Author Tags: History, Humour
Growing up, Vancouver-born Charles Demers was a politically sophisticated fat kid with a void in sports and cars. These days he’s still more widely known as a humourist than as an author due to his CBC Radio stints on The Debaters and stand-up comedy performances in clubs and at festivals.
Charles Demers' little-noticed novel The Prescription Errors (Insomniac Press 2009) was soon followed by a "no-holds-barred look at Lotusland" entitled Vancouver Special (Arsenal, 2009), a critique of neighborhoods, people and culture, featuring photography by Emmanuele Buenviaje. Demers' short essays were born of a friction between estrangement and engagement; his loyalty to the city is ambivalent but inescapable.
Or as his friend Kevin Chong wrote in an endorsement, "It's only fitting that a city with so many unlikely facets--its conspicuous wealth and conspicuously ignored poverty, its inscrutable WASPiness and inscrutable Asian-ness, its left-wing face and right-wing heart--should be both celebrated and excoriated by a writer with such multifarious abilities." Demers' concluding chapter 'Vanarchism' cites his affinities to the likes of philosopher George Woodcock, punk rocker Joe Keithley, labour historian Mark Leier and APEC protestor Jaggi Singh.
In 2010, Demers co-hosted at The CityNews List for television; the he made his debut as a playwright with his "East End Panto" version of Jack & the Beanstalk, staged in 2013 and 2014 as family entertainment--all of which led to a teaching gig at UBC Creative Writing.
Move over Bill Richardson. Having hosted the BC Book Prizes on several occasions, Charles Demers re-entered the literary world with The Horrors (D&M 2015), an A-to-Z compendium of all things awful. Demers gives new meaning to a 26-er by starting with "A" for "Adolescence", recalling his sexless teenage years in a Trotskyist sect. "B" for "Bombing" recalls the sickening sensation of knowing your comedy act stinks. "D" is for "Depression." "F" for "Fat." "J" for "Junk Food." "M" for "Motherlessness." And so on.
Demers is one of the brightest lights to emerge in B.C. literature since Ivan E. Coyote--as likeable as he is clever and socially progressive. Married with a child, Charles Demers co-wrote The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (and the Universe) with George Bowering in 2016--reviewed below.
The Prescription Errors (Insomniac Press 2009)
Vancouver Special (Arsenal, 2009)
The Horrors: An A-to-Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things. (Douglas & McIntyre 2015) $24.95 978-1-77162-031-4
The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (and the Universe) (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) with George Bowering $17.95 / 9781551526621
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Nominated for Vancouver Special
BC Book Prizes (2010)
from BC Book Prizes catalogue
Vancouver is at a crossroads in its history — host to the 2010 Winter Olympics and home to the poorest neighbourhood in Canada; a young, multicultural city with a vibrant surface and a violent undercoat a savvy urban centre with an inferiority complex. Charles Demers examines the who, what, where, when, why and how of Vancouver, shedding light on the various strategies and influences that have made the city what it is today (as well as what it should be). From a history of anti-Asian racism to a deconstruction of the city’s urban sprawl; from an examination of local food trends to a survey of the city’s politically radical past, Vancouver Special is a love letter to the city, taking a no-holds-barred look at Lotusland with verve, wit and insight.
The Dad Dialogues
from James Paley
The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (And The Universe) by George Bowering & Charlie Demers (Arsenal Pulp $17.95)
The Dad Dialogues: a correspondence on Fatherhood (And The Universe) is an exchange of seemingly off-the-cuff, long messages—we used to call them letters—written between prolific, elderly and venerable George Bowering and thirty-something comedian Charlie Demers who divides his promising career between standup, stage plays, books, radio gigs and teaching.
Whereas Demers writes with the raw anxiety and wonder typical of a new father, Bowering’s comments on paternalism are more reflective and composed, though sometimes laced with the old fears.
The letters begin with Demers anticipating the birth of his daughter, due in a matter of days. Bowering responds with tales of his own daughter’s birth, over forty years ago. Each author relates the saga of his daughter’s first year in vivid detail.
Thea Bowering was born in October of 1971. Josephine, Demer’s daughter, was born in January of 2014. Their histories, although separated by more than forty years, share similarities. Both fathers share fears about the world their daughter is growing up in. For Bowering, this meant raising a child during the cold war. For Demers, who suffers from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he worries about oceans turning to acid, tiny lungs being punctured by smaller ribs and red blotches on the skin.
Demers is a dedicated father who can’t stand spending time apart from his kid soon after her birth. Every other task he’s presented with becomes a chore, pure drudgery that separates him and Josephine. Instead of feeling relief at finally having time to himself when he’s away for work, spending the night in a hotel room is the loneliest he’s ever felt.
Bowering casts back to his diary entries to relive his first trip away from the family. It was a series of train trips he made from Vancouver to Prince George to Edmonton and back. Without the added convenience of cell phones and discount flights, the time out of contact felt eternal. Add some northern weather and the whole trip was pretty bleak.
So this is a seemingly unplanned book that is less about events than it is about emotions.
The stories told are mostly about ordinary events, milestones that every parent can identify with. Women have been sharing such stories with one another for aeons; men not so much. Because Demers and Bowering, as males, are sharing anecdotes about their reactions to their infant daughters, how they feel, ostensibly this makes The Dad Dialogues into unusual literature.
Cloying or fascinating, there’s an undeniable buoyancy to their friendship that keeps the dual narratives afloat. Typically, when Demers recounts ‘Joji’s’ first visit to the emergency room, over a small red mark on her face, the beginnings of a light bruise, Bowering counters with a story about his own daughter drinking lemon-scented furniture polish when she was a year old. The hour-long drive to the ER was peppered with curses and pleas.
As Demers chronicles the first year of Josephine’s life, Bowering reciprocates, like a good shepherd, reminding Demers that he is not alone in his feelings. The Dad Dialogues affords an intimate look at the diapers, despair and overwhelming joy of fatherhood. Not war stories from the trenches; instead a rare advertisement for male nurturing.
James Paley is a Vancouver freelance writer.
The Dad Dialogues
REVIEW: The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (and the Universe)
by George Bowering and Charles Demers
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. $17.95 / 9781551526621
Reviewed by Christian Fink-Jensen
Vancouver writers George Bowering, born in 1935, and Charles Demers, born in 1980, had daughters – Thea and Josephine – more than forty years apart.
The Dad Dialogues contains Bowering and Demers’ monthly correspondence over 18 months, including their impressions as expectant and greenhorn fathers, their supportive relationship with their partners Angela and Cara, and the fears, expectations, and commonalities of fatherhood in 1971 and 2015 -- two very different eras when their daughters were born.
Reviewer Chris Fink-Jensen, himself the father of two young children, finds much of value. “As individuals,” he reflects, “we have a terrifying capacity for narrow self-interest but, as The Dad Dialogues shows, parenthood can widen the scope of our compassion. – Ed.
I must confess that when I was asked to review a book featuring a poet and a comedian talking about fatherhood, I was a little reluctant. Here we go, I thought, yet another title featuring emotionally inept new fathers bumbling through pre-natal classes, passing out during birth, and then attempting to solve every parenting challenge with bungee cord, duct tape, and jumper cables.
Thankfully, The Dad Dialogues by George Bowering and Charles Demers goes beyond these stereotypes. Conceived as an epistolary exchange between men of different generations, the aim was to compare notes on fatherhood. What was different, what was the same? Did fathers of the early 1970s have the same excitement and/or dread as the new dads of today?
The book begins with George, an octogenarian writer (and Canada’s first poet laureate), recalling his version of how the project was conceived -- viz., during a “lull” in a baseball game. He and Charles were discussing Charles’s forthcoming fatherhood. George related several stories about his own experience of becoming a father back in 1971.
It was then that Charles (or George’s wife, Jean, depending on whose version of events you believe) suggested that the two of them write a book about parenthood. Charles, a thirty-something author and comedian, was smitten with the idea, imagining it as a gift for his soon-to-be-born daughter.
The book would be, he writes, “A record of the first parts of her life, a book co-written in her honour by one of Canada’s most celebrated, beloved, and talented men of letters. And George Bowering!”
With their purpose defined, the duo begin a monthly exchange of letters. From the beginning it’s clear that their experiences of impending-fatherhood do not align with popular notions of how things should be. “People want to see a big fat pregnant lady and a terrified father-to-be,” Charles writes. “It’s part of the spectacle of anticipating the baby. But as a couple, we’ve let them down....”
For his part, George recalled that he was also fairly calm regarding the birth itself and credits that to the Lamaze classes he and his partner had taken. “You have to remember that 1971 occurred in the late sixties, when you were supposed to be hip about everything.”
But while neither George nor Charles found the physiological aspects of birth overly nerve-wracking, both admit to finding other parts stressful, including meeting the expectations of others. Deriding what he calls “yuppie performances,” Charles laments how several of his friends seem to be in a race to have the most “idiosyncratic birth possible (you haven’t really had a baby till you’ve delivered into a hand-crafted, artisanal kiddie pool in a purpose-built cottage in the forest with a roof thatched by a team of Cuban doulas).”
As it turns out, neither man has much patience for anyone who questions corporate medicine, especially those interested in non-mainstream birth experiences. Their dismissive attitudes, however, are (almost) always offered with a generous leavening of humour.
As the book progresses, George and Charles move on from the social aspects of fatherhood and into its personal and psychological impacts. Despite initially claiming to be “calm,” both men gradually reveal themselves to be consummate worriers, partly by nature but also thanks to their roles as fathers. It’s an endearing revelation because it’s so very human.
As individuals, we have a terrifying capacity for narrow self-interest but, as The Dad Dialogues shows, parenthood can widen the scope of our compassion. The world’s tragedies, often dismissed as happening elsewhere and to slightly unreal people, become vividly affecting -- either because we see how events might impact our children or because we can empathize with the love other parents feel for their kids.
In one particularly moving passage, Charles describes his reaction to reading about a Palestinian child, roughly his daughter’s age, who had been killed. He feels for the child’s parents who “should have been thrilling to roughly the same milestones as Cara and me for the next few decades.” Instead, their baby is already gone. “I don’t usually cry when I read the news,” Charles continues, “but I bawled when I read that.”
It’s in these passages, where George and Charles reflect on their hopes and fears, that the book offers the most. For any new parent-to-be there are plenty of hopes but, as the authors often humorously illustrate, even more fears. This doesn’t make the book depressing. Rather, it gives other parents permission to worry about the future of their children and provides reasons for all of us -- parents or not -- to work for a better world. Even forty plus years into fatherhood, George still frets about the world he has brought his daughter into, lamenting that most people are “more concerned with their utility bills than world events.”
Where The Dad Dialogues comes up a little short is in highlighting the differences between fatherhood in the 1970s and the 2010s. Other than bragging about the wonders of ultrasound, George and Charles don’t spend much time considering how fathers’ roles have changed. This seems like a missed opportunity. Now that the “average” father is no longer merely a patriarch and disciplinarian, what does this new, more nurturing role mean for men, their families, and the world at large? In other words, what value does an involved father provide? It’s an important question.
Several studies (including a decades long British study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour) have found that children whose fathers were closely involved in their lives had dramatically better social, behavioural and psychological outcomes. Specifically, kids with involved dads became adults with higher IQs and were more socially mobile than those whose fathers were less involved.
It would have been interesting to hear Charles and George’s reflections on their own purpose as fathers, especially with regard to changing social roles and expectations. If nothing else, I’m sure it would provide rich comedic material involving pipes, slippers, and newspapers.
The book is also a touch heavy on biographical detail. This reader would have preferred less about who visited when or which festival so-and-so was speaking at, and more freeform musing.
That said, the less interesting bits are compensated by several moving observations and some hilarious anecdotes (as when Charles brings his infant daughter on stage during a performance: “This is Josephine. She’s named after Stalin.”)
Minor criticisms aside, The Dad Dialogues is an engagingly written look at fatherhood. Despite an almost fifty year age difference, Charles and George align on most aspects of what it’s like to be a father, how marriage gets affected, and what babies are really like.
According to George, the popular encouragement that “babies are tough” is false.
“Bulldogs are tough. Cuban infantrymen are tough. My mother’s roast beef was tough.
“Babies are more like fathers’ hearts – sweet and tender and loud.”
Christian Fink-Jensen is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in more than fifty newspapers, magazines, and journals around the world. He is the author and co-researcher of Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2016). Christian lives in Victoria, B.C.
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