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Archive for the ‘comedy’ Category

I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.

That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.

That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.

I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.

It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.

I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.

After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.

Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.

Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.

It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi  and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.

Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.

On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.

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A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Amanda Palmer concert with a neighbor. He kept worrying that he would be the oldest person there – a concern that never occurred to me, although I am several years older than him. The truth is, working in tech makes me more comfortable with younger people than those my own age, who often seem stodgily suspicious of anything new. However, changing my main online photo tonight forces me to confront the fact that I’m aging, just like everyone else.

Few people, I suspect, can look at their own picture without feeling uncomfortable. Part of the reason is that most people’s self-image is always several years behind their actual age. Another reason is that all of us are most familiar with our mirror images, which of course are reversed. For both these reasons, a picture never looks quite right. The most we can hope for is that any given picture doesn’t make us squirm too much. Personally, I prefer to play the coward, allowing pictures of myself at only long intervals.

Anyway (I always grumble), people take far too many pictures of themselves, thanks to digital cameras. Keep your life undocumented, and at least you can busy yourself with living it. Spending all your time recording is more meta – and more trouble – than I care to for.

Still, I’ve been aware for a couple of years now that my picture needed updating. One of my regular publishers offered to pay for an update, and even that wasn’t enough for me to brave the ordeal of picture-taking. Then I thought I’d wait until I recovered from last year’s knee injury and had some faint whimper of fitness. Eventually, I just put if off, putting off the moment of truth like Kipling’s Queen Elizabeth psyching herself to look into her looking glass.

But today I felt braver than usual. I finally had a neighbor snap a dozen shots against the nearest neutral background. It wasn’t the best time to do so: I’d been several hours out in the sum, so my face was red and blotched. My ears looked as though I had folded them up and used them as a makeshift pillow the previous night. My eyebrows were so pale that most of them were invisible, and the angle of my head makes me look like I have a double-chin and shows that I could do with a shave.

As for the wrinkled neck and piggy eyes, please don’t get me started. I could go on and on – but I see I already have.

Yet, as uncomfortable as the picture makes me, I couldn’t mistake those escaped hairs dangling in the middle of my forehead. But at least my hairline was no higher than in my last picture, and I’ve finally aged enough that my face gives an illusion of character. To me, anyway, I look guarded, maybe politely skeptical. Either seems an improvement over the terminally gormless look of most of the pictures through my life.

I still have no idea how representative the picture is. But, all in all, I could do worse. Before I could change my mind, I updated all my online profiles. I now propose to forget what I look like for another few years, remaining blissfully ignorance of how I am changing and averting my eyes from even the vaguest possibility of a reflection that might confront me with the truth.

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Being a compulsive exerciser, I am as familiar with injury as with the feel of my fingers on the keyboard. But a combination of genetics, habits, and luck make illness strange to me. Once every three or four years, a ‘flu might lay me low, but usually my body goes into hyperdrive and after a couple of days of constant naps and eating everything in the kitchen, I’m fully recovered. So, when an illness persists, I’m like a toddler – I feel it all the more because I have so little with which to compare it, and never more than now that I’m living by myself.

On those rare occasions, my ambitions are reduced to sprawling on the bed like a particularly unappetizing piece of jetsam (or is it flotsam? I can never be sure which is which), gently bemoaning my condition and trying not to sound as sorry for myself as I actually am. I pile some light series of books on the bed like the Scholar’s Mistress in Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and alternate between dozing and reading, feeling like I’m imposing on everyone around me because I’m not up and going about my daily routine.

In fact, I can get decidedly tetchy when I’m ill. I’m too solidly middle-class to enjoy being waited on, and I can’t help thinking I have no right to be the focus of so much of anyone’s attention (I have the same problem in restaurants, too, which is why my guilty reflex is always to over tip, no matter how poor the service). What I really want is to be left behind a closed door, and every five hours or so someone’s head on an angle between the door and the frame to check – preferably without speaking – that I don’t need to be rushed to emergency.

Meanwhile, I can lie back and read until my eyeballs ache, until I see the formula in the series and start inventing the last in the seemingly endless series that I happen to be reading, such as Sharpe’s Enema or Continuity Editor of Dune, all of which strike as much funnier at the time than they do now.

With this attitude, I would probably drive anyone with an instinct to nurse into a berserker frenzy. Fortunately, that’s not the type of person who tends to be my life for long.

But a few days ago, when poor air quality threatened to burst my sinuses like over-pressurized inner tubes and I felt about as hearty as Samson after his last haircut, I could have used even a nurse around the house. It was only the second time I had been ill since I was widowed, and I couldn’t just focus on getting better. I had pets to feed. For that matter, I had myself to feed, although I had an only theoretical interest in the subject. Even cutting back on all but the minimum of daily chores, I still had dishes that need washing, and laundry to put away.

I suppose I could have abandoned all these things except feeding the pets, but then the rising piles of dishes and dirty clothes would have accused me of being untrue to some neurosis no doubt carved into my psyche along with toilet training, nagging me until I attended to them anyway. So, I coughed and wheezed, and slithered from beneath the sheet, flopping like a deboned salmon, and did them anyway.

It wasn’t in any way heroic. But it was necessary. And I soon learned two things: First, living alone is not so bad when everything is going well. But in domestic crisis, having nobody except myself to rely on is unsettling (I do have friends and neighbors, but not wanting to be a nuisance, I forget to ask for help until I no longer need any). Second, I now strongly suspect that I was not nearly as easy to have sick around the place as I always imagined, and was, in fact, as self-indulgent, unceremoniously dumping daily chores on whoever was around at the time.

I’m coming slowly out of hyperdrive now, with a renewed interest in food and only the occasional bits of phlegm coughed up to remind me of what I’ve been through. But I think I’ll see what I can do to make my intervals between illnesses even longer than they are. A few days to recover may be efficient, but they are a self-indulgence I can no longer afford.

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Most of my friends claim to have had a harrowing time at high school. They complain about being picked on by teachers, bullied by older students, hopeless at sports, and stressed by a combination of part-time jobs and homework. They paint such a Dickensian scene of horror that I feel ashamed to admit that my main complaints about high school was that it went on too long and taught me lazy habits.

The truth is, I never had any serious problems at school. I may have been good at academics (in fact, I won one of the two major scholarships the year I graduated), but I was also a minor sports star, scoring regularly in rugby, and winning races and setting records on the track and in cross-country races. If I became increasingly solitary as high school dragged on, it was because of my growing realization that I had little in common with those around me. Nobody was going to bother me, because until I stopped growing at fourteen, I was big for my age, and afterward I carried myself like a big man, and looked fit enough to cause anyone who went after me some grief.

The result of all this was that I was left to do more or less as I pleased. Teachers trusted me, and my running especially gave me respect, and most people left me alone. The only exceptions were the boys who responded sarcastically to everyone, and I had no trouble answering them in kind.

The only trouble was, I was ready to leave about Grade 10. I realized that to do any of the things I wanted to do, I would need to graduate, but all I could really do was endure and try to appreciate the fact that these would be last years free of serious responsibilities. So I kept to my routine of study and training for running, mooned about over one girl after another, and waited for it all to be over. I was bored, and I knew it.

In fact, my boredom was responsible for one of the few times a teacher kept me after class. Warming up for typing class, I had written “B—–O—–R—–E—–D!!!!!” repeatedly across my page, and, the next class, the teacher decided to admonish me. “You’re bored before the class even starts,” she said, in an accusing tone, as though I had been caught stealing the principal’s day book. After enduring a rambling lecture about how I had the wrong attitude, I muttered something about it being a joke and slunk away as soon as I could.

By Grade 12, I would take any excuse possible for getting away from school early. I would use my free period to go for a run, especially if it fell just before lunch or the last period of the day. I didn’t bother to attend graduation – officially because the girl with whom I was currently infatuated had moved back to her small town and I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but truthfully because I didn’t care.

For the last six weeks of the year, I even had permission to skip most of my classes to study for the government scholarships. The suggestion was taken by the councilors as an important step in my maturity, although they insisted that I keep attending French class, where my struggle with boredom was causing my grades to slip. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get out of classes altogether, but decided to be satisfied with what I could get. By the day of the graduation ceremony, I was already mentally far removed, and thinking of my planned trip to visit my far-away infatuation (which, needless to say, ended badly)

So, no, I can’t say I suffered much in high school, inflicting boredom not usually being regarded as cruel. But, years later, I realized that, in another respect, high school had failed me badly.

In those days, no students skipped grades. It was thought better to keep students with their peer groups. And if that meant that I mooched around a year of Community Recreation as the class loner because I had nothing in common with the rest of the class, that was supposed to somehow help me socialize into a normal North American man – something I was already resolved not to become.

Nor were there any enrichment classes to speak of. The closest equivalent was the Humanities program I took for two years, which was delightfully free-form, but meant that I had to fill many of the gaps in my education – Macbeth, for instance– for myself.

But the point was, there was nothing to challenge me, a fact that I always thought said more about the curriculum than about any brilliance in me. For two years, I drifted along bored, not trying nearly as hard as I could have. In the end, I developed a lack of self-discipline in everything except running, and had to scramble during my first semester at university to learn some proper study habits. Far from preparing me for anything, what high school really did was encourage me to take everything far too easy..

Still, after all these years, in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone else for my own shortcomings, not even a conveniently vague system or spirit of the times. So when someone else starts bemoaning the terrors of their high school years, I listen attentively and make suitable noises at suitable intervals until an opportunity to change the subject arises. My fear is that someone will learn that I lack the requisite background of torment, and consequently don’t qualify as any sort of geek at all.

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I never have learned how to accept compliments gracefully. With insults, I know where I”m at; self-defense kicks in and I turn icily cold and dryly cutting. But one enthusiastic word, even from a lover, and a blush warms my cheeks and I start to stammer.

Part of my difficulty is that compliments are rarely delivered at the time of whatever they are praising. Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to some other project. I’m no longer engaged by whatever is being complimented, so much so that it could almost have been done by someone else.

That is especially true when someone compliments a piece of my writing. The facts that I crammed into my short-term memory and the arguments to structure them are no longer there, having been nudged aside by the facts and arguments for the next piece that I’m doing. I imagine that writers on tour to promote a book they finished a year ago must feel the same way.

Another part of my difficulty is that I am convinced that compliments are not healthy for me. I know that those delivering the compliment are being enthusiastic or polite, but part of me regards their kind words as the equivalent of a plate of cinnamon buns that’s being pushed under my nose – however enticing, the compliments seem unhealthy, like far too much of a good thing.

But the main reason I squirm is because of a bit of my own hypocrisy. From all my childhood heroes from King Arthur to Robin Hood, I’ve learned that modesty about my own accomplishments is a virtue (an attitude that makes my years as a marketing consultant more than a little inexplicable).

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help hoping that someone is noticing those accomplishments. Receiving a compliment forces me to confront this contradiction – and, since I am even poorer at lying to myself than I am at receiving a compliment, the whole experience leaves me in confusion.

While part of me thinks that I shouldn’t enjoy the compliment, another part of me is secretly wallowing in delight. Since the two impulses are completely irreconcilable, what I really want to do is make my escape as quickly as possible.

Tell me that learning to accept compliments is part of being an adult, and I would agree with you. But in practice, I’ve never achieved complacency. The best I can manage is a “Thank you” that would rival the Duke of Wellington for curtness, followed by a quick change of subject.

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I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee

-Robert Stanley Weir and others

Some of my favorite pieces of literary criticism are Robert Graves’ line by line readings of famous poems. Often, Graves proves to his satisfaction, as well as mine, that the poem under scrutiny is not a masterpiece, but poorly thought out and incompetently rendered. The same can be said of Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada!” – which is hardly a surprise, because few if any national anthems are meant to do anything more than rouse a moment or two of cheap sentiment in those who happen to live in the country.

You know right from the start that Canada’s anthem is in trouble, because it starts with a vocative sentence. This is trouble because the vocative is so rarely used today that few people except Latin scholars understand that the first sentence is addressed directly towards Canada. So far as most people understand the sentence, they usually think it starts with a sigh, as though the speaker’s emotions about Canada are so strong that they can’t resist a wordless exclamation — an interpretation that hardly seems justified by what follows.

Not that there is much meaning to destroy. The song is addressing the country in the abstract – a mawkish approach, but one that, in a spirit of generosity, I have to admit is too common a poetic convention to reject. But what do the singers say to this great abstraction? It tells Canada to command loyalty from all those who are born there – and I think I have to be forgiven for wondering just how the singers’ pious wish will affect the matter in any way whatsoever. You might as well tell the waves that it’s fine with you that they continue hitting the beaches.

Then there’s the exclamation point at the end of the line – the first of four in ten lines. This is another unpromising sign, since the over-use of exclamation points is always a sure of sign that the speaker is trying to whip up some excitement while saying something unoriginal or dull.

And sure enough, the next line is a redundancy with another exclamation mark added in the hopes of adding some dignity to the sentiment. The only reason, of course, for the redundancy of “home and native” is that the writer of the words didn’t know what else to add that fitted the music.

But it gets worse as the song continues. What, I wonder, is “true patriot love?” How is it different from false patriot love (perhaps that of those who come “from far and wide” below)? More filler, followed by the unnecessary sexism of “in all thy sons command.” At least twice in my life time, feminists have tried to change the line to something like “in every child command,” only to be met by outrage, as though the English words had not been changed several times, and several different unofficial versions exist.

Struggling on, I suppose we have to bear “with glowing hearts.” After all, we are in the realm of patriotic doggerel, where the participles fly thick and fast, streaming and gleaming and beaming. For some reason, “ing” at the end of enough words lulls us into a sort of drowsy acceptance of whatever else follows. And I have to say that, after “glowing,” I am not surprised to see the line end with “thee,” an archaicism completely out of keeping with the rest of the poem and useful only in efforts to elevate a trite idea. Basically, the line is saying, “We’re proud to see you develop as a nation,” only much less clearly.

As for “True North,” I suppose that is supposed to mean “faithful,” and to refer to Canada’s position as a former colony that is still on good terms with the mother country (It almost assuredly doesn’t mean that Canada is the location of True North for navigators). But “North,” alone, leaves Canada defined entirely by geography – an all too common occurrence that makes the place sound about as exciting as a mound of three month old snow on the curb.

And don’t get me started on “strong and free.” The last time that Canada could defend its own borders was in World War Two. Very likely, that was the only time. The history of the country can be neatly summarized as, “Era of French Domination, Era of English Domination, Era of American Domination.” To say the least, it’s incongruous for a satellite country to be describing itself as either “strong” or “free.”

Next up is one of the more recent bits of editing, “from far and wide.” Most likely, it was added to acknowledge the number of immigrants in the last few decades. But how do you reconcile this line with “home and native land?” If you’re born in the place, you don’t come from “far and wide,” and if you do come “from far and wide,” then Canada isn’t your “native” land.

Even more importantly, how do you “stand on guard” “from far and wide?” It sounds as physically impossible as some of the awkward poses of female super heroes on the covers of comic books. Anyway, as I said, Canada has rarely been able to defend itself, never mind against whom (perhaps the Americans buying up our corporations?).

Even to the composer, the jumble of thought is too much. Another vocative and another “thee” are thrown in, with God and another mention of freedom added to the mix as well, all in the impossible hope that an elevated mess can be mistaken for something meaningful.

Unfortunately, this mishmash and all the efforts to play on listeners’ emotions don’t lead anywhere, so the ending is problematic, All that can be done is to repeat what has already been said. That’s not a bad trick if you have something rousing to say, but here it falls flat. That’s probably why, any time you ever hear “O Canada” there is always an uneasy silence and an almost audible shuffling of feet: there’s nothing is nothing to indicate that the mercifully brief ordeal is over.

Someone – I forget who – once said that more Canadians of my age knew the words to the opening of The Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour than knew the words to “O Canada.” That was mainly a reference to the number of changes that have been made to the anthem in our lifetimes. It may have referred, too, to the fact that, to many Canadians, overt displays of patriotism are embarrassing.

But I think that it also has something to do with the fact that the national anthem is rarely comprehensible for more than two or three words at a time. It is difficult to remember words you don’t understand – just try memorizing a dozen lines in a language you don’t understand if you don’t believe me.

You don’t expect original or deep thought in an anthem. But is basic literacy too much to ask? At least “The Maple Leaf Forever,” for all that it ignores the Quebecois and First Nations, makes literal sense. But Canada’s anthem, I’m ashamed to say, is almost entirely nonsensical and border-line illiterate. It only really serves its purpose when the music is played without the words. With the words, it’s either confusing or embarrassing.

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