I bought this Apple PowerBook 150 secondhand around 1996. It wasn’t strictly my first lap top. That distinction goes to a cheapo word processor (I think it was a Brother) that I owned a few years earlier. I used to take it to the answering service where I worked the graveyard shift. I would write when the calls died down, around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. It was a fun little machine.
But this beauty made me feel like I was actually part of the information age. It was the first machine on which I could send and receive email and surf the Internet. Well, maybe more like crawl the Internet, considering the low bandwidth. I could barely load a page of text, let alone anything with graphics.
I still love the look of it: the grey plastic casing, the clunky thickness of it and that wacky trackball mouse that caused the cursor to pinball across the milky blue screen. It reminds me of the computer version of one of those old Underwoods that Ring Lardner might have used.
The beginning of the end came when a corner of the screen turned an ominous yellow (some kind of pixel malfunction) that was eventually going to spread. Before that happened ,Thelma and I bought a Bondi Blue iMac, which was our first joint-purchase as a couple (awww).
Still, the sight of this PowerBook reminds me of sitting in my small Vaughan Street apartment, tapping out poems, song lyrics, a postcard story that eventually received an Honourable Mention in a Short Grain Contest (my second publication) and the rough genesis of a novel.
Depending on what kind of day it is ,I’m either amused or bemused by how much and how little has changed since then.
This is a calendar I bought in 2003 at the Galileo Airport in Pisa. Thelma and I had spent a week in Florence (with my sister and her then-boyfriend) and were on our way back to England. My main reason for buying the calendar was to use up the euros I had in my pocket. I can’t remember how much it cost, except to say it cost exactly what I had left.
The calendar is made of two pieces of cardboard bound at the corners by metal clips. Between the cardboard are wheels with numbers, one with the days of the week and another with months, all in Italian. The cover, as you can see, is a reproduction of a poster for a production of Otello, complete with a portrait of Verdi and photos of the theatre where it was being performed. At this point I have to apologize for the blurriness. I am still trying to master the intricacies of laptop photography.
When I first hung the calendar in my office at home, I religiously made sure that the right date, day and month were showing. Perhaps “superstitiously” is a better adjective, since part of me felt that something might go amiss if the calendar was not set correctly every day. I’m not sure exactly what I thought might go wrong. Maybe I was afraid that if I left it alone I would go through some kind of Groundhog Day scenario where I was forced to relive the same day over and over. Or maybe I just believed that it was a small ritual to start the day off right.
Whatever it was, gradually over the years I have become more lax in changing the calendar, although I haven’t given up on it entirely. I may let a day or two (sometimes more) pass before I eventually set the thing right. I’m not exactly sure what that says about my state of mind over the past seven years, except maybe that I’ve grown lazier (not exactly front page news).
But what has stayed with me is what attracted me to the calendar in the first place. Unlike other calendars around the house, this one shows no yesterday or tomorrow, only today. One can’t map out an agenda with it or plan for the future. One can only be reminded of today (if I’ve done my job and remembered to set the thing) and the value of staying in the present moment.
My uncle, Leonard Fligel, is a retired art teacher in Glasgow, Scotland. This a monoprint he made using ink and paint. As far as I know, the work has no title and depicts two men and a woman.
I have never discussed with my uncle what is going on in the picture, but on first view it seems that the man and woman are possibly supporting the woman in the hat, who seems to be in some kind of distress. Or maybe the woman on the right is protecting the woman in the hat from being molested by the man. This initial interpretation is at odds with the fact that the woman on the right seems to be copping a feel. The man looks like he is also trying to cop a feel, but is being blocked by the hat woman’s elbow. The man’s raised hand suggests that all this might be taking place on a bus or a subway, although nothing in the background supports this. Maybe he is raising his hand to push away or strike the woman on the right. I suppose a third possibility is that the man and the woman are ganging up on the poor woman in the hat. A public mugging? A wild orgy? A mutual support group? Ahh, the mysteries of art.
The importance of this painting to me solely lies in the fact that it was created by my uncle. He took his first art classes at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where he was taught by Arthur Lismer, who was a member of the Group of Seven. As a young man my uncle travelled to the arctic and later studied in Florence. He settled down in Glasgow in the early 1960s, where he taught young artists to be teachers.
Early on, my uncle established himself as the black sheep of his family by opting for a career in art. In turn, he inspired my sister, Rena, to appreciate art, to travel and to have an independent spirit. She, then, went on to instil that same independent spirit in me. I always considered the three of us to be directly connected by this black sheep sub-lineage within my family. Leonard’s own children (who call him Lenny or Len, his full name only being used by my sister and myself, possibly in reference to his artistic inspiration on us, Leonard being only one letter away from “Leonardo”) are all artistic and involved in painting, sculpting, writing and music. I stay in touch with them and am proud to have this group of artistic Scots in my family.
Naturally, I place a certain amount of my own artistic identity squarely on Leonard’s shoulders. We share some similar tastes: the music of Kurt Weill, in particular, and a general tendency toward dark themes. He was generous and effusive in his praise when my book of short stories came out. Recently he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and I have heard reports of changes in his personality that seem to support this diagnosis. That he is steadfastly in denial about his condition is not surprising. I sometimes look at this monoprint and consider the vagaries that life can subject one to, much in the same that a work of art changes the more one looks at it.
I am supposed to travel to the UK this spring to visit my sister (she lives in Suffolk). Most likely we will travel to Scotland to see our uncle and cousins. I have to admit that I’m worried about witnessing any of the changes in his personality. All the same, if the opportunity presents itself, I may just ask him about this picture and what is going on with those three people. But I don’t necessarily expect a straightforward answer. After all, why should art be any less mysterious than life?
This is the first of a new series of posts called Artefacts & Fictions, which will deal with certain objects from my life and what they mean to me. The title is in reference to my belief that factual events in our lives contribute to the invention of personal identity.
Today's item is the very first rejection letter I ever got. In 1983, I sent out a group of poems to the now-defunct Poetry Toronto, which was then being edited by bpNicol, a seminal force in Canadian poetry. Here is a transcript:
Dear Steven Mayoff
I love "Glasgow." I think it is a strong, evocative piece of writing. If I was still doing Ganglia I'd publish it. The problem is it's prose and this is Poetry Toronto. Still I hung onto it thinking well if there's a slow month I'll sip it in anyway. Here it is my last month of editing & the pace hasn't slowed. So, regretfully, I return it to you.
None of the poems grabbed me as much but "Glasgow" sure did. Good luck placing it somewhere else.
The Glasgow he was referring to was, in fact, my first attempt at writing a short story. It started off as a memoir about a brief period of my childhood, spent in Glasgow, Scotland. In the process of writing it, I realized I could not remember certain aspects of my life then, so I naturally began to make it up as I went along. I had recently read Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. His writing style consisted of broken sentences that reminded me of broken lines of verse rendered into prose. It baffled and fascinated me so much that it was only natural I use it as a model for my inaugural attempt at fiction. What resulted seemed so remote from a short story that I sheepishly hedged my bets and decided to pass it off as a prose poem.
The first rejection letter is as much a milestone for a writer as the first acceptance (Glasgow was later published in the Malahat Review, my first professional publication for which I was paid a whopping $25). Of course this is more evident in retrospect after one has received numerous rejection slips. The fact that my first rejection was from a well-known Canadian writer who took the time to comment favourably on my work (in a hand-written letter yet!) pretty much spoiled me for everything that was to come later. But it was an apt and welcoming introduction into a world where the appetite for acceptance is whetted by constant rejection. I came to believe that the endless parade of rejection slips were merely a test to ascertain how serious my resolve was to be a writer. It's a rite of passage that never quite passes and at some point each "no" carries a secret nod that says: welcome to the club.