June 20, 2009

Some words for my old man, for Fathers Day...

My Dad was possibly born in the wrong era: I think there was an adventurer in him, or a cowboy of some sort, trying to live a black and white life, while contradictory and complex psychologies and modern mental illnesses swirled around him. My Dad always told colourful, exciting stories of his past, that made him out to be the hero and the good guy. He was an MP in the Canadian Army, and flew in big planes when he was in the Air Force. In his heart, he was conservative and authoritarian, and in his best moments, he was firm but fair.

On the outside, people in our neighbourhood would probably see my Dad as a fairly quiet, silver-haired older man (my friends' Dads were in their forties, when mine was in his late 50s), and someone with a serious, lined face which got softer as you approached it up close.

To me, as a kid, Dad was the toughest, strongest man on any block. Physically, he could take care of himself using his voice, his head, or his hands. Even when there was more than one guy against him, swinging bottles at him, he would walk away the winner. When I was nine, we lived in a rough neighbourhood. When he had to be, my Dad was a fighter, and I was so proud of him.

When I was 11, Dad become a single parent when my Mum almost died, and went to stay in a succession of hospitals. Dad always knew what needed to be done in most situations.

When I was 13, I got a bad case of chickenpox that kept me home from school for a couple of weeks. Then, he was the nurse, dabbing calamine lotion all over me until I thought I would throw up. Past this age, I stopped kissing him goodnight - not because I didn't love him, but because we understood that it's okay for little boys to kiss their fathers, but men don't kiss like that.

As I got older and more self-sufficient, he got frailer and more dependent. When I was 17, I was by his side when he suffered a heart attack and multiple strokes, and a fractured hip. We were both scared as hell for him, yet he found the strength to say "I love you boy" to me from his temporary bed in the ER. He became helpless for a while, and had to learn to walk as part of his stroke rehab. He was learning to get back on his feet (literally) and I was getting on my feet, acting the part of a responsible young man. I started looking after the house as best I could, and he learned to walk and talk and move his limbs. We were reversed.

The sad part of Dad's physical downfall was that it came about as a result of years of alcohol abuse, smoking, stress and poor health. The lesson he taught me indirectly was that to live my life the way I wanted, I must take better care of myself than he did. He also taught me that addiction is a mysterious and bewilderingly powerful thing. After he was "healed" and back home after his many months of rehab and therapy, he began drinking again. Within months, he had another stroke, and was back in hospital, this time for good.

By the time I was 18 or 19 years old, I was aware of my Dad's weaknesses: how the same temper that gave him strength against other bad men, was a horror when brought to use against his wife or me and my sister. We learned that sometimes, his drinking or his temper meant that we could not trust him, or feel safe around him. I learned that addiction is a bitch, and the strongest man I knew was also the weakest man I knew. As I witnessed how he let himself lose control to his addiction, I vowed that I would never be that weak in that way.

Now, at 43, and after years of reflection, both loving and resenting him posthumously, I see my father as a fascinating composite of the best and worst traits we all posses: a complex man who could be gentle and loving to little children, animals, or those closest to him, and a man with a fierce pride and temper which could seem insurmountable when challenged.

At his best, he was an intellectual trapped in a blue collar, with an ability to explain aspects of electronics, RF or particles like mesons to his curious son. He was literate enough to quote Will Rogers, tell me about a Jazz trumpeter he liked, and to know the lyrics of some musical theatre on TV. He was silly, laughing along to Blazing Saddles or Wile E. Coyote.

At his worst, he was alcoholic enough, unhealthy enough, and probably depressed enough to permanently ruin his relationship with my sister, and never reflective or honest enough to admit to his own weaknesses. The hero that I had as a little boy was still inside him somewhere, but years of stress, poor choices and bad living eventually overshadowed all that dreamy, good stuff.

In his last years, Dad seemed to find his peace living semi-paralyzed and bruised, in a small room in a private hospital in Burnaby, where I'd visit him every week. Often, I'd cycle over in time for the 7:30 pm snack of sandwiches and tea, and we'd chat and watch some TV, and later I'd help him find something which he had misplaced.

He couldn't really take care of himself at all anymore, but he had 24 hour care if he needed it. In a way, his earlier life choices had taken away his later choices as well as his responsibilities. Sometimes, when his old ego and sense of self-importance would flare up, his dependence upon others would frustrate the hell out of him. Other times, he appeared relieved to not have to make decisions or deal with the stresses of life anymore.

Up until the time he passed away in 1989, Dad was one of those story tellers whose tales got bigger and better each time he told them: "The older I get, the better I was", as they say - that was my old man. Often, I would arrive outside his little room to find him sitting in his wheelchair with his chin propped up on his good hand and a dreamy grin planted on his face, probably dreaming of some adventure that had happened somewhere else, way back in the day when he was still someone's hero.

Wherever you are, old man, Happy Fathers Day. I still love you.

June 14, 2009

That faint artistic thread...

As I've slowly, gradually backtracked through my family history a little, I've come to see a number of artistic abilities in my relatives. This became one of the first commonalities that told me I shared some kind of values with someone else: the artistic urge.

That lousy lost feeling, growing up...

When I was in my tweens (like, 11, 12, or 13), I didn't know much about my family history. Perhaps this is the same for many kids from a dysfunctional family background: the sense of not belonging, the detachment from family, or sense of "being different". On the other hand, maybe that was just what was going on for me... As a kid, a sense of belonging felt important, and it never seemed to materialize in my life to that point. I always felt like a bit of an outsider to the world around me, like I didn't fit in, or was not fully integrated. I wasn't part of it - just watching it.

I saw lots of disparate pieces of life, but could not draw them together into any sort of cohesive whole relationship; there was no overall structure or system that bound life together for me. Stuff just happened, and it was hard to make sense of it all.

I also had no religion, nor any real spirituality. I didn't (and still don't really) believe in god, and saw many organized groups as havens where misled suckers consoled and supported each other. As I have grown older, and learned more about religion and spirituality, I've developed a healthy respect for religious belief and a healthy skepticism of much of organized religion. (I have great respect for another's right to believe whatever they wish, so long as they harm nobody else while doing it.)

I liked rationalism and science a lot. Practical, scientific inquiry always made some sense to me, and nature continues to awe and impress me. I'd never seen a club for atheists (why would people who don't believe in something need to come together in common cause?), and science and rationalism were everywhere I looked for them. Affiliations seemed useless.

The closest thing that ever approached a sense of the mysterious or spiritual for me was the peace that I experienced when drawing, or when absorbing myself in some literature, including pulp fiction and comic books. Something fascinating and special happened whenever I drew, coloured or looked at art that I liked: a feeling of calm, and happiness, a sense of peace. That's as close to a spiritual mystery as I have ever gotten then and since.

In the family...?

I had always known there was a little artistic flair in my Mother's family. My mother, Angela Huntley Clarke, was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and had acted in amateur theatre productions with the Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society in the '50s. Something in her loved music and expressing herself.

My Mum's father, Ernest Huntley Clarke was a prolific amateur photographer, documenting his life, his wife and his only daughter with hundreds of stills and moving images over the course of 40 or 50 years. "Poppy" (as my sister and I called our maternal grandfather) was also a dabbler in oil painting, and we had a few little landscapes he'd done in his later years, in his cramped little basement studio. I still have Poppy's old Walter Foster art instruction books in my bookshelf.

My mother's cousin, Shirley Nash (nee Marks) has always been a passionate oil painter in traditional still life and landscapes, and taught and encouraged painting privately for many years, in her community in Apple Valley, California.

As for my Dad, James Evan Love, although I never saw him play an instrument, apparently he could read music a bit, and could carry a tune. My Dad's brother's wife, Palma Love (nee Lovstad) was an incredibly skilled self-taught painter, who made many oil studies of local boats, and harbour and river scenes (including water traffic along the historic Skeena River) for many, many years, from her home up in Prince Rupert, BC.

To refer to my eldest sister Maggie as "quite musical", would be an understatement. Maggie has taught music to elementary school kids for years, and in her previous career, picked up a couple of Junos. Her partner, Bill Usher, has four of his own, and according to my brother Dave, this collection, sitting in their livingroom floor, is affectionately referred to as "The Clutter".

Maggie's eldest, Michael, is a musician as well, and has recently worked as an actor. My sister Kim, writes poems for herself and for friends.

For my own part, I feel very fortunate to have been able to develop a love of doodling and colouring into a professional career that has expanded on those basic impulses in shape and colour, and has projected them into modern media, in pursuits like web or graphic design. On a more personal front, fiction and storytelling has become my favourite art form in recent years.

So, there is this tendency, this artistic thread in my family, this need to create and express in some tangible way, whether it is for entertainment or as part of a profession, or whether it's for pure personal, emotional, or spiritual completion.

In that way, I think that I feel more connected than ever to my family, and to a lesser degree, somwhow connected to a long line of artists and designers going back through history, who, I expect, also probably had their own personal creative and spiritual revelations by making art.

Mountain Chickadee, from Owe Nothing
My novel, "Owe Nothing", is now available for purchase at Trafford.com:

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Fiction by E. John Love: http://fiction.ejohnlove.com