Archive for July, 2007

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

I first caught a glimpse of the power of allusions when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in Grade Six. As much as I loved the characters and was swept along by Tolkien’s sense of timing, what really struck me was all the passing references to thousands of miles of geography and thousands of miles of history. I didn’t know, then, that Tolkien had built up this material over decades. What mattered to me was the illusion of added depth created by the allusions. You didn’t need to know all the details — in fact, as subsequent Tolkien publications of the back story showed, you were usually better off if you didn’t, because what seemed magically suggestive in passing became unavoidably disappointing in detail. But, even at that age, I recognized an effective literary technique when I saw one.

Later, I saw it in a number of other books, including The Worm Ourboros by E. R. Eddison, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (when unsolved cases are mentioned), and in the Dark Border series by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. So it’s not a new device, even if you won’t find it taught along the memorized definitions of metaphor and metonymy that they teach in high school.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that, despite the enduring popularity of writers like Tolkien or Conan Doyle, it’s a device used most often in fantasy, which literary critics still distrust because of the whiff of popular culture that rise from them. Moreover, it requires a deft hand, and is harder to observe objectively than something as straightforward as a simile.

Basicallly, however, the art of creating depth through allusions lies in striking the exact balance between suggestiveness and mystery. The allusion has to be comprehensible enough that readers can get some dim understanding of it, but no more.

That lack of detail may seem lazy, yet it’s essential. Because the allusion is incomplete, readers have to fill in the gap themselves with guesswork. By doing so, they are drawn into the story-telling, and become participants in the development of the background.

The idea is the same, I suppose, as Stephen King’s observation that a horror writer has to use the appearance of the monster sparingly. The monster may be scary, King says, but its actual appearance will never match what the reader imagined. The writer may show a ten foot monster, but what the reader imagined was a sixty foot monster, and the reality will disappoint.

In the same way, an allusion explained is an allusion lost. When Tolkien mentions Lúthien and Beren, you know that it’s an unhappy love story and somehow applies to Aragorn. The tale in the appendices or in The Simarillion may be interesting in its own right, but it’s not nearly as poignant as the tale you imagine when you first read the allusion.

In the same way, has anyone ever read one of the pastiches that explains the giant rat of Sumatra that is half as interesting as the passing mention of the unwritten story that Dr. Watson makes in passing?

The technique is used mainly in fantasy, but it can be used more conventionally, too. For example, in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal, the title character explains that he is late for an event because he was attending the birthday party of a friend’s young daughter. As Zelazny himself observes, the line of explanation is technically unnecessary. All the same, he kept it in because it suggests that the character has a life beyond what is being told in the page, and that he’s the kind of person who, for all his toughness, would do such a thing. At the cost of maybe fifteen words, Zelazny gets an illusion of depth that enriches his effort. That illusion makes the allusion worth having, always.

Read Full Post »

“You’re a typical Canadian
You’re modesty itself.”

– John McLaughlan Gray and Eric Peterson, “Billy Bishop Goes to War”

Canada Day has me thinking about the national personality. Obviously, any time that you generalize about millions of people, you’re going to find exceptions, but I can think of several major traits that could be called typically Canadian.

First, as the holiday itself proves, Canadians are not openly nationalistic. As I went for my morning run today, what struck me was that, despite the best efforts of government officials, most of my fellow citizens celebrate the national holiday by enjoying the day off. You don’t catch many Canadians waving flags or setting off fireworks, even today. Nobody will ever say very much, but the majority of Canadians find such demonstrativeness faintly embarrassing, or maybe in poor taste. It’s not that Canadians lack nationalism so much as they prefer not to be gung-ho about it. Nor do most Canadians confuse an attachment to the culture with support for any government, which is why claims that opposing the use of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is being disloyal to Canada keep falling flat.

A second typical Canadian trait is politeness. Or, as an old joke puts it: How do you get twenty drunken Canadians out of your swimming pool? Answer: You say, “Please get out of the pool.” This politeness manifests itself in a widespread dislike for attack ads in politics, which are more apt to backfire on their sponsor than to successfully discredit anyone.

Our politeness also explains our alleged liberalism. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Canadians as a whole are strongly pro-choice on abortion or greatly favor same sex marriage, even though we have liberal policies on both. Rather, I suspect most Canadians think it rude to interfere in such intensely personal matters, and dislike the strident authoritarianism of those opposed to such issues. Our politeness also explains our greater tendency to unionism than the United States (Why should anyone interfere with someone looking out for their own interest?) and the official policy of multiculturalism (What someone does in their spare time is their concern).

However, this politeness isn’t all good. It also makes Canadians nearly impossible to rally on political issues, or to oppose those in authority without considerable provocation. An exception is environmentalism – again, not because Canadians are especially enlightened, I suspect, but because we see pollution as imposing on others.

Another thing about Canadians that often puzzles other nationalities is that we’re complainers. Not march-in-the-street, where’s-tonight’s-riot kind of complainers, but low-key grumblers. For some reason, a little out-of-the-mouth, I’m-so-hard-done-by grumbling is simply a normal part of functioning for most Canadians. The weather will do as a subject, if nothing else is available, but the general perversity of the universe or authority figures are even better.

There’s a joke that has been circulating at least since the Boer War, the first time that large groups of other nationals met any large groups of Canadians. Troops are passing a check point. As each company approached the sentry, they are challenged, give the password, and are allowed to proceed. Finally, another company is challenged. “Bloody typical of this army,” a voice calls out from the company. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”

“Pass, Canadians,” the sentry replies.

Apparently, not much has changed in the last century.

A final trait is that all Canadians are hyper-aware of the United States. Those on the right think that Canada would be a better place if it were more like the United States, even if that means adapting failed policies. Those on the left think the United States is taking over the country one piece at at a time and that we should be constantly vigilant against this conspiracy. But, no matter what their position on our southern neighbors, all Canadians have one. That’s inevitable, given that we speak the same language, do most of our trade with Americans, and share much of the same popular culture.

Hugh MacLennan, the novelist and journalist neatly summed up the Canadian relation to the United States a couple of generations ago. Canada, he wrote, is in the same relation to the United States as Scotland is to England: We’re a sparsely populated land to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior to our neighbors, and we head south to become successful. And it’s true: We do like to think that the scandals and policy failures in the United States could never happen here, and almost no Canadian ever hits the big time without spending considerable time in the United States. In fact, a healthy sprinkling of supposed American stars are always Canadians — including Kiefer Sutherland, the grandson of Tommy Douglas, the father of socialized medicine who was recently voted the greatest Canadian ever.

These traits are not always admirable, even for Canadians. At times, I wonder if the country would be better off if we were all more openly nationalistic. At other times, my own politeness seems spinelessness, my complaining ungracious, and my belief in our moral superiority to the Americans unwarranted smugness. Moreover, our national traits are those of a small country, not a great one. But, for better or worse, they’re a part of me, if only a part that I sometimes want to react against.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts