Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “writing”

Lost Souls

sunnybrook bank barnFor those of us whose hearts belong to critters, this has been a very sad spring.  I’m still stinging from the loss of Trixie, whose absence makes itself known in strange, small ways as I navigate my weeks.  Several friends have lost long-time companions — dogs, cats, a sheep with a personality bigger than she was. 

And then came utterly tragic news in the early morning hours of Victoria Day (May 21).  This time my grief is shared with thousands of others, because as well as I knew the horses who perished, they were also loved by half of Toronto.

You might know where I’m going with this.  It made national, even international headlines (in fact, the friend who first alerted me, did so from Germany).  

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Sunnybrook Stables, a place where I taught beginner riders a couple of days a week, in a park in the heart of Toronto, burnt to the ground early that morning, trapping 16 of my good friends inside with no hope of escape.  

Here’s what I wrote for The Rider, an Ontario-based equine newspaper.  

HISTORIC TORONTO STABLE BURNS IN VICTORIA DAY FIRE

In the 21st century, horses and urban humans don’t often mix.  But Toronto’s Sunnybrook Stables, located in the lush Sunnybrook Park at Leslie and Eglinton, gave inner-city kids (and adults) a chance to interact with horses and learn to ride.  Along with its sister facility, the Riding Academy, located at Exhibition Place near the Lake Ontario waterfront, Sunnybrook offered a unique opportunity to Toronto’s urbanites:  stables that can be reached by mass transit.
The two-alarm fire that destroyed Sunnybrook’s historic bank barn in the wee hours of Victoria Day, May 21st, 2018, made international news.  Quick action by Toronto firefighters and police, who were summoned after an observer in a nearby apartment complex saw the flames, saved the newer barn which adjoins Sunnybrook’s indoor arena, and the 13 horses inside.  The Toronto Police Mounted Unit swiftly mobilized their own trailers to relocate the survivors to the stables at the Horse Palace.  Sixteen school horses, however, lost their lives in the fire, which totally consumed the bank barn.
The barn, which was built around 1910 as part of the estate of Major Joseph Kilgour, and was donated to the city of Toronto in 1928, became part of Sunnybrook Park, an urban oasis of trees, trails, picnic grounds, soccer fields … and a riding school. 
Walter Shanly founded Sunnybrook Stables Ltd. in 1979, leasing the facility from the city.  Shanly passed away in September 2017, and his widow, Jacquelynn, now operates the school.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.  It is not considered to have been suspicious, despite the rumoured presence of individuals setting off fireworks in the park that evening.
At this time, with future plans for rebuilding uncertain, Sunnybrook Stables has asked that fund-raising be put on hold.  If you wish to make a contribution, they suggest Greenhawk gift cards, which can be used towards replacing the lost tack for the surviving horses.  A permanent memorial for the horses, in the park, is in the planning stages. 

 

Axel Sampson SandyWhen a privately-owned horse passes away, those closest to that animal grieve, of course.  But the school horses at Sunnybrook were known, and loved, by literally thousands of Torontonians, each with their own special memories of a favourite horse or pony.  Some of the Sunnybrook mounts had been resident in the park for upwards of 20 years.  The outpouring of sorrow on social media has been overwhelming, as have been the offers of funds, supplies, and green field time for the survivors. 

I only had 1000 words to work with for the story, and I included a very brief description of each of the schoolies who were my work partners and my friends.  I could easily have written a thousand words on each of them.  So here, where no-one’s policing my wordcount, I thought I’d say a little more, so that they are not forgotten.schoolies

Sugar – one of Sunnybrook’s beginner specialists, Sugar was a red roan mare with a dished face and a big blaze.  Her history as a Western pleasure mount gave her a super-slow trot and a rocking-chair canter, perfect for nervous riders.  She had a sensitive mouth, which taught her young charges an important element of empathy.  

Axel – a chestnut paint gelding, narrow and long-backed.  A legendary grouch in the barn, Axel had to be caught in his stall by the staff, as he’d turn his butt and threaten to kick kids who entered his stall.  But he was a surprisingly willing partner for Sunnybrook’s intermediate riders in the arena, giving them just enough challenge without ever verging on unsafe.  He really shone over fences.

Sampson – one of the barn’s newer recruits, a cheeky black-and-white large pony who was a little green. He provided a nice challenge for the school’s more advanced riders, as he could get a little on the muscle — a change from the horses they had to kick to get moving.  

Sandy – a little Appaloosa pony mare who was winding down to retirement and only used lightly in the school.  I’ll be honest:  riding Sandy was like a free chiropractic adjustment:  she was that uncomfortable.  But those who loved her, loved her fiercely.  

Sutherland – the absolutely indispensible “Sudsy”, a 20-something gray Percheron/Arab cross, was beginner-friendly but forward, which is a fairly rare combination.  Sutherland had been at Sunnybrook so long that few remembered a time before him.  Low to the ground but sturdy, he carried adults and tiny kids with equal aplomb.  He wouldn’t bother heaving himself into the air over cross-rails and little verticals, preferring just to trot over them.  The jumps had to reach a certain height before he’d make an effort.  I loved him for that.

Hercules – a liver chestnut Welsh cross, Herc could shuffle in slow-motion or turn it up a notch.  He would mess with his small riders by drifting off the rail into the middle of the ring to test their steering skills.  I had to laugh at him.  If you can learn to ride a pony well, you can ride anything.

Poomba – 12 hands of pure cheek! Flaxen chestnut Poomba, much prettier than the Disney warthog, would babysit to a degree, but he could also be a handful.  Over fences, he was on springs, rocketing kids out of the saddle with his exuberance.   He also had a wicked set of brakes.

Blossom – a black-and-white medium pony mare with a kind heart and enough quality to have not been out of place on the A circuit.  She took exceptional care of the kids on her back and seldom displayed much pony-tude.  

Apollo – of Pony of the Americas breeding, freckled Apollo was under 10, but behaved like a much more seasoned pony.  We could always count on his level head — and we instructors thanked gawd for him sometimes.  

Phoenix — one of Sunnybrook’s more recent recruits, Phoenix was a gray Arabian mare who had been there just under a year.  Something of a nervous Nellie in the barn, she was surprisingly well-trained and confident under saddle.  A fun ride for the more advanced kids.

Tess – a bay Quarter Horse mare with a downhill build, Tess played the grumpy mare card but was very well-schooled, with some fancy dressage moves in her repertoire.  I sympathized with her lack of enthusiasm for ham-handed, bratty kids, and tried to make my students appreciate her as a hidden gem.

Misty – a red roan mare of predominantly QH breeding, with one split ear, Misty was goey, sensitive, and a little spooky, not for a beginner.  She knew her stuff over fences, and was a favourite of the instructors as a mount for themselves.

Marty – a dark bay Thoroughbred mare who was a nice junior hunter before arthritic hocks slowed her down, Marty was also for the more advanced students.  She defended her stall space like a barracuda, and gave students a taste of ‘more go than whoa’.

Gifford – Sunnybrook’s mini mascot, reputed to be about 38 years old, was adored by everyone.

Beau – an irreplaceable beginner hero, this big yellow Appaloosa gelding trucked around tiny children and large, awkward adults with equal equanimity.  For a first taste of canter, you couldn’t do better than Beau, who went off instructor voice commands.  On the list of horses who should be nominated for sainthood, Beau was near the top of the list.

Mr. T – another stalwart who had been at Sunnybrook almost longer than anyone could remember.  T was an almost-black Clyde cross, with a dignified Roman nose and the kindest eyes you could imagine.  The extra white hairs sprinkled around those eyes spoke to his long years of service.  Thanks to his size, T was another kind soul who got riders both large and small hoisted on his back, and he was our go-to for anyone who was special-needs, because we could trust him to the ends of the earth.  T never got grumpy about his lot as an uber-dependable beginner mount, and viewed the world with quiet bemusement.   I will miss him most of all.

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Larger Than Life

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In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto.  I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.

If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction.  If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you:  this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat.  Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia.  Gawd, it wrote itself.

I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado.  Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless.  There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse. 

I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June.  I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.   

If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career.  (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.)  He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation.  Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record.  Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:

Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year.  He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack.  So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States.  Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny.  None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.

Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine.  The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November.  To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.

The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup.  Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.  

Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree.  But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again.  I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.

A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008.  The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things.  I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity.  It really was an extraordinary season.  

Second Class Citizen, or, Why I Wasn’t at the Royal Winter Fair This Year

citizenSo there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway).  I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.

That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.

I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest.  I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.

We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).

But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.

Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal.  Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.

Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance.  I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal.  A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork.  And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper.  There, the secret’s out.  (It was many, many years ago, folks …)

Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year.  It was all very pleasant and civilized.  These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh.  (Full disclosure:  I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart.  Not that I was offered any.) 

One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking.  There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty.  Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media??  I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question.  Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck.  More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.  

ain't nobodyLast year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head.  The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s.  We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets.  Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived.  (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded.  Fanfuckingtastic.)   In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.

In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.

I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?”  Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle.  I never have.  Frankly, I was absolutely furious:  my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades.  Are. You.  Fucking.  Kidding me??

Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?”  Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey.  We are not.

And here’s the rub:  I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant.  Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else.  In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair.  Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.

But the thing is:  there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor.  I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’.  And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years:  the Royal is irrelevant.  

And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make.  For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year:  Goat Yoga.  

FFS.  Really?

Last year, it was bunny jumping.  As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over.  Christ on a cracker.

If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid.  It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years.  The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock

butter turkey

This is a turkey sculpted from butter.  Pretty much says it all about the Royal.

hen?  Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk.  The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread.  They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing.  But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.  

Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.

On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self.  So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes.  (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels.  My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again.  The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)  

royal people

Royal people.  One of the little joys was always watching for the fashion gaffes … of which there were many.

 

Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky).  Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows.  In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it.  That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.

The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is stressing this kid out to the point where he/she is undressing ...

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is so profoundly disturbing that children are disrobing.  I don’t profess to understand it.

Royal Winter Fair anymore.  And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago.  Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.  

So no thanks to the Royal.  It can circle the drain without me.

 

 

 

 

 

Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed: Pay the Fucking Writers

dont-work-for-free.jpgAnother delightful rant on the subject of writing for free, especially for the Huffington Post, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s “terribleminds” blog.  Recommended, especially for some of the insults.

Excerpt:  “The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.

“…HuffPo would have you believe that not paying means that somehow, the integrity of the information remains intact. What it misunderstands is that, if HuffPo isn’t paying, then who is? Someone is always paying. Or, at the very least, someone is always selling something.”

Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed:  Pay the Fucking Writers.

30 Ways To Piss Off Reporters

Featured Image -- 2700Because it’s been a while since I posted anything writing-related … hell, it’s been a while since I posted anything, period. This is a nicely snarky perspective on the thorny relationship between PR and the media. My favourite is the press conference with no questions …

@conwayfraser

During media training sessions, I share examples of easy ways to completely piss off a reporter — not as a tutorial — but as a cheeky way to say DO NOT do these things ever if you want to maintain any kind of healthy relationship with media.

Below you will find the ones that bothered me when I worked as a journalist. There are definitely others so feel free to share in the comments section below. I had some help from some friends and former colleagues. So, please do add to the discussion.

Do any of these things, and you’re in for a world of fun. Trust me.

1. Tell a reporter how to do their job – They love that. Criticize the subjective tone or focus of a story while you’re at it. Bonus points if you can do this while never mentioning that the story was technically 100% accurate.

2…

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You Say Escapism Like It’s A Bad Thing

FARSCAPELike my friend Katherine Walcott, I’m a science fiction junkie. I like her take on the appeal of dependable SF archetypes, even if I don’t completely agree (Farscape, for example, is one series which liked to take two-dimensional villains and turn them inside out, even make them sympathetic or change sides on occasion).

Also, Ben Browder is exceedingly easy on the eyes.  Just sayin’.

Rodney's Off Topic

Science fiction and fantasy gets it in the neck for being shallow. Critics have it the wrong way round. The lack of depth is not a bug, it’s a feature. What is the point of escaping to somewhere if it looks just like the place you left?

In SF/F-land, the teams are obvious. The guy in the black armor who sounds like an asthmatic vacuum? He’s bad news. Avoid him. You are completely justified in taking him down. You are morally obliged to interfere with his plans as much as possible. Oh, sure he gets Redeemed, but he does so by turning his hat from black to white. The Dark Side doesn’t suddenly become sympathetic.

In the real world, your team depends on where you are standing. Fighting the government is illegal. Unless you win and establish your own country. They you are called a Patriot and have a day…

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Potty Mouth

rememberI am scarred for life.

I have been accused of being (gasp) a Potty Mouth.

As in, “Please take me off your mailing list.  We don’t do potty mouth here.”

This, in reference to my previous post, which used the expression “fucked up my back” early on and then never used another profanity for the rest of the rant.  (Which is rare, actually.)

Oh, the shame of it.  Oh, the humiliation.  I shall never be able to show my face in polite society again.  I shall have to rend my garments and go consider the error of my ways in some damp, inhospitable cave somewhere.

I am vulgar.

What are we, seven?

Seriously.  Just the expression, “potty mouth”.  It is to roll one’s eyes derisively.

(And besides, if this guy found himself on my blog list, he put himself there.  I didn’t subscribe him without his knowledge.  Asshat.)

The thing is, I like words.  I like them pretty much indiscriminately.  The English language has a few dozen words or expressions for just about every occasion (though, yes, it does fail miserably when it comes to pronouns for those of undefined, indeterminate or intermediate gender, especially in the plural).  One can pick and choose how one wishes to express oneself.  Does one wish to be forthright but subtle?  Or does one want to take the ‘blunt instrument’ route?  Does one prefer to obfuscate?  Tippy-toe around an issue with a euphemism, more often than not verging on the ridiculous?  (Because of course humans, especially white Anglo-Saxon ones who speak English, are very frightened of some concepts to do with sex and death, and prefer to skirt the issue in a little tarantella of denial.)

These are only a few of the delightful options.

pottymouth1

I don’t like to limit my options, so I refuse to villainize one word more than another.  Especially a massively, insanely useful word like “fuck’.  Much cleverer essayists than I (among them the immortal George Carlin, who dubbed it a noble word which ought to be a proper name, as in, “I am Fuck!  Fuck of the Mountain!”) have expounded on the vast flexibility of the word fuck — it’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s an adverb, it’s an adjective, it’s an expletive, it’s a descriptive, it’s a deed.  Fucking brilliant all ’round.  Why would we deny ourselves the use of such a crisp, easily pronounceable word with a fascinating lineage (going back to the 15th century, having crept into English from Dutch or Low German, sayeth the linguists)?

Fiddle-faddle, say I.  Horse hockey.  Um … pshaw.

Bollocks.

Oops.

Of course, I do recognize that there is a time and a place for some words.  I’ve been churning out articles for horse magazines for nigh on 20 years, and I can’t think of a single instance in which I felt compelled to make my point by resorting to ‘fuck’ or any of its vilified cousins.  I use medically correct anatomical terms, where appropriate, and since it’s not my job to opine, but to report, when I’m in journalist mode, I have little need for exclamative prose, even should my editors be inclined to publish same, which I am well aware they are not.

Most of us know which words are considered verboten and which are not.  Though really, the list is pretty arbitrary.  And it varies quite a lot from place to place.  Take the word “fanny”, for example.  In North America, it’s an innocuous, adorable euphemism for the human ass (yes, I said ass, not ‘buttocks’) …. in fact, Fanny was a common woman’s name up until the early 20th century, when it gradually fell out of favour.  But say offensivethe word “fanny” in South Africa, and you have been scandalous … there, and in some other places around the globe, it refers to the vagina and is considered a couple of levels more … cheeky.

Or watch the film, “Pirate Radio” (released in the UK and Europe as “The Boat That Rocked”).  Kenneth Branagh plays a nasty-spirited government drone intent on controlling what sort of music goes out over the airwaves in Great Britain … and one of his minions is a man with the surname, Twat.  Now “twat”, in North America, is one of those save-it-till-the-end-of-the-argument words.  Pretty inflammatory, very not complimentary, a mean-spirited crude little word.  In the UK, however, it’s a rather mild insult, on the same level (and of similar usage) as “prat”.  Needless to say, there are dozens and dozens of twat jokes all through Pirate Radio, and to the North American ear they are a little harsher than we’re used to!

The point is, what is considered vulgar or shocking or rude or offensive (or worst of all, dirty) is not fixed.  It’s as fluid as the language, which is something those with rigid rules about what is acceptable, and what is not, would do well to remember.  Before he calls me something as laughable as “potty mouth”.

Now, I am not a parent, and I’m not entirely sure how I would have handled the issue of verboten words with my hypothetical child.  My parents avoided them for the most part, but it sure as hell didn’t keep me from learning them, and using them, quite a bit more frequently than either of them do.  (It’s a generational thing for the most part.  My mother, an avowed atheist, still cringes when I say, “Christ!” more than she does when I say, “Shit!”.  Go figure.)

I smell hypocrisy in most parents who threaten punitive action if certain words come out of their offsprings’ mouths … and I certainly lux_ladydon’t want any imaginary child of mine to be afraid of language or categorize one word as more or less worthy than another.  I also hate the idea of catering to the internet trolls who appear to exist only to register how offended they are by everyone else.  Yet I recognize that social convention finds it more shocking for certain phrases to come out of a child’s mouth, even if they are the appropriate ones for the situation.

Generally speaking, I’m agin censorship and in favour of free speech.  And nowhere can I be freer with my speech than in this blog.  This is the place where I get to roll out as many fucking fucks as I want, and you don’t get to tell me not to.  This is my ranting place.  This is where I write the way I speak.  And let’s face it — would Carlin have been as funny if he had censored his language for a G-rated crowd?  Would Bill Maher?  Would Jon Stewart or Billy Connolly?  It’s the extreme quality of so-called four-letter-words that heightens the hyperbole of comedy (or, I hope, in my case, snark).  All four of these comedians have made it their business to skewer hypocrisy wherever they have found it, and that includes our use of language.  Without that freedom of speech, we’re stuck in the Catskills, going “Take my wife, please.”  Yawn.

That’s not to say that I don’t find certain turns of phrase kind of juvenile.  Toilet humour, for example, just says to me that you’re stuck in some Freudian phase of life that you were probably supposed to have progressed from.  But to each his own.  I’m not going to shy away from the word ‘fart’ just because I think your fart jokes label you tragically stuck, sniggering, in the second grade.  I just don’t buy into the idea that some words are Good and some are Bad.

It’s the users who are good or bad.  You can use words with skill and fearlessness, or you can ride your high horse onto some rigid little pathway where only a handful of words (and by extension, ideas) are acceptable, and the rest of us are labelled crude, coarse, off-colour, in poor taste, and about two dozen other judgmental things that Carlin (again) once recited in his routine on the Seven Words.

In which case, go fuck yourself.  (You knew that was coming; ferchrissakes don’t act all shocked now.)

PS — I know you’ve probably all seen versions of the video below, but I really couldn’t leave it out, now, could I.

Solidarity, Comrade: Even MORE on Writing for Free

fuck you pay meI have ranted about this before.  Most writers … hell, most creative types … have ranted about this before.  But since the problem has not skulked off into the Cave of Shame just yet, it bears repeating.  Here’s author John Scalzi‘s take on Not Writing For Free:

A Note To You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write For You for Free

A Little More Re:  Writing For Free

And since he practically dared me to post his Big Green Graphic, I will do so without hesitation.

Now, I do not have the profile of a John Scalzi (he of multiple science fiction novels with movie options).  This does not mean I — and others of my ilk, who toil ceaselessly and without hope of praise or strolls on red carpets,  in the dank subterranean home office/spare bedrooms of the world — need to write for you for free.  My skills have value.  So does my time.  So fuck you, pay me.  I’m totally worth it.

(Besides, I’ve found nothing like a work-for-free rant to boost my blog numbers.  Thanks in advance, John.)

Just in case there is anyone who hasn’t yet seen Harlan Ellison‘s priceless diatribe on the subject, here it is for good measure:

More Bad Sex, Please

A real page-turner.  Can't wait to see how the author explains that title.

A real page-turner. Can’t wait to see how the author explains that title.

If there’s anything more orgasmic than the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, it’s probably illegal.

Even more than the Darwin Awards, I anticipate the BSIF every year.   The annual contest by Britain’s Literary Review highlights “the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel … and to discourage it”, in much the way that the Razzies reward the most excruciating of Hollywood cinematic effort.

Now, the BSIF isn’t meant to tackle outright porn or erotica, hence the explainable absence on this year’s short-list of the appallingly cringeworthy “Fifty Shades of Grey” series.  It’s intended to humiliate authors of ‘mainstream’ novels, whose scribing skills fail to rise to the occasion at the bedroom door.

Writing good sex is (ahem) harder than it looks, given the abundance of cliches lying about like landmines in Zimbabwe, so I do have a certain amount of sympathy for those nominated every year.  And a previous winner, Rowan Somerville, argues persuasively and with a minimum of sour grapes here (in the Independent) that the BSIF Awards are schoolyard bullying passed off as “a bit of fun”, and have their roots in British parochial prudery.  He suggests that many of the passages plucked out of the prose and held up to public ridicule aren’t half as bad when read in the context of the larger novel.

I suspect he’s right, but when they are taken out of context, some of them are bloody hilarious. It’s even more fun to know that this year (the 20th anniversary edition), there’s a Canadian among the eight shortlisted authors.  Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born writer living in Paris, is the author of Infrared, an English translation of a novel she originally wrote in French as Infrarouge.   (The above Amazon link indicates that the nomination hasn’t hurt her any — the book seems to be flying off the shelves.)

The full shortlist: Tom Wolfe, nominated for Back to Blood, The Yips by Nicola Barker, The Adventuress by Nicholas Coleridge, Infrared by Nancy Huston, Rare Earth by Paul Mason, Noughties by Ben Masters, The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills – a

I can't imagine how a book with a cover like this could possibly contain bad sex ...

I can’t imagine how a book with a cover like this could possibly contain bad sex …

particularly worthy nomination, since Mills’s fiction has been shortlisted on three occasions– and The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine. Wolfe, Coleridge and Raine are all repeat offenders.

The winner will be announced at a lavish ceremony in London on December 4 – and it is considered a badge of courage for the authors to attend to receive it, and say something self-deprecating, in person.  In Somerville’s case, it was, “There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of a nation I thank you.”

And now, without further foreplay, this year’s extracts.

 The Quiddity of Will Self, by Sam Mills Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.

• Noughties, by Ben Masters We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.  I dug after what I had always imagined and came up with even more. She stroked my outlines in perfect synchrony until I was febrile in her hands, willingly guided elsewhere.

• Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.

• Rare Earth by Paul Mason She breathed hot into his neck and he plunged three rough fingers down the front of her jeans, making her squeak. She had never tried wu-wei in this situation before and Khünbish, hairy and slightly paunchy, she noticed now that he had his shirt off, was generating slightly more karmic energy than she had anticipated.  He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum, but missing — his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down.

• The Yips by Nicola Barker She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.  She steams.  He applauds, his tongue hanging out (like a bloodhound espying a raw chop in a cartoon).

bodice_ripper_cover1

You mean, I’ve won? Ohhh, Guillermo … hang on while I fake an orgasm.

• Infrared by Nancy Huston He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water… This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film — capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.

• The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.

• The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’

(There’s a poll below — vote for your favourite!)

Should your need prove insatiable, you can find other snippets from this year’s selections on Twitter using the hashtag #LRBadSex2012.

This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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