Saturday, November 23, 2013

A New Job

    I've not posted anything here for awhile.  I've been busy, and it's not about writing.
    Things have been happening at our youth drop in centre called The Beacon.  I had volunteered there often, before we built our house and lately I'd come back to it again. It is managed by Youth Unlimited, formerly known as Youth for Christ. The director, Andrew, withdrew to pursue other things and there was a leadership vacuum. All us volunteers wondered who would take over. A new Executive Director, a fellow not yet forty, took over for Northumberland County, but he couldn't be expected to run our little drop-in centre. Someone local was needed to organize the volunteers, speak at various venues to ask for funding, and be at the drop in most days.  I couldn't afford the time - I said to myself.
You could do it three days a week - a voice replied to me.
Shooting pool is the most common pastime
I'm not the right person for this  - Nobody is the right person, but you can do this... that voice seemed to say.

It didn't make sense for me to commit to anything this steady, and yet I kept getting the thought; you can do this -- you should do this.     Eventually I offered my services and was accepted in the position.  Everything since has fallen neatly into place. Funding seems to be coming from different places.  We got some extra attention from the local radio and newspaper (and the latter was unasked for). Some very capable people have stepped forward and offered to help supervise the kids. So, yeah, it's working.

   There are two pool tables (but not very level) and foosball, air hockey and free food for kids donated by local volunteers.  The place is safe and the people are kind.  Being volunteers for YFC requires a signed declaration of your intention to follow high moral standards both at the venue and in the community.  A "sainthood clause" as we teachers used to call it when we signed a similar agreement before being hired as a teacher in Ontario.

   Most of the other volunteers have done it for seven years - ever since it opened.
   As part of the job I am going to the local high school to help tutor some kids and also to run a Creative Writing club.  Some of the members are kids I taught a number of years ago, and who have taken writing seriously.  One, Jesee, puts out 600 - 700 page novels every few months.
Maybe Jesee will inspire me to write that much too...
We'll see.

two ball, corner pocket


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sir Arthur Carty Catholic School

     Monday I had a pleasant morning visiting groups of Grade 7/8 students at Sir Arthur Carty Catholic School in London.  Since the visit required an early start, and a drive through Toronto rush hour in the early morning was just a stupid idea, we decided to go to London on Sunday and stay over.  Driving through the big smoke we tuned into AM 1010 and heard Mayor Rob Ford's not-so-mea-culpas.   I couldn't believe it. You can't make this stuff up.
 We spent the night in London, saw Shirley's old house, and thanks to the Writer's Union Writers In The Schools (WITS) program, we had enough subsidy so we could afford the little luxury of a nice hotel.

The school was very friendly and well-organized. I had been invited by the Teacher/Librarian Mrs. Popovic, to talk about Leaving Fletchville, which they had in the library, and also Canadian Disasters. Mrs. Popovic is the friendly kind of T/L that has all sorts of people coming to her library just to hang out and say hello and get lessons ready.  She warmly welcomed me and helped me find the electronics.  My laptop wouldn't connect to their system, but after some frantic moments and last minute sage advice, we got started.

As I was getting ready I also noticed the principal. Old school. He was standing centrally, greeting, observing, being friendly and knowing kids' names.  My old supply-teacher instincts told me I would have a good day here.  And I did.
Besides the active and welcoming principal, there was a relaxed staff and well mannered kids.  They even laughed in all the right places and perhaps heard of a few books which would appeal to reluctant readers.  I got a chance to use my new iphone 5 and do the panorama shot you see below.

Two groups came and we had fun.  A few disabled kids were integrated into and a socially strong part of the class.
So, yeah, sometimes I miss it.
A great day.

Friday, October 25, 2013


The 2013 edition of Canadian Disasters has just been included, with 12 other books, as one of the "Best Books For Kids and Teens" in the fall 2013 publication.  The list is made up as part of the Canadian Children's Book Centre publication.
 These people...

    As they put it;  Best Books for Kids & Teens is your guide to the best new Canadian books, magazines, audio and video for children and teens. Whether you’re stocking a bookshelf in a classroom, library or at home, every title in this guide has been given the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s stamp of approval.    Expert committees of educators, booksellers, school and public librarians from across Canada have handpicked the materials listed below. Committees look for excellence in writing, illustration or performance. Most importantly, these committees focus on selecting materials that will appeal to children and young adults.

The other books listed were:  
Athlete vs. Mathlete by W.C. Mack
Canadian Disasters: 43 True Stories by René Schmidt
Days that End in Y by Vikki VanSickle
Dear Canada: Pieces of the Past by Carol Matas
Henny Penny (Scholastic Canada Reader) by Werner Zimmermann
Hideout by Gordon Korman
I Am Canada: Storm the Fortress by Maxine Trottier
Little Jack Horner, Live From the Corner by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Mike Boldt
My Friend Henry by Philippe Béha
Summer Days, Starry Nights by Vikki VanSickle
Welcome, Baby by Barbara Reid
Whatever After #2: If the Shoe Fits by Sarah Mlynowski
Whatever After #3: Sink or Swim by Sarah Mlynowski

    I also have a shout out to Marsha Skrypuch of the Author's Booking Service 

for a great day in Mississauga on Wednesday.  A bunch of us went to St. Kevin Separate School to present to a roomful of Teacher / Librarians of the Durham Separate School board, organized by the booking service.  There were a lot of us there, and we were given a mere 90 seconds to wow the various TL's into booking us to come their schools.  They were all witty and spoke well (and clearly) and had interesting things to say.  It was tough competition!   Maybe some bookings will come of it for me.  Maybe not.  
I wore mining gear and said a bit about unknown disasters that happened in Canada we should know about.  At least I think I did.  I only had 90 seconds.  Maybe I forgot to tell the witty remark I had memorized.  Maybe I flubbed it.  I did mention that university enrollment is only 40% male and that there is something wrong with this.  Do I write for boys only?  No.  Do I have the reluctant reader in mind?  Yes.  Girls as well as boys are sometimes reluctant readers, but experience has taught me that boys are far more likely to be in that category.  
Whatever... I will keep on writing...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Prize Winner, Don Cummer

    In the last post I mentioned the Scholastic dinner.  One of the people I spoke to then was Don Cummer, a professional looking and personable man about my age. We chatted a bit about enjoying history and we exchanged books and signed each other's copies. I'm so bad with names that his didn't twig with me at all.  If he knew me he didn't let on, although he signed "To Rene, Well, did you ever... What a swell party this is!"  
   Last week I began ruminating through all those signed books which are suitable for older readers, reading them to see how these people do their art.
   Don's book is very well-written. Within the first two pages one of the main character's was given a nick-name 'Turd Boy' because he collects dog feces for use in his father's tannery. Buckets of piss (used in tanning leather) were also described in full olfactory detail. Kids would love this stuff.
   So did I.
   The easy chair became the centre of my world for a more hours than I had planned on (that cleanup job could wait).  The dialogue in Brothers At War is pretty good. Just boys talking, but dated back in the early 1800's and consistently you knew which one of the boys was American and which ones were Upper Canadian. I appreciate when individual voices are recognizable, but not forced, and especially if they say something of the person's character.  Many teen books, unfortunately, have the same voice for each character - usually the author's - sounding either too mature or some caricature of what kids are supposed to sound like.  Not so Brothers at War.  The setting and details peppering the story had the ring of authenticity that comes from a writer who knows his historical era and breathes it out onto the page as naturally, as, well... breathing.
   But something about this book was familiar.  I stared again at the name.  Nothing twigged.  I looked for a bio, but aside from knowing some of the same people I know, I couldn't place him.
    Finally halfway through the book I came across familiar lyrics of an old song, joined with an unforgettable scene - a young man visits the grave of his recently dead mother and infant sister while a strong odor fills the air - and I knew where I had read these pages of writing.  I had studied it last year as the winning entry of the Writer's Union competition for short prose for children.  It was a 'duh' moment for me because I had been one of the three final judges.  We chose Don's piece as first place from the ten finalists of excellent work submitted by amateur writers.  He won $1500 and a recommendation to be published by one of Canada's major publishers.  Not only had I been one of the three final judges but I remember submitting some of the comments about the piece which were used in the W.U. blurb, after a pleasant conference call with Hazel Hutchins and Don Calame last year to decide the winner.  There wasn't much debate by the way.  We all thought the writing was excellent and highly competent. We also wondered if he actually was an unpublished children's writer. Hazel went so far as to Google search it to see if it was cribbed from somewhere.  Nope.  Original stuff, but the author was obviously very well versed in his art.  Turns out he also was a speech-writer for the Prime Minister, though his bio wisely leaves out which Prime Minister.  
Check out the notice by clicking the link below.

   His short story was called "The Burying Grounds" but it is now part of the bigger novel you see above.        
    I would recommend Brothers At War to any good Intermediate reader with an interest in historical fiction.  It is written smoothly enough to be an excellent read-aloud book for teachers to their classes in History.   Don's focus in this book is limited to events leading up to the conflict - a coy way to guarantee a sequel involving the two young men in the war of 1812 itself.  
   Published by Scholastic, its reading level is probably Grade 6 or 7, although I haven't tested it, with shorter sentences and effective but accessible vocabulary.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Over The Years... A Great Scholastic Dinner

   Every autumn Scholastic Canada has a spiffy free dinner for their staff, book sellers, and those illustrators and authors whose book has come out as a new Scholastic title that year.
   Back in 1985 I was surprised, then delighted, then feeling no pain at my first Scholastic dinner. Following a thankless day of teaching my behavioral class in Scarborough, I drove to a mysterious address and found myself in the swank of an upscale Yorkville restaurant. Luckily I brought my tie. I was warmly welcomed by name by Scholastic people I'd never met and ushered into a lounge where tuxedoed waiters brought a constant round of beverages... "Fill your drink sir?" ...pouring tidy shots of fine amber liquids in my glass...  "...and would you like another..?"
   Over in one corner was Jean Little with her seeing-eye dog, talking to Beatrice Thurman Hunter and nearby stood other people whose faces I had only seen on book covers.  After a litany of single malt Scotch shots, the event blurred into a panorama of people and faces and fun. Another first-timer was Barbara Reid, whose book with amazing plasticine illustrations I had first seen a few days before.
Most of the writers and illustrators were like me;  looking a bit more threadbare and hungry than the bookstore and industry reps and, also like me, grateful for free exotic treatment. Leaving that night, listing like a stricken battleship, I was joined by John Melady, author of Cross of Valour, who made sure I got out at my proper subway exit. John would become a friend and neighbour a few years later when we moved to Brighton.
above my head the CN tower 
   Later books earned me invites to the Scholastic banquet in 1999 and 2000 and 2006.  I learned to pass on (some of) the free drinks offered and to have Shirley ready to drive me home. It was always lively, always good. Writing is a quiet and contemplative activity, so maybe my all-female table-mates were surprised at the Scholastic dinner in 1999 to have me lead them en-masse into the men's washroom to let them see for themselves the marvelous furnishings and exotic plumbing there. After more alcohol consumption the women reciprocated, showing me how well turned out the ladies facilities were. Judging by the noise all the other tables, particularly the one where Robert Munsch shouted out frequently, seemed to have as much fun.
Hugh Brewster's new book
   This year we were at the Bell Lightbox in the TIFF building on King W.  I was greeted at the door by Denise Anderson in publicity, who it was nice to see again.  Right after I saw Sandy Bogart Johnston, to whom I owe much success at Scholastic. Any other writer who has worked with her felt the same way. She just completed 40 years there, and later that night David Carroll, 100 mile marathoner and first time author of a successful page-turner; ULTRA, played a recording of a radio program he did in her honour.  The view from the Bell Lightbox was perfect, and since the Toronto International Film Festival had just ended, all the famous actors had been in that very location just a few days before. As Allison Burda, one of the marketing people remarked, 'we are breathing their air'.  Next to me sat Aldo Fierro who designed my book and many others for Scholastic this year. I was happy to thank him for his great work.  I also met Hugh Brewster, author of a compelling history on Dieppe. His book is thick with details and his research so thorough it can be easily sold as an adult book.  Creds to all the people for superb artwork and design on this excellent book.  I also got talking to Eric Zweig, author of the Big Hockey book for kids, and Mike Leonetti, who wrote A Hero Named Howe and who was at the same table as me for dinner. Mike and Eric talked hockey, as you might expect.  
Eric Zweig's hockey book

with Aldo Fierro
  Barbara Reid was there again, now very famous, and looking not as much aged as I am, with another  book to her credit.
   Much of our time was spent picking up other writer's books and getting them autographed for friends and family. I came away with my best haul yet, about 25 signed copies, and friends at Stockdale Public School will be happy with some books
dedicated to them. Jean Little signed a copy of her book with the words; "Keep reading a little"
Maybe in a few year's time I'll be at another Scholastic dinner.
If so, I'd better get to work.

Barbara Reid's artwork

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In Praise of Yard Sales

  My very first power tool, a drill, died.
(You always remember the first fondly)
It was a gift and had been bought new almost 40 years ago; it was good quality and has since outlasted just about every tool in my collection. Not being a professional tradesman my tools are not for daily use. Although I cannot afford the very best brands I still try to get something durable and make it last. Some favorite tools of mine even acquired names (but I wouldn't share something so intimate).
  So there was my drill, dead.
  Made around 1975, it was steel bodied and durable, reversible and variable speed. It was on its third chuck, had been dropped, kicked, drop-kicked, squeezed in a vise, frozen in the snow and overheated numerous times. It had drilled, screwed and unscrewed, driven bolts, reamed, polished, honed, spun, cut hardwood plugs, and spent hours wire-brushing rust from old metal. The brushes and armature had been cleaned and polished, the reduction gears greased twice and the cord had been repaired three times. When it finally died I knew every part in detail but (sigh) it was beyond repair.
  Too bad.
  Good tools like that are hard to find.

  Contrast that to just the week before, when a hammer-drill I'd owned less than four years packed it in.
  It was not expensive, the outer case was plastic, but it came, as modern tools do, with a handy box full of bits and accessories.  It worked adequately, but after 'Adam Squared' (Adam & Adam the carpenters) borrowed it to run 3/4" bolts into concrete to build our deck.  "We had one just like it," shorter Adam was grinning, "but it fell apart." After it was returned to me it rattled ominously. My final task of drilling tapcon screws into concrete was the last straw...  no more drilling, no more hammer-drilling, just a death rattle. Opening it up revealed the main ring gear had teeth ground to nothing in one spot. The whole drill was cheaply made; and I didn't grieve it like my old steel-bodied drill because it was throw-away quality.

  Time to buy some new tools!
Building a house these last few years has been a great excuse to spend some real money on good tools, but this day I realized that unless I was willing to spend a couple hundred bucks, the best quality I could expect these days was similar to the hammer drill. Plastic and cheap.
   Like an unwanted thought, it came to my mind several times that maybe I could find a good old quality drill somewhere like a yard sale.
   The next Saturday it was a beautiful morning, mist in the low areas, and a great time to be out. It kept coming to mind to go out and check yard sales. I hadn't frequented yard sales for a couple of years.  I doubted I'd find any decent, reliable steel-bodied drill like old faithful.
  "Pray about your old drill" the thought jumped into my mind.  I was sure that was a stupid idea.  God doesn't have time to be concerned about something so trivial as a drill.  
  "Pray about it." came the thought again.
  So I did.
  Feeling stupid, I prayed I'd find a replacement for my good old drill.
  Down the road to Wooler, the nearest town, was a sign for a yard sale. The first I saw that day. It was at a house beside Old Wooler Rd. Through the car window I didn't see many prospects.  Clothing on a rack, some old furniture and kids toys. No tools to be seen. Something told me to get out of the car, to take a better look.
  Inside a cabinet drawer were three tools; a crappy belt-sander and a SEARS battery-powered electric screwdriver, probably shot...
and my drill...
  My heart beat a little faster.

  Here was the exact twin to my faithful old drill, and hardly used at all.  The original chuck was still in place and the original chuck-key was attached to the cord. The steel body was shiny. Even the label was in place and the lack of scars showed this drill hadn't been (ab)used much.

  The only problem was the cord was starting to split where it joined the drill - just where I'd repaired this drills twin brother three times before.    

  "How much?" I asked the lady, holding up the drill as

  "Five bucks."

  For the price of a round of coffees at Tim Horton's, I may have this drill for another 40 years.
  Maybe God cares about little things after all.  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

When things go awry...

The other day, after a long absence, I went into my website ( to post an updated page about my 2013 book, Canadian Disasters (now in bookstores near you!).   
I also needed to clean house.
I felt like Doctor Zhivago seeing all those cobwebs in his Siberian cottage;  The comments cache was deluged with thousands of robo messages the comments cache.  Fourteen thousand  comments were there, ranging from polite requests to visit posts with mysterious foreign addresses like; zapoznaj się z innymi artykułami
and there were lengthy oriental posts such as:  教育自分をリンス 可能性がに糞 あなしますが間違いなくないそれらのほとんどは 可能性がガソリンにUnreadable to me, except the message: Here is my weblog:  たのしますが
There were also flattering but generic compliments: My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your post's to be what precisely I'm looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content in your case? I wouldn't mind publishing a post or elaborating on a lot of the subjects you write in relation to here.  By the way check out my page: 

So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.  With trance-like vision I began bulk-selecting 20 at a time while scanning them for the rare genuine request; Dear Mr. Schmidt, I was wondering if you could come to our school and talk about your recent book...
OR Dear Mr. Schmidt, you visited our library last year and we'd like you to return...

Twenty robo comments at a time fell to my murderous keystrokes; purveyors of Calvin Klein knock-offs, penis enhancers, sellers of Nike Air or free stuff, offerers of editing services, renters of hotels and airline deals, and thousands of offers to speed up my Mac. Page after page were marked for deletion and I saw the numbers gradually go down. After a few hours it even began to feel like I was doing something important... "No, I wasn't planning to finish those countertops today... "  Use the computer?  Well, I'm kind of busy right now..." "Email somebody?  Why don't I do that for you.  Tomorrow. It'll be faster..." 
Somewhere in the middle I found a message from Hennie W. - our erstwhile babysitter from Zaandam, Holland, who came as au-pair girl to Hamilton to help take care of my brothers and me when our parents were working. I was just four, but have happy memories of her . In May, while in Holland, Hennie and her husband hosted Shirley and me for an afternoon, including sightseeing at Madurodam and a pancake dinner. (Halo Hennie!) She had great memories for us and I remembered her laugh.

After removing 4000 plus comments I went to bed, but the next day I could no longer log in to my website.  Firefox couldn't flame it, Safari couldn't discover a way into it, and even mighty Google Chrome couldn't peek in.  I phoned my webpage guru, who is supposed to charge me a yearly fee to keep my domain name intact, (and who hasn't charged me yet), and he got me into it once, but after that I was blocked again.
Stuff should work.
So anyone trying to reach me, just email me at

But there's another reason my face is red.  

I owe Mr. Toyota an apology.
Months ago I suggested the 2005 Toyota Corolla is for paranoid people only.  The doors lock with malevolent regularity just when I needed them to be open and accessible. It was far and away the most annoying car I'd ever owned. The doors locked when I started, stopped, put it in gear, took it out, stopped, started...
But a couple of weeks ago my mechanic mentioned in passing that the Toyota could be programmed to lock or unlock its doors with various key and transmission positions. It's in the owner's manual, of course (but I don't have a manual).
So I looked it up on google and found the solution.
All fixed.
The car is much better behaved. The doors stay unlocked until I want them locked up.
Sorry Mr. Toyota.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Dutch Treat

I am usually a cheapskate. I blame my Dutch genes.
My wife is similarly blessed with frugality, descending from a long line of thrifty Scots. We don't easily spend much money on stuff like vacations, fancy stuff or expensive entertainment.
But that's not to say we never did...
In the many years before marriage, kids, houses and big financial responsibilities, we travelled some. As a single girl getting away from nursing duties Shirley would sometimes splurge on a Caribbean vacation with beaches and vacation spots. She also spent a year at college in England and took some time to explore Scotland and Sweden while in Europe. I was lucky enough to have relatives in Holland (including for some years my own mother) with a house to stay at whenever I would fly to Amsterdam. In our teens and twenties my brothers and I went several times. But that was over 30 years ago.

    Last month Shirley and I flew to Amsterdam and stayed in Holland for two weeks. We even did it cheaply, thanks to our recent house-building adventure. By purchasing materials through our local RONA store, which allowed us to pay with Master Card and earn **air miles**, all that lumber, heavy stacks of drywall, roof trusses and hardware became a vacation trip.
     We had talked about it over the years, but if ever I mentioned going to Europe, Shirley would ask if I intended to spend the whole time looking at dusty old buildings, art museums or historical settings. She preferred to do 'people' things and even suggested meeting my Dutch relatives.
And yes it was about time she met my family. I've met many dozens of Taylors, Ewins, Delaneys and the like and they have made me feel welcome and I'm now part of their clan, but I was always outnumbered. Apart from my brothers and parents, Shirley had no Schmidt or Chrisstoffels family member in Canada to ask embarrassing questions about my growing up years. I was not raised with tell-tale uncles, gossipy aunts, teasing cousins, tut-tutting grandparents or nasty nephews. The only close relative who knew me young, now long dead, was an aged great-uncle who lived near Boston. He was a fun character who dressed like a down-and-out gangster. He would loosen his belt and belch after dinner.
Amsterdam is ringed by a series of interconnected canals dating from when commercial traffic barged everything heavy through the city proper.  The photo is a series of seven canal bridges that, when you time your photo right, you see lined up on the Reguliersgracht.  
We had cheap accommodation most nights with my Uncle John (Oom Jan) in a town called Emmeloord, a spot on the Netherlands map which was below water until the 1940's. It has dried up nicely since. We rented a tiny Citroen and although I always enjoy driving, it was a challenge every day. They are smarter and more alert drivers than we are here; seldom does traffic stop, but intersections are all round-abouts and on the narrow streets it would be madness to text and drive. Smaller streets have a right-of-way logic which we don't use here: the guy on the right has the right of way, even if he is turning into the road you are already on.  Needless to say, I was honked at and gestured to a few times before Oom Jan told me what I was doing wrong.
 The photo above and below is of the house I was born in; a 300 year old house in Zaandam, an old port and industrial city next to Amsterdam. The corner window facing the shot is actually rounded glass panes in a wooden frame - a feature of this house, named the "Skeve Schans" and owned by my great grandfather Boerendans, a Zaandam builder.  I remember little of it, since I was three when we left.  Now it was made into an open concept house and the sleepy students living there were very obliging in letting us look around.

The town of Zaandam has a open air museum featuring large old windmills, many of them still 'working' for the tourists to see.  Our 'Skeve Schans' was to be one of the houses on display there, dismantled and rebuilt, but the $ ran out in the 1970's and the project was left on the planning table.

The house on the left is the house my mother bought in Monnickendam, a well-preserved town which had once been a major fishing port on the Zuider Zee. The house was so small that if a few extra guests came to visit, someone inside had to leave. Though the interior was plain and drafty when she bought it, my brother Werner and I did some building-in and fixing-up while on visits over the years. It ended up looking pretty nice.
An interesting footnote:  Once when repairing a blocked sewage pipe from the inside toilet, I noticed the flushed water pouring directly into the canal opposite the house a few seconds later.  Ducks and swans (and presumably the fish they ate) survived happily in this same canal...  Going fishing anyone?  
The town of Monnickendam is now connected to land on three sides and the harbour's only vintage fishing boats, with the distinctive sideboard keel, are strictly tourist boats. Not much fishing is left on the freshwater lakes.
   Bus and train transportation in Holland is excellent. Still, you would not expect less of a country the size of Lake Ontario crammed with a population of 17 million. Hourly trains take you to Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Den Haag or a few dozen other places. Buses take you there and everywhere else and everything is on time.
Do you like junk food?  You won't find much. The odd McDonalds restaurant at the roadside of the busy highways is disdained by most Dutch people I asked. Their taste is more Chinese or Indonesian food, but the sight of strollers munching fast food as they go is rare there. Rare also are hanging guts and porcine physiques. Most Dutch are slim and do a lot more bicycle riding than we do. Bikes make sense of course because everything is closer by (duh), but also we don't assume an adult on a bicycle there is someone caught in a D.U.I.  

Visiting a WW-II museum near Arnhem we encountered a Dutch Military Pipes and Drums band playing bagpipes & drums like the best Scottish guards.
Who knew? They were very talented.
The museum itself made frequent references to the British Army and it's fight against the Wehrmacht and SS troops in Operation Market Garden, a dismal failure in 1942. But visiting the graves nearby made it clear that it was a mixture of British and Commonwealth troops, many Canadians among them, who died in Field Marshall Montgomery's optimistic effort to shorten the war.
Museums?   We saw plenty of those too.
To the left is a Piet Mondrian (or one of his students) showing what minimalism is all about. We saw Rembrandts, Van Goghs, Frans Hals', Breugels (Pieter the elder and the younger) and Hieronymus Bosch paintings which made you really wonder what this guy saw dancing around him when the lights were low. The painting below is a lesser-known (for good reason) painting of a wild bull going amok. The man is killed outright and the woman, after being gored and thrown, gives spontaneous birth to a child (which lies in the grass) on a farm outside Zaandam. This instructive painting is not a great classic, but an important lesson for those who might ignore crazy enraged bulls. Channel Seven eyewitness news stations would have found a following among the burghers of the Zaan River.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The New Book

Well, here it is!
The new book.
It's like a baby being born; you are surprised, but not totally, when you look at it for the first time. I had nothing to do with the cover (designers do that) but I knew, based on its DNA, what it might look like. 
It was a pleasant surprise. Scholastic is smart that way. Good covers mean good sales and good sales mean readers will actually open it up & read it.  Kind of obvious, but not to everybody.  Some brilliant and excellent writing goes unnoticed when a publisher doesn't spend valuable time and money on the cover or marketing.  A writer I know cried when her book came out a few years ago. The cover looked like a kindergarten kid tore some paper and pasted it up.  Terrible.    

Anyway, here it is.  
The new stories are the best, of course. The Franklin Expedition showed what a shameful waste of human lives became the end game for the best equipped British naval expedition of the mid 1800's.  The Titanic was a story kids always knew something about and asked me about at schools. They all insisted I should write about it. "It was a British ship." I defended myself.  "Mostly Americans and British died in it, and it sank in International waters." As a proud Canadian I felt we had enough of our own stories to tell, but in the end I did.  There are hundreds of Canadian connections. 
More interesting to me was the story about Polio. It is a dim memory of my youth to see Canadian kids in metal braces, victims of polio, crutching around. Perhaps I only saw newsreels.  All were afflicted with it prior to 1954, the year the Salk vaccine was developed and made available, and also the year I was born. Hard to believe the widespread fears and terror this disease spread in Canada and the western world.  And shameful to find also that the polio vaccines available today are still not used in some third world countries. There are lots of other stories (seventeen) in the new edition.  
Old ones too.  
I was led to shorten the older stories which remained in the book from previous editions.  They needed re-writing and freshening up, but many of them have not lost their strength for me. We had guests over and one asked about the "Pont du Quebec" (the bridge that fell twice) and of course I had to answer, and of course, the answers were probably longer than she needed (wanted) to hear... But the stories are so interesting and in each one I had to leave out some of the very best parts, just because they couldn't be adequately described or explained without the story becoming too long.  
Have you seen a kid telling a story and they're so excited to tell it they forget to breathe?  They talk a solid stream and then begin to hiccup.  That's what I feel like when I get going sometimes... because the stories, after you research, research some more, write, edit, rewrite, rephrase, edit some more, they become like a child of yours. 
You know them very well.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Plaid Car

    My brother Werner and I were discussing our cars over a few beers in Toronto one sunny summer day in 1978.  We both had Type 3 Volkswagens, which was a little station-wagon model powered by an awesome little 1500 cc air-cooled (of course) engine.  His car was a 1970 and had fuel injection.  Mine was a 1967, had dual carbs, and was actually faster. Mine was a dark blue, faded by Oregon summers and unrusted.  Werner's car was a pale yellow, faded from Ontario summer suns, and needed some bondo here and there to patch rusty spots. After installing speakers in Werner's VW, we had a few beers and talked about paint jobs we'd never seen before.
"There's hundreds of stripes."
"Lots of dots on VW's"
"How about a sand car?"
Werner thought a VW covered with epoxy and then lightly sprinkled with sand would be the best.  After another wobbly pop I suggested two-tone, using beach sand for some parts and then using white silica sand for the highlights.
"Maybe I'll weld fishhooks onto the body, like, all over it."
"Sure, like Don't Touch This Car, fishhooks."
We had a good laugh.
"How about a herringbone car?"  I said. " "Paint it like a cream colour, and splatter it with little dots of paint (I was thinking of a jacket I'd picked up at a used clothing store with a herringbone pattern in it) and then paint the herringbone little dark V-shaped thingy's overtop of it." I took another drink. "But how do you get the stripes just right and even?"  
 "Use a roller," suggested Werner, belching.  "A roller where you cut a pattern into it, then it rolls the pattern out and leaves the rest unpainted."
"How about plaid?"
"Yeah," he agreed. "Plaid."  We discussed how to do it.

The next day I started with buying a paint roller with a plastic inner body and low pile fluff.  It took a few hours of work with a razor blade to remove spiral layers of the roller surface and leave the in-between spaces blank.  Of course, being in school I had to do it properly. I researched plaids. I decided on a Barclay Tartan, because, well... it was easy.
First I painted the whole car black. Then I used the roller to put yellow stripes over the whole car, front to back.  Next I went from side to side.  Each stripe was one roller width apart.
I had made a smaller roller and used it and brushes to paint the yellow stripes through the black and then make the white stripes over the broad yellow lines.
By the time I was finished there wasn't anything like it; at least not on this planet.  York University was my school (and my home) at that time, so I decided to throw the love around and paint all sorts of plaid designs on the tunnels between buildings, friends walls and just about anywhere else.
Werner made his car into a "desert camouflage" by painting grey primer in patterns around the car.  I don't have a photo.  It was pretty good.  Even better was a 'tree frog' design he did on a VW Beetle.  I recognized it downtown and chased a surprised couple down, banging on their roof, to get a picture of it.  Sorry, I don't have the picture anymore.
Going to Owen Sound in 1981 to learn about becoming a merchant marine officer I decided a plaid car in a small town might just get me into trouble, so I painted it over in black.   The ridges and build-ups of paint underneath made it look pretty bed.  A few years later I painted it with a dark blue and green plaid; the famous Black Watch tartan.
   The car was thusly decorated when I started teaching in Scarborough schools, and for several years I was known as "Mr. Plaid Car".
The car died, alas, in 1984, when the final engine job (the eleventh) went bad.  Not bad for a $400 car!  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Adrian's Wall

Adrian, our eldest son, has been with us a couple of weeks, having just completed a trip through Central and South America.
He had just finished a half year travelling through Africa on a smallish pink Kawasaki.
Here he is. (He figured the fact that the bike was pink was some protection against theft)

Having completed his travels in Africa he flew to Costa Rica.  From there he went to Panama, from Panama to Columbia on a small sailboat (which he and the other passengers had to help sail) and from there to Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Together with his friend Tercel, they searched out much of what Central and S.America has to offer. Here he is at the ancient Inca ruins at Machu Picchu in the mountains of Peru.  Of the 900 photos to choose from, I selected this with him actually visible, and in a setting he (and I) can appreciate.  You can tell he likes the look of well-fitting stone.

If you ask my son about brick work, a trade which he earned his Red Seal in, he can point out all sorts of things you would and I might never notice.  Adrian has only just begun to achieve the many goals he has set for himself.
While he stayed with us Adrian completed the decorative wall he promised us when we built the house. The project was ambitious. We sketched for him a rough idea of what we would want for the wall.  He designed arches which matched the gothic arch style on our wood stove.
We had to reinforce the floor below to hold the extra weight of a wall of full sized bricks.

Adrian built a series of forms and laid out the pattern of bricks on them to make sure everything would line up properly.

Two days were spent just cutting brick with a tile saw.  The bricks used in the arch had to have a few millimetres trimmed from one end so the mortar lines would be even.
Yours truly did basic labour work, mixing mortar and such, while our cat helped inspect.

The arches had to be made first and they had to be strong enough to hold themselves up before the rest of the wall was filled in.

Quite an undertaking.

He was two weeks at it.  My best time with him in years was just sitting in the living room, watching him work, yakking, cutting an occasional brick and yakking some more.

Even the ceramic tiles underneath it all didn't break, despite all the weight.
The stone for the shelves we bought from a local stone dealer.
(My friend Joe Dibbits offered to deliver some 2-ton limestone slabs he had laying around, but I declined his offer to lower it through the roof.)

We never appreciated how much nicer real stone is compared to the man-made stuff you see everywhere.  Adrian insisted we don't go too cheap and use nasty stuff.

Adrian cut those to make ledges.

The arched box on the right is for firewood.

Once everything was done, we shrouded the whole business so he could acid-wash the bricks.

So here it is: Adrian's Wall
(sorry Adrian, it's late at night, and I just couldn't think up a better name for it right now, but I'll work on it)

Sometime in the next year I will build shelves on either side out of dark oak wood to complete the medieval look on the wall.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Last Post?

This is a test piece...

Somehow my gmail identification and my email address for this post and my son's new gmail account have gotten mixed up.

This affects my blog, here & now, ici et maintenant,  hier en nou,  because I now have to use his gmail account to log in, plus my password (don't ask) and after spending hours on the help lines & scanning online forums about this sort of thing, nobody seems to know why:
a) a blogspot address previously created on a non-gmail account will acquire the nearest gmail account assigned to it and accept it, not letting you change anything except the password...
b) it is impossible to remove said login gmail without deleting the entire blog's four years of entries...
c) why Google, Blogger, Gmail or anyone else associated with it does not have a human help-line manned by a living breathing smart person who can solve my problem with some sage advice...
d) I can't remove a Gmail account will permanently delete pages files & messages associated with it  
e) how, the on-line forums have never had to deal with this type of thing before...

Does anyone out there know about gmail accounts and how to remove / change / delete them w/o damaging files they are associated with?

My best guess is that there are some kittens inside my iMac, (where only the smallest of fetal kittens could fit) bopping around in there...messing things up...

In weeks to come I will copy all my blogs onto a memory stick and save them somewhere safe in case the nasty mix-up causes all my posts to go south.  Of course if I re-created the blog, and re-post them, they will, I assume, be dated on the day I post them and will not be dated back into the time they were first created, which will make it seem strange... but then again, beyond backing them up, I will likely do NOTHING WHATSOEVER to delete this blog.

My computer is a tool for me.  It isn't a game machine, time-saver, or an email creator, but I actually use it daily to write on, and I usually don't miss any days. My brother helpfully told me over the years all the many things I could do to upgrade, speed up, add, tweak, and boost, but I always shied away from that because I really can't have days where it doesn't work... Obsessive? Manic? Depressive? Paranoid? - yes I happily admit to all those things...

So does it all matter?

On a happy note, we are all well, and this, beyond an annoying hassle, will likely not affect me or my blog much in the long run. Son Adrian is making a beautiful and ornate brick wall for our living room, with sweeping arches and stone ledges. We are enjoying getting to know him after many months of travel through the world.  Son Dan is now a card-carrying member of a socially conscious and helpful fraternity on the U. of O. campus, and will graduate in two months.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Paranoid People's Car '05 Corolla

If cars are like people, my '05 Toyota Corolla is a nervous, twitchy, fearful helicopter parent. 
I enjoys cars, motorcycles and driving in general. I name the cars that are my favorite and feel genuine loss when they get sold off. I've owned ten cars and three motorcycles, but our '05 Toyota Corolla is the first car I would call really irritating.  I will never buy another like it.
I'm not talking aesthetics. The car looks fine.
I don't mean the fuel efficiency, which is pretty good.
There is nothing irritating about the acceleration, which is impressive for a small car with an ordinary four cylinder engine. This car even has a sunroof and fold down 60/40 seats for my building supplies.  So what's there not to like?
This car is for people who are certain, convinced, and petrified in the sure knowledge that as soon as they come to a stop at an intersection somewhere, thieves or punks or rapists, or thieving rapists, or punky-looking thieves, will jump in.  The car doors have a natural happy position, which is locked. Always.
They are usually shut as tight as a monastery during mardi gras.
Either it's the fear of robbery or this car is marketed to middle-aged parents who are absolutely certain their buckled and booted, restrained and restricted car-seated urchin will unbuckle themselves from their carseat and, while drooling innocently over the door-locks, will unlock the car and then push the heavy door open, (unnoticed by the caring parent) and hold it open long enough to allow themselves to fling themselves out of the car at high speed, or slow speed, or no speed, and get crushed beneath the all-weather radials just like that.
So the car doors lock automatically.
Turn the key, put her in gear, the doors lock. Stop the car and the doors stay locked. Turn the key off and take it out - the locks remain fastened like a bank vault.
Every time you do anything, the doors lock.
Almost every day I get into the car, start it up and forget something.  I step out again to load tools, cardboard boxes for recycling, or a squash bag onto the seat behind me. My fingers confidently haul on the door handle and then my flexor digitorum profundus and superficialis one-through-four get that nasty pain of trying to move the unmoveable.
Because the rear door is locked.
Minutes later I drive to the corner, step out of the car to grab yesterday's mail from the mailbox and pull on the passenger side door handle to throw the mail onto the seat. This time I am at the proper angle to wrench both my triceps and brachioradialis because the side door is locked.  Of course I cannot release the lock since the key is in the ignition (don't you always take the key from the ignition when you step out to the curb?) and I have to walk around to the driver's door to release the lock button.  All the doors spring open. I get back into the car and drive a hundred yards further to where a tree branch has fallen onto the road. I stop and toss it into the ditch, pleased with my own good-neighbourliness. Noticing mud on my hands I reach for the back door to get a rag from below the seat.
No luck.
Of course it is locked. Again.
That happened when I took the car out of park.
Naturally when my brain is working well, I unlock the doors each time I start to drive the car. A simple press of a button on my driver's side door is all it takes.  Click! it says and all the doors are magically unlocked.
Until the next time I happen to shift to park and back to drive.
Hey there's a friend. Maybe my wife, even.  "Want a ride?  Sure. Get in."  The friend or wife stands pulling lamely on the door handle.  "Oh, are you locked out?"
So it goes on.
I get groceries, key open the trunk and toss the vegetables in swing around to the side door to get in. I press the fob to unlock the doors.  Still locked because to open the back doors you have to press the fob twice.
Okay I press the key-fob and open-sesami, great.
I get in and start the car to find I've forgotten to return the cart.  Fine.  Get out, take the keys, grab the cart and push it to the cart place and retrieve my quarter. The car's locked because I've stepped away for more than 30 seconds...
Years ago I had  Mercury Tracer with an automatic seat belt which ran down a diabolical little groove in the door post and crossed over your chest, usually grabbing some of my thinning hair and tearing it from my head. My wife hated it too, but that was nothing compared to the ever-locking annoyingness of my Toyota.
Maybe this car believes it used to be a cop car, which needs reliable locks for when they put prisoners and suspects in there.
But cop cars don't have cloth seats or 4 cylinder engines.
No, this car is just annoying.
It's message to me is: "Don't fall out in the street!" or "See that guy over there?  He has a knife and he's going to jump into the back seat at the next light and make you drive him to Consecon!"
Want to buy a car?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The New Book

Scholastic Canada's summer catalogue has the new Canadian Disasters book already listed and has an early version of the cover on display. Here it is.

It will change slightly, I am told, but I like the look of it just the way it is. Already the Chapters/Indigo book database has it listed, but without the cover design. It will not be for sale until June.
I've posted some teasers for the new stories at my website .  Technology is wonderful (when it works and when I can use it).  This book was a lot of fun to work on.  I read a tonne (metric only please) of books for research, especially about the Titanic and the Franklin Expedition. Those stories have more odd theories than O.I.S.E., and it's worth reading the more commonplace ones to stay ahead of the critics.  

I'm about a decade or two behind the times when it comes to recent developments in software and hardware for computers. The time lag seems pretty consistent for me.  Lately I'm trying to buy a flight control joystick and some software for such a function for my iMac. Why such a program?  The need comes from my 'new' manuscript called Dan, Time Boy. I'm hoping some well-known Canadian publishing company whose name rhymes with 'fantastic' publishes it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Something Funny at Winterlude & Disastrous Writing

Last week Shirley and I drove to Ottawa to see our son Dan compete in an improvisation comedy competition at Ottawa's Winterlude. Never having done the Winterlude thing before we had to 'do it right' skating on the Rideau Canal, admiring ice and snow sculptures and letting the weather remind us we live in Canada after all. I didn't buy a beaver tail. That's us holding hands, about the seventeenth speck from the redhead beside the girl with the scarf in the shot below...
Dan and five others of the improvisation team at Ottawa U. competed with six of the best from Carleton   U.  This was a great experience; the improv competition was the only amateur event, the others were comedy nights by professionals.  It was called Cracking Up The Capital.  Dan's team and Carleton were hosted & led by comedian Colin Mochrie, who also joined in with the students in a couple of the improv sketches. 
The Ottawa U. team won the event and the trophy (a dubious-looking statue of a beaver abusing the Peace Tower) for earning the top score as judged by professional comedians including Patrick McKenna.  Shirley and I were pleased that finally Dan's sound effects and funny voices have led to some measure of success, though we are still looking for the big monetary payoff.  Dan says he enjoyed Colin Mochrie's professionalism and guidance, at least that's what we think he said after the 'after party' which lasted until 3:00am. Dan is at the left, learning the occupation of the murderer in a team sketch.
I've been busy going back and forth with this version's editor, Nicole, at Scholastic.  Proud of my spanking-new Imac computer and the butter smooth keyboard, I was sure there'd be no problems with the final edit.
The version of Word I bought and paid for and loaded on to the Imac was not up to the task of editing hundreds of pages with Review (Track Changes) up and running. The huge number of little comment boxes, all colour coded and looking like Christmas, competed to slow everything down and the document crashed repeatedly.  My computer claimed the program was using more than a gigabyte of data, which is like, impossible... I rebooted, reloaded, saved to different file names and all that about sixteen times every day. Calls to Apple and to Microsoft occurred so often I had them on speed-dial; and each time I was told to try something different. Delete and reload the program, reboot the computer, rename this and delete that. Finally a technogeek admitted microsoft had a problem with Word 2011 on an Imac when it came to use Track Changes.  "A definite fix is certainly on the way, sir"  "Any day now you will be receiving the upgrade, sir" I appreciated the honesty, I guess, when it finally came.  The good news is nothing serious or lengthy got lost in the process.  That edit is done.  A lot easier than typewriting manuscript pages and using white-out papers...
 Just one more look-over and the book should be ready.  I still have no idea what the cover will look like, or even the title, or the photos inside.  I hope to see them soon.
Speaking about photos, Nicole shared this one with me; say hello to Andromeda, a very high resolution photo from an observatory in Southern Ontario.