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Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

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Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

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Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.

The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
.
“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

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Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

The Morning After Nothing

Image: Cover, “Strange Weather” Becky Hagenston Press 53

Most mornings… in fact, most mornings as long as I can remember, I wake up happy. It’s a trait I would not trade. I am a cheerful morning person with a positive outlook. However, I must admit that some mornings are more of a poutlook. Soo gohne daut; so goes it.

Pouty mornings I sometimes call, “The Morning After Nothing.” A kind of bitter hollowness, apropos of nothing, with nothing left to lose, and nothing is more true than that you still have to get up and make the bed and get going. There is no cancel button for this illness.

“Cancel” starts with a C. What else starts with C are the things that conquer the dog-breath stench of waking up on a Morning After Nothing: coffee, chickadees, and creativity. My go-to fixes, respectively: Medium C, Little Cs, and Big C.

Coffee and the antics of our neighbour chickadee pals are self-explanatory cheer-bringers. Creativity is the third great remedy because it takes you away from the grumbly place and puts you far on the other side of Nothing. This last C takes you straight to Elsewhere: rapping at a keyboard, pushing wood through a saw, trying to learn a new move on the windsurfer. Painting something for a friend or for one of our pog grandkids. (That’s my wife Janice’s usual way out.)

“Dee-dee-dee!”

Today, I found the coffee less than stimulating and the chickadees were their usual acrobatic and fearless 15-gram selves but I still had the look of the guy at the back of the longest line at the grocery store… the guy with the dripping container of ice cream.

But, C-ing is believing, as the saying goes, so I moved on to Creativity: “C’mon Creativity, papa needs a new toque!” I wound up considering a difficult short story I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s an outside-your-comfort-zone story, with nary a Mennonite in sight. The story is dark and harsh, and carries a gut-shot of implicit violence. Well, if you’re gonna write about toxic masculinity, I guess you gotta break a couple of… Uhh, scratch that—sounds too glib, and not a little.

Cal Rhinehart. Big and mean. Damaged goods and all about the booze and the dope. Everyone else’s fault but his. Maybe his dad beat the shit out of him or maybe one fight too many or maybe he just had bad chemicals in his head; got dealt a rotten hand, Fiona thought, sad and furious and terrified all at once. Maybe understanding too well. Maybe even feeling a sort of mongrel kinship. But she shook that thought away. Positive thinking, Doctor Tracewski always says.

—Main Character, Fiona Hewel, in “Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

This is the story that started up in my head after reading an incredible story by the super-pog Becky Hagenston, “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow.” I was determined to jump outside of my skin—that old, wrinkly bag of derma—and take on the many risks attendant for an older man who writes a story that contains difficult passages; violence both emotional and physical and violence against both men and women.

Violence is real. Violence towards women happens. Violence is at the heart of the topic I wanted to broach, and yet, how could I, “go there?”

Would it be best to just bail-out? Let someone else handle this topic? Did you just shout, “Hell yeah?” I understand, and yet, I have an indelible memory; something that happened to me, in real life, in the real world on the #1 Highway just west of the Bow Flats, at the feet of Big Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Sister.

“What in the world? Look at that!” Joe said, straightening his back and shifting his attention to the road ahead. A red SUV accelerated along the merge lane of an intersection. Behind the speeding car, a tattooed, bareback man ran in a dead sprint.

“Is he chasing them?” Fiona said.

Tall and broad shouldered, the man had an athletic build and long dirty blonde hair. The white drawstrings of his grey sweatpants fluttered and snapped behind him like kite tails as he ran after the vehicle. His bare feet pounded on the gravel strewn pavement.

The bizarre drama played on and Joe slowed the car as they closed on it. A white, flatdeck truck, “Rhinehart Well Drilling” in bold letters along the side, sat parked at a cockeyed angle near the intersection—driver door open, blinker on.

The running man slowed and hopped a few strides on one leg, then staggered to a lame halt. He bent at the waist to inspect his foot. The SUV sped away on the highway.

—”Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

As you can see, I choose to go ahead with the story. The early iterations were the cause of some “Morning after Nothing” feels, but “vann aul, dann aul,” as is said in the Plaut: “if already, then already,” or “if you’re going to do it, go all the way!”

So I did.

Ugh. The result was more than one editor, I fear, not seeing the Red Badge of Courage in my choices, but instead feeling triggered and put upon. More than one editor who might have stroked me off a list or two. For good, or longer.

Still, this the way of it, is it not? If there’s no risk, then I will stay forever in the safe-feeling place—potentially a moribund state for my writing—where I just write happy, little stories about wise Mennonites. Where grey-bearded Opas nod knowingly and open their mouths to release a dazzling, atmospheric river of axiomatic truths and cornpone savviness. Savvy like, “vann aul, dann aul.”

But… many rewrites and tough critiques later, I feel as though the story has evolved and now comes closer to the way I want it. Consider: I am a male writer, someone who grew up in times and places where even the worst acts of wanton male violence were sometimes forgiven—forgiven (or given up) even by those who suffered the violence. Forgiven by those whose job is was to police this violence: pulpit, patrol car, politician. I lived this condition, directly and indirectly. Is that not a story worth considering? Is it not important to write from a point of view that—without absolution and without friendly framing—tells a human story in all of its unsettling truth?

I vote yes.

There’s a part near the end of “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” where the author describes something being thrown into a dumpster, “with a thud,” and your heart sinks, and you feel a bit sick to your stomach. Without that passage the story is still wonderfully strong, but when you read it… when you read, “with a thud,” you are moved in a way that will last.

That! That result is the big prize, the one worth taking some risks to attain. It’s how a story can make a difference. It’s certainly one way to beat the Morning After Nothing blues!

Besides, as some wily Mennonite Oma must have said, to some future author on some far shore: “the best way to catch fish is to keep fishing!”

So I will.

Jus’ Noodlin’

Image: My grandparents and my uncle Ken in Steinbach, MB during the 40s; Mennonites hiding in plain sight.

As I idle down the back lanes of my brain’s daydream centre, procrastinating before my session on the rowing machine, I imagine what the logline might look like for a collection of my short stories. Note that I’m idling along the back lanes—where windmills and cobwebs exist in perfect harmony—on a brand-new, electric Ural sidecar motorcycle. Hey… if you’re gonna daydream, go carbon-friendly or go home!

Mitchell Toews’ collection of insightful short stories, “Pinching Zwieback – Prairie Stories,” reveals the confines of small-town life in a Mennonite community. Vivid characters demand to be heard and recognized. The book’s mixture of the iconoclastic and the nostalgic delivers reality through the little-seen lens of an outsider—but one with a deep insider pedigree. Toews’ heartfelt expression of lives lived captures the conflict and the contradictions that are unavoidable in these insular Jemeend*.

Pulling apart the clockwork of the axiomatic Mennonite profile, Toews probes for what is common to all and what is beautiful and what is problematic within faith, culture, domestic life, commerce, and interaction with the wide world beyond.

“Out of patience, I stood up and began angrily shouting down the ridiculous, muddled stereotypes coming from the lecturer in my ‘Introduction to Geography’ course. I was at the University of Victoria in 1974 and we were discussing Canadian Mennonites. At almost the same time a tall, blonde woman from the Interior rose to protest, and also another; a young Albertan from La Crete who was on the men’s J-V basketball team. All of us disavowed the reckless, almost comical blending of Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite tropes. At that moment, I saw myself and my ‘brethren’ in the way others must and furthermore, I saw the confusion within our own ranks.”

Mitchell Toews

__

*Or Gemeinde: Communities or congregations

Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.

The title of this essay is the actual name of a research and analysis paper written by Anita F. Dodson and Judith H. Hauser. The paper was sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the publication was released in 1981.

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED211411

I discovered this document online when searching for resources about the improvements made in modern literature in respect of ageism, embedded bias, and systemic elder malignment. Like you, perhaps, I assumed that progress has been made in this area; that certain antiquated and demeaning stereotypes had been scrubbed out of literature by a watchful literary vanguard of editors, publishers, librarians, teachers, readers and right-minded people in general.

“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”

I believed, like American industrialist Charles F. Kettering must have (quoted above), that age bias is the product of an illogical mind and that it would, especially in today’s atmosphere of rapid, broad communication and ultra-scrutiny be all but eradicated. While discrimination over race, religion, gender, or sexuality continues to plague society, open hate-speak and flagrant animosity have been essentially banned in world literature. The same should be true for ageism, yes?

Well… “Hey, BOOMER!” No.

Here are the some of the findings of the Dodson/Hauser paper. Their research included visits to, “public, college, and school libraries, as well as bookstores. Approximately eight hundred books from the kindergarten through adult levels were investigated.” The authors reason that what readers absorb through reading—particularly the young—will influence their opinions and beliefs. How true.

In summary, the authors concluded the following:

[…] “analysis of past and present literature shows that the aged have been stereotyped and portrayed negatively. By not assigning them a full range of human behaviours, emotions, and roles, authors have categorized them, resulting in ‘ageism’—discrimination against the elderly.

Literature conveys writers’ and society’s stereotypic and negative images when:

  1. Authors consistently use adjectives such as “old,” “poor,” “little,” “sad,” and “wise” to refer to the elderly.
  2. Older men are depicted with wrinkles, white hair, and canes, while older women are portrayed as fat or skinny, with their hair in “buns” and wearing aprons.
  3. Senility is considered to be synonomous with old age.
  4. The aged are pictured as sitting in rocking chairs or engaged in passive roles, such as storytelling, fishing, or housekeeping.
  5. Personality is characterized in two forms—crotchety or unfailingly pleasant.

1-5, above, are the faults present in a certain cross-section of American literature at the time the study was done forty years ago.

The authors identified important categories as a way to break down and better analyze a piece of literature in respect of its treatment of elders.

  • Significance. In Canada today, StatsCan estimates, “Almost one in five (18.5%) Canadians are now aged 65 and older, and the number of centenarians rose 1,100 year over year to 12,822 as of July 1, 2021.” https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210929/dq210929d-eng.htm Simply put, are one in five contemporary literary characters age 65 or older? What systemic initiatives (funding, grants, contests, mandates, education) exist to promote the significance of elders in modern literature?
  • Ethnic and Racial Composition. The study contends that, in 1981,

“When older characters appear in literature, the vast majority are white. Ethnic and racial minorities tend to be stereotyped to an even greater degree, assuming roles that are even more typecast than whites. While some behaviors are not inaccurate, they are shown in exclusion to others. For example, Asian-Americans operate laundries or gift shops or participate in dragon festivals, while Blacks appear in servile roles.”

  • Character Role. To what degree are elders depicted as main characters?
  • Occupational Role. Are elders, “shown in a diversity of meaningful occupations and employment settings?” The study found that:

The majority of older characters are placed in indeterminate occupational roles or those that require only passive participation… When there is obvious employment, the positions require little mental acuity or are outside the experiences of the average student. Women’s roles are repetitive… generally engaged in housework or gardening.

  • Behavioral Characteristics. Elder characters found by the 1981 study usually created problems Today, are they depicted solving problems too? Are behavioural characteristics stereotypical? A somewhat recent example is Canada’s “Corner Gas” television show. The ensemble cast includes two prominent elder roles, a husband and wife. The show often elevates the female elder to a person of agency, responsibility, strong character and otherwise gives her a role equal to younger characters, although she seems to me too often petulant and vengeful and her role in the home and the community are based on typecast models. Her husband is a comical dumping ground of grouchy old man tropes, spun out relentlessly, episode after episode, giving authority for other writers to continue down the caricature trail, unabated; angry old white man… Difficult old lady.
  • Physical Traits. In 1981, “Older characters are rarely given fully developed physical descriptions. Instead, they are described by three adjectives–“old,” “little,” and “ancient.” “Old” is used approximately seventy-five percent of the time. No other generation is completely described by the use of one word.”
  • Personality Traits. Do older characters express, “a full range of emotions with the opportunity for continued growth?”

~ ~ ~

The sample size is small. It’s a review of predominantly American literature and may not be representative of the Canadian reality—then or now—particularly in respect of Indigenous characters, for which significant differences exist between American and Canadian cohorts. (Example: Métis peoples are seldom represented in American culture or literature.)

Despite these shortfalls and potential inaccuracies, when I read the findings and conclusions, I can’t help but see a description of many parts of modern day Canadian literary content. Few elder characters are drawn in the same way as their younger counterparts and many suffer from the same endemic flaws as those highlighted in 1981.

What, if anything, has changed? Is this unalterable? Will literary and genre fiction remain forever bound by and within these “old” tropes and lazy caricatures?

A few nights ago, the doddering, heavily made-up character portrayed by “Saturday Night Live’s” Mikey Day, fell headlong and without reserve into almost every insulting, belittling device cited by Dodson & Hauser. When in doubt, slander the elderly and grab a cheap laugh! This recent example from one of the big-audience icons of Western pop culture suggests that elder discrimination is still openly permitted. The zeitgeist has spoken.

~ ~ ~

On the plus side, and I’m sure there are many, I was impressed with Ralph Benmergui, author of

I THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR

during his CBC radio interview from Winnipeg yesterday. Author-broadcaster-spiritualist (and likely much more), Mr. Benmergui is, like me, a 1955 product and I thought his take on elder invisibility was a direct hit. BOOM! He later added a positive tone to his comments, pointing out many of the things that have changed and are changing concerning the role of seniors in Canadian society. I’m sure his book will contribute to the dialogue.

His is another book for me to buy and it may find a place on the shelf right next to Sharon Butala, and her wonderful book of essays,

THIS STRANGE VISIBLE AIR: ESSAYS ON AGING AND THE WRITING LIFE

~ ~ ~

Please accept my apologies for being on a bit of a birthday-induced rant about all of this, but as Kettering pointed out, it is in our best interests—and that of generations to come—to grapple with issues of ageism now and with permanence.

Jessica Lake IMPRESSIONISM

I’m working a lot lately on creating stories that follow my understanding of an “impressionistic writing style.”

Impressionism as manifest in Scene; Character; Action; Sensation; and Style.

This is, you see, part of the Jessica Lake MFA I’m enrolled in. The internet and my writing group, the reading I do, my readers and editors are the instructors. I am definitely the coolest guy in my MFA. In fact, I’m the only guy in my MFA, but then, I always avoid giving statistics too much credence.

The overriding rules go a little like a Lightnin’ Hopkins song — there’s some improvisation involved as you go along:

  1. Writen in the present, without reflection or authorial comment
  2. No narrative intrusions of any kind — the story simply unfolds in the reader’s mind
  3. Choice of words is left to “Mot juste” or a sense of using just the “right” word that contributes to the totality of the piece without undue attention to the beauty of the prose.

Scene — a reportorial flow, objective, use of understatement and simple words, clear imagery, repetition and reiteration of key words and phrases, strong description of action, use of landscape to echo emotion… the last bit suggested by author and writing instructor Lauren Carter of Winnipeg.

Character — describe traits or activities, but not physical attributes

Action — up close and participatory with reader as onlooker, cinematic: rapid (fluttering) or slow motion and may utilize a bird’s-eye view from above that is clipped and declarative

Sensation — actions are felt by the reader, be concrete and crude, be simple and realistic, work the senses

Style — author should express their individuality as a writer (untarnished), focus always on the subject and what the subject experiences, use the iceberg technique to hide the worst and only show the surface — the tip — of what is wrong, and ala Hemingway and Manitoba memoirist Donna Besel, write slow and clear about the most terrible and the most hurtful.

Note: A good deal of this came from a doctoral thesis (from a few decades ago) I found on the web and now cannot relocate to cite. Acch. Quite a bit is of my own invention so… maybe the no citation is okay here. If you recognize it, lemme know!

Third Time’s a Charm?

[…] From Wikipedia: The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to submit works they have featured. Anthologies of the selected works have been published annually since 1976. It is supported and staffed by volunteers.

The founding editors were Anaïs NinBuckminster FullerCharles NewmanDaniel HalpernGordon LishHarry SmithHugh FoxIshmael ReedJoyce Carol Oates, Len Fulton, Leonard Randolph, Leslie FiedlerNona BalakianPaul BowlesPaul EngleRalph EllisonReynolds Price, Rhoda Schwartz, Richard Morris, Ted Wilentz, Tom Montag, Bill Henderson and William Phillips.

* * *

My story, “Sweet Caporal” about a morning of fishing on Big Whiteshell Lake has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Editor Robert Boucheron on behalf of the quarterly literary journal, Rivanna Review, of Charlottesville, Va.

This is my third Pushcart nomination, the first from a U.S. periodical. It is the second time a version of “Sweet Caporal” has been nominated.

“What’s it about?”

I’ve assembled a collection of short stories to present to small presses in Canada. My hope is that I can attract a skilled, smart, simpatico partner to work with and publish the collection. I have several unpublished works and just over 90 published stories from which to choose.

I curated the stories into a themed collection and they are mostly those tales I have written that I consider “MennoGrit.” I define this in a sloppy way — like when you have to saw a board with your left hand:

Stories about real life. Ordinary people who encounter difficult situations and respond in a manner incommensurate with their simple station in life. Allegedly simple.

“So, what’s your book about?” is the question that everyone from agent to publisher to the person in the line at the pharmacy, pimple cream in hand, might ask.

Good question. To better understand this I pulled up the manuscript and made a list of the themes or messages that are at the core of each story. I was surprised by what I found. Here is that Thematic Table of Contents:

Loyalty…toxic male behaviour

Women’s rights in a patriarchy

Growing up…responsibility…saying no

Friendship and its obligations

Pacifism…courage

Bullying…courage

Regret

Womanhood…courage

Right and wrong…courage

Racism…insularism

Forgiveness…alcoholism

Nativism…equality

Class struggle

Alcoholism…class struggle

Pacifism

Toxic religion…abuse of authority

Deceit…class struggle

Mental health

Faith…life and death

Cruelty…guilt

Empathy

Abuse of authority

Life and death

Written as they are in the mind of my times, I can focus ice cold on these themes. They come from the lives that exist in all places, including those I know best. There is no “trending” in these familiars, where I am the son — both homegrown and prodigal — only observations scooped up and saved in a coffee can, resting placid and true on the high shelf where they have cured; some softening, some hardening.

The working title of the book is “Pinching Zwieback — Prairie Stories.”

Do They Remember?

Does the gravel road remember

the border of pastel yarrow, my footprints and the hollows made by my knees and the heels of my hands, me concentrating on staying awake while ravens oversee, soaring, violet mystique wings outstretched

Does the sky remember

glaring down on the old drunk, in his yellowed Stanfields, lying in a soaking puddle in the backyard morning, sprinkler ran all night and he drowned but didn’t know it

Does the backstop remember

me up on the mound, black socked Juan Marichal leg kick, wild as an air hose when the nozzle breaks off, baseball’s the next perfect thing after the last one blew apart

Does the kitchen floor remember

her pinwheeled on the cornflower tiles, alone and snoring, pajama top only, mustard on her pointed chin, the yellow badge of surrender, but what would I know of it?

Do the unknowing remember

all the things they can’t know when they say “Good for you…” but judge with unwrinkled eyes and tiny fists shooting venom, like Marvel halftone beams white hot with denial

Does the delivery room remember

my red moustache in an eighties flow, holding those babies so precious, waited through all the bad befores and here they are, perfect and undefinable, all worth it

Does the shy boy remember

how it felt to build the rink, leaves falling amber, nailing the boards, dragging the curved corners flat, dreaming of me yet to come, faceless, so I took his with its smiling eyes

Does the upstairs bedroom remember

her reading from Grimm’s, cover corners worn like the tongue of a boot, eyes the sagging hue of fall light but still life giving and aglow, “Who’s that walking across my bridge?” and the silver fillings glitter in the laughter of it

Detailed C-V

MITCHELL TOEWS: A big list…

 ONLINE ADDRESSES

Mitchellaneous.com
@Mitchell_Toews
Author pages on Facebook, Goodreads, and LinkedIn

 CURRICULUM-VITAE

Updated 01.20.22

EDUCATION

University of Victoria (1974-75)
University of Winnipeg (1975-77)
Masters Certificate in Marketing Communication Management, York University (2001)
“So You Want To Write Indigenous Characters…” Manitoba Writers’ Guild (2019)

 ASSOCATIONS/MEMBERSHIPS

Member — Manitoba Writers’ Guild
Past Associate Member — Victoria Writers’ Society
Professional Artist — Manitoba Arts Council
New/Early Career Artist — Canada Council for the Arts
Past Member — Winnipeg Public Library’s Prose Writing Circle, led by Winnipeg Public Library Writer in Residence Carolyn Gray (2019-2020)
Past Member — The Sunday Writers Group, led by Donna Besel (Lac du Bonnet, MB)
Member — WriteRamble, led by Lauren Carter, Winnipeg Public Library Writer in Residence, 2020-2021
Member — Write Clicks, a Winnipeg River/Winnipeg City alliance of writers, a critique circle formed in 2021
Member — Winnipeg River Arts Council

 PUBLISHED WORKS

2016:
16 short stories, 15 online, 2 paid print, 9 Canada, 6 UK, 1 US

2017: 20 short stories, all online, 4 Ca, 1 India, 7 UK, 8 US

2018: 14 short stories, 1 interview, 1 podcast, 1 paid print, 3 unpaid print, 6 Ca, 4 UK, 1 Ireland, 5 US

“I am Otter” — short story, CommuterLit (Ca)

“Fall From Grace”, short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“Of a Forest Silent” — short story, Alsina Publishing LingoBites (UK – English and Spanish)

“City Lights” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Bottom of the Sky” — short story, Fiction on the Web (UK)

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” — short story, riverbabble (US)

“Nothing to Lose” — short story, riverbabble (US)

“Shade Tree Haven” — short story, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US)

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, Blank Spaces (Ca), paid print

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, Just Words, Volume 2 Anthology (Ca), print

“Away Game” — short story, Pulp Literature (Ca), paid print

“The Doeling” — short story, Cabinet of Heed (Ireland)

“Groota Pieter” — short story, River Poets Journal, Special Themed Edition, “The Immigrants” Anthology (US), print

“Five Questions for Mitchell Toews” — interview, Mennotoba (Ca)

“The Narrowing” — short story, Scarlet Leaf Review (Ca)

“Wide Winter River” — podcast, Not Ready for Prime Time (US)

2019: 14 short stories, 1 interview, 1 CNF essay, 1 paid online, 1 paid print, 2 unpaid print, 3 Ca, 2 UK, 1 Australia, 3 Iran, 8 US

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Toboggan Run” — short story, The MOON magazine (US)

“Peacemongers” — short story, The MOON magazine: “Out of This World” Anthology The Best Short Stories from the MOON (US), Volume 1, print

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac” — short story, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 93

“Din and the Wash Bear” — short story, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 95

“Died Rich” — short story, Fabula Argentea (US), Issue #27, paid

“I am Otter” — short story, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran)

“Away Game” — short story, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran)

 “4Q Interview with Author Mitchell Toews” — interview and excerpt from WIP novel, “Mulholland and Hardbar”, South Branch Scribbler (Ca)

“Concealment” — short story, Me First Magazine (US)

“Groota Pieter” — short story, Pact Press (Australia), “We Refugees” Anthology, print

“Fast and Steep” — short story, Riddle Fence (Ca), Issue 34, paid print

“Holthacka’s Quandary” — short story, Lunate Fiction (UK)

“Shade Tree Haven” — short story, (mac)ro(mic) (US)

“My Writing Day” — CNF essay, my (small press) writing day (Ca)

“Our German Relative” — short story, Xmas Stories (Iran)

2020: 11 short stories, 2 CNF essay, 2 interviews, 6 print, 1 paid online, 2 paid print, 5 Canada, 3 UK, 4 US

“The Business of Saving Souls” — short story, Literally Stories (UK)

“The Log Boom” — short story, in “A Fork in the Road,” 2019 Special Theme Edition Anthology of River Poets Journal (US), print

“Encampment” — short story, Tiny Seed Journal (US)

“Regrets de Foie Gras”— short story, Literally Stories (UK), May 2020

“The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon” — short story, Agnes and True (Ca), paid online, Summer 2020

“My Life as a Corkscrew” — a CNF essay “On Writing” in Blank Spaces (Ca), June 2020, print

“Piece of My Heart” — short story, Pulp Literature, (Ca), paid print

“Away Game” — short story, Quail Bell Magazine, (US), paid print

Interview — Maysam Kandej Talks (Iran), https://maysam.id.ir/talks online, August 2020

“My Life as a Corkscrew” — a CNF essay “On Writing” in the Just Voices anthology (Ca), September 2020, print

“The Sunshine Girl” — short story, Cowboy Jamboree Magazine (US), Fall 2020 (John Prine Tribute issue), print and online

“Died Rich” — short story, Fiction on the Web (UK), September 2020

“Baloney, Hot Mustard and Metal Filings” — short story, WordCity Monthly (Ca-Intl), September 2020

“Our German Relative” — short story, WordCity Monthly (Ca-Intl), December 2020

2021: 7 short stories, 2 interviews, 1 paid print, 4 Canada, 3 UK, 2 US

“Interview with Contributor Mitchell Toews” — Blank Spaces (Ca), January 8 2020

“So Are They All” — short story and interview, Literally Stories (UK), February 14 2021

“Fast and Steep” — short story, CommuterLit “Love Stories,” (Ca), February 14 2021

“The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon” — short story, Literally Stories (UK), March 9 2021

“Fast and Steep” — short story, Fiction on the Web (UK), March 29 2021

“Featured Artist — Mitch Toews” Winnipeg River Arts Council, interview written by Donna Besel (Ca), June 2021

“The Log Boom” — short story, WordCity Monthly (Ca-Intl), July 2021

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” — short story, The Twin Bill (US), July 13 2021

“Sweet Caporal” — short story, Rivanna Review (US), September, paid print, 2021

2022: 2 short stories, 1 paid print, 1 US, 1 Canada

“Hundred Miles an Hour” — short story, Rivanna Review, (US), Date TBA, paid print, 2022

“Piece of My Heart” — short story, Miramichi Flash, (Ca), Spring/Summer, 2022

 CONTESTS-PRIZES-AWARDS

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The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses is an annual award that has chosen stories for a prestigious anthology for the past 45 consecutive years. Mitchell has three PUSHCART PRIZE nominations (See below for details.)

“So Are They All” — short story, second place in the Adult Fiction category of the Write on the Lake (Ca) contest, 2016, paid print

“Fall from Grace” — short story, Honourable Mention in The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville (US) Memoirs Contest, 2016

“The Phage Match” — short story, finalist in Broken Pencil’s (Ca) annual “Deathmatch contest, 2016, print

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac” — short story, winner in The Hayward Fault LineDoorknobs & Bodypaint Issue 93 Triannual Themed Flash contest, 2018 

“I am Otter” — short story, CommuterLit (Ca), Runner-up in for Flash Fiction Feature, 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, nominated by Blank Spaces for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2019, print

“Piece of My Heart” — a 750-word or less flash fiction was named “Editors’ Choice” in the 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest from Pulp Literature Press, paid print

“The Margin of the River” — short story, nominated by Blank Spaces for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2020, print

“Fetch” — short story, one of 11 finalists in a national field of over 800 entries: The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition for Emerging Writers.

“Fast and Steep” — short story, Summer 2021 Anthology of Short Fiction, Fenechty Publishing (UK), 2021 print and ebook

“Sweet Caporal” has been nominated by Rivanna Review, Charlottesville, Va. for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2021, print

 FUNDING

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Manitoba Arts Council, June 30, 2020. Financial support for the creation of a unique Manitoba artbook, ekphrastic in nature and featuring artistic photography and short fictional stories. The theme is “People, Places, and Light”. Photography by collaborator, Phil Hossack.

 READINGS

  • Voices Launch, McNally Robinson, Winnipg, MB, 2016
  • PULP Literature Issue Launch, Vancouver, BC, 2017
  • Manitoba Writers’ Guild, Artspace, Winnipeg, MB, 2019
  • Prosetry, Jessica Lake, MB, 2019
  • Driedger Readings, Winnipeg, MB, 2019
  • Victoria Writers’ Society, AGM—Open mic, 2020
  • PULP Literature Reading Series, live internet April 24, 2020
  • PULP Literature Issue 27 launch, live internet July 19, 2020
  • Mechanics’ Institute, San Francisco, Cal, COVID-19 open mic, live internet August 19, 2020
  • Just Voices Volume 4 virtual launch, recorded for September 26, 2020
  • PULP Literature Issue28 launch, live internet November 7, 2020
  • Jake Epp Public Library, Steinbach, MB, 2020 (date TBA, pending Covid restrictions)
  • Several readings are recorded here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsA7vS0kVqP5etL2cPnlM4w

 WORK IN PROGRESS

  • “The Barkman Avenue Peace Accords” — a themed, MennoGrit short story collection is being queried. A second collection iteration, “Pinching Zwieback” has also been created for queries and contests. The latter collection comprises a wider range of stories, but is also focused on Mennonite experiences in the wille hundat (the great unknown).
  • “Mulholland and Hardbar” — a novel (“Fargo, with a Mennonite accent”) This 85K-word WIP is out to Beta readers. Not yet querying.
  • “People, Places, Light” — an ekphrastic Manitoba artbook including original photography and short stories (Funded in part by The Manitoba Arts Council | Le conseil des arts du Manitoba.) Just getting back underway after Covid-19 restrictions.
  • About 12 short stories are on the go, being submitted to literary journals, contests, and anthologies.
  • “Tafelburg” — a science fiction novella is written, first draft only.
  • “The Mismaloya”— a proposed novelette screenplay adaptation. Awaiting a collaborator.

FRIENDS & FOLLOWERS

  • Twitter 5,568
  • Facebook 4,331
  • Goodreads 274 friends, 19 followers
  • LinkedIn 803
  • WordPress 209

PANELS

1.15.21 Mitchell Toews participated as an Artist Testifier for the Commission on Basic Income. This Ontario/Canadian (Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts) jointly sponsored commission requested Mitch to “share your experience and thoughts with our commissioners and to inform their future report on the issue of Basic Income for Artists.”

A Fetching Tale

I have good news. “Fetch, a short story I submitted to THE WRITERS’ UNION OF CANADA was chosen from a pool of 785 contestants as a finalist in their 2021 Emerging Writer Short Prose Contest.

https://www.writersunion.ca/news/mirabelle-chiderah-harris-eze-s-dark-wins-2500-prize-short-prose-competition

Phew! Feels good to say it. This was my year to enter contests and I was getting a bit (okay, a lot) pouty faced about it. It’s not the not winning that is so bad (I’m lying, that is bad) it’s more the dreadful silence. Not a creaky cricket. Not a fractional decibel, just the buzzing silence that means, well, it means nothing.

So I did not actually win this nation-wide contest but I was recognized and their procedure is sufficiently difficult to make me crow a little. I can take it as a victory and move along.

Where and to what?

To my work-in-progress novel — thanks for asking — which is in the late stages of final edits, Beta readers, and getting down to the QUERY level. It’s a 85K-word lit fic called “Mulholland and Hardbar” and you’d describe it in a sentence as, “Fargo, with Mennonite accents.”

Next: A collection of short stories I’m querying. It’s a group of stories that run to the GRITTY end of the register and they’re about Mennonites, so, I have coined a category for it: “MennoGrit.” This short story collection includes the aforementioned most excellent story, “Fetch,” and a whole bunch of others, new and old, many that are EVEN BETTER. (Always be selling?)

🙂

Last in this trio of writing projects I have on the go is a new EKPHRASTIC ARTBOOK project, yet to begin officially, due to Covid. The Manitoba Arts Council (MAC | CAM) has funded its creation with a grant. My collaborator photographer partner Phil Hossack and I will begin soon with road trips and research on interesting Manitoba people and places. Being a Manitoba project, it will inevitably be drawn to places where there is a giant sky, lots of sunshine and the iconic great LIGHT our province is known for by photographers and artists around the world. Plus, maybe the prose can add another angle to the photography: The lightness of being? Being light-hearted? Finding the light? Can you help me out, buddy? — I’m a little light…

Anyway, back to the contest: I want to thank The Writers’ Union of Canada — a classy joint — the judges, the pre-selection readers, and my mentors and critique readers on this story. Of the latter, there were several and they did an outstanding job of helping me with this piece — one that I managed to write in the most difficult way possible! I had a lot of help.

Congratulations to the winner and to my co-finalists and to the nearly 800 entrants who, like me on many other occasions, heard the silence and I know they are gearing up to enter again next year. Yikes.

Plus… I do have a lot of contest entries still in play. So cross your fingers and maybe I can fetch up another one.

From Fetch:

[…]

The engineer’s grinning at us. No, mostly he’s leering at Sarah, who sits with her hair blowy in the passenger seat. I feel the thrum of the train engine. Feel it in my fillings. Then I’ve had enough. Enough of the clatter. More than enough of the old hogger flexing his rolled-sleeve bicep at Sarah. My foot’s off the pedal and we lag behind. Caboose lights blink goodbye.

Sarah straightens her hair with one hand and rolls up the window. The evening sun is sullen behind us, drowning golden in the swamp. Her head is backlit, wild honey in the horizontal glare. Dust motes swirl inside the cab and two noisy horseflies butt their heads against the back window.

“Have you told Mom and Dad?” The last of the warm summer light angles across her face. Her lips are glossy. They part as if to speak but she does not.

[…]

PROPER MENTION to “Write Clicks” pal and songleader Zilla Jones of Winnipeg who outdid herself with THREE stories in the final eleven.

Treasures small and LARGE

[Image Caption: Re-purposements… a 1960 fishing plug used as the pull-chain fob on the Toews’ living room ceiling fan.]

Trigger Warning: This article contains a lot of sexy plumbing talk.

Almost every day as I ramble around our home in the north woods I am always struck, like a proud curator, by how many treasures I have around here. Things we have bought (meh…) that have served well, but more so stuff Jan and I have thought up, designed and built. Ahh, endorphin rush sting me with thine euphoric prick.

Sorry, that last line didn’t come out quite right, but time is money and there’s no money for editing this month.

To continue about treasures… I get a thrill from the various objects that we have built, mended, replaced, and re-purposed. That last one, re-purposed, is an awkward but useful word that has not yet achieved hyphenless status, even though “hyphenless” has, according to Grammarly and WordPress. I particularly treasure those items that have had their purpose re-defined and radically so, such as the 2001patio door leaves that have become fixed windows in my writing room by the lake; the 1950 fir windows that now grace the She-Shed gazebo-screen porch down by the shore; the old Mistral windsurf board that hangs as a thematic outdoor light fixture above the garage door (can you picture that?) and other detritus of eras past and patents not applied for.

But the Mona Lisa of my collection is the 1950s-era child’s fishing rod that now is a a flexible actuator-whacker for the start-stop switch on our water pump. It’s obvious this needs further scientific/theological description, like the definition of the Holy Ghost, so here goes: The switch has lost its fine-tuning. If you set it so that it starts the pump when needed (like during the rinse-cycle of a shower) it won’t shut-off when the demand is satisfied. Arggh. Conversely, if I literally crawl into the crawlspace beneath the cottage where the pump and its harem of 10-trillion spiders live, and re-adjust the switch so it will shut-off, it then becomes obstinate about STARTING. Yoma leid etj sei! That is, it will shut-off just fine but will not for love nor Lubriplate, start-up! Doh! and double-doh! There is no middle-ground, only a crawly, dusty, oneiric no-man’s-land where spiders wear octa-legged harem pants and thick mascara and the potentate pump grins sardonically, as pumps and potentates are wont to do, damn their O-ring eyes!

Anyway… I note in my curse-filled administrations that a light tap with my screwdriver allows the pump to overcome its refusal to start. (Freudian?) Aha! A clue to the solution? So, what if… I set the actuator switch to always automatically shut-off without fail — thus eliminating the danger of a pump run-on that would burn out the dry-running guts — and then I came up with a way to manually give it a light tap to get it to start-up. Hmm. The trouble is, the only way to tap it is to crawl under the cottage. This crawling is a big ask for me, a guy with joints made of goat-cheese and ossified bone as pitted and porous as Manitoba limestone. How then, to tap without crawling down into that dim spidery hellspace?

I eye the kitchen floor above the pump, Makita drill in hand. “Ey-yi-yi,” Janice says with a you-gotta-be-kidding pump-grin, “Can’t you come up with another approach? We can’t have a hole in the middle of the floor! For the love of Cloaca Maxima!” she says, with a callous reference to the God of Plumbing. (We have a shrine to her in our garage.)

“But the crawling, the T-A-P-P-I-N-G… ” I whine like our truck in reverse.

“Figure something else out.” Her final edict. Inalterable. She hath spake.

Alive and filled with mother-of-invention impetus, I rake through the junk on the junk-shelf, next to the shrine.

“What are you looking for?” Cloaca Maxima asks. (Gods are so nosy!)

“I’ll know when I find it,” I reply in perfectly plausible circular logic. In that instant, I strike gold. A 1950s-era three-foot long fiberglass fishing rod. My re-purposer synapses fire like George Gatling’s murderous gunpowder hydra and I SEE it in my mind: a cord running from the edge of the deck and underneath all the way to the crawlspace wall, through a tube, into the crawlspace, with its terminus at the tip of the midget fishing rod. I TWANG and release the cord and the flexy rod will snap against the actuator switch, effectively mimicking my crawling tap-tap-tap. Like humankind’s ancient forbearers, I have risen up from the crawling stage and have freed my hands to grasp tools. Vive la évolution!

There it is: a way to administer an actuating sting with my re-purposed flexible prick. (Again, not really liking the way that image plays out, but, gotta finish this post and get out there in the sunshine, so I’ll just leave it as is.) The point is (eww!) this is the kind of MacGyvering that passes for progress around here, and I, inventor son of an inventor son of an inventor, find it provides a highly endorphilic, artistic pleasure for me here in the Fifth Re-purpose Arrondissements Municipaux de Jessica Lake. Gertrude Stein would be impressed, “A prick is a prick is a prick!” she might observe.

Anyway-anyway-anyway… The real purpose of this long build-up is to say that, like my invented treasures here-about, I take an equal amount of JOY from my literary works of art. They don’t bloody my knuckles — well, not in a literal way — but they take just as much effort and like my craftwork at Jessica, they come from old objects, re-purposed. Life experiences of mine and others taken and writ large in stories and essays.

Here is one such. It’s one of my favs and I like to show it off, like one might a ’57 Chevy with “Old Fart” license plates, only my stories are re-purposed to give a different kind of a ride on a different kind of a road. The story “Fast and Steep” first appeared in the Canadian lit journal, Agnes and True.

https://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2021/03/fast-and-steep-by-mitchell-toews.html

And, for a little variety, here’s another — a short essay that graced rob mclennan’s blog some time ago, it is a wise-crack that let some light in, in a Leonard kind of way: http://bit.ly/mySMALLPRESSwritingdayToews

allfornow,

Mitch