Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fourth Floor: Notions, Oceans, Potions and Vegetation.

Current Reading: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

Inspirational Quote: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -- Howard Thurman

Random detritus from my brain:

I'm beginning to understand the truth about the necessity for conflict in a dramatic scene. Without it, there is no question in the reader's mind, nothing to compel them to read on. So, from this we can deduce that nothing interests people more than a good fight. I'm not sure I like what that says about human nature. It's possible that Juvenal was right: all we desire are bread and circuses.

Penelope tried her hand (and Cassandra's too) at vegetable gardening this year. Naturally, she chose the same year that the construction equipment came in, flattened our forest and filled in our swamp. As a result, we got half-a-dozen cucumbers, a dozen pea-pods and a miniature lake that drowned everything else. It was kind of pretty, but there's something a little weird about seeing cornstalks rising from a pool of water. I'm trying to convince them that next year, they should plant rice.

I am not qualified to raise children. My sons insist on doing stupid, dangerous things despite all I do to dissuade them. I hope they'll live long enough to see their brains develop. Actually, I'm hoping I'll live long enough to see their brains develop. They seem to be getting along fine, but I'm a nervous wreck.

This is a great place, although it's changed a lot since my youth, when it seemed like a combination of Disney World and the starship Enterprise: the essence of cool crossed with fun. Cassandra and I loved the reef-in-an-aquarium and the Harry Potter props exhibit. There's just so much to play with that, even though she can't read yet, she found dozens of things to do no matter where she went.

Cassandra discovered Harry Potter through the Lego video game. It's funny and clever and requires some thought. When she found out we had the books, she insisted that I read them to her. Of course, there's a lot in there that is dark and frightening, so we've only read the first, and we skipped over many of the creepier parts. While I was reading to her, I expected her to grow bored. The Philosopher's Stone is quite a long book for a six-year-old, and there are no pictures. I thought we'd soon be turning to Flat Stanley or Junie B. Jones for a little relief, but not only did she hang on every word of the much longer book, but afterward she insisted I make up stories about that world and its people. Mostly Fred and George, because they're funny and mischievous. Although some may cast aspersions on Ms. Rowling's ability, I can only watch her work spellbind a little girl and wish I had even a pinch of what Rowling has in barrels.

After that, we saw the movie of the Philosopher's Stone, which was darker still, so there was a lot of skipping over bits and we missed the climax entirely. No matter. She loved it, and couldn't wait to wander among the sets and costumes in the Science Center exhibit.

Summer is drawing to an end. It's been cool and rainy. On some trees in the Kingdom, the leaves are beginning to change and the air is taking on that smell which says Autumn is just around the corner. I love this time of year, partly because it's pretty, and partly because of the memories of falls when I was a kid. Nobody likes to go back to school, but for me there was always anticipation. Something new was about to start, and I could feel the possibilities spread out before me just waiting to be explored. Autumn always smells to me of potential and nostalgia.

Oh, and burning leaves because when some people see something breathtakingly beautiful, it only makes sense that they gather it up and set fire to it. People. Seriously, God, were we really the best you could come up with?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


You can't find Happiness with Google Maps (unless you're looking for Happiness as part of a business, which doesn't help with your personal life. Or Happiness as a street, which I don't trust because I don't think I'd be happy on the street).

You can find Bliss, but only in New York or Michigan. Ecstasy can only be found in a lake in Minnesota. Peace is in North Dakota. Joy is in New York.

Apparently we don't have any of those things in Canada.

You can't find God, but he's got a lake in Manitoba.

You can't find Enlightenment anywhere, and good luck finding Wisdom. They aren't on any map.

I leave you to ponder the geo-philosophical implications of this...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beginning Again

Current Reading: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

Inspirational Quote: "I've seen worse things start off better, and better things start off worse," -- Me, in a philosophical mood.

For this, I wish you could follow along with me in the pages, but I don't want to do Mr. Steele the discourtesy of quoting a significant portion of his work. If you have read Coyote Horizon, or can be convinced to go out and buy it, please do, because I believe studying its structure will be very informative.

I was reading this in the tub this morning (I read in the tub a lot. Usually until the water gets cold). I've enjoyed Mr. Steele's work, starting with Labyrinth of Night a number of years ago, and I've particularly enjoyed his Coyote novels. It's hard science fiction, and I've found his tale of the first human colony both compelling and believable, so I've really been looking forward to reading the latest installment in the series.

This morning, while developing submersion wrinkles, I delved into the prologue. Unlike my earlier post, I'm not going to concentrate on the first paragraph, but on the prologue as a whole. Nor will I quote it verbatim.

The scene opens in front of a house on an escarpment. The first paragraph is a bit dull, although the first line mentions that it is the home of two former presidents of the planet Coyote. I didn't find it as compelling as I found the openings of most of the books I mentioned in that earlier post, but to this point, Steele has never disappointed me and the promise of another of his stories is sufficient motivation to hook me.

It's the second paragraph where the questions start cropping up: why is the POV character told to arrive early? Why is the house so inaccessible? What does she want that makes climbing to the house a reasonable action?

The main conflict of the prologue is introduced right away. It looks like reporter vs. mountain, but the geography is just a manifestation of the ex-president's desire to avoid visitors. It's actually reporter vs. ex-president, with an interview as the stakes. The reporter suffers two setbacks: her recorder is taken away, and the president side-tracks the conversation. Only when the reporter rises to leave (takes action) does she get her recorder back and permission for the interview.

She has achieved her goal, but the interview she gets isn't quite what she was hoping for. Her first question elicits an explanation of the forces active on Coyote and the pressures on its people. This is for the reader's benefit, although it doesn't feel like an info dump. It feels like the reporter is challenging the ex-president with these facts, daring her to make a statement or take a stand.

Instead, the reporter gets challenged instead. The ex-president points out a ship being built to explore Coyote's equatorial river, and lets slip that the expedition is causing some trouble for the ex-president and her husband (who is also an ex-president). Far from getting an answer to her questions, the reporter leaves the encounter with a whole new set of questions.

By the time the prologue ends, the reader knows something about the backstory, has met some of the main characters, and has broad hints about the coming conflicts likely to be triggered by the ship's expedition. It's an effective setup driven by a pattern of goal, obstacle, setback.

How Spent My Summer Vacation, I, part 2

Yoda-speak is just another way George Lucas has destroyed modern culture (just kidding, George. I can't remain upset with anything that features muppets).

In addition to exploring tracts of tamederness (it's like wilderness but not as wild), my family and I took in more urban pursuits. We hit Canada's Wonderland, which is a great place if you enjoy roller-coasters and an absolute paradise if you enjoy long lines of people. One piece of advice, though: don't take teenagers in a surly mood or you'll never be able to get on "that one coaster you stand up on and corkscrew," or "that other one where there's just the seats and nothing around you but the overhead track," because apparently "waiting sucks. The rides suck. This whole place sucks. Can I go sit in the van?"

Sigh. When we'd taken all we could, we strolled over to the water park and Telemachus, Cassandra, Penelope and I enjoyed the ups and downs of the wave pool while Aeneas watched our belongings and dozed off in the sun. That's about as close to a compromise that made everyone happy as we were likely to get.

From Toronto, we went to Ottawa. They have museums there. Cassandra loved the Museum of Science and Technology, which apparently is not a boring museum where you can't touch anything. She loved running around and pushing buttons and flicking switches and making things go. I can't wait to get her to the Toronto Science Center. I notice they have a Harry Potter exhibit, which is wonderful because I've been reading the first book to her and she absolutely loves the Harry Potter Lego video game.

While we were there, we also discovered a grist-mill museum along the banks of the Rideau River. Cassandra loved it too, surprising me because it was not particularly large nor particularly interactive. When I told her it was supposed to be haunted, she got so excited I thought I was going to have to drag her out of the place when they closed.

Since she enjoyed those museums so much, I decided to take her to see one in the town where I grew up. In the almost twenty years I lived within walking distance to Glanmore House, I had never visited it. Now that I'm an out-of-towner, I guess it's okay to do something touristy. It's a beautiful place, and I can't avoid using the adjective "sumptuous" whenever I think about it. As we entered, the curator handed us a scavenger hunt sheet which kept Cassandra whirling from room to room trying to find everything. The glimpse of an upper-class Canadian life during Victoria's reign fascinated me, and the realization that it had been used as a residence within my lifetime gave the whole experience an extra bit of perspective.

I sometimes think that in our rush to experience the world, a world that grows smaller as communications and travel grow simpler, we tend to appreciate the distant and the foreign over those things closer to home. In the past few weeks, I've seen a different side of the little world I've lived in my whole life and I've found it as unexpected and fascinating and captivating as I would have had I never laid eyes on it before. It's a wonderful experience, and I've been lucky to see at least some of it through the eyes of a little girl to whom the whole world is a strange and beautiful place.

I hope you've been as lucky.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, part 1

Yeah, so it's the weekend and I hadn't posted anything as promised. I plead summer.

Three weeks ago, I started my summer vacation as I always do: with grand plans and high hopes. Naturally, things didn't work out the way I hoped they would. However, although I didn't get the shed cleaned out, or the door frames repainted, there were highlights.

Cassandra and I set out to visit every conservation area within the drainage basin of the river close to where we live. We did alright and had some very nice walks through mosquito-infested lowlands. It was only toward the end of our efforts that I discovered the local conservation authority actually divides its lands into two categories: Natural habitat preserves and conservation areas. Conservation areas have trails laid out, guideposts, signage, potties and sometimes picnic and swimming areas. Habitat preserves don't. In fact, they don't even have signs telling you where they are.

I guess they figure that if you're a plant or an animal, no amount of signage is going to help you, and if you're a person, well... the whole point is to discourage you from disturbing the plants and animals (see the common definition of "natural"), so why waste the money?

We spent an hour one Thursday driving up and down a road looking for such an area which was clearly marked on the map but absolutely indiscernible in the real world. When I had finally narrowed it down, it turned out to be a stretch of impassible wetland. Fortunately, ice-cream is apparently a reasonable remedy for most things that disappoint a 5-year old.

Still, we have some beautiful areas set aside from development, in which one can glimpse the glory that must once have been: the vast forest which covered most of Southern Ontario. Oak and ash, birch, pine and Douglas fir. You can stand under old growth, trees that were huge before Cartier cross the land, and hear nothing but the wind rustling the leaves (and the whine of mosquitoes the size and color of ripe tomatoes). It's at those moments you realize what inspired the Group of Seven, and it's difficult not to feel inspired yourself.

I was inspired to remember the bug repellent on our next trip.

There are whole rush beds alive with the song of frogs and that high pitched buzz that comes from some insect or other (I never found out which) which cuts through the air like an industrial saw and makes you wonder if the source of the noise isn't a bug somehow made out of steel. I always associate that sound with hot summer, because I always hear it when the sun is beating down and the air is still.

And then there's the water. I grew up on the banks of a river whose depth varied from a killer six feet of icy gray foam during the spring runoff to a quarter inch in low-lying trenches during the heat of August. It was the background soundtrack to my life as a kid. We lived just down from a dam, and so the roar of the water cascading over the cement buttresses was constant. In the winter, we could hear the boom of floes as the ice growing upstream pushed them over the top of the dam to shatter on the rocks twelve feet below. A few big ones would shake the house every year.

So I've got a soft spot for water. Especially creeks, where you can sit on the bank and listen to water run over the limestone shelving that passes for rocks around here. We spent part of an afternoon sitting on the cement-and-stone ruins of an old grist-mill dam watching water bugs and minnows, larger fish and frogs go about their uneventful but fascinating lives. Cassandra discovered some very big snails but couldn't quite be persuaded to pick one up. They're icky, apparently, although I'm sure other snails find them quite attractive.

There are a few places we haven't gotten to yet, and we may not get the chance. Daddy's working a lot, and Cassandra's got day camp keeping her busy. But still there are weekends and there's always a chance for us to slip away for a late summer hike.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Report: Devil May Cry, by Ian Fleming (Sebastian Faulks)

To this point in my life, I had not read Ian Fleming. Nor had I so much as dabbled in the numerous 007 books created by various authors under license. I had, however, enjoyed most of the movies up to and including Octopussy (forgive me).

When I saw this lying around, I thought, 'Why not?' I knew the Bond of the books was quite different from the Bond of film, so I went in with no real idea what to expect. What I got was a spy thriller set in the mid 1900s during the cold war, in which a deformed pharmaceutical producer with a hate on for Britain tries to heat up the war after growing impatient with promoting heroin addiction in the English underclass. Add in exotic locales (Iran, Turkey, Cold-war Russia), a psychotic henchman and twin damsels in distress who aren't what they seem.

It was a decent enough read, but I really didn't think the book got going until the second half when Bond discovers the villain's lair and begins to investigate. The pages before that read more like a seedy travelogue with occasional bits of intrigue and violence. I did not find much tension in the first part, and had things not picked up when they did, I'd have laid this aside.

As I say, I haven't read Fleming or a book about Bond before, and there may be conventions or traditions associated with them of which I remain unaware. My dissatisfaction may be due entirely to having uneducated expectations.

Ulysses Rating: 1 - I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Quick! Post Something Before Someone Thinks You've Died!

My apologies for the recent run of whitespace. I am currently experiencing temporal dislocation (I can't find the time).

However, I'll be back with something pithy/witty/deep/nonsensical/musical/clairvoyant/hydrophobic/iconoclastic/sympathetic/pathetic/subjective/objective/massive/prehensile/masculine/porcine/bovine/flatulent... or at least free-associative before the approaching weekend.

In the immortal words of Han Solo: "We're all fine here... uh, how are you?"
So: uh, how are you?