There are few things I enjoy more than pawing through shelves, tables or boxes full of used books. I love used book stores, thrift stores with a used book section, and book fairs for charities. I am drawn to such places like a moth to a lamp. It’s a form of treasure hunting for me.
But, sometimes shopping for used books makes me sad. I get discouraged when it becomes painfully evident that books have so little value to so many people these days that they are often virtually thrown away. I’ve seen them sold by the pound, by volume (fill a shopping bag for $5). It’s all better than a trip to the landfill, I suppose, but still a bit disheartening. I’m happy enough to be able to fill my own shelves within the constraints of my book buying budget, but it is distressing to see wonderful novels, classic works of literature, useful reference books, and well-written works of non-fiction stacked in disorder at fire sale prices.
Case in point – the book pictured here is a like-new copy of Traditions & Encounters recently acquired at a thrift store for 25 cents. The new retail price of this magnificent book is $150 . Who thought so little of this wonderful book that it was tossed aside and sold for the merest fraction of its worth?
Perhaps within that thought lies the answer to my question. The true worth of a book, like that of a work of art, is determined by its beholder, its reader. The worth of a book simply does not equate to its monetary value. I’ll have to be content with that notion for now.
Ever get a song stuck in your head, a lyric repeating over and over, sometimes lasting for days? I’ve been waking up most mornings lately to the nasal twang of Stompin’ Tom Connors singing the chorus of “The Hockey Song”:
Oh the good ol’ Hockey Game Is the best game you can name And the best game you can name Is the good ol’ hockey game
At least it rhymes, right? Stompin’ Tom was a maritime icon of Canadian country music in the last decades of the previous century. He was famous for more than The Hockey Song, having written and performed also the fondly remembered Bud The Spud and Sudbury Saturday Night. He wrote more than 300 songs and released four dozen albums – in Canada. That ain’t chicken feed.
As these lyrics echoed in my skull, morning and night, they got me thinking about our national game. Really? you say, imagine that.
Growing up on the prairies we were urged to learn to walk so that we could learn to skate, skates and hockey sticks being among our first gifts under the Christmas tree. Hockey indeed was our game, and we played it as kids with a rare passion on frozen creeks and ponds, outdoor rinks on empty lots flooded with an accomodating neighbour’s garden hose and eventually, as PeeWees in community arenas.
We played in mismatched, ill-fitting gear, much of it bought oversized so that it would last several seasons, and the rest of it too small because we’d had it too long and couldn’t afford to replace it. Some of us stuffed Eaton’s catalogs in our hockey socks and held them in place with stretched sealer rings from Mom’s canning jars and electrician’s tape pinched from Dad’s tool box. Broken sticks were cobbled together with Elmer’s Glue, wood screws and yards of tape. The lucky ones among us had a logo sweater.
The Leafs and the Habs were our teams in what was then a six team National Hockey League. Our good Canadian boys (as Don Cherry fondly called them) played against the “other” teams across the line in New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago, and our boys filled most of their rosters then too. We idolized our favourites, bought bubble gum to get the hockey cards and dreamed of one day turning pro.
The opening bars of the theme music for Hockey Night In Canada stirred our blood on Saturday nights as we gathered in front of the television set to listen to Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play and his never to be forgotten, “He shoots, he scores!” The next day we hummed the music while we cleared snow from the ice with homemade wooden scrapers and snow shovels. No Zambonis back then.
There were other hockey songs, notably a couple by The Tragically Hip and of course, Clear The Track, Here Comes Shack by Del Barber & The No Regretzskys which paid homage to the great Leafs’ wildman, Eddie Shack. There was also a tune called I Want To Drive The Zamboni by – wait for it – The Zambonis (a one-hit wonder, I’m guessing). But no one spoke more eloquently for our game than Stompin’ Tom:
Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s “Hockey Night” tonight. Tensions grows the whistle blows, and the puck goes down the ice. The goalie jumps, and the players bump, and the fans all go insane. Someone roars, “Bobby scores!” at the good ol’ Hockey Game.
Jenine told me the other day, while we sat on the deck watching a hummingbird at the feeder, that when she was a young girl growing up in Walla Walla, Warshington (that’s how people from there say it), her babysitter dated Kurt Russell, a handsome lad who went on to become a Mouseketeer, a major Hollywood star, and the long time paramour of Goldie Hawn.
After I gently accused her of name dropping, my competitive spirit raised its ugly head and I dropped a name of my own. I told her the story, true in every particular, of how I met an American icon whose star has always burned bright in the hearts of countless millions across the continent. A man who will be remembered long after Kurt Russell is forgotten. Indeed, a man whose legend has already survived intact for many decades since his passing.
In the early 1970’s I was hurrying through the lobby of a new hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta, late for a service club luncheon in one of its meeting rooms. A diminutive man dressed in white occupied a comfortable chair by a large window. As I turned to look and then to realize who he was, I did a physical double-take worthy of Curly of the Three Stooges. This caused the little man to chuckle. He waved me over, rose from his chair and extended his hand. I shook it. I shook the hand of Colonel Harlan Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
“Yes,” he said in a soft southern drawl. “It’s really me,” and he waved me into another chair beside him where we chatted for an all too brief moment before a young man in sunglasses appeared and hustled him outside into a waiting car.
The Colonel, as the world knows him, was a true gentleman of the first water. I remember him, his immaculate dress, his snow-white garb, goatee and hair interrupted only by black framed glasses, a neatly tied black string tie and black shoes polished to a mirror shine. I remember that he spoke softly and with a smile and that he avoided too much eye contact as if he was shy or feared giving offense. I knew that he had sold his business to a Kentucky politician. He told me he was under a personal services contract to appear at grand openings of new KFC franchises across North America (including the one then recently opened in Grande Prairie) and he confided that in his opinion the gravy wasn’t as good as it used to be.
KFC, the thinned-down name of what used to be, much more accurately, Kentucky Fried Chicken, remains one of my guilty pleasures. I indulge myself every other month or so and when I do I always think fondly of the man whose image graced the side of the bucket.
Colonel Harlan Saunders is the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met – but perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered life.
Then she told me she has also met Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West) and that Adam West (TV’s Batman) was from Walla Walla and she was snarky about it. I pointed out to her that these lesser luminaries were not in the same league as the Colonel. Not even close.
In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet
asks Romeo, “What’s in a name?” In the case of those star-crossed lovers the
answer was murder and mayhem as their feuding families had at each other in an
Italian version of the Hatfields and McCoys. In my case, the answer is that it’s
just plain annoying.
My full name is John Gregg Norman; John after my father, so
I was compelled to go by my second name to avoid being called Junior. Oddly, my
mother and sister were similarly afflicted and were also called by their second
names. Perhaps there is a family curse that I don’t know about.
To compound the problem with my name, John, Gregg, and
Norman can all be used as both Christian names and surnames. I get called
Norman Gregg a lot and I’m still called John by people in positions of
authority and telephone solicitors. We won’t get into what I call them.
I had always been given to understand that I was named Gregg
from the title of a typing and shorthand manual my mother studied as a young
woman, though when she was in her 90’s she let slip that when she was a girl there
was a hot young British pilot training at an airbase near the family farm who
had that name. I know what you’re thinking, but no, I was born several years
after the flyboy was long gone and my mother, whose parents had immigrated from
England, was far too proper for anything beyond a wistful look over the fence
in any event.
While I was growing up at home, I was called Buster by my
dad for reasons which remain a mystery. Buster sounds kind of rough and ready,
but I was a bookish little bugger. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking on Dad’s
part. My friends back home called me Norm. Happily, that was long before George
Wendt so brilliantly portrayed Norm, the chubby barfly on the hit TV series, Cheers.
My mother, my sister, and my teachers were the only ones who called me Gregg
and then only when they were mad at me. To everyone else in town I was known as
Johnny Norman’s boy. Nowadays, on my rare trips back to my home town, I’m
referred to simply as Rae’s brother (Rae is my sister).
My name is spelled with a double g on the tail end.
That’s how it appeared on the cover of the typing manual. But that wasn’t
enough to avoid the confusion and embarrassment of sharing both my Christian
name and surname with Australian golf star, Greg (one g) Norman who was popular
during the later part of the last century. I played golf too, but there came a
day when I played in a Pro-Am tournament and was getting ready to tee off to start
the first round. Each golfer was announced by name over the public address
system. There were titters and guffaws from the gallery as I stepped onto the
tee box, but that was nothing compared to what followed when I promptly shanked
my drive into the trees. My foray into the world of golf was short-lived.
During a good portion of my adult life, thinking to avoid
confusion, I dubbed myself J. Gregg Norman, with business cards and letterhead
to match, only to find out many years later after I’d gone back to using plain
old Gregg that my family thought it was pretentious as hell.
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, I inadvertently created my
Facebook page in the name of Gregg Norman Author which has caused at least one
wag to ask if Author was my surname.
So, you can call me John or Gregg or Norman or any
combination thereof and I will answer promptly, if not happily.
Johnny Cash lamented in a hit song about being a boy named
Sue. He didn’t know how lucky he was.
I’ve now been a Facebooker for a couple of months, a
certified page-pushing member of a social medium I once decried as a totally
bogus alternate reality for people with nothing else to do.
And now, well… mea culpa. I humbly apologize,
especially to the scores of people who have friended me in very short order and
who have made me feel like a complete heel for doubting the value of their
Having lived in relative isolation for the last decade, I am
not unhappy having so many people to listen to or speak to (when I feel like
it, of course) without having to buy drinks for any of them. I leap out of bed
each morning, and while the coffee brews and I organize my pens and notebooks
for the day’s writing effort, I scroll down to see what’s up with the old and
new friends to whom I’ve connected. It’s a pleasant piece of my day.
But with a platform on Facebook come some awful
responsibilities – like realizing that declining a friend request or having one
of my requests declined or ignored can be hurtful, or like learning (from my
wife, who is a Facebook veteran and who is all-knowing about such things) how
to wield the power of unfollowing or snoozing otherwise well-meaning folks who
insist on showing me every single dog and cat up for adoption in rural Alabama,
or folks who fancy themselves as political pundits when we already have far too
many of them.
Perhaps the best thing about my Facebook experience has been
the discovery that so many people still have a great sense of humor. Every day
there is a joke, a photo or a video that makes me smile, sometimes laugh out
loud. It’s a welcome relief from the news of the main stream media, a
brightness in what otherwise might be a darker day.
One of the first people I connected with, a
writer/environmentalist I hadn’t had contact with in many years, welcomed me to
the Facebook fold and said he hoped that I would be able to manage my presence
there better than he did. After two months of reading all of his posts, I think
he manages his Facebook page with enviable style and compassion.
As for me, I suppose I manage and I do enjoy it, though I
cringe when my good wife gives me one of those ‘I told you so’ looks
from the other side of the breakfast table.
I still haven’t decided whether I am evolving or devolving,
but I’m having fun with it. Maybe an old dog can’t learn new tricks – but he
can learn to roll over.
I’ll never forget the first time I read that the Ku Klux Klan once boasted having 40,000 members in Saskatchewan. Having been born and raised there, it was like a punch in the gut. Ultimately, it lead to the writing of my second novel, “A Gift Of Scars”. Subsequent research confirmed that while the numbers may have been somewhat exaggerated, there were indeed many thousands of KKK members in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada. The phenomenon was relatively short-lived, occurring mostly in the late 1920’s, but it was significant enough to have influenced the outcome of at least one provincial election.
Writing historical fiction necessarily involves a great deal of research, and therein lies quicksand for the novelist. Repetition of too many facts, excessive adherence to the details of events, or refusing to “What if” beyond the boundaries of empirical data may result in a dry story. A writer of fiction must always remember that plot and characters are proprietary and can therefore be treated with a writer’s liberties. That is why an Author’s Note attached to a work of historical fiction will often explain that certain historical data has been altered to suit the narrative. A historical novel should not be intended to re-write history but rather to bring it to life in an exciting and entertaining way. Stated as an appropriate cliché, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
It is when the writer goes beyond the inescapable facts and events of history that the story in the novel is born. It is by asking, “What if….”, that plot and characters are created. It is cynical to say that there are no new stories to tell. Historical fiction is not simply an attempt at a Hollywood remake. It is as much about the fiction as it is about the history.
History often exerts a tremendous power of suggestion, which is why we can always learn something from it.
Decades ago, in another life, I got cornered at a cocktail party by a yuppie stockbroker who was working the room. I gathered, after ten minutes during which he talked and I listened, that his life consisted of work at his brokerage house, jogging, and virtually nothing else to hear him tell it. Finally, when he seemed to run out of steam and was scanning the room for his next victim, he said absently, “So, what do you do?”
What I did back then and what I do now, and all the many and varied things I’ve done in the years in between since I retired twenty-five years ago, have led many to think that I’m not playing with a full deck, that my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top, that I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer… you get the picture.
Maybe I’m not the brightest bulb on the tree (okay, enough with the stupid analogies). The point I would argue is that a life well-lived is a life rich in experiences and memories. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a stockbroker and/or a jogger, but if that is all, if that is the sum total of what you are, you are drastically short changing yourself.
Stretching your spirit to embrace all the stuff you’ve had on your bucket list for too many years is a good thing. It will pay valuable dividends when you are too old to do much more than relive your memories.
Crazy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m okay with that.
When my first novel, “Not My Dog”, was published, a number of readers who knew me asked if it was autobiographical. The question was not unexpected since there were some obvious parallels between my wife and me and the protagonist couple in the story.
The short answer to the question is no, but it is more complicated than that. A writer of fiction creates a story from imagination, but imagination (even if the story imagined is pure fantasy or science fiction) is unavoidably grounded in facts and perceptions from the writer’s life and experience.
Writers are often advised, wisely I think, to write about what they know. So I wrote about life in and around a small town on the prairies. My characters were prairie people as I knew them to be, for any character devised in fiction must, of necessity, be based to at least some extent on known facts about real people.
So, was it autobiographical? No, not really, but sort of…..
For those of you who complain that you have no time to read in today’s increasingly busy world, I offer the following humble advice:
Audio books – We’ve all got places to go and nobody walks any more so if you can bear to switch off the 1,000 channels of Sirius radio in your car, you might give this a try (Warning: some of the people who will be reading to you may have seriously annoying voices. Turn them off immediately and try one of these other tips).
Read in the tub – this often doesn’t turn out to be as good an idea as it sounds. Wet books take forever to dry and always smell funny after they do.
Read while you’re on hold on the phone – I once started (and finished) “War and Peace” when I called Revenue Canada to ask about a getting a tax write-off for all the time spent on hold on the phone.
Read when you’re standing in line – a recent trip to the grocery store (where I stood behind a delightful senior citizen who insisted she could find the exact change in her purse if she pawed through it long enough) provided me with just the opportunity I needed to finish the last 200 pages of “Ulysses”.
Read in bed – but don’t read anything terribly exciting (you’ll be up all night) or anything too dull (you’ll fall asleep, snoring, with the book on your chest and your glasses on your nose and look like a total doofus. Trust me, I know).
Read while you eat lunch – I recommend only disposable magazines or cheap trade paperbacks. You can’t get barbeque sauce off paper and you can’t read through cheese.
Read when you’re on the throne – this might be the very best time and place to read. Indeed, there are many of us who simply must read in this circumstance. You folks with magazine racks in the loo know what I’m talking about.
See? By simply using these few useful tips you can easily find an average of at least three hours a day in which you can read to your heart’s content. I’ve just rewarded myself for finishing this blog by eating a large pepperoni pizza. Now where did I put my copy of “Don Quixote”?
What possesses us to take up a pen or a keyboard to put words on paper or screen? Why do we do it? I’ve been asked that question a time or two by well-intentioned friends or acquaintances and always felt they found my answer (“Because I enjoy writing.”) was somewhat less than satisfactory. Others, who perhaps did not know me as well, on hearing that I was writing a novel, would immediately ask, “Who’s your publisher?” as if publication could be the only reason to spend one’s time writing instead of working at a regular job or profession. I found this distressing.
And so, feeling coerced to seek legitimacy with those around me, I polished up a manuscript and self-published it (being unwilling to send my work to agents or small presses after poor experiences on both counts). Now I mostly don’t say much if folks learn that I’m a writer. And I am a writer. I have no qualms about calling myself that, self-published or not. I’ve written creatively on and off for the last thirty plus years and I have put pen to paper every day for the last three years since I found the freedom to write without interference from other activities (like a regular job).
If you think you want to write because you believe it will lead you to riches or celebrity, you might want to think again. Like realtors, insurance salespeople and young lawyers, only a small percentage of those who pursue a writing career manage to make any kind of living at it, and the number of writers who achieve fame and fortune is miniscule by comparison.
Writing to please a publisher, editor, agent, generous arts council or loved one will not, I submit, result in your best work – which is not to say that the result won’t be good. It simply may not be as good as it could be if you wrote to please yourself.
So write because it makes you happy to do so. I dislike hearing complaints from angst-ridden writers who moan and tear their hair over agonizing re-writes, abandoned manuscripts or writer’s block. Writing is the best job in the world. Like anything else, if you find it excessively painful or distressing, you ought to look for other ways to spend your time.
I have a website, a blog, I’m on Facebook and I self-publish because apparently these things suggest legitimacy. But I write because I love to write and for no other reason.