Tuesday, January 25, 2011

finding the plot

outside my window, signs of growth
It's winter, which in this part of the world generally means it's grey outside. But it's not cold, there are buds everywhere. (My pot of snowdrops is blooming at home.) I just went for a long walk to explore the neighbourhood here (I'm in Victoria for a week) and left my winter coat in the closet. It'll be flip-flop weather in no time, hooray.

But I'm not here sight-seeing, honestly. I went for the walk so I could get back to the task I've set myself, doing some writing work free of the usual-life distractions of home. I am the queen of procrastinators, a veritable wizard at creating distractions, so I decided to load up my car with files and folders and binders, and go on retreat. I could have picked a cabin somewhere, but I love Victoria, and it's not so much that I want to be isolated, as I want to leave behind all the stuff that I am so good at distracting myself with. It's a little tricky, as I brought my laptop along, and there is wireless here—but I've been pretty good about keeping on task. What I'm trying to do is find all the bits and pieces of writing that have been started (I'm really good at starting) and then got lost in the general confusion, and never finished.

some serious sorting happening here
I've taken quite a few writing workshops over the years, and in those folders are snippets and scenes and bright ideas, but they're hard to access, as they get buried in the flotsam. If I could just find them, then maybe I could actually finish some stories. There are also a lot of snippets of what is turning out to be a novel lost among those same folders as well as in binders from writing with the Plums (my writing group). So too, in my journals, every now and then a scene presents itself and gets written down. Lately I've had the sense to intentionally use one notebook to write scenes, which makes them easier to find, but they still fall out of my pen in no particular order, and sometimes I don't have that book with me...

My intention is to find these bits, and type them up, and print them out too (and yes, I even brought my printer). Then the idea is to sort the pile of scenes into some kind of timeline, so I can fill in the gaps. In due course, if I keep this up, I can gloat over the existence of a first draft, and then really get down to work. And, while I'm at it, also work on what seem to be some essays, short stories, and poems too (not many, but they seem to be in there). I'm happiest when things are sorted and have a place, and this definitely holds true for my writing. And I haven't managed to get it into an order until now. Always the last thing I get to. (I should remember the danger of saving things too long in anticipation of a treat. I did this once with the mandarin orange out of my xmas stocking. When I finally went to eat it, it had shrivelled and dried out. You'd think I'd learn.)

It's a constant struggle, taking myself seriously as a writer. I hold to the idea that if you write you are a writer, and certainly the record online suggests I'm a blogger, but honestly, it would be a lot easier to declare that I'm a writer, if I had a pile of work to show for it. (I'm kind of contradicting myself aren't I? I consider other bloggers to be writers) I guess if I'm honest, I'll admit what I've been meandering towards for a long time; what I really want is to be a novelist, and till I actually finish writing a novel, I won't be able to claim that, will I? (I'll worry later about whether it's a good novel.) But for some reason I seem to be finding my way to a clearer path these days; I am at least growing confident at saying I'm working on a novel, how's that?

I wonder too whether there's a metaphor in my switching cities. Vancouver is a grid, and Victoria winds all over the place. It's easy to get lost here, but I also find stuff I don't expect. In Vancouver, I always know where I am, and I'm tired of it. Maybe I've just lived there too long.  It's true I'm mulling moving here, so it seemed reasonable to see whether I could write here (and why not, eh? just write, for pete's sake). There's something to be said for freshness, though.

Winding roads help in other ways. When I used to be a runner (before knees and joints suggested doing something else) I liked to run in the woods of Pacific Spirit Park (near where I lived) rather than down by the beach at Spanish Banks (also near). At the beach I could see too far ahead, and it discouraged me. So far! In the woods the path was there, but the end wasn't predictable. It might be around the next bend, it might be a long way off. I could run farther that way. It is true, though, that I had a map in my head of where I was going. And that helped.

So I guess that's what I'm up to now, indulging my clearly ocd impulses in sorting and filing all this paper so I can get to where I'm going with my writing. Just around the bend I'll figure out the plot of this novel. You'll see. Or I will, more to the point.

Monday, January 17, 2011

missed calculations

Interesting article this weekend in the Globe and Mail about scientists studying dyscalculia, a disorder or disability that affects some children's comprehension of arithmetic, the way dyslexia affects some in their ability to read. Fascinating stuff, and it makes you hopeful that educators will figure out a way to deal with innumeracy before the kids grow up and try to fill out their tax form.

I did not ever suffer from dyscalculia, but I got sidetracked all the same on my way to "realizing my potential" in numberland, many successful Sudokus later notwithstanding. When I was young, though I didn't have miles of snow to walk through, I did subscribe to the idea that girls don't like math. This had nothing to do with the evidence in front of me, it was just typical 50s/60s nonsense. (It's changed now, and the popular culture has the boys striving to be the slackers, but back in the 50s and 60s it was the girls and women who were the comic relief.)

At the time, I was hazy on what my ideas about feminism (or women's lib, a nice, dismissive term) actually were. It's a long process, figuring out your own life, and the society you've landed in. I certainly didn't put it together (add it up) that I was born with an aptitude for numbers as well as words, and should (could!) use both. I think there was also an element of rebellious rejection of my father, the math teacher. He was not an easy man, close up. Or across town, either. He left our mother, and consequently us (except for weekends and holidays) very early on; quite the trendsetter back then. Irony of course: I can't tell you how many of his former students I've run into who tell me what a fantastic math teacher he was, and more irony; I never had a decent one myself.

It's too bad, because a teacher even remotely as good as the one my father's students described, would have made a big difference to me. While I remember complete joy in puzzling stuff out when I was young, I don't remember it having much to do with school. I've one crystal memory of a teacher pouring water on me though, in quite the wet-blanket moment. I was excited, energized by some number factoid my mother had explained to me, and couldn't wait to tell my teacher this revelation. She dismissed it; I can still feel the letdown as my shoulders sagged. Maybe because she hadn't thought of it first, or maybe because it wasn't in her lesson plan; I have no idea. (My mother could have taught me too, if she hadn't been slogging off to work every day, Head Teller in a bank where she got to train her managers, speaking of feminism. She used to enjoy getting Scientific American for the math puzzles. I thought that was pretty cool. Still, I thought girls didn't like math. Figure that puzzle out.)

High school is supposed to be the greatest time, blah, blah, blah. As my son said to me, when his time came: They lied. I remember my first math teacher in Grade 8. She was a kindly old woman (old to my eyes). Each class she'd half-heartedly cover a bit of something or other, and then she'd read to us; I think it was Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I'd already read). It was excruciatingly tedious. I don't remember the Grade 9 teacher at all, but I remember the Algebra textbook. I'd work out each homework problem as the teacher worked his way around the class the day we were supposed to have it done, just in case he (I think it was a he) called on me. I never actually did the work at home.

In Grade 10 it was Geometry and the teacher was hopeless. (I know that current curriculum is completely different; I'd be clueless now, sigh. At first :) Yet I must have understood him, because everyone around me kept asking me to explain what he'd just said. Then Grade 11, oh man, I better not say too much, as it might be libelous. I remember feeling such contempt for the guy, it was hard to sit through a class. I got As that year, along with lousy marks for work habits. Which is fair enough. I didn't have an industrious bone in my body, or maybe I should say I didn't have an inspired bone in my body.

In spite of all this, I still meant to take Math 12, along with Physics 12, because that's what my brother had taken, but my "guidance" counselor suggested that sounded like a lot of work. (She was no feminist, was she? Oh the sixties, don't you miss them?) Well, as it happens I was a lazy and miserable teenager, and I thought, yikes, work! so of course I took Graphic Arts and Sewing instead. Which is not to slag the usefulness of either of those courses either, but I already knew how to sew (and anyway, I had two, not one, but two, sewing classes, so could have spared the block). Graphic Arts was great though, because the teacher turned us on to Pink Floyd.

I wanted to go to university (did go) but in that single, thoughtless moment, the counselor steered me away from half my options. It's that easy to accomplish with the young and directionless, and I don't thank her.

Where were my parents? you ask. Ah, we weren't one of those kinds of families. Mom was at work, and Dad didn't live with us (and also had a misogynistic bias to match that counselor's myopia, I'm afraid. He said to me once about a former student of his whom I'd met: "She wasn't a bad math student, for a girl." Don't tell his former students.).

No, I was pretty much on my own figuring out the path to here. Had to finally do some homework and make some corrections, but things are adding up pretty well. (Are you groaning yet?)
Remember slide rule's? Math 12 would have unlocked this one's mysteries for me.

Monday, January 10, 2011

the way I see things

I stopped wearing contact lenses last year. This was a big decision. I suppose I was an early adopter; I got my first pair of hard lenses when I was 18, back in 1970. That's a while ago. (I got green ones, because I thought it'd be cool to have green eyes. Then I was embarrassed by people commenting on my eye-colour. I never fake any other colours. No make-up, no hair colour. Long ago I reverted to my own colour, which is called hazel, a term for indeterminate, and in my case, the hazel isn't the same in both eyes.)

Once I was up and running with contacts, which took perseverance, believe me, I set aside my coke-bottle glasses, and pretended to be among the able-sighted. That was a little difficult with those early hard lenses, because they would occasionally pop out, or sometimes slide off my iris, and float up the white of my eyeball. While this was more stomach-churning, at first, and apparently always to onlookers, it was easier to find the lens. But most of the time, I just presented my face to the world, uncluttered by glasses.

I like to swim, and one day discovered goggles, which meant I could now see when in the pool, too. I became a good swimmer after this. It's funny, but I don't think anyone (including myself) ever figured out that some of my physical and social ineptitude in the world, had to do with not seeing things very clearly. Social, as in "ignoring" people in the swimming pool, which was really a case of me not recognizing anyone who was farther away than about three feet. Physical, as in I remember absolute terror dealing with surf in California, and hey, it was because I couldn't judge the waves at all before they were on me. It's made me a bit 'chicken' not being able to see. It's a problem people can't see, that you can't see, causing more social problems.

Hard lenses became intolerable several years ago, because of my eyes being dryer, imagine (just another of the interesting side-effects of aging, to go along with strange spots and bumps on your skin). By now my brain was well used to seeing clearly, and switching back into glasses was hard. Among other things, peripheral vision isn't addressed by glasses. So I tried soft lenses. This was a good transition, as now I could walk through most dust storms without falling to my knees weeping.

But I couldn't see so well anymore, as soft lenses don't correct accurately. They're guesstimates, which is fine if you're one of those irritating people who can walk around for awhile without your glasses before you miss them, but for me, it meant that anytime I was driving somewhere unfamiliar, I had to make a lot of u-turns or similar contortions, because street signs were useless until I was under them.

Then the soft lenses started to bug me too (time marches on, eh?) and then, miracle of miracles, an optometrist actually produced a pair of glasses that I could see through. Unfortunately, switching between glasses and contacts is very disorienting; I swear it makes my brain hurt. It has something to do with the contact of those contacts—pressing the correction right against your eye mean's there's no distortion. That little bit of distance from your eye to your nose? It makes a difference.

I had considered laser surgery, but found I wasn't as eager anymore to be an early adopter of anything involving my eyes. And then as the contacts bugged me more, and I began to think, well maybe, surgery, I was told I was a bit too old. Too old! Unless I had the kind of surgery that's done for cataracts, where they implant a lens. But that's for Old People, I thought. I'm not ready for that!

I occasionally had nightmares about not being able to see, recurring ones, all anxiety dreams involving my contacts. Either my eyes wouldn't open, or they were gummed up, or the contacts broke—which has happened—or the contacts were so large I couldn't get them back in my head. It's interesting I've never had a dream where I just thought oh, well, I'll just wear my glasses.

Which is what I finally decided, in my awake life. To wear glasses, exclusively. They're not as good as the old hard contacts—still no peripheral vision—but I make far fewer u-turns now, which is so much less stressful, and I don't seem to have those recurring dreams anymore, either. There is also much less of the coke-bottle about glasses nowadays (which helps the vanity I find I still have) if you can suck up the cost of the high-tech lenses (which I did, because seeing well is so critical). My lenses came from Germany, if you can imagine.

I've tossed the contacts completely; they're so last year. I figured my brain needed to readjust itself to glasses, and just forget those years of simulated okayness, which is taking awhile, but I'm starting to not always notice the glasses sitting on my face. Except when I look in the mirror, I'm always slightly startled then. Who is that?

It turns out though, that glasses cause little stress. I find I haven't had to work out their issues in my dreams. It's been a real treat, after forty years of sticking a piece of plastic in each eye each morning, and then having to go through the production of getting them back out each evening, that I can even have naps now, without worrying about my eyes drying out and the plastic getting gummy against my cornea (it happens).  There is a real simplicity about the technology that I didn't appreciate when I was 18. Back then, I just thought glasses were ugly. That's a benefit of aging, I suppose, getting over that. Mind you when I first got glasses (I think I was 8) I only remember utter wonder, at being able to see leaves on the trees, and texture to the concrete sidewalk I was walking on.

But the other day I went swimming at a local pool, the new one, built for the Olympics (I know, they were Winter Olympics, but still somehow a new pool got built. We got a subway too, which is cool.). And I was back to the old problem. I know I could tie these (extraordinarily expensive) glasses to my head, but that's really uncomfortable. Or I could do what I used to do, which is set my towel and glasses down on a bench, and swim without them.

I realized that I am in fact quite disabled. The thin veneer of plastic I had on my eyes all these years obscured that fact. I was careful getting to the edge of the pool, and then hopped in. I've forgotten the feel of water against my eyes, though I used to always open my eyes underwater. But that's 40 years ago! Ah, you don't forget how, and the chlorine in the pool still does not feel great.

But what's the greatest challenge is the business of discerning the end of the pool before you bash your head on it. And dodging fast-moving swimmers. It wasn't that relaxing, I have to tell you. But I still got in a half-kilometre. I like to swim longer, but it's the first swim in months, and the first one blind, in decades, so I won't beat myself up about it. And I will go again, on a less crowded day, and take my time, as behooves someone getting on in years.

Then I stumbled out to my towel, and put back on those precious marvels of human ingenuity, eyeglasses, and I thought about how nice it was that I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye.