my dinner with Tiff...
Published in The Feathertale Review Issue 2, Fall 2007 and The Ottawa Citizen's Weekly Arts and Books, Sunday Dec. 23.
How An Aspiring Writer Cornered Timothy Findley For An Impromptu Reading
Aspiring writers are a desperate bunch. I've been teaching them how to write for 15 years. Sometimes they will stoop to the most shameless antics to expose their manuscripts. In 1980, before I had published a single word, and before writing workshops were everywhere, one of my literary heroes, Timothy Findley, was emerging as Canada's best writer. And so I devised a plan to spring an unpublished manuscript on Findley at a private dinner party.
Tiff, as Timothy Irving Frederick Findley was known to his friends, had published two novels, Last of the Crazy People and The Butterfly Plague that both disappeared over a bison drop before he became famous for his 1977 Governor General Award winning novel The Wars. He used to come to Ottawa on promotional reading tours and stay at my best friend Frank Cole's house. Frank's mother Jean had attended school with Tiff's partner William Whitehead. And every time Tiff came to town he and Bill stayed at Frank's parents' house, and my wife Dale and I got invited to wonderful dinner parties.
In those days I'd written earnest letters to other famous Canadian writers like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence and Norman Levine. And bless them, they dutifully read my early work, and wrote kind, helpful letters. I read their books, taking copious notes. I collected expensive first editions. I scrutinized writers lives to find clues about what a writer's life might be.
I knew everything about Tiff's early years as a struggling actor and then later when he was a seemingly confident, yet intensely insecure writer. Like most writers Tiff had a catalogue of personal obsessions and themes. His characters seemed troubled with memory, and they held onto secrets. They loved evening lamplight, music played on a distant gramophone, colt revolvers hidden in drawers, rabbits, cats and gardens. For a dime, at a yard sale, I purchased the Autumn 1956 inaugural issue of the literary magazine Tamarack Review that included Timothy Findley's first published story, About Effie.
One evening when Tiff and Bill were in town at Frank's parents' house, half way through a formal dinner party with 8 people, I worked up the gumption to shyly announce, "Does anyone want to hear a short story I wrote?"
Of course, no one said a word.
Certainly no one wanted to hear the rough draft of a story written by an unpublished writer. Frank had already softened Tiff up by telling him that I wanted to be a writer, and so against all good judgment - like a rabbit pulled from a hat - I produced a scruffy typewritten manuscript of a 2,500 word short story.
Broken Harmony could be described as a lean, poetic Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, Norman Levine, Timothy Findley type story narrated by a dying grandmother who lives with her single parent daughter and her granddaughter Cora. Even though the grandmother is in a wheelchair, Cora learns that her grandmother secretly walks at night into the garden to hide gifts for Cora.
As the table of dumbstruck guests at Frank's parents dining room stared at me, I took a breath and launched into the first paragraph: "The flowers are thick strokes of colour moving on light. Little Cora is following the cat through flowers near the picket fence. I know she is lost in a great forest of the garden. This house with its white boards, open windows and run down verandah must be the world to her. It is now my world, together with what I can see out of the windows and what I call my own secrets and memories..."
While reading Broken Harmony, I had my first out-of-body experience. Like an apparition I stood up, and stepped away from my reading self who droned on and on. Everyone trapped at the table sat mesmerized, not because of my literary or oratory skills, but because of the embarrassing audacity, and my cheeky presumption that anyone would want to hear an impromptu reading by a nobody.
But there I stood, looking down at myself until I lifted both hands up into the air and then hoarsely berated my reading self:
"Are you crazy? What the hell are you doing? Holy crap, this is nuts?"
I wanted to run out of the room. But of course my shaky reading self continued word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, reading on while people scraped forks on half empty plates, coughed politely, and sipped wine, no doubt thanking the Lord that it wasn't one of them reading alone, but this poor fool.
Ten long minutes after moving my story through its stages of exposition, and rising and falling action, I had made it to the ambiguous denouement of the final paragraph: "We cross a vacant lot past boulders and down to the weeping willows. The river smells of cold and fish and rock. It rushes thickly down the centre and spreads itself beneath the willows. I can feel the strength in me rise to my mouth. Cora is holding my hand tightly. My little girl will be alright, her mother is a good woman. Something is trying to climb out of me as we stand here. I smile; my daughters, my life, dance before this river of night."
In the acute, suspended silence of the Cole's dining room I waited.
To use an overworked cliche - it seemed as though this moment would last an eternity. But I was grateful that Tiff sat at the opposite end of the table. As an actor and brilliant reader, Tiff had honed an impeccable sense of timing.
Everyone stared at Tiff as though he were the messiah.
Depending on his response, I was totally prepared to quit writing forever. Tiff's boyish middle aged face and coy body language reflected his trademark, vulnerable, slightly precious manner.
And then he uttered only three words.
"Are you prolific?"
I was stung, but still hopeful. Was he suggesting that I'd be a success if I could write more of the same? Was he warning the reading public? Or, because he had been manipulated into saying something critical yet gentle, was this all he could come up with?
Probably many things were going on in Tiff's mind, including the notion that what he really wanted to do was enjoy a quiet, uncomplicated dinner that didn't require yet another literary judgment. If Tiff had been a dentist, I'm sure he would resent a dinner guest leaning forward with their mouth wide open to ask his opinion about their wonky molars.
His response certainly didn't give me or anybody else anything to go on, and after a terrifying silence, the dinner moved on to other topics. I never really found out what he meant.
Broken Harmony ended up being my first published story, and it appeared a couple of years later in the literary magazine Quarry's Autumn 1982 issue. It was included in my first published book of short stories, Tender Only To One. Cora became the 25 year old narrator of my first novel, Cartoon Woods because I needed a fatherless woman to tell the story about why a middle aged man would take his own life. Over the years after each of my books were published, Tiff wrote short congratulatory letters, I suppose to quietly praise my far from prolific output.
Tiff, Margaret Laurence, and Norman Levine have all passed away into memory. Inscribed in the hard cover of my priceless copy of Famous Last Words is a paragraph in Tiff's flowery handwriting: "From one writer to another - the only thing to say is there are no last words, only first words", from Tiff at Ottawa, November 1981.
Richard Taylor teaches writing at Carleton University and is working on a new book about swimming with writers called Water and Desire.
A Dip In Hemingway's Swimming Pool
Ottawa Citizen's Weekly, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006 and in the literary magazine The Feathertale Review, Sept. 2006
Travelling on a murderously lean budget, I planned to fly to Key West for an illicit swim in Hemingway's swimming pool for a book I was working on about swimming with famous writers called Water and Desire. When a friend heard about my dip she said, "Be careful they don't shoot you, eh? Remember, you'll be in the Evil Kingdom where shooting trespassers is normal."
I had prearranged the cheapest room in very expensive Old Town Key West at the Eden House Hotel. My room was affectionately referred to as the 'broom closet', which had a small bed and no bathroom. I shed heavy clothes and luggage and slipped into my bathing suit, sandals and T-shirt then headed out into the oily heat of tropical sunlight to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum a few blocks away.
As an angst-filled, aspiring writer at university, I'd been seduced by Hemingway's tragic notion of corrupted innocence, and the way he found intensity in everything he did. I had come across a few pages of swimming in the last section of his novel The Sun Also Rises. The main character, Jake Barnes, stoically takes his lost illusions into the ocean during long distance swimming not just for the pure joy of it, but as a means towards salvation and self therapy.
I'd already been to the Hemingway House one rainy afternoon in the mid Seventies on a hippie van trip with my young wife Dale, surfing and swimming the perimeter of North America. Seeing the inner sanctum of Hemingway's writer's studio with its writing table and old Royal portable typewriter had reinforced my desire to become a writer. Two days later while visiting Disneyworld, Dale and I stepped out of a shuttle bus at Donald Duck parking lot and discovered that our van had been stolen. A brand new surfboard, portable typewriter, my early manuscripts and Dale's paintings - everything we owned from a year of travelling had vanished, and was never recovered.
Hemingway had also lost some of his early manuscripts when his first wife Hadley left his small suitcase in Paris. He was a restless dreamer who had lost his innocence as an ambulance driver in the First World War. He had lived in Paris, Switzerland, Italy, published books, courted adventure and war and swam off the beaches of Spain and the French Riviera. A few months after his father visited him in Key West Hemingway lost his father to suicide. Recently he had also lost his first wife Hadley, because he had taken on a second, Pauline. Together they bought the house on Whitehead and Duval St. in Key West, America's only Caribbean Island, 90 miles from Cuba.
On an early visit to Key West Hemingway spent most of his time swimming, fishing, drinking, and rewriting 39 drafts for the ending of A Farewell To Arms which is about an army deserter who loses everything, including his wife and newborn to childbirth. The opening three sentences of that novel, like the beginning of life itself, hints at a terrible beauty:
"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees."
In his study above the swimming pool Hemingway had also written his book about the art of living and bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon; his novel of the Great Depression, To Have and Have Not; his African Safari book, Green Hills of Africa; and a collection of stories, Winner Take Nothing which includes one of my favourites, After The Storm. Inspired by a true story about the sinking of a Spanish liner off Key West, this whole story takes place in the water. After a big hurricane, a man swims out to see what he can salvage from a sunken liner. Hoping to find treasure, he's the first one there. But when another storm approaches, he has to leave, and ends up with nothing, except for an experience both he and the reader never forget:
"I could hold on for a second to the edge of the port hole and I could see in and there was a woman inside with her hair floating all out... I could see the rings on one of her hands. She was right up close to the port hole and I hit the glass twice and I didn't even crack it. When I came up I thought I wouldn't make it to the top before I'd have to breathe."
In air scented with frangipani, jasmine and The Gulf Stream, I arrived at the Hemingway House that is surrounded by an imposing stone wall Hemingway had built to keep his privacy. All through the Depression and up to the beginning of the Second World War Hemingway lived here in a house full of servants in a neighbourhood that included spooky churches, whore houses, cock fights, a lighthouse, a naval installation, and a 6 hour car ferry service to the guilty pleasures of Havana Cuba. And for a decade in between his travels and adventures, Hemingway found a temporary home where he could live and write.
I paid my admission, and entered the house, trying not to make eye contact with any of the tour guides. Each preserved room is filled with photos, paintings, first editions, and period furniture. One of my favourite curiosities is an ancient Spanish dining room table surrounded by 6 leather chairs with metal holders on their backs where swords were sheathed to insure that each man was prepared to eat in peace. The gnarly descendants of Hemingway's cats lounged around each room, prowled the gardens, and pussy footed along the edge of the shimmering waters of the swimming pool.
I trailed behind a group of tourists, listening to a tour guide's spiel as he embellished the Hemingway legend and led us through various rooms of the two buildings. At a surreal miniature graveyard for cats, we stared at innumerable grave stones with names like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, and I wondered how Franky and Norma would have felt knowing Hem had cats named after them. Near the swimming pool I learned that in the early 30's Hemingway had purchased the house for $8,000. In later years while Hemingway was reporting on the Spanish Civil war and hooking up with his third wife to be, writer Martha Gellhorn, his second wife Pauline had the first pool in Key West gouged out of the coral bedrock of their backyard. It cost $20,000. When Hemingway returned home from Spain he accused Pauline of using his last penny for the pool. Near the edge of the water I leaned over among the tourists marvelling at the lost penny entombed in cement under protective glass.
The pool is long and narrow, impeccably clean, and way too inviting. A chain around it means: NO SWIMMING. I sat in front of the pool and watched a lady who gazed over the waters as though communing with the master. Finally she wandered off through the gardens. By this time I had removed my sandals, shirt and sat in my bathing suit. No one was around so I insinuated myself beyond the chain and slipped into the refreshing water. I wanted to savour this swim, so I eased forward with a very slow, ardent breast stroke, swimming with Hemingway who often took a half mile dip before dinner, then read in the evening after a day of writing chapters of his Spanish civil war novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. How many famous people had swum naked in this water? At one point Hemingway used to keep a very large pet turtle in the pool, which I'm sure alarmed guests who came over for a splash. After Hemingway left Pauline, she stayed on at the house for another 10 years with their sons, and each Sunday she invited famous and not so famous friends to come over for a swim in the pool.
At the wall, I turned and started stroking towards Hemingway's writing studio. Hemingway loved water. It played a key role in his life and most of his writings. There are photos of him swimming naked in the sea at a deserted beach near his house in Cuba where he temporarily found peace and tranquillity from his own celebrity. In one photo, only his bespectacled head is out of the water as he holds a newspaper in his hands while he contentedly reads. Hemingway's author-as-hero-legend, and his intensity for life are as well known as the way he succumbed to death. Early on he defined life as, 'grace under pressure' - something I was learning about myself, because my dad was blind and in the early stages of Alzheimers and the real reason for me being in Florida was so that I could drive my ailing parents back home to Canada.
Back in Hemingway's day, a famous writer who was also a world travelling romantic adventurer attracted a media frenzy to whatever he did and wherever he went. But in some ways he ended up the Elvis Presley of literature. In his last years when Hemingway was afraid of losing his house in revolutionary Cuba, his virility and health, and his ability to write, Hemingway confessed to his trusted secretary Toby Bruce that things were 'confused in his head'.
"Nothing works right in the old machine anymore," Hemingway lamented. A couple of months after Hemingway's father had shot himself, his mother Grace sent her son a crate to Key West. Inside, Hemingway found canvases of his mother's awkward paintings, a mouldy chocolate cake, and the Smith and Wesson revolver his father had used on Dec. 6, 1928, 33 years before Hemingway shot himself.
Half way back on the final lap of my swim, a group of 30 tourists and their tour guide rounded the corner of the pool house. They stared open mouthed at me in the water, crowding to the edge between me and my clothes on the bench. Giving me the filthiest look, the tour guide said, "You'll have to leave the premises." Someone in the crowd chanted, "Way to Go." Another gave me two thumbs up, and someone asked, "How's the water?" Still perturbed, the tour guide said flatly, "We don't have liability for swimmers." And I mumbled, "I'm writing a book about swimming with writers. I just couldn't resist."
A couple of people clapped as I sheepishly hauled myself out of the water, schlepped over to my clothes, and quickly dried off with my shirt. The other tour guides were making their way towards the pool area so I decided that I had better disappear before they called the cops, or worse - before someone got the idea of putting a dome over the pool and selling plastic bottles of pool water for 3 bucks, and ungrammatically calling it WATER THE GREAT PROSE MASTER SWAM IN. So I hurried out the gate down to the end of Duval Street to swim at the seedy beach where Tennessee Williams used to swim in the nude.
Richard Taylor who teaches at Carleton University has published House Inside The Waves and has trolled his toes in most of the seven seas.
Ottawa Citizen's Weekly book pages, 14 November 2004
An Open Water Swimmer Finds a Solution to That Bane of Long Distance Swimming - Loneliness. Just Take The Plunge With A Friend
"The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty."
- from John Cheever's, The Swimmer.
Early in the summer, we stand among 50 mourners at a Norway Bay Cemetery to honour the memory of Jack, an old family friend. Beyond the sunlit graveyard you can see the Ottawa river through branches of a line of fragrant pines. After the service, my, wife, Dale drops me off at the municipal wharf. I will be swimming to the funeral reception, three kilometres across the bay.
Recent heavy rains have left the water high and unseasonably cold. Before plunging in, I remind myself that death is a natural progression, a crossing of boundaries. A few lines of poetry from my friend, Michelle Desbarats' book, Last Child To Come Inside, perk me up:
"Jesus was thinking, water, I can walk on it.
Now I'm always wondering, what would
have happened if I just swam."
Swimming has been described as underwater flying. The key is to relax your movements, so that, like flight, it becomes an effortless poetry in motion. Surrealist painter Salvador Dali once claimed "the dream of flight is nothing but a memory of the state of weightlessness, which the unborn has undergone in-utero." This might explain why open water swimmers feel the desire to return to the depths of nature's womb.
With my eyes at water level, I keep our friend's cottage on the far point as a beacon, and settle into a long soulful freestyle. If one believes the speculations about man's aquatic phase of evolution, and if one reflects upon the webbings between fingers and toes, the more or less hairless, streamlined body, then swimming open water doesn't seem so frivolous. It's a healthy, practical mode of transportation that can also be erotic, dangerous, relaxing, philosophical, religious, and obsessive.
The brilliant, but troubled American writer John Cheever made a mess of his own life. He and his fictional characters always seemed to be looking, metaphorically, for some kind of spiritual healing light. Cheever's classic short story, The Swimmer was also made into a film starring Burt Lancaster. Middle aged Ned Merrill, the swimmer, clad only in swimming trunks, possesses an uneasy restlessness that one day leads him to go home from a pool party by swimming the backyard pools en route.
And so searching for my own way home to the light - 40 years to the month the New Yorker published Cheever's story about Ned Merrill's epic swim - I find myself moodily leaving the river to stroll among Jack's rowdy well wishers who are eating and drinking at his after-funeral-party.
Often, open water swimmers are defiant romantics, free spirits more at home in water than on land. Free or wild swimming can be solitary and lonely, so I decided last summer to make it social. When word gets out about my esoteric swims, I am invited everywhere to taste the waters.
At my friend Larry McCloskey's mother in law's cottage on Lake St. Peter, near the east gate of Algonquin Park, I suggest to Larry's wife Cara that we explore a bay of her lake she's avoided swimming since childhood. Normally she refuses to wear goggles because she doesn't want to see what is under the water. But I convince her otherwise.
After a rhythmic 15 minute freestyle, we slow down, and quietly breaststroke along the shoreline, inspecting the flowering lily pads. Then we submerge beneath docks and rafts, checking out the fish who bask in the shadows. Later in the chill of evening, as Cara lights a fire, she admits, "Rick, that swim today was a religious experience. All I need is a woodstove, and a lake."
The next day we cram food, wives and daughters into the van and drive into Canoe Lake. Larry, who wrote the young adult murder mystery, Tom Thomson's Last Paddle stands beside me at the rental dock that is swarming with tourists, some stuffed into canoes, and says, "Did you ever see so many misfits in the wilderness?"
Clad in life jackets, our girls settle shakily into a rental canoe and Larry sits in his one man kayak, while I dive off the public dock, stroking towards the Bletcher Cottage, 4 kilometres away.
Martin Bletcher supposedly held the key to unlock the mystery behind the murder/suicide/accidental drowning of painter Tom Thomson. The inquest into Thomson's death took place at Bletcher's Cottage, now owned by our Ottawa friends Bob and Mary Crook. Another Ottawan, former Citizen sports columnist Roy McGregor, wrote a novel about the Tom Thomson mystery called Shorelines.
Even as one passes the locations where Thomson's canoe was found and his body recovered, many visitors to Canoe Lake will swear they have seen Thomson's ghostly canoe drifting towards shore. Thomson, arguably the most famous Canadian painter, was also an avid lake swimmer. So naturally, I'm keeping an eye out for him in the water.
Arriving at the Bletcher place, we learn that our friends are not home. So we head across the lake to Tom Thomson's Cairn, a carved totem pole that honours his achievements and death in July 1917. Larry's novel wisely leaves the mystery of Thomson's demise open to the reader's imagination. But as I continue swimming in Thomson's lake, my imagination dwells on poet Al Purdy who once described lake water as the mysterious everyday stuff you can drink or drown in.
Back at the Lake St. Peter cottage, I discover a 4 year old Cottage Life magazine article about writer Greg Hollingshead and his remote Algonquin Park cabin. Hollingshead won the 1995 Governor General's Literary Award for his story collection The Roaring Girl. In 2002 while we were promoting our books together at the Ottawa International Writer's Festival I found him intelligent and affable. And so armed with the article's description about Greg's well kept secret from civilization, Larry and I bump along a logging road that cuts through the Canadian Shield. After several wrong turns and nearly tearing out the bottom of my van, we arrive at Cauliflower Lake. Larry unstraps his kayak, and I dive into the water.
According to the article it's a 10 minute motor boat ride, which means a 45 minute swim to Greg's cabin, one of only two properties on the lake.
Through a shallow, narrow gap that opens out into another concealed bay, we suddenly spot Greg's place among trees. Larry stops paddling and says he doesn't want to be first to the dock.
As I nervously breast stroke in towards the 1930's log cabin and its ramshackle outbuildings, I see the silhouette of a man. Closer to the dock I shout, "Hi Greg, it's Rick Taylor. I wrote House Inside The Waves. We met at the Ottawa Writer's Festival two years ago".
For a moment he is taken aback, then he says, "Oh, hi there."
As I clamber onto the dock and Larry paddles up, Greg invites us in for a beer, and we realize this reclusive writer is glad to see us.
Inside his charming screened-in porch that hangs over the water he tells us about his upcoming promotional tour for his new novel, Bedlam.It deals with an infamous insane asylum in 18th century London. For a guy who spent the last five years writing about lunatics he seems sane. With his close cropped beard, thick coiffed hair and horizon filled eyes, Greg looks like a writer's writer.
His work has been compared with Flannery O'Connor and Jean Rhys. Manuscript pages litter his wooden table. Glancing out at the serene lake, we understand why he savours the profound silence of this cabin in 100,000 acres of bush, rock and water.
Since I last saw Greg, he's had a hip replacement and his gall bladder removed. Larry and I, the picture of scrawny fitness, jabber about the need for writers to get active, and offer to let Greg try out the kayak.
After gleefully paddling around the dock area like a madman, Greg asks us how we are getting back to the far end of the lake. I slip on my goggles and tell him, "I'm swimming."
Another sunny day, my friend Armand Ruffo, who teaches with me in the English Department at Carleton, suggests we swim at Marble Lake near St. Pierre de Wakefield. Armand hasn't been to his property on the lake since the publication of his last book of poems, At Geronimo's Grave, in 2001. His most acclaimed book, Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney was made into a Hollywood movie. At the Gatineau shoot, actor Pierce Brosnan asked Armand for a signed copy of his book for Brosnan's father who had attended one of Grey Owl's lectures in England.
With frogs exploding near the water's edge, Armand eases his canoe into the lake. I dive in among reeds, then stroke beside Armand who is an elegant canoeist. Armand's mother was Ojibway and his father Italian, and Grey Owl once lived with his great-grandparents. So he was well equipped to tell the story of Grey Owl, the Englishman who reinvented himself as a Canadian Indian, a beloved conservationist and world famous lecturer and writer.
Armand's lakeside property is an overgrown clearing in the woods with a fire pit. Among the trees, we eat while Armand outlines the difficulties of working on his upcoming film, A Windigo Tale, compared to the uncomplicated luxury of writing a book.
I coax Armand out into the water. "Take longer, slower arm strokes. Really stretch it out, and accelerate through with your hands," I say, floating beside Armand. "Relax your breathing. Pivot your head sideways for air, just above the water line as your opposite arm reaches to grab water. Try not to waste energy. It's all about rhythm and getting a feel for the water."
For a few strokes he looks magnificent. Then his kick weakens. His arms begin to criss cross, and finally he stops.
We breaststroke further along, sniffing the scent of cedar and pine, "If you could swim with the same ease you handle a canoe, you'd be all set."
We continue through a narrow channel that opens into a much larger section of the lake, then aim for a granite cliff.
Early one evening, my wife Dale slips into her kayak and skims across duck frenzied water above the falls at the old Mill in Manotick. From the bulrushes, I dive into the gamy Rideau river and swim hard to get free of the water rushing over the damn. Soon, we move in tandem through glassy water that shimmers with glorious sunlight.
I keep my head above water as my chest, stomach and lower extremities are groomed by the heaving tentacles of weeds. Also, I try not to dwell on the huge muskies who roam these waters. Casually stroking past some of the most expensive waterfront real estate in Ottawa, we chat with and wave at folks sitting on their docks.
Further along, I swim to a man puttering around his boathouse with two classic wooden boats. He tells me that the river clears up by the middle of the week, after the muck from weekend boat traffic settles down.
Later, I'm afraid to look down because it's not the middle of the week, and the weeds are getting much too amorous. I won't be able to swim all the way around the south island, so I wave Dale on in her kayak, then struggle out of the water.
Dressed a lot like Ned Merrill (or Burt Lancaster) from The Swimmer, I hot foot it up through someone's property and lope along the road towards the other side of Manotick.
A woman standing by her Toyota notices the incongruity of the situation and kindly offers to drive me to my van. Speckled with weeds, I sit sheepishly in the backseat. She giggles most of the way through the dubious explanation about my aquatic program. I decide not to elaborate on Cheever's notion about "the singular force of time through which one seems to swim."
This past summer I've learned that the joy and grace experienced in open water, the sense of spiritual renewal, is shared by many swimmers. I see triathletes in wet suits crossing lakes alone, or clusters of them keeping time with one another's stroke.
Many non triathletes swim as a kind of solace and therapy - solitary heads moving along a river or lake. Some swimmers drag a flotation device to caution motorboats. The slow progress of elderly swimmers can be seen at almost any time, and in the coldest waters. Friends and lovers breaststroke, discussing the larger and smaller issues of life. There is no mistaking the sublime inner passion of aquatic minded souls.
As summer's end approaches, being in the water becomes somewhat of a mania. Near Perth, at Ernie and Susan's cottage, I swim around the big island of spring fed Ferron Lake. At Lise and Adrian's lake in Val des Monts, I accompany Adrian who, for the first time, swims to the other side and back. I also do a night swim with their guests, including, writer Melanie Little who wrote the collection of short stories, Confidence.
Near Buckingham, I spend a couple of days with my mentor from Carleton, writer Tom Henighan who reads me passages about swimming from the Odyssey. In the gloom before a thunderstorm, he bravely accompanies me with his canoe while I swim a long arm that joins Hawk Lake and Lady Lake. At Lac Sam with my brother in law Vic and our friend Dwight I swim out into the 120 meter deep lake for a chat with a family floating along on an unusual raft. Two teenagers read novels on lawn chairs while the family dog eyeballs me nervously and the father and mother prepare dinner on a barbecue.
My good friend Jocelyn, a budding writer who owns Trillium Bakery, invites me to her moose, ghost and bear haunted log cabin at Source Lake which she claims is the source of the Madawaska river, and I also swim it because it flows into the Ottawa river. A surfer friend, John March, whose Canadian Masters record for the 200 meter backstroke could only be bettered by the world record holder, now prefers the pleasures of soul swims. I try to keep up with his lithe freestyle as we swim narrow Lac Kingsmere, passing by Mackenzie King's boathouse.
For most of the summer I have been accompanied by my crazed Aquarian buddy Pete the cop who is a family man, triathlete, and reader of contemporary literature. For a lark, Pete and I swim the 4 kilometres, beach to beach, at Meech Lake in an hour. Like gentle souled Vikings, we ravage many secret lakes.
By the end of September, after the beaches up in the Gatineau are closed for the season, after a record breaking deluge of rain from the tail end of tropical hurricanes drenches Ottawa, and after a long, well deserved Indian Summer, Pete and I are at Meech Lake, for one last swim.
Already the leaves are turning. Vividly rouged layers of mountains surrounding the lake seem to shrink distance, and enhance the clarity of the water. With uplifted hearts, Pete and I move through a liquid mirror. We stroke toward the sun - a ball of warmth sinking beyond the horizon.
In this pure, elegiac light, we swim as though we might be able to swim beyond the water.
Richard Taylor teaches at Carleton and has published a travel memoir, HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and The Surfing Life.
Ottawa Citizen's Weekly, 21 September 2003
Open water swimming unlocks a magical world
"Water is hydrogen two parts, oxygen one.
But there is also a third thing, that makes it water
And nobody knows what that is."
- D.H. Lawrence.
Like a lot of people, I'm addicted to water. Swimming offers the cheapest and most effective relief from stress, depression and restlessness. It buoys you up with a mysterious physical buzz. All winter, instead of concentrating on skiing or skating, I swim 10 km. a week with the Nepean Masters Swim Club.
To keep an edge on, I compete at Provincial and National levels in the 1,500 meter freestyle. Sixty grueling laps of a 25 meter pool. But I really live for June till mid September when I shun the Band-Aids, hair balls and tepid water of chlorinated pools and give in to the wild beauty of soul swimming.
Luckily, the cottage country of Ontario and Quebec boasts some of the finest open water swimming in the world. Of course, the season is short compared to the tropics, but there are no sharks, jellyfish, sea snakes, gnarly surf, rip tides, undertows, crocodiles or typhoons. You do, however, have to dodge the propellers of motor boats, idiots on jet skis and bolts of lightning from summer squalls. Also, you may have to navigate through ominous tusks of half-submerged dead heads, and pull in your gut as you skim over shallow rocky shoals. With your head wreathed in pursuing deer flies, you may even have to outswim crazed otters, muskrats and beavers.
A rare breed, open water swimmers embrace the magic that eludes the rest of landlocked humanity. Being able to comfortably swim almost anywhere is like having the ability to fly. When you enter the water you tend both to lose yourself and find yourself. As soggy as it may sound, with this naked liberty you are back in the womb, one with nature.
Of course, even the most competent should not attempt a solo swim. It is wise to be accompanied by a partner, or a spotter in a rowboat, kayak, or canoe. Another safe option is to swim with one of those streamlined flotation devices attached by rope to your waist. All summer, there are many clubs and informal groups who meet for an early morning or evening swim.
Aside from a questing spirit and a willingness to get wet, open water swimming requires only a Speedo-style bathing suit (the skimpier the better in terms of drag), a pair of well fitting goggles, and a snug swimming cap to protect your head from the sun and to keep it warm on the cooler days. Some swimmers, especially triathletes, purchase Rip Curl or Orca wet suits for added warmth, flotation and speed. But many connoisseurs prefer to feel as much water as possible on their skin.
This summer I've tasted secret ponds; fast flowing streams; a tree shrouded weir; evening dips with my friend Pete the cop at Meech Lake (including a 9 a.m. 1.5 km race), meandering swims up the Ottawa river at our cottage at Norway Bay (including an annual long distance swim), a swim with my friend Cara in misty rain at her Algonquin Park cottage, and a near perfect week with my brood up at a tiny, waterfalled lake at Val des Monts.
After you do a fairly brisk 1 to 2 km freestyle, the endorphin rush nearly leaves you giddy. In open water you need to learn how to find a straight line. Pick a beacon in the distance: a large tree, a cottage, a dock, or island. Lift your head now and again to realign your destination; swim with a relaxed rhythm - arm over arm with a long reach, a powerful pull and follow through, together with a steady, shallow kick that will keep you afloat while you're sensually propelled through the water.
Believe it or not, some open water swimmers don't wear goggles because they prefer to swim with their eyes closed. The dark mystery of what is down below keeps many out of the water. But don't give in to fear. Just quietly breaststroke with your head up out of the water for awhile. Take a good look around as you swim along the shoreline of a rocky island fringed with sweet scented cedars and weathered driftwood.
Thinking he's camouflaged among a jungle of reeds, an elegant blue heron gazes back at you, appalled that anyone would dare to enter his domain. Notice the wind gently rustling his feathers, the same wind that ripples the glassy surface of the lake. On a half-submerged log, like a row of German war helmets, painted turtles are sunning themselves. As you approach, each one tilts and plops into the water.
Now take a deep breath and submerge into the SAFE world below. Don't mind the tall fronds of seaweed wavering before you.Then stroke over to the edge of a Monet's garden of water lilies. Swimming among lily pads offers you a vegetal sensation of going through the undulating caress of a car wash. The flowers are white with an exquisite yellow centre, and when you lean in for a whiff, they have the sweet rubbery scent of fragrant soap.
Farther along, hold your breath and glide just beneath the surface. You might notice a gleaming school of minnows, their bodies so transparent all you see are their fine bones and huge eyes. Often you will encounter yellow striped perch, a half dozen coy bass, sunfish, a long, stunned pike, or meet up with an inquisitive muskie. You may even bond with sturgeon, catfish, eels, crayfish, water snakes, and the odd prehistoric looking snapping turtle.
While stroking through water, I always unravel whatever life's quandaries are perplexing me.The big one this summer has been coping with selling a house and buying a new one.
Finally, dive down deep until you are swimming along the bottom. Then, because you have been swimming with angels all along, gaze upward at the slanting shafts of radiant sunlight, as though you are immersed in some vast ancient cathedral of God.
Richard Taylor teaches at Carleton University and has published a travel memoir, HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing Life.
HOW TO BECOME A WRITER
The Citizen's Weekly Reading, 29 September 2002
READ. WRITE. PUSH.
Discover and inhale your own eclectic tribe of spirit mentors, for example: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Gauguin, Ondaatje and company. Once you become a passionate reader, a listener, a taster and thinker, writing may become a natural outlet. Write as a means to travel beyond your own life. Capture moments of despair, joy, intensity, rapture, irony, pity (and most everything else), so that hopefully some of this may be understood by others. Because it seems, most writers share Jean Cocteau's famous quandry, "This sickness to express oneself, what is it"
SILLY REASONS TO BECOME A WRITER: Sex. Money. Fame. Power. Immortality.
DEMENTED STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH WRITERS BLOCK: A lot of writers drink.They distill everything through their heads, hearts, and guts and foolishly attempt to turn it into words. Sometimes I'll do almost anything rather than sit my ass down to write. Sometimes I eat, do odd jobs around the house, study myself in the mirror, pace the rooms, or stare out the window. Even when the juice is flowing and I can't wait to get back to my desk, the neurotic anticipation that I might be writing either great literature or dog shit leaves me so agitated I need release. Luckily I have my wife Dale, my girls, housework and swimming.
HOW TO GET PUBLISHED: Read. Get something, anything down on paper. Push yourself to the limit, then push harder. Expose your manuscript. Make getting published a life and death quest.
GENERAL ADVICE ON HOW TO AVOID SHARK ATTACK: You can't.
Even metaphorically speaking, sharks happen.
No one is exempt. Like most people I've experienced shark attacks of one kind or another. That's why striving for an authentic life is so important. By authentic, I don't mean proper, conventional, or politically correct.
I mean you should seek out and embrace the poetry in everyday life, because you never know what's around the next corner. Give little things the grandeur they deserve. Live it up while you've got the chance.
Richard Taylor, who teaches writing at Carleton University, has just published a travel memoir, HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing life.
WHEN IN ROAM...
The Ottawa Citizen, broadsheet magazine, 20 June 2004
Hiking Into The Heart Of English Literature
After tunneling through an arbour of vanilla-scented gorse we come upon a vast field of sulphur-yellow rape seed, so bright it seems to reflect the heat from the sunlit English Channel filling the horizon. Our walking path is visible for miles ahead along the rugged coastline, a ribbon on the rolling hills etched with fringes of hedgerows leading to our destination - the crowned spire of a medieval church.
We pass our evenings at a charming riverside cottage in the tiny village of Notter Bridge near Plymouth, among the British who until their empire crumbled, thought they had the God-given right to rule the world. Yet, that said, here lies the cradle of English literature.
Each morning, my wonderfully unhinged brother in law, Vic, and his two other fairly well behaved retired school teacher friends from Ottawa and myself drive to a new destination. Then we pull on our hiking boots to explore the coastline of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, passing through sudden fogs, by ancient churches, lonely farms, ruined castles, gardens, across empty heaths, downs and moorland, slaking our thirst at such pubs as The Ships Inn, The White Hart, The Rat and Parrot.
Because England's southwest has been called the birthplace of English Literature, this trek is becoming a literary and historical journey of many unusual surprises.
Eight out of ten Brits are walkers. Writer Paul Theroux says Great Britain is the most widely tramped piece of geography on Earth. According to the Lonely Planet's guide, WALKING IN BRITAIN, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act passed by parliament allows walkers to roam where they please. Footpaths are protected and marked off by an extensive network of public rights of way. Most landowners voluntarily open up their property with gates and stiles to encourage othes to roam across their land.
Quite literally, you can walk through the entire British Isles. Everywhere, it seems, unless you happen to amble onto Madonna and her husband Guy Richie's 1200 acre estate, on the Wiltshire Dorset border. Apparently, her 9 million dollar country retreat isn't big enough. In court, they've insisted that allowing public access to their land would breach their rights to the undisturbed possession of property.
YOU KNOW A BRIDGE IS OLD WHEN when a sign says that it was widened in 1819. Even though the perilously narrow roads in rural England are legendary, that doesn't make them any easier to bear as we each take turns, piloting our small rented car along these stone walled, ivy covered luge runs whose only redeeming quality is that they keep us all frisky.
Beneath a cathedral of towering beech trees, on a trail carpeted by blue bells and wild garlic the locals call 'stinky onion', our stroll up in Exmoor National Park in northern Devon, traces the footsteps of 18th century poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They moodily wandered here together and were inspired to write their joint publication, Lyrical Ballads which launched the Romantic Movement in English Poetry.
In single file, the four of us trek in quiet reverie along the riverbank.There's nothing but grazing sheep and wind in the trees and I think how potently lonely this place must have been 200 years ago. Despite historic, economic and political happenings in the wider world, nothing has changed in Exmoor. Certainly the mood swings of people haven't altered much either. Nowadays, caught up in our virtual realities, more than ever we seem cut off from nature and authenticity.
An acutely imaginative thinker, Coleridge was impassioned by his nature walks and opium induced dreams. Living in an isolated farmhouse near here, and forced to go into his imagination like a contemporary insomniac surfing the web late at night, he wrote his most visionary poems, Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (both1816). His soulmate, Wordsworth, no doubt thinking of modern life, wrote:
"Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours...
For this, for everything, we are out of tune."
Together they transformed ordinary life and their deep love of nature into enduring art. So we finish our day by driving into the village of Nether Stowey where Coleridge's house still stands.
Though it is closed, I peer into small windows, hoping to glean some of the dark subterranean poetry from the poet who had "drunk the milk of paradise."
Before melancholy gets the better of me, I hear Vic's gleeful cry: "Hey Ricky, the fooking pub across the street is called The Ancient Mariner."
What strikes me as touching about these aging Canadian lads I tramp alongside, who are a decade older than I am, is that they still seem to be vibrant, mischievous young men even though they are operating in bodies that are tightening, wrinkling and shrinking. Vic has gone stone grey, Dwight wears a hearing aid, Ed has false teeth, and I'm losing my hair.
Deteriorating with grace - much like the British Empire as it passes the baton to the new American Empire. Although nothing lasts forever, in some ways, aging encourages one to appreciate everything much more intensely.
WE TAKE A STEAM TRAIN IN SOUTH DEVON on a former Great Western Railway branch line, passing through three viagra-oriented towns of Totnes, Cockington and Buckfastleigh. Vic, who has an impressive bookcase of train books, is transported back to his English childhood as we sit in a refurbished rail car taking in whiffs of burning coal and steam wafting into the windows, listening to the 'I think I can', 'I think I can' chuff of the engine as it builds speed up the steep grade. As we rattle along the swift-flowing River Dart, Vic sticks his head out the window and hollers in utter abandon.
The port city of Torquay, Devon on the English Riviera is home to the world's once-greatest crime fiction writer, Dame Agatha Christie. Born in Torquay, she also worked here during WWI as a nurse where she acquired knowledge of poisons which were central to the plot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920).
Torre Abbey, dating back to 1196, houses her favourite armchair, 1937 Remington typewriter and handwritten manuscript of A Caribbean Mystery.
We jump onto the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway that follows the coastline and was often a journey undertaken by Agatha Christie and her character Hercule Poirot in the ABC Murders and Dead Mans Folly, and we ruminate about lost souls who rode these rail cars.
Built for the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, cement ramps still run from the quayside into Torquay's harbour and are visible at high tide. Twenty-five years earlier, I was with Vic and our two young wives in this town. Our father-in-law, Ernie Gosselin, had been stationed here during the early 1940's as a Spitfire pilot. Family legend has it that he played piano in Ivy Benson's all girls band.
A couple of days later, while driving through morning rush hour to get an early start on another hike, Ed quips: "It's Monday. Anybody feeling blue?"
THE LIZARD COASTWALK BEGINS WITH A mysterious fog rolling in off the Channel. As we walk the high rugged cliffs, we spot the wreck of a freighter on the shoreline and understand the awesome power of the sea that surrounds this small island. So much of the history that has shaped our world began on this southwest coastline. Sir Francis Drake set out on his daring global circumnavigation and later, with 60 ships, he defeated 130 galleons of the Spanish Armada, and saved Elizabeth's England. The Pilgrim Fathers sailed out of Plymouth to begin a new world. The voyages of both Cook and Darwin began here. Suring the Second World War, an armada of warships departed from this coast to reclaim France from Nazi Germany.
Along the footpaths, we meet jaunty hikers, trampers, ramblers and trekkers, some with walking sticks, canes, leashed dogs, binoculars, notebooks or paperback novels. Local walkers possess the insular, polite reticence of island dwellers. One old chap with an arthritic dog in tow says: "I rarely switch on the telly anymore. The world goes on. Nothing changes."
On the telly last evening we watched Bush and Blair backpedal from the new Vietnam they've created in Iraq. And as the Prime Minister of Thailand puts in his bid to buy the illustrious Liverpool Football Club, many sports fans seem to have their knickers in a knot, even though it will mean cheap labour and a boon in Liverpool memorabilia sales all over Asia.
It's easy to get seduced by the magic of this island kingdom. Yet in the last 400 years, more than 20 million people have left the UK to begin new lives.
While gazing out from the cliffs, I understand why so many artists, writers, explorers, entrepeneurs and the disadvantaged had such a deep longing to see what lay beyond the horizon.
Nowhere in England is more than 150 kilometers from the sea, so for a break we go inland to the empty beauty of Dartmoor's granite crags. As a child, I'd been cozily terrified by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 novel the Hound of the Baskervilles, set on the eerie fog shrouded hills of Dartmoor.
Above the village of Witecombe-in-the-Moor, after one of our longest hikes, the four of us stretch out on a mossy peat bog surrounded by wild shaggy Dartmoor ponies. Even in sunlight this bleak place still haunts the imagination like Conan Doyle's ambiguous hero Sherlock Holmes who some say was a bisexual, violin playing, drug addict who had more than a passing interest in evil.
After a rigorous looping hike of Land's End with sea mist spritzing our faces we end up in a small fishing village of Sennon Cove at Myrtle's On the Beach. We treat ourselves to the very pretty Myrtle, who is the wholesome romantic who runs the cafe with her young son. Out on the terrace, we butter thick clotted cream onto each half of our scones, then dab on strawberry jam and sit back with our warm cups of tea.
As we take in the lines of swells rolling down the empty coastline, Dwight says: "This is another place I'm going to bring my lady when she retires.:
Thirty years ago, I took an English course at Simon Fraser University from a bearded, long haired professor who wore leather boots up to his thighs. Along with D.H. Lawrence, Pinter and Shaw he goaded us into reading a gothic Daphne du Maurier novel, whose opening sentence, "The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, " hooked me into literature, and writing.
The House On The Strand's drug induced hero, Dick Young imagines himself back in time. Who would have thought that in middle age I'd be a writer wandering both the contemporary and the 14 century parts of a novel I'd studied in my youth.
Even though the seaside town of Fowey had just finished a ten day Daphne du Maurier Festival of Arts and Literature, we hiked through wooded ravines and to remote beaches, passing by two of the houses where du Maurier lived and wrote bestselling novels including Rebecca, Frenchman;s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and short stories like The Birds and Don't Look Now which were made into famous movies.
Driving through a myriad of lost villages, we approach St. Ives on the south west coast of Cornwall. With the tide still going out, an enormous golden beach gives the illusion that St.Ives is much bigger.
Barbara Hepworth, who lived here along with so many other writers and artists, was instrumental in pushing modern sculpture into abstraction. Her art filled studio is housed in a local gallery.
Because at Carleton university I goad my students into reading the novel To The Lighthouse, I know that Virginia Woolf spent halcyon childhood summers at a seaside cottage in St. Ives. The beckoning light of Godrevy Lighthouse out on the distant point inspired her to write her most tender, autobiographical novel about domesticity, and the passing of time.
Taking in whiffs of rank, vegetal sea water and the scream of gulls, I think about Ottawa writer, Norman Levine who lived here for many years of self imposed exile. In Ottawa I had met Norman; we had exchanged letters and books. I liked the integrity of the man, and his autobiography written as fiction. In one of his stories he speaks about certain days that bring a terrible longing that is almost physical. While writing his lonely Canadian stories by the sea in Cornwall, he was no doubt hoping for a literary windfall that never came.
At dusk as the boys drink scotch and check out soccer news and Coronation Street, I slip out to chat with a bloke who fishes along the river. Because he has two young daughters and I miss my girls, we've connected. He says, "I swear on my two children," and launches into a story about his friend's grandfather who rode the Pony Express 300 miles through Indian Country with Abraham Lincoln's inaugural speech in his pouch.
His obsession with the myth of the Wild West is as out of proportion as our fantasies about Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, King Arthur's Court or the lost literary worlds of Thomas Hardy, Dickens and D.H. Lawrence.
Another day, we end up in the Roman spa city of Bath, appreciating the beautiful young Jane Austen disciples whose genteel propriety seems to infuse the preserved Georgian architecture and Regency terraces that were the background to the work of Jane Austen, who lived here reluctantly from 1801- 1805.
We explore the back streets, exquisite gardens and promenades where much of the novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are set. Nearby are the townhouses of the portraitist, Thomas Gainsborourgh, the Victorian explorer David Livingstone and our own General James Wolfe.
Even though there is much heavy breathing and unrequited desire in Jane Austen's world, it's understandible why so few relationships were ever consumated, as one character in Persuasion laments, "We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment's inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness."
On our way to London to catch a plane home, we nip into Salisbury in Wiltshire to see the cathedral that was built in 1250 and houses one of four existing copies of The Magna Carta. While wandering inside, I meet a devout old woman polishing an alabaster tomb.
England has so much living history that one is constantly reminded of mortality, as though, perhaps much of the country is a well preserved tomb. This chaste old soul, who is in charge of taking care of the tombs, tells me that William Golding, Nobel prize winning author of Lord of The Flies, used to teach in Salisbury, and wrote his novel, The Spire which of course, is about the symbol of symbols. Thomas Hardy, whose novel Jude The Obscure is also set here, would see the spire on moonlight rambles, and felt that Salisbury Cathedral is the closest human beings have managed to get to a physical manifestation of divine radiance.
After driving 2,700 kilometers, hiking more than 160 kilometers, and even taking a cathartic dip in the English Channel, for me, Salisbury Cathedral says much about the England novelist Angela Carter called 'an advanced industrialist Post Imperialist country in decline.'
In one corner of the cathedral, huge gears of an enormous medieval clock slip and notch one gear after another as one rope lifts and a stone ballast drops, and measured time slowly ticks away. Along another wall, a row of limp flags representing Imperial glory from the Boer War to the Second World War, slowly rot with age. But despite this erosion of time, something remains, as Coleridge once asserted: "Methinks, it must be the possession of a soul within us that makes the difference."
Ottawa writer Richard Taylor is the author of the recently published House Inside The Waves.
THE HIDDEN CONNECTIONS AMONG THINGS
Ottawa Citizen, April 2000
I know your time and energy are precious. You've probably got a job to do; there's way too much on your plate, too many demanding people depending on you. And to top it off, you've got to figure out who you are, and where the hell you're going. But you know, if you don't let yourself give in to a little poetry now and again, there just might be a real hole in your life.
Even though I have only published one honest to God poem that charged out of me the day John Lennon was shot, it's not that I don't adore poetry enough to write more poems, but my epiphanies usually arrive as short stories, novels or pieces of creative nonfiction. I write every day. I read voraciously, a half dozen books and magazines at a time. And every night, I fall asleep with the music of words. I guess you could say that in this insane, accelerated age of hi-tech consumerism, no-nonsense knowledge, progress, business and profit at all cost, it might seem a tad suicidal to make a career out of the simple pleasure of words. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. But look all around. The music of poetry is everywhere.
A long time ago, my godmother who lives alone now in a rambling old farmhouse up above the Ottawa River in Quebec once gave me an ancient tome, A Dictionary of Thoughts written in 1891. Recently I have been dipping into it for pleasure and plunder. This scarce, leather-bound book is a gathering of striking thoughts of the world's best thinkers. This collection of thoughts was begun by one Tryon Edwards, D.D., for his own personal use and reference. Eventually Edwards, whose dour heavy-lidded demeanor stares out from the inside cover like some dispossessed Confederate general was encouraged to compile a book of laconic quotations. Edwards, not unlike the solitary nighthawks who relentlessly surf the net these days for random knowledge and inspiration, gathered together a wide range of wisdom, beauty and common sense, to form a work that would provide solace to others. Early on in the century and on down through the tumbling decades, I imagine Edward's sturdy Dictionary of Thoughts was the perfect friend on dark nights of the soul up at my godmother's lonely, lamp lit farmhouse.
Alphabetically arranged by subject, I found Poetry wedged in between Pleasure and Policy. On the opposite page is a hang-dog, sleepy-eyed lithograph of poor old bedraggled Edgar Allan Poe who for some odd reason that would surely exacerbate his famous paranoia isn't even listed in the author's reference index. I noticed, however, that Tryon Edwards, D.D. has almost as many of his own quotes in the index as Goethe, Emerson and Shakespeare.
Written well over 100 years ago, the first four quotes on Poetry are still apt: Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing - Edmund Burke. Poetry is music in words; and music is poetry in sound - Thomas Fuller. The office of Poetry is not to make us think accurately, but feel truly - F.W. Robertson. You will find Poetry nowhere, unless you bring some with you - J. Jourbert. Curiously, two pages later I notice the Burke quote is duplicated exactly - a small editorial screw-up by Tryon Edwards, D.D. After finishing with the fine century-old wisdom about Poetry, I closed the book, resisting a detour into Avarice, Longing, Forgiveness, Guilt, Cheerfulness and Responsibility.
My trusty Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Poetry as "elevated expression of elevated thought or feeling in metrical or rhythmical form; quality (in any thing) that calls for poetical expression."
I'm convinced that most people recognize poetry when it confronts them, and when they feel the lack of it in their lives.
The film, American Beauty, certainly one of the most provocative in recent years, deals with the hidden connections among things. One of the characters, a lonely misunderstood teenager, shoots an unhealthy number of videos with his hand-held camera. His favourite is a short haunting bit of footage of a discarded white plastic bag caught in a sudden dust devil of wind. Like the slow dance of a small white ghost, the white bag lilts up and down in a sublime, hypnotic swirl that is so inexplicably sensual and exquisite to watch, you feel thunderstruck by an overwhelming sense of poetry.
Forget about the stress of your life for a little while. Forget about being intimidated by poetry. Forget Margaret Atwood's assertion that, even though it matters a whole lot, "poetry doesn't make money." Remember too that Wallace Stevens said "all poetry is experimental." And according to Ezra Pound, "only emotion endures." Get into it the way you might listen to a song the first time. Sometimes it takes a few listens, and sometimes even after listening to it a few times it either works for you or it doesn't. No big deal. Nothing is lost. But often responding to a poem can uncover hidden magic and associations that might titillate or challenge your emotions and intellect. Like anything else, the experience should wildly surpass its component parts. Or as the old proverb says, "The wind in the grass cannot be taken into the house."
IT'S A DOG'S LIFE
Nepean This Week, 12 March 2004
Now at 51 years of age, I've made the shocking discovery that I've become one of those old farts driving around alone in the family vehicle with his dog. Almost everywhere I go, he's with me, steadily looking forward into the oncoming traffic. A bad ass collie, checking out hostile pedestrians, or barking at cows, especially the artificial ones in front of Le Biftheque Restaurant on Greenbank Road. He's got a personal thing against bikers in helmets, and half dead commuters nodding off on loaded buses. Recently, my oldest daughter Sky said, "Shadow's your best friend, isn't he Dad?"
When I enter the house, no matter what time it is, or how many people are inside, the first thing I do is greet the dog. The second thing I do is grab Shadow's long nose and give it a good shake. He's always so deliriously happy to see me, but I know I'll never have the kind of money it would take to pay a human being to be that attentive.
I keep telling my wife Dale, "These are the good old days. We should enjoy them while they last." Even now while our life seems 'too full' and we're constantly driving our girls to and from basketball games and practices. Now when we have a dwindling cash flow, absolutely no free time, and our relatives and friends are getting old, some even dying. But with this cocky ten year old collie who replaced our other beloved collie, Ruby who passed away only a year ago, there is cause for much celebration.
In a house full of gnarly menopausal and pre and post pubescent women, a sensible, loyal male dog has tipped the balance in my favour. I realize that we're soul mates as I observe him in our back yard near the fence, savouring his solitude, and I'm sure, ruminating on his own gratitude. Often he'll just sit and stare out beyond the park, reflecting on who knows what deep memories about his other three previous owners. And whenever the end of his nose tries to curl up to one squinty, watering eye and he lets out the most painfully satisfying sneeze that nearly gives him whiplash, I rush over to comfort him by scratching his nose. I don't mind the drifting cauliflower-sized hair balls, too much. Or even his inability to do the amazing stunts that dogs on TV seem to perform so easily, like opening door knobs with their teeth. Because I'm so impressed by the way that he is hard - wired into the ancient rituals dogs have performed since they first began circling a few times before lying down - eyes vigilant in case a stone age man, a woolly mammoth or a sabre tooth tiger is lurking about to do them harm. So that in our house, he instinctively jams himself into the tightest possible corner with his back pressed against the front door, wedged in by someone's wet boots, safely protected while he dreams of dog bliss.
Of course, we never have to decide who is taking whom for a walk. We just leave the house together and disappear along the bike path that runs parallel to the train tracks, sniffing fresh air and enjoying the open sky and each other's silent company. With the trail covered in snow, he loves to lift one leg to calligraphy his initials, displaying the flamboyance of Salvador Dali. Then he's off bounding ahead, lowering his chops to scoop up a cold mouthful of snow for his aging gums. He's invinsible until he approaches a section of the fence to take on an enormous Newfounlander. Once they spot each other, he begins frothing at the mouth. Then he rushes face first into the steel mesh of the fence, a rabid brute. Why he goes berserk with this dog and ignores so many others, is obvious. As the black Newfoundlander lumbers up to protect his own turf, (safely behind the fence) Shadow reacts so unreasonably because the Newfie looks like an uncoordinated human dressed up in a very bad dog costume. Further along the trail we both pretend he's not really having a king dump, until he finishes and coyly moves on while I scoop and bag it, sauntering away as though we're an accomplished pair of shop lifters.
Although he is blessed with the flexibility to reach any of his body parts, we share the same propensity to psychotic behaviour - sensual fiends at the mercy of our noses, eyes, ears, tongues, and sensitive feelings. Suckers for an audience, affection or any frickin bone thrown our way. Always keen for a nap, a walk, something to eat, a long drive or short one. Everyday at the foot of my writing desk, he sits or sleeps, a bloody wonder to behold.
But the true test of any dog is when each family member can declare, "Oh, he's my dog." Quinn, my youngest daughter, calls him Cha Chi or Chad and gets him so revved up they both have to be sent to their rooms for quiet time. Sky calls him Magoo, and always has a protector, a rapt audience of one. My wife will allow Mr. Magado up on our bed, then she invites the whole family in until he lies pampered among his harem of admirers.
All in all, the perfect chap. Irreplaceable, and profoundly loved. So that I'm happy to conclude, the older I get, the more I realize one should take nothing for granted. Especially when it comes to a good dog.
Richard Taylor teaches at Carleton University and has published a travel memoir HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing Life.
Ottawa Citizen Weekly Reading, 29 December 2002
Diane Stuemer and Richard Taylor swap e-mails and share adventures from behind their tales.
Richard Taylor and Diane Stuemer unplugged from the rat race and left the suburbs of Ottawa with their families to creatively work out their midlife crisis. One parachuted into a beach house on the east coast of Australia. The other sailed around the world.
During a period of 4 years, both wrote many articles in the Ottawa Citizen. This year, each published a travel memoir, HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing Life and THE VOYAGE OF THE NORTHERN MAGIC: A Family Odyssey. The writers had a chance to meet and swap books at Ottawa International Writers Fest. They later discussed their works by e-mail:
Rick: The last few nights I've been diving into Northern Magic with glee because it's taking me around the world again.I feel like I really know you. I'm sure you're having a similar experience as you go through House Inside The Waves. It's kind of eerie to think that so many people who read our books will have a deep glimpse into our souls and the routines and intimate moments of our spouses and children.
Although we have unique stories to tell, different writing styles and personalities, we have much in common. Certainly the wanderlust, the desire to share our adventures with other people, and the ability to promote our dreams.
My book doesn't have the same generosity of spirit that drives yours, because House has a darker, more ambiguous engine. But I don't think readers seek out travel memoirs to find the same formula - they read for the pleasure of travelling to unknown places, both geographical and psychological.
Diane, you know there are a hell of a lot of waves in your book. I think in your other life you may have been a bit of a surfer chick.
Diane: Rick, your surfer lifestyle choice wouldn't be mine, but I found myself (reluctantly, somehow) liking you more and more as I read through the book and understood your passion better. We lived through very different experiences, but both of us managed to bring tremendous benefits to ourselves and our families by sharing our love of travel with our children.
In our case, we began the trip for pretty selfish reasons, and by the end our journey our lives had changed in ways we could never have expected.
Rick: The night we met at the Writers Fest we talked about the similarities between our books, our families and our life experiences: Both families willed their dreams to come true, and were able to turn their dreams into art, and share their dreams with the reading public. Both writers reflect on the sanctuary of home vs. the sublime reach of the open road.
Both books are deep, tender portraits of family life. Both books deal with extreme sports: balls out surfing, and balls out sailing. Both books are bathed in the mystery of faraway places.
Diane: And chocolate chip cookies! Why is it that chocolate chip cookies play a big role in both books?
Rick: I call chocolate chip cookies the great pacifier. You must have cracked one of your lovely smiles when you noticed cookies travel from my early househusband days with the ladies, to university classrooms and finally get gobbled up by gnarly surfer dudes in Oz. Your Aunt Linda's Excellent Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies travel the seven seas and gave you such obvious solace.
This is a hard time for us. My wife Dale, was good friends and taught with the teachers murdered up at Val Des Mots. Incredible what can happen in your own backyard, wrong place at the wrong time. Dale knew Bonnie very well. Had in fact planned to see her at a dinner next Monday with a small group of Broadview teachers who get together once a month.
When I think of Dale and I travelling around the world twice, all the crazy places we travelled and lived, with our kids even, and you and your four-year odyssey around the world, it doesn't make sense. But you can't live worrying about shark attacks, or typhoons. You just have to live and ride out whatever hits you.
Diane: Tragedy can strike any of us, at any time. I had to get cancer at age 35 to come face to face with my mortality. One of the lessons we learned is that we each have to find the passion that drives us, get in touch with the little voice that tells us who we were really meant to be. And then follow that voice.
None of us ever knows how much time we will be given on this Earth. We've got to make the most of each day. It's better, I think, to knowingly take risks when necessary and live the life you were meant to live. The biggest risk of all is not living your life to the fullest.
Rick: What really hit me near the end of your book was the constant confession about your reluctance to go home to the routine and bland existence of day to day life compared to the magic intensity of travel. We're still mooning about our last long trip even after five years. Now that we are back to the grind of schedules, the longer we remain harnessed up to the accelerating treadmill of modern life, I don't know if we'll both be able to keep the promise of balance in our lives, living with the passion that is easy to sustain when you travel.
Diane: We made the very same promise, and so far have (mainly) been able to keep it. When we returned home, both Herbert and I agonized over what we were going to do to earn a living. We had a strong sense that we didn't want to go back to how we were living before. We badly needed to stay involved with the projects we've established in Indonesia and Africa. It was our way of keeping our journey going, of continuing to make a difference. Of reminding people what a wonderful paradise they live in, here in Canada.
So we just decided what we needed to do - keep sharing our story, keep working on our projects, and somehow, so far, it's all worked out. The book and the public speaking we've been doing has not only permitted that, but helped us continue to spread the lessons of what we've learned on our voyage - not just about daring to dream, but about the world.
Rick: It's the constant dilemma of the traveller. On p. 246 you wrote: "We went on safari and couldn't help reflect that the money we spent on the safari could have fed Boniface's entire family for years." We have had the same thoughts as we travelled and lived around the world, going on our romantic quests for pleasure and excitement, that most of the world is still trying to feed and shelter themselves...You have done a fine thing by addressing this issue and making a difference.
I love a great metaphorical revelation in your book on p. 258: "All we did was plink one little stone down a mountain. Maybe it would help start an avalanche."
I always talk about our bank account being overdrawn but our soul account is brimming because of the way we have chosen to live.
Diane: We'll we've come to realize that although we think we own our possessions, the truth is they own us. The more things we own, the more we are tied down to them. But the only lasting thing we can ever create are our experiences, that shape and form us and our children, and the people we touch. As writers and as parents we hope for our little piece of immortality through our children, and the books we leave behind. But the photographs you've created in your mind's eye, all of the times you've shared in discovery with your wife and children, those are the true riches of a life well lived.
Congratulations, Rick, for following your passion, for living a big life. And thank you for sharing it with me, through your book.
In the words of Michael, our oldest son: " Life is glorious. There's so much to do, and no time to waste."
Maybe next time around I will come back as a surfer chick!
THE SURFER'S PATH
Excerpt from HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing Life.
In the predawn blackness of our bedroom I hear thunderous waves churn into the beach. Then I detect another faint whisper. "Reef." Finally there's a chorus of high pitched voices. "Reeeeef! Come out and play!"
"They're here already, Rick," my wife Dale says. " Tell them to be quiet or they'll wake the girls." As soon as I pull back the curtain, I spot the Three Amigos - Kiko, Neil and Mihkel, a trio of hopeful, middle-aged fools. Grinning and bleary-eyed in the dawn, they press their faces against the window and chant, " Cookies."
My coconut chocolate chip cookies have become famous here in Australia, even with hard-core surfers. At first the Amigos were nervous and suspicious about my househusband program and the whole cookie thing. Then, early one morning, we came in from the surf at Lennox Point and stripped off our wetsuits, our feet bleeding from the reef, the muscles of our upper bodies pumped, ripped and bruised. While leaning against rusty old cars in the parking lot, I pulled out a plastic container of my cookies. After their first hesitant taste, the boys were hooked and I was compelled to produce a steady supply for their addiction. Since then, most of my Aussie surfing buddies have quietly taken me aside to procure the recipe.
Because of my rabid passion for surfing and an overzealous comment I made about the curvaceous, tanned derriere of a tall Reef Girl in a thong bikini ad for Reef Surfwear in a surfing magazine, the Three Amigos have begun calling me Reef. The nickname solidified after a wonderful early morning session at Flat Rock with Neil, another South African who's found sanctuary in Oz. After Neil experienced an abusive stint in the South African army, three years at Durban Art School, the usual number of soul-shrinking jobs, and a stint as a co-owner of a restaurant that went under in Adelaide, he and his wife landed in Lennox. During a serious health crisis that laid him up in the hospital, Neil became even better friends with Kiko, who paid loyal vigils to his bedside. As a result, Neil has that overwhelming gratitude and hunger for life that hovers over someone who has cheated death. A mature, solid family man with two older boys, Neil also has a boyish streak and a devilish chipmunk grin and can be quite intense and silly in the head.
These days Neil has structured his work so he has Fridays off to surf. In South Africa he surfed Jeffery's Bay, one of the sharkiest places in the world. Out on our reef his annoying respect for deep, dark water means he sometimes dwells on what is almost certainly below the surface of the waves. Whenever Neil says, "Reef, look at all those fish. Hope nothing bigger's eating them," I launch into flights of literary reverie and think of a line from a Herman Melville poem, " The shark glides white through the phosphorous sea," or W.B. Yeats's beautiful sea with its murderous innocence. Neil is getting to the age where he usually pays for his surfing with a stiff neck, pulled back muscles, and banged up knees. He claims Lennox Head is a town where old surfers come to settle and raise their families.
That morning after surfing at Flat Rock where Neil pulled off elegant high-on-the-shoulder 'magazine shot' waves, two Reef Girls came out of the waves, their wetsuits gleaming. Neil was drying his suit and surfboard, fussing around in the trunk of his car, and lecturing me about not getting cookie crumbs on the seats or a single drop of salt water on the paint job of his precious vehicle. The two girls arrived at the car next to us and pulled down their wetsuits, exposing lovely tanned backs. And then, unbelievably, they turned around. Both had long, sun-bleached hair, pretty faces, white teeth, wondrous breasts, and no boubt towering intellects. Dolphins were plying the bay, and the surf was grinding into the beach. Neil was still organizing his toiletries and disentangling bungee cords for the roof rack when I casually tapped him on the shoulder. His pursed lips and dull eyes revealed he was more than a little put out by my interruption. But when he turned to see the squirrelly look in my eyes and then glanced at the astonishing pair of Reef Girls, naked from the waist up, he froze. Then, in his quiet, terribly civilized South African accent, he hoarsely whispered, "My God, Reef."
Life most restless surfers, Neil gets up at first light, sticks his head out a window, and scans the horizon for swells. He loads up his car and hits the beach parking lot in town. Solemnly he stands at the railing, checks out the waves, tastes the wind, estimates its direction and variations over the next few hours, then calculates everything with respect to the incoming or outgoing tide. After that he drives to the outskirts of town to check the wave conditions from the top of Lennox Point. Once in a while he'll drive farther afield to study the surf at Boulders, Sharps, or Flat Rock. In their sputtering, oil-belching vehicles, Kiko, Mihkel, and Neil usually rendezvous at my place on Raynor Lane because I'm right on the water and central. Depending on the tide and how long the wind stays off the surf and the amount of stink-eye we're willing to endure from our respective wives, we choose a spot and surf for a few hours of bliss.
Describing the act of surfing to a nonsurfer is like telling someone about your last session of sex. The atmosphere, circumstances, buildup, and quirky characters who participate in the event are as interesting as the lovemaking itself. And so it is with surfing. Aside from the waves we caught and the extraordinary Reef Girls we saw that morning at Flat Rock, we had the pleasure of surfing with a one-armed surfer named Terry. As Neil and I were paddling together in absolute glassy conditions with a gentle swell jacking up to good size waves on the outer reef, we watched the one-armed surfer take his drop and execute a fine wave. When we caught up with Terry, he told us surfing legend Bob McTavish was a friend who personally shaped his boards. " Ah, yeah, McTavish likes to tell everyone Oy paddle in circles," he joked, effortlessly thrusting with his one good, meaty arm as Neil and I humped our boards through the water, wheezing like old dogs.
Terry always straddles his board just outside the breaking waves and waits. Swells roll in, lift him, then roll on into the beach. But he waits patiently for the right wave, then windmills furiously with one arm and makes his drop, left or right, and never fails. Along with a true waterman's skill acquired over a long period, he's got guts and is always cheerful. In his presence a rowdy crowd will turn mellow, almost reflective. Terry's got the right grip on life. A better grip than most of the two armed surfers I've met, myself included.
Often we see long-haired hippie Jeff in the surf, sharking the waters for waves. Because summer has arrived and the ocean has gotten warmer, a lot of surfers go without wetsuits. The atmosphere in the waves and on the beaches has become more like Hawaii or California again. Jeff is the quintessential local, aging surfer. Unencumbered by a wife, kids, or a nine-to-five job, he camps just down Raynor Lane in a tiny flat whose walls are covered with photos of scantily clad Reef Girls and posters of surfers on awesome waves. One day while we both dropped in on the same big wave and were nicely accelerating along the glassy wall together, he flailed his arms and screamed, "What the fuck are you doing, mate? Tying your shoelaces?" Jeff works part-time installing hardwood floors, selling the odd surfboard, and teaching at a surf school in Byron Bay. His old Volkswagen van is rigged for camping, working, surfing and making out. The Three Amigos, some of my other surf-dog friends, and I might have become Jeff if we hadn't been saved from ourselves by our good women.
The far north coast of New South Wales is rife with a scary number of surfers who have mortgaged their lives so they can live near the beach and surf. A lot of surfers, fishermen, junkies, retirees, windsurfers, skateboarders, single moms, and wannabe artists have ended up shipwrecked here. They're escapees from the urban rat races of Sydney, Melbourne or from constricting inland hick towns like Broken Hill, Towamba, and Wagga Wagga. I've met people from Japan, Israel, Canada, the United States, France, and England who are living here indefinitely. They're all lured by the great weather, surfing, fishing, and a laid-back beach lifestyle. Dale has always known about and happily gone along with my gravitational pull toward the beach. But now she's a little concerned and has intimated that in only one year here I've begun my decline from a sensitive, considerate househusband toward a hard core macho surfer jerk.
Now, after being serenaded by the Three Amigos, I pile my surf gear into Kiko's van and we motor off for a dawn patrol. Neil and Mihkel follow in Neil's car and we head for Wategos for a surf. The night before I made a batch of cookies for the boys, so we're all set. As we round the corner above Wategos, we see twenty layers of peeling waves breaking all over the place with only a handful of lucky surfers quietly taking their drops. Everything seems in slow motion, and I think of a nice line from James Hamilton-Patterson's book Playing With Water: " The sea turns over and over, a geological machine smoothly meshing its gears and grinding up time itself. " Kiko looks at me and grins. " Shall we imbibe, Reef?"
When you get to a beach, everything seems possible. If hedonism is a belief that the most important part of human destiny is to have a good time, then that's exactly where the Three Amigos and I are headed. Like a quartet of Hollywood gunslingers or pilots, we stride along the scumbled sand, our surfboards tucked under our arms, checking out the waves and the babes. We walk as far as we can to the end of the point and jump in with our boards, surrendering to the warmth of the Pacific. Up and down through the silky swells we paddle until we're outside the reef. Then we discover why there aren't a lot of other surfers here. The sea is filled with jellyfish. Kiko and Neil catch the first big wave. I watch their heads trim below the lip of their wave as they disappear toward shore, leaving me alone with Mihkel and the jellyfish. Daintily we paddle along, dodging foot long tentacles, which occasionally sting our wrists, forearms and legs. I count a half dozen dolphins flying through the waves and playing around us. Covered in swollen welts, I quickly stroke into a full wave and do my drop, glimpsing the Byron Bay lighthouse set against the sky. Then, as I cut back and accelerate along another steep section, I gaze at Mount Warning and the soft line of mountains beneath ragged clouds - perhaps for the last time.
A little later, out in the water, Mihkel says, " Mate, it's incredible. Here we are an Estonian, a South African, an American and a Canadian - the new Australians." Mihkel is an art instructor who slogged out a decade teaching at a grim little school a couple of hundred miles inland before he and his wife earned their plum jobs on this coast. He has thick, long blond hair and piercing blue eyes the ladies swoon over. A gifted artist, and absolute gentleman, he doesn't live to surf anymore. He surfs because being in the ocean still makes him happy and he enjoys the company of Kiko and Neil. For years the Three Amigos surfed with their longboards California-style and had most of the waves to themselves. Now the longboard revolution has made the traditional boards fashionable again, especially with aging baby boomers.
After a while the Three Amigos and I get tired of battling the jellyfish and head back to shore where we sprawl on the sand, scanning the horizon. Truant adults playing hooky from our lives, we talk about our wives and children, where we''ve been, and where we're going. The air fresh, the waves eternal, the summer seemingly endless.
DEATH OF A FILMMAKER
Ottawa Citizen Jan. 28, 2001
"Travel is a vanishing act," Paul Theroux once wrote, "a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion."
As filmmaker Frank Cole would tell it, even though it could swallow the United States, there is no exact map of the Sahara Desert. In 1972, when I first met him in a Spanish class at Carleton University, I didn't know we would embark on a deep friendship lasting 28 years, one in which that desert would play a pivotal role - including becoming the site of his murder. Many times over the years Frank said I should write about him if something ever happened. So I kept a file of his cryptic postcards and letters from around the world. There were surfing shots, reviews of his films, interviews, articles, drafts of screenplays, bizarre photographs of himself and others he met on his travels and unforgettable images of lost temples in Mexico, graveyards in Central America, archeological ruins in South America - and the vast, enigmatic Sahara.
Just before Halloween, I received a wrenching phone call from Frank's girlfriend Sonja, who had been living in his Riverside Drive apartment while Frank was crossing the Sahara. Frank was dead.
For several decades I had half expected such a call. Once he even joked about getting a T-shirt made that said, 'Frank Cole Is Dead'. But even though his death came as no real surprise, the sudden loss of a close, long time friend, and the manner of his brutal death, shocked me, and left me drained and shaken. Sonja said that she had been receiving regular emails from Frank in Africa, via External Affairs. But in the week before Halloween, Frank's body had been discovered by a shepherd. His two camels had been stolen, along with his camera equipment and clothes. He had been tied up, and murdered 70 km southeast of Timbuktu near the Niger river in Mali.
Frank Cole was obsessed with the desert. He had been talking about returning to the Sahara for years. Just one last trip. Everyone agreed it was a bad idea. I suggested that if he felt compelled to go back to Africa, he should surf the coastline, live it up a little, and forget about crossing that hellish desert. But the Sahara's siren call and his confusion about heroism finally caught up with him.
I went to see Frank the day before he left Canada for the desert. It was to give him a copy of the travel anthology, Literary Trips that had just published a story of mine on travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who died of Aids at 48. My piece dealt with his notion about man's restlessness and inability to stay inside a room - something both Frank and I had wrestled with for nearly 30 years.
Before I met with Frank, the editor of Literary Trips, Victoria Brooks had gone to visit another man with an affinity for the desert - Paul Bowles, the American expat whose novel, The Sheltering Sky had been made into a film. Bowles had left America more than 40 years ago to live as a recluse in North Africa. A literary cult legend, Bowles constantly wrote about westerners going to the Sahara only to be annihilated by their own shortcomings, or murdered by thieves.
As diplomats, Frank's father and mother were once posted in Cape Town, South Africa. It was there Frank was seduced by surfing, and the Dark Continent. He traveled to the Sahara many times and made two films there. In 1989, he was the first North American to cross the Sahara by camel, 7,000 km from Mauritania to the Red Sea, and most of it by himself. What Frank liked about the desert was that it is clean and uncomplicated. And it never dies.
In a book of travel essays about the non-Christian world, Paul Bowles wrote a piece about the Sahara called, The Baptism of Solitude. I still have a ragged quote I ripped from the book to share with Frank: " When a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude, he can't help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort and money, for the absolute has no price."
In the early 70's when Frank and I had met at Carleton we were the only surfers in Ottawa. We began to wade around in Existentialism, Nihilism, Despair and The Void. We craved intensity. Jesus without hope. A couple of middle class kids courting life on the edge. "I'm going crazy, you should document it," he once wrote. We saw the heaviest films, read the darkest books. We were determined to become great artists. I wanted to become a writer and Frank decided to become an uncompromising, independent filmmaker. He admired the painter Alex Colville and latched onto his fierce quote: "Art is one of the principal means by which a human being tries to compensate for, or compliment, the restlessness of death and temporality."
Instead of getting into a prestigious film school in Paris to follow Jean Luc Godard and the New Wave French Cinema, Frank ended up at the now defunct film program at Algonquin college where he was the only one of his graduating class to finish his own film. While pursuing his role as 'enfant terrible', he produced A Documentary (1979) - an unsparing film chronicling the cancer death of his grandmother. Many were shocked, but it impressed others at the Venice Film Festival. Frank's grandmother's death left his grandfather so bereft and alone, that Frank decided in his art and his life to challenge the archetypal experience of death itself.
To obtain film funding, Frank became a wizard at self promotion. He had remarkable drive and self discipline, and an endearing way of acquiring money from the various arts councils. When you got to know him, he possessed great warmth, and generosity. Over the years he attracted a long line of fine women who were drawn to his thoughtful, impeccable politeness and compact, disarming presence. But he had an intense dark side they either loved, or avoided.
In the early 80's Frank talked me into being assistant director for his first feature film, A Death, later retitled, A life. The film charts a man's survival amid death - in a room and in the desert. Artist Lea Deschamps gave up her rambling artist's studio on Sparks Street above Andrew Newton Photography and we began building a film set to shoot half of the movie. Everyone worked for nothing because some believed they were working on a project that might find its way into Canadian film history. There were many talented people involved: an art director, cameraman, a lighting expert from Crawley Films, a few actors, scorpions, grasshoppers, rats and snakes.
Several people jumpstarted their careers by working on Frank's film. I put in a whole summer helping to shoot the studio sequences, shot by painstaking shot. It took days to set up the decisive moment when a little girl had to run through a sliding glass window. Another window was rigged with the long sharp blade of a guillotine that was ready to drop. There were nude scenes with blood in a bathtub, a gun in a pair of panties, and scenes with a rather large snake that moved across the whole length of the floor and scared everyone off the set except Frank. My job was to choreograph this surreal Noah's Ark of hell and artificial despair.
Frank asked me to accompany him to the Sahara to shoot the second half of the film. We would drive 17,000 km, looking for sight locations. When I declined, I didn't tell Frank that I was afraid I might never return alive.
A Life premiered in 1986. The Canadian Film Institute described its taut, suggestive visual style reminiscent of Antonioni as a "searing psychological and physical excursion into cycles of death, life and redemption... a remarkable accomplishment." Alternating between an enclosed room and the infinity of the desert, Cole's cinematic confrontation with death is a remarkable accomplishment."Film critic Geoff Pevere wrote, "A Life is quite unlike anything made in this country before."
The late Jay Scott described Frank as reclusive, enigmatic and brilliant. Cinema Canada magazine said that A Life was a masterpiece and that it seemed destined for some kind of enshrinement in the history of Canadian film as a work of uncompromising risk-taking and always breathtaking genius.
Of course, with reviews such as those, Frank decided to hit the road again and cross the Sahara to make an even more ambitious film he wanted to call, Death's Death. Years later, his producer, Francis Miquet, convinced him to retitle it, Life Without Death. Unfortunately, the film took 14 years to reach the big screen.
To prepare himself for the ordeal of making the film, Frank pumped up by lifting weights. He attended extensive first aid courses, learned about camels, survival, celestial navigation, astronomy, and he read The Koran and T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
To shoot his film, Frank had to do virtually the impossible - cross the Sahara alone. He went through 8 camels, was arrested, got lost, traveled through war zones, was stalked by thieves, attacked by one of his own camels and, for ll months, had to deal with exhaustion, fear and loneliness. Each night he slept out in the open under the stars, alone on the sand, listening to the wind.
Not only did Frank cross the desert, he had to film the whole journey himself. Because I had supervised the film crew's time consuming shoots in the relatively pristine conditions of the Sparks Street studio, I can imagine what photographing himself crossing the desert must have entailed- something only Dante could have interpreted.
I know how scary, uncomfortable, even masochistic it must have been. And it would take its toll.
When he returned from the desert, Frank became a recluse, and worked to complete Life Without Death. It was his Sistine Chapel, his mistress and his albatross. He had to drum up more funds and do most of the work himself. He began a merciless Life Extension Diet and pushed literature for the Life Extension Foundation. He signed up with the Cryonics Institute. In between long bouts of filmwork, he got back into surfing - Baja, California, Peru and Puerto Escondido. Often he camped on open beaches, living on a diet of carrots, lettuce, pasta and rice. He would send me photos of himself surfing vertical walls of three metre bone crushers. At Camp Fortune, where he met Sonja, he became a dedicated ski patroller. Yet unbelievably, during this time he was planning another trip to Africa to cross the Sahara.
Meanwhile, for me, between teaching, writing, a strangling mortgage, a wife and growing family - all of the things Frank had managed to avoid - my life had never been busier. We spoke on the phone occasionally, but I should have spent more time with him. When I wrote to him from Australia telling him I was surfing the reefs with sharks and on waves the size of drive-in movie screens, he wrote back, "Rick, if things get any more cranked up, you'll be coming home in a body bag."
During the summer I got my last letter from Frank from Nouakchott in Mauritania: "Rick, Thanks both for your book and your visit. I left Cap Blanc, Mauritania on April 21. Now, after two months and 1000 km., I've been forced back to the beginning again - the Atlantic. Frank."
On November 4, about a week after the news of Frank's death, his film, Life Without Death opened at the Canadian Film Institute. Described as a disturbing meditation on mortality's ever ticking clock, all the sad ironies were too enormous. Only a handful of us at the opening knew that Frank was dead. The rest of the audience were told some romantic bullshit about Frank riding a camel, somewhere on the Sahara near Timbuktu.
Over the next few weeks, I spoke with Sonja, Frank's father and his brother Peter. Because my sister had died a few years earlier and my parents had to fly back home to deal with it, I could empathize with the Coles. Finally, after more than a month of red tape, the body was flown from Bamako, the capitol of Mali, to Brussels and then to the Cryonics Institute in Detroit. The dental records and a DNA sample proved that the small skeleton was, in fact, the earthly remains of Frank Cole.
There are a few wild theories floating around about his murder. Probably no one will ever find out who killed Frank, or why. Just as no one will ever really know why Frank had to go back - like the mystics - and cross the desert again and again. I've surfed and swam in waters known to be frequented by sharks, and Frank knew about the unreasonable risks involved in crossing the Sahara alone. Timbuktu is one of those places whose name is linked to the romance of desert exploration, the slave trade - a place so distant in time and space that it must be fabulous. But in reality, it's not. For more than 30 years, travelers have been warned about the dangers of travelling across Mali. In a country with so much political unrest, poverty and hunger, a privileged westerner traveling alone on a camel must create a kind of sacrilegious mirage, not to mention a great temptation for thwarted revenge. Africa has had a long tradition as an unfathomable place that swallows unwary non Africans. Apparently, the dark continent can still become the white man's grave.
In his heart, I'm sure Frank realized that the desert was not the best place to endure solitude. Like many though, Frank still hadn't found what he was looking for. Perhaps he wanted to take that one last trip to begin a new life with people. He once said, "My art is a blueprint for my life. I work best against bad odds." He wanted immortality, not celebrity. He wasn't willing to accept the inevitability of death. On an earlier trip across the Sahara, Frank thought he saw the devil. This time, he met him.
A friend of mine I had introduced to Frank more than 10 years ago, landscape painter Joan Sutherland, received one of Frank's last letters on October 11, a week before he was murdered: "Joanie - Even in Timbuktu, you are not forgotten. I took 6 months and 3,000 km riding to get across the first country, Mauritania. Five countries still to go. Sahara feels endless. I long for life to be so endless too."
Ottawa writer Richard Taylor teaches Creative Writing at Carleton University.
SWIMMING WITH MADAM BUTTERFLY
Ottawa Citizen, 7 August 2005
Richard Taylor joins marathoner Vicki Keith for a (relatively) short plunge in Lake Ontario
The night before, I couldn't sleep. It wasn't just because I was thinking about the dark immensity of Lake Ontario where I'd be swimming at dawn with Vicki Keith, the greatest living marathon swimmer, celebrated humanitarian and national treasure. Unconsciously I was trying to get my head around the idea that, a few weeks after our swim, Vicki was planning to cross the lake in an audacious, 40 to 50 hour swim from Oswego, New York to Kingston. She was hoping to do 80 kilometers of butterfly to beat her own world record.
Most good swimmers are happy if they can manage a couple of exhausting 25 metre laps of butterfly in a pool. Modified from the breast stroke in the '50's, the butterfly is a sprint stroke that wasn't meant for long distance. What would motivate a 44-year-old legend to shed the comfort of retirement to train for a year, and then butterfly for days and nights alone across so much open, unpredictable water?
My uneasy feelings about Vicki's planned fundraising swim in August would prove to be warranted.
But in early July, I was eager to swim with Vicki, and learn more about the phenomenon known as Vicki Keith. She has received the Order of Canada, and been inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. A plaque has been erected in Toronto at her most famous arrival and departure - Vicki Keith Point. She holds 14 world record swims, including all the Great Lakes in 61 summer days of 1988, the English and Catalina Channels, the frigid Strait of Juan de Fuca, and a 129 hour 45 minute continuous pool swim in Kingston.
In Australia, she did a 13.5 hour circumnavigation of Sydney Harbour. After only 2 hours of knuckle and toe scraping inside a shark cage, she cheerily told the organisers that she'd prefer to swim without it. When she finally got out of the occasionally polluted waters of the harbour, an Australian reporter described her as, 'resembling the business end of a dipstick'.
At dawn on July 8, the sky was a roiling cauldron of impending storm clouds without a hint of sunshine to perk us up. I'd been staying with friends near Kingston at the opposite end of Amherst Island from Vicki's charming house that faces only water and sky. At the Stella Bay ferry dock, we met Vicki and her husband John, a retired policeman and amateur marathon swimmer. On this Bay of Quinte side of Amherst Island, the Lake Ontario water is warmer, more predictable and less scary.
In better weather a few days earlier, in water that ranged from 66-76 degrees Fahrenheit, she had knocked off a comfortable 20 kilometer butterfly. Though she preferred to swim alone so that she could focus on the mental discipline and the pace she needed to zone into for the crossing, Vicki had agreed to allow me to swim alongside her while John accompanied us in his kayak.
As everyone who has met her says. Vicki is really a nice person. Aside from training for The Swim, her schedule is filled with public speaking events in classrooms and boardrooms, volunteer work, teaching and coaching disabled athletes, and endless fundraising. She hopes to raise another $200,000 to help opportunities for special needs children and bring her lifetime fundraising to $1 million
Though remarkably humble, she has the warm, cocky, sunny disposition of a young girl inside the body of a determined, driven woman. Because of the summer's heat wave and her open water training, she is as tanned as a Polynesian, with perfect white teeth and an infectious smile.
As the ferry churned out from the jetty, Vicki and I waded in and lunged forward into its wake to begin our two hour swim. I dropped below the surface to marvel at Vicki's butterfly underwater: simultaneously, she looked like a strong, graceful woman, a streamlined dolphin, and a soaring bird.
Because Vicki was swimming her pace in training for the 80 kilometer crossing, it was not quite brisk enough to keep my skinny body from freezing in two hours. Over the years and all around the world I'd been lucky enough to swim a lot of open water, but I need to swim hard to keep warm.
Vicki had said that each long swim induces a kind of hypothermia and hallucinations. For a moment I panicked. Would I have to wimp out and get hauled into the boat with John part way through our swim? On shore, when I had brought up my concerns about getting cold, Vicki had rolled her eyes and smiled before teasing me with the notion that her disabled athletes feel the cold more, and that surely I could cope with a two hour skiddle.
But after half an hour, in warm glassy conditions, I was already feeling the chill of the lake (and definite shrinkage). I reminded myself that both Vicki and I are Pisces, born on the 26 and 25 of February. When you swim long distance, you have a lot of time to ruminate, and for a while I was comforted by Vicki's concept of "breaking down impossible distance goals into manageable units" which I'd done for 2.5 kilometer ocean swims, or 5 kilometer lake swims. Still, I shuddered at the thought of Vicki swimming up to 50 gruelling hours, much of it in the dark. So I stroked over to chat with John who serenely paddled in his two-person kayak.
In 2003 at the age of 52, John swam across Lake Erie, then a month later, Lake Ontario to earn $85,000 to buy sports wheelchairs for the Kingston Y basketball program. He's a quiet, big, strong, fit, ex cop who does much of the behind the scenes work for the charities and organizations he and Vicki have nurtured. He told me that last winter a sensitivity to chlorine had forced him to stop swimming.
From time to time John gazed at the gnarly, ancient cedars along the island shoreline, but he never stopped keeping an eye on Vicki's progress, or the gathering rain clouds above.
Suddenly Vicki shouted, "John, how long have we been swimming?" and he said, "Fifty-nine minutes". Like a sailor, a surfer, or anyone who intimately knows an environment that can nurture or kill them, she had judged the exact half way point of our two hour swim, and the window of tolerable weather.
Because of a remarkable passion for swimming, and the ability to instil the notion that "water is freedom" for disabled kids, in early August Vicki Keith hoped to once again swim in the full glare of public attention. But in early July, butterflying soulfully through Lake Ontario with me, she simply looked up at the storm clouds and said, "Let's go back, Rick."
We turned around, and as a result of the wind, the waves and a strong current, swimming back felt effortless, and glorious.
A few weeks later, at 7 a.m, this past Tuesday, Vicki entered the water at Oswego to begin her epic swim to Kingston.
During a marathon, she'll modify her butterfly stroke a number of ways to help alleviate fatigue and increase circulation. Every couple of hours she'll curl into fetal position to relieve tension in her lower back, then tread water for about five minutes. At this time, she jokes with her crew while they toss her fruit cups, water, powerade, hot chocolate, soup, cookies, peanut butter or cheese. During her 80 kilometer marathon, Vicki had told me, she was planning to swim 'from snack to snack' and to repeat her mantra that she's "doing it for the kids" to help keep her mind off the deep dark waters of the lake, the wind, currents, waves, wildlife, the cold, pollution, cramps, chaffing, stiff joints, the burning sun, the night and boredom.
But this time she ran into such huge waves on Lake Ontario that 22 of her 27 crew members became sea sick. The winds let up during the latter part of the day, but at night they intensified and she swam into trains of 3 meter waves. Most of the night she was violently ill with sea sickness. Even though she choked down antacids, she couldn't eat, and her energy was depleted. For several minutes her crew lost sight of Vicki in the dangerous troughs of waves.
After courageously swimming in punishing conditions for almost 24 hours, Vicki climbed into a boat Wednesday morning. Having surfed in mountainous waves, I know how scary it must have been in the chaotic waters of the open lake. One can only imagine Vicki's feelings, knowing that so many people and so much time and energy had been expended for this swim to raise money for her disabled kids.
Of course, Vicki being Vicki, she doesn't see her aborted crossing as a failure but "a good training session" for the 80 kilometer shoreline swim she now hopes to do, maybe from Belleville to Kingston.
I've had the great honour and pleasure of swimming with Vicki. As a selfless gesture to help others, her lake swim was a huge success. And we can believe Vicki when she says that she will try again later this summer. At www.penguinscanfly.ca Vicki is accepting donations to raise funds for a swimming pool so that her disabled athletes can find freedom in the water.
POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was published, Vicki Keith asked Richard Taylor to crew her second attempt to swim Lake Ontario. He helped crew Vicki for 64 hours and 77 kms to break her own world record on Aug. 17 2005.
Richard Taylor last book was HOUSE INSIDE THE WAVES: Domesticity, Art and the Surfing Life. He's working on a new one about swimming called, WATER AND DESIRE.
WHEN THE BEST MINDS WANDER
Reviewed by Richard Taylor, for The Citizen's Weekly Books
WANDERLUST: Real Life Tales of Adventure And Romance
Edited by Don George. Forward by Pico Iyer
A long time ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised that "travelling is a fool's paradise." In the information age, nothing has changed. Real adventure and authenticity are hard to come by, so sometimes you have to go on a quest. Most of the 40 published gems in Wanderlust originally appeared on the travel site of Salon.com: www.salon.com/travel/.
What you get here is a whole world of travel in a sumptuous little book you can read on the bus, and even take to bed. Big name writers like Jan Morris, Peter Mayle, Carlos Fuentes and Isabel Allende mingle with lesser-known travellers who write.
Their accounts range from the delightful, sensual evocation of place to the scary life-and-death of real adventure. The lighter pieces balance the darker ones, on the whole, though inadvertently the juxtaposition can be absurd. Dawn McKeen's "Inside Colombia" explores a beautiful country whose ugly drug trade and civil war have killed more than 35,000 people in the last decade, while Peter Mayle's "Dangers of Provence" rambles jauntily on about impatient French drivers and a host's terrible discomfort about house guests who linger too long.
After years of travelling and partying in the Far East, Karl Taro Greenfeld is on a writing assignment to do a piece on the smug, Ecstasy-swallowing culture of young travellers who wander the "circuit" from Tokyo, Bankok and Nepal, carving out a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle. Being a drunk, drug-addicted member of the e-generation himself, he infiltrates these self-centred, jaded international ravers to write "Fear, Drugs and Soccer in Asia." Disillusioned with aimless wandering, he falls back on his first love. Having played pick-up games of soccer all over the world, he realizes that the game reveals character and intellect, and provides a brief glimpse into your soul.
Wendy Belcher rightly asserts in "Out of Africa" that travel writers are romantics. All of these writers are dreamers who go looking for stories, not knowing how they are going to end. Their biggest fear is that the locals will think they are tourists. (Tourists leave home to escape the world, while travellers leave home to experience the world.) So they go incognito. Even a partial list of evocative titles may be enough to send most readers on a soulful journey of discovery: "On the Amazon," "Naxos Nights," "Sleeping With Elephants," "Where the Hula God Lives," "How to Buy a Turkish Rug," "Hog Heaven: At the Memphis World Barbecue." The Best travel pieces reveal the magic of a new place and our endless fascination with other cultures, but they also tell us a lot about ourselves. Jan Morris's succinct, thoughtful piece, "The Meaning of Gdansk" concludes with a line that might be a great epigraph to travel with: "Truth rides above hallucination, and always wins in the end."