Sunday, September 27, 2009

No cowboy coffee here

I can’t tell you how much I learned this week.


On Monday night, I went to a talk by eminent French archaeologist Dr. Jean Clotte about the oldest paintings in the world, the 30,000-year-old art in Chauvet Cave.

I was so enchantée that I signed up for Dr. Clotte’s four-session

Introduction to World Rock Art and at six thirty Tuesday night, I slid into a lecture theatre for the first class along with dozens of anthropology undergrads and Paleontology groupies.

On Wednesday, I got a refill for my pen and arrived early for the second class.

Thursday I had to miss the symbolism of animals, humans and geometric shapes in ancient rock art to meet a friend for Managing the Middle-Aged Brain, a one-off lecture we’d signed up for, ever-so-hopefully, months ago.

Friday night I was back with Dr. Clotte for more techniques of Paleolithic artists and theories of Structuralism, Totemism and Shamanism.

Saturday I went to an all-day Romance Writers of America workshop where Lee McKenzie talked about creating characters with archetypes the way Hollywood does; agent Sally Harding described six strategies even unpublished authors can use to boost our profile with publishers; and Susan Lyons explained the pros, cons, and how-tos of critique groups.

And I can’t tell you what I learned because, like a big old Corningware percolator, it takes me a while to process and filter baskets of fresh-ground information.

As I review my notes and reflect on what I’ve heard, I’m sure I will have more to say, but for now I feel like one of Gary Larson’s characters.

A student sits in a classroom, thrusting his hand into the air to get the teacher’s attention. “May I please be excused?” he says. “My brain is full.”

The Far Side cartoon is a masterpiece, but my brain…? I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

For students everywhere

Nothing sucks the wind out of my spinnaker faster than arriving in a classroom, all excited about a new adventure, and having to listen to a teacher drone for an hour. Especially when I’m the teacher.

And yet that’s what I do. I feel obliged to set out the ground rules for those who need guidelines, establish dates for those who need timetables, describe the process for those who need the big picture.

“Assignment One yap yap yap, due blah blah blah, consequences yada yada yada.”

I’m like a film director who can’t come up with anything better than an aerial shot of the Empress Hotel, Fan Tan Alley and Butchart Gardens to establish that the movie’s set in Victoria.

In contrast, as Kinky Boots opens, a child alone in the cold tries on a woman’s shoes and dances. The rest of the film shows two men searching for their places in the world and finding their right livelihoods in high heels and lasts.

The first time or three that I watched The Big Easy, I thought the bird’s-eye view of rivers and bayous was nothing more than boring background for the opening credits. Now I know that water pours through the story, propelling it in the same way it pumps the lifeblood of Louisiana.

A flashback within a flashback opens Casino Royale, showing the beginning of James Bond’s career as a double-0 agent and portraying him as the blunt instrument that M later calls him and as an efficient killer. Through the rest of the film, of course, he proves to be both. And if you’d rather examine the wonderful graphics of the credit sequence, the artist has illustrated the same themes using, of course, playing card designs. Clubs. Guns firing fine-bladed spades that shatter a person into a spray of hearts.

These openings do so much more than establish location.

They don’t Tell, they Show.

And that’s one of the cardinal rules of writing, the one that I share with my students on the first day – after I’ve dragged them through an hour of Tedious Telling.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” I quote Anton Chekhov. “Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

He takes my breath away, Chekhov does, and with it fills my sails.

Now it’s up to me to use that power to create a glinting stream to open next term’s writing course. Something that embodies skill, teamwork, timing, grace, energy and of course a symbol of our West Coast setting.

I’m thinking we’ll learn a gumboot dance.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What I learned at school today

My first experience on skis, when I was twelve, didn’t go well. My little sister hasn’t liked heights since she watched me hurtle uncontrollably down the slope and then soar, screaming, over the parking lot. I developed an aversion for cold, snow, and parking lots.

A few years ago I decided it was time to put that in the past, to move on, to give the sport another try. After all, I was decades older, stronger and more coordinated, and my husband is an avid skier.

People who know better than I do tell me he’s very good. He even taught skiing for many years, so it made sense for him to take me out on the bunny slope and get me started.

What I learned had nothing to do with snowplow.

Oh, I eventually got the hang of that, and the handle-tow too (yay me!), but what I saw and overheard that day amongst all the instructors on the hill told me that, because of all their experience on skis, they had forgotten how utterly clueless beginners are.

That wake-up call prods me to try something new every year. For the sake of my journalism students, to make me a better teacher, I relive the feeling that I know nothing. I fail, then I lurch to my feet and try again and again and again.

This year my new thing is blogging. I’m happy to report that it’s a much gentler experience than skiing, easier on my tush and my self-esteem, but figuring out how to set up an account and download photos was just the beginning.

Posting a blog every week forces me to think about the things I do, to reflect on what happens to me. I feel like the raccoons that dig up mushrooms in my back yard and turn them over and over in their paws. While they’re looking for dirt and hoping for grubs I search my experiences for meaning, always hoping, of course, for a story.

Did I really just compare stories with insect larvae? Not a pretty metaphor, perhaps. But then, I’m still learning.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Somebody needs a new hobby

According to David Noer in his book Breaking Free, an astounding 60 to 75 percent of people are unable to change even when something in their world calls for it. I think Ikea must have heard from every one of those people last month when its new catalog hit desks and coffee tables.

The furor that made international news is because, get this, Ikea changed the font.

The furniture retailer switched from Futura, which it had used for 50 years, to Verdana, like I just did.

Are you enraged yet?

Me either.

I still use Ikea furniture that my mom bought me when I got my first apartment in 1980; the car pillow my sister gave my stepson in 1990 isn’t even faded. Ikea was founded in 1943 by the innovative Ingvar Kamprad and is still owned by his family. In 2008, the company had 120,000 employees and revenues of $28.8 billion USD.

I think Ikea makes mistakes like the Canadian Mint makes juleps.