Friday, April 13, 2012

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.

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