Monday, April 28, 2014

All Apologies

An apology and word of explanation is long overdue to you, my dear non-religious — or religiously indifferent — reader. Because, boy oh boy, do I ever sympathize. The fact remains: the fastest way to get me to leave a room is to start talking religion.

If that describes you as well, I am truly sorry for the turn this blog has taken of late.

Here is what I think is going on.

He's typing: good sign!
At some point, roughly five years ago, I stopped writing fiction. Right up to that point I’d been in the habit of hammering out short stories, or throwing words into one or another virtual folder — larger projects I hoped might miraculously assume the shape of a novel or play or multimedia extravaganza. These Big Projects were really just one enormous, fallowing field. The short stories were what was working for me.

A beginning, a middle and an end. A mischievous glint of light that flew to unexpected corners. The “a-ha!” moment when I’d realize what, exactly, was going on. So that’s how this ends! Who knew? etc.

And then, midway through one of these delightful experiences, I stopped and realized: I’d written this story before. Twice, in fact.

I saved-and-quit. The days accumulated into weeks, then months, then years, and the emphasis on “quit” grew heavier.

I recently mentioned this episode to a friend, who replied, “You know, Stephen King has been writing the same story for decades now.”

To which I said, “Pay me what Stephen King makes and I will happily write the same story over and over for as long as I live. Hell, I’ll write the same Stephen King story over and over.”

It's a living.

I shut off the computer five years ago under the conviction that I needed to recalibrate my sightlines a notch or two in a different direction. Specifically, it was time to stop writing from the POV of an aggrieved young man. I certainly wasn’t young anymore, and my sense of grievance was becoming increasingly questionable.

Needless to say, this sort of odyssey manages to be both intuitive and wildly counter-intuitive. It also takes longer than anticipated (one reason why, I suspect, mid-life writers are somewhat prone to leaving the spouse-and-kids: nothing kick-starts wisdom and insight like a rash of incredibly foolish behavior. Moderation in all things, I say, including immoderation — and especially immoderate foolishness).

Anyway, two years ago I received a hard nudge in the current direction. And forgive me also for this next confession: it feels like this is the way out and back in to fiction. So that is the direction I will continue in, for the next little bit.

I’ll try to throw in a few more references to the fun stuff: books, comics, movies, music. I’m way overdue to bang the drum for Devin Townsend — of whom I’ve become a drooling fanatic. I am tempted not to link to this piece, since I suspect it is more likely to turn off prospective listeners than it is to turn them on (this bit (scroll down) is slightly better). But it is timely, so: read (and listen) at your own peril. I’ll see if I can't give Townsend the car-lot sales pitch before the week is out.

"We'll be hearing from that crazy writer again,
and I don't mean just a post-card!"

Friday, April 25, 2014

TFS Response Mode #2: The Sideways Retreat To Orthodoxy

When I graduated from high school in the early ‘80s I knew a string of Mennonite kids who went on to a bible school in the middle of the prairie grasslands. “Bible Schools” were a sort of finishing school theologically aligned to particular denominations — often dubbed “Bridal Schools,” since marriage accomplished the same “settling down” effect, protecting grown children from heretical thoughts and activities and potential damnation.
I’d been to the place. It felt like the middle of nowhere to me, but there was no denying its students had a certain raucous ebullience that could be infectious.
I was friends with some of these kids, and this was the place where the scene-crasher from my previous post worked, as a sort of Dean of Students — from here on he’ll be M___. Anyway, none of my friends were letter writers, so it wasn’t until some years after the fact that I discovered this place was something of a locus for The Freaky Shit.
Some of it was fairly standard: you assemble a group of people an hour or two after supper, or maybe just prior to the conclusion of a day-long fast, get everyone to hold hands and sing choruses, then move on to prayers and recitations and surrender, and . . . stuff happens.
Other stuff was harder to pin down.
In mid-winter, on a late Friday night, a group of guys decided they were keen to watch some television. The school’s sole television was located in the student lounge, which, thanks to curfew, was now locked. Easy enough to break into, however, which the group did without damaging anything. They turned on the box, and settled into the couches and cushions.
A few minutes later they heard someone reaching for the doorknob. The door swung open, and there was M___. He looked the group over, asked, “Where’s J___?” J___ emerged from behind the couch, where he’d ducked for cover. “Alright, you guys. Back to your rooms. You know you’re not supposed to be here.”
At some point M___ told these guys he’d been in prayer while they were breaking in. He had seen what they’d done, which he described with a clarity of detail that unnerved every last one of them.

"They're watching television, M___!"

I knew three of the guys who'd been there. The first (#1) was a friend. At the time he was in hot pursuit of the more charismatic gifts of the Spirit, so this was all sauce for the gander. The second (#2) was a co-worker and fellow ink-stained wretch at the Mennonite weekly. I knew him as a good-humoured, sincere guy — he held the entire episode in contempt, and M___ guilty of occult activity. The third guy (#3, naturally) was only an acquaintance, a sweet-natured introvert, a terrific musician, and a dear friend to #1. A year or two ago, #1 tracked me down and we had a pleasant catch-up. As we ran over the “where are they now?” list, he informed me that #3 had gone all-in Materialist Atheist, and couldn't be happier. #1's nature and temperament have mellowed a bit over the years, but I still recognized him as my friend from 30 years ago.
Back when #2 and I were filing reports, I spent a weekend next to M___ at some event I had to cover. The event was a slog, but M___ was a friendly and engaging fellow, happy to speak at length over just about any topic I threw at him. I relished his conversation, and eventually the event in question came up.
He remembered it very clearly, and while he didn't want to get into particulars, since this was really between the boys and God, he didn't mind confirming it was pretty much as described. M___ had been in prayer, seen the event, “sensed that something in the spirit of it was not quite right,” so he put on his coat and hat, and shut it down.
It did not occur to me until long after we'd parted ways to wonder how he was able to discern the appropriateness of the spirit that moved him to act as he did. All three of my acquaintances insisted it had been an innocent gathering, and I believed them. Did M___ have to barge in and put The Zap on those boys, or was there possibly not a subtler and kinder way to address the perceived shadiness of this particular group “spirit”? Given how radically two of the three finally reacted, the question seems pertinent.

The reflexive sideways retreat to hardcore Orthodoxy, in the face of TFS, is what is notable to me.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I was tempted to title this post, “I speed-read G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography so that you don’t have to.” What a vexing book. Got a few sound-bites from it, though, which should hopefully launch the next — proper — post.

In the meantime, some distractions:

Ted Gioia has a list of “25 Recent Jazz Albums You Should Listen To” over here. I’m giving #17 multiple spins this weekend, as it has a sweet and gentle vibe. Good for solo attention and meditation, and perfectly kitted-up for company, too. (I have it on good authority that #s 3, 6, 9, 10 & 15 are also keepers.)

I want to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez when I grow up.

And finally: Wow, it’s getting HOT in here! Is it the erotica — or is it the Christian Rock?

Alright: time to put the lamb in the oven.

Friday, April 11, 2014

TFS Response-Modes, Part 1

What do you do when The Freaky Shit happens?

A woman whose background was born-again Christian told of reading a book on voodoo until deep in the night. She fell asleep and then awoke to see half-human, half-animal figures roaming about on the landing outside her bedroom door. She had never seen or imagined such beings. The book had not included them. 
I was not asleep,” she said. “I was completely awake. I know I was because I reached out to touch the wall beside me.”
What did you do about the creatures?” I asked, knowing that she had left the religious assurances of childhood beliefs far behind.
I called on the blood of Jesus,” she said, her voice going high with emotion.
Good idea,” I said. Old habits die hard, which is sometimes for the best.
Christine Wicker, Not In Kansas Anymore: Dark Arts, Sex Spells, Money Magic, And Other Things Your Neighbors Aren't Telling You

Wicker's anecdote has the ring of familiarity to me. The people I was raised by had very clear lines of demarcation when it came to The Freaky Shit. You had God, you had the Devil, and you gave the latter — even the faintest suggestion of the latter — as wide a berth as possible.

Wicker says contemporary Magi refer, with some impatience, to this attitude as Dualism, a less-than-helpful lens through which to view and interact with the world. And although I maintain a cautious, if not downright skittish, approach to matters of the occult, I'm drawn to wonder if its acolytes don't have a point.

Getting back to my roots, and the skittishness cultivated: “Flee the Devil,” was a motto we strove to live by. Itinerant evangelists who billed themselves “Occult Experts” (or, even more sensationally, “ex-Satanists”) made it easy for us by revealing the depths to which the occult permeated popular culture. Cue the slideshow of album art, and now we teenage youth were seeing vivid examples of Dark Magickal motifs that were in all likelihood squatting in our bedrooms and poisoning the very air with demonic influence. One parking lot bonfire later, youth and parents alike were relieved of these malign forces for once and for all.

Or at least until it finally hit the youth just how badly Christian Rock sucked.

"Next up: Larry Norman!"

It was a clear message: stay away from Those Guys and Their Freaky Shit. And if, for whatever reason, you found yourself confronted by it, a Friday night bonfire of the vanities, with invocations of Christ and Christ's blood, ought to be enough to get you out of the jam.

This, then, is the Dualism: two kinds of magic, one good (God through Jesus), and everything else, bad (Satan, “alive and well” as one “expert” claimed, in all the other religions (except maybe Judaism), but especially so in the religion that bore his name).

Still, even in a community free of Ouija boards and Tarot cards, The Freaky Shit occurred. Dreams, visions, visitations, alien abductions — at the outskirts of my village lived a family of five, three members of which had one really wild abduction story. They were sweet-natured people, pointedly uneducated. Which side of the equation were we to park this stuff?

Then there were the Holy Rollers, a subset the Mennonites could in no way avoid. Beyond the usual group-phenomena of glossolalia, Holy Giggles and Slayings in the Spirit, there were individuals who seemed to tap into an elevated vision of things that permitted them a surprisingly prurient vantage point. I knew of one character who developed a reputation for busting in on scenes he shouldn't have had any knowledge of. Some of those groups were up to potentially grievous mischief — go with God, dude. But others seemed completely innocent — none of your business, really, so: why?

I related some stories about this guy to another charismatic, who sighed and rolled his eyes. “Getting 'The Gifts' doesn't make anybody a better person,” he said. “You might have noticed. Some of these people become incredible dicks.”

It all leads me to wonder if the dualistic POV isn't too simplistic, and (ironically) prone to complicate things. Perhaps Dualism is merely Paganism-in-Denial?

Some TFS links:

TFS happens to Mark Twain, among others. So why isn't it a legitimate element in academic study? (My thoughts: a compelling enough piece, but blinkered in a way that seems typical of academia. You want TFS on-campus? Go to the Drama Department. No shortage of TFS stories and happenings occurring there, my dear perfesser.)

TFS happens, with some regularity, to Barbara Ehrenreich. And, like Twain, she still considers herself an atheist (although I can't help sensing a POV that begins with the letter “P”. . .).

Christine Wicker's book is terrific, by the way. She's clear-eyed, disarmingly frank in her self-disclosure, and revelatory about the whole American Neo-Pagan scene. Get it here.

Added 13-iv-14: Hey, lookit: Mary's gone Pentecostal, too!

And finally, my favourite evilest band in the world, the Supersuckers, have released a new albumGet The Hell, I am happy to say, is a return to the form that made me fond, in previous albums like M(ofo)s Be Trippin' (rave here) and The Evil Powers of Rock 'n' Roll. Rock on, dudes.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Chestertonian Digression

Christopher Hitchens devoted a few of his final days reckoning with G.K. Chesterton. Whether or not Hitch managed a Chestertonian take-down is largely in the eye of the beholder. Surely Chesterton’s anti-Semitism complicates any bent toward admiration. But then my admiration of Hitchens is complicated by his call-to-arms against Islamo-Facism. He may have articulated the threat, as he saw it, persuasively enough; however, his support (very public, and deeply appreciated by the War Party) of a full-out military response, a la Iraq, remains debatable, to put it mildly.

Hoping to contrast the two thinkers, I was all set to post the popular canard that Chesterton, in response to the London Times’ question, “What is wrong with the world?” promptly wrote,

Dear Sirs;
I am.  
Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton

And yet it seems likely that this exchange occurred not at all. Once again we have an apocryphal distillation of Chestertonian insight that is more finely attuned than the bloat of his writings. The fabled letter is true enough, in other words. Chesterton admitted he had faults, chief among them his incapacity to acknowledge the worst of them — “The unknown unknowns” as the bard of a later, wiser age put it.

Credit where it's due: Hitchens gave Chesterton a much closer read than I ever will. I’ve taken several runs at Orthodoxy, a slim book I’ve yet to finish. I’ve done better with On Lying In Bed & Other Essays, edited by Alberto Manguel (A). I’ve hopped all over its pages, and discovered many of Chesterton’s most famous quotations.* Can’t say as I’ve finished it, though. The only book of his that I’ve read from cover to cover is The Man Called Thursday, a grotesque farce which penetrated my consciousness to an unsettling and even creepy degree.

About which . . .

*Including one my daughters have grown sick of me parroting: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”