Archive for the ‘University of Regina’ Tag

A Sense of Home in the Heartland   1 comment

I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.

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

Boundless, unfettered.

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

Your enterprise.

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

Until finally

You are left

In just the smallest of spaces

A wooden box

And the prairie opens up

And you are lowered down into it

Home again

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.

Mentors Series Part Two: Gene Dawson   2 comments

I don’t have a photo of Gene I can upload, but here’s one of me contemplating a work of art that Gene would have liked. If anyone reading this can send me a photo I will replace it.

A few months ago I wrote a post about an early musical mentor of mine, Thomas Manshardt. I studied piano with Tom when I first entered the University of Regina back in the mid 1970’s.  (That post can be found by clicking the archive button on the left side and selecting July 2012. A second post that is germane to this time of my life – if you really have nothing better to do – is my post entitled “Brahms,  Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations” from January 2012.)

After studying in Germany, I came back to Regina with a renewed love of the English language, and the realization that I would never be a concert pianist. I returned to the U of R as a full-fledged English major. I wanted to be a writer. There are not many people whose decision to become an English major and beyond that, a writer, could be seen to be practical, but that was certainly the case with me. My parents were certainly relieved. A possible strategy for young people intent on pursuing an essentially impractical career path . . .

It was early on in my pursuit of a degree in English that I met my second mentor and namesake, Eugene Dawson. It’s hard now to explain the impact Gene had on my life – not just mine, but on so many others at that time. Brash, American, seven times married, prescription pill-popping, dope smoking, hard-drinking, irreverent and above all funny, Gene was unlike anyone I had ever met before or have met since. He brought true joy to the horror of human existence.

Gene taught a class in black humour which I took, and it was in his class I was introduced to the work of Mordecai Richler, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Joseph Heller, Nathaniel West and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to name a few. In fact, like Vonnegut, Gene was a Hoosier, and they certainly shared many qualities, in particular a sardonic sense of humour and a wary way of regarding the goings on in the world. It was, as they say, “a cheerful nihilism.”

Before long Gene had me working as his teaching assistant. At that time at the U of R, a TA in English essentially taught grammar as a part of English 100. “But Gene, I know nothing about grammar,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “This is the only way you’re ever going to learn this shit, by teaching it. Just don’t let them see you sweat.”

And so in this way Gene brought me into his world. Before long, a second year student, I was a fixture at the Faculty Club on Friday afternoons which led to some legendary late night sessions with fellow students and faculty members Bernie Selinger, Dale and Barb Hauser, Ray and Ruth Mise and numerous others.

On one such legendary evening, I seem to recall I was standing atop a table in a restaurant in south Regina drinking flaming Sambucas. Certainly, my life as an English major was far different than it had been as a music major. Of course, there was no looking back and no regrets.

In the words of Bryan Adams, “Those were the best days of my life.”

We called him the old man, yet he was younger than I am now when he suddenly and sadly passed away. So full of life and laughter, he left a hole in many of our lives. At his wake, we tried to honour him through irreverence, but to no avail. Gene was gone and we all knew we would never see the likes of him again.

If Manshardt taught me about the high European tradition of art as a way of life, Gene taught me in his populist American way that it was all right to be myself, with no apologies needed. He taught me that no matter how much shit the world was flinging at me, there was always something to laugh at, even if it was an uneasy laughter. Thinking back on it, it brings to mind the lines of T.S. Eliot,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

And in short, I was afraid . . .

Do you understand what I’m trying to say about being with Gene? There was always laughter, but it was always a little on the nervous side. But my god, how we laughed at the whole damned thing.

I fear I am doing none of these men justice, and am falling short of the mark trying to capture their greatness. Yet when I Google them, I get nothing, and so at least it’s a start.

Thanks for reading . . . Here’s a beautiful song by one of Gene’s and my favourite artists . . .

Mentors Series: Thomas Manshardt   4 comments

As artists, none of us just evolves under a cabbage and then suddenly enters into the world fully formed like Zarathustra emerging from his cave. Most of us undergo (and endure) years and years of training at the hands (or at the knees) of those who have gone the way before. Some are teachers, but a select few become our true mentors. In my life, I was lucky enough to have three mentors who stand out above the rest. They’re all dead now, God love them.  After a reminder about one of them by way of a chance conversation with an old friend on Facebook last night, I thought I should spill a little cyber ink on all three of them.

In the mid -70’s – the time of disco and long before the advent of digitization, I put down my basketball and decided to study music at the University of Regina. This led to one of the most unlikely pairings in the history of education, when I was taken under the tutelage of Thomas Manshardt, pictured here.

I was a raw unsophisticated kid from the old north end of Regina. I don’t know that we really use the term “good ol’ boy” in Canada, but that would give you an idea. Tom was easily the most sophisticated and cultured person I have ever met, which is a polite way of saying he was a total snob, and not always a very nice one. But he was exotic, unlike anyone I had ever met before, and before long I came totally under his spell.

He was the last pupil of the legendary pianist Alfred Cortot, which put him, and by extension me, in a lineage once can trace directly back to Chopin. To learn how to play Chopin from Tom was to learn if, a few times removed, from Chopin himself. (I’ve included a somewhat surreal video of Cortot at the end of this post.)

How he found his way from les grands salons of Europe to mid-70’s Regina is beyond comprehension, really. I can’t even imagine what the place seemed like to him. I’m sure he went to his grave with no awareness at all of the Roughriders or any of the rest of it. But It was a job, one that paid him well and allowed him to spend his days playing the piano, probably more wonderfully than anyone else I have ever heard.

I don’t know that I had ever encountered an actual gay person before I met Tom, although the fact that my best friend growing up, Roy, was gay was common knowledge, although never talked about. (Roy eventually came clean years later in a gay bar in Toronto, but that’s another story.) It may be that Tom was attracted to me. Certainly we spent many an evening sitting on the carpet of his Regina apartment (he possessed no furniture), drinking huge tumblers of Pernod with water, listening to Cortot and other masters of a bygone age.  Maybe it was at times a tad potentially promiscuous and I was just too naïve to recognize it, I don’t know. But those evenings spent listening to Tom talk about art and music and life in general probably shaped me as an artist and even as a human being than any other person or situation ever would.

It was Tom who said again and again that art is a way of life. That may not seem like an earth-shattering notion now, but to a young man from a working class neighbourhood, it was news indeed. He showed me there was another way to live my life than the one that was expected of me. If I am an artist today, it is due to Tom’s influence.

The most obvious and persistent influence Tom had on me concerns my enduring love for fountain pens. He used a Montblanc Meisterstuck 149, which is still in my estimation one of the most beautiful objects on the planet. Tom kept a daily journal, as I do to this day. In fact, it could be said that my interest in keeping the journal grew greater than my interest in music, and so there came a day when I had to bid Tom adieu and get on with my life.

I would be a writer, it seemed, and not a musician. But either way, I would be an artist, trained not so much in the piano but in life studies by one of the finest artists I ever had the chance to meet and work with.

Tom came to a senseless end a few years ago. His legacy of music excellence lives on through his long time partner Lawrence Amundrud.

Adieu, mon cher ami . . .

More Thoughts on Journaling (With a Little Help from my Friends)   5 comments

A few of my journals.

Those who know me either through this blog and my other writings, or from real life (whatever that is – I hear it’s overrated!) will know that I am an inveterate diarist.  One of my favourite and habitual activities is writing in my journal, an activity I carry out in various coffee shops around the world, most often in Calgary’s Caffe Beano off of 17th Avenue South West.

I have been doing this since the mid 1970’s and now I think of my journals and diaries as one huge amorphous oeuvre, comprised of, by conservative estimate, two to three million words.

After perhaps a million or so of these words had been recorded in my various notebooks, I had managed to achieve a sufficient amount of fame or notoriety to warrant the creation of my archival collection at the University of Regina. This collection, which I believe anyone is welcome to view in the library of the U of R, contains, for now at least, early drafts of some of my plays along with letters and laundry lists and other pieces of paper from the day-to-day of my ever so fascinating life.

But coming down the road, that long dusty road that plies its way through the prairies of my home province, is this flood of words and the books they are written in, destined to end up with all my other writings in the archival collection.  (This is a horrible metaphor, as if a flood would travel on a road. Perhaps it’s more of a caravan or convoy. Or maybe there is no road. But you get the picture, muddled as it may be!)

The point remains, the journals are destined to repose of the shelves of the library of the University of Regina as part of my archival collection.

Here’s the thing: how does the fact that one knows that one’s journals will be open for public scrutiny some day alter the writing? Can one continue to be as honest with one’s innermost thoughts that are, essentially, private in nature but that obviously find their way onto the page, when one is aware that someday in the future (near or distant, who can know?) others will be able to read them?

I’m forever telling people whom I get involved with on many levels, from business to romance, (though there hasn’t been much of either, lately, alas) that they will be written about and the books they are written in will be around for some time to come. And that I don’t pull my punches. And that little bit of information should make a few people reading this at least slightly nervous.

My thinking on this is that by the time they hit the shelves, I’ll be dead and people and events I write about will be insubstantial shadows, so what will it really matter, anyway? Well, it might still matter to you, dear reader, so I suggest you govern yourself accordingly. (You know who you are, even if I don’t, exactly . . .)

The other alternative I suppose would be to do as many writers do and burn the journals before I shuffle off to sing with the choir invisible. Or if I’m too feeble and deranged at the end to do it myself,  leave instructions for someone else to do it should my passing be sudden and unexpected, which I am sorely hoping it will be. But burn those two or three million words? It doesn’t seem to me to be an option.  In many ways, I think of this gigantic sprawling work as the greatest artistic statement I cam capable of making. Burn it? It just seems too self-negating, and those who know me will know self-negation is not something I’m exactly known for.

The trick is to remain honest and true, not censoring your thoughts or opinions, yet being mindful that at some point in the distant reaches of time, someone will surely read those words, and in your absence, and they will be all they have, really, from which to form an opinion of you and the people and events of your life. I find that prospect both scary and exciting at the same time.

Now, this was all meant to serve as a prologue for a lovely letter (via Facebook) I received a while back from my friend, who for now I shall call R,  which you will discover as you read was prompted by other of my musings (or ramblings) about journal writing.

It’s seldom that we take the time anymore to write a well-reasoned letter, and I was so touched by this one that I decided to share it here.

It’s a good reminder that a well thought-out letter, written with care and attention, may be rare these days, but it is perhaps more than ever a worth-while endeavor.  In fact, it’s downright precious Here it is . . . .


Hi Eugene,
I read your note about your journals yesterday morning. For some reason it stuck with me and I kept thinking about it all day, a day, when for some reason, and no reason in particular, I was feeling generally sad and out of sorts. Then, on the c-train, I read this and felt maybe I was meant to share it with you. Not sure what it means, if it means anything…but I am compelled to share it here, so here it is, quoted by Margaret Atwood in Negotiating with the Dead, from Hjalmar Soderberg’s Doctor Glas:

Now I sit at my open window, writing – for whom? Not for any friend or mistress. Scarcely for myself, even. I do not read today what I wrote yesterday; nor shall I read this tomorrow. I write simply so my hand can move, my thoughts move of their own accord. I write to kill a sleepless hour.

And this, also quoted in the Atwood, from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four:

For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

Then, she says:

For whom was Samuel Pepys writing? Or Saint-Simon? Or Anne Frank? There is something magical about such real-life documents. The fact that they have survived, have reached our hands, seems like the delivery of an unexpected treasure; or else like a resurrection…The older one gets, the more relevant Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape comes to be.

Happy Day to you :o)

And happy day to you, dear reader. Thanks for the visit . . . .

A Sense of Audience   6 comments

Any writer worth his or her salt is aware of audience. You can write in your journal or on your shiny new MacBookPro but until you share what you’re writing with someone else, you haven’t completed the cycle and you’re not really writing. You need to share it.  Even if it’s only an audience of one, like your husband or wife or creative writing instructor – until you’re prepared to share it, you’re not really a writer.

I was thinking of the nature of my own audience when I was looking through the origin of hits on this blog of mine this weekend. Now that I have learned how to figure this out on WordPress, I realize I have been miscalculating just who exactly has been reading these words.  I assumed it would be people from Calgary, perhaps those who used to read my column in the Calgary Herald, or have seen my plays downtown, or my students, or my many Facebook friends.

Generally, that’s probably the case. And yet reviewing the origins of my hits today, I see I have had six hits so far: three from Turkey, one from Portugal (my daughter, Hanna) one from Canada and one from Taiwan. So clearly, I know nothing about my audience, about who is reading this, or why, and I am once again made to realize just how different the world is now from when I started out in my writing career.

My first encounter with an audience was with a small brave collection of souls who showed up at the old Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery at my Alma Mater, the University of Regina, to hear me read some of my poems on a cold and snowy night over 30 years ago. I don’t remember the circumstances of why I was even asked, I certainly hadn’t published anything, but there I was in with my mullet and my skinny tie reading some poems that have since been lost to the ages.

Terrifying, is all I remember about it.  But at least I could see who was there. (And who wasn’t.)

(Making it all the worse, the old Norman MacKenzie Gallery was tucked in beside the Conservatory of Music at the U of R. I had just defected from the music faculty to become an English major. Of course, no one cared. But I hardly knew it that night!)

Around this time, a short story of mine was produced by the CBC and broadcast nationally. I remember being in Toronto and out for supper with some friends (the Campbell clan).  We gathered around the radio and listened to my story being broadcast across the country. Who knows who even heard it? Maybe everybody! Maybe nobody. But I was certainly filled with a great sense of my own self-importance that night like I’ve probably never felt since. That night on the subway home, I felt like Pierre Burton or something. It’s hard to impress on readers of this blog at this point in time the importance of the CBC in the development of a writer’s career. The CBC! The production values! Sea to sea to sea! And the money was nothing to sneeze at, either!

That night on my way home, with the sonorous tones of the PROFESSIONAL ACTOR who had read my little story reverberating in my young brain, I clearly thought I was destined to greatness.

Suddenly the entire country was my audience. What could possibly stop me??

There followed a career in the theatre (which as far as I know is still ongoing). The blessing and the curse of the playwright is that you have no choice but to be very aware of your audience. You’re sitting right there with them as they experience your work of art. (Or in my case, pacing up and down at the back of the theatre, sweating it out.) You know if you’ve succeeded, that’s for sure. But even more acutely, you know if you’ve failed.

Public humiliation is never pleasant, and there’s no worse a feeling than to be sitting in the theatre when your play is going down like the Titanic despite the brave efforts of your cast.

Writing for a newspaper is interesting. My column in the Herald came out in the Saturday paper. I remember one of the early weeks, I found myself in a coffee shop watching a gentleman as he read the paper while drinking his morning coffee. I watched and waited. Finally he got to the Entertainment section. My heart raced. He got to the page my column appeared on, frowned, maybe even grimaced, then put the section aside and moved on to Sports. So much for that!

But I guess a few people read it over the years. Recently, I was stopped in the Co-op store by a little old lady who told me how much she loves the column and how she reads it every week. Well, I haven’t written in the Herald for a few years now, so I asked her if she was still reading it and she said, “Yes, every week. Wouldn’t miss it.” You can’t very well call a little old lady a dirty stinking liar so I didn’t press the issue. But you can see it makes it hard to know with any certainty just who is reading what.

And now this. This internet thing. I just checked my hits again and I have a new one, this one from Mexico. What gives with that? Am I on the verge of becoming an international sensation? Or are there simply people everywhere and anywhere who magically or accidentally hit the right buttons so that my blog suddenly appears on their computer screen? Don’t they have anything better to do? For that matter, don’t I? Maybe not . . . .

I really don’t know. I have to admit that I really don’t know who my audience is.  If I ever did. So what can I say, but – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your reasons for reading this – thanks for reading?! As long as someone is reading it, I’ll keep writing it.

See you again soon.

Some Thoughts on Teaching   1 comment

A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.

“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.

I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!

Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.

My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!”  He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.

Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.

Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.

Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.

                              I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.

I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.

So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.

I honestly think it’s the highest calling.

Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.

Enjoy! And thanks for reading,

Brahms, Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations   6 comments

Ian Leslie has an interesting article in this month’s Intelligent Life titled “In Search of Serendipity.” Appropriately enough, I came across it accidentally when I was wandering around another aggregate site, The Browser.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Internet is changing the shape and scope of our minds, making us better at skimming information but less likely to engage in deep thought on any one subject. (“Life With No Computer” published here in early December, 2011.)

Leslie’s argument is that with the “democratization” of information, true serendipity (which he simply defines at one point as a happy coincidence) is becoming a rarer phenomenon. This got me thinking about the role of serendipity in my own life and career, and the fact that the early years were pre-internet, in fact pre-computer. (My first play was written on a typewriter!)

Artists are frequently asked about our careers, as if we somehow planned them to work out the way they did. I would suspect that with most of us, and maybe not just artists, maybe it’s true of doctors and lawyers and such, serendipity plays a huge role in our lives.  So this is part of my story, and this blog is a rough sketch for a public lecture I will deliver at St. Mary’s University College later this year.

When I was a young man just starting out, I went to the University of Regina as a music major in piano performance. I finally realized with some pain and regret that I wasn’t good enough and so after a while slid over into English, but I had a few delusional  years there when I though I might have a chance. During this time I became passionately interested in the work of Johannes Brahms, and in those days before the Internet, I did what we all used to do to find out more about him: I went to the library.

The fine arts library at the University of Regina had a good selection of books on Brahms. The trouble was, they were all written in German, some of them old enough to be in Gothic Script. So what to do? Serendipitous moment #1: I enrolled in a German class. I am of English heritage and I spoke not a word of it, but I survived German 100 and so enrolled in German 101 for the winter semester.

Half way through that class, my instructor, Frau Holle. a lovely woman of Austrian extraction, invited me up to her office for a late afternoon drop of sherry. (Imagine having a student of the opposite sex up to your office for a drink these days!)

“Herr Schtickland,” she said, “We have a very grave problem. I was hoping you could help.”

Each year the university was awarded a very generous scholarship by the Goethe Institut for one of its students to study in Germany for six months. No one from the upper years was free to take it, and they basically needed a warm body to fill the position so the scholarship wouldn’t be lost in future years.Was I free to go?

Serendipitous moment #2. I was, and I did.

This is what I looked like back then. This is what photographs looked like back then:

1977, the year Elvis died. With a mustache sitting on some kind of ancient German beast. A typical mid-70's photo.

So off to Deutschland. Before the course started, I had a few weeks to kill so I went up to England to visit my Aunt Deirdre. While I was there, she suggested I go to Stratford and see some plays. Having grown up in Regina when I did, I hadn’t had the chance to see much theatre, because there wasn’t much theatre to be seen.

Serendipitous moment #3: I went to Stratford and saw a few plays by the old boy. Serendipitous moment #4: A brilliant production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream must have put the idea in my head that writing comedies would be a good thing to try.

And so back to Germany where I learned German well enough that people I met couldn’t tell I wasn’t from Germany.  I loved my time there but I began to miss the English language, and so I bought a number of journals and began writing in them, which could well  be Serendipitous moment #5. Certainly by the time I returned home, I realized I would never be a great concert pianist and began to think of myself as a writer and not as a musician.

And so I became a writer. I don’t believe I would have ever lived the life I have, if I had not ventured into a library some 35 years ago and become frustrated at not being able to read anything about my favourite composer. Part of the program in Germany was to study Gothic script and I got good enough that I could read a little. When I got back home to Regina, I went back to those books at the fine arts library and hacked through them, but I can’t pretend I gave them a good reading.

Still. what an interesting journey I went on, just to read a few books!

There is a postscript, which happened only a few years ago. There was a man who used to come to Caffe Beano, whose name I cannot remember and who passed away a year or so ago. I didn’t know him very well. He was a collector and seller of antiques, curios and rarities. One summer’s day as I was sitting outside the cafe writing in my journal, this man showed up with a rare find. It was a book published in the early 1500’s, I believe, that he had acquired at a Hutterite colony. It was a real beauty, with wooden covers and a richly decorated cover. Such antiquities are rare on the prairies.

He was showing it around (carefully) to some of the assembled. He opened it up and looked at the title page. “The trouble is,” he said, “I can’t read it. Can anyone here read Gothic script?”

Serendipitous moment #6.

I could, and I did.

Thanks for reading! Stay warm.

PS. I was in Caffe Beano this morning and asked around and found out that the man’s name was Udo. My friend Bob McDonald (aka Bob Loblaw because it sounds like blah blah blah) once bought an accordion from him. Who else are you going to get a good used accordion from? Apparently Udo had garages full of junk, but apparently it was all oxymoronic high quality junk. May he rest in peace. Bob remembers the Gothic Script incident, and told me that his estimation of me increased significantly that day.

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