Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Shakespeare for Slackers

Recently, I was editing John Poulsen's Shakespeare for Reader's Theater and was looking around to see what other books might represent competition to our series, when author Mike Plested turned me on to the Shakespeare for Slackers series by Aaron Kite. I picked up the softcover Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet for $7.99; Macbeth is only $6.99. And they are absolutely brilliant. They work on so many different levels its hard to know where to begin.

(Well, I began by showing it to my 14-year-old daughter, who immediately fell out of her chair laughing. She's taken my copy and won't give it back. Instead she took it to school to show her equally nerdy friends. They too all immediately fell in love with it. I can't tell you how great it is to see a group of teens sitting around reading Shakespeare aloud to each other! If I were still teaching high school English, I would drop copies strategically around the school, then post signs forbidding students to use Shakespeare for Slackers to complete their assignments, to ensure that all the students read it cover to cover.)

The basic concept is simple: the original Shakespeare text down the left hand side of the page, while the right carries the 'translation'.

Much of the humor in the updated Romeo & Juliet stems from seeing Shakespeare's poetic language and flowery delivery translated into the brutally direct and limited vocabulary of modern teens. Benvolio's:

"Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward reetheh from the city's side
So early walking did I see your son:
Toward him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humor not pursing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me.

becomes Ben's:
I saw him this morning, by the woods. He seemed pretty bummed.

Presenting one random excerpt doesn't do justice to the cumulative effect of reading lengthy passage after passage, closely followed by the ten word translation. It was fascinating watching my daughter's group of teens reading out the original Shakespeare in full Shakespearian theatrical projection, and then the usually briefer, always more direct Americanization in the clipped delivery of modern cinema; followed immediately by gales of laughter at the breathtaking inaccuracy of the translation. But the thing is…you can't get the joke unless you sort of work at understanding what Shakespeare actually said. The translation may focus more on the connotations than the actual wording, but in terms of conveying meaning, the result is actually a big improvement over editions that merely define/explain words and phrases from the original.

Consequently, much of the humor comes from actually understanding what's going on, especially in the first half of Romeo and Juliet. A lot of Shakespearian English is now obsolete or at least too obscure for modern audiences, and the original comedic bits often too hard to follow when read aloud without accompanying footnotes. Here the 'footnotes' morph into the entire speech rewritten in a way that recreates the original jokes, satire and ludicruoius situations. There are several excellent cinematic versions of Romeo and Juliet that capture the whole 'rival gang' theme in a contemporary setting, for example, but none of these seems to have been able to really convey that much of the first half of the play was written to be funny. Gregory and Sampson are clowns in the original Shakespeare, but are usually portrayed as just angry teen gang members in contemporary renditions. (Okay, admittedly it's a fine distinction, but the original dialog was supposed to be funny.)

And, if you're 14, the third element of humor is that the naughty bits are translated into recognizable, explicitly naughty, "you didn't really just say that, did you?" bits.

So one's initial reaction is to laugh a lot. I was frankly surprised that this wasn't a one-gag concept, that I kept laughing as I kept reading. But it's Shakespeare: reading the original dialog is continually uplifting--which makes the accompanying pie in the face funny, every time. We're continually reminded that Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare because he had good plots or ideas, but rather that it's all about the poetry of his language. Because the same story told in modern dialog is so lame or ludicrous or obvious that the contrast is funny, every speech.

On the other hand, I grasped the educational implications immediately. These volumes take Shakespeare out of the classroom and place him back in the gutter, where he belongs. As the back cover explains:

You want to know something cool? Back in the day, Shakespeare wasn't considered elite. Oh sure, his plays were performed for royalty, but they were actually written for tradesman, shopkeepers, average Joes, anybody who could pay a penny for a ticket. Mostly he wrote plays for the common man, using the language of the times.
Times have changed. . . .
In Shakespeare for Slackers . . . you get what a few of us think he probably would have written if he were still around today. (And if he sat around watching a lot of television.)

I know that a few of my English teacher colleagues (or parents) will be highly offended by this attempt to knock Shakespeare off the pedestal upon which they have placed him, but I think most will appreciate not just the humor, but the serious intent to make Shakespeare both accessible and relevant to modern teen audiences. Ironically, the completely over the top translations manages to convey the essence of the original without watering down the content or speaking down to the audience. Puzzling out the meaning of a passage based on footnotes is a painfully slow and discouraging activity compared to the riotous readings that result from this romp through Romeo and Juliet. Let's face it, every kid already knows the story of Romeo and Juliet by the time they hit high school, so if we don't do something to make them fall in love with the language, then there is simply no point to requiring them to read it. By vandalizing, brutalizing and outright demolishing Shakespeare to the language of our times (to paraphrase the back cover), the author has forced the reader to really pay attention to language and imagery and iambic pentameter and really appreciate the unique richness that was Shakespeare's. The volume reintroduces the playfulness of language, which is really what English courses are supposed to be about.

I well remember taking Shakespeare in high school. It was a painful process even for those of us who loved Shakespeare, because everyone in the class had to take turns reading out, and some of my peers could not yet read Dick and Jane fluently. Listening to them struggle with Shakespeare was as torturous for the listener as humiliating for them. What was the point of that? What was the lesson the majority learned: that Shakespeare wasn't for them.

I once had the opportunity of listening to a recording of an archival interview with the administrator responsible for introducing Shakespeare into the Canadian curriculum, and he explained why he regretted that decision. He explained that when he'd made it, only about 20%-25% of the population attended High School, so it was the equivalent of university today. Those students could easily cope with Shakespeare, so for them it had been a positive experience. But, he explained, by the time he had retired, high schools had become mass institutions (a good thing), and many of the students being exposed to Shakespeare were not sufficiently strong readers to properly decode, let alone enjoy, reading Shakespeare. The possibility of their enjoying seeing the plays was being undermined, he felt, by their prematurely being asked to read what should have been a dramatic presentation.

Here, then, is an approach that turns that potentially slow, dry, angst-ridden process of decoding Shakespearian text into a riotous deconstruction. The contrast between the two texts presented in this volume forces students to think about language; about deconstruction; about the differences between classical theatre and cinema; about what makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare. And isn't raising those issues, even implicitly, what including Shakespeare in the curriculum is really about?

I cannot conclude the review without at least mentioning the brilliant cover, seen above: half Shakespeare as he was, half as a modern punk rocker, complete with piercings. This book should be on the shelf of every drama teacher, every English teacher, and every Shakespeare fan. And the cover image should be available separately as a poster.

Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

National Novel Writing Month

Have registered for NaNoWriMo again, though an dubious I will be able to manage much. I'm at a conference this weekend, out of town again next weekend, have a major report to deal with this month, etc. etc. But I've reread part-1 of my novel (NaNoWriMo 2007, plus another 70,000 words since) to where I've left off, and will try to start moving it forward again. Another 50,000 would definitely finish it off.

Living in an Art Gallery

As a speaker at the 2012 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, held this year at the Gladstone Hotel, I elected to stay at the Gladstone for four nights. I knew it to be a boutique hotel, and that it was artsy, but I didn’t really appreciate how artsy a hotel could be until I got there.

I did know that every room is different, designed by a different interior designer. (See rooms) You don’t just book a room, you book a particular room. Each one has its own photos online, and a video interview with the designer(s) who did that room explaining why they made it the way it is. Mary booked me into 403 because it had a kitchen, so it is one of the more sedate rooms: lots of wood, utilitarian, not distracting--a good space for writing.

Getting to the room, however, is an entirely different experience. When you register, for example, you have to sign that you won’t take any of the artwork home with you. And just to let you know, everything in the room is artwork: No you can’t take that map of Toronto with you—it’s part of the decor of the 'map' room.

[You also have to sign that you won’t take the Samsung tablet computer that’s included in every room. You’re encouraged to take it with you everywhere you go while you’re staying in the hotel, but you have to leave it when you check out or--you initial--have the $500 extra added to your bill.]

Then there is the “cowboy” elevator, built in 1907, that seems to come with an operator. Its pretty cool, but I generally take the broad, creaky wooden stairs up the four flights rather than summon the operator, not sure whether it is permitted for me to operate the elevator myself. (And it was usually filled with chairs or artwork or catering on it's way to one or other floor anyway.) But I also preferred the stairs because the walls of the staircase are lined with art--some of which is owned by the hotel, but most of which is for sale. At least a couple of pieces were by residents of the hotel. Not cheap: the lowest price tag I saw was $800, but most was a good deal more.

Each floor has a large lounge area before you get to the guest room corridors, and these also double as art galleries. I don’t just mean that there are some paintings on the wall; I mean there are full-fledged installations, and that they change every three months. They were changing as I was there, which is inordinately strange, because while I have occasionally wandered into a gallery during set up, I’ve never before been living in a gallery during set up.

Here, Michelle Baily is installing her wax and yarn piece, “Growth”. (Part of the "Hard Twist" exhibit.)
“I’m sorry,” I apologize, “But it makes me think of Harry Potter.”
“That’s okay,” she sighs, “that’s what my Mom said.”
(if you look behind her shoulder, you can just make something vaguely like the 'sorting hat'. It's clearer on her website)

The second floor seems to have a permanent gallery-gallery, which also serves as function space. The second night they seemed to have an event hosted by Kobo, which I was severely tempted to crash, but there was something artsy or literary happening there every time I passed by. The auditorium on the first floor similarly had a succession of poetry readings, lectures, etc. And their lounge/pub had a band or poetry readings happening too.

The hotel bills itself as 'ground zero for the arts in Toronto", and I'd have to say that was indeed my impression. All of the guests and patrons just looked, well, artsy.

So, not a bad environment in which to write. I did some editing, and reworked a short story I had let sit for four years because it wasn't working – finally fixed the problem (I hope), and reread my novel to where I left off last year, in preparation for NaNoWriMo.

[I couldn't get the wifi to work in my room, but that’s maybe just as well to keep me focused on my editing and writing tasks, not distracted by facebook, twitter, email and so on. I checked email on my phone when necessary, up and downloaded files I needed in the lobby or at dinner in the café, where wifi was fine. Mine was the corner room on the top floor, so I believed them when they said the wifi worked everywhere else, no problem…and they spontaneously deducted $50 for my troubles, so I am well content.

The room was cold when I first arrived but warmed up by the second day; the thermostat claims it’s hotter than it feels, but maybe that’s just me.

I also notice the room seems to come with earplugs, presumably for the traffic noise, but the heating fan pretty much drowns out everything, and I left it on because I’m always cold and because with Hurricane Sandy on the way, they were telling me the power might go off, in which case, I wanted some heat built up in there first.]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Cannibals and Mice

My 14 yr old daughter has a test tomorrow over which she is slightly freaking out. As I understand it, the issue is that there is a small risk she might only get, say, 95% on the test unless she stays up for the next two hours studying, as opposed to the 98% which is her stated goal for the average in this course. I give my usual "it's not about the marks" speech, and order her to bed so she will be well rested for the test, but she is still freaking out. Half-way through my second "work/life balance" speech (it's remotely possible that I have a tendency to address my children in professorial lecture mode), she confesses that the proximate cause of her attack of nerves is that a fellow student has shown her a viral YouTube cartoon featuring cannibalism and it is now freaking her out (though she had not thought anything of it at the time).

"You're not seriously telling me you're afraid that cannibals are going to break into your room and eat you, are you?"

She holds up her thumb and index finger separated by a hair. "Little bit."

She allows that the fear is irrational, but that there is nevertheless no chance of her getting to sleep tonight.

I recognize that the cannibalism motif is simply the lightening rod for a generalized existential panic brought on by ridiculous amounts of homework (she is in the pre-IB program) and too much extra curricular activity (three hours of rehearsals every evening, including weekends), and the social challenges of adolescence and high school. So I sit down on the edge of her bed and start to talk her down by taking her fears seriously, and pointing out that (a) we have a good alarm system that will alert security if any cannibals attempt unauthorized entry into our house; (b) we have a large black dog that would likely eat any such cannibals first, and that (c) I will be sleeping right upstairs.

She allows how this is all true and reassuring and starts to show signs of thinking about calming down and going to sleep.

At which point the aforementioned large black dog bursts into the room, smashes into the wall, and begins tearing the shelves apart. She puts her forepaws through a wicker basket, plunges her head inside, and generally goes psycho-killer on Tigana's doll collection.

This, I think, may not be entirely helpful in improving the tone of the evening.

A moment later, a tiny jet-black mouse makes a break for it and sprints across the floor and out the door, while the dog gives murderous chase. From behind me, standing on the bed, I hear my daughter shrieking, "I knew there was something alive in here!"

"Well, it's gone now," I begin, in what I know is likely to be ineffectual damage control, but before I have even finished the sentence, the dog is back, ripping open the wicker basket once again. I pick the basket up and make to move it outside, chiding the dog that the mouse has now gone and what she is smelling is just traces of the departed mou-- But of course, I only make it two feet before I see another (this time grey) mouse racing frantically round the basket as I inadvertently tip it, and I--hero protector that I am--shriek loudly and drop the basket. The dog plunges her head back in and proceeds to smash the remnants of the basket to kindling in an attempt to get the creature. She suddenly snaps her jaws shut, and as Tigana shouts from behind me, "Don't let her kill it! It did nothing wrong!", the dog trots out of the room with the deliberate gait of an executioner. As I mumble something about mouse trespass and the death penalty to Tigana, I follow the action outside the bedroom in time to watch a bullet-fast mouse (I am unclear if this is a third individual or one of the previous two somehow escaped from the jaws of death) scuttle under the sitting room piano -- and my 60lb dog kamikaze into same nanoseconds after. As I call the dog back from battering the piano pedals, I'm thinking my little night-time pep talk could definitely have gone better...

Normally, this is where I call in Mom to take charge of hysterical children, but she's away, so the best I could do as move the kids upstairs while the dog and I slept downstairs in their (apparently mouse-infested) bedrooms. It was restful for no one that the dog persisted in patrolling the floor against further incursions for most of the night, though I suppose it did manage to draw attention away from the cannibal threat.

This is not, I am sorry to confess, the first problematic encounter with mice in the house. About a month ago I had set a few traps to catch suspected intruders in the kitchen, with reassurances to the children that it was a 'catch and release' program. This worked relatively effectively, with my actually setting a few mice loose in the coulees, until I noticed that one trap had inexplicably disappeared. Assuming I had just misremembered where I had placed it, or that the dog had nosed it away somewhere, I forgot about it. A couple of days later I'm playing with my 9 year old in her room, when she reaches behind her into her stack of stuffies to pull out--you guessed it--a dead mouse. Why the mouse dragged itself and the trap all the way across the house to my daughter's bedroom and buried itself in her stuffy collection, I will never know, but Kasia's reaction was predictably 'upset'. It hadn't helped that we actually have three stuffed mice included in her collection and that we both sat there starring at the dead mouse for 10 seconds before realizing that this one was real. (Well the trap attached should have been a give away.) On that occasion I was able to hand my daughter off to spend the night with mom, but it took a couple of days to convince Kasia her room was now mouse free.

Still, could have been worse. Could have been cannibals.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Today's Spam

Okay, I mostly just delete spam without opening it, but this one from Mrs. Amal Nasri caught my eye:

Muslim Brotherhood Random Selection Approved

As-Salamu Alaykum

Muslim Brotherhood random selection approved your email along with 199 others to benefit from the revolution gift, this is organized in London Early this year, it's organized to encourage the Muslim world and appreciate their support, and to those who have lost their love ones in the revolution, your compensation amount is Two Million United States of American Dollars (USD $2,000,000.00),

Contact email: XXXX
Mrs.Amal Nasri.
Arab Revolution

It was recently explained to me that spammers are not stupid, and that the complete lack of credibility in this sort of email is not sloppiness or lack of research. Fooling you is a waste of their time if, after the initial email hooks one, the intended victims suddenly says, "Hey, wait a minute! That doesn't make any sense!" when asked for one's bank account password. No, they send out deliberately ridiculous emails hoping to hook that one in a million really stupid person who will fall for anything, and so can be relied on to follow through.

The other key to a good con, I learned from some movie or other decades ago: the victim must think s/he is doing something illegal/immoral themselves so that they are then disinclined to report their victimization, once they eventually realized they have been fleeced.

So this one comes close to perfect on both counts. You'd have to be both spectacularly stupid and a traitor to your right-wing prejudices to fall for this one. "They randomly selected my email to give me $2 million dollars? Yes, that makes sense! They randomly blow people up, so naturally, they must be equally random in everything they do! They are insane, so this makes total sense!" Someone questions why they would have 200 X 2 million dollars to handout -- no problem: "Those damn arabs have billions! That's just chump change to them!" And, you know, handing out billions to random emails is way more cost effective for the revolution than say, I don't know, buying armaments. And they probably do use US dollars, because that's what they would use in London, right? "And anyway, they think I've suffered a loss for the revolution. So all I have to do is pretend to be Muslim revolutionary and I can collect big time!"

What bothers me is that spammers can find enough takers to make it worth their while to clutter up my email stream. That there are more than four guys who could fall for this is a condemnation of Social Studies teachers everywhere. That the people who fall for this are eligible to vote for Mitt Romney is the flaw in the democratic system.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Son of Dwarf by Jeremy Mason

Attended a production of Jeremy Mason's Son of a Dwarf this evening.

The play is part satire of the fantasy genre, part decent fantasy adventure. Although there are a number of pure pythonesque moments, and some brilliant shots at basic fantasy tropes that scored well with the audience, the central story is allowed to retain sufficient sense that the story hangs together for its own sake. Indeed, this is one of the plays' strengths, since a common error of satirists--deftly avoided here--is to get so wrapped up in jokes and one-liners that the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own silliness. This got pretty silly, but allowed the characters to retain a central dignity that saw them deliver their dialog as if they meant it.

I have been following the work of Jeremy Mason for some time and am pleased to see him branching out from children's plays to, well, sophomore plays. The same principles of frantic action and comedic commentary that served Jeremy well when writing for 5 year olds kept the 1st and 2nd year university audience I was sitting with howling with laughter. My 14 year old laughed throughout even though she has only just started Lord of the Rings, has never engaged in fantasy gaming, and probably missed a third of the references. And even at my advanced years, I pretty much enjoyed the whole thing.

It's hard to know where Jeremy's writing left off and the inventive direction of the Accidental Humour Company took over. The creative use of multimedia screens required split second timing, but allow the production to include astounding special effects: an arrow shot at the evil wizard turns into a dove; magic mirrors talk back; tiny gnomes climb in and out of hero's backpack; forcefields shimmer to prevent the heroine entering the magic cave; explosions shoot from the wizard's staff; and so on. Great stuff for a live play! The battle scenes were fantastic: actual armies of--well, I might have missed what they were exactly, but they were very creepy in a hilarious sort of way -- evil minions threaten our heroes, as great choreography has the actors Harry Wooing across the stage in slow motion. Fabulous stuff!

I will absolutely seek out any future productions by Accidental Humour Company. Pure comic genius!

I give the play four out of five stars.

See trailer here: http://vimeo.com/46451916

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Curious if True: The Fantastic in Literature

I had the honour of writing the foreword to this collection of essays on science fiction, fantasy and magic realism written by a talented group of up and coming scholars. The major thrust of my foreword was that these-kids-today have no idea how hard it was to have SF taken seriously when we were younger. So I just provided a couple of examples of how far SF scholarship has come in just one generation. It really is quite astonishing, when you think about it.

The collection is edited by Amy Bright, the reviewer at Girl to the Rescue and the up and coming author of Before We Go (from Red Deer Press). Amy's academic work can be found in the Journal of Children's Literature and Studies in Canadian Literature. Contributors to Curious if True include Luke R. J. Maynard, Gaelan Gilbert, Mary Eileen Wennekers, Elisa Bursten, Amy Bright, Max F. R. Olesen, Laura van Dyke, Erin Dunbar, Tessa Mellas, Shannon M. Minifie, and Thomas Stuart. Cover art is by comic artist Betty Liang.

Curious if True: The Fantastic in Literature is being launched this month (July, 2012) by Cambridge Scholars Publishers.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Split Decision" Reprinted

Pleased to hear that my short story, "Split Decision", originally published in the Tesseracts 15 anthology (August, 2011), has been picked up by Imaginarium "best Canadian SF of the year" anthology (July 2012).

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Children: Our Future

Attended a charity event last night for a very worthwhile cause: a youth shelter. The shelter does great work helping troubled teens, and I fully support it. I was also pleased to hear someone from the University saying it was important for the university to support the shelter because the university should be there for all youth, not just the ones lucky enough to attend university.
However, I was troubled when the dinner featured some of the major sponsors explaining why they supported the shelter, and almost every one of them said something like "We need to help these young people, because these 'youth are our future'". And at some level, the constant repetition of that last phrase really annoyed me. Because here is the thing: Youth are not important because they are going to grow up some day; they're important, they have worth, now.
(John Atkinson, Wrong Hands)

It really troubles me to hear kids talked about as some sort of commodity in a futures market. "Let's invest in them now because it could pay off big in the future!" I don't actually care if any of them grow up to be "important" contributors to society. Or the equally annoying suggestion that a small amount invested in shelters now will reduce the higher costs of jails and rehab for them in the future. How about we just help them because they need help? Because it's the right thing to do? Because it takes a community to raise a child and its our responsibility to help?
Heard a line on "Damages" last night that may apply here: "Parents can only be as happy as their saddest child".

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Retreat: Day 12

Had trouble sleeping on the train again; this particular stretch of track and high speeds leads to some significant shaking. There is also the disturbance that at midnight they merge the trains from Portland and Seattle, which involves a certain amount of bumping around; and they start announcing stations and breakfast etc way too early. The train going West, I was able to turn the speaker off in my room, but this particular sleeping car didn't seem to have a mute for the speakers. (The steward told me that it was the only car with this particular control panel type in Amtrak, a constant annoyance to him because the call button and the light switch looked identical.) But when I eventually drag myself out of bed, have a quick breakfast and finally start on my fiction.
Get three hours to wrestle with my short story, see the problem and write a couple of scenes to fix them. Am not quite through when train arrives in Shelby and I disembark, gas up the Van, and start driving back to Lethbridge.
On the whole, I judge the Retreat a major success. True, I had hoped to be writing more fiction when Mary booked the trip, but it's my own fault for not clearing the decks by that implied deadline that I had to work on work-related writing instead. But I managed to get what might have otherwise been about a month's work of work done in 12 days. This has taken a huge amount of pressure and stress off me, and ultimately, that's the point of the exercise. Hopefully I am now sufficiently back on track with work deadlines that I can in fact have my work completed by the time I go on Study Leave (July 1) and be able to write both my textbook and my novel without too many major distractions.

Retreat: Day 11

Sleep in because up very late last night. Spend what’s left of the morning doing email: half urgent business, half arguing with colleagues on teaching/learning list over assessment issues. I should probably be spending the time writing, but I love pontificating even more. I am probably annoying many of those on the list by pointing out why their grading practices make no sense, but off list am being egged on by private emails of support and requests to reprint my comments in their newsletters or Facebook pages. (A lot of the staff in teaching/learning centers don’t have tenure, so are rather more cautious about telling off profs, but I am happy to front for them. I think instead of going for full prof, I should apply for official curmudgeon status.)

Mary tells me to go to the Seattle Art Museum for the afternoon, so I do that. It’s just three blocks away, and it would be crazy for me to keep wasting time on email while I am in another city, especially one I’ve never been to before.

I instantly love Seattle. I desperately want to go to the Café Nervosa, but am handicapped by it not being a real place. But that’s the tone of the whole city. I can definitely see why people move here. I feel invigorated just walking through the streets in spite of the rain and cool temperatures.

And the Art Museum! It is middle of the afternoon and jammed packed with people. Not school kids this time, but adults of all ages. If this is typical of the turnout, then Seattle is one art-loving city. The current exhibit is Gauguin and Polynesian art…I find Gauguin kind of okay, and when I work out how old he is and how young his native girl “companion” in these paintings, there is a bit of an eewwweeee moment. White imperialists picking up local teens is kind of dark. But the Polynesian artifacts that inspired him are marvelous.

There are several other exhibits I rush through, the African facemasks being a great one. I snap some pictures for future reference for my own cultural appropriation purposes, should I ever care to write fantasy.

Then onto the Empire Builder. I am again struck by how Amtrak and intercity rail are so active. There are three trains in the station when I arrive and the station is thronged. As we zip along past or stopping at various stations, I can’t help but be impressed by the scale of the operation. The station in Everett WA for example, is twice the size of Lethbridge’s airport; we don’t even have a functioning rail station. It’s the health clinic these days.

Supper is with three gentlemen who have been travelling extensively by rail, clear enthusiasts. They exchange the relative merits of particular trains and routes. On of them is a piano tuner, and we have a great conversation about mentoring, the arts, Seattle, and life.

Not much writing done today. But an excellent holiday.

Retreat: Day 10

Arrived in Vancouver, quickly find a Starbucks so I can use wifi to fire off my report to committee in preparation for Monday’s meeting. Then transferred to train station to train back to Seattle. (I have to train back to Shelby, rather than fly back to Lethbridge because that’s where I left the car when I started out.)

Across from the train station is the Science Center, so went there until my train. The exhibits are mildly interesting and there is a nice little gift shop.

Scale at Science Center indicating that I weigth more than average black bear, but less than a loggerhead turtle.

Watched Imax movie on Arabia. It was well done, but a blatant propaganda piece to counteract deep-seated American prejudices – that not all Arabs are terrorists needs to be explained to American audiences is embarrassing to watch; but great photography, nice re-enactments.

The early morning crowd in the science center is almost entirely classes of school children, with a scattering of mom’s with toddlers. The toddlers are fun to watch as they interact with the interactive displays, and the larger kids move in herds and so are easy enough to avoid.

Overheard two teachers talking to each other about some interesting point concerning one of the displays:

“That’s my point exactly. Say, have you seen any of the kids?”
“No. But they must be around somewhere. So anyway. . . "

What parents suspect happens on field trips.

After, I find a three story Chapters with free internet for anyone with a Chapters card, so fire off bunch more emails, other essential work stuff. Then back in time to catch train to Seattle.

I finally get some time to work on my fiction. Struggle with a story I had started on years ago but abandoned because could not fit all the characters required within word limit for short story publication, and the idea not quite worth a novel. But been thinking about it a lot lately for some reason, additional scenes coming to me unbidden. But it’s still not coming together, and I start to see holes in the logic of the piece. And then, about 3 AM, it occurs to me that it might work if I reverse the POV. So will try that tomorrow.

Arrive in Seattle and step outside to find pedicab pulling up, so have Mitch take me to the hotel. He peters out a block short, but it’s late, the end of his shift, the last hill up is 45 degrees and he is simply not going to make it with me and my suitcase in the back. Indeed, I’ve been watching him struggle this far and wondering if I’m liable if he dies from a heart attack. (Though in reality, he is far less at risk of that than I. He looks to be in pretty good shape!)

Arriving at the Olympic Fairmount hotel, am assigned palatial room. More a suite than a single room, it has separate bedroom, large sitting room, and the bathroom is round a corner and down its own separate in-suite corridor. Makes the Westgate’s room seem small by comparison. Don’t know how I’m going to cope with tiny bed on train tomorrow after this. The radio is on and by the time I settle enough to turn it off I don’t, because this is the best radio station I’ve heard in a long time. Who plays this music?! So the station I would tune to if I could. Check out the TV, am surprised to find Seattle has it’s own Chinese TV station, almost equally surprised to find they get CBC.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Retreat: Day 9

Day 9 Ship docked in Port Angeles, Washington, which I had never heard of before. Apparently a logging town, now diversified into ship building and ship repair. Town has less than 20,000 people, so arrival of Oosterdam raised the population by 10%; doubled the skyline. The town was deliriously happy to have cruise ship in town: a host of volunteers served as greeters at the port and were scattered along the town’s two main streets to direct tourists. A fleet of shuttle buses, obviously commandeered from a twenty-mile radius (i.e., had the names of retirement homes and the like, rather than tour companies, on the sides) ran Holland American’s aging passengers the three hundred yards downtown for a mere $7. (If I were the median age of a Holland American passenger, that might strike me as a fine deal, but after three days of cruise food, I definitely needed the six-minute walk.) Another manifestation of the significance to the town of the Oosterdam coverage in the local daily paper:

Yesterday’s front-page news: “Cruise ship arrives tomorrow”.
Today’s front-page headline: “[Cruise ship] fashionably late, won’t arrive until noon.”

The town was so small…it didn’t have a Starbucks.

But for all that, it wasn’t a half bad place to walk around. Two bookstores, a half dozen antique shops, and a nice used-clothes/coffee shop (Clothier Coffee) with excellent cookies and free customer Internet. I had followed a girl on stilts to the coffee shop when she said the magic words “free internet” to a crowd of Cruise passengers a few blocks from the store. It’s amazing how much email can accumulate in just three days off line. I downloaded, answered key business emails, uploaded previous day’s blog posts, and continued my tour. I hiked a fair way listening to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on my iPod, so probably startled a few locals by laughing out loud for no obvious (to them) reason. Pretty sure insulted antique store owner by laughing uproariously as I fingered her merchandize, but episode with Neil Gaimen is one of the funnier ones.

Highlight of Port Angeles for me was the Lower Elwha Klallan Tribe’s cultural Center. Not only is it a visually striking structure, but when I complimented the manager on the architecture, she told me it used to be a tire store. Mindboggling to me that they could take an old eyesore like a dilapidated tire store and turn it into such a striking and vital community center. Some visionary leadership in that group, obviously.
The 'before' picture of the former Tire Shop transformed into the Center. (photo of a photo, so sorry about the poor quality & reflections)

Found out later they had also led the lobbying for largest dam removal in the world, to restore the Lower Klwha river. Unbelievable leadership for such a tiny nation! Inside they had tribal dancers/singers (rather good, I thought—I’ve always preferred West Coast tribal songs/drumming to plains culture) and a fabulous gift shop.

I found I couldn’t buy anything, though, because the majority of items said “made in Canada”, which kind of defeats the purpose, eh? But the Kallan in the Lower Elwha number less than a thousand, so lack the critical mass to have their own merchandise. Still, well worth the visit. I was bit saddened to see how few Cruisers had stopped inside. The Center had obviously gone to a lot of work to mount a series of activities and a fairly elaborate sideboard of appetizers (couple of whole salmon for starters!) for Cruisers, but I don’t think that the cultural center was one of the five stops for the shuttles, and that was a long climb up an almost hill for the average 80 year old, so not many of them had made it there.

And unlike San Diego, there was only one homeless guy lying in the street. (Or, I don’t know, maybe they tidied up for the Cruisers…though it seemed a more laid back community than some.)

Returned to ship, had a nice dinner, finished my report around midnight. Off the ship in Vancouver tomorrow morning around 7:00 AM

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Retreat Day 8

Keep to my cabin for most of the day, just coming out for lunch and dinner; take in the show at 10 PM. It’s the “comedy and vocal impressionist” Jason Neistadt, and I have to say, he is very funny. Fascinating to see him do impressions of people who have been dead for decades and get huge laughs from an audience that remembers them as if it were yesterday. Bit depressing that I seem to be one of them. Poor kids in the front row have no idea who he is supposed to be. So he tries Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, and gets blank stares from everyone except one pre-teen who cracks up. I am impressed with Neisadt’s repertoire because it is obvious he is reaching into a vast line up to pull out the ones he thinks will work for the Holland America crowd. If he tried this routine in LA, he’d get nowhere, as you have to be at least 60 to get any of it. But it’s a nice end of day wind down activity for me.

I make excellent progress on my report; break to do some more fiction editing. I finish the book I want to buy for Five Rivers: very pleased with it, better than I remembered. (It’s funny how wrong our memories get…one of the scenes I remembered the most distinctly isn’t actually there at all. I must have made it up out of whole cloth. And I had completely forgotten the two bits of business that are now my two favorite scenes. Such brilliant little touches of characterization, humor, that create an almost complete picture of village life in just a few sentences.) Such a nice little book, can’t understand how it has been allowed to languish out of print for decades.

I start the next book I am reading for Five Rivers. Actually another editor’s project, so I’m just reading it to give some quick general feedback--more free reading than assignment. Can’t put my finger on why exactly, but it reads more like European novelist than Canadian. Nice alien world though.

Retreat: Day 7: Holland America

Holland America may not be my demographic.

I couldn’t, for example, find a single item in the stores I would consider buying, with the possible exception of the Oosterdam mug which Mary had already preordered for me. They had some collapsible carry on bags with Holland America branding, but they were far more expensive then the identical bags on Norwegian. They had one shirt I might have considered were it not twice what I usually pay, and part of a line apparently tailored for the elderly predead. Women’s clothing was the sort worn by wealthy older women – somehow I can’t picture Mary wearing any of those stereotypical garments even when she finally grows that ancient, because she will want her clothes to say something about personal style, not just wealth and age. Nothing at all for kids except two pathetic stuffies whose only possible sales potential would be to the absent-minded elderly who are suddenly reminded that they have to grab something for the grandchildren as they are about to go ashore. As a current parent of an 8 year old, I can tell you those overpriced scruffy specimens were a ‘no sale’. Everything else was expensive watches and jewelry, but nothing remotely interesting. (This contrast sharply with, say, the Disney line where almost everything is at least mildly tempting.)

Bingo and casinos are plagues common to all cruise ships, but there is almost nothing else on this one. I pass the lounge featuring a string quartet, the Adagio Strings, which sounds like a fine idea until I actually hear their off-key playing. I appreciate that it must be difficult to play stringed instruments when the floor is moving under you, but surely they could adapt enough to hit some of the notes. I assume it some sort of sampling error, that I just came in at the wrong moment, but when I try again later, they are still off key and out of sync. I find myself actively wincing, and have to leave. I can’t understand why no one else seems to be noticing, until I remember that once you hit 80 you can only hear about half the frequencies…. I concede that the Adagio Strings look quite elegant.

Another seemingly promising opportunity is the Digital workshop: the Oosterdam has a room full of PCs and a perky young instructor to help you master Windows 7. Okay, I think, here’s a chance to tackle some of my PC questions. What are the workshop topics? Well, turns out the first one of the day is “Camera Basics: Bring your digital camera and we’ll show you how to use it”. Really? So many of the people on the ship don’t know how to use their own cameras, you can fill a room with them? These are the same people who in the ‘80s were the first ones on their block to buy a programmable VCR, and then spent the next two decades watching it’s clock blink on and off.

Similarly, the comedian last night kept his audience in stiches with jokes older than god; I felt like I was attending a performance in the Catskills. Everywhere I went were small clusters of old guys telling fart and retirement jokes: “The trouble with being retired is I don’t get weekends any more!” one guy about my age proclaims to his fellow elevator passengers, and while he waits for a reaction that doesn’t come, his wife kindly says, “Perhaps they’ve heard you tell that one before, dear. You have used it quite a bit this trip.” Another announces “I have to take a short but quite urgent break from you all” to which his colleague shouts back across the store, “Number 1 or Number 2?” If my mind ever starts to fail so far that I begin to consider this witty banter, someone please shoot me.

The worst is watching these old comedians “joking” with the staff. Oh, but it’s painful to witness. Some of the passengers are clearly regulars, addressed by name by smiling waiters and falsely cheerful porters. “Get to work, you lazy bum” seems to be a common motif among the jesters, playfully harassing men who’ve already put in a 10 hour shift when the passengers came on board, and who have been away from home without a break for 18 months or more. Hilarious! I witness one elderly gentleman pretend to box with a worker a third his height. Hoho! A ship full of aging white alpha males, past their prime and paying for the privilege of having a sea of ‘lesser’ men defer to them. I can’t help but wonder when they got too old to go to hookers.

Given my fascinating dinners with folks on the train, I had been looking forward to sharing a table and stories with my fellow passengers on Holland America. After watching such performances in every hallway and function space, I request a table alone. This is essentially the same crowd as the louts on Carnival’s drunken weekend cruises to Mexico, only now grown too old to drink and party. They remain entitled brats, however, and although I know some of them at least must have a story to tell, I’m not sure I want to hear it.

Retreat: Day 6

Got some work done in the morning, then check out of the Westgate and onto the Oosteram, the Holland American Cruiseship Mary booked me on. When I get to my cabin am delighted to discover I appear to have been upgraded: I expected to have an inside cabin but have a floor to ceiling window instead. True, the view is mostly blocked by a lifeboat (so maybe they do count this as an inside cabin still), but sunlight still streams in. King size bed, couch, largish bathroom, wall of cupboards, and a decent sized desk to work at. An excellent workspace for the next three days.

This is my first time on Holland America. It is much less garish than Carnival, but still kitsch, an American’s version of European eloquence with altogether too much statuary scattered about. I still prefer the unpretentious decoration of, say, the Norwegian Sun or the Hidden Mickeys of Disney. (None of them, of course, compares to the Queen Mary. That was when ships had real class!) The food in main dinning room is excellent, but not noticeably better than Carnival as I had been assured, and perhaps not quite up to Disney. And almost everyone is older and in worse shape than I….

Although not as garish as typical Carnival ship, Holland America still over the top kitsch.

I throw myself into my work, quickly realize there is no possibility of my processing all this data in three days. Even if I could, it would be 500 page report, and it has to be under 20. So, new strategy.

But I can already see the angle, how to make it fit. The great thing about being a writer is that sometimes one’s subconscious has been working on the project the whole time when it looked like one was goofing off on other stuff, and it just comes out whole. Of course, sometimes when you think you have a great idea at midnight, it looks pretty stupid next morning…. I’ll let you know how this turns out tomorrow.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Retreat: Day 5

Finally connected with client over editing job, and manager apologized nicely for screwing up, but apparently had emailed me at the wrong address, and assigned the work elsewhere when I hadn't replied. Why the manager hadn't tried, oh I don't know, phoning me at the contact numbers they'd insisted on when she hadn't heard back, or why they hadn't responded to my correctly addressed emails to them is less clear. "Oh, we never got those emails!" The whole conversation has the same feel as when students insist that they have submitted their assignments on time, it must have gotten lost in email/ Moodle/ WebCT/ their dog somehow.... But whatever: it was pro bono work, and I'd much rather be working on other stuff during my retreat.

So actually go out and about in San Diego. The Westgate, where I'm staying, is on the edge of the Gaslight district, so walked around there for a couple of hours. Yesterday was pouring rain, nasty wind, too cold to walk very far, so I just went to downtown mall for some take away. Today was way better. Intermittent rain, but then really great sun when the clouds open up. Had the drinking chocolate at Ghirardelli's. Bought a few things for the kids at World Market. Enjoyed the architecture of San Diego (nice looking convention centre! Some nice towers. Even some of the smaller buildings colourfully painted etc.)

Above: Convention Center; below, just some colour

Thing that makes the strongest impression on me, however, are the number of homeless on the streets here. I count an average of three per block. I'm only approached by pan handlers a couple of times, and they're carefully low key, polite even, but every few yards there's someone sitting with a shopping cart, three to five large green garbage bags of possessions, and a resigned expression. In two cases, its families. And everybody else just walks by as if this is perfectly normal. I can't understand how average American can feel secure when so many of those around them are so obviously in desperate straits, though the other subliminal presence were armies of guys with "security" on the back of their jackets. One particular image burned into my brain is of an obviously homeless guy leaning against a parking meters, watching at a group of yuppies -- their clothes and smart phones and expensive sun glasses pushed back into their hair said 'brokers' or 'software moguls' to me -- yakking away in an sidewalk open air bar. The way he was starring at them -- though they were completely oblivious of him, three feet away -- I could see him thinking, "that's who I was four years ago". And I look back at the yuppies and think, one mis-step and it is a long way down....

No wonder the 'haves' are so focused on getting more. San Diego is a nice place to visit, but I don't think I could live somewhere where it is so literally every man for himself.

And all those guns.

Back to the hotel for productive day on various writing projects. Make excellent progress on my day-job Report. In between working on different sections of report, start negotiating a three book deal for Five Rivers while I still have reliable internet access. Author seems open to it. Another coup for Five Rivers, I think.

Work until supper time, eat at The Bandar. Unbelievably big portions, three times the size of anything ever served in equivalent Canadian restaurant. Again, can't help but think of homeless outside, conspicuous consumption inside. But would highly recommend Bandar to anyone who likes middle Eastern food. Superb meal. Had to wonder, though, how many of the customers realize that "Persian" means "Iranian"? (Aside from that group over at the next table who are themselves clearly Iranian and therefore, you know, potential terrorists. :-) Another productive writing session after supper. Things are starting to come together!

Friday, April 13, 2012

MacBook Air Review

I bought a MacBook Air to take on my trip with me, my 17 inch MacBook Pro weighting about 200 lbs and so full that I constantly have "out of memory" errors these days. The thought of lugging my Pro around, or worse, of losing it or have it crash while away, was sufficiently daunting that I felt getting a true portable a worthwhile proposition.

I considered getting a tablet, but all the IT guys I talked to were unanimous that the iPad is for people who want to consume media rather than to produce it. The Air is lighter than the iPad, and I really couldn't be without the real keyboard. The Air's keyboard is identical to my 17 inch, only without the stereo speakers adding en extra two inches on each side.

I have not been disappointed! The Air is worth every penny. The three days on the train were enough to convinced me. The Air sat in my lap for about 1200 miles without ever becoming heavy or uncomfortable...not so the MacPro, which is not only heavy but often extremely hot. Furthermore, coming back from Calgary on the bus the other day, my 17" portable was too big to open all the way between bus seats...I've had the same experience with airplanes. But the Air sits anywhere I can. Even in the private room on the train, I would have had to pull out the table to sit the 17"Pro which then would have been at the wrong angle. The Air was a delight to work with!

The other feature I love is that it is instantly on when you open it. Flash memory means nothing has to spin up to speed or overheat or eat up battery power. I got hours and hours out of my battery. In contrast, the 17" is down to about 90 minutes before it goes down.

Having to get used to Lion operating system though, particularly to the new trackpad motions. I quite like two finger scrolling, once I got used to it, but still find I am accidentally moving my hand without realizing it and triggering all sorts of weird responses...e.g., made a random, accidental circular motion with three fingers and the screen went blurry. It me a couple of minutes to figure out how to redo the motion to refocus the screen. Who knew it could do that?

So 17" will remain my home desktop, moveable but no longer considered portable. The 13" Air will be what I use for trips, presentations, note taking and so on, my true portable. Mary got herself the 11" Air which is even smaller and lighter, but I found the screen bit small for my aging eyes; and I like that the 13 inch is faster and has more memory. So highly recommend the air to writers and editors... Leave iPad for readers.

Retreat: Day 4

Arrive at Westgate Hotel in San Diego at 1:00AM. The Westgate is luxurious: Grand lobby, marble everywhere, classical music playing softly in the background. My room is almost overly spacious: the shower, for example, is literally larger than my entire cabin on the train. A nice transition between train and cruise ship, it’s intended as the place I can spread out, organize my notes, and access reliable high speed Internet. Given the comfortable bed, blackout curtains, and absence of conductor announcements, I allow myself to sleep until ten.

I’ve mentally designated today and tomorrow to a major editing job I’ve taken on, since it requires access to the client’s website and this is the only point in my trip with reliable Internet. But it’s ten days past when they’d promised to get me the manuscripts, and no one is answering my emails. I reluctantly try an alternate contact I have, not wanting to go over anyone’s head, but it’s pretty much 'now or never'. I am still awaiting developments at the end of the day. I fill the time with other useful tasks, moving a bunch of minor projects along, but can’t motivate myself to work on my big report. In retrospect realize I am coming down with a cold, feeling a bit iffy. Go to bed early. Have learned on previous trips not to push too hard or worry too much, less the pressure create insurmountable writer's block. I remain confident that I will get report done and have time left over for my own writing. Several scenes in story I’m working on filling out nicely in my head. If editing assignment doesn’t materialize tomorrow morning, will work on report or getting story down.

Retreat: Day 3

Retreat Day 3 Mary was right: it was a better sleep the second night. Not sure whether that was because the ride was less bumpy or whether I was better acclimatized. Got up with last call for breakfast.

I breakfasted with Stuart Bennett, proprietor of Simonsen Road Farm, an equestrian Inn and/or 30 day, 12 step program for those wishing to dry out; and designer/draftsman Alan Hardonk of Calgary, who has the niftiest business card I have ever encountered -- a business card sized and shaped protractor ("give that to an Engineer and it's the one card they always keep on them"); and his Mexican wife of 25 years. They're on their 25th anniversary trip. Another great wide-ranging conversation with people with whom I would very likely never have otherwise come into contact.

(And their stories are now my stories…. The trouble with eating with other writers at a writer’s retreat is that they all intend to use their own stories themselves. Here, in contrast, are stories and characters going begging. Sooner or later you just know I’m going to need an engineer in one of my SF novels, and he is definitely going to be handing out protractor business cards. And some other character is going to get a Mexican lab tech wife who makes to-die-for tamales. And why wouldn’t the B&B owner in my next Eloise mystery inviter to fill in for him as he’s off to L.A. to act in a movie? Yes, of course all one’s characters are completely fictitious and bare no resemblance to persons living or dead; except all the little pieces of these composites we create have to come from somewhere…and mealtime conversation with strangers is a highly valuable source.

Indeed, when I once had the invaluable opportunity of shadowing writer Candas Jane Dorsey through a working day, I kept waiting for her to write, but she kept just ‘goofing off’. She got up in time for lunch, which she took with friends; then we hung out with some other people, then went out for supper, then went back to her place for her weekly salon with half the artists and writers from the nieghbourhood she had helped organize into a housing collective. When finally she snuck away to write, she was gone for less than an hour, but pronounced herself well satisfied with the resulting two and a half pages of polished work. “That’s it?” I had cried, “you call that working?” “Yes foolish boy” (I was a lot younger in those days) “didn’t you see me eaves dropping on the people all around us in the restaurants? The conversations this evening? Where do you think authors find dialog, characters, ideas? It’s all writing: writers cannot have output, without input”.)

Omelet was decent, too.

Found and managed a shower, no small trick on rocketing train.

Then back to the parlor car where I put in frustrating morning trying to recreate grading file I had apparently left in Lethbridge. Four different flash drives with me, and not one of them had the complete final grade file. I must have renamed the final file to something else (“Final file” being one possibility) and stuck it on the desktop rather than in the mark folder so I’d be sure to take it with me…. Idiot. Either that, or it was on the fifth flash drive and I grabbed the wrong ones. (Note to self: next time, don’t buy six identical flash drives.) I’ve now finished marking everything, but can’t post the marks online without the missing file. Grumpy emails from students justifiably impatient for their grades are already starting to show up.

Mary offers to go to my office and search for the relevant file, but since the only time our schedules would match up that I could be sure of both cell phone and Internet connection (necessary to allow me to talk her through the maze of files on my work computer to most likely suspects) would be after I arrived in San Diego at 1AM (2AM where Mary is). Since she is herself driving up to Calgary tomorrow afternoon, no way I want her up after 2AM tonight emailing me files. Crazy. But I am overwhelmed that she even offered. (She’d already invested an hour emailing me potential files from my home computer…. Moral of the story (besides: get all your marking done before you go on writer’s retreat) is take time to pack properly and verify you have everything you’ll need for the retreat.

(Note to self: add dental floss to packing list. Or don’t order the steak.)

Lunch is with three ladies who go on at some length about the decline of American civilization, by which, I am disappointed to learn, they are referring to their inability to impose Christian beliefs on their neighbours, rather than, say, the current declarations of the Republican campaign. I smile and nod and back away at the earliest possible moment. It’s not that I don’t emphasize with their sense of a lost golden age, but that I’ve heard it all a million times before and there is nothing new here to steal. Er, I mean ‘inspire’. To be fair, it is probably because I have not tried to steer the conversation onto more interesting topics, but I was still bummed about the missing file thing, and two of the women had previously befriended each other so it would have been intrusive to disrupt the established dynamic.

Having by lunch officially given up on grading, I went on to other projects. I generally make excellent progress. I even start on piece of my major report, though as I look into it, I realize that particular piece needed to be started about three months earlier since it involves writing others and getting feedback, a step I seem to have missed somewhere along the line. I develop several possible strategies for dealing with the problem, but they mostly seem to come down to various ways of saying “Close enough for government work,” the mantra of my first boss. (Having myself, turned 60, a lot of what he used to say makes more sense to me now.) But as I chip away at various projects, I feel a glimmer of hope that I might in fact come out of this retreat with a great deal of what I need to be done completed.

I again take in the wine and cheese tasting (or at least the cheese part of it), since a plate of local cheeses goes nicely with the scenery and Internet access. I take an early supper alone, seeing as I was mid-productive frenzy and the opportunity expectantly becoming available; the deciding factor being that the only other open spot is back at the table with the three women.

I eventually have to retire to my room to pack; we arrive at Union Station in Los Angels, and I transfer over to the Surfliner to San Diego. It’s strictly a commuter train, no sleeper cars. The last train of the day going south, it is practically disserted, though the conductor assures me it can fill when there is a game on.

I stretch out and blog, but am disturbed by the smell of acrid smoke, as of solder melting. Unsure whether it is my brand new MacAir melting down (should have opted for the Apple Care package!) or the train is on fire, or – it occurs to me—whether the industrial part of California through which we are now racing simply smells like that all the time, I can’t decide which of these options is ultimately the more distressing. I accost the conductor as he passes and he assures me, after some careful sniffing, that it is simply the smell of the brakes. Clearly, he was sufficiently habituated to the smell that he hadn’t even noticed before I inquired, which raises some questions about train maintenance, but was very reassuring on the MacAir front.

I can’t get over how fast we’re going, though, shooting past refineries and neighborhoods and intersections as if they were on coming traffic. I guess that it’s because I’m used to the more sedate speeds of Edmonton’s LRT or Calgary’s C train, light rapid transit that is no match for a full out train like this one. We probably aren’t actually going significantly faster than the Starline or the Empire Builder, but zipping by this close to buildings creates a very different impression than crossing vast plains or judging movement against distant mountains. It just feels more terrifyingly reckless.

Hotel for the night, and bed next.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Retreat: Day 2

Okay, drawback to landcrusing: train was doing 80mph all last night, consequently sleeper car shaking back and forth with considerable vigor. I have to confess this tended to keep me awake rather than lull me to sleep as I had expected from fondly recalling the many sleeper car experiences of my childhood. Apparently, I wasn’t particularly worried about falling out of bed when I was ten when I still had a four inch clearance from the edge… Nowadays, I rather fill the single bed with a minimal margin for error, so having someone violently rocking the bed from side to side was not conducive to a secure and peaceful sleep. Mary tells me the next leg of the trip is a bit quieter, but I’m dubious as the train is currently doing about 80 mph and shaking violently from side to side as I type this.

A freight train broke down ahead of us this morning, so we sat on the track in the middle of nowhere for about four hours. When we finally got moving again, we had used up all the time I was supposed to have in Portland between connections. Indeed, we arrived after the second train was supposed to have already left, but it waited for us. I stepped off my train, was scooped up by a conductor and driven in his golf cart to the next platform, shooed into the sleeping car, where I quickly dumped my suitcase in my cabin, and trotted down the corridor to the dinning car for a rather late lunch, within about two and half minutes of the first train coming to a complete stop. Full marks for efficiency!

I, on the other hand, wasn’t every efficient or productive for the morning, partly feeling sleepy and partly worrying about my connection. (I tend to be a nervous traveler, which is irrational because not only had my wife contingency plans for every eventuality, she has my back remotely – anything goes wrong, she knows about it before I do--thanks to Amtrak updates via Internet--and can talk me through anything as she makes and unmakes reservations ahead of my travels.) But it’s like waiting for the cable guy: there’s no real reason why knowing he might come should stop you from doing all those other chores around the house, but somehow it becomes this constant, if absent, distraction. And, to be honest, having finished marking the last of my student papers this morning, I was it finding hard to motivate myself to begin my next big task, a report I’d rather not be writing. But I got into the holiday mood listening to episodes of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on my Ipod while enjoying some excellent scenery.

I eventually pulled out some of myfiction I’d been thinking about the last several weeks. For some reason a short story from the 1990s has been popping into my brain. I abandoned it back then because it was too long for short story markets, too short for novel, but now with e-publishing, length is just no longer a consideration, so idea is again worth revisiting. So I read over the original version and saw how easily my new ideas would plug into what I had from before. It’s embarrassing, but I remain my own biggest fan. I don’t know what it is about this guy, but he has exactly my sense of humor! So that got me into a writing mood, if not on the work I’m supposed to be prioritizing.

By the time I switched from the Empire Builder to the Starliner and had lunch I was prepared to settle down to work. Discovering active wifi in the parlor car on the Starliner, I was one happy camper. Catching up on work email, posting grades and so on, finishing off all the work I was supposed to have done before leaving, while they hosted a wine and cheese reception around me. (I can’t drink, but plate of cheeses was nice!) Quite productive afternoon and evening, interrupted by a steak dinner for supper. Fellow dinners were a family from Orleans, a Vice Principal and his wife --an instructor at the university--and their son in a Perry The Platypus T-shirt. A pleasant conversation, and interesting for me as the VP explained why he hated interviewing new teachers: “They all say what they think I want to hear so it’s different faces but the same speech over and over and over.” He was the VP of a Catholic school which pays new teachers about $30,000, so he knows that his applicant pool are those who couldn’t get jobs in the better paying public schools. So that was interesting for me in terms of preparing my graduates.

When I finally retired for the evening, settled down to read an SF novel from the 1980s that was one of my favorite examples of why Canadian SF is different than the American version. Not quite recreational reading--though I am thoroughly enjoying re-reading the novel--because it is one of the ones I am negotiating to republish, so and I’m editing as I go. As a novel previously published by one of the big houses, it obviously doesn’t need as much editing as most of the manuscripts that come across my desk, but it never ceases to amaze me that the previous editor let a lot more stuff go than I intend to. The lapses are all minor – some Bob and Doug dialog, a couple of momentary lapses in POV, the very occasional ambiguous sentence, but still… it’s the editor’s job to see the book is as good as it can be when it goes out.

Of course, I say that knowing that some fan is going to identify a billion minor lapses in the last manuscript I edited. Just finished editing Mik Murdoch: Boy Superhero and even on the third iteration, found stuff I had missed on the first two times through. Pretty sure I nailed all the big stuff, but there is always the occasional mistake that slips through: e.g., caught a reference to an earlier but now deleted scene, or that we forgot that we’d tied the dog to a tree at the start of a scene and need to retrieve him at the end of it. Oops. But after a while the editor becomes as intimately familiar with the novel as the novelist and consequently suffers the same kind of “see what you expect to see” blindness. When the galleys come back for Mik Murdoch I’m giving a copy to my daughter to read in hopes that her fresh--albeit untrained-- eyes can catch stuff like that….

Of course, I, the author, the publisher, and another editor will also be proofing the galleys. It’s constantly amazing how many errors can creep into even a thoroughly edited manuscript at the last second. I remember when I worked as a test developer for the provincial government, each test went through about 30 different reviews, and we still had the occasional exam go out where the typesetter (and the 11 different proof readers who subsequently reviewed it) missed an exponent on an equation, rendering the question incorrect. But at least we try, in contrast to the big houses which now seem to expect manuscripts to come in preproofed and self-publishers who just don’t see the need….

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Retreat: Day 1

I drive from Lethbridge to Shelby to board the train to Portland. The steward hands me my dinner reservation as I board; I am later seated with three random strangers. The first excuses himself after a moment to join friends he has discovered at another table. After the usual pleasantries--interrupted by appropriate oohhhing and ahhhing as we pass through Glacier National Park--the three of us who remain slowly get to know each other. The man seated across from me acknowledges at one point that he used to be a corporate pilot. As the woman next to him draws him out, he allows that he was also a former test pilot. Later, a stunt pilot, and featured airshow act. He is, in fact Delmar Benjamin, whose plane and flying are featured on the covers of three different flying magazines, a one hour TV documentary, and a series of YouTube videos under his name and GeeBee. (Go have a look, I’ll wait.)

So this guy, this random guy, has a ton of fascinating stories, including the fact that he did 52 airshow performance in one year, clearing about $300,000. (The airshow scene, he noted, is now in decline and he doubts that this is still possible. Too many doctors and dentists, he says, have bought planes and are willing to perform for free.) He regales us with tales of his days as a flight instructor for the next generation of test pilots. He is one interesting guy.

Has he, I ask, ever considered writing a book? Well, yes he has indeed written a book. His first book was published by a small niche aviation press some years ago. He is now writing his memoirs, tentatively entitled, Ten Seconds to Impact. “There are so many stories, things that I’ve done and seen, that would just be gone if I don’t write them down.” We discuss publishing options at some length. He has 10,000 photos of he and his plane, youtube video, documentary video, magazine covers with which to promote his forthcoming book. I explain about Pinterest. He responds by noting that he has an email list of 12,000 people interested in his plane. After choking on my water, I explain to him why he must be the envy of every other author. Compared to others whose names mean nothing, he has a built-in market with which to launch his novel.

Meanwhile, the recently retired woman with us notes that her father had been an illustrator with publisher Ziff-Davies in the 1930s and 1940s, and crazy about planes. He had created innumerable covers for Popular Mechanics and Flying Magazine in which Delmar was subsequently featured… (twice).

I find her father’s name strangely familiar. Didn’t he also do some SF covers for Ziff-Davies? Spaceships and the like? Why, yes, yes he did.

Small world.

She is also interesting in her own right, an excellent conversationalist who not only took the lead in drawing out Delmar’s story, but had a number of anecdotes about her own life and family,

So, how great is this? Way more interesting a first night than I have any right to expect.

But I can’t help reflecting that here it is, only the second time I’ve taken a meal on a train as an adult, and the second time I’ve been seated with someone midway through writing a book. Can it really be that one out of three strangers is writing something?

Writing Retreat 2012

Several years ago, I had debated attending a local retreat, but the price tag was $3500 for the week, and I wasn’t sure the particular writer in resident (a respected poet) was quite right for my needs. I hemed and hawed, when Mary said, “You know, I could put you on a cruise for half that.” The more we thought about it, the more sense that made. A cheap inside cabin is just big enough to be a good womb-like office space for uninterrupted writing; when I need a break, there is the running track on deck, better food than any writer’s retreat, including often room service; staff to clean your cabin and replace your ice; evening entertainment; and the occasional exotic local if one wants to go ashore for some input or proper pacing space. Ever since, Mary has booked me on an annual writers retreat. Mary finds a bargain cruise (usually a repositioning cruise, where the ships are really just moving from one site to another--say Mexico winter cruise to summer Alaskan cruise--and the fares are heavily discounted because there really aren’t any interesting stops) and away I go. This year, for example, she booked me on a four day cruise from San Deigo to Vancouver and Seattle for $360. You can’t stay in a decent hotel for four nights for $360, and that price includes Holland America meals and all the rest. So, not bad! This year, however, Mary included landcruising; which is to say, train travel to and from the cruise ship. But the principle is the same: for reasonable price I get a small (okay, really small) private room; all meals; transportation to and from the cruise; and no distractions. And, as often as not, really interesting dinner conversation.

Mary Wins Teaching Award

Just two weeks after receiving her Distinguished Woman Award from the YWCA, Mary has won the Management Student's Society's annual Teaching Award. The Award (complete with rather nice plaque) was presented at the annual Management Student Scholarship Banquet.

Mary hadn't wanted to go to the Banquet Thursday because she had had emergency wisdom tooth extraction Wednesday and still felt like someone was driving needles into her head--major painkillers notwithstanding--but one of the organizers insisted, so she dragged herself to it because, well, Mary is the type of prof who pushes herself to go out to support her students. So when her name was announced as this year's recipient of the Teaching Award, we understood why he had been so insistent!

I'm pretty proud of Mary. Nice to see her recognized for all the work she puts into her teaching...

Monday, April 02, 2012

Kiwanis Music and Speech Festival

Last week was crazy hectic for us. Tigana had three solo vocal performances, two school choir performances, and four solo recitations in Kiwanis Music and Speech Arts Festival this year.

Vocal Solo - Girls 13 & Under: - Own Choice:
Caro mio ben - G. Giordani
Musical Theatre Solo 13 & Under:
Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again - A. Loyd Webber
Contemporary/Modern Composers 13 & Under:
Beautiful - Duncan

Canadian Poetry Solo 14 & Under:
Lonely Land by A. J. M Smith
Narrative Dramatic Poetry 14 & Under:
The Highwayman Part I - A. L. Noyes
Solo Scene-Shakespeare 14 & Under:
A Midsummer's Night Dream, Act III Sc 3 - Helena
Solo Scene-Contemporary 14 & Under:
The Shape of a Girl - Joan MacLeod

Coincidentally, New West Theatre School's end of year performance was also last Wed evening. Which adds up to 10 different performances in seven days. . . .

Tigana took first place in all three vocal categories; she took first place for Highwayman, and second place for everything else. I was particularly impressed with her rendition of Caro mio ben, so help out a proud father and click on the link to view.

I have to say that I was very impressed by the quality of the feedback from the adjudicators. All three of the ones I observed with were extremely positive and supportive with all the contestants, and gave such helpful feedback, that I'd have to say it was some of the best teaching I've ever observed. Obviously they had the kids in the perfect 'teachable moment', but I swear I learned tons myself.

Kasia was also enrolled in New West Theatre School, though in a younger class so an earlier performance Wed night than Tigana.(Make that eleven performances in seven days for us to attend.) Kasia will likely start recitation lessons next year, and has already started vocal lessons, so will likely enter one or two Kiwanis categories too. So next year should be pretty interesting!

Friday, March 16, 2012


After putting it off for a long time, finally got around to updating Blogger template. But it has meant losing all the comments on previous posts. So it looks like no one has ever commented on my blog, which isn't quite right.

The problem is that I had been using a third party comment system rather than Blogger's because Blogger's original comment system never worked properly (problem with being an early adopter); but then the third party commenting software only worked for some readers -- others emailed complaints that their comments didn't take, or that it inserted eleven copies of their comments, or etc. I could never figure out why it only affected some readers and not others. Browser differences? Window vs Mac? Never seemed consistant. And then the third party company was bought out by another company; and then Blogger updated their system, which seemed to make the third party code work sometimes and not others, depending on how they got to the post.... And well, at some point, it was just getting stupid. Hit the wall this week when March 12 post received 400 hits, but only one comment on what should have been fairly provocative topic. When I tried, even I couldn't get it to accept my comment, so clearly nothing was working. So finally updated my template and even though that meant losing third party code, and have reverted to new and much improved Blogger interface for comments.

Now if no one comments, it's because no one's reading the blog anymore. (Well, who blogs in the age of Facebook?)

Monday, March 12, 2012

TED: Lessons Worth Sharing

TED's latest initiative, Lessons Worth Sharing, proposes to take the best lectures by the best lecturers, and animate them. This is a pretty neat idea, as illustrated by the short video explaining the concept. I am grateful to Nicola Simmoms for bringing this initiative to the attention of the online forum for Society of Teaching and Learning In Higher Education, to which I subscribe. In subsequent discussion, another member of the forum made the comment, "I cannot fathom a down side".

I agree that it is hard not to love anything connected with TED. But, um: being a sociologist, I can pretty much find the latent dysfunction of anything….

The subtle catch with the implementation of the best lecture concept is that each "lesson" is restricted to be ten minutes or under. So we get the best teachers, animate their ten minute lecture and post it as an example of great teaching. This then becomes the gold standard of teaching, against which all of lecturers are now going to be judged by their students. But one cannot reduce teaching to 10 minutes of lecture.

Sound Bite Thinking

Some concepts take longer than 10 minutes to develop. The bulleted points of web pages and powerpoint presentations, or the trend towards fast-cutting video, have already eroded our students attention spans, and sapped their patience for sustained argument. But many subtle ideas require students to really think their way through complicated, even convoluted arguments. Bringing data to bear on a problem, for example, allowing students to shift through and understand that data, requires more than 10 minutes. If TED implies to students (and instructors) that ten minutes is the longest tolerable length for lecture, I'm not convinced that that approach is necessarily going to promote critical thinking or sustained engagement.

Entertainment vs Engagement

I love the idea of someone animating my lectures…though my particular subject matter (say, the construction of multiple-choice test questions) may not always lend itself to that medium. But the problem here is that animated lectures are entertaining and perpetuate the idea that learning always should always be fun and effortless. Just as Sesame Street taught a generation of children that learning is fun -- with the unfortunate corollary that school should be likewise always be fun, and that if one's teacher isn't as entertaining as Kermit the Frog, one should change the channel -- there is a danger that viewers will expect their own instructors to be as entertaining as a TED Video.

This is a wrong idea: lots of what we have to do to achieve our learning goals is not fun. Practicing scales on the piano, learning the times table, reading scholarly articles, are inherently tedious but nonetheless necessary tasks. Instructors who focus on entertaining their students may do well in course evaluations, but it is not clear that their courses contain any actual content.

I work hard to make my classes engaging, but that is a very different matter than being entertaining. I hope that my passion for my subject shows through, and that at least some of my students catch something of that same enthusiasm, even as they engage in those activities that include an element of drudgery.

This is not to suggest that one should turn off Sesame Street or block TED video: obviously, the Lessons Worth Sharing initiative is producing a marvelous resource of which we should all avail ourselves. What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware that this is a medium we should exploit but not necessarily attempt to emulate in our own classrooms. It is not necessary, or even desirable, that we all start breaking our lectures into ten minute segments or hire animators.

Whose Knowledge?
I'm sure TED talks will cover all the great ideas of science, etc. But what about the social sciences, humanities, and so on? The whole point of having local campuses (besides allowing students direct access to instructors), is that we may not all agree with, say, American supply-side economics. Whose vetting what goes on TED's channel? Who is in charge of social construction of what constitutes really cool knowledge? Is TED going to include the lunatic fringe? Only the Mainstream? Is Somoa or Alberta going to see their ideas reflected on TED, or only America content? (TED hasn't done a bad job in the past of bringing speakers from around the world, so perhaps this need not be an immediate concern...but what we're watching bears watching.)

Another problem with crowd sourcing lectures is that without the larger context of a program of studies, concepts are presented out of order, without important qualifications, and without the necessary links/connections being drawn for the audience. Again, the TED Lessons might be a fabulous supplementary resource for teachers around the world, and for individuals seeking clarification of particular concepts, but it is important to understand that this is not sufficient to serve as a stand alone replacement for schooling. I do not say that TED has ever claimed that it would be, only that others will invariably ask, "Why can't it all be like this" and contextualization is part of the answer.

Good teaching is more than lectures
Good teaching has to be more than lecturing. I'm good with having a large resource of fabulous 10 minute introductions to big ideas available to my classes…but that does rather imply that the classroom instructors will be left with doing all the boring bits with their students. Students will therefore be inclined to make invidious comparisons between the fabulous animated lectures available online, and the dreary classes they have to endure on campus....

TED: Lessons Worth Sharing

But, you know, just saying.

Mostly, the TED initiative looks pretty cool to me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mary Runté Awarded Woman of Distinction

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Excerpted from the Feb 13, 2012 University of Lethbridge Notices Board:

The YWCA Women of Distinction Awards recognize outstanding women who live and work in Southern Alberta.

Through a competitive process, the honourees are chosen from a group of nominations. The awards are based on the candidate’s accomplishments, commitment and leadership.

The Women of Distinction Awards Ceremony is a wonderful venue to showcase the talent and leadership of women in Southern Alberta. Women honoured have been trailblazers, entrepreneurs, innovators, social advocates, and volunteers.

Mary Runte: Woman of Distinction in the Spirit of Women category.

Mary Runté has a Ph.D. in Management from St. Mary's University and an MBA from York. She is an Associate Professor of Strategy and the Director of Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Management at the University of Lethbridge.

Previously, Mary worked with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Eastside Young Moms and the Society of Special Needs Adoptive Parents (SNAP). Gender inequity, work-family balance, social responsibility and business ethics are her particular areas of interest and research, having numerous publications and having received major research grants to study these issues.

Mary was honoured as distinguished speaker for the Work-Life Conference at the University of Ochanamizu, Tokyo, Japan in 2007. She is the founding Division Chair for the Social Responsibility Interest Group of the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada.

Her tireless support of her students, especially female students in non-traditional fields, and her one-on-one mentoring throughout their academic careers is done on a volunteer basis. She is an incredible role model for students and colleagues alike as she advocates ceaselessly for ethical and principled business behaviour.

From the Lethbridge Hearld, Monday, Feb 13, 2012.:

Runté credits her daughters as her inspiration to connect with other women.
"They are very different, unique souls, and to just be able to see that and to recognize that is one of the greatest honours I have in life; to be able to nurture that and allow it to grow without interference, but with support," she said. "And I say that with my students as well. Male and female, sometimes what they need is just to be noticed."

Runte is known for tirelessly supporting her pupils, particularly female students studying non-traditional fields, as well as her volunteer one-on-one mentoring.
"It's really validating when people notice something that you do simply because it's what you do," she said of winning the award.

I am incredibly proud of Mary. I of course was aware of the impact she was having before the award, but it's nice to see her get some recognition for the work that she does.

Sunday, February 05, 2012


Brilliant movie. I especially recommend the 3D version: excellent use of 3D effects without being cheesy. The casting was excellent, the direction flawless, and the spirit of the book could not have been better realized. An excellent adventure story with a payoff of understanding the origin of film. I took my 13 yr old and she loved the film as much as I and it initiated a great conversation on the history of the movies. Anyone remotely interested in the movies as an art form HAS to see this movie; everyone else should enjoy a really superb movie about a young boy's quest and the little side stories about life and love in the Paris railway station.