I can see September from here

Today is the last day of the school year.

Tomorrow is the first day of summer. Of real summer. Mind you, we may be waiting a while longer in the Rocky Mountains for weather that resembles the season.

Despite all the warning signs that summer may actually be upon us, I can see September from here.

This morning I walked Rio to school for what may be the last time. Next year he’ll go to Lawrence Grassi Middle School, and though he says he’ll let me, I doubt I’ll be walking him to school very much. It’s too far, and Grade 5 is no place for a dotting father. I know it even if he doesn’t it.

It feels as if it was just a few days ago I walked him to Kindergarten for the first time. He was wearing his prized Scoobie-doo shirt and rode his scooter. I had just moved into my place in Fernwood so I drove up to the old house, parked, and Kat and I walked him there together.

I celebrate every single minute that I get to share with him on this earth. He is a gift. He is my heart’s delight.

Silas will still be at Elizabeth Rummel for three more years, and I bet that he’ll let me hold his hand for at least one or two of those, while he pontificates on the astrological projection of stars and the diet of duck billed platypuses as we toddle down the road. It will be just the two of us in September.

It’s all about letting go. From the very first moment it’s about stepping back, about yielding to time’s swift passage, about allowing them to grow and move on.

A few days ago I was in Burlington, Ontario, where I went to middle and high school. I was there for my father’s retirement party. I was the great surprise; the look on his face as I walked into the party was well worth the cross Canada flight. After 63 years of near daily work, he had sold the business he built with his own bare hands. Being with him at that moment was one of the greatest moments of my life; to give the gift of respect and recognition to this man who had worked so hard that my sister and I could live so well was very important to me.

We celebrated that passage together.

Just as Rio, Silas, Jenn and I will celebrate this passage too.

We let go. We accept change because to struggle against it would be foolish, ineloquent, and all-too-human.

The fact that we cannot see the simple truth that every single moment is ephemeral is part of the root of all suffering. That life is all magic-and-saying-goodbye evades us.

Summer comes, ready or not. The boys will be with us for four weeks of it. A week of that will be spent on the coast, camping with Jenn’s mom and dad, Ann and Paul, at Rathtrevor Provincial Park. Another week will be spent in Salmon Arm for the Legault family reunion. A weekend backpacking, and another just enjoying our home in the mountains.

I’ve made my choices and part of the result is that a summer too short to start with is cut in half.

Labour Day will be upon us, and the new school year – the real measure of any parent’s life – will begin again. I can see if from here. Book bags and lunches once more and walking Silas to school, not because it’s necessary (the kid could find his way back and forth across Canmore with his eyes closed) but because for 15 minutes I get to hold my son’s hand and listen to his stories. Maybe Rio will walk with Silas and me as far the Cougar Creek before he rides his bike into town and the next stage of the adventure. I’ll be glad for those opportunities. And I’ll celebrate every single new day that dawns with my family.

I can see September from here. It’s just far enough away that I can live each moment between now and then fully in the present, in awe of the wonder and the magic; aware that every moment is precious, made more so by the need to say goodbye.

Review: The DROP by Michael Connelly

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start. I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly. I would read just about anything he wrote. Recently, while on one of my regular drives from Alberta into Montana, I listened to Chasing the Dime (2002) and came away believing it was impossible for Connelly to write a bad character. I consider Connolly to be one of the best mystery writers alive today.

All of that said, The Drop (Little, Brown and Co, 2011) disappointed me. Not a lot, but a little, and for a master the caliber of Connelly, that’s enough.

The Drop is the most recent book in the Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch series, one of several protagonists that Connelly deftly weaves murder mysteries around. In this the 18th book in the Bosch series (Connelly has published 31 books as of 2011) Bosch is working the Open-Unsolved desk for the Los Angeles Police Department. He gets a cold hit on a DNA sample that links a long unsolved sexual assault and murder to a man who was only 8 when the crime was committed. Something is askew, but Bosch tracks the man down and learns that he is a serial child rapist out on parole with a deeply troubling past. At the same time, Bosch’s nemesis (who was deputy commissioner on the LAPD for many years, and tried to deep-fry Bosch’s career on more than one occasion) Councillor Irvin Irving’s son is found dead, supposedly the result of the sudden stop after he jumped from the top floor of a ritzy LA hotel. To everyone’s surprise, Bosch is asked by Irving himself to investigate. Did the man fall, or was he dropped?

Both investigations proceed on parallel tracks, and the investigative technique, personal drama and petty politics of the police force are, as usual, superb reading.

Where The Drop disappoints is that the two investigations never converge except in the form of some talk about “high jingo” between the LAPD and Councillor Irving. And while both stories are told masterfully, I was a little disappointed that they never hooked up in the end. It was like watching two friends flirt all night in the bar, and then shake hands and head for separate cabs. I felt as if Connolly had two short novels he wanted to write, or maybe a pair of longish novellas, and someone talked him into writing them together, in the same book.

In the end, everything except for the final few pages was classic Connolly: tight dialog, fantastic character development, perfect pacing and in this case two really well plotted mysteries. I just wished I had skipped the last chapter. Then I wouldn’t have had any lingering disappointment.

Harry Bosch isn’t getting any younger. The double-entendre of the title is that Bosch has just a few years left before he is forced to retire; he’ll get the drop. While Connolly has other terrific characters (I’m partial to Jack McEvoy in The Poet and The Scarecrow) I expect there will be a few more novels featuring Bosch. I hope so. I’m looking forward to watching him solve a few more mysteries, one at a time.

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Put it in the basement

Our basement is packed full of the things that we don’t want to deal with.

There’s a lot of useful stuff there too. Its where most of our outdoor sports gear lives, and our tools, and a pantry full of food; but there’s also a cat-carrier there (we have no cat) and boxes of 35mm slides – not the ones that are half decent enough to show people, but the ones I’ve never shown anybody, but can’t bring myself to throw away, because maybe there is an award winning shot among them. I’ll never know, because there are thousands and thousands of them, and life is too short to rummage through them all.

Jenn and I talk regularly about moving things out of our lives. Cleaning out the basement has become something of a metaphor for cleaning out our minds.

A few nights ago, after a mountain bike ride on the benches above Canmore, we sat in the back-yard and watched the sun dip towards Mount Rundle. It was a beautiful evening. Jenn noted that the bar-b-q cover looked as if it needed replacing: a few long hard winters have taken its toll and it was looking ratty. She said that she had a list of such things that needed replacing and intended to check things off that list and when she was done she wouldn’t have to waste so much mental energy keeping track of things.

I couldn’t agree more, and at the same time, realize the futility of such an endeavour. I too keep a great-long-list of things that must be done both in my head, and on paper. This list, along with the mental inventory of my possessions stacked on shelves and in the crawl space beneath the stairs in the basement takes up a lot of mental space.

The problem is that as I clean out the basement, or systematically work my way down the list of things to do, I never reach the end. So far at least I haven’t ended up with an empty basement, or even one that is perfectly neat and orderly; not so long as I keep carrying things down the stairs and putting them on the work bench to deal with some other time.

I never finish the list of things that need to be done – such as buying a new bar-b-q cover or painting the window sills or repairing the damaged foundation plaster – so long as I keep adding things to the list. And I will always be adding things to the list. There will always be things that I have to tote down to the basement to deal with when there is more time. Sometimes we have to tuck things away and deal with them when we are better able to face them.

I know that I can’t hope to have the blank mental space that I equate with peace until I find a way to stop the wheels from spinning, even if there is a long list or a crowded basement. Peace doesn’t come from checking off everything on that list and then never adding another thing to it; peace is a result of learning to live with the list and not allow it to dominate my thoughts every minute of the day.

Meditation helps with this. When I sit down for my brief mediation sessions, I know there are endless projects waiting for me on the workbench at the bottom of the stairs, and countless emails in my inbox, but the practice is to clear the emotional space around this reality. The kid’s train set needs to be fixed and there is a cat carrier that needs to be donated to the SPCA and I really should find a moment to have a look at my anger issues and to understand why every time the phone rings and it’s my mother I get anxious. I need to write a grant proposal and the last chapter of my next novel needs work. A lot of it. The list is endless. Meditation provides me with a reprieve, while sitting or walking mindfully, and throughout the day.

Peace doesn’t come from having an empty basement and a blank to-do list; it arises from our willingness to accept that that life is full of incomplete undertakings and that is part of the joy of being alive. Once all the lists are complete, when there is nothing left to traipse down to the basement to fix, unpack, repack and haul out the door, the journey will be over. And the journey is all we have.

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Read another similar post here: Lighten Up.

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First, it gets bigger

Before it can get smaller, it must first get bigger.

That’s got to be one of the laws of editing.

Last week I finished another draft of The Glacier Gallows, the fourth book in the Cole Blackwater series. It tips the scales at 100,479 words. At the end of the first draft it was 91,400 words. Between drafts one and three I found 9,000 words-worth of things I hadn’t said.

I also cut a bunch of pointless shlock out during this draft; I think it’s safe to assume I added at least 11, or 12,000 words during the 2nd and 3rd draft.

I know full well they won’t last. More shlock will need to go. My last two novels have been about 95,000 words each, so I’ll soon be taking the ole’ editorial chain-saw to at least 5, or 6,000 innocent verbs, nouns, pronouns and what-have-you. If I don’t, someone else will.

When I write a first draft, I don’t worry too much about filling in the holes in my plot. If something doesn’t add up, I make a note in the draft and keep going. In many ways it’s like hand building with clay; I don’t worry too much if there is an arm missing in the sculpture as long as the torso of the work holds up. I can come back and ad an appendage later.

This works for me, more or less. I know other writers who couldn’t live this way. I recently did a reading with another TouchWood author, Cathy Ace, where she confessed that her novel The Corpse with the Silver Tongue emerged pretty much fully formed in the first draft. I didn’t let on at the time but I was dumbfounded by this. My novels emerge looking more like something a hobo cobbled together at the city dump and then dragged through the streets for a few weeks during the monsoon season.

First drafts, at least for me, are for getting the idea down. I use them to create a framework that I can build the rest of the story around. It also happens to be where most of the dialog develops. During that first draft flow – where I’m not troubling myself with things like past-progressive tense, which I’ve recently discovered I use all the damn time – I can allow the characters to have their conversations in my head and capture what they are saying without worrying about trifling matters like spelling.

During the second draft of The Glacier Gallows I read through the armless sculpture of a novel and made pages of notes on where the holes in the plot were and where inconsistencies occurred. It probably sounds asinine to most people, but I’ve got to work hard to keep track of my own characters. I mix up names of some secondary characters and find myself reluctantly making a chart about half-way through the second draft to keep everybody organized.

The third draft is where I start working on style. Why, you ask, not do it all at once? Capacity: I lack the mental capacity to work on the content of the novel – the guts of the mystery – and check to see if I’ve used the word “said” too many times, or if I’ve transposed from and form or written “Cole was standing by the table” instead of “Cole stood by the table,” which I am told by my 10-year old is a stronger sentence.

The truth is, I get caught up in the story and forget to read for grammar and style.

I also, almost inevitability, miss holes in the plot, which troubles me more than just about any other matter. The sculpture might have both of its arms now, but it can’t tie its own silly shoe laces for lack of fingers.

With the third draft under my belt I’ll now and start shaving off the unnecessary bits of the story that only get in the way. How many times do I need to explain Cole’s investigative thinking to the reader? I know there is a chapter where he takes a flight from Calgary back to his old stomping grounds of Ottawa and spends the whole time contemplating the mystery. I’m pretty sure there are four pages – about 1,300 words (and a fair amount of beer drinking) – that I can chop there. There’s likely a lot more.

So I build the story up, and then shave it back down. There is likely a much more efficient process for writing, but this is the one I’ve used now for 10 books (5 published, 4 on deck and 1 sad, lonesome book lost and alone, searching for a publisher) and it works for me. Every writer has their own process and mine is to make things bigger before I can make them smaller again.

Looking into Glacier National Park, Montana, from the Bison Lakes, Badger-Two Medicine region of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Best Father’s Day ever

Yesterday was the best Father’s Day ever. What made it that way wasn’t anything extraordinary. It was perfectly normal. My children made me really great cards, written in their own hand and using their own words. They collaborated with Jenn to buy a badminton set which we set up in the backyard. I already know that we’ll spend hours playing together there. Both children were beaming while we played. In the afternoon all four of us went for a mountain bike ride. We dubbed it a skills-building ride, and Rio and Silas did amazing.

Rio was brave and calm taking some steep downhill runs. He whooped and hollered as we rode across a narrow single track that swoops through aspens. After he had navigated a stretch of trail that is particularly tricky, with an off balance fall line and a lot of loose rock, he told me that by being calm he was less likely to bail and hurt himself. I’ve been trying to learn that lesson for years.

Silas was his usual hard-charging self, muscling up the hills without complaint and ready to do anything his older brother could.

I must have had an ear-to-ear grin on as we rode the last stretch of our circuit through the aspens because Jenn said, “you’re pretty happy right now.” Of course I was; I was with my family, doing something I love.

We finished the day with one last badminton match; Rio in his PJ’s as the sun dipped toward Mount Rundle. It was a perfect day.

I told the boys as we read a chapter of Watership Down (we have estimated we’ll be reading it for the next year, which is alright with me) in bed: this was the best father’s day ever.

Rio, from the top bunk, called down: you say that every year.

I do. And every year is the best.

Year after year I get everything an adoring dad could want: more love than I know what to do with, the presence of mind to appreciate and be grateful for it, and the good health and emotional maturity to be fully present to its richness.

I suppose there was only one thing that I want for Father’s Day that I can’t have: I want this to last forever.

Gone Dark