In Short

Moleskine, Pen, Photo Notes (by StarbuckGuy)

I leave the keyboards behind. Aside from a pocket-size digital camera, an iPod Nano, and an emergency cell phone, all I pack is a set of fountain pens, small spiral notebook, and thin pad of yellow legal paper. And a new book.

The cold wind surprises me. Balmy days of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius are over, for awhile. Winter may retreat occasionally but she never relents. Not in February. Slushy spots on the sidewalks have turned to ice. Tricky walking.

I listen to a Science Times podcast as I walk circumspectly across icy patches, and hear that birds are being equipped with tiny, nearly weightless, recorders — like miniature backpacks. The data coming in is helping ornithologists track flight speeds and migration patterns. More data on the pile.

What I need today is not data, but understanding. Where is my migration taking me? Is my journal a little backpack recorder? My blog? They tell me where I’ve been. Where am I going?

I crave deliberateness today. I feel driven, and want time and reflection. I sip a Tall Mild and paint words in black ink, watching as they appear on the yellow page, glistening, until they dry. A natural pace. A civilized pace.

Is faster better, or does it merely produce more words?

I read from the new book, In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. The first two entries astonish me. I didn’t know so much could be done with so little. The writings are like small, perfectly formed footprints in the snow. Intriguing. Just so.

I sense I’ve found a direction. The coffee tastes fine today.

More Snow

More Snow (by StarbuckGuy)

A few days thaw and break from winter weather served as a tonic for those of us stuck in mid winter, but it never lasts. Today the snow drifted back and the bare sidewalks were dusted in a covering of white powder that made walking a little tricky if, as I was, you were wearing sneakers instead of winter boots.

It caught me a little offguard. I didn’t sleep well last night and was up and about at 4:30am trying to decide whether to go back to bed or read a book until I snoozed off again. But sleep wouldn’t come, so I breakfasted, packed my tote bag with my netbook and digicam, and set off for Starbucks, which opens at 6:30 on weekdays.

It was unusual to walk to Starbucks in the dark. Some of the early regulars were there and I said hi to Lew and Lori and to the barista Ann-Marie.  Finding a table was no trouble. I had my choice of where I wanted to sit, so I grabbed a corner table and set up for some writing.

I’m on deadline this week with an article for Here’s How. Half the interviews are done so I began putting together the pieces, working them into blocks of text that will eventually be  organized and finessed into an article. Two hours of work and I felt good about the progress. It’s moving from the loose chaos of notes and interview answers to an coherent story.

I watched out the window but the sunrise never happened. After a bit of pinkish glow on the horizon the sky greyed over and it started snowing. I hadn’t checked the weather report or I’d have worn my winter boots. Sneakers are so much nicer for walking, when the sidewalks are clear, but suddenly the sidewalks were slippery with a fine dusting of snow.

So, instead of a long walk after my writing session, I shuffled home the short way. Knowing that we have plenty of winter left but not minding so much. The break gave us the pause we needed.

The Greening of the Psyche

First Green (by StarbuckGuy)

“The Greening of the Psyche” is the title of the latest podcast of All in the Mind, a brain-science podcast presented by Natasha Mitchell, ABC Radio National [Australia]. It probes the question “are human beings naturally drawn to green spaces?” or, in the terminology of biologist E.O. Wilson, “do human beings possess an inner biophilia?” It’s a lovely thought that being creatures that evolved on the Savannah we are naturally drawn to park-like settings, and to other living things, but the science behind the concept, according to the show, has, until recently, been fuzzy.

It’s shows like this that make me a podcast junkie. I listen in and somewhat randomly encounter ideas, terms, and debate about topics I find new, fresh, and stimulating. I rarely use my iPod to listen to music — I’d rather be eavesdropping on interesting conversations. For the essayist-blogger, it’s a stimulus to writing.

The gist of the episode is that there is emerging evidence to support the idea that the human brain responds favourably to green spaces. One of the studies cited was conducted in public housing areas in Chicago where poverty is extreme. Around units where trees and grass were planted, there was a measurable decrease in crime. Not astounding numbers, but 7 per cent, which, as the show said “any mayor would be proud of.” There are other studies and indicators as well, that I won’t dwell on — you can listen to the podcast yourself.

What the episode did was remind me of some of the key reasons why I live in Port Credit: green space, trees, parks, and water. Not to mention that it’s a pleasant little village tucked away within the sprawling metropolis of Mississauga, adjacent to Toronto.

I was raised in open areas. A homestead farm in Minnesota — a small farm in rural Illinois — a small town in Arizona. Although I’ve come to enjoy city life, especially jaunts into Toronto, when I return to Port Credit, where everything is quieter, calmer, and on a smaller scale, I feel relief perhaps akin to what barn swallows feel when they return to their nests under the bridge over the Credit River. Home. Belonging. At one with the river, the harbour, the grass, the sky. Well, maybe not the swooping after mosquitoes part.

Here I have walking trails that go farther than I can walk or cycle. Once winter unlocks its grip and green shoots push up through the ground, the psyche opens up and pushes away the winter doldrums. The walks get longer, the vista more satisfying.

It’s too early to celebrate spring — at least six weeks too early — but the past week with temperatures above freezing has brought promise. Spring is coming. The days are longer. The sun is warmer. Soon nature will be greening and, with it, perhaps, our psyches.

Darwin’s Birthday

Google Log for Darwin's Birthday (by StarbuckGuy)

Thank you, Google, for your lovely Darwin’s 200th Birthday logo!

Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Scientific American has posted a Darwin Day Special podcast:

Darwin Day Special: Bicentennial of the Birth of Charles Darwin

In part one of this special Darwin Day podcast, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin on February 12th, Richard Milner performs part of his one-man show about Darwin; Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie and Darwin descendant Matthew Chapman read from the Origin of Species; and Chapman talks about his book 40 Days and 40 Nights, about the Dover Intelligent Design trial, as well as about his efforts to get Presidential candidates to discuss science, a project called ScienceDebate.

If you’re of a singing persuasion, break out the guitar, banjo, autoharp, kazoo, or just plain voice (with a pint of brew to slake the thirst) and belt out The Ballad of Charlie Darwin.

Addicted to Whedon & Pratchett

Discworld_Companion (by StarbuckGuy)

I’ve touched on this before — I’m addicted to the productions of writer, director, and producer, Joss Whedon. I own the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, all seven seasons of Buffy (TV series), the complete Angel series, and as of today, the complete Firefly series and the subsequent movie Serenity. They arrived in my latest order.

I’m on my second viewing of Angel and, as happened with Buffy, I’m enjoying it much more the second time around. Right now I’m in the very dark season two episodes where Darla has been turned (re-turned) into a vamp by Drusilla and the two are terrorizing LA. Wolfram & Hart are showing more and more of the depth of their evilness and Angel is driving away his friends, Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn. In fact he just fired them. I’m midway through the season, before their dimensional adventure takes them on a subplot where they find ‘Fred’.

It’s not the plots, which are a bit monster-of-the-week or adventure-of-the-week. They’re enjoyable, if you like SF&F. It’s the writing. Joss Whedon’s originality and freshness has been passed along to all the co-writers of the various series and, as a result, the episodes have the unexpected, surprising twists of dialogue, undercutting humour, and powerful character development and story arcs that flow from Whedon’s own pen. I’ve never encountered writing like this before in pop culture media.

I wasn’t sure I was going to purchase Firefly and Serenity after watching a borrowed version, but I finally convinced Trevor to watch Serenity with me (we often share our fave movies as father/son buddy time) and after viewing it he said, “You’re going to buy these, aren’t you?” That’s his stamp of approval — he’s acquired a considerable video collection of his favourite movies. Well … certainly I couldn’t let him down.

I added a paperback to the latest Amazon order to bring the threshold to the ‘free shipping’ point: The New Discworld Companion, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs. I’ve only dipped into it a little but it’s a delightful reader’s encyclopedia to the characters and elements of Discworld. Here’s the entry on Conina:

One of the daughters of Conan the Barbarian, and therefore genetically a barbarian heroine who, unfortunately, wants to be a hair dresser. A superb fighter, she carries a large number of concealed weapons, although absolutely anything she can get hold of — a hairgrip, a piece of paper, a hamster — is used as a deadly weapon.

Her hair is long and almost pure white, her skin tanned. She is a demure and surprisingly small figure. Although she inherits her looks from her mother, a temple dancer, she inherits from her father sinews you could moor a boat with, reflexes like a snake on hot tin, a terrible urge to steal things and a sensation that she should be throwing a knife at everyone she meets.

I see a strong connection between my addiction to Joss Whedon and my addiction to Terry Pratchett. Both, in my opinion, transcend the genres they write in, creating art.

Wind & Words

The Eloquent Essay (by StarbuckGuy)

A fresh wind blew in yesterday — a strong warm wind that reduced piles of snow into slush pools. A big, high wind. The kind that starts in the Texas Gulf then sweeps through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio on its way to Ontario, pushing aside all lesser weather fronts along the way.

It was a welcome wind, taking temperatures north of freezing for the first time in weeks. It’s been a cold winter. Cold and snowy. The kind of winter beloved by travel agents selling Island packages to Canadians fed up with being cold and restricted.

The restrictions are worse than the cold. When the sidewalks ice, not even the toy snowplows that clean them can clear a reliable walking path. The guys on the plows do their best, if it isn’t before 9 or after 5, or the weekend, but once the ice layers lock down, they stay until the temperatures rise above freezing.  I’m avoiding some of my favourite park areas due to the icy footing.

I walked to the library in a light coat, no scarf, and no hat or gloves. The wind blew my hair in one direction, then another. I drank the warm air into my nose and deep into my lungs, recalling Emily Dickinson — “Inebriate of air am I.” Gulls circled overhead, surfing the air currents.

Waiting for me on the hold shelf was a copy of The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery, containing seventeen essays by writers ranging from George Orwell and W.H. Auden to Joan Didion, Carl Sagan, and Barbara Kingsolver. I tucked the book into my backpack and stork-walked across the pools and puddles to Starbucks.

I glanced through the book as soon as I found a seat — Starbucks is crowded on a late Saturday afternoon. George Orwell’s “A Hanging” (1931). Lord, it’s been years since I last read that one. I saved it for later, knowing it packs a whollop.

I’d never read Joan Didion though I’ve come across her name often lately, so I started my reading with “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1976). I’ve been fascinated by O’Keeffe for years, ever since first seeing one of her large canvases of a bleached cow skull in the desert. It was hung in the library at Arizona State University and it stopped me in my tracks. The essay had bite, punch, and colour. Didion described O’Keeffe as a “hard woman” and I could see her point. O’Keeffe’s bare honesty, honed by the New Mexico landscape, was absolute.

Next up, Carl Sagan, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” from his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995). I’d read the book previously so there were no surprises — just a pleasant visit with a dear, departed friend. Sagan, who did so much to popularize science and rational thinking to the public, has long been one of my inspirations.

Then it was time to head home for dinner and rejoin the family for the evening. When I’m alone at Starbucks I’m a writing kind of person. When I return home, I’m just one of the family. Marion and I watched a video on the life of Jane Austen, then sat back and re-watched a couple of episodes of season two of Angel. But The Eloquent Essay remains in my backpack, ready for the morning’s walk to the coffee shop, waiting to infect me with prose spirit.


WhizFolders (by StarbuckGuy)

I posted this topic today on the Creative NonFiction Writing Forums:

 One interesting software package I’ve owned for some time is WhizFolders.

It’s based on a very simple, but powerful, concept: cards. Imagine an electronic card file system that allows you to write huge chunks per card, in rich text if desired, then organize the cards any way you’d like. Such as scenes or chapters. Rearrangement is a snap.

Or you can create cards in Outline mode with sub, sub-sub, etc., topics and, once again, rearrange them easily.

WhizFolders has a hyperlink system and can easily incorporate website URL’s. As such I’ve found the product handy for research and for structured writing projects. I suspect if I were to write a novel, I’d consider writing it in WhizFolders. The website has a section directed to writers.

For those interested in portable apps, I think it can be installed on a memory stick for portability, but I’m not certain.

I used the precedessor to WhizFolders, called WhizNote, to compile an annotated discography of Canadian folk music in CD format, Northern Journey, Reference Press, 1995.

It’s a shareware product, allowing you to download a 15-day trial version.

IMO, worth looking at. It might be the kind of writing tool you’d like.

Windows-only, I’m afraid.

At Least I Wasn’t Late

Snow, Bus Stop (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s been a busy week, by retirement standards. Lots of writing, more reading than usual, a quick trip into Toronto, and a first meeting with two medical specialists. Well … one.

I woke a bit hung over from a new ‘sleep’ medication prescribed by the first specialist. My sleep has been ragged lately and it’s hoped a few nights with this medication will help even out my cycle. I frequently have a strong reaction to medications, especially the first time I take them, so it’s no surprise I woke feeling drowsy and fuzzy-headed.

Being a person of routine, I tried the usual. Fixed a bowl of cereal, fussed and petted Jasper (the family guinea pig) while he purred, then fed him his pellets, timothy hay, and treats. Started a fresh kettle of water, warmed a teapot, measured out Spring Lung Ching green tea, brought in the newspaper and left it at Marion’s placemat (I’m not a newspaper reader), ate my cereal while working on a sudoku puzzle. I’m thinking someone’s changed the classification scheme. The “easy” puzzle feels like “challenge”.

Marion comes downstairs — hugs and kisses — and she fixes her cereal. She’s already dressed and is about to head out to her Thursday morning art group. She shows me an abstract, surreal self portrait she worked up last night. It looks really good. She packs up her gear, says her goodbyes, and drives the car out of the garage. I finish my sudoku, my first cup of tea, and cut some fresh greens for Jasper. Redleaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, some green beans, a bit of parsley, a bit of dill, a bit of cilantro. He stands up against the side of his cage, eager to get at it. He lives to eat.

I clean up the breakfast dishes and pop into the living room to open my laptop and do a quick check on email and new forum items. And appointments. Ah, yes, 10:30 today with the gastroenterologist. Queensway W, right across from Trillium Hospital. A short bus ride. Hmmm, not that much time left — I’d better get cleaned up and dressed.

It’s a new doctor so I dress in the better of my two pairs of jeans and put on a proper shirt, one with buttons on the collars. What to take? Sibyl, of course. List of meds — shit. Got some new ones and they’re not on my spreadsheet yet, which I maintain on Google Docs. My time is running short. Fortunately my desktop is on and I try to access the spreadsheet, but it’s asking me if I want to sign up. Damn. I need to log in first. Go to Gmail and try to log in and the system is so slow I get timed out. Trev, right, he’s doing some massive downloads overnight and there’s no bandwidth.

Running out of time, I pull the plug on the basement segment of the network (advantage of having the central hub in my office), bandwidth is restored and I get my doc printed out. Along with the sheets from the drug store. No time to update it if I’m to get to the doc’s office on time. I still have to catch a city bus. I’ll pencil it in in the waiting room. I plug the network segment back in and head downstairs to put on my winter gear.

Okay, boots on — I hate boots and boot laces — coat, toque (hat), gloves, scarf. It’s -20 degrees Celsius and I’m hoping there’s no wind. Almost out the door. Crap. Forgot my bus tickets. I don’t take the bus very often. Pat myself down on the way upstairs. No cell phone either, no nitro spray, no watch. I grab them all and rush outdoors to the bus stop.

I’m lucky. A bus going north on Hurontario comes along soon. It’s cold. Even in the bus I leave my hat on and my collar up. I get to Queensway and step off to the sidewalk. Good, not too icy or snowy. It’s a big intersection and I have to make two crossings to get to the right side of the street.

I find the building — 101 Queensway West. Let’s see. No I can’t see. I left the referral paper at home. What was the name of the doctor again? Wait I remember it was suite 200 something. Elevator to second floor. Look at floor directory. Yes, that’s him!

Enter office. “Is this your first visit? Okay, please fill in this sheet and bring it back to the desk.”

I get out my stuff and fill in the meds I’m taking, the dosages, my main recent medical events, any medical allergies (does penicillin giving me diarrhea count?), and the reason for my visit. Reason? Possible internal bleeding. Reason enough?

When I take the filled-in form back to desk, the very polite receptionist thanks me, then says, “Mr. Wilburn, I wondered why I couldn’t find you in today’s appointments. I checked, and your appointment is for March 5, not February 5.”

Uh, huh.