Saturday, May 28, 2011

What we do for money.

You load 16 Tons, whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt...

So goes the song from the 1940s that my Dad used to tongue-in-cheek sing when he returned from a week of work on the cranes. The perception of writers used to be that once they were published, there was nothing else for them to do but put their feet up, tend their gardens, raise their kids, and oh, ya, write more novels. The reality though is slowly getting out. I heard a great show on 'Writers and Company' on CBC radio a few weeks ago that comes to mind in which Eleanor Wachtel interviewed writers about their 'day jobs', and it was fascinating what people do to support their writing habit.

I've done many things myself. Planted trees and operated cranes, as already mentioned in this blog. I've also cleaned houses in Montreal, bartended in Bowmanville and waited tables in a gay club in Saskatoon. I've answered phones in English for T-Mobile, and in French for Dell. I've supervised in a call centre, and taught customer care, as well as run a department in a Future Shop, selling computers. I've sold encyclopedias door to door, and bent sheet metal into troughing and siding, dug holes for pools, assembled trophies, given out iron rings to University Alumni, and administered a certification exam for Medical Radiation Technologists. What was my line of work? Whatever paid the damn bills so I could write.

I am among you, building your hospitals! Mwahahahaha....
A few weeks ago also I heard tell of a parent teacher association outside Toronto that wanted to suspend a teacher in their high school because on the side, under a different name, she wrote steamy romance novels.

Had this been my school, I would be congratulating her. What better person to teach my children about writing than someone who actually has gone through the meat-grinder of publishing, and has come out successful!

I was incredulous. Only in North America could publishing a novel put someone on the stand to defend their actions. 'How dare you put your ideas in print and influence our children!?' they say. I say 'How dare you question what someone does on their own time?!'  Only in North America is writing seen as a sort of inaccessible ivory tower pursuit, something for gonzo unemployed crackpots or professors with lots of money and their head in the clouds. It makes me not want to tell anyone in my 'real life' what I do in my spare time, for fear of sounding elitist.

This is my office last week.
The result of that is writers stay underground.

There are enough of us. Think of all the movies you've ever watched, the books you've read, the articles in magazines, the poems, plays, TV shows, the commercials within those shows, the ads in print, the local news, and the websites ... all of those had someone sit down and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard to make it happen. Not to get all red scare on you, but there are writers in your neighbourhood, teaching your kids, cutting your lawns, cleaning your houses and offices, flying your planes, standing there in your park, riding the bus with you, and sitting in your local coffee shop (actually I'd put money on that last one).

Perhaps we should have a writer/blogger/artist movement, in which we take to the streets and show our solidarity for doing what we love?

It would never work, I know. Writing is too solitary. But maybe we could start breaking down this odd stereotype of writers as being disconnected from society. From my perspective, they're the only ones ensuring that our culture is recorded and passed down. So if I find out that one of my kids teachers has been published? Please, teach them the skills, too.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shouldn't have looked.

Jenn came across this post today illustrating all the nuclear testing that's been done in the world since 1945.

It starts slow at first, of course, but then by 1960, the genie is very much out of the bottle.

Like most people, I had no idea that nuclear testing had been so close to home and so widespread as it was. My perception was that there were hundreds, not thousands of tests, and that very few had happened close to our country, that the superpowers had treaties to limit these tests. I was wrong. The hottest spot in the world is the Mojave desert, and I've been there. There are no comprehensive treaties.

And most depressing, before I was born, in 1971, there were over 1100 bomb tests done in the world. Unfortunately, there have been more tests since then.

This is the trinity explosion.
Having a child with abnormal DNA, and a food chain that is poisoned with chemicals from antibiotics to antifungals, to Genetically modified grains  ... when does it all stop? I know it sounds contrite. I know we've all heard it before, but it's these 'holy crap' moments that have to break through the fog of our everyday lives once in a while to make us look hard at what is around us and wonder what it would be like if we still had a clean planet. Would I still have asthma? Would my child be different?

If we all believe it only happens in someone else's portion of the globe, how can we ensure it doesn't happen any more? If they were to test in Lake Ontario, would people of the world help us to get the test cancelled? How close does it have to be before we make sure they stop?

This is all we have is this dot.
I guess what it comes down to for me is utility. If blowing off these bombs was to end global warming, cure cancer, or MS, or to actually give us a lasting world peace, and not a plutocracy, then I would think of it as a necessary evil. But what do we actually get from these tests? Or ... as my father once said, how many times do they have to push the button before they're certain it goes boom?

download my novel here:


Monday, May 23, 2011


Yesterday, in order to increase traffic to my novel, I researched the best sites for posting short stories with the intention of posting them for free. Not only that, but it's been a great many years since I was in a creative writing class, and feedback is very hard to come by.

The first site that I looked at was After reading that they are owned by Anheuser Busch, I was skeptical. Then I got to reading their massive legal disclaimer where they state that they can use the writing far into the future, even if I withdraw from the site. Uh, no thanks.

Not that my writing is beer company material, but back in the late 80s I wouldn't have thought that 'How Soon Is Now' by the Smiths could have been in a beer commercial, and then years later, there it was. Now, if there was sufficient money involved ... wait. No, sorry. Writer starvation sickness setting in.

The next one was a competition, and required payment.

I think my writing habit has cost me well enough money, thanks very much, just in latte's alone, but for those who are flush with cash as well as talent, here's the link:

The next one was called Booksie. It sounded juvenile, a little too cute for its own good, but I got to looking around, and the set up is great. I could upload for free, and there's little formatting (not to compare to an actual publishing site, but if you want a few pointers on how to format for publication in all formats, pay a visit to the labrinthe of I like how anyone can comment on anyone else's work, and how there are breakdowns by genre. Great.

I posted two stories on Booksie. These are actually the same two books that I had posted for sale for 99c on Amazon, so I felt a little twinge of guilt doing it. However, if you can prove to me you're the one person that paid for them and didn't return for refund, then I'll take you out for a coffee AND give you back the loonie.

That done, I started looking around for some good authors to start criticizing in order to get some input back.  I read probably thirty short stories (or the first pages), and then about fifty first paragraphs. I tried to do some criticism, but I found that there were some things glaring that could be easier fixed by dropping links to the Strunk and White style guide. I gave each a chance, but common major flaws made me ambivlent. Spelling mistakes, typos, jumping between first and third person narrative ... it was to the point where if it was well written, but boring, I stuck with it, giving much more of a chance than I would if I was buying it. In the end, I had to admit that there is way too much crap out there.

I take it for granted how much I learned in high school about writing, and how much I learned about technique in University. I could have spent all day writing criticism and correcting things, but in the end it's not my job. I posted my stories, and will definitely go back, but more as a lurker than a critic. I'm sure there's great writing there, and I'm determined to find it. Hopefully just a matter of time and persistence.

The stories that I uploaded can be found here (warning: sex and language in both)

Burnee, and Heaven, or Harbourfront in July

and my novel, here:


Sunday, May 22, 2011


I've been putting off writing this one for a while. Not because I am avoiding it, but because it is important and I want to get it right. I want to introduce my son, Owen. He's loving, smart, and happy, and a fantastic big brother to his sister. He's a skinny little guy who runs around as Batman, as a tiger, as "Booboo Fett", or, like today, with a tool belt and lego blocks, building. Of our three children, he's the most easygoing, and the most relaxed in temperment.

He's also got some major issues.

When he was a baby he had a difficulty with latching. He would get sweaty and stiff while nursing or eating, but none of the doctors were particularly concerned with this, so no alarm bells sounded.  He nursed well, (and often) and progressed through the first year with only a few minor bumps along the way. Following the experts advice, when he turned a year old it was time to give up the boob, and grow into bottles and sippy cups.

He really liked cake at his 2yr birthday party.
Though we thought it was a little odd that every bottle we tried he rejected, and that he didn't seem to understand how to work a sippy cup, we eventually found a happy medium in a bottle with free flowing cow's milk, and an altered (read: butchered) sippy cup. It required no head tipping or suction to have access to fluid. We waited patiently for his first words.  Would he call for Daddy in the middle of the night, or would it be Mommy? No, it was 'Ba'. He progressed relatively normally through baby foods, but then stumbled on solids. While that was difficult, it was nothing compared to what was to come. One by one, all the foods we had successfully introduced were no longer accepted, and in exasperation when he was three, we took him in to the doctor. At that point he would only eat oatmeal and apple sauce, and was losing weight.

The nutritionalist at BGH gave us some advice that at the time I'm sure seemed good, to supplement his intake with protein and fat by adding more milk. That, after six months was a dismal failure, and nearing four years old, he was still only 30 pounds. Jenn, my wonderful wife, went on a year-long journey through casein intolerance, gluten intolerance, foods that give essential vitamins and minerals, and deconstructing diets from the ground up to find out how to get things into our little guy. She started the journey that has taken us here, of cleverly disguising foods in other foods. Boosting the nutritional balance of every acceptable food is normal in our house. Cake is never cake, it is always loaded with vegetables, protein and healthy fats.

Jenn began researching autism with intensity, fearing the worst. From the beginning, most of his therapists and doctors thought he was on the autism spectrum.

Family and friends, even, at first, agreed. He would get overheated, and sweaty, just like when he was feeding as a baby, and would just go ballistic. He would have screaming, and tense meltdowns where he would dissolve into tears and look at us as if to say "what's happening to me?" We had no answers.

We did have clues. Last year we broke it down symptom by symptom, and with our new ally in Quinte Pediatrics, Dr. Dempsey, we found several things that could be physically done before following an autism diagnosis. Metabolics. Teeth. Adenoids. Neurology.

We looked at the physical things first, which meant having several painful teeth looked at, the source of his early morning waking patterns. Dr. Dempsey in the meantime tested his blood, urine, and everything else necessary to rule out metabolic disorders.

The specialist in pediatric dentistry in Kingston temporarily capped his painful, hypoplastic (or to the layman, soft) teeth, after berating Jenn for an hour, suggested it was her fault. She then went on to say the pain was most likely a result of his autism.

That didn't even make any sense.

We fought. With Dr. Dempsey on our side, we got Owen into Kingston General to have his adenoids out. This helped with the sleep apnea, and swallowing, and also paved the way for getting the rotten teeth out. Small miracles, while there our anesthesiologist, Dr. Stidham (who is also in pediatrics) helped us with a neurology referral. His dedication was beyond admirable, and we felt blessed to have such a great team.

Next, Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, where they explained the hypoplasia of the teeth happens in the womb, and has nothing to do with how we fed him. Dr. Michael Casas was very informative, and we felt good about having him do the work himself. In the meantime, Dr. John Wu in Dentistry helped us on a New Year's day visit that we had him called in for. I'm sure he had better things to do but we were very grateful for his work, which allowed Owen another month of some solids before his big surgery. Soon after, they pulled two rotten teeth, and filled another one. He began eating some solid foods again. In fact, that first day, he devoured a full box of ritz crackers in the van on the way home, nearly crying as he did so.

Still, it didn't solve all his issues. He still was not eating properly, and not gaining weight as a result. To this day he is still only 33 lbs, but holding there. We started him on supplements that are gluten and casein free, that give all the daily nutrition needed for a little guy, and we've seen a huge improvement. Jenn is now the master of hiding foods in other foods, with pumpkin raspberry broccoli popsicles, and smoothies with everything in them but the kitchen sink.

Some of our therapists still said it could be autism, and we always took the opinion that if it was autism, then it just was. It didn't change our little guy, and we would accept it if other things were ruled out. But when it came right down to it, we just didn't agree.

Here is why.

Owen routinely makes eye contact and is empathetic. He understands social situations very well, and engages in imaginative play. The other indicators of his condition, the sleep apnea, the pain, the meltdowns, have all lessened since we got certain things out of his diet. He still isn't toilet trained, but that seems a motor control issue, and not behavioural. He's still sensitive to sounds, and textures, but hell, so am I at nearly 40 years old.

Autism just didn't fit with any of the research, and from the outset we wanted to rule other things out before accepting it.

Our next step was the Department of Genetics at Sick Kids where they tested him for genetic disorders.

In the meantime Dr. Dempsey continued his tireless work on our behalf. We cannot say enough about his team at Quinte Pediatrics. He points us in all the right directions, informing our choices, following our reasoning in questioning some results, and accepting others. He has been an invaluable ally, and words cannot express how much we appreciate his skills and his approachable, guy-next-door attitude. We have 'lucked into' a friend who knows what we're going through and also has the skills to help us.

Genetics has now turned out to be one of our big breaks. The test results, just coming back now, are that Owen has a triplication on Chromosome 11 of his DNA, which is not just rare, but unique. In a database that Jenn contacted in the UK (for people whose children have genetic disorders), there is nobody else in the world who has that triplication. Of course, before even getting the results, Jenn has researched that chromosome, and deletions, duplications and triplications on it can indicate a condition known as ectodermal displasia, or pertaining to disruption of the epidermis - nails, teeth, hair, inner ear (balance) and most importantly, the Central Nervous System. Microarray analysis of the DNA is new science, and not fully understood, but this condition can lead to problems of all sorts in balance, motor control, eating, and pretty much anything to do with everyday life.

We go back to Sick Kids in Toronto in June to find out what exactly that means, and what it explains, but for now we are keeping our fingers crossed. We can only stay patient, and we make sure he gets the basic thing he needs. Food, love, warmth, and understanding.

Later installments:
Owen ii
Owen iii
Owen iv

 My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
eBook, pdf, mobi, epub, rtf, lrf, palm, txt
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Kindle Germany

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Average rapture

My plan for the Millennium started to go awry the last day of 1999, with a full blown cold that I tried to medicate away. I was miserable and tired all day, hoping to keep it all together to ring in the new year with my girlfriend and some close buddies. The plan was to drive up to my grandparents cottage on the Crowe River to spend the time without electronics or television, just people, beer, food, and a fire out in one of the quietest places on the planet.

We had counted on clear roads, and this was a country lane that any amount of snow could make treacherous, and so our plan fell apart when snow began to fall. I got a speeding ticket outside Madoc dropping off the first couple of friends, and on the way back to pick up the last few, the snow became crazy heavy. So I made the executive decision to turn the car around and pick them back up.

Christopher drumming.
Spin the cat.
The rescue went well at first, but on the way out on the country road, there was another car coming the other way, and neither of us was expecting the other. I swerved to avoid him, running off the road. I'm glad my reflexes were good, because he didn't react at all, unless you count being indignant that I was on his road. The car came to rest with a stump through its oil pan, but was able to get us home.

Humiliated, we returned to my parents house with a written-off car. We drank beer and played bongo drums, and played a couple of rounds of 'spin the cat'. It was a blast. No chorus of angels, no worldwide crash, no Y2K, just a bunch of people having a great time, and me the next day sporting a hangover, and a cold.

Hardly the rapture, but we'd been through this only five months before through Nostradamus.

"In the year 1999 and seven months,
A great King of Terror will come from the sky."

I was there for that, too, and, again, nothing happened. So many liked to interpret this as the month that the King of Terror arrived, implying he was here, but inactive so far. I guess the King of Terror gets jetlag too, and needs some time to kick up his heels in Istanbul with some good coffee, to sit and watch the girls on the Champs d'Elysee, hang out with Tiger Woods, or to catch some Nascar before destroying the world.

I do not think there is a special spot for those who go to church. I've seen too many churchies do horrible things. I think most of us, at heart, believe we've lived our lives as good people, and are counting on that, which is why religion is declining while spiritualism makes a comeback. I'm an optimist, and I think were the decision mine, you would have to be pretty pointedly evil not to be saved. I'll be okay with the creator no matter when the time comes.

Which brings me to this:

The type of people who believe this, and the reason these things keep popping up, is that there are some who think that their faith should make them special. Rapture cults are a specific focus of these people, just as there are fetish groups and specific internet sites for just about every sexual oddity. Deep Christians crave being special. They want to be vindicated by their elevation, waving 'ha, suckers' as they ascend to heaven on Jesus' left toe. 

That is why these rapture things will always exist. Its promise fulfils an intricate, specific human need.

The next date, of course, is the much hyped Mayan calender ending that is coming up next year. Not to point out flaws, because it has been done many times before by people way more connected than me, but the Mayan Calendar is cyclical. It simply rolls over, like our calendar, only on a much longer time frame. Putting my faith in the interpretations of symbols on a disc in a long lost language, especially for something so important, seems ludicrous.

The Mayan Calendar (see the carving of me running screaming on the bottom?)

We can't even predict our own economy, in English, let alone judgment day.

But I will indulge. If you are really itching for a prediction, I'll tell you how I think this ends.

It doesn't.

By the time our sun goes supernova and consumes the earth, we will have moved to a different planet, or we won't. Our stuff is all going to be consumed by the sun. Everything we know ionized. That gives us some hundreds of millions of years to figure out how to make this work. Since we can only go back about four thousand years in our written history, it's like the groundhog poking his head out of the whole in the spring and the first thing he thinks is "snow's coming!" Ya, it's coming, but we have a long, long time to enjoy the sunshine.

Friday, May 20, 2011

You have to ask why.

Back in 1994 I was offered an opportunity by a friend in the writing program at Concordia. She had planted trees up in Alberta and Saskatchewan for a company called Northern Reforestation for years, and said it could be a good way to earn money during the summer. I took a chance and called the number, and mere weeks later was on a VIA train headed for Saskatoon. I had been across the country before, but never on such an adventure.

The first camp we had was out in Candle Lake, with long, flat, and dry clearcuts, it was like planting corn. The trees were perfectly spaced, and there was little work to get them in the ground. I was lulled into a false sense of security by this, because it was more a test of endurance than skill. I thought I had it aced. I had anticipated huge numbers to pay for my way, and yet was only making about $20 a day, where others were literally planting thousands, and making hundreds each day. It was barely enough to cover the cost of my meals and camp fees.

On the first night off, to make things worse, a young bear came through my tent as I slept. I screamed (Clay, to this day, will say I sounded like a girl) and ran to the mess tent where my friend Shawn was standing with his knife and flashlight, having been visited minutes before.

I have never been a quitter. I stuck it out, and with duct tape over the bear hole, I planted for another week before buying a new tent and a tarp, and I kept at it.

After that contract, another, and after that one, with a bit of money now in my pocket, I went to Slave Lake Alberta, for the 'real' planting. On the Alberta contracts we were out in rough land, some gorgeous scenery in the Swan Hills, and hard work. For some of the contracts we had to build corduroy roads by hand, and wade through knee deep mud just to get to where we were going. We often got lost. No maps, trudging around in the second largest swamp in the world.

I woke one morning, on a contract north of the town on a river, with a freezing cold ass because the river had risen so much that my tent was flooded. I spent the rest of the night sleeping on a picnic table. (it wasn't the last time either) Again, I didn't give up.

Years later, I have to ask why. Why did I do it? Why, after not making much money, did I go back?

I was usually no farther ahead than when I left Montreal. There was no romance involved for me at planting, though I did have lots of fun in Saskatoon between contracts. One year I even met a wonderful girl who convinced me to stay there for the winter. The people were great, and the food good, and the work was hard, but to this day I don't know WHY I did it. I just did. It was horrible, and if I had it to do over, I wouldn't hesitate.

Perhaps it brought me back to a reality I craved. It is very hands on, boring, and physical, and I had just spent years in University and theatre being very heady. It allowed me to introvert into my thoughts, and to be close to my breaking point, my real breaking point, so much farther down than I expected. That edge experience is essential for being an artist. In fact, some of my best work was spawned at tree planting. But I didn't know that then.

This picture at left was the last picture taken during my stint in the Swan Hills in 1997, as all these pictures are from my last year. I had planted for three summers, and I was exhausted, and when I returned to Montreal that year, I decided to do something else during my summers. I wasn't a very good planter anyway, and would probably never have thought of planting again had I not read about the wildfires.

Seeing photos of Slave Lake in ashes has brought back all the memories of the laundromat, the Sawridge Hotel, the Outlaw, Remote Helicopters, Don buzzing the camp at 5am in the Jet Ranger, the drive in contracts, the blue Bus, nights off in the mess tent, the "showers", digging shitters, assembling camp in the wilderness before the planters got in ... it was all unique, and all helped form me. I wonder about all those trees. Did everything I work for burn down? That, my friends, would be the greatest irony, if all that work was for, quite literally, nothing. An entire logistic network to send me across the continent to put little seedlings in the ground, only to have them go up in smoke fifteen years later.

The experience haunts me to this day, and the very mention of Slave Lake has me feeling as if a part of my past has vanished. Here's hoping that even one of those trees survived. Hell, maybe someday I'll type something on it, or build a shed from it. I guess the point is, I did something. I'd be pretty sad if my grandkids were looking for stories, and I couldn't tell them one thing that I, myself, did.

So why do we do anything? Because we can.

To download my first novel, click here:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Last typewriter factory standing

I heard yesterday that the last typewriter factory in the world just closed in India.

I didn't know how I felt, because, for one, I had been raised as a writer on fountain pens and manual typewriters. I had taken typing in high school, not knowing where it would lead or when I would need it, and thinking it was going to be an easy credit. (It was.)

I also wrote my first novel on an old Royal typewriter, which I had painted with a roommate's leftover purple nail polish, and peach colored keys. It had a radiohead sticker later in its days, and typed many more than the 320,000 words of my first draft. People usually say: "then you had to type the whole thing again into the computer?" Yes. It was a writing exercise that got rid of all the head-spinning back and forth editing that I end up doing now, and gave me a coherent skeleton to mark up with red pen. It was exactly what I needed.

Typewriters are not like fountain pens. Especially manual (non electric) ones. No longer produced for many years in North America, every one that is sitting in a basement somewhere is a one-of-a-kind artifact, with a unique history like horse drawn furrows or the abacus. Fountain pens are still made, and have been around for thousands of years (yes, thousands, the Egyptians invented them). There is a culture of fountain pens, but typewriters are just babies on the printing scene. The advice I got from my creative writing professor, back in 1993, over a couple (okay, a few) beers at a local pub, I think still holds true. He said if you want to learn how to write a novel, instead of taking all these courses, you take a large stack of paper and a typewriter into a cabin in the woods, and don't come out until you have a novel. Ironically, in 1998 that is exactly what I did after the ice storm crippled the island of Montreal.

Did it work? Hell yes.

I guess I'm trying to say that a computer just doesn't have that same desperation that a project or an author needs to get that novel done. There's always wi-fi, or 3G, there's always a portal to Wikipedia and Facebook, and Twitter. Even out in the Himalayas, you're never really alone.

Ah, the typewriter.

Computers, the criticism goes, are too fast for my fiction writing. I still write most of my fiction with a fountain pen, because, take this however you will, that is the speed of my brain on writing. Then I crank it into a word processor, and somewhere between the two, the humble typewriter, once a revolution in business and the arts, has been lost.

As I type my 75+ wpm, banging off blog entries in minutes, moving words around and correcting errors with ease, perhaps I am sounding like my grandfather. He used to talk about the horse-drawn milk delivery, or local bakeries with the same wistful remembrance the same twinkle in his eye. It all comes down to the same thing he used to say about modern life.

It just isn't the same.

To download my first novel, squeakyclean, click here:

Value of the pen.

I just read an article about handwriting and how it affects the brain, which I will post here:

As well as being a relative luddite who loves typewriters, I also use fountain pens for my journalling and editing. I have a $30 Sheaffer that I use for writing, and a $20 red Sheaffer that I fill with red ink and use for editing. I get so many comments from people about how they 'used to' know how to write with one, and how daunting it is. I have never found it daunting, but more like a small vacation from the tech-heavy world of communication. When I write in my book, I revel in the white, crisp paper, and anticipate how I will lay out my journey through words. It is a way of thinking as much as it is a way of capturing ideas in media. That way, I exercise skills of pre-planning, and following a course of thought. I exercise my anticipation of HOW the words will be read as much as why. See, in handwriting, and it seems a moot point, one always has to be legible. There's no spell-check, no grammatical check, and what I write will not be edited, moved around, reprinted, reposted, retweeted, or otherwise passed out to the world at large.

There's something freeing about being able to put my thoughts out on paper and not have to wait for repercussions. The internet has become very snipey in recent years, with everyone trying to respond with excessive cleverness to everyone else. Don't get me wrong, I believe in freedom of speech and I believe in discourse on every issue. However, sometimes I just want to get things on paper, and not have to rethink them. Not to mention the less-frequent than it used to be accidental save over or deletion of work. Once it's there in ink, it's there.

Come to think of it, I even get perverse pleasure out of spelling things the Canadian way, without that damn red underline that inevitably appears. So much to love about ink on paper, put there by my own hand.

Call me old-fashioned. Again.

To download my first novel, click here:

Friday, May 06, 2011


I have a huge stack of books beside my bed. Massive. Probably twenty or so in heavy rotation and another stack that are waiting for a bit of attention. I keep them there not so much for reading, as I used to when I was younger, but for motivation.   

 When I'm working on my novel, and I need to see some great dialogue, or a chapter intro that really works, that uses minimal words to paint a scene, or some heart-thumping action, I have books for that. I read them and find the original reason I loved it when I first read it. These are my stacks of favorites, and they're familiar, and I usually know which section I need before I crack it open. Hawaii. Underworld. The Sportswriter. Handmaid's Tale. Lord of the Rings. The Sun also Rises. Aristophanes. Short stories of F.Scott Fitzgerald. Franny and Zooey. Even Mason & Dixon, which I loved up to the point of the bizarre talking dog, even that for its quirky use of language and oblique character treatment, has its place.  

It is important, I think, not to get down when it doesn't flow out of the pen exactly perfect, to remind me that there are a hundred steps between what first comes out, and what is printed on the page. I need to see how things work when they work well.     So what do you use? Where do you find motivation? Is it an author, or many authors, or perhaps non-fiction, or textbooks? What inspires you?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

What others think.

What you think of yourself is much more important than what others think of you.
- Seneca

I was a tower crane operator two years ago, and was happy to have settled on that as my profession. My father was an excellent operator of 43 years when he retired. My brother has operated for some 25 years, and is brilliant, and from them I learned enough of their skills that I was good at it. On the jobs I was held in high esteem, and the projects were important, hospitals and universities and the like. Most importantly, I loved doing it. There's something inexplicably satisfying in doing one thing right, and doing it well, and being appreciated.

There were times when I wished for an easy day job, or something that had less responsibility. There were also the logistics of living in a relatively small town and traveling to the city to work every week. I was staying in hotels and with friends four nights a week, something my brother is still doing after 25 years. There are rarely cranes in Belleville. Still, it was honest money for honest work.

Tragically, the Business Rep who signed me into the union years ago fell sick. Without getting into too much detail, doctors first thought it was pnuemonia, then pleurisy, and then over the course of the summer, we were shocked to find out it was cancer. He was fifty two, and after a short, brutal battle, he died on September 11 of 2009. He was a friend, and a great guy, dedicated and honest, and through his seven years in the area he got the job done and didn't care what others thought of him.

Two weeks after his passing, I was offered his job, and it was difficult in many ways to decide whether to take it or not. First, I know the stress he was under. His job could be crushing in the long run, though it could be dealt with in the short. Second, I would be giving up what I loved to do. My wife and I reasoned that the loss of pay was worth it to be able to come home every night for the kids.

I accepted. I was given a blackberry, a fuel card, and a map of the area I was to cover. Two weeks of following other Reps around downtown Toronto, and I was let loose on my area with no further training. I was petrified. I knew I had huge shoes to fill, was expected to know what I was doing.

The job and situation brought a lot of scrutiny not just from the companies in the area, who expect organizing to "level the playing field", but also from the members I represent, who never did get to know me face to face, even when I was on the same jobs, because I was up in a tin box 200 feet in the air. Often I wished I didn't give a shit what people thought of me, because for all my bravado taking the job, I have relatively thin skin. Still, all those times I wished for a job that I could make a difference in the world, standing up for the things I value, like human rights, and worker rights, and equality ... all of a sudden I had that, taking me from what I had thought I'd do for the rest of my life.
Shifting gears caused its own anxiety, not having a regulated day. If I wasn't at work, I would think of my brothers in their machines carrying on. Jenn would remind me that I didn't think of them when organising on weekends, or going to conferences or preparing for negotiations well into the night while they were at home, and she was right (she usually is).

Fast forward eighteen months, and the job has not backed off in intensity, but I can handle it better. I don't have the Sunday afternoon dread I had at the beginning, and it's starting to make sense. At some point I had to just accept that my life is different from the other operators now.

Don't get me wrong, I never was a good ol' boy, but now I'm not an operator any more. That in itself is hard to swallow, since I spend more time talking to operators now than I ever did. So what do I do with all this?

I guess a pat answer will do. Make lemonade.

I get to see my kids every night, eat supper with them, and tuck them in, and every moment of that is time I would have lost in the cranes. I can sacrifice a lot of my well-being to be there with them, and if that means putting up with a job that is difficult, though ethical and fulfilling? Well, there are many worse fates in this world.

We should be careful what we wish for. It may come true long, long after we wish. With this job, I know I have to toughen my skin, and that will come. Without sounding all Wayne Dyer motivational poster-ish ... what other people think of me is none of my business.

Here's hoping that wish for the easy day job doesn't blindside me.

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