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Archive for April, 2007

Sometimes, I seem to have spent most of my adult life getting back in shape. Starting with my recovery from having my knee smack into a steeplechase hurdle – an injury that sidelined me for six months when I was 19 and ended my slim prospects of running in the Olympics – I must have got back into shape at least a dozen times. This time, I am recovering after a year of chronic knee problems that left me bloated and feeling out of sorts. I’m being especially careful this time, going slowly, and doing more cross-training than ever before, so I’m more aware of the process than usual. I’ve decided, half-seriously, that being in shape is an altered state of consciousness.

For me, it takes about six to eight weeks of heavy exercise before I get the first tentative sense of fitness. The first couple of weeks are pure will, full of endurance and aches. This is a time that I can only stagger through, driven by a hazy conviction that I need to keep going and that, if I do, things will get easier. My appetite increases, too, and I have to remind myself constantly not to give into it very much.

After a couple of weeks, I realize that I am no longer hurting. I seem to metabolize food quicker and more efficiently, so I no longer crave extra calories. My face looks thinner when I risk a glance in the mirror. Deep in my veins, I can feel my blood pressure subsiding. I no longer have to be so careful about getting eight hours of sleep every day. Continued life seems possible, at least in theory.

Suddenly, somewhere around the forty-fifth day of daily exercise, I burst into a new level of existence. My center of balance seems to subtly shift, and I find myself moving more lightly, with more of a bounce to my stride – the results, no doubt, of losing a few pounds, or of converting fat into muscle.

Mentally, I find myself noticing more. I become more inventive, coming up with projects and solutions almost effortlessly. I become more intense, more focused. I’m sure that, were I to test myself during the process, I’d find my intelligence increasing with my fitness, possibly because of an increased blood supply to the brain, or because of the adrenalin and endorphins swimming through me.

My biggest problem is making sure that I evaluate the soundness of my thoughts in this phase, because, at this point, I become so full of optimism – so downright cocky – that I could believe in my ability to do anything if I didn’t rein myself in. I could easily over-commit myself to projects, or do something unwise like trying to take on a mugger when walking at night. More directly, I could abruptly increase my exercise until I hurt myself and have to start the whole process of getting in shape all over again.

In many ways, the first awareness of being fit is like being drunk; it gives me what, logically-speaking, must be an exaggerated sense of my physical and mental capacities. Some of that feeling may be justified, since I do become more productive, but most is probably illusion. Yet the elevation of spirit and capacity seems very real when I experience it, even surmounting — to a certain extent — serious events in my personal life.

So far, no visions or spirit guides, though – although, the way that sweat pours off me that I might as well be spending my time in a sweat lodge.

This is the stage I am at now. This time, it seems especially intense because it’s happening in the middle of spring, so that my external and internal landscapes seem in sync. Fortunately, I know that the euphoria will diminish as I learn to take fitness for granted again. But, until then, I know from experience not to take myself too seriously (not that I ever do).

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My mother-in-law died last night, three days after her sister. Unlike with her sister, at least I remember the last time I saw her. However, since we had planned on visiting today, I am keenly aware that this is yet another death of someone close to me that I didn’t witness.

In fact, so far, every person I’ve known who was dying has finally died when I wasn’t there. In 1992, Trish and I spent several days of our holidays at the hospital beside Fritz Leiber’s bed, along wiht a strange collection of people who included Margo Skinner, a movie critic and poet whom Fritz had recently married; his son Justin, a philosophy professor; a descendant of Rebecca Nurss, one of the Salem witches; a former dominatrix, and a punk-rocker poet. However, it was only after we returned home so I could take up a sessional appointment as an English instructor that Fritz died.

Similarly, when my father-in-law died, I was on the bus from downtown Vancouver to Peace Arch Hospital, cursing the slowness of traffic, while his respirator was removed and he said goodbye to everyone else in the family. At other times, as with my father, people have died the day before we were going to visit them again.

Mind you, I’m not particuarly eager to be present when someone dies. Fantasy writer Diana Paxson says that, when she was at the death-bed of a Greyhaven resident, she could feel his spirit let go when she told him it was all right to do so, and that sounds like a moving, if grim experience, but I don’t know that such an experience is something that I could sanely seek out for myself. At the same time, I feel curious, and often feel that I should be there sometime – and that, until I do, I won’t have reached the next stage of adulthood by coming to some sort of acceptance of death.

Sooner or later, my luck will change, and I will have to stare squarely at death. But I can’t help wondering if my current run of luck is good or bad.

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I was already an adult in the first days of the Internet, but I clamped on to it like a lamprey hungry for its next meal. For a letter writing, research addict like me, it was the tool I had always wanted. More recently, working in high-tech journalism and interacting with people from fourteen to eighty, I’ve been kept fully submerged in the latest trends. I don’t always participate in them (for instance, I was late to blog), but I have generally poked around and experimented. In fact, that’s my job. Yet it’s only been in the last few months that I realized that most of my middle-aged contemporaries view the Internet, Web 2.0, and related trends very differently. Some of them hope to exploit the trends, but few understand them and many are not-so secretly suspicious and hostile towards them.

On the Internet, the generation gap is not only alive, but stronger than it has been any time since the 1960s. Take email, for instance. Many middle-aged business experts suggest that email should only be a few lines long at the most. What would they say of the 2600 word email I received yesterday as part of my research for a story? And while these same experts talk about email overload, I routinely deal with several hundred emails a day. Naturally, I don’t read all those emails; but I deal with them. It’s a rare day, too, that I write less than a couple of dozen myself. No big deal – just part of my routine.

The difference, I think, is that, like people younger with me, I treat email casually. For me, email is useful when I’m not concerned about the speed of the response, or when I and my correspondents want to plan what we say more carefully than is possible on IRC. By contrast, most of my contemporaries still treat each email like a letter. Their attitude makes any given email a much more significant event to them than it is for me.

Unfortunately, accustomed to treating any given email as a minor event, I didn’t realize this difference until it cost me a friend whom I might have valued. While I was treating the person like I would any colleague, to the potential friend I was coming across as demanding and needy.

But at least email is something that my generation has reluctantly embraced because of its usefulness. When you get to various forms of social networking, the gap is even greater. A column in The Globe and Mail this morning that was supposed to be about Facebook quickly turned into a rant about the fecklessness of the young. Russell Smith, a writer in his mid-forties, wrote:

I kept asking young people, what is it, exactly, what is it for, what is the point? You keep in constant touch with your friends for why, exactly? . . . . Why on earth would anyone want to increase their e-mail workload? Why would anyone want to deliberately eliminate any remnants of their privacy?

Instead of exploring social networking as an interesting phenomenon, the column amounted to a rant because “young people” didn’t share Smith’s values. In the end, he came off as sneering and intolerant – attitudes very much against the prevailing spirit of the Internet. Generally, in my sixteen years of connectivity, I’ve found the Web extremely tolerant, almost too much so, considering some of its darker corners. Flame wars do erupt, but the Internet is a big place: If you don’t like the people in the parts you hang out, you can always find somewhere else to go.

All too often, though, the middle-aged make no distinctions. They persist in talking about the Internet as a homogeneous whole. Recently, for example, I read another middle-aged man’s comment that the Internet was responsible for a rise in “ludicrous” professions — not exactly the most tolerant view of change. And if you believe the average traditional media outlets, nothing exists on the Internet except viruses and pornography. This attitude may be due to the jealousy of traditional journalists who find their audiences shrinking and their relevance reduced by online hacks like me, but there’s a more general hostility and distrust there, too. Too many of my contemporaries sound like octogenarians whining about the young and their crazy ways because their bad backs are giving them trouble.

I’m no trendoid. I pick and choose the parts of the Internet in which I participate, in the same way that I pick and choose whether to carry a cell phone or own a microwave or credit cards (three commonplaces for which I have no use). Nor do I go overboard trying to use every acronym in the IRC lexicon. Nothing, after all, is more pathetic — or, at times, creepy — than the middle-aged trying to pretend they’re young. But just because I choose not to participate in something doesn’t mean it has no right to exist. And, more importantly, I prefer to be open-minded, and to base my conclusions on knowledge rather than prejudice.

If acting my age means being stodgy and irritable about everything new that comes along, then I plan to prolong my first childhood until my second one kicks in.

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Yesterday afternoon, my aunt-in-law died. She had been in and out of the hospital since Christmas with congestive heart failure, so it wasn’t unexpected, except in the sense that all deaths are unexpected because you don’t believe in them until they happen. My mourning is private, at least so far as this blog goes, so all I’ll say about Mildred is that I respected and admired her for being tough without being callous, and observant without being indiscrete. But I will mention that what disturbs me most is that, as with too many other deaths, I don’t remember the last time I saw her before she died.

This loss of memory doesn’t always happen. I know that the last time I saw my father-in-law, he had just been transferred to intensive care and a machine was doing the breathing for him. Similarly, I remember seeing Fritz Leiber unconscious in a bed at California Pacific in San Francisco when we arrived on holiday to learn from his second wife Margo that he had collapsed. And in one or two cases, such as my grandfather, my lack of memory isn’t surprising because we had lost touch a couple of years before the death.

But, in other cases, the reason I don’t remember is that our last encounter was so routine. In each case, I can imaginatively reconstruct what the last visit must have been like in broad outlines, but I have no immediate memory of the details. I can, for example, imagine wheeling my father around the nursing home and pretending to understand his aphasic conversation, or discussing poetry with Paul Edwin Zimmer or Avram Davidson jokingly flirting with Trish from his wheelchair. Such incidents always happened when I saw these people in the last few years before they died.

In the same way, I can imagine Mildred inviting Trish and I in and sitting on one of her two chairs near the window. I can imagine her insisting on offering us tea, and leaving so she could get dress for dinner at the assisted living complex where she lived. These things always happened because of the personalities involved, and the time we usually dropped by for a visit.

But, as with other cases, these are logical assumptions, not memories. They lack emotional intensity, I’m ashamed to say. And that seems disrespectful. You should have strong emotional memories of the last time you saw someone close to you. Lacking any, part of me accuses the rest of being distant and uncaring. Perhaps, too, I want the comfort of such memories as I attempt to deal with a world diminished by their absence.

The trouble is, of course, you never know when the last time will actually be until after it’s past.

Maybe knowing that an encounter is the last would give the illusion that life is structured like a novel, and isn’t just a series of random events. But I didn’t get much closure the few times that I knew I was seeing friends or lovers for the last time, so my concern probably isn’t just a wish for structure. Maybe it’s more the case that, had I known that an encounter was the last, I could have said or done more to show my affection.

It would be easy to end this commentary with a cliché, such as a promise to act as though each encounter was the last. But that would be false and forced, and too intense for everybody.

All I really know is this: it hurts that I don’t remember those last times more clearly.

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Years ago, when an interviewer visited science-fiction writer Philip José Farmer in Peoria, Illinois, he saw a band marching down the main street. It wasn’t a holiday, so he asked Farmer what was happening, and received a shrug in reply. “They do things like that in Peoria,” Farmer said simply. That’s how I feel in the middle of the hysteria about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Seeing every tenth car sporting a Canucks flag or finding the stores deserted because everyone is clustered around a TV set, I can only shrug in amiable incomprehension.

Exercise has always been a part of my daily routine. Considering that I spend ten or more hours a day in front of the computer, it has to be. I’ve run since I was eight, and more recently I’ve taken up walking, swimming, and using exercise machines. And when I was growing up, I played rugby and soccer and skied. So I understand the appeal of playing sports. In fact, I’m thoroughly addicted to my daily adrenalin rush. But what I don’t understand is the obsession with watching sports.

True, if I’ve played a sport, I have an abstract appreciation for a display of skill and tactics. But that appreciation lasts about five minutes before I get bored and look around for better amusement. Usually, I don’t have far to look, even if it’s just watching the crowd.

I know: every red-blooded man is supposed to have an overwhelming interest in sports. Fortunately for my mental health, I’ve never cared much about living up to stereotypes.

Besides, even by the standards of macho, how does watching sports qualify? Playing sports is a chance to display traditional male virtues like strength, endurance, and competitiveness – all of which I can appreciate, especially the first two, which I like to imagine that I possess to a degree. But watching? That has always seemed a strangely passive activity to qualify for machismo.

Nor does watching sports have much to do with any sense of identity. Professional sports teams and players rarely have any ties to the city where they’re based, and will re-locate whenever convenient. The Olympics evoke patriotism, but, considering that other world championships are virtually ignored and national athletes are largely ignored at other times, that patriotism seems tepid to me.

A clue to the appeal of watching sports may be their history. In the middle ages, tournaments were popular, but largely among the nobility. For long stretches of history, even the idea of watching sports hardly seems to exist except at the level of a local fair, where it was a special treat. It isn’t until the industrial revolution led to an enlarged middle-class that watching sports became widespread. The last time it had become so popular was in the comfortable urban environments of Rome and Byzantium, where the sports of choice were gladiator matches and chariot races.

Increasing urbanization, I think, is the key. When you spend your time wondering if you’re going to get your crop in before the first frost, or about whether Napoleon’s troops are going to use your back yard as a battlefield, you have all the excitement you need in your life.

But, once a majority of people are living a relatively comfortable life that is sheltered from basic concerns, it’s a different story. You’re still hardwired for crisis, so you need some ersatz excitement.

In modern times, this need has been met by any number of outlets: consumerism, celebrity-watching, or mass reactions to national disasters like the September 11th attacks, the ongoing crises in Afghanistan or Iraq, or watching sports.

What all these outlets have in common is they come with a prepackaged set of responses, so you can participate vicariously in them with a minimal effort and a lack of intrusion into your real emotional life. Has a teenager crashed his car? Then everyone knows to use the nearest telephone pole as a shrine for flowers, plush toys, and notes.

Is your local hockey team in the playoffs? Then start huddling around the TV and screaming and honking if the team wins. It’s all very satisfying, and the next day you can go back to the rest of your life feeling refreshed because you’ve momentarily filled your need for excitement.

Maybe I have no need for this synthetic excitement because I get my kick from having endorphins coursing through my body. Or maybe I have too many real challenges and crises to need pretend ones. Possibly, too, I have an adventurous world view, so that I find reasons for excitement in daily life. Not that I begrudge anyone else their ersatz excitement — I just don’t feel the need for it myself.

All I know for sure is that watching sports leaves me cold. When the playoffs start, I find myself keeping quiet, and detouring around TV sets in public. And if I can’t completely evade talk about sports, I find that a poker-faced question like, “Oh, does Vancouver have a hockey team?” usually creates a fan-free zone around me. If the alternative is solitude, that’s still preferable to watching something so boring that I want to chew off both legs to escape.

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I never planned to be a rescuer of parrots. Yet, in a small way, that’s what Ive been for much of my adult life.

I first became fascinated by parrots when I met Coquette, a yellow nape dwarf macaw owned by a couple in Seattle. What intrigued me about Coquette was her sentience. It was obviously so much greater than even the most intelligent dogs and cats I’d kept or met throughout my life. Years later, I read Irene Pepperberg’s papers on Alex and African Greys, which prove that at least some parrots have problem-solving abilities comparable to a six year old child’s, but, even on first meeting Coquette, I knew that I wasn’t just being anthropomorphic. She had a sense of self, and of humor, too.

Both were a revelation. I’d always thought that a parrot just sat in a cage and squawked. I didn’t know that they romped, and preened, or purred when happy.

Besides, a dog or cat seemed impractical in our townhouse. After a few visits with Coquette, whom we grew to like better than her owners, we started looking for our own parrot, deciding early on that,while we couldn’t afford a macaw, a conure would have much the same personality, and need less space as well. We contemplated a blue-crown conure, of the sort seen in the movie Paulie, then found a young nanday in another pet store. He was completely wild, but, within two weeks, he was marching back and forth between us on the couch so that he could preen us. We called him Ningauble, after a wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In those days, before the CITES treaty prevent the importation of wild birds, hundreds of birds were being dumped on the North American pet market every year. Many of these birds had been seized from the nest when young and malnourished and maltreated. Many had died before arriving in North America. Ning, we realized to our horror, was one of the lucky ones, having permanently lost a claw on each foot, but being otherwise healthy. We felt we owed him a life as close as possible to the one he would have lived in the wild.

Part of that life, we decided, would be a mate. However, we were also growing increasingly reluctant to deal with pet shops, so we had to wait a couple of years for the right opportunity. Our bird sitter told us of a nanday that she thought was a hen, who needed rescuing, and we went to see her.

If anything, the birdsitter had understated the case. The hen had been in a tiny, ramshackle cage, and overpreened herself badly. She had plucked her entire front bald, and her eye rings were black instead of white – a sure sign of malnutrition in nandays, we had discovered. When we took her from the cage for a closer look, she fluttered to the floor, and her tail feathers fell out at the gentlest of touches. The only sound she knew had to make was an outraged squawk, although parrots are among the most expressive of birds, with a wide range of sounds. We almost had to take the fact that she was a nanday on faith, she was in such poor condition. We later learned that she had been fed exclusively on a diet of sunflower seeds, and had had shoes thrown on her cage when she made a noise.

We took her home on trial, putting her in the spare room. But Ning made such excited attempts to communicate that after a couple of days, we decided to make introductions. Nng instantly started regurgitating to her, and she looked surprised and pleased. Within moments, they had become a couple.

The hen’s name was Sophie, which seemed not at all a parrot’s name – something more grandiloquent and silly seemed more appropriate. But she responded to the name, so we tarted it up by dubbing her Sophie J. Bandersnatch (the “J” being for Jabberwock).

Following this name choice, when Sophie and Ning started producing chicks, naturally their firstborn was named Frumious and the secondborn Jabberwock. The third in the clutch was Rambunctious Honorious Blunderbuss (“Ram” for short). In other clutches, Rogue and Rapscallion and Madigral followed.

Having parrots hatch in our living room was exciting, but also heartbreaking. Despite our best efforts to select caring buyers and give them advice, we didn’t always find good homes for Ning and Sophie’s offspring. Many people don’t realize the commitment of time and attention that having a parrot represents, and we soon hear that several of the offspring had been already passed to their second owners before they were a year old. We tried to help, but the only thing that would have worked for sure was to keep them all at home, and we had neither the room nor time for that.

One of the offspring we could help directly was Jabberwock. Somehow, he was let loose in the wild – we think deliberately. But he was recaptured and we heard about it, knowing him by his two albino claws. When we found he was in a home of heavy smokers who didn’t know what to do with him, what could we do except buy him back? But he was no longer the affectionate bird who had left our house. He remained a timid bird for the rest of his life, and died young of a lung tumor that was almost certainly caused by the smoke he had been forced to breath in his temporary owners’ home.

Another of Sophie and Ning’s chicks had problems, too. Ram had a leg injury in the nest, so we pulled him from the nest to hand-feed him. For a few weeks, the effort was harrowing, since he needed feeding every few hours, but he grew into a sturdy cripple and a strong flier. After all that effort, of course there was no way we would sell him. He started hanging out with Jabberwock, and, in the last years before Jabberwock’s death, became his preening partner.

After Jabberwock died, we started looking for another companion for Ram. Through the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, we heard of Beaudin, a nanday who had been confined for several years to a laundry room and who had recently lost his mate and a cockatiel companion. Last year, after an adoption process that included a home visit by Greyhaven officials, we brought him home, and he has thrived wonderfully, proving the smartest of our birds by far, especially in the matter of lifting the latch on his cage and finding other ways to escape.

We don’t have room for more than four birds, so future rescues are unlikely, but we continue to contribute to Greyhaven and other parrot rescue societies. Humans have power over animals, and, the fact that many people abuse that power is one of the distressing facts of our species. And parrots feel that abuse even worse than dogs or cats, because human ignorance adds to their distress. So we feel we have to do something.

Of course, had we known then what we know now about the pet bird industry, we would never have bought Ning. However, had we never bought Ning, we never would have been in the position to help other birds, so I can only hope that our karma balances.

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I’m a journalist, so in an interview I’m usually the one asking the questions. Today, I experienced a role reversal when Samartha Vashishtha published an interview with me in Indus, the online magazine for the India Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ve been interviewed several times before, a couple of times for pod casts and a few more for mainstream publications needing some quick expertise about free software, but for some reason, this time I felt queasier than most.

It’s not that Vashishtha misrepresented me, or anything like that. He doesn’t make say anything I wouldn’t have said. He conducted the interview via email, and, so far as I can see without going to the trouble of a detailed comparison,his largest change was to add exclamations marks. I don’t use many exclamation marks myself – nor many initial capitals, being a lower case sort of person – but no great matter if he did.

On the whole, he did a very professional job, The sense is there, and I even got a plug in for free software, explaining how it would help the developing world in general and India in particular to meet the industrialized world on an equal footing.

I also mentioned that free software projects are also a great place for technical writers to gain experience, since most developers have little interest in documentation and generally welcome anyone willing to undertake the task.

Still, I was a little reluctant to do the interview at first. It’s been three years since I last did a technical writing assignment. In fact, it was the monotony of my last major contract that made me desperate enough to take the leap into journalism.

Besides, how could I be sure that anything I was saying was relevant? I occasionally drop by the Techwr-l mailing list to see what old acquaintances are saying, but I can’t pretend to know the trends in the industry anymore.

Even more importantly, I’ve moved a long way down my road since my last technical writing contract. A large part of the time I was a technical writer, I was facing some of the worst times of life, so on the whole it’s an era of my life that I’m not eager to revisit.

Maybe this uncertainty explains why I sound so stuffy and so full of opinions in the interview. I don’t normally sound that way. (or, if I do, my family and friends are polite enough to pretend otherwise) But, even talking in generalities, perhaps I was circling too close to the bad years, and knew it.

Most importantly, the whole time I was writing my responses, I kept feeling distinctly unsettled. Being a journalist yet being the one interviewed was disorienting, like standing between two mirrors and seeing one of the infinite reflections starting to move independently. I don’t feel important or proud to be interviewed — just dazed at the role reversal involved.

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