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Archive for June, 2010

Over the last few years, I have spent more than my share of time visiting in hospitals. Visiting a patient in a private room has its advantages – I once marked several batches of essays in one – but can be lonely for the patient unless they have a constant stream of visitors. A semi-private room is better, depending on who the other patient is, but can turn into a nightmare, as happened once when the other patient was from a psychiatric ward and had to be strapped down because he was under the illusion that he was defending the west coast against a Chinese invasion. So, on the whole, a four-bed room is usually the best balance between privacy and company.

For instance, over the past three weeks, the four-bed room where I have been spending several hours every day has presented a variety of people coming and going, some pleasant, some eccentric, but all providing stimulation to one another with their differences.

One was a woman who in sixty years had been both a hairdresser and a prison guard. She was outspoken, and obviously restraining her language, but unfailingly polite to the nurses and everyone else. She quickly became friends with the person I was visiting, and the two of them soon started trading the contents of their meal trays like kids at recess, and watching out for each other.

At the start of my visits, another of the bed was occupied by a soft-spoken man who had recently retired from sales. His wife, a puppeteer, was another frequent visitor. He participated lightly in the conversation, and everyone knew he was a Christian fundamentalist, but it was only on his last night that he revealed his missionary instinct. In response to a few questions, he got out an oversized Bible and a stack of computer printouts and immediately started trying to convert the ex-hairdresser-prison guard. It was a mark of her restraint that she didn’t lose her temper with him, although she complained long and bitterly after he left.

The fundamentalist was followed by a man who kept the curtains drawn around his bed and said as little as possible. He, in turn, was followed by a male nurse who took some advantage of his conventional good looks, but also interceded with the ward nurses on behalf of other patients. After him came a folk singer from Prince Edward Island, hospitalized on the other side of the continent after he had come to sing at a family wedding and contracted laryngitis. He spoke little (unsurprisingly), but showed a strong streak of kindness when he did.

The other bed in the room was initially occupied by a young Vietnamese woman. She would talk, but she spent a lot of her time on her cell phone or watching videos on a portable player with her legs draped over her bed tray. Either her sister or her boyfriend would crawl into bed with her at night, a practice that disturbed the nurses, but seems to me a reasonable way to help lessen the strain of being in hospital.

When the Vietnamese woman left, her bed was taken by a homeless man who worked part time as a roofer. He had the most prehensile toes I had ever seen, and was absolutely filthy. Despite cracked ribs, he was always descending six floors to go for a smoke – and I suspect, to judge from his behavior, for his drug of choice as well. Talking to him, I got the impression that his brains and reality were not quite in sync. However, his brains worked well enough for him to realize that he had a good place to stay, and he only left when it was clear that the next step would be to have security escort him out.

None of these people were extraordinary. You could probably pick half a dozen strangers at random on the street and find an equally interesting assortment. But on the street, of course, you would never learn much about them. In a hospital room, where little happens between doctors’ visits and being wheeled away for tests, people have to pass the time somehow, and while some opt for a portable TV, sooner or later most people talk. And, because they have so little to do, anyone who does talk invariably ends up saying more about themselves than they would in other settings. Probably, it helps that the first questions anyone is asked is why they are in a hospital – a private detail that makes giving more private details easy.

I’m not sure if I or the patient I was visiting will ever see these people again. Both of us took several people’s contact information, but a promise to keep in touch made when you are sharing the experience of being in the hospital is easy to break afterwards. You can’t help suspecting that you knew the other people only in special circumstances, and that in their ordinary lives they might be strangers – and strangers who are not at all eager to see anyone from a time when they were helpless, bored, and far from their best. Still, for the time of a hospital stay, the people in a four-bed room provide a variety and interest that any other form of hospital accommodation cannot hope to match.

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If Facebook has done anything, it has helped make users more aware of privacy issues on the Internet. Personally, though, the issue of privacy has always seemed plain enough.

Like many middle-aged people, I’m sometimes appalled by what the majority of people seem willing to disclose on the Internet. Many people seem to forget that they’re not just having a one-on-one conversation, but leaving a trace that anybody – or, at least on Facebook, dozens or hundreds, depending on their number of friends – can read. They disclose not only their plans for the night, but even the details of their sexual encounters and relationships.

In some cases, this disclosure may be given because the person giving it is a genuinely warm person. In other, the Tom Cruise Syndrome may be in full play – you know, the idea that, if you declare your emotions publicly enough or loudly enough or often enough, you and everyone else will come to believe it. Mostly, though, I have the impression that people just don’t think of the audience to which they’re broadcasting; I’ve noticed the same tendency to get lost in a private world with people talking on their phones in public. But, whatever the reason, I think the term “overshare” becomes relevant here.

By contrast, I am more cautious about what I disclose. I’ve been using the Internet since 1991, so I’ve had more time to think about such things than the average Internet user. Also, writing is a burlesque-like game of alternately revealing and concealing your person, so writing as I do for tens or hundreds of thousands on a regular basis tends to bring privacy issues into focus. Moreover, I have got myself into trouble with an indiscreet email or two. All of this experience makes me cautious about what I will say online, so much so that there are some topics on which I simply won’t express my opinion. You can ask me in person or maybe on the phone if you know me well, but some things I want to keep off the record.

I don’t mind my contact information being available, so long as spammers can’t get hold of it too easily. It was long ago scattered across the Internet anyway.

My personal rule is simple: I imagine that I am speaking what I write online at a crowded party. Before I post, I ask myself if I would be embarrassed if a sudden silence fell over the party and everybody could hear what I was saying. If the answer is yes, then I don’t post it. Everything’s really that simple.

When I talk about other people (especially those closest to me), I may adapt the rule: If a sudden silence fell over the party while I was talking about them, would they be embarrassed?. But, often, I want to quote someone or mention what they are doing or how they affect me. In these cases, I generally try to anonymize them, removing any reference that isn’t strictly necessary so that the person I am talking about will be hard for most of my audience to identify.

Such a policy isn’t completely convenient. It limits what I talk about online. Often, a story is diminished if I remove the references. Once or twice, people have also jumped to wild conclusions about me because of what I haven’t mentioned; for example, because I rarely mentioned my partner, some people have assumed that I am a loner or accused me of being gay.

But these problems are rare enough that I can live with them. Certainly, they’re less of a problem than leaving a trail of embarrassing comments or photos that can come back to haunt me.



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Like many people in the free software community, I feel vaguely guilty about using Facebook. Microsoft’s investment in the site makes me queasy, and Facebook’s privacy problems raise issues that are close to my heart. Moreover, I have no interest in games like Farmville or Mafia Wars (or, rather, I can guess all too clearly how obsessive I would be once I started), or sending virtual gifts, and I long ago exhausted the pleasure of taking meaningless quizzes. Instead, I use Facebook more as an address book with a chat channel attached to it.

You can see how I use the site through the breakdown of my list of friends. As I scan the list, most people on it fall clearly into one of eleven categories, although a few could be placed in several categories:

According to my quick tally:

  • 15% are First Nations artists, or relatives or spouses of first nations artists. The main reason I friended the artists was to see the photos of their work that they post, although some have become personal friends as well.
  • 5% are fellow writers and journalists in the computer field – usually ones who write largely about free and open source software.
  • 5% are editors, about two-thirds of which I interact with regularly and submit articles to at least once per month.
  • 12% are subject matter experts. Although some are friends, the main advantage of being connected to them on Facebook is that when I need a quote or an explanation, I can hop on line and chat quickly with them. This is easy to do, because most are logged in to Facebook during regular business hours in North America.
  • 6% are business experts I’ve met and often interviewed while writing articles. On the whole, they tend not to be on Facebook often, but Facebook is another way to reach them when necessary.
  • 29% are either members of the free software community whose expertise I might need in a story or else professionals who work in marketing, communication, technical writing, public relations, or some other field that I have dabbled in.
  • 20% are people with whom I went to school. Most of these are very light Facebook users and not accustomed to chat, so my interaction with most of them is limited largely to occasional remarks about each other’s status.
  • 4% are people in high-tech with whom I have worked in the past.
  • Less than 1% are friends who have nothing to do with work or my art interests.
  • Less than 1% are actual family members.
  • 1 person is dead (and I can’t quite bring myself to remove him)

I’ve rounded the numbers, so the total does not add up to 100%.

Even so, this breakdown gives an accurate picture of how I use Facebook. Overwhelming, for me Facebook is a tool for business and for my major pastime of studying Northwest Coast Art. That sounds like I don’t use it for socializing, but that would be deceptive, since I consider many people in these categories friends.

Apparently, though, it’s not enough that I should feel guilty about using Facebook. Now, I need to feel guilty for not using it for completely mindless purposes as well.

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As I write, I am waiting for a phone call telling me to come escort someone home from day surgery. I’ve been waiting much of the day for the call, and the surgery has already been delayed several hours, so I find settling to any work almost impossible. The truth is, waiting has never been something that I have endured with much grace, although I have become better with the enforced practice of years.

I was an energetic child, so my inability to wait is unsurprising, really. Although I stopped short of hyper-activity, I always seemed to have more energy than anyone around me, and I usually expressed it in physical activity. Asking me to wait seemed akin to asking me to stand still; I could just barely do it.

Brief bouts of waiting, such as Remembrance Day silences and prayers, were a torment. As for really long waits, such as the week before Christmas or my birthday, or a family vacation – well, let us obscure them with an embarrassed silence. I really don’t want to remember how overbearing a child I could to be, but if I could travel in time, even I would probably want to drown my childhood self, and let the paradoxes fall as they may.

However, learning to wait is part of becoming an adult, unless you’re a child of privilege, which I certainly was not; I was first-generation middle class, and in my neighborhood that made me relatively poor. Inevitably, I learned how to wait in line, to wait for other people to respond or act, and to assume at least the appearance of composure while I did so.

But what first taught me to wait was being a long distance runner. On practice runs, I learned to fall into the rhythm of covering long distances with little more to do than keep a steady pace. Even more importantly, the night before races and in the hours beforehand, I learned to subdue my impatience and direct it towards reviewing on my strategies, containing myself until I could surge out from the starting line at the sound of the gun. Waiting, I discovered, could actually be a way to channel my energies.

Yet even this discovery would not have done much to reconcile me to waiting if I hadn’t discovered a few tricks that I still follow today.

One of my first tricks was to always carry a book with me. People called me bookish – and I am – but to me it just seemed practical. To this day, I still maintain that no time is ever wasted, so long as I have something to read. For the past few years, I’ve expanded this credo to include having a fully-charged music player, but, to a verbally oriented person like me, that is not quite as satisfactory, unless I’m listening to clever lyrics or an intricate classical arrangement that I can mentally dissect.

A strong memory, I found, was another aid to waiting. At one point in mis-spent adolescence, I had the entire soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar memorized, and could play it back in my head, instrument arrangements and all from the start of any song. To this day, I still have a full repertoire of songs and poems that I’ve memorized that I amuse myself with if I have no other resources. At other times, I compose some piece of writing in my head, going over and over the phrases until I have they sound right and I have them memorized.

More recently, learning to troubleshoot a computer and to train parrots have furthered my education in patience, so I can drift into a half-fugue state of intense observation so that I know what to do next.

Yet for all such improvement, I remain the descendant of that overbearing boy, and waiting does not come naturally. If I had a fast-forward button, I would certainly use it on myself. Learning to cope with waiting, I find, is not nearly the same as being reconciled to the necessity.

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When I’m stressed, I take refuge in the comfort of reading. I have a music player, but somehow it provides less shelter than the right sort of book: One that’s intelligent, but light, with occasional outbursts of humor. And I can think of no books that fit this description better than George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series. I’ve read each of the twelve books many times, and they never fail to provide a refuge.

The conceit of the stories is that Harry Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grows up to be Sir Harry Flashman, VC, one of the great Victorian heroes – all without changing his basic nature. Despite his public acclaim, he remains a bully, a coward, and a lecher. But through a combination of outrageous luck and fast-thinking, only he knows what he is really like.

Flashman, his first adventure, sets the formula. At the end of the book, the young Flashman is in a fort about to be overrun by Afghani hillfolk. Thinking his life might be spared if he surrenders, he hauls down the flag, but, before he can do more, he collapses. Just then, the relief column arrives, and, finding him collapsed over the flag, concludes that his last thought was to defend that symbol of his country. When he awakes, he is a hero with the thanks of Parliament. This mixture of cowardly motivation and fortunate appearances continues throughout the series, broken only by his thought that he might show courage to save his wife – a thought so unsettling to him that he prays that he will never have to choose between saving her and himself.

Flashman is last seen as an old man in Mr. American, being driven in a car through the crowds towards Buckingham Palace on the eve of World War One. The crowd assumes that he has been summoned to consult with the king, but, for Flashy, the palace is simply the nearest place that he can relieve his ancient bladder.

This basic conceit is intertwined with the ingenuity with which Fraser inserts Flashman into historical events. The result is a kind of prototype for Forest Gump; for instance, during the Battle of Balaclava, Flashman manages to stand with The Thin Red Line, and to charge with both the Heavy and the Light Brigades, troubled by flatulence all the way. In similarly outrageous way (but without the flatulence), Flashman is inserted into every major event in British and American history between 1840 and 1901, and meets everyone of note from Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington to Abraham Lincoln, Geronimo, and John Brown. In between, he has affairs with every woman from Lola Montez to the future Dowager Empress of China, proud to be “one who instinctively fornicates in the jaws of death.”

And just to add to the veracity, Fraser is forever mentioning things like an obscure figure in a historical painting who resembles Flashman’s known likenesses. He also includes copious footnotes that compare Flashman’s accounts with the primary sources, explaining where it agrees and doesn’t agree, and where it sheds new light upon events. The truth is, Fraser is a history buff, and the series is largely an excuse to exhaustively research events.

Later books in the series become a little too predictable, but these basic principles are enough to carry even the weakest Flashman book cynically along. In contrast to the bombast of the Victorian Age, in Flashman’s world view, there are no heroes – only conventional, hypocritical cant or dangerous madmen like James Brook, the White Rajah of Sarawak, and George Armstrong Custer, whose charisma drives others to do what they would never otherwise consider.

Flashman’s view, of course, is as false as the one it is meant to deflate, but, like Falstaff, his cowardice becomes a sort of humanism. Is the defense of an invaded country really worth going to war for? He asks several times through the series. All that will happen is that more people will die, and for Flashman, nothing (with the possibly exception of his undeserved reputation) is as important as everyone staying alive at all costs. Frequently, Flashman does act and speak in ways that horrify a modern person, but what mainly comes through is a sort of anti-authoritarianism based on a defence of the creature comforts of life.

At its best, the setup has endless comic opportunities, including variations on the formula. For instance, at first, Flashman’s reputation is preserved only because – like those who discover Superman’s secret identity – those who learn what he is really like fortuitously end up dying before they can discredit him. Later, though, when he breaks down, blubbering and pleading for mercy, his opponents believe it is a ruse, because they cannot believe that such a famous soldier is really a coward. Even if he collapsed on the floor, Flashman says at one point, people would only believe his behavior was a joke in questionable taste.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Fraser himself is the master of the deadpan. For instance, he has Flashman describe his future mother-in-law (in a beautifully Wodehousian phrase) as having “all the faded beauty of a vulture.” Similarly, in Flashman’s Lady, his wife Elspeth features as a kind of Victorian Gracie Allen, with her own brand of illogic and a supreme obliviousness to what is happening around her. In her diary, she notes “there is no Emergency beyond the Power of a Resolute Englishwoman, especially if she is Scotch.”

My only wish is that Fraser had written faster, or lived longer. As it is, while many parts of Flashman’s life are throughly documented, we never do learn how he managed to be a major in the Union forces one year of the American Civil War, and a colonel in the Confederate army the next year (although Abraham Lincoln seems to have had something to do with it). Nor do we know, as Fraser once hinted, whether Flashman really did play a role in the Riel Rebellion.

But never mind. Like many of my favorite TV series that have been canceled before their plots were wrapped up, the Flashman series leaves me grateful for what we have. In times of stress, Flashman can distract me with a detailed view of the nineteenth century and clever writing, and make me laugh at the same time. What more could I ask?

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Unexpectedly, I spent the past afternoon in the emergency ward of the local hospital. This was at least my twentieth time at emergency since 1995 (only once for me), but I’ve never managed to warm to such places. Spending time in emergency admitting is just a slow dread that leaves me feeling half-suffocated.

I suppose nobody welcomes a visit to a hospital, unless a birth is involved. If you are the one with an injury or illness, you remember it as a place where you were wrapped in your pain and discomfort like a second skin. If (as I usually am), you are there to lend moral support, then you slowly drain yourself while trying to provide comfort, all the time hoping that the patient gets some relief, and possibly hoping that, the trip is not fatal.

You might draw some support if you at the hospital in a group, but, even then, others can do only so much to help you. You are alone with your fears in a hospital in a way that you rarely are in any other place in modern industrial culture – all the more so because we are a death-denying culture, and a hospital doesn’t leave much room for denying.

But even if the emotions were not apt to be so intense at a hospital, the way they look and are run reduce your chances of relaxing or finding a moment’s respite.

Part of the trouble is that hospitals have the dinginess of any public places that are busy twenty-four hours a day. They are not dirty, but my impression is that no one has painted the walls or given the floors a hard scrub for years, if not decades. Like an all-night Denny’s, nobody cares for them. Hospitals feel like husks from which the soul leaked out long ago.

Another reason why hospitals depress me is that they are run impersonally. I do not mean that the nurses and doctors do not care about the patients; I know many who are dedicated and exhaust themselves regularly trying to provide the best care that they can.

But hospitals are busy, aggressively public places when you are concentrating on your personal crisis. You get the feeling that your crisis is unimportant, constantly about to be lost in hundreds of others. If it was not your crisis being dealt with, the resources it requires would immediately be taken up by someone else’s crisis. Nor is this feeling helped by the constant cutbacks, when you can easily feel that the real goal of the hospital is to spit you out of the system as quickly as possible, often before you are quite ready or your problem is solved..

Moreover, this feeling is only intensified when you hear the staff cracking jokes or bantering among themselves. I understand that they are only relieving their own tension, but, when you are sunk in your own crisis and trying not to curse the long waits, you can easily get annoyed by the apparent callousness.

But the really draining part of waiting for admittance into emergency is that the first casualty is always your privacy. With admitting clerks shouting questions at you, or nurses and doctors asking intimate questions while other supplicants sit a few centimeters away from you, your private concerns are suddenly on display. For that matter, you or yours may be literally on display, thanks to the backless gowns that are the norm. If you have not already shriveled up into your own private world thanks to your pain or concern, you may wish you could do so rather than having your concerns exposed in this way without anyone bothering to ask your permission first.

If you are there for moral support, you find yourself visiting the gift shop or going for an unhealthy snack you don’t really need, just so you are not on display for a while. But, if you are the would-be patient, you have little choice to stay, feeling like you are answering questions on the phone about your love life while riding a bus filled with eavesdroppers.

All this goes on for hours (six today, and we considered ourselves lucky). At the end, the patient is safely ensconced in a bed, and falls asleep from exhaustion, while – after a brief visit – their supporters stagger home and collapse on the living room couch before snatching a quick snack.

How the staff endures this environment day after day, I don’t know. I suppose the answer is that many don’t, because emergency ward staff have a high turnover. But how those who remain learn to ignore the place and what happens there is hard to fathom. But for those of us who visit, an emergency ward can often seem the last place that’s healthy to be sick in.

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Writers love to claim that their genre is difficult and arcane. I have heard poets claim that verse is the purest and most challenging form. Ditto for writers of short stories, plays and novels. I have heard diarists claim the superiority of the private journal over the blog, traditional journalists the superiority of the newspaper story over the online article, and mainstream writers the superiority of their work over science fiction or mysteries.

Maybe I am revealing myself as a hack, but I have trouble understanding why these claims are even made. Having published (if sometimes lightly) in a variety of genres, I fail to see much difference between them. So far as I have been able to observe, the task of writing is always much the same.

I suppose that writers make these claims to soothe their pride. Although writing is no easier than any other art, anyone who has even a few grades of education knows a few of its rudiments, so non-professionals think they know all about it. Moreover, unlike music or painting, it requires only items that can be found around most households, so amateur writers abound. Go to a science fiction convention, for instance, and you can probably start a conversation with anyone you meet simply by asking, “How’s your writing going?” Under these circumstances, perhaps many professional writers feel such a strong need to assert their expertise that they over-state the case.

Still, their claims sound false to me, because they are contrary to my experience of writing.

Generally, writing begins by an assessment of format. If you are writing a poem, you generally write in lines and stanzas; if you are writing a movie script, you need to follow rigid layout conventions before anyone will consider reading it. Similarly, online writing tends to use shorter paragraphs than writing that will be read on a printed page. Such assessments becomes automatic when you become experienced in a genre, but if you switch genres, you immediately become aware of the change in expectations.

The next consideration is your audience. For instance, vocabulary tends to freer and larger in poetry, because you can expect careful readings who are willing to take the time to puzzle out obscurities. The jargon (and what you need to explain) varies with the academic or technical audience. In online writing, exaggeration and hyperbole is more common, because online readers tend to be less engaged than print readers, and you want to keep your attention. In some cases, your subject matter might also change; if I remember correctly, Sylvia Plath said that she enjoyed writing fiction occasionally because in poetry she couldn’t write about things like toothbrushes.

And so it goes, for any type of writing I have done professionally. Any piece of writing requires that you adjust to the expectations of its stylistic or content genre. And, once you have, the acts of writing, revising, and editing differ only in the details.

Under these circumstances, claiming the superiority of one form over another seems unconvincing and downright desperate. Perhaps professional writing as a whole requires a different mindset or degree of talent and discipline than amateur writing, but at the level of process, where you spend most of your time, the act of writing remains constant. I can’t help thinking that those who insist otherwise do the art an injustice, and mislead everyone – perhaps themselves most of all.

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