Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ducks Redux

Affected not a little by and Aaron Braaten's posting of "useless" men by way of Candace Waldron, I tried to fill out a form for Best Canadian Blog--and screwed that up too in cyberspace, leaving me with just one category: Humour.

This is going to be quite a segue, from heavy short stories to humour, but we are intrepid tricksters. What follows, hopefully is humour.

If you only got one chuckle out of it, why, vote for creative writing (Ivan's site) in the 2005 Canadian Blog Awards.

-Ivan Prokopchuk

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Unpublished horses and unskilled bongo players really piss me off.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.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

This time I'm walking to Charleston

Someone (James Bow?) suggested bloggers should take the fifth sentence out of their 23rd blog and begin a short story with it. Here goes nothing, me as Robert Johnson impersonator.

To Charleston, to Charleston. Catchy, lively song, but I’m in Waycross, Georgia, once home of Hank Williams, and even better, all the black blues greats, some of whom ended up in Mississippi, like Robert Johnson, the father of the blues and rock'n'roll. I have lost a woman, and as in the case of all men in a flap, songs are running through my head. Johnson's (Stones?) All My Love's in Vain. Train leaving the station, blue lights behind. Followed her to the station, a suitcase in her hand. Segue to Old Fats Domino, "I'm Walkin' To New Orleans." This too, rings in my ears, but no, I'm walking to Charleston along Highway l7, to Charleston, one-time home of the Gullah people, part Cherokee and part black runaway slaves and their sad songs of chains, cruel masters, of love and loss. Robert Johnson would often play at the train station, with his own songs of love and loss, and an encyclopedic knowledge of guitar riffs that would just break your heart. Robert Johnson now in my head. Yeah. I am a white Gullah, part black and part Cherokee, and lots of Native American. A culture onto itself, like my own culture that I carry around with me, with my portable roots. I too, am a guitarist and sometime Johnny Cash impersonator. I have been halfway what they've been though. I have met the Gullahs on the road and they tell me I've got soul. Like they understand. I certainly understand. Robert Johnson, blues, the antidote for cultural oppression. Me, just like them, former slave. White man's war has messed me up. I am functionally black and a Gullah. With the woman gone, I am nothing. White bum, disinherited and disenfranchised. "You got a lot of soul," they said, when I pulled out my six-string. Also, it's probably because I'd been to Newfoundland, been to Newfoundland, where "everyman's gotta eat a tonna shit."

To Charleston. Got the sign up. Will work for food.

"You are so stupid," a girl yells at me from the SUV that is gliding by on the macadam.

If you knew half of what I've been through you'd be dead. I survived the Second World War by hiding in a hole.

I am walking along a riverbank.

Twang of a guitar.

Thrumm Thrumm Thrumm, black hands caressing a dobro the South Carolina sun. Slave song. Gullah slave song. Bottleneck, real bottle neck, made from lighting kerosene -soaked thread around neck. And maybe a banjo made out of a cigar box. Makes me think of Robert Johnson again. Father born in North Carolina. But Robert riding the Georgia Main. I'm trying to get to Charleston. Carolina, I remember you. My baby going to Carolina, blue lights behind.

I followed her to the station.
With a suitcase in her hand.

Ah the Stones and their race records lifts. Stealing from Robert Johnson. But you don't want to punch Mick Jagger in the mouth, like Chuck Berry punched Keith Richards. Jagger's too good.

I saw her at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she was gonna make her connection
In her glass there was a footloose man.

White slavery. Diary of mad housewife. Leaves husband and kids. Ends up in a Carson McCulllers story, but with a pimp for a husband. It's all she knows now. She is going back. Back to the house of the rising sun.

And I’'m following.

To Charleston.

The pretty stud popinjay in her glass is trying to make her into his novel. Could it be, could it just be that he could well become the bleeding man in the bottom of her glass when the Ho got streetwise?

More South Carolina blues.

I ain't gonna see my baby no more.

Or, as Bon Jovi would sing later:

Sometimes I sleep
Sometimes I think for days
And people that you meet
They just go their separate ways.

Sometimes you tell the day
By the bottle that your drink
And times you're all alone
And all you do is think.

Sure, Ritchie Sambora wrote the song.

But I think it came from South Carolina. Certainly the Missisippi Delta. Where I am today, walking northeast to Charleston. To Charleston. The original song was "I ain't gonna see my baby no more." But Sambora/Bon Jovi do it justice.

I walk these streets
A loaded six-string on my back
I play for keeps 'cause I might not make it back
I been everywhere, still I'm standing tall
I've seen a lot of faces
And I've rocked them all

And yet, I don't think I'm gonna see my baby no more.

"What did I know? I was twenty, working in the city. Met Laslo. Nice guy. We got married. Then I found out.”

Evil angel
On my shoulder
Well you sure do
know your stuff.

Monkey on her back. Nice guy, Laslo. Get busy in the bedroom.

This time I'm walking to Charleston. To Charleston. Where the slaves are.

Gonna buy me out a woman.

Twenty-year installment plan.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I have been tagged by Scott Murray of Tattered Sleeve, Montreal, to follow an intitial tag of Scott by Timmy the G to reproduce the fifth sentence of my twenty third blog. That blog, actually, was quite recent, and it followed Aaron Braaten's "Borgesian Blog Awards", where he unoficially dubbed as "the best blog written by an older dude." I had registered playful outrage at being called an "older dude" and produced a photo of me in pegged pants, chain hanging down to the floor and a porkpie hat. Sort of like a Forties Zoot Suiter. The fifth sentence of "I'm No Dinosaur" reads, "To Charleston, To Charleston."...You've never heard of the Charleston, I presume--that's a knee-brushing dance out of the Thirties(Twenties?).

That's it. To Charleston, to Charleston.

And man, that really dates me.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Clark Kent Redux

Who wouldn't like to have been Ernest Hemingway or Morley Callaghan?

As a young man, I gave it a shot, though my performance at Hemingway's (and Morley's) old home, The Toronto Star, was something less than stellar.

Oh sure, it was fun to have been the Big Man On Campus at Ryerson, to already have had a war background (refugee capacity), to have had stories published in the college's little magazines. But this was The Star. The Big Leagues. The Star was home base at different times to the likes of Hemingway and Callaghan and later to Star greats like Ralph Allen, Nathan Cohen, Robert Fulford.

Hey c'mon now, I was just an anglicized Ukrainian, long ago dropped as an infant like a doomed fighter pilot into the rye where my mother was inconvenienced to have me just ahead of advancing fascists.

My waking memories were confinement, noise, dislocation, starvation, all the good stuff that usually hammers out a writer. Thank God for the unhappy childhood!

I ended up in Deep River, Ontario where I fought mosquitoes and a tough new language aided and abetted by Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead, Nicholas Gogol's Diary of a Madman and Dick and Jane which the teachers were now trying to impart on me.

I saved my sanity by reading the comic books.

Yes, Superman, the ultimate immigrant, Captain Marvel and Mary and the whole family, Wonder Woman, Batman and more.

But there was a transition coming, a transition to serious literature, a strange little character out of MAD #1.

Who from a minority group could not identify with Melvin Mole, this strange little apparition out of William Gaines' Humour in a Jugular Vein--Melvin Mole, file-toothed, rat-faced, pimply, whose sole (perhaps only) talent consisted of his ability to burrow underneath all obstacles, accompanying himself with obsessional mutterings: DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!

The underground man. And when burrowing underwater, the talk balloons would have bubbles attached. GLIG! GLIG! HAH! GLIG! GLIG! GLIG!

Melvin tries to rob The Last National Bank, avoids the omniscient guards by incredible cunning and digging, at one point pulling out an automatic, which he discharges in all directions, yelling JOHN LAW! JOHN LAW! HAH! HEEH! HAH!....YOU'LL NEVER GET MELVIN MOLE...NEIN! NICHT! NEVER! Eventually, Melvin is dungeoned, and after many escapes (DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!) redungeoned.

I developed a strange fascination with Melvin, this first nihilist, until years later it dawned on me that Kafka was born in a country just next door to my old Ukraine and there was a whole coterie of people out of my neck of the woods who were well acquainted with six-foot cockroaches and even strange space voyages. Stanislaw Lem, for example.

I sensed a tradition, but I was in the wrong country (and who wanted to be a Communist anyway?).

It dawned on me very early that there was much more to writing than just setting down words. The ideas (nightmares?) were non-verbal.

I set out on a scientific and paramilitary quest.

Good at physics, I trained as a pilot at the age of 17, blew it and ended up in ground crew, looking for Russians on a radar scope. It was becoming plain to me that I was not going to be the person I wanted to be, certainly not Top Gun.

Like many another displaced body of our war-affected time, I was looking for some sort of home. Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, which was serviceman-friendly, seemed to be the next place to go (I had already produced a really bad manuscript, and maybe Ryerson could teach me to write).

Ryerson did teach me to write. And it fleshed out all my confused MAD magazine reading. A man named Jack Jones was writing in Explorations Magazine that MAD was DADA IN THE DRUGSTORE, that Melvin Mole was a nihilist figure, and Marshall McLuhan was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to serious intellectual pursuits of what was then Toronto, the first truly modern urban civilization. The philosophy prof at Ryerson was doddering and incompetent, but wow, did he ever get me to meet some people! It was the best Western Thought course I could have taken.

Nevertheless, I knew in my heart of hearts that I should have been a Victoria College, where all the writers seem to have come from, but it was too late. I was already in my middle Twenties, and in any event, immigrant kids didn't usually end up at Victoria College. They went elsewhere.

I tried some SAT's, and though impressive, I wasn't going to be the next Canadian genius. I had to settle for the raffish, glamorous way of the newspaperman-novelist, the Hemingway route, the Callaghan route. Very early, I got to the Toronto Star.

It was certainly a thrill to take the same shining brass elevator upstairs to the newsroom where Beland Honderich "lived", my first memory of that great man now a sharp image of a well-suited, confident presence who undertook to empty the ashtray in front of my rewrite typewriter and call me a good fellow, and hopefully, a "Liberal" fellow. I became a Liberal at once.

And there was more. Where had I achieved the image of great competence? Did I get my sense of power out of good and great Beland Honderich or was it my early success (after hard military discipline) as an editor, short-story writer and poet?

Nevertheless, people were feeding me stuff. Pat Williams and Bill McVicar, all of them somehow assuring me that I would be a great writer. "Talent hides in the strangest places," Bill McVicar would assure, adding that it was a damn lonely profession nevertheless, but worth it.

Pat Williams, another reporter, would offer me good novels to read, as well as an autobiography of E. W. Scripps, the big American publisher immediately before William Randolph Hearst.

The real truth is that I was probably a token ethnic. Society was sane and generous enough not to produce another Melvin Mole, not a nihilist, but a novelist, albeit a newspaperman as well.

Bill McVicar, and Pat Williams, and Rae Corelli--all succeeded. And so did The Star.

Still, I have not made a serious dent into journalism, nor have I cracked the tough nut of Canlit, passe as it seems to be right now.

My first novel, THE BLACK ICON was handled like a piece of fish by Robert Fulford (who later told his secretary that I'd made all the mistakes a first novelist can make).

I have written some major stories for The Star, certainly Starweek Magazine when it still had some news space. I have had my own column. I have won small awards. I got my master's degree even though it was done just before the boom fell on Instituto Allende and the University of California withdrew its accreditarion. Yeah, good. Adequate.

And yet, forty-plus years later, I am still haunted by that strange, repulsive little character, Melvin Mole, a Man Out Of Control.

The immigrant isn't really at home anywhere, especially a nasty immigrant. The Star was smart and benevolent enough to have given me a home.

But I kept burrowing under buildings and water courses GLIG! HAH! GLIG! GLIG! GLIG!...JOHN LAW! JOHN LAW! HEEH! JOHN LAW!

Not all that competent as a newspaperman, and fiction being too hard for me, I became an artiste, angry young man, very near the brink of becoming Melvin Mole.

I was saved again by a good society and the Newmarket Era, owned by--you guessed it--The Toronto Star.

Somebody out there had faith in me, all the great Star people. I struggled and I faltered (was also fired a few times), and have finally produced four novels.

You have stayed with me so far in this space.

If you stick around, you'll be able to read all five.

The work (probably like yours) has to come out. Just has to.

Otherwise, it's the Underground Man, and look at what's going on in the world!

Thank you Ryerson. Thank you U. of T. Thank you Instituto Allende and writing instructor Tom Mayer.

And most of all, thank you Toronto Star.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Cultural Hermaphrodite

First there was the trick of the FW 190 "Butcher Birds" that I'd seen in the skies over Europe, one flying high to get the attention of the B17 gunners and the other coming in low under the Flying Fortress, blasting the belly with cannon fire, leaving holes big enough for a man to fall through. And some did, little cotton puffs of parachutes falling into the rye.

Then the inevitable political discussion with pitchfork-yielding Bauers.

"Roosevelt ist ein Jude.“

"Roosevelt ist nicht ein Jude."

The American airman would usually lose the political discussion, to be marched at pitchfork-point to the nearest Wernacht outpost. Like my father, who had tried to run away. "First them, and then you guys."

Sure would destroy your sense of security. Gives your son a sense of misplaced schizophrenia.

In Quebec, I'm a Frenchman. In Mexico, I'm a blue-eyed Campasino and In Copenhagen, I'm a great Dane.

In Ontario, I'm a FOOF (Fine Old Ontario family that I'd married into). In Texas, I'm a good ole boy.

A cultural hermaphrodite, I love overseas assignments as a journalist, though I don't think I'm ready for Iraq just yet.

It's only in the last thirty years that I've come to realize that in Toronto, anyway, most everybody is like me, a cultural hermaphrodite, using English as a Lingua Franca while happily chattering on in two, maybe three languages to a third or fourth person. I wore the Cultural Hermaphrodite mantle a bit thin when I thought I knew enough Cantonese to swear in it, yelling Kai-Ai-Maka-Ho in Chinatown, soon to be chased by young meat cutters yelling at me in ideogram talk balloons. Foreign devil! I tried to assure them that I had no interest at all in their aunt's pussy.

Smart ass.

The flair for languages got me into some trouble later, when I fell into the rye at a Sept Iles bar, swearing in French, which I thought was cute, the references to articles of church worship, the Host, the Tabernacle. "You are, how you say, de UFO, Ukrainian From Ontario? I would say to you in plain Eengleesh. Vache! Tabernac!." I tried to do damage control by offering that I was parachuted into this job. J'ai été parachuté dans ce travail.

"Me too," said the Frenchman. "I am Metis."

We spent the night in the same bed, the Metchif, his wife and me. Quebec hospitality. And it was all on the up-and-up.

I live in Ontario, a culture a little British still, of understatement, tone, nuance, local idiom thrown in as spice. And yet try to explain to a Mac's Milk vendor what mayonnaise is. From carbon-copy Brit to wild-eyed sign language, like a New Guinean, though New-Guineans at least, know some pidgin English. "You take egg-whites, mix them up..."

"Egg foo yung?"

"Fuc Duk," I finally blurt out in exasperated Vietnamese.

I guess I was spoiled rotten as the token ethnic at the Toronto Star and later the old Star Weekly. Everybody was so nice. Pat Williams would give me books to read about E.W. Scripps, the other American publisher besides William Randolph Hearst. Bill McVicar would say, observing some of my kinks, my tendency to prance in the hallways, past Robert Fulfords office, singing madrigals along with girl reporters from Toronto, "Talent hides in the strangest places. But by and by, you will be lonely..."

Some of the reporters were former W.W.II airmen. I had a lot in common, as I'd seen so many of them in action. Pat McNenly would relate how as a Typhoon pilot, he would let loose a brace of 20mm cannon fire right into the back of German Tiger tank, making sure that since the cannon were in the wings, he had to concentrate the fire so that a number of shells would hit at once.

Man, did I catch a brace when I decided to switch from journalist to novelist. Usually, you get rejected the first eight times. No money. Nothing in the fridge. Bucket's got a hole in it. Can't find no beer. Just at the point when there is nothing to eat at all, in come the relatives. And they are hungry.

My poor wife finally had enough and we split.

Bill McVicar: "You will be lonely."

Effing right Bill, and crazy as a loon on top of that.

Well, like in The Old Man and the Sea, I did come back with the fish. Fish all chewed by sharks, but secured all the same. I had completed a novel, but I seemed to be all chewed up by sharks. One blogger on GRANDINITE, a terrific site hosted by Aaron Braaten: "When we grow up, are we going to turn out like Ivan? If the world is our oyster, do we not forget that oysters are bottom-feeders? Ivan is sort of, uh, scraping it."

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Most of us should have stayed what we had been, engineers, workers, husbands.

...But we chose to be writers, an odd thing to be.

"Ibnbatuta, you are odd."

I fall down more rabbit holes.