Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Modest Proposal

The trouble with these weekly Cancer Society and World Health jeremiads you get almost every week, about smoking and drinking killing you dead, is that most people don't enjoy these things the way you do. And they're probably less healthy and downright boring. Dare I eat a peanut?

Now we old-fashioned "degenerate" writers know for sure that it's not necessarily the play but the life that is the thing, the great Hemingwayesque drinking bouts, constructing huge sprawling novels in the smoky pubroom air, lying our asses off, bragging, shouting wild promises to the wind, all that sound and fury meaning nothing, but sound and fury all the same. The unaddicted life is not worth living.

Drinking and smoking lend an element to life that is ordinarily missing, magic and it is for magic that we drink and smoke. Who cares about the dull minutia of paychecks, insurance adjustments, having the Joneses over and all those horrors? Drinking can give everything a nice amber patina. The Joneses, non smokers all, and really dull and horrid, can become fascinating, unique people and you yourself may even become more interesting and magical after a few drinks.

In other words, drinking is great...and what is the point of having a drink if you don't have a cigarette to go with it?

The facts and statistics are there for us. We have heard of the horrors of cirrhosis, of lung cancer, emphysema or worse. It's all there on our cigarette packages.

And yet 33 per cent of us seem to drink and smoke no matter what the statistics, and yet everyday poor women of 34 die of lung and breast cancers, abstainers all, while we blithely puff away and imbibe, most of us reaching at least the good old threescore and ten.

Yes, yes, it's trendy today to be on the forefront of anti-drinking and anti-smoking campaigns, certainly politically correct, but face it, these things have been around for a long time and we pay through the nose for our habits, filling federal and provincial coffers, feeding the cirrhosis and cancer crowd, with our taxes and our excesses. And after all is said and done, most of the money goes to tell us not to drink or smoke, a vicious circle that is mostly propaganda and very little research. Ask Wendy Mesley of the CBC. She has done some hard footslogging on this, herself battling cancer and the cancer societies seem to be doing something else, like telling us not to drink or smoke. And spending big bucks, our bucks, on this.

Straight, tee-totaling non-smokers, smug on their prescription drugs, have no idea of how relaxing it is to have a drink. Yes, yes, there are the runners and the joggers. This author has done these things. He has found out that you can yoga-booty and run all day and still feel tense and unsatisfied immediately afterwards. Nothing is as pleasurable as a smoke and a drink, for in an age of aimless longing, you can at least satisfy your desire for a drink and a cigarette.

Yet all this being said, we bad guys do tend to overdo it. That's when the WHO and Cancer crowd gets close to being right.

Do all these things, but not all the time, not to the point of pathology. All things in moderation, the ancient Greeks used to say (while frankly being the most immoderate of people, especially in their sexual habits).

The trick then, is not to quit drinking and smoking, but to cut down, cut down on all these habits, which, quite frankly, if too much indulged, can, as the Jeremiahs say, lead to the insane asylum and the grave, or worse, like having to quit altogether, which, of course, is anathema. Face it, if we were told tomorrow that we did not have cancer after all, the first thing we would do is light a cigarette and feel relieved. Sure you would. Like any other sane person.

So from someone who has gone the whole nine yards, some advice.

To begin with, don't drink in the afternoon any more. It leads, after the first initial high of the lunch to biliousness and drowsiness, quarrels with one's fellows, job dissatisfaction and all these things we think there are real causes for. Drink in the evening, and then only with meals. It is the late evening that you can a cool Bacardi cocktail to bed with you, perhaps even one or two jiggers more if you drink between eleven and one in the morning. It you've got a good buzz-on at one a.m. chances are you won’t wake up at three in the morning and have your entire day ruined by withdrawal and insomnia. Drink is an aid to sleep, but you have to manage it. Self-medicate?

The same is true for smoking: manage it.

Have no cigarettes at all before breakfast and then smoke your brains out over coffee so as to start your day with some feel-good planning; you are in a comfort zone and you're not panicking over everything all the time as you ordinarily would if you didn't drink or smoke at all. Yeah. Slow it down. Even God had to take a day off, though there is no immediate evidence of human vices, of course.

The trick, again, if you can't quit smoking or drinking (who really wants to after they're hooked onto something in life that that hints to the first edge of the Promised Land) is to cut down. Cut down quite a bit.

Use your drinking and smoking as a reward. After a hard day, have three Scotches in your warm bed, but no more, for then there's trouble, arguments with your spouse and hangovers the next day that scream to God. Scotch is not diet pop. It's not. Oh lord, it's not.

With the smoking, always think of the cigarette as the reward. This one for the Newmarket hockey team, this one for having done a good hour's work, this one for our boys in Afghanistan, this one for, well, because I wanna.

To recapitulate, the WHO and Cancer folk are probably right. It's better, probably, not to drink and smoke at all. But you are hooked. You have trouble feeling like you did at fifteen at fifty. Well, even old Gar Mahood, on my taxpayer's dime (get a job, Gar!), will admit that what we have here are addictions. So drink and smoke. But don't drink and smoke so much.

If you cut down, you are as sensible in managing our habits (addictions?) as you usually are in managing the people around you (at least when you're not hung-over). You will live and prosper and hardly suffer any side effects at all.

But if you persist in your overindulgences, you may have to give up these habits altogether, which, in the mind of this writer at least, is utterly inconceivable.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Wise Thing in the Cave

One bright April day, I decided to do something about pressing too hard on the accelerator of my life.

The decision was not hard to make.

Too many freakouts on the road, too many instances of "At Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept", too many parallel universes where you seem to see around corners, take imaginary buses into the next dimension, down escalators of time where again and again you see folks on a stairway to hell and you along with them.

I'd had a warning ten years beforehand, a freakout at Dallas International Airport, where it suddenly dawned on me that my drinking and fornicating had led me to here, to this point in time, where I was flat broke, going through extreme withdrawal in a foreign country and just sitting there being normal was the hardest thing in the world to do.

A security guard seemed to notice my condition, and when I proffered my last five dollars to buy a bottle of wine, he told me to put it back. "Don't want no trouble here." I went to the telephone booth instead and called a friend collect to send me some money. “Three hundred and fifty dollars? Steep, man. How the hell do I get it over to you?" I told him Baker Hotel, Dallas, Texas.

Ah, the good old Baker, where you could check in without paying in advance, the way Americans used to do business--on trust, on personal recognizance. I had to race to the hotel so I'd have somewhere to collect the money.

But the freakout had persisted.

Waiting for the money, the nights in front of the TV, where old soap opera DALLAS was indeed on and I was right there in town, quietly going mad in my hotel room, with the wrappings of hamburger all around, hamburgers that I'd ordered, and in the rush of the lineup, neglected to pay for. Deliberate? Sure.

"My son, do not be afraid of sudden fear," the old proverb goes.

Scared shitless in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Crazy in Dallas.

What the hell was going on?

I was setting off across half a continent to meet someone who no longer wanted me and Lord knows if I could ever make it back. Motion was life. Or was it? Who knew I'd go crazy along the way?

We are, most of us, no great shakes. We think are strong, noble, brilliant.

But, to echo a caption in a Mexican art museum, under a statue of a broken man being carried away "Solemente un Hombre." Only a man.

So one is facing some pretty heavy odds when he undertakes a 2,700 mile trip to Canada with fourteen dollars in his pocket, hoping to reconcile with a woman who had just written her last letter to him, to tell him it was all over and have a good time in Mexico. This was all part of some dialectic, a rogue elephant tramping huge expanses of Savannah to search for a family that may no longer be there.

How do you hold it all together when along with old Hippocrates you know that art is long, life is short, the future uncertain, healing difficult?

Peter's Pretty Pass Syndrome: My, things have come to a pretty pass! Damn antsy feeling to have.

There was no alcohol, so like a Calcutta Pavement Dweller, who has nothing but his head, I tried meditation.

The wise thing in the cave.

Trying an old est exercise, The Wise Thing in the Cave.

You close your eyes, you go down deep, deep into your subconscious, deep into a cave where a wise thing lives.

I had tried it before in other crises. Sometimes Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel would show up, these trusted television commentators, and you would hear them talking and when you were finally "out of the cave", your eyes would open you would realize that what the TV man said down there was pretty well the solution to your problem.

In my Dallas episode, the weirdest thing happened.

The wise thing in the cave turned out to be almost a Snoopy type pilot, out of World War One, who seemed to be having trouble with his control column, the gauges going mad and oil spilling from the engine. The canvas on one wing was already fraying.

"So that's me, out of control, about to go down in flames. Thanks, wise thing in the cave."

I tried again.

A huge penis showed. I sure as hell didn't want to have any message from that, save that the answer might be masculinity. Kick the shit out of the problem? Throw a f*ck into it?

That, strangely seemed the answer.

I don't know how I covered the 2,700 miles. I don't know how I came "home."

All I know is that I somehow got there.

And ultimately, I not only survived, but prevailed. I had somehow overcome the problem.
Oh the diaries of us madmen.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Love Among the Birches and Pines

Twenty years ago, at the hysterically young age of 47, I fell in love for probably the fifth time.

The feeling came upon me in the middle of a spring mood. One was whimsical. One was shy. One was vulnerable, lonely, and the first appearance of the soon-to-be-loved was enough to make a grown man weep. Old Goat at the Grey Goat Tavern, surrounded by his students, one older, more assessful than the others, and certainly dangerous.

God damn she was beautiful! "Who's that movie star you were with last night," the pub friends would ask, but I wasn't telling. Wasn't telling because she was married to a very nice man, or so he seemed to be. And aye, that was the rub.

I almost became a rub, an alcoholic over the next two decades just dealing with the strangest love in Central Ontario. It was certainly the season of the witch, me bewitched. Alpha male. Alpha woman. Two Greek wrestlers on the canvas of a magus in a night full of April rain and bad light. And a ghostly audience.

For ten years the circle looped, and for another ten years the circle would loop and I knew already that this was very nearly the end. No one was winning. I had become spiritually married to her, and if marriage was in the end a power struggle, we were caught up in it, had our noses rubbed in it. Each would make a dash to get away, but always pulled back. We could not let go of the string and we were suffering damnably. To me, there was only one way out. Paint her. Write about her.

Use the painting as a shield to ward off the glances. Medusa glances.

Maddened by love, sick of love, disgusted by love, I finally decided to write a book about this love, put my very being against it, break the incubus or it would break me. And so I began to compose The Fire In Bradford.

The scene of the crime was in a Central Ontario farming community. It was where the windmills, the birch trees and the icons were, full of eccentric White Russians in the marshes and plains, scratching out a living in almost 19th century conditions, out of a drained marsh. Celia certainly drained my marsh. And I hers?

Well, here is how one version of the book came out.

CHAPTER ONE

Celia appears before you while you're rolling your own cigarettes, the 1920's Vogue face, the bobbed hair, a beautiful flappers not yet fallen into the winter rye on one spring day, though I would know in future spring days that she had a predilection for opium or cocaine and that would make her thoroughly modern, like My Lady of the Papers.

I was in fact a newspaper man with a predilection for French authors because they were so maddeningly thorough, the mark of real writers, and so well did I get to know twentieth century authors in French that I soon got to teach a night course in it. Ah, the French penchant for the absurd, the splayed out mysticism of an Andre Malraux and that incredible clarity of image and idea that only the Frenchmen possess, and they'd be the first to tell you. The French are somewhat superior and they know it. Enough that I was a teacher of French authors and she walked in one day with no hint of the Vogue beauty that I would later know, no inkling as to the heaviness of spirit that would later come to oppress me, no clue at all as to the beautiful woman who resided in the suburban Mam's bib overalls, the little white tee shirt with the green-and-red apple on it, or the closely-cropped hair of the liberated, funky suburban young woman.

It was later, much later when she would come to her full Vogue cover girl fullness that I would come to know my Lady of the Papers. Hash papers and hot knives.

But there was another visitation, a flashback from the days I'd imagined myself as a Goethe scholar, abandoning French altogether for a while, the image of Katschen Shoenkopf, Goethe's first love, the nice high forehead so many girls from Ontario possess, the hair r severely back in a bun with the neatest little bonnet atop, large haunting eyes like your mother's, straight nose, somewhat probing, delightful little crooked lips with the overbite.

That too is an image of Celia, but this time with a pre-Victorian dress exquisitely corseted, nice breasts, waist hardly existent at all. And granny boots! There were at least two Celias that I knew about--those schizophrenic women--and after the years, many, many more.

But on this particular evening, she was in to study French authors, a fascination for the Bastille, I guess, the French Revolution, socking it to the Bourbons--who would return a generation later to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, guillotine chokers and all--this stuff of drama for a fairly active imagination constrained somehow by a husband whom she imagined as pesky.

She did seem to know her French authors, but largely of the Victor Hugo mold and a lot of Dumas, the adventure, misery, suffering, cell-to-cell signaling through stone. Was there a dungeon in her life?... Lord knows what the suburbanites in Bradford were up to these days.

I always found myself so charmed to find out that in spite of possibly rococo lifestyles up there in Riveredge Park, hardly anybody in my class, largely women, had ever read real novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, the substance of all those adventurous, adulterous wives who think their problems will end by leaving on Hubber, only to find with Chekhov that their problems were just beginning. Or was old Mr. Chekhov just a prig and a spoilsport, who knew nothing about swingers, an early Wayne Newton, Casino Rama star, who really didn't know the first thing about being hip. I don't know how I'd ended up at Celia's house.

A somewhat raffish professor who enjoyed drinking with his students after class, I had no objection at all when she asked through a third person if she could come to one of the pub nights, and could she bring her husband.

Hubby was handsome as the night is long, like a European Wayne Gretzky but continental in manner, though no accent at all. Dracula in a hockey jersey, liked immediately by all, sweet as a pimp.

I could not help but marvel at the Vogue beauty of Celia now before me. What had happened to the closely-cropped hair? How did it reach lovely 1920's straight back-cut modishness in the scant three weeks that I'd last seen her, just before she had begged a little time to go on a "camping trip"? I could imagine, years later, just what the joys of RV really were.

I was lighting my cigarettes backwards. I had no idea how this present-day Julie Christie out of the Twenties had ever walked into my life and wondered why she seemed interested in me. I also wondered, as a veteran of not a few affairs how many others had been pole-axed in the same way. She'd obviously been charming men for a long, long time, the blue eye shadow, the absolute blondeness, pint size and everything about her fashioned, turned, just so. Sheer elegant femininity and you could bet your granny boots there were at least three other guys playing here besides old Hubber. Unnatural elfin beauty. A set-up for loners and stoners.

The husband's name was Lief. Lief the Lucky. Or was he? I balked at first when they poured me into their red SUV to be carted home with them. Drunk, I was babbling, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his goods, nor his ass. Somewhere in my studies I had come across Kant's study of a' priori / a' posteriori, which I found somehow funny, like the Diet of Worms in Luther's time. The Diet of Worms I would later have in my relationship with Celia, but I knew for sure the way Lief was moving into my gesticulating hands at every opportunity, that he might well want to go a' posteriori with the mad professor, with the old prof perched upon his wife.

Enough that we somehow got to a neat white cottage in Holland Landing and that Lief made a move for neither one of us, too much to drink, passing out rather suddenly in the bedroom and Celia and I were left to ourselves in a shag-rugged and Danish-style living room with its U-shaped chesterfield facing an immense picture window with the drapes not yet drawn. And the chess table in the corner.

And suddenly I became aware of how lonely I was, me the divorcee' and frequently separated one from my subsequent live-ins, the man of many wives and master of none. It seemed I was suddenly curved up in a ball of loneliness through the drink, vulnerability, want. I just wanted her, anybody gorgeous like her to hold me. "Just hold me," I was beginning to keen.

Very deliberately, she put an open palm and extended manicured fingers right to the seat of where she saw the trouble to be. Maybe just a lonesome woman not sure of herself, or someone used to certain kinds of men, or maybe this had to be a wham-bam-thank-you ma'am and that would be my fifteen minutes.

Earlier, she had gone to the hi-fi to put on an LP and I noted she kept bending over to reveal a beautiful pear-shaped derrierre that she seemed rather anxious to display. Was she a virgin, the wife of some Ruskin who was found year later to still possess her hymen after a lifetime of marriage? A lesbian? A lady of the night? Or maybe a lonesome woman. A lonesome woman suddenly not sure of herself because of a hudband's embroglio, or homosexuality, or extramarital affairs, or all of the above.

In any event, we settled down. She had put on, of all things, my favourite Bob Dylan LP, the "Bringing It All Back Home" one. Pop nihilism, but what an articulate and haunting nothingness.

"Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows the sun, the new-born moon
The hand-held toy, the child's balloon
Makes you understand too soon
There is no sense in trying"

Nihilism on the CD rack.

"It's all right, Ma, I'm only crying," the great American genius rasping it all out, sharp trick-of-the-trade F-chord penetrating the D tonic, then quickly to a G and then back to the D. Da doom-da-doo-da-doom.

Holy mackerel! She was right on my frequency.

---------------

Yes, yes, it's all the same. Only the names are changed, as Bon Jovi was singing at that time.

"And every day, we're just wasting away.
Some times I sleep
Sometimes I think for days
And people that I meet
They just go their separate ways."

What a rollercoaster. What a process of self-discovery. And a final discovery of Celia. But that's in another story on this web, where, along with Bon Jovi, "Only the names were changed."

Mawkish, no?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Black Icon II

"Reads like a fine Russian novel, though Ivan is Ukrainian and one of our old staffers at the Star Weekly."

How nice to have had a job in the media, something of an unfair advantage, I suppose. It gets you the ear of fine top editors Like the late RG (Gerry) Anglin of Maclean's Magazine out of Toronto. And even famed Canadian critic Robert Fulford has had at least one peek at my work. The Black Icon has been out, in various editions, with various publishers, for thirty years. Recently, I have had a request from the Aurora Public Library to print some more copies, they would pay me for it, and since I still had the printing plates, it was the best way to go.

Odd, getting a "paycheque" from the Mayor of Aurora, Ontario, and not from a big New York publisher, but I'll take it, I'll take it!

The first chapter of the Icon was damn hard to write. Those who have seen it here will probably agree. There is a terseness to the style. What began in first draft as an elaborate attempt at literature soon ended up as a kind of cryptic journalism, cut to the bone, no word wasted. Seems to work better that way. I would recommend serious journalistic training to all novelists. If you've had journalistic training, you are very hard to pigeonhole, in your novels, as an amateur. No word wasted is bestseller style. The Black Icon was, in Canada at least, something of a best seller. I know for sure that 37,000 people read it. So add you to the list? Here is the second of The Black Icon.

Curious that life in Depression Era Ukraine was almost exactly as it is in today’s Africa.
Coincidence that I'd titled the work The Black Icon?

CHAPTER TWO

"Marry the carpenter”, Sophia's grandmother had insisted. "Marry Michael, for he has golden hands. You will never have to worry about a house and food. You don't know how lucky you are. You, an orphan, fortunate enough to interest the most well-to-do man in the village."

Sophia had been sitting in front of the adobe hearth; worried, confused. An attractive girl: Dark, small-boned, eyes often flashing under unnaturally long lashes; still a litle awkward at sixteen, knees together in a virgin pose, brown calves sloping out from under a yellowed home-spun skirt; soiled toes worrying the smooth earth floor of the hut. Across from Sophia, her work-bent shapeless old "Baba" sat in a wicker chair, veiny hands drooping over the edges. Horny sandpaper hands. Hands that had often beaten Sophia with whatever they could grasp, a broom, a birch switch, a broken axe handle. Like the time during Lent, when Sophia had surreptitiously sampled a little cheese; the bone-bending and hair pulling had gone on for two days. Now the old woman seemed almost gentle despite her fearsome appearance. She was hawk-nosed, squinty. Gray hair streaked with black rills; unnatural, stark, like that of a madwoman Sophia had once seen in Kolomya. The parchment lines of her face spiraled inwards into a whorl that threatened to pull in the whole uncertain mass. Still this old woman was family. All the family that Sophia had. At least the old babushka was predictable. There had always been a comforting, repentant hand on Sophia's heaving shoulders after the beating.

But Michael, this unknown, this male--how would Sophia fare with him? He was a mass of contradictions, so changeable. Moody as the Prut one day and happy as a child the next. And he never seemed to know how to act around her.

"He's so boorish, so nervous half the time," Sophia said out loud.

The old woman twitched in irritation. She scratched at a louse and then shook her head as if to get rid of the girl's nonsensical words.

Would you rather have one of those Pans who ride around on horses, princely as you please, while sucking our blood? Think, Sophia. Sure, he's no gentleman, but then who is in this village? All our people have is their land, and they work it until they get sick or hunchbacked. For what? Just to get enough food to last the season, or, at least, whatever the Poles leave them...

"And he's not such a bad looking man. He's well built. Shoulders that make even me take a second look. And with those brown eyes and that straight, foxy nose, he'd be a find for any woman. He plays the violin too, just like his father.

It had been three days since Michael's proposal and Sophia still wasn't sure. Marriage itself frightened her. Just last week, Olga Podhoretz had thrown herself into the Prut after staying with that oaf of a shoemaker for just two weeks. And Maria Paulyshyn still sneaks out to play marbles with the boys while her husband is out in the fields. Sophia considered how people were beginning to talk about Maria, about how she seemed to have lost her mind since marrying the farmer. She developed tics and even leered, it was said. Imagine playing marbles at fifteen!

But pressure from both families persisted. Sophia was soon persuaded.

* * * * *

Michael's family threw an enormous feast that lasted three days, guests pausing only for sleep between drinking and dancing bouts. Home brew ran like water. Food was shoved into everyone until surprised palates heaved up the unexpected richness. Liquor loosened tongues and wallets. After the wedding, Michel and Sophia counted the piles of Zlotys that would start them off building their house.

The wedding over, life began in earnest. Now came the building. Nothing but the finest material would do for Michael. Stout oaken beams were carted up, then stones and lime. The walls soon rose and adobe was mixed to fill them in.

Evenings would find Michael sitting in front of the project, smoking quietly, staring at his rising house. It was his very own; his by design and rising up under his own hands. "Come on, let's go to bed," Sophia would call. "It won't go away." Michael would wave her off to stay another hour and ponder his first mark.

And Sophia too felt her pulse rise with every stone and mortar she lugged to the house. Her own house, her own land, the birthright of every Galician no matter who ruled the region. Once you had it, no one could take your land, be he Austrian, Pole or Russian.

Michael worked fast and hard. In four months, the final crowning material, tile, arrived for the roof. "Look, Sophia, actual tile. That'll show them," Michael said, scornfully eyeing the straw roofs of surrounding houses.

Finally, the new house, a splendid, thick walled four-room structure stood new and white in its hilltop, shaming the neighbours' cottages. Only one other building surpassed Michael's, and that was the squire's. This one boasted a tin roof, the absolute standard of rank in a Galician town. "And someday we will have a tin roof too," Michael solemnly told Sophia as they went inside to do the finishing.


Well, well well, old background calling. Wrote the novella when I was 29.

Says best-selling Yorkshire author John Braine: Writing? Don't do much before thirty. You just wouldn't have had the life experience.

My own luck, I suppose, consisted of having stronger raw material than writing ability. I was writing about my mother and my father. Novelists, no matter what their ambitions in a genre, are probably best advised to begin with "I was born..."

Yeah, it's a quirky little fragment. But by the kindness of an American novelist named Tom Mayer and one Stirling Dickinson of the Institute Allende, Mexico, I was awarded a tuition scholarship on the strength of the Black Icon, leading to an MA in Creative Writing. I thought, initially, that I had failed, screwed the book, but American philanthropy in those days was high, and I benefited from it, even though I was a Canadian. Those days are unfortunately gone. You can not get university money on the strength of your first novel. It's just plain unheard of.

Much, much harder for the twenty-something novelist now. Rejection nearly always a sure thing.

But there were days, oh those were days!

And you really didn't have to be all that good.

Still some hope nowadays.

You could, I suppose, beat a path to the University of Iowa, but there are tornadoes there. If you can risk twisters, there might still be money there for your first book. There is no doubt the prof will be a famous writer.

Same for the University of California at Irvine. What a gas that would be. Sharing manuscripts among the palms and eucalyptus.

Like I shared mine among blooming Prickly Pears and Bogainvillea, reading my stuff to expatriate Prescotts, Roosevelts and other people, whose ancestors started the United States of America. To them, I was somehow an adopted son. "We like Canadian Hunkies."

Oh to have the America of forty years ago!

Even as a "Canadian Hunky."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Difficult Kind

Recently, through a marijuana haze, I learned that a past girlfriend had gone insane.

Tell it to me slow
Tell me with your eyes
If anyone should know
How to let it slide
I swear I can see you
coming up the drive
And there's noting like regret
To remind you you're alive


Sheryl Crow on the skippy old CD, making the news even more surreal. Time warps.

Oh ballbreaking moon and ridiculing stars
The older I get, the closer you are

I had been thinking of Felina these past four years. Fondly. Very fondly. She had been a transitional woman for me, a kind of Isis who surely stopped me from going on the road to alcohol and hating women; all the divorce and turmoil I had been going through. The Big Split with the former wife had been traumatic enough, but then there was the second and third time. Something was clearly wrong with me--- that or I was playing games with my partners and maybe another dynamic was afoot. Surely, I was a rat with women, but the games, as my black friend observed, seem to come "right back on your ass." I had suffered damnably while away from Feline. Missed her.

Almost became obsessed with her.

If you could only see
What love has made of me
Then I'd no longer be in your mind
The difficult kind

Is Mad Meg what I had made of my gypsy queen? The one who loved me so unconditionally? Who had fed me, given me money to go and look for work. Time warp with the MaryJane. Fifties song.

I love Corinna
Where you been so long?
I ain't had no money
Since you've been gone.

The very first meeting was in my basement studio that I'd turned into an unofficial coffee house, me the old neo-Hippie, playing guitars and running printing presses, putting out the Main Street WhizBang, Newmarket's first (and last) underground newspaper, old rebel with a cause, hoping to turn the downtown into a genuine Haight-Ashbury without the negative connotations, twenty years after the hippies had gone.

I almost succeeded. Hot and cold running chicks, poetesses, chess broads, Jerry Rubin-style politics--we were going to take on the mafia that ran the town--and something like free love. We were certainly staledated old hippies.

"You should be a pimp," hissed a visiting politician. "The hours you keep, the women you seem to jump on and off from."

He returned a few weeks later to burn my coffee house down. Municipal politics is so damn dangerous. Especially for neo-hippies. Certainly an American approach. Burn down the crackhouse... Yet the only crack in my house was, uh.

All of this Merry Prankster activity just a block from my old matrimonial home, the old Victorian high-peaked, shuttered and porched edifice with the maples all around.

Close to the scene of the crime, the original sin. No wonder the devil was bringing down fire. What was the original dear one thinking?

I swear I can see you
coming up the drive
And there's nothing like regret
To remind you you're alive

The auras of too many lovers. I had probably gone quite mad myself.

Portrait of the artist as a young-old pimp. Who knew? I certainly had lots of women around by the time Felina appeared on my doorstep. Gypsy queen, straight out of Bob Dylan.

The two-wheel gypsy queen had just been dumped by her ordnance-carrying boyfriend. She needed a man, she finally confided.

"You're the kind of man I need now."

"Yeah?" I looked up from my printing press "Well, let’s just take off our clothes and fuck."

She began, in the half-light of the basement window, to undress.

Hey…

Ah, those were the days when you could bring almost any woman down. Not altogether sure of your power. Guitar man. Famous poet.

"Hey Felina, I was only kidding. This isn't Opening Night. I know you just want to learn to write. That's what the sign says over my door.”

Careful when you turn a woman down.

I knew I was risking fury and hell.

It was one of the many times I would frustrate her, madden her. Harry the Rat with Women. Great Expectations in reverse. It was my mother who was somehow the witch in my own book..
My mother was insane. She used to beat us with a stick. Not just an ordinary stick. A really good stick, like a broomhandle.

Said a guitar sideman: "Now you beat all your women with your big stick."

Now local politicians and gansters were beating me with their own sticks. I had jibed them. And like all Mafiosi and bikers, they responded fast. They burned my coffee house down.

Shortly after the fire, I moved into Felina's apartment. Out in the sticks. Farmhouse. She had somehow gotten her hands on a car. Saved us the long walks from town.

We would go on rides to the wilderness just north of us. She bought me a friendship ring of black onyx.

I bought her a thumb ring.

In her messy apartment, I would play the role of the 14th-century lute player, pantaloons and all, supplicating evocatively to cathedral windows. Malagena sale rosa. Felina would dance.

The Tom Jones movie love scenes now crowding my mind, the chasing each other up hillsides, leaves in our hair like pagans. Felina jumping at me from a perch on a rock.

Why did Felina go insane?

The problem came earlier, much earlier.

There had been a husband, the biker. The drugs. The mammoth parties. The elephantine drunks.

He had shrunk her mind and expanded her mouth. Put her on drugs.

With me, I know she tried to write, but I noticed that when reading, her index finger would follow quotations. Very carefully. Poor dear. An Ingenue.

We stayed together for four years. We were great lovers. But the differences, the differences.
I would call her elfin, and she would reply "I ain't no elephant."

Glib man. Goofy woman.

Finally, after a mad night of making love, I found with the alcohol and drugs that I was incapable of climax, a fact that distressed us both, trying as we were to get both ourselves off. She to her other room and me to the lounge.

Other voices, other rooms?

Which of us was gay?

None of the above?

Well why this sudden enmity.

The problem was never resolved, we grew around it like a tree around a wire fence, but things were soon not the same with us.

She did not pick me up at my temp job one day. And not the following day either.
I tried calling her. No answer.

I showed up at her door. She let me in, offered me a drink, but she was brittle. Somehow the love was suddenly gone.

After a few hours of futile attempts at making things right again (I had even bought flowers), I knew that this was the final indissoluble antinomy. This was it.

Only once did I see her again, but it was in my new apartment where she came to the door and asked for a sandwich. I gave her a sandwich and a beer, she thanked me and she was gone.

And now another four years later, I learn she had gone insane. Was it me?
Beating her with my stick?

If you could only see
What love has made of me
Then I'd no longer be in your mind
The difficult kind.

Sing it, Sheryl. Sing it sweet, bluesy and low.

Harry the rat. Crazymaker.