The Time My Dad Met Douglas Coupland, an essay by James Michael Turner

This essay will recount a story that my father told me only a few times while I was growing up, but nonetheless was important to my family’s history. I remember it very well. There is some foul language, but it is important to me to keep the integrity of the story intact by including it.

Let me preface this story by telling you a bit about Douglas Coupland. He is a rather famous Canadian author whose titles number in the dozens- which is a lot for books. One of my favourite books of his, jPod, was actually made into a television series, though it did not garner much critical acclaim; in my opinion, it did not do the book justice, but that’s neither here nor there. His books are known to be profound and heart wrenching while being blackly funny, making them poignant representations of real life with a degree of the phenomenal that the reader never questions. He also makes fine art, with many different pieces on display, including one memorial to the war of 1812 in downtown Toronto. Despite how profound he may seem, one does not always believe that the author him or herself is as deep as their body of work implies.

My father would normally make up some context for why the two met where they did, saying that he was simply visiting an old teenage hang-out, or attempting to be one with nature. But as I got older, I found out the real reason he was sitting at the edge of a cliff in British Columbia on a windy day over tumultuous waters. My father was going to commit suicide.  My mother was the one who told me the truth about why he was there, and insisted that my father was a different person then; he was hopeless and depressed, with what he felt were no career prospects and a wife who was too good for him. Some people would take these aspects and use them as inspirations, launching themselves into their new life filled with job applications, night classes, and possibly, just possibly, an attempt at making one’s personal psyche better to better achieve happiness. My father struggled with depression, though, and preferred the euphoria he found at the bottom of a bottle. This was simply how he dealt with his feelings before he met Douglas Coupland, and to quote Jesus Christ Superstar, “If your slate is clean then you can throw stones”.

The day my father was to make his suicide attempt the weather reports called for high waves and thunderstorms. His plan, he told my mother who later told me, was to dive from the 200 meter cliff onto the rocks below and hopefully bash his head open; if he did not land the right way for his skull to crack open, he would surely drown in the unsteady waters. He used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before he met my mother, and some of the other people he had met at the meetings had tried to kill themselves, but their methods seemed like madness; either too painful or possible failures. When my father was a teenager, he would cliff dive with his friends, so he may have rationalized in his mind this spectacular scheme by noting that the final dive would remind him of his youth, letting him die on a joyful, nostalgic tone. But there was always something underneath this reasoning that made it clear there was more to this choice in method, but when my mother would ask, he would only say that he “thought it was the easiest and least painful of all the methods [he] could think of”.

He drove north out of Vancouver, where he and my mother were living, in his old ’57 Chevy that his father had given him and parked it in a small clearing where people once seemed to park cars, but had not for a while. He walked from his car to the cliff and sat with his feet dangling off the edge, staring out at the ocean with a completely blank head. In a heartbeat, though, he would always say, his blank mind became as tumultuous as the water beneath his feet, pushing and pulling him in one direction that screamed ‘jump’, and the other direction that screamed ‘don’t’. When telling me this story he did not include the part about pushing and pulling, just that his mind was blank. As I said before, I did not know my father was going to commit suicide at some point in this story until I was older, but my mother, when I was old enough, was my resource for the details of this story. I may have asked my father about it once or twice, and though it had been at least ten years since it happened, he still seemed slightly embarrassed about it, though I assured him I was not judging him; I understand that it would have been difficult for him to really open up to me about it, which was why I would sometimes go to my mother for information. As I write this, though, I have a much better source for this story and context on my father. But the dialogue that occurred between Douglas and my father is somewhat lost in time; only the two of them remember exactly what was said, and even they are not infallible.

My father sat there for what seemed like hours, and it was during one of these moment-hours that Douglas Coupland, like a woodland nymph, stepped out of the forest behind my father. My father had heard something through the trees and instinctively turned around, and saw, none other than, renowned author Douglas Coupland.  My dad would joke that he hoped the noise was a thing of beauty, like a bobcat or a deer, but it was instead Douglas Coupland in a rain poncho and hiking gear. The rain was not there yet, but it was coming- my dad said he could feel it in the air like you could feel heat a foot away from a bonfire. Some people may have been more eloquent upon seeing someone who was somewhat famous, but my father was not eloquent under pressure, and the first words that came out of his mouth were something like: “What they fuck are you doing here, Douglas Coupland?” to which Douglas Coupland, an astute surveyor of human emotion and action, replied, “Well, not what the fuck you’re doing here,” and walked up to my father.

“You know who I am, apparently, but I don’t know you and I insist on knowing,” the author stated, putting his hand out to my now standing father, “before you die. Anyone with a ’57 Bel-Air in that condition deserves respect.” My father shook Douglas’ hand and introduced himself as Mike Turner after quickly debating lying about his name. My father then said that anyone who could name a Chevy by the year, even if they were just guessing, which he did not say to Douglas but assumed he was, deserved just as much respect. My father would tell me that he felt Douglas would know if Mike Turner was not my father’s name.

“How do you know what I’m doing here?” my father queried. After a few short moments, Douglas motioned to the edge of the cliff so they could sit down. My father was wary at first, but trying to diffuse the tension the ever tactful Douglas Coupland declared, “you were just sitting there, dummy, what makes now so different? You think I’m going to push you or something?” My father was taken aback by how brash the author was, but then shrugged it off and sat down. Though the two had just met, he would say authoritatively, he instantly knew he could trust Douglas, and was sure that Douglas felt the same way. Apparently interrupting a suicide really brings people together.

“How do I know what you’re doing on this cliff on probably the most dangerous day to be sitting on this cliff?” Douglas said this in such a way that it seemed to my father that he was hypothesizing in the same way a scientist might, “well, it kind of just radiates from someone like you- but that’s probably not exactly true. I guess I saw it in you because I’ve seen it before and I know what to look for. Also, what else would someone be doing on a day like this, and also here?” He said this with a sort of sarcastic air, and let the sarcasm bleed into his next statement which was, “So, why do you think you should die? Keep in mind, I may use this for a novel later so be completely honest; ‘life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind could invent’ and all that.”

My father was a little annoyed at this point because he realized that he really just wanted to kill himself, and Douglas Coupland was forcing him to actually speak his actions aloud. Anyone who has ever wanted to do something knows that speaking about that action aloud is powerful, and can deter or encourage one to pursue this action. My father knew that telling Douglas exactly why he was attempting suicide would most likely deter him from wanting to kill himself. My father did tell him why he was fixing to jump off the cliff, despite the fact that he felt like he was being whiny. In the child-friendly version of this story, my father would omit this part of the story completely, but since I know it now, I will include it. It adds another layer to the story, I feel.

The words poured out of my father in quick succession. “My wife is too good for me. I have a dead end job. I feel like I lost my talent for writing years ago. I blame myself for my father’s death. I can’t-“ Douglas interrupted my father who was flailing.

“Okay, okay. Let’s go through everything, one at a time, and see if we can’t work this out. I know you probably have a lot to say so we should probably start discussing.” This was the third time my father was surprised by Douglas, and certainly not the last time. They began to talk and talked away the better part of the afternoon. It wasn’t completely one-sided with Douglas contributing with his own life experiences like any good artist. Douglas gave my father a sense of security that only comes when people share life experiences- there’s something about conversing with a stranger that allows a person to open up more than if they knew each other, which I’ve always found strange but somewhat comforting. My father felt as though his struggle was not one that had to be faced alone, and this was invaluable.

After talking about their lives and problems, the two began to talk about life and its problems. This is where my father would jump to after the two actually met. My father would tell me something different at this point every time. One time the conversation was about how cooking was a metaphor for life, another conversation was about books that the two liked that weren’t Douglas Coupland’s. But my favourite conversation, at least as I grew older, was their conversation about God, and that’s the one I will recount here.

“Well, Mike, we’re around the same age, and so I want to ask you something: Do you believe in God?” Douglas looked at my father intensely, making him feel like he couldn’t lie. My father replied that he did not, and followed one wave from the horizon to the rocks below. In his periphery he saw Douglas nodding.

“What about you?” My father asked, trying not to seem rude. Douglas clearly had an opinion and my father was actually interested in what he had to say.

“It’s curious. I feel as though our generation is the first generation to truly live without God and yet the generation that needs God the most. We have no great war- at least, not one worth fighting- and in our country we have no major natural disasters like in other countries. How can we be expected to believe in God when God seems like a convention of the simple minded? Perhaps, though,” Douglas posited, picking up little rocks from the ground and launching them into the sea, “you wouldn’t be trying to kill yourself if you believed in God. Suicide is a deadly sin in Christianity, of course, but also because you may be more secure with yourself and have a larger community to rely on, not just strangers in forests. Have you tried therapy?” He stopped launching rocks as he ran out of rocks in his general vicinity.

My father took in what he was saying, but decided to answer the question before proceeding with the conversation. “I tried therapy, but I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I suppose I just couldn’t open up. It was also after a… spectacular, if I can use that word, incident in which I had to do therapy, so… I guess I wasn’t really into it from the beginning. No one wants to do things people make them do, right?” My father said this as he watched the ripples in the water dissipate around the spots where Douglas had thrown rocks.

“You probably had a bad shrink; they aren’t all aces. I had a friend whose therapist she would refer to by his first name because he made her feel as though she shouldn’t be ashamed to go to therapy,” it was at this point that my father watched Douglas Coupland dig into his jacket pocket and pull out a joint as well as a match, which he lit against a rock and sparked his joint. “Puff puff, pass, man,” Douglas warned, exhaling. Needless to say I only learned about the marijuana smoking later. Douglas passed the marijuana to my father, who hadn’t smoked for several years, who proceeded to badly inhale which elicited a coughing fit. Douglas just put on a small smile.

“We would all be better off with God, or with some sort of belief in God, and yet there is extreme difficulty and pain, I would say, in such a belief. Imagine what God’s existence would signify- namely a loss of control, even if destiny and God are not mutually inclusive,” my father passed back the joint and as Douglas inhaled he chimed in “which is odd, considering we as a generation tend to outsource our production.” Douglas nodded and held onto the joint for a minute, letting it burn in his hand. “God makes it impossible to really make any mistakes. I knew a guy- actually, the girl who had a great therapist’s boyfriend- who adamantly objected to Christian teaching because it allowed for anyone to enter heaven as long as they were repentant, and some people, he would say, probably didn’t deserve forgiveness. Child rapists, war lords, et al. But to really answer your question, I don’t necessarily believe in God, but there is a certain philosophy that I appreciate and in some ways adhere to.”

Whenever I think of my life and God’s place in it I think of this same philosophy. It is actually a wager proposed by Blaise Pascal, a prominent mathematician from the 17th century. I did research on this wager after my father told me about it and I was old enough to use a computer, which made me very prepared for the philosophy course I took this year. The wager is divided into four parts, and can be found anywhere on the internet, but I will include it here for some measure of continuity and to simplify it in a way.

 

Option 1: God exists; you live as if God exists. You win the ultimate prize- that is, going to heaven.

Option 2: God exists; you live as if God does not exist. You lose- you go to Hell, or whatever you believe the negative afterlife is.

Option 3: God does not exist; you live as if God exists. No harm, no foul. You, presumably, lived your life as a good person, so you benefit from that.

Option 4: God does not exist; you live as if God does not exist. Again, no harm, no foul, because there is no negative to your afterlife.

This wager is interesting because it yields no right answers. What I feel is the ideal is to live as though God does exist- that is, be a good person- and perhaps you will benefit later. If you do not benefit in the end, then you probably encountered some sort of good karma that benefitted you in your life; but then again, perhaps not. Either way, bad choices can be made up for more often than not, by which I mean that I believe karma does exist. My father believed that good yields good, and he passed his belief onto me; we are usually very critical of our parents’ beliefs, no matter how much we love them, and I continue to examine this belief and find little to no fault in it. Cause and effect, as it were.

After this conversation, and before, the two talked of many other things that my father only remembered in increments. Whatever he remembered I eventually learned, but, as I said, there are only tidbits of information remaining. The phrases and short dialogues he remembered were always fascinating to me, and I loved hearing the story for the prospect of hearing new words of wisdom. But I digress in order to explain how I met Douglas Coupland.

The two had finished smoking their joint and inhaled, in the literal and exaggerated sense of the word, several cigarettes, presumably to cover up the smell. They watched the waves for a few minutes before Douglas turned to my father and said this:

“I have a plan, Mike. I’m going to refer you to my therapist, who just happens to be covered by our province’s wonderful healthcare system,” my father always quoted him a way that can only be described as ‘snarky’. “I really think you should go see him. He’s great- Bruce. Quite a nice guy. But there is another thing that I think would be quite an interesting undertaking for the two of us.” My father’s first thought, he never told me but told others, was, ‘is Douglas Coupland gay? Because I’m totally okay with that, but it seems very off brand’, and his second thought was ‘Jesus Christ, when was the last time I smoked this much? I should lie the fuck down’. But instead of speaking either of these thoughts aloud he simply said, “What?” and then Douglas began to suggest something my father definitely was not expecting.

“I’m going to call you every week, same Bat time, same Bat channel, whatever we decide is the best, and you’re going to tell me everything. I feel very invested in your future, Mike, and I want to make sure you don’t kill yourself. You can tell me anything- what you did that day, or that same day ten years ago; where you were when Elvis died, what your childhood was like. I want to know everything. I want your life story- I know it sounds sort of “sell me your soul”-ish, but really I kind of have a bit of writer’s block, you know? It’s always good to have extra inspiration. Also it will probably be therapeutic for you- probably.” Never the one to miss an opportunity, Coupland probably saw this as a chance to write a real life story and somewhat embellish it while maintaining the, well, reality of it. My father, after thinking about it for a minute, agreed to it, unable to say no. Though at face-value it seemed as though Douglas only wanted to make money off of my father’s life story, my father sensed that there was more to this than it seemed. The two continued to talk until about 3 am, when they parted ways. They decided that Douglas would call my father at 6 pm every Tuesday, the two exchanging numbers. Although my father did not think Douglas would call him every week, he knew he was better for believing that someone cared enough to do so.

I suppose the first time I met Douglas, then, was on my 6th birthday. I know I had met him at least a dozen times before, but that’s my earliest memory of him. He told me I could call him Doug or Dougie, whatever my mouth could formulate, until I was 12, because after that it would have to be Douglas. But, my six-year-old mouth couldn’t properly articulate Doug or Dougie, so for about six years I called him ‘Doggie’ or ‘Dog’, but he never seemed to mind until I turned 12 and tried to call him Doggie as a joke. My father and he talked every Tuesday for about 20 years, but there was never explicitly a book made. My mother feels as though the book All Families are Psychotic is loosely based off my father’s life- loosely, very loosely. If you have read the book, maybe you understand why my father was depressed and drank. After I was born, three years into their talks, my father beat his depression and finished his college degree that he initially started, making him a Certified Public Accountant. There are pictures on the walls of my home of his graduation, and me as a little baby in my mother’s arms. I think I was proud of him, even then. My father always had a penchant for math, and though Douglas offered to refer him to some of his friends, my father always refused, preferring not to get mixed up in the seedy underbelly of West Coast writers; Douglas maintained that writers usually got paid under the table anyway.

My father’s story is a pretty sensational one. I used to question its validity until I was old enough to realise that he really was talking to someone on the phone every Tuesday. He is someone I really admire because of all he has accomplished and overcome, and it is difficult to imagine my father as the depressed and heartbroken man he was before I was born. I suppose part of that is because of Douglas, but most of it has to do with my father, who is, in a word, my hero. Maybe Douglas came into my father’s life at the right time, the perfect moment in between death and life when my father realized he could either fish or cut bait, as some people say. I used to think that Douglas saved my father’s life, but I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe he just reminded my father that there is more than one reason to live, and more than one reason to die, but dwelling on the reasons only wastes time. Douglas always told me to end an essay with a good quote, but my parents always agreed that was played out-here’s a quote, anyway, said by famous thespian Orson Welles: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Fin

following is a note written by the author of the essay to his teacher. 

Dear Ms. Volchuck

I first want to apologize for not being in class. I sincerely enjoy Writer’s Craft and it is one of the classes I’ve missed the most in my time away from school. I am sure that Mrs. Callum has explained my situation to you, but I just briefly wanted to explain exactly why I haven’t been in class and was unable to write the intended final paper.

As you may have discerned from reading this essay, my father drank for more than half of his life, and last August he contracted liver cancer. It wasn’t just the drinking, but it didn’t help, of course. Although chemotherapy was helping for a while, two months ago it stopped making a difference, and my father took a turn for the worse. The week he died he was in a coma, but the week before that, with the seemingly large amount of clarity only the dying have, he told us that we should take away his life support if he was comatose for any longer than four days. We fought him on it, but in vain, because he was a stubborn man and refused to change his mind. That was the single most difficult day of my life, and I am currently in therapy trying to cope with his death.

Mrs. Callum told me that when she asked you what I should write about, you said to write about the most pivotal moment in my life. Writing about my father’s death would not only have been too difficult at this time, but I also do not know what kind of effect it will really have on me. But this story, about my father meeting Douglas Coupland- maybe you can understand why I consider that story more important to my personal narrative than something that happened in my own life time. Without this story, I probably wouldn’t be who I am today, and my father wouldn’t have been who he was. Death is usually the turning point in a story, as I’ve learned in your class, but this wasn’t necessarily my denouement.

My father taught me that anything can be overcome, whether it is a difficult piece in band or depression. I appreciate everything he taught me. He was an amazing father, and did the best he could. We didn’t see eye to eye every moment we had together, and it is only now I realise that I should have listened more and talked less, but it doesn’t matter now. Before he died, we got to have a talk about our past and my future. I loved my father, and his loss is felt.

The best metaphor I can find for life is that it is like a cigarette. It burns slowly when you’re letting it sit, but when you’re actually enjoying it, it burns so quickly. I don’t smoke, of course, I’m only 17, but I think the point is clear. Time flies.

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to make up the final project. I hope you enjoy this essay, Ms. Volchuck.

Sincerely,

James Michael Turner

P.S. Douglas actually recorded everything my father told him during their phone calls and compiled the stories into a book for me. Memories are fallible, of course, but recorders help. This story was included in the anthology and was what I used as a source, for the most part. I know I’m supposed to source my work, but I didn’t know if the anthology was an interview or just a book- it was all very informal. I hope this is enough.

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