P is for Parenting

a-to-z-letters-pAs a father of two (mostly) wonderful kids, I am always quick to tell expecting parents that parenting is the hardest job you will ever have and also the most rewarding.

Being a parent has taught me a lot about myself. I’ve gotten better at balancing my priorities, spending time with my kids and still making time for myself and my wife. I think being able to view situations from a kids point of view has also taught me patience and what’s important.

As parents we want to be able to give the world to our kids. We want the best for them and would do anything for them, but by the same token we have to let them find their own way in the world. It’s a fine balance.

My wish for my kids is that they find something they truly love doing in this world. I will continue to encourage them and help them in any way I can discover their passion in this life and if it changes as they grow, all the better. Life is too short not to try new things and experiences.

O is for Opportunities

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Don’t get too comfortable with who you are at any given time – you may miss the opportunity to become who you want to be. – Jon Bon Jovi
From Brainy Quote

 
It`s been my experience that the older we get in life the easier it is to stick to what we know. It takes a conscious effort to try something new or to break out of established routines. Part of it I think comes from not wanting to take on additional work, but more importantly we may avoid new experiences for fear of failure. New things take time to learn, to admit we don`t know something can be scary. New experiences may also cause us to face fears that we`ve been avoiding, consciously or not.
 
Personally, I`ve been trying to be more receptive to opportunities when they come along in my life. I may not jump at every opportunity to try something new that comes my way, but I try to open minded about considering them and not to reject them outright. The opportunity to expose ourselves to new ideas, new people, new places can unlock a huge amount of potential in our lives.

I`ve made so many connections with people in my life that I would have never met if I hadn`t taken opportunities. From meeting my wife to getting to know all the fabulous writers I have met, they all started with seizing an opportunity that came my way.

Another way I`ve try to embrace new experiences in my life is to make opportunities to explore new places. Every year I try to visit at least one place that I`ve either never visited before or that I haven`t explored in much detail. It may be a small rural town or neighbourhood in a large city. Not everyone can afford to travel to Machu Picchu or some other exotic locale, but we can all step outside our own comfort zones and explore unfamiliar landscapes.

What some of the opportunities that you`ve taken that have changed your life?

N is for Learning to Say No

a-to-z-letters-n Its in my nature to want to help people and get involved. If there is something I can do to help someone I will try to lend a hand. I think its partly driven by wanting to feel productive and making a difference. I think another part of it is driven by wanting to belong and feed connected to your community.

Volunteering is a great and noble thing, and so is being a member of your community, but there’s a limit. Everyone only has so many waking hours in a day and when we’re done earning a living and taking care of the personal maintenance there’s precious little time left over for friends, family and ourselves.

One of the things that came with maturity was learning how to say no. Saying no isn’t so much about turning down requests for help. A lot of the things I’ve gotten involved in over the years were things that I sought out or were commitments I took on myself. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case it was more about giving myself permission to say no. To admit to myself that I can’t be everything to everyone and that sometimes I need to say no and not worry about who will step up and fill the void.

I won’t pretend its something I learned overnight and I won’t pretend its something I’ve perfected, but being aware of the problem was a big step in the right direction for me. It helped me decide that my family and my writing are two important focuses in my life and that I need to make time for them.

There are still many causes I feel passionate about and support, but I’ve learned there’s a big difference between supporting something versus trying to organize an event, draft a constitution, and design a website. Just because your capable of doing something, doesn’t mean you should take it on without considering the level of commitment first.

M is for Movies

a-to-z-letters-m Here we are at the halfway mark in the month long A to Z Challenge. On the one hand, I am like “Wow, it’s half way done!” and on the other hand, I am like “What do you mean we’re only half way done!”.

For the letter M I thought I would take a moment to talk about Movies. I grew up watching a lot of movies on television. Where I lived we received feed from a Detroit station WKBD that featured Bill Kennedy at the Movies. Bill had been a radio announcer and actor, but made the transition to television announcer. Sharing his love of movies he would host an afternoon screening of older movies tossing out the occasional trivia between commercial breaks. While the movies were never kid friendly I somehow would get sucked into some 1950s war movie or obscure Hollywood musical just because it was on. I think it may have been the Detroit station as well that would show a Saturday afternoon horror movie. This is where I saw Steve McQueen fight The Blob, and Boris Karloff as The Mummy among other frightful fare that caused no end of nightmares.

Sure I got out the occasional movie in the theatre as a kid, but for my mother to haul three kids out to matinee showing of some family friend show was a rare occasion. The two that stand out in my mind were The Fox and the Hound and On Golden Pond, both from 1981 coincidentally enough. I would have been around 13 at the time, my one sister would have been 11, and my youngest sister would have been maybe 8. I remember seeing The Fox and the Hound and being terribly sad at one of the pivotal emotional points in the movie and not wanting to cry because I was too old. The memorable moment for me in On Golden Pond, was not anything specific that happened on screen, even though it was a dramatic movie that made a big impression on me, but rather the fact that we almost go thrown out of the theatre before the movie even started. I am sure my mother was having troubles getting us settled and likely raised her voice. An usher (remember those!) came by and asked us ‘kids’ what we were doing in the theatre by ourselves and my mother had to pipe up and explain that she was indeed the mother of this unruly mob.

My movie going habits during my teen years were indiscriminate. My friends and I would go and see whatever was new in theatres that week. While we saw some great films we watched more than our fair share of bad 80s movies. It was around this time I began to develop my own taste for what I liked in films and while it ran the gamut from action to drama, story and characters trumped everything.

During my teenage years, my cousin and fellow movie fan, Don, was in a big influence on shaping my taste in cinema. I can’t point to a specific movie that we saw during that mid-80s period that I would say defined our movie going relationship as teens, but later in life when we were living in Toronto as adults, the rep and art house cinemas of that city became the temples we worshipped at. I got a real education in story telling in those years discovering the greats of the previous generations (Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, to name a few) as well as discovering the up and comers of the next generation (Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson).

After graduation from University when I had the time and money I joined Don in making an annual pilgrimage of the the Toronto International Film Festival. Taking a week off work we would cram as many movies into one week’s viewing as humanly possible averaging between 3 and 5 films a day. By the end of the week I would be burnt out and happy. Not everything I saw struck a chord with me but a lot did resonate. What I enjoyed the most in the 10 years that I attended the festival was listening to the directors talk about their passion about their art form. From the first time directors to the seasoned veterans, it was plain to see that they loved what they did sharing their vision with audiences and making a story come to life.

I still love movies and while I don’t have as much time as I would like to see all the movies that interest me, I try to savour each and every movie going experience. Thanks to Don, my parents, and all my friends who ever dragged me to a movie for making me the film lover that I am.

L is for Language

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For millions of years mankind lived just like animals

Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination

We learned to talk.

~ Stephen Hawking (Intro to Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking).

At the beginning of the A to Z Blog Challenge I drew up a quick list of prompts to help trigger ideas for entries. Most of my first 11 entries I could remember what the prompt was without looking at the list, but today I was stumped. I took a look at the list and was a bit surprised to see I had pencilled in Language. Disclaimer: I am suffering through a head cold right now, so this might help explain why my memory is a bit fuzzy or why when I first looked at the word, I was all like what ever will I write about? As a uniliginual English speaking North American, I can hardly claim to know anything about foreign languages. But the the fog lifted a bit and I realized I wrote the word down because words and ultimately language is my life blood.

Language has the power free us or imprison us, it can unit or divide, it can inspire hope or instil fear. Words, and especially spoken language is a power tool. From movie quotes – “I’ll be back!” – to political sound bites – “Yes we can!” language has a way of imprinting on us. Becoming triggers for feelings, emotions, place holders for a memory. A friendly voice long distance over Skype or down an old fashioned phone line can brighten our day.

Language and words are power and adaptive. A word can have many meanings depending on their context and can change with time. A word that is in common use today could die out in the next 20 years or continue to be used 1,000 years from now.

As a writer, I naturally love the written form and nothing thrills me more than be able to take words and communicate to someone else thoughts, ideas, and images that I had in my mind when I put the words on paper. As long as there has been language in the world there have been story tellers, and as long as there have been written form of language there have been writers.

 

K is for Kismet

a-to-z-letters-kDefinition: Kismet – n. fate; destiny

I first discovered the word kismet when I was an adolescent in Grade 8 just bordering on the teen-age stage of “I know everything”. My grade 8 teacher was one of those teachers that comes along once in a lifetime if you are lucky. The kind that doesn’t pretend that you’re just kids, that treats you like the budding adults you are and despite the fact that he probably did know better than us in almost every situation, never once said it. On our grade 8 graduation trip we went to a rustic summer camp for a weekend a few hours away by bus. On that trip our teacher mentioned that we should keep an eye open for the word KISMET. He asked us what we thought it meant. I don’t think any of us had a clue.

On the way to the camp we passed a small abandoned boat, beached on the shore. Written on the back was it’s name – KISMET. He explained the meaning of the word and related some urban legend about the origins of the word that involved Horatio Nelson’s death and Captain Thomas Hardy (see: Kiss Me Hardy). I never forgot that word, my teacher or his unique methods of imparting knowledge that stay with you some 30+ years later.

The Greek Fates

The Greek Fates

I have always had a problem believing in fate. To me believing that we are fated to something implies that somehow we have no freewill. That word implies no matter what we do our fate is sealed. In Greek mythology the Fates were three figures that were responsible for weaving the fabric of everyone’s lives and even the gods themselves couldn’t interfere with their decisions. When the fates cut your thread, you ceased to exist.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s - Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s – Cat’s Cradle

Now, even though I don’t believe in fate, I do believe that things happen for a reason and that universe moves in mysterious ways. I know that sounds all mystic mumbo-jumbo, but hear me out.  Kurt Vonnegut in his brilliant satirical novel Cat’s Cradle (go and read it if you haven’t) explores a religion called Bokonism as part of the book. One of the concepts of bokonism is the karass – a group of people working together, often unknowingly, to do God’s will. While I may not subscribe to a religious deity manipulating things behind the scenes, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that people come into your life for a specific reason and that somehow your destinies are intertwined.

In the novel I am currently working on there are two characters who’s destinies are intertwined in this way. When they are apart the universe is out of harmony and their lives suffer, its only when they are together do things work in their favour. The fact that exist in different universes to start makes things even more interesting

Was it kismet that my Grade 8 teacher came into my life and planted these seeds in my head? Probably not, but I still think about him nearly every day.

J is for Journey

a-to-z-letters-j Like many things in this life, writing is a journey. Very few of us knock a home run out of the park the first time you sit down to write. Let’s face it, if it were that easy to do it would be boring. The challenge lies in mastering your craft and plugging away at it until you are actually good at. Once you’re good at it the challenge becomes repeating that success.

If you scratch the surface of most people that are called over-night successes, what you would really find is someone (obviously with some talent) who has paid their dues put their time in and plugged away at their craft. They say that it takes in the neighbourhood of a million words that need to flow from your brain to your fingertips in writing before you get any good at it. There was a book out a few years ago called Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell which proposed that in addition to luck and other environmental factors that when they looked at successful people across all categories they found that it took around 10,000 hours of ‘practice’ before you master something. I’ll save you the math – that’s the equivalent of 20 hours of work a week for almost 10 years. From Bill Gates to the Beatles, they found that those driven and talented people didn’t really hit their stride until they had those 10,000 hours under their belt.

I’ve been on a writing journey ever since I penned my first piece of fiction in elementary school on some foolscap paper, unfortunately for me I spent a lot of the first half of my life going in circles and not knowing which way to turn. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I began to wake up to my writing life and make a concentrated effort to develop it, seeking out other like-minded writers along the way. I have to admit even then it was a lot of it was baby-steps, trial and error, but all in all essential steps along the path. While I have the 10 years under my belt, I am still working on the 10,000 hours and the million words. Standing here on the crest of middle-age I can look behind me and see the path that has lead me to where I am today. Looking forward I can see I still have a way to go to reach my goals.

Thanks for being a part of this journey.

I is for Imagination

a-to-z-letters-iHaving an active imagination growing up as a kid was a blessing and curse for me. On the one hand I could see the wonder in the mundane world around me – the mountains of snow in the parking lot near my house became an alien landscape to explore. On the other hand I was also able to imagine the worst of my fears – What if our car loses control and becomes submerged in the river? Watching Sesame Street one day as a kid, my mother turned to me and said, you’re just like that little girl and the balloon – always about the What if?.

The vignette she was referring to (embedded above for your viewing pleasure) was a morality play about how a little girl imagined what would happen if she played a prank on her friend by popping a balloon. After working through the chain of events and realizing her consequences would cause him to get hurt, she decides against doing it because it wouldn’t be nice. I think my mother’s comment was more directed at my social anxiety and tendency to hesitate in a situation until I had time to think it through first. However, later in life when the anecdote came up again I realized that my “What if?” nature is an inherent part of my imagination.

Personally I think writing is one outlet that allows me to channel some of that energy in a creative manner. Wild scenarios of “What if?” that collect in my head like dust bunnies under a couch need to be swept out and put to paper. Some of these ideas languish as fragmented scenarios waiting to be reabsorbed or reconnected to larger pieces; others find fertile ground and sprout into their own growing roots and taking off.

I want to believe

I want to believe

I am eternally grateful to my parents who nurtured my imagination allowing me to embrace and conceive of fantastic idea without dismissing them as “nonsense”. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, regular visits to the public library with my mother and sisters was one such fuel to my imagination. Another was my father’s casual interest in all things space related. Being an infant at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I was oblivious to the momentous occasion, but the space race must have sparked something in my father. We would often watch TV specials about space, movies about aliens and when we went to Florida when I was eight, visiting NASA and Cape Canaveral was just as high on the list as visiting Disney World. (Remind me to tell you someday about my father’s reaction to the realization that Space Mountain at Disney had very little to do with space.) Planting the seed that would make shows like X-Files resonate with me later in life, was a ‘documentary’ called The Chariot of the Gods (1970) that I caught on TV sometime in the late 70s with my Dad. It strung together a lot of “ancient mysteries” of the world, such as the Anzac lines in Peru and the Egyptian Pyramids as proof that aliens had once visited earth. Like the poster that hung on Mulder’s wall some 28 years later – I WANT(ED) TO BELIEVE.

The capacity to believe in such, pardon the pun, alien concepts, no matter how ridiculous is a gift. It allows be to believe my own BS when creating a story to the point that I can hopefully make you a believer as well. I hope that my imagination continues to serve me well in life and may it never stop generating stories that I want (need) to get down in writing to share.

H is for History

H is for History I’ve already talked a bit about my love for the history of words in my post E is Etymology or Why Do We Say It?, but my love of history goes far beyond just words.

I’ve always been interested in local history, or history that is tied to a specific place and people. I am interested in how people shape their surroundings and vice versa. I’m a geographer at heart, so I can’t help be fascinated by the interaction of geography and people. So far I’ve had the pleasure to live in three different urban settings each with their own particular geography and history. I am always fascinated by the reasons these settlements grow into the cities they do and what attracts people to them. As the old real estate joke goes the three most important things about a city is “Location, Location, Location”.

My hometown and birthplace of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was settled on a a portion of the St. Mary’s rapids that were significant fishing grounds for local aboriginal populations, but also provided access between what would eventually become Michigan on the south shore of the river and Ontario on the north shore. Sault Ste. Marie, or The Soo for short, was originally settled by Europeans since 1668 when French Jesuits established a mission there. I could go on at length about how the Soo’s geography has shaped its history over the years, but that’s a lecture for another time.

My second adopted hometown was the great metropolis of Toronto. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto was settled on aboriginal lands purchased from the Mississaugas of the New Credit in the late 1780s to provide a home for British Loyalists fleeing America after the revolutionary war. Prior to European settlement, the area was a well established portage route between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. Toronto has a great history and some great local historians that have well documented the growth and stories of the city. One such historian whose books about Toronto and its people that I love reading is Mike Filey. His series of books called Toronto Sketches brings to life portions of Toronto’s history with pictures and stories that everyone can relate to.

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Miners posing in a ore car – Copper Cliff Express

My third and current hometown is Greater Sudbury, an amalgamation of a number of communities surrounding the City of Sudbury in Northern Ontario. Originally a logging town, the town became a hub for railways and a mining centre when copper and nickel were discovered in the late 1800s. More than 150 years later they are still taking ore out of the ground.

Everywhere I go there are stories to be uncovered about the changing face of the places I live in and the stories of the individuals who live there. Maybe its the writer in me, but I never grow tired of learning about local history.

G is for Genre

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G is for Genre

When people ask me what type of stories I write, I eagerly tell them speculative fiction. The most common reaction is a blank stare and a repeat of the question “So what type of stories do you write?”.

It’s an age old dilemma that writers continue to struggle with when trying to promote their stories to the reading public. It’s only human nature that people want easily classifiable boxes to be able to judge their expectations against. A fan of mystery novels wants to be able to go to a section in the library or book store and know that the type of book they are picking up is more or less what they consider to be “mystery” . The problem is that any genre label like Mystery, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy are not  homogeneous categories, there are very different shades within each genre.

Complicating matters is the perceived “Genre Ghetto” which is perpetuated by authors, critics, and readers alike. The mere phrase genre ghetto implies that there is a superior, more respected genre and that all other are less serious and somehow inferior. I am looking at you Literary Fiction. There is a false assumption that all writers aspire to write mainstream fiction or literary fiction. Yes, we want to reach the largest audience possible if this is what you mean by mainstream fiction, but on the other hand, I have no illusions that I need the “respect” of the literary establishment to validate my work, or that of other authors I admire and respect in the field. I do find it sad when the literary and book selling establishment “liberate” on of my fellow genre writers from the “ghetto and shelve them along mainstream authors in the literary fiction as happened to Philip K. Dick in the early 2000s when movies based on his work became successful. Dick finally found himself shelved along side Dickens, and Dickinson and a little place holder in the SF section letting long time fans like myself know that he had now “passed on” to the mainstream section.

This is just one of the reasons I prefer the label Speculative Fiction. You can google a half dozen definitions of speculative fiction, but I will give you my own – Any story that is set in a contemporary or historical recognizable society that contains some speculative element that is different from the reality around us. It may or may not contain interplanetary travel, it may or may not contain shape-shifting creatures, it may or may not involve time travel, it may or may not contain technology that is not yet invented, but it will contain something that does not exist in our current world, whether it be a peaceful planet living in harmony or one over run by a plague of zombies, there is always a speculative element.

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writing in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

Authors like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. have long went on record stating that they definitively did not write science fiction. You could almost hear them shuddering at the  mere mention of it. It’s not that I think they didn’t believe they were writing fictional stories with science or speculative elements, I think they shuddered at being labelled as such because of the mainstream literary critics held (still hold) such a disdain for the genre.

To me using the phrase speculative fiction is not an attempt to distance myself from my fellow writers that write space opera, urban fantasy, horror, steam punk, hard sf, or any other flavours of fiction that I love to read and write, but rather to embrace all those titles under one tent and attempt to level the playing field between traditional Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction.

There is so much great story telling out there in speculative fiction right now that it’s a shame that those people in the world that love unusual, moving stories, with real human drama and imaginative, thought provoking plots would pass on it, just because of some perceived bias. If you’re unfamiliar with genre, than ask around any book seller, fan or librarian in the know would happily point you in the direction of some of the best the world has to offer.

Post Script: While googling for a direct quote on science fiction genre  that I recalled seeing once upon a time from Margaret Atwood,  I came across a more recent excerpt froma book she wrote in 2011 called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination that talks about her avoidance of the label and some of the controversy surrounding it – http://io9.com/5847421/if-it-is-realistic-or-plausible-then-it-is-not-science-fiction

Pat of my series of the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2013