On Thursday, April 10 I gave a public lecture-slash-reading at St. Mary’s University College where I am an instructor as well as Writer in Residence.
Readers of this blog might remember I wrote about the role of serendipity in my life in a post called Brahms, Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations in January, 2012. Obviously, it’s a subject I’ve given some though to over the years and I’m looking forward to the opportunity of expounding on it further.
While the events of the Brahms, etc. post made up a small part of my talk, I focused more broadly on the role of serendipity in my life as an artist, how I ended up writing plays, how I ended up in Calgary and at St. Mary’s University College.
It’s hardly been a straight line, to put it mildly. It’s really been a long, strange journey, as they say, aided and abetted by luck, chance, circumstance and the many wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with along the way.
Without giving the whole thing away, here’s how I thought my talk was going to begin:
Not so long ago I was at a dinner party being hosted by a friend of mine, Marc, a very intelligent and worldly man, a professor at the U of C, originally from Belgium. (A friend of famous chocolatier Bernard Callebaut, in fact the condo where this meal took place once belonged to BC.) Mark’s wife, Susanne, is also intelligent and worldly – and beautiful, I might add. She comes from Sweden. On the evening in question, we were welcoming a visiting mathematician from Germany named Charly, and so over the course of the evening we would shift from French to German to English. (I become much more fluent in all three languages after a few glasses of wine.)
At one point in the evening I mentioned the term “serendipity,” and was surprised that Marc and Susanne weren’t familiar with the term. (Charly knew it well — in fact, it is even one of his favourite English words.) But Marc and Susanne had never heard the word before, in any language. Dictionaries were procured – Flemish, French, Dutch, Swedish and German, but none made any reference to this term that I am reasonably sure any native English speaker would be quite familiar with.
As you know, the English language is comprised of words that originate from many different sources, including Greek, Latin, German and French – to name but a few. And then of course there are the pure Anglo-Saxon words which tend to describe everyday things such as blood, winter and even dickhead – all of these words appeared in the deep mists of time and we don’t really know where they come from.
In the case of “serendipity,” however, unlike most of the words we use in English, we do know exactly where it came from and we even know its birthday . . .
As it turned out, I had far too much material for the hour or so I had been allotted, so this famous passage never was read. But I did talk about various sequences of events in my life that looking back now are down right improbable, and I think everyone who attended came away with just how tenuous a career in the arts can be.
I typed up my thoughts but it became far too long a document to share on here. Still, if you’re interested in what I had to say, let me know and I can email you a copy of my notes.
As usual, thanks for reading. And Charly, I hope you’re happy now . . .
This song really has nothing to do with anything, I just happen to like it.
It’s not heaven, it’s the old Met Grill. I like the colour of the lights
Ask any writer and he’ll tell you, or she’ll tell you, that beginnings are easy but endings can be brutally difficult. I was thinking of this last week in regards to the final scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life. I don’t know if it was tragic, exactly. I suppose there can be tragic accidents. Certainly it was messy and far from elegant. And so very sad. Not at all the kind of ending anyone would want for their worst enemy, let alone an artist who touched so many lives during his wonderful career.
17 years ago or so, Phil, as I knew him, and I both ended up at a play-reading marathon sponsored by the Manhattan Class Company, which took place at an old monastery on the far end of Long Island. (That I got a ride out there with the amazing Kathleen Chalfant is another story entirely. What a truly beautiful woman she is. That was a brush with greatness like no other.)
At that time, Phil and I were near, at least, the beginnings of our careers. I had had a couple of hits in Calgary, and those plays were being done in other theatres across the land. I thought I had done well to get the attention of a New York theatre and an invitation to such an event. I was there with my play A Guide to Mourning. Phil, who was certainly in the ascendancy of his career, was cast as Rex in my play, a down-on-his-luck-but-loveable-loser-of-no-fixed-address character who comes back to the family home on the occasion of his father’s death. (The play is published in Two Plays by Eugene Stickland by Red Deer College Press.)
Well, if you know his work, you would know such a role wasn’t too big a stretch for Phil. He actually looked the part. He gave a wonderful reading, and genuinely seemed to like the play. I always hoped that the company would produce it and get Phil to play the part, but for a number of reasons (which I never really understood), that never came to be.
Over the course of that weekend, we heard a number of plays read. We lived rather communally in the monastery, taking our meals together and generally getting to know one another. It was really a magical event in my life.
(Isn’t it strange to think how in only ten years, Facebook has changed our ability to stay in touch with one another after such events have ended. “I’ll add you on Facebook,” we say, and we do. But back then, people didn’t really expect to stay in touch, and we didn’t. I only retained one friend from that weekend, a director from New York. We still stay in touch, but not on Facebook, by email. Oh, and I once emailed Kathleen, and she even remembered me and wrote back.)
On any account, back on Long Island, in the evenings, we would haul a big metal tub full of ice and beer down to the water’s edge and there we would congregate around a bonfire as the sun went down and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean washed up on shore.
Well, I’m not the kind of person to leave when there is still beer in the tub, so to speak, and neither was Phil. For at least two nights, we were the last two standing, or sitting, probably, enjoying a few beers and some conversation under the canopy of stars after all the others had gone off to bed.
It was just the way it would be between two guys, a writer and an actor, say, just hanging out. He was hardly famous at the time, although soon to be so. And I was just a playwright from a city in Canada that some of those New Yorkers had never even heard of. We weren’t out to impress each other. We were just chillin’, in the best sense of the word. I’m not saying he was my best friend, just that for that brief period of time we got to hang out together, I genuinely liked him. He was a good guy. His death saddened and somehow diminished me. I know so many people who feel the same.
Sometime after I got home, back in the day when I was still married, my wife, Carrie, was watching a movie on tv. I walked through the room and wasn’t I surprised to see Phil on the screen? And so I said, “Hey, that’s Phil!”
She looked at me rather coldly and said, “Phil? That’s not Phil. That’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.” I had never known his full name, or if I had, I had forgotten it. So I said, “Whatever you want to call him, he and I drank a mess of beers on Long Island last year.”
End of conversation.
So it seemed that Phil had gone his way, obviously right to the top. I returned to Canada and we produced A Guide to Mourning at Alberta Theatre Projects with Dennis Fitzgerald playing the part of Rex. Dennis was every bit as good as Phil had been in the role. And come to think of it, Dennis and I drank a whole mess of beers together, too! Our production even won some awards and the play went on to be produced a number of times, mostly in Canada, but never in New York.
Throughout the intervening years, I saw so many examples of Phil’s escalating fame, and I was so happy for him. While he was becoming a household name and a true celebrity, my life didn’t really change that much. I was a father, still am. (A good father, not such a great husband.) I taught. I kept writing plays. I wrote for a newspaper for five years. Now I’m waiting for another new play to get produced (it will be my 19th) and have started work on a new new play. I’m writing a novel. I’m writing this blog. But I don’t really expect any of these things to change my life or lead to the kind of fame that Phil had.
Admittedly, over the years, when I struggled to pay my rent, there were times when I must have envied Phil and his flirtation with what Tennessee William called “the bitch-goddess, success.” But now I just feel bad for the ending that he had and I realize that I don’t have it so bad myself. It reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.”
And so, bereft of fame and fortune which so far have eluded me (especially fortune), I will soldier on, towards what ever end awaits me. I don’t mind if it doesn’t come anytime soon, as I feel I still have much work to do. But whenever it comes, I will hope for a better ending than Phil got for himself.
Thanks for reading . . .
Here’s the best song there is about it.
I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.
Last weekend I gave a reading and conducted a workshop at the Rascals, Rogues and Outlaws Writers’ Conference presented by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and the University of Saskatchewan at the U of S in Saskatoon. My fellow readers were novelists Catherine Bush from Toronto and Rosemary Nixon from Calgary (currently living in Saskatoon) and poet Alex Porco who now hangs his hat in North Carolina. I believe we all acquitted ourselves admirably and those in attendance seemed to come away with something to think about. Maybe even some of them were inspired by what they saw on stage to go home and take another shot at writing the Great Canadian Novel.
Beyond the conference itself, the weekend hit at me at a deeper level, at more or less a patriotic or nationalistic level, as for me in going back to Saskatchewan, I was going back home. Of course I’m from Regina, the Capitol, the Athens of Saskatchewan, and as such am normally bound by the traditions of the province to sneer at Saskatoon, but in this instance I was only too happy to dispense with that rather empty ritual. (Just this once, mind you.)
I am of the finest Saskatchewan pedigree. My father’s people came over from England in the very early days of the 20th Century. Grandpa, whom I never met, set up a forge in the bucolically-named town of Maryfield in the south-eastern part of the province. My mother’s people had homesteaded around the same time in the Alsask region. My grandma and grandpa eventually bought a farm in the Broadview area and that’s where my mother was raised.
My mom’s dad, William Hunter, was said to have been a mover and a shaker in the formation of the CCF Party, precursor to the NDP. I once heard a rumour that the Regina Manifesto was actually typed on his typewriter, but I have no way of proving that. You can see I came by my politics honestly.
By the time my sister and brothers and I came along, our mom and dad were living in the old north end of Regina, in the shadow of Taylor Field. Well, two blocks away. When they moved in, it was a prosperous working class (with pretensions to middle class) neighbourhood. By the time they moved out, down to the south end, it was called by Maclean’s Magazine the worst neighbourhood in Canada. Well, things change.
When I was in university, at the University of Regina, I was a pretentious, mustachioed, tweed-clad, pipe-smoking twit with no greater dream than to get the hell out of Regina and move to Toronto. And I did that. I went to York University and got myself an MFA in playwriting and dramaturgy at York University.
It grieves me, as a westerner at heart, to say that I had a great time in Toronto and that I believe it’s one of the best cities anywhere, in any country. But it really is a wonderful place, at least it was back in the ‘80’s. And yet, I looked around me one day, actually I looked above me, and I couldn’t see the sky, and I realized I hadn’t seen it for some time. So I moved back home in the late 1980’s. Really, on account of the sky.
I tried to make a go of it, but those were disasterous times for Saskatchewan economically. I tried to make it but I just couldn’t. So when I had an offer to have a play of mine produced in Calgary, I did like hundreds of thousands (yes, literally) of my fellow Saskatchewanians have done over the decades and took the Trans Canada west to Calgary. And here I have been now for 20 years.
Where does the time go?
Coming to Calgary led to two of the best writing gigs in the country, at the time. First, as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects and then as a feature columnist for the Calgary Herald. (Sadly, neither really exists anymore, in quite the same way. This blog is in many ways a continuation of that column. I haven’t figured out how to get them to pay me for it, though.)
When I began at the Herald, my publisher told me there are over 300,000 people in Calgary originally from Saskatchewan. It’s often referred to as Saskatchewan’s biggest city. “So govern yourself accordingly,” he said. And I did. I wrote primarily to a Saskatchewan audience. Well, pan-prairie on any account. But don’t get me wrong. I never would have had the type of career I’ve had if I hadn’t come to Calgary when I did. I was in the right place at the right time.
I have many good friends in Calgary and I love the city. It drives me nuts sometimes, but any city will do that. It’s a great city, a great place to live. After all, 300,000 of us Saskatchewan immigrants can’t be wrong.
Still, in going back to the homeland, something tugs at the heartstrings, some kind of inherent sense of kinship, of belonging, that exists quite beneath the realm of thought or awareness. I suppose no matter where you grew up, you feel it when you get back to your original home.
It’s healthy, I think, to celebrate that feeling. I always say, if you want to know where your home is, look at your health card. That will tell you all you need to know. But when I look to my heart, I know that my true home will always lie a few hundred miles east of here.
There’s a poem that I made from a monologue from a play of mine that I meant to read on the weekend, but that I never got around to. Don’t worry, I’m not about to keel over and die, at least I hope not, but the poem sums up the elegiac feeling I’m referring to. So here it is again. (Looking over at my poetry page, I am reminded I read this as part of my eulogy for my mother at her funeral a few years back.)
It’s an issue of space.
You start out on the farm,
That great, vast prairie
To run and tumble in
The endless horizon
And the great dome of the sky
But your mother calls you back
Back into the house
And it’s a big fine house
With many rooms
Sheltering a family, a home.
And then you muddle around and
The space around you expands and
Contracts to the seasons of your life
Yet at a certain point
You feel the walls begin
To close in around you
From a house
To an apartment
To a room in a home
You are left
In just the smallest of spaces
A wooden box
And the prairie opens up
And you are lowered down into it
The circle complete.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s my old buddy Jack Semple, one of Saskatchewan and Canada’s finest musicians. This is from the Ironwood here in Calgary, but he still lives back home. We went to Scott Collegiate together, back in the day.
An arty shot I took of downtown Calgary. The Calgary tower was originally known as the Husky Tower, emblematic of the importance of the oil and gas industry in the city.
Neil Young and his Honor the Treaties tour is moving west, arriving in Calgary this Sunday evening. The tour has certainly opened a conversation here in the heart of oil country, and in my own case, raises questions about the sponsorship of the arts, and in some cases of individual artists, by companies in, as it is known out here, the oil patch.
This is a topic rarely discussed by artists, other than privately, over a few beers, as it speaks to an uneasy tension that we have learned to live with – the need for funding for expensive art forms such as theatre on one hand, and on the other, an uneasy and growing awareness that this money represents some very serious devastation of the environment, especially in the Fort McMurray area in the northern part of Alberta. Not to mention the ongoing and similarly uneasy tension between oil companies and first nations people in the area.
It’s a balance that is so delicate that it is rarely “officially” spoken of by artists; nor is it often dealt with as content for artistic expression. I can attest to this. I set a play of mine, Midlife (2002) in the corporate offices of a Calgary oil company, but it was hardly critical of the industry.
Except I have to admit that the play contains this speech, made by Jack who is an oil company executive to explain (lie) to his wife why he is coming in at 5:00AM:
There was a situation . . . A crisis. Yeah. There was a crisis. In production. That sounds reasonable. A crisis in production. International implications. A corrupt dictatorship. Violations of human rights all over the place. Atrocities. They hung a poet. Same old story . . .
An oblique reference to Ken Saro-Wiwa that probably got a laugh. Although obviously meant to be ironic, I’m not sure how I feel about that now.
I published around 250,000 words in the Calgary Herald in a column in which I could write about anything I chose, but I never chose to the write about the oil patch. My writing appears in many other publications, as well as this blog, which represents another 100,000 words or so. But I have never written about the situation. Until now.
I arrived in Calgary 20 years ago. I made a splashy entrance, having written a hit play for Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites ’94 Festival (titled Some Assembly Required) which at the time was sponsored by Shell Oil. Oil company sponsorship of the arts was all new to me. I had spent my formative years in Saskatchewan, where there was very little in the way of oil production and not a lot of talk about it. It was all about wheat and potash, back in the day.
I left Regina to attend York University (MFA, 1984) in Toronto and remained there essentially throughout the ’80’s. I suppose I was a typical self-absorbed young artist in those days, more concerned about making my mark in the world than anything else. One organization I worked with at the time, Frontier College, got involved with Imperial Oil for sponsorship of one of its programs, but that certainly didn’t lead to any awareness of where oil came from or how it was produced, Imperial or otherwise.
I don’t know if I was simply naïve, but I had very little frame of reference for the political or business climates of Alberta when I arrived on these shores a few decades ago. But make no mistake: when you live here, it’s all about oil and gas. It drives the economy and to a certain extent the entire culture of this city and the province as a whole.
Early on in my tenure as Playwright in Residence at ATP, in 1995, over in Nigeria the above-mentioned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed and the reportage at the time and since certainly implicated Shell Oil in what has since been recognized around the world as an extreme travesty of justice. Obviously, we writers are a little sensitive when one of our fellow scribes gets strung up, and suddenly I was a little uncomfortable with my new gig.
One evening, I had the opportunity to ask an executive from Shell about the situation and he explained to me that the incident had nothing to do with his company, Shell Canada – that it was Royal Dutch Shell, or Shell International, or some such. And he agreed with me that it was a terrible situation, but there was no sense at all of culpability on behalf of the Canadian company.
Well, friends, so much for my inquiry. If I felt any moral outrage I suppressed it. Here in Calgary, I was in an extremely fortunate position, the envy of playwrights around the world, to be paid to write plays, and not only write them, but then to see them produced by a good theatre company in a beautiful theatre. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Shell gave way to PanCanadian Petroleum which doesn’t exist anymore which in turn gave way to Enbridge. All of these companies have supported the arts in Alberta. In the case of Enbridge, no one can deny their generosity or their community spirit. They are, as they like to think of themselves, good corporate citizens.
On one occasion, I happened to be in the office of a senior VP at Enbridge, interviewing him for another publication. It was a cold morning in Calgary. From his office high above the city in one of the glass towers downtown, we could see the smoke rising from the chimneys of a thousand offices and homes, and as we looked out at the city from his office, he said to me, “Everyone loves to hate us. But no one wants to wake up in a cold house on a day like this.”
Looking back at the situation here only a few years ago, you could say there was a golden time in Alberta. Oil production was driving the economy, making it probably the strongest in Canada, and beyond, and there was sufficient support of the arts and other community endeavours so that those of us not involved in the industry could see the benefits and overlook the problems.
But lately, it’s become harder and harder to overlook the types of concerns that Neil Young and company are addressing as their Honor the Treaties tour wends its way west into the heart of oil country. Even an impartial observer would have to agree that the mega projects up in the Fort McMurray area are hardly beneficial to the environment, to put it mildly. And as the environment of the northern boreal forest is very delicate, the risk of irreversible devastation seems very great: an accident waiting to happen, if it hasn’t already.
Factor into the equation the fact that these lands are the home and habitat of first nations people, who may or may not be benefiting from this industrial activity, depending on whom you talk to.
And then, if things weren’t complicated and explosive enough, we now find that our federal government seems intent on shutting down all scientific monitoring of the situation, leading many Canadians, especially those close to the scene, to believe that the fox is now monitoring the situation in the hen house, and will be sending us impartial reports from time to time.
At times, it’s hard to believe we are talking about Canada — the true, north strong and free — and not some third world dictatorship.
Enter Neil Young. He is certainly not making any friends for himself in the oil patch, but I hardly think that was his goal. Whether you admire him or revile him, he has opened up a dialogue and done what we like to think an artist does in our society – he’s held up a mirror for us to see ourselves from a different perspective. But this could only have been done, I think, by an artist who doesn’t live in Alberta (or even in Canada) and who is in no way dependant on our economy for his own survival.
Like many of my colleagues and friends, I am not comfortable with the development of the tar sands, the way it is happening and its effect on the environment. I am deeply troubled by the war on science currently being waged by our federal government, which will make it increasingly difficult to know just what is happening up there, exactly. And I am concerned about the fate of aboriginal people in the area.
Yet at the same time, I am not prepared to be a total hypocrite about the matter either. Most playwrights I know, for example, (myself included) would find it extremely difficult to say no to a production on account of support from the oil patch of the producing company. I haven’t heard of it happening yet.
For my own part, I’ve been working on a novel this last year which to a certain extent shields me from the question of corporate sponsorship which I suppose is a blessing and a curse. And yet, I received a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to complete that novel last summer. I’m not so delusional to think that that money didn’t come, one way or another, from the oil patch.
At a dinner party the other evening that was attended by a number of people, none of them directly involved in oil and gas production, I asked if any of them (if any of us) could honestly say there is no oil on our money, no smears of bitumen on the bills in our pockets. No one could.
So where does that leave us?
Well, as artists, you would have to say in admiration of Neil Young for shining a light on a dark and ugly issue. As citizens, it becomes a little more complicated. Everyone likes to have a roof over their head, everyone likes to eat, everyone likes to drive their car or truck to work. (An addiction I overcame 2 years ago, for what it’s worth.) How you can accomplish any of that in Alberta in 2014 in isolation from the oil and gas industry is a mystery to me.
Personally, I doubt that it can be done.
And so, it would seem that the uneasy tensions will persist. But at least now, thanks to Mr. Young and company, we’re talking about it.
Thanks for reading.
I wanted to share my favourite Neil Young song here (Powderfinger) but would ask you to watch this brief video on Ken Saro-Wiwa instead.
RIP, Ken. You deserved better.
Alone again, naturally.
I made a rookie mistake the other day – that is, I ended up in a crowded restaurant alone at the Friday lunch hour. Anyone who is single, often solitary as I am these days, will tell you that the Friday lunch is one to avoid at all costs. That’s when people from offices and businesses and whatnot go out together for lunch, exacerbating the aloneness, if not the loneliness, of the solitary diner. Or luncher, as the case may be.
I should have seen it coming. As I say, it was a rookie mistake. But rather than give into the alienation and isolation that such a predicament can engender, I cleverly multiplicated myself, Sybil like, into several different personalities and held an informal meeting of EugeniusCorp®™ . The minutes of our meeting are as follows.
El Gordo (the Big One), CEO of EugeniusCorp®™ welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. He said he was “deeply honoured” and “humbled” to be involved in such an “extraordinary, extraordinary” (yes, he said extraordinary twice) venture. No one really believed him.
He continued (droning on and on) saying that he felt that the EugeniusCorp®™ brand was actually “gaining some traction vis-a-vis market recognition,” citing the unexpected friend request from a hot babe in Ontario on LinkedIn as evidence of “continued growth and prosperity.”
At this point, someone threw a chopstick at El Gordo and he sat back down and thankfully shut up. Next up was the beleaguered and faintly-reeking-of-gin CFO to give the financial report.
“You’ve seen the numbers, gentlemen, and the numbers tell a grim story,” he intoned. “Harumphs” all round, downcast eyes all round. “I would remind you that there are two sides to our ledger, gentlemen: expenses and income. One of these is very full, and busy, robust, even. The other is very, shall we say, ‘thin,’ barren, austere, even. I don’t have to tell you which is which. At the rate we’re going, we’ll soon be scavenging for rotten vegetables in the dumpster behind this very establishment of we wish to eat.”
He finished his report saying, “There will be no spring rolls today. And no pop: water. That’s where places like this make all their money: on the pop. And not bottled water either: tap. GOVERN YOURSELVES ACCORDINGLY.”
This gloomy report brought a heaviness to the table, but then all present realized it was actually a much rosier report than we had last year at this time, so the proceedings continued, tinted with a shade of “cautious optimism.”
Then came the report from the head of the social committee, who rose and simply said, “Nothing to report at this time.” And sat back down with a heavy sigh.
The COO reported next, saying that the physical plant was a mess, the laundry is out of control, the vacuuming has been shoddy, the right crisper holds something that looks like it is in danger of mutating into a new life form, and the sink is full of dirty dishes. An informal motion was passed to at least take care of the laundry, as EugeniusCorp®™ was running out of clean underwear.
The educational outreach finally had some positive news with word that the EugeniusCorp®™ Writing for Millions®™ course being offered at St. Mary’s University College was well subscribed and that the instructor was managing to stay one chapter ahead of the students – for now.
The Governmental affairs officer gave a brief report on the state of the Canada Council proposal. “Like peasants working in a field of mud in the Dark Ages,” he said, “we look for signs and portents in the flight patterns of birds and the moss growing on the trees. Not that there is much moss in downtown Calgary, but you get the idea. We check the mail everyday, but still no word. All we can say at this point is that no news is good news, but such hopeful thinking hardly pays the rent.”
Finally, the production manager gave his report. The output for EugeniusCorp®™ of late has been “prodigious,” he stated, lying through his teeth. Citing the inclusion of an Instagram photo in Avenue Magazine this month, he said “Our hard work is starting to pay off. This, and the many well-crafted Status Updates on Facebook are a testimony to the discipline and work ethic of EugeniusCorp®™ as a whole.”
When asked about the progress of the novel, the production manager reminded all assembled that it took James Joyce seven years to complete Ulysses, and that “you can’t hurry great art.”
All in all, a successful meeting and we managed to survive lunch without spilling too much sate chicken soup on our new white shirt.
It looks like another bountiful year ahead!
Here’s a song by a wonderful musician, a wonderful exploration of the number one.
Thanks for reading!