cigar-tin stories one hundred thirty two / / B E L I E V E

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, June 4th. The sun is shining but it’s only seven degrees outside, and it will only reach fourteen. Late afternoon showers are likely.

I make breakfast and a full-page to-do list (large, Sharpie cursive) for my nine year-old (like most kids these days, she feels adrift without step-by-step instructions, like she can’t believe it unless it’s written down — or at least listed by Google) and then retreat to my sketchy office in the basement. I put on (not really ‘put on’ … it’s not a record, is it?) an ambient playlist and try to write this but the ambient music doesn’t really work, doesn’t really mute the sound of my nine year-old arguing and cutting deals with her mom. What about this, and what if I only do that? The endless menu. A great ambient song title would be Some Open Chords with Unstrung Ego.

I didn’t want to get up this morning. Most mornings I wake at five, no matter what, by that point I’m not quite comfortable anyway, can never get quite fully comfortable, I’m a six foot-five bone puppet that never collapses the right way, an inverted snow globe of glittering aches, so I might as well get up. But this morning the entire length of me was nicely settled, as if at the bottom of something, a wet ditch or shallow pond or lake of mildly polluted dreams, which at this age are simply glimpses of things, little performance pieces of closed shows or ones you’ve never properly seen from the cheap seats at the back of the room.

Anyway: there’s all this stuff to do, if only expressed as to-do lists for nine year-old ego machines.

I make a painting called The Believer. This is not a believer before a blazing cross, or winged thing emerging from a crypt, or answer to the final clue that will unlock the great mystery. This is not the proclaiming of a grand champion. This is not the one true cause. This is not a magical manual for making friends and influencing people. This is not about control. This is not about channelling invisible psycho-electric currents that can manifest positive energy. This is not about a vision. This is not about the right pictures on the right cards in the right order. This is not about a system to beat the system. This is not math. This is the one thing that is not about math. In fact it is simply about colour, the stains that emanate from some dark star within, and how impossible it is to use them as a guide, but yet we follow them anyway.

Forget the Crusades; we live in the golden age of belief. The earth is flat, what climate change, vaccination is bad, the market knows everything, they’re staging a mass shooting again. I’m wearing pajamas today. Maybe every day.

So yes, I make a painting called The Believer. It requires three distinct visits: awful, okay and finished. The first two visits, always, are painful, but absolutely necessary for the third. And because this is the first painting that I’ve done since giving up my studio, those first two visits are especially awkward and pinned together with doubt.

But my own to-do list of getting going again, of rebuilding my studio finances, and having/affording another studio someday, has to start somewhere. And that’s a kind of belief, too.

Have a good week, everyone,
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

This Tinyletter is brought to you by the vanity license plates CLARK 3, AAAA777, MFARRELL, U P I, EAR LADY, LISAVEE, TOPOPOP, LILDARLN, 2PAYNT, HOOPSIE, PUNSHER1, MENDETTI, TADPOL17, LEONS 4, SHRTYGRL, LCWON, LION D, S MED 1, GIGADEE, BSWAGZ, DEBILY1, DP VIBE, LUVMYPUP, 511 PAL, SP K WW, NICKY R, and VE3LXK. I believe in all of you and none of you all at the same time.


And the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever. / / number 133

Summer. A dead mouse in the pool. Two dead chipmunks in the pool. Every morning is another curtain of overcast and showers. But I know summer is here because when I flick the switch for the bathroom light in the morning, there’s always a spider scrambling towards the corner. Never makes it. Two well-appointed ladies in the cereals section of No Frills, talking in whole sentences without any expletives at all, discussing how difficult it is to find fig newtons these days. One aisle over, someone is farting as hard at they can. At the checkout: HEATHER LOCKLEAR — DRUGS, HOARDING AND MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES. Suzanne Somers is there too, radiating something flattened and weird about reverse aging. I have to help the cashier make correct change. She seems very tired. In the parking lot a fat man with a milkshake is yelling at someone in a rusty truck. Half the shake is on the front of his shirt. The highway up to Bon Echo Provincial Park is littered with turtles, meaning that we see exactly three, and have to stop for one, who is huge and not happy at the prospect of being moved, but some guy has a cookie sheet in his trunk and it turns out this works quite well for rolling angry turtles towards the ditch. Errands, appointments, chores: I am determined to get things done. Other times I have no ambition at all, just the mind-static world of a nap where you hear all the noises of the house but they don’t hear you. An activity board in the hallway at school which reads: WHETHER YOU COLOR THE WORLD OR LIGHT IT UP BLUE YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE SO KEEP BEING YOU, decorated with pictures of Abe Lincoln, Bill Gates, Courtney Love, Dan Ackroyd and Mozart. I have a small run of saying things to people and them not listening, the unusual part of this equation being me making the effort to say things. Should know better. Still, it seems like every once in awhile I have an irrational need to test the program, to see if the automatic/default response is still, Whatever, it’s fine, it’ll be fine, and to see if that code is still quivering with agitation. And then too often, of course, it is not fine. Pauline Kael once wrote: There are some people who are too French for their own good. A quaint problem. We now live in an age where everyone is too much themselves for their own good, and while they don’t understand who they are, it’s pretty much all they know. Still, only one in twenty people are pathological liars. The rest of us just dissembling. I make a painting called The Man from the Past. The internet has a carbon footprint which is at least as big as the entire aviation industry. If it were a country it would be the fifth largest energy consumer in the world. I try to explain to Oona that the internet is not her friend. This is a bit like selling feminism in Alabama. This is a bit like raising legitimate issues in a departmental meeting at work. Should know better? For family fun we go on a tour of Kingston Penitentiary. The day is cold and dark and sparkled with rain. Half an hour into it we get our first don’t-drop-the-soap joke. The place is much worse than I expected, on any number of levels, and should be targeted for an airstrike. Finally, the sun comes out.

This Tinyletter has been brought to you by the vanity license plates

FHG 1997
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with a special thanks to our New Zealand correspondent who sent in


reminding us all that questionable taste is a truly global phenomenon.

Have a good week, everyone,
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

p.s. The quotation in the title is from Elizabeth von Arnim.

The Man from the Past

The Man from the Past; mixed media, cradled wood panel, 20 x 20 x 1.5 inches.

The Man from the Past is made from hues, and colour, from arrangements of daubs, from shifts and reversals. He has no lines, is never that definite. In your memory he is compelling but not handsome, and the looks he gives you are through and beyond, as if at the memory already going away. When you see him again it’s from across the street, at the end of the deck or in the last seat on the train. Does he see you, too? You can get up and go talk to him, if only your legs would start working again.

cigar-tin-stories one hundred thirty one / / seven stars

the countess in her house of stories

Hello. I haven’t been here for awhile. Here’s a wonderful poem from a book called Jubilee Lines

When I came home unexpectedly in the mid-afternoon
and found an extra knife and fork still wet and glittering
on the draining-board beside your own, I knew at once.
I ran upstairs and called your name in our ruined

but you had already left. Soon afterwards I saw Margaret
Thatcher taking over the Tory party from Edward Heath,
and one evening — unless I was mistaken — the dead body
of P.G. Wodehouse borne on a tank into the ruins of

The Convoy of Tears, Andrew Motion

A friend of mine is let down by another friend. Because the year is 2019, this mainly happens by email. The first friend is more bewildered than anything, in that I-was-counting-on-you sense, but ultimately it’s good old anger that settles in, most of which is directed at the language of the email. I feel sorry for my friend, who lives in a universe where people don’t behave like this all the time. Design, art and writing — what a perfect trifecta of abuse, frustration and failure this has been in shaping my own expectations. With design it’s people picking things up and then putting them down, picking things up and then putting them down, having interest then losing interest, having too much of an idea or having no idea (equally dangerous), micromanaging or not managing at all, having too much time or being out of time, being utterly incoherent or having razor sharp clarity in their hypercriticisms, rushing things or abandoning them. It’s a polaroid prairie landscape of wind and emptiness and grain elevators burning to the ground, here and there, on the horizon. Art is better, in that it largely boils down to the twin frustrations of one’s own rising/sinking abilities and the roiling oceans of planet-wide apathy. In the end it’s simple: nobody cares. Writing is the psychic slot machine of the three, a repetitive and deadening exercise encased in cheap lights and hard failure, this plinking of resources into the void with the firm knowledge that only a precious few players are ever rewarded at all. The best I can say about any of this is that it happens at a remove, at a well-defined inner distance, where everything gets filed and put away in the appropriately labelled drawer.

Wait — it suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea how Elvis died! Suddenly I have to know. I mean, there is some approximated awareness of weight and bloating, and sweat-logged jumpsuits, and drugs and guns and the grim toilet, some composite meaning like a reading from a tarot deck. But I’ve never bothered with Elvis before, what actually happened. When I do, I find the facts not far removed from my intuitions. Of course what it really sounds like is that he just went crazy, sliding all the way, and no one’s body is built for that.

I think this sudden and strange line of inquiry was prompted by one of those changeable-copy signs outside a downtown church: OUR ENDING IS NOT DISAPPOINTING. If this was a Game of Thrones reference then they should have used the word FINALE instead (something like, GOD’S FINALE GETS SEVEN STARS). Then I wondered, do they mean the ‘big’ ending? As in, have you heard the Good News? Which really isn’t about an ending at all.

A long, grey spring. But sunny, even summer-like days are appearing here and there, like student plays or warnings. People go a little crazy, mobs of middle-aged women at the plant stores and gardening centres, all yoga gear and vegan-fuelled rage, their middle-aged husbands dressed like refugees from a badly-run fat camp, athletic wear that doesn’t fit or should have been binned long ago, hairy white stick limbs pin-cushioning soft bellies, the spots on their faces a secret code that reads, Please just kill me already.

Sorry, but there’s plenty of suffering to go around. In the meantime …
try to have a good week, everyone,
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

p.s. This Tinyletter has been brought to you by the vanity license plates …

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Thank you to everyone who sent me their sightings and examples — especially the lovely C.

cgtnstories • 124 • you win


In the month-long project of getting years and years of stuff sorted and out the door (or into giant trash bags), March found me in the studio probably more than any other month, and in that time I listened to a lot of podcasts, and the vast majority of those podcasts were from the UK, which these days means that many of them were about Brexit. And what did I learn about Brexit? I learned that Brexit came from a referendum where the UK electorate voted on two negative choices …

a) continuing helplessness before a neoliberal, plutocratic ruling class that had willfully surrendered all meaningful decisions to the global market or

b) a nebulous, self-injurious nostalgic dream fantasy for some kind of imagined former Britain that finally gets its reward for winning two World Wars (a kind of wealthy North Korea that doesn’t have to put up with the Germans)

and picked the latter. At which point the above-mentioned ruling class either

a) retired to various boardrooms or country estates or piles of money or

b) re-defined the meaning of the result to suit their bottomless self-interest.

The venal, factional competition that evolved from (b) has defined the impasse that Britain now stews in (and from which there seems no encouraging escape). There is very little honesty about any of it and all equations are, again, entirely negative.

Meanwhile, poverty is having a field day.

For Canadians it’s tempting to shake our heads but we’re soon headed into the maw of our own federal election, one that will be wholly defined by an utter vacuum of ideas. It will be unappealing choice (a) versus unappealing choices (b) and (c). You could pull a hundred people off the street and maybe five could tell you anything at all about what the parties are running on.

That’s politics or that’s always been politics or what do you expect or what else do you expect people like that to do or they’re all corrupt anyway and you’re being naïve are the standard responses to all this. You just don’t understand. Fine. I guess I don’t. Let’s all whistle a jaunty salute to the Mont Pelerin Society and move on.

It might be personally useful, too, to let go of those hopes that rely on political or societal change. We could admit, for example, that we’re so far down this road of trading meaningful collective action for cheap goods and cheap debt (and free Wi-Fi!) that real political consciousness is completely dead. That’s fine. Every empire and organism has its day and then there’s a twilight, which is where we are probably living right now.

Fine. But continuing with the blurred idea that we can achieve something that looks like real progress (and don’t get me started on the difference between culture badges and meaningful change) only leads to more disillusionment and paralysis (and, for a whole generation, it seems, permanent anxiety prescriptions).

Yes, fine. Fine. Time for all of us to move on. Find your own path. The advice I give Oona is that you either take care of things yourself or others will take of things for you, but rarely in any way that you wanted.

Be patient. Be accepting. Be generous. Keep faith with your work or find something on the side that captures your imagination and is deserving of your energy and effort. Read more. Appreciate the spectacle of life.

And have a good week!
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

p.s. This Tinyletter has been dedicated to the vanity license plates GO RACE and DOE 33. Somehow you seem connected.

p.s. Tonight is the launch of Lake Effect 9, an anthology of work by the creative writing students at Queen’s University. I had fun doing the cover.

cigar-tin stories number one hundred twenty three / / small but quiet letters

An immensely fat man in a wheelchair explains, with the help of a tiny upturned palm and a skyward turn of his head, that he is, at least these days, more spiritual than religious. The two young Asian women flanking him clutch their pamphlets and nod in agreement, waiting for him to shut up so they can close the deal on Jesus.

A woman taking up the entire aisle with a cart and her hair and her voice tells someone on the other end of the phone that she wasn’t hurt, only offended, and she wishes people weren’t so willfully oblivious. I have to turn and go around the other way when she refuses to acknowledge me.

Sunday is not entirely warm but the sun is there, right there, and the idea of Spring has announced itself in some fundamental way so people can’t help themselves and it’s like Saint Patrick’s Day for runners, meaning all sorts of people who have no business with the theme music from Rocky playing in their tiny, dehydrated heads. Front Road, in particular, has it all — long, loud, boring, dirty, ugly, excessively dangerous … I mean, why not run along the lip of an active volcano? Or into a threshing machine?

We are in the car and Oona tells her mom and I to stop talking. I’m trying to read and the letters are really small, she says. When they’re really small, you have to be extra quiet.

We visit the newly renovated downtown library. Everything is accented by green and shininess. People walk around with smiles and upturned faces, like some kind of biblio-rapture. Oona tortures several librarians in quick succession with vague but specific requests, including only partially remembered titles. I take out some poetry books, because something weird is going on in my brain. A girl in a Garfield sweater takes out a book called How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t: 14 Habits that Are Holding You Back from Happiness.

Viola Desmond is on the ten-dollar bill. The orientation of the bill is vertical, or portrait, which is entirely disorientating. But it’s a beautiful bill. In February I made a poster for Black History Month and I can see now that I was subconsciously using those same colours of first light, the deep lavenders and cordovan roses.

I am in the last stages of packing up my studio. I know. The trips with the car have been countless, and I’ve singlehandedly pushed the stock of totes and storage bins up by two percent. Also: nine giant (the largest size, for barrels) garbage bags for the street, stuffed to that point where you judge them by what’s acceptable weight. I was saying to someone the other day that, at the very least, I’m glad I didn’t leave this job for someone else.

This Tinyletter has been dedicated to the vanity license plates JEFF66, NONNA C and NIMATINA. Shine on, you synthetic diamonds.

Have a good week, everyone,

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.