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Road Trippin’: Shiny Pearls of Wisdom from My Inaugural Autumn Writing Retreat

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Retreat Headquarters (© Philip Jefferson)

 

OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?

 

“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!

 

I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).

 

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Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.

 

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[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.”  The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.

 

So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.

 

Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.

 

Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!

 

Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)

 

Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.

 

P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.

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Amish for a Day: The Psychological Underpinnings of Barn Raisings, or Why the Grass is Always Greener at the Other Guy’s Home Renovation Project

 

Photo credit: cindy47452 via photopin cc

Photo credit: cindy47452 via photopin cc

Pssst, c’mhere. I got a secret to tell you. Closer — it’s a dirty little secret…

Think back to that soul-inspiring Amish barn raising you once saw in a TV program or a Hollywood movie / documentary. The archaic clothing and frilly bonnets, the funny beards, the dust motes sparkling in the camera lens as children chased butterflies across the job site. I know you can picture it. And no doubt you’re smiling as you think about it, ruminating on how this is the way societies should work.  Everybody coming together selflessly for the common good of the community.

The problem is, it’s all a big fat lie.

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But the truth is, even though Amish men would no doubt be “shunned” if they didn’t show up to help erect the barn (or school, or church), they ultimately — or at least unconsciously — do so, I would argue, for reasons far less selfless than you might expect. The truth is, spending a day helping out on your buddy’s project (or barn) means a day set free from your own (probably) hopelessly stalled home maintenance or DIY-project(s), to say nothing of it being a welcome hiatus from that insatiable, hydra-headed domestic monster, the loathsome “Honey Do” list. Such an opportunity for release is a strong drug. Trust me.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to folks that one of the main reasons why people choose to become architects is because they love to build things. I’m no exception. And being an architect certainly gives me something of leg up when it comes to DIY and renovation projects around the house. When all is said and done, there’s very few residential-scale construction projects I can’t tackle myself — with the exception of seamfilling drywall which, to do well, I consider something of a magical art form.

But the problem with being an architect is that I also have such well-honed visualization skills — that is, I know exactly what the finished project will look like in my mind’s eye. Why is this a problem you ask? Well, it’s like this: after I’ve completely torn apart the built-in book shelf / entertainment centre in the basement to re-build a new cupboard unit for the flat screen TV we purchased last fall (mostly as an excuse to try out my new Kreg Jig Junior pocket fastening system— https://www.kregtool.com/store/c13/kreg-jigsreg/p169/kreg-jigreg-r3/ — which I recently discovered on YouTube), and have expended all my initial first-day enthusiasm on the project, I’m already looking at the hole left in the wall and seeing a bright, shiny, newly-completed finish carpentry project.

All my wife sees, unfortunately, is, well, reality: lumber and saw dust strewn across the family room, a chop saw stored in the hallway, a panoply of miscellaneous tools underfoot and a veritable obstacle course of electrical / internet / co-ax cords snaking across the floor to service the TV, XBox, cable converter and Apple TV module, all of which now perch precariously on the coffee table about four feet away from us as we sit on the chesterfield to watch something. (My 14-year old son, of course, is in Nirvana — when he plays video games these days, it’s almost like he’s actually in the TV given how close to it he’s sitting).

Sure, I may trip over my nail gun every now and then as I walk through the room, or drive the head of the crowbar into the soft underside of my foot on occasion trying to step around the detritus, but once I get started on a project, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much done — ‘cuz, after all, I can see it done in my head. But actually completing the project? Well, that’s just a time thing. What’s the rush?

Helping friends work on their projects / raise their barns, though? Well, that’s a whole different story. Now you get to be the hero instead of the villain.

First crack at the “fun” stuff. Perhaps the best thing about helping a buddy with his or her construction or renovation project — especially if building is generally something you like doing anyway — is that you typically don’t get stuck doing the crappy jobs. The unwritten rule is that since you’re doing them a favour, you get first crack at the plumb jobs. Painting? You get to roll; they have to do all the cutting in. Putting up drywall on the ceiling? You get to screw the drywall to the strapping; they have to heft it overhead and try to hold it place. Flooring? You get to install all the easy, long runs while they have to cut and fit all the end pieces. Imagine getting to work all day at something you enjoy without having to do any of the tedious bits. Sweet!

There’s usually food — and beer — involved. Thankfully, when your spend the better part of you day volunteering your labour at a friend’s house, they take great pains to make sure you don’t go hungry. And there’s usually cold beer involved as well. This is not always the case when you’re at home, working in isolation on your own projects.

Great opportunity to develop new skills. Say you want to try to tile your bathroom on your own, or build a new deck, but you’re a little unsure if you can manage it? Assisting a buddy do this at his (or her) place goes a long way in helping you develop the skills and confidence  you need to try to tackle the same job at your own house. (Translation: it’s less expensive to make first-timer mistakes on somebody’s else’s project than on your own). Plus there’s usually food and beer involved at your buddy’s place.

You don’t have to make any of the hard choices. When you’re doing your own home reno or DIY projects, you have to make all the hard choices yourself. Can I afford the the extra $329 to upgrade to the nicer, pre-finished baseboards? How do I install that additional circuit for the new microwave even though my panel is already maxed out and the breaker would end up tripping every time I tried to defrost food and blow dry my hair at the same time? When you’re at your buddy’s place however, even though they’re allowed to ask you what you think about a particular dilemma, they have to make all the hard decisions themselves — plus they have to make these decisions in a timely manner lest you spend all your available volunteer time with them simply staring at the issue and trying to figure it out. (Buddy: “Um, when I put that new partition wall in it wasn’t quite 90 degrees to the existing wall which means the corner we’re working on now isn’t going to be square which may throw off the installation of my t-bar ceiling. Since the wall’s only 8’ long and it isn’t drywalled yet, d’ya think we should we take it out and try to re-set it properly before going any further?” You: “Whatever you like, it’s your show. Got any more beer?”)

No prep or clean-up required. Similar to Item #1, when you’re working at a buddy’s place, you don’t have to worry about getting the “site” ready for what needs to be done, or cleaning up after yourself at the end of the day. It’s expected that since you’re the “help-er” on the project, the “help-ee” will have things all ready for business when you arrive. Furniture will be moved out of the way, tools will be set up, material will be arrayed where easily accessible — you can hit the ground running. Likewise, at the end of your “shift”, when the work is finished but the site is now a complete disaster, you’re free to leave without any sense of guilt whatsoever. “Don’t worry about that,” they’ll gratefully inform you as you’re unfastening your tool belt for the day, “We’ll clean all that up later.” This is, indeed, in stark contrast to your own projects where you’re responsible for absolutely E-V-E-RY-T-H-I-N-G and, if you’re anything like me, actually seem to spend the bulk of your productive time either setting up prior to the start of the project or cleaning up after you’re done.

The right tools and material. Because your buddies will typically want to leverage the limited amount of time you have available to help them out, they’ll usually make sure to have the right tools on hand to make the job run smoothly, as well as sufficient construction material laying around to complete the project at hand so that you don’t have to waste time running out to the Home Depot to re-stock. This can be an especial real treat for a guy like me who can easily waste a couple of hours on my own projects looking for a three foot length of 2” x 4” I thought I had in the shed so I don’t have to go to town and buy a full eight footer, or piss away an entire morning trying to invent a track system to cut sheet goods with my circular saw so I don’t have to waste 15 minutes trying to excavate my table saw from the furnace room.

Have I mentioned the food and beer?

Rules of Engagement: As in Minor Hockey, So too in Life

IMG_0340 - Version 3 Spoiler Alert: You don’t have to be a hockey fan — or a sports fan of any kind — to “get” this blog. So read on. Really!

With the impending award of Lord Stanley’s Cup sometime in the next several weeks — though not, unfortunately, to the Pittsburgh Penguins who we cheer for here at The Gooseyard, and who, ignominiously, lost their fourth semi-final game in a row to Boston last week — it appears I had better get this blog uploaded before the 2012-13 hockey season — or at least the NHL season — expires for good.

Once, long ago, in the dark recesses of history (i.e. the mid-1970s), I played minor hockey. At that time I lived in a small town in northern Ontario, and, if you were a boy, you played hockey. I played for two years at the “Atom” level. I don’t remember being a particularly adept or inspired player, but the experience remains, nonetheless, one of the cornerstones of my young life.

The town where I lived was so small it generated, by necessity, a fairly “inclusive” and democratic minor hockey program. If you wanted to play hockey, you played. Exceptional skill was essentially irrelevant as there were only enough boys for a single team at any of the age levels. We — my fellow Atoms and I, that is — had no idea that other places in the world had so many players to choose from that they were able to create things like Double “A” or Triple “A” teams to denote different levels of achievement within the same age groups.

We practiced twice a week, and a couple of times of year we would make the trek to somewhere other than our own community — always to a larger town or city — where, if I remember rightly, we usually got trounced. But, ohh, the adventure of traveling to what was always — for us at least — an exotic locale and a strange new rink where we’d play against different teams we had never met before or even knew existed! It seemed everywhere we went kids were playing hockey.

I never played hockey again after my family left Ontario, and really never gave it much thought after that. Though, like most Canadian men, I’ll try to check out Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday if one my favorite “franchises” happens to be playing, or watch the Canadian teams play in the Olympics or the Worlds — especially against the Russians or Americans.

For the past five years, however, watching my son, now 13, play hockey in a province-wide league with a abundance of teams at all skill levels (“A” through “AAA,” and beyond), I find myself thinking, more and more, how the seemingly simple experience of playing hockey ultimately shapes our children’s — hold your noses, I’m about to go all LBJ on you here — hearts and minds. That is, how it builds — in less poetic, less foreign policy-esque terms — what we might traditionally understand as “character.”

When you spend five years sitting in the stands watching young boys grow and develop — and, in some unfortunate cases, come apart at the seams — you can really see the whole tableau unfold as sort of a microcosm for life. They’re all there: the natural sportsmen, the bully-boys, the team-players, the egoists, the “grinders”, the bewildered, the ineffectual, the leaders, the followers.

Watching them at 10-years old, I felt as if I could imagine those same boys, those same characters, playing out their lives 25 years later in a boardroom, or on a construction site, as scientists or teachers, or salesmen or pharmacists. Using the same inherent abilities and strategies and defenses that they had developed long-ago on the ice, but simply applying them in a different milieu.

Strangely, I began to realize, the reverse is also true. As adults, there appear to be any number of “home truths” that we can extrapolate, and potentially apply to our own lives, simply by seeking to understand the rhythms of our children’s minor league sports involvement. Whether you’re a writer or an accountant or a stay at home parent, the same elements always seem to remain consistent.

 

#1. You gotta show up. Sounds simple. You have to put in the time and be committed to what you’re doing in order to create a strong enough foundation upon which to build something. But the key to showing up is to really strive for some sort of intellectual “presentness.”  No sense physically being there if your mind’s elsewhere. As the poker players would say, you gotta be “all in.”

 

#2. Play with heart. If your heart’s not in it, you’re just going through the motions. You may not always win, but at least, if you play with heart, you’ll always open up more opportunities to potentially win than if you’re just putting in the time.

 

#3. Don’t wait for the play to come to you. Every now and then you’re in exactly the right place at the right time. The puck lands magically on your stick and you’re away. But if your entire game consists of constantly waiting for that perfect play to come to you, chances are you’re going to spend most of your game being perpetually disappointed. Your job is actually to “force the plays,” to create opportunities where none previously existed. Can’t make a play? Shoot the puck into the corner and charge in after it! Something’s bound to happen.

 

#4. The biggest celebrations can often erupt for the weakest players. This is a variation of “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.” There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing the parents and kids on the team cheering madly when someone who seldom, if ever, gets a goal, actually scores. This is especially true when folks know that the player in question has been spending his time actively working towards trying to get a goal rather than simply bemoaning the fact he never seems to get one.

 

#5. If you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough. This, I suppose, is self-explanatory. Effort — significant effort — must be exerted in order to achieve goals. You can’t simply think your way through to success: you actually have to begin to act at some point. And the larger the prize, the more you gotta sweat.

 

#6. It’s easy to be omniscient from high in the stands. But guess what — you don’t play hockey in the stands. You play it down on the ice, trying to take it all in through the wired-visor of your helmet, with sweat in your eyes (see Item #5, above!) and players pushing past you in all directions. You’re going to miss plays and make mistakes because you don’t have a bird’s eye view of everything going on around you. What you have to do though — all you’ll ever be able to do — is make the most out of the limited data available to you at any particular time, act upon it, and move on.

 

#7. You gotta earn your ice-time. This one I remind my son about before nearly every game. In agricultural parlance, you reap what you sow. The more often you demonstrate you’re ready to go out there and make it happen, the more ice time you’ll find yourself being awarded to actually make it happen.

 

#8. If we are so worried about violence erupting in the post-game handshake line-up that we have to re-brand this demonstration of sportsmanship as a pre-game ritual instead, we have screwed up minor league sports — and our kids opportunity to live in a truly just and civil society — so irreversibly that we should simply hang our heads in shame and leave the rinks and the sports fields altogether.

 

The last item, as you might be able to discern, I feel somewhat strongly about.

In the association in which my son plays, along with many other associations, there’s been some serious talk recently about moving the post-game handshake to a pre-game time slot instead. That way if a player(s) is overheated about something that happened in the game, he won’t have the opportunity to throw a retaliatory punch during the post-game line-up.

See anything problematic with this approach? I hope so. Quite simply, it does nothing more than reward bad behaviour. Rather than having to address an unacceptable act of violence in the first place, all reverting to a pre-game handshake serves to do is remove a potential psychological trigger mechanism. This approach may prevent a punch from being thrown after the game is over, but nobody has actually learned anything. Really appreciating what it is to play sports — and to “play” at life — involves giving individuals full access to a wide-range of compelling triggers, along with the training, support and confidence to understand how, and why, not to pull them.

Ultimately, I’d suggest, what we need to be doing is focusing on raising better kids — better citizens — rather than abnegating our responsibility on issues like this by simply altering the game’s parameters to accommodate those youngsters who play sports without a proper respect and appreciation for the lesson that should lie at the very heart of such activities in the first place — sportsmanship.

Flash Fiction Challenge Vanquished!

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Victory!

Here it is. Two days late, and weighing in at just over 4,000 words — instead of the requisite 2,000 — but otherwise just as the flash fiction challenge outlined. Namely:

Subgenre: Psychological Thriller

Setting: The Zoo

Conflict: Abduction

Aspect to Include: A rare bird

Theme: Chaos always trumps order

I hope you enjoy it and would love to chat about it here on-line should you have any questions or comments.

The story’s called Anhalter, and it goes like this.

ANHALTER

The Russians were almost here.

The news made the rounds of our small enclave in a matter of minutes. I could read the anxious expressions on the faces of the staff moving quickly through and out of our ward in waves. And old Herr Doktor Friedrich Otto Enders, perpetually weary, now bent almost double, the weight of the world, this strange looming apocalypse, fully upon him.

I was pleased, though I was careful to keep my feelings to myself, — I had been here long enough to know better than to expose any hint of emotion to the staff or to my fellow travellers in woe, the poor, inconsolable fools — and felt no small elation at Enders’ obvious discomfort.

The bastard. Herr Doktor Frederich Arschloch Enders, Direktor of the Die Drei Linden Sanatorium. At your service! How I loathed him. I wanted nothing more than for a wild Russian soldier to burst through the door at that very instant just so that I might have the opportunity to watch him die of a heart attack. Or better yet, of a rusty bayonet thrust deep into his gut. Twisted sharply — left then right — as Hermann, my darling Hermann, had once explained to me they had practiced in combat training before he too left me, and was then lost to me altogether at the hands of this insatiable war.  A swift rotation of the bayonet, counter-clockwise, then clockwise, managed double-duty: it further intensified the recipient’s gut wound and internal injuries while at the same time loosening the bayonet within its victim’s body so that it could be more easily withdrawn.

Wishful thinking or not, I prayed that Enders would suffer piteously at someone’s hands before this war rattled to a close, if, in fact, it was ever destined to do so. I had been at Linden since last March, more than a year at his mercy, kept from searching for my little Karl the entire time. Try as I might I had simply not been able to convince him that there was nothing wrong with me that couldn’t be set right if he would only grant me the freedom to find my son. Karl would be seven now, and every day behind these walls put him that much further away from me.

Would I ever be able to find him again, I wondered? The last I had seen of him was his small hand held out to me through the smoke and debris of the main concourse at the Anhalter Bahnof, the percussive blasts of the aerial bombardment sucking the air from our lungs. This was the first major bombing raid the Americans had carried out on central Berlin in some time, I later discovered from Doktor Enders, and one of the last significant raids of 1944. It was just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…

The wrong place at the wrong time.

That’s how Hermann would jokingly describe our first date, when people asked us how we met. He was certainly at the wrong place at the wrong time when the enemy artillery obliterated the defensive perimeter that his platoon had been holding on the outskirts of some god-forsaken Russian village. It seemed this whole disgusting war was one big wrong time, wrong place gaffe after another. With Hermann gone, all I had left left was my baby, my Karl. And all that stood between me and my son was that damnable Enders.

***

By morning they were gone. Enders, the nursing staff, the interns, the lot. They had left us to fend for ourselves, that much was clear. Bastards that they were, however, at least one among them still had enough of a conscience to leave the ward door unlocked and thus enable my liberation. Maybe Hegel, the janitor, or Nurse Klara, with her sad eyes and ever-present double-large crucifix.

It was still early, about 6:15 or so, and I was the first out. I had no idea how the others would fare, but left the heavy, rivet-studded metal door ajar for them in hopes they’d eventually determine the means of their own escape.

I had planned my exit from the centre for so long that I knew exactly where my next steps would take me. Given the administration wing was now empty, however, I undertook a preliminary detour which I had previously never imagined possible.

The door to Doktor Enders’ office lay partially ajar, and, inside, his once-neat office appeared in some disarray. He had obviously had only a short time to clean out what was most valuable to him in the room and then beat his retreat, along with the rest of the staff, before they felt the Russians were about to arrive. But I wasn’t worried about the mess and, instead, turned my attention to the row of filing cabinets flanking the far wall.  Each of the cabinets boasted a cleanly typed alphabetical index of what was contained therein. I stopped at the third cabinet labelled “Manheim-Petal, 1942 – ”. The drawer was fastened with a small brass lock on a clasp in the top corner. It soon yielded to several blows from a lead bookend in the shape of a globe that remained on the doctor’s desk.

I retrieved my file, “Necter, Anna Elisabeth, #72696 F, 23 March 1944,” and thumbed through it quickly. Nothing in it to suggest where Karl might be. Only admission forms, some financial statements from the Wehrmacht relating to payment of Hermann’s survivor benefits over to the hospital, a number of legal forms outlining the terms of my incarceration, and page after page of Enders’ notes from our sessions together. I read several of them, but they offered no new insight, and were redolent with Herr Doktor’s nonsense that Karl had been killed in the bombing raid at the train station.

I left the office, and then, after pilfering what few remaining bits of food were left in the kitchen — an ancient can of peaches in syrup that had fallen down behind one of the cupboards, a small, nearly empty bag of flour, and some mouldy chunks of cheese left unnoticed in the icebox — exited the hospital and headed west toward “Die Lodge”.

***

It was early April and the winter was lingering. I estimated that “Die Lodge” was about 15 kilometres to the west of the sanatorium where I had been detained. Another 20 kilometres beyond that, I knew, were the outskirts of Berlin proper — the Russians’ and, I assumed, the Allies’, final prize. Still, I knew if I could make it back to “Die Lodge,” Herr Drechsler would put me up and help me find Karl. But it was cold going and everyone I encountered seemed strangely feral, lost in their own panic. I kept to myself as I knew it would be unwise to trust anyone else — even if they would have been interested to hear my story in the first place.

When I gained the final bend in the road that opened onto the vista of the long winding approach to “Die Lodge,” my heart sank. The once-proud stone manor house now seemed fortified within an inch of its life by the Wehrmacht, as if the Germany Army had planned to stop the entire Russian advance in this very location.

The house, originally built as a hunting lodge in the late eighteenth century, had been in the Drechsler family for generations, and was surrounded by hundreds of acres of woodland. Amongst these acres was the family’s small, private zoo which housed, in its heyday, such diverse stock as deer, elk and moose, mountain goats, wolves, fox, otters, a selection of waterfowl and rare birds, and a prize brown bear, Ursula. Hermann had managed the zoo for Herr Drechsler, and I managed Hermann and Karl. At least, that is, until 1943, when the Drechslers began to feel it was ridiculous to maintain such an enterprise in the midst of total war. A war, furthermore, in which they could no longer prevent their young manager from being called up to fight.  Herr Drechsler had let Karl and I stay on in the small zookeeper’s cottage after Hermann’s death, but I soon grew lonely and determined to return to my family in the north. That’s why we were at the Anhalter Banhof when the bombs started to fall, and that’s how I got separated from Karl.

I should never have left the zoo.

I was ragged and dirty and very hungry as I approached the house. The defences seemed manned, alternately, by thin, wizened old men and fuzzy-faced adolescents, clumsy in the over-sized rough cloth of their grey battledress. I explained that I was looking for the master of the house and got passed along from one bewildered functionary to the next until it became clear to me that Drechsler and his family were no longer in residence and might, in fact, no longer be amongst the living.

My sobs and tears were enough to elicit a filthy old blanket and half a loaf of stale bread from the soldiers, but, against my protestations, I was quickly sent on my way.

Once I turned the corner of the long drive again, out of sight from the manor, I headed into the woods and towards the zoo.

***

Our old cottage was a wreck of twisted, blackened timbers and framing. In fact, there was an extensive swath of destruction right through the centre of the zoo compound that seemed to continue into the woods for hundreds of yards in either direction. It had obviously been destroyed by a bombing run of some sort. Hardly deliberate, I imagined. No doubt by a stray bomber that needed to shed its payload and gain some additional altitude in a hurry. Nobody died in this bombing run. Nothing had been killed here save for thousands of trees. The animals, and Karl and I, were already long gone by then, but the zoo was in shambles and I was again without shelter for a second night in a row.

As dusk fell, the cold mist that had held me in its icy grip throughout the day began to turn to a numbing, freezing sleet. If I stood here and continued to sob I would surely die and, if so beaten, I would never be able to find Karl again. In desperation I turned around and around trying to find any semblance of shelter. Nothing. The grey stared back at me. I closed my eyes…

SQUAAAWK! My eyes flew open again and, startled, I turned toward the somehow strangely-familiar screech. There, perched incongruously atop the ersatz rocky knoll at the centre of the now-dilapidated brown bear enclosure was one of the zoo’s former India Blue Peacocks, his iridescent tail erect in full mating array. His colour and plumage were mesmerizing against the ashen sky. But after an isntant, with a slight tilt of his head and a further squawk, the spell was broken.

I moved toward him, not really sure why at first. Maybe if I could get close enough to him I could kill him. And eat him. Raw if had to. I was that hungry that my mouth watered at the thought. Hermann would be ashamed of me.

I held the bird’s gaze, moving toward him, willing him not to bolt. By the time I made it to the base of the knoll, however, he was bored with me and shuffled off with impressive haste, awkwardly, imperiously, his petulant squawks fading into the nearby tree line as he was swallowed up by the forest. Leaving me alone again with my grey despair.

But like the mythic animals of yore, the bird had led me to my salvation, for here, in the overgrown brush at the base of the knoll was the gaping entry to the zoo’s former bear den. I fell to my hands and knees and crawled forward into the side of the hill. I fit through the opening easily and paused just inside this sort of preliminary entry tunnel, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom.

Thank heaven it wasn’t yet evening and and even the wet, grey light outside was sufficient to dimly illuminate the den in front of me.  It was bigger than I would have imagined, the size of an expansive drawing room, its domed roof cast out of concrete and with a raised ledge on the far wall, presumably a sleeping platform for its former lodgers.

Surprisingly there also seemed to be some evidence of human habitation. A small, rickety chair and a broken nursery table stood amidst a carpet of trampled-down straw to the left of the platform. I rose and walked toward the chair, moving my body out of the way of the entry tunnel to let as much light through as possible. Scattered around the straw appeared the humble treasures of a small boy. A rusty tin tobacco can filled with small chunks of pyrite, and two battered agates — one green and the other blue. Some sharpened, spear-like sticks, sundry bits of rope and twine, several battered toy soldiers with barely a remnant of their original paint finish intact, a broken compass and two ragged, dog-eared volumes of adventure stories.

I moved my back against the ledge and sat down. Without thinking I reached under the blanket which I still had wrapped around my shoulders and started to tear pieces of stale bread from the loaf the soldiers had given me and place them in my mouth. An idea started to coalesce in my mind while I chewed, but I din’t want to think it. Didn’t want to jinx it by giving it purchase…

Maybe my Karl has found his way back here as well.

***

When I opened my eyes the next morning I knew I hadn’t jinxed it at all. That Karl and I were obviously meant to be re-united again here at the zoo where we had been so happy together. I knew because there he was, sitting in the small chair, staring at me, waiting for me to wake up.

My heart felt like it was about to burst and I rushed toward him, throwing my arms around him, smothering him with kisses and nearly knocking him off the chair in the process.

“Karl!” I screamed, holding his wriggling body tightly against mine.“My darling boy. Mother’s here!”

He squirmed in my arms. Maybe he didn’t recognize me. It had been over a year after all, and he was only seven. I held him at arm’s length so he could look at me, recognize me.

He continued to maintain his struggle and eventually I had to slap him sharply to try to calm him down. His breath was coming so jaggedly, in sobbing convulsions, I thought he might choke. And the tears in his eyes were killing me.

What was the matter with him? He didn’t seem feverish, but he must be ill. It was as if he wasn’t himself. His eyes were big with fear when he looked at me and he kept mumbling about a boy named Erich who must have been somebody he met after we were separated at the train station because, as far as I knew, he never had a friend called Erich prior to that time.

Eventually he became so distraught I realized I would have to restrain him lest he hurt himself. I knew only too well the terror of restraint, but I had no other choice. What if he, in his frenzy, ran from the cave, away from me. I couldn’t bear to lose him again.

He struggled, but his small body was no match for mine and I soon had him fixed to the chair, tied fast with the bits of rope that had been strewn about on the floor of the cave.

“Karl,” I explained softly to him, “You’re not feeling well. Mother is here though, darling. Mother will make it better.”

I was tired again, and now, with Karl beside me once more, I felt truly ready for sleep for the first time since the bombing. I laid down in the straw, drew the dirty blanket over my shoulders and closed my eyes.

***

This time I awoke to the force of the blanket being ripped from me. Then I felt clumsy, strong hands start to yank at my skirt, trying to pull it down over my hips. As I rolled over to try to defend myself I glimpsed the filthy brown serge of a Russian uniform, then the dirty, stubbled face, the barred stained teeth, and the senseless eyes of the young soldier above me. I struggled, but it was no use — I was exhausted and he soon had me pinned. Angry and petrified as I was, I quickly realized that I needed to remain quiet, worried that screaming out might alert any of his comrades who happened to be nearby. And I dearly hoped they weren’t lined up outside the cave entrance, each waiting patiently to have their turn with me.

Karl was moving around in his chair, struggling with his restraints but thankfully turned at an oblique angle to me so he wouldn’t quite be able to make out what was going on. By now the Russian had given up trying to pull down my skirt and had pushed it up over my waist instead. He was awkwardly leaning all his weight on me to pin me down whilst simultaneously trying to open his flies and tear off my drawers at the same time. I could feel the warm tears running down the sides of my face and closed my eyes tightly against seeing any more of this agony unfold.

His rough woollen trousers scraped painfully against the inside of my legs, but just as I sensed he was about to enter me his body went slack and I heard a horrible moist “thwacking” sound — then again and again — followed by the feeling of the full force of his body against me like a dead weight.

My vision was obscured as I tried to open my eyes, my face now wet with something other than my own tears. I managed to free an arm from under the soldier who had had me pinned and wiped at my eyes in an attempt to discern what had happened. Standing above the Russian I saw man in work clothes holding a large jagged stone, covered with gore, and I immediately understood that he had just smashed in the head of the soldier who had been attacking me. I now understood why my face felt so wet and begin to retch. There was nothing in my belly to throw up, however, and all that happened is that I felt the bile raise painfully in the back of my throat.

The man with the rock was trembling, the rock still held up as if for another blow. “Scheisse,” I heard him mumbling under his breath, “Scheisse.”  He was dressed in farm clothing and about my age, a long forelock of lank blond hair hanging over his left eye as he murmured to himself above me. There was no arm in the left sleeve of his coat — the empty cloth of this sleeve was simply pinned up double at his elbow instead.

Karl is still struggling in his chair and both the one-armed man and myself seem to come to our senses at the same time. He puts down the rock, pulls the Russian’s body mostly off me with his one good arm and starts to untie Karl.

I slide out from underneath the Russian then roll away from him, standing up and pushing my skirt back down over my waist. I pick up the discarded blanket and try to wipe the gore off my face and out of my hair. The one-armed man is making surprisingly quick work of my knots given his obvious disability.

“Thank you,” I manage to croak. “Thank you for saving me and my son.”

He is working on the last knot and pauses for a instant to look, uncomprehendingly, over his shoulder at me. Soon that knot is slipped and Karl jumps into his arms and embraces him furiously. While Karl clings to him the man begins to unfasten the gag that I had been forced to use on him, my dear boy, to settle him down and stop his yelling.

“Thank you,” I begin again. “I have only just found my son again — this morning — after we were separated in a bombing raid last year. I can’t thank you enough from saving me from that…” My words trail off as I look down toward the body of the dead Russian.

Karl is sobbing and the man is looking at me, wide-eyed, as if he doesn’t understand German. But he does.

“What are you talking about woman?”

“My son, Karl,” I say, pointing to the boy. “He came back to me this morning. This is where we used to live.” I pause, I realizing how strange this must sound, then explain. “Not in the bear cave, of course, but here at the zoo. He remembered and came back to find me. But I had to tie him up so he wouldn’t wander out of the cave. He wanted to see his friend Erich, but the Russians are on their way.” I glanced down at the dead man on the floor between us — that much, at least, must be evident to him

The man man shook his head.

“This is Erich,” he spat back at me. “My son Erich.” Then he started to move toward the cave entrance, as if his crazy pronouncement had settled the whole thing.

But there was no way I was going to lose Karl again, and I flew at the man with what little strength I still possessed. I tried to wrestle Karl from him, but he was too powerful for me —even with only a single arm — and Karl still seemed to be clinging to him for some reason. Half way across the den he managed to throw me off and continue toward the entry.

But I simply wouldn’t lose my boy again. I couldn’t let that man take him from me.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Russian’s weapon discarded on the floor to my left.  I turned and picked it up quickly. It wasn’t exactly a rifle, in fact it wasn’t even Russian. It was German, a Schmeisser I think they called it. He must have looted it from one of our dead soldiers. I had no idea how to fire it. Did it have a “safety” like Hermann’s old hunting rifle, or a bolt that needed to be pulled back to make it fire? I had no idea and no time to think. The one-armed man was starting to bend forward to fit through the cave entrance.

I pointed the gun at his back.

He looked back over his shoulder at me and I closed my eyes and pressed the trigger.

The gunfire in the cave was deafening. The weapon jerked in my hand like an electric shock and bullets went everywhere. I had hoped to shoot the man in the back, but instead of a single shot the bullets flew from the gun in a wild torrent until I realized my mistake and took my finger off the trigger. I’m not sure how I wasn’t killed by the ricochets which seemed to rattle around the concrete cave for what seemed like seconds after I had stopped firing.

The one-armed man was now on the ground at the entry to the cave, crimson stains forming across the back of his his coat. Karl had been in front of him. Please, God, let him be alright, I prayed!

I threw down the gun and rushed to the cave entrance. The man was unquestionably dead, and I hurriedly tugged him out of the way by pulling him to the side by his good arm. Karl had been trapped beneath him and I had shot the man at such close quarters the bullets had ripped right through him and into my poor son’s tiny, young body.

How could I have lost him again? I turned him over gently and brushed the hair from his forehead. His shirt was wet with wounds and blood, like the body I had just pulled off him.

He, too, was dead, but as I stared into his face, I realized this was not my son at all. My heart broke for this poor, dead boy, but, in death, I could now see he was not my boy. Not my Karl.

The morning sun was pouring into the passage and I knew my son was still alive, waiting for me, out there, somewhere. I needed to find him. I crawled from the mouth of the cave, then stood up in the bright sunshine.

“Hold on, Karl,” I whisper to myself, adjusting my skirt and moving forward into the day. “Mother’s coming.”

The Death of Promise; or, I Was a Young Turk Once Too

London Calling. Summer 1985.

London Calling. Summer 1985.

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

The somewhat weary-looking young man posing in front of “Buck House” is, of course, yours truly. Sorry for the fuzzy image, but this was the pre-digital age, at least where consumer electronics were concerned. Nearly 30 years ago. Not sure how that’s possible, but, well, there you have it.

I stumbled upon this photo the other day when I was cleaning up from a small leak in my basement, because, hey, that’s how these things work: Freshman college kids run off to exotic locales to work(?) for the summer while, unimaginable years later, their slightly paunchier middle-aged doppelgängers mop up furnace rooms and generally putter around their homes trying to keep them in a fit enough state of repair to support human habitation.

Sorry, did that sound bitter? Every day above ground is a good day, I’ll admit, but, my, oh my, how our perspectives change over time.

This particular blog has been rattling around in my head since last summer — OK, probably well before that — when, on a fine July morning at the start of our family vacation, I found myself in a trendy coffee shop in downtown Ottawa, surrounded by a cadre of lithe, well-dressed / -coiffed / -shod teenagers. As I drank my small $3 cappuccino, however, observed their frenzied fingers assaulting innumerable BlackBerries and MacBooks, and caught a snippet of a few of the conversations emerging out of the general din, I soon realized these weren’t teenagers at all — these were the Young Turks of the sprawling federal government bureaucracy at the heart of the nation’s capital. Fresh faced, tireless, indestructible.

I suppose I had been a “playa” once too, a “contenda”. Hadn’t we all? Too naive to know our own limitations. What blissful ignorance — at least in peacetime. (In wartime, of course, that naiveté is frequently a death sentence, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). Quitting jobs with nary a second thought, ‘cause, hey, I’m wasn’t about to do that for another 40 years. Seeking the unique, the novel, at every turn, since I certainly wasn’t going to get trapped in a rut for the rest of my life. I had it figured out. I had it goin’ on!

Not that I want to get all nostalgic here. I’m not so old that I can’t still remember the agonies of those days as well. Residual teen-age acne and far fewer “friends with benefits” than I felt were my due. No real security — other than the resilience of one’s youth — if you made truly poor choices; very little respect for whatever it was you were doing — because you hadn’t earned any yet; and the nearly visceral fear that you’d get it wrong when you were finally backed into the corner and compelled to make the “big” choices.

The difference between now and then, however, is that then, more often than not, you swallowed your fear and actually jumped. No guts, no glory. Maybe you drew on that childhood memory of the time you screwed up your courage and flung yourself off the really high-diving board — and lived. Or when you asked that super-popular girl to the dance. She declined, but your heart didn’t cease to beat and you haven’t been living as a hobo under a bridge ever since. You closed your eyes and took the plunge.

Now, of course, you own the rut, or, more accurately, you have a mortgage on it. But what other choice do you have? There’s simply too much at stake now, too much too lose. When I lived on campus during a couple of my university years, I often used to go for a Sunday night walk around the residential part of the city that flanked the campus to try to clear my head for the upcoming week. Here, in the evening darkness, I would  stare longingly at the complacent single-family homes with their decorative shrubbery and well-tended lawns and think to myself, would I ever get there? Would I ever be rid of these days of constant psychic anxiety, of exams and terms papers, of loneliness and striving, always striving? Well, flash forward: here I am. Be careful what you wish for…

Somehow, though, my thesis isn’t hanging together here as neatly as I had anticipated. I know I’m being inconsistent. Leading with the premise that our unsullied youth represents the proverbial high-water mark in our lives, then quickly backing away that idea at the same time. Peel back the layers, I guess, and maybe we start to wonder whether there’ll ever be a time when we’re truly comfortable in our skins, when our reach no longer exceeds our grasp. The worst thing in the world is not getting what you want; the second worst thing, damnably, is getting it.

Like any other component of our fragile psyche, our identification with our youthful selves is, doubtless, a complex one. For most of us, there probably remains something “golden” about these years — whether real or garnished by nostalgia. More than anything I imagine this can be attributed to all the latent potential we retrospectively ascribe to the pulsating firmament of our youthful selves. We tell our children, and our parents probably told us, “Dream big. You can do whatever you want.” And maybe before we leave middle school — statistically at least — this is not exactly un-true. With each passing year, and every consummated choice, however, we are further constrained, our options further limited, our selves somehow reduced. As philosopher and Harvard professor Roberto Unger puts it in a podcast lecture I stumbled upon the other day:

We cannot be everything in the world. We must chose a path. And reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.

Later on, as adults, we struggle in the world and against it. We settle into a way of living and of doing. A mummy begins to form around each of us, diminishing our reach and our vision by accommodating them to our circumstance. We begin to die many small deaths. Our aim should be to die but once.

“Beyond the Small Life: A Letter to Young People” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdb-GTjggTg)

Admittedly, I seem to have now passed over into that potentially distressing phase of life during which I can genuinely commiserate with such banal “man-o-pause” compulsions as trying to snag that classic red Corvette or the big chrome-plated Harley before it’s too late (though I hope I’ll never be old enough to understand why anybody thinks a “comb over” is a good idea). And I grapple with the challenge of trying to apprehend the age-related constraints of personal potential as a constant companion in my writing. With this in mind I’ll go so far as to give over the closing credits of this blog to my fiction-writing self. Here, our unnamed protagonist, in a work-in-progress novella provisionally entitled Still Life, is staring at himself in the mirror before his morning shave, wondering what exactly happened to his own Young Turk self:

Like Coleridge, awakened by a traveling salesman before his reveries in Xanadu were complete, it would dawn on him that the dream from which he had awoken and to which he would never again return was youth itself. But, by this point in his life, he knew the game was rigged. That it had always been so, and that it would continue to be so. By the time you figured out how to play, you had already lost and there was no possibility for a make-up match. Youth, as the old saying goes, is wasted on the young. And yet there could never be an effective method to offer it up to the old. The elders, in their wisdom, wouldn’t waste it — and, if not wasted, it could hardly be considered youth at all, could it? That was the catch. The ultimate cosmic “Fuck you!”