, Flam’s answer came in the form of verse, his way of reminding me that the book is also very much about the power and the beauty of poetry.

The Boy Beneath the Table
by Flam Grub

Entombed in tomes, well versed in poems,
A bookworm turns pages on a buried life,
Hiding under the table from domestic strife.
While mother Mary scolds and dad leaves bruises,
You suck up love from the breast of muses.

Stay on your guard as you creep through the schoolyard,
Kids may be cruel, but more so is fate,
Cursing you with a name you hate,
You play the ghost, but the name’s what haunts,
Two perfect syllables for jeers and taunts.

If you think you’re better off dead, then go ahead,
Put an end to your worries, stop wailing,
Climb up on a concrete railing,
Hurl yourself down on the traffic below;
But, damn Flam, suicide’s no bromide for a tortured soul.

Fate twists and warps, and delivers you a corpse,
And while you yearn to know your maker,
You dig the job of an undertaker.
To die, to sleep, aye there’s the rub,
Fame calls a name; Do you hear it? ‘Flam Grub.’

There. I know what you’re thinking. Gee, Danny, with all that, I don’t have to read the book now. Actually, one of the things that make books so unique and influential as an artform is that each reader brings her/his own experience to the consumption of the material. So, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Flam Grub and to find out for yourself what it’s all about.

A Letter to Santa

Dear Santa:

Look, I realize this is a crazy time of year for you. After all, in addition to all those presents you have to bring to the world’s children, you’re also the patron saint of students, merchants, and thieves … and that has to make for one colossally busy December.

But, still, given that:

  1. I’m on your nice list (I think)
  2. I’m not asking for any presents; and
  3. I’ve never written to you before

I was hoping you might be able to take some time out from your busy schedule to help me out with a few things.

I’ve always been a huge fan of yours, Big Guy. Maybe it’s because the church I was shepherded to as a boy was actually named St. Nicholas. (Of course, being Ukrainians, they had the good sense to separate your feast day from the Christ Mass by a full month … none of this modern melding and muddling that began when Martin Luther started meddling.)  So, even though I’m no longer a card-carrying Christian, and have converted to Zen Jedi Phasmatia, I was hoping you might spare me some time anyway.

First of all, what exactly should I call you – St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle? I know running a multinational operation in this day and age requires adapting your brand to local conditions, so if I were to stick to North American tradition (as recent and contrived as that might be) I guess I’m supposed to refer to you as Santa. However, and maybe it’s because I’m in the process of having a new novel published in which people’s names figure prominently (it’s called Flam Grub and it’ll make a great gift for people next Christmas, hint, hint) I’ve grown hypersensitive to the subject of names these days. Let me know whether you prefer to be called Nick, or Kris, or San Man, or Red, or whatever.

Secondly, I was wondering if you were aware that climate change is going to have a major impact on your manufacturing and distribution hub at the North Pole. I mean, from what I can tell on Google Earth, your whole place is just floating on the polar ice cap. Maybe you’ve been so busy and isolated (reading nothing but an endless slew of letters from whiny kids asking for presents) that you don’t know that humanity’s constant abuse of the planet, and our myopic and apathetic response to the resulting crisis, is going to cause some drastic melting and upheavals up there.

It’s bad enough that global warming will lead to rising ocean levels and subsequent catastrophic flooding in many places. Or that polar bears unable to hunt seals will be forced to move south, and live off garbage like other bears. But the thought that your whole Christmas complex might go plunging to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and send all things Noël to hell, well, that’s scary. I’m sure you’re already working on a solution, being a Saint and all, but just in case no one’s brought it to your attention yet, I really think you should consider relocating to terra firma. I realize it’s important to be neutral, but there’s Canadian territory nearby, and we’d love to have you. Hmmm, now that I think about it, given our political climate change, you’d probably have to dye that suit of yours blue. And, it occurs to me, unless your elves have a couple of million bucks in their bank accounts, I’m not sure what Immigration Canada will say about them. You’ll probably have to sneak them in, then have them claim refugee status. On second thought, maybe you should just consider relocating to Greenland instead.

Finally, I was hoping to get your input on some new Christmas carols I was working on. Seems to me, sir, that most of the old tunes have lost their relevance. That rustic Currier & Ives shtick – one-horse open sleighs, boughs of holly, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that –  is so Twentieth Century. It certainly doesn’t apply to today’s demographic or lifestyle. Well, except for the “gay apparel” line – that was ahead of its time. Now, I don’t have all the words worked out yet, but I just wanted to get your white-gloved thumbs-up on the overall concept. I’m thinking it should start by singing about full body scans and cancelled flights at the airport, segue to some tramplings and mass lay-offs at the mall, then wrap up with the sterotypical modern Christmas scene – kids spaced out on the couch texting and playing video games, while the parents pop pills (he Viagra, she Effexor). For a big finish we can depict a monster blizzard of credit card bills after the holidays.

Or, how about this? Given the popularity of Hip Hop, maybe we can go with something with more of a gangsta rap feel to it:

‘Twas the night before Two Five and all through the flats,
Weren’t nothin’ stirrin’ except for the rats,
The kids were all covered by a mattress on the floor
In case drive-by shooters pumped slugs through the door,
While up in my crib my wifey and I,
Were jukin’ it up and feelin’ real fly,
When out in the alley I heard this big crash,
And go over to see who’s kickin’ whose ass …

Well, you get the idea. What do you think? You could perform it yourself – we’ll dub you Daddy X  – and we’ll thow it up on YouTube. I bet it gets a gazillion hits. Alternatively, there must be a bagful of rappers who’d be willing to do it just to get on the naughty list. Seriously, any feedback or help you can provide would be welcome. If you’re willing to take a meeting just say the word and I’ll be there with jingle bells on. I don’t mind sharing the royalties … especially with you. Holy holly, you’ve earned it.

Alright, Santa, I won’t up take any more of your time. Good luck with this year’s gig, and don’t step in any reindeer shit.

Sincerely,

Reflections in the Parabolic Mirror

When I was researching religions for skyfisher, one of the most intriguing concepts I came across was in the Zen Buddhist koans, where they occasionally described how certain persons received enlightenment in one crystalline flash of ultimate realization, known as satori.

Admittedly, many of these masters first devoted decades of meditation and study in their pursuit, but the final moment of illumination was reportedly often triggered by some single cryptic, if not outright absurd, incident.

Here’s one example:

One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, “Give me the best piece of meat you have.”

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words, Banzan was enlightened.

It’s actually the writer in me, not the supplicant, who found these stories so appealing. (If I’ve come to believe anything in my own spiritual wanderings it’s that enlightenment comes iteratively and slowly, not in some great, dramatic flash of light.) But, as literature, the koans are great. Banzan’s has beautiful irony (not the least of which is that he was almost certainly a vegetarian) and a dramatic dénouement with a profound message at its core, wrapped in a simple but elegant metaphorical layer.

This sort of rhetorical power is why all religious traditions rely on parables to get their point across. In Jewish Hasidic tradition they have the mashal. The famous parable of The Six Blind Men and the Elephant is of Hindu origin. Christ was, of course, a master of the parable. The Sacred Text of the Phasmatians, which is just a mash-up of other religious traditions, also relies heavily on parables.

In the Qur’an, it says:

Allah sets forth parables for mankind in order that they may remember.

The good word is like a good tree, with firm roots and branches reaching to the sky, and constantly giving fruit.

And the parable of an evil word is like an evil tree, uprooted from the surface of earth, having no stability.

It’s the latter, by the way, sprung from the lips of hateful fanatics, that gives Islam a bad name these days. Judging all Muslims by the actions of these warped extremists is like judging all Christianity on the basis of pedophile priests – or Rev. Jim Jones.

Here’s another parable I’m quite fond of:

An old man was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

He pointed at his grandson. “This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

“The one you feed,” the old man replied.

That parable hails from the Cherokees (who, speaking of irony, were looked at as savages and heathens and nearly exterminated). It pretty much sums up the entire spiritual experience for every one of us. If you were ever going to have an “aha” satori moment, that parable is a great candidate for inducing it.

Here in North America, especially in the cities, atheism seems to be the prevalent religion these days … and that’s perfectly fine. Each unto their own, I say, especially since I have no more supporting proof of a greater force at play in the universe than the atheists do to bolster their own spiritual nihilism.

Still, it got me wondering. If so many people don’t believe in any divine retribution and assume that death is the absolute end of their existence, what keeps them from running off the reservation, so to speak, and breaking all the rules. Sure, we have cops and courts, but it’s not just the fear of going to jail that stops people from behaving like mad sociopaths.

Part of the answers lies in how we’ve all been socially programmed, partially by the telling of parables by parents, teachers, and contemporary media. For example, the nth annual re-showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, and A Miracle on 34th Street will soon have people sobbing into their hankies again this Yuletide season … and learning some morality in the process.

Of course, as the saying goes, the Devil is fond of quoting scripture. Words can be twisted, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – which may be one of Newton’s Laws of Motion, but makes for a great parable in its own right.

One Zen koan I’ve heard regurgitated in several movies, most notably Reservoir Dogs, is of the scorpion that stung the rabbit that was graciously ferrying it across a river.

“Why did you do that?” the rabbit asks in dismay. “Now we will both drown.”

“I can’t help it,” the scorpion replies, “it’s in my nature.”

That parable is one sometimes cited as an excuse by people wanting to justify their destructive behaviour. In fact, if you read further in the koan collection, you will find its equal and opposite reaction.

A Zen master was sitting by a campfire. A scorpion, disoriented by the light, kept trying to walk into the flames. The master reached down each time and rescued the scorpion, even though the arachnid would inevitably sting him.

As he repeated this behavior, getting stung anew each time, one of the master’s students asked him, “Sensei, why do you keep doing that? You know you’re just going to get stung.”

“I can’t help it,” the Zen master replied, “it’s in my nature.”

The Horror! The Horror!

Last night little monsters were howling up and down my street, dressed in their Hallowe’en costumes (except for those kids who figured just having a swag bag was dress-up enough). Behind them were the walking dead — parents with haunted looks who’d bled time and money to indulge their offspring, and were now dutifully shadowing them. Elsewhere in the city, costumed adults were raising hell in bars and house parties (unless, out of expediency, they’d done it the Saturday night before). Across the cableverse scary movies and other gruesome content abounded. Oh, the horror, the horror. I’m not sure what the Hallowe’en equivalent is of a humbug, but I guess I’m it. Even though I’ve never been one to begrudge people having fun, and certainly have myself had loads of enjoyment dressing up for the occasion, nevertheless I do find myself shaking my head at what this unholiday has morphed into. I guess I just fundamentally don’t like rampant hype and commercialization, and there’s now plenty of both on Shalloween.

One of my influences as a writer is Joseph Campbell, the eminent scholar of myth and religion (he saw no difference between the two). Over the years I have enjoyed learning about the roots of mythology, and how our seminal beliefs have evolved into contemporary culture. The older I get, and the longer I spend working with technology, the more I feel the pull of those ancient archetypal human forces and rhythms. (It was Campbell, by the way, who came up with one of my favorite computer quotes: “Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”) Like every cocky adolescent, I too once thought that human civilization began and ended with me and my cutting-edge generation. Now, of course, I know better. Each new generation may lay down a fresh coat of paint, but the basic shape of human existence hasn’t changed in a million years. We’re born, we learn and grow, we come of age, we seek a mate and reproduce, we strive for status and power, we peak and decline, our body betrays us, and we die. End of story.

The roots of Hallowe’en (I stubbornly cling to the interstitial apostrophe to show the contraction of the original Auld English’s All Hallow Even, even though my spell checker nags me for it) come from the fact that ancient civilizations divided up the year into two seasons — the time of light and the time of dark. November 1st traditionally marked the beginning of the dark days. (May 1st, a.k.a. May Day, which has largely fallen out of favor here in North America, marks the beginning of the light days.) To the ancient Celts, the start of November was known as Samhain (“Summer’s End”) and was basically the start of the new year. They believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honored and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. Evidently it was the need to ward off harmful spirits that led to the wearing of costumes and masks. As it did with so many pagan holidays, Christianity plagiarized the festival, naming it it All-Saint’s Day (and the day after as All Soul’s Day), and the night before evolved into Hallowe’en. (Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico derive from the same roots.) Candles lit to commemorate the souls of the dead and originally placed in turnips, not pumpkins, have become today’s jack o’ lantern, now an art form in its own right. Each century has added a layer of tradition to this very ancient one. Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century in (where else?) the U.S. full-blown costumes were popularized and commercialized, eventually evolving from purely supernatural figures to include those of popular culture.

In my own case, as an homage to the bigger picture Campbell showed me, and in tribute to to my far-distant ancestors, I celebrate November 1st as a personal holiday commemorating the start of the dark half of the year. As a Canadian I am naturally attuned to this colder, bleaker time of year, but my own celebration is not a funeral rite, or some supernatural plea to the waning sun. It may be about light and dark, but like everything in life, it’s not black and white. Winter in these climes is a harsh fact of life, it’s true, but it brings with it many good things too. For example, I enjoy fireplaces and hockey. Plus, as a writer and a reader, I relish the enhanced opportunity to pursue those indoor activities that the dark days seem to provide.

So, tonight I’m toasting to Parentalia, the Roman festival of the dead … and to the Celtic Samhain … and to the Calan Gaeaf of the old Britons — all once celebrated on this day. Here’s also to all the saints, known and unknown, and to all the dear departed souls. And, what the hell, a belated Happy Hallowe’en to you all too.

Stantastic Voyage

Dan & StanI feel the need to clear up a nasty rumor that could cause serious harm to my reputation in today’s toe-the-line politically-correct universe. Recently I was accused of having an obsession with big breasts. Allegedly, according to the anonymous source, I was overheard going on about “D Cups.”

For the record, what I was really saying was “The Cup.” As in the one-and-only Stanley Cup, the oldest and most recognized trophy in professional sport. Lord Stanley’s Mug, as it is often affectionately referred to, was donated in 1892 by Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, who was Canada’s Governor General at the time. Actually, it was Lord Stanley’s kids, who had been turned on to hockey by their Canuck friends, who pestered their dad into commissioning the prize. Originally presented to “the championship hockey club of the Dominion of Canada,” since 1926, it’s been the prize trophy of the National Hockey League.

mea maxima cupa Since my firm starting doing work for the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, the Stanley Cup and I have, well, I like to think grown close. Oh, sure, you may see photos in the paper (never mind the hundreds I’ve posted to the Hockey Hall of Fame website) of sweaty, buff young guys planting their kissers all over Stan, but I know they’re just passing affairs, albeit passionate ones.

And although I’m not family, and not one of his official white-glove-wearing keepers, nevertheless Stan and I have something special — a deep-seated, long-term bond that comes from working closely together for almost 20 years. Hell, I even know how to tell Stan apart from his stand-in doppelganger.

To quote the other Gump (the one who never drank from the Stanley Cup): “And that’s all I have to say about that.”