Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Lovers

This is another story from when I lived in Toronto as a single guy.  Interestingly Shirley lived two streets over, on Walmer Road, at the same time but we didn't know each other. When I think of marriage relationships I sometimes think of the old man in this story.

The Lovers

Do you know what you’re doing??” Gregory or Gustoff or something was gaping at me, his face combined curiosity and disgust. His processed hair, artfully pre-bleached shorts and manicured hands showed he was ready either for a day at a private beach or a modelling audition. BMW keys dangling from his left pinky showed how he would get there. He’d just moved into Bonnie’s old room; part of a new wave of students our landlord was using to try to upscale our aging rooming-house in Toronto’s Annex.
My arms were greased black to the elbows. I sat surrounded by oily tools and a flotsam of the dismantled motor that I had removed from my beloved VW station wagon. The body of the car was jacked humiliatingly high at the back and balanced on jack-stands. I sat on one of the rear wheels, gazing at my mess.
I looked up at my stylish new neighbour.
He had a point.  Did I really know what I was doing?
Maybe his dad was named Wolfgang or Karl-Heinz who had a modern VW shop so clean you could eat off the floor, festooned with air tools and grease hoses and metric sockets all in a row.
Or maybe he was just plain rude.
An engine job,” was all the cleverness I could think of to reply.
“Hunh!” he said in distaste and continued down the walk and into the street.

I thought of what my witty friends might have said:
Ooops!  My engine fell out, just like that! Help me stuff it back in!” or…
Oh no! I was sleepwalking and I woke up doing this,” or…
So you’re a VW expert as well as a first year U. of T. student? What’s the torque value for 1500 cc headbolts, hotshot?”
Instead I turned back to the work at hand, my opportunity for a clever reply fading into the sunlight.
Crap!” I shouted after barking my hand against the fan housing while trying to loosen the last 9mm hex bolt. Sucking blood from my knuckle I searched for something clean to wipe it off. The growing heat of the day drew sweat from under my cap, but I left it, knowing that scratching and smearing grease onto my face would identify me even more as the backyard mechanic I was; too poor to afford paying a mechanic. Too poor to drive if I couldn’t get this engine fixed.
I was following John Muir’s classic manual, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot”.  Grease stained pages showed what jobs I had done previously. Today it was a do-or-die job of replacing a cylinder head. If I didn’t succeed there’d be no wheels for the rest of the summer.
Just as I was searching for a Band-Aid, my friends began to leave the house. Dave, Beth and Bruce trailed out with the cute new med student. Megan?  Melanie?  They had towels and a cooler and were going to the beach. I hid the bloody knuckle behind my leg.
How’s it going, René?” Dave asked.
Always enthusiastic Beth surveyed the mess around me. “Wow! Hey! Look at that!
Join us when you’re done,” said Bruce, “we’ll be at Sunnyside Beach somewhere.”
Megan or Melinda glanced at me then looked away.
Sure,” I said, but I knew the heat and the crowds of beautiful sunbathers would be long gone by the time this job was finished.
They left in Bruce’s boring-but-everything-works Volaré wagon.  
My car was named Tito, because it was kept alive with borrowed parts, like the late Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia.
Last year I had been unable to afford a new starter, so for two months I had always parked on hills, rolling downhill to pop the clutch and start the engine that way.  The year before I had been short of cash to replace the squealing front brake pads… so I learned to downshift to nearly zero mph before using the handbrake to stop.  
Today, on the hottest day of the summer, it was engine-out time. I had found a used cylinder head at a wrecker to replace the damaged one. I would clean it up, bolt it on, and hope for the best. I was working in the gravel driveway of our house on Madison Ave.   Toronto’s Madison Ave. isn’t like its famous New York counterpart. It is a quiet and leafy street in old Toronto, with upscale offices in large old 19th century homes, frat houses, a nursing home, or worn-out rooming houses like ours.
Down the street a strange shape was slowly coming towards me, rolling and shuffling. Something bobbed up and down, and at intervals something else swung out from the side. Because of the hot dappled sunlight through the trees I could not see it clearly.  For all I knew a fifteen-foot spider was walking up the street… Lots of strange sights on Madison Ave. now that all the students were back.
I found a clean piece of rag to wipe the dirt from my hand and wrapped a couple of band-aids over. The offending nut removed, I reached back for the next one and slowly worked it loose.
The strange object on the sidewalk got closer. Soon there was a gleam of wheel spokes and the chrome rim of a wheelchair.  I shifted my position to take the strain off my legs, cleaned off the bolt and put it into an empty coffee mug.  Coming toward me was an old old man, impossibly bent, almost doubled over, pushing an even older-looking woman, droolingly asleep in a wheelchair.  With every second step, his left leg kicked out in a wide arc, unable to step in line with the rest of his body.  His head and shoulders bobbed up when the leg swung forward and lowered down when the leg swung out.  Like a jack-in-the-box.
Isn’t it a beautiful day?” a stentorian voice rang out.
Hello,” was my reply.  I was trying not to stare.
The man looked to be about 100, as frail as any man I had ever seen alive, his bony skull like an Auschwitz survivor.  His sleeping wife’s tiny head was hairless except for a few strands pulled back into a knot near the top of her head. She wore a fluffy shawl around her neck, despite the heat. Her jaw was sharp and sported dark chin hairs. Her mouth was so far open her chin touched her breastbone where a small spot of drool had formed. They had come from the nursing home a few houses down the street.
The old fellow could not have weighed more than sixty pounds, but his voice was clear as an AM sports announcer.
Car troubles?” he suggested insightfully.
Can’t afford a mechanic,” I shrugged.
Aaah!” His crepe-paper neck twisted around to survey the scattered wreckage of my engine job. “Is that a Fiat?
No sir. A Volkswagen.
I had a Fiat once. A 1962 Fiat Cabriolet… yes indeed, a fine car.
I shifted and stood, glad for a break.
I’m taking my bride out for some sunshine.”  He looked down lovingly at the old crone in the wheelchair. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he repeated and wiped some drool from her chin with a white handkerchief.
It is. My friends have all gone to the beach, but I’m stuck here...
Yes, there’s beech trees and oak.   I prefer the maple.”
Oh, of course.  Beech trees. Yes…” I paused and wiped my hands on the rag and looked around for my thermos of water.  “You live around here?
The old man’s head swung toward me like an ancient turtle. He surveyed the car parts and spotted the cylinder head. “Did you lose compression?” He made it sound fatal and dramatic.
“Yes I did.” I was encouraged that he seemed to know something about engines.  “The spark plug blew out. Aluminum cylinder heads... Somehow it got cross-threaded and wouldn’t hold anymore.  I could get a machinist to do a heli-coil, but I can’t afford that so I’m putting this used head in… it’s cheaper…
“I drove that Fiat Cabriolet for twenty two years, uphill and down dale, with a five-speed transmission, and I never once heard the gears clash…” he chortled a bit at this pleasant memory. The old woman let out a soft moan and shifted a little. “We’ve been married more than seventy years.
Wow. I mean, uh, congratulations.”
She doesn’t remember much anymore, but she’s still my bride.
A breeze shifted a branch overhead, sending a dappled beam of light down onto the old couple. All that was needed was a chorus of angels humming in the background.
Where did you meet?” I asked, squatting on the spare tire to be closer to his eye level.
His old neck swivelled toward me again and he grinned at the memory.  “She came to the church picnic with a boyfriend, but she caught my eye right away…” “He was a big fellow, a real man-about-town, but a braggart.  She was cute as a button. I could tell she was uncomfortable with him.”  He gazed down the street savouring the memory.
What did you do?” 
He glanced up at me, his eyes gleaming with canny insight.  “I waited.”
Oh?
Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can.  Seldom found in woman, never found in man,” he laughed.  “I learned patience.  I’m a small man, and I could never have stood up to that big fellow, so I waited and watched.
I resisted the urge to scratch my itchy nose.
Without being forward about it I learned what I could about her and began to write her anonymous letters, and poetry, and send her flowers. Eventually they had a fight and I revealed to her who I was. I won her over.
Good for you, mister.
If you want to find happiness in the life, you have to work at it…
We spoke a little longer and eventually the old man continued up the street and I got back to work.
A few minutes passed. With a sudden aggressive squeal of front tires, Gregory or Jeffrey or whatever his name was came back and pulled into the driveway just a few inches from my car. He got disapprovingly out of his shiny car.  He’d forgotten something and was going in to get it.
“Think you’ll get it back together?” he sneered.
The old man’s story had given me a certain vigour. Though lacking wit I was more prepared for the preppy. I stood and started walking toward him, dropping the wrench from my greasy hand. “Think I won’t, smartass?” 
Preppy scooted into the house to find his missing item and quickly left again.  
About twenty minutes later I could see the old lover returning; that same left leg swinging out to the side, the head bobbing up and down in rhythm and the slumped figure of the old bride in the wheelchair.  By then I had the new/old head bolted and torqued on so I sat in the shade and watched him approach.
He was all smiles, pausing now and then to look around at the beautiful trees or greet people on the sidewalk.  His old wife sagged lower than before, mouth open.
As they came closer I noticed the old lady’s arm had fallen from her lap and her hand was dangling loosely beside the wheel spokes.
The old man couldn’t see it from his angle beside and behind the chair.  I was about to warn him about it when I saw with a shock that one of her fingers had already been cut by the spokes. A red patch showed where the skin had been sliced away like a sausage casing, revealing fresh meat beneath. But no blood flowed from the wound.
No bleeding... and her face looked decidedly greyer than before.
Hey!” I heard myself shout, “Uh Mister…
He stopped and smiled at me approvingly.
His voice was still strong and full despite the long walk he had just made. “You’ve made great progress on your Fiat, young man…  I’m sure you’ll have it purring like a kitten in an hour or so…
"Mister... your wife…” I began.
Yes, we’ve been married over seventy years.  I’ll just take her back for her nap.  She doesn’t get out much anymore. Isn’t a beautiful day?”
There was nothing more to say.
I watched as the old lover pushed his bride down the street one last time.

THE END

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Canoe Trip

This story goes back to my single years when I lived in Toronto and lived for leaving that city for a canoe trip in Algonquin.  I wanted to try writing in a second person narrative and I found that not too awkward.  I'm still happy with it...  It will be part of a new anthology published by the Spirit of The Hills arts group in Cobourg.


THE CANOE TRIP 
You wake before dawn. You bring only a thermos of fresh brewed coffee because all else is packed. The car and the canoe on the roof are speckled with dew. Everything is ready. You drive north on
deserted roads, leaving the thick city smells behind. The air gets cleaner, cooler. The coffee in your travel mug is better than on commuting days. When you stop for gas you pull on the straps holding the canoe. It doesn’t budge and you smile. Perfect. Your clothes are old and warm and comfortable and you have dressed in layers. The outer layer, a fisherman’s vest, has lots of pockets for a pocket knife, matches, canoe route map, duct tape, and some repair wire. Wallet and watch are already safe in the zippered pocket.
You arrive as the park office opens for the morning. There are few cars at the parking lot.
“Any bottles or cans?” she asks.
“No.”
“Good.”
Your few supplies are in plastic bags and reusable containers. You show her on the map where you will be going.
“Any bears?”
“Not lately.” she replies.
You untie the canoe and carefully lift one side up and slide it toward you. The Styrofoam blocks make strange squealing noises as you slide the vessel outward and then lift it onto your shoulders. As you lower it to the water, ripples spread silently outward on the glass flat surface.
A kingfisher darts from tree to tree. Mist rises farther out, little vapour persons appearing and circling and vanishing again, revealing warmer water out there. You arrange your packs carefully and load in an extra paddle and an extra lifejacket. J stroke, straight stroke, J-stroke, straight stroke; a pattern develops and the rhythm sets in. With conscious effort the paddle does not touch the gunnels or make any extra sound.
Silently gliding through the water you disturb nothing, yet see all. You pass a loon who alternates between watching you warily and peering underwater like a child peeking under blankets. Suddenly he is off, slipping roundly beneath the water after an unseen fish. The sun slowly warms the lake surface. Ripples form and sparkle like fields of new cut diamonds out on the lake ahead of you.
You skirt the shoreline to avoid a growing breeze. Here and there are campsites neatly hidden along the shoreline. At one, a red canoe is drawn up and a flicker of light reveals a morning campfire. Voices speak softly, unaware of you, and seconds later you pass the thin olfactory vapour of a clean cedar fire.
You paddle on. Around a point you head into the lake and the wind brings up ripples. Now and then a small whitecap forms and disappears. You choose an angle that lets you hold your course as you paddle with long straight strokes. Ripples tap the canoe’s bow. Your arms begin to tire but you cannot switch sides because of the breeze.
Is that the portage?
No, not yet. Farther down the little bay. Is that it?
There is a tiny yellow dot on a tree. The map verifies your location and you steer toward it. Gradually into view comes a tiny dock and the black entry of a path leading into the woods. The wind disappears near the shore and you pull into a small plank dock. Nobody is there. You tie your painter to a small sapling just inshore from the little dock. Sitting, you carefully shift your gear onto the little dock. Straightening knees stiff from kneeling on a lifejacket, you climb out and remember when this was easier.
The map shows the portage to be 500 metres. Not having a proper yoke, you tie the paddles with the handles on the gunnels and the blades meeting near the thwart. There is now just enough space between the blades for your head. You put the lifejacket on to cushion your shoulders and hoist the canoe up, half turn and lower it onto your back. Pushing upward on the paddles you find your balance point and shift things around, tilting the canoe up slightly at the front and begin your portage, leaving your duffel bag and food pack by the dock. Years ago you gave up any worry about people taking your things. If people touch your gear it is only to move off the path or keep it from sliding down a bank.
The canoe gains weight and your breath begins to come out faster. Your steps are heavier.
Look out! You almost trip on a root. There are rocks and stumps underfoot. The carry is uphill, but you have gone farther and up steeper hills in the past. Birds cry unseen somewhere above you and the sun’s light filters through a million holes in the emerald ceiling. Your breath gets shorter yet and muscles begin to let you know where they are and how long it has been without a rest. The ground levels and then begins a descent. Through the forest ahead your eyes finally see the sparkle of sunshine on water. Downhill and around a bend the next lake is revealed. It is small and not often used. Two planks create another tiny dock at the end of the pathway. With sudden energy you lift your canoe and hold it balanced above your head for an instant before you lower your right arm and do a half turn to gently lower it to the water. You feel almost weightless and work the stiffness out of your arms and legs. A few turns of the painter and the canoe is secured again and you walk back, seeing now the trees above you and the woodpecker flying between them. A slight breeze keeps the mosquitoes away and cools the sweat that dampens your back and armpits.
A chipmunk darts away from your worn duffel bag and food pack. Everything is lying, as always, exactly where you left them. Another chipmunk chatters at you from high in a tree. A granola wrapper lies in the path. It is the only garbage you have seen all morning and automatically you put it into your pocket.
Trudging along the trail you reunite your gear with your canoe. Time for a swim! Though you are completely alone you still look around before stripping naked in the shadows. You lay your clothes out in the sun to dry the dampness and sweat. The soft brown muck blurs when you step through it, your foot descending deeply, touching beaver sticks as you carefully wade into the deeper water. You duck below chest height and the fresh coldness steals your breath. Smooth strokes carry you away from shore. Looking underwater you dimly see old logs and stumps far below and small silver-sided fish that dart into their own weedy forest. You float languidly for a while before swimming back to shore to negotiate the rough bottom underfoot. Standing naked in the sunlight, drying yourself off, you can already see the next portage at the far end of the lake. You change into cut-offs and a tee shirt. Load the canoe again and paddle to the end of the lake.
And so continues the day. Two more small lakes and a large one. Occasionally you pass other canoeists with a friendly wave in the distance or a shouted comment about the good weather – but mostly you are alone here; alone with your thoughts, with the quietness of the woods and lakes. Late in the afternoon you scan the shorelines for the best campsite and eventually spot a tiny beach with a small open flat area behind. There is a smooth stony arm reaching westward into the lake. A place to sit and watch the sunset.
Your canoe gently runs up onto the sand beach and you step ashore. You explore the campsite fully. No bear scat, or litter, or poison ivy. Firewood and kindling has been left beside a small pile of rocks for a grill – simple Canadian courtesy from last week’s or last month’s camper. They left no other trace of their stay, and you won’t either. All you smell is the lavender clean of cedar trees. Here and there are dead branches not yet claimed for firewood by earlier visitors. You gather them as you go.
Your cook fire is small and made of sweet-smelling coniferous branches. The bottom of your fry pan is black from the smoke and the smell will be conjured back for months in the city when you reheat the old pan. But today, you eat from its wholesome inside, wipe grease from it with a piece of bread and relax on the beach with a coffee boiled from lake water.
The sun lowers. You tie a rope around a rock and spot a sturdy branch to haul the food up high and away. You miss. Your try again and again and finally your weighted rope sails over the large horizontal limb while the other end plays out in your hand. You haul your food bag high and secure the other end around a tree.
Now you need another swim. Discarding your clothes again you find the sandy beach is clean and smooth for a long way out. You enter the cool clear water as the sun begins to lower towards the lake surface.
This is heaven. And this is Canada.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back to Work!

So I'm back to work at writing.
For now I'm working on completing about twenty different story fragments that may end up being a collection of adult interest short stories. They've been sitting long enough that I can see their good parts and their faults; just as you see your friends and family more clearly as time passes than when they are up close to you in newness or in new adulthood.  We all need to step back a few paces to get perspective...
Next week I will start contacting Scholastic Canada to see if they want to put out another Canadian Disasters that is updated and
improved.  Meantime I have to see about getting some of the older books sold.  They are still a good read and I have been neglecting 'my dream job'.
   I talked to Bill Sweet at the Books and Company bookstore in Picton and he was happy to order some copies of my Disaster book with his next order.  Kathryn at Lighthouse Books in Brighton also keeps copies available for people asking.
   Compare that to the Chapters store in Belleville.  I found their "Local Authors" shelf, near the front cash and very visible, had three rows of genuine local talent and the bottom shelves were filled with books by other writers, notably The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  Ruth got to fill the bottom two rows with multiple copies of her new book - except Ruth comes from London in the U.K.  How is she a local author?  It seems CHAPTERS/INDIGO  is unable to find enough local authors in the Quinte West area to fill their single mobile bookshelf.  I spoke to the assistant manager and told him politely how I feel. Local authors are plentiful, and I'm not talking about the many self-published 'authors', who peddle their books around. I mean those worthy individuals who have submitted multiple times, been rejected, submitted again, been rejected again, submitted again... until a publisher has agreed to take them on.  Their work shows the clearness and strength of a healthy collaboration between a writer and an editor.  (No you shouldn't include that sentence... etc.)
There are about fifteen I can think of that have excellent books on various topics who live close enough to Belleville to qualify as Local Authors.   Anyway they promised to get back to me about my concerns.  We'll see...

Meantime here's a sample of something I'm working on for the short story collection.
   










THE OUTHOUSE
             
“Ow! That wasn’t a beetle!”
“Was so!”
“Was not!”
“Wimp!”
“Butt head!”
“Dweeb!”
“Is that your face or did your neck throw up?”
The boys were playing punch-buggy in the back seat and the punches were getting harder. 
“Time for a break, boys. Daddy, these guys need to run around,” observed Shirley. 
We were driving through the Badlands of Alberta. Our pre-teen boys were stir-crazy and needed to get out of the car. Again.
My needs were even more basic. I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me and the spasms in my gut told me I needed to stop even more than the boys did. We were passing through a genuine ghost town, with nothing in it but the grain elevator.  We stopped in the field of a desolate and overgrown community park.
Spying a large wooden outhouse shouted, “First dibs on the outhouse!” and ran for it. At this point I didn’t care if it was clean, as long as it wasn’t locked.
            The old plank door stood ajar. Inside were two sections. I jogged into the toilet part while unbelting my shorts. Relief flowed through me as the noise and olfactory offense of my emergency purge filled the little room. As the pressure dropped and my heartbeat returned to normal I began to look around me.  My eyes adjusted to the modest illumination from a neat and square high window. I saw straight boards silvered with age, a perfect vertical from a level floor. Every plank had been cut square and every joint was a snug fit. The two-by-fours were rough finished and a full two inches by four inches in size and not planed smaller. The wood was rough and durable, like the country around here.
            Finishing, I stood and belted up my shorts again.  Beside the toilet section was a half-wall separating it from the washing area.  A plain counter had an enamel basin set into it and a pitcher of water stood on the shelf with a neatly lettered label ‘ for hand-washing only’.  Sure enough it contained some summer-heated warm water and I used this with a dried bar of soap to wash my hands. 
Despite the reek of my recent void, I found myself going back to examine the wooden plank walls. I sought and found the logically distanced nails, pounded in perfectly. No smiles, no missed hits. By the age of the silvered wood and the type of nail heads it was clear this was all built years before nail guns become common. The nails had been hammered just into the wood with one of those last hits that expertly sinks a nail without touching the wood itself.
“Dad, I need to pee,” a voice called from outside. A small hand pushed on the door but the hook and eye latch remained properly fastened.  
“Be out in a sec,” I replied.
Behind me, framed into the corner was a vent stack, formed of plain boards to carry away any smelly fumes from the shitter box below the building to the airy breezes outside.  
Simple, effective and low-tech, this building may have been forty years old or eighty. I marveled at the handiwork of this craftsman, probably long dead. Did he or she ever wonder if someone would notice this perfection?
Probably not.
The art of this place came from long practice and fingers grown used to forming, measuring, and cutting with millimeter accuracy. People this able don’t consider their talent any more than they consider breathing.  
But I admired the craftsman and remembered his work. 
           
One year my friend Kevin called and asked if I would build an outhouse for his cottage on Rice Lake. The old biffy, many years old and rarely used, was no longer good for emergencies. Kevin knows I like to build things, but I was busy. Too busy.
            Days went by and it nagged at me.
My work was frustrating and I wasn’t seeing results.  A vision of that old outhouse in Alberta, with its weathered old boards and perfect joints kept coming back. Within a few weeks I had arranged for a quiet autumn weekend at Kevin’s cottage. Kevin is an excellent cook and knows how to take time to create a perfect burger.  Likewise I felt inspired to take my time and do a proper job.

We built the outhouse. It is not as good as the one in Alberta, but most of the joints are close, the wood is cut square, and there is a window high up. You can sit there and look around and not see too many mistakes. And there is a vent stack, leading those awful smells outside.   

            

Monday, February 13, 2017

Some Video Games to Avoid if you are a Normal Human Being

Hatred and suspicion are rising up in the USA and spilling over into Canada.  These unrealistic fears are increased as news of mass violence from distant parts of the world comes into our living rooms.
Despite the fact we are thousands of times more likely to suffer violence as the result of our car hitting another car (unintentionally) the fear of random violence perpetrated by strangers grows stronger all the time. So let me add another fear to your lives!

Last week I was given a book by my friend Henry Getkate and I gave it a read.  Wow!  There's some pretty disturbing stuff in there. I'm posting this book review here and I will put it elsewhere (thebeaconinbrighton.blogspot.ca) just because I think it's a good thing to stay informed.

Assassination Generation by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

When we read about mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub, massacres at Aurora Colorado, Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary school, Virginia Tech University and a raft of other places; we have to wonder if this is a new phenomenon in history.  What causes some quiet loner to pick up an automatic weapon and start shooting random people? Is our generation of mankind the first to have so many people, in peacetime, be slaughtered by strangers?
 
Author Lt. Col. Grossman has made a study of this. Apart from the title, which I think needlessly sensationalizes a well-researched book, Assassination Generation is an important read for parents, teachers, youth workers, lawyers and lawmakers.
         
            Grossman has a fascinating background. Serving many years as a career combat soldier in the U.S. infantry and in the Airborne Division as a paratrooper and officer, and later as a Professor of Psychology at West Point and Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University, Grossman brings unusual expertise to this nasty topic.  His psychological area of study is on how people kill each other.  That's right.
His previous books have dealt with the difficulty of training professional soldiers to actually shoot to kill an enemy.  His research indicates that people have a built in resistance to taking the life of another human. Statistics for kill rates for soldiers in riflemen companies in various wars shows that no matter how accurate a soldier may be at shooting at a paper target they must still be trained at length to overcome this resistance before they will shoot to kill another human being.  Assassination Generation makes a good case for showing that shoot-to-kill video games are as effective in overcoming a person’s reluctance to take a life as the best military training is. Our shoot-to-kill video-game players, in other words, learn to take the actual lives of humans just as soldiers do.
           
            Assassination Generation is a readable and well-researched statistical case for connecting the rise of mass shootings in the world with the rise in popularity and availability of highly graphic ‘first person’ killer video games.  In these restricted or adult-rated games, the player assumes the role of rogue cop, lone-wolf soldier, frustrated armed guard, or just about anyone with varied weaponry and unlimited ammunition and uses these to kill people. Sometimes the killed people are ‘bad guys’ and sometimes they are innocent bystanders. Kills are rewarded with points or advancement to a higher level in the game’s structure. These sick games show killing as graphically realistic and messy. Each shot is accompanied by details of corpses, blood spatter, chunks of flesh flying, people begging for mercy and all sorts of nasty stuff most of us will never see in a normal lifetime.

            Grossman does not argue for an absolute ban on these snuff games but makes the case that ratings for these games are not well regulated or consistent. Games identified as dangerous to young minds are still too easily purchased by youth. The harmful effects of these games on young minds is more long-lasting than the effects on adults. He shows how the billion dollar media industry lobbyists have caused confusion over the ratings issue, leaving some of the most destructive video games too easily available to children.

            Grossman shows that increased used of media leads not only to violent behaviours but to other aberrant behaviours in youth too.  Interestingly, children and teenagers now spend more time on video screens and interactive electronic media than any other activity besides sleeping.

            Grossman makes some basic suggestions as to how parents can prevent harm form overuse and addictions to video games.

            The only jarring note is that Grossman does not line himself up with the 85% of Americans, who want more restrictions on automatic weapons. He avoids the obvious connection between angry lunatics being able to own ever more sophisticated types of automatic weapons and the murderous head count of American folks shot dead by them. His case is that even in countries with strict gun controls, like Norway, automatic weapons and assault rifles can still be obtained by someone like Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 teenagers.
            Perhaps.
            But the mass killings in the USA, while its ‘good-ole-boy’ gun lobby continues to block any meaningful restrictive legislation, far outnumber the slaughter in other countries with limited public access to guns.

           But I digress. Assassination Generation is still an important book to read and consider.
           
Rene Schmidt

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Writing, then teaching & writing, then writing, then managing and now back to teaching...

Life is what happens when you are planning something different...
I have been getting The Beacon youth centre ready for someone younger and energetic to take over as Director and bring it to the next level...  sometime this spring I hope.
All the while looking wistfully at my filing cabinet and all those incomplete fiction stories whispering to me to come over and pay attention to them...
Meanwhile, just when I was ready to do some writing The Beacon entered a sudden crisis mode as some local bad press made us and our Christian walk look hateful and discriminatory, leading to meetings, composing careful responses, more meetings, and writing press releases intended to undo the damage.
Meanwhile my filing cabinet stories are clearing their throats and shuffling around trying to get my attention.  "Yes, I'm coming soon.  I'll be working on some of you soon.  Promise."

Then a month ago I got an urgent request from my friend Rikki-Anne at Quinte Youth Unlimited; "Rene, there is a job at Quinte Christian High School. They need someone to do a semester of teaching Drama. I can't take it on.  One period a day. A grade 11/12 split class. Can I submit your name as a possible candidate?"

Hmmmm!
Thirty-six years ago I graduated from York U. with an Honours B.A. a B.Ed. and attitude. I had aced all my classes.  Good published writers liked my work.  Clark Blaise wrote me a recommendation letter to the Iowa State Master's Program in Creative Writing.  I had written plays and sold two of them plus I was trying to sell a manuscript for my short novel. I was certain it would get published just like that... and my B.Ed.? Teaching school was just a back-up plan just in case writing didn't work out.

Still... back in 1981 teaching secondary Drama was one of those jobs that would have led me straight into teaching instead of writing.  It would have been ideal; well paying, giving me a chance to write scripts and plays, plus the pleasure of teaching one of the only subjects (besides woodworking) I had always enjoyed. But a quick look at job postings made me realize teaching drama was one of those plumb jobs teachers wait about twenty years for, succeeding someone only after retirement or a sudden heart attack.  In those years teaching jobs were so scarce you needed a letter from the Prime Minister just to get an interview. Teachers with seven years' seniority were being laid off in one of the Toronto school boards.

So I faithfully continued with Plan A; writing, submitting, revising, driving taxi, submitting, planning, phoning... "Uh, did you get my manuscript?" But the writing didn't sell as I'd hoped. The rent was due and cab-driving was barely paying my bills. My new letter-writing business had to be abandoned for personal reasons and the advertising agencies weren't looking for writers...

Plan B, teaching, threw me a lifeline. A temporary job teaching kids with behaviour problems led me to using writing in a way I never expected; writing for kids who hated reading and appealing to those who had never been read to. In a 'God thing' aside to this I got five books published because of my experience with elementary students.  I retired after 28 years of teaching without that Secondary dream job ever coming my way.  Sigh.

But now, seven years after my retirement I am offered that dream job. And not teaching secondary drama to reluctant kids who just need a credit... No! These are Grade 11 & 12 students, motivated and polite, at a private school!  Sounds like a bucket list item to me!
So I took it.

Meanwhile my filing cabinet full of short stories are groaning... "When am I going to see the light of day?  You promised to work on me!" "No me! I'm first!" "You said!"... 



Sunday, May 29, 2016

Disaster Presentations in Brighton and Area

During May I twice had a chance to bring my show on the road and do presentations on The Franklin Expedition and finding of the HMS Erebus to classrooms in Brighton and Napanee.

On May 11th I attended the ENSS Aboriginal (Indigenous) Culture Awareness Event.  This was a fantastic display of art, music, dance and drama that celebrates Aboriginal culture in Canada.  Local artists and performers came together to demonstrate for a large assembly of ENSS and Grade 8 students from local elementary schools. After the assembly, students proceeded to various classrooms for more hands-on presentations.  The morning ended with an excellent aboriginal meal created by the culinary students served to those of us who presented. Yum!


So what was my part in all this?
I did a presentation showing how Inuit oral history has been much more accurate in providing clues as to the disappearance of good old Sir John Franklin and all his ships and men. The Netsilik Inuit of Nunavut have long claimed that one of Franklin's ships was trapped in ice and sank near a little-known island now known as O'Reilly Island. Their hunters approached the enormous vessel cautiously, found it empty, except for one large corpse reeking of death. The community of searchers for Franklin's lost ships had long dismissed the Inuit claim, because sheets of copper found on the island in recent years would have come from a smaller newer schooners, ships that used copper sheathing on their hulls. Locating HMS Erebus where it was found proved that Inuit hunters did indeed see Franklin's flagship just weeks before its ignominious end.

Just surviving an Arctic winter is a feat itself, and much of my talk was about the Inuit ability to
live and thrive in the coldest climate on Earth.














These are paintings by A.J. (Alvin) VanDrie, a friend of mine.
It is always a highlight for me when Alvin can come and do a painting exercise for students. Alvin's aboriginal artwork is just fantastic.
 Alvin was asked to explain certain symbols found in aboriginal artwork.









In Napanee I visited Colleen Veryzer's very nice class and spoke about Franklin with the latest (shortened) version of the presentation, but also included a part of my talk about mining. Kids like playing dress-up, and at the request of friend and teacher Emily Miles I brought the mining gear for them to try on and pass around as I did last year.  They listened well as I read some sad mining disaster stories from Canadian Disasters.  Emily arranged the visit to J.J. O'Neill Catholic School. I have known Emily since she was a girl and she always loved reading and history, so it is no surprise to me she ended up as a Library Specialist at the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board.



The Pitch is in! Speaking of Canadian Disasters, I have sent a pitch letter to Scholastic Canada to see if they will agree to doing a fifth version of Canadian Disasters. Although the previous book is only 4 years old, and not all the copies have been sold yet, it is already out of date because new events have made it so.


1) Just ten months after Canadian Disasters was released HMS Erebus was found in the chilly waters off O'Reilly Island, making my first treatment of Canada's worst exploration disaster, the Franklin Expedition already out of date! Amazingly, the ship was discovered in water just deep enough so the ship was not destroyed by icebergs passing over it, and shallow enough to be dived on by those brave cool-blooded souls from Parks Canada.    



2)  Lac Megantic Quebec because a byword for poor train maintenance practices when a fully loaded train of crude oil cars rolled downhill and derailed its explosive cargo in the middle of this pretty little Quebec resort town.  Shirley and I visited it last summer and we were amazed to see the area of destruction.

 It gave us chills to see where the train had originally been parked, on higher ground at least 10 kilometres above the town with a definite gradual slope downhill. Instead of the slogan "it's hard to stop a train", I would argue that when that 100 car train got rolling it was nearly impossible to stop. The fate of those people was pretty much sealed when the first little cm of movement began.
It makes one wonder how many hundreds of Canadian towns, built on rivers and lake shores, have a similar downhill run leading into them... and we all see how many oil carrying freight cars are on the trains these days.

 Residents of Lac Megantic have decorated a fence, circling the destroyed part of downtown, with knit goods to commemorate fellow citizens who were caught and killed by the fire and explosion.










3) In the 2012 version of Canadian Disasters I wrote about the Slave Lake Fire that devastated Slave Lake Alberta.  That bad fire has now been hopelessly outdone by the recent destruction at Fort McMurray. Thank God the death toll from this event was as limited as it was. Still, this fire surpasses anything on record in Canada to date in sheer destruction and loss of property.
Again, the book is now out of date!

There are lots of other events we have never covered in this book, so hopefully Scholastic Canada will do the right thing and offer me another contract for a re-write...

Even if they don't I have so much to be grateful for.  My first pitch to Scholastic came at a time when they would not accept unsolicited manuscripts and certainly not from someone unknown like me.

But one of their salesmen, a frail elderly Englishman, brought a manuscript I had written to the editors and the rest was history. I am so grateful!
These days I miss Sandy Bogart-Johnston, my long-time friend and head editor at Scholastic who made sure the Canadian Disaster books never died out but went to four reprints (so far).


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Authors for Indies

Saturday April 30th is Author's for Indies Day across Canada.

Professional book authors and members of the Writer's Union will visit Independent Canadian book stores all across Canada on Saturday April 30th.  From Beaver Creek, B.C. to Blackhead Newfoundland or from Windsor,Ontario to Yellowknife, N.W.T. independent bookstores will have authors helping sell books, chatting, perhaps sipping coffee and recommending their favourite reads to customers.

Here in Brighton we support

Kathryn and Dan Corbett are new owners of Lighthouse Books.  They are old (well, not old but long-time) friends of ours, and Kathryn is a fellow retired teacher.  Kathryn ensured I had my first-ever Book Launch in a school in 2010. This was at Stockdale school where she was teacher/librarian.  

For book-lovers in Brighton on April 30th, drop in and meet the following authors:

Elizabeth Abbott from 11:00 - 1:00 pm
Peggy Dymond Leavey from 12:00 to 2:00 pm
Rene Schmidt (moi) from 1:00 to 3:00 pm
Kurt Palka from 2:00 to 4:00 pm

Suppose you are a book-lover but will not be in Brighton on that day?  No problems.  Just attend any independent book store in Canada and chances are they will have a local author or three ready to chat.  They won't be flogging their own titles necessarily, but will also be recommending who they like to read.   

So Why Are They Doing This?  

Independent book stores across Canada have been struggling.  Big box stores like Chapters and Indigo (and Walmart) have taken over much of the book selling business by buying and selling at wholesale discounts titles the American based owners deem worthy. Local managers have little say in ordering and much quality literature, Canadian content and local talent is ignored.  
Several years ago a Giller Prize winning novel from a small publishing house was not even available at Chapters or Indigo! Not because it was sold out, but because the publisher was a little Canadian company that had been ignored by the big box stores.