Tim O’Brien’s Workshop

Tim O’Brien thanked the audience and left the podium of a small theatre in Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. He spoke briefly to the man who’d introduced him, then departed quickly, before the clapping had swelled into a standing ovation. The lauded American novelist had been reading to the gathered participants of 2016’s Humber School For Writers fall short course. The piece he’d shared was part of an essay in progress, written about his father, and his own sons, and the relationship the three generations have all had with the writings of Ernest Hemingway. He went a quarter of an hour over the allotted time, carrying right through the usual question-and-answer period. He was the final speaker on the final day of a workshop that concluded when he did. But he kept going. He read until white flecks formed in the corners of his mouth, and his voice broke, and the “Humber School For Writers” sign on the lectern lost its stick and began to fall.

He was baring his inner thoughts. Some of the divulgences he had made public over the last five decades in his work, such as his feelings on the meaningless of war; and his assessment of the unyielding, unending, and impersonal passage of time. Other insights felt more private, like what a nasty thing an old man can be; the covetous way a writer will read the good work of another; and what it is to be an elderly father of young children, and know that you are unlikely to see them celebrate the birthdays of their late-20’s. He also spoke of his own deceased father, who told him to read five Hemingway stories on a summer’s afternoon when Tim was a kid, but didn’t stick around to hear what his young son thought about them.

He poured this out, without warning, preamble, or asking permission to mentally disrobe, and made us all face the intimate immediacy of his humanity. It was a remarkable thing. His expression as he departed was much the same as that of his audience: more than just a little moved, and not entirely ready to rejoin the everyday bustle of a city midway through an ordinary weekday afternoon.

Every year for the last 25 Toronto’s Humber College has offered an intensive writing program centred around established authors leading small groups of six or seven aspiring writers in the process of editing their ongoing projects. Some of the notable literary figures taking part in the latest iteration were Lawrence Hill (Book of Negroes), Isabel Huggan (Belonging: Home Away From Home), Joe Kertes (Winter Tulips), and Alison Pick (Far To Go). I was one of seven students assigned to Tim O’Brien’s group, an author and journalist best known for his work based on his experiences in the Vietnam war, in particular Going After Cacciato, winner of the United States’ National Book Award. Tim wasn’t initially what I expected. By the time he walked out of that small theatre six days after we met, he wasn’t what I secondarily expected either.

I took the course because, after years of wilful neglect, the urge to write had become overwhelming. Write about what, and to whom, remained unclear, but at the worst possible time – having two young kids and a job that takes me away to sea for six months of the year – the desire to do this specific thing, through this specific medium, was demanding attention in a way that couldn’t be ignored. So I applied to Humber College’s ‘Creative Writing Short Course,’ submitting, as part of the application, a story that was long on feeling and short on plot. It was accepted, and a little over a month later I found myself cycling from our house in Toronto’s west end, down through High Park to The Lakeshore, and on to Harbourfront where the course would be held. My bike is old, and needed a service it still hasn’t received, so I creaked along the paved-over shoreline of our inland ocean, wondering if this had been a good idea.

That first day was the Sunday meet-and-greet. The introductions took place in a light, airy conference room at the Harbourfront Centre, with a bar set up to help facilitate the process, stocked with chalky red wine. Tim waited patiently for everyone to arrange themselves around the table before leaning forward, not unlike a turtle sticking its head out of a favoured hole, and telling our newly assembled group: “I’m not exactly a hard-ass. But I am inexactly one.”

He seemed to fit the profile. He wore a leather bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar, aviator glasses, and an ever-present baseball hat that he admitted to putting on every morning as soon as he got out of bed. He told us he would smoke every break he gave us, called Texas home, and had served in the Vietnam War. I think many of us expected Monday morning to begin with some version of a drill sergeant inserting writing references into Full Metal Jacket quotes. “The [commas] only know one thing: it is better to be alive.”

It was anything but. While Tim did start out with basics – “We only have 26 characters and a handful of punctuation marks, how we use them matters” – his critiques were kind, and he moved our group quickly into exercises intended to demonstrate the benefits gained by moving the focus of the story from fine detail, to large themes, and then back to the detail, to create engaging undulations in the narrative arc. It was helpful guidance that everyone took to heart, and the group responded positively to Tim’s hard-bitten, soft hands approach, and the useful insights he had gained over a long career as a professional writer. But that wasn’t all of what O’Brien wanted to pass along.

It was mid-morning on Wednesday of the week-long course, when Tim hunched deeper over the table from his already low crouch, and got down to business. He had just returned from a cigarette break that was cut short by the sub-zero temperature, and announced that he was going to read to us from The Aleph, by Jose Luis Borges; a story that centres around a small, enigmatic, glowing sphere (the Aleph) that appears in the otherwise normal basement of a woman who has recently died.

“The main character, who is basically the author, Borges, looks into the Aleph,” Tim explained, leaning into his dog-eared, post-it filled copy of the story. “And sees everything. At once. Without distortion.” And then he read a remarkable section of the story to us, in which the protagonist describes what he sees when he looks into the sphere. Tim’s voice, which is much bigger than you would expect it to be, rose and fell with the natural cadence that Borges built in to the section with the repetition of the phrase ‘I saw’ before each new revelation.

“I saw the multitudes of America,” Tim read, his elbows out and hands splayed widely across the book in front of him, as though holding a basketball underwater. “I saw the convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand. I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London). I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget. I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast.” Tim paused for a moment before moving on, continuing to select his favourite lines in the passage, his voice swelling to fill the room. “I saw a Persian astrolabe. I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand. I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards.” Here Tim stopped for a longer breath, and the jut of his jaw switched sides. When he continued his voice had a hitch in it, and he spoke deliberately.

“I saw your face.” O’Brien let out a long sigh then, before looking up. He was wearing an odd expression. “He saw your face,” he told us quietly. And then again, this time as a loud, forceful imperative. “He. Saw. You. He saw you!” More than 70 years since Borges wrote that story, the intimate immediacy of his dustless thoughts spun briefly in the middle of the room. And we all handled these simple, but powerful, mental images with our own minds, turning them over carefully in silence.

After that we took a break, during which I used my phone to order the short stories of Jose Luis Borges.

This was how the week passed. Tim offering practical advice on the mechanics of writing (animate and activate, avoid writing in large blocks, bring simultaneity in to your story) followed, repeatedly, by the presentation of a singular, pristine posit: that while personal connections between people are fragile and elusive, through art (in this case writing) we can create ways to converse beneath the surface. Out of our own experiences we can fashion an artifact, and polish it, and leave it out in the open for others to find, and retreat with back into the safety of their inner thoughts. There to be turned over and matched against their own experiences; the feelers of their psyche running over the grooves left by our own. And through this, a connection can be made in a way we would never otherwise have been able.

I spoke to Tim one more time on that last day, after his speech, after he had left the theatre, after he hadn’t stayed to hear the applause. I left quickly too, deciding to skip the reception waiting in the next building, wanting to process what had been a moving, and remarkable week. I took a path away from the crowds, and nearly ran straight into O’Brien as I rounded the northern end of Harbourfront Centre’s main building. He was looking out at the streetcar tracks and the bustle of Toronto’s Lakeshore Blvd, smoking in the shadow of the building, away from the wind. It seemed like a good time to say thank you. To hopefully express a gratitude commensurate with the power of the experience the elderly American had offered that week. But I only managed to say, “That was really something Tim.” It was profoundly inadequate. And that was ok. Above all else Tim had helped clarify what a vague, but persistent, voice had been trying to tell me for some time: that all the things that cannot be said, are meant to be written.

Florida Flats

Of all the runs I take, in all the different places, Florida is my favourite. Specifically Dania Beach. Even more specifically the run that starts on a dusty road in a shipyard south of the airport, and runs in straight lines so long you can see another pedestrian 20 minutes ahead. If there is one. Very few people travel these roads by foot. In a way, thats why I like it.

There was a video game when we were young called NBA Jam. We’d play it in a convenience store in eastern Scarborough, plugging quarters until we ran out, our unzipped parkas scratching against each other as we jockeyed the joysticks on Canadian winter days. When we ran out of quarters, we had somehow learned that if you held the buttons in a certain combination you entered a secret level.

It was strange, this game within a game. Your view was one of a very simple white triangle, flying point-first over a grid leading to the horizon, the lines denoting perspective, and lending movement to the scene as they passed beneath you. Only one player could steer the flying triangle over the featureless terrain, and my friends weren’t as interested. They would usually wander off to evaluate snack prices after a few minutes, leaving me in the flat, mostly empty expanse, flying aimlessly but enjoyably.

Don’t take this wrong way Florida, but that is what I feel when I run here. It is mesmerizingly flat. Some would call it boring, but – like most runners – the real reason I run is to meditate, and the empty strip malls, uniform motels, and abandoned tattoo parlours that look like museum exhibits from a future obsessed with they year 2010, are perfect. And when I am nicely lulled by the dusty uniformity of urban decay, I get to the parkland.

Here the straight road parallels a band of mangroves whose roots lie in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway of Florida, a narrow tract of water that runs between the beach and the main body of land. It stretches the entire length of the state, this channel, like the space between the tibia and fibula of this lower leg of the United States.

The dense trees and lower bushes lead right up to the road here, and a chainlink fence which the local fisherman have cut numerous holes into, separates the growth from the thoroughfare. When I run this section before sunrise I see dozens of eyes gleaming, reflecting back the streetlights. The old Florida, the one that was here before the high-rises grew, and will be here after they crumble, is still in there, just beyond the fence.

After this I reach the bridge, which is the only elevation on the entire run. The bridge can raise and lower to allow boots to transit beneath it, and is manned by an operator here. They used to sit in a booth right at street level, much like a toll taker. We would wave to each other, and I have known an older woman, who was small and wore reading glasses; and a large man who always looked really surprised and then really pleased to see me; and another large man who must have been the world’s best crossworder, to be the operators at various times. But now the booth has been built up a level, and you can’t see in or access the operator anymore. This seems indicative, and representative of the times.

Then I reach the beach and I am among the people again. This is jarring both because it comes after the silence of running alone, and because these people are tourists, and in a special frame of mind. They get made fun of, these tourists, but I have to be honest: I don’t find them funny at all. I feel for them, in their new beach gear, pale hides, and nervous excitement at seeing the ocean, some of them for the first time. We are an odd species, in an odd time, one in which air travel can whisk us from the middle of a continent, where all we know is land, to the coast, to sleep in high-rises with a view of the gulf stream, and devour plates of shrimp pulled from the brine. Here too, you can see for miles, the long, unbroken stretch of moderately-priced enjoyment for once-a-year vacationers stretching to the horizon. Soon these people will depart for home, with sunburns that will fade, and photos in the cloud that will be found in a few decades’ time, to be marvelled over how young everyone looks.

After a while of running south through all this, I turn around to run back, and the experience is reversed. People, mangroves, buildings, shipyard. . Rain falls sometimes, and smells like hot concrete. Sun shines most of the time and makes the sweat run off the brim of my hat in glinting drops. All is flat, much is quiet. It is my favourite run.


Working Late

Dad worked late throughout most of our upbringing. Really late, sometimes till 2:00 or 3:00 AM, sometimes right on through the night, long past his dinner at home had been wrapped beneath cling film and put in the fridge. As his spaghetti sauce congealed, and his salad wilted, and the garlic bread hardened on the outside and softened in the middle, he sat at his desk in a large commercial complex overlooking the Don Valley, burning the midnight fluorescent lights. Through the late hours, he tapped lines of complex code into a computer; a small, green, monochrome cursor slowly tracing its way across a screen, quietly depositing the grist of his logic and creativity behind it in a complex language that only a handful of people understood; while counting time in slow, silently demanding, blinks.

Mom would take it up with him later, about missing dinner. “But what did you have to eat?” she’d ask, already knowing the answer. Dad would sheepishly admit to having raided the vending machine. To us, his children, listening to these conversations over bowls of non-sugary cereal the next morning, this alone seemed to justify staying at work late. Why rush home to spaghetti when you could enjoy a satisfying variety of small bags of Hostess potato chips, a Twix or a Kit-Kat, or both, and maybe a cold can of 7Up to wash it down? We dreamed of such things. But Dad always looked regretful that he had missed his dinner, and our evening as a family: the battles over having baths, and which pajamas would be worn, and what story would be read, and getting to be the one to turn the lights out on small people with simple hopes and fears, who trust you to protect them through the night.

The perceived glamour of a vending machine in the dark hours eventually wore off. I saw the hall that Dad walked down to reach the machines, a corridor as long as the field in our school yard, but narrow as a small car. Its lights were set to motion sensors, turning on when someone headed down the hall, and turning off behind them, illuminating their progress, a cursor of fluorescence moving with them. I pictured dad walking down that passageway, stretching after hours at his desk, to feed change to the machine. Plugging quarters into the slot, he’d select B3 for sour cream and onion, then collect the small bag from behind the swinging door that tried to trap your hand. And before walking back, put a few more quarters in for a pack of Chiclets, to give to his children, now asleep at home.

I went to some lengths to avoid much of this. I left home without a degree to pursue a career in renting jetskis, and then sailing day-charter catamarans, and then retired race boats, and eventually liveaboard positions on large yachts. It seemed like I was safe from a white-collar job, 80 hour weeks, and missing bed time when it came time to have my own family. 

The schedule on Starfire, the 178 foot motor yacht I’ve worked on for the past seven years, is set so that when we have guests on board the first mate stays awake until midnight. At that hour he hands over the watch to one of the deckhands, unless we are underway, in which case he stays on through the small hours of the night. Sometimes that shift goes until the sun rises. I am that first mate – or one of them to be exact, as there are two of us who jobshare, to allow us both time at home with our families. And I am on duty right now. And I have just been to the galley in search of food. And there I stood, under the fluorescent lights eating a brownie I found while hunting for a late night snack, at work, taking a break from tapping at the computer, wearing a white collar shirt, and having missed story time, again. And I felt a kinship with my dad.

What eases the sting of this elaborate circle-back, is that I’m lucky enough to have many more nights at home than my dad did. So, much as my dad hoped I would have it better – and I do – I hope the same for our own kids: that they will have more time at home, and fewer late hours away, eating out of galley fridges and vending machines, while chasing a cursor. 


The Snowman


Ms. Charles was a large woman. Nearly six-foot tall, she was sizable in the neck and shoulders, substantial in the bosom and mid-section, and most considerable of all in the hips and legs. She was stern, officious, and had the sort of temper that caused her to throw lunch bags at children who put them in the wrong part of the classroom. She kept a ball of nose-pickings in her desk which I saw for myself one afternoon when she left to use the bathroom, and feared her more for having found, believing an adult who would do such a thing to have moved dangerously beyond behavioural norms, and was thus capable of anything. Having noticed earlier in the school year that her weight was enough to cause the solid wooden floorboards of the gymnasium to bend as she walked, I was sure that were her ire fully inflamed, horrible, irreversible things would be done before she could be stopped. In addition to being unsettlingly large and angry, Ms. Charles possessed a singing ability of almost unnatural clarity, and pureness of note. Her voice was probably best described as ‘commandingly beautiful,’ and was like a late afternoon sun on a westward drive: encompassing, and unavoidable.

But this isn’t about Ms. Charles, although an angry, nose-picking fourth grade teacher with a voice for the ages trapped in a second-story classroom, does edge into something of what I am getting at. This is about getting punched in the face, twice, and the first time I saw the short film The Snowman. I was seven years old, and it was the last day of school before the Christmas break.


That year was the first of two in which I went to an older, post-war school, in an older, post-war suburb of Toronto. I was bussed there daily from a newer suburb that my family had moved to, one that wasn’t post anything, it just was. Our school hadn’t been built yet, as our neighbourhood had sprung suddenly from what had been farmer’s fields, a crop of four-bedroom brick houses with two-car garages, mud backyards, and no fences. The homes still smelled like paint inside, and many of the newly moved-in residents had newspaper for curtains, as they waited for the venetian blinds to arrive; and gravel driveways, as it had become too cold to seal them.

I’d found the move hard. The new house meant trying to make new friends, both in the neighbourhood and at school. In both cases my first attempts were rewarded with being punched in the face. And in both cases these landed, stingingly, on my nose.

The first punch came on our own street. It was a Sunday afternoon in late fall, and as we pulled up to our house in our blue Dodge Caravan with the back windows that couldn’t roll down, I noticed a group of kids close to my age playing street hockey a little further up the road. My parents encouraged me to join in, and, always partial to trying to slap a shaved tennis ball between arbitrarily designated posts (the curb and someone’s jacket generally made an effective goal) I walked up to the game.

“Who are you.” One of them asked, somewhat out of breath from a Gilmour-esque, end-to-end raid on a goalie who hadn’t stood a chance.

“I’m Paul. I live in that house.” I answered, and pointed.

“Ok.” We stood there. The game stopped.

“Can I play?”

He turned and checked the numbers on each team.

“I guess so. You can be on Pradeep’s team. With Ashish, Alex, and Josh.” He pointed my teammates out as he named them. “That means you’re in,” he said to a kid who looked a little younger than me, and was obviously his brother. “This is Bobby,” he told me, “but today we’re calling him Moby Dick.”

This made the other kids double-over with laughter. Bobby didn’t look very happy about that.

“Ty it. Call him Moby Dick.” Bobby’s brother instructed me. Seeing an opportunity to slide into a new group with a crowd-pleasing joke, albeit one I didn’t understand, I turned and boldly addressed the younger kid.

“Hi Moby Dick.”

Bobby stepped forward, told me not to call him that, and punched me hard enough on the nose to make my eyes water. I was too surprised to fight back, and was also suddenly afraid of getting my ass kicked by the plucky younger brother of the neighborhood hockey star. Instead I held it together long enough to say I’d go get my stick and come right back, and left. When my back was to the group I cried. I didn’t let my shoulders shake, but I also didn’t go back.


The punch in the nose at school was also unexpected, and comically clichéd, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. While there were more children being bussed to the school than were lived in the local area (which was why we were being sent there, despite it being a 20-minute drive), the students who were from that neighborhood had firm friendships and alliances from growing up together, while we interlopers mostly milled around alone or in pairs, at least at first. One group of local kids had decided to take advantage of this organizational discrepancy, and wholeheartedly embraced the Hollywood typecast of bullies in both their approach and mannerisms. They spotted me on my first day.

“Hey.” A large kid said, stepping in my way as I crossed the snowy schoolyard at lunch break. He was a head taller than me, had good posture, looked out from under half-closed eyelids, and was wearing a three-quarter length black winter jacket, and a knitted black hat. As I said hello, three other kids appeared and arrayed themselves beside him. They were all larger than me, and all had dark jackets.

“So. We got another new kid eh?”

I nodded.

“Well, just so you know, we run things around here. If you want to start a game, or make any new rules, that all goes through us. Got it?”

“Sure.” These kid weren’t in my class, and were clearly at least a grade or two older. I didn’t have any plans to start any games. I didn’t want any trouble.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

I looked.

“Are we going to have any problems?”

I shook my head.

“Ok. Good. See you around.” He gave an exaggerated jerk of his head to his associates, and they walked off across the yard, one of them knocking me with his shoulder as he went past. Once they’d gone I went and watched a game of foot hockey that was being dominated by a red-headed kid named Aaron.

Later that afternoon I boarded the school bus for the ride home, being careful to get on the right one as there were five of the long, narrow vehicles in a line at the curb. I took a seat by a window on the side facing the sidewalk. I was staring into space when I noticed a group had gathered beneath my window. It was the dark jacket gang. The leader-kid said something, but I couldn’t hear him through the closed window. I shook my head and pointed to one of my ears.

“Remember,” He shouted, loudly enough to make it through the glass this time, “We’re in charge!”

I’m not sure what I was thinking, maybe it was anger at the move, and at having to take a bus to a school where the kids seemed to be purposely trying to act like characters from a poorly written movie, or maybe I just didn’t enjoy being spoken to like that then any more than I do now. But for whatever reason, I gave him the finger.

His face changed instantly. The bus had filled by this point, and the door had closed. The squeak of the brakes being released interrupted his response, but as we pulled away he made it clear that my insolence wouldn’t go unpunished, taking one of his mittens off and pulling his finger slowly across his neck. This move was then repeated by his sidekicks, and continue to be repeated until we pulled out of view around the first corner. I told myself it would probably all be forgotten by tomorrow.

Less than two minutes into disembarking from bus 160 the next morning, and with 13 minutes still to go until the bell rang to signal the start of the school day, the black jackets found me trying to keep my back to the school building.

“Well, look who it is.” The leader said loudly, suddenly standing in front of me, “Our bus-kid wiseass.” I turned to leave but found henchmen on either side. They grabbed my arms and held me in place. “Got anything to say for yourself?”

I shook my head. He nodded at one of the kids holding me, who pulled my toque down over my face. Then the big guy punched me hard in the nose, told me I’d better not give them any more trouble, and walked off across the yard, waving at his gang to follow.

It was into this somewhat difficult time of transition in my life, that The Snowman fell. Which I think is probably the same for most people.


Ms. Charles wheeled the projector into the classroom after lunch, and shouted loudly at a kid whose chair was a few inches out into the aisle, impinging her path; and another one who was sharpening a pencil without having asked permission to do so, dirtying her floor.

We all sat stock still as she threaded the reels, plugged in the machine, and pulled down the screen. A shrill screech made us jump, as Ms. Charles spotted Nicole Singh (not Nicole Allong, who was away that day) getting up to do the lights. Nicole admitted she had not been asked to do the lights, and returned cautiously to her desk. I looked out the window.

“Ok. Attention children. Who has seen the movie The Snowman?” None of us had. “Well then you are all in for a treat. This is not a movie you will soon forget. It will likely remain with you your entire lives, initially speaking to your young desires for companionship and magic in a world you are increasingly beginning to find isolating and mundane. Eventually though, when the years have overtaken you and brought with them a surety that snowmen cannot, in fact, fly, but do most certainly melt, it will serve to remind you that once you held a small but genuine hope that things could be otherwise. And that will be a thing that you will hold dear.” The classroom was silent. Ms. Charles nodded once, turned the projector on, and switched off the lights. Slowly, the music began.


Paw Paw

They called it ‘paw paw.’

Almost sixteen years ago I turned 21 in a small town of a few hundred people called Tofo, on a stretch of the Mozambican coastline where you could walk half a day along beaches as wide as a national highway without seeing another person. I had very little money, a lot of time, and no real plan as to how I was going to last the one without the other. I’d made two friends on the road in South Africa, and tagged along with them to this spot, uncertain we would even make it as the Xai-Xai floods of 1999 had divided the country into inaccessible islands which were only just being rejoined to the African continent. Babies had been born in trees, towns had been swept away, minefields swamped so that the ordnance drifted into uncertain boundaries. The locals said not to leave the dirt road, so we peed standing in the tracks of the bus’s knobby tires, and abandoned a frisbee that escaped in an errant arc into fields unknown. 
But we made it, and as some of the first tourists (though we called ourselves ‘travellers’) to filter through the flood plain and down to the coast, we found a town even more quiet than normal; and receptive despite our inability to contribute in any meaningful financial manner to the worst season they’d had in years.
We planned to fish and live on the beach. We ended up eating a lot of bread, and pitching our tent in the backyard of a small guesthouse that a very kind woman named Ida owned and rented, when there were people to rent to. She let us stay there for free, and turned on the water so we could shower when we came in from surfing, our full time preoccupation. 
Ida was of Portuguese-Mozambican background, a woman with smooth dark skin, curly hair she usually swept back in a knot in the damp seaside air, and a face whose neutral expression was broad open welcome. Frankly I wallowed in the motherly warmth she offered after some lonely weeks on the road, broke and uncertain in a country that had enough of that on its own. 
My friends lasted two weeks or so there, before they departed back for South Africa to make enough cash mending fences for the gas needed to return them to their home on the Cape. I stayed, having nowhere else to be for another 6 weeks.
The night before the South Africans left was my 21st birthday, and Ida and her husband Renato insisted on throwing me a party. We drank Famous Grouse, neat, at their small tiki bar on the beach which served the guest houses, all still empty, and ate calamari so large it was cut into fillets, whole grilled fish, and lobster the spear fisherman brought fresh from the deep drop-off, out beyond which the whale sharks breached in nearly endless display, day and night. Ida and Renato insisted I call my parents from their phone, at whatever immense expense that must have been, believing it a crime that I should turn 21 and my mother and father not even know where I was. I did, and my parents and I still talk about that. 
The next day the South Africans, Hardy and Charl, departed in the back of a pick-up truck for the 5-10 hour drive to Maputo. When they had gone I returned to my backyard tent and was alone for over 11 seconds before Ida appeared looking worried.
“You can’t stay here on your own.” She said and I thought, understandably, that she was kicking me out.
“You will come and stay in one of the houses near ours, and eat with us. That will be better.” She nodded, and walked away. And that was what I did. 
I have never had food like that before, or since. The spear fishermen came directly to Ida and Renato at the end of each day, selling incredible things from the ocean. With no guests Ida and Renato bought for themselves and the extended family and large staff they maintained despite the low season, keeping a good part of the small village going though they too were of limited means. That was their way. In the mornings we ate small loaves of bread (pao) still warm from the wood ovens the local women tended in the shadows of the bent palms, and papaya that was otherworldly in its roundness of flavour and fullness. They called it paw-paw.
It’s been sixteen years, and to date, when I eat that fruit I am there. I stayed with that family for six weeks, surfing and writing and helping with odd jobs, and marvelling at their generosity. I hope to return someday, taking Hannah, Kip and Deia, and an extra suitcase full of something really nice to repay them with. 
I still think of Ida and Renato frequently, often for no obvious reason, and always when I have paw-paw. It was in a fruit plate the chef Stuey brought up to me on the bridge this morning because I was stuck on watch and hadn’t had breakfast. For a few bites I wasn’t in the south of France, holding station off Nice airport, but was back on the east coast of Africa, thinking of those two, and the full roundness of their generosity. 

Like The Open Ocean: Hard To Capture


Photo: transparenteyeball.tumblr.com

Hannah often says that she doesn’t look like herself in pictures. And she’s right. Occasionally a shot will manage to get the unknown particle that is her essence, the binder, but more often then not that elusive element slips through the camera and out the other side. She’d say she just makes photo-face, but there’s more to it than that.

I’ve spent a good amount of time at sea, and quite a lot of that time looking at the water directly, standing watch eight hours a day for passages that sometimes stretch into weeks, like very slow road trips with no stops, or roads with very much traffic.  Over time you see all sorts of different seascapes: Mirror-like discs of ocean that are an unbroken whole; dark choppy waves backlit by a low sun into undefined chunks of navy water which hold shifting black shadows in their basins; and looming, open-ocean rollers that in scale harken back to an older time when the planet was raw and everything large and fierce. 

Those are just some of faces – there are, of course, countless more, and endless variations on all of them. And there’s only one thing they all have in common: you can’t take a picture that will do any of them credit.

Do great ocean photographs exist? Clearly. But what is equally clear, after years on the water, is the actual seascape being captured in any of those shots would have been far more spectacular, or violent, or serene, in person. That’s the nature of water, more so than any subject other than, maybe, the night sky.

When you go to take a picture of large waves you generally get a relatively flat plane of mono where you had been seeing multi. The polished finish of a becalmed sea looks dull in the image, like you smeared the lens with a grubby hand, at least compared with the bright reflections you saw before your eye was stuck in the viewfinder. Strange light just looks dark, and breaking waves stop breaking. It’s a confounding thing. And eventually teaches you to, mostly, just take it in, and let all of the megapixels in your pocket sit, and abide.

So, in this, Hannah and the sea are the same. Some things can be seen, but not caught. Dipping a cup in a stream will never catch a river. Just a taste.

Find and Seek

Today day grey finally found my beard (or I finally noticed it there) and a story also found me. About explored caves and unexplored depths, about people who go missing and people who come back, and about ownership and guardianship, and how great the latter is, and how limiting the former. As Reginald Jefferson Jr. explains the first time he shows his grandson the cave in his backyard, in the story I’ve just started down the road to doing justice to:

“This hole isn’t mine. I just found it, and the things in it, and they belong to me as much as the moon would if I built a picture frame and walked around holding it up to the sky.”

Thank you.

Words With Friends


Photo: Vincent Fournier

Sometimes when James sat on the bus he wondered if there were other hims, sitting on other busses that he had just missed, or that came after the one he had just caught. He thought about the people he then didn’t see, and the ways they then didn’t affect him, and the looks they then didn’t exchange, and the lurches and rumbles they never did share in the commute they didn’t have together. He wondered what it would be like to catch up to one of the versions of himself who had legged it ahead, or to be caught by one of the ones that had straggled behind, and hoped that if they did meet they would be nice to each other and not be weird about it or pretend they didn’t know one another. Sometimes James just played Words With Friends on his phone.

For 18 stops – nearly half the distance to the subway – he had been trying to make a decent start to a game. As he didn’t have any vowels, not even a ‘y’, this was proving to be very difficult. His circling index finger made combinations of two and three letters that he hoped might be allowed by the inflexible dictionary of the game, that stood guard over the line between a meaningless jumble and a word no one had ever heard of that could score 78 points. He slid tiles back and forth across the screen until he’d exhausted all options, even asking a bookish looking lady beside him if she had any suggestions. She glanced down at his phone, aglow in the primary colours of the game, shook her head and tsked. James nodded thoughtfully and pointed out that he didn’t have a ‘k’.

This was no way to start a game. Not with simply_sarah. With her he especially wanted to make a solid beginning. They’d been playing each other for over a week now, in a series of closely contested games begun after the ‘smart match’ feature of the app had paired them at random. Both had had breakout words that saw them to large leads and easy wins, and both had had to scrimmage in the corners, placing two-letter terms as many ways as possible to try to stay in the game, battling through the humiliating difficulties of five out of seven tiles being an ‘i’.

Though he knew next to nothing about simply_sarah, he felt an unexpected affinity for her. When they had first started playing he’d checked her profile and learned she’d only recently joined the app, had played a handful of games, had a very high average word score, and on one occasion had scored a rather astonishing 613 points in a single contest (his best was 524). James was impressed.

Then over a period of days she went from just a few wins to many, and the game informed him she had scored a very large amount of total points. Not only did this confirm her skill, it also gave away that she was playing many games at once, and often. He also noticed that whenever he opened the app he could see a small green dot above her profile photo (which was just a tile with the letter ‘S’ on it, a default for those who didn’t load pictures or link the app to Facebook. The little dot showed she was online, somewhere out there. And he almost always got a returned play from her within minutes of taking his turn. No matter what time of day it was. As simply_sarah’s profile didn’t say where in the world she was James had no way of knowing, but as a regular insomniac himself he had gone into the game at all hours and had yet to not find her online. This made him sure that she was either an insomniac like him (chronic) or was being kept up by something, or someone, in particular. And he thought he knew what it was.

Although he’d made no conscious attempt at it, and was at first sure it was just his imagination, James and simply_sarah seemed to be having a subtle conversation beneath the surface of the game, through the words they chose to play. Chose in the very loosest sense, at least as far as James was concerned, as he was entirely looking to score the most points; and judging from simply_sarah’s scores she too was playing much more for keeps than conversation. But though he was sure they weren’t having a conversation made up of single word statements, he was equally sure that they were. And as the plays were done using a random assortment of letters that could only be played in a very few ways, James also wasn’t sure whether it was they who were having the conversation, or the conversation that was having them.

It was the second or third game that he had begun to notice it. Coming off of a horrible run of having three ‘U’s and nowhere especially appealing to put them, he had finally managed to lay down “Zulu” for a tidy score.

“Tribe,” Simply_sarah had silently returned.



There was a pause then as James had arrived at work and it was busy. While he would have liked to have been able to play at his desk it made him uncomfortable when people walked up behind him because he knew the bright colours of the game on his screen made it clear he was doing something other than his work. Sometimes he wondered if there was a version of the app that looked more business like so he wouldn’t have to worry. But not having that, or even having looked, he waited until a mid-morning break to play. Over a cup of black coffee he more needed than wanted, he placed:


“Alas,” Came simply_sarah’s response, less than a minute later.

The game then trailed off into its final moves, with letters being placed wherever they could be best fit into the crowded board for the most points. It having ended, James found himself staring out the window of the mostly empty cafe, wondering if he and simply_sarah had just shared something of a commentary, or whether he was simply finding poetry the way it can be found in a phonebook or on the side of a bus: by looking hard enough.

During the very next game, which they’d begun at lunchtime (at least where he was) and gotten into the thick of on his commute home, it happened again. Still just playing the words that best scored, James laid down: “Work.”

“Wait.” She had played back.

“Taxi.” Said James.

“Birth.” Simply_sarah.

“Aha.” James.


And James, as sure as he was that they were just playing the game – indeed simply_sarah had scored 36 points with ‘Birth’ with the ‘t’ having fallen on a triple-letter score and the ‘b’ on a triple-word – was equally sure that wherever in the world she was, simply_sarah was in the latter stages of pregnancy.


The games continued on through the week ending up to James not having any vowels. The conversations by word association continued as well. Or at least he thought they did, and thought they probably didn’t.




James smiled.





Raised a chuckle on the bus.





And he felt a small warmth from this as he sat on his couch, bed long abandoned, in the middle hours of a quiet night.

That was the night before the morning in which James had no vowels, which was also the morning that he suddenly stopped hearing from simply_sarah, and wondered if it was his fault.

Having laboured over it the entire bus ride, as he neared the subway – where he would lose connection – he had finally decided to swap tiles. This was something he hated doing at any stage in a game, and to do it at the beginning bothered him to no end. But he simply could not find a word to spell without a vowel. He turned in two ‘t’s and a ‘v’, and was randomly handed back a ‘w’, an ‘l’, and an ‘e’. Just one vowel, but at least he could do something with that on the next go. As he’d spent his play making the exchange his turn was over, and now he waited for simply_sarah.

The subway ride took forever. The train stopped between stations a number of times, until finally it paused for a very long while, a packed train full of people sitting and standing in a metal tube in a dark tunnel 60 feet underground. The driver announced a delay due to a mechanical failure up ahead, and many of the passengers wondered if that meant someone had decided to use a train in an unconventional manner to take them somewhere far away, permanently. James dozed lightly as he often did on the ride to work, his body finally sleepy after hours of being awkwardly alert.

When the train pulled into his station he was 15 minutes late and feeling slightly refreshed. He milled out with the others and while climbing the steps up to street level was surprised to not feel his pocket buzz with an alert from his phone. Usually midway up the first set of stairs the notifications would go vibrate as the phone grabbed at the rebounding radio waves penetrating down through the corridors, although sometimes he missed the feeling in the greater tremor of hundreds of people going hundreds of places through narrow passages. Today he pulled out his phone to check. There were no messages, and especially striking to him: no new play from simply_sarah.

He was sure it was because he hadn’t been able to take his turn; a first. He felt bad for that, but there had simply been no words.

The end of the workday found him still waiting for her play, having checked his phone an embarrassingly large number of times. He was growing concerned on a number of levels. That he had alienated his favourite Words With Friends friend, that maybe something had happened to simply_sarah, and that later that night he was going to have to fill the hours playing other people whose words made only points, not conversations. He would discover he was wrong on only one of these counts.

At a few minutes after 2:00 a.m. he was embroiled in three separate games. As the app let him choose whether he wanted to play in the British or American versions of English, at that hour he strategically chose British as he knew far more people were awake over there than on the North American landmass he and his couch hung ten quiet stories above. Each of his current games had a union jack flying above them, and he was losing in all.






Nothing was being said. Just words for the sake of words, games for the sake of games, distractions and nothing more, meaningless little birds flitting in the corner of the mind’s eye, not owls, not spirits. James put down his phone and went and made a tea and was a little bit sadder than usual, and a little bit more lonely.

Then he remembered that simply_sarah was in the latter stages of pregnancy.

Without pouring the rest of the hot water into his cup he put down the kettle and got his phone. He thumbed through the app quickly, opening up a leaderboard section that told you how many points your friends had scored that week. Simply_sarah was in the mid-1200’s, and was offline, as she had been every time he checked all day. Cautioning himself to not get too excited James made a mental note of this and resolved to check back in the morning to see if her point total had changed. But he was already certain that she was right this very moment either having or just having had a baby.


In the morning her total hadn’t changed at all, and James knew he was right. He was surprised at how happy this made him. That it meant that that she was having her baby, of course, but also that it meant that she wasn’t upset with him for not being able to start the game properly. She was just busy. And that was a lot easier to take. James wondered when he would hear from her, but knew from having seen his sisters become mothers that it might be some time, possibly a year or more. Things got very busy when new people who couldn’t do anything on their own arrived, especially the first time when the adults were so heavy on expectations of themselves, and light on experience. It could be quite encompassing, and he understood that Words with Friends might take a back seat. But he also knew that new mothers were generally awake pretty much all the time, sometimes trapped under the sleeping baby, and he held out some hope that maybe simply_sarah would find herself in such a position at some stage and become interested in playing a game to pass the time. He would wait.


A week later he heard from her.

Unusually for him he had slept through the early hours of the night, dreaming strange dreams and waking just as the ocean that he had been diving down into dropped away into space and his swimming became a fall. He started, and looked around in time to notice his phone screen was just returning to a dark after having been lit by a notification.

It was an alert from Words with Friends, and it told him that simply_sarah had made a word and now it was his turn. Sitting up in bed he looked at the notification for a while without unlocking his phone, on the one hand embarrassed that it meant so much to him, on the other hand relishing the warmth given to him from knowing simply_sarah was back in touch. He got up, made tea, sat down in the mostly dark room with one table lamp switched on beside him, and opened the app.

“Here.” Simply_sarah had said for 6 points, and James knew that they had given up the game as it was meant, and were now just talking. She had never scored less than 15 points on a turn. He looked at his letters for a while, trying to find a way to ask how everything was, and finally settled on a word that could be either a question or a statement and hoped she would know he was asking.


There was a long pause then. For the first ten minutes James sat still on the couch, waiting, sure her response would come any moment as he could see by the green dot that she was still online. When it didn’t arrive he thought he could picture her, feeding her new baby, phone glowing beside her in the night, or day as the case may be, hands full with new life and all that it needed. He went to the kitchen and poured more tea, happy in this thought, feeling somehow involved, if in the barest of ways.

Coming back he saw that the board had changed. A word had been added. He picked up his phone and drew it close to see the news.


James took in a breath, put down his tea, and sank cross-legged into the sofa, his heart sinking.

“Asleep.” He managed to make.

“Ever.” Came her immediate response, in seconds.

And James wept.


It took him some time to be able to respond. He had very few options of words, and even if he’d had them all, it wouldn’t be enough. The night drew in and his battery ran low as he stared at the small green dot on simply_sarah’s profile that said she was there, somewhere, online, and grieving.

“Gone.” James finally said back. Because he had little else, because it was an echo of what she had said, because it meant he heard her, and because in and of itself that word is a hollow vessel that can contain much loss.

“Hard.” She said back.

“Loss.” Replied James a short time later.


With a strange serendipity that would later make James question the true nature of chance, and wonder if things that seem to be unconnectable are in fact entirely intertwined, he found he was able to spell the one word he really needed then.


“Yes.” Said simply_sarah.

And then there was another long pause, this time at his end, as James grappled with the fact that other than unmeaning two-letter words, there was really only one legitimate thing he had available to say. He felt it was right, but was worried that without other words to soften and mix in with it and make clear that he offered it with kindness, and as a question not a directive, that it was too bare. Too much of a slap on the back when what he wanted to deliver was a gentle hand on the shoulder.

He looked at this word and where he would put it on the board for a whole tea’s worth. He tried other combinations, other words that might be more suited and less abrupt, but found nothing that made any sense at all. This word was all he had, and so he laid it down.

“Try.” He asked, and said.



In a dark living room overlooking a small but well-kept backyard, many, many cities away, Sarah read just_james’s new word. She put her phone down and lay her head on her pulled-in knees, looking out from the shadows and deep blues of the room onto the empty tones of a snow-filled yard at night in winter. She was unaware that she was crying, because there had been tears enough to wear a channel down her face, and she had stopped noticing them now as they came silently and unchecked, the wracking sobs of the aftershocks having been mostly spent.

His word fell where many others had gone in the week since their small daughter had been born breathless; drifting down into the void, touching neither sides nor bottom. It was a space she couldn’t measure. Although in her, it was larger than her, a hollow that ran to her core and out through the other side. It felt like this missing was there to stay, and she had only just begun to muster a sparse hope for how to live with the lack. That perhaps she could heal in a form around the missing piece, like a crater in the earth whose raw wound is slowly covered in moss and short grasses, then low shrubs and perhaps eventually a forest that softens and undulates over and around the land that was lost, a living relief of that which is gone and an anti-monument in which it is the lack itself that lives forever, its absence more powerful than anything’s presence.

There were no forests yet, there was no grass, the hollow was raw and deep, and it was down into that void that just_james’s word fell, like the light snow outside that Sarah could not watch without the visceral thought that her lost child would never know its silent magic.

She returned to the board, and saw that she had a response that could be played. While it was so far ahead of where she was at that moment that it made her chest tight to even think about, she felt too a trust, and a hope that as the planet turns she would once more find herself facing the sun, and would sow a new field beside her crater. She would grieve, for the person that was and the days that were lost. While she knew so little of the one, there were almost countless of the other, and this would now never change. And while carrying within her a hollow, she would yet do as just_james said. She would try.










Under Construction


Photo: danwynwilliams.tumblr.com

Hello. I’m working on something that will probably go here in my ant proof case but it isn’t ready yet because there is still more to do. It’s a story about strangers connecting over distance, through a limited means, in a way that comes to matter to them as they both battle loss; in the specific for one and in the aggregate for the other. While not the happiest of stories there is yet laughter in it. I wanted to let you know, and I will put it here when it’s ready. That still might be awhile. I haven’t stopped. Thank you.