the first, second, third and fourth gifts of the season


The first gift was finding my old lumber jacket in the trunk of my car, in my Survival Box, which also included a flashlight that didn’t work and inedible chocolate.

IMG_4864The second was doing the debit machine at the grocery store without my glasses and when it said did I want cash back I pressed ‘Yes’ by mistake. I swore and the cashier said “Everything alright?” I said it was and happily received $20. I felt rich.

#3 was receiving a xmas card from a friend I worked with almost 40 years ago and haven’t seen since. It occurred to me that it’s a small miracle we’ve managed to keep in touch through all our moves. We’ve never talked on the phone, or exchanged email addresses. The only time we’re in touch is December, with whatever words can fit on the inside of a card… no white space.

The fourth was a passage recently stumbled over in Douglas Coupland’s 2004 Souvenir of Canada 2. The original is also a joy. As is City of Glass.
My favourite kind of reading: words about the ordinary laid down in such a way that makes you realize nothing is ordinary…

This is from a piece called ‘Zzzzzzzzzz…. The Sleepy Little Dominion’, essentially a love letter to Canada. It begins with the memory of hatching Canada goose eggs in a Johnny Walker box with his brother.

“When [they] hop out of their eggs, they’re turbocharged little bundles of fluff-packed fun… goslings are alert, affectionate, trusting, curious, loyal and entertaining—the exact characteristics we also treasure in our human friends. It was pure delight to watch them tumble and peep daily across our lawn, pond, patio and (J-Cloths in hand) kitchen floor. Because of their innocence, everything was permitted.”

They become part of the family, snuggling for naps with humans and family dog alike.

“By August, though, there was no denying that [they] were now geese, and the time had come for them to fledge… As we had no rules to follow, we simply corralled them … at the top of the cul-de-sac and ran down the hill flapping our arms—and they followed us.”

He goes on to describe watching the first moment of their flight and even though they immediately return to the yard, “you could sense the wildness leaking into their souls.”

Eventually the birds do leave and settle, temporarily, at a nearby lake and when Coupland and his brother call them, they still respond, and even return to the house a few times.

“But then came the next year, early spring. The geese would come home just once. They would land on the roof, always in the morning, and they would honk as if the world depended on it. In robes and T-shirts, we’d run out onto the lawn to look at them there on the roof’s apex. Once they’d seen us, there was a brief moment when it wasn’t humans and geese, but simply a group of friends happy to be together and alive.

“Then off they flew. Just like that. They’d done their duty, and now they vanished into the wild. I’ve spent my life trying to articulate just what that specific wild was they returned to, for that wild is Canada, and when I think of this country, I think of where the geese go when they leave home.”


Gifts five to twelve are here.

this is not a review: player one, by douglas coupland

The Massey Lectures begin broadcasting today.

I’m curious to see how they come across, given that this year they take the form, not of essays, but of Douglas Coupland’s novel, Player One, in five parts.

The book is, essentially, about disconnection in a wired world.

I heard Coupland read briefly a few weeks ago in a fairly intimate setting (an event hosted by one of my favourite booksellers) and to be honest, I think the ‘lectures’ may be more than a little hard to follow… if only because it’s difficult to get into any kind of listening groove. One minute you’re hearing the narrative of a novel, you’re hearing dialogue, expecting plot and character development, action and reaction—but what happens instead is that the dialogue has suddenly morphed into a mini essay.

And not in a way that works to any kind of advantate in the context of the book. In fact, it’s almost like the book is merely a vehicle for the author’s personal thoughts, theories and musings—which are vast and clever and endlessly discussable—but they are clearly his, not the characters’. That’s the other thing—every character has the same basic view of life. Hard enough to tell them apart as I read the book at my own pace—I can’t imagine listening to the lecture series and being able to keep track of who is who. There are few distinctions.

Not that it matters much. It’s the philosophy, the big questions posed, the commentary on humanity’s impending doom that’s the point.

All of which is good stuff. Especially in Coupland’s hands. But why write a book of clever theories posing as a ‘novel’?  Why not go non-fiction? Or, here’s an idea: a book of five essays.

I thought maybe I was missing the symbolism, that the sameness of characters, their flatness and non-reaction to the world ending outside their window, was to suggest that increasing ‘disconnection in a wired world’. But really, if that’s it, it still doesn’t work as a novel. It’s a book of possibilities and deep reflection, but unfortunately mired in a storyline that exists only enough to intrude, and with one-dimensional characters who constantly say things like this:

“Karen, tell me, what is the you of you? Where do you begin and end? This you thing—is it an invisible silk woven from your memories? Is it a spirit? Is it electric? What exactly is it? Does it know that there exists a light within us all—a light brighter than the sun, a light inside the mind? Does the real Karen know that, when we sleep at night, when we walk across a field and see a tree full of sleeping birds, when we tell small lies to our friends, when we make love, we are performing acts of surgery on our souls? All this damage and healing and shock that happens inside of us, the result of which is unfathomable. But imagine if you could see the light, the souls inside everybody you see—at Loblaws, on the dog-walking path, at the library —all those souls, bright lights, blinding you, perhaps. But they are there.

Great writing. And I like what he’s stirring up, but as dialogue throughout it does not a great novel make. The characters simply haven’t earned that level of wisdom. 

Having said that, can the record please show that it’s not overly philosophic, theorizing characters I object to. On the contrary. If done well a strong philosophic bent is a beautiful thing—in a context that delivers, rather than fights with itself. 

And god knows I’m not criticizing the brilliance of Mr. Coupland’s mind, a writer whose work I respect and enjoy very much. Just questioning why he felt it necessary to take material that would so perfectly suit five brilliant Couplandesque essays—that might have actually had us thinking in new ways—and isn’t that what the Lectures are all about?—and clutter it instead with undeveloped characters and a rather ineffectual storyline. Was it just to be different? Because (thankfully) he’s already different. He doesn’t have to try.

Then again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I read it at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances. Maybe I should have had less tea or more wine. Or vice versa. And maybe no one else will find the packaging of Player One’s  weak story a distraction from what could be a powerful and important message.