Character, referenced

I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately.  Partly because I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (32000+ words on the go), so character development is something on which I’m pretty keenly focused as I attempt to unfold the story from the recesses of my imagination.

Creating someone believable out of nothing is always an interesting endeavour.  I like to think that I have always been a writer.  Even as a child my imagination allowed for the creation of friends and scenarios- for my own amusement and that of others (ask my sibs sometime about the entity known as ‘Baby YumYum’- as space alien who accompanied us on family vacations).  They all had back stories and hometowns, histories and very specific likes and dislikes.  I remember it being fairly simple to come up with one character or another, pretty much at the drop of a hat.

As I’ve been an avid devourer of books since I learned how to read, the characters of favourite novels (and periods of history) tend to stay with me, and they sometimes take on a life of their own.  Strong characters become friends- to be cheered on as they reach goals or mourned as they pass on, and remembered as though they were real in moments of passing fancy.  Any number of times I’ve had to catch myself thinking about someone- missing them or thinking about how much they might enjoy a particular event- only to realize that I’m in fact recalling a character rather than a ‘real’ person.

Strong fictional character can become fully realized to those who love them.  When I first read Anne Rice- way back in the Dark Ages before Lestat started looking like Tom Cruise (shudder.  BOWIE- okay, maybe Sting- should have been Lestat…)– I often caught myself having conversations with her characters- particularly Marius- that vampiric remnant from the height of the Roman Empire- since his worldview and personality were companionably comparable to my own.

Somewhere along the line of my heavily invested reading, I sort of started believing that the characters I loved existed out there somewhere- waiting, perhaps, to be met in unlikely circumstances.  I mentioned, when talking about the wonderful exhibit at the AGO celebrating the amazement that David Bowie has brought into our collective existence, that I once wrote a stream-of-consciousness piece in which the narrator carried on an ongoing dialogue with the spirit of Ziggy Stardust.

I talk to characters like that all the time.

Flip side of this?  If the GREAT characters can get out there into the world, then so can the ones who aren’t so nice.  As a consequence of this little peculiarity of belief, I can’t not finish a book- even if it’s terrible (IMHO)- because leaving it unfinished maximizes the possibility that the horrible characters WILL make it into our world (this belief unfortunately meant I had to read the first Twilight novel in its entirety.  That’s a couple hours of my life I’ll never get back.  I didn’t speak to the person who gave it to me for at least a couple of days after, as revenge).

I mentioned this little eccentricity to a book loving, like-minded friend of mine.  Her response was to stand in line at the Ottawa Public Library for hours in order to get me a autographed copy of Timothy Findley’s Headhunter.  Here, from the talented pen of one of Canada’s literary treasures, was a story that included my own pathology.  The characters of Heart of Darkness escaped into a dystopian version of Toronto.

In addition to being a wonderful read that I revisit over and over (and which holds pride of place on my bookshelf), it was proof that I’m not (completely) crazy.

This love of character and story is one of the many reasons why I so love– and emphasize the importance of- myth.  Characters that were envisioned millennia (or centuries, or decades, or weeks) ago STILL capture our imaginations and are part of our common communications.

We constantly recall and revisit and remake these figures from our past stories- guys like Gilgamesh, or the patriarchs and other happening dudes of the OT (Melchizedek is my personal fave exemplar of the Super-Priest- and there’s a movie about Noah and his Ark coming out in the Spring), Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed… our mythologies are filled with amazing characters who continue to resonate with us- through the stories about their words, actions or the things they left behind them.

But that may also be why I’m struggling a bit (okay, a lot) getting these characters of mine fleshed out and onto the page.  I have a longlonglong history of hero worship to reconcile as I attempt to give life to my own fictional people.

(Another ‘waiting in line for an autograph’ story?  Since I was just talking about her… Anne Rice at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa after Servant of the Bones was released.  By the time I got to her- and had my PICTURE taken with her- I was so overwhelmed with the memories of the characters she had given me I was pretty much a blithering idiot.  Did manage to stammer something about missing Ramses and looking forward to the continuation of the story of The Mummy, to which I’m sure she said something courteous and respectful- she’s a truly lovely person- before I stumbled away)

And add to that the fact that recent events here at home (you might have heard something about what’s going on by now.  Assuming you don’t live on Mars) have had me thinking more about the development of moral character than fictional character development.

Oops.

According to the Wikipedia:

“Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual’s stable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as empathy, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits. Moral character primarily refers to the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another — although on a cultural level, the set of moral behaviors to which a social group adheres can be said to unite and define it culturally as distinct from others.”

The word comes from Greek, with an original meaning pertaining to a mark of some kind which is impressed on a coin.  There is a sense of indelibility about the word.  True character cannot be erased or washed away.

Character, as a quality, is at the heart of discussions of ethics and morality- things that form the core of most of the religions and philosophical systems we find across the world.  Morality is also defined by our cultures and the mores of our secular societies.

Caricature comes from a Latin word that means ‘to load’.  A picture that is a caricature is ‘loaded’- with either simplified or exaggerated characteristics.  They are rarely complimentary, and often used in political editorial commentary.

We’ve seen a lot of that up here lately.

“Maybe I’m too nice.”  He actually said that in an interview during his press jag today.  He was trying to answer a question about why he was hanging about with known criminals and writing them letters of reference.

Although some citizens of his Nation remain steadfast- distinct as it is from the rest of the us- the society seems to have crumbled somewhat over the past few days.

The television show has been cancelled- apparently ‘production costs’ are too high for the small television station to handle.  The locks at city hall have been changed.  And now federal Conservative leaders are telling him he should step aside.

Still, he continues to ignore the tide of opinion while remaining a caricature and refusing to demonstrate an iota of the moral character to which he lays claim.  Like Kurtz, in Findley’s novel as in Joseph Conrad’s original novella and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, his delusions of grandeur have damaged the city and those around him.  So it’s past time for us to close the book and walk away.  Stop feeding his narcissism and his inability to look beyond his own ego as he continues to believe his own press releases (or those that his brother creates for him).

Whether he is a created political character or a sad caricature of what can happen when a life of privilege is not tempered with education, experience or any attempt at critical analysis, I’m writing him off, once and for all.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day

And you, you can be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that

Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time,
just for one day
We can be Heroes, for ever and ever
What d’you say?

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing,
nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes,
just for one day

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads
(over our heads)
And we kissed,
as though nothing could fall
(nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes,
just for one day

We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
Just for one day
We can be Heroes

We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying,
then you better not stay
But we could be safer,
just for one day

Bowie placed the title of the song in quotation marks since the subjects of the song are only ironically “heroes”.  In their own minds and only for that limited time period.

Time’s up, Rob.

Papa Kaz- Part 2

I have always been surrounded by storytellers.  Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.

Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen  Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.

I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.

I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.

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… When he retired he chose to do so completely.  No Emeritus for Kaz.  He bequeathed to me his library- of books, maps and slides- which still hold pride of place among my own collected works here in my living room.  A friend-  another of his precious protégés- and I took him for lunch and Scotch (his poison of choice) on his last official day at the university.  The meal went on for some time, as he regaled us with tales of his time in Germany and in the classroom in the Roman Catholic high school in Queens.

We remained in touch as I completed my course work and worked on the dissertation that ate my life.  He was always there to listen to my frustration with the writing process- or the university bureaucracy- and he managed to talk me back from the edge more than once.

Then, the weekend after I (finally) defended my Doctoral thesis, he and his lovely wife joined friends and family for a champagne and hors d’oeuvres gathering.  He offered the first toast- expressing his pride in my accomplishment, especially in light of the fact that I chose a subject and approach that was challenging and outside of the norm, and congratulating me for taking the more challenging path, as seems to be my wont in all things.  Then he called me a ‘real teacher’ and told those assembled that, in addition to my drive for excellence in research, I ‘belong in the classroom’.

No higher praise.

I think I felt more accomplished in that moment than when I was told that I had successfully defended the thesis and when I took that walk across the stage to collect the piece of paper that marked the achievement put together.

Or any time since, really.

Fast forward a number of months and much had changed.  I’d moved back to my hometown after a period of personal crisis and was looking for new directions.  I received word from a close friend we held in common that Papa Kaz had cancer.  And that the prognosis wasn’t great.

That night I wrote him a long letter, recalling my most treasured moments in his classroom and in his presence, trying to describe what his guidance and continual support means to me and how I still feel his influence whenever I get up to teach.  I attempted to put into words the impact he made on me- as a student, a researcher, a teacher and as a person.

Despite the care I took with the letter, I knew it fell short and that I would have to do better.

Doing so would require returning to a town I had no interest in visiting and facing down some memories I’d have preferred to keep buried.

But this was KAZ.

He looked weakened, but in no way diminished, as we sat on his front porch and talked for hours.  He knew he didn’t have much time left, yet his voice was as strong as I remembered.  He told me stories of what he had been up to in the past while, of his family, and flashbacks to his years in Germany and the characters he met there- some of which I had heard before, but still greeted like old friends as we revisited the tales together.

But most of all, he continued to advise me.  I was thinking about going back- yet again- to school.  To get a Master’s degree in Teaching and the membership in the Ontario College that would come along with it- all with a view to an eventual government job writing policy and setting educational standards.

He reminded me that I belong in a classroom- but that the classroom doesn’t have to be a traditional one, or even a physical one.  He also reminded me that a true teacher continues to teach, regardless of circumstance or specificity of career direction.

He continued to lead me by his example.

Although we ended the conversation with his assurance that we would hang out again when he came on a visit to Toronto, that was the last time I would see him.  The cancer he had fought for far longer than anyone expected claimed him half a year later.

My current Sitz im Leben isn’t really one where I thought I’d find myself.  I am still searching for the next direction and a job that will provide some meaning while permitting me to contribute something of value to those around me.  Not a fun process, but each day I have to get up and keep trying to get it figured out.

People who have been gifted with a life filled with wonderful characters like Papa Kaz are not allowed to squander those gifts.

I will find my classroom, whatever form it might take, and follow his example- as best I possibly can- and continue telling the stories that describe our humanity.

Just like he taught me.

I’ve mentioned before that Cat Stevens has one of those voices that is as familiar to me as members of my own family and closest friends, and that he remains a beloved tutor in the ways of the world.  He helped, in a very real way, to set me on my particular road to find out.  His wisdom, expressed through songs of timeless beauty, reminds me of Kaz, and the lessons he sometimes had to force into my stubborn head.  I may still struggle with the teachings, but I never fail to hear his voice when I do so.

And more often than not, I still end up following his advice.

Just sit down, and take it slowly.

Will do, Papa Kaz.  Will do.

Papa Kaz- Part 1

I have always been surrounded by storytellers.  Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.

Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen  Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.

I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.

I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.

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I am very lucky.  I know this, and probably don’t articulate it nearly enough.  Especially lately.  I have been quite caught up in dissatisfaction in one key area of my life- career concerns- which, while it is a legit sense of worry and stress, should not detract from the good fortune that is my main lot in life.

I am fortunate to be loved and supported in my choices by family and friends that continue to stand by me.  I was supported in my drive to continue my education, in a field that wasn’t likely to get me into the Fortune 500 at any point.

Education, and its importance, has been a staple ever since I can remember.  I’ve been surrounded by educators- whether career teachers or by teachers by nature- and I have had the privilege of teaching others at various times in my life.

These teachers have all brought various things into my life- demonstrating, by example, the techniques and tendencies I most aspired to in my own classrooms.  Some of them have been storytellers as well.

After a number of years out of school doing various things, I went back to university full time.  I was unsure about direction- and exactly what I wanted my focus to be.  I took a variety of courses- Irish language, English Lit, Philosophy, and a couple of classes in Religious Studies- an interdisciplinary program that approached the study of world religions from  historical, literary critical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, women’s studies and philosophical methodologies.  Absent from the list was theology- and this suited me just fine.  I had already comfortably confirmed my non-belief and didn’t feel like being preached at.

In this first year in the program I met Papa Kaz.  He taught biblical studies from historical, literary- and rhetorical-critical perspectives.  He seemed to have been born in a classroom.

As our relationship developed- he would become my Master’s Adviser, and one of the two real mentors of my graduate studies- I learned that he had found his vocation in high school classrooms in Queens, NY.  Thirty years after coming to Canada, falling in love with a good Canadian girl, completing his Doctorate in Germany and raising a family upon his return, he still had traces of that accent and vestiges of the neighbourhood in his mannerisms.

The university environment was changing- there was increasingly less of a focus on teaching and mentoring as publishing and research excellence began to surpass the actual educational emphasis as a means of attracting external funding.  He remained committed to the idea (rapidly becoming outdated) that universities were about learning– and teaching the tools and habits that would follow students through their lives into whatever careers they might find themselves.

Each of his syllabi contained a caveat (that I subsequently used, with his permission, on each of my own) that explained that a university education was meant, among other things equally valuable, to prepare students for life in the working world.  That means devoting 40 hours per week to studies for full time students.  In addition to class time (3 hours/course/week, on average), assignments and readings were to be factored into the 40 hours, and, like the real world of work, sometimes students/employees would be required to put in ‘overtime’- when exams or major papers came up in the requirements.

Whether or not he believed that his students would go on to live lives enhanced by the specific subject matter he taught (he was aware that a lot of his courses were taken as electives by those who thought they knew it all from their childhood Sunday School classes), he DID expect that his students would complete his courses and move on with the ability to effectively budget time, read critically, analyse research sources and form their own opinions on the varied subject matter.

In the classroom and out of it, he told hilarious- and scandalous- stories about nuns and priests he met in his travels.  And hilarious- and scandalous- stories about the professional WWE wrestlers he met in an elevator in Toronto that one time (the Rock and Papa Kaz had quite the convo, apparently).  In order to illustrate Jesus’ use of parabolic language in the gospel accounts he created his own parables which he shared with his fortunate students.  Most memorable was the story of ‘Grandpa and the Dog’, which began with good intentions, and was a wonderful rambling tale of looking after both his grandchild and a new puppy, but one that never quite made the point that he was going for.  Even after the 20-or-so minutes it took him to compose and recount the ‘parable’.

I remember laughing hysterically- on more than one occasion- as both his student and then as his assistant.  Watching him at the head of a classroom was truly spectacular.  He wasn’t above hanging off the coat racks or jumping on his desk while yelling in incomprehensible German in order to emphasize a point, or just wake up a sluggish bunch of undergrads.

But he was more than an entertainer.  Pedagogically I have yet to meet his match.  All that comedy up there at the blackboard also made me recall the things he was teaching in an extremely vivid way.  The fact that he managed to keep a straight face when presented with some ludicrous questions and comments was testament to his compassion as much as to his true belief that everyone was teachable.

(How he kept going when asked, in all seriousness, ‘why, if the Romans wanted Jesus dead, they didn’t just shoot him’ I still can’t comprehend.  I would have been in tears- of either laughter or despair, not sure which- had I been the one in front of that particular classroom.)

He took his subject and his students seriously, but realized that learning was about life- and laughter- rather than just facts or memorized knowledge.  He never stopped advising those who he saw as truly engaged and committed to learning.

Papa Kaz cautioned me when I told him my planned course of study for my Ph.D.  He thought I was taking a road somewhat untraveled and not without its hurdles.  Nonetheless, he supported me throughout, especially when that road turned out to be as difficult as he had accurately predicted…

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