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Archive for June, 2008

I can’t claim that I have ever seriously suffered because I’m left-handed. When I happened along, the days were long gone when teachers forced lefties to write with their right hands, at least in public schools. Nor have I ever worked at a job where this accident of birth endangered me, the way that I’ve heard some loggers on the green chain have, because the safety guards were all positioned for right-handers. Still, being left-handed set me apart at an early age. It also made me believe I was clumsy while I was growing up, a feeling that later evolved in a belief in flexibility and a patient approach to problem-solving.

I think that all lefties must develop a sense of being different at a very early age. You can’t help but feel separate from the world around you when it’s not quite designed for you. You have to figure your own way of doing things, sometimes with equipment that leaves little space for a left-handed approach. You can’t count, for instance, on having space inside a piece of machinery to turn a screw left-handed, which forces you either to use your right-hand or some ingenious workaround instead.

As for watching a demonstration, forget it. Not only do you have to reverse all the motions made by the person doing the demonstration, the way that other members of the audience do, but you have to transpose them again to see how they apply to you. This is a tremendous effort for a child, who is likely to have an imperfect sense of abstraction, and explains why I learned simple tasks like tying my shoes at a relatively late age. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have well-meaning teachers and family members; it was that none of them were left-handed, so they couldn’t help me much in learning how to absorb the information they demonstrated.

Unsurprisingly, this difficulty in navigating my immediate world left me feeling incredibly stupid and clumsy. Other kids didn’t have trouble I had, so the trouble must be in me. This feeling lasted well into my teens, even my early adulthood until I discovered the secret of relaxing and concentrating so I entered a special mental stage in which I could transpose what I saw and translate it into my own actions. But I didn’t fully get over this self-perception until I realized that the fault was not just in me, but also in the poor instructions I received.

Just as importantly, I learned the need for patience with problem-solving. Now, when I’m trying to solve a computer problem, or plan the most efficient route for a series of errands, I know that the best way to accomplilsh my goal is to deliberately slow myself down and think throughly and methodically until I hav a course of action planned.

With this background, I don’t think my stints as a university instructor or a technical writer were the least accidental; I still believe that the ability to explain properly is one of the most important talents that you can have.

Because of such circumstances I must have been all of four when I first realized that, no matter how I parsed my situation, I didn’t fit in very well. Either I was a slow-learner and clumsy as well, or, by necessity, I was more versatile than the right-handers around me, becoming close to ambidextrous simply because I had no choice. I suspect this feeling of difference explains why the left-handed are represented disproportionately in the arts; in our society, being an outsider is a given for an artist, so creative activities seem a natural refuge for many of us.

Some lefties are probably destroyed by their alienation, but for some reason I took a different work. Increasingly, as I matured, I took a perverse pride in my difference, increasingly describing a strange idea as “coming out of right field” and using “sinister” as a term of approval, reversing the diction that decried left-handedness as a form of joking self-assertion. When I played baseball, I would confound others by continually switching the side of the plate I stood on; similarly, once I could score consistently under par at the local pitch and putt course while golfing right-handed, I achieved similar scores golfing left-handed in less than a couple of weeks.

These days, I don’t notice which hand I favor all that much, except when I realize that an actor looks natural to me because he or she is left-handed. If anything, my view is that the ability of lefties to adapt and flourish is one of the many proves of just how flexible the human brain can be. But, when I stop to think, I have no doubt that I would be very different if I had been born right-handed.

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“Pardon him … he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”
– George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra

In preparation for its 150th anniversary and the 2010 Winter Olympics, my home province of British Columbia has adopted the slogan, “The Best Place on Earth.” The slogan appears on the special Olympic license plates that you see occasionally, and, with increasing frequency, on government ads and documents. But, wherever I see those five words, their crude jingoism never fails to set my teeth on edge.

My dislike of the slogan has nothing to do with any deficiency in me. I have a strong sense of place, so much so that it partly explains my appreciation for art rooted in the region, such as the work of Emily Carr or Northwest Coast artists such as Robert Davidson. Born with the coast mountains around me, I am infected with a peripheral nervousness in flat regions. When I return home from a trip, the first thing I noticed when I leave the airport is that the atmosphere is properly moist.

I am also well aware that the Vancouver area is far more cosmopolitan than any city of its size has any right to be, thanks to the accident of being the major Canadian port on the Pacific. And, like many people around the Vancouver area, I am convinced that I live in one of the few decent climates in Canada, and not-so-secretly pity those who live elsewhere in the country (although I smugly think it would be rude to insist on the advantages of my home region too strongly – rather like posting about health care to American friends).

However, as rooted as I am, I know that other people feel just as strongly about the places where they live as I do. I remember once when I was visiting San Francisco, and my comment about the barrenness of desert provoked a prose poem on the beauties of the flowers that bloom briefly in Arizona after rain, and an exclamation that was close to disgust about how excessive the rain forest could be. From such experiences, I long ago figured that, had I been born elsewhere, I would probably have had just as strong attachment to the sights and smells of that region.

Ever since then, when I travel, I have tried to get a sense of a new place by walking around areas not frequented by tourists, trying to get a feel for the place by imagining what my life might be like if I lived there. I have even found a few places, such as Berkeley ,where I imagine – rightly or wrongly – that I could fit in without much difficulty (although I have also found some places, such as New York, where more than a weeks’ stay would drive me mad for the lack of greenery and wilderness).

I make no claim to be well-traveled. Still, to me, “the best place on earth” sounds narrowly chauvinistic – the crass boasting of someone without enough experience of any other place to realize how vainglorious and ultimately empty the slogan is.

It’s one thing to use a slogan like Alberta’s “Wild Rose Country” which plays on an official emblem, or Quebec’s “Je me souviens,” which reflects the history of the place. Both these slogans are too officially nationalistic for me to be entirely comfortable with them, but at least they evoke a sense of place that doesn’t denigrate other people’s feelings for their homelands. Possibly, the Quebec slogan implies a resistance to Anglophone cultural domination, which is the usual way that it is interpreted – but, given the province’s history, who can blame it for any such implication?

Anyway, an assertion of identity in the face of resistance is very different from uncalled-for boasting. It seems to me that the only response a polite person from outside of British Columbia can make to the slogan “The Best Place on Earth” is “Did I ask?” And no doubt with a few beers, the response will be,”Says who?”

Of course, B.C. has a history of poor slogans. The official motto, which translates from Latin as “Splendour without diminishment” has always seemed the bravado of a resort-extracting capitalist to me. Even worse is “Super, natural,” which was used for years in tourism promotion, as though the goal was to corner the market on travelling neo-pagans.

But with “the best place on earth,” the powers that be have hit a new low. We can only pause to shudder, and, realizing that this is another vague whim of government that we can do little to counter, can hope that this, too, will someday pass.

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The other night, I was lying on the futon when I noticed our parrots going absolutely rigid. Unlike their usual habit, when they see a crow or a seagull, they were not calling out. They were making small, disturbed chirps, and their feathers were tight against their bodies – a sure sign of agitation.

Looking outside, I couldn’t see any reason for their disturbance at first. Then I noticed crows and smaller birds streaking low into the trees, and I realized a predator must be in the neighborhood. Sure enough, after a moment, I spotted a bald eagle perched atop tree about a hundred meters from the window.

Most of what I could see with my unaided eyes was a black silhouette, since it was less than twenty minutes before sunset. Still, there was no mistaking what I was seeing. Although I had nothing I could compare the silhouette with to be sure of its size, the general outline was nothing like the crows that usually sit on that perch. It was longer and thinner. It didn’t move like a crow, either. It kept peering this way and that with a jerk of the head that was most uncrow-like, and fanning and unfanning its tail.

Nor could the avian reactions, both outside or in leave me with any doubt that I was seeing a predator. Outside, I could see more silhouettes streaking low across the sky behind the eagle towards shelter. Nearby, the usual sounds as the birds go to roost were completely missing from the night. Inside, our parrots were tense and straining forward to keep an eye on the visitor, ignoring everything else.

What interested me about the parrots’ reaction was that they had no trouble recognizing a predator when they saw one. Of our four parrots, at least one was taken from the wild as a baby, and one was born in our living room, and neither of them could have had any personal experience of raptors, yet both reacted exactly the same as the other two. Of course, nanday conures are a flock species, and alarms and greetings spread quickly, even between parrots who don’t like each other. Yet it seems clear that, at some instinctual level, they knew a predator when they saw one.

At the same time, the two on the futon were not so alarmed that they panicked. On some level, they seemed to know that they were far enough away not to be a main target. Possibly, too, they were aware of the window between them and the eagle; one of the first bits of training we do with all our birds is introduce them to the window, so that they don’t fly into it by accident. Instead of backing slowly away, as I half-expected, they not only stayed where they were, but actually moved forward a bit, craning, to get a better view. In other words, they were on alert, but seemed aware that they were safe. Perhaps what I was seeing was instinct and intelligence fighting for control.

After about five minutes, the eagle stirred abruptly, seeming to fall rather than fly from its perch. I soon found out why: a half dozen crows were charging it. A predator can make short work of a single crow, but a determined flock of crows outhinks and outguns it, and this eagle was obviously experienced enough not to challenge its attackers. Now its turn had come to seek shelter, and the last I saw, it was flapping furiously, trying to outdistance the crows and not having much luck.

The crows, no doubt, had a strong incentive. This past ten days or so, the first of this year’s baby crows have been taking their first flying lessons, leaving many of them stranded permanently or temporarily on the ground, or on remote perches without being quite sure how to get back to the nest. I had been dive-bombed several times myself because of my curiosity, and no doubt the eagle, for whom the crow fledglings provide an easy meal, had raised the ire of the adults.

Given the timing, you can almost imagine the adult crows acting like a fighter squadron, scrambling to get a response into the air as soon as possible to confront the danger. When you consider crows’ intelligence and social organization, that metaphor might even be a reasonably literal description of what happened.

With the eagle gone, our parrots relaxed almost instantly – another sign, I suppose, that they know exactly what a predator is. As for me, I was left with both a gut-level awareness of the eagle as predator and our parrots as prey species that I had never had before. And, for all my fascination with observing the reactions, I found that I was relaxing too, along with the rest of my flock.

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“I don’t think I have ever been quoted as well by a reporter before.”

I like to think that I’m immune to compliments but this comment from someone I interviewed earlier this week got through my defenses. I interpret it as saying that I reported what the person said accurately.

Or, to be exact, my reworking of what the person said was a close reflection of their thoughts. Because, of course, no journalist quotes an interview subject word for word – unless, that is, they want to portray the subject as a incoherent half-wit. If you have transcribed as many interviews as I have, you’ll know that even the most fluent speaker can be made to look rambling and dull by quoting every little pause, space-filler, and change of direction in thought. To make the story read better, all journalists routinely edit quotations to help the continuity of their stories. If they are also ethical journalists, they do while making sure that they preserve the sense of what the subject said.

At any rate, the comment pleased me, because accurately reflecting what someone has to say is a skill on which I pride myself. When I pitch a story to my editors, I rarely have a fixed opinion on the subject, except when I’m writing a commentary. Instead, I want to write the story because I’m interested in learning more about the subject. My opinion emerges from the as I research the story and talk to different people; on those occasions when I do have an opinion on a subject, I frequently alter it as I develop the story.

This habit does little to soothe the nerves of potential interviewees who ask what my perspective on the subject we’ll discuss happens to be, or ask in advance for the questions I want answered. If I were being completely honest, I’d have to explain that, in most cases, I don’t have the least idea what the perspective will be in the story. Similarly, while I jot down topics I want to cover, I rarely prepare specific questions. When I do, the resulting article is never an example of my best work. Instead, I develop my questions while listening to the interviewee. But these explanations, I suspect, would not be believed by the suspicious. They’d be sure I had a hidden agenda. The more I explained, the more paranoid they would become.

All the same, they’re the truth. While I taught in an English Department when post-colonialism was the prevailing critical theory, I’ve never been a believer in completely subjective truth. At the risk of sounding naive, I believe, if not in objective truth, then in the effort to find it. I’m well aware that my bias creeps in to everything I writer, regardless of my intentions, but I don’t believe that my perspective is endlessly interesting, so I try to vary it with the opinions of those whom I talk to.

That’s not to say that I don’t have a define viewpoint by the time I finish an article – although I do try to subdue the expression of it, because I happen to think that a gently-delivered truth that guides readers to the conclusions I want to give them is more effective than a thundering oration. But if I want to persuade people to accept my outlook, I want to make my development of my points as accurate as possible to make them more logically acceptable.

So, yes, I do try to report the gist of what other people say. It is both part of my code of ethics and part of my style of discussion to do so. No doubt I often fail, both ethically and stylistically, but such are my ideals – and I’m warmed by the thought that someone has noticed.

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After writing professionally on the web for several years, I’m no stranger to careless readers and wonky comments. I learned long ago that not only can you not count on everyone to read your thoughts carefully, but that some subjects, such as Microsoft’s intentions towards free software, cause many people’s critical facilities to go on holiday. But none of the subjects I’ve written about provoke as much blind reaction as the suggestion that grammar should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I noticed that my article “Tech-writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude” had not survived a redesign of the Techwr-l site where it was originally posted. Because I still get requests for it, I asked Deb and Eric Ray, who maintain the site, to send me a copy of the published version, and posted it on my blog. The request also prompted them to repost the essay on the original site. In the days since, I’ve been fielding a comment or two per day from both sources, most of them sent privately.

Some people approve the sentiments in the article, but perhaps half are outraged. They set out to correct my thinking by pointing out that, without consistency, language ceases to communicate. Their assumption seems to be that only official English has consistency. I answer that all forms of English have their own rules – for instance, a double negative, which is considered wrong in official English, is perfectly understandable with the context of some Afro-American dialects (and, I might add, Old English). So far, none of these conversations have continued beyond this point.

Another conversation about the article begins with someone asking if I’m saying that we (by which the reader usually means sophisticated, literary folk like themselves) should go along with mispronunciations or incorrect uses, usually in sarcastic tones that suggest that, of course, I mean no such thing. I reply that I do mean exactly that, that, when a pronunciation or usage reaches a certain degree of popularity, it becomes standard usage.

To this comment, my correspondent usually replies that it is the duty of the literate to fight against such barbarisms. My response is that you are, of course, free to use any language that you care to, but, if you imagine that your example is going to inspire an outbreak of proper usage, then you think far too much of yourself. The most anyone can do is avoid usages that are vague in the name of clarity and personal style – and, at that point, another conversation peters out.

And these are just the most common ones. I’ve been accused of advocating complete chaos, of insisting on poetic language at the expense of clarity, and all sorts of other stances that have nothing to do with what I wrote, no matter how you construe my words. Often enough, people insist that I believe something that I frankly state that I do not believe. Apparently, many people – particularly those who work with words – have so much invested in their self-image as initiates into the secrets of proper grammar that any suggestion that their knowledge is as useless as heraldry immediately robs them of their ability to read and analyze text.

Personally, I find the idea that we have, not one but dozens of versions of English exciting and challenging. It means that, as a writer, I have more to explore than I can possibly learn in one lifetime. But that, unfortunately, seems to be a minority viewpoint.

A good thing that I thrive on being a contrarian, or I might find the hostile responses disheartening.

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It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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Railroading on the Great Divide,
Nothing around me but the Rockies and sky,
It’s there you’ll find me as years go by,
Railroading on the Great Divide.

– Traditional

Reading The Globe and Mail a couple of days ago, I learned that folk-singer Bruce “Utah” Phillips had died on May 23. He had been ill since last summer, so the news wasn’t exactly a surprise. And with his unkempt gray beard, he had always looked a decade or two older than he was, so I had been expecting to hear of his death for some years. But I suppose that one of the consequences of growing older is that you have to watch your heroes die off one by one. And Utah Phillips was certainly once of mine.

As we come marching, marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it’s bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too.

I first heard Utah at one of the early Vancouver Folk Festivals. In fact, except for a concert or two, most of the places I heard him play or talked to him (casually, and so little I would have been surprised to hear that he remembered me) were at one Vancouver Folk Festival or another. He was never the greatest guitar play – no one came to hear him on the guitar, Kate Wolf is supposed to have said when she coaxed him out of retirement when his fingers were stiff – and his voice was never more than adequate. But he was one of those people who know how to put a song across. There was a sincerity and passion in his voice that was infectious. Just hearing it could inspire you.

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And we hail you still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth,
But marks the workers’ dead.

Another part of his appeal was his material. Few people today know or perform the old Wobbly songs – the material used by the Industrial Workers of the World in their agitation. But, to the extent that anybody does know or perform them, they do so because of Utah Phillips. Often reworkings of popular hymns (“so they made more sense,” as Utah liked to put it), and inevitably attributed (often dubiously) to Joe Hill, they were a glimpse of the past outside the one provided by official history, and often wickedly humorous. “The Popular Wobbly,” “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years” — there was a time when those were the songs I played several times a week, whose words I memorized and whose tunes I went around humming.

I spent my whole life making somebody rich,
I busted my back for that son of a bitch,
And he left me to die like a dog in a ditch,
And he told me I’m all used up.

Occasionally, these forgotten songs would be joined by Utah’s own compositions, such “Enola Gay” “All Used Up” and “The Goodnight Loving Trail.” No doubt influenced by the material he was keeping alive, they were examples for me as a young man of the attitudes I needed to survive and think well of myself. For better or worse, I am who I am today in some part because of Utah Phillips’ songs.

What will I say when my children ask me,
Where was I flying up on that day?
With trembling voice I gave the order
To the bombardier of Enola Gay.

Then there were the stories that he came to tell with increasing frequency as he grew older. Some were tall tales with a hilarious, sometimes political point to them, but the best were stories about his life on the road. Early on, I inferred that Utah was not a natural anarchist or pacificist, but that he had done his best to reshape himself into something like the man he wanted to be. Not being naturally those things myself, I was fascinated to hear the bits and pieces of his life story that he had worked into stage material.

I have lead a good life, careful and artistic,
I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic.

I remember, too, the outrage at one folk festival, when Utah’s children concert involved stories about how to get meals for free at a restaurant. Somehow, I’m sure that he delighted in shocking the trendy leftist parents as much as he enjoyed talking to the kids.

Hallejuah, I’m a bum, hallejuah, bum again
Hallejuah give us a handout to revive us again.

For about a decade now, whenever we tired of the second and third rate poets and dub artists that the Vancouver Folk Festival seems determined to inflict on us in the name of attracting a younger audience, we could always count on one of Utah’s sessions to provide both solid entertainment and inspiration.

Are you poor, forlorn and hungry,
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

That’s gone now, but that’s not why we’re not going to the festival this year. The reason we’re not going (or one of them) is that we can’t stand the thought of the mythologization of Utah that will undoubtedly be going on. In the process of remembering him, the festival officials are likely to try to turn him into a kindly old eccentric, and, while I can’t say I knew him well (or even at all, really), I know that he was more than that. He was an original, and someone who tried to live what he believed, and he deserves to be remembered with all his human imperfection. I’d like to remember him as he was, so I’ll leave others to the creation of comforting lies about him and remember him by putting on one of his old LPs instead.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.

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