In August I noticed something mildly alarming as I walked around my home. Everywhere I look there is some small shrine to Jack — some of her art, some of the things she loved, and some of the things that remind me of the best of times with her. That wasn’t alarming; that just seems like a normal part of the grieving process. What was alarming was the realization I had finally that all of these were ephemeral in some sense. They were permanent physical things, of course, but each could — and probably would — eventually be moved, stored, or discarded. Each of these things, each of these subconscious attempts to preserve memory (since we all have to acknowledge that the memory in our brains is feeble and unreliable) probably would at some time disappear from my home.

One response to this would be to simply not do that — preserve those shrines forever. Or at least some of them. But which to remove? And how does that piecemeal removal not eventually end in the total removal of all of them? Is that desirable?

I decided that it was not, that in some way they had to be preserved. But how to make something genuinely permanent, at least in the space of your own life? What can you do to guarantee that these images are forever accessible, not subject to the vagaries of storage needs, re-decorating, the desires of others (and we have to admit that there may be others with their own needs), and the unhappy happenstance of digital storage failure?

So it was in September that I had an image I drew in memory of Jack, an image full of tiny symbolisms, tattooed on my arm.

SAILOR MOUTH is an inside joke, mostly between her and I. She was uncomfortable not swearing and she loved Sailor Moon, so when she asked me which sailor scout best suited her I told her that we needed a new one, Sailor Mouth. This delighted her. I could go into detail about the symbols but those that are obvious are already yours and the rest are mine.

Recently, however, I decided that I wanted more ink there and something from the mind of the artist that executed my idea here (that’s my drawing, faithfully reproduced by this artist). And so I decided I’d buy Jack some flowers.

Often tattooed flowers are idealized and perfect and this was not what I wanted. Jack loved tulips, but the perfect just-opening bud of a vased tulip was too pristine, too virginal. And so I asked the artist to make me something with her favourite flowers in the next stage — acknowledging age, decay, and the sensual fecundity of this floral opening. I wanted the flowers to symbolize a life lived and not just pretty flowers. I suggested also a sunflower — Jack would literally squee when I brought sunflowers home. And so a short while ago, after some exchange of ideas and sketches, I had this added.

That’s fresh from under the needle. I think she caught the last stages of cut tulips perfectly.

So now I am my own shrine.

I may add colour, more detail, extend the play of leaves and blooms further around my shoulder, my back, my chest. I don’t know. The process is very therapeutic and the permanence finally feels appropriate — I often thought I wanted a tattoo but I felt that my indecision about what image to add (and as I think about my tentative ideas from the past I am glad now that I didn’t) was ample evidence that I shouldn’t get one. That has changed.

There’s a strange intimacy to getting tattooed and in this time of isolation both from outside (the plague) and inside (the grief) it’s very welcome to be handled gently by someone, to be guided through the process. People say the pain is also therapeutic but I don’t think that’s part of it for me, though there’s an undeniable endorphin rush. It’s the detached intimacy of letting someone modify my body. Of the trust you place in a professional artist.

The touch, the sting, the permanence of my new shrine, these things matter right now. And it did not seem like the time to be shy about it. No ankle butterfly for me.

Jack always wanted me to get a tattoo with her. I guess I finally did, though I have to misinterpret her syntax.

gruyere and pecan shortbread

Om nom nom.

[revised this recipe after much delicious experimentation]

I had these from a little cheese shop in Vancouver about 15 years ago and I have just perfected the recipe for them. Enjoy.

  • 1 3/4 cups salted butter (EDIT 2: watch your butter; too much and you get meltdown)
  • 180g gruyere cheese grated finely
  • couple teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary
  • 50g crushed pecans
  • 3 cups flour
  • bit of salt (not much; butter has salt and so does cheese)
  • several squonks of black pepper

Leave the butter out to soften.

Sift together the salt and flour and pepper and rosemary in a bowl and then toss in the grated cheese. Toss the cheese in the flour until it’s all well mixed. This step keeps the cheese from clumping up and makes sure it’s evenly distributed in the dough.

Add the butter and knead it in with your freshly washed hands. When well mixed, knead in the flour. Seriously, get your fingers in it. You want to make sure there are no big globs of butter as that will leave craters in your cookies. Knead in the crushed pecans. Mix ’em in good. Form the dough into a loaf and plop it on a generous sheet of cling film. Wrap it up and roll it out while wrapped and soft into a cylinder. Square the edges if you like. Chill until firm (a couple hours in the fridge is good).

Preheat your oven to 375 F. Slice your loaf into 1/4 inch slices, give or take. More give than take — somewhere between a quarter inch and a centimeter. I don’t know — if they fall apart they are too thin. Bake for 20 minutes in my oven. They will brown nicely because of the cheese. Holy shit are they good.

Serve naked or with a slice of pear. Have some beer on hand as they are a little dry to scarf down at the rate you will want to.

revolver (last part)

(You might be late! Here are parts one, two, three, four, and five.)

My father is missing part of one of his thumbs. Instead of a thumbnail, it ends in a rounded stump at the knuckle. He told me that he lost it when he was about sixteen, being careless while chopping wood. The story is never told in detail and when it is told it always changes a little. It’s a long time before I realize there’s a lie in there or at least an omission: I am very sure now that he did not lose the thumb because he was careless while he and his brother were chopping wood. I suspect that the truth is they were fucking around, maybe throwing the axe near each other, daring each other to be tough guys, and that went wrong.

I don’t really know why he would lie about that since the truth of it is probably the better lesson. So for the first time I think I see my father simply embarrassed by the truth. Ashamed.

He did tell me with some significant detail about the aftermath, though. They sewed the tip back on but it didn’t work. It turned black and smelled horrible within a few days and they had to go back to the surgeon and have it removed, debrided, sewed closed, and packed and bandaged. At sixteen he had to to re-learn how to tie his shoelaces. I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to tie my shoelaces without using my thumbs in case I too were to lose one of mine in an axe accident. To this day I tie my shoelaces without my thumbs, even though they both work fine. I have not had a lot of experiences with axes, mind you, so the risk has been very low.

The next time I see the revolver we are both somewhat older. He has it out on the bench again, the same bench, the same towels, but a new TV. He has reading glasses on. I’m not certain now that I lived there still — I may have been visiting shortly after moving out with my girlfriend and if so then I have brought over my new pellet gun, a .177 calibre revolver that takes six pellets at a time. I am disappointed with my purchase but it’s fine. It’s not what I really want and it’s mostly plastic and feels cheap, but dad grins his perfect false teeth grin when he sees it and gets some cheap sodas out of the fridge. He also gets me a beer, one of the ones I’ve brought over. He’s very generous with this — it would be a while before I realize that all he really wanted was a Miller or, to celebrate, a Heineken. My twee choices of stouts and cream ales could not possibly have impressed him but he says nothing about it, just drinks it with me, and thanks me for it. There’s a hint, though, that I’ve embarrassed myself a little: he calls me “young man”.

We set up the soda cans on a patio table in a makeshift range and shake them up. Then shoot them with the little pellet gun. They rupture hilariously, jets of cheap soday sprawling all over. My mother will be unimpressed with the waste, but neither of us see this as waste. This is just the price of fun, maybe 35 cents a shot, and it’s cheap. Neither of us, I realize, are having a lot of fun these days and this bright spot is worth a few dollars.

We don’t shoot that long, not like the old days when we would shoot for hours. We just kill a few cans and then laugh and put the air pistol away. I am so disappointed with it that I’m not sure I even bring it home with me (and if I did I never got it out again; it became one of those things that moves from home to home at the bottom of a box until one day you throw the box out). He gets out a couple more beers and brings the little .32 down from the cupboard.

“God, you still have that.”

“Mhm”. He unwraps the towel and starts taking the pistol apart. He puts the barrel in the bench vise and bends it over with a hammer.

I raise an eyebrow and drink my beer as he carefully does the exact opposite of what he’s programmed to do with a machine: he wrecks every single piece so it can never go back together. It’s not violent, he’s not in a rage. It’s quiet, efficient, deliberate, and calm. It’s purposeful. Each piece of the trigger group gets bent over. The hammer spring is bent backwards. The pin that holds the cylinder in place is bent over.

He can’t figure out how to wreck the cylinder. It’s too short to get any leverage on — it won’t bend. He wraps all the pieces in the towel and tapes it up with black electrician’s tape and throws that on the top of the trash.

“Why now?”

He looks at me and drags on his Player’s Filtered. “Just time.”

I look at him for a while. “Okay.”

We never talk about the revolver again. Within the year they have sold the place I grew up, the place where we shot cans and yucca plants, the place my uncles exposed themselves, the place with the cherry tree and the shitty tree fort, the place I buried a treasure trove of comic books and army men, the place we boiled stolen crabs in oil drums, the place I burned my heel stepping on a live coal, the place the bamboo spread its roots across the lawn, poking up spear-like shoots where we played. The place I got stung trying to kill a bee with a football. The place I found the thumbnail-sized green frog. The place with the pear tree. The place my father partially built, covered in blood from saw bites. The place with the French doors.

The place the revolver last sat intact, potent, exactly where I knew it was.

Their new place is strangely dead, holding no memories. The fireplace is electric. There’s no space in the back to shoot. My mother hires a gardener. My father owns only one car, and it’s not cheap.

The fridge in the “work shop” is enormous and the television is much, much better. I hardly visit at all any more.

revolver (part 5)

(Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 for the tardy)

The revolver makes only two more appearances in my memory.

The first is at some indeterminate time later. I’m visiting my father in his work shed which has our old orange black & white television in it. My father has his work light on and is working on something at the bench. There are those strange work space towels, almost cloth but actually paper, that were only ever in these kinds of places. I have no idea where you get these because I am not a handy man but they seem super useful. They are always a pale green or a pale blue for some reason. They are one of the Secrets that real men keep, part of a club I was never really invited to and never tried to sneak in. It smells of cigarettes and oil and my father is smiling as he works.

“Hey,” I say. Even at this young age I am a brilliant conversationalist.

“Hey old man.” says my father. Sometimes he calls me “old man” and sometimes he calls me “young man”. I once asked him why he did that, why he switched between the two. “Sometimes you seem like an old man,” he said. “Sometimes you seem like a young man.”

I’m bored and thinking about building rockets or shooting my pellet gun or something. Anything. Our bicycles hang from the ceiling on my left. Maybe I’ll ride my bike.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask.

He pats the stool beside him. “Come have a look.”

I do. Arrayed on the Real Man work space towels are all of the parts of the little silver revolver pulled from my grandmother’s wall. It’s small, almost a toy, but there is something densely real about it. It would not be mistaken for a toy. It was a little .32 rimfire revolver I’d guess now and that would make it pretty illegal even at the time — a prohibited weapon. My father had no license for owning even restricted weapons (like a more typical handgun) and pretty much no one gets a license for a prohibited weapon. At this time, though, I don’t know how illegal this tiny gun is but I do know it’s illegal. I know we don’t have the paperwork to own it. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t exist at all really.

“Is that the gun from grandma’s?” I ask.

He nods. “Yup.”

“Cleaning it up?”


This is what he does with anything mechanical. I realize that this is built into his brain like wiring: he has a machine, he takes it apart, cleans everything, polishes what needs polishing, fixes what’s broken, and puts it all back together. Put any machine in his hands and this is what he will do with it. At this age I’m starting to wish I was like that too — I like machines, mechanical ones, and some of them fascinate me but anything I take apart is ruined forever. I don’t have the gift he does. But I recognize how autonomic this behaviour is because my next question, the rational next question, is not “why?”

The pistol is in suprisingly few shiny pieces on the table. It has a strange potential for danger. A kind of energy is stored in it. It could change from an array of parts to something lethal, genuinely lethal, not like a pellet gun. I sense the philosophical weight of it. I have no desire to touch it. My father begins to reassemble it.

“What’ll you do with it?”

He takes his cigarette from the old gold glass ashtray, and draws on it. It’s a Player’s Filtered like it always is.

“Put it away,” he says around his cigarette. He indicates the big cupboard that stores all of the fasteners and things over the work space. “Up there.”

“Will we shoot it one day?”


I’m fine with that and he seems to know that. There are so many more questions, we both know, but I don’t ask any of them.

“Want a beer old man?”

I’m fourteen. This might be my first beer but I doubt it. “Yeah.”

“What’s your brand?”

“Miller’s”. At this time in our lives that’s usually all that’s in the fridge I know, the gold cans of Miller’s. So that’s kind of a joke. But there are also special occasion beers and he pulls out a couple of Heinekens, pops the caps off with the bottle opener nailed to the work bench, and hands me one.

I drink the special occasion beer, enjoying the exotic skunkiness of it that the usual beers don’t have. The green glass and tall neck at a time when beer comes either in cans or brown stubbies.

We drink our beer and watch TV and dad puts the revolver together, wraps it in clean Real Man towels and puts it in the cupboard. At no time does he ever hold it like one holds a gun. It goes on the top shelf, a little out of sight. This is clearly so my little sister doesn’t get at it because I can reach it there and he knows it and he makes no attempt to hide it from me. He trusts me today.

The next day I go back to check that the revolver is still there. It is. I am a little embarrassed that I tested my father’s trust, that there was any doubt in my mind that it would be there. I feel like I stained something otherwise perfect.

I don’t touch it. I get my bike down from the ceiling hooks.

revolver (part 4)

You might be arriving late, in which case start at part 1. Here’s part 2 and part 3 as well.

We arrive at my grandmother’s house. I have mostly fond memories of this place since it’s where Christmas dinner often happened and when lots of people cook for lots of people the meals are usually pretty wonderful. At the very least you know there’s going to be some diversity.

There’s the fridge where the Grey Cup pool matrix goes when we’re there to watch the Grey Cup. That’s a pretty big deal.

There’s the dining room with its stand up piano that at least one member of the extended family plays well when suitably lubricated (and then shortly after that can’t play much at all). This is where the Christmas dinner happens when it happens and there’s dark fruitcake, a classic English pudding really, with coins wrapped in wax paper baked into it. It’s served with a sauce that everyone makes ecstatic noises over but that no one ever actually tries to replicate outside of my grandmother’s. It’s not that good, just sort of whipping cream incompletely whipped with brown sugar. But it seems to excite everyone and when it’s being made the brothers and sisters fight over who gets to lick the spoon. It has the tone of a ritual. But today there’s no Christmas pudding and no special sauce.

Stairs lead up from the dining room to the attic rooms that were built for the youngest daughter. They are the coolest rooms, covered in dayglow posters. Black light bulbs are in the sockets. The record collection is great and you can step out of the window onto the roof. It’s kind of a dream room for a young kid and I spend a lot of time up there over the years.

In the living room there are ashtrays everywhere. Big ones like we all had in the 70s. Murder weapon quality ashtrays. They are bigger than the candy dishes which, around Christmas anyway, contain ancient fused ribbon candy and humbugs, hard candy that has endured several years I’m sure. Occasionally the candy bowl has fresh candy but you only get excited about that once. It’s not as good as it is colourful.

There’s a nice recliner but that’s for Grandad Hopping, an ancient and uncommunicative old man and I can never remember just who’s father he is. He’s great at cribbage and the brothers play against him consecutively, often losing. He paints strange landscapes based on PBS painting show instructions and he’s actually pretty wonderful. He has a cane with a rubber snake nailed to it and I think it’s this visit that he gets a new cane and one of the brothers sets to work nailing a new rubber snake to it. I’m reasonably sure old Grandad has Seen Some Shit, maybe knifed some Germans during one of the wars. He’s unreadable, really. When he gets up to go to his room he lets out a ripping fart for the entire trip and it’s not clear that he knows it’s happening. I see his face though. He knows.

He could be anyone really. His persona in his old age implies nothing about his youth.

The wall between the kitchen and the living room is coming down or the doorway opened or something. I’m not clear on what the renovation is and I’m busy trying to find something to be busy with since nothing here is really for me. There’s a first generation Atari game machine but I’m already bored of Tank and Pong and Space Invaders. There’s a shelf full of Reader’s Digest version of various famous novels, all attractively bound, a showcase of literature. I’m uninterested. They are all practically brand new even though they’ve been there since I was old enough to look at them. I’m already snooty enough to sniff at an abridged version of anything even though I’ve never read the full version of any of them. At this stage in my life it’s pretty much Arthur C. Clarke or nothing.

I probably play around the house outside, picking the brightly coloured crystals out of the strange dangerous stucco that was popular at the time. It’s like a cake that’s way too old to eat, hard white icing and tooth shattering sprinkles. It’s very strange to me now that this was not strange to me then: what an absurd way to decorate a house. But as a kid I guess you’re still collecting things to make a guess at normal and so this is normal. This is the only memory I have of my sister at this location, both of us ruining the house’s stucco. Is that strange? She’s only three years younger than me so she must have been there most of these visits, and we would usually be the only kids so we’d be playing together. But I have nothing in my head there at all that relates to her. It would probably be forty years before I connect with my sister properly: something was (almost) permanently broken then.

I come back into the kitchen just as they are pulling the gyproc off the frame behind the stove. And in the wall is a small silver revolver packed in with newspaper. No one says a thing. I want to say that one of my father’s eyebrows goes up, like Spock, to perfectly punctuate this scene, but honestly I don’t remember anything except the revolver because that’s what I stared at. The gun in the wall.

Someone may have said, “Huh.” but I’m suspicious of that because it’s a pretty good scene closer as well.

We drive home in silence. I have no idea what the gun was about or where it is now. Dad puts an 8-track in the machine under the passenger seat. “Born On the Bayou” starts in the middle.

By the time we pull up to the car port at home it’s dark and we’re all singing along with Jim Croce, who’s already dead.

revolver (part 3)

Here’s part 1 and part 2.

So let’s circle all the way back. We’re on our way to a family handyman event. I’m looking forward to this since they always turn out well (partially, as I would understand only much later, because the whole family were alcoholics).

Once my father asked his brothers to come help fix the roof. It needed the shingles replaced. Again some of this I would only really understand later, but here’s what happened at the time.

So several brothers and their wives show up to help re-shingle the roof. And my aunt on my mother’s side (Robin, who this is not about, but maybe one day I’ll write at length about her) and her husband. All the guys are on the roof in cut-off jeans and mostly shirtless because it’s summer and it’s hot. I am allowed to come up on the roof which I am never ever allowed to do, so I do that a bit but mostly I’m in the way and I stop going up there except to bring up drinks and bring down empties.

The shingling is going well — I think we’ve established the sort of flawed perfectionist my father is — but less than a third of the way through we’re out of shingles. This is of course impossible. Well it turns out someone read the instructions wrong and the shingles have been going on a third from the top instead of a third from the bottom of the last row. We are putting on three times more shingles than we need to and we’re almost third done. So as my father reads it there are two solutions: we can tear up all the shingles and throw them out since he’s not putting up new shingles with holes in them and go buy one more load of shingles. Or he can go buy two more loads of shingles and have a triple shingled house. I’m pretty sure you can guess which choice he made. Besides, we’re all having a great time and the neighbour is cute and sunbathing in her back yard, well aware of the audience on our roof. My uncles are largely beautiful men, half naked, sweating in the sun.

Now there are two parties here — there’s the roofers who are working hard and drinking and laughing and there are the non-roofers, mostly the wives and kids, who are not working hard but are laughing and drinking and shouting a good deal of encouragement. And enjoying the sight of these lovely men.

I don’t know who said it or exactly what they said (there are varying accounts) but someone in the backyard party demands that the boys drop their pants.

This is captured on film. There is a photograph somewhere (labelled “The Murrays of Atholl” which we are) of the brothers dropping their cut-off shorts to revealed their sculpted asses. Their personalities are captured by how far down the shorts are — by how fast they respond to this request. At least one has pants around ankles long before the camera gets the shot. The highest, slowest is at the knees and on the way down. Honestly I suspect a hearing problem more than modesty. And Robin’s husband, the other side of the family is standing there, pants intact, staring baffled. This was my family and I love the memories I have of them. Later I would realize that our neighbour got the other half of that view. I never liked her.

The other major family renovation party I recall involved a tree removal. One of my uncles had proudly announced that he had a new toy — a cordless electric chainsaw. This was pretty novel at this time, probably late 70s or early 80s. And my father had a tree he wanted removed. Or rather I think he invented the problem — on hearing about the chainsaw he thought about what tree he could afford to lose. A party was scheduled.

The tree came down early in the day and was chopped up and set out to dry for firewood. The chainsaw was an awesome toy. The records came out (likely Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bayou Country” — a record that will forever call up images of my father) and so did the beer. By evening everyone was full of dinner and dessert and a good deal of liquor and my mother is talking home decorating with her sisters-in-law. “I often thought about knocking out that wall,” she points, “and putting in French doors to open that room up to the living room.”

My uncle’s eyes light up and he looks at my father. They grin. They go get the chainsaw.

This is the first time I think my father is not functioning properly because it’s crafting but it’s careless. They can’t find a tape measure so the measure so they pick a cutting point on one side, mark it, and measure the distance from wall to cutting point with their arm and walk it around to the other side and mark. You might be out by an inch this way but that’s fine, they are just going to cut to the nearest stud anyway. No big deal.

But the wall on one side is where the front door is and it’s about four inches deeper than on the other side, so the first cut is into the electrical box behind the light switch.

This is exciting but non fatal. There are sparks but no fire. There is a lot of laughing and some shrieking from the front room. The realize their error, re-align, and cut a ten foot wide hole from floor to ceiling in our living room. Now, my father says, I guess we have to put those French doors in. I think he always felt that a project started had to be finished and the only thing stopping him was the starting. And he was right — once you put a giant hole in the wall you need to fix it. Before the hole you don’t have to do anything no matter how badly mom wants French doors.

revolver (part 2)

Here late? Here’s part 1.

I’m not sure how best to present this part as there are chickens and eggs, but let’s start by saying my father was a profoundly gentle man. He didn’t want us doing anything dangerous and certainly nothing violent. He didn’t watch boxing or wrestling and he didn’t want us doing it. He wouldn’t stop us if we were keen but he definitely disapproved. Maybe gentle isn’t quite right: he was a peaceful man. I never heard about him fighting anyone ever. I suspect there was a pathology here — that he was so peaceful, so gentle, that it was almost a neurosis. He seemed, in retrospect, terrified that any harm would come to anyone he loved.

But under his bed was a .22 bolt action rifle and it fascinated me.

And in his clothes drawer was ammunition and that fascinated me as well.

And he had a .22 calibre CO2 air pistol and we sometimes shot targets with that. And that fascinated me too.

The rifle was taboo — we talked about it exactly once and he never shot it in my presence. I doubt he shot it at all after I was born. It was a burden, something that he just didn’t really know how to get rid of properly. So it stayed under the bed. It was not discussed. It just…existed there.

Except when I took it out.

You can’t really do that to a kid — you can’t declare something fascinating is just off limits and we will never talk about it again and certainly never look at it or handle it or use it. This pretty much guarantees that a kid (well, me, anyway) is going to get that rifle out while you’re not in the house. I’m pretty sure that if we regularly used the rifle that’s not what would have happened. It would have been de-mystified.

So I used to take out the rifle and work the action on it. I would try to understand how all the parts worked together to load and fire the bullets. I would point it (in a safe direction — I wasn’t a stupid child; fact is I probably handled it more safely than father ever did) and pull the bolt back. Tip it up and push it forward. Dry fire it. That didn’t stay satisfying though, so eventually I took some of the ammunition out.

This is probably not going where you imagine. First of all, there’s only so much ammunition you can steal from a not quite full box before you can’t really steal any more without being found out. So this was not going to happen a lot. Second, as I said before, I was not a stupid child. I was not going to fire a live .22 cartridge. But I really wanted to see the whole action at work. I wanted to load it and have the bolt allow a cartridge to pop up and slide into the chamber. I wanted the bolt to extract the cartridge and eject it. I want to operate the machine. I would love to have shot it but honestly that wasn’t the compulsion. The compulsion was to operate it.

So I stole a handful of cartridges and took them out to the shed. There I put them in my father’s bench vise and pulled off the bullets with pliers and emptied the gunpowder out (and I kept that because gunpowder wasn’t what I thought it was — it wasn’t powder, for starters) and then tapped the bullet back in to the cartridge. Now I knew there was still a primer there (I had done some research) but I was pretty sure it didn’t have the power to pop the bullet off a cartridge that had no gunpowder in it. So I took my empty cartridges (and my gunpowder) and I loaded the rifle and worked the action. It was unsatisfying — the cartridges never slipped out of the magazine properly, never chambered properly, never ejected properly. Something was wrong with the machine or the operator. I was done with the rifle.

I set the gunpowder on fire in the back yard. That was the most satisfying part of the crime.

As far as I know my father never found out and I don’t know what happened to the rifle. I never sought it out again.

It was a long time before I thought about this rifle in terms of failings of my father because he’s always been heroic in my mind, but he had a rifle he didn’t want and yet he never did the work to get rid of it. It wasn’t illegal — a .22 bolt action rifle was and is an unrestricted firearm in Canada and at most he’d have to register it. I suspect he fell into the same trap I fall into sometimes — a deadline came and went and I didn’t do the thing and it became easier to just lock the evidence away somewhere you can’t see it and forget about it. But this meant that there was a functioning unlocked firearm (stored near accessible ammunition) in a house with kids. And we all knew it was there. It’s a strange thing for my heroic vision of my father to do. In fact it’s far worse than strange. It’s completely inconsistent. But it happened and so that’s when that image first started to tarnish. Not too badly though — I recognize his failing as one of my own. How can I not forgive it?

So that’s the rifle and the ammunition. It never became dramatic, it just quietly went away one day. The air pistol, though, that we shot together. It took CO2 cartridges and big fat lead .22 pellets and did wonderful damage to tin cans and paper targets and 1:72 scale airplanes and tanks. It put neat holes in yucca plants that we would claim never happened. When pressed we would agree that the other did it. I doubt my mother was satisfied but boys will be boys.

I never took this gun out without permission. It was interesting to operate but being a single-shot pistol it was not very complicated. It was interesting but not fascinating. It felt great in the hand though.

Eventually he would buy me my own air rifle, a break-barrel piston job in .177 calibre. Not powerful, no CO2 cartridges, not fascinating. But fun. We shot a lot of stuff we shouldn’t have and laughed a lot.

But there was a rule and one I never questioned: we never shot anything that looked like a person. No silhouettes, no pictures, nothing like that. Ever. And that’s stuck with me; I have a powerful aversion to shooting anything but bulls-eye targets and soda cans. I despise that guns have ever become about “self-defense” because this is a lie. We all know this is not why we like guns. We like them because they are fun. My father had made this peace: it’s fun, now how can we keep it fun (that is, safe) and his solution was to stick with air guns and treat even those with tremendous respect. But still have a great time shooting mom’s yucca plant. I wish we could hate guns as weapons and still have a great time with them because they are fun. But the lie has cast a shadow over the fun, made us think about guns in terms of murder instead of fun. So we both hated them. And loved them.

And so that was our relationship with guns. After a while I would develop a fascination for auto-loading handguns. I would buy accurate models of them, and tinker with them, disassemble them, assemble them, operate them. But he never went there with me. He was not fascinated. I think now that he was instead terrified but I have no idea why. There was a lot of fear in my father and I don’t think it was for himself.

revolver (part 1)

Part 1 of some number of parts.

When I was in my late teens my father drove the family to my grandmother’s house because there was some maintenance work that needed doing and this was how my father’s side of the family operated. Some significant subset of the brothers and sisters (there were five brothers and two sisters in all) would heed the call, gather their favourite tools, and rush to the location that needed work. Then they would proceed to get moderately drunk and get the job done. Roofing, plumbing, drywall, hell even erecting a whole new addition to a home. If there was a reason for tools, they would congregate and use them. This and crab theft were the biggest reasons to gather that I can recall now. Oh and holidays. But mostly tools and crab theft.

At least this is the way I remember it now. In reality perhaps things were more pedestrian than that, more usual, but that’s not what stands out and it’s not how I choose to remember my father. So it’s not how I’m going to remember him to you. So for now we’ll stick to family handyman gatherings and work-related crab theft. And his oh-so-gentle drunkenness.

I didn’t know my father was a drunk until after he died. It was only then that my mother would talk really freely about it, about how the time he spent tinkering in the shed or the car port was not really tinkering. It was just getting slowly shitfaced in front of a tiny black and white television. There were lots of tools in those spaces and many projects, most of which got done. But they didn’t need all that time. Getting properly tanked up on beer took the time. As I say, though, I never knew. Never even suspected. He was such a quiet, gentle drunk. He never hit me, never abused anyone that I know of, never so much as raised a slurred voice. In fact I can’t even recall a slurred voice or a stagger. His drunkenness was, I suppose, a private one.

And his projects were real. He usually had a car brand he loved for a while and he’d buy several of them. Cheap, shitty cars that amused him in some way. Cars he could afford to have several of so he could take at least one apart to clean every single piece. Polish it, replace or repair what was broken, paint it, and put it all back together. I bet you never drove around in an Austin Mini with the engine painted bright yellow, but I did. Well, I never drove it. This is perhaps the way I disappointed my father, never learning to drive, but maybe not. He seemed to respect the choices I made that made me distinct from him. I’m sure I’m inventing it, but I will choose to believe this was a thing he loved about me.

And I imagine that at first the projects were indeed what the time in the shed was all about. That the objective was to go and finish that model airplane or re-assemble the neighbour’s lawnmower engine, or restore that blowtorch he found in his mother’s tool shed, and the fridge full of beer was just there in the work shed as well as the project. It strikes me as an easy priority shift to have happen to you, to eventually head out to the shed for a dozen beers while telling yourself that you need to finish that model boat your son gave you. In your thirties it was about the boat but somewhere before fifty it was about the beer.

Certainly he never did finish that boat, but let’s use that particular project (since it was later in his life) to understand what kind of a drunk my father was. This was an all wood sailboat model, about three feet long (and we’ll use imperial measures here only because this is part of setting this mood about my father — when you eulogize my drunkenness you should use metric). It was so detailed the to make the hull you had individual wooden planks that you had to steam and bend and then nail into place with tiny brass nails. This is a lot of detailed work and anyone would be excused for leaving it incomplete.

But the last time I saw that model boat, after years of “work” in the shed, all that had been complete was the hull. No work on the deck, the superstructure, the mast, the sail, the rigging. Just the hull. But he had bent all of these individual tiny planks and nailed in every single tiny brass nail. Imagine the look of all that magnificent detail, none of it cheated, all of it real.

But you have to imagine it (as I have to imagine it) because he then sealed and sanded and painted the hull. It was perfectly smooth, a shining black surface without a single blemish. It represented hundreds of hours of sanding and painting and sanding and repainting and buffing. Hundreds of hours of laborious, tedious, perfectionist work that would all undo the evidence of the other hundreds of hours of labour. My father, as you might guess, did not care what you thought of him much. He didn’t need to leave evidence of that labour. He only left incomplete perfections and never complete imperfections. I suppose he was more interested in the journey than the destination.

When my father bought a pick-up truck in the 70s, an old powder blue monstrosity, the first thing he did with it was drive to my elementary school and take me and my sister out of class. He piled us in the bed of the truck where there were blankets and not much else. My mother waved through the glass from the passenger seat. And we drove for hours (with several breaks) up towards Whistler mountain. At that time Whistler was not a big deal and the route was twisty and only a single shared lane in places. We would pass many “watch for falling rocks” signs and a couple of fallen rocks. We stopped short of Whistler, at Alice Falls, and had a picnic. We played in the stream (clear, green, pebbled bottom, when I remember it I want to drink it). We gathered our trash and drove home.

The journey, you see. An hour at the destination and maybe four on the road. Because he had a new toy. In this way he and I are very similar. The toys took (take) us places and so the need for the toys wasn’t (isn’t) just acquisitiveness. They are launching points. They don’t all launch. That’s fine. They don’t always start journeys that you would recognize as valuable. But we do. Trust us. We know what we’re doing here.

I haven’t entirely lost the thread here. We’re coming back to that trip to my grandmother’s place. The handyman journey. But first there’s another facet of both my father and I that we need to establish.

We both love(d) and hate(d) guns.

[end of part 1]

depression creeps up sometimes

So a week or two ago I realized I was getting very, perhaps dangerously depressed. I don’t have a clinical diagnosis but I have had enough experience with this (through others; my wife certainly) to know what’s going on. But it still creeps up because even though you know what it is, you would really prefer it wasn’t. So it kind of creeps up in plain sight.

One of the big signs, which I should watch closer, but then I was watching it and I knew it was going on, so wtf, was playing World of Warcraft fairly obsessively. Interrupting work, interrupting my household duties, and so on. Another was stealing hours to myself by staying up way too late after chores and WoW were done.

What WoW was giving me was twofold. First of course it gave me a fairly inert way to spend time that didn’t seem inert. It’s not like watching cartoon since you have to make decisions, but at the endgame you are mostly doing the same thing over and over (trying to make gold in time-tested ways) so that you can afford to buy the consumables necessary to do another same thing over and over (raid giant dungeons, but basically the same three dungeons you’ve seen a hundred times already).

The other hole it was filling was social: I was playing with a lot of awesome people, new friends, and was having a wonderful time with them socially. So much fun that I did what I usually do in that situation and find a leadership role with lots of responsibilities and new pressures. This initially helps my depression (purpose, respect) but in short order become another one of the feedback loops that keeps me doing something I don’t really want to do.

This is all, however reinforcing, still symptomatic. I was depressed. I was not enjoying my life but rather desperately trying to find ways to fill a hole that can’t really be filled. I was skipping tabletop game sessions because my chores were backing up and the thought of being creative (which WoW is certainly not) with people I love and respect was just too much pressure, too much expectation, too much work. I couldn’t handle it.

At some point someone announced they were withdrawing from the guild in our WoW game and that gave me permission to do the same. So I did a few things:

  • I quit the officer role in our guild (dumping responsibility)
  • I quit playing WoW (dumping the pressure to use time on something essentially useless)
  • I bought an air pistol (because I like them)
  • I set up a gun range upstairs and shot the shit out of some targets

So the first two are obvious. The second two maybe less so.

Retail therapy works. And I had my eye on something I could afford and had always wanted for a long time. Buying it let me congratulate myself with something concrete. I felt some measure of relief just making the purchase. I can afford it. It’s probably stupid. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The gun range is a little more complex.

lugerI am not a gun person in one sense: I don’t own real firearms, I don’t want to own real firearms, I don’t want to ever shoot at anyone even in self defense. I am, however, fascinated by the mechanical engineering of handguns. Just handguns — I don’t really care about long arms. This has long been the case with me — as a kid I owned models of real handguns with working action and realistic disassembly procedures. And I’ve always been amazed at how many auto-loading firearms are basically just held together with spring tension. They enclose and utilize an explosive force to engage a mechanical action that reloads and re-cocks the weapon and yet they are held together by almost nothing. Push a bit here, flip a lever, and they come apart.

Maybe you need to hang with engineers to find that fascinating.

So what I bought was an airgun that is a replica of a Walther P-08 Luger that uses the CO2 gas pressure for both firing the BB and working the action just like the real firearm to reload and recock. And that was the model I had as a kid. So now I had it in metal, with weight, and it did in fact disassemble just like I remember. 40 years later I can trivially break it down and put it back together. But this one shoots and so I get to enjoy the feel of that action jumping up while shooting.

Shooting is tremendous fun, even if it’s just a gas BB gun. And I presume this fun is chemically represented somehow since I genuinely feel it. Endorphins, whatever, I’m no chemist, but it made me feel great. And while initially it felt weird to shoot down the hall into the bath/shower stall through the old shower curtain (which I bought a replacement for a few weeks ago), it was safe (shower curtain provides a great capture for a plastic BB and no danger to the tile) and it was long enough to be fun (5 or 6 meters) and god damn I had a good time.

Now I feel much better. I am still coping with reduced social contact thanks to the Virus, but I am coping better. I don’t know whether changing my behaviour broke the depression or a natural subsidence of the depression allowed me to shuck the (rather destructive) immersion in a game. But it doesn’t matter. I was worried that since WoW ate up all my time I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. This was bullshit of course since there are a million things around the house that need doing because I was tending to WoW instead of the house. So after destroying the shower curtains I started cleaning the kitchen, clipping the cats’ claws, hurling garbage (an old shower curtain amongst it)…you know, the stuff you’re supposed to do in life. That is, not farming Dreamfoil and Arcane Crystals.

First thing I’ll do once things get a little more normal is seek out a club where I can shoot with other nerds. Outside. With people.

Did I break my depression or did I respond to its natural departure? I dunno. I’m going to go shoot up the bathtub.

now it’s personal

Okay brace yourself because this isn’t going to be about science or about gaming.

The sharp reader will note that I was 15 when this came out. It’s not an album from that summer but there were a couple of summers.

I fell in love for the first time forty years ago. It was summer and I was 14 and I met a girl a grade ahead of me (to be fair I already knew her, but I fell for her that year) and we spent the whole summer together. Shopping, talking, listening to music, and making out. It was a sexual awakening with no sex and it shaped my life forever. Kelly’s still out there and we still talk and she’s still on my mind. Chatting with her tonight I had a bit of a revelation about that and about exactly how it impacted me.

Ever after I lost partners (well one, anyway) because I wasn’t interested in sex. Well, that’s not quite right. I was interested but I also wanted my romance to be that same clunky romance I had at 14: I loved kissing and knowing it was not going (much) further. I wanted that to happen forever. And it doesn’t — I had an intuition that sex would change everything and I was right but I put it off for as long as possible. I wanted adolescent fumbling for as long as I could get away with it.

We would normally say “she broke my heart” but I think it’s unfair to put that on Kelly. She didn’t break my heart. We wanted different things and what I wanted was her and so I broke my heart and frankly it was a … great feeling? Not that. It was awful, it was agonizing, it was tear-my-hair out horrible but there is also a certain joy in that heartache. When you feel so much so hard and it’s all about you, all about your pain, about your loss, it’s kind of addictive. And, I think, extraordinarily selfish after a certain point. You’re allowed your pain but it’s a little weird to cling to it.

And I think for a long time afterwards that was my model for romance: infatuation and heartache. And kissing. Those were basically my romantic goals for what seems like decades but was in fact only one (at most). Why does the short time in our youth seem so expansive and the later years tick by like seconds? It feels like I spent almost all my life between 14 and 24, pursuing heartache.

Oh Elvis. You’re so broken but you spoke to my own broken.

My musical tastes tracked this (this was the thing I realized while chatting with Kelly this evening). Before that summer I listened to the Beatles and Queen and I can’t even remember what else. Afterwards I moved to early David Bowie and then Elvis Costello. Elvis was lyrically in the same space I was — clearly in love with his angst, with his heartache, with his bitterness. And he made it angry, which was kind of vindicating. It would be many years before I could see the degree of selfishness needed to make a heartache all about yourself. Enough to be angry rather than just sad. So it resonated — it was how I felt and the message was that I could keep that pain for as long as I liked. And I liked it.

Around the time I found the Cure I was spending my angst dancing. A lot. Not necessarily with anyone.

I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. Just in constant pursuit of heartache. I wanted that summer back, the strongest feelings in that summer, and one of those was the heartache. I still kind of love it. It’s not very different from falling in love. The ending and the start have the same clutch and pull. Being in love for me was a constant joyous terror that it was all going to end at any point. Is that a kind of masochism or does everyone feel that? Well if it’s unusual then clearly that summer was a defining moment for me, because that pain still brings a kind of joy. I like to feel hard. I cry at a well-crafted commercial. I’m cool with that.

Tom Waits was part of my recovery period. I wasn’t craving the heartache any more. I was enjoying a deeply flawed stability.

I won’t go through the relationships up until now. There was a pattern and then there wasn’t. I hurt some people and yet I loved every one of them dearly. I wanted each relationship to last forever unchanged and I wallowed in each ending. I fell in love with people who didn’t even like me, possibly so I could skip straight to the heartache. It was a strange decade. I behaved badly but, at least, earnestly. If I could find all those people I’d apologize but finding people who are now in their 50s is surprisingly difficult. And stalkery. So I’m sorry. You know who you are.

I put a paragraph in there about music because this period of my life has a soundtrack and it’s important: the music triggers the feelings. If I’d figured this out earlier I could have just replayed one heartache over and over with a song or an album or an artist instead of inventing impossible relationships to agonize over. And maybe I still do that to some extent. Maybe we all do.

There is no gaming content here and no rocketry. I contain multitudes, as they say. You get all of it. I can’t pick and choose what I write.

Well, I choose not to anyway.