Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lessons From My Father

You know the saying — that people must be ready to reinvent themselves and adapt in order to survive in these competitive times.

My father had that covered long before the concepts of “recession” and “self-publishing” were everywhere.

In his first life, he was a farmer. He grew up on a mixed cattle and grain farm in Alberta, driving tractors and combines. Old red barn, falling-down granaries, sloughs, windbreaks, fields of grain, hay bales stacked up in long rows, one-room schoolhouse, all of that. (You can see photos of the farm at McKinney Photography.) Even when he left the farm, he worked with his hands for a while, surveying, fixing cars, on his way to a blue-collar life.

Except that’s not where he ended up. He went to seminary and became a pastor, then a pastoral counsellor and a teacher of other counsellors. By this time he was living in a big city, a father of three. Growing up, I was struck by the physical contrast between him and my uncle who took over the farm — one comfortable in suits and ties, the other weather-beaten and fond of plaid, yet with faces so similar they were almost doppelgangers. He took us into nature when he could — vegetables in the garden, hikes and bicycle rides, camping trips in the Rockies — but he had become a city boy.

But that’s not the whole story either. When his marriage to my mother ended, my father moved to a small town. He kept on the same career track and made sure to see his children as often as he possibly could, but otherwise his life changed completely. He remarried, and got acquainted with everyone in town. His new house backed onto a stand of trees that occasionally hosted deer. He cycled to work along quiet trails, then went out for long rides on the highways outside of town. Not only did he start a new vegetable garden, he became an expert in composting. In some ways, he had come full circle.

Of course, it wasn’t a full circle. To say that would deny the hardships he faced along the way, and underestimate the peace he was finally able to claim.

He was a thinker, a teaser, an outdoorsman, a keen observer of details, a teacher, a storyteller, and a wonderful father.

Today is the ninth anniversary of his death. He had only a few short years in the last iteration of his life. But I’m grateful he had them.

I hope to face the changes in my own life with the same adaptive spirit and resilience as my father had. After all, the prairie runs in my blood too.

If you liked this post, I’ve also written about my mother (who is very much alive) on the Turtleduck Press blog at My Mother, My Hero, and about the lessons I learned from my mother’s mother: My Grandmother’s Legacy.

If you’d like to read about love and loss in rural Alberta, check out my (free) short story Lonesome Hearts, also at Turtleduck Press.

What lessons have you taken from your parents’ lives?


Defining Steampunk

Welcome to Media Monday! So far we’ve had one movie post and two book posts. This one will be…well, a little of everything, because we’re talking about steampunk.

What is steampunk?

See, there’s the problem. Where to start?

Jake Von Slatt steampunk computer

Photo by Jake Von Slatt, found via floorvan's flickr:

Steampunk is a science-fictional re-imagining of the 19th century. As you might imagine from the “punk” part of the name, it’s meant to be subversive. It asks the question, “What if the Age of Steam had unfolded differently?” The trick is that there are as many variations on that question, and as many answers, as there are people.

Some steampunks (i.e., people who “do” steampunk) focus on technology — What if the inventors and engineers back then had taken the steam engine and used it to create more than they did in real life? What would that look like? How would it work?

Others focus on society — What if the nineteenth century had offered more opportunities and power for women, people of colour (more), and other marginalized groups? What if the political or social maps were redrawn? What would that look like? What would they do? What would they wear? How would the events of the century unfold?

Of course, all of these questions — and the answers put forth by various people — feed into each other. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist in a dialogue.

The tricky thing about steampunk is that it’s not based on a single fictional world (TV show, or movie, or author, or what have you), the way most fandoms are, even though steampunk can be viewed as science fiction. In some ways it has more in common with a subculture based around music and fashion, like goth or punk — except that these lack the shared-world aspect that’s so integral to steampunk. (Giant disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about this kind of subculture. I come from the science fiction and fantasy side.)

So what is steampunk?

For some people, it’s a subgenre of science fiction — Gail Carriger‘s Parasol Protectorate series and Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan series are probably two of the best-known examples of books, and there are movies and TV series that could fall under steampunk as well. Here’s a contribution by me — “Engine Dreamer”, a short story in which the British Empire has expanded to outer space. (Available free from Turtleduck Press.)

For some people, it’s a lifestyle and an aesthetic — they decorate their homes and dress up at every opportunity. Along with this comes the opportunity to (1) invent a persona that fits into an alternate 19th century of your own devising, a role that can be played at steampunk meetups and conventions and online hangouts (and another for Canadians), and (2) make items of both beauty and function, everything from retrofitted computers to elaborate outfits to many kinds of art.

For some people, it’s a musical genre born out of these personas and outfits. There are bands and hip-hop artists devoted to steampunk. I don’t know enough about the musical side to say whether there’s an identifiable musical aesthetic — if you do, please enlighten me in the comments!

One of the best, and most fascinating, things about steampunk is that it can be so many things to so many people. There’s a lot of room to play, which is glorious. It’s sort of a fuzzy set — or in plain language, “you know it when you see it”. But that also leads to frustration when you’re staring at the face of a person who has only just heard the term for the first time, and you don’t know where to start explaining.

If you’re familiar with steampunk, how do you define and explain it to others? What part of your understanding did I leave out? If you’re not familiar, did my explanation make sense…or at least make you want to know more?

You might also be interested in my follow-up post about steampunk books.

Weekly Roundup

Congratulations, we made it to another Friday!

book news

A couple of new books I’m looking forward to:

First, there’s a new Temeraire novel out! Crucible of Gold, the seventh book in Naomi Novik’s series about the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, came out in Canada and the US this week. How did I not hear about this earlier? I’ve read five of the six books so far and am super excited to see how the series continues.

Second, on a completely different note, poet Jenna Butler recently released a new book of poetry, Wells, about her grandmother’s descent into senility.

general geekery and science

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence continues, and SETI wants your brainpower.

What sank the Titanic? An iceberg, yes. But why was the iceberg even there? High tides, say scientists.

smart people

Author China Miéville talks intelligently about the recent controversy over Hergé and racism and Tintin in the Congo (via).

for writers (and interested third parties)

Justine Musk writes about the art of being fearless.

Melissa Crytzer Fry warns of the dangers of writing outdoors for inspiration.


That’s it for this week. Come back on Monday to talk some more about books!

5 Tips for Juggling Life Roles

Sometimes I feel like I’m juggling hats. (Or juggling geese, take your pick.) You know the feeling, I’m sure.

There’s the job I do during the day, which involves thinking and typing and doing things with words. I sit in a cubicle, drink at the water cooler, and wear office-appropriate clothing.

There’s the job I do at Turtleduck Press…actually two jobs, if you count being the head editor as separate from being one of the authors in our co-op model. That also requires a small-business hat and a collaborative mindset. (Shameless plug: I’m blogging over there this week about fanfiction, cosplay, and other geeky crafts.)

There’s Being A Writer — which includes social media, critiquing other writers’ work and getting my own work critiqued, reading fiction and non-fiction and blogs to expand my knowledge…oh yeah, and actually writing (and the other parts of the process, like research and planning and editing). And I haven’t even gotten to the part about submitting to slush piles or doing the tech stuff necessary for self-publishing online.

There are a couple of big events that are coming up in my life and require much research and planning (more about those another time).

Plus making sure there’s food in the fridge and clean socks in the drawer, and how long has it been since I vacuumed? And I also need time to veg out and hang with loved ones and move my body and pursue other hobbies and remember that a “me” exists apart from what I’ve already mentioned.

I don’t have kids or pets to take care of (yet!), but I know many of you do.

I can handle wearing two hats in a day. In fact, I don’t know what to do with myself otherwise. It’s when they start to multiply that I run into trouble. One day late last year, I had a hectic day at work, then squeaked in a visit to a house for sale, then spent a couple of hours at my writers’ group. By the time I got home, I didn’t know who I was supposed to be.

Here are some things I do to keep all my hats in the air (wait, this metaphor has seen better days):

  • Make lists. Lots and lots of lists. That way you’re not stressing out trying to keep everything in your head. Shorter is better so you have half a chance of crossing everything off.
  • Use downtime. On my lunch hour, I can usually be found with a netbook or a printout in front of me. Most of my reading happens on the subway.
  • Be imperfect. Sure, I’d like my home to be clean all the time and my stories to be polished within an inch of their lives before I turn them in to my critique group, but it’s never going to happen.
  • Feed your soul. I do yoga to practice being mindful. I knit to create something that’s concrete and doesn’t have all the pressure attached. When I’m being good to myself, I go for walks.
  • Remember to play. I could get more done if I didn’t go dancing every couple of weeks. Sometimes I wish I could train myself not to need vegging-out time. But that stuff’s important too.

I try to remember to do all these things, but it’s hard, and I’m always looking for more ways to get more done, I mean achieve balance. Okay, maybe both. So I’m opening it up to you.

Update: For a good article on “using downtime”, see How to Publish Daily When You Have a 9-5 Job. He’s talking about blogging, but you could use his suggestions for a variety of different hats.

For more on juggling and “being imperfect”, try FlyLady. My favourite tip from her is to set a timer. She says, “You can do anything for 15 minutes.”

What’s your best tip for juggling hats (or geese) without losing your mind?

Book Nostalgia: The Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle

Like many of us, I devoured a lot of books when I was young. More than a few of them have become books that I can’t look at with any sort of objectivity now, books whose words are still lodged deep in my brain. A reread might show that they’ve been visited by the Suck Fairy. Yet they might still hold some of the emotional power that grabbed me so strongly back then. This post is the first in a series that looks back at some of my favourites.

First up is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet – A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. (I haven’t read any of her books about the next generation of Murry-O’Keefes, or the fifth book that made the original series into the Time Quintet.) I reread the original four, and was struck by what I remembered and how it shifted.

The first two are Meg’s books, and they’ve become my favourites. Meg, the awkward, bespectacled girl, was someone I identified with very strongly. I was fascinated by the subgenre of science fantasy, in which ~magic, space travel, science, and classical evil are juxtaposed – one reason why I loved Diane Duane‘s Young Wizards series as well. While I generally prefer antagonists with believable, human reasons for doing what they do, the Echthroi are damn creepy, and Meg’s standing up to them in each of these two stories (to save Charles Wallace in both, plus her father in the first and her hated school principal in the second) rings of fairy-tale heroism in the best way.

I’m going to skip to Many Waters, which I remember being confused by, and my recent reread confirms that impression. The pre-Flood world, with its seraphim, nephilim, and miniature mammoths, is a strange place, and what little we see of it doesn’t convey the level of evil I would have expected to make the Flood necessary. There’s also not a lot of plot or character development; Sandy and Dennys spend most of the book waiting around or gardening or worrying about the flood, and they return to their world in much the same state as when they left it. (Tip of the hat to Narnia here, in which the Pevensies spend years as kings and queens and then go back to being children – something that was pretty much left out of the books, much as I love them, but explored very nicely in the recent films.)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet coverA Swiftly Tilting Planet [ASTP] is the one I have the most complicated relationship with. When I first read it, it was hands-down my favourite – time travel, destinies, exotic locales, wordplay with names, and unicorns, oh my! (Lloyd Alexander’s The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha tickled my fancy in the same way. It was my favourite of his until the Westmark trilogy took over – I was also a sucker for princesses posing as beggars.) But in my recent reread, I was highly disappointed to find a passive protagonist who’s just along for the ride – which I realize is the point, but it doesn’t make for gripping reading – plus some uncomfortable hints of racism and the “Noble Savage”. The Suck Fairy was at work.

At the same time, ASTP still holds seriously powerful writing. L’Engle’s lyrical prose, in this book particularly but also in the preceding two, made such a huge impression on me as a child that rereading it felt like unearthing hidden corners of my brain. (It’s in there so deeply that I have to assume my own prose has been influenced by it. Or at least I can hope!) Same goes for some of the sequences – the Murrys holding hands and singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a desperate prayer for peace, the sections where Charles Wallace is trapped in the brain-damaged Chuck, the gradual redemption of “Beezie”, and of course the wonderful rune. There are some things that the Suck Fairy just can’t touch.


For another take on rereading the Time Quartet and L’Engle’s other books, see The Madeleine L’Engle Reread on


Have you reread any of these books or another childhood favourite as an adult? How did it hold up? If the Suck Fairy visited, which parts did she leave untouched?

Weekly Roundup

book news

The micropress I’m a part of, Turtleduck Press, is gearing up for a new novel release next month. You can get a sneak peak at the main character, Joss, in a free short story called Fanged Bunny Slippers and on the latest blog post by his author, KD Sarge. (Previously in Joss news on this blog: Queen’s Man cover art revealed.)

general geekery and science

Some gorgeous book art (via Jennifer Crusie).

Science! A graphic from the BBC shows just how deep the ocean is and what to expect at each level (also via Crusie, who is a font of cool stuff).

Good article from Nerd Caliber on racism and cosplayers of color.

Linguistic geekery: why African click languages sound so odd to English speakers even though we click too (via Juliette Wade).

inspiring: home edition

Elaine Smothers blogs about beautiful and eco-friendly cob homes.

Goddess Leonie blogs about letting go of the old to make space for the new.

A blog devoted to myth- and fairy tale-inspired homes answers the question: why decorate your home that way? Favourite bit:

And for those of us who have to hide our dreaming souls during the work day, having a place to come to that is all about art and creativity and storytelling and wonder and imagination and myth and fairy tales (I get excited just writing all those words in a row) is essential to our well being.

for writers (and interested third parties)

Writer Unboxed has a great post on social media and the personas we create (by Porter Anderson).

Megan Crewe talks about her long and bumpy journey from her debut novel to her second (published) novel.


That’s all for now. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!