Spring is Here!

Me, after conquering the Wentworth Stairs for the first time. I legitimately can't feel my anything in this photograph. But... I did it! And I'll do it again.

Me, after conquering the Wentworth Stairs for the first time. I legitimately can’t feel my anything in this photograph. But… I did it! And I’ll do it again.

Since my last post (ages ago, I apologize) was bemoaning the long stay of winter, I thought it might be appropriate to start in again with a post celebrating the arrival of spring.

The weather has gotten nice here in Southern Ontario, and the nasty flu and infections that have been plaguing everyone since Christmas seem to have finally cleared off. It was a terrible season for illnesses this year… absolutely everyone got sick at some point, and for an extended period of time. As I understand it, this was because of extreme weather conditions combined with a poor choice of flu vaccines.

But… that’s all behind us now, and I, for one, am finding ways to get out and enjoy the good weather while it’s here (and before it gets so hot and humid that it feels like you’re in a steam room). My friend at The Day Job and I, consequently, are attempting to walk to work every rainless day via the Wentworth Stairs.

For those of you who don’t live in Hamilton, the Wentworth stairs are a set of steel grate stairs built into the side of a kilometer-high sheer cliff called the Niagara Escarpment. The escarpment runs from nearly at the border with the US up into the hinterlands, and is a result of glacial activity. In ancient times, it was actually the shore of a vast, deep inland sea, and has lots of fossils embedded in the rock. It’s higher in some places, lower in others, but in Hamilton, it’s pretty high, and sheer, dividing the city almost in half between ‘The Mountain’ (on top of the escarpment) and ‘Downtown’ (the sea-level portion of the city leading down to the bay and the steel works).

My co-worker and I live on The Mountain, and work downtown. Thus, the only really practical way to walk to work is to take the stairs, over four hundred of them in total. We tried the walk last week, and I think it’s going to be really good for us, in the most painful sense of the word. The stairs require a lot of endurance, and more than a bit of courage. At one point, you descend down a sheer cement wall on mesh that you can see right through. It’s not the least vertigo-inducing thing I’ve ever done, and that’s for sure.

But, there is a beautiful smell of spring in the woods around the stairs, and I’m inspired by the people I see climbing daily, multiple times, who are honestly so fit that they should have trophies made in the likeness of their rippling abs. They’re not all young, either. Walking is also saving gas money, and the environment. It’s about time I started walking the walk when it comes to my belief in protecting the environment. And Hamilton really is a walkable city. Proper maintenance of sidewalks and access routes like the Wentworth stairs make what could be a very divided city quite accessible by foot.

Still, by the time I got up those steps, all I could keep repeating was, “I can’t feel my anything…”

It’s going to be a great adventure.

Happy Birthday, Laura!

This blog is partially about Canada, and for me, one of the things that makes me proud to be Canadian is the story of Laura Secord. Laura was a young married woman in the war of 1812, when the US decided that we would be better off under their rule (without our consent) and attacked the settlements at Upper Canada, the centre of which became Niagara Region, where I grew up. The area that Laura lived in was taken by the Americans, and her house was occupied by American troops. With her husband wounded, and nobody else around, the American soldiers disregarded her, speaking openly of their plans to ambush defending British forces.

But, Laura would not be discounted so easily. She had information that could help the British take back the area, and her husband could not carry it, so she stole away from her home and walked 20 kilometers, through swamps, ravines, and all manner of wildlife to get to where General Fitzgibbon and his troops camped. This area is very hilly, has a lot of unexpected drops and erosive soil conditions, and was wet and mucky at the time due to continuous rain, which is common here in the summer and fall months. I should add that Southern Ontario still had large predators and poisonous snakes in the area back then, as well, so it would have been even worse that most people think. Laura fought her way through the wilderness, wearing a thin house dress and slippers meant for indoor use (think something a bit thicker than a dance slipper). When she finally got to the general, she was dirty, and bruised, and cut… but she made it. With her information, the British mounted an ambush on the Americans, and wiped the floor with them at the battle of Beaver Dams.

What I like about this story isn’t the whole Canadian versus American thing. Today’s Americans are fine with me, and they usually only come over the border now to sample the maple syrup and check out the casinos. 😛 What I love about this story is that it says something about Canada’s spirit. Everyone else would have disregarded Laura. We didn’t. In many countries, in that time period, women would not have felt empowered to do what she did, but Canada is a nation of pioneers. Women routinely built houses, shot bears, and generally engaged in all the survival pursuits that the men did, as a matter of necessity. It is this necessity, the bridging of gaps that comes with hard winters, hard knocks and hard lands, that makes Canada, and its people, great. We were also one of the first countries to promote women to high ranks in the army. Canada had a woman colonel, in charge of the nursing corps, in the early nineteen forties, while England was still debating granting nurses military rank at all.

I hope that Denny, the main character in my upcoming novel Distant Early Warning, who braves the wilderness with nothing but a shotgun and a dog, can in some small way channel Laura’s bravery, and the truly Canadian essence of her story.

Happy birthday, Laura, and may you keep on inspiring generations of spirited little girls, as you did for me.

And, without further ado, the most badass song ever written about Laura Secord, by the late, great Tanglefoot.

GenreCon, get ready!

I didn’t want to announce this earlier, as I was still working out the details, but now it’s official…

I’m an author guest at GenreCon!!!! Like, a real author guest, not just an author that plonked herself down in the dealers’ room, or maybe even the foyer… not that there’s anything wrong with foyer dwellers. It’s just nice to be loved. ❤

And we’re having a wicked awesome book launch for Distant Early Warning, which I can honestly say is just coming together better and better. I seriously wish I could post the illustrations right now… but I guess that would be cheating. You guys will just have to live with the splash page for now.

I guess what I really wanted to say right now, is that I’m so proud of this book, and myself.

Next stop… getting a better mugshot for the promos. 😛

I Didn’t Write Blogs, But I Have Been Writing…

The new book is starting to take shape. It’s a sequel, but I have been meaning to post about the first one more anyway. Here is an excerpt of what I’ve been writing… first draft. You’ve been warned.

Aunt Very blew a loud breath out of her nose.

“There’s a war on, child,” she said, every contour of her body communicating her reluctance to share her experience with such things, “We’re fighting for our land, for our peace of mind, for our sanity. There are going to be casualties, and the bold ones are the first to go. Whoever said fortune favours the bold was full of shit. Fortune favours the prepared, the cutthroat and the very very skilled.”

Denny slapped her knee, sending water sloshing out of the glass in her other hand. The question had been nagging at her through all the interviews, and handshakes, and tapings and attention. She couldn’t ask it there (not in the script) but here? It was time to let it rip.

“And what part do I have in all that?”

Very’s face softened.

“A very special place. One that remains to be discovered. You’re an outlier, Denny. You don’t fit within the rules, and yet you’re part of the game nonetheless. That’s the most powerful position of all.”

Denny looked over at Peter, nursing his ice water, expecting him to spout some jargon about her unique gifts and experience, or selling her brand or some more of the nonsense that he used to pep her up before interviews. Instead, he tipped his glass in their direction, cocked his head, and said:

“I don’t know what you’re looking at me for, Dens. You just got the best answer you’re ever gonna get.”

… and there is my first excerpt from the new book. As true today as it was when I wrote it 24 hours ago.

My Life in St. Catharines, Now With Pictures!

The main drag of my hometown

The main drag of my hometown, circa 2010

So, in case you’ve missed the previous post, I’m beginning a series today on class, and the living conditions in the places I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The prompt is this:

 Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different?

 I suppose this prompt jumped out at me because the place I grew up has some very stark class issues that I noticed more and more as I grew.

 My hometown is called St. Catharines, and for the majority of you who aren’t from Southern Ontario, it’s a small city about thirty minutes from the US border. Currently, I think it’s got a population of about 150 000, and that’s about middle range for a town in our area. St. Catharines borders on Lake Ontario, which is the size of some small seas. I think being on the lake my whole life has made me feel most at home by the water. There’s also a canal system that runs through the town, which lets large freighters get to the St. Lawrence river, and from there, to the Atlantic. When I was a kid I used to sit on the cliffs by the lake in Port Dalhousie, the district that I’m from, and watch the freighters sit in the lake, waiting to pass through the locks. We have some of the most amazing fruit growing land in the whole world, and you really can’t beat the local food.

 The town has its newsworthy points, both good and bad. For the good, we are the hometown of Rush drumming legend Neil Peart. Rush even wrote a song about Port Dalhousie, that I adore. For the bad, in the nineties, serial killer Paul Bernardo murdered two girls here, in a series of shocking crimes that reached news outlets all over North America. My after-school sitter lived around the corner from his house, during the time the crimes were going on. I’ve never seen public panic like that before or since. It left a mark on me well into my adult life, as I’m sure it did for many others in our community. Let it be duly noted, however, that he migrated in from Scarborough.

 So, what was it like to grow up in St. Catharines? Well, I lived in the North end, by the lake, in a beautiful old farm house that had lost its farm. My folks had gotten lucky and gotten a deal on it just before the prices went up and the millionaires started moving in. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, just on the edge of the grey area between St. Catharines and the nearby farming communities. When I went to sleep at night, if the wind was blowing the right way, I could hear the howl of engines from the highway. It’s a very eerie sound when it has filtered across a couple of kilometres of field, but to this day I still find it rather comforting.

 My childhood was relatively carefree, although I was pretty nerdy and got teased a lot. I always seemed to gravitate to other misfits like myself… what I didn’t realize then was that a lot of the time, the other kids I hung out with got teased not because they were all that weird (I definitely was) but because they were kinda poor and didn’t have the stuff other kids had, like the snappy clothes and newest games. I had all that stuff… I was just clueless and didn’t see what it mattered. I wasn’t really brought up like that. I was taught to see what I had in common with people, rather than to try and find things I had over them. I found the other snooty suburban kids really confusing as I got older, and often didn’t really get why I didn’t fit in. In fact, I ran into one of my former teachers later in life, and he agreed… it was a really snobby school, and really cruel to anybody that wasn’t ‘with it’. I feel proud that I was one of the ones he liked.

 When I reached eleven or twelve, I was identified (diagnosed?) as exceptional, and went part-time to a school for gifted kids. I learned a lot of cool things, like how to use a mixing board, do woodworking projects, and get banned from field trips for being an hour late for check-in. It was there that I was first encouraged to pursue animation. I found the transition to high school really jarring, because for the first time, I was forced to get out of my bubble of perfect people from the suburbs and deal with people from the other parts of town. It was then that I realized that most of St. Catharines is not like the North end. In those few years, I learned that my hometown had teeth. My high school, a last resort for teen moms and kids with drugs found in their lockers, was a half-empty, crumbling abomination from the 1960’s with sediment in the water lines and whole wings blocked off in disrepair. I hung out with the only ten or twelve people in the school not involved in drugs, and a good portion of them had personality disorders of some sort. Until I moved away, I thought all high schools were like this.

 Beleaguered and more than a little scared, I threw myself into my studies, dreaming of a day when I would be able to use my mind and talents to get a great job and pull myself out of the company of juvenile idiots. I worked hard to get through high school, and got into my university program of choice. University was much the same. Scared of being like the people I saw pissing their lives away in high school, I kept my head down, and kept to my books. I’d already seen the poverty that the majority of people there lived in, and I didn’t want that to be me. I found a lot of acceptance at Brock, though, and I started to get into my groove with my town, and learn more about the things that made it great.

My favorite bookstore in the world, since torn down to make way for the new arts centre. RIP Novel Idea.

My favorite bookstore in the world, since torn down to make way for the new arts centre. RIP Novel Idea.

The best book I ever purchased ironically. I just couldn't get over that it was so old that they referenced "The Home Video Games" like "The Twitter" or "The Disco Music".

The best book I ever purchased ironically. I just couldn’t get over that it was so old that they referenced “The Home Video Games” like “The Twitter” or “The Disco Music”.

Throughout those years, I could often be found on weekends lurking in the stacks at one of our many great used bookstores, ferreting out classic fantasy and science fiction, old cookbooks, and stuff to help me learn more Japanese. I went down to the beach at Port Dalhousie and just watched the ducks and gulls. I even saw the occasional turtle, but his whereabouts must remain a closely-guarded secret. Robin and I fell in love on the pier. We regularly poked through the racks at Out of the Past downtown looking for goth finds, and put on the funny hats in the mirror, just ’cause. In the spring, my favourite activity is still to go out to the regatta park in Port Dalhousie and follow the baby geese around.

 Unfortunately, like all golden eras, my time in university came to an end. The magic I had discovered in my town disappeared, as I realized that I had no way of finding any kind of job that would sustain me, let alone allow me to use my talents in any satisfying way. I applied everywhere in the area that I could, but I couldn’t even get a call-back as a typist. The few people I talked to that could help me treated me like I wasn’t worth their notice because I wasn’t from Toronto. The few good jobs in St. Catharines, I realized, didn’t go to locals. Locals were assumed to be inexperienced and incompetent. My town imported its managers, and exploited its natives. I spent a very hard year working two part-time retail jobs before I realized that I would have to escape to the city to find any kind of meaningful work.

 When I realized that I needed something more than St. Catharines could provide, I began planning. I took a scholarship, and saved every penny that I could. When that wasn’t enough, I sold a third of my stuff, including my guitar, which I’ve touched on in other posts. I fled for the city, and (almost) never looked back. Since then, they’ve torn down my favourite bookstore, and most of old Port Dalhousie by the pier, to make way for gentrified ‘improvement’ projects, some of which I see the need for, others of which I never will. But the fact remains that I think they looked in the wrong places to root out the problems St. Catharines has. It’s the holes in the wall that gave it character.

 Next week: Oakville and Toronto, and the struggle to fit in.

Thoughts On The Occupational Hazards of Art

In the last half year or so, my church has been doing something a little different with worship services on certain Sundays. Instead of having a longer service, we sing a little, say our prayers, and then split off into small groups and do a variety of activities. This week, we had a slide show about human rights concerns in Russia, an informal hymn sing, and a craft workshop where we made votive holders. Here is mine:

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 We had a variety of materials available to us, but I tend to gravitate toward natural shapes, so I decided to make a flower arrangement. Other people made paper bag lanterns, and banged-tin designs, and all manner of really lovely things… but I noticed something. First of all, this kind of activity did not come naturally to most of them. Finding colours and textures that went well together seemed difficult for a lot of people, and when they saw mine (which I had put together rather quickly), many people remarked that they didn’t know how I came up with my ideas.

 All friendly flattery aside, our craft project got me thinking about art, and the people who make it. Sure, I’ve been through art school, and I’ve spent a lot of time honing my skills, but I’ve always been able to look at an assortment of items, spread out on a table, or an assortment of facts and figures, spread out over time, and arrange them into something that has beauty and meaning to people. It’s as natural as breathing to me.

 Taking disparate facts and constructing narratives and meaning from them is one of the most fundamental aspects of human psychology, and everyone does it. I think that the fact that art relies on these universal mental processes is what leads to the devaluation of artistic work. After all, if everyone can produce meaning this way at a basic level, then, the thinking goes, why pay a professional to do it?

 To those people, I would argue that the answer to why artists are necessary is not a matter of have/have not, but a matter of degree. Artists take that meaning-making process and ramp it up, to the point that, at their best, they create things that entire societies can find meaning in for generations. Everybody makes connections and constructs narratives about life, but I would argue that the career artist lives those narratives. They take the raw material of life and build things with it that sweep them away in the process. When I was young, and I had written my very first novel, I would check in on my characters as people read, asking how they were as if they were real, because to me, they are.

 And herein, also, lies the primary occupational hazard of the artist. The old stereotype of the addicted, emotionally volatile artist is just that, a stereotype, however, there is no denying that a large portion of artists wear their emotions on their sleeve. I believe that this is because the strengths and the weaknesses of the ‘artistic temperament’ are derived from the same characteristics. When the stories and the meaning that you create are the most powerful thing in your life, the stories that you create about yourself are paramount. Craft one bad story about yourself, and you’ve got a major roadblock. Hit a rough patch in your life where the bad stories, the ill omens seem to be swarming in at you from all angles, growing all around you like poison thorns on time lapse, and you’ve got creative block, depression, addiction…

 These are the occupational hazards of the artist, as I see them. Your mileage may vary.

 Coming up this week: More on the creative process, and protagonists! Like antagonists, only without the ants.

Bumper Ballet, Or, The Day That No One Ran Into Me

So, I just got a car this last month. I’m 28.

Due to a number of factors, one of which being rampant unemployment in the town where I spent the first 23 years of my life, and another being the fact that I stayed in University longer than most people I know, I’m only just getting on the bandwagon and taking the wheel. I’ve been able to drive for quite a while, but until recently, I was never afforded the luxury of driving on a regular basis. Now that I’m on the road a lot more, I’ve observed more of the social elements of driving, and I’m finding them fascinating.

Let me start by saying that learning to drive was not easy for me. For one thing, I’m short. I have a hard time seeing over the dashboard and down the hood in some cars, and I have to be pretty darned close to the steering wheel to reach the pedals. I’ve actually had to learn to find a happy medium with this so that I’m a minimum distance away from the steering wheel, otherwise the airbag would kill me in an accident.

I’m also a pretty cautious person. Some people might label me neurotic, but I think that’s a bit harsh. I’m simply the kind of person who wants to think long and hard about decisions, and ascertain whether or not a situation is safe before entering into it. Southern Ontario has some of the most congested and dangerous highways in North America, and so, driving above a certain speed on the freeway with nut bars weaving in and out of traffic at 30km over the speed limit was not an easy sell for me.

The first time I was left alone with the car, my awkwardness got me into a pretty sticky situation. I was going to school in Oakville at the time, and my husband was house-sitting in St. Catharines, which is about an hour away on the freeway, for those of you not from the area. In the entire month that he was gone, I had one evening to drive down and see him. Petrified, and feeling a bit nuts to be embarking on such a journey, I set out on the back roads, about a 2 1/2 to 3 hour trip. Everything was going as well as could be expected, until I reached a literal fork in the road.

There is a place in the road at Burlington, about a half hour out from where I was living at the time, that  if you want to turn South, you have to essentially use a freeway exit, and then veer off onto the service road before entering the highway proper. I got confused, and went the wrong way, and so I pulled into a driveway to call a relative for directions. Everything was fine until I went to pull out again… and that was when the fun started.

You see, I hadn’t taken into account that the driveway I had pulled into was on an upward slant. And so, when I went to back out into the opposite lane of traffic, I went too fast, got vapor locked and ended up stalled out, backwards, facing the oncoming traffic. At this point, I decided the car was less important than my life, and bailed out.

I was very lucky that traffic was moving slowly enough, and people were observant enough that they simply veered around my car instead of crashing into it. After about thirty seconds, the car kicked back into gear and began creeping forward at about 5km an hour. Toward a tree. I jumped back in, somehow got it back into the driveway, and spent the next ten minutes hyperventilating. I can’t even imagine what the people on that road must have been thinking.

And before you ask, yes, I’ve always had the magical ability to complicate any situation into absurdity by finding the most unlikely thing that could possibly go wrong. It’s a gift, thank you for noticing.

However, when it comes to driving, with practice I eventually pushed through and found the proper energy flow to deal with it. In fact, I find driving kind of a rush now… I managed to connect it to my lust for problem solving, and from then on, I was hooked. I moved on to get my full license, and I also moved on to freeway driving. When I did, I saw something new and fascinating that I’d never really connected with before.

I thought I knew all there was to know about freeway driving from observation. But after I started driving on them, I realized that when I used to observe freeways like the QEW and the 406 as a passenger, I was unconnected to the vast social ballet that is performed every single day on our roads. I was seeing the jerks weaving in and out of traffic, but I wasn’t seeing the hundreds of good, alert, prepared drivers staying aware of them and staying out of the way. I was feeling the lurch of high-speed travel, but not the rush of being part of an un-choreographed, 100km-an-hour dance, a flock of migrating metal birds.

Think of all the thousands, the tens of thousands of people who use our roads every day, and the unique challenges they face, either physically, or from the outside environment and other drivers, and then think of how many accidents actually happen on those roads. Lately, whenever I’ve caught myself thinking dark thoughts about humanity, or feeling abandoned when I most need help, I remember that day when I was facing backwards in traffic and inching toward a tree, and nobody ran into me. I remember how many bad drivers actually live to drive badly another day, because of the care of others around them, and I feel a little better.