“And Oh, I Wrote a Book, Too”

Writing at keyboardOne day when I first started coming regularly to Montréal from Halifax — maybe in 2000 or 2001 — a bespectacled goateed man a few years older than me came up to me at the computer I was renting at the Presse-Café in the Village. He bent down at eye level with me, and delivered without a hint of irony what to this day remains the corniest come-on line of my life.

“Are you always this gorgeous or do you take a break once in a while?”

I’m even embarrassed to type that line, as much for having been its recipient (and admitting to it!) as for Arme who delivered it. But that over-the-top flourish is central to this story I’m about to tell you.

I would see Arme out and about in the Village each time I would come to Montréal in the subsequent years and I would always speak to him, if only to say hello, for he really is a nice guy despite his penchant for hyperbole. But one of the last times I saw him about a year before I moved to Montréal, I overheard a very small part of the conservation he was having with someone else and I got the impression that his work situation had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. That time, not wanting to interrupt the conversation he was having, I merely said hello to him and went on my way.

When I moved to Montréal three years ago I never saw him around, so I assumed that he had moved elsewhere. That was until one warm evening early this summer, just days or weeks after the main drag through the Village was closed off to car traffic: I noticed him sitting by himself on the terrace as I was entering the Second Cup at the corner of Rue Panet, so I joined him and we caught up on our news of the last few years.

Quite some time into our conversation, he dropped the line I’ve had several other people drop on me before: “And I also published a book last year.” I have to admit that my heart always drops a little whenever I hear someone say that but invariably I respond enthusiastically and ask about it. He briefly outlined it as an unusual love story set in Montréal featuring a Lebanese immigrant (“Oh, just like him,” I thought), a Québec architect, and an assorted crew of people whose lives unexpectedly came together. He also talked about the difficulty he had in getting his novel published and the harsh criticism one of his distant acquaintances levelled towards it. “But you should read it,” he added — a line I expected to come at any moment just as one always expects the proverbial other shoe to drop.

About a month later, after seeing him a few times at the same spot in the Village, I had a crisp new $20 bill on me and he had a copy of his book in his backpack. For this post, I’m choosing not to reveal the book’s title nor Arme’s real name. I’m feeling a bit guilty about not doing so because that might help him sell another copy or two but, if search engines were to lead him to this post, he might not like what I have to say about his novel.

As is my habit, however, I would like to start with what’s good about his book.

Many years ago, someone gave me a book as a gift, a murder mystery in French set in Ottawa. Twice I tried to read it and each time I wasn’t able to go beyond the first 60 or 70 pages. One of the numerous things that drove me crazy was the author’s choice of adjectives to describe the protagonist, such as referring to him repeatedly as “the Franco-Ontarian sleuth.” I found such word choice heavy-handed and unimaginative, as there could have been many other ways of showing the protagonist’s regional identity rather than constantly telling the reader what it was.

Thankfully, Arme’s narrative is not like that, so, as a consequence, I read through his novel very quickly, picking it up every chance I got until I reached the end. I did so despite being turned off by the book’s astonishingly cliché title and the rather immodest and inappriopriate author’s bio. I did so despite repeatedly finding the coincidences of how the characters met to be overwrought, unlikely, or, yes, over-the-top in several instances. And I did so despite the editor in me getting annoyed with not only incorrect grammar and syntax in some spots, but also some troublesome lack of transition and problems with continuity, not to mention bad translations of some French words or expressions — all things a dispassionate content and copy editor could have flagged as requiring adjustment before submitting the manuscript for consideration.

When I was a young adult, I had this crazy notion in my mind of writing a novel. I was still living in Moncton at the time. I even started writing it — longhand, no less — and I was setting it in Halifax. But I quickly dropped the project, for I came to realize my shortcomings in writing fiction. Indeed, I realized that, on the one hand, developing a distinctive narrative voice and, on the other hand, giving the characters a distinctive voice of their own was not only a monumental task but also a talent I did not have. I admit that wasn’t how I articulated my self-critique at that time; I just knew that it “wasn’t good” and that it “didn’t sound authentic.”

Think of the acclaim Wally Lamb received for She’s Come Undone: that a man could give such a believable voice to the female protagonist is nothing short of a master coup. Also think of good novels you have read, when you would wish you could slap a character for thinking or behaving in a particular way, all the while remembering to cut the character some slack because, unlike the narrator or the reader, that character doesn’t have the full picture of everything that’s happening or what the true thoughts and motivations of the other characters are.

To his credit, Arme manages very well at crafting a complex plot. However, where he comes short is in giving his characters a sufficiently distinct voice that would give them more depth. Sadly, if not in content then certainly in sound, the characters’ inner voice is similar, at times to the point of interchangeability. Sometimes I even thought that all the male characters sound like mini Armes, which is a similar thought I had about my aborted attempt at writing a novel, in that I noticed that the characters sounded like what I wished I sounded.

The other difficulty I have with his novel — and this is a major difficulty — is the way it lacks irony while playing into the greatest gay man’s cliché of them all, namely that, deep down, all guys are gay if only they would get to meet the right guy. It’s the reversal of parents’ anguished cry upon a son’s announcement that he is gay: “Maybe it’s just a phase. Maybe you just haven’t met the right girl yet.” Indeed, the novel begins with only one fully “out” gay character and one who is repressing his coming out until he cannot resist the beautiful gaze of the fully out character’s rivetting blue eyes. All the other main male characters, safe perhaps two or three, start off in the novel being straight and end up becoming involved in a same-sex relationship — all long-term except for one guy who sufferred a fatal heart attack upon being outed by his wife holding photographic evidence of her husband’s recent foray on Team Gay while on a business trip in Vegas with a Lebanese assistant who turns the head of all females and males, irrespective of sexual orientation, who happen to set eyes on him.

Enough said.

In the past while, I have been telling you about how I discovered my extreme inability to deal with confrontation; imagine, therefore, my great discomfort in seeing Arme now, who would like me to express my impressions of his novel. I realize that I mustn’t view this chat as a confrontation, yet I admit that I’ve been going out of my way to avoid both this talk and Arme. Indeed, while keeping in mind that I’m patently incapable of lying, I will just have to find the words so that they come off as I intend them, namely as constructive criticism, for I do think there’s potential for him to become a better author and I recognize that I, myself, could not have managed to do so well the parts that he did do well.

A Quick Study

Must Learn Fast...Two years ago, when the signs were becoming clear that my marriage was irretrievably falling apart, I turned to several friends just so that I could talk about what was happening. In listening to what I had to say, one of those friends remarked, “You know, you’re a really quick study.”

Already at that time, I could look beyond individual incidents and analyze their effects — the intended and unintended consequences of certain actions. “Some people can endure stuff like that for years even though they know they shouldn’t,” my friend said. “They would deny it to themselves. But already you’ve come this far.” Yet one feeling I couldn’t shake off was guilt, although guilt for what I couldn’t put into words. It wasn’t as simple as guilt for a failed marriage or for what transpired in the few days immediately following the decision to separate — a separation that quickly turned into a total estrangement.

So, as any other certifiable workholic would do, I buried myself into my work. A few weeks later, I was awarded a huge prize at my job — a Caribbean cruise the following January with peers from around the world — and it reinforced my dedication to my work. But it also gave me an “out” from addressing what needed to be addressed in my personal life. And then when the atmosphere at work soured a few weeks after I returned from that cruise, my satisfaction with work fell apart and I began feeling physically exhausted and guilty all over again.

It took me a year to admit to myself that I needed help, so on those grounds, I felt that describing myself as a “quick study” was grossly inaccurate. However, just a few short months after getting help, the optimist (if not the realist) in me is starting to think that it IS an adequate description.

Yesterday I had my second and possibly last appointment with Gary — last unless I feel the need to call upon him again later. While I definitely intend to continue working with Lucy for a while longer, I confided to Gary that the time off so far seems to have had the intended results: I am truly feeling that I’m finally silencing the superfluous noise around me, and the episodes of dark, surreal and detached mood have become much less frequent. As a consequence, I am believing once again that I really AM a quick study after all.

As I wrote earlier, I didn’t think I would be where I am right now. But to some extent, that’s irrelevant. I don’t mean that in the sense of “non-significant”; rather, I mean that whatever constituted the lightbulb moment is irrelevant as long as I’ve actually reached that lightbulb moment.

Somehow, all along, I have had the clarity of mind to recognize that the consequences of my actions and inactions brought to the fore of my mind my specific brand of shutting down. I quickly came to describing those consequences as noise which prevented me from getting to the causes. And to me that’s fascinating and encouraging.

Going forward, I’ll always have to face my fear of confrontation, be it big, small or imaginary. I’ll always have to question my impulsion to tackle bigger projects and ideas than most other reasonable people would. I’ll always have to probe into my motives behind setting myself and my needs aside so that I can come to someone else’s “rescue” — both literally or figuratively. But now that I’m recognizing those factors, I can stop making flip, self-deprecating jokes about them. Now I know that I need to learn how to recognize the triggers so that I can take a pause before running in the direction I’d normal run — “Stop and think first,” as Lucy put it towards the end of my last visit with her.

I seem to find encouragement not only in the fact that it looks like I’ve come quite far fairly quickly, but also in the fact that I’ve always been stronger at thinking rather than at acting (or not), which too often is laded with too many emotional impulses. It’s often said that we must learn to pick our battles, and until recently, that saying struck me as a justification for selfishness and self-centredness. But now I’m seeing it more for what it is, namely striking a balance.

My earliest experiences in life crafted a deep sense of outrage toward injustice. In my case, there was no “just” reason for being rejected and made into an outcast by other kids. So when I would see or learn of injustices upon others, I related. I still do. And I probably always will. I get pulled by someone having difficulty keeping up, or completing a task, or learning new notions. But no one individual can carry, either actively or passively, the burden of everyone else’s difficulties. So, seen from that optic, learning to pick one’s battle is finally NOT coming across to me as selfish and self-centered.

I’ll probably again try to “rescue” people. But I think I’ll choose better. That way, I won’t try on those who don’t deserve it or, more importantly, don’t want it. Until recently, I thought NowEx deserved but didn’t want it; now I realize that if I had paused and thought much harder, I would have concluded that he neither deserved nor wanted it. So, the lesson learned is not about him — I truly hold no rancour — but much larger: Keep the outrage and the open heart, but learn how to direct it better.

Disconnected Ideas

  • It’s a beautiful, mild, sunny late-summer day, just like it was 10 years ago.
  • This is also the last Sunday of Aires Libres, when Rue Sainte-Catherine from Rue Berri to Avenue Papineau through the Village is closed off to traffic. Some restaurants have already begun removing their terraces; traffic will resume on Tuesday. It would be nice if this would continue into early autumn, but with evenings like last night becoming quite cool already, I suppose it’s time to accept that it’s over for another year.
  • I had brunch at Lafayette early today. At a table not too far from me were three guys, two of whom were married to each other. Both were extremely handsome; both exuded quiet contentment. No, I wasn’t jealous; maybe I was a tiny bit envious. There was a kind of warmth and ease between them that I suspect never existed or was never so visible between NowEx and me, and that made me feel a tinge of sadness. At the same time, I’m torn because I don’t see myself settling with someone. It’s not that I think I couldn’t; it’s that I’m not convinced that it would make me happy.
  • Tomorrow I have an appointment with Gary in the morning and the one for Junior in the afternoon. Aside from an appointment with Lucy late Thursday afternoon, I have no other commitment this week — just a lot of stuff to get done.
  • I finally met up with Cleopatrick for coffee last night. I guess we’ve both been preoccupied with life.
  • I keep getting a thought over and over these days — more so than usual: Thank god I’m in Montréal! I am SO in the place I need to be right now! And I say this despite recognizing that I’m a bit lonely, that I don’t know very may people in this city after more than three years. But then, the first 15 months or so were one kind of fog, and the last nine to twelve months have been another kind of fog. I emerged from the first and I’m only now slowly emerging from the second. However, I’m not so sure I would be able to if I were not in this city.

Time for Some Serious Decisions

The “Harper government” — yes, I’m choosing the term very deliberately — is ordering Canadian embassies around the world to display an image of the Queen. So, which will it be?

The Good Queen   The Evil Queen

Look, I’m neither for nor against the monarchy. The lefty in me doesn’t agree with priviledge bestowed onto someone simply by birth, but in the modern Canadian context, the Queen’s role is so symbolic as to be meaningless — benign, but meaningless. However, I suspect that if Elizabeth weren’t still around and Charles were King, there would be a more unanimous outcry against the Harper government’s degree.

First came John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking to replace modern paintings by a Quebec artist at his department’s headquarters with a portrait Good Old Benign Liz. Then came the reinsertion of the word “Royal” to the Canadian Air Forces and Canadian Navy. And now a portrait of Liz must appear in our embassies.

Quite correctly, I believe, University of Guelph Associate Professor Matt Hayday, quoted in this article of the National Post, sees this attempt at rebranding Canadian identity as a step backward.

“It’s a very deliberate and calculated effort to re-shape Canadian symbolism, Canadian nationalism and Canadian values back to a certain conception of conservative Canada that has very strong roots in Diefenbaker-era Canada where ties to the monarchy, to tradition, to the British world are very important,” said Matthew Hayday……

Canada’s conservatives have long loved the Crown because it plays to the ideas of tradition and respect for authority — namely, the authority of the British empire, he said.

“There’s a certain amount of nostalgia as well for a period where Canada was part of a broader British empire,” said Prof. Hayday, and the mandate plays to a “specific subset” of the Conservatives’ Canadian voter base who have watched as multiculturalism and bilingualism, in their view, overshadowed any nods to Canada’s British heritage.

However, as I commented on Matt’s blog, it occurred to me that maybe all these moves by the Conservatives, but especially this latest one, are a provocation on their part. Sure, on the surface, they’re playing to their base. But in the nearly 20 years since the failed Charlottetown Accord, there’s been agitation on the right for true Senate reform, mention on the left (especially by the late Jack Layton during the last election) of finding the “winning conditions” for Canada and Québec, and for all sides for electoral reform. In other words, could it be that, in public, they’re saying that they don’t want another round of constitutional talks, but in fact they’re itching for one through provocation via successive legislative plans and degrees that most Canadians find distasteful?

I can already hear the cries of protest against constitutional talks when there’s so much uncertainty economically worldwide. And I have grave concerns about having such talks while the current brand of Conservatives is in power. But in my view, the economic argument against such talks is the weakest, for the most significant constitutional changes of the 20th century occurred at times when the economy was precarious. In fact, if the economy were good, there could be arguments along the lines that “the economy is good, so let’s not disrupt it by reopening the constitution.”

Maybe my little “conspiracy theory” is giving the Conservatives too much credit. Maybe this isn’t a bait at all, but it could certainly be turned into one. Maybe the Conservatives really are intent on changing the country through whatever back-handed means their majority affords them. Or maybe the opposition — both in Parliament and the public at large — isn’t alert enough to recognize the bait it’s being handed…

I mean, why not consider having a Governor General as end-of-the-line head of state? Let’s look perhaps at keeping the title of “governor general” out of respect to tradition and heritage instead of seeking a republican president. And why not consider whether or not we want a Senate? And if we do, let’s discuss how it should be constituted and whether its member should be elected or appointed. And while recognizing that, for a vocal minority, the only solution for Québec is full sovereignty, why not try to find among the soft nationalist and federalist majority in Québec what they would deem acceptable for being a solid and equal partner within Canada?

Everybody Remembers

Early Nine-Eleven MemorialThese days the media is, of course, wall-to-wall coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorists attacks on the United States, and it is said that everyone who was alive that day and old enough to understand what was happening remembers exactly where they were when they learned the news. For many, it was intensely personal and tragic, but for the vast majority of people, it was a scene of unspeakable horror being played out live on their TV screen.

Everybody seems to remember that the morning of September 11, 2001, was a beautiful late-summer day on the east coast of North America, including in Halifax where I was living at the time. Ironically, had the attacks not happened on that day, probably few if anyone today would remember this otherwise trivial fact. It would have been just another ordinary day.

In fact, I distinctly remember the mild summer-like evening that was September 10, 2001, in Halifax. I went out to enjoy it and I distinctly remember thinking to myself that, the next day, I had to get back to work. I was working mostly as a freelancer at the time — I had finished teaching my last class of “Text-Based Media” at Mount Saint Vincent University a few weeks before — but because I had kept a connection with the academic world, September remained for me, mentally, the beginning of a new year. But in 2001, because summer had extended beyond Labour Day, I had procrastinated at working hard on my then-new brandchild: my TexStyleM web content management system.

The previous July, I had joined Hosting Matters, the web hosting company I still use to this day. My ritual at the time was to get up, make some coffee, and sit at the computer to read HM’s message board, which at the time was not only a technical help line but a virtual social community as well. As soon as I signed on, I noticed new strings with titles like “World Trade Center” as well as one, posted by HM owner Annette, warning of possible disruptions in service due to the day’s unfolding events. I read and read and it all seemed incomprehensible: possibly thousands and thousands dead, planes crashing into buildings…

I pounced out of my chair in my office and ran to the living room to turn on the TV. The first images I saw were of a building in smoke — the Pentagon, the announcer said. It was about 11:30 am in Halifax, therefore 10:30 am in Washington and New York. As I remained seated on the edge of the couch, trying to comprehend the images I was seeing, I thought to myself, “This must be what it felt like when news crossed the Atlantic that Germany had invaded Poland and that Britain and Canada were declaring war.” But in those early moments, it was still unclear in my mind against which country war was going to be declared.

And that’s just it: In 2001, most of us still thought of war as a matter among nation states. But on this first official year of the 21st century emerged the idea that modern wars were no longer going to be that way anymore. The definition of opponents and factions had become more abstract.

By the time I tuned into what was happening, the second twin tower in New York City had fallen already, but planes were still being grounded and it wasn’t known if more attacks were coming. News then came that dozens of planes that were crossing the Atlantic were being diverted not only to Gander, Newfoundland, but Halifax as well. The city where I lived was becoming one of many focal points of the unfolding events.

Obviously, my resolve to “get back to work” was shattered for many days following September 11, 2001. Like many others, I could not peel myself away from the TV screen. I would occasionally leaf through the photos of my one and only trip to New York City in February 1995, and in a few shots appeared those two towers that were no longer — towers I had only seen but never entered, and never would. And I would recall the hightened security that early evening I happened to go to the mostly deserted financial district, as it was the two-year anniversary of the 1993 Trade Center bombing. All I kept thinking is how “ordinary” were all those who had died so brutally in those towers. That day, as any other, they did the most mundane thing: they reported to work to earn their living. But hours later, they went from being “ordinary” to one of thousands of names on a long list now infamous in history.

A few days later, I drove to Moncton as my father had been hospitalized and his birthday was on the 16th. This was the time when doctors finally figured out that his pain was due to having lapsed into depression — the time when a man who would never show his emotions would cry at the drop of a hat. So, knowing this, before going to the hospital with Mom, who confided that she, too, could not stop watching the images coming out of New York and Washington, I asked her how he was reacting to the news of these events. But it turns out that he was so sedated that, although he understood what was happening, he was curiously detached from it all. His own life was fadding; two-and-a-half years later, he would be gone. I don’t recall talking much about the events of 9-11.

I remember as well how, in the first days and weeks that followed this seminal event, the United States had the sympathy of the world, for while many understood that American foreign policy was at the root of the attacks, few believed these attacks could be justified. As much as I hated the thought, I knew that there had to be a response to these attacks and I even agreed with the notion that Canada be alongside the U.S. in this response. Sadly, however, in the months and years that followed, those heading the government of the U.S. at the time themselves hijacked the events to seek avenge on Iraq, a nation that wasn’t involved in 9-11 but “conveniently” happened to be in the neighbourhood.

Ten years later we ask ourselves how the world has changed, and the answer seems to be that everything has become more polarized, not only internationally but also within nations — even in Canada, argues Chantal Hébert. That may not have been the intentions behind the 9-11 attacks, but sadly that seems to have been the consquence.