Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guilty Pleasures

I was never of those mothers that parroted:  Eat up your dinner;   there are starving children in China. ...'      I get the impression China is very prosperous now compared to the Cultural Revolution days but that's probably just the few.    Lately, there have been local outcries to tax real estate purchases by wealthy overseas buyers; overseas being the code word for wealthy Chinese buyers.   Vancouver is considered a safe haven for monetary fortunes.   Perhaps keeping  funds at home engenders envy and who knows where that leads.

When I visited Versailles in my youth I was awestruck.   It's just so opulent, so over the top luxurious.   The Hall of  Mirrors there seemed unbelievable to my nineteen year old eyes.  I wanted to be Marie Antoinette,  I longed to live royally in that decadent splendor.

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Next month I will be visiting the Hemitage in St. Petersburg,  named Leningrad until 1991.   I'm told it rivals Versailles or perhaps exceeds it in opulence.   Many people have this destination on their bucket list.  I'm sure it won't disappoint but somehow my thoughts now are meandering  more to wondering how many peasants and farmers went hungry or half clothed to provide all that excess.  I now tend to take my pleasure in natural wonders and beauties, especially when they are available for all to enjoy.  

The Hemitage, St. Petersburg

Maybe they used the same decorator.

Saturday, July 26, 2014



Returns.   Many, if not most, people want there to be the ability to return an unsatisfactory item.   I do.  Amazon has built their reputation on allowing returns on almost everything, including e-books.   Most people wouldn't think of returning a book purchased in a bookstore, probably thinking it wasn't possible.   Even if the story turned out to be most unsatisfactory, you made your choice and you're stuck with it.   Can you imagine trying to convince the cashier at Chapters or Barnes and Noble that you just couldn't relate to the main character and you want your money back.

University textbooks, wildly overpriced sometimes at up to two hundred dollars, come shrink-wrapped.   Once the wrapping is off, you're stuck.  There are concerns you might sneak into your father's office and photocopy every page overnight before attempting to return it to your university's bookstore the next day.   Tsk, tsk.

Periodically, this topic will come up on writer sites like the Writers' Cafe at the Kindle Boards.   Authors gnash their teeth at serial returners who work their way through an e-book series, downloading book by book, returning each one for a refund.   Some have bragged about their practice to others in public forums and advise others to emulate them.   Saves money, right?   And it's so anonymous and easy.

Authors rightly complain that they might accept the first return in a series as legitimate:   the person just didn't care for their style of writing, for example.   But to go on and read and return  the next and the next for up to twelve books is simply beyond the pale.  But complaints to Amazon go unheeded until the returns reach a certain amount, known only to Amazon, and then the person receives a notice that they are cut-off from further returns.

The outraged writer who is the victim of the serial returner  seeks advice from those who have been at it longer only to be told to accept a certain percentage of returns as part of the cost of doing business.   I have read suggestions that purchasers should be advised that once their e-readers record that they have passed the quarter or half way point in a book, no returns should be possible.   That's a thought.

I have to admire the ingenuity of the manufacturer/designer of a line of ladies wear who plainly states on Amazon, right below the product description that:


Wednesday, July 23, 2014



The metropolitan area in which I reside was this year bestowed the dubious honour of having the most congested traffic in North America.  I would venture to guess that having the mildest climate in Canada as well as one of the least developed rapid transit systems would be contributing factors.  

An impressive  bridge with large golden eagle statues adorning the entrances  was constructed in 2009 over the river that splits the Metro Vancouver area into two sections.  It joins a half dozen other bridges spanning the Fraser River.   As seems to be the trend, it is a toll bridge and for an occasional user who hasn't registered with the system the charge is now $4.20.   That would be one way.     A return trip will leave the traveller  poorer by $8.40.   There is a saving if you register your vehicle and even more if you obtain a transponder for the system.   To no one's surprise, except the developers of the bridge, toll revenues have been less than anticipated.   People have changed their habits, perhaps even their residences or place of work to avoid this expense.   After all, regular five day a week commuters are paying around $1,500 annually.  It seems the bridge will require ongoing government subsidies for the next twenty- five years.

Golden Ear Bridge Eagle #2 for the Golden Ear Bridge, Vancouver, B.C.,by: Bernie Jestrabek-Hart and assisted byPattie Young

But, interesting as this is--while not surprising--what caught my attention in a recent radio interview was the information provided that the bridge was designed to have a hundred year lifespan.   A hundred years!    I assumed that transporter technology, a la Star Trek, would have taken over by then.   Will people, long after you and I are departed from this planet, still be moving about in that most inefficient, expensive, polluting mode of transportation known as the car?     

With this interview still in my recent memory banks, I watched a pseudo-documentary on television attempting to depict the effect on our world during the days, months and years after oil ran out.   It wasn't a pretty picture.   The shocking part was how unprepared governments and people were and how devastating the transition period was.  Somehow, a hundred year predictions are blithely made in the face of obvious contradictory evidence yet little preparation seems to be made for a much more likelier reality occurring in the coming decades. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Staying Safe


I eat organic food . . . sometimes . . .  delivered once a week by a local company.   It's expensive, even very expensive;   as much as four times more than the non-organic product.    Farming is exhausting work,  of that I have no doubt,  and I feel good about supporting small local farmers.   I don't mind paying a bit more for it but the difference can be considerable.   Now that food prices have been rising in recent months, I've been re-visiting and re-thinking my food decisions.

But, it's not enough to worry about the food you eat.   There's also the packaging that it comes in that may have potential health hazards as expounded in this article in the on-line magazine, Mother Jones.  The magazine has been around for quite a while;   I recall it being an alternate even hippie journal but I'm sure like all of us it has grown up and matured.   I suppose I should appreciate that it has given me something else to ponder.

I don't like the idea of pesticides being sprayed on my food.   We're all organic beings made of cells and organs.   Something that can kill a beetle can't be good for me even if the quantities are small; the effects must be cumulative.   Or so I tell myself as I pay organic prices.   I'm vegetarian now, but I also want the animal products, like milk and eggs, that I still consume,  to come from producers that treat their animals humanely.   My dogs expect that I respect all life  even though they haven't enunciated it very clearly.  I agree.

There's a plethora of advice about what to eat and many books and articles offer advice to the puzzled.   I admire gardeners with vast successful rows.   I have memories of nurturing a solitary eggplant for weeks, admiring its glossy polish before discovering a slug had made entry and feasted from the inside out.   The price I pay the farmer is not too much for his or her more successful  stewardship but I wonder if the proverbial middleman is taking more than his share.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I have hesitated to bring up this topic before but it is something I've been wondering about off and on over the years since I started writing.   Literary agents.  I've never had one representing me.   There was a short period of time before I turned to indie publishing when I thought that it was the way to go and I can still see how an agent could have useful skills and information for a writer.

My understanding of the compensation of agents is that he or she receives 15% of what the author is entitled to receive, right off the top.   This is beneficial in that when the writer succeeds, the agent succeeds.   Most credible agents will confirm on their websites that writers never need to pay anything upfront for services rendered including writing and editing advice as well as information and the benefit of the agent's connections.


So far, so good.   The part that I have difficulty comprehending is the waiting period considered acceptable for an agent to return your call, so to speak; to respond to a writer's carefully crafted query letter and sample chapters.  Most agents have very specific requirements as to what they wish to receive and how they wish to receive it.   I must confess to a stunned pause when I read that authors should not expect a response in less than six to twelve weeks.

I do an increasing amount of my personal business on line.   I shop on-line, make travel arrangements on-line, I pay my bills on-line.  In my experience it almost always works out.   I check reviews and feedback with purchases and I judge the potential of the business to make me happy in part by how quickly they return my e-mails.  I  often make one or two queries before any purchases to 'check them out.'   Anything more than 48 hours delay and I probably won't proceed.  I want the businesses I deal with, including home-based small businesses, to be accessible and professional.    I want to know that someone is 'minding the store'.    I think that if a business took six to twelve weeks to get back to me I would fall over laughing before hitting the delete button.

I understand that literary agents receive unsolicited manuscripts.   It takes a certain amount of time to review them although I suspect that with practice, ten minutes will tell you all you need to know, in terms of yay or nay.   It's not like spelling or grammar is being corrected along the way. I've heard that some agents only respond if they are interested.   In other words if you don't hear from them, it's a 'no'.

It seems to me that some system needs to be developed so that timely responses can be given.   It's just more businesslike, more courteous, more expeditious.   

Are my expectations unrealistic?

Saturday, July 12, 2014



From a prompt at my Writers' Group  (a line drawing of a stand of trees)

The stand of oak seedlings had been planted decades earlier.   Over the ensuing years it had provided shelter and shade to both people and wildlife and acorns for the resident squirrels.   As the neighbourhood and city grew, the oak trees endured and grew their lofty branches and thick trunks in testimonial to the rich soil below.

A library was built a little to the south of the grove and a swimming pool a hundred meters to the north.  A bank and bus exchange followed a short distance to the east and soon the area was a ghost of its former peaceful haven.  Shadows seemed to darken the space between the trees and winter winds creaked ominously through the branches.

Talk began of unsavoury individuals loitering about and using the trees as a refuge or camouflage.  "The trees should come down; they're a menace," was one of the increasing complaints and suggestions.  The trees bowed their heads in shame.  Some still loved the trees and remembered their past, protesting the innocence in the brown and green hues but the shrill voices continued until the day the bulldozers came followed by the paving trucks.  Soon there was no trace of the trees; only a straggly row of newly planted juniper bushes--that hardy evergreen beloved of landscapers of unloved and unwatered areas-- lined the otherwise bare courtyard.

Where do the souls of trees go?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


There is something in the human psyche that makes us want to look for buried treasure.   It can be an actual trunk with a wrought iron lock or it can be at the bottom of the ocean in a sunken ship.   It can even be the ever elusive Sasquatch roaming the wilderness of North America.   On a small island off the coast of  Nova Scotia--Oak Island--people have been exerting themselves for decades through fiendishly difficult environments searching for either buried pirate treasure or the wealth of the Knights Templars.   Either one will bring considerable gratification, not to mention wealth.

In a sense, archaeology is a hunt for buried treasure.  It is not particularly the monetary value but the chance to find something ancient, something untouched for centuries or an item that challenges long held beliefs.  To reach across the centuries and say, 'Yes, this is how you lived, this is what you ate and how you found pleasure and enjoyment in your life.'   We long for that connection; the commonality that unites us.   We want to tell them that we now know of their challenges, the struggles that moved them and their society incrementally closer to our own.   We want them to know that we are not so different and we appreciate what they did.  Perhaps we long to go back to a simpler time before technology changed everything.   Except for antibiotics and anaesthetic.  We want to keep those.

There is a place in Arizona where trilobytes are almost as common as pebbles on the shore.  At what was was a former inland sea, these million year old fossils can be picked up by campers and hikers easily.   When I held one in my hand it was almost frightening but it was surely a treasure that had survived.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing for Readers?



Some authors  study the market with the goal of determining what is likely to produce the most sales.  Writing is a business, their business, and in order to keep doing it they need to make a certain amount of money.   Life isn't free.   This is why you see a lot of book clones, in both content and front cover, attempting to ride on the coattails of a best seller.   Think of the Twilight series or Fifty Shades of Grey.   Before long, vampires and erotica swamped the market.

Were they successful?   In my opinion, to some extent, some were.  I don't think any exceeded the originals in sales but some made their writers considerable money.   In the case of vampires, I believe that trend is cooling a bit but erotica is perennially popular.   I've read opinions that one of the reasons Fifty Shades of Grey was successful was the timing.   E-readers had just come on the market as had on-line marketing and discreet and private ordering and reading was simplified.

I admire writers who can switch genre in response to market demands although not all can do it equally successfully.   I can't help but think it must be difficult and a denial of natural talents to force creativity into genre constraints.  But maybe the reason some of the great masters of music and literature laboured in penury was because popular taste hadn't caught up with their talents.   If only they had spent their time emulating the best selling works of the day;  just think of the sumptuous life they could have led.   Poor Stravinsky, booed for his Rite of Spring while Claude Monet's work was dismissed as 'mere impressions'.  That's what they got for not following the trend of the day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


If you live long enough you will see a lot of change . . . in almost everything.   Some activities, habits or institutions seem immutable; they have existed in their present form for all eternity and will continue to do so. But then things change.

I was reading this article in the Huffington Post about declines in shopping mall attendance and the resultant slow down in sales in both Canadian and American shopping malls.   The writer describes an institution that  once admirably . . . "functioned as an exercise circuit for seniors, a fun escape for moms on maternity leave and the default weekend hangout for teenagers . . ."    Really?  The usual suspects of stagnant personal income, on-line shopping, foreign competition and personal debt loads are given as the reason.

But then I tried to remember the last time I was in a shopping mall in the city I live in. I couldn't.   Not that I've ever been a 'shopper' in a recreational sense nor was it my habit to go to malls with no particular purpose or shopping goal in mind but I believe it has been over a year since I indulged.   It probably doesn't help that my memories of malls involve trudging endlessly through crowds, feeling overheated in my outdoor attire past storefronts that all seemed similar and at the same time excessive.

I have a theory that one of the reasons North Americans find Europe so appealing s the lack of malls, at least in the historic town centers.   On the outskirts there are plenty of shopping opportunities   in enormous rectangular cement blocks.  But the city squares, built centuries before are quaint and appealing and seem to encourage a slow promenade under the collonades and down the canal lined sides streets.  But perhaps we would still go home and compare the price on-line.

I suspect this change is a natural evolution, a little like the oft-quoted analogy that buggy whip makers suffered when the automobile came into wide use.   But along that line I do sometimes wonder why the invention behind the automobile--the internal combustion engine--which runs on the increasingly difficult to procure oil, has not been superseded after a century of dominance by something cheaper . . . less polluting . . .less disruptive to the environment.