Thursday, December 16, 2004

Pick up bow, drop quiver

Life has a way of knocking you on your derriere when you come too close to the ring, and just as my website was succeeding into making me something of a local star, I ran out of money and was forced to take a job as a deliverer of auto parts.

The reception wasn't too bad. They all seemed to know me at Shanahan Ford around these parts, but after seeing me for the third time, head and feet sticking out from a load of mufflers and exhaust pipes, the thrill was gone. The same thing at 400 Auto Wreckers when I decided to take an asthma fit right outside the office because of leaks in my ancient delivery vehicle. Feeling Not so much like a gassed Kurd, but more like something of a turd, I soldiered on after the wreckers brought me to.

There is a line out of old Beverley Hillbillies that goes like: You're an artist, you have to suffer. Boy, are you going to suffer when you find out that the construction crew screwed up and dumped cement not at your poolside, but all over your new BMW.

Story of my life.

Just like MAD's version of "Prince Violent", I somehow always manage to "pick up bow, drop quiver, pick up quiver, drop chainmail pants."

John Cleese: For every success, there is a corresponding failure.

Hey, I'm not complaining.

Thanks partly to Jeff Mitchell's excellent writeup on me in the Era-Banner hereabouts, the name "Ivan Prokopchuk" shows up in a lot of GOOGLE places from here to New York City, where the new McLuhan, Douglas Rushkoff has reprinted a riff or two of mine.

Lots of stuff about old Ivan on other websites too. Again, Jeff Mitchell got me started, while an able son looked after the technical end.

Not bad for a scribbler who had hoped at one time to write some soft porn and get the Ukrainian vote too, though Ukies are really quite conservative. The title? Naked Came the Ukrainian. I still think it will sell....You publishers out there, will you take a used novel from this man?
And yet I still have to work for a living.

Having had too good a time in the Sixties, I am not too hot as an executive right now. Gaping psychedelic holes in my head; short attention span. At least I can deliver parts.
"You've got it all ass backwards," says my friend Jackie Playter as she watches me struggle with a stubborn GM Astro that had lost its tailpipe. Presumably, she means I should get back into writing or politics, where I belong.

Christ, have you ever tried politics, especially municipal politics. Some of the tree huggers and AIDS activists should try it when they're not so righteous about global warming and all that.
Municipal politics in Ontario? The Mafia will kick your ass and call you a ........cker
Which I probably why I am reduced to dropping off auto parts.

Yet there is something mildly grand about being a speedy mercurial figure, a Hermes or Mercury(sometimes indeed driving a Mercury) on winged Adidas feet, dropping parts all over the world, right hand extended to the heavens to display a NAPA symbol.

The other day,at a NAPA party, a won a thirty-pound ham.

Knocked off my perch as a pro, yes, but is it ever nice to eat regular!

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Ducks

A token male in Seneca's English department, I was eventually cashiered, stripped of epaulets, moustache and medals and sent out into the desert of Main Street like a badly behaved Legionnaire.

Ten years of teaching gives you an authoritarian complex, you've got to lecture, compare, explain.

Having no one to lecture to (my wife had had enough and had moved out) I went out to Fairy Lake there to lecture to ducks, geese and assorted racoons.

I went to Wilkinson's Studios and lectured there, and Bruce Wilkinson decided I might make a pretty good tripod for his cameras, albeit a little noisy.

What to do when you're a fallen professional?

I got into politics and they burned my house down.

Homeless, I went back to lecturing ducks. Some would shuffle notes around the grass. Others would look up with some interest, but would stop paying attention once they realized that I had eaten all the bread in my bag.

I went out to Frank Stronach's farm to lecture horses, but these were an elite breed, holding their tinted cigarettes between hooves and pasterns, adjusting their Sixties-style blinkers and commenting on my lectures with loud whinnies and horselaughs.

"Go back to ducks," seemed the message.

Unpublished horses and unskilled bongo players really piss me off.

Eventually I got a job in an auto parts department, upon which time my girlfriend at the time complained that my lovemaking had become somewhat mechanical and would I watch more Sue Johanson, that grandmother from Hell.

Was Sue getting some? Any?

I tried Sue Johanson's advice but soon found that I was using up all the batteries at Radio Shack and had to go high tech.

Yep, there's a real world out here. Mechanics know more than PhD's.

At the college, they used to call me Doctor.

At the Bonanza, when I am in my cups, they call me something out of anatomy. Rhymes with Courtney Love.

I'm afraid the good old days are only beginning.

Friday, September 24, 2004

I AM NOT WHO I WAS, THEREFORE I AM

My friend Abdulla the Shrink tells me that identity is no big deal."You just do what you do over and over again. That's your identity. That's the whole thing in a nutshell."

Nutshell was his choice of words.

I began to fear for my sanity.

I almost began to see the letters MD emblazoned on his lapel, like a wildly humorous character out of an old David Steinberg routine.

I went to other sources.

Big Ideas, TVO: Terry Forsyth, an academic apparently high on Rene Descartes, is saying "I am not who I was, therefore I am." We keep evolving, Prof. Forsyth seems to say.

The satirist in me begins to raise his pointed little head.

Years ago, to graduate from Ryerson, I had to produce a 35 page thesis on some aspect of journalism. I chose MAD magazine because it seemed the path less traveled. Now my "research" began to bear fruit.

There is a caricature of Popeye the Sailor Man somewhere in MAD, and he is saying "I yam what I yam, what I yam."

Popeye, of course, is illegitimate, and like an existentialist, he makes himself up as he goes along.
Then, of course, is the nickelodeon mascot of MAD magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, who offers, "What, me worry?"

Of such comic book talk-ballooning stuff is many an "intellectual" made.

I am a transplanted Ukrainian whose rather good school has taught him American English. Especially media argot.

This makes me something of a rare bird in Ukrainian academic and artistic circles since good handwriting, careful cribbing of senior academics leads to good, clear essays and advanced degrees which lead to good university and government jobs, but advances Ukrainian art and literature not a whit.

In a world of ten-page historical footnotes, we have yet to produce a John Updike.

In a world of guitar and bandura hackers, we have yet to produce even a Britney Spears.

There are exceptions, of course, the late Hryhori Chubai, whose modernism easily rivals the best of the last century, but the critics over here have missed it, especially after the fall of the late USSR.

Why have we not made a better account of ourselves?

Why, assimilation, of course.

This was the case of Gogol, this was partially the case of Conrad--though there was still the somewhat stuffy Polish aristocrat within--and is certainly the case of some of our best Ukrainian-Canadian writers and artists. There is a dictum: Seek a larger audience or wilt.

In the United States, where Jewish intellectuals seemed to have had no place to go toward the end of the last century, there was a movement, almost bitter, toward anti-assimilation. There was a story in the modern urban Jew--as there certainly is a story in the modern urban Ukrainian over here--and that story was well told in novels such as HERZOG, PICTURES OF FIDELMAN and many, many others. There were even playful and prurient entries. The whole thing was capped off by GOOD AS GOLD, a celebration of the Jewish-American literary experience.

And then it all fizzled out as the century rounded.

Where have they gone?

Assimilated all.

Hardly a peep out of the Jewish-American novelists. The durable "Mayflower" novelist John Updike holds the field at the turn of the century, not at all upset over the loss ot the "Protestant soul" ("loosely speaking", as one critic put it). Updike is concerned with quality of letters alone, that good old New Yorker quality of letters, and he consistently produces it.

There is an untold story in American letters. "Don't trust anybody not yet third-generation."

Here in Canada, it's a slightly different story. Multiculturalism is encouraged, and even fostered.
It has produced some first-rate talent from people of our tribe.

Myrna Kostash, George Ryga, the famous Toronto area broadcasters and lots of first-rate rock'n'rollers.

And yet we have no Joseph Conrad, no Nicholas Gogol.

Is it because our range is too narrow, as may have been the case with the Jewish-American novelists?

There is such a thing as Ukrainian literary genius. It is written all over Gogol and written all over Hryhory Chubai. But Gogol sought a wider medium, while Chubai, necessarily, was restricted to his own anti-Communist stance while somehow remaining in the writers unions. Shevhenko has stayed "home" all this time.

"I pity the poor immigrant," the great American genius, Bob Dylan is rasping it out in "Bringing it all back home". Bob Dylan has given up any Jewishness he may have had, and his subject matter consists of purely American themes. He had in fact turned Christian at one point until the unceasing financial request by the churches nearly drove him crazy.

Well, what is to be done?

Maybe a shift away from a culture of small villages that no longer exists as the"starry immigrants" remember it?

Maybe a recommitment to the general values and its attendant shorthand in the writing of this country?

Make no mistake. We have produced an Edmund Carpenter, a Marshall Mcluhan, a Frederic Banting and the Avro Arrow.

We have produced a Robertson Davies in literature.

For a while, until somebody scotched the Blue Jays, we were at the top of sports--and with mostly all-black players. The thing can be done.

But we must not be like some students in a creative writing class, so many worms feeding off each others sustenance if the analogy is not too distasteful.

We must find earth, a new earth in which to thrive creatively.

We must take our portable roots and settle somewhere--why not over here?

The path is fairly clear.

Start your writing, your song writing early, and in English, the mass medium of the world.

Stay away from narrowly parochial schools if possible.

Do not change your name, for this is the source of your identity.

Then, maybe, just maybe, "I am what my name is, therefore I am."

Saturday, August 14, 2004

My Three Olympic Heroes

On the night Chet Atkins died, some three years ago, the high E-string on my old Yamaha gave a loud snap while the guitar was still in its case. Still encased, the guitar gave off a strong harmonic aftertone. The same thing happened after George Harrison died, and again when Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler died. Three snaps followed by a high ping. Shades of Carl Gustav Jung, who was said to be able to shatter crockery just by thinking about it. My poltergeists had no idea while they lived that I even existed, but the medium seemed to be the guitar, the interface.How the ghost of Mordecai Richler got in there is beyond me, unless Mordy himself may have been a closet guitar player. Music and writing seem to be in the same family.

Things happen in threes. If you don't follow anybody's religious convictions, then you have already won, says Kafka, but not all a genius says is true. I am convinced, in my own writing that I haven't had a sufficient study of the Talmud to be at least as good a writer as Herman Wouk. That is the secret. That is the entire secret. Religion gives you discipline for fine work. And discipline leads to success, however small it seems at the time. No religion? Join an army. Become a cop.

Not too many Vancouver pot advocates become even as well known as the rubby poet Jacob Bukowski.

Discipline or no, I will never be as good a guitar player as Chet Atkins or George Harrison. I will never be as good a writer as Mordecai Richler (What living Canadian writer comes even close, damn your fershlugginer Gellars).

Goodbye Chet. Goodbye George, goodbye Mordy.

Married into both of your tribes, I am, I suppose, a modern urban Canadian, though there is a gene in me that has me and my children still hankering for a scoff of cobassa or weird dumplings.
I did finally open my guitar case. What were the ghosts telling me? It did seem to be about discipline. I looked at the packaged E-string through its envelope, on which was printed: Fender. Plain steel. Ball end. Acoustic/electric.

Nuff said?

Monday, May 03, 2004

SPRING TRAINING IN NEWMARKET

It's spring.

The aspens are bright and silver.

The month just passed seems to have been an ice age, whose remnants still linger, there under the hemlocks, the pines, the tamaracks along the Holland River where I bike.

I am biking with group led by a man called Fish. He is eighty and can pass for sixty, younger even, for though his face is parchment, his fine legs are ageless as he easily rounds the corner of the bikepath and turns his helmeted head to urge the rest of us on.

We are an eclectic crew.

The effort of biking has freed us from pedalling against another load, a pushcart full of pain that many of us had been pedalling against, often back-pedalling against the awful weight of it all. Everybody in the group is pushing or carrying something.

Baggage from another marriage, the great sprawling novel that would not come to life, the smoky air of Seventies barrooms, the first adrenalin rush of a heroin injection.

There is the real hope of a steamer on the horizon--that we shall be rescued from this Raft of the Medusa by a jovial, somehow Germanic sea captain.
Yet one must be chary of such a notion.

Recovery is miraculous and dramatic. It may come this spring or it may not. The local Indians will tell you it is all on the whim of the Creator.
In the meantime the Indians will tell you to stay away from waterfalls, great confluences of water. And large lakes, like Simcoe, for there is an ogepoge in each one, each with its own monster.

We ride side by side, some of us. Then uncouple to ride alongside somebody else. We talk of family, hopes, achievements, cycling achievements, hopes.
What has brought us to this bikepath, along this river, along these aspens, along these tamaracks that seem to the greenhorn like so many reddened, discarded Christmas trees--but they are not, for these conifers will regain their needles and will again be bright green and bushy. Hopefully like us.
I am talking to a woman already in capri pants and white adidas.

Like me this spring, she is a little whimsical and vulnerable and kind of shy. But she is in there pedalling for all she's worth, like and out-of-luck teenager pushing a baby carriage, which, back home, is probably the case. She is trusting to God and good people.

The people are still good, but this is a dark age and the liberal sentiment says one thing and does another. They have stolen a large portion of the welfare money. Stolen. Yes. Mafia Miltie. Don't kid yourself. Fiddling with welfare funds is the first sign of Tony Soprano getting a cut. Meanwhile, our cyclist, whose name might by Rosie Quackenbush, puts on a brave and pretty face, gulps air and pedals on.

I move on to another party.

An entire family. Father a little bulgy with the Speedo. Helmetted mother in ski pants and a yellow top. Little ginger-haired daughter in shorts and sandals doughtily holding up the rear.

We are all pedalling, moving, past the tree, past the bird, past the little piles of discarded green potter's clay and other small bits of rubbish along the Holland, where they have just refurbished some condos. Yet the river may yet regain the flats!

The nearness of water and bright greenery here and there have given us hope for another, better season.

Ahead of us there is the ringing of Fish's bell. He has seen something on the path, which turns out to be a snapping turtle the size of a Humvee wheel. It moves slowly, methodically out of the way, its fast, avian beginnings completely evolutioned-out over the billions of years, leaving just a mechanical crawl and a beak, which, like a construction backhoe, seems to droop a little before snapping up something. It takes the turtle a long time to get off the asphalt path.

Fish rings the bell again. We can go on.

Then a really loud ring as we pick up speed. Forward.

He rings now, I suppose for spring.

For being born again at his age.

For a season itself ringing with promise.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Cat on a Hot Tin House

What follows is an outline for a short story. It is pure fiction.

My friend on the cellphone is telling me that I am living in the middle of a novel.

"What makes you say that?" I ask while perched atop a house of ill repute.

A cathouse usually has an attic entrance hidden from ordinary view.

I am up in this attic. There are mirrors and surveillance cameras here as well as a goodly supply of Jack Daniels and at least one case of designer beer. There are also traces of a white powdery substance on the plywood floor, where a small peephole shines a laser-like beam on my forehead. If I chose to, I could peer down through the peephole at the goings-on downstairs, but this would stretch even my Newfoundland-sized limits.

Well, maybe one peep downstairs.

The downstairs setting is very much out of a Turgenev short story, the gorgeous blonde with artistic aspirations, a coterie of fallen professionals, among them an executive of the now defunct CIDA moneywell for just about any Non Government Organization; a musician who once played with Gordon Lightfoot, an unpublished poet with red suspenders, and one more fool wearing a toga and laurels.

The girl, though no longer a child, but looking for all the world like Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie, right down to the short kilt, has completely captivated the men. She'd been doing this since the age of two because she was always the spit image of Shirley Temple, even echoes of Drew Barrymore in ET. When does the French Maid come in?

The cellphone rings again.

"Get out of there you damn fool," the friend is warning. I just saw an unmarked cop car heading your way.

My friend needs to get out more. He had parked his car in a small industrial plaza just yards ahead of the house of ill repute. He would follow me no farther. Too
many bikers whizzing this way and that. And cop cars.

"I'll hang tight," I say. "Where is there to go?"

I had originally ended up in the attic because a whorehouse has all kinds of doors leading in, but none leading out. I had been carrying on a private dalliance with the Shirley Temple when all of a sudden, there had been this crowd at the door.

Scoot," she had told me, but there was no place to scoot save bounding over the kitchen counter, lifting the trap door and hiding in a place reserved for, I suppose Peeping Tom and other Hip Sing adventurers.

Presently in walks the town's chief of police, not regional police, but local constabulary.

He greets everybody, all of them nervously standing up, picks up and examines a small vase or two on the end-tables around a C-shaped chesterfield, replaces the vases, one a loving cup, and smiles.

Presently, the girl goes into an adjoining bedroom, comes back with a package, which she hands to the chief of police.

He seems to almost click his heels, bows and presently he tries to go out to front door. No good. It is rigged. He does an about turn, raising incoherent grunts and "aaarghs" from the obviously doped guests, and he is gone.

Life lays down strange path for men to tread upon in the dark.

Did I get this from the Talmud?

Or is it just something that struck me, high up there in the attic

I wait for Eldonza to finish her set piece.

Malagena Sale Rosa. Girl of the Red Room. Cervantes probably sang like this in his head, probably Flamenco.

And Sancho Panza out there in the parking lot.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Wacky New Year's

Happy New Year all of you.

Hope it was as fun as mine, thought as usual, my gallivanting at New Year's leads to strange and baroque company, and oddly, a whole lot of God thrown in.

The God part came when I went to see Baba to find she had slightly recovered from (poor old girl) falling on her head and breaking her pelvis as a bonus. Maybe it was the pain-killers, but she greeted me warmly and assured me she was still in there pitching. I rode out in a wave of relief only to find that I'd somehow lost all my cigarettes on the bus along with some serious coin....Right thee on the sidewalk in front of Townsview Health centre lay a fresh pack of Players and five dollars. I was on my way.

Luck holding, I went to Mary's who prepared a really good Ukrainian scoff and I was sent merrily to seek New Year's eve adventures.

My intention had been to see Salad, Sands and the entire cast of Mama Mia at Nathan Phillips Square, but then again, God had other plans. I got screwed up on the TTC and somehow ended up on the Burlington Train Meet for Toronto.

Here, suddenly, I had companions who kept me merry all the way to Oakville, where I was suddenly in the company of a gorgeous black girl who was SO lost that I don't believe she had a brain left. She thought Front Street was in Oakville and in any event she had no more ticket to get to TO.

Enter the encyclopedic yodelling brakeman.

All the way to Oakville, I heard the brakeman and the conductor carrying on this incredible conversation about Chess Records, and even a time before when all the blues greats of the Twenties, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, T-Bone Walker, Son House--and probably even Blind, Lame and Crippled Horribly, for all I know were laying the ground work for Cream, The Rolling Stones and parts of Bob Dylan. The brakeman and the conductor had enough encyclopedic material on all popular music since about l9l9 to the present day to fill and entire disc website. There was even a part, perhaps apocryphal, about Chuck Berry smashing Keith Richands full in the mouth for making computer copies of all his riffs and passing them off as his own.

This incredible conversation is going on while the black girl with me is catching up on the stunning cultural contributions blacks have made to America and the world.

But still, she was lost.

No matter The Football Drop for the new year came and all four of us, brakeman, conductor, Black Girl Where Did You Sleep at Night (Robert Johnstone?)--shook hands hugged profusely and brought the New Year in right. Who cares who was lost or found. This was the football drop at the GO BOWL.

Everybody got to where she or he was going and I was again sent merrily upon my way from Finch to Newmarket. Is there intelligent life north of Steeles?

Every good time has an asshole at the ending and we picked one up at about Oak Ridges and he began to harangue and belittle everybody until the bus driver asked him to get off the next stop. Thank God. He looked like a serial killer.

In other words, I had a pretty good time.

Christ, I'm still high.

Happy New Year everybody.