Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eulogy for a Space Alien.

My mother died last week. I attended a service for her. Wonderfully, her daughters spoke for her and they spoke well. I couldn’t bring myself to step up so I speak here now.

 My mother was a wonderful mother to us all and we all feel lost without her. But that is not what this space is for.

It is for her.

My mother was more than a mother. Gail got skipped ahead 2 grades as a child. Because that is how they rewarded children back then. It meant she had to move in a social sphere outside anything she could have coped with. And she did.

And unlike many women, she went to university. There, she wanted a drama club and there wasn’t one. So she made one. She created it out of nothing and made it happen.

She wanted to mark her independence. Fiercely. So she moved to Montreal. On the map it is 2 hours but we all know it meant a foreign country. She had no fear and just went ahead. We can only thank her bravery because she met my father there. And without that we would not have happened. None of us kids would be here.

Gail excelled and earned an honours degree. And then she got pregnant. Some women back then would have been content and become a housewife. Not our Gail. She had dreams. To do things. Back then, a woman still just settled down. Not Gail. My mother had a productive career after that with Canadian Marconi and then with Bell Northern Research. If those names sound familiar it is because they are. They were and are the biggest companies we have. For the youngsters, think Blackberry, but before we had computers.

She was a technical writer for them, translating what the engineers said to the money men. She was crucial. The whole company could not have run except for her work. I need to remember that.

My mother was a huge fan of science fiction. 30 years before the internet made it easy to be a lazy nerd my mother wanted a convention in Ottawa. So she joined the people who also wanted that and she made it happen. Just like her drama club except far bigger.

She helped make it happen and I had the privilege to grow up with a Gestetner cranking in the back ground because she kept the newsletter going and then built the book that you got if you came to Maplecon in the seventies.  if you were there, and you got a book, you have to thank her.

My formative experiences include that which no one else could have given. I was a Con boy. My mother made it happen not because she was a mom, but because she was Gail and loved sharing ideas.

My mother chose, and i say chose, she did not have to, to look after my father in his illness for 25 years. One quarter of a century for us young people to think about. More than a generation.

That only slowed my mother down. Not stopped her. Moving to the country she had land for a garden. A real garden. Gail grew food. Not satisfied she grew organic food.  not satisfied she studied everything there was to make organic food. Some people would have stopped there. Not Gail. It wasn’t enough to just go out at 4am and pick off the grubs and potato bugs, not Gail. If she took something up, it was for the whole hog.

She studied and amassed a whole library of organic farming. But that wasn’t enough if our world wanted to encroach on her little acre of happiness. So that little woman fought. In her fifties, she took another degree in Environment and geography to arm herself with the facts. It wasn’t enough to pick grubs like nobody’s business.

My mother did everything for keeps.

She cried--one of the only times i saw her cry--and felt sad that for the next twenty years of her never ceasing search, no one would hire her to save our planet--or for anything because who needs older women?-- even with all her knowledge. But she kept hoping she could share her knowledge and never gave up, ever.

We know the world, and it has no place for older women on a paycheck. We told her to settle down and accept that she wouldn’t have another job coming. My mother just kept being enthusiastic. She wanted a place in the world but if it wasn’t coming, she would do the same thing she had been doing since she was a girl—push.

My mother then pushed with craft. She supported my father in his woodworking efforts and surpassed him once she was in--and he himself was a master. One of the chairs she designed is in our House of Commons right now.

Then she went back to her first love, and wrote stories. She wrote mysteries and supported all the other writers even though she was loathe to make friends outside of work.

She studied making animation, and then stop motion film because she loved movies and thought maybe she could join in.

Right up until illness slowed her, my mother had endless enthusiasm for not just anything, but everything that caught her attention. And nothing could slow it down.

I tried. I was the cynical arguing bad guy to her good guy arguments for 25 years and she never ever lost any optimism or enthusiasm. Nothing could slow Gail down. Not even a sour son.

I remember this now after I was cranky about how slow her body got. How pissy I would get about her being forgetful or losing her way.

Everyone declines, but some people are still formidable.

My mother, so private, so timid, got on a plane and crossed an ocean to save her son when he was in trouble and never asked for thanks, not even once.

She just revelled in being Little Old Lady And Cat but she could still cleave the world in two if it meant saving her children.

Gail was so much more than a mother and all the amazing things she did will never be written down in history. Instead people will remember her only as making a family.

But even if we forget all the amazing things she did, we cant forget that she always had energy left over for her constantly troubled children. She saved Lynda and Robert and Anne over and over again and never once judged us.

Gail Marianne MacDonald, nee Walsh was a titan. Not just a mom, not just a great mom, but a titan.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Life

When i was a young man, just into my twenties, I was graced with the opportunity to spend a fall, winter and spring living away from the noise, filth and insanity of the city. For a time, I whiled my way in a little house on a half acre just outside a village on the edge of nowhere.

I lived on the Kings Highway, a small snakey road that traverses our entire vast country without ever passing through anywhere that anyone cares about anymore, so it is dotted with tiny villages that are crumbling as the children scamper off to the big city. So, I was allowed the experience of being an inconsequential fly orbiting the quaintest of dying life forms.

It was a rejuvenating bucolic time for me, spent reading Tolstoy and Thoreau in between bouts of chopping winter wood and clawing back the wild from overrunning my utopic idyll. OK, it may not have been that idyllic. I was working in a cardboard factory in the nearby village and twenty years later, my lungs are still paying for it—seriously, it was the most depressing place in the world and the employees made book on who and when each would drop dead. That isn’t a joke or hyperbole. While i worked there, a man came up on retirement and instead of much wistful conversation on what one might do with retirement, he was sunken and silent, and the rest joked about how long he would last. He died before his pension was processed. Money changed hands. It was that sort of place.

But still, it was one of my few experiences in life that didn’t take place deep in a large metropolis. I treasure it to this day. The odd thing is that other than the time I was in a vehicle than slammed into a deer head on (a great story unto itself), I don’t really recall any of the wild life that one might normally think to be abundant in the country. I remember the marina, the back trails, the woods, and grapevine wrath, but not regular ambulatory life forms.

Contrasting this, I have always found the concrete jungle to be teeming with life. Really. A ridiculous amount of life that very nearly gives us the finger for how much it cares what we do. My experience of the wild is inextricable from my experience of the city.

I used to live in a claustrophobic apartment complex that bordered on an embassy. I don’t remember which embassy, except it was the sort that always had an RCMP vehicle keeping it under surveillance (don’t we all miss the innocence of the cold war, considering how bloody the world is now). They had a tall fence around their complex, but at one end, on their side, was a hill leading right up the fence, and on our side a dumpster. I awoke one morning to loud chittering and found an entire family of raccoons had sauntered up to what they thought was a gorge-atopia and having plummeted in, couldn’t get back out. The large male hissed and bared its teeth at me when I peeked in. I found a long thick branch, fallen from a nearby tree and put one end in, forming a ramp up and out of the cornucopic trap. No dummies, the raccoon family immediately formed rank and climbed up and out and waddled off single file and never looked back at me.

Just last year, i found another family of raccoons living in a small tree in my yard. Up until then, I had never given thought to what animals do when they aren’t foraging. But for most of that summer, late at night, this family hiked up into the branches to sleep. I would never have known, but when I went outside to smoke at night they would startle awake and clamber off the tree, trundling sleepily down the length of a fence next to it. It was never a fearful run, more an irritated grumpy stumble, much the same as humans look when a fire alarm empties an apartment building. They’d go about 100 feet, dad would rear up and look back. I could see the moon reflected in his eyes, and then while I still smoked, they would start back and hoist their chubby bodies back into the branches. From evacuation to being all tucked in again took less time than my cigarette. Even if I fretted about my cats some, I enjoyed these barbapappa-like raccoons.

For a while I lived in Vancouver and lacking gainful employment often found myself rambling around Stanley Park. Raccoons were well known there, only they were much larger than those I knew in the east. They would stand on their hind legs, doing their best imitation of cute to get people to feed them. They resembled nothing less than small bears with masks. Fences had been put up, adorned with warnings not to feed them as they were known to attack small children, evidently not being choosy between peanuts and babies.

Out West, everything seemed bigger. And more prone to eating you. While living in Victoria, on the island I found myself sitting on the roof promenade of a mall eating a take-out, when some sea gulls came to investigate. I saw signs in bold red, warning not to feed the gulls. They were the same sort of signs that you would see at a power station warning you not to electrocute yourself by playing in the wires. Alas, I was the very snotty age of 21 and always on the lookout for a way to stick it to the man.

I tore off strips of my hamburger bun and began tossing. Soon, where there were three gulls, and then there were a hundred, then two hundred. These gulls, like everything out west were much larger than I was used to. They didn’t settle for squawking but began attacking. Like the raccoons, these gulls saw no point in discriminating between a hamburger bun and my flesh. I fled for the safety of the building and they flung themselves on the, apparently bullet proof glass. There was a lesson there about not fooling about with pompous ideas of us ruling nature.

I try not to forget it. I try, but forget anyway. I have had similar experiences since then, with squirrels on Mont Royal in the wet days of late March.

While i was in Victoria I also got to see a pelican. Up until then, my minds image of a pelican came mostly from Walter Lantz and I expected to see the enormous pouch hanging from a dopey bird. Unlike everything else, they were smaller than expected and when they haven’t swooped up a load of fish and water that pouch is barely a waddle. Aside from a long beak, they looked nothing like what I imagined. And they looked quite regal, not like the drunken sailor cartoons made of them.

While on the topic of Walter Lantz, I never saw or heard a woodpecker until this summer. Sitting on a porch in Minnesota, again smoking (i think if it were not for my filthy habit, I would never see any of the world), I first heard and then witnessed the famous bird. They are indeed handsome and bright. More than that, they are loud. Really loud. You think sawing a tree is loud? Try head butting one. That yard in Minneapolis was always chock full of colourful birds I could not name. I felt so jealous. Back home, most of the small birds were a dingy brownish grey. It was a big event to see a jay or a cardinal. In Minnesota, everyday was Tales Of The Green Forest come to life.

Back in the ol’ hometown, one of the more common animals I see is the skunk. They are so common that I think they get a bad rep for spraying. It is obvious that they only spray under dire circumstances, like being run over. If it were otherwise, the entire city would stink of skunk instead of car exhaust. While working night security for an elderly home, I used to routinely come across what I assume was the same skunk, while making my perimeter rounds(this was more for bringing back naked senile escapees than keeping predators out). I learned that skunks can make an impressively aggressive chittering noise to ward you off. They really do hold that spray back for emergencies. I’m glad, because, puppies aside, there is nothing more adorable looking than a skunk. That skunk flipping the bird at me each night was the highlight of that job.

Speaking of, where I live now, one night I was out back(you guessed it, smoking), when I nearly peed myself because a chuthulian nightmare came undulating across the yard straight at me. My paranoia was not delirium tremens; the thing coming at me was real and resembled some kind of manta ray. While I was making out my last will in my head and browning my shorts, it pivoted and writhed up to the front of the yard then slithered under the fence. I dashed after it in some madness, opened wide the gate and watched it ripple across my street.

Under the street lamps, I could see it was a family-or tribe--of skunks(really, what do we know about them?) traveling in a close knit phalanx. The characteristic waddle ripple of a skunk is amusing when it is one. Eight of them all voltron’d up into one being looks distinctly otherworldly. The land manta gang of skunks silently disappeared into another yard and I have never again seen anything like it.

At home, mostly what I like to watch are the crows. They are everywhere, ubiquitous. They do not become invisible to me though, I always think of them as knowledgeable demigods watching. And they do seem to keep tabs on us. Luckily they seem non-participatory. Science has demonstrated that they remember everything they see and do and that they transmit this information between themselves, so from what i can see, they are like a CIA who can fly. I live not that far from a house where legend has it a schizophrenic man lives, who buys enormous quantities of meat which he tosses up onto his roof to feed them(appeasement?).

I do not know if this is true, but, where I live, the word ‘murder’ to depict a flock of crows is insufficient. They darken the skies in the tens of thousands. I see hundred year old trees bend under their weight. If they do signal mystical portent, then I am at ground zero for when the hobbits surface. Or the apocalypse arrives.

The other bird that people nearly forget, because it is everywhere, is the pigeon. It is more common in the central city than the suburbs, but where they live, there are millions of them. I used to adore pigeons as much as I do skunks. They warble in a way that is so appealing, they sheen a great green and blue around their necks, and pivot their heads as though everything we say is daft. What’s not to like?

When I lived in Montreal I used to love how many tiny plazas they had, dubbed “parks”. Usually it was a corner with prettier concrete stones, some benches and a circular fenced enclosure of bushes and a tree. These places tended to have only a few denizens other than the pigeons. There were the elderly, the unemployed and the narcotic addicted. (I will leave off mention which category I fell into). All of them, without ever conferring seemed to agree on feeding the pigeons. These parks are about as serene a place as you can find in the inner city.

But that all changed while I lived in a groovy apartment in Little Italy, Ottawa, with a nice old dilapidated wooden balcony. During the winter, when we weren’t using it, it became over run as a roost for pigeons. I probably could have lived with that except that was the winter my girlfriend got pregnant. If you haven’t had children, this is the moment in life that transforms you from seeing the world as a playground to cavort in to seeing the world as a mortal threat to the well-being of your child. Overnight you become a hyper-vigilant pre-emptive strike kind of person.

Before my daughter was born we began planning on an off-site location to lock up the cleaning supplies and whether we could live without electrical outlets. The pigeons were a major assault on our fortress of fertility. Pigeon guano is quite poisonous, and once dry is easily dusted up into the air. Since my girl had been tasked with the whole gestating thing, dealing with the pigeons fell on me.

Despite a childhood spent revelling in the god-like power of torturing bugs, I grew up, not into a serial killer, but a gentle soul. I didn’t really want to evict these families who must care about their own children as much as we did for our unborn. But, I did feel it was a us-or-them kind of thing. And when I thought of my little baby breathing in pigeon bio-weaponry, my jaw set.

Now, I know from humane traps. At a restaurant I used to work at, we used to lay out the humane traps. They consisted of shallow trays of a gluey substance. The idea was the little mouse feet would get caught in the molasses and then you would pull them free and deposit them in some more appropriate, nurturing environment, like the woods (wherever that is if you work downtown).

In reality, the glue was supernaturally strong, and the caught mice, terrified would rail against it, only to trip and get their bodies caught up in it. Even more frightened, they would pull harder, slowly ripping out of their skins. I would find mice squealing in agony and if I tried to peel them off, all I achieved would be pulling them right out of their skins altogether. Very humane. I took to putting the trapped mice, trap and all, in a bag, bringing them out back and stomping on them before sending them on their farewell voyage to the dumpster.

I took this painful lesson to heart when dealing with the pigeons. I went out onto that balcony, wearing my air filter, kicking up guano dust everywhere and stomped on the cheeping babies in those nests. Then I shovelled everything into garbage bags before scrubbing everything in detergent. Urban life--for them and for me. I never told the mother of my child what had been necessary. She had, generally, more sympathy for animals than people and probably would not have understood. I thought to myself, maybe it is some primal evolutionary part of fatherhood that one lives with killing the babies of the competition.

That is my penultimate anecdote of urban life. Perhaps a poor one to devote so much time to, given the genial nature of this piece. It is just to say that the urban jungle is like any other jungle—vicious and decisive.

I’ve left out a lot of urban life with which I am familiar. Countless rabbits and gophers could also have provided stories. Then there was two summers ago when Ottawa was inexplicably infested with wild turkeys—it became a local internet meme to post photos of a spotting. I never knew there was such a thing as a wild turkey until then. I also have loving tales of snakes and frogs in the city, but ran out of space. I will leave off on one final anecdote of life in the city.

For a time, I lived in the old country, not my old country; I’m Scotch-Irish, but the old country just the same. While I hung my hat in Berlin, I cycled one day to visit the historic site where Hitler signed his little document deciding the world would be a great place with all the world’s religions minus one. Winded from a long ride I walked my bike under the shade of a wooded area and came across a boar.

For fellow North American Urbanites, a boar is neither a cute little pygmy pig, nor a vacuous aimless farm pig. A boar is a large dangerous beast that can take out a human easily. Without arms, you cannot fight one and you cannot outrun one either. I looked at it. It looked at me. It measured me as no threat, snorted derisively and wandered away. In that moment I first understood what wildness was. I first connected with the idea of mankind as a naked frightened animal in the wilderness. I understood our fires and guns and mistrustfulness. I understood the uneasiness that, even in our concrete world, we still cannot shake off. I understood another living thing as something other than food or an irritant to be erased. I understood the possibility of being knocked off by something else's primal nature.

I was quite shaken and cycled off. At my destination I had no stomach to visit the famous building and sat smoking in the garden. While I smoked, two young foxes leapt out of the woods, cavorting and playing without a care in the world. They never noticed me, but just jumped and rolled and yipped. Eventually an adult fox emerged from the trees, looked balefully at me, and barked. Tails down, the two young foxes skulked away and disappeared into the woods. Just another family coping with urban life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Do You Have Socialism Lurking In The Dank Corners Of Your Home?

Socialism is a scarlet letter. We all know it; we fear being branded with it. All your do-gooder efforts can be quashed in an instant once you have been labeled socialist. It’s a disgusting word, like commie and pinko(and we know what happened to them—and they were so social, not fascist and crony capitalist). No effort has been spared by the enemies of community to make sure you revile socialism because socialism is the dire nemesis of inequality and the hater of wealth concentration.

I am constantly impressed, no, amazed, at how completely the very wealthy people who own the newspapers, magazines, and tv have convinced the great sprawling masses that said masses deserve squalor, that they should never join together and that they should fight and sacrifice to preserve the power and wealth that is concentrated in the hands of so few. It’s brilliant. More than that, there is a side-splitting irony to it all. It works so well that it is enough to make you hate your fellow man. Except, the elite disdain for the working class—that too is an effective measure in dividing people, disempowering people and smothering socialism.

Socialism is a charged term with disputed definitions. Some of the common notions or tenets associated with this vilified term are “social organization”, “collective decisions”, “allocation of economic inputs to satisfy economic demands and human needs”, “cooperative”. Doesn't sound so bad. Yet this socialism is the villain in our collective story right now, and is a vile boogey-man to be feared and hopefully dashed. According to the narrative.

Really? I can see being the bad guy and disguising vinegar as kool-aid. It’s a goal effective tactic. But just handing out vinegar and expecting it to be swallowed, well, that should fail, shouldn’t it? I’m being facetious. Obviously, the blanket message received by most people is that higher ups are struggling to look after us and that socialism is a menace that would destroy us. But, man, they don’t even try hard to con us. It’s like we were begging to be demolished.

There is no way I can put a dent in the effective, intelligent, far-reaching propaganda machine that wealthy neo-conservatives employ, but I can try. (and I am not being cad when I call it intelligent and effective. The proof is all around us).

When you help your buddy move, even when he couldn’t foot the bill for pizza and beer--that is socialism.

When you drop money in the plate at church, or in the Sally Ann pot next to the bell ringing Santa--that is socialism.

When expanding on the positive reinforcement you have received from networking and sharing with family, friends and friends of friends, you feel everyone should be safe and fed--that is socialism.

Devoting a bit of everyone’s income to building roads so we can get all the stuff where it needs to go, allocating it because no canny capitalist would be daft to do anything so unprofitable--that is socialism.

Devising a welfare system, either because starving homeless people make you feel icky, or you are afraid they will kill you for your home and food--that is socialism.

Building a healthcare system for the whole community, not just because it’s sad when sick children die, but also because it is unproductive and costly to let illness spread unchecked--that is socialism.

Understanding that the world is really big and complex, and wanting your community to be able to compete, and so subsidizing necessary education—all the way up, not just primary—that is socialism.

Wanting proportionate representation, and ensuring that every voter has access to valid information--that is socialism.

Creating institutions that examine and evaluate industry (say, pharmaceutical, energy, waste removal and construction, or anyone else who might affect all of society in good and bad ways) and giving their employees a living wage so they don’t have to take bribes--that is socialism.

Fighting tying up knowledge in copyrights that suck all the affluence out of a community or not--that is socialism.

Fighting the patenting of food so giant corporations cannot hold the entire hungry planet hostage--that is socialism.

Questioning labyrinthine Gordian financial tools that decree all profit to the few and all costs and failure to the community--that is socialism.

Demanding that the richest not be allowed to hide behind unaccountable corporate documents when they steal or fail--that is socialism.

Getting really angry when the richest nations on the planet feature mass amounts of hard working people losing their homes and jobs, and angrily demanding some kind of reasonable answer and response from the government that everyone pays so much for, votes for and counts on--that is socialism.

Envisioning a world where some people are rewarded more than others depending on the amount of school, work or necessity of their tasks, but not supporting a few people to make thousands of times more than most, and not relegating most tasks to a wage that is below cost of living--that is socialism.

Wishing for a world where the average person wasn’t seeking two or three jobs to get by, where that person did not live in anxiety and had time to see their kids--that is socialism.

Demanding accountability from our elected representatives, since we elected them based on what they said they were about--that is socialism.

Not treating the planet like it, and we are transient, not behaving as though we are sociopaths, alone, on our own little islands, not looking at others like they are logs for the fire--that is socialism.

If you should happen to be some well off person who despises socialism, and believes there is some meritocracy that gave you--by your bootstraps alone--all you possess, MAKE NO MISTAKE: when socialism fails, I will sit in your sparkling kitchen eating a sandwich over your bleeding out body that I stabbed, before I loot your home. Do you know why? It will be me only because I was first in a very very long line. And I will laugh while your life ebbs.

Friday, May 27, 2011

CBR III #5: Blake Bell's Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-mariner, & the Birth of Marvel Comics

Part of me wants to adopt the voice of Stan Lee: Because you demanded it, the bio; Excelsior. But that’s just not true. In Bill Everett’s twilight years of creating comics and superheroes for generations, Stan Lee came to power and created what we now know as comics. Stan Lee is a household name. Bill Everett is not. Yet Bill Everett had laid down all the right notes before Stan was even a gofer.

Bill Everett was an alcoholic who struggled with the bottle as much as his chosen profession. He constantly missed deadlines and let people down. But such was his personality and his work that someone would always keep hum employed.

He created the Sub-Mariner. He created the Human Torch. He introduced a bold muscular violence to comics that never existed before him. Today, we thrive on action and heroics in the movies. Bill Everett made that happen. He died of a broken liver with little fame. And he bequeathed soaring action to the comics.

This book is not a biography, isn’t painstakingly researched, and doesn’t profess to be so. It’s a big coffee table art book filled with anecdotes, and legend and endless pages of really good art. It is exactly what it purports to be.

I am myself not an expert in the history of comics, and I sometimes do not see what is described in the book. There was much better draftsmanship to come. Better stories. Better ideas. But when people first started to think about stapling together comic drawings and selling them, Bill Everett was THE maverick.

I don’t even like his drawing style. But I did see his motion and narrative and learned a lot about the art form. That is why you want this book.

Yes, the stories of comics in the forties are memorable and nostalgic. But that isn’t the focus here. It’s a big book. It is filled with his art. You get your money’s worth just for that. The text is secondary.

What it does do is give a portrait of a just born art, and the way one man shaped graphic narrative for decades to come. I will never love his drawings; they really do seem cheap and empty to me. I have not eyes to see that part of history. What I did learn, though, was the birth of motion through panels, of suspense, of trepidation. The kinds of layouts that Bill Everett produced from his imagination allowed all future generations of comics to be. He had no history to draw upon. And no one paid him enough to care. He, in fact, professed not to care. And yet here we are, basking in the wealth that he helped form.

If you ever loved comics, this book is for you. If you want a critical biography, keep on truckin’, but you won’t find a better one of Bill Everett. The book tells three stories: The birth of comics, the growth of an artist, and an artist’s downfall. It does so with love and reverence, between the mighty pages of art. What else can I say?

If he had come on the scene 20 years later, someone might have said excelsior. He might command better respect and be better known. But that didn’t happen. At least we have this book today. Thank god for that.