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!"...