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Archive for July, 2007

So here I am at home, propped up in a pool of my own indolence, my skin alive with the ultra-violet of a day outside and blissed out from ten hours of hearing some of my favorite music live. This weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver Folk Festival, one of the few times in the year that I genuinely relax as opposed to running errands or fulfilling social obligations in my spare time. The folk festival is the nearest thing to religion we have,” a friend once said, and, over the years, I’ve found that true. And, after this weekend, how I’m going to reconcile myself to another week of heavy keyboard pounding is a bit of a puzzlement to me just now.

What makes the folk festival so special in my year? Partly, it’s the timelessness of the event. We live far enough away from Jericho Park, the beach-side venue for the festival, that we usually only get there on the weekend of the festival. The few times we have, the park has seemed ghostly and deserted. We’re used to seeing it full of thousands of people: the straights, the activists, the lesbians, the families, the hippies-for-the-weekend, and all the rest, all dancing and staggering from stage to stage while the ducks collect in the remotest corner of the marsh, quacking nervously at the invasion and the crows and gulls gather, seemingly delirious at the unexpected smorgasbords.

In my mind, Jericho Park is always that way, so that I can barely distinguish one year from another. If I look closely, I notice that the average of attendees is rising (but not mine, naturally). And, if I strain, I can remember a few days when we huddled under umbrellas and wore toques, grimly determined to get our money’s worth even if we froze or caught colds.

Mostly, though, the festival leaves the impression of one continuous long day of sunshine and salt-ridden air and plants. Sometimes, like this year, the sky is full of the billowing clouds that I sometimes think only exist on the ceilings of Renaissance palaces. Other times, the sky is an unbroken stretch of blue glimpsed through the branches of the trees as I lie back in the grass a short distance from a stage, or an oven that seems to flash-bake the grass as we make weary dashes between the too-few scraps of shade, feeling like survivors of a trek across Death Valley.

At times, we’ve frankly chosen a workshop to attend on the basis of whether it was in the shade — and that, too, adds to the feeling of timelessness. Several times each year, I gaze up a stage, half-unsure what year it is. And with the people around me looking the same, and sometimes the same performers on stage, that’s hardly surprising.

Another thing I appreciate about the festival: It’s not Top 40, and you won’t find most of the performers on iTunes, either. You may hear a sarcastic reference to Led Zeppelin in a group’s between-song patter, or hear someone like Billy Bragg explain that he plays the festival “because even hippies deserve to hear good music,” but that’s about as close as you get to mainstream mediocrity at the festival.

Rather, one of the most enduring aspects of the festival is the discovery of new performers. It was at the folk festival that we first saw Stan Rogers, with his brother Garnet playing the fiddle and dancing as the sunset turned the sky red. It was the folk festival where we first heard the sardonic lyrics of Leon Rosselson and learned to appreciate the lyrics of Eric Bogle. We first saw OysterBand inject a bit of hard rock and showmanship at the festival, and heard Ray Wylie Hubbard’s bluesy mix. Some years are better than others, but every year leads to one or two minor discoveries. And if there’s ever an hour when the workshops seem less than intriguing, we can always choose at random to broaden our minds.

From the traddest of the trad to hard driving punk-folk, the entire spectrum of alternative music is available. You might suffer from musical overload, but boredom isn’t a problem.

And, if this is not enough, the festival is one of the few places where you can hear alternate political views taken for granted. Folk music, as the name implies, is about people and their problems. You don’t hear anyone singing about the joys of capitalism or the pleasure of wielding a CEO’s arbitrary tyranny, because these subjects would only seem suitable to those with a lack of empathy or imagination — and such people don’t become artists of any sort. And should you think that sounds humorless, just drop by one of the sessions where Utah Phillips, the emeritus of the festival, is holding forth about riding the rails or talking about old union figures like Joe Hill or British Columbia’s own Ginger Goodwin. If he doesn’t leave you simultaneously rolling on the grass with laughter, angry at what the history books and newspapers leave out and matter-of-factly convinced of the simple righteousness of his opinions — well, give your address so I can send flowers to your funeral. You can only be dead and too busy to have noticed.

None of this is to suggest that the festival is flawless. I could do without running the gauntlet of ticky-tacky hucksters to get to the gate (although they’re no fault of the festival, to be fair). Inside, the food is over-priced, and, at times, the festival staff picks acts more for their activist credentials than for artistry (I prefer to have both, or neither). And, this year, the outdoor atmosphere was marred by the addition of a giant screen to one side of center stage, which was used to run commercials (excuse me, I mean “public service announcements”) between sets at the evening concerts.

Yet, although I grouse about such things, all of them are too petty to actually spoil the festival. Despite such things, the Vancouver Folk Festival rises effortlessly above all misgivings, as much through luck as any planning by the organizers. Perhaps it’s simply big enough that I can avoid most of what I dislike, even, when, like this year, it’s crippled by debt and on a reduced budget.

But, one way or the other, the festival remains a bubble of timelessness that I return to again and again. It does me good — and, perhaps, makes me good, too.

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“And when you leave your body on your bed at night,
And you drift away to somewhere like you do,
In the morning when you open your eyes,
Do the lovers in your dreams wake up, too?”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of my favorite works by Neil Gaiman is the graphic short story “The Hunt,” which is collected in Fables and Reflections. When I read the story, what I enjoy the most is the humor in the interaction between the old man who narrates the story and his teenage granddaughter, who thinks herself too old for stories but is interested despite herself, as well as the gradual revelations about who the protagonist is and about the true nature of the old man and his granddaughter. Still, last fall at my high school reunion, I was surprised to find myself suddenly taking a life-lesson from the story.

In “The Hunt,” a young man comes into possession of a locket that contains a portrait of the local duke’s daughter. He stares at the locket constantly, and, dreams of the woman portrayed. Finally, in payment for a piece of magical business with the personification of Dream, he is transported to the woman’s bed chamber. When he sees her, she is “everything he had dreamed of,” but all he does is hand her the locket and walk away. Defending the story to his cynical granddaughter, the narrator says, “It was about what he saw when he looked at the sleeping woman. Why he turned his back on her. It was about dreams.”

At the reunion, for the first time in years, I saw the adult versions of several girls who — unknown to them — were the recipients of my first crushes. In fact, off and on, I spend the better part of the evening with several of them. It was all very Platonic, but initially made pleasant by nostalgia and alcohol.

Eventually, though, the encounters were more sad than wistful. Two of the women had foregone the music careers they wanted, one because she was shy about performing, the other because of her family. A third seemed more successful, but in subsequent months, her business proved shaky, and she revealed an unpleasant side that I would probably find intolerable if I were ever to see her again. For that evening, though, she made a pleasant enough companion.

Then, halfway through the evening, my adolescent crush of crushes arrived. I had spent too many of my early teenage years obsessing over her not to recognize her immediately. But even if I had never been infatuated, I would have recognized her, because she looked younger than most people in the room and was still very fit and animated. Almost immediately, she dove into a corner talking with someone I didn’t recognize.

For a while, I waited for an opportunity to approach. I wasn’t so foolish as to imagine any romantic interest was possible, let alone desirable — I’m the sort who is so married that the fact might as well be branded on my forehead. I even wear an engagement wedding ring, which is not that common among men of my age (the engagement was a good excuse for my partner and I to buy the West Coast rings we had always wanted). Still, this was the latter day version of a girl who had occupied much of my thoughts at one time, and who still made occasional guest appearances in my dreams as an obvious Anima figure. What better closure, what more fitting sign of maturity, I thought, than to meet her as an adult and recognize that she was simply another woman, and most likely someone I had nothing particularly in common with?

After about an hour, I realized that I would have to interrupt the discussion. I ran through a few fitting phrases of introduction in my head, and was starting towards her when Neil Gaiman’s story popped into my mind.

Abruptly, I realized that I had no reason to talk to her. I had long ago lost touch with the woman, and the dream images that began with her had long since assumed an independent identity of their own. What possible good would come of having the two meet? I knew the woman and the mental images weren’t the same. In the end, I smiled at myself, and turned to talk with someone else. For the rest of the evening, I barely looked in her direction.

Probably, some people would say that I had a juvenile mind, to take a life-lesson from what they would dismiss as a comic book. But you take your epiphanies where you find them, and that moment of revelation has done me good service in the months since.

For instance, when the third crush revealed her unpleasantness, I had a momentary pang, but, once I realized my reaction was based on a confusion of past dream with present reality, it seemed unimportant. That’s not to say that, were I to hear from her again, I would immediately walk away or hang up the phone. After all, literary analogies only go so far, and I hold grudges in the abstract far more easily than I do in person. Still, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do one of those things, either — or that, if I never encounter her again, the disappointment will be unbearable. Learning to negotiate the interplay between fantasy and reality is an important lesson, no matter where you learn it. Frankly, I consider myself lucky to have learned it at all.

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At school and university, I always dove headfirst into class discussions, excited by ideas and eager to express my own. I was probably a selfish beast, not overly interested in other’s people’s contributions unless they sparked new ideas in me. Although I eventually learned to be less egocentric and more restrained, I’m sure I carried the same tendency into adulthood.

That’s why, when I was interviewed last week about OpenOffice.org’s Calc spreadsheet by CFO Magazine, I was surprised when I had to struggle to give ideas and to say something interesting. The 8AM call had something to do with it, but only a little. Abruptly, I realized that being a journalist and interviewing people myself had actually taught me to listen.

For nearly three years, I’ve done anywhere from three to fifteen interviews per month — mostly on the phone, but occasionally face-to-face as well. By definition, an interview is not about the interviewer — it’s about the person being interviewed. And if I don’t draw the person out, then I am in the annoying position of having to craft an article with too little information. So, I suppose I’m been highly motivated to learn.

It helps, too, that I realized early on not to come into an interview with my own agenda. In one of the first interviews I conducted, I planned to debunk the common opinion about the subject and asked several questions while playing devil’s advocate. The approach made the subject so suspicious of my motivations that he tried to insist on having control over what I wrote — a demand that made the interview unpublishable, since it would have compromised my independence.

From that, I learned that it’s better to ask open-ended questions rather than ones slanted too strongly in one direction. Instead of getting too specific, I let the discussion wend its own way, asking more specific questions mostly for clarification, and changing topic only to assure that all the points I wanted to raise get covered.

The advantage of this tactic is not only that I have to prepare less for most interviews, but that I also consistently get information and slants that I would have missed if I had tried to control the interview more closely, because my subjects are more forthcoming. Even the very reticent, I’ve found, become more forthcoming when allowed to dominate the discussion.

This approach leaves me in the position of a tugboat to an incoming ship, guiding the discussion, but mostly leaving each subject to continue under their own power. About from a few navigational nudges, most of what I have to do is to utter the occasional comment to show that I’m paying attention or, if talking in person, to make sure that I lean forward facing the interview and focusing my eyes on them and keep my eyes on the interviewee to reassure them that I’m listening.

At times, too, I summarize or rephrase what I think the person has said, asking, “Could I say … ” or “Would it be fair to say that …” This tactic has the dual advantage of checking that I have understood and reassuring the interview that I’ve grasped the point.

Of course, often I do have to mention perspectives that the interviewee doesn’t share, so that I can get their reactions. But, instead of treating the interview as a discussion, the way I might have done a few years before, I raise the perspective as a hypothetical one, or observe that “some people say.”

I don’t have to mention the fact that I would be among those who would say what I’m about to mention. As enjoyable as a debate might be, an interview isn’t about me.

I round off these tactics by concluding by asking whether there is anything I’ve left out or that the subject would like to emphasize. Some interviews use these questions as a launching pad for pontifications, but, just as often, I get another two or three nuggets of fact that were previously half-concealed. Often, I get pithy quotes that I can use to attract reader’s interest in the introduction, or that can round-off my article’s conclusion.

When I come to transcribe an interview, another advantage of focusing on listening emerges. Having followed what the subject has said, I know how to punctuate what someone says in order to echo the way that they sound. In this way, the quotes in my articles give readers some sense of what the subject sounds like, although no doubt the experience is overlaid with a heavy veneer of my intonations.

The result of this approach is that, while I’ve often had errors of fact in the finished article pointed out by an interview subject, and people haven’t always approved of the opinions in an article in which they are quoted, I almost never have anyone complain that I misrepresented them. I work hard at being more than a conduit for other people’s ideas but I figure that, if I get what’s said wrong, then the conclusions I draw will be wrong as well.

In fact, now that I think, I realize that I could never do my job — or, at least, not do it as well — if I hadn’t learned a thing or two about listening. If I sometimes miss dominating the discussion, I figure that I was overdue for growing up anyway.

Besides, there are other times that I can be a more active participant. And, when I am, my enjoyment is greater because I’ve learned to pay closer attention to what other people are saying.

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I spent today at the Public Knowledge Project’s conference at Simon Fraser University Harbour Centre, interviewing people and lining up contacts for future articles. Student and instructor, I’ve spent considerable time at Harbour Centre, so going there always stirs memories. But, like most people at the conference, what preoccupied me was the fact that the air-conditioning failed in a humid heat wave in which temperatures were as high as 37 degrees Celsius. Whether the failure was a brownout downtown or confined to the campus, I’m not sure, but it started me wondering: Why doesn’t North American industrial culture ever build for the climate?

The question is worth asking. Place a few hundred people in an overheated, airless lecture theater is a recipe for extreme discomfort at the least. If anyone is old or has a heart condition, it could mean illness or death.

Fortunately, nothing serious happened so far as I could see, but, even so, the inconvenience was there. Many people were skipping discussions they had traveled to hear, so they could stand in the lobby and chugalug the free juice and pop provided by the conference sponsors. Campus security had to rush around more because the open doors brought many of the homeless in (something that doesn’t bother me, but bothers security staff immensely). Students were skipping classes, and campus staff were sweating and short-tempered – all because the summer heat wasn’t taken into account when the building was renovated to house the university. Apparently, the assumption was that the air-conditioning would always be available, and that the ability to open windows would be a security risk.

To be fair, the renovators had the disadvantage of having to work with an older building that was probably designed for the climate of southern England, rather than the Pacific coast of Canada. But Harbour Centre is far from the only example of local construction unsuitable to the climate.

Few roads in the greater Vancouver area are higher in the middle so that the rain for which the climate is notorious will run along the sides instead of creating giant puddles for cars to hydroplane through. And thanks to all the imitators of native son Arthur Erikson, local architects continue to use concrete in buildings that the rain can eventually erode – that is, when they’re not imitating styles suitable for the desert conditions of California and using flat roofs. For years now, leaky condos have plagued the area, and four-story buildings shrouded in plastic and scaffolding are still sprouting up everywhere like multi-colored mushroom.

It shouldn’t be difficult, while architectural students are learning about the tensile strengths of different materials, to teach them some basics about designing for specific climates. Much of the matter is common sense. Yet, so far as I can tell, this basic consideration is far from their minds when they sit down to design. Nor does anyone hold them to account. Instead, the public suffers and shells out for repairs.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to drink another three or four liters of Gatorade to restore some moisture to my dessicated tissues.

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Yesterday, I was at the Commercial Drive Skytrain station when I heard familiar querulous noises in the trees on the other side of the tracks. I scanned the trees, but the bright sunlight made the shadows so deep that I was on the train before I could confirm that a raven was present. It was shifting uneasily, trying to keep its grip on a branch that was too slender to carry its weight. Just before the train pulled out, I saw another one on top of the highest of the scrub alders that line the slope of the railway cut that the Skytrain runs through. As always when I see a raven, I felt unexpectedly cheered. If I were superstitious, I would have said the sighting was a good omen.

Considering ravens’ reputations as eaters of carrion – Old English poetry is full of references to ravens and wolves feeding on fallen warriors after a battle – this reaction may seem strange. I can only explain it by two facts: First, that having parrots in my living room for over two decades has left me absolutely bird-mad, and, second, that, when you look at raven, an aware individual looks back at you. That makes ravens spooky, and a small piece of wonder.

Some people say that they have trouble telling the difference between ravens and crows. To them, I can only reply that they can’t ever have seen a raven. In both size and sentience, ravens far surpass crows – and crows are undoubtedly one of the brighter species around, too. The first time that I saw ravens, I had no doubt whatsoever that I was seeing something more than a big crow.

That first encounter was on the western side of the Rockies, a few days after I had graduated, when I was on a camping trip that was really an excuse to visit a young woman who had briefly attended my high school and had written to me ever since. We were driving around a bend in the highway when I saw two ravens sitting on a concrete divider on the side of the road. As the car approached, they cocked their heads at us, then glided away above the creek bed below them, moving with a deliberation that immediately fascinated me.

A decade later, a pair of ravens were nesting in the green belt around Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. I first saw them one fog-bound morning in fall as Trish and I were driving to work: two low-flying shadows, their characteristic kronk amplified by the fog into something eerie. After we parked, I saw one perched on top of a blue Honda Civic, its wings draped over the windows as if it were resting after an effort to carry the vehicle away. A while later, I saw it on the jade boulder in the reflecting pond, reminding me of Emily Carr’s “Big Raven.”

For the next few years while I was working as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I would see the pair when I walked around campus or went for a run on the trails. Often, in spring, they would often be fleeing a mob of crows who were defending their nests and their young.

Once, I saw them behind Horizon’s Restaurant in Centennial Park on the west side of Burnaby Mountain. One was perched on a railing, standing sentry while the other was dumpster-diving. In the case of this raven, “diving” was more than alliteration: it really did go beak-first into the bin, vocalizing furiously as it sorted through the garbage. Then it would poke its head up as if breaking the surface of a pond.

When it found a food-smeared wrapper and flapped down to the grass to investigate it, I inched to within a few meters. It watched intently, its eyes darting to the other raven occasionally – not scared, but clearly evaluating me and the degree of threat I represented.

(It’s an unnerving feeling, being evaluated by another species. Like most people, if they’re pressed, I still tend to think of animals as less self-aware than I am. I’ve learned to make exceptions in the case of parrots, yet, even for me, the first realization that a species has a degree of sentience that overlaps with humanity’s is a humbling and profound experience. Science fiction is always talking about first contact with an alien species, but, for some of us, that moment has already happened.)

In the end, I backed away, acknowledging the raven’s right to examine its spoils in peace. But we stood watching from a more respectful distance for at least half an hour. Then a busboy came out from the restaurant with some garbage, and the ravens flew away.

Over the years, I’ve seen ravens several more times around the greater Vancouver area. Once, I saw them scavenging at an outdoor patio at the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia – a scene that tourists, I thought, would pay good money to see. I tried getting pictures myself, but the ravens were camera-shy, and would start away whenever I raised the camera to my eye.

Another time, I saw two ravens at the same Skytrain station – possibly the same ones. The railway cut is both a dumping ground for the garbage of the east end and home to hundreds of squirrels and small creatures, so it would be an easy source of food for the ravens, once they learned to keep clear of the trains and rapid transit line (It’s not true that ravens can’t hunt; they simply won’t bother if an easier food supply is available). At the time, I was going through the worst period of my life, and the unexpected site boosted my spirits considerably.

I’m not a birder, but I always notice birds far more than other people. When a red-tailed hawk has staked out a section of highway and is waiting for roadkill, I notice. I can tell you about the social structure of young crows when they first leave the nest, and where all crows roost at night in the area. And once, I spent far too much of early summer watching seagulls raise chicks on a flat, weed-covered roof in Yaletown when I was supposed to be writing a manual.

Yet, of all the local species, ravens fascinate me the most. That’s why I dislike the collective noun for a group of ravens: an unkindness. For me, sighting a raven is far from an unkindness. It’s a surprise gift, and the encounter always leaves me unexpectedly buoyed.

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I had my first chance in a long time to brush up my public speaking skills yesterday when I stopped by the Global Habitat Festival – Vancouver’s Live Earth event – to help with the Free Geek Vancouver booth. Considering how rusty my skills were, I question how much help I was, but I enjoyed the experience enough to stay a couple of hours later than I had planned.

In past episodes of my life, I’ve staffed all sorts of booths, including displays at open houses in university, a brass-rubbing demonstrations at a Renaissance fair, and exhibits at trade fairs for several different companies. In all of them, my teaching experience has helped me through. My between-degrees stint in a mall book store was even more to the point, since staffing a booth involves briefer, more one-on-one contact than even the most interactive teaching.

However, for the last few years, I’ve worked mostly from home, aside from teaching a few technology courses, so yesterday I had a hard time getting started. Observing just the right time to approach someone takes practice: you don’t want to pounce on them, but you don’t want to hold back so long that they walk away with unanswered questions, either. And at first I was diffident, not because talking in public or to strangers bothers me in the least, but because I could feel how awkward my skills were.

Fortunately, I and the other volunteers had the example of Ifny LaChance, one of the Free Geek coordinators to learn from – and, eventually, to shame us into action. I can only describe Ifny’s approach as putting her whole personality and attention behind talking to passersby, chatting and exchanging introductions in a friendly and unobtrusive way. Observing closely, I thought I could see the effort she expended, but her approach definitely drew people into conversation (despite the booth being directly behind the stage and the frequency with which bands made conversation impossible).

I was feeling more at ease, especially when I realized that I wasn’t the only first-time volunteer, but definitely still warming up when I and a couple of others were left alone at the booth. Necessity forced me to push myself more than I felt entirely ready for, but the choice was measuring up or fleeing in panic. For my own self-respect — to say nothing of my wish to live up to expectations, I stayed. I soon started feeling comfortable enough to enjoy what I was doing, and to find my own style of drawing people out, including a store of stock phrases for the most common questions I heard.

Probably because so much of my recent relevant experience centers on interviewing people, I found that the style that worked best for me was following the lead of those with whom I talked, drawing out what interested them until I saw what information or direction they wanted the most.

Unlike Ifny, I tended not to ask for names, although perhaps I might have encouraged more volunteers to sign up that way. But I felt obliged to be especially restrained in talking to female passersby, just to make sure that my approach wasn’t misinterpreted as a more personal interest. In the past, I don’t think I was so aware of that necessity. And I was pleased that I was using more eye contact and taking more care to draw in everyone in a group than I used to.

I was helped by the fact that the booth was design so that those staffing it had to stand in front it, rather than hiding behind the bulwark of a table, as so many of those at the festival did. Lacking such a defense, I had no choice but to engage people.

However, I’m still more comfortable on the free software and education questions than the recycling ones. Fortunately, the indignation that many people felt when they saw the photos of the unsafe conditions in which computers are broken down in China and Nigeria were more than enough for a conversation in most cases.

Still, despite my lack of practice, I think I managed to conjure up a ghost or two of my former ability. When I’ve dealt with the public in the past, there’s always been a sense of rightness flowing from me when I was connecting, and yesterday I was actually feeling an echo of that feeling by the end of the day. Even with my legs feeling the strain of standing on concrete for six hours, I was tempted to stay longer.

I didn’t show up for personal gratification, except that which comes from helping a good cause in a small way. Still, I was gratified to see that my old skills had merely been dormant, and not lost altogether. They’re a little lower key now than they were, but I think that, with practice, they should be just as effective as my former repetoire.

Next time, they may return more easily – provided, of course, that I don’t wait too long for the next time.

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When I came to do my master’s thesis in English, two points were very clear. If I was going to spend the better part of a year researching and writing, I wanted the result to be publishable. In addition, having gone through the agonies of trying to find a new perspective on Hamlet, I wanted it to be original. Eventually, I decided to write about the American fantasist Fritz Leiber, whose work I had been enjoying since the sixth grade. That decision not only got me the publication credit I’d craved (it’s still in print under the title Witches of the Mind), but also meant that I was accidentally there for Fritz’s last days and wrapped up in the whole unhappy story.

Here’s how it happened:

When my thesis became a book, my friend Paul Zimmer arranged for Trish and I to meet Fritz while we were in the Bay area. Fritz was diffident with people he didn’t know well, but his friend and soon-to-be second wife, Margo Skinner – a socialist, journalist, poet, and practicing alcoholic – was outspoken enough to fill any awkward gaps, and everyone was soon on friendly terms. On subsequent visits, the four of us went out to dinner several times, and we met at a couple of science fiction conventions in Washington state twice as well, where we acted as their designated wheelchair attendants. Neither Fritz nor Margo needed a wheelchair full-time, but they often found them convenient in crowds.

I wouldn’t say we were friends, but we had become friendly acquaintances. So, when Margo conceived the madcap idea of taking the train across North America to a convention in London, Ontario, Fritz and Margo asked if we could be their native guides in Vancouver (it had to be the train, because Margo was terrified of flying). It would prove to be the last trip for both of them.

Everything about the trip seemed cursed from the beginning. A thousand inconveniences plagued Margo, Fritz, and their housekeeper (who had come along to help push their wheelchairs) from the beginning. They got as far as Seattle, and we were driving down in a van borrowed from my in-laws to pick them up – when we had engine trouble and had to turn back just south of Belllingham.

Fortunately, a Seattle science fiction fan stepped in, and got them to the border the next day, and we spent the next day showing them Vancouver, lunching at the hotel Vancouver, wheeling them around the aquarium, and going out for dinner in Stanley Park, so that Fritz could have some fresh salmon. I remember, too, Fritz staring at an otter through the glass at the aquarium, looking as wide-eyed as a child, for all his over eighty years. The next day, we saw them off on the train, and that was the last easy day they had.

We later heard that the trip to London was even more nightmarish than the first leg of the trip. For much of the time across the prairies, the air conditioning was out of order, causing them almost to collapse. When they got to London, the hotel wasn’t wheelchair accessible, and the convention staff assigned to them were unreliable.

But it was when they headed south to Chicago to catch the train back to San Francisco that the nightmare really settled in. The trip turned into a ten hour ordeal that left Margo and Fritz dehydrated. Not only did they miss their train, but Fritz collapsed in a semi-comatose, only occasionally coherent state.

Fritz’s son Justin and his grand-daughter, Arlynn Presser, got Fritz on a plane home, and Fritz went directly to California Pacific. Margo followed via train, resolutely refusing to fly. Meanwhile, knowing nothing of events, Trish and I were planning a holiday in the Bay Area, staying on the floor of the library at Greyhaven. We arrived to find a badly distracted Margo, and soon realized that, whatever our holiday would be, it wouldn’t be restful.

Instead of playing tourist as we’d planned, we found ourselves part of Margo’s life support for 12-14 hours each day, along with a punk poet, an ex-dominatrix and Dolores Nurss, who claimed descent from one of the Salem witches. That wasn’t the way we wanted to spend our holidays, but what else, in all decency, could we do?

We also found ourselves spending far too much time in Fritz’s hospital room, watching his labored breathing and realizing increasingly with each passing day that he wasn’t going to pull through, or even become completely conscious again. However, the one time he roused even a bit, his only clear words were that he wanted to get well again, “So he could tell stories.”

I think that everybody broke down when they heard that.

The situation quickly became worse. Although Fritz could well afford his hospital care, he was over eighty, and the hospital clearly saw him as not worth making much of an effort for. The standards of basic hygiene seemed appalling to my eyes, and the fact that Fritz developed pneumonia there seems to confirm my impression. Meanwhile, Margo, who was dealing with her own cancer, and had seen death too often to be deceived by Fritz’s condition, was on the verge of a breakdown.

Matters weren’t improved, either, when Fritz’s son Justin arrived. Personally, I liked both Margo and Justin, but they didn’t like each other, and the strain of them remaining polite only added to the growing tension.

The end was as obvious as inevitable, but we couldn’t wait for it. I had teaching contracts that I had to fulfill, and we had to leave. A couple of days after we did, we learned that Fritz had died. “Senile decay” was given as the cause of death – meaning that his body had stopped working because he was too old.

I can’t claim to have known Fritz long or well. Still, the memory of those final days returns to me sometimes. I often think the hospital’s shabby treatment of Fritz and tell myself that, if I ever fall ill in the United States, I’m getting back to Canada if I have to push my gurney up the highway by myself. Sometimes, too, I’m in a dream in which I’m pushing Margo through miles of hospital corridors, only to finally get outside to stand on a windy, darkening street while cab after cab sails by – an event that actually happened on our last night there.

And I still can’t hear Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” without tensing, remembering how we played it over and over in the hopes that it might lead Fritz back to consciousness in his final days. It never did, but the music has become haunted for me, anyway. I used to mark student papers to that music, but now the associations with the last day of Fritz are stronger than any other memory I have of it.

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