Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Final Read

Like any man who wants to get anything done, I have my routines, largely Benedictine in nature. I'm almost canonical in the way I keep the hours of the day - and night - and this routine is only disturbed or set aside for the most important reasons. It has to be pretty clear that it is God who inspiring me to alter the human rule. From midnight to noon, for instance, is reserved for theology, meditation, and music research, as far as the mind is concerned, and lighter mental stuff for after lunch, which also means more often than not for after the nap which replaces the sleep lost in the very early risings. The evening is taken up with dishes, a dvd, a little more music practice, the bath, and the last readings of the day, that is, evening prayer in the divine office and something additional, in the last several months, a children's story. Recently, I finished the Arthur Ransome list from a to z and then for the first time in my life, took on Noel Streatfeild.
The set time for reading the Nelson Daily News, an afternoon paper in its last years, was before supper, although as our delivery boy for the past three or four years has been a very active all seasons athlete, his games sometimes put the News off until just after supper. He is a great kid and I'll miss him. I had assumed his little brother would take over when he moved on, as was the case with the Vancouver Province route that passed from me to my younger brother. The little guy has occasionally been relief man, if Dylan's games were out of town.
But for the last week of NDN, as it's summer holiday time, I didn't see either of the lads. An older man took their place and his schedule varied over the last five days. Once or twice before lunch, another time so late I did not find the paper until the next morning.
On the final day, Friday, I only found it on the top step - not the mail box where Dylan always put it - after the evening entertainment was over and the household had begun winding itself toward sleep.
But there was not simply the final edition of something that had been part of my life since 1964, there was also a mood. A spiritual mood. Something from You Know Who. I was actually pleased that the paper had shown up when it did and went off to the cell so I could leaf through it by myself.
For one thing, it was the last chance at seeing if the editor had decided to print what would be my last letter to the News, after more than forty years of writing in it, to it, or just plain appearing because of a play or other cultural activity. I had rendered a few words toward the prospect of rousing community interest in a successor. But the letter did not show up. Thus my letters-to-the-editor career ended as it had begun. In the spring of 1965, still utterly bemused by the leadership of the diocese and the university, I had taken pen to paper, waited for many days, then trotted down to the editor himself and retrieved it. I also forgot about it for years, until 1988 as a matter of fact, when I a reporter for the Province that I was backgrounding on the predatory Father Monaghan told me I had "known all along and done nothing about it!" In a few days the memory of the letter came back to me and I told the reporter about it. 
In the towns we lived in after Vancouver - Alert Bay, Ocean Falls, Terrace - there was no such thing as a daily newspaper. The first two communities were simply too small, and while Terrace was similar in population, this had happened only recently, and there had never been an impetus for a daily journal. I rarely read the weekly and I think I only remember it because it possessed on its staff a very fine amateur actress who I was on stage with in the Chalk Garden. I can recall being mildly surprised that the Terrace press should be so modest, UBC, with a not too much larger population, could boast a tri-weekly.
When I arrived in Nelson I became aware of the existence of a daily immediately, and knew it would be a significant part of my time here, that it would record to some degree the presence of prophecy and theology in the Kootenays, although I did not foresee then that so much of the presence would have to do with the arts. Nor did I foresee that an even greater coverage, I think, would be given to my beloved, through all her own work with the museum, and her weekly column. Her column, on heritage, was collected by some of the readers, and the advertising person told Shawn it helped sell ad space. It may also have made some readers feel more comfortable about her husband.
But because she worked at the museum after 1983, and because the museum was the place where they kept the old NDN's, bound in green or gray bindings, some months to a volume. I could easily walk in and turn over the pages dealing with earlier times. Not too often, mind you, for I could too easily get involved with the old days, which were the provenance of other writers, and try to think up stories about them, whereas my legitimate area was more current, and definitely more theological than anything in those pages. But once, just before I had occasion to write to the Vatican, I found on the table where the curator was indexing back issues, a pair of volumes decades apart. I browsed in both, and found that God was out to make a point about purgatory.
I took them in chronological order, and found the older edition, from before the First World War, full of the names of people who, as far as I could spiritually intuit, were in heaven and did not need praying for. But the more modern issues, from the 30s and 40s, were a different story. Ouch. As I basically like the human race, this made me grateful that I was a contemplative, and could help the poor blighters move along. And, of course it also made me grateful for the power of the Mass, which is even more effective.I am not suggesting, of course, that every name in the paper was that of a soul still locked up in spiritual purgation. There may in fact have been only one soul that was still in that situation, or perhaps the relevant symbol was merely the time factor, universally indicated. God had said to me previously: "Nelson is nothing but symbolic." Therefore everything in Nelson, like anything mentioned in Scripture, has to be taken with a grain of interpretation.
Thus it made sense, I suppose, that my final reading of the News should be a distillation of the spiritual history of the area and a wonderfully sweet and consoling realization of all the grace and mercy God and his angels had conferred on it for the last baker's dozen of a century.
Nelson Daily News, and all its staff and readers over the decades, rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Houston Rocket

A poet friend of mine told me some years ago, quite a while before I had anything to do with the Internet, that the CIA and other intelligence agencies simply loved the expanding technology because it made their work so easy. No more pounding the streets, wire-tapping, information pay-outs, and so on, simply because the growing habit of universal communication via computer enabled them to eavesdrop without ever leaving the office. And I think I've even had a little experience of technological surveillance myself, in spite of having nothing to do with anything such people would be interested in. I once used the word "San Francisco" in a telegram to Rome, and had a sense of being shadowed for an instant for doing so. I searched around for clues and learned that city is the headquarters of the American Sixth Army. Enough said.
So now, tapping in the working title of the hoped-for revival of a daily paper in Nelson, I have to stick my tongue in my cheek and wonder who will be searching my script for intentions threatening to the space and defense processes of my neighbour to the south.
Sorry, guys, to put you to work, but Nelson has historical rights to this name, dating from a time when that big bustling centre in Texas was little more than a market town, perhaps just getting into the oil business.
John Houston, originally from Ontario, was the first mayor of Nelson, and founded the Miner, the original ancestor of the Nelson Daily News. He was a feisty character, moving here and there with his portable printing press over the course of his adult life, starting up a hydro electric plant in Nelson and fighting with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Prince Rupert.I have no idea what a printing press cost in those days.
Certainly the only one I've ever been intimate with - and I knew it very well - was the hot lead machines at College Printers, on Tenth Avenue in Point Grey, where The Ubyssey found its way into print three times a week, could hardly be moved about at whim by a publisher busy shaking the dust off his sandals in political frustration, or heading off to fields of greener opportunities. In the heady days of the opening of West, it seems, a newspaper publisher moved as easily as a reporter, so I don't think his press was very expensive.
Now, the computer - much cheaper than a press - has both recreated and reversed the process. The publisher of a blog has a freedom to operate at will without moving at all, and in fact his information flies about the world at the click of a mouse.
This gives me opportunities and an audience John Houston could never have dreamed of. Yet, to be honest, to pay our dues to those who went before, it would seem to be wretched behaviour not to honour his original input, his ability to do the best with what he had, and perhaps above all, in this case, his distaste for bullies like the CPR in Prince Rupert. Moreover, there is also the incontrovertible fact that the journalist tradition he began in Nelson has served the community well for over a century, and with a little nudging here and there, has been of great use to the development of art and culture in the recent era.
But, given the number of writers in the area, was it ever really literate enough? I know as a certain fact that it was not, but then that is a problem of newspapers generally. I have been in a unique position to research this issue and have found all papers guilty, world wide, including, believe it or not, L'Osservatore Romano. The magazines have also drawn a significant blank. And, now through the Net, they are all undergoing a certain chastisement, although not all as severely, for the moment at least, as the Daily News.
Journalism, it has been said, is history on the run. That is a very valid title, and it is valid because journalism has its own Muse. I experienced it constantly when I  was a staffer on the Ubyssey, and it was also there in the offices of the Vancouver Sun, although the Sun somehow lacked some of the intellectual and poetic elements that actually dominated, I would say, the college paper. Working newspapermen are generally a little too fond of their worldly wisdom, like a good number of their advertisers.
In Nelson, as in most places, I would have to say this was rarely not a problem.
Will it be taken care of by any new Phoenix, or Rocket, that rises from the ashes?
Which takes me back to the topic sentence which has yet to see the light of day. Dan Nicholson, of the Valley Voice, tells me that a Web press costs only $150,000. In this town, beer money. What it could produce would be worth an enormously greater amount, especially in terms other than monetary.
But only if it conceived its role as being something other than a provider of information, and only if its publisher could see that genuine intelligence, even wisdom, was a better bottom line than a balance sheet. I respect the balance sheet, and always have, but I've never thought it an object worthy of worship. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Of what is an incredibly beautiful paint job in the front hall symbolic? When you are a contemplative, the littlest changes in life have a moderate significance, so the big changes have a huge one. I hear that there will be photographs going out about this striking new feature to the Silica Street premises, from the roving cameric eye of MT, and no blogger worthy of the name could ignore such an opportunity to swank out on his and others' skill with a paint brush. (And no small degree of adroitness at keeping his feet out of the roller tray. Old eyes with cataracts are a disaster looking for an opportunity.)
When we moved into our final Nelson house, the fifth, in 1975, we knew we were settled, and we knew we had landed ourselves into a property which had every advantage except a decor satisfactory to the critical norms of the middle class. Any doubts anyone might have had on this score were utterly swept away by my parents, who while they generously wished to help us buy a house and get settled, definitely did not think this one suitable. It simply looked too scruffy, both outside and in, and I could not disagree with such a critical opinion. From a strictly visual point of view it really was down at the heels according to the norms of better homes and gardens, and my mother, when she bravely came up on the bus in November of 1975, ostensibly to see her son play Matthew in the university theatre department production of Anne of Green Gables - sold-out audiences for fifteen performances - scurried around town with real estate agents in search of a house that, to her, seemed like an improvement. It took me a while to catch on to what she was up to, and I was delighted, of course, with her concern for our welfare, but I knew after two months in this house that it was exactly what we needed, no matter what it looked like on the surface.
At that time, I had never heard of Warren Buffet, but I certainly knew how to think like him, otherwise I would never have settled in Nelson. Find something worth investing in, even though it seems to lack the glamour of the moment in the eyes of the world, and get it up and running.In Nelson, things were up and running indeed in 75. They were lining up for Jaws at the Civic Theatre, and lining up for Anne of Green Gables at Saint Martin's Hall theatre space at the college. My mother was stunned by the performance, and convinced that though neither she nor her husband completely understood their oldest son, he was deserving of a modest degree of financial backing. Besides, he and his wife had provide them with a complete six-pack of lovely grandchildren, and they too were worth making secure amongst the tumult of the world and its vicissitudes.
So, when they came up in the summer, making their annual pilgrimage to the land of the contemplatives and their puzzling ways - on some days, it's impossible to believe that Luther and Calvin are not frying in Hell for their unspeakable perversions of Christ's impeccable creative instincts - out came the cheque for the down payment and off flew our worries, to a degree, over the future. A dump to some eyes, maybe, but a dump that worked. A roof, a yard - with trees - a place to eat, sleep, and bring home your friends, within walking or biking distance of everything that mattered: what more do you need, especially when your parents have absolutely no illusions about the privations in which millions and millions of the world's other children have to live? (Even in Canada, where so many of the poor little buggers are given nothing of the arts or religion.)
To me, the lack of cosmetic perfection was simply a reminder of these salient points of consideration. Yes, it is the world's ugliest entrance to a home, almost award winning in its third world aspects, and one day it will most certainly be straightened out, but for the moment it is a provocative symbol of all sorts of things, possibly a lot of which your utterly Thomistic and mystical father as no bloody sense of whatsoever. Suck it up, and enjoy the view of the West Arm. There are million dollar homes in the city of your father's birth that don't have a view like that.
And of course fixing up that hall, and all the other things that needed attention, would have cost money. No one in Nelson that I knew was giving paint away, and any money beyond rent, food, and clothing went for music and dance lessons and so forth. And equally significant, God was not giving me the grace to do what my very practical and tradesmanly skillful father would have done.
Mind you, the hall was not initially as scabrous as it later became. There was a sort-of wall board covering the v-joint, something or other over the broken plaster of the ceiling, a big closet for coats and boots, and hundreds of our books instantly went up along the east wall on a readily taken apart and put back together  bookcase built a couple of houses back by a live-in friend. It had been his room and board for a month. In other words, the hall functioned, just as the house and its location functioned.
Eventually, the big cupboard moved to the porch, where it remains, but without its sliding doors that were always coming off the track. This was possible once we'd moved the master bedroom from that spot. The cupboard had partially hidden a spot in the wall where there had once been a door, and now there became a door again, thus allowing a much better passage of air on hot summer nights as they cooled. In a flurry of inspiration that followed a major overhaul of the dining room, the v-joint was uncovered, with the intention of attention, but that was stalled.
In 1992, our oldest son's wife died, her double-lung heart transplant having kept her alive for just over a year.
Because the hall also served as the staircase to the second floor, in a hundred-year old house that was built in the days of the high ceilings, we told the families that when the hall was restored to its original grandeur we would use its lofty reaches to hang some of the painting collection, and name our little gallery after her.
Mind you, I did not foresee that as the hall was refurbished our local daily paper would be sent down the drain. The press gang currently owned by David Black has just bought out its western rival in smaller publications, Glacier, and its first decision was to close the papers that have been losing significant amounts of money. As my oldest had just started full time reporting with the Prince Rupert daily, I had an early tip as soon as she heard the insiders' news, but I found it a little hard to believe that Black and his boys could think they could wipe out a daily in as town as culturally active as Nelson. Or as wealthy. The money safely banked in this burgh could buy Black and his little empire out three or four times over.
I've already had the offer of investment in a Web press, whatever that is, and offered, through the pages of the last week of the current daily, have recommended that Mr. Black take another look at the community. I don't think his scouts brought home the real intelligence. Not a good beginning for someone in the reporting business.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bread on the Waters

When I left my comfortable, leisurely, clerical post at the Nelson Land Registry Office in the last week of January, 1972, I had no idea that one of the tasks that lay ahead of me was the resolution of problems in music education. Part of my reason for leaving was indeed music: I was part of a production company that had recently put two dozen recorded folk music programmes on local radio, and with the new laws of the Canadian Radio and Television Committee coming into effect, requiring a substantial percentage of Canadian content in any broadcast north of the 49th, thought we were heading into our next step, some pretty serious record production. My part in this enterprise was to be that of a singer, rhythm guitarist,  possibly a composer, and most certainly a producer; but I was by no means a master as either a voice or instrumentalist coach, nor had it occurred to me that I would ever have to become such. And, much more important than all this, I had a novel to write, the fourth version of my earliest plot. It was time to leave the civil service and become a full time artist. I needed this for my own sake, and my artistic community needed me for its sake. Nelson and its surrounding area seemed to be exploding with creative intelligence on a professional scale, and I could see myself only as a negligent and cowardly bystander if I did not put every energy to supporting this bid for national and international attention.
And the Almighty certainly put his own peculiar stamp on the decision. In my last weeks in the office I suddenly began to experience stomach pains, the precise variety of which had previously been diagnosed by our family doctor as the prologue to an ulcer. This had been a full two years earlier, when the solution to the ulcer threat had been telling a teen-ager - not our own - that if she was not going to obey our rules she would have to leave.
 At that time we had filled up a number of extra corners in our third Nelson house with young people who seemed to need our roof and dinner table. My father picked up an ulcer from the mental stress of his job, when I was a university student, and I swore to myself that I would never get one. So the young lady had to go, and obviously so did the job. Or more accurately, what I really was leaving was the frustrations of not being able to use all the information and skills on behalf of promoting the arts and the artists I had become familiar with in almost a decade in Nelson.
I did in fact write the novel, all 800 manuscript pages, in five months, and for a little while it looked as if Jack McClelland might publish it. But he did not, and neither did anyone else. And the music production company divided into a pair of factions and co-operation and continued production became impossible. The novel took five months to write, instead of the three I had budgeted for, because I changed the plot from the previous version. I was able to borrow a month's living from the bank, for the fourth month, but the fifth and what was more and more appearing clearly as the subsequent months, had to be welfare.
To my surprise, my father thought it a good idea. He not only supported this approach, he suggested it, from his earthly level, thus agreeing with what God said at some point as I was pondering the next step. "Don't expect me to work miracles and cover the ceiling with gold coins. Get on Welfare. That's what it's there for."
My father had not mentioned gold coins, but only that he was not going to lend us a couple of thousand dollars, and we should do what so many others did, get it off the government. I had his blessing, as it were, to arrange my own version of a Canada Council grant.
The welfare situation, in fact, had already been provided for, on the personal basis, by a little social work that our household had already undertaken a few years earlier, being of assistance to the local office over two  young people, one a little boy, the other a teen-age girl. I was on good terms with the head of the office, even though up to that point, we had never met. We had done all our business over the phone, simply through the human voice. He had readily understood that I could not help but be useful to anyone in a need I or my household could fulfill, and appreciated the assistance to his line of work. I was not cross-examined as to my intentions with this surprise direction, nor given any tiresome lectures. The particular worker in fact had been a student at the university during my brief presence there, was a Catholic herself, and aware to some extent of the murky politics of the local Church and the college. And there was also the hope, no doubt livelier in myself than in anyone obliged to listen to my reasoning on the matter, that I would shortly be able to place the novel with a major publisher.
The finances of welfare support in those days were pretty thin. As the beady eye of Providence had it these were the last days of the long rule of W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit government of BC. The dole was not generous. But it was better than defying the plain will of the Almighty, and away we went, not to look back for considerable time, basically until the organized society of the province recognized that the Nelson/Slocan area was a cultural force to be reckoned with. By September, Dave Barrett and the New Democrats became the government and everyone was told the welfare rates would become human. It was by no means the first time legislation had been improved in order to keep up with our significant choices.
And this just in, days after I started this post: I've had a twitch from a major film centre. Perhaps there is intelligent life on the planet after all.