Happy Fathers’ Day, Mom

Not to detract from the well-earned celebrity of men everywhere who receive this single day of praise from their children, but not all of us had a man figure prominently in our childhood. For me, the only men who impacted me growing up were my grandfather (thank you) and a handful of very special teachers (thank you, Mr. Muhlstock and colleagues).

Toronto Island

My mom (purple top) was literally at the centre of all we did.

No, for me and a lot of kids like me, the leading father-figure in our lives was our mom…in my case, Jeannette or Jan.

Although Mom didn’t always meet up to the stereotypes of a father—I can’t remember throwing around a baseball or going fishing with her—she was always there for my brothers and me, ready to help us with any problems we might be facing or ensuring she found us an understanding male to speak with (e.g., Big Brother).

I remember when my youngest brother Shawn played hockey as a young kid. In a rink full of Dads, yelling support for their Lafleur, Howe or Gretzky, there was my Mom, cheering on my brother…almost completely oblivious to any of those NHL superstars.

Connected

Mom is always connected to us (even when we fight her on that).

Mom was the one who made sure we had a roof over our heads. Mom made sure we were fed and had all our school supplies. Mom was the one who made sure we never knew we were as poor as I suspect we were. Mom was the one who made sure our home life was as normal as the next kid’s.

But perhaps Mom’s greatest legacy is that she ensured her boys would grow into gentle, caring men, who respected women, less as people to be protected and more as people to admire and celebrate. And in the case of my brother Scott, also to understand the importance of your children and to be a great parent, which he is.

Mountain top

Queen of all she surveys

So, happy Fathers’ Day, Mom…and to all the other single women raising children. You have my deepest regard.

Party pooper

But never forget she is MOM first, cool Dad second.

See also:

Dads: Not just an oatmeal cookie

When Gods evolve

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Genesis; 1; i-iii

Ancient of Days

Ancient of Days (William Blake)

I know the feeling.

I am the Creator and the Destroyer. I am Fate pulling the strings of Destiny. I am Existence itself. The Void remains until I choose to illuminate it.

A tad full of myself? Perhaps.

But it comes with the territory, because I am a writer.

Despite all present evidence to the contrary, I am an introvert; and as a child, I tended to avoid contact with others out of fear of injury and a touch of self-loathing.

My escape from this fear was my imagination and the worlds I created.

Where the world around me was filled with questions, uncertainty, chaos, the worlds of my mind were clean, certain, orderly. Good was good. Bad was bad…and even bad was good given time and understanding.

And over all of it, I was God.

The world didn’t exist until I put pen to paper, and just as quickly, it blinked out of existence when I lifted that pen.

I am no longer that child—well, perhaps a less fearful child.

The world in which I live is coloured with all shades. It has texture. It has flavour. And while it still has chaos and uncertainty, I am better able to embrace that chaos, to find freedom in uncertainty.

Likewise, the worlds I create have become more nuanced. Nothing is either good or bad, but instead is delicate and needful.

And over all of it, I am God. But even Gods evolve.

God Creating The Universe

God Creating the Universe (Layne Karkruff)

Where once I enslaved my worlds to my control, I am now more apt to offer degrees of freedom, to allow my worlds to ride the wave of existence.

I completely reserve the right to rain fire and brimstone, but am more likely to use a gentle hand with my charges. What were once caricatures are now sentient beings with a full range of emotions and thoughts, prone to mistake and capable of wonder.

And perhaps, in allowing my worlds to move beyond me, I achieve true Godhead. For as much as I no longer define their existence, they no longer define mine, and I am free to be me.

Ehyeh asher ehyeh.

I am that I am.

 

The Force Awakens…to a Khan job (SPOILERS)

tfa_poster

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

That statement alone should tell you everything you need to know about my experience with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Ep. VII).

As background: I am old enough to have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV) in theatres as a young teenager. And I was so impressed by the film that I immediately came home from the theatre and wrote a sequel…400 hand-written pages of a screenplay. My first screenplay, in fact, at the ripe maturity of 13 years.

Star Wars is my birthright. I will defend it tooth and nail.

Thus, J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

After the underwhelming prequels (Ep. I-III), I looked forward to Abrams’ take on the saga. I was a big fan of his reboot of Star Trek, although I had a bit of a nagging doubt after the reboot sequel Into Darkness. But if anyone had a sense of the epic, almost operatic scale of the Star Wars universe, it should have been Abrams.

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_42318

And to some extent, he fulfilled his end of the bargain.

Shivers went down my spine when we scaled across the vast deserts of Tatooine…I mean Jakku.

I worried when R2…I mean BB-8, was captured by the Jawas…I mean scrap metal scavengers.

I bounced happily with the music of the Mos Eisley cantina…I mean the Takodana cantina.

I cheered when R2 successfully arrived at the Rebel base…I mean BB-8 arrived at the Resistance base with the vital information.

I sat back in awe as I saw the might of the Death Star…I mean Starkiller Base, for the first time.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

To get back to Star Trek: Into Darkness, briefly, we all knew that Abrams was rewriting the story of Kirk’s greatest nemesis Khan Noonien Singh. And the movie didn’t disappoint in its grand opening flourishes and early Starfleet intrigue.

But then, at some point, it was like Abrams had run out of ideas and so simply inserted the last 20 pages or so of the original Wrath of Khan screenplay, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

The least tweaked moment of overlap between the two movies was the scene between Spock and Kirk across the glass as one dies from radiation sickness. Abrams simply swapped the positions of the two characters.

twokstid

Some might consider this an homage to the original. A friend of mine, in discussing The Force Awakens, called it alt-universe mirroring. I call it bullshit, and lazy bullshit at that.

Now, Into Darkness was not intended to be a prequel to any of the older Star Trek movies, so I can buy into the alt-universe idea a bit. But The Force Awakens is Ep VII of a saga. It is not an alt-universe but the same freaking universe 30 years later.

An homage is the holographic chess set. An homage is NOT a beat-for-beat repetition of Ep IV, even if jumbled up a little bit and with a few scenes from Ep V and Ep VI thrown in.

The spell of childhood memories faded rapidly as The Force Awakens played out on the screen, and I spent much of movie sitting with an attitude of “Really?”

And as I walked home from the theatre…a 40-minute walk…I just got angrier and angrier as the volume and sheer audacity of the parallels continued to sink in.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

Droid capture

“You’re pretty bang on, but it’s what I was expecting,” explained a friend whose ear I bent. “It’s the old ‘the same, but different’.”

“I saw it more as a mirroring of the previous six films; a device to draw in new fans and satiate old fans,” another friend said.

I call bullshit…not of my friends, you understand, but of the idea that The Force Awakens needed to remind us of the saga up to now or reinvigorate fans.

Please, how could anything from the Star Wars saga fail to draw box office records?

I know I’m in the minority here. Most fans won’t clue into any of the parallels but instead simply wrap themselves in the old familiar or marvel at the new spectacle. Cool, I am glad they enjoyed the film.

Even I will likely see it again as my first viewing was in regular 3D—strange to think of that as a thing—and not in IMAX or AVX.

And as much as I would buy Henry IV, Part Three if Shakespeare wrote a sequel to his first two Henry IVs, I will eventually add this movie to my Star Wars collections.

But J. J. Abrams is on my shit list, and I will approach any of his future movies with suspicion and cynicism.

And that, more than anything, I am saddest about.

Ep IV_VII

You can’t go ROM again

One of my childhood thrills was going to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, and by childhood, I mean lifelong, never-too-old eternal childhood. Visiting those familiar hallways and displays has always been like wrapping myself in a comfortable blanket of love.

Until yesterday.

I spent 3.5 hours wandering many of those same exhibits with my camera and left somewhat depressed. So much of that familiar charm feels gone or is relegated to a back corner of the hallowed halls.

Back in 2007, as part of the museum’s revitalization and expansion program, the ROM unveiled The Crystal, which the museum describes as:

“Considered to be one of the most challenging construction projects in North America for its engineering complexity and innovative methods, the Lee-Chin Crystal is composed of five interlocking, self-supporting prismatic structures that co-exist but are not attached to the original ROM building, except for the bridges that link them.”

Depending on whom you ask, this structure is either the most beautiful addition to Toronto architecture ever or the biggest monstrosity of ill-conceived architectural hubris.

I tend to fall into the latter category, as the addition feels like something that was slapped onto the old façade rather than something that is an organic extension of the pre-existing structure. And to make matters worse, although there has been some nod to design on the outside of the building, the inside still displays unfinished work that looks like particle board held together with visible screws and grated flooring. Only the lack of builders’ chalk marks signal that this is not a work in progress but rather is the final product.

But back to my depression.

As I ate lunch in the ROM cafeteria, I realized that I hadn’t been through a couple old familiar displays, including the old dinosaur dioramas that I loved as a child. Flipping through the museum guide, I suddenly realized: they were gone. The dinos of the Crystal were all that remained. A significant part of my childhood was gone.

Sigh.

Of the 170+ photos I took yesterday, I will likely only keep a dozen or so…and of that dozen, I may only be happy with 2 or 3.

Apparently, the camera was willing but the spirit was gone.

 

Additional note: While I am unlikely to wander the ROM’s halls much in the future, I will still visit on occasion when a new exhibit comes to town. The present show—Wildlife Photographer of the Year—is stunning.

I can explain

Image

Michael (Jeff Goldblum): Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

Sam (Tom Berenger): Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

 

Many of us struggle to accept feedback, and in saying that, I put the emphasis on the word “accept”.

It is easy to receive feedback, but to accept feedback takes a certain degree of confidence that most of us struggle to achieve, and the earlier we are in the development of our Art, the worse our ability. It is a cruel irony that this struggle is at its zenith when we most need the feedback.

It seems that the minute someone offers feedback, even if we’ve requested it, our initial response is to explain why the work is the way it is or why the feedback provider is wrong. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill put so eloquently, we rationalize.

Now, before you try to explain why you rationalize or try to convince me that you don’t—you know you were going to—let me tell you that it is a natural response that was bred into us from our earliest days.

As a child, if you came home late or missed an appointment, you were likely met with an angry parent asking where you were. Unfortunately, for the most part, parents don’t actually hear the answer, because with the rarest of exceptions, your answer is unlikely to ameliorate the punishment.

And any attempt on your part to simply accept responsibility with “I am sorry, Mummy. That was disrespectful of me and I shall try to be more thoughtful in the future.” (all 5-year-olds talk like that, right?), was met with continued pressure to explain yourself.

Fast-forward 20, 30, 40, 50 years. A classmate, instructor or colleague has just read your manuscript and has trouble with one or two things. The instinctive reaction—thanks Mom and Dad—is to respond “Uh-huh. Well, you see…”

We immediately want to explain why we made such an astounding choice. We feel we need to prove we’re not stupid or crazy, and in some cases, to prove that our readers are. And this instinct is even worse when we either can’t remember why we made that specific choice—the “I dunno” scenario—or we thought it was a bad choice but felt we had no better ideas—the “I’m a talentless hack” scenario.

If we can just suck all of the oxygen out of the room, the reader will suffocate and no one need know of our disgrace.

STOP! BREATHE! RELAX!

Shut up and listen. Don’t respond other than to indicate that you’re following what the person is telling you.

You’re not being attacked. They don’t hate you. They’re not trying to convince the world that you’re a terrible human being.

Fight the urge to explain yourself and instead think about what you are being told. You may not understand right away, so feel free to ask for clarifications (not offer rebuttals). Take the input away and mull on it.

This is an opportunity to learn something about your work, your abilities and yourself. Take advantage of that.

You likely asked for the feedback, either implicitly or explicitly, and your reader has something to tell you. They may be right. They may be wrong. Annoyingly, it is likely to be somewhere in between. Regardless, they have had a reaction to your work, and you must respect that.

You do not, however, have to act on their feedback. If, after sober reflection, you feel that the feedback is not for your work, then move on, confident that you have heard and considered what they said.

Ahhh.

See? There is still air; you’re not choking. The skies have not darkened. Wagner does not play. You need not walk into the light.

It is tempting rationalize, to try to explain away our feared shortcomings. It has been programmed into us.

Rationalization is a natural reaction, but it isn’t necessary.

(Image used without permission due to alien infestation.)

My Creative Journey – Part One

What follows are a few thoughts on why I write…the moments in my life that led me to embrace my passion. It is an incredibly personal story and I hope it doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but rather helps them reflect on why they embrace their own passions.

Image

I need to be creative on my terms.

When I was younger, it was all about acquiring knowledge and being recognized for having acquired that knowledge. In hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what I was planning to do with that knowledge.

In some respects, it was about solving a puzzle, which could range from how does this alarm clock work to how does the universe work. On another level, I think it was about control. Knowing how the universe worked meant knowing that there was a broader sense of organization out there; that the laws of physics and mathematics still held even when my own life seemed in constant flux. The subtle irony of entropy only occurred later.

But it was also about control in the sense that I couldn’t be expected to come up with answers, with solutions, until I had all the information I needed to make that decision. The aggravating reality of that method of control is it only works when you’re the one asking the questions. Nobody else is willing to wait until I have all of the info I need.

At the same time, I needed the safety of analysis and knowledge, I’ve also had a need to be creative. A need that has only recently blossomed as a regular part of my life.

When I was young, I was constantly creating new worlds through my stories. First, as play scenarios and then as the written word. I constantly developed short stories that took me in a million directions. Again, this might have been an attempt at control.

When I wrote, I was the master of my universe. I was the one who decided who lived and who died, who was allied and who was the enemy. I was the protagonist and the antagonist.

It was in 1977, as I started high school, that I first noticed the strength of my writing. That summer, my life changed with the release of Star Wars. So deeply effected was I by the characters and the story, that I immediately went home and started working on the sequel. My version took a very different turn than George Lucas’s—although there were some subplot overlaps—but over the next few weeks, I hand wrote 400 pages of dialogue.

I shared the script with my Grade 9 English teacher, who was impressed with the volume if not the content (my words, not hers). It was in her class that I first realized the power of my words to still and disturb an audience.

On day, Ms. Philp gave us a writing assignment that started with the sentence “I couldn’t believe it when I heard that sound.” It was supposed to be an in-class assignment, but I was onto something and asked if I could take it home to finish it. I guess she sensed something—that this was important to me—and she said yes. While I didn’t finish the story, I did hand her several pages the next day.

After reading the story herself, she decided to read it to the class. Whereas most people had written stories about funny sounds, spooky sounds or weird sounds, I had written about a man who comes upon a murder in an alleyway, first by the sound of bone and sinew breaking, and then by sight. I wrote about the fear and indecision in the witness’s heart as the murderer sees him and he flees for his life.

As Ms. Philp read the story aloud, there was silence in the room—a room of 14 and 15 year olds. No one said a word until she was done reading. It was magical for me.

I wish I could say that there was a rousing round of applause at the end and that this was the day that I decided to become a professional writer. There was no round of applause—although my class seemed to appreciate my story—and Ms. Philp continued to be supportive of my efforts, but there was no effort to foster this creative desire in a young boy struggling to define his world.

The opportunity was there. Everything was laid out for someone to recognize, but nobody tapped into it. Writing continued to be a strange little quirk of my life. I guess it was just easier to find ways to support my interest in science and history by buying me more books, taking me to the Science Centre.

What do you do for a budding writer? Get him a pen and a notebook? Buy him a typewriter?

Eventually, someone did buy me a typewriter—a vehicle to do my homework. But it quickly became the vehicle for my creative outlet, much to my mother’s chagrin. The muse hits me when I have time to be alone with my thoughts. When my day isn’t cluttered with requests for attention and responsibilities. Unfortunately, in my childhood home, those times only tended to occur when my family was asleep.

Routinely, my mother would yell down from her bedroom for me to stop wailing away at the keys. Loudly pounding them into submission. Watching the letter hammers get stuck because the thoughts occurred to me and be translated through my fingertips faster than the typewriter could accommodate. She wanted to be supportive, but not at the cost of a good night’s sleep.

It took no time at all before I had an incredible portfolio of work—half-finished thoughts, short stories—but they languished unread by anyone other than me. I had given voice to the creative urges in my soul but no one heard that voice. It was the proverbial tree in a forest. With no one to even acknowledge the existence of my efforts, did they really exist.

Where was my mentor to guide me through this process? Someone to help me hone my voice. To make my stories better. To help me get my voice heard.

To be continued…

Birth of a reader

Okay. I admit it. I have a book problem.

I, Randall (Randy) C Willis, am a book addict.

In my defense, it is my mother’s fault…she was my first dealer.

From my earliest days, I remember being surrounded by books…books purchased for my enjoyment and edification (I read that word in a book).

Books were my companions. Books were my connection to the greater universe. Books were my babysitter. Books were my escape. Wherever my books are, that place is my home.

As I said, my mom started the process, as seen below in scans of some of my earliest books. Each of these volumes was published within a couple years of my birth, and either my mother or I have schlepped these things around for almost five decades.

I still smile as I flip through the Counting Book, testing my acumen. So far, so good.

And I sit in awe of the Adventures of Beany & Cecil, which was way too hip for kids as a short trip down YouTube indicates.

At the peak of my addiction, I think I owned 3000 books, give or take. I am presently sitting around 500, the rest being donated over the years to Good Will stores in Canada and the United States.

I know libraries exist, but in a twisted way, that would be like going to a strip club or brothel. A bibliographic quickie instead of a committed relationship (told you it was twisted).

No, I’ll stick with my books, thanks. Constant companions in an inconstant world.