Stories We Tell


“Quasars family picnic” (top photo)

Hello friends!

The planet being rather depressing and hopeless of late, I thought I ought to add another piece to the “Reasons we bother” and “How we power that” file.

A little while ago I posted some thoughts about “Daily Pages” – one of the most self-evident, appealing and useful tips any writer about creativity ever offered. The screwy thing about this fantastic suggestion is that it is really hard to do – but it doesn’t seem as if it should be. Because of this, a lot of aspiring creators experience a small lift from the excitement of the idea of it, and then beat themselves up for a very long time afterward, as they prove unable to stick to it.

Last time I hit this topic, I mentioned that the missing component is a reason, and the reason is usually a person. My best friend was having a difficult time not long ago, and I found it very easy to write a small new magical escape story for her every single day. I shared a six pack of them before, and I will share another selection of them below, when I finish today’s self-forgiveness thought.

Some of you may be thinking – now that I have successfully identified an excellent emotional driver for output, I can be that rare creature who actually makes it and does daily pages forever! But though I have very rarely gone a full day in the last forty years without working on some kind of writing, I have stepped back from that lovely magical series, as my dear friend’s crisis subsided, and I want to share the why of that – just in case it can help anyone else get off their own case!

In my book Structural Happiness I talk about Ed, one of my instructors from the Audio Repair program at George Brown (great community college) in 1987, and one of the most giving hearts I ever knew. The lab had several instructors, we had an ex Nazi (also a superb teacher, but intimidating) a couple of guys who came from the corporate side, and a pure nerd academic type – all of whom had their qualities (several others show up in my later books). But Ed actually played in a band AND recorded bands AND repaired musical equipment with a repair business on wheels which saved many a gig from last minute disaster. He didn’t just think it, sell it, or analyze it – he DID IT! What’s more, he was a genuine enthusiast – which meant his advice was not just fresher and more practical, but also a thousand times funnier. Ed saved all the misfits in the class (me very much included) who were there for the same reason he was – his zeal for and way of life proved there was a space for us in the music industry (of that time – long since obsolete now).

In my years as a technician I saved a few gigs myself, and I even rescued the master tape for a hit album, by disassembling the entire transport of a DAT machine which tried to eat it – but no professional accomplishment ever made me more proud than when Ed began to bring me his own recording equipment to service and maintain.

Like my friend Rick, Ed was also one of those people who lived a second, fortune powered life. He had cancer as a kid and was not expected to make it. Decades of remission were a precious gift to me, his many other grateful students and the whole music scene in Toronto. But though he tried very hard, when cancer came again for him, he was unable to hide it, or power-through with will alone (as so many try, for an achingly lonely phase). I told him I really wanted to help if there was any way I could, and he, knowing I meant it, said, “Actually there is, and you’d be perfect for it.”

I ended up stepping into his role as a teacher of audio electronics for two classes already in mid-term, at post-secondary level. While I had worked in schools and colleges before, I had never been a lecturer or classroom teacher. Straight into the deep-end I went, despite great fear (especially about failing him, or his earnest and heartbroken students). The experience remained frightening throughout the term, but I have rarely in my life learned more, faster. The students enjoyed my active interest in their understanding (simple regurgitation is not enough for safety on the repair bench, and I am all about safety and the responsible coupling of knowledge) they also got a kick out of the fresh insights I could bring from the local music scene (I was working at the largest music store in the city), just as my pals and I had so enjoyed Ed’s lively perspective. I even got one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had, from a lovely fellow who had a hand in coordinating their superb courses. “You’re a natural teacher, the kids really love you,” he said. Which just about made me cry – because I had already realized that I had to leave. I still had a full time job and more projects on the side as well – too much on the plate to do the job and my marriage justice, long term. But I had seen Ed’s kids through the term, seen their final projects built and tested. I was exhausted, but very grateful that I had been able to do one true thing for him at the end, which was within my personal capability (just barely – but then, I have never doubted that that push and reach was his final profound gift to me).

My dear friend’s recent season of sorrow did not demand anything close to that scale of effort, but nevertheless, as she regained her spirit, she said – “I really appreciate these stories, but you are also very tired, and I don’t want you being nice to me, to be a part of burning you out.” Which was so kind of her, because I could not have turned off that switch myself, without feeling I was letting her down, but I am indeed (like so many, all around the world) kind of exhausted.

What I should have said about daily pages is not just – what you need is a reason, and the reason is usually a person. I should have said, find a way to do it from love, and you’ll be doing it right, whether or not you do it for a long time. Love, as Bacon observed long ago “Is ever held in reciproque…” the love our work proves, loves us back, to complete the cycle.  Our pride, ambitions and self image are nothing in comparison to this crucial spiritual metabolism.

I do not consider the series over for good, and I made enough of them to have developed a fond feeling for the funny form, long and short versions (sort of an image or an event, really).  The license to use second person so often, really is particularly fun.

But for right now, I’ve got the hose filling the big reservoir again, so that when it overtops, I can spill forth a proper deluge, instead of a wee dram at a time! (fine a thing as that can so often be).

More books, podcasts, essays, songs and other assorted evidence of grand eccentric unravelling to come. In the meantime, perhaps a short visit to the universe next door?

We were pretty sure we were at the wrong place from the moment we got there. I look at the note in my paper notebook, and you check online again with your phone. The address matches, but it still seems wrong.

“Usually if they put a gallery in a warehouse, you can see some signs of studio conversion,” I say. “At least a few poor man’s fixes like fire escapes, if not a grand renovation.”

You look up at the huge building once again and say, “We are here, so we should explore some more. We will find something.”

The building is quite large and at least a half a century old, but it doesn’t look completely abandoned, just suspiciously quiet – and the alleyway doesn’t look outright threatening, just mysterious. Sure enough, as we come around the side we find one precious discovery right away – an orange and brown heap of metal which must date from the second world war, with a Massey Ferguson badge on the rust-eaten breadbox which must once have been the vehicle’s ‘hood’.

“For pulling artillery maybe?” I guess. “Too bad it sat out so long, it should probably be in a museum somewhere.”

“Yes, but it is a good sign,” you insist, then point, “and see! What is that?”

The door is extremely nondescript, and the plaque next to it isn’t very large, we even have to push some ivy back from the sides before we can read it. The engraved letters spell out:

“The Difficult Gallery
please ring bell for service”

“Aha!” You are delighted, but then we share a funny look – neither one of us can find any sign of a doorbell, even after we push the leaves left and right to make sure there isn’t a tiny brass or plastic button hiding behind them. Then we see an old brass chain with a wooden handle. You pull it!

We both jump when we hear a loud foghorn – definitely not a bell! But we can hear someone moving around inside, then they say, “Just a minute!”

The door opens and we see a gaunt young man, perhaps early thirties at most, with a bushy beard and long hair tied back in a ponytail. Both his ponytail and his beard have colourful flecks of paint. He doesn’t smile, but opens the door wide and points us toward a ladder, mounted to the wall.

“Up you go then,” he says, “room for two. Don’t waste time.” I’m really unsure, but climb up to the platform above, and it seems sturdy. You join me, and we can’t help noticing two chairs, bolted to the platform in very particular spots. “One each, come on now, hurry up,” he seems impatient.

One of them has a set of bicycle pedals in front of it, the other one has a pair of joysticks, one built into each arm of the chair. I’m closer to the pedals so I sit there, but I’m a bit nervous when I see the funny viewing window in front of me is completely black. You sit in the other chair and we hear a cough from below. He is impatient again. I start pedalling, and once I get up to a pretty good speed I see a dim light come on, and we can both see that there is something interesting inside our windows, but it seems awfully fuzzy and dim. I try pedalling harder and it gets brighter, and I glance over to see that you are concentrating hard on the two joysticks, trying to focus the image in our windows, as I try to light it.

“Almost,” he says, “but you’ll need to pedal harder.” I do, but my heart is starting to pound, and you are starting to mutter in frustration. Finally I get a nice burst of speed and you get the two finicky lenses aligned just right and for a moment we can both see a truly incredible sculpture. It reminds us of the boxwood miniatures we saw at AGO – an incredibly detailed scene full of buildings, figures, trees and hills – the sort of thing which you could easily stare at for hours. Except in this case, I’d have a heart-attack and you’d start cursing like a sailor!

We realize we had our best look and I let my legs spin down as you relax your grip. Then we both realize that even though it was just for an instant, what we saw was quite remarkable, and we’re very glad we saw it.

That’s when we realize there are two other platforms. “Up for another?” The artist asks with a smirk. “One of you has to pour water, and the other one adjust the inertial damping flywheel, to synchronize the kinetoscope.”

He is of course playing a game, we can already tell that one half of his art is making us jump funny hoops in order to see his art! But we aren’t ‘suckers’ we are eager participants. We intend to earn his respect.

“I’ve got bucket-duty,” I say, glancing down past the crude wooden catwalk to the man’s living space below – yet another part of the art, in a way.

You look at the treadmill on the last platform, “Okay, but I will run!”

We get the feeling that the man is a bit surprised he hasn’t irritated us yet, just from the tone of his question. “So – what do you-two think of the difficult gallery, so far?”

We can’t help sharing a big smile. “Easy to love!”

The sun warmed rock almost buried in the reeds by the edge of Grenadier Pond at the foot of High Park is a very good place to rest a moment. We are visited by dragonflies and curious sparrows, but we just can’t stop watching the ducks.

They don’t care about us at all right now – they are concentrating on each other. The drakes preening and showing-off their shiny green satin heads proudly, with pointless displays and the flapping up of a fancy splash or two.

The ladies circle at a distance, and though they pretend not to care about what the guys are doing, they somehow never let them too close.

Finally one drake breaks free of the group – you can almost hear the other guys egging him on like pals at a bar. “Come on, man. If you like her that much, just go talk to her already!”

She might like him back, she might not – but right now she is with her pals and they are all laughing at the silly guys. He advances toward them only to drive the whole group away. But not all the way away. The ladies turn once more and look back again, once they’re sure they’ve made their point.

The lone drake swims back to his buddies in a dispirited way, and again we can almost hear them. “Hey man, at least you tried. Let me get you a drink!”

Of course in a bar they would mean a barstool and a beer, rather than a funny tufted upturned feathered bum and a big gulp of soupy grenadiers and algae!

And now the wry feathered ladies are laughing at the spectacle once again.
“You know, he is kind of cute when he isn’t talking so darned much.”

When most people say “Garden Salad” they are not talking about a long leisurely stroll, but then Alphonse is definitely not most people. We ask him how long he has been tending this garden and he shrugs and laughs.

“My grandfather also,” he finally says – not just him, but generations of his line built this. Astounding. No wonder it is so lovely and well cared for.

The garden makes its way slowly up the hillside by way of elegant terraces with stone reinforcement and a sinuous switchback path, up which we follow him, not fast, but not ever stopping long either, except where he indicates – and he is never wrong.

“You must smell these tomatoes before I even pick them,” we almost swoon their sun-warmed flesh is so rich and fruity. “This Basil, run your hand along it,” he smiles, knowing we will be amazed.

“It has the pepper note and the menthol note, very strongly,” you observe.

He is pleased his hard work has been noted, “You will not taste this Basil anywhere else, unless someone stole it from my garden!”

There are onions higher up, both beautiful green shoots and golden bulbs – even the cucumber smells fantastic – I want to take a big bite! But he is putting everything in his beautiful basket as he goes, and it would be rude.

On the other hand, he is a lot older than me, so I offer, “Can I carry the basket? I am an excellent donkey, plenty of experience.” He laughs and hands it over, and I notice he begins to pick more now that I’m carrying.

I get a bit more exercise – and we get an even more incredible salad – excellent deal! As we rise up the hill, the view of the valley below gets more and more beautiful, and we edge into the shade trees near the top.

Are we surprised to see that his house, half fieldstone and half wood, painted in soft pastel colours, looks like an impressionist’s dream? No, we are not surprised – we are definitely delighted though!

We are going to offer to help with the meal, but we have to meet his goat. That is. his goat has decided that he wants to meet us – and he isn’t going to be dissuaded easily, so we enjoy his baaing and funny jumping antics for a minute as our host disappears inside the house.

He returns a moment later and beckons us over to a lovely stone table near the climbing roses, and under the shade of the stately old elm tree.

The vegetables have all been cut into nice bite size chunks – but we see no dressing, and the salad has not been tossed – each pile is separate.

“I know, I know,” he smiles apologetically, “I am vain, but I want you to try each flavour individually, okay? Combine afterward, once you know.”

We are happy to agree, and then see a middle age woman coming out of the house with a lovely worn farm dress and her hair all pulled back. We can tell she lives here too because her arms are if anything even stronger than his, and her face also has that curious combination of weathered by work, and yet made graceful by contact with the cycles of nature.

Strong, unpretentious, beautiful. She scolds me with her eyes before I can say it, so I don’t, but she still smiles as she sets the little ramekins before us. “These ones I made,” she says, pointing, “vinegar from wine, from apples, and of course the oil from our olive trees. Best you ever had.”

She is right and he is right. Best onions, tomatoes, carrots, celery, peppers, cucumber, basil we’ve ever had. And sure enough, each one of them tasted fantastic with each one of the dips, also.

Mind you, when the old man finally piled his vegetables into his bowl and poured the oil and vinegar on top, mixing everything, we did the same.

He smiles knowingly as our tastebuds go into happy overdrive, then says, “Now – next time you have a salad, you will think about Alphonse, this garden and the sun!”

“Monet,” you say. As we walk up the path between tall late season crops toward the town which strides the river and commands the valley pass.

“Yes, or maybe Cézanne,” I agree. “It looks too beautiful to be real.”

Our guide laughs. “I bet your town looks more like a Ridley Scott or a James Cameron movie, right? I’ll happily trade you, any time!”

“Not so many jobs?” I say, sympathetically. “We get that problem too.”

“Yes,” he said, “but you have so many distractions, to pretend things will soon be different. We have only the beauty of the place, something we can hardly take credit for. Who ever had a gallery show of maintenance? When do you see awards given out for stultifying inertia?”

“But the beauty is real,” you insist. “You should be proud!”

He smiles, quietly pleased with the compliment, but it is clear that he is a bit of a smart-ass (probably why we both liked him, right away). “Personally,” he gives us a confessional grin, “I stay for the puppets.”

It is a magic word for both of us – and at first he is convinced that we can’t possibly be that enthusiastic about something so old-fashioned – we must be teasing him! But we are not!

He wants us to see the market – and of course it is beautiful, so colourful, and the people are wonderfully friendly. The sense of continuity is magical, you can imagine this market four hundred years ago – and the beautiful weathered sandstone ‘old town’ – the original walled city around which all else grew – not much different either, really.

He needs us to see the church – and he is right, it is magnificent – we are glad we came. But we will not let him dismiss his comment about puppets!

Finally, after he is sure that we have both appreciated the finest paintings in the local gallery (there are only twenty works in the whole gallery, so that doesn’t take too long), he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Okay fine, I will share my favourite puppets with you. But if you’re rude about it, you can find a new guide, okay? These people are my friends.”

We assure him that we really do adore the medium and the art. He is still wary – and we both realize he must have had a bad experience before.

But we are not that kind of (barbarian) traveller – we are the opposite kind!

The front of the building looks more like a stately Dutch house than a theatre – and it seems too narrow for a theatre anyhow. We proceed through the lovely highly wrought woodwork and into the modestly beautiful interior – dark panelling, brass trim and velvet wallpaper – which doesn’t seem to have changed in a couple of centuries, if not more, except for the addition of electric lights. But even these are incandescent!

The lobby is almost a drawing room – but there is a booth for tickets, and the collector waves to our guide with a big smile. They are old friends, obviously. We are lead through the double doors into the theatre proper and both of us gasp – it is actually perfection!

The height of the narrow building allows the seats a good slope, and there is clearly a spacious superstructure above the stage for props and actors.

The wooden stage itself is worn and scuffed like a vaudeville playhouse – the low stage lights are hidden inside vintage art deco sconces that look like seashells, the curtains are lush and shiny with mauve satin, golden embroidery and braided tassled sashes.

The seats are made of carved wood also, and polished to unnatural smoothness by long wear. They are bolted to the floor, and at first the way the seat part itself folds-down from the back confuses us both.

“For the little kids,” the guide explains, showing us how to make the seat sit high or low, “so they don’t get their view blocked by adults in front of them.”

“It is surprisingly comfortable,” you say, taking your seat.

“It really is,” I agree, “and this playhouse is wonderful. Thank you for bringing us.”

“You cannot say that yet,” he insisted, “you have to tell me after the play. Anyhow, I have to go backstage now. Pierre didn’t show up, so I have to play piccolo. Otherwise no one will know when Pinocchio is coming!”

It has been awhile, that’s for sure – but somehow, even though we’ve never been here before, everything about it is immortal, as if there really was only one playground, and one set of swings which had been waiting patiently for our return ever since the last time we swung up and hopped off with a giggling super jump, only to scamper away toward another game or treat.

The top bar is not as tall as it used to look, but it and the chains hanging down still have that familiar combination of grey weathered metal and rust. The dull worn seat still looks like an ultra-thick and ultra fat seatbelt from a clown car for obese midgets. Even the pits underneath each swing, dug out one tiny bit at a time by small scuffing shoes, slowing down, seem familiar – and in this case, are deep enough to allow us to tuck our legs under.

I don’t know about you, but I was only thinking it would be nice to sit for a moment and rest. But as soon as I feel the seat taking up my weight and that funny back and forth slide you can do with the chains, I cannot help myself. Slowly at first, I begin the motion – pulling back to launch forward, and then tucking under on the return. Even if I didn’t see your blurry running shoes swinging by my peripheral vision, I would know you were swinging too, just from the slow rhythmic squeak of the chains.

There are bicycles and hills in the breeze on our faces when we pull forward – extended almost like a dive, and then that tiny moment of up-top weightlessness and the thrill of feeling just a bit unsafe, and the free ride back, tucked in like a luge pilot.

It is not the view, it is not the exercise, it is not the laughter we feel bubbling up from inside. It is not the excited screams of happy playing children from decades ago. It is not even the popcorn man with his whistling pedal cart.

It is coming back to earth, surrendering motion, donning the yoke of gravity and patience once again by choice, which leaves us feeling as if we have been cleaned and oiled and polished then sent back into the messy world

Mind you, the arrival of the popcorn man doesn’t hurt, those hot little paper bags of delicious smell almost too good – even from across the park.

Anyhow, we have each remembered a tiny friend from when we too were small. Why not introduce them to each other, while we get buttery fingers?

1 Comment

  1. And here is one more bonus story (didn’t quite fit the arc, but I couldn’t leave it out of the mix).
    Wacky geeks, surrealistas and bibliophiles will all wish they had not scorned this invite.

    Tonight we are having a very unusual dinner party. Werner Herzog came a bit early, and insisted he’d like to help us prepare dinner, but then he wanted us to try a different way of chopping our vegetables.

    We finally managed to get him to sit down in the living room so we could finish getting the meal ready, and the doorbell rang. Kevin Bae and Robert Strickland have joined the party – lovely! I can hear Werner laughing with them about artistic metaphor as I grab the thermometer to check to be sure the roast is up to temperature.

    It gets a little weird after that. Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie were going to share a cab, but the glow on Madam Curie’s dress spooked the horses, so she arrived a few minutes later by bicycle, not in a great mood.

    On the other hand Carl Sagan just about jumped for joy when he saw Curie, and Ms Nightingale was most helpful about getting the wine started. Should have thought of that myself, but I’m still trying to decide if that weird knife technique Werner showed us (which he learned from a native tribe) is genius or just plain weird. Bit of both, maybe.

    By the time everyone is ready to sit down for dinner we are feeling rather proud. Bootsy Collins could not be more friendly or charming, and his stories of crazy gigs from the seventies are cracking up the whole room.

    I bet that just like me, you are kind of dazzled and kind of annoyed. So many brilliant conversations you wish you could listen to every one of them at once – but the table is too big, and anyhow, dinner is for open friendliness.

    Not until I’ve cleared away the last of the dinner dishes and then brought dessert to everyone in the more comfortable living room (as well as bringing out the single malt, brandy and rakija) do I truly relax. By then it is time for you to set up the telescope. Carl Sagan wants to show Bootsy something totally hilarious about Jupiter!

    I didn’t even realize Alan Watts had made it until he taps me on the shoulder from behind and asks where the washroom is. He laughs when I tell him.

    I catch your eye and smile, again and again through the night. It is too much to take it all in, and it is just right. The sort of sublime chaos which can inspire us for years not with a single idea or phrase, but with a quality of thought and spirit of interchange. A harmonious chord of purposeful energy.

    The night air is chilly, but Sagan does not get tired of finding new things in the sky as if by magic, and then inviting us to peer in and be awestruck. Werner liked the dessert very much, but I wish he had waited a few minutes to say the flavour reminded him of these very sweet ants he ate once, in Africa. Some of the other guests didn’t seem to enjoy their dessert as much, afterward!

    Of course Watts is a good hugger – didn’t we already know that? I even believe he is genuinely regretful to leave, while so much fine conversation is still happening. But he has been charming one of our guests, and the way their eyes are shining, they are ready for a different language for awhile!

    Werner is very good about helping with the dishes, even though we insist he should relax with the other guests. Curie and Nightingale are amused to see me and him in the kitchen, but rather pleased also. Samantha Christoforetti has had them both laughing like schoolgirls for the last hour – and I notice you over there rather a lot also. Glad someone is catching it!

    But the coachman isn’t going to wait all night, and the wine is mostly gone. Even late night veteran Sagan begins to yawn. One by one or two or three, the guests say their sweet goodbyes and fade into the night mists with a cheery wave, or more formal gesture of appreciation.

    Until finally the house is quiet again. Our minds – not!
    We are supercharged and exhausted in equal measure!
    A perfect gathering.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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