Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Shameful joy

This morning I saw a news article entitled Divided States of America: Obama win sparks secession mania and eagerly clicked on it. What are those crazy Yanks up to now? There’s always something wacky going on down there, and I nearly always enjoy reading about it. This particular instance has several right-wing states organizing and signing on-line petitions declaring their desire to get out from under the US flag. It’s no surprise that the majority of the states involved were on the Confederate side of the ol’ Civil War (they’ve never really let that old chestnut die, as the slogan “The South Shall Rise Again” would suggest).

I’m not suggesting this is a racial issue (though if the Twitter-verse is to be believed, there are plenty of folks who don’t much care for the skin shade of the current president). They are quoting “state’s rights,” saying they’re pissed about Obamacare, claiming El Presidente isn’t following the Constitution and that “it isn’t the same country anymore.” If you’re interested in the details, feel free to check out the article.

It amused me, anyway. Immediately after I finished reading it, I saw another story called Secret document details new Canadian foreign policy. Instead of leaping at the chance to read about my own nation humiliating itself, I hesitated. Did I really want to hear about what lunatic rules our man Harper has concocted? Was there any chance I’d possibly agree and not end up frustrated? I realized I have a bad case of schadenfreude (the Germans have a word for everything). The stupidity of the US delights me, while I’ve developed an apprehension about learning about my own country’s idiocy. I decided to be brave and plunged in.


Harper wants us to make money in the world, regardless of moral considerations, bluntly stating we’ll do business with anyone, no matter what. Read the article and the quotes from the “secret document.” It’s chilling. A comic-book villain could hardly come up with a more obvious greed-based manifesto.

When I was a kid (how do you know I’m old? I start stories with “when I was a kid”), I remember Canada as a nation with a proud heritage of peace and peace-keeping. We put our morals and ethics before global power and financial success. Immigrants were welcomed into the Canadian fold without having to leave their culture at the border. As a people, we’d rather apologize then argue, rather be quietly right than publicly wrong, rather come in second than hurt someone else to win.

Of course, I was a kid, so I didn’t realize all that was delusional crap. Still, it was a lovely image, and I believe truer thirty years ago than it is today. In only six years, Harper has managed to virtually destroy our global reputation by his contempt for any world-wide issue beyond his oh-so-precious economy. We’re often pointed at as an example when someone else wants to find a villain on climate issues, poverty, the protection of children, human rights, and police corruption. This is particularly disturbing when one remembers we live next door to the UNITED STATES! They used to be the whipping boy for the world; no more. Have we become the bad neighbour on the block, the one that never mows his grass, has a rusting car on cinderblocks, and has pets that leave unpleasant coilies on other’s lawns? Are we, in the eyes of the world, lying in a wading pool in our underwear, beer between our legs? If the Conservatives have their way (and we seem determined to let them), I believe this is our fate.

There’s an exchange from Quantum of Solace, the second Craig-as-Bond movie, from the CIA agents:

Felix Leiter: You know who Greene is and you want to put us in bed with him.
Gregg Beam (sarcastic): Yeah, you’re right. We should just deal with nice people.

Beam has a point. No one’s perfect. I would suggest, however, that choosing business partners based on morality rather than immediacy of opportunity is wise long-term thinking.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cold War

Enough is enough!

I’ve been assured that the usual, run-of-the-mill (also known as “common”) cold will take between seven and ten days to burn through one’s system. From one perspective, this is amazing. Our bodies are invaded, identify the pathogen, then research, manufacture, and distribute the appropriate cure to deal with the enemy virus/bacteria. To mirror this effort outside of the human body takes months in million dollar labs staffed by hordes of PhD graduates, yet we do it many times in a single year. As I said, amazing.

From another perspective, of course--namely the perspective of the cold-sufferer--this is painfully, frustratingly, agonizingly slow. It means days of mucus, wadded up tissues, sneezes, and general malaise.

This has been a bad year for me. Colds and I have become far, FAR too familiar with each other. If I’m using the “7-10 days per cold” as an average, based on “days sick” I’ve managed to clock in four colds since the start of school (I’m currently in the midst of Cold Four). Unacceptable. Something must change.

Oh, I know why I’m so stricken. I’ve been doing the rounds of playgroups with my year-old, so I’m getting exposed to hordes of unfamiliar viruses. In a few months my immune system will sort of wake itself up and remember it has a job to do, and things will go back to normal. Until then, however, it’s time to re-examine some old customs that just don’t work in this pandemic-prone world of ours. We do, after all, live  in a global village where one nasty bug can be flown everywhere in the cushy convenience of pressurized airplane cabins.

First on the chopping block? Handshakes. What a stupid idea. I don’t know where your hands have been, and you don’t know where mine have been. Anyone who’s ever gone into a public bathroom knows hand-washing is a lost art. Some do it, some just splash water and run, and the truly evil few walk out of the stall, adjust their belts, run their hands through their hair, and head off to spread their ugly particles. Even bathroom design helps these jerks, by having taps that require turning and doors that must be opened by hand, meaning every clean hand is now sullied by the dirty. (I have an uncle who used to--and maybe still does, I don’t know--open bathroom doors with his feet rather than sully his epidermis by physical contact. It was really very amusing watching him contort in order to manage this impressive task.)

Yet try to avoid handshakes in social situations. It’s tricky; I know, I’ve tried it. People look at you as though you’re a freak, and no explanation you can offer 100% reassures the wounded party that you aren’t being a) standoffish, b) germophobic, and/or c) making aspersions about their own hygiene. Even the Japanese, famous for their bowing, have bent to Western groping, as evidenced by all the hand-shaking whenever the US President goes on an Asian tour. Why couldn’t we have gone for the nice, safe bow, respectfully accomplished at arm’s length?

Next up for elimination is kissing. I’m not just talking about the cheek-slobbering done in France and Russia, but suggesting all oral contact is verboten. Your epidermis is a very effective defense against plague, but when you slurp up viral agents through that big hole in your face, you doom yourself (and others when you later start coughing, sneezing and otherwise smearing your surroundings with germ-filled liquids). Of all types of kissing, surely mouth-to-mouth is the silliest. “Here, have some bacteria-laden sputum.” “Mmm, thanks, here’s some back.” Yuck. People freak out about backwash in a bottle of pop, but we still do the ol’ open-mouth kiss. There’s no Daily Health Advisory broadcast about kissing, but there should be. Why doesn’t the UN’s World Health Organization make some sort of announcement about it? The UN is all about grand, symbolic gestures; this should be right up their alley.

Come on, Margaret Chan, help me out here. Make it alright for me to avoid human contact and eliminate the common cold from my life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WFC 2012, or There and Back Again Part 2

One big thing I forgot to mention about WFC: they treat their attendees very well. Each person receives a bag of books I’d estimate weighed about fifteen pounds, easily worth the price of admission just there. The bags are assembled randomly, but if you got something you didn’t want, you just brought it down to the Trade Table and hopefully grab something more to your liking. I ended up with at least six books I really wanted and eight more I was interested in. That doesn’t include the twenty or so e-books you got. Suitcase space became my biggest issue.

Virtually any time of the day or evening you could get snacks or a meal at the hospitality suite. Nor were the meals just cheap pizza. Chinese food one night, roasted potatoes and chicken the next, and a good spread for breakfast every morning.

What I’m saying is that if you compare the retail price of the books and meals to the $175 price tag of the convention, you actually walk away with a profit. I was very impressed. Then, on to the Big City...

I’d never been to Toronto before, so I wanted to do some touristy things, and what could be more touristy than riding to the top of the CN Tower?

Toronto sure knows how to take your money. It reminded me of a gaming city that exists entirely on its ability to cadge dragon-gold from adventurers. I’m sure Toronto is in no way unique in this capacity, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone tourist, so the 24 bucks a head to ride the CN Tower elevator came as a mild shock. (That was the minimum. You could have gone much higher, with all sorts of bells and whistles, but I figured I was completely capable of absorbing the view without a video tour guide pointing out the line between “ground” and “sky” is commonly called “the horizon.”)

I will say it was pretty dang cool up there. Eleven hundred feet puts you well above the Toronto skyline, meaning the glass and concrete skyscrapers that look so dominating from ground level are suddenly transformed into little Lego bricks. I walked on the Glass Floor, where you can see directly down between your feet. My friend refused to stand with me. He didn’t trust human infrastructure. The reward wasn’t worth the risk, as his view from the edge was only slightly less imposing. It did occur to me, a thought I shared, that if the glass panel beneath my feet suddenly gave way and I plummeted to my doom, I’d have nearly nine seconds to ruminate on the error of my ways. Can you imagine the stupefied, stunned shock on the faces of the other people around me if something like that happened? That--and the inevitable lawsuit winnings my family would gain--would almost make my death worth it.

We stopped for lunch at a Vietnamese place, saw pigeon on the menu, and thought: Why not? We should’ve thought: Why? It wasn’t bad, but I won’t stand in line for it again. Having the head and claws still attached was a nice touch. Grisly, but nice.

After that I wanted to take in the ROM, but time didn’t allow. I didn’t want to zip through the Museum, so we went down to Kensington. This is a neighbourhood of quirky businesses all converted from houses, many of the owners living above their shops. It was really cool and extremely dense. Each store was stacked from floor to ceiling with goods. It would be the work of a lifetime to look at everything, but I did have enough time to at least absorb the basic idea, summed up in this odd decorating choice:

And that was basically it. Time went too quickly, and the airline wasn’t going to hold my flight for me (I missed my plane out of Winnipeg and didn’t want to repeat the process). Bye Toronto, hello Brandon. Not for the first time, I wished for teleportation as a super-power (that two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport to home is a real downer).

Monday, November 5, 2012

WFC 2012, or There and Back Again Part 1

This last weekend was World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. For those who don’t know, it’s a 1000-person gathering of writers, would-be-writers, famous writers, readers, agents, and publishers. Basically, it’s packed with a who’s who of the fantasy and science fiction writing industry, including fans. I’d never gone before, though I have gone to other, smaller conventions. WFC was, in a word, stupendous.

Many other cons are not single-track, which means you’re more likely to bump into a girl in a wizard costume or a guy wearing steampunk goggles than you are to see a writer you actually recognize. WFC has none of that. No media track, no fandom gatherings, no costume galas. Nothing but panels on F&SF, readings by F&SF authors, and F&SF book launches.

(There was one guy who I saw several times consistently wearing the trappings of steampunk - neckerchief, top hat, the ubiquitous goggles - but for all I know that’s how he dresses every day.)

I had a great time. You couldn’t turn around without seeing someone you knew and admired, and I never bumped into a single person, no matter how famous, that wasn’t happy to stop and chat. To do a little name dropping, I got to meet Joe Haldeman, probably the science fiction author I most admire of all those left alive (Isaac Asimov would have bumped Joe to #2 if only we’d cracked that immortality problem before 1992). I had drinks with other such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I got to meet Julie Czerneda, my very first editor, who gave me the pages she’d used for her reading, signed of course, and also taught me the valuable con lesson that hanging out in the bar would always lead to positive results.

Who else? Experienced (I say that instead of “old,” as I doubt the ladies involved would appreciate the title) pros like Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey were just as friendly and pleasant as relative new-comers Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (creator of The Name of the Wind, one of my favourites). All three of the editors of “Shanghai Steam” (the newest anthology I’m part of) were present and happy to praise or discuss the merits of the Oxford comma. I was able to reconnect with another of my editors, Barb Galler-Smith, who has the energy of a 20-year old and the sense of fun of a 10-year old.

My friend Chadwick Ginther was there to launch/promote his first book, the excellent Thunder Road, along with his fellow Ravenstone Press author, Karen Dudley. She’s just put out her first fantasy (but fifth book overall, I believe) called “Food for the Gods.” It’s very good and very funny and very inappropriate (you’ll never eat bread the same way, believe me).

It was a place where all these people were on a relaxed and casual stance. They let their head down and just enjoyed themselves, and it was so great to be a part of it all. If I were a wealthy man, I’d go every year and skip all the smaller cons with their cloaks and such. I understand; the small ones need to vary it up in order to stay afloat, just as bookstores everywhere are selling candles and crockery and baby clothes to keep their doors open. Even if I never go again, though, WFC 2012 will always be remembered fondly.

(For the record, however, though the organizers of WFC 2012 claimed the con occurred in Toronto, they were lying. It was relatively CLOSE to Toronto, but not in the city itself but in the satellite community of Richmond Hill. Anyone who lives there was repeating the mantra all weekened: “Richmond Hill is NOT Toronto.” Part of the Greater Toronto Area, yes. Toronto itself? No. For proof I offer the reality of a $70 cab ride from the airport to the Convention, or the fact that the buses in Richmond Hill use colours instead of numbers to differentiate their routes. Route Purple instead of Route 192. Weird. Sensible, but no possible in a city with more than a hundred bus lines.)

Next time: Toronto itself and some of the fun and memorable characters I met at WFC. (Although actually, now that I think of it, that might get bumped as the US Election is tomorrow, and I can guarantee they’ll be some amusing tales to comment on about that.)