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The Outsiders

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It’s an ugly truth.

Show me the food and I’m there.

For the past month, I’ve been crash-learning to become an instructor, but a sidebar to this story is that I’ll pretty much go anywhere they promise to feed me.

You see I’m in the midst of a 5 session tutor-training program at my local college campus. Cookies, muffins and coffee are provided as a courtesy and an incentive. Damn it, they know me well.

I’m hammering away at becoming a volunteer tutor to literacy-challenged adults (verbalizing the word illiterate doesn’t conform to modern polite discussion I’m told) and since I have a passion for reading and writing, it feels like a perfect Cinderella glass-slipper fit.

Cinderella? CinderFella?… as per my usual state in life, once again I find myself in a classroom surrounded by women. Seven or 8 women, all shapes and sizes, all sharply intelligent, aged between about 30 and 70 years.

YUP, no men… NADA… just me as the solo Testoster-lad. I look around the room and discover myself in that “Familiar as my own face in the glass; as the speech of my own tongue” (Victor Hugo).- role of describing myself as the token male in the group.

I’m an outsider.

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I’m surprised there aren’t some men involved. It seems that almost everything I associate myself with (laboratory career, yoga, spin/boot camp classes, soup kitchen, chick flicks) becomes a hen party where I’m frequently the solitary rooster… what’s with that?

If I felt that I was somehow effeminate… or had homosexual leanings… maybe if I grew a set of breasts (moobs don’t count)… maybe if I cut back on my sugar consumption… then perhaps, just perhaps it somehow would make logical sense, maybe become even a touch understandable. So many maybes and ifs.

I need some sort of translator or transmogrifier to explain to me the reasons behind my ability to GPS the hots spots where women congregate. Do you think Donald Trump might be able to explain it to me?

I’m an outsider.

There are times when I’m conscious of the way Janis Ian must have felt when she penned the tune “At Seventeen“… the heart-rending  anthem for those (young girls) who see themselves as outsiders in their own world, their own society.

Of course Janis Ian mournfully lamented the outsider’s life… in most ways, I happily cherish the outsider role I find myself in, it’s a part of my comfort zone.

The adult student(s) I’ll be working one-on-one with will be an outsider(s). I know this. They live their lives in morbid fear of being discovered for what they can’t do (read/write) that so many others can.

It’s a secret pact they work hard at keeping, like my Alzheimer’s afflicted brother who verbally stickhandles around his deteriorating memory with graceful aplomb.

It’s sad but hopeful too because outsiders are often the ones who become superheroes. Outsiders can see the things and people that need help, need change. They’ve lived their lives with their nose against the glass looking in, watching and listening to the insiders.

……….

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While I was gnawing my way through a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie at tutor-training the other day, Mary, the guest instructor, shared 3 rules for being a good writer. She said:

  1. Read lots.
  2. Write frequently and consistently.
  3. Carefully observe the subtle nuances of life surrounding you.

That third point is critically important in writing.

It’s as if we take a microscope to our world and drill in on the fine points, like a lab tech discerning one type of white blood cell from another in a blood smear. People rely on that lab person to know the details and fine points in order to diagnose and treat their disease.

Similarly, people reading stories rely on the writer to dig in deep and carefully paint a picture in the reader’s mind so it’s as if they were present themselves. It’s exhilarating to feel ourselves within the story.

Blue sky isn’t just blue sky, it’s indigo like blocks of igloo ice at dusk. A richly detailed picture painted in our mind.

It’s the writer that pays attention closely and observes as each day’s seconds press onward into minutes and hours, the world churning and mingling in a semi-organized tangle.

Closely observing and simultaneously participating actively in life don’t go together seamlessly. Knowing this, the writer more often sits in silence, absorbing the shading and subtlety of each moment… the egg yolk tinge of sunset, the subdued upward shift of the speaker’s eye as they concentrate on an important point.

Where was I again? Ah yes… Outsiders. Outsiders show up to life in a huge variety of Halloween costumes, often unrecognizable to the casual observer.

As a frequent outsider myself, I understand my role when I meet with my new student next week will be to look past the costume and find the real person, the real fears and worries behind his bluster and awkward humour.

I’ll need my writer’s superhero observational powers to uncover the true nature of his unease and motivations.

It will be challenging and hard work for us both.

It might be difficult, it might be inelegant, but I hope I’ll work past my own rookie fears to help make another outsider aware of his own superhero abilities.

And if it helps, I’ll even share my cookies.

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Battle or Love Affair? Book vs. E-Reader

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Minion brawl

Let the bloody, eviscerating brawl begin…

  • Sydney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin
  • Ironman vs. Tough Mudder
  • Ali vs. Frazier
  • Tiger Cats vs. Argonauts
  • Hillary vs. Donald

I sit quietly gazing to where the evening’s flaming nectarine-pink sky meets the watery horizon in an arrow straight line, quietly pondering on the full spectrum of humanity’s aggressive battles.

Our world has suffered greatly and soared magnificently all because of the struggle of competition. Weeds and flowers entangled in Olympic rings.

My poor little heart was blown apart and scattered in pieces when, as a lovestruck teenager another A-hole… er… young man… outmuscled my charms and stole back his pretty ex-girlfriend whom I was head-over-men’s-70’s-style-high-heels  in love with.

There were no sun, stars, or moon tracing their arc across my miserable sky for many weeks…  (Just for the record she returned a few months later begging me, pleading… okay, mildly requesting… for a second chance when his allure faded quickly).

Competition. Suffered and soared.

Competition exists in countless areas of life,  Italian Pasta vs. Indian Curry or… Honda vs. Ford…

… or… traditional book vs. e-reader.

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I’ve lived these decades of my life with a reverence for books… those solid, stolid and satisfying reads and beautiful works of visual art arranged upright like beautiful ceremonial soldiers at attention in a ceiling-high dark-toned oak bookshelf.

I’ve fondled and nuzzled a book while warm sunshine caressed my toes stretching towards the ocean.

I’ve absorbed the lover’s touch, the alluring scent, the romantic feeling of flight at turning another enticing page, drawing me ahead with great expectation.

I’ve inhaled the words tracing mysterious laneways and winding paths across the pages; road trips where some incredibly talented author – a person just like you or me – has insidiously seized the inside of my brain and taken me intellectually and emotionally on a journey of scope and intensity well beyond my imaginings.

Who amongst us hasn’t remembered the passage of a memorable and meaningful story we read during the days of our younger selves?

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While backpacking my way across Europe in my early 20’s I sat in cavernous Munich hauptbahnhofs and Parisian gares patiently passing hours waiting for trains. Laid out against my backpack, I sipped strong espresso and read the at-the-time inspiring story of Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED before hopping in and out of train compartments and book chapters.

Then came the intensely human Leon Uris books (EXODUS, TRINITY) of ordinary people who grew into powerful figures within the founding of modern day Israel and struggling Northern Ireland.

The paperbacks I toted from Belgium to Denmark to Greece became grimy, worn, torn and tattered but the spellbinding lure of their stories remained.

And yet, despite all of this sensory wonder, this tactile magic, I have to admit that I’ve been largely wooed and converted from the traditional centuries-old hardcover or paper-bound book over to the slick, compact e-reader side of the tracks.

It’s just too damned easy.

I can carry a weighty bookshelf of reading material in the palm of my man-hand.

I can travel to any corner of the world, to the peak of Machu Picchu or the tombs of the Terra Cotta Warriors and in a moment, sit and become absorbed by a huge compendium of writing.

And even more magical is that, in my moments of fleeting ADHD need for change, a totally different reading experience is divinely available within a few seconds of Wi-Fi connection and a few dollars.

A new book, a new literary feast arrives at my table.

Woman reading an e-book on a tube train in London

Harry Potter may have his magic wand, but my e-reader (KOBO) contains a powerful wizardly set of its own potions.

The sorcery of the e-reader gives me a lighted page to read in a blackened room, a larger font for reading when my reading glasses have gone AWOL, a built-in dictionary that lifts me over the difficult word fences. These are truly powerful and alluring forces…

And yet…

Although I love the convenience of the electronic book, I reconnected over the last few weeks with my past. I found a comfortable homey place within myself as I became absorbed in a paperbound book (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) recently left behind by visiting friends.

The tender warm feel, the weight, the light sandpaper texture of paper against my skin was a sensual experience only heightened by the elegantly beautiful weaving of words within its pages. Each fulfilling sentence seemed to breathe deeply like a bursting popcorn kernel coming to life.

It was a combination of two souls – the physical, the emotional – where elation meets that relaxed sensation of returning home after a lengthy journey.

The same words read in an electronic reader would have likely seemed dimensionless, flat like a glass of Coke left on the kitchen counter overnight.

This is a brawl where no knockout punch will deliver satisfaction.

Any book, whether read from a heavy hardcover, a flimsy paperback, or a Kindle or KOBO, that delivers a sense of meaning to us – joy or heartbreak, entertainment or education – is a champion.

I won’t try to pick a winner in the “reading wars”.

There will be no Book’ish Bloodshed here today.

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PS. Where do YOU stand in the physical book versus e-reader universe?

 

 

 

 

The Non-Oprah Business Boys Book Club …

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Do you follow Oprah’s Book List?

She is HUGE in the book club world.

If I wanted to increase my tiny blog readership by millions overnight, I would just kidnap and drug Oprah and have her make a woozy public statement on Twitter or Facebook about how wonderful my blog is.

Then I could buy a Caribbean island and share evening cocktails with Richard Branson and Kate Upton, ” … I just love the saltiness of this Russian beluga caviar, don’t you Sir Richard?“… “Kate, you were fabulous in that Bartender video with Lady Antebellum!

Just FYI … Oprah’s latest book choice is called RUBY by Cynthia Bond. I haven’t read it so I can’t comment.

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I don’t follow Oprah’s list closely, but I do pay attention to another book list of someone I admire.

But first …

I’m an investor. Not a superstar investor  à la Carl Icahn or Warren Buffett or George Soros, but I do alright.

My largest stock market holdings are Apple and Microsoft, with that daffy featherbrained AFLAC duck holding down 3rd spot in the portfolio.

I have a great deal of respect for the thinking of business/investment leaders like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway).

Whether you hate or love business types, they’ve been creative in finding ways to enrich their personal bank accounts while simultaneously helping to create a HUGE group of others who can include themselves in the Millionaire’s Club.

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My own retirement “package” is in no small part thanks to their creative abilities … creation of products that people – myself included – want to buy, and creation of my personal wealth. Every billion iPads you buy means I get an all-expenses paid trip south.

Today though, I’m more interested in talking about how these business boys invest their “spare” time. Reading.

To my advantage over the years, I’ve read a number of investing and business books that Warren Buffett has recommended. Of course I didn’t read or learn enough to avoid losing $25,000 on YBM Magnex, a Canadian company that was actually Russian mob controlled. For real …

If you’re at all interested in stock market investing, you could do far worse than read Buffett’s recommendation of The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.

And just lately, I’ve begun looking over the annual reading list of Bill Gates … yup, the God of Microsoft… the Master of Mister Softy… the King of … well, you get my point.

Bill Gates is a consummate nerd, a ruthless, but savvy businessman who is now doing some incredibly amazing stuff in Third World countries as a philanthropist.

And because of his financial resources and connections to other wealthy individuals, he’s having as much or more of an impact on the health and welfare of millions than entire governments, including that of Barack Obama.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, Bill has assimilated the skills of time management. He finds a way to read a book each week, mostly non-fiction, with the occasional fiction novel slipping in from time to time.

I pat myself on the back if I can turn away from the absorbing Netflix dramas House of Cards or Orange is the New Black long enough to read one book per month.

So today, let me introduce you to Bill’s Book Club.

Below are 5 of Gates’ favourite reads from 2014, four of them non-fiction and the fifth a quirky, charming fiction novel:

  1. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.
  2. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  3. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil.
  4. Business Adventures, by John Brooks.

And finally, Bill Gates’ fiction choice and the book that I’ve read most recently. It’s called:

5. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

Rosie and Bill Gates

This is one quirky, sometimes confusing, sometimes hilarious novel because of its nerdy main character Don Tillman.

I don’t watch the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, but I’ve seen enough previews and interviews from the show to gather that Tillman would be a perfect fit if they were ever seeking new cast members.

Everything genetics professor Tillman pursues in life is given a research folder and a name… eg. The Wife Project, The Father Project, and yes, The Rosie Project. 

Professor Don Tillman is unmarried and his social ineptitude has resulted in a track record of bizarre and unsatisfactory dating experiences.

His interpretation of the statistics leads him to conclude he needs a wife, hence The Wife Project, which eventually morphs into The Rosie Project. This is where he decides to vet applicants for his Wife Project with a 16-page (double-sided) questionnaire, in the interests of efficiency. Yup, he really does have potential dates fill out the questionnaire.

Don is wired differently than most of us – he mentally assesses the age and BMI of everyone he meets – but he has integrity, focus, and determination, and it is pretty hard not to feel empathy with him even while laughing at his missteps.

It’s a slightly odd novel that also made me think about what makes relationships work and how we have to keep investing time and energy to make them better.

Don is out to lunch when it comes to subtle social cues. But if you need to secretly collect DNA samples from 117 people at a party (part of The Father Project), there’s nobody in the world who’s going to do a better job.

What Don allowed me to appreciate is that, just because somebody might not be highly literate in the language of emotions doesn’t mean he doesn’t have emotions, deeply felt emotions. He sees the world in terms of logic, but he feels just as deeply about that world as everybody else.

So, if you’re stuck in a nasty first-of-March blizzard, wind howling down your chimney, after the House of Cards episode ends, you can pick up Oprah’s book choice, RUBY.

Or maybe if you want to make your next read a fun “Project”, try a taste of Bill Gates’ choice in THE ROSIE PROJECT.

Invest in a good story.

Rosie Project

 

 

 

 

An Okanagan Christmas Story

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Summerland lights

It was an unusual year in that there was snow on the ground.

Not just a skiff of the white, but enough fluffy ivory to strap on the cross-country skis and glide quietly between the rows of trees in the apple orchard. Just a muffled swoosh swoosh swoosh and the occasional chirp of a tiny pine siskin perched in the tall evergreens at the edge of the field.

The sky was a dull-grey and the unseasonally chill air froze my eyelashes with a frosty glaze. No more than 15 minutes, I figured. A good hard ski to get the blood flow running and then back into the warmth in front of the woodstove, ablaze with the fragrant chunks of fir I’d cut last spring.

The morning’s light had surfaced only an hour earlier as the moments grew close to the winter solstice.

I got dressed in my day clothes after the combination of muscle heat and fire warmth had penetrated sufficiently. Then popping on my Sorel boots at the back door, I headed out into the cold once again.

My retirement “job” this morning was to spend a few hours at One-to-One reading with some grade schoolers at Trout Creek Elementary – kids who were struggling with their reading ability and could benefit from some one-on-one coaching.

I slipped through the fence gate into the school’s playground. It was fun to see and encounter the little tykes as they chatted excitedly about their families and friends as if we were old buddies. The experience was all the more heartwarming because in the back halls of my mind were the memories of the days I spent here on the same playground and classrooms in my childhood.

A snowy day like this in the Okanagan Valley was confirmation that Christmas day and Santa’s arrival would come about with certainty.

The morning passed. I saw four youngsters in half hour segments.

We sat next to each other in short chairs at a small shiny amber veneer-top table in the small library across from the computer room next to the school’s front entry door.

First, little Tyler, a 7 year-old who wanted to be a drummer-musician like his uncle Teddy and knew with robust confidence the life histories of each of the Beatles, as well as their song catalogue. When he was able to refrain from wiggling, his reading skills were not too bad – clearly he could read the words – although when asked a question about the story, understanding the words read was a totally different matter.

Next up to practice her reading was 9 year-old Melissa, a dark-haired princess with baby-blue-painted fingernails  – she might have been confused for a little Ariana Grande in a dimmed room. Melissa was very socially aware and would eye each student entering the library as if she were a talent scout seeking America’s Next Great Model. “Did you see the belt on that Grade 5 girl’s skirt, it’s the wrong colour. I’d choose something red for her.

Reading wasn’t a problem for little adult Melissa, she could likely pick up and understand words beyond my comprehension if she was able to focus on the page rather than on the social scene passing by.

Next. Joseph. Not Joe. Joseph. Taking his biblical name to heart, this Grade 1 youngster was timid but made it clear that the books he wanted to read were stories from the Bible. Public schools in this province don’t carry a selection of biblical material, so I convinced him that story books filled with characters of strong moral values, like Mortimer Moose, could be seen through a context of the Bible. He bought into this and we were on our way. Amen.

Finally, a skinny log of a kid with tousled blond hair and red red cheeks post snowy-recess, stood, looking in through the library door. “Are you Peter?“, I asked.

He nodded shyly and moved forward a step and stopped. “Come in and have a chair, Peter. I’m Mr. Green. You’re my last reading buddy before Christmas break.”

Peter nudged forward and plunked himself on the seat, arms flat at his sides. He looked down at the table and said nothing. No smile. No movement.

Never having read with Peter before, I glanced silently through the brief notes left in a manila folder given to me by his teacher Mrs. Jermyn.

Hmmmm. “Peter Briskman. 8 years-old. Grade 3. Moved to Summerland one year ago with his father, Jacob Briskman. Mother Carla, died from cancer 2 years ago in Calgary. Quiet boy – advanced for age in most academic areas.” Such a sad story, I thought to myself.

Thinking I’d break the ice first before we settled into reading, I asked, “I like snow days like today. Is one of the snowmen I saw in the playground yours?

Keeping his face pointed downwards, he spoke reluctantly in a quiet voice.

I used to build snowmen when I was little and lived in Calgary. But not anymore. Now I make Mountain Goats.

– Really? Mountain goats? That’s kind of unusual. Why mountain goats and not snowmen? Is there a Disney movie about mountain goats that I missed?

No. Mountain goats live on steep hillsides where it’s dangerous and they eat the little bits of grass that grow between the stones. It’s very hard for them to live, but they find a way, even if it’s -50 outside. And, even if they’re injured they protect their babies against cougars and eagles. Have you seen one before?

I had seen the white shaggy goats many times, clambering along the rocky screed hillsides overlooking Okanagan Lake north of Summerland. Often, I would see groups of 3, sometimes 5 or 6 way up high in the distance of the steep rises above the highway. But I didn’t want to stop Peter from talking since we were just establishing some rapport so I said, “No, never.

– I can show you one I made on the back field today. I started it before the bell rang at the beginning of classes and then finished it at recess. Would you like to see it? We don’t have to go outside, I can show it to you through the window.

– Sure.

Peter ran ahead, leading me past a few scattered little tables to the window in the corner of the library.

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He stopped and pointed towards the area in front of the tetherball court in the centre of the playground. There was a lot of white out there; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust and take note of the large snow animal in the yard. It was an amazing likeness of the real thing. Even the sharp tapered white horns appeared genuine.

How had one little boy created such a sculpture? Had his Dad helped him build it before school began for the day? It was striking that it stood almost as big as the real animal; then, something unusual caught my eye.

– You’ve done an incredible job there Peter, but did you see that one of the goat’s legs is missing? Do you think maybe the snow wasn’t packed tightly and it crumbled?

The mountain goat had only 3 legs, a gap existed where the front right leg should be.

– Nope, that looks just like the one I see at home. I see it when I wake up and look out my bedroom window in the morning. It stands there and nudges its nose on my window. It gets the glass all steamy and gooey. Then it wont leave until I go and make it a cup of green tea and set it on the ledge outside the window. After it licks the tea all up, it turns and runs off into the trees behind our house.

I was about to respond when a man’s voice called out from behind.

– Peter? I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m Peter’s Dad, Jacob… I need to steal Peter away from you. I told Mrs. Jermyn I’d be here at a quarter to eleven to take him for his therapy session. I’m sorry if my timing is bad.

Peter turned and ran up to his father, “Hey Dad. Just gotta grab my backpack and coat and I’ll be set. See you in the new year Mr. Green.” 

I reached forward to shake Peter’s father’s hand.

Hi Mr. Briskman, I’m Mr. Green. Peter and I were going to do a reading one-to-one session but we never actually got started. It’s funny, but we got caught up talking about the snow creation he made outside. He’s an amazing little artist, such incredible talent for a youngster.

– Thank you. Yeah, Peter seems to have acquired some artistic skills from his mother, not me. I can’t draw a stick man that’s recognizable. But his mother, she could draw or make anything. She would sit around for hours – actually, she died a couple of years ago – but before she became sick, she’d be in her back art room drinking green tea, making charcoal sketches and working with clay, making sculptures of animals. Her animals looked so true-to-life that when people visited and saw her deer and mountain goat sculptures in the yard, they thought the beasts were real. We laughed so many times when visitors came to our door and mentioned the creatures standing in our yard. I guess Peter picked up her creative gene.

Mr. Briskman turned and began moving toward the library door. It was a moment of confusion for me listening to his words and the similarities with Peter’s story. I mulled the ideas about in my mind, trying to discern what was real and what was imagined; before he left the room, I asked,

 – I’m so sorry about your wife, Mr. Briskman. It must be very difficult for you and Peter coping with her loss. What was the cause of your wife’s death?

He paused momentarily at the door, and with a haunted look of longing for days gone by and a love that had left far too early, he replied,

She had an aggressive osteosarcoma in her right leg.

His eyes grew dewy and I could see a slight quiver at the corner of his mouth. He hesitated a few seconds before continuing.

– They eventually amputated her leg when the chemo couldn’t stop the tumour from growing. It was just too late to save her.

Shaking his head, he snapped back to the moment, regaining his composure.

– I’ve got to run now. Peter needs to get to his counselling appointment. He’s had a really hard time finding ways to deal with his Mom’s death. 

He paused.

– Mr. Green? Thanks for helping Peter … and … Have a Merry Christmas.

We shook hands once more; Mr. Briskman disappeared and I too paused in thought.

Then as I began to gather my things to leave, I turned to look out the window once more at the noble snow sculpture standing proud in the schoolyard and wondered if young Peter had somehow, already, in his own way, begun to work through the loss of a mother’s love and nurturing.

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