The Rocket Man

My mum had a knack for finding books for me from the library that I would be sure to like.  I think I was ten or twelve when she brought home this book of short stories called R is for Rocket, by, of course, the great, now late, Ray Bradbury.

I fell immediately in love with his visions of dark summer evenings and skies filled with stars.  In my early to mid-teens, I gobbled up S is for Space and then tracked down the sources for many of the stories in those collections – The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.  I was already a fan of Francois Truffaut’s marvellous film version of Fahrenheit 451, and used to imagine which book I would memorize, because of course I would join that company of readers that we meet at the end of the book/movie.

Ray Bradbury is often someone thought of as a “young adult” writer, perhaps because many of his stories feature children, and that’s ok, but readers should not underestimate his subtlety and mastery of understated horror.  Think of “The Veldt,” where children casually trap their parents in a virtual landscape to be eaten by lions, or “The Invasion,” where children are used by aliens to take over the earth.  Anyone who thinks his work is “cosy” science fiction ought to read some of those stories.

But there is also a lovely, lyrical romanticism to much of his work.  His stories reflect an ideal, 1950’s vision of  small town America, where children may run freely (but perhaps not entirely safely) through long summer twilights.  He captures the wonder, as well as the danger, of space travel.  His space ships really are rockets, tubular, with fins for tails, mechanical but not computerized.  In his universe, the US would settle on Mars, but his was not a vision of colonial conquest.  Rather, the American invaders would be beguiled and assimilated into becoming Martians themselves. And “Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.”

One of my absolute favourites of his stories has the devastating poignancy that I associate with his work: “All Summer in a Day.”  If you haven’t read it, treat yourself.  You will be blown away, as I was, as I continue to be.

Ray Bradbury was 91; we should be celebrating his life rather than mourning his death.  Yet, I sense that many share my feeling that I’ve somehow lost a part of my childhood, that a lovely, innocent vision of the world has now passed away as well.  In another favourite story of mine, “Kaleidoscope,” an astronaut whose ship has failed plunges to earth, burning up as he enters earth’s atmosphere.  A child spots the falling star, and his mother says “Make a wish.”

Ray Bradbury has gone.  Make a wish.

A Road Trip: Thoughts so far

The advantage of the interstate highway is that it carries you quickly and relatively smoothly where you want to go.  The disadvantage is that it does not allow you to stop anywhere to take photographs.
What I would have taken:
The giant windmills striding across the ridges and fields.
Lines of sight between rows of trees in a planted forest
The cliffs reflected in the Columbia, mirror calm this morning
Mt Hood in the morning sunshine
Mt St Helens in the afternoon sunlight
The vanishing point of the straight highway in my rear-view mirror
An austerely beautiful steppe in the otherwise monotonous flatlands of Idaho.

Things that surprise me:
The quite apparent lack of prosperity.  Port Angeles looked like a ghost town.  The outskirts of Portland seemed very run down.  Generally things look less well kept than I remember.
More strip malls and billboards than I remember
On the other hand, how much wilderness there is.
That I like Appleby’s restaurant.
I had no idea Oregon had so much flatland and desert.  I was expecting a mirror of the geographic pattern in BC, but it’s quite different.

Generic motels are generic motels, but the lapdesk at the Hampton is totally worth it. But all hotel rooms are either too hot or too cold.

Best sign: “Bliss.  Next 3 exits”

A question: Who is Baker, that he has a mountain, a county and a city named after him?  Baker City in south-east Oregon is my favourite place so far.

Friend-like Entities

It’s no secret that I’m a fully-fledged, all dues paid up, member of the “uses social networking” club. Good heavens, after all, I have a paid account on LiveJournal, I’m a “pro” on Flickr, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and more recently on Pinterest. I have a Tumblr account I never use; I’m on Google+: you name it; I’ve tried it. But my use of these services varies, and has shifted over time, and the relationships I’ve developed over the years have shifted as well. The other week, when my dog Robinson died, I had 44 comments on my Facebook post about it, 15 on LiveJournal, and more than 250 people at least viewed my WordPress post, although only 4 or 5 left comments. Three people even responded directly to Twitter, even though Twitter is considerably more ephemeral than any of the others. All the comments meant a great deal, and since then, as I have before, I’ve been thinking about the nature of all these online connections.

Susan Orlean, whom I follow on Twitter, once used the term “friend-like entities” to describe her Twitter followers, or the people she interacts with online. To her, I guess I am one of those: I follow her on Twitter, and, via her Twitter links, I read her blog for the New Yorker; I’ve responded to one or two of her posts, but she does not follow me, nor, I imagine, would she care greatly if I were to stop following her. Indeed, I’d be greatly surprised if she knows I exist. I follow several famous authors online if they post things that interest me, but although I suppose I was chuffed when Neil Gaiman “friended” me on GoodReads (oh yes, I’m on that, too), I do not consider him a “friend” any more than I imagine he does any of his thousands (millions?) of followers. Many people, especially real or would-be celebrities, use social networks more as a kind of publicity than as a form of friendship; their posts are mostly outward facing only. Although they have hundreds, even thousands, of followers, they themselves read and respond to only a small number. And it’s those reciprocal relationships that really count, that can be considered more than “friend-like entities.”

I started blogging seven or eight years ago, because I planned to make some of my students do it and thought I should do it too. My first blog was on LiveJournal, and, because I had no clue about “friending” people or attracting attention in any way, absolutely no one read the first several months worth of posts; I might as well have been writing in a private journal. And then someone who was a colleague in the English department at the time, more web-savvy than I, to whom I had mentioned my blog, friended me. And I went and looked at his “friends” and “friended” a couple of them, and then I started searching under my own interests and discovered more people, and then people started finding me through the friend network and things grew from there. Only that first colleague was someone I knew in real life, although later another colleague and now great friend hooked up with me, and a couple of students found me.

Over about the same period of time, I developed a network of contacts of Flickr, in much the same way. Someone made me a contact, greatly to my surprise, and I started following people whose work I liked, and people started following me, and so on. Flickr is a much bigger and mostly considerably less personal network than LiveJournal, although I now have several people that I would consider “real” friends through being contacts there.

The people on LiveJournal are mostly in the nature of what might, in times past, have been “pen friends,” though I could never keep up with letter-writing as I do blogging. The core group tends to be people with whom I have a number of interests in common and who now know quite a bit about me and my life. My writing on LiveJournal is personal, often locked or “friends only”; I don’t really feel comfortable having colleagues or students read my LJ posts without my permission. I have met several of my LJ friends in real life, and almost without exception have bonded instantly with them – after all, we already know eachother well through our writing. There are some people who follow me on LJ that I would not be interested in meeting, but I have no problem with them reading my personal writing perhaps for that very reason: that I am very unlikely to run across them in person. It’s strange that I feel less comfortable with people I know in real life as acquaintances reading my very personal posts than I do having complete strangers read them.

Facebook is another world altogether, in many ways less personal, though I have the widest range of relationships there. Facebook has become a kind of “one stop” network. Among my Facebook friends are some relatives, a few of my closest real-life friends, a lot of LJ friends, including all but one of those I’ve met in real life, quite a few Flickr friends, none of whom I’ve met in real life, several old school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, quite a few ex-students (but no current ones), and a wide range of colleagues from work, including my boss.

So what does all this add up to? Something, I would argue. These are more than just “friend-like entities.” Flickr and LiveJournal gave me a way to connect with the outside world in the tough years when I was caregiving my mother and hardly left home except to go to work. My friends on LiveJournal helped keep me sane then, and helped me through the lonely grieving process after my mum died. Now, even though I have a much richer and more fulfilling “real” life, those LiveJournal and Flickr contacts remain and continue to sustain me. I may have never met Emily or Julie or Francesca or Sherwood or Jeremy or Leslie or Criz or Terry, but I’d like to. It pleases me greatly that ex-students on Facebook pop up to tell me that they think about me when they read something or announce proudly that they’ve published an article. I enjoy sharing teaching ideas and jokes with my colleagues. It meant something to me that forty-four people sent me virtual hugs and sympathy on Facebook when my dog died. It means something to know that someone might notice if I didn’t post for a while, or that someone stops in my office to check that I’m ok because I posted that I was blue one evening. They may be in a virtual space, but these are human connections.

Profound Gifts

It takes a lot of courage to love an animal. How many human relationships do we enter into in the full knowledge that we will lose them in ten, twelve, fifteen, maybe twenty years (if we’re very lucky)? Yet when we bring pets into our lives, loss is part of the contract.

One of my specialties as an academic is Romanticism, and one of the things that I appreciate in Romantic poetry is the idea of Romantic irony: that sense that everything is fleeting, that we stand up in the world and love something beautiful in the full knowledge that beauty and our own lives are impermanent. That knowledge invokes a bitter-sweet melancholy that “dwells in beauty / Beauty that must die.” When I teach Romantic irony, I use the analogy of pet ownership. Don’t we, in some ways, love our dogs and our cats more because we know we can’t keep them forever?

I saw my dog, Robinson, for the first time when he was seven days old and I could hold him in the palm of my hand. He was two months shy of his 15th birthday yesterday when he died with his head on my lap while I stroked his ears and told him he was the best dog in the world. The last few months of his life were tinged with a bitter-sweetness. He was faltering and frail. When I took him for his short walks, even his shadow seemed fragile under the street lights. When people asked me how he was doing, I said “hanging in there.” He was eating well, all his bowel and bladder functions were normal, he seemed to enjoy his little walks, though getting up from the floor was increasingly difficult and he was increasingly blind and almost deaf. The deafness was in some ways a blessing – last year was the first Halloween that he didn’t get sick from fear of the noise.

Then, Friday afternoon, he tripped on something on the boulevard and fell over. He lay on his side and really didn’t seem to want to get up again. When we got home he went to his bed and curled up tightly, back arched and nose tucked in, as if to say “leave me alone; I don’t want to get up again.” He woke me in the night, wanting to pee, and as I watched him slip and stumble on the deck in the wan moonlight, I realized that this was enough. I was not going to wait until he stopped eating or lost control of his bladder. I was going to set him free.

Robinson was the fifth animal I have taken to be euthanized. Every time, it has been a profound and beautiful experience, though painfully sad. Every one has been a little different. Robinson gave two great, deep, sighs and flopped over, so relaxed that I realized he must have been suffering more than I guessed.

And today, I am grieving, grieving as one does for someone or something that one has loved deeply and with a full heart. And grief is cold, and grief is bitter, and grief is an aching emptiness that goes from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. But grief is also the tribute that I pay to Robinson, that I give him to show that his life mattered, that his loss leaves a void in my life that will never be filled again. Grief is the repayment that I give to the universe for the beauty of Robinson’s life, the joy he gave me, the pleasure I took in our walks, in watching him play, in his companionship. I cried yesterday until my head ached and my eyes swelled almost shut. I am crying now.

But my grief now will not stop me from entering into another short-term contract of life with another animal. I already know that I will want another dog. Probably another beardie, like Robinson, and his uncle Cholmondeley, who died around this time of year four years ago and for whom I can still cry sometimes. I have lived with a dog or dogs all my life and cannot imagine life without them. I have two cats, whom I also love, but a relationship with a cat is not quite the same as one with a dog. I understand those people who have lost an animal and say they can never go through that pain again. I understand, but I am not one of them. Loving an animal takes a lot of courage, but it is a profound gift that I want to reach out for and take with both hands and a full heart.

backlit dogs

Sometimes I Love My Students

I have awesome students.

This morning, I prepared my class, went downstairs to my 10:30 class at about 10:25, ready to set up some web things. I got to the door, and the whole class was there (all but one or two, itself quite remarkable at this time in the term), lights dimmed, watching the student scheduled for one of the presentations that day _doing_ his presentation. Everyone was listening intently, laughing in all the right places.

It was all a bit “wtf” but I thought, oh, maybe he’s been telling them about his play (this is the scriptwriting class) and they wanted to hear it (I know, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but…). Anyway, when he was finished, I walked in, took my place at the computer terminal and started setting up. I looked at them, looked at the clock, and said “I’m not late… ?”

Uh. Yeah. I was. The class started at 10:00. I don’t even have the excuse that I was an HOUR late because of the time change. I just got muddled, because all my other classes start on the half hour, and I think I conflated this one with another one later in the week. And this one has a silly schedule that’s different on Mondays than it is on Wednesdays. And I’m tired, and a bit depressed, and my brain is fuzzy.

But – HEY YOU GUYS!! They were carrying on the class without me! How cool is THAT! They were engaged, responsible, and participating. Wow.

They could have walked out. And if I’d walked in, 25 minutes late, to find one person there to tell me they’d done that, I think I would have gone and jumped off a bridge. Instead, they give me this gift.

Oh, and we’re reading Firefly episode 5, “Out of Gas,” and someone in the class was wearing a cunning hat. How cool is that?

The Kremlin Ate My Homework

As anyone who knows me, or who follows me here, on Twitter, or on LiveJournal (ssh!), will know, I make my writing students write blogs. I have sound reasons for doing so, both pedagogical and idealogical: blogs force students to consider their audience, create a sense of community outside the classroom, and expose weaker students to the work of excellent students. I also believe strongly that we as educators have a responsibility to expose students to the medium that is already ubiquitous and is likely to become only more and more important over the next decade.

I did not realize that we would also in a small way be carrying the flag for freedom of speech.

My students post their blogs in LiveJournal. LJ is the blog I learned to use first – when I started blogging six or seven years ago, LJ was the “cool” blogging platform. Now the cool kids are on Tumblr and the “real” bloggers are on WordPress, and when LiveJournal got “sold to the Russians” a whole lot of people jumped ship to DreamWidth, an LJ clone, or at least set up mirror blogs there. But there’s still a core group of loyal LJ users: writers, artists, members of various fandoms, interesting people. My friends are there.

I put my students there because it is dead easy to use, free, and, when I first started doing this, advertisement and spam-free. Sadly, those last things are no longer true. The ads have come in the way ads have come on almost all the social software sites these days. And the spam has grown along with a huge and mysterious user base of … Russians. Which brings me to the Kremlin.

Over the last couple of weeks, LJ has been down a lot of the time. People complained, muttered, set up DreamWidth blogs, muttered some more. And LJ announced that it was fighting denial of service attacks. And we all thought “huh – serves them right for starting those stupid games, trying to be like Facebook.” And then we heard that it was likely that the ddos attacks were coming from the Kremlin, and everyone’s attitude changed.

Apparently, LJ is not only the most popular blogging platform in Russia, it’s the only blogging platform in Russia. And it’s being used not only by a bunch of Russian teenagers writing about Twilight but by those who would speak out against the mass corruption in the Russian government.

That’s why it’s under attack.

And that’s why we need to keep using it, help keep free speech alive.

And if one of my students is late with a post? What a perfect excuse!

Adventures with E-Books

I just finished the first novel I have ever read entirely in e-format (A Discovery of Witches), on my new e-reader. Following the lead of Sybil Harrison, the head librarian at my college, I bought a Kobo, the e-reader associated with the Canadian bookstore chain Chapters/Indigo, rather than a Kindle. I love Amazon, and had originally intended to get a Kindle, but in Canada we are only able to purchase kindle books from the US site, in US dollars, and the Kobo also would allow me to borrow books from the local library.

I have to admit, that techie person that I am, early adopter of many things, blogger, twitterer, online teacher, I am still not 100% convinced by this little device, though it has many advantages.

One thing I love about it, and what will keep me using it, is being able to buy books still only available in hardcover (like A Discovery of Witches) for paperback prices. And getting them instantly via wireless delivery. That is very cool. I like being able to sit in my armchair with a mug of soup in one hand, a spoon or some bread in the other, and my book “open” and available to read easily. I am thrilled by its potential for travel – imagine being able to take as many books with you as you can actually read on a trip!

I like the idea of, although so far have not taken advantage of, the ability to synch whatever book I am reading on my various electronic devices. I suspect this works better in theory than in practice, as you would have to remember to synch things constantly in order to read on one device at breakfast, another on the bus and another on your laptop without losing your place.

I don’t like not being able easily to skim quickly or skip through a book or article. I am far more likely, in consequence, to use my Kobo to read novels than to use it for research. I am skeptical, therefore, about its uses for education. I wish there was a way to annotate with it.

So the jury is still out, or at least I can easily see it for me as one more device, something with particular uses, not something that is going to replace “real” books, any more than iPods have replaced stereo systems. I continue to await developments, though.