"Some folks are like umbrellas
They pass through your life with little meaning
And then there's the ones who make you hang on to every word
Well he was one of the latter
He came into my room and told me things that matter'd, like
Everything that rises must converge"
From the song "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by The Handsome Family.
When my friend Cliff Doerksen died in December 2010 I had just started a blog called "Feeding the Monster", and I wrote about him there every December for several years. Here I am about to attempt it again, and I'm not sure if I need to justify that, or not. Is my compulsion to write about him—for years—er—healthy? "Normal"? Is it a sign that I "just can't let it go"? Or is it a normal response to losing (and missing) someone who had a profound influence on me? Whatever the case may be, I feel sure I don't possess the powers necessary to do him justice—so maybe after this foray I'll put my attempts to rest. He was an extraordinary person—whip-smart and deadly funny—and I loved him very much. Brilliant, and a freak—always, as my friend Sheri once famously said, "riffing on the edge". He definitely had a dark side—which is probably what he most identified with—but I would argue that that he found joy in a lot of different things. A lot. As only super-intense, hyper-intelligent people can.
I'll add links to articles he wrote, and things written about him— but for the purposes of this so-called "newsletter" I want to write about what he meant to me as a friend.
Ink on paper, 2018, 18X24 inches
My first memory of Cliff is ending up sitting beside him on the city bus from Quebec City to the University of Laval where we were both in a french-immersion program in 1983. I would have been 23 and he would have been 21 years of age. I think we had probably met before, but I didn't really know him. He was not a big guy, and he had a nervous habit of shaking one knee up and down at a ferocious pace. I commented on it, and without missing a beat he said "tryin' to lose weight" in characteristic rapid-fire Cliff-style. It turned out he lived quite close to me in Québec City, so we started hanging out. Or at least, that's what I surmise happened... I don't have a ton of specific memories of that time, apart from him and I *almost* becoming room-mates when my boyfriend and I were splitting up, and him making my mother laugh so hard during her visit to Québec I thought she was going to have a coronary. I have a memory of him at my place, picking up my copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov and quipping "some light summer reading?"—I learned later that he'd read it at the age of ten. I have a memory of him holding forth one summer day about the yelling, redneck (anglophone) idiots driving by in their car: that at least they knew who they were... life was simple for them (or something to that effect). And I remember him standing in the kitchen of my apartment waxing eloquent about how he was never going to go to University.
After Québec City we both ended up at Concordia University in Montréal. Cliff would soon enter The Liberal Arts College (and would later do a PhD in American History at Princeton), while I switched after the first semester from my plan of studying world religions and psychology to completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts. For years I regretted my failure to also mine my academic leanings; Cliff would encourage me to go back to school. I never did.
After Cliff entered The Liberal Arts College I began to see less of him—he was hanging out with his "smarty-pants friends" as I liked to call them. Our worlds were diverging, and I remember feeling pretty sad about it. I did still see him now and again--for example, this is how Cliff informed me of his educational plans when he appeared one day in the bookstore where I worked in Montréal (Prospero, which no longer exists):
Cliff (excitedly): "Guess who just got accepted to do their doctoral studies at Yale?"
Me (also now excited): "You?!"
Cliff: "Nope! Princeton!"
It's possible that "you had to be there", but this was classic Cliff.
At the cemetery in Montréal
Cliff came to visit me in Victoria in February 1999, when we lived in our first house in Fernwood. He lived in Chicago with his wife Elspeth and was working on his doctoral thesis at the time, which became his book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age. My husband David and I had "studios" across from each other--more like dingy rooms-- in our dark, somewhat under-height basement. One night during his visit David had a table-hockey tournament with a group of friends (including Cliff's brother Ferg, if I remember correctly) in his studio room, and Cliff and I sat together in my room across the way. I have a clear memory of laughing so hard with Cliff at one point that we silenced the tournament and they stopped to ask what the hell was going on (I remember well what we laughed about, but can't possibly explain it here. Or anywhere). When it came time for Cliff to leave town, I stood watching him get smaller as he disappeared down our street. I cried.
He could be an opinionated SOB—ask anyone who knew him—but his refusal to make himself smaller or someone other than exactly who he was, his refusal to water himself or his opinions down, his refusal to compromise on anything had a huge impact on my fresh and frightened mind. He had no time for anything pretentious—he was as real as it gets. I would wager that there were plenty of people who didn't know how to deal with him, but those who loved him, loved him hard. I remember him telling me with befuddlement that his students seemed to love him. Wow. This did not surprise me at all.
After winning the James Beard Foundation Award
(I regret that I don't know who took this photo)
As a friend, he stood out. Being with Cliff meant always knowing that I was loved and appreciated for who I was—not that he had to say it, or display it in any cloying way. It was apparent; I felt it. I have 20 mixed tapes he made me over the years, plus a few mixed CDs when the world began to roll that way. I have a stack of letters. A handful of photographs. But mostly I have a ferocious love for a guy who made me feel less alone in the world. I could never dream of being as smart, quick-witted and funny as Cliff was, so I'm claiming none of that when I say that when he died I felt profoundly abandoned, left alone in the universe holding the bag, holding... whatever that particular sensibility was that only he and I shared. But I think others felt the same, or something similar. Certainly at his memorial and in tributes written since his death it's become abundantly clear that he was much loved and admired, and had an influence on everyone who knew him. But for me he's still... my friend Cliff. Who I continue to miss like hell.
PS—"Howdy Doody Timelessness", the title of this installment, is from something that Cliff drew during some kind of drawing game at our house 20 years ago and is still pinned to my bulletin board. You can see it in the first photo.
Remembering Cliff on Brainpickings
Cliff's book, American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age
Remembering Cliff at The Chicago Reader
Obit by The Chicago Tribune
"The Real American Pie", for which Cliff won the James Beard Foundation Award (though he was not a food writer)
Cliff riffing on Lou Reed's "The Raven"
Google his name and you'll find lots more.
And now it's time for the shameless self-promotion! It's that season where in this corner of the world, you're expected to give gifts to your loved ones. I make art, which in turn makes an amazing gift. If you've never bought original art, you should give it a try because it feels really good, and it will make a difference to your home in a way that a print from Ikea never, ever could. I understand that not everyone can afford it, but I also understand spending more than the price of a painting on beer in a month. We all have our PRIORITIES. Let it be known that I will happily accept a payment plan.
And for those who will truly never take the plunge into buying original art, there are giclée prints. Giclée prints are as close as you'll get to the painting without being the real thing: made with pigmented, lightfast inks and printed on 100% cotton paper (assuring that your print will never go brown with age). Giclée prints are the bomb.