December 03, 2010

A Buzzing in the Brain: Meditations on Winter, Parents and the Christmas Season

The wind outside has a nasty cold bite to it, but the air inside the restaurant is still, warm, stifling from the heat of all the bodies that have found their way inside. Greeted by the girl with the genuine smile. How can someone smile all day long? Maybe you gotta really believe it. Don't think about so much shit. Just be pleasant in your mind.

Maybe she's twenty five, looking young, plump and healthy. Not a bad sign. Customers all look well fed too. Maybe they come here all the time, or at least more often than us. Same booth as last week. Oh look - same server as last time too. May as well order what I enjoyed last time too. Pot roast, mashed potatoes and veggies. Gravy on the side. On a diet, doncha know. This is me being healthy. Good boy.

When it finally comes, the smell of the beef makes my mind wander. We always ate roast beef on Sundays at my mother's father's house. "Poppy's House". It's the taste of family, every time. I'm a lucky man to have a beloved to share my beef with.

Roast beef brings on Poppy, which brings on his daughter, my Mum, Angela. I feel the meat stretch and mash between my teeth, and taste the juices. Hot, tangy, like life blood from whatever animal it used to be. Unlucky it. Lucky me.

Lame Christmas music comes over the restaurant's speakers. Who scat sings "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"? I miss Robert Goulet. Who are they and where do they find this shit? Somebody went music shopping in the bargain bin at Walmart for these winning tunes.

I'm lucky to be eating a hot meal inside a warm, dry place. This time of year, lots of people don't have that. It's getting closer to Christmas.

What was Christmas dinner like for my Mum in her last few years? Even without her teeth in, I bet Mum would have gnawed her way through a tender piece of beef and some yorkshire pudding. A skin and bones woman with short-cropped white hair, rocks alone in her chair. Line of juice running down her chin and into a bib around her neck. If Mum had beef, I bet she'd eat with the rapid enthusiasm and abandon of a little kid.

It's so easy to worry about the future and fret over the past. Was it like that for Mum? People from different families, sitting on the ward next to her, all in their own chairs, and not talking to each other. Everyone's got their physical and mental problems. Some more than others. Not many visitors in the hospital talking to them. Maybe Mum was lonely, if she could remember it. Or maybe she was lucky, and couldn't remember any happy times, so she wouldn't miss them. No memories of having babies a million years ago. Nothing about living in a townhouse, watching TV, or missing her parents. No sitting home alone drinking, being sad and lonely.

Maybe, if she were lucky (and by God she deserved some luck), all she'd remember tied into her little hospital chair was how good that last bite of beef tasted. Nice bite of tasty, juicy meat. Warm air inside the ward. Some weak but vaguely reassuring music on the speaker. Peaceful. Life, just one bite at a time.

September 19, 2010

A Bus Ticket at the Airport?

When I graduated from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design (ECCAD) in 1989, one voice in the faculty stood out: Bob Evermon. In an impassioned letter to the graduating class and college (which I cannot completely recall), he likened the Diplomas we would receive to getting "a bus ticket at the airport". His point, I believe, was that the college should be a degree-granting institution. I have always wondered if getting a Bachelors of Fine Arts would have helped to further my career.

During my four years at ECCAD, my studies progressed from Foundation through a series of computer graphics, drawing, art history and multimedia courses. Of particular note was an amazing, inspiring all-day Senior Multimedia Studio taught by Gary Lee Nova and Michael Agrios, which combined a morning theory session with an afternoon practical session. I learned a lot about the development and impact of modern media on culture, and got a lot of hands-on experience with consumer-grade audio and video equipment and production techniques.We were just on the verge of the convergence of the Computer, Print, and Broadcast media, and it is incredible to see how far that integration has progressed, affecting whole swaths of culture and lifestyle.

By my final year, I was taking a number of self-study blocks, which meant that I had to define my own project for the semester and pursue it under the guidance of a consulting instructor. I used those sessions to develop ideas for an interactive slide show of computer graphics and an electronic sculpture idea. I read obsessively about art, science and technology, especially cybernetics and AI. I taught myself how to use a breadboard to prototype little circuits, how to solder (badly) and how to program in BASIC. I made many trips up Fourth Avenue to RP Electronics that year, and felt a huge amount of gratification from running my own creative projects on my own terms and schedule. (Instructor and electronics artist Dennis Vance was a huge inspiration to me during those projects.)

I'd be lying if I said that I had any idea back then what I'd be doing with my career in the long term, but with the collaboration and help of some classmates (especially the always-brilliant Martin Hunt) my grad projects were completed and shown successfully. Impermanence is part of life. After the 1989 Grad Show was completed, I documented the pieces and dismantled them. Their purpose was served.

Now, over twenty years after graduation, I've managed to keep my career alive as a commercial artist in the IT sector, working for a succession of small-to-mid-sized companies. Most often, I've succeeded by creating a role for myself as an "everything art guy" or an all-round digital and print designer.

I'm still interested in technology, but I find that I don't often get the opportunity to create anything that interests me, or of which I can feel particularly excited. In the first 10 years of my career, every brochure and business card design, website layout or programming challenge seemed unique and exciting to me. Between 1992 and 2002, I got to flex my graphic skills, create animations, or help to tell a story using words and pictures. The design mojo had started to develop in me in art school, but the actual design technology skills and production experience came face-first, on the job.

I think I have always been happiest if I had one project that I could control from beginning to end - a pet project. These opportunities seem to be few and far between, and getting fewer all the time. But, every employer's needs are different, and it's unrealistic to expect a commercial design position to afford too many opportunities for personal expression or even personal satisfaction.

There's always been a little voice in the back of my mind asking things like "Is my Do It Yourself career a good enough path for me? Would I be happier if I pursued formal training - maybe got some credentials in design or multimedia or something? What about teaching? The few times I've worked as an instructor, I've always loved it. What about that?"

Did I get a bus ticket at the airport after all? Maybe it's a good time to ask if I need a transfer...

September 11, 2010

Of Diet and Destiny.

A couple of weeks ago, my MD diagnosed me as pre-diabetic. This was a bit of a shock to me, I must admit. However, in the spectrum of disease and mortality, on the scale of news that you don't want to hear from your doctor, it's pretty damn good news.

In recent months, my wife and I had talked about Type 2 ("Adult Onset") Diabetes, and I'd even tested my blood sugar once using her little pin-pricker-tester doodad. By learning about my wife's diabetes, I realized that it is a manageable condition, and not that scary once you do your homework and develop some changes to your lifestyle.

At 5 foot 9 inches, I weighed as much as 214 pounds a couple of years ago. I cannot remember exactly when my weight increased above 200, but I'm sure that I wasn't thrilled about it. Hitting 214 was, for me, a weight record and emotionally, something of a low point.

Although he was well over 6 feet tall, my father had been between 220 and 240 pounds and at least 44 inches around the waist when he had a heart attack at the ago of 62. He survived six more years after that, but at a huge cost: five strokes, an epileptic reaction to alcohol, and a plate and pin in his hip from a bad fall in a hospital shower. He was a life-long smoker and drinker and not health conscious in the least. Born in 1921, perhaps Dad was a product of his times. Emotionally and physically, he had not taken care of himself for years and years, and he ended up suffering serious consequences because of it.

I'm using my Dad as an example, but not in any spirit of disrespect. I have a vague memory of him telling me not to repeat his and my mother's mistakes in life. Memories become blurred and distorted over time, and it may well be that he never actually said this to me at all, but by reflecting on my parent's living examples, not following them has absolutely the most important advice that I've ever taken to heart. Dad passed on in 1989, and Mum died in 1995, and not a day goes by that one or both of them are not in mind. I have used the examples of their lives as motivation to pursue my goals with enthusiasm, to improve myself intellectually, artistically and emotionally, and to listen to myself and to others with attention and compassion.

I suspect that a good deal of my Dad's lack of interest in his health was related to him not wanting to get bad news from the Doctor. I'm sure that Dad didn't feel that great much of the time, struggling with lack of sleep, few close friends, no emotional support network, a poor diet, and loads of stress and accumulated guilt and sadness.

My Dad was from the "don't air our dirty laundry in public" school, which is fine if (A) it's possible, and if (B) you have a plan in place to actually deal with your private problems on your own. However, the main thing I learned from being raised with that outlook is to avoid bad news and wait for things to get better on their own. Serious changes sucked then, and they still do. This is a common reaction to events that seem to be too much to deal with - that seem to be outside of your control.

In physical terms, at 214 pounds, I saw myself beginning to resemble my late Dad. Although I had quit smoking at 18, and don't drink too much (haven't been tipsy or buzzed more more than a few times in the past 20 years), my gradual weight gain and a few bouts with lower back problems had begun to frustrate and worry me.

A few years ago, as a Christmas gift, my wife gave me a few free hours with her personal trainer. It has turned out to be one of the best things that anyone has ever done for me. I have kept going to this trainer, appreciated her advice and support, and have gradually developed a healthy attitude towards exercise. I've found ways to integrate low-fat, healthy eating choices and over 40 minutes of brisk walking into my daily routine. However, until recently, I never really paid attention to how much I favoured carbohydrates and "sweet" foods, and how bad my after-meal crashes were becoming.

In the past couple of weeks since my pre-diabetic diagnosis, my outlook has transformed from disappointment and worry into a feeling of hope and enthusiasm. This experience is giving me the boot in the ass that I needed to start making more significant positive changes to my diet and lifestyle, and to encourage me to step up my exercise regime to another level.

I'm fortunate that I was informed early on, and that I can look forward to learning more, and hence, gaining more control over my health.

July 17, 2010

A Lovely Home, on the Sea...

Today, my wife and I checked out Open Houses in Vancouver's lovely (and busy) Coal Harbour. We weren't in some $400K high-rise condo though (although there are a lot of those to be found - we were down at sea level, looking at detached homes for under $200K. Real detached. In fact, they barely touch the earth. They were floating homes, or sea homes, moored down at the Coal Harbour Marina.

Living in a sea home has been a dream that's been growing in our minds for a couple of months now. It's not for everyone: you must buy the home, and then pay yearly moorage, kind of like living in a trailer park. In the Coal Harbour neighbourhood, I bet moorage runs in the neighbourhood of $900/month, which is enough to make most people run for the moorage-free hills. It amounts to almost paying two mortgage fees, so if you can't float that, you're sunk for sure.

There's definitely a novelty, "gee-whiz" factor (if you'll permit me to talk like I'm from the 50s) to living in a house that floats. Back in the 80s, when I worked as a pedi-cab driver and studied art down on Granville Island, I looked at the floating homes all the time. It seemed like a pretty sweet life if you could swing the money part: $350-$500K for the home, plus whatever the Canada Mortgage and Housing Commission decided was a fair moorage rate. Still, bobbing around on the water, watching all the ships, sea birds and an occasional seal go by, and walking 5 minutes to the local shops to stock up on goods.

Local Futurist and columnist, Frank Ogden (aka "Dr, Tomorrow"), lives in a funky sea home, that resembles the nose of a submerged 737. Sailboats and Yachts are coming and going alkl the time, so the neighbourhood is varied, to say the least.

Today, we did a tour of three extremely cozy sea homes in Coal Harbour: "Cumberland", "The Caribou" and "Sweet Pea", all seemingly built from old fishing vessels or something, and quite charming in their own way. Check them out here:

("The Caribou" reminds me of the kind of sweet, oddball place that Popeye the Sailor might retire to. It also has the largest deck of the three we saw, located on it's roof. Overall, it's a bit too small for us, but still just as charming as hell...)

In addition to Coal Harbour and False Creek, there are a few Marinas that have floating communities: Mosquito Creek, just west of Lonsdale Key on the North Shore, and there are others in Richmond, Fort Langley, and in Ladner, near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary. There's also Fisherman's Wharf Marina in Victoria, BC. Here are listings of sea homes in these other locations, most of which are a bit less expensive than Coal Harbour:

We're city mice who require lots of shops or at least one 7-11 and two coffee joints within walking distance of our humble abode. Victoria appeals to me very much, but North Van seems the most likely for us, Our cunning plan is to pay off our current condo mortgage over the next 10 years or so, sell it for a nice profit, and buy a sea home all-in, and then use profits from the sale to cover the first year's moorage fees, etc.

It's not a cheap prospect, but I think we can do it. Oh - what a lovely dream...

July 12, 2010

Memories of Rocking GM Place, Tibetan style...

This is kind of an update to an ancient post I made back in 2006.

On Sunday, July 11, 2010, my wife and I attended a Tibetan Fundraiser at the Van Dusen Gardens. There was a silent auction, Tibetan food, lots of jewelry and CDs on sale, and the place was place was jammed with people. Coloured flags inscribed with little messages hung from the ceiling and everywhere, and even though we were shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only, in over 30 degrees of heat, there were a lot of smiles to be seen.

In the main meeting area, there was a stage, and on it, a variety of live performances of music and singing, mostly children or young people who appeared to be teens and pre-teens singing folk music. We watched two monks playing those looooooooooong Tibetan horns, which was pretty neat.

But, for me, the day was made by this one boy playing his three-stringed Tibetan guitar. He twanged away on his guitar-thingie in time with the beat of the song, and in time with the little boy who was enthusiastically singing the melody. Then, in a space between verses, there came a guitar solo, and something about his playing seemed familiar to me. The kid began rocking out on his Tibetan folk tune: I watched him lean way back on his hips like Jimmy Page, with the body of his instrument way down below his hips, and the neck pointed up high. There was a familiar and distinct air of confidence in his posture. He was rocking out, Tibetan style, and having a great time!

After a moment, I became convinced that I'd seen this kid play before. I am sure I saw him at GM Place, playing the same way when the Dalai Lama came to Vancouver in 2006. And boy - that time, he was on the big screen in front of tens of thousands of people, and his Jimmy Page posture really caught the attention of the crowd.

He rocked GM Place with his three-stringed Tibetan guitar solo. Right on kid.

July 04, 2010

A Visit to Klahowya Village in Stanley Park

Today, we went to Klahowya Village in Stanley Park. In place only until September 2010, this aboriginal-themed attraction is set around the Stanley Park Locomotive and the Children's Petting Zoo.

After walking along the quiet path that took us around the perimeter of the miniature train tracks - which amounted to a peaceful stroll under the leaves, looking at native symbols and carvings that had been placed among the trees - my wife and I settled down and sat in front of a small pine stage that had been built over top of a little pond, and looked freshly-cut.

Two native women sitting to my right were chatting away, getting to know each other. The one right next to me said that she was from Alert Bay and her daughter would be dancing in the group that would be on next. Soon enough, the dancing troupe was introduced by the our host, who was a Hereditary Chief of the First Nations up in Alert Bay, BC. The mother next to me was very proud of her daughter, saying how she danced all the time with a few different groups, and that she's always traveling with one group of the other.

The other woman asked where Alert Bay was, and what it was like. The mother described to her seat-mate how she'd spent a long time in the residential school up in Alert Bay, starting as a child in 1964. She said her Dad had been in the residential school too, and that it was school in the Military style. She said that you weren't supposed to be Native back in those days. School tended to end at about Grade 8, and those who continued on with their education "wouldn't be considered Indians anymore - they'd be like white".

The Hereditary Chief up on the stage said that between 1885 and the 1990s, the Federal Government of Canada mandated the Indian Act - the residential school system - and that this legislation had caused so much pain and suffering for Aboriginals. (I read later that the last residential schools, located in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.) The Chief said that the Government of Canada didn't realize the damage they were doing - the pain they were causing - and he went on to say how fortunate he felt to be able to demonstrate traditional dances and songs which had been passed down to him from his father to people of all races, who came from all over the place. He said he was proud to promote his culture. He said that just a few days earlier, we had celebrated Canada Day, and as he looked out at all the different colours of faces in the crowd, we should each be proud of our own unique culture. He said that when he traveled with his troupe, he was always proud to say he was First Nations and a Canadian.

After the performance was over, we clapped and said goodbye in the word that the Chief had taught us. As we walked off, he was teaching a young boy how to use a native drum. I heard his laughter halfway out to the parking lot.

June 19, 2010

Mum's Birthday, 2010: Connecting the dots between my Parents and Groucho...

Every year, on the anniversary of my Mother's birth, I post a little something about her on my blog. This year, I missed it. Her birthday comes a day or two before Father's Day this year - a chance to remember my Dad. I missed that too.

So now I'm taking time to raise a glass (a Grande Americano, really) to each of my parents, and spend some time reflecting on their personalities.

Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke) was a complicated woman: a talented musician and singer, an amateur actor (Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society), and generally full of lively talents both realized and unrealized. Angela could be loud, boisterous and manic (literally), or quiet, withdrawn and depressed. Each of us has our polar extremes of behaviour, but her poles were a bit farther apart than most people.

Angela would sometimes doodle this little cartoon bird for fun. It looked kind of like a crane, with a round head, large pointed beak and long flowing neck. He always had glasses and smoked a big fat cigar. It was obviously inspired by Groucho Marx. Even as a little kid, I could recognize Groucho's face, even if I didn't know his name.

The maiden name of Angela's Mother, Edna Ursula Marks, might phonetically have spurred in her an affinity for Groucho too. I can only guess. Angela was also a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, as was the famous Mr. Marx.

So nowadays, while I'm re-reading Steven Kanfer's excellent biography of Groucho, I'm hearing little refrains from Gilbert and Sullivan, and thinking of Angela.

My Dad, James Evan Love, loved Groucho's speed and wit. Intelligence, and a fast mouth with which to use it, equated to a form of strength or power - something to be admired. Groucho was the comic rebel of my parent's generation.

Dad used to love to paraphrase Groucho, saying "I'd never belong to any club that would have me as a member." True to his word, Dad belonged to no clubs.

Well, maybe both of them were members of The Lonely Hearts Club.

Hello, I must be going.
I love you Mum and Dad.
Here's to you both...

June 05, 2010

Owe Nothing: Taking Book Marketing to the next level...

Ah, Spring. A time for growth, renewal, and positive change. And spring cleaning.

My personal web presence at has been in play since 1998, and has been the home of a variety of online personal shrines and pet projects, not the least of these is "True Life", my personal family memoirs project.

Creating Characters, and a world...

In 2002, during a particularly bleak period of unemployment, I reacted to my frustration and lack of control with an old, familiar escapist reaction: I began developing a habit of writing fiction. Scribbling in my notebook on the edge of my bed in the late and early morning hours, I created a cast of characters and a world for them, through which I could tell stories that spoke about the events and values of my personal life. I created a mythical family and others, composites based on real people. Jack Owen and his family, friends, his motel home, and his fictionalized Vancouver-Kingsway neighbourhood resulted from this. After 7 years, countless Starbucks runs, and seemingly endless, paragraph-by-paragraph writing and editing sessions, my first novel, Owe Nothing, finally came into being in April 2009.

September through October of 2002 had been an incredibly productive time for me. Not only was that when I began writing the first scenes of Owe Nothing, but it was then that I developed ideas for many of the characters who appear in the book, and also when further ideas for related stories were roughed out in my notebook.

My second novel, The Two Sisters (currently in progress towards a first draft), was sketched out in 2002, and not long after Owe Nothing launched online with Trafford, I revisited my notes for Two Sisters and started trying to flesh them out into a full-length sequel.

It was around this time that I realized that I might actually have a second novel in me, and maybe even a third one after that. I realized that this fiction writing thing was starting to become a major preoccupation, and maybe I should think about evolving it into a minor occupation.

Taking my book marketing to a new level...

In the first year since publication, I've confined my marketing and sales efforts to anything I can do online, particularly on some sort of semi-automatic basis. A Facebook page, AdWords ads, Twitter, promoting and linking my old fiction page ( in directories, blogs and message boards all over the web - I tried a number of tactics. While these may have helped somewhat to get me some web visitors, none of it seems to have resulted in any sales - if Trafford's records are to be believed, anyway.

I began to feel as if I were flailing around ineffectually, so I decided to find myself some good advice. Nowadays I'm taking counsel from a book marketing pro, and thinking about the future of Jack Owen, the character, and of E. John Love, his official biographer. It's time to move Jack and the "Owe Nothing Universe" off of my personal hobby site, and develop a separate new web presence - one that gives Owe Nothing and any related stories the focuses they need and deserve.

It's time...

May 21, 2010

Meditatng on Personal Freedom...

In recent weeks, I've been researching mental health - manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). In my second novel, The Two Sisters, one character (one of the Sisters) has struggled with manic depression most of her life, and has been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses over the years. Her name is Rose, and by the time her nephew (and the novel's main character) Jack Owen meets her, she is a long-term resident of British Columbia's provincial mental health hospital.

Rose is based, to some degree, on my experiences with my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who struggled with manic depression, depression, and alcoholism continually through her life. Mum seemed to always be somewhere in the middle of extremes of behaviour: happy, laughing, loving and normal sometimes, and loud, loopy, drunken or depressed at other times. As a kid, it was difficult to know who she was, or how to feel around her.

My Mum was an enigma to me. I can honestly say that I cannot remember having more than one or two actual conversations with her in the 12 years she lived with me. Perhaps it is unfair of me to think that way. Kids' perceptions are often very subjective and skewed. I wish I could have known the lovely, charming and talented musical performer that Mum's friends and family got to know. Anyway, water under the bridge...

After bouncing in and out of a few private hospitals over the course of a year or two, Mum finally landed in the Burnaby Psychiatric Centre on Wilingdon Avenue in Burnaby. Dad explained that this facility was essentially a "holding pen" for patients who were bound for Riverview.

Riverview. That name was a caution to me back then, something to be feared. Dad used to warn Mum: "Angela - behave yourself, or you'll end up in Riverview!" I never took this to be an idle threat. Dad's voice conveyed the worry and stress that told me that Riverview Hospital was not a good place to go. It also sounded like the kind of place that you didn't come back from. These are the kinds of words that form stereotypes which tend to stick with you. And they did.

Mum was admitted to Riverview in 1980. Our first few visits with her were extremely difficult. Looking back, now that I'm almost the same age that Mum was when she was admitted there. However sick and brain damaged she might have been, she was aware of what was happening to her, and she was scared to be left alone in that place. Once or twice, we had to leave her while she was crying and calling for us to take her home again. It was absolutely brutal, and I'll never forget her scared cries and her desperate face, pushed up into the little window in the centre of the ward door. It's an awful moment that haunts me to this day.

Back in 1977, not too long after her father Ernest died, Mum went into a prolonged depression. She rarely rose from her bed or the couch, except to eat, drink, or vomit. Initially, she stopped eating meat, and eventually, she stopped eating altogether, and did nothing but sleep. We lived with this for a long time, and it was rarely ever acknowledged.

Finally, one day, my little sister Kim couldn't wake Mum up (a moment that traumatized Kim for years). Kim's frantic protests got Dad to call the Doctor. Dad didn't want to deal with the reality of Mum's situation either. My few happy memories of my Mother are all I have, and my little sister has no personal memories at all.

Mum's liver had quit, and if she had been at home for 24 hours longer, she'd have surely died. As it was, she'd suffered permanent brain damage and a fair amount of recent memory loss.

Mum went through a full transfusion at Burnaby General Hospital, and after she had detoxed and was able to see us again, I noticed how much her personality had changed. Her personality was almost like a clean slate. She was much more direct and basic in her needs, and she never ever brought up the past anymore, the way some people do (raising old issues, or chuckling over shared memories). The person she had been was changed forever, and now, it was almost like we had a new, different Angela to get to know.

Mum didn't seem to have any concept of how her own actions or inactions might have put her in that situation, and she didn't seem to get that she'd never be able to live alone or independently again. How could we leave her alone in the house during the day? She never blamed anyone else though. There was no bitterness directed at her situation or towards anyone in particular either. She just wanted to come home. She cried for it.

The character of Rose is a bit like Angela, and shares an event which happened to Angela. In "The Two Sisters", Rose's meds are adjusted on the advice of a new Doctor, and she changes from her regular quiet, almost vegetative state, and becomes much more lively. During this time, Rose has slight episodes of mania, but otherwise seems quite normal. It's during this "awakening" that Jack is able to ask her some questions about her past, and about his late mother Barbara, who was Rose's cousin.

Jack's Aunt Rose becomes something of a surrogate mother figure for him, and has her own brand of road-worn wisdom and street smarts to impart. After a week or two, Rose has a particularly bad manic episode, complete with hallucinations and violence. Reluctantly, her Doctor is convinced by his peers to reinstate Rose's original drug regime, which returns her to her passive, non-communicative state. Jack feels as if he has lost Rose, but continues to visit her periodically, providing her with some companionship and care in his own way.

Rose's "Awakening" episode is based on my Mother's similar experience. Around 1991, late one evening, when I was thinking of going to visit her, I got a phone call from a Riverview Nurse, telling me that my mother wanted to talk to me. This had never happened before, and I listened with a pounding heart as this slightly excited, frantic-sounding voice greeted me. I spoke to her for a few minutes, and told her how nice it was to hear her voice, told her I loved her, and that I'd see her as soon as I could. Then, after we hung up, I immediately called my Sister and we laughed, cried, and were generally amazed.

However, when I went up to see her, she'd already been put back on her old regime of meds, so that phone call is the only window I got into who my Mother might have become. I just never got there in time, and that phone call feels like the last true contact with my Mum, even though I continued to visit her in person on and off over the next four years.

I decided that Jack deserved a few weeks' worth of that wonderful awakening so that he could get to know the real Rose.

April 24, 2010

I don't believe in Ghosts, yet they keep coming back...

This morning, I was given a nice little snapshot of my Mum and Dad from the days beofre I was born, back in the sixties, when they had a house in Saskatoon.

A relative of mine - a lovely lady named Bonnie - phoned to ask me for the addresses of other family members so that she could update her family tree project. Of course I said I'd be happy to help. (It turns out that we've both been updating family trees using the same source material: a family tree that had been begun back in the 1960s by one of my Dad's cousins.)

Bonnie told me that she'd last talked to my Dad back when he and my Mother were living in Saskatoon, in the sixties. (This would have been before 1966, when I was born.) Bonnie recalled hearing my Mother playing piano in the background, which is a nice image to be reminded of. I always feel grateful whenever some family member or friend mentions my Mother, like a gift of recognition has been given to me personally. She has been such an enigma to me for so many years.

Bonnie also remarked that my Dad possessed a photographic memory, which doesn't surprise me much, given his ability to recall details and specific events in his past.

My folks have been dead for quite a few years now: Dad since 1989, and Mum since 1995, yet it takes to little to stir them up in my mind. I must be carrying them around in my hip pocket (or somewhere closer to my heart, I suppose).

Words are so powerful. Thanks Bonnie for yours, which evoked the ghosts of my Mum and Dad so strongly for me today.

April 02, 2010

Owe Nothing: Two Reviewer's voices help me to listen to my own...

Read sample chapters or purchase Owe Nothing online

In January, I entered an excerpt from my novel, Owe Nothing, in the 2010 ABNA Amazon Fiction Contest. I held no expectations of success - at least that's what I told myself going in. There were 5,000 entries along with me, in the General Fiction category - to me, it seemed like a big field.

In March, I learned that Owe Nothing had succeeded to the next round, along with 999 other contestants. I couldn't pretend that I wasn't happy about that!

The underlying question motivating me to enter a contest like this must have been " How good is my book, really?" I spent years writing it, paragraph by paragraph, with little to no outside input as the first draft came together.

I finally started getting feedback in April 2008, after Owe Nothing was finally published. I would never disparage the opinions of the readers who've been kind enough to offer me their feedback on it. They went cover to cover, as far as I can tell, and seemed to enjoy the story, and I appreciate that. Most of the feedback I've received has been enthusiastic and positive, and I must say, gratifying or even comforting. But, my eyes are open - Steinbeck, I ain't. I tell myself that I can see myself clearly, and that I'm a relative babe in the woods in the world of fiction.

All the same, I was a bit disappointed to learn in March that I'd not advanced to the next round in the ABNA contest. 500 writers advanced, and I was not among them. I shrugged this off, swallowing a tiny dose of disappointment.

To set the scene for the reviewer's comments, the excerpt I submitted was from the second or third chapter, where the main character, Jack, and his pal, Parm, have been called into their boss's office at the Paradise Car Wash. Their boss, Bill, wants to recruit them into a covert group of evening vigilantes called "The Insiders", who are engaged in spying and courier operations all over greater Vancouver. Parm and Jack are not convinced by Bill's offer, so Bill plays them a recording from a man called "Ed", who explains their mission in idealistic, somewhat moralistic terms that resonate with Jack more than Parm.

After this, Bill takes them out to his storage shed behind the car wash and shows them the bullet-riddled car that belonged to the last operative - a man who'd recently left his employ very abruptly. Bill might have been trying to discourage them with this evidence.

Later, away from Bill's office, Jack and Parm have a long discussion about the risks and benefits of joining the Insiders, and the possible motives of their handlers.

A few days after learning that I'd been eliminated from the ABNA competition, I received an email from the contest advising me that there were reviews written about my submission. I was curious to know what the judges or reviewers of the ABNA contests thought, so I went online to read them. Having been written by 'Professional Reviewers', I knew Iwould give their feedback some weight. Plus, I was waaaay curious to read what they had to say.

The first review from ABNA said that the "dialogue between the two individuals trying to figure out whether to take the vague offer to do the angel's work " was the strongest aspect of the piece, and that the weakest was "the recorded voice giving directions and reassuring the operatives that they're doing good", which was considered to be "very reminiscent of the TV show Charlie's Angels". This reviewer felt that Owe Nothing was "good, well-written" and "creates some tension, but I'm not quite sure where it is going at this point".

The second review from ABNA said that the excerpt "has trite dialogue with phony dialect and inflection", and felt that the story was unoriginal, too focused on the inner monologue of one character, and too derivative of "tough guy, private eye fiction".

The reviewer that gave the more positive review seemed curious about how the story would progress. The other reviewer was turned off, and not interested in reading the rest of the story.

Now, some personal admissions of my own:
  • I have steeped myself in old-school "tough guy, private eye fiction" over the years, particularly the now dated, but undeniable masters of the genre, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
  • Contemporary writers like Brad Smith and Elmore Leonard have also been influential.
  • To a certain degree, I have consciously set out to write like them. Perhaps that's just a symptom of a novice in a beloved genre. It's fair to ask myself if this emulation serves the story or just serves my own personal enjoyment.
  • I do indeed write to amuse myself, first and foremost.
I must also admit that after I wrote that scene in Bill's office, I did chuckle at the similarity to "Charlie's Angels". Looking back, maybe this was a kind of vague parody - a tongue-in-cheek homage to aspects of low-brow TV detective fiction that could have subliminally influenced me.

I'm fairly philosophical about this kind of feedback. Some people dislike low-brow dialogue (or perhaps more accurately, dated, or poorly-executed low-brow dialogue), and some accept it. I really don't take myself all that seriously, but I'll admit that the first few chapters of Owe Nothing are written with less confidence and more self-consciousness than the rest of the book. Maybe I shouldn't try too hard to make characters (or the voice of the story) sound a certain way.

I pondered all this while watching "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", Steve Martin and Carl Reiner's hilarious tribute to (and parody of) 40s tough guy detective movies. After I watched it, I did begin to notice that some of the idioms and colloquialisms uttered by Raymond Chandler's character, "Philip Marlowe", in his novels seemed a bit overdone, or too much of their time.

I think that all feedback can be potentially positive if you can learn something useful from it. I'm going to keep on studying, and keep on writing. Jack Owen has a few more stories to tell, and if he keeps at it, they will probably get better and better.

March 13, 2010

Owe Nothing - a different look at life in Vancouver...

Read sample chapters or purchase Owe Nothing onlineRecently, people from all over the world have been watching Vancouver, BC perform at its best, and there certainly is a lot to be proud of.

This city has many sides to it, and truly, no two people experience this town in the same way.

Owe Nothing is a non-mainstream look at this city: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Vancouver Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the events and feelings are based in reality...

Meet a few of the characters...

Jack Owen:

A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh:

Jack's buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they've been recruited to do for a man they've never even met. Parm's not sure if this is on the up and up, but he'll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey:

Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They've got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them...?


The Reviews are Good:

So far, readers have given me some very positive feedback:

"Awesome", "Engaging, endearing... with a deft humorous touch", "a great read!", "A real coming-of-age story", "Vancouver is a city without much appreciation for its history... you've rendered a great service with such a vivid picture of that time and place"

Recently, Owe Nothing also got a very good professional review from Apex Reviews:

"With an effective balance of wit and suspense, Owe Nothing is an equally compelling and entertaining read. In skillful fashion, author E. John Love has crafted an enjoyable tale of a lovable loser in search of a bit of adventure. An engaging, endearing tale with a deft humorous touch, Owe Nothing is a rewarding literary treat."

Read the full Apex Review.

March 03, 2010

In this for the long haul...

Man, whomever said that life is a marathon wasn't kidding. Of all people, Milton Berle was quoted as saying that "life is one long street fight". Personally, I'll bet ol' Uncle Milty was one tough old sonofabitch. A lot of those old vaudevillians were pretty tough folks.

I don't know. Life seems to be cyclical, with some events pumping you up towards success, and other events smacking you down, so that you can rediscover the coppery tang of fear and humility.

You know how it is: Life seems to be meandering along reasonably well, and you're doing a good job of not paying attention to those nagging little voices that are telling you to not take each day for granted - that stupid, correct voice that tells you that the status quo is just a contrivance of your mind - bullshit, in a word.

But, like the darling ostrich that you sometimes are, you keep a pleasant smile on your face (even though you're worried and not extremely happy at all) and you keep your head buried deep under the surface of your daily routines (down where your ears are just muffled enough from the truthful opinions around you).

You might remember being called "wise" once when you were young and still did everything that you were told. You might act brave and tell yourself that your previous experience with stress has prepared you to hear the bad news, but come on man, if it happens again, you'll probably be just as afraid this time as you ever were all those other times. Admit it. It's scary.

It's funny how stresses seem to come in groups, like cars backing up during rush hour. They come from all the different "fronts" of your life: Work, Family, and Friends.

It's from the stress of the unknown in the economy, and how that might negatively affect your livelihood at some point. You can't guarantee your financial security.

It's from the stress of hearing people whom you love utterly falling apart, reliving horrible past traumas, and knowing that no matter how hard you work with them, love them, and counsel them to reach their closure and peace of mind, you cannot make them see the solutions until they are ready to see it for themselves.

Maybe it's the aggregation of all the small worries that creates some new thing that threatens to become overpowering: You are not in control of any of it - you can only control your own actions and reactions. You're as much along for the ride as anyone else is.

People will make mistakes and hurt themselves, or hurt those whom they love. People will push themselves too far emotionally or financially and have a breakdown, parents will fight each other and overlook how it injures their children. I will try to live up to the label of "wise" and give out as much love, compassion and guidance as they can stand to hear. Some of it may even stick.

I truly believe that failure isn't falling down - it's staying down. Life may or may not be "a street fight" (sorry Milton), but I absolutely will get back up and I will stand tall, because at the end of the day, that's all I have. But, my hands will remain unclenched and open, my fingers unpointed, so that I am able to reach out to someone else, to help them stand up, so that they can stand tall next to me. Just because existence is suffering, it doesn't mean we must face it alone.

February 27, 2010

Owe Nothing has Advanced in Amazon's 2010 Breakthrough Novel Awards

Read sample chapters or purchase Owe Nothing online
A good start: I'm excited to report that Owe Nothing is now one of 1000 entries that has advanced to the second round in Amazon's 2010 Breakthrough Novel Awards!

This fiction contest is sponsored by Amazon and Penguin USA. I'll keep you posted...

February 21, 2010

Spam, as poetry (or "O, yes, into a thousand similes. This file defines the custom interfaces.")

At work, back in 2007, our spam bucket received this message.

Here is my theory on the genesis of the following bizarre prose:

Mix tech docs, pulp novel and just a smattering of Biblical prose, and voila - vile spam prose!

Just go with it. It almost works...

Here it is, the theory. Suddenly she stood up, very pale, and with a strange light in her eyes.

Blood, blood, blood, was rushing through his entire body. Evening's coming on, and we
ought to get a move on.

Nevertheless, the average user can still gain much important information from them. WX5DX presents the Best Cyber Ham Award.

By the time I tipped my hat back, he was past us. There was undisguised respect in his voice.

Just because you bought the disc, don't expect to use it in some way in which its owners don't approve. I still squirm and emit low moans of remembered embarrassment.
Min discovered she was hugging Rand's unconscious form tightly. Starts an asynchronous invocation of a method of an XML Web service.

For some clear answers to such questions, see the no misunderstandings page. You can
populate a cfgrid with data from a cfquery.

They did not pause to rest along the way, but passed through Alundil at a rapid but
dignified gait. The steak, Flint swore, was the best food he had ever eaten. On the creative arrow, structural information is lost, and on ours it spontaneously reforms. You must specify all three options explicitly.

Alas, poor fool, why do I pity him That with his very heart despiseth me. You must
specify at least 2 characters, for example, US.

O, yes, into a thousand similes. This file defines the custom interfaces. Believe it or not, there doesn't exist an example for every single possible coding practice in every possible platform. But Perrin knew he did not have Mat's way with the girls.

An excerpt from my second novel, "The Two Sisters"

Read sample chapters or purchase Owe Nothing online
The following little scene is from my second novel, tentatively called "The Two Sisters".
This will be a sequel to my first novel, "Owe Nothing".
I hope you enjoy this little preview...

"Jack looked down at his plate, still preoccupied with thoughts of the Paradise Car Wash. He wondered what to eat next. The more he sat back and thought about the Paradise, the more crazy the whole thing seemed, as if the farther away he got from the place, the more different (and maybe more objective) his view of it became. The idea that a car wash could front for a secret operation which fed information to law enforcement (or god knows who else) sounded utterly fantastic and completely ridiculous. Car wash attendants acting as amateur field operatives - it was like something out of a bad novel, except it became all too real once he was hip-deep in some operation with Parm. As unlikely as it seemed, it had turned out to be financially rewarding and exciting work, and on more than one occasion, Jack had proven himself to be surprisingly adept at spying on people and appearing natural while recording the sights and sounds around him. Even though the idea of skulking around old warehouses or creeping down dirty alleys would never have appealed to him if anyone had suggested it, once he'd started doing the night-time work as one of Bill's Insiders, he was amazed to learn that in practice, he got a huge rush when doing something that could be considered dangerous or even illegal. It was a weird thrill, and a guilty, secret pleasure.

Jim looked at his quiet son and wondered what was eating him, and why he was eating his dinner. Then Kelly noticed her Dad's interest and looked over to Jack as well. “You're not still working at that car wash, are you Jack?” she asked. Kelly had always tried to be supportive of her little brother, but it used to grate on him that she'd never thought very much of that job."

"The Night I Met Einstein - by Jerome Weidman"

A great story about Albert Einstein:

"When I was a very young man, just beginning to make my way, I was invited to dine at the home of a distinguished New York philanthropist. After dinner our hostess led us to an enormous drawing room. Other guests were pouring in, and my eyes beheld two unnerving sights: servants were arranging small gilt chairs in long, neat rows; and up front, leaning against the wall, were musical instruments. Apparently I was in for an evening of Chamber music.

After a while, becoming aware that the people around me were applauding, I concluded it was safe to unplug my ears. At once I heard a gentle but surprisingly penetrating voice on my right.

“You are fond of Bach?” the voice said.

I knew as much about Bach as I know about nuclear fission. But I did know one of the most famous faces in the world, with the renowned shock of untidy white hair and the ever-present pipe between the teeth. I was sitting next to Albert Einstein."

Read the rest of the story here:

February 14, 2010

Real ink on paper? Where's that going?

In my life, I wonder if ink on paper is slipping away from me, just a little bit. There's something reassuring about a newspaper: you know what it is, it's size and shape and depth are self-evident.

Yet, I now receive much more info each day on my Pre than I could ever read (or need to, for that matter). Online news text has replaced the newspaper for me. I have never subscribed to one of the local dailies, and rarely pick one up. I think that eventually, I'm going to do most of my reading on my handheld.

Podcasts (mostly the CBC) and MP3 music files have started to replace my radio. It seems like more motorists listen to the radio than others, these days. (I'm just guessing...)

The "convergence" that people have referred to in mass media is the tri-fold convergence of broadcast, print and computer technologies. At leat, that's what I learmed back in Media Class, back in 1988. Like Vannevar Bush's idea of a "Universal Machine", computers and digital tech have co-opted, transformed and consumed the roles of older analog media. Digital is a medium for media, or a medium about other media. A meta-media?

Now, is the "convergence" truly occurring between my mind and the Internet? It seems like that digital immediacy that I've become used to in the past 5 years is the kinds of convenience that's most likely to change my perception of the world around me.

February 13, 2010

A few 2010 moments in Vancouver...

Went to downtown (Vancouver) to check out a few Olympic venues and see what we could see. Truly, the nicest moment today was seeing how social people are to each other on rapid transit! Normally, folks don't just up and chat with each other on SkyTrain (our light rapid transit system). Normally, folks just keep to themselves.

Today, it was like being in a rolling living room, with folks freely chatting away across the aisle with complete strangers. It was nice to see...

My 2nd favourite Vancouver Olympics moment: A few dudes on SkyTrain, all wearing parkas and tuques, and I hear one say to another "How's it going, eh?" (And for real... not in that faux-hoser way).

I know that's not the same spirit as everywhere else in the city right now... Every large event like this carries with it a fair degree of controversy (remember Expo 86, anyone?).

It's nice to see friendly, welcoming spirits though, even if only because it's a party, and company's come.

January 24, 2010

what is love anyway?

what is love anyway?

is it feeling special, or making someone else feel that way?

is it romance and romantic rituals?

is it believing in someone when they don't believe in themself?

is it dedication or loyalty?

is it putting someone else's needs before yours and not taking them for granted?

is it a state of being or just a state if mind?

who do you love?