Archive for May, 2007

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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Last Friday, I spent all day at a funeral. To fit in my time on the exercise bike, I was at the local rec center at 6:30AM. I’m not at my most social first thing in the morning, but I couldn’t help noticing two cultures that are entirely absent from the exercise room in the late afternoon when I usually work out. Instead of the weight-lifters I disparaged in an earlier post, there was a crowd consisting of two types: senior citizens, and corporate types on their way to work.

From what I overheard, many of the senior citizens exercise at that time because they have trouble sleeping. Most of them have a slightly rumpled look, and few bother with expensive exercise fashions. Slightly stiff-kneed, often a little bent, they tend to move slowly, descending to their exercise mats for calisthenics with obvious twinges of discomfort, and bending almost double on the exercise bikes.

But, if they no longer move quickly, they have an endurance that many three decades younger lack. And many, while they walk the treadmill or pedal the bikes, are chattering away as they go on and on, obvious experts at prying the life story from any stranger on the next machine. They seem a cheery, sturdy bunch, and, watching them sweat steadily, totally unfazed by the effort, I can’t help thinking that the stereotype of the doddering old is badly obsolete.

One man, in particular, is scrawny with old age, but his legs and arms are so veined and well-defined that he must have been exercising regularly for decades. He looks good for at least a couple more.

The corporate men and women are another story. They rush in, striding briskly, eyes bright with a caffeine buzz. If their preferred machines are being used – and the early morning is a surprisingly busy time – they pace up and down impatiently, glancing constantly at their watches and bending to duck around the weight machines so that they can watch the clock on the wall. A few wait around the ever-ready TV hanging from the wall, watching a report on business. They exercise briskly and briefly, then stride off in the same way, their spandex swishing on their legs just at the edge of my hearing range.

Unlike the seniors, the corporate crowd has no interest in talking. For them, exercise is just the first item on the day’s To Do list. They have no time for anything except their agenda, although exactly what the urgency might be is something that doesn’t seem to occur to them. Instead of evaluating their approach, most of them are too busy frowning their impatience at the time this part of their daily routine is taking.

If I had to face strangers every morning, I could easily stand the seniors. But the corporate crowd is enough to remind me of why I’ve ordered my life so I can work at home. They bring an unnecessary hecticness to my exercise routine that I would just as soon avoid. If I wanted to surround myself continually with their sense of needless urgency, I’d still be commuting on the Skytrain.

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“If I were your career advisor,” one of my editors said, “I’d advise you to spend $25 at the neighborhood mall or quickie photo place to get a flattering head shot.” Those wise in the ways of editors will know that the technical term for such comments is a hint. And this one was as broad as the center of the continent when you’re flying, where for hundreds of miles there’s nothing but quarter section farms punctuated by small towns build around a football stadium or hockey rink.

Besides, armed with my keen grasp of the obvious, I’d been meaning to get a decent photo for months as a business expense. So, this week, I finally got some professional shots of me. Now, I’m trying to live with the results.

It isn’t easy. Like everyone else, I’m accustomed to seeing myself mainly in the mirror, which means that portraits always look wrong unless I flip left and right on them.

Nor can I ever hope to see an unrehearsed expression on my face. No matter how hard I try, in the micro-second before I look in the mirror, my guard goes up, and unconsciously I assume a demeanor that fits my sense of self. Like everyone else, I can never have first-hand knowledge of what I really look like. I suspect that I have two main expressions – friendly and grimly serious – but I have no direct way of knowing.

Another problem is that, like many middle-aged people, my self-image has evolved more slowly than I’ve aged. I may not think of myself as 16 any more, but probably my self-image is lagging behind reality by at least a decade.

But the strongest reason for my bemusement as I’ve sorted through this week’s photos is that making a selection forces me to focus on an aspect of me to which I generally don’t pay much attention. Quite simply, I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about my face. I long ago decided that, while I wasn’t a double for the elephant man, no one would ever pressure me to sign a modeling contract, either. Since reaching that conclusion, I’ve been generally content to concentrate on more important matters.

Anyway, I’d rather use an automatic razor and read rather than stare at myself in the mirror for any length of time, especially in the morning. So much as my self-image is based on physical traits rather than mental ones, it’s mostly concerned with being in good shape and having endurance – which is why I’m more testy and irritable whenever an injury keeps me from exercising.

For all these reasons, I’m hard to satisfy when choosing shots to represent me online. It had to be done – supplying a photo gives others a handle to grasp when contacting you, just as listing interests on a resume provides talking points in a job interview – but the process is painful, and tends to be destroy all sorts of stray illusions.

In the end, I chose three main photos: two smiling ones, and one in what I call a pundit pose:

Bruce Byfield

These are not not my entire range of expressions, but they’re the ones that I choose to present to people online.

Of course, part of me is tempted to run the images through a graphics editor to clean up the crow’s feet and the neck wrinkles. In fact, having been in contact a few months ago with someone who found cosmetic surgery a positive thing, I’m tempted to take the same step in order to bring my face into sync with my self-image.

But, in the end, that’s not my style. Others may incline differently, but if there’s a discrepancy between reality and my self-image, I’m more likely to think my self-image should change rather than my face.

Also, I’m more the type to defiantly parade the signs of aging than to deny them. Why turn my back on the experiences that those signs represent? They’ll only be back in a few years, no matter what I do.

Besides, after staring at my own face off and on for a day, I’m left feeling that it could be a lot worse. With this face, I’ll never be an authority figure, but I may be someone people will ask for help.

Yeah, I can live with that.

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One of my current side projects is editing a manuscript for Joe Barr, one of my colleagues at the Open Source Technology Group. The experience has me remembering the thousands of papers I marked while working as an English instructor at Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen College.

On our IRC channel, Joe is best known for having inspired our own abbreviation, NOAFD (Not On A First Date, because he is always telling people what not to do; apparently, a first date with Joe consists of separate sensory deprivation chambers in separate cities), but he is also one of the best editorial writers at OSTG. For several years, he has also been writing a series called CLI Magic about using the GNU/Linux command line, and the collected columns are now being considered by Prentice Hall for OSTG’s new imprint – which is where I come in.

As practiced by me, editing a manuscript is much like marking papers. Both require close attention to structure and develop of ideas. Both, too, require a clear sense of the difference between how I would express something and when the writers haven’t expressed themselves as well as they might in their own terms. Both also require a degree of diplomacy; it would be easier just to write “This stinks on ice,” but the writers will be more likely to listen and find the comments useful if I say instead, “Will the reader be able to follow this argument? How about arranging it this way …”

The similarity is especially close because Joe’s original articles are all under 1500 words, so that editing a section of the manuscript is like marking a dozen essays.

Looking back, I estimate that I must have marked well over 12,000 papers in seven years as a university instructor. This number was dribbled out in batches of 50 to 200, but it’s still an appalling number, especially since I was a very thorough marker, commenting on everything from grammar and punctuation to structure and ideas in considerable detail.

In fact, I did so much marking that I ruined the clarity of my handwriting to such a degree that you’d never have guessed that I had won awards for it in grade school. I switched over to printing, but, in my last couple of years as a teacher, my printing deteriorated, too. Had I hung on much longer, I would have needed to start marking on line, so that students could read my comments.

I used to mark to classical music. I found that Wagner made me work quickly but not very thoroughly, so I soon settled on the Baroque composers, whose implied sense of order encouraged me to be through or careful. Vivaldi was a favorite until his music became a reminder of Fritz Leiber’s death bed, but Pachelbel and Telemann were almost as good. With a dozen Baroque albums ready, I could easily mark a paper in 20-25 minutes and keep up the pace for seven or eight hours

However, I never warmed to marking. I hated the necessity of failing the occasional student, and many were less interested in improving their writing than in getting a better grade, so many of my comments were undoubtedly wasted. If I had had my way, I wouldn’t have given a grade at all – just comments, because worry over grades obviously prevented many students from learning. Of all the parts of teaching, it was always my least favorite, and seemed the least relevant to helping students learn. The best I could muster was a feeling that I might help students survive better in other essay-based courses.

Moreover, at community colleges, the number of assignments I was required to give and the number of classes I had to teach each semester meant that I was more or less continually marking. The work load was much less at university, but, increasingly, I felt crushed by the lack of originality in most of the papers and my increasing difficulties in being impartial. In the last couple of years, I had reached the point of asking students to identify themselves only on their title page, so I could fold it back and have no idea whose paper I was marking.

By the time I realized that, in the current market, I would probably get tenure about the time I was 95, I had seriously overdosed on marking. It’s the one part of teaching I could do without, and when I’ve taught technical classes in recent years, I’ve always been careful to avoid having to mark essays.

Fortunately, none of my misgivings apply to Joe’s manuscript. I hope that I’ve made useful suggestions for improving his work, but since Joe is nothing if not literate and well-versed in his topic, being one of his first readers is much easier than marking students. Still, as I continue through his manuscript, the similarity of the two experiences sets me remembering.

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In Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel (a book I first discovered through Allan Chalmers, my most memorable high school teacher), the main character is reincarnated as a cockroach for having written free verse in his previous life. He continues to do so in his present life, unable to use upper case letters because he can’t work the shift key on the typewriter and doubtlessly generating more bad karma for himself. I wouldn’t go so far as Marquis in visiting Kafkaesque doom upon writers of free verse, but at times I can appreciate his point.

The greatest strength of free verse is its versatility. A standard verse form like a sonnet allows only minor deviations — an anapest foot instead of an iambic one, or eleven syllables instead of ten per line — even in the hands of a master like Shakespeare or Keats. By contrast, in free verse, you can alter the line length or meter any time you like. You don’t need to warp your thoughts or tap them carefully into place to fit the rhythm or verse form, and everything can be varied to fit your needs.

The trouble is, versatility is also free verse’s greatest weakness. In the hands of amateurs, the ability to change rhythm at will too easily turns into no rhythm at all. From there, it is only a small step to throwing out all poetic technique until, today, most people would probably say that the main characteristic of poetry is usually a short line length. The paradox of free verse is that, although it looks like the easiest of all verse forms, it is actually the hardest to do well. The truth, as T. S. Eliot said, is that “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

If you have the skill, free verse allows you to experiment with all sorts of different rythmns: rhythms made from parallelism in sentence structure, from a count of syllables, from the number of accents per line or the numbers of lines per verse, from alliteration, from assonance or consonance, breath groups, or practically everything else you can think of. You can combine techniques, switching between them as you like, or conduct other experiments, such as seeing what is the least amount of structure you can get away with and still produce something that can be called a poem. At this level, free verse is a playground of poetic technique.

Of course, most writers of free verse are unaware of these possibilities, as hard drives and blogs full of teenage angst will attest worldwide. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that the prevalance of free verse coincided with the rise of popular music is a coincidence, if people have not unconsciously looking for the rhythms of poetry elsewhere.

If archy is any indication, my own experiments in free verse will probably have me doing time in insect form well into the fourth millennium. I went through a long period in which I was fascinated by the alliterative lines of Old English poetry. For example, in this piece, I graft my work on to Beowulf, imagining what it must have been like in Hrothgar’s hall when everyone lived in terror of the nightly attacks from the monster Grendel:

Lament in the reign of Grendel

I’ve walked cold and wind-chewed,
doubt-fed known dark, unsleeping,
tasted hunger and been fare for horror,
gnawed away roads, nibbled by home-loss.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

To barter in butchery with bloodied men
pumped strength from my arm with each pulse in my youth.
Knees buckled with waiting, but to bolt seemed worse.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

Wrapped in ruin, I rave in song:
I’d a falter-limbed father, folded with age,
and a boy in first beard. Broken by Grendel,
they slouch in sleep, stretched under hill.
That passed; I, perhaps, too.

In another piece, I used repetition in three lines and alliteration in two more:

False knight on the road

“I’m not a good man,” he said. I said, “Did I ask?”
“I’ll blow it on beer,” he said. I said, “Have one for me.”
How tell him of the charm, my coins in his cup
purchased to make me cleaner than passers-by?
“God bless,” he said. I said, “Not likely.”

In still another, I controlled the poem by using three-line stanzas and two or three accented syllables per line:

Taking the omens

Common sense derides me,
I am reduced to omens,
and they become disparaging.

Your messages come like dispatches to an outpost,
late and never long enough
nor with reprieve from exile;

I shelter in my own words again:
a furtive comfort,
coy and abbreviated.

Now as this silence lengthens,
I turn back to cards and runes,
never drawing the future I desire

I make no claims for any more than artisan-like competence in these examples. But I think the variety in these examples illustrates what’s fascinating about free verse: the fact that, even more than any other form of writing, when you write free verse, you are defining your artistic world afresh. And, at the risk of encouraging amateurs without any technique to keep writing, the pleasure of making that definition is enough to risk any number of years as a cockroach.

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