Archive for May, 2007

Last fall, when Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse was released, I felt the satisfaction of the world sliding back into its proper place. For one thing, McKennitt is one of the few modern musicians whose work can literally be described as uplifting, simultaneously relaxing and inspiring. Really, it’s a sense of spirituality set to music. For another, she camped overnight on our futon many years ago, an experience from which I emerged with the conviction that, if anyone deserved to have success on her own terms, it was McKennitt.

At the time we met, McKennitt was a cult figure about to hit the big time. Trish and I were part of the organizing committee for the Mythopoeic Conference, an annual mixture of fantasy convention and academic conference that we had discovered through Paul Zimmer of Greyhaven. A west coast booking agent contacted us through our friends at a local bookstore, and asked if we wanted McKennitt to play at the conference.

Some considerable hemming and hawing later, punctuated by our pleas of extreme poverty on behalf of the conference, the agent was gone and McKennitt had agreed to play in return for the right to sell albums at the conference and transport to her next gig at the Mission Folk Festival the same day. Nothing was signed; it was all on trust.

The arrangement brought screams of outrage from our nominal committee chair. Our contract with the University of British Columbia, where the conference was being held, didn’t allow us to sell anything. However, at that point, the rest of the committee had spent the better part of a year working around the chair, so we went ahead. We knew that the conference would be full of harp-mad people full of the yearning for the Celtic Twilight, and the opportunity was too exciting to pass up. Besides, we wouldn’t be selling anything ourselves, so, even if a campus official did check on us on a Sunday afternoon, we figured we were still legal.

After a day of rushing around staving off catastrophes at the conference, at 2AM on Sunday, we met McKennitt at the airport. Knowing her image mostly through promotional pictures, we expected an ethereal and delicate creature wafting dreamily though the airport. Instead, we encountered a small but sturdy woman with a brisk stride trundling a harp. Although she was obviously tired from catching the red-eye from Toronto, she was clearly practical and well-grounded in the here and now.

As we went to the car, I made a mental note to myself: Never mistake a public image for the real person. It’s not that McKennitt didn’t have a spiritual side; it’s just that she was a much more rounded person than her stage persona suggested. I perceived, too, that, while she was friendly and polite, she only revealed so much, and would defend her privacy if it was threatened. Years later, when she sued a colleague for writing a book that violated her privacy, I wasn’t the least surprised. That fitted my sense of her when we first met.

To our surprise, we found that McKennitt had made no arrangements for a place to stay. Somehow, the matter had never come up, and we were too inexperienced to anticipate it. Unable to think of any suitable hotel, we invited her home, and started along Southwest Marine Drive. She collapsed on our futon, and, five hours later, when we rose to return to the conference, she was drawing aside the covers on the cages for a peak at our parrots, dressed in a sensible-looking white nightgown. I wondered if it was the same one she wore on the cover of Elemental, but I didn’t like to pry.

Still, for all the sense of how strong her personal boundaries were, we learned a little about Loreena ferrying her back and forth. Possibly, the fact that we were all functioning on too little sleep made her more forthcoming than usual. At the time, she was making some important career decisions, like whether to sign with a big label or continue on her own. Control of her own material and career, she made clear, was her chief concern, and we quickly came to admire her mixture of determination and ethics.

She talked, too, of the difficulties of travelling with her favorite harp, and how she usually paid for a second plane ticket, since she couldn’t trust the baggage handlers with it, no matter how it was crated. If I remember correctly, she had had some nasty experiences doing otherwise.

We entered the conference quietly, but as McKennitt looked around the lobby for the best place to play, several fans quickly gathered. She was obviously psyching up for the performance, but, for a while, she chatted with them, deftly deflecting one man’s wish to enter a correspondence about religious beliefs and another one’s enthusiastic praise of her work. Somehow, without ever looking abrupt or flustered, she managed to satisfy them and detach herself from the crowd to set about her business.

Attended by about two hundred people, the concert was nothing short of magical. The lobby acoustics were almost those of a cathedral, and McKennitt had the audience entranced from the start. At one point, the sun burst through the clouds and the skylight, spotlighting some of the crowd, and I heard an audible sigh of happiness from everyone. Later, many people told us that the concert was one of the highlights of all the Mythopoeics they had attended.

After the concert, I stood at a table, selling CDs. For at least ten minutes, all I could hear was the slap of jewel cases as we unpacked them from the boxes and placed them on the table.

Then the conference chair began squawking like a goose at our alleged breaking of the rules. My thesis supervisor took her aside, while we handed McKennitt the money and spirited her out the door. I didn’t think I had the right to count the money, but most of the audience had bought two or three CDs, so she had made a tidy bit of extra money from what was really a side gig for her. I do know that the roll of bills I handed her just before Trish drove her to Mission was so large that I couldn’t pinch its ends together in one hand.

Since that day, we talked to McKennitt only once, although we kept track of her career and often attended her concerts. We were delighted at how she managed to stay successful without giving up control, but, the truth is, we didn’t want to presume. Over the years, she must have stayed with hundreds of people, and I have no idea whether she would remember us — probably not.

And, to an extent, I don’t care. For me, McKennitt is a living example of how to combine practicality and artistic integrity. While I wouldn’t mind sitting down with her for a long talk, the fact that she showed me that possibility is in some ways more important than having a personal connection.

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SourceForge, the company for which I do most of my writing, was one of the pioneers of community-building on the web. Slashdot, one of its main sites, is notorious for both the size of its audience and its — well, frankness, I suppose. Linux.com, the site which publishes my work most often, is more subdued, but feuds still break out from time to time — and sometimes article links are posted on Slashdot, exposing me to even more fire. So, over the last few years, I’ve learned to live with the fact that my work will be discussed publicly and with no holds barred.

On the whole, I’ve been handled more generously than many of my colleagues. Nobody has ever threatened me, questioned my sexual orientation, or called me a communist (I probably would have insisted that I was an anarcho-syndicalist, and invoked the peasant commune in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if they had).

However, I have been called a “moron” and “ignorant” and been told that I wasn’t a real journalist. Memorably, too, reporting on an issue that involved three parties got me accused of being a paid hack for all three (I only wish I were, I might have said; I’d probably be much better paid).

And I’ve lost track of the times that people have missed my incorrigible if sometimes dry sense of humor, taken something I said out of context, or seen bias because I ventured to criticize a project or cause that was dear to them or seen proof of an opinion that was the dead opposite of the one I was expressing. I don’t very much mind being publicly berated — it goes with the job — but if I’m going to be verbally abused, I would prefer it was for something I actually said. Sometimes, I wonder if people have read my article at all.

At times, these misunderstandings seemed willful, as if those who made them were picking a fight out of frustration with something else in their lives, or were just waiting for an article vaguely related to a subject that they wanted to rant about. But eventually, I learned to take them in stride, and they cured me, too, of taking an undue pride in the compliments that I receive. After all, if the hostile comments were so far off-base, how could I suppose the friendly ones were any more accurate?

Some online journalists never read comments on their articles. However, even after I became disillusioned with them, I still continued to scan them at least. Between the extremes, there are also people with insights that hadn’t occurred to me, or with an expert knowledge or sharp eyes who point out genuine mistakes. I know I’m not infallible. I figure that I might as well take advantage of the comments to to rewrite an unclear sentence or two when necessary or correct a genuine factual error. After all, the ability to receive input and correct mistakes are two of the benefits of online journalism.

Still, I take a perverse pride in both the attacks and praises. If nothing else, they prove that my articles are at least being noticed. About six months ago, I posted a kudos and an abuse page on my website, and occasionally I read both of them together or add a comment to one of them. I find that they help to keep me from taking myself seriously when I should be taking the work seriously instead.

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VA Software and the Open Source Technology Group, for whom I do most of my writing, are changing their name to SourceForge after their most successful web page. As part of the change, we’re getting new business cards – even the long-term contractors like me. The news has got me thinking about the whole idea of business cards, and my experience with them.

I suppose that business cards evolved out of the calling cards used in polite society in the nineteenth century. But where calling cards have fallen out of use, business cards continue to thrive, even in these days of the Internet. Attempts to replace them with mini-CDs for people with portfolios have never really caught on, although in some geek circles, such as the Debian Project, people sign each others’ public encryption keys instead of exchanging cards.

In Japan, I hear secondhand, there is an elaborate etiquette to giving and receiving cards, and even in North America, the exchange is ritualistic. I call it the business equivalent of two dogs sniffing each other’s butts – an analogy that, all humor aside, is not too far off, since both are greeting rituals. The cultures and customs are different, that’s all (It’s just as well that they are: wool and linen, the usual stuff of suits, preserve body odors even from a couple of meters away. You don’t really want to get that close to a lot of people).

Moreover, just as meeting dogs are evaluating each other’s status, a business card tells what level of access to a company you represent. People want to know if you have the power to make a deal, influence hiring decisions, or whatever else they might want from you. That’s why, at the startups I’ve been at, business cards suddenly start appearing as the company creeps out of stealth mode and starts interacting with other companies.

Of course, the appearance of business cards can also herald a rush for the status of grandiose titles in a company. Just getting a card is a sign of belonging, but, often, the ambitious want more.

I admit that I had some ego gratification when, after six months at a company, I suddenly found that I was director of marketing and communication, but, often, these titles mean remarkably little. In practice, I rather admire those who undermine the tradition, like the webmaster who liked to use Zope and had “Zopista” on his card, or the owner of a small company who listed himself as “CEO and Janitor.” I suppose that people who find these deviations annoying have a point, since not playing the game can obscure your level of clout, which is what people really want to know. However, at the same time, creative titles can be a talking point to strike up a conversation at a networking event, so they are more than just whimsy.

Business cards also create a first impression, which makes the frequent poorly designed ones out there all the more puzzling. The lowest levels of mediocrity are those printed from a template in a word processor on to a label sheet. Often, you can still see the perforations, and the designs are always uninspiring. But plenty of large companies issue cards that are almost as unimaginative. Perhaps that’s a subtle form of boasting, suggesting that a company doesn’t need a memorable card because it’s memorable in itself, like the mediocre advertising from megacorporations like McDonalds and Microsoft.

I’ve always preferred cards that have a dash to them, on the grounds that, if they are memorable, I’m more likely to be. I’ve designed a number of them, both for me and other people, and they always represent an interesting challenge in design, since they require standard information in a limited space that leaves little room for originality. My approach has always been to minimalize the information, and to add a checklist on the back, so that people can remember why they took a card and if they’re promised any followup action.

Since I started working chiefly as a journalist a couple of years ago, I haven’t bothered with a card. Most of the time, I’m contacting people via email or telephone rather than in person, and, if they want to know me, at any given time, they can find somewhere between fifty and one hundred thousand entries for me in a search engine. I had thought, though,of doing up a card to look like a bar code as a comment on the whole idea of business cards and their all-too common blandness. Now, it looks like I won’t have to bother.

The only thing that worries me is that, in the past, I’ve always moved on within a year after I received cards. Not that I am superstitious (he says, rapping his computer desk), but I hope that doesn’t happen with SourceForge.

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I sold my first article at 14 to Wargamer’s Digest, and I’ve been selling odd bits of my writing ever since. In the last few years, I’ve written a couple of hundred articles each year, and the thrill of publication has been almost lost in more practical concerns (Any typos? Do any of the comments reveal that I’ve overlooked something? Where’s the cheque?). I’ve even learned to take wry humor in being called a moron or a paid flunky of a company or cause. But one experience I never had until a few weeks ago was seeing my words illustrated by someone else.

Well, that’s not quite true. Years ago, I did have a cover for Witches of the Mind, my book about Fritz Leiber, but that was an impressionistic cover about the variety of Fritz’s stories, rather than anything inspired by what I had written.

Now, helping with the back story of the Imperial Realms online game, I’ve seen four illustrations so far of my work by Avi Pinhas and Ken Henderson. In coming months, I expect to see more.

I have mixed reactions to these illustrations. Some I admire, while some plainly contradict what I wrote. But, in all cases, my main reaction has little to do with whether I like or dislike the rendering. Instead, I’m overwhelmed by how unsettling I find seeing someone else’s interpretation of my words.

As a writer of fiction (or, in this case, pseudo-fact), I am very visually oriented. When I finish writing, the words that remain seem the best reflection of the images in my mind that I can achieve in the circumstances.

What is humbling, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time is the realization that, as much as the words seem accurate to me, they’re self-evidently open to interpretations I hadn’t considered. And some of these interpretations are at least as valid as the ones I had in mind.

The fact that these differences in interpretation can exist has me questioning traditional notions of creativity, and the degree of control anyone can have over what they produce. If others can draw things out of my words that I didn’t intend but can’t reject as incorrect (at least not without insisting that only my vision is valid), then I have to wonder how much control I have over what I write.

Clearly, I have some; from the start, Ken Henderson’s depiction of the alien race called the Tsihor, for example, is very close to the image in my mind of a species that might form a biker gang with Cthulhu. Yet, equally clearly, the degree of control is limited, and party determined by what others bring to the work.

That suggests the auteur theories of art, in which the creator molds every aspect of the impression that others receive is not only misleading, but threatens to lure the creative into an impossible effort to control everything about the audience’s experience.

But does that mean that all that the creative should do is throw out vague impressions and hope that some of them resonate in the audience? To accept that alternative seems equally extreme.

I can’t help wondering, too, what the third generation reaction will be, when players react to the combination of pictures and words. Perhaps if some of them are inspired to their own artwork, I’ll find out. But I wonder how much of the third generation reaction will be from my work. And should I care, when I can’t control it anyway?

Another line of thought is that the translation of my words into pictures somehow validates them. Of course, this is partly an illusion, since all of us are doing work for hire, not necessarily work that we would choose on our own, but it’s a remarkably persistent one. Regardless of whether the images do or don’t correspond to the ones in my mind, I’d be lying if I pretended not to get a kick from seeing my words shaping other people’s creations.

So far, I’ve only had the smallest taste of this experience. However, it’s enough for me to imagine what directors and producers must feel when their finished production appears on film. It must be an exhilarating experience. I wonder, though: does their first experience of the process affect their subsequent work? Does it make them more or less careful? Affect their work in any other way? It would be interesting to find out.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the closure of Progeny, a company for which I used to work. Usually, I lack the patience for nostalgia by temperment. Besides, experiences such as my high school reunion last fall have convinced me that such efforts are largely pointless. However, writing the article required contacting old acquaintances, and I became introspective, writing a reminiscence on my Linux Journal blog about working for Progeny and a sequel about Stormix Technologies, the company I worked at before Progeny.

Both, I realized, were part of the path to my current work as a journalist. After writing those articles, it strikes me more strongly than ever that my work history amounts to a circling around my core skills until I actually had the courage to use them.

In school and university, I never worried much about what I would do with my education. I have always been a firm believer in the value of learning for its own sake, and I was too interested in my classes to think much about where I was going. I always had vague plans about being a writer, but I can’t say that I took many concrete steps towards that goal – certainly not any consistent ones, anyway. As a result, I have a work history that might politely be described as chequered. Less polite observers would call it a thing of rags and patches that they wouldn’t even wear to wash the car on Sundays.

After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I literally had no idea what I wanted to do. I had taken a double major, straight out of high school with no more than a semester’s break, and I was mentallly exhausted. I took a minimum wage job in a bookstore to pay my share of the expenses, but it was a nightmare – not just because I endured a Christmas in which every second album played in the mall was the Smurf’s, but because I had never been previously exposed to the idea of books as commodities. Nor was I cut out for dealing with customers arriving one minute after closing or saying things like, “I can’t remember the title or the author, and I can’t explain what the book is about, but it’s got a green cover.”

Seeking escape, I entered graduate school. After all, what else does someone with an English degree do except teach? Besides, it was another few years in which I could put off the decision, and, meanwhile, I was at least talking about books as books.

I had given poetry readings and lectures at my old high school, thanks to the courtesy of Allan Chalmers, my Creative Writing Teacher. However, it wasn’t until I started working as a teaching assistant during my degree that I realized that I had a talent as a teacher. I enjoyed sharing my enthusiasms, and genuinely felt that I was helping students, if only by teaching them enough about writing to survive the rest of the university years.

That belief was enough to propel me through my years as a grad student and for another seven as a sessional instructor. I might not have been doing much writing myself, but at least I was talking about books.

But university English departments aren’t about enjoying literature. They’re about dissecting it, and, as I settled into semi-regular work, I realized that my distaste for straightjacketing literature into the latest trendy theory was counting against me in my struggle for full-time employment. My thesis supervisor and I described ourselves as the department’s “token humanists.” And I started thinking a lot about Robert Graves’ story of his oral defence, in which one professor said that he seemed like a well-read young man, but that he had a serious problem: He like some works better than others.

After seven years, I had squeezed the last hopes out of academia like an old lemon. I attended a presentation about technical writing, and jumped careers. It wasn’t the sort of writing that I wanted to do, but getting paid for writing sounded fine to me. No one cared, either, if I was a post-modernist or post-colonialist. The only priorities were accuracy and meeting deadlines, and since I’ve always been a first rate researcher and well organized, neither was a serious problem. Within six months, I had so much work that I was hiring sub-contractors, and was organizing major projects for international companies.

Unfortunately, I was also mind-thumpingly bored. In desperation, I learned typography so that my working life would have an element of creativity. I branched out into marketing and PR. I became ferociously devoted to learning the technologies I was documenting – not just enough to get by, the way that other writers did, but becoming an expert in them. Boredom receded, but it was still lapping at the outer edges of my mind.

That changed when I worked at Stormix and Progeny and discovered the joys of both free and open source software (FOSS) and of management responsibility. FOSS triggered my latent idealism, as well as my growing impatience with the average executive I met. When those jobs ended and I returned to being a technical writing consultant, boredom came flooding back. Only now, it was combined with a impatience at the mediocrity of those giving me orders.

With growing desperation, I realized that I didn’t care if the projects I was working on finished on time. Nor did anyone, else, really. Without a prospect in sight, I quit my last consulting job and started doing FOSS journalism. And, to my surprise, it seemed to be what I had wanted to do all along. It’s already lasted three years – about two years longer than any full-time employment I’d had since I went back to grad school – and I don’t think I’ll be tiring of it in a hurry.

That revelation may have seemed like a blinding flash of the obvious. However, I don’t think I could have done it sooner. I didn’t have the experience to know what I wanted or could do. I needed the experience of teaching to understand that I needed meaning in my work, and the experience of technical writing to believe that I could make a sustained effort in my writing. And, when I discovered FOSS, I also found a cause that I wanted to write about.

Looking back, I wish that I could have hurried the experience. However, I doubt that I could. Clarity and experience take time, and, if I got to where I want to be late, at least I got there. How many people can say that?

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For me, one of the signs of late spring is my first swim of the year in our townhouse complex’s swimming pool. The pool actually opened on Saturday, but between the rain and Trish’s illness (worsened, perhaps, by our over-indulgence in piroshki, blintzes, and dumplings at the exquisite Rasputin’s on our anniversary), my first swim was delayed until today. I’m still not sure how it will fit into my summer exercise routine, though.

I came late to the enjoyment of swimming. One of the advantages of running is that, although it has been absorbed by consumerism like everything else in our culture, you can do it almost anywhere, anytime, with a minimum of equipment. Moreover, my eyes sting in chlorine, and I never cared much for the sensory deprivation of many swimming strokes that leave you deaf and unable to focus on much outside of the water. But with a pool two minutes’ walk from my computer that’s filled with a mixture of salt water and chlorine — and one that I can use for no additional cost on to our monthly strata fees — the reasons for my reluctance disappear.

As for sensory deprivation, I solve that by doing an old man’s breast-stroke, keeping my head firmly above water except when I want to cool off. The result is far from streamlined, and I could politely be called a rugged swimmer rather than a fast or an efficient one. Still, the stroke allows me to keep a steady pace throughout my workout. At times, I can even enjoy the lack of awareness, relaxing so much that, at night, I dream of flight that feels very much like swimming.

Besides, swimming has the advantage of being much less hard on my knees than running on pavement — a growing concern with me. So, over the last few years, I’ve learned to overcome my youthful distaste and enjoy swimming. If it will never be my favorite exercise, it is far, far better than no exercise, or even reduced exercise.

But those dreams of flight come later in the summer, when I get into the rhythm. Like running, like working with a strange animal — like anything, really — the secret of swimming is to discover a rhythm. And, this afternoon, I didn’t have much of one. For the first ten laps or so, my rhythm was irregular, and I couldn’t coordinate my legs and arms. When I’d done twenty-five laps, I felt a rhythm was just beyond me. At forty laps, I might have just found the beginnings of one.

By the time I finished, my chest muscles were strained, too, with the unaccustomed workout I’d given my arms (which is another reason for my modified breast-stroke).

No doubt, though, I’ll soon be used to these discomforts. Exercise, like any vice, needs to be continually practised so you can build up an immunity to the ill effects.

The only question in my mind now is what combination of running, exercise bike, and swimming I’ll take up over the summer. For now, swimming in the townhouse pool has an advantage over the exercise bike in that it’s largely private. However, that will change as soon as the good weather comes, and the neighbors sit drinking and smoking around the pool, making me feel Puritanical and, at times, too self-aware to get into the meditative state that a good workout brings.

Maybe I’ll swim and use the bike on alternate days, or make each of my forms of exercise a third of my daily workout. Not having a commute, I can easily afford the time to do both.

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The first of Tolkien’s unfinished works to be published since Peter Jackson released his operatic version of The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin has actually made several bestseller lists. I suspect that it will be a book like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Tiime that people buy and don’t read. At the most, they may only open it to admire Alan Lee’s moody full-color illustrations — which, incidentally, have always struck me as inspired by Tolkien’s own amateurish watercolors, although rendered by an infinitely more talented artist. But, for whatever reason, people like me or the members of the Mythopoeic Society find ourselves once again in the embarrassingly unfamiliar position of having our tastes become popular. However, if the critics are any indication, it won’t last long, because most people are simply unequipped to appreciate Tolkien’s unpublished papers.

To start with, let’s dispense with the idea that the book was published to cash in on the success of the movie. The Tolkien family has already made a good thing from their ancestor’s literary works, and works like The Children of Húrin aren’t going to substantially improve the royalties.

Even more importantly, Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book, stitching different pieces together to make a coherrent whole, has been printing his father’s unpublished works for several decades, so it’s not as though he suddenly decided to cash in. Probably he can’t be completely unaware of the commercial probabilities, but in such a sustained effort over so many years, scholarship and love have to play a large role, too. To harp, as the Globe and Mail did, about the movie that could be made from the book overlooks the more basic point that this may be the last piece of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien publishes, since he is now in his eighties. Christopher Tolkien may have wanted that last piece to win a large audience so that it becomes the crown of his editorial efforts, but probably we can exonerate him from any motives more mercenary than that.

For another thing, Tolkien’s prose model is evidently the Norse sagas, with which the average critic or reader today is unfamiliar unless they happened to grow up in Iceland and learned to read from them. This is a highly readable tradition, but it is not the modern European or North American novel tradition. In the saga tradition, speech is not naturalistic, and motives and characters are stated plainly, not revealed in action or through indirection. And, like most sagas, The Children of Húrin is about the concerns and feuds of a family. That’s why it starts with detailed explanations of who is related to whom, and ends with a family scene. What seems tedious to a modern sensibility is a necessary part of the saga form.

As well as the sagas, Tolkien is also drawing on Norse traditions of the dragon slayer, like Beowulf or Sigmund, the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It is a part of this tradition that the dragon slayer himself must die, often, as here, for a wrong that he has done unknowingly. What drives the plot is not sudden twists, but a sense of fate unfolding inevitably. Here, fate is nudged more than a little by the curse of Morgoth, Sauron’s tougher former boss, but the effect is much the same as though less concrete forces are at work. The main characters struggle with their fate and in the end fall prey to it, but in their struggles they become figures of heroic grandeur. It is an existential, Germanic sense of fate at play in The Children of Húrin, and someone who only knows tragedy from the Greek version of the word is unlikely to appreciate it.

Another major misunderstanding that you encounter among critics is that The Children of Húrin is written in an archaic style. It is true that the tone of Tolkien’s work, like that of the King James Bible, has a balanced and dignified cadence, but aside from a few archaicisms such as “save” for “except for,” Tolkien is actually one of the twentieth century’s great masters of simple prose.

Should you have any doubts on the matter, read this passage (chosen at random) aloud. Húrin and his brother have just returned to their father Galdor on the backs of giant Eagles after being lost and rescued by the elves of a hidden kingdom. To keep the kingdom secret, they have promised not to reveal how they have survived so long:

Their kinfolk rejoiced to see them, for messengers from Brethil had reported they were lost; but they would not tell even to their father where they had been, save that they were rescued in the wilderness by the Eagles that brought them home. But Galdor said, “Did you then dwell a year in the wild? Or did the Eagles house you in their eyries? But you found food and raiment, and return as young princes, not as waifs of the wood.” “Be content, father, said Húrin, “that we have returned; for only under an oath of silence was this permitted. That oath is still on us.” Then Galdor questioned them no more, but he and many others guessed at the truth.

The simplicity of the language is probably due to the inspiration of the sagas, as well as Tolkien’s preference for Old English words over ones derived from French or Latin. But the overall effect is one of dignified restraint between men who share a strong sense of honor and are somewhat constrained at expressing emotion to each other. Such passages are, quite simply, beautiful, and anyone who alleges archaicisms and fails to mention the power of the language prove themselves the owners of tin ears, at least when they are reading silently.

If you don’t know the tradition that Tolkien is working in, whether you like The Children of Húrin can be predicted by what you thought of the appendices in the The Lord of the Rings. If you thought the story of Beren and Lúthien romantic, or the image of the last kings of Gondor brooding childless in their towers evocative, then chances are The Children of Húrin will be just as moving to you. But if you found the appendices a bore and skipped through them, do yourself a favor and avoid this new book. You’ll also be doing any Tolkien readers a favor by not prodding at it with your clumsy and unknowing fingers.

But for people like me, who devoured the first book of The Lord of the Rings one summer Saturday in Grade Six and spent a frantic Sunday waiting for the store to be open on Monday so I could get the next book, The Children of Húrin is a welcome return to a familiar place — especially since, to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins (that inestimable old hobbit) it may very well be the last drop of the old Smaug vintage.

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Kyle Anderson was lying with his feet on the edge of the sofa, surfing channels, when he realized he was missing his favorite show. He also realized that he had no idea what channel it was on. Shifting slightly, he began flicking through the channels faster.

In a world where he was finally having to admit to middle age and his co-wives and husbands had divorced him last year for not doing his share of the composting, the show was the one stable point in his life. He never missed an episode if he could. Actually, he had seen most of this season’s episodes twice.

Worried that the show had already started, he starting pressing his thumb harder against the buttons of the remote. So far, his favorite this year was the episode where the teams had to race Tamerlane’s army to reach the escape portal in Samarkand. Two teams hadn’t made it, and the surprised looks had still been on their faces when their heads were catapulted over the walls. Kyle supposed that it was cruel to laugh, but after a hard day of selling proprietary solutions in an increasingly free software world, you took your laughs where you could find them.

There was no such thing as a bad episode of the show, but last week’s had been a bit slow, he thought. Three teams had died of the Black Death outside Calais, and that was a little too close to the alligator flu that was threatening to spread out of South America these days. He had enjoyed the mugging in Southwark, though.

Last week’s episode had also featured the complaint from the funny-looking man from 19th Century England. The man claimed that his morning work had been interrupted by seventy-three successive persons from Porlock. The interruptions had agitated him so much, he said, that he had taken triple his usual dose of laudanum, and as a result had forgot most of the poem he was writing.

Personally, Kyle didn’t see what he was complaining about. “Spitalfields: A Fragment” was a great poem, so far as he was concerned. It had to be, because he remembered being forced to read it in twice high school and once in university.

There. Kyle found the channel, overshot it, and flipped back. Two of the remaining teams were crowded around a couple whom Kyle guessed were a king and queen in medieval times. “We were thinking of financing a voyage of discovery,” the queen said, her voice echoing faintly through the translation filter, “But our bankers assure us that your plans for a chain of bistros with outdoor seating and nude mud-wrestling is more likely to be profitable.”

“Sorry, Signor,” the king added to a man standing to one side. He looked like a sailor if ever there was one – tanned and callused, his doublet faded and stained, and a look on his face that said he was completely out his depth around royalty. “Maybe next year? Or could we interest you in a franchise?”

Kyle laughed at the way the sailor stifled a curse, then felt a jolt. It was as though he had started awake from a dream – but, this time, it was though the rest of the world had started while he stayed still. He raised himself up on his elbows, worry hovering around the edges of his mind.

He was fairly certain that the sofa beneath him had had cushions a moment ago, but here he was, lying on bare wood. There had been a carpet, too, not ceramic tiles. In growing panic, he looked up at the TV.

To his relief, his fifty-six inch wall unit was still there. It had a wooden frame with carvings that he couldn’t quite remember, and one or two extra buttons, but the sight calmed him. Who cared about the buttons when he had the remote?

Best of all, the show was still there, the same as always. But he must have missed part of it.

“– And, next week, it’s the final in the Royal Game of the Sun, live from Teotihuacan,” The announcer was saying.

Kyle thought that the announcer must have just come back from holidays to be so deeply tanned, then forgot about everything except what the man was saying. “We’re talking now with Fifteen Peach Face Lovebird, captain of the losing side in the final for the past seven years. Mr. Lovebird, the world wants to know: Is your team really that clumsy?”

A stocky black man, wearing nothing but a loincloth and some feathers in his hair, shrugged as a microphone was thrust in his face. “Well, I don’t think that’s altogether fair, Tyler,” he said, sounding faintly embarrassed, “We always say that if the gods want us for a sacrifice, they’ll arrange things that way. We just come to play ball.”

“And the eighty-five own goals?”

Kyle forgot his momentary confusion and sat back with a sigh. In a world full of faster and faster changes, the show was still the one stable thing in his life.

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Located on the edge of the downtown eastside, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is one of the hidden wonders of Vancouver. Like the merchants’ gardens it is modeled after, it is meant to be an oasis in the middle of the city. Look up at some of the three or four story buildings around it (mercifully, anything taller is at least a block away), and the sloping tiles on the walls draw your eyes back down to the gardens. It is a place for strolling, of railings designed for leaning over the waters, and strategically positioned red lacquered benches. The gardens impress me on many levels, and I try to visit them several times a year.

One aspect that never ceases to occupy my mind is that the naturalness of their appearance is an illusion. In reality, they are art raised to such a height that they appear completely uncontrived. The limestone rocks, taken from a particular lake in China, are artfully heaped to appear natural, and every bush and tree is positioned for effect. Accidents happen, such as the turtles and the nesting Canada geese or the blue heron that ate the koi in the ponds one year, but very little is left to chance.

In the Imperial Gardens, I understand, every item in the pavilions had a mark on it indicating where it should go, and, while the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens are not quite so rigidly controlled, I am always left smiling and dumbfounded when I consider artistry on such a scale. I have my doubts about feng shui as a form of divination or luck, but, after all my walks through the gardens, I have no doubt whatsoever about feng shui‘s power as an aesthetic theory. The paradox of appearing contrived through every possible contrivance runs through each step of the garden – and it is both absolute and utterly convincing, even with the little I know of the philosophy behind its construction.

One of the main principles, though, is contrast. Whether it’s the difference between the pebbles and the ridges of teacups that form lotuses in some of the paving, the differences between the granite bridges, the slate tiles, and the ceramic ones, the profusion of trees and plants, diversity rules the gardens. It’s a place of winding walks and suddenly changing views, whether through turning a corner, or peering through the diversely patterned frames in the leak windows that line the corridors. It’s a place that brings out new wonders in the rain as opposed to the sun, in the night with the lanterns lit as opposed to the dew of morning or the heat of afternoon.

At every season , too, one plant succeeds another, and new smells and sights are revealed. Inside and outside, too, are blurred by the pavilions whose doors can be thrown open or barred against the cold depending on the season. Look out one window, and you see a stand of plum – outside the one next to it, a pine tree or perhaps a plum.

I could walk the length of the garden in less than two minutes and not be winded, but instead I take hours, meandering in all the possible pathways and retracing my steps over and over. There’s no place you can see the whole of the garden at once, so you have no choice. You have to both slow down and keep moving if you want to see everything.

With so much contrast, choosing a favorite part of the garden is impossible. If I expressed a preference for the grotto in the main part of the garden, where small birds bathe in the waterfall, I’d be leaving out the t’ing, the spirit pavilion that sits high above the rest. If I favored the t’ing, I’d be doing an injustice to the jade waters, through which the koi glide in and out of visibility past the sublimely indifferent turtles sunning themselves on the rocks; put your fingers in the water, and the koi will nibble gently at them, seeking food.

And what about the main pavilion, where on winter days, the cold blends with the scent from the rosewood rafters? The austere tiling of the new pavilion? The round moon gate? The intricately carvings on the open pavilion where you can see the free gardens by looking to one side and the Sun Yat-Sen gardens by looking at another?

Still, if I had to choose, it would be the scholar’s courtyard. As the name implies, the scholar’s courtyard is where the owner of the garden would come to work on his writing or his calligraphy. It features a small pavilion overlooking a courtyard, with a small raised area at the end of the walkway for a musician to serenade the scholar. I always imagine myself at work there, or my late friend Paul Zimmer in a Chinese robe – and, on my visit two days ago, the fantasy became even easier to sustain, because the pavilion is now furnished with a chair, footrest, and a long narrow desk, complete with an inkwell and stand for calligraphy brushes. It’s a place where I could get some clean, honest work done in a state of utter composure.

All too often, though, this fantasy is interrupted by a well-meaning but loud tour guide, or a gaggle of tourists whose lack of appreciation shows in their fast pace or casual conversation. The garden is as much theirs as mine, of course, but I find myself resenting their apparent lack of appreciation, and, when I can, I take care to stay well away from them. If anybody cannot appreciate the gardens enough to give in their atmosphere and slow down or talk in hushed tones, then, so far as I’m concerned, that person is next door to dead. To me, it’s as simple as that.

Still, these intrusions lack power to spoil my pleasure in the gardens. After the first fifteen minutes, I am too relaxed to do more than sigh briefly over their lack of aesthetic judgment and stroll slowly to a less crowded part of the garden. Within a breath, usually, I forget all about them.

No doubt of it: When the gardens have had a chance to work their magic on me, I am calmer, less opinionated person, and nothing can really disturb me while I’m there, or for hours afterwards. The gardens do me good, and, if I lived closer, I would visit weekly or even daily. I’m sure that I’d always emerge refreshed.

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“He’s a crook or he’s crazy, so the story goes,
But the diamond is real and only one man knows,
And if I say, ‘I love you,’
Do you want to buy a diamond for a dime?”
– Oysterband

Today is my birthday. It must be; the Wikipedia entry on me says so. The occasion crept up on me, but I’ve spent the day thinking back over the last year. It seems a much more appropriate time to do so than New Years, which, as often as not, I don’t observe. The question is: Am I where I want to be? I’ve been adding up both sides of the ledger, and trying to decide how to summarize the last twelve months.

On the black ink side, I got out of debt in the last year. I’ve developed a modest reputation as a journalist. More importantly, journalism engages me and brings me into contact with the brilliant and famous, many of whom remember my name and know that I can be trusted to do what I say. Despite being called a moron by one reader, I seem to be considered at least well-meaning by far more.

Also, I’ve developed my contacts to the point where I now make as much money as I ever did as a communications and marketing consultant. The risk of having to work in an office again has receded for the foreseeable future.

After months of knee injuries, I’ve found an exercise regime that lets me burn a thousand calories a day, and I’m getting fitter all the time. Spending as much time as I do in front of the computer screen, I need heavy exercise to balance my life.

On the red ink side, despite some progress, I’m still spending less time on fiction writing than I should. I don’t get out of the house as often as I should. I wasted a lot of time trying to befriend people I knew in high school.

I still have enemies (not of my making) who would do their best to harry me, if they could do so without much effort on their part. One new person this year no longer thinks of me as a friend, although I will always think of them as one. I am still distant and suspicious with people, automatically distrusting their motives after the trauma of nine years ago.

Then there are the realities for which I’m not responsible, but should go on the losses side because of their effect on me. My wife and partner is still chronically ill and getting worse, and I can’t do very much to help. My mother-in-law and her sister died.

So how do I reduce these intangibles into something I can tally? I can’t, of course. But my impression is that I’ve edged closer to my potential professionally and found a few emotional niches in the social ecosystem while still neglecting my interactions with people too much. In fact, if I believed in reincarnation, I’d say that this life is supposed to be about how I relate to people – and that, the way I’m going, I’ll be coming back for another round.

Not that being alone is completely undesirable. As Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, it is often a creative necessity. But the trick is to be in a position to pick and choose it.

All in all, I’ve had many worse years. At least I can see some movement in several directions. Yet, on the whole, I’d sum up this last year the way that George Macdonald Fraser says that his grandmother summed up a mediocre first nine holes of golf. That is (stripped of dialect): This and better will do; this and worse will never do.

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