November 30, 2015

Are You Done Yet? A NaNoWriMo Retrospective

Another NaNoWriMo has come and gone. I didn't "win" this year, but I didn't expect to. As it was I took a few liberties with the rules. First, a little backstory:

As you may or may not know, earlier this year I started writing a serial for the OCH Literary Society. While I had hoped to issue a new instalment every couple of weeks I managed one per month for the first three months and then I got stuck. Call it writer's block, call it poor planning, call it life getting in the way, call it whatever you want. I wasn't writing much of anything and it was starting to suck.

In parallel with this I wasn't sleeping very well either, with most days spent trying to keep my eyes open at work and then coming home and doing family things like cooking dinner and soccer with my son or swimming or whatever activity it was. By eight at night I was too pooped to do anything that required brain activity. I just didn't feel creative.

Long story short, I did something about it and went to my doctor and she got me on some vitamin D drops and put me back on this sleep inducing medication that I used to take when my insomnia was really kicking my ass. Within a month or so I was starting to feel better and I was getting back into the groove, creatively speaking. After putting a few blog posts together (gearing up for the big Canadian election) I sat down with The Book of Good to write instalment four and realized something.

I was still stuck.

That's okay, because NaNoWriMo was just around the corner and I would use the thirty days and thirty nights of literary abandon to move the serial forward.

My plan was simple:
Write instalment four, five, six, and seven; completing one every two days. Then, with the thirty-five thousand or so words I had kicking around from NaNo 2013 cobble together another eleven instalments. If I could at least get the bulk of each instalment down so that adding additional plot or character development wouldn't take me weeks on end, then I would have all the heavy lifting done and cranking out an instalment every couple weeks after that should be easy peasy lemon squeezy. 
Fifteen instalments, thirty days. Go!

Well, it's been thirty days, so how'd I do? I am happy to report that I made a lot of progress. Instalments four, five, and six were written with relative ease. Instalment seven will probably need to be split into two (maybe four) with each one expanded, and instalments eight through fourteen need to have my main cop character added, but that was expected. Instalment fifteen is giving me grief at the moment so I think I'll have to come back to it. As for instalments sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, they'll have to wait for another day. On the upside, I cranked out four blog posts from November 24 -28 (I really like this short, short story, The Sandwich Artist) and this will be post #5 in the last seven days AND I even wrote some lyrics for a song my friend Jim put together recently.

So, not an all-out victory, but not a loss either. In fact, I see it as being quite successful to have come out the other end with more than I had when you started. I don't think of it as having failed at writing however many thousands of words, I think of it as having created something before which there was naught. That's progress, baby!

And to answer the question writers get asked more often than any other question, no, I'm not done yet.

~ Andrew

November 29, 2015

The Sound of Music - Part 3

My wife has got a wide range of musical tastes and only occasionally will I hear something playing in her car that I don't enjoy. Certainly, without her extensive pallat of auditory awesomeness  I would not have been exposed to this song by the Magnetic Fields:

Or this cover of a Magnetic Fields song - and one of my favourite covers of all time - by The Airborne Toxic Event (whom we also saw play live in Toronto a few years ago):

Or even this:

So, whenever she and I enter into a discussion about which album from a band is better than one of their others, it's common for me to disagree and then after some listening, acquiesce to my wife's better judgement. Case and point, The Tragically Hip's Up To Here versus Road Apples. I was always on the side of Up To Here and her on the side of Road Apples, but after a couple listens in the car on the way to work I have flipped sides.

Such is not the case for The Watchmen and their first two albums. McLaren Furnace Room is their first album and is Jodi's favourite from the band and for a long time I was in agreement with her on it. It's a killer album and to this day I'm left to wonder why it didn't vault the band into more rarified air. However, after many, many, many listens of McLaren and their second album, In The Trees, I've changed my tune.

Welcome to the third installment of the Sound of Music - My Top Five Albums Of All Time:

In The Trees by The Watchmen

Released 1994
Track Listing:
  1. "34 Dead St." (9/10)
  2. "Boneyard Tree" (8/10)
  3. "Lusitana" (9/10)
  4. "Wiser" (9/10)
  5. "Calm" (9/10)
  6. "All Uncovered" (10/10)
  7. "In My Mind" (9/10)
  8. "Laugher" (8/10)
  9. "The South" (8/10)
  10. "Born Afire" (8/10)
  11. "Vovo Diva" (7/10)
  12. "Middle East" (9/10)
As a reminder here is the main criteria that went into making my choices:
  • Number of songs I like on the album (i.e. the fewer songs I skip over, the better)
  • Composition of the album (i.e. are the songs arranged in an order I find pleasing?)
  • Memories invoked when I hear a song from the album
  • Emotional impact of the album (i.e. how does listening to it make me feel?)
Looking at my album evaluation criteria seeing this album in my top five shouldn't come as a surprise. I might occasionally skip over Boneyard Tree and Vovo Diva but even as my least favourite songs on the album I'll find myself singing along. When listened to end-to-end I find the arrangement of the album to be just about perfect, from the first chords of the hard and heavy 34 Dead St. to the perfect solo bass note played by Ken Tizzard that echoes in your head to end the album, In The Trees, takes me on a journey I never want to end. 

The memories invoked when I hear any song off this album vary, but all begin in first-year university, where in 1993 my friend Riaz introduced me to the band. Naturally, I have oodles and oodles of memories ranging from listening in Riaz's room to seeing the band play at various clubs and bars around town. Probably the best one, though, is the time Riaz drove me into Toronto to go see them play at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.

Legen... wait for it... dary.

If you've never been to The Horseshoe, you're truly missing out on a piece of Toronto history. Renowned for being a bit of a dive, it has been home to some of the most amazing musical talents ever known and their walls are adorned with posters, news articles and ticket stubs from all the acts.

The stage at The Horseshoe all decked out for their 60th-anniversary celebrations

This one particular night Ri and I were there early, he liked to make sure he had a spot right up front by the guitarist, Joey Serlin, but after enjoying a few beverages waiting for the show to start we found ourself in need of relieving ourselves. Downstairs to the basement washroom we went. Now if you've never been to The Horseshoe you're missing out, but if you've never been to the men's room at The Horseshoe you're not missing a thing.

Washroom wall wisdom Probably the nicest part of the washroom

We walked into the john and who would we find zipping up just as we were heading in? Danny. Thinking the pisser wasn't the best place to drum up a conversation we did our business and then wandered out into the hallway, peering into a stairwell on the off chance we could sneak up backstage. Danny was sitting in the stairwell having a smoke. A smoke! (Sorry if I'm exposing a dark secret, Danny). Riaz asked if it was cool if we joined him for a cig, and he said he didn't mind, so we spent the next cigarette's worth of time shooting the shit and just enjoying a subdued moment. Three guys having a smoke in a stairwell.

The stairwell. No Danny this time. 

Butting out and stomping on what remained of his Du Maurier, Danny said, "Sorry guys but I gotta get into the moment here before I head out." Riaz and I nodded and thanked him for the chat and wished him a good show. "Thanks guys. Nice meeting you," he said as Ri and I headed back upstairs to a now packed floor with a couple hundred folks unaware that we had just had the coolest and most surreal experience of our brief music-loving lives.

The emotional impact of this album is probably stronger than any other. I met my wife sitting in Riaz's room back in 1993 and even took voice lessons and put a band together to play a Watchmen tune for her for our anniversary a few years ago. I feel so much joy when I hear one of their songs on my iPod (which is often because I have a TON of WM music). On the other end of the spectum, Riaz introduced me to both my wife and The Watchmen's music and he's gone now, so hearing many of their songs, even the happy ones, makes me sad. If you listen carefully you can hear In My Mind playing in the background at the beginning of my memorial speech and reading.

So there you have it, the third (in no particular order, yet) of my Top Five Albums of All Time along with some of the reasons why. A dozen great tracks invoking myriad emotions and half a lifetime of memories.

You can find The Watchmen music for sale on iTunes here along with some live show downloads here and some FREE tracks / shows for download here.

~ Andrew

November 27, 2015

The Sandwich Artist

I love it when I'm out and about and I see or hear something that kicks off a story in my head. I've decided that I'm going to start writing these down. They happen so frequently I figure that, at a minimum, it will ensure that I'm writing every day; forming good habits and exercising the creative muscles, as it were.

This short tale was inspired by an exchange I witnessed between a customer and an employee of a sub shop where I was getting something for lunch. Enjoy!

The Sandwich Artist

Margaret approached the counter of the sub shop as mild-mannered sandwich artist, Dave, washed his hands and greeted her.

"What can I get for you today?"

Margaret thought today would be a good day for something different.

"Six inch BLT", she said. 

Cutting the bread in half lengthwise and then horizontally Dave kept to his script.

"Would you like that toasted with cheese?" Dave smiled and made waving hand motions toward the stacked dairy slices and the polished chrome industrial toaster oven over his left shoulder.

"No!" Margaret replied using a tone of incredulous disgust she normally reserves for restaurant staff who try to up-sell her gravy for her fries.

Dave continued undeterred.

"It comes with bacon, lettuce, and tomato, obviously." He fanned out both arms. "Can I interest you in any of our other fresh toppings?"

Margaret snapped back in rapid succession, "Pickles. Onions. Black Olives. Spicy mayo. Blue cheese dressing," and shot Dave a look that screamed, 'If I even get the slightest hint that you're judging me right now I'm going to jump over the counter and shove that bottle of salad dressing so far up your ass you'll have to pour it out of your ear.'

Dave, ever the consummate professional continued to smile as he wrapped up the sub, surrounded it with a napkin, and placed it in a plastic bag before walking down to the cash register. Dave knew better than to ask Margaret if she'd like to make it a combo so he went for Plan B.

"Will that be everything for today?" Another pleasant smile. 

Margaret, her supply of negativity running dangerously low, rolled her eyes and forced out a dry, almost British sounding, "I should think not."

Dave rang in the order. "That'll be five twenty please."

Margaret went into her wallet and pulled out a wad of singles and handed them to Dave in a tangled bunch. Then, she dug through her purse and after a few seconds came out with a quarter. She put it down on the counter and slid it in Dave's general direction and held her hand out, palm up, as Dave rung in the order and retrieved her nickel. Placing it in her hand Dave seized the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Everybody loves Nickelback!" he proclaimed to anyone within thirty feet of the counter, which at the time was a good half dozen customers and two staff. 

Margaret only had enough energy for another eye roll before turning on her heels to exit the store. Dave began washing his hands, again, as required by law in between each customer.

"Look at this photograph, every time I do it makes me laugh," he sang into the towel dispenser before approaching the next customer. "What can I get for you today?"

~ Andrew

November 26, 2015

Deal With It

I like poker. I am by no means a fanatic, but I enjoy playing the game, especially with a small group of people, some of whom I know and others I don't. A nice easy-going house game that ends early even if you win is pretty much as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned. I've played in Vegas for a few days a bunch of years ago and that was a great experience, but I found it equally as depressing as I did intriguing and fun.

The thing that most amazed me about Vegas, and any other casino I've played in for that matter, were the dealers. Granted, it's their job to shuffle and deal so it stands to reason they've got a fair amount of practice with it, but it impressed me nonetheless. They are always so graceful with the cards. They mix and wrangle and straighten and shuffle, and the cards obey their every command. It's a lot like watching Disney's Fantasia with Mickey Mouse using his magic to choreograph all the mop buckets.

I, on the other hand, am clumsy. My fingers are all crooked and my knuckles are all swollen most of the time and my use of them is, how do you say, far from graceful. Whenever we play a home game and the cards come around for my turn to deal I get anxious. Even among friends, the fear of ridicule looms over me as I attempt to organize 52 plastic cards, shuffle them, and deal them out to up to eight players. Maybe the fear is greater because I'm among friends, for I know I've dished out a ribbing or two in my day and the return trip for such a thing is not nearly as fun to experience as the delivery.

If someone who has been knocked out is feeling particularly compassionate, they might jump in as a permanent dealer, and for this I am eternally grateful. "Can I get you something else to drink? Maybe top up that plate of nachos?"

So, when my friend David sent me an email saying they were down a dealer at Thursday's KW Poker Chicks event and would I like to come be a dealer (ladies play, dudes deal) I immediately agreed. Another good friend of mine, Sean, once said, "Andrew sometimes lets his love of attention override common sense," and such was the case this time.

I'm not the type to let a lack of experience or skill stop me from doing anything I think might be worthwhile. I like poker. I like people. I like people playing and learning to play poker. I like poker dealers. It sounded like it would be a fun experience. (Spoiler alert: it was!)

David told me there was no dress code and I didn't need to brush up on my jargon but did offer one piece of advice: practice shuffling.

So, when I was done work for the day I grabbed my decks of nice plastic Copag's I sat down on the couch and started shuffling, and shuffling, and shuffling. I didn't bother to count but after about twenty minutes my son looked up from the math game he was playing on his iPad and gave me a look. It was one of these raised eyebrows confused looks like the ones I give him when I see him wandering around the house with only one sock on, a laser pointer in one hand, and some random lego pieces in the other.

"I'm practicing," I said.

"For what?" he asked, looking back down at his math game.

I explained to him the event and how my friend was short a guy and he asked me if I would help out so I said yes, trying to impart the lesson on him that it's good to help out your friends.

"Are you any good?" he asked, making eye contact while his game leveled him up.

"Nope," I said. "That's why I'm practicing."

"When's the event?" His eyes were still on me.

"I have to be there a bit before seven," I said, trying to shuffle without looking at the cards and spraying them all over the couch.

He looked up at the clock on the wall and then back to me wrangling the cards up again, raised his eyebrows, gave a "wowsers" look, shook his head, and returned to his video game. With adults in the room, this would have been the time I heard out of the corner of my ear, "You're an idiot." It's a familiar phrase I've grown accustomed to hearing, usually as I'm applying a bandage to an injury.

The moment of truth came and I met my friend David in the parking lot before the event. Someone let us into the building and was promptly introduced to a few people. There were several small tables pushed together to make bigger tables where someone was putting out chips, two easels with big chart paper at one end of the room, and a table with red and white wine, other beverages, and some snacks that were either purchased or brought in by some of the players.

There were a few people getting tips from the organiser and my friend David gave a quick lesson to a couple beginners about pot odds and pot equity and then the organizer gave a similar lesson to the entire group using the aforementioned chart paper. Then, we got started.

I had been fiddling with the deck the whole time, getting a feel for it and whatnot and the first thing I noticed when I took a couple practice shuffles was that these were not the slippery slidey fancy plastic cards I had at home. They were not plastic. Instead, they were more paper-ish and the really fun part was the room was really warm and humid, and I was nervous so my hands were sweaty. The game had begun though so it was time to get to it.

I introduced myself and explained. like some people at the table I was new to this. Most of the ladies assured me that they would keep the taunting to a minimum. The first shuffle went just fine, though, and so did the second, and the third, and the fourth. I only forgot to move the dealer chip once and everyone got two cards each time! Overconfidence must have set in because on the next deal I totally skipped over a person handing out the first card. No one had looked at their card yet so we just backed the cards up and got it all sorted out. Crisis averted and my first blunder was out of the way.

Play continued for the next 90 minutes and things were moving along just fine. My table was a lot of fun and the women were a good mix of poker experiences. Even though a small amount of money was on the line everyone was still there to just have a good time. The unfamiliar cards mostly cooperated for me, but as the room heated up and the cards accumulated dust, and wine, and hand sweat from everyone pawing at them they got more difficult to handle. Once I lined up a shuffle and thumbed the cards while in the middle of a conversation and looked down and there were still two individual piles sitting in front of me. The shuffling equivalent of an air ball shooting hoops or a whiff at the driving range. Laughs all around. Can't win 'em all, I guess.

Break time came and they were contracting the group down to two tables and one dealer became redundant. David asked if I wanted to stick around, but I decided I'd bow out. Go out on a high, right? As it turned out I had forgotten to bring my medication with me and if I left right then I'd only be a half hour late with it when I got home, so I decided I'd make my exit.

I said goodbye to my table and wished them all luck. Smiles and waves all around. I hope one of them ends up winning.

So my first "real" dealer experience is under my belt and I can say with confidence that I'm not going to be quitting my day job anytime soon to do it professionally. I will, however, go back and deal for the KW Poker Chicks if they're ever short another card slinger.

~ Andrew

November 24, 2015

In Defence of the Dark Arts

Nothing brings out the goodwill and joy like suggesting people keep their Christmas lights off until December 1st. If you want to enrage the neighbours all you have to do is go into the Facebook group someone set up for your neighbourhood and put up a post about it. Granted, I was a bit smarmy, but I have perfectly good and reasonable reasons. None of that matters because apparently I'm a Scrooge McGrinch Level 100 troll who has no right to tell people what to do.

The first response to my post was, "Why?" Well, I didn't want to get all in-your-face and ranty about it, so I gave a watered-down response. There was already enough, especially when you factor in the extreme over-commercialization of the holiday that's happened over the last couple decades. So why not give everyone a break? A bit of a reprieve, if you will.

That just made things worse.

I'm a fan of the December joy, I really am. For the month of December, I always strive to be the jolliest asshole this side of the nuthouse(1). I love the snow and the lights and the whole general idea of giving more and not being a total ass to one another. I think it sets a good tone for the rest of the year.

But seriously, it's getting a bit out of hand.

After Back to School and then Canadian Thanksgiving and then Halloween (stores are even putting up Christmas stuff before Halloween!) and then Remembrance Day (Canada) / Veterans Day (U.S.) and then U.S. Thanksgiving AND THEN December proper and 26 days of Christmas madness we take a (quick) breath and go straight back for more with New Year's and just when you think you're done the Orthodox folks jump in with their Christmas celebration on January 7. Oh, and let's not forget there's a bunch of other non-Christian holidays in there trying to get air time as well (more on that later).

Did you know that there are governments and military prisons that have used the persistent playing of music as a deterrent as well as torture? Well, welcome to certain radio stations and virtually every store in every mall in North America in December. Listen as they crank out Christmas music until you want to stuff an elf backwards into jolly old Santa's milk and cookie piehole.

Starting November 25th!

Here's a pro tip:
There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be bombarded with Christmas 24/7/365. I am not a Scrooge or Grinch or Troll for having a lower tolerance for all things mistletoe. There's the song 12 Days of Christmas and turning on the lights December 1st more than doubles the recommended serving of joy. That's pretty good, no?

I think I brought the craziness to a close on that Facebook thread (at least I haven's seen many comments since) with the following:
"Wow. I never said I wanted to make it a law. Amazing how quickly cheer turns into hate. Want to see people's true colours? Challenge them on the internet." 
Someone on my side (or at least not against me) replied to that with something about not messing with a woman and her Christmas decorations, and I replied with, "WAR ON CHRISTMAS!" It was a joke meant to play on the usage of the phrase, particularly with Tea Party Republicans in the U.S.

I shouldn't have used the phrase because it's not a war. It's not a battle. It's not a confrontation. It's not even a heated argument. Hell, it barely meets the definition of a disagreement. Barely. So, to call it a war would be incredibly disrespectful to those who fight in actual wars. Which brings me to another thing: the November 12th People (N12P).

Now, I don't know what veterans and service people think of the N12P, but I imagine members of the N12P taking in the Veterans Day parade waiting for the float with the replica of the tomb of the unknown soldier pass so they can push a button and have their Christmas lights turn on. That might be an extreme case and I'm certain that's not what goes down for the majority of the N12P, but the simple fact that they wait until the 12th instead of, say, the 15th or 25th or the 2nd Sunday in November does give me the impression that they're just waiting to get November 11 out of the way so they can get on with celebrating. Anyhow, that's just an aside. I'll let you think about it.


One argument I hear in favour of an early lighting is, "My kids get so excited!" Sure, Christmas is a wonderful time for kids. You know what, though? My kids used to get excited about having dessert after dinner. Now, for whatever reason they have it every night, and I couldn't tell you the last time they were over-the-moon excited about 25g of sugar and chocolate.

I'll tell you one thing, if you want to get someone really excited about something, tell them how awesome it is, and then tell them can't have it until a certain date. I'm not suggesting we treat the turning on of the Christmas lights like the new Star Wars movie, but there is something to be said for absence making the heart grow fonder. I say make the kids wait as long as you possibly can and then watch as their heads explode with joy when they finally get to experience it.

(Hmm, I think the 40-year-old virgin may have been onto something.)

As an after December 1st argument, I'd also like to bring up cultural insensitivity. Maybe that's not the right phrase. Cultural Christmaswashing? Think cultural whitewashing but with red and green candy canes and nativity scenes. I don't know what you'd call it, but hasn't the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture machine saturated the West enough over the last few hundred years? Do we really need to be standing on the rooftops for months at a time screaming, "CHRISTMAS! LOOK AT ME, I CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS! WOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! CHRISTMAS MOTHER*****ERS!"

I'm no social justice warrior but I have to wonder what all this feels like to the new immigrant or someone trying to celebrate their own holiday - or no holiday at all for that matter. I'd love to see some Diwali lights displayed in my neighbourhood but it's awfully hard to pick them out over all the Christmas stuff. Then again, maybe it just looks like a party's about to break out at any minute and everyone thinks it's just fantastic (judging by the number of "likes" on my comment and the number of other people who are in line with my post-November light turny onie decision I'm guessing not).

Also on my new favourite Facebook thread was the comment that I can't tell people what to do. To be precise:
"You can close your eyes you have no right to tell people when then can and can not [sic] decorate". 
First, I don't recall telling anyone to do anything. I posted a smarmy, "How about...? Mkay, thanks."

But it did get me thinking... What about an individual's rights? I have every right to question your judgement if you put up your Christmas stuff in the middle of August just as you have every right to put it up whenever the hell you want. But unwritten agreements exist all the time and work just fine without being formalised into law. I simply want people to come to an arrangement. A reasonable compromise that takes everything I've just written about into account.

I can imagine the person from the above quote sitting on the porch in their rocking chair with an armful of flashing LEDs, or walking around WalMart with a giant battery in a backpack powering Christmas lights strung all around their shopping cart. When approached and asked about why they're doing what they're doing they reply with:

"The 87th amendment to the Constitution clearly states that 'A well regulated Neighbourhood Community being necessary to the celebration of Christmas, the right of the people to keep and display Christmas lights shall not be infringed'," and then every argument from then on that even remotely appears to contradict the 87th amendment is met with, "CHRISTMAS MOTHER****ER!"

So there you have it. Do with this information what you will. I'll be lighting my house and Christmas tree up like a Christmas tree on December 1st and shutting the lights off when I go to bed on December 31st, happy as a clam the whole time and trying not to be an ass to people the other eleven months of the year after that.

As for peace on earth, goodwill to men? All I have to say to that is it's not gonna happen so long as there is an Internet - and a comments section.

(1) My all-time favourite Christmas movie.

~ Andrew