Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Memoriam: Peter Falk

Falk was one of my favourites. Not only was he my all-time favourite sleuth, Columbo, he was in one of my favourite movies, The Princess Bride.

Double Genius.

He will be missed.

Peter Falk, September 16, 1927 - June 23, 2011

"As you wish."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Craig Rimmel: A Tear in the Fabric of the Fathomable

The world is a story we tell to ourself, and stories must make sense. If our stories didn't make sense the world would be chaos, random and unlivable. And so we shape our lives, creating structures and order. We stitch beginnings and endings, triumphs and losses, into the fabric of what we know, of what we have experienced.

And we read this story into the future. Our life is as much about prediction as it is about this moment. Because the chaos brims beyond the line of our sight. The future is like the ancient belief about the earth: it is flat, and at some point we reach the edge and there is blackness beyond as the waters of the seas pour off the edge of the world into the vast empty of the unknown.

Unless, of course, we weave the story out further. Our lives are constructed not just on what we have seen and known, not just on who we are and what we are living, but on what might be and what we might predict, creating a future woven out of threads of expectation.

And this future we see ahead of us is usually strung together out of certain rules and beliefs. I will be fine. Nothing bad will happen. It will be like this, like this story I see in my head. We do not see the vast empty beyond. We do not let ourselves.

And yet sometimes things happen. It happens to all of us at some point, I think. Something happens, and there's a little tear, the fabric of the fathomable peeling open to reveal the vast seething blackness beyond. The rules, the orders and patterns of our life, of the future we shape for ourselves in our heads, tumble down like matchsticks. Was that all they were? Such tiny, fragile pieces of wood? Little splinters tumbled down. A breeze, just a little breeze, will blow them off the edge of the world.

It is not always the worst thing in the world, though it can be. It happens to some people very young: a parent dies, a matchstick house tumbles. It happens to others only as adults. And the moment may not have arrived yet for some people. They wait in their matchstick houses, smiling at the future, hands flashing as they stitch together bright matchstick quilts of possibility.

My moment came when I was twelve. We got a phone call. My friend, Craig Rimmel, was dead.

He was not the first person I knew to die, but I had already fashioned little rules around death, built little matchstick fences and road signs: One Way Only. Death Goes This Way.

Death was natural. You were born, you grew up, you grew old, you died. This was sad, but this was inevitable. This was the way of things. This was the rule.

(Matchsticks and glue, so much glue... it is harder to weave with sticks than you think)

My grandfather (my father's father) died when I was only one. I remember him and I don't. It is a memory, but not clear--it is more like an impression, a powerful sensory aura, the essential glow of a person. A feeling. My grandfather holding me. Big. I'm sitting on his tummy. I feel the idea of a smile, feel him looking down at me. An impression of warmth.

That is all.

I was too small to understand, but all understanding thereafter was tinted with his lack, with his death, with his absence in the world I knew. This is the possibility.

This is how the rule began.

My other grandfather died when I was five. He'd had a few strokes, and they believed he had another while driving a tractor, and the tractor tipped and he was killed. An accident. But I was small, and he was old, and this was the rule.

When my grandmothers died the rule was cemented. This is the way the world works. I knew, of course, in my head, that it didn't always work this way. I saw it on the news. But I didn't feel it or know it. This wasn't my story. These bits of news, these images on the television, these other posssibilities, these were just the minor backdrops to the story I saw before me, to the story I told myself about the future.

But Craig was different. I was twelve. He was twelve. He died on his paper route.

I had delivered papers, too, the Pennysaver. I remember cutting the plastic ties. Sorting the ads. Ink on my fingers. Having to scrub them, watching the ink swirl down the drain, but never all of it. So hard to get them entirely clean. The ink left a stain.

Craig was on his paper route. He was twelve. It wasn't even an accident. It was an aneurysm. Something inside just broke. A little balloon stretched and popped, as if the colourful balloon animals of his imagination that danced through his future had been too much. The balloon animals of highschool, of college, of marriage and adulthood. They were too much, required too much air, and the balloon popped.

A boy falling down on his paper route.

We had played soccer together. He was our goalie, his father our coach, the best I ever had. He had a round face, curly blond hair. He had a nice smile. He was nice. He was like a cherub in soccer cleats.

Craig would have known, though, that my rule was not true. He knew, I think, that these houses of possibility were built only out of matchsticks and twigs, glued together with hope and faith and necessary naivety.

His mother had died a few years earlier. Heart attack. And now him. A little tube, ballooning. Popping. A boy falling down on his paper route.

Ink on my fingers. So hard to wash off.

I remember the funeral. I remember his father standing, beside the coffin, with Craig's older brother. Just two of them left now, a family cut in half, a punnett square going nowhere.

I remember sunlight through a window. Motes of dust drifting in the light. Hovering. A room full of children crying. All dressed nicely.

I hated dress clothes for a long time. It was the last funeral I attended for a long time. I avoided them, as if this would somehow allow me to ignore the blackness hiding beyond the present moment.

The coffin was dark, solid. All too solid. A dark, burnished wood. Is this why I have a fascination with dark wood?

A rent in the story, in the fabric of all I had predicted, and all I might predict in the days and years to come.

There was a great void in the four corners of that family, and some of that leaked into my own life. A touch of the chaos, of the unknowingness of things.

I was not a teen that took risks, that felt invulnerable. In every story I could think of, could weave of the future, there was that wooden box, the possibility of it.

What was fathomable had changed.

I was quietly haunted by this for years. I was quieter for years, perhaps.

And yet I remembered, too, that light. The light through the window, the motes of dust hovering in the midst of a slow dance. There was chance and randomness there, too, but of another kind. A glimmer of light, a path, however narrow. Something to follow.

I was an adult when my father died. One day, though, in the dark of grief, I went outside. A winter sky of blue, white sun on white snow, a moment of sublimity, amd perhaps, even, of grace. A gift of hope, of the idea that we can see even in the darkness of what is to come. And in that light of a late winter morning I remembered Craig's funeral, the light through the window, the dancing motes of dust, suspended in a moment and holding off the future.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


by Cyndi Pauwels
CP at Large
(Story originally published in Mock Turtle, Fall 2010)


In the beginning the silence was a welcome relief from the chaotic days and nights spent caring for an angry, ungrateful, invalid husband. He was so healthy and strong when they married. They were blissfully happy, cocooned in a world of their own. The future stretched before them, full of tantalizing possibilities, but then their brief fifteen months of idyllic existence were shattered by the war. When he was medically discharged for vague but debilitating symptoms after repeated deployments and finally returned for good to the tiny bungalow they shared, he was different, physically and emotionally. She spent his last months caring for the bitter, disillusioned man he’d become, never able to pierce the wall he built between them. He remained a sullen stranger in a familiar, yet older face.

Now he was truly gone. The last mourners, after seeking guilt-relieving assurance she would be fine, really, were gone, too. She tossed the wilting flowers, the inane cards, the uneaten casseroles. All the clothes he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – wear had already gone to Goodwill and slowly, over the last few painful weeks, every memento of their life together disappeared from the house, either by way of the trashman after a particularly trying day, or in the possession of a distraught friend or relative seeking a tangible connection to the man they once knew.

Finally she was alone, with the silence blanketing her, comforting her, shielding her from cold reality. All her dreams died with him – their unborn children, their travel plans, the meticulously designed corner bookstore they dreamed of opening. Her strength was gone too, her motivation to begin life over non-existent. The bank account was exhausted, spent on fruitless doctor visits and refused medication. The home they built and decorated together was double-mortgaged, granted on the prospect of his life insurance policy and military benefits. All she had left was the silence.

She turned off the phone and rebuffed efforts to check on her well-being until, gradually, even the best-intentioned gave up and left her alone.

The ticking clock intruded, so she unplugged it. Likewise the humming refrigerator, the noisy furnace, the clanking cistern pump. She guarded the silence jealously, even as it overpowered her.

And in the end, there was silence.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Bit o' Revision Advice

So, in my day job, as you may (or may not) know, I work as an editor and writer. The emphasis is usually on the former, but just last week I made a pitch for a new project that will combine the two. It looks like I may get to pursue this project (though there are no guarantees in life, and I'm not sure about the timeline), and I thought my Fellow Sophisticates may have some input.

The idea is to write a book about how to revise a novel, likely to be put out as an ebook. So! Questions for you!

1) Do you have any revision tips that you love and have helped you?

2) Do you have any artistic/philosophical/theoretical approaches to revision that have helped you?

3) What would you expect from a book about novel revision?

4) What would you like to see from such a book? What topics would you want covered?

I'm doing lots of reading and research, as I want to compile a lot of information and firm up some ideas of how I want to cover this (likely a mix of artistic and practical approaches). And I really hoped that asking all of you would provide another angle. What are writers actually doing out there, in terms of revision? What is it they want?

I'd love your thoughts, if you have a moment or two. Or three. Three is also fine. Four is good, but I can't pay you, so stop looking at me like that.


(And thanks)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sticklers and the Bliss of Language

What happens when you're both a pedant and in love with the bubble and froth of language?

Monday, June 13, 2011

End of Eden

One of my friends has a short story out for free. Check it out, if you're interested.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking Into a Tornado is Not Like I Thought It Would Be: Also, The Failure of Television and Youtube

As an escape from teeth, I thought I'd write about a tornado. Plus, it was requested! And I like requests. Seriously, if you would like to pick my brain on some topic or other, drop me a line (or just leave a comment) and ask away.

So! Twisters. Yes. This is the story of how I walked into a tornado. But this story requires some backstory.

Last year was tornado year in Southwestern Ontario. With the extra hot and humid summer, we had an over-abundance of tornadoes swing through the area. And the backstory really starts a couple of weeks before the main story. A large F2 hit a nearby town, coming off Lake Erie and tearing through. It destroyed houses and trees. There was this great park, called Seacliff Park, that was full of huge and ancient trees, these massive oaks and maples. Sixty or eighty feet high, and four to six feet thick in the trunk. The tornado shredded them, uprooting or snapping in half about two-thirds of them. And houses didn't fare much better. My aunt-in-law lived right in the path of it. Her fence was lifted off the ground and tossed down like kindling. The forty foot metal TV tower was torn down and wrapped around the house (symbolism! be warned). Luckily, her house itself didn't take too much damage, but the house twenty feet to the right had its roof ripped off.

We drove through the area, and it was amazing to see the sheer power of the twister, what the winds could do. One small house in the county was tumbled over, as if attempting to spin a cartwheel with wooden limbs and a cape of shingles.

Luckily no one was killed. But the damage itself was both fascinating and horrifying. It lingers in the head, small winds haunting the imagination. And more storms were coming, each one providing a tickle of fear, a touch of awe, and a dash of curiosity.

A couple weeks later a vast storm system was pulling in, coming up out of the States, set to swing across the Detroit River and Lake Erie to scythe over Southwestern Ontario. Tracking in. Targeting.

We could see it coming. It was evening, still and humid, the air seeming too heavy to move. We were putting the kids to bed. Locking the windows. And the huge storm filled the horizon, growing larger. It spread, flushing up across the sky--a green and limpid sky, as if heaven itself was sick, its insides twisting and turning. The humid stillness was touched by a momentary breeze, and there was a sudden rustle of leaves and grass. Stillness. A rustle, again, a little stronger. A wet, clean scent on the air. And it tingled. The wind shivered with what was coming.

The dark grey-green clouds roiling closer, a tangled lashing in the sky, rushing on an invisible wind. And then the wind could be seen, visible now in the fields as it came, bending the crops before it, flattening them as if beneath a vast wave. The trees swung and tilted and the wind roared around us, the storm following on its heels.

I'd had a premonition. Listening to the news reports, watching the storm approach, I'd had a feeling. It was an odd feeling, but quite certain. We were going to be hit by a tornado. I brought the kids down, kept them close. Because I felt like we were going to be hit.

I rationalized, of course. This is what happens when you see the wreckage of a tornado. It haunts your thoughts, and haunts your ideas of the future, a nightmare swimming in the dreams of possibility.

It was coming.

A premonition ignores the rational. It was coming. This was a certainty.

The winds harassed the house. The rain pelted in. The clouds twisted above. And the storm passed over.

I watched the news. There were tornadoes, but none struck us. North and south, but we were safe in the middle.

The feeling faded. The storm missed us. A tease, nothing more. Eventually we went to bed.

The story was done. We settled back into our daily routine.

A week later we were at our in-laws, a few minutes drive away. Another summer storm was rolling in. A tornado warning was mentioned, but now I had another certainty. We were safe. I caught the storm bluffing once, and that was it, that was the way of it. A news report in some other town. Not entirely real.

And then my wife looked at me and said "We left the windows open in the house."

The grey storm was coming in, and already the rain was hitting down. I ran for the car, hopped in, and spun the car in the direction of home. I buzzed into the driveway, parked by the huge tree in the backyard. I ran into the house. No big deal, really, but who wants puddles in their house?

I sprinted between windows, closing and locking them. The computer was still on. I stopped, checked the computer, and then turned it off. I walked down the back stairs. The back door is blind. There are no windows, there's no way to see out.

I opened the door and ran out, as if I could outrace the rain drops. But, outside, there was a lot more than rain in the air. Hail plunked down, denting the ground. And there were branches in the air. Leaves and branches, whipped horizontal in the air, giving the air a quality of greenness, a jungle blur.

I held my arms up over my head. My only thought: Holy shit, this is crazy.

And that was it.

I ran for the car. I was simply moving. I wasn't thinking, beyond anything other than this is strange. Strange. That's what I thought.

I ran into my car. A couple who were visiting my neighbors were sitting in their car, trying to wait it out. (Later, they said it was the most terrifying thing they ever lived through. And, apparently, they thought I was crazy.)

Shredded tree limbs were alive in the air, spinning and grasping and whirling away only to return. My garbage can went airborn, never to be seen again. The neighbor's glass picnic table was picked up and thrown off the deck, shattering on the sidewalk.


I turned the car on. Pulled out of my spot, started down the driveway. The car shook. Behind me, one of the main trunks of the huge tree I'd parked beside snapped off, and forty feet of wood crashed down where my car had been.


I drove off in my shaking car. Speeding, probably. Outrunning the storm. In a minute it was suddenly better. A bad storm, no more. Had to be careful of hydroplaning, with all the water on the ground. Two minutes away, at my in-laws, it was barely raining.

"Bad?" they asked.

"Strange," I said.

And I never once thought tornado.

This is the oddity of life. I had, in my genius, walked out into a tornado. And yet I had never realized it. It had been too strange, had happened too fast. Just: Crazy. Strange.

When we returned, later, to our house, we were lucky to find the house undamaged, though our yard looked as if God, drunk, had come down with a giant weedwhacker. Limbs, trunks, and branches were everywhere. Green leaves like a carpet, or perhaps like bed covers, pulled up tight and high by the terrified grass. It can't get us under here, the grass said. No windy boogeyman will get us, no sir.

And yet it's the strangeness of the incident that comes back to me now. I remember my premonition, and how it had been right: only, you know, a little bad with dates. Happens to the best of us.

Youtube had failed me. TV movies? A fail. It was always so dramatic on the screen. The empty fields. The sinuous twister pulling down from the sky. The slow advance that can't be escaped. Closer, closer, closer, the black clouds swinging in, the tornado eating a trail along the ground. On the screen you see it coming. You face it. Hide, perhaps, but you face it, watch it come. This is the drama of it. Dorothy always has time to be afraid.

Instead I blithely walked into it. Strange. I ran through the braches, never once thinking "Hey, idiot, this is a tornado. You might want to get somewhere safe."

My own odd and personal idiocy, my own slightly surreal perception of the tornado, inside and unknowing.

It strikes me there is something human about this. It strikes me that this is what I like about great stories. They're not what you see on the typical television show, but rather something a little askew, tilted at an odd angle, and yet for that very reason it seems true, seems somehow real.

Sometimes we don't see the story coming. Sometimes we simply step out into it, unaware. Sometimes idiocy is more profound than courage, or at least more human. And sometimes fools get lucky, thank the Lord and his weedwhacker.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Predicting the Future

This is me. Tomorrow.

Call me Nostradamus.

(And wish me luck)

And tomorrow! Hopefully! Tornadoes! If I'm still alive, of course.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lake Argo

by Matthew MacNish
The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment

Lake Argo

He watched the grey mist fall languidly off the glassflat surface of the cold, dark lake, its twisting vapors the only thing that moved in the silence. Morning stalked still and secret through the trees as dawn approached, nothing more than a subtle, desperate lightening of the far domed firmament.

Ancient. Timeless. Infinite.

The lingering dew awoke every sleeping odor held within an earthen mouth: dirt, worms, decay, fungi, wet leaves, pine, life. The world stirred.
A ripple on the water. A fluttering of leaves in the trees. The whistling warble of a nearby songbird. A gentle waft of warmer air against the skin.

He stood, stiller than a statue, his hand firm around his bow, his toes cold and stiff in the chilled leather of his boots. His breathing was slowed to a pace that rivaled hibernation, but his mind was sharp and focused. He drank the world in through his senses as he stood, and watched, and considered.

It had been a long night, spent in vigil, the threat of danger never far away. This was the frontier, and his people knew of the coming enemy. They were resigned against it.

His duty was to watch, and then to warn. Perhaps to fight one day, if, Mother of the Forest forbid, it came to that.

He shrugged, stretched his neck, and spat. His people were peaceful, but they would defend their land with determination. Damn the horde to the stony depths of the deep black wastes. They could choke, and writhe, and wither into nothing there for all the care he gave them.

Suddenly he heard a cry, a ghostly call so ethereal in the lifting fog of the charging morning that it begged the question: am I still within this life or have I crossed over into some Other World where time and matter are but rumors of their former selves.

And then he knew.

It was the lakebird of the boundary waters, heralding the breaking dawn with a call as clarion as the horn of a rider diving headlong into the great red battle at the end of history.

Yet, for him, it was but the beginning.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Appreciating Genius

One of the things that most fascinates me in the world is genius. Genius writers, of course, but genius in all other ways, as well. There's something captivating about experiencing the heights of human talent. A chance to see something special, perhaps even profound; a chance to bear witness to the sudden expansion of human potential.

This is part of why I put up the guitar pieces the last few days. Yes, I really like the music. But I appreciate their genius. I appreciate what they've put into learning these skills, and to the expression of them. The complexity, the thought, the endless practice: all of this can be apparent in the moment. All of this can be expressed in action, in expression, in the way fingers tap out endlessly strange rhythms upon strings.

This genius, I think, can take an endless number of forms. There is athletic genius:

This is what it is like to see a giant fly and create magic out of thin air. There is genius in such physical grace.

Or perhaps a mixture of physical grace, art, and storytelling:

This is the weird multiplicity of genius. I appreciate watching experts do what they do best. I don't even have to love the end product. I may know zilch about embroidery, have never tried doing it, and own nothing that is embroidered myself, but I bet if I watched a genius of embroidery at work in creating a picture pattern... there would be something beautiful about it, something captivating.

There is a profound faith, I think, inside a moment of genius. The artist's faith in their own fingers, their own thoughts, their own ideas. A confidence in them moment and the task at hand.

And it's interesting to consider the similarities between people of genius. I think of three keys: talent, creativity, and effort.

I believe in talent. It is not the be all and end all, certainly. I hear arguments that talent is everything: either you have it or you don't. And I hear arguments that it's all about the work: you get what you've paid for (with blood, sweat, and tears). And I believe in work, too. But everyone has different talents. And talent, I think, will always determine the range of your genius in any particular task. My capacity for language is much higher than my capacity for music. This is the way it is. I might practice for a million years and eventually gain musical competence (eventually overcoming my natural musical idiocy), but I will never play the guitar like Kaki King or Michael Hedges. My brain isn't built that way. Talent often determines the effectiveness of effort.

And then there's creativity. I think great geniuses have this in common--a differnce of vision. They see, through the scope of their talent, a slightly different world. Michael Jordan saw, in the clip above, a seam in the wall of defenders, and envisioned, in mid-flight, a strange path to success, to achieving what he wanted. This involves inspiration and physical creativity, and an almost oracular faith in his own ability. I think genius always shares in this creativity. An ability to transcend, to go beyond what has so far been found.

Talent and creativity, however, mean very little without effort. Without work. Talent and creativity sing of potential. Work speaks of possibility.

I have never seen a genius who didn't work harder than everybody else. Why could Michael Jordan stick so many game winning jump shots? Because he hit so many jumpshots in practice, so many shots that must have seemed almost meaningless at the time. But true work is never meaningless. It pushes forward. It advances some inner need to achieve something, to get better.

There's a famous story from the concentration camps in WWII, in which the Germans experimented by forcing prisoners to do meaningless work. Weak and starving prisoners were forced to move heavy stones from one end of the compound to another. And then the next day they were forced to move them back. Again. And again. The work served nothing, no purpose, and it drove many prisoners mad. Such pointless work, perhaps, destroys the soul. True work, on the other hand, pushes people forward.

A fourth aspect grows out of this, I think: habit. Habits have a bad name, these days, because most of the time when we think about habits we're thinking about bad habits. Our smoking habit, our drinking habit, our 94 hour-a-week Facebook habit. But our lives are formed from habits: little ones and big ones. We create them out of the pattern of our lives. Do we brush our teeth, and when? And how? And where do we set the toothpaste down? But there are bigger habits, too. When do we make time for our passions? Our art, our writing, our sports? And greater still. How do we talk to our children? What are the patterns of our human relationships? Our faith?

Our habits shape us, and sometimes control us. But we also shape them. We make them. We can create the patterns of our life. And geniuses do this, at least in regard to their talent and creativity. They funnel their talent and creativity and desire into work, and into habits that support their excellence and genius.

Your habits might revolve around shooting jumpshots, or making story pictures in the sand. But charity can be a habit, too. Mother Teresa made a habit of this. She worked at it. Faith can be a habit. Pope John Paul II made a habit of this. He made constant habits of prayer and confession. Service can be a habit. Nelson Mandela made a habit of this. He worked at serving the needs of his people.

I appreciate genius in all its forms. It makes me wonder about my talent, my creativity, my effort, and the habits I make from these... and what these habits make of me.