Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ballad of the eighty-year old smoker. What, no cancer? There must be something wrong with you!

You seem to have more luck in letters when you're agin' somethin' . I certainly do. What matters your reams of of perfectly composed sentences when nobody will print them?
How sweet it is when you come out in print and say flat out to some sacred cow in business or administration, "Just F*ck off. This means you!" I believe the late Prime Minister Trudeau was master of this. It was certainly the first time the expletive was used in Parliament. Certainly gets the attention of the press, and certainly of the poor unexpecting recipient.
"Mr. Speaker," wailed the dazed R. Lundrigan, the Honourable Member from Newfoundland. " Look. He is saying it again!"

This time, Pierre mouths it: "F*ck off. This means you".

"Mr. Speaker!"

It must have been sweet for the famous "Fuddle-duddle" man from Montreal...And now how sweet it was for me, a nearly failed student of Greek philosopy, where many a sage offered a coin or "cock" to the healing god Asclepius--to offer a cock to the local medical esablishment especially their virulent anti-smoking campaign. Yes, I am that nearly eighty-year old smoker, and I am pissed off. Even the cops are pissed off. You can't smoke in your car with kids in it any more. "It's driving people crazy. You can buy cigarettes, but you can't smoke them anywhere. Is this prohibition or what?" I can sense the traffic cop who stopped me going through withdawal himself, since he can't smoke in his own cruiser...Reduced to having a donut and a coffee in the car.. But no cigarette? What would be the point?

So, reduced to a far corner of the parking lot at the local hospital to have my puff while visitng a friend, I composed a letter to the editor....This is about the full extent of any revolutionary activity in Canada. The French have, long ago, weaseled out.
And...Surprise. There is still freedom of expression in this country. The Newmarket ERA printed it. There was my offer of a cock to the god of healing, to Asclepius. and his current wrongheaded anti-smoking campaign. Also to his pal David Suzuki and his spouting whales for good measure. And I caught another red-eyed MD and his own anti-cigarette campaign around here.
No paradox. Just an attack on pair o' docs.
But pride does come before a fall. Or worse. On an icome of $500,000 a year, a doc can afford to have you offed. Never mind you and your middle finger to the rich, powerful behaviour modification adepts now so prevalent in our brave new smoke-free world.

Anyway, here is what I wrote:


Re: Cherry or apple blend smokeless tobacco harmful, letter by Dr. David Annderson; Fend soing the right thing fro whales,but more protiection is needed column by David Suzuki; Pre-registration improves wait tmes by 75%;Chief Operating Oficer,Aug 2l

Egad. So much political correctness in the Aug. 2 paper you can hardly get a word in edgewise.
Dr. Anderson, beating his breast over the new smokeles tobacco--when are these guys going to stop? Doc Suzuki with his usual whale of a column and there's always Dan Carrierre in the paper jusifying his half mill9ion dollar income by doing something innovative and brave, such as banning smoking from all hospital properties.
A lot of trees felled for a whole whaleload of PC.

On smoking, incidences of breast and lung cancer seem to have doubled since everybody seems to have given up smoking. The holdouts, the poor IV-dragging old lades and nurses llighilnt up just off hospital property because you can't smoke anywhere near or at Southlakel
Admittedly, Southlake is among Ontario's best hospitals. It has everything--the isotopes will come--everything but common sense.
Where is the justification for a half-naked 80-year old in subzero winter cold dragging his IV stand and catheter just off the slippery hospital parking lot so he can have a puff and save his sanity?
Smoking was put on Earth so we could use it in a stressful life, but the drug companies prescribe the pill and not the grape or weed.
There is nothling wrong with generic tobacco. It can even make you well--just ask the aboriginal people.
Southlake property is now totally smoke freee...and PC enslaved. You need to be paid $400,000 a year for this foolishness?


Sunday, August 23, 2009

A rant on Kant?

What with Google and its rivals, I am fast losing my detailed memory, but there are things Google can't supply-- like what did the 14th centruy Caliph of Bagdad say to the man lost in a labyrinth, where he had been cast by an enemy.
"Pray to God. He will cast your enemy into a straight labyrinth which is the most complicated and cruellest of all.".
This comes from Borges, and lord what do you know? Google now has most of that Argentine Dante's short stories now up, if you look hard enough.
And yet, I am not converted. Google has won at condensed book learning, at epistemology.
But we writers eschew epistemology and go into the inquiry into the ultimate reality, which is metaphysics. We want to out-Plate Plato, out Schop Schopenhauer, Call Kant a Kant.

Modernist writers have for the past 160 years rejected all science, all philosophy, even all common sense for, I suppose, an inquiry into the ultimate reality. Metaphysics.

Take Poe. He invents the detective novel, yawns and goes off into the Maelstrom, both of his life, objective reality and philosophy.
His atttitude coould almost be given to satire:
Quoth the Raven--how the f*ck should I know?
And we don't know.
The universe is a huge computer and we have only just mastered Cobol to find that particular protocol obsolete. The universe is so, so much older than we; it has worked out all the kinks, it has had so much more time. We're only here for a flash, a flea floating down the river of ether-- a flea with an erection, demanding the drawbridge be raised Never mind the Al Gores and the David Suzukis. They don't know, in spite of the bullshit and the intrusiveness into our lives.
Well, in literature we had modernism--let you pen go where it will, even if it is guided by the devil--and now it's postmodernism--"all is bullshit, fare thee well."
Well, not so fast.
This is the age of the average man. This is the age of the untalented. Reality TV for all....Hollywood, wondering why nobody attends movies any more ..Blackberry-wieding bearded idiots who can't drive.
We really need an owner's manual to life.
Maybe get it from the strangest sources. Like singer Alanis Morisette :

What it all comes down to
Is that I haven't got it quite figured out just yet
I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is flicking a cigarette

Up yours, the Suzukis and Gores, who think they know something...Examine what they really say. They don't know anything. And the anti-smoking Nazis as well.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em. Strike a blow for intellectual and personal freedom.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pathos and bathos all over again: Never take advice from your students.

The beautiful woman in her paiseley dress wanted to know why I persisted as a teacher of writing.

"Why are you wasting your time at this," Eleanor Gallagher wanted to know. "You should be writing, not teaching.

"You are a writer. .

"And all you do is teach.

"People are counting on you. You have to go out and do something really fine. Stay out of classrooms.

"If you can't make it, none of us can make it."

This was more than just a challenge.

This was like me poised at my stake. Saint Sebastian, about to be executed by archers.

There is a school that says all creative wriing instructors are frauds and should be shot. Better with arrows. St. Sebastian. More pain.

I don't know how many times I had taken Eleanor Gallagher's advice.

And proved that I could do it, only to have to go out and prove it again.

Eleanor kept taking my course, over and over again, as had many others over the years.

I suppose my support group of perennial students spoiled me.

After the challenge from Eleanor Gallaher, I won my own column in Topic Magazine in these parts, and was soon writing essays for the Toronto Sun. My novel, The Black Icon, began to be reviewed in Toronto.

I began to have groupies, but never Eleanor Gallagher.She was my lady. My lady challenging the knight. This was courtly love.

Eleanor Gallagher wanted some proof from me that I was worthy..

If I could not produce something fine-- and no student ever surpassed a teaching master in York Region--then
I might as well give up both teaching and writing and go back to the ways of my father, master carpenter, probably a more honest trade in the first place.

"You must go out and write another novel, Ivan.

"Not just a fragment, like last time.

"The real thing."

I don't know why I had allowed a student to be a guide for me.
Maybe she had taken the words right out of my mouth.
Every teacher feels at some point in his/her life that she's a fraud. I was beginning to feel like a fraud.

I had to do a second novel.

Well, I did.

Eleanor Gallagher, who by this time must surely be a senior, would have been proud of me.

But the cost, the cost.

Loss of home. Loss of job. Loss of spouse. Loss of mind.
Loss, loss, loss
And yet enough love within the loss to almost make it worthwhile.
And proving to Eleanor Gallagher that I was not entirely a bullshitter.

And yet Ozymandias.

Shattered statue in the desert. Look how great I am.

Could this be what Eleanor wanted?

Do not the roads to hell start with good intentions?

There was a time when life was simpler, more authentic.

Young man on the make, with beautiful young wife, driving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to write the great Canadian novel.

What was ultimately produced was a fragment, the story of my mother and father.And maybe that may have been enough.

Why did you torment me, Eleanor Gallagher?

The Black Icon is what got me the teaching job in the first place, that and some sheepskin.

Okay. I had long ago quit the teaching job.
The proof had to be in the pudding.
Well, after an eternity, the book she is writ.
And now where she goes, nobody knows.

Damn. Who was the master and who the apprentice.
Heaven forbid that the apprentice had sent the master down the well.

Well, someone has finally sent down a bucket.

I think I'm finally out of the well. The book is writ. And I should like to say I'm glad.
Or maybe the Man from Glad.

Mahybe I'm scaring the kids. "Mom!"


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Boris and the unhappy hooker

Dear Patient(captive?) Audience:

I thought I'd try this on you.
Watch out. It's rococo.

Don't worry abut being critical...It's already been rejected by a huge, huge publisher. This has caused me to feel not so huge, though still somehow cocky. I mean, would you touch a story like this even if you were a ten-foot Pole? Or thought of yourself as such?
--Ivan Prokopchuk

Holding down two jobs and trying to keep and unhappy hooker happy can take the brain right out of you.

Trouble was, both jobs were writing-related, a one-way thing. Writing and teaching about writing. I had no hobbies save for the unhappy hooker. That and what Irishmen call "the Creature", that is to say, Gibson's Irish Cream.

The hooker was unhappy because of "Marko and Luigi", who, I suppose was her dyarchy of pimps.
It was definitely off-putting to be spending some time with my unhappy hooker while Luigi seemed to be tramping about outside, muttering, in Sicilian, probably, "Not too long Joanne, not too long."

There were days that I supposed, Luigi in his zeal, would become so impatient as to do a Ron Jeremy on old Ivan and have me half-speared before I even finished the business at hand.

Low-rent, no?

"Write about squalor," says Esmee in a J.D. Salinger story.

Squalor would come to visit Ivan. Quite a bit.
Not entirely Ivan's idea.

But Ivan was in a tough creative spot.

There was the newspaper column he had to produce every day.

Writing for money. Four-and-a-half typewritten pages every day, not a word less.

I would sometimes have short paragraphs, use lots of white space, make the printer work and put lots of lead in where there were so few words.

The linotype operator, always a gay guy, would entertain me with entire stanzas of The Walrus and the Carpenter, beginning with "You are old (brother Ivan)."
Did this mean I was showing my age, bitch?
He got a laugh out of that.

At least the paper had hired two of my students. One wrote really well; the other took pictures. Seems I could show the kids how to whore around in publishing.

But my unhappy hooker wanted in. Into my coterie of he published.
In a different way.
The hooker was unhappy because she was really a writer, not a hooker, and the day job she had as cover to keep the constabulary at bay was at Ronald's Printing (nowout of business) which was really a daytime house of ill repute. Randy salesmen cud walk up to he second floor where she had her in glass cage, like a teller. Ooh, but what went on behind the glass door!

The printing business was real, very real, there were millions of dollars in TIME Magazine reprintings and miles of advertising flyers. But there was a sub-enclave in the office which very nearly resembled a night-time massage parlor, and all doors seemed to lead to Joanne, in her ONE WAY ONLY glass cage to which happy, singing Italians would come.
They came out even happier, singing, "Oh what a friend we have in Joanne."

I had to "catch- as -catch -can."

Embarrassing to meet Joanne after work, the sweaty Italian still a little heated after his rapture, and everybody trying to act normal.

Sleazy, no?

But the woman could write.

She gave me a story based on her father, a Flower Class Corvette captain during the Second World War.
I was tempted, in my own giddy way, to ask, "Was he a rear admiral?" But the way poor Joanne was walking at the time, I let it ride.

The story was good.

It was about loneliness at sea. A terrible storm. And at about the time the sailor realized who he was, and among whom he moved, the meaning of his life, an answer out of loneliness--that he was swept of the deck, never to be seen again.

How many stories there are of loneliness.

It is, some say, a barometer, your barometer. In a condition of profound loneliness, you are being told something.

What did you do to arrive at this condition of loneliness? Whom did you hurt? What did you do with the money?
Why are you 47 and all alone?
I was forty-seven, and, in the process of going through a divorce. All alone. How did I get this way?
Seems that once you puzzle that out, you may well have touched on the Christ Principle and emerge a new, better person.

But the Sea has not time for solipsism.

It can sweep away the popular and the lonely.

My attractiveness to the unhappy hooker stemmed from the fact that she used language really well, she was vaguely English with that impossible-to-copy Peterborough accent, she was not writing in her third language as I was, and the stories that came out of her were natural and pure, straight trom the mother tongue. She was a kind of lady Shakespeare without the Elizabethan inflection. She came from Prince Edward County in Ontario, where all the good Canadian writers come from, Toronto be damned.
What is a woman from a good Ontario family doing in her entertainment of Little Sicilians?

And some of them were quite kinky.
Big-booted Italy kicked little Sicily?
The mind boggled.

She said one night at the Grey Goat that she seemed to be in the movie, Naked Lunch.

I took it as a joke, and wondered all the while how director David Cronenberg ever managed to turn an inanimate typewriter into a talking anus.

But it was my poor Joanne who was the talking anus. So many Sicilian construction workers taking up astronomy, looking for Uranus.

The stress of our "relationship".
Hertz rent-a-chick and half the time I had no money. She would accept a new VCR.

And all the while, the two jobs. Newspaper columnist by day and teacher of writing at night.
She would always come to my classes. But there would be the mysterious Marko in the wings. He too, had registered...Just keeping an eye on things.

I had told her, in a moment of honesty, that after reading her material, and noting her excellent poise and elocution when she read her own or other people's stories--that she was a class act, and, quite frankly a better writer than myself.
This gave her a sense of control.

She soon seemed to delve into every aspect of my life, was obsessed with me (as I was now becoming obsessed with her)--and one day, as one of my feature stories appeared in a magazine distributed everywhere, she had complained, "You were doing this story all this time--and you didn't even tell me!"
--So I should reveal every aspect of my thought and writing processes?
Like many another hooker who liked to be wined and dined, she was fast becoming a control freak. Quite a bold one, really. "I know you better than you know yourself."

My relationship with Joanne began to affect the class. They knew.
I had made Joanne my TA, my teaching assistant and she was very good at it, reading each submitted story out loud, no author actually named, just the material discussed...a good way to go; saves the critique group writer some embarrassment if the story reallly clangs.

Afterwards the pub nights. She would show up in something gold lame' and shimmering, but always long-sleeved.
Always in long sleeves.

So that was it. She had to stay near her sources, and Marko and Luigi were the sources. "Do this for me, or I will pull your plug."

I was soon a second-hand addict, as she used me as a sounding board, tried to control me, as addicts will often do, while it was her habit that controlled her.

I chose direct intervention. Behind her back.

But she would disapper then, sometimes for three weeks and be the same manic-depressive Joanne.

Like I was fast becoming a manic-depressive Ivan.

I could no longer handle the mind games, to be used as a sounding board by a beautiful addict.

The relationship was getting in the way of my work, of my teaching.

And the Dean caught on to what was going on.

Soon I was out of the college job and the newspaper had just been sold; new editors. Now this job too was going fast.

Suddenly, no job, no girlfriend (funny how quickly they leave when you turn out "no good").

Driving a cab in my loneliness.

Realizing all the while that I had somehow escaped.

The sea wave was benevolent. I had prepared my lifeboat.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Letters. We get letters. And anecdotes. And critics of the letters, even.

Hi Ivan,

Working on my final papers for Summer semester, so don't have a lot of time to write new stuff (although I do have an idea going, but it needs a few days to simmer). In the meantime, I remember that you had asked about reproducing my field review of The Shining. I do retain the copyright - and you are welcome to reproduce :-)

The Shining
by Stephen King
Field-Tested by Dawn Caplan
(The 2008 Field-Tested Books poster by Spike Press. Buy it now in the FTB Store).

in the basement in La Crosse, Wisconsin

It was the summer of ’82 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and my older brother David and I were teamed up against the world. We’d moved that spring, and been transferred to a new school where we knew no one. David was two years older, considerably bigger, and moments from disaffected puberty. I thought he was god.

It wasn’t as though we’d moved to a new town, but we had moved from an insular coulee, full of other physicians’ families and kids we’d known since birth, to a yet-to-be-developed ridge line topping a bluff ten miles out of town.

During an exploration of the new neighborhood, on one of those deceptively warm March days, I got stuck in a snow-melt swollen stream. I slipped into it as David and I hiked back up the west face of the bluff, and my boots became one with the early-season mud. Water was up to my waist, my brother couldn’t pull me out, and he left me, scrambling home to get our father. I expect that now, 20+ years later, my moon boots have become the basis for a small island in that shallow stream. That day, I, sock-footed, followed my father and brother back home.

We were banned from the woods by parental order.

Summer came. We got to know the neighbor kids, what few there were. We stuck to the backyards. Played kick-the-can. Then it got hot. Really. Really. Hot.

Everyone disappeared into their homes, or to summer camp, or to the east coast. Our street was empty. We were banned from slipping into the cool shade of the woods, and our new house’s air conditioning wasn’t working very well. The upper floors were too hot, too bright. So David and I went underground.

Under the basement stairs, our parents had piled everything they planned on eventually getting rid of; carpet remnants, old furniture, and the books cleaned out from their (considerable) library. We created a room of our own in a corner of the blissfully cool, dark basement. We rolled out the carpet remnants, repositioned a 60s era coffee table, and hauled down the bean bag chairs from our bedrooms.

We had just finished listening to a serial radio version of Stephen King’s The Mist on NPR. We would sit in my room every Sunday, each with headphones on, backs against my bed, feet against the wall; horrified yet captivated for a half hour each weekend until the series finally concluded. We wanted more. Then, digging through a box of books intended for Goodwill, we found the mother lode, The Shining.

We spent two weeks reading to each other, passing the book back and forth in the dim light of the window wells. I don’t know about David, but I know there were times when that book scared the hell out of me. But we were together, in a cool, dark place, and if he didn’t run then I wasn't going to either.

*Dawn Caplan started life as a writing major at Columbia College, Chicago but ended up becoming an IT professional in Michigan. She writes a lot of technical manuals and user guides, and when the mood strikes, an occasional article for the Lawton Free Reader.

"Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance."


Hi Ivan,
Well, fueled by no sleep, and my fifth bourbon, I've been going through the boxes that contain my literary career. Thought you might like this's a true story:

1998_07_19_Extramarital Affair

“I want to make love to you now.”



“Talk to me,” he says, as we’re making love. “Talk to me.”

I can’t. I can’t, because the words screaming through the forefront of my mind are, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and nothing else can pass these lips without those words speeding past in search of air.

“Fine, don’t talk to me.”

Rise, feel, hips, hands, heat, and that internal joyous yell, “I love you!” that has nothing to do with sex, but you batter down my walls and I can’t say anything until I say those three words.



“I love you.”

Soul holds it’s breath. No, no quick windsprint from the room, just the question I knew was coming, “Define love.”

"Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance."
--Sam Brown

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Are writers really human?

Are writers really human?

That's what an editor wanted to know forty years ago when I'd use any situation, any person just so as to produce the story.
I had become very much like one of my old girlfriends, though she was talking about men and not short stories.
"Of course I manipulate men. But it's only for their own good."

Well, after a million words you find yourself manipulating situations and people just the get out a good story. You had established a reputation. You cannot afford to be stuck, to not produce. Three beautiful novels about Toronto lost to you because you had taken the magazine path, fifty thousand dollars a year to write about champion baton twirlers, inventors of snowboards, zoo crocodiles who kept falling asleep with their mouths open, prankish kids throwing pennies into their awesome mouths. There would be surgery. Vets removing the pennies, one by one, sayiing, "Hey, Scrooge come to collect."
And yet there comes a time of adversarial journalism, where you have to go out and " bite and brain someone", a hatchet job, to expose a cad, a Madoff, or a well known religious figure
who kept a dungeon in the basement of his church and where he'd take young girls. At first you befrend the Wookie, get him to trust you. And then you sink in the knife.

Using people, good and bad to get your story.
"What we do is morally unacceptable," said one woman journalist from New York. Setting people up. Hanging them on their own quotes. Yes, I do indeed beat my wife. He had said it as a joke. I wrote it down, adding, "And often."
Yellow journalism. How else can you make a buck?
You don' t last long, but do you ever clean up.

I'd spent some time working for the National Enquirer.
"Of course there are no vampires, the editor grates.. "You gotta find one. Get it on tape."

Are writers really human?

"Vampires? asked the townsman carrying his enormous faggot of firedwood.(Interesting montage of words in 2001)... "Vampires? Maybe a sawed off little f*cker like you," says the backwoods villager whom you had tried to trick into saying he'd actually seen one and in fact, had garlic in his pockets as precaution.
Success at all cost. Ben Johnson and his Speed.
Me on my rough journalistr steed.

Ah but journalism is a young man's game. You get tired. Your tongue hangs out. You are running out of gas.
But there must be vampires in them thar hills. The mountains are polluted with them!
Poor yellow journalist. No moral compass. Full of his own bullshit. No backbone.
Cracks his spine.