Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Poor Man's Olympics

It is possibly the greatest creation ever. It is soft, it is bright orange, it is a giant orange pillow. Not giant as in “oh, that’s a big cushion for that couch”, this captivatingly ugly pillow IS the size of a couch. Taking up an entire corner in my grandparent’s basement, it was the site of many sports throughout my childhood. My two brothers, Darcy and Travis, and I were, and still are last time I checked, insanely competitive. I guess it is the nature of the beast when living in the dog eat dog world of sibling rivalry. People without a brother or sister will simply never understand the intimate intensity of that unique love/hate relationship. And this giant orange pillow in the corner of grandparent’s basement, which looked like it had been built for a God rather than mere mortals, was the battleground over which my brothers and I daily fought.

Our main casus belli was hockey played with mini-sticks. These tiny plastic sticks were our weapon and armor, sword and shield. My brothers and I would hack, slash, cross-check and take slap shots from a foot away in our quest for glory. We would alternate who was the goalie, based on whoever had lost the previous game. Goaltender was not a position you wanted to be in, because the only equipment the goalie had was a mini-stick and one of my grandpa’s old hats, used as makeshift catcher. That is not ample protection when the majority of the slashes, not to mention the patented one foot away slap shot, were aimed at you. The giant orange pillow played the integral part of being both the backstop and the board where you could check your brothers. Check is probably not the appropriate word, I think smash, level, and perhaps even steamroll better explains the nature of our brotherly violence. But the giant orange pillow absorbed all blows, enveloping both checker and checked into its soft embrace.

But mini-stick hockey was only one arena of warfare. My brothers and I, while snooping around my grandfather’s garage, found two pairs of boxing gloves. I’m sure you know where this leads. We immediately raced down to the basement and set up our match by the giant orange pillow. There was a brief pre-fight scuffle deciding who would be the first two to pummel each other. My older brother Darcy, using his four years added life experience over Travis and I, intelligently decided to fight the winner, correctly assuming that whoever won would be so tired and beaten up that they would just be a sitting target. Travis and I strapped on the gloves and went at it. It begins as it always does, with light tapping which becomes harder tapping which becomes stiff jabs. I then crossed the line (someone always crosses the line) and gave a solid punch to my brother’s nose. His eyes swelled up, his face became a snarl, and his head became as red as a fiery red tomato. As any sibling knows, that is not a good sign, but before I could fake an insincere apology, he charged, wrapped his arms around me, lifted me straight off the floor and smashed both of us into the comforting and life-saving giant orange pillow. To survive the onslaught, I had to put him in a crab lock until the colour of his head returned back to normal. All the while Darcy, my brother the ref, was laughing.

But it was not all violence and fighting, although most young boys would enjoy that. We also engaged in a variety of track and field games, to prove our superiority over our brothers in any way possible. We would run lengths of my grandparent’s house, both in just downstairs and all-house heats, with the giant orange pillow always being the finishing line, allowing us to run full speed until the end, when we crashed into it and would bounce several feet backwards. We also had a measuring tape to see who bounced the farthest back, that being a prize itself. Probably the most challenging game was high-jump. We would stack my grandmother’s books four feet high and rested her broom on them, acting as the pole that absolutely could not be hit and allowed to roll off. We would start at the other end of the basement, run as fast as we could, and launch ourselves up and over to land safely on the giant orange pillow.

Once my grandmother enquired into just what that racket was in the basement. My grandpa, a man with decades of working class observational humor at his disposal, responded “the poor man’s Olympics”. My grandma scowled at him for saying it, but it was true. My brothers and I were part of a working class poor family. Both my parents worked as much as they could, did what they could, just to make ends meet. That was the reason we spent all that time in my grandparent’s basement. I was originally writing about these memories as part of a self-righteous rant against the Olympics. I wanted to write about how the Olympics reward the elite, because only they have enough money, resources and spare time to become so great at a leisure activity, and to actually have the government pay for them to do so. The measure of a country is not in gold medals, but how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. But I got off track, lost my way in my memories, and when I got out this is what I had…

I realize my brothers and I have a strong family, something that I count myself very lucky for because it has given me the opportunity to do what the vast majority of poor sons and daughters cannot: a chance to improve my lot in life. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. The difference is having a cushion to land upon. I am lucky because of my family, for all its glory and disaster. It seems so neat and tidy, really hackneyed and predictable, but I don’t care. This is what I think, from my brain to this page, a material thought. Do with it what you may. My family is my giant orange couch. It might look unusual, ugly, and clash with everything around it, but I would never want anything else. For all the times my family provided a soft landing, embracing me with your love, this is for you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Creating Something from Nothing

“I’m not sure if I like this either,” I remember telling my loving girlfriend of six years as I looked at the course description for creative nonfiction. I was choosing classes for my upcoming year at Lakehead University and I was having trouble picking because, well, everything I looked at seemed incredibly boring. I read all the courses with my usual cynical approach. “Medieval Scottish Poetry? Food and Writing? Shakespeare? I’m not paying thousands of dollars of my money and spending hundreds of hours of my time learning such narrow and useless subjects.” I remember thinking that I only had limited time on this Earth, not to mention limited money, so I felt the need to invest the two most important things one has into something thought-provoking, something interesting, something important.

And creative nonfiction did not look like that at all. I didn’t even really know what I was looking at. Creative nonfiction seemed to me as the realm of sensational celebrity stories, self-important personal essays, and sappy memoirs of youth. But I took a deep breath, told myself to stop being so judgmental, and I began to actually look deeper into this subject, to find its particular flavor and depth. For most of my life I was grossed out by sushi until I had it, literally, forced down my throat during a reading week in Vancouver. Now I absolutely love sushi. I learned a lesson that that day in the West Coast, so I tried my best to not pre-judge creative nonfiction, as I had sushi, and I began to force feed myself more information about the subject. I looked creative nonfiction up on Wikipedia, but the description was so dry that you could have used it for kindling. I searched for examples of creative nonfiction, but those were also, unfortunately, conforming to my initial concern of dreary coming-of-age stories. After much more disappointment in my investigation, and with classes quickly filling up during the meanwhile, I had to make a decision. So naturally, I asked my girlfriend Kate to make my decision for me.

“Do whatever you want,” she said offhand, busily trying to get her flight home set-up.

Normally that would have been a frustrating response; fundamentally it is the equivalent of saying nothing, because naturally I am going to do whatever I wanted to do. But for me, at that moment, it became something. It became something because it suddenly changed my perspective on creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction was not sentimental stories about being young or celebrities’ secret lives. Those are simply what some writers in creative nonfiction choose to write about. I could choose whatever stories in life that matter to myself; write about who, when, what I want. I could do whatever I wanted. The richness and variety of everyday experience provides an incredible amount of stories that can touch and change one’s soul and perspective, their ideologies and their own personal biases. That single sentence, one that I have heard thousands of times, became important, became something, because of the context that I experienced of it. I was worried that in writing creative nonfiction, I would be writing pieces no one would want to read. But that is not my place as a writer. I cannot give meaning, I create art that people find meaning in. If one person is affected by what I write, then doesn’t that make my writing important? I had decided what I wanted to do in that creative nonfiction class is to tell moments of life in the hopes that someone reading it may experience that shift in being, to maybe learn a lesson, to get something from what might have been nothing. So I decided to sign up for the course and to tell my, and others, stories, in the hopes that I can create something for someone, where once was nothing. My girlfriend's answer allowed me to find out what was important in creative nonfiction.