Sunday, December 27, 2009

Digest This

Well, I survived a hectic last month of essay marking, administrivia, last-minute Xmas shopping and even a much-procrastinated and extended feature-article deadline. Finally, I have a wee smidge of free time to catch up on my pleasure reading of books, magazines and newspapers. (And a little blogging.)

I realize you'd have to be a complete magaholic to want a read about the business history of Reader's Digest Magazine — that hoary old standby on grandparents' bathroom magazine racks everywhere — but I found the feature in last week's Sunday New York Times about the magazine's rise and fall (and attempted rise again) fascinating reading: how the magazine became a surprising success that made more money than its founders could give away and then turned into yet another debt-burdened, bankrupt victim of short-sighted corporate profit-first ambitions.

It's hard to imagine how Reader's Digest might survive long enough to experience a renaissance in the digital age. (Hiring Derek Webster, the brilliant founder of Maisonneuve Magazine, is a good first start for the Canadian edition.) Still, I've got a soft spot for a publication that is too often a punching bag and a punch line for urban hipsters in the periodical biz: I can certainly credit early reading of the "Drama in Real Life" (recent hed and dek: "The Trapper’s Trial: This first-hand look at one survival expert’s near-death ordeal will chill you to the bone") and "Laughter is the Best Medicine" sections from my parents' subscription for my interest in misadventure stories and humour writing (of the bad pun variety) respectively.

Speaking of Digests, another one that ran afoul of the inevitable production "dead zone" between wrapping up a magazine's editorial and its printed version actually hitting newsstands was Golf Digest. The January 2010 issue includes a cover photo of Tiger Woods and President Obama and the coverline "10 Tips Obama Can Take From Tiger"—all to promote a feature article that was "put to bed" (as they say in the biz) before what Tiger has been doing in his various extramarital beds hit the tabloids in December.

Oops. I hate golf, but I'm dying to know what advice Tiger for has Obama these days!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Making Art out of Tragedy (and Tragedy out of Art)

Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the brutal, senseless murder of the four members of the Clutter family in Holcolmb, Kansas. That terrible event might have been long forgotten by now, if novelist and short-story writer Truman Capote hadn't read a news story about the killings in the New York Times. The brutality and mystery of the murders piqued his literary interest—he had been searching for a true-life subject with which to test his ideas about writing a "nonfiction novel"—and he embarked on what would turn out to be five years of research, interviews and even a controversial correspondence with the two men who were eventually tried, convicted and executed for the crimes.

The result of his efforts, of course, was In Cold Blood. Even before it was serialized in The New Yorker, the project had generated enormous buzz, and in book form, it became an instant bestseller. It launched a whole sub-genre of true-crime books—few of which have even come close to the exacting literary standard that Capote set. (The opening chapter remains one of the most haunting in all of literature.)

The book
was made into a movie in 1967—one that used many of the real-life settings (and even people) to evoke a sense of authenticity and that starred Robert Blake, an actor who would gain his own infamy decades later. More recently, two immensely watchable bio pics (Capote and Infamous) offered perspectives on the making of the book and the unmaking of its author.

His long immersion in the sordid, tragic lives of his characters ultimately exacted a great emotional toll on Capote. He never wrote anything close to the quality of In Cold Blood, either in fiction or nonfiction, and descended into a boozy parody of himself on the talk show and party circuit. But 50 years after the tragedy, his book remains one of the classics of North American nonfiction writing—much admired, rarely emulated, a testament to its author's obsessive commitment to transforming the raw, bloody matter of real-life into high literature.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures of Greg

I got a lovely (and unexpected) note from Greg Kolodziejzyk, who recently read Fatal Tide. Greg knows more than most people about the highs and lows of outdoor adventure, endurance races and the other themes of my book. He is a multiple Ironman finisher (and was at a fatal race I described in the book) who is now on an epic journey to try to pedal-boat across the Pacific Ocean.

He recently had a mechanical breakdown off Vancouver Island while testing his ocean-going pedal-powered kayak (that's an earlier model in the photo), but I'm sure that setback won't slow him down for long. I'm still hoping to write a profile of Greg—and try to understand what motivates someone to undertake such a daunting, expensive, physically and psychologically taxing adventure as the journey he has cooked up.

Anyway, here's what Greg had to say about his reading experience:
I just finished "Fatal Tide", and I just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed it. I kept thinking about my first Ironman which was the inaugural Ironman Utah where John Boland died in the swim due to the freak wind storm. It was pretty brutal. I see you did mention that event - you are VERY thorough! I especially appreciated your summary and background research into hypothermia, kayak safety, and risk with adventure sports. Very thought provoking stuff!
Thanks, Greg. And safe travels on your future journeys!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Victoria Butler Book Prize

Well, I've been a lazy, lazy blogger. But it's been that kind of a back-to-school month: little writing, less adventure. (Although I suppose having your family caught in an international media shit-storm counts as adventure...but more on that another day!)

Still, amid all the class prep and administrivia, there has been some good news about previous writing projects. The most exciting honour in a long time has been getting nominated for the Victoria Butler Book Prize. Considering the per capita density of great authors in this town, I never assumed I'd get even short-listed for Fatal Tide, especially considering that poetry, fiction and nonfiction all duke it out for a single award. (Kids lit gets its own prize.)

There's a reading and awards night next Wednesday at the Union Club. Sadly, I have to teach the next morning, otherwise I would have really whooped it up—organizers even threw in a free night's stay at the swanky Magnolia Hotel, which I likely won't be able to use.

Again, it's a big honour just to get nominated, and I look forward to congratulating literary switch-hitter Patrick Lane—poet, memoirist and now novelist—whose Red Dog, Red Dog is the heavy favourite.

I may suggest we collaborate on our next book and call it Red Tide, Red Tide.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stop Me Before I Subscribe Again!

"Hi, my name is David, and I'm a magaholic..."

Those are my first words to students in my second-year magazine writing class. It's just a cheeky way of acknowledging my passion for the subject and my hope that some of them will come to share my obsession with magazines by semester's end.

But recently, I've been wondering (and so has my Canada Post deliverywoman, I suspect) if my fondness isn’t more of a sickness. A month ago, I’d been reading Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book about addiction, the author’s medical practice in the Downtown Eastside, and—oddly enough—his own “addiction” to buying classical CDs. (He says he is no way equating his Mozart collection, a habit that cost him eight grand one week, with mainlining heroin, but still...)

My love of magazines is the closest I’ve ever come (and hopefully ever will) to an addictive personality trait. I grew up around magazines (my parents both subscribed to several), and began getting my own from as early as I can remember: Chickadee, Owl, The Electric Company, dozens of Marvel comic books. That was followed by magazines to match every strange teenage hobby or interest I developed: Dragon (during my spotty-faced D&D years), Circus (my spotty-faced heavy-metal era), Soldier of Fortune (my, uh, weird obsession with mercenaries phase), Outside (my discovery of outdoor adventure, or at least reading about it).

If I am to admit I’ve got a problem, I’ve got to first come clean about its extent. Herewith, the magazines that enter my house every month.

Magazines I subscribe to:

  • Bicycling (see below)
  • Harper’s (my longest-running subscription at more than 20 years)
  • Maclean’s (Canada’s chattering class may hate Ken Whyte’s politics, but he’s an editorial genius and turned around this once-moribund newsweekly; plus, it runs the hilarious Scott Feschuk)
  • The Atlantic (I haven’t got my first issue but was suckered into an impulse sub by a “professional deal”)
  • Chatelaine and Today’s Parent (I get these for my wife, and flip through both)
  • Maisonneuve (the little mag that could, out of Montreal)
  • The New York Times Magazine (the main reason I get the Sunday Times, which was even better when they also published Key and Play magazines)
  • National Geographic (how else will my children inherit an attic full of moldy Nat Geos?)

Magazine’s I’m subscribed to (there’s a difference):

  • The New Yorker (world’s best birthday present—thanks to my father in law for renewing annually)
  • Sports Illustrated (from my sister in law—does that make them both enablers?)
  • The Torch (from UVic) and Queen’s Alumni Review

Magazines I get for free as a contributor:

  • explore
  • 2 Magazine
  • Financial Post Business
  • British Columbia (my wife works there)

Local magazines I pick up for free:

  • Monday (sadly, more of a conventional alt-newsweekly than a true magazine after rounds of freelance cutbacks)
  • Focus (a strong arts and politics monthly)
  • Boulevard (I don’t always grab it but know several of the columnists)
  • Wavelength (for kayakers...and I’m not really a kayaker!)

Magazines that my father in law brings for me whenever he visits:

  • Toronto Life and The Walrus (which I used to have subs for)
  • The Literary Review of Canada (a bit wonkish, but otherwise decent book coverage)

Magazines that fall out of the newspaper and that I flip through:

  • Driven, Sharp, Douglas, Western Living, Report on Business

In-flight magazines that I take home when any sane person leaves them in the seat pocket:

  • Up! and EnRoute (Canada is lucky to have not one but two in-flight mags that run more than just boring travel bumph)

I’ve likely missed some in there, and I haven’t mentioned the many magazines that I once subscribed to, or my impulse buys of individual issues at grocery stores and airports, or my large collection of obscure, international or regional magazines, or the online-only magazines I browse, or the magazines I think I should subscribe to or wish I could justify, or the books I buy that are about magazines or that anthologize magazine stories...

Of course, there is no way—even if I didn’t have a full-time job and two small kids—that I’d ever have the time to read every issue of every magazine I get. (So, yes, my habit has an environmental cost, too.)

So you tell me: fondness or sickness?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The 100-Mile Ride-It

After a couple years' hiatus, I recently resubscribed to Bicycling magazine. (Long story short: I'd been trying, vainly, to curb my rampant magaholism.) My first issue arrived with a rather anti-climactic main coverline ("Lance Rides Again: Why he can win"—or not as it turns out), but I still enjoyed the other lead feature, by Todd Balf, "My Family Gave Up Driving for 30 Days to Stick it to the Man".

At first I thought, "Big deal! One lousy month! My family has been car-free for going on nine years!" But Balf and his clan faced bigger obstacles to their experiment in low-carbon living. They live in a community (Beverly, Mass.) not especially conducive to biking (certainly not compared to Victoria, B.C.), in a climate (the U.S. Northeast) not as temperate as the Pacific Northwest. His wife has a long, complicated commute to work. And his kids are at that tween-ish age when they have lots of after-school activities at out-of-the-way locations.

It's easy enough to justify your own "inconvenience" of not operating a car. It's a lot harder—as I fear I will soon discover—when it means forcing social, and even educational, sacrifices upon your children

While the Balfs experienced a few bumps and scrapes along the way (and plenty of weird looks from other families), the story is an otherwise humorous recollection of their month of logging miles on two wheels rather than four. I was fascinated by the quiver of bikes the author used to entice his family into riding: an electric hybrid, an extend-a-bike, a single-speed, a fold-up bike, a tandem. And I was impressed with how many times he ended up cycling home, while ferrying one (or even two!) of his kids' bikes along with him, because they'd decided to catch a lift home with a coach or a friend.

In the end, the feature is an honest yet still inspiring account of the challenges (and rewards) of riding against the grain of a culture in love with the car—and one of the reasons I started subscribing to Bicycling in the first place.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Facts & (Many) Arguments

I don't usually read the "Facts & Arguments" reader-written essay in the Globe & Mail (usually too cute or maudlin), but I was struck by the illustration and the accompanying personal memoir in today's section. Well, struck is definitely the wrong word.

The story is a haunting and poignant account about getting hit by a truck while cycling, dragged for 100 metres, nearly dying, and then slowly and painfully recovering until the author could bike again. Brutal stuff, close to home, and vividly written. (A caveat: avoid the online audio version read, I'm sure, by a cheesy "voice actor" and not Kyle G. Brown himself.) There's hard-learned wisdom, too:

One year on, the driver who ran me over has yet to be tried. If convicted, he faces a maximum fine of $120 for making an unsafe turn.

But my fury isn't focused on him as much as on a society that honours pseudo-virtues of comfort and convenience at the altar of the automobile. It's directed at people who profess a love for the environment while driving distances a brief bike ride away. My ire is aimed at commentators who characterize the building of bike lanes as part of the “war on cars.”

Unlike most "Facts and Arguments" essays, this one set off a flurry of online comments and debate that reveal (surprise!) that drivers and cyclists are still a long way from seeing eye to eye.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Underage Driving vs. Homicidal Firefighters

I'm not sure what makes me more nervous as a cyclist—the thought of seven-year-old kids driving (at least the gum-snapping boy seems to be paying attention to the road rather than text-messaging) or the thought of getting shot at by a driver—a firefighter no less!—who stopped to tell me it's unsafe to be cycling with my child!

Maybe I'm getting paranoid. Maybe I feel more aware of how vulnerable cyclists are and how many distractions are already on the road (before you add an Egg McMuffin and a BlackBerry) after a month on the other side of the steering wheel. (I rented a van for July, to go on family vacation etc., and likely added at least five pounds of inactivity weight in that short time.)

Whatever. For the first time in Victoria, I've taken to cycling with a whistle around my neck and often in my mouth, at least when commuting with the kids in tow. (It would, I agree, look kind of silly on a mountain bike or even a road bike.) Bike bells are useless, I learned during 3.5 years of commuting in Toronto, while dodging drivers and trying to convince taxis that cycle lanes aren't high-speed passing lanes. Whistles get people's attention.

More attention than I'd intended, given the weird looks I got from drivers during the last few days—and I haven't had to blow the damn thing yet. Do I look like a lifeguard or a referee late for work? How is pedalling with a whistle any more strange than, say, the guy I saw driving while wearing full-on audiophile headphones and one of those wraparound-the-chin mics? Was he planning to land his car on an aircraft carrier? Or maybe play a round of Halo at the next stop light? How am I the crazy-looking one?

Oh well, as long as seven-year-old drivers aren't busting a cap in my helmet, I'm happy enough for now...

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Last week, Russell Smith of the Globe and Mail had an interesting column about the fine art of parody. Like Smith, I've also had writing students do assignments in which they have to parody the prose voice of another writer, with the understanding that they're not mocking the writer's style but trying to channel their literary spirit in a new context. It's a surprisingly difficult exercise, and one that really gets them thinking about the specifics of diction and syntax, and how any one writer establishes a unique way of communicating on the page.

Smith ended his column with a call for sample parodies, of one paragraph in length, aimed at either the humourless elevated lyricism of so much CanLit (aka, the school of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels), or even his own hyper-urbane prose style. I was procrastinating over a massive to-do list (still am, in fact), and thought it might be fun to do my own version of Russell Smith, transported into an unlikely context. Here are the results:

How Conservative

Stephen stood in the gloom of the grand foyer at 24 Sussex and confronted his double. Before the mirror, he had tied the half-Windsor seven times and yet something still felt amiss. The oceanic blue of the Italian silk contained a leitmotif of grief that perfectly complemented his two-buttoned jacket, hand-cut to hug his newly svelte physique. (The kelp diet and Pilates had done wonders). And yet he was gripped by a sartorial uncertainty that he knew Iggy—he of the foreign surname and casual worldliness—could never share, not with a hockey-loving Reach for the Top nerd from Leaside. His RAZR trilled in a pocket—a lambent bar of Donizetti—and he flipped the phone open with immediate regret. “’Sup, S-Man? It’s Stock. The ride’s here and this blow ain’t gonna snort itself!” Stephen glared into the driveway and saw the limousine idling and, emerging from its black steel and smoked glass, the grinning visage of the Okanaganite. Stephen was seized by a Proustian despair, a sense of lost time. The Okanaganite had tried to match a fuchsia Farmer John wetsuit with a pair of tan brogues—after Labour Day! How could he ever conquer the nightclubs of Bytown, let alone bestride the international catwalks of power, Stephen wondered, when he couldn’t keep his own caucus in pleated slacks?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Change Your Font, Save the World

I read an odd little front of the book article in a recent National Geographic magazine about the "ecofont"—a software tool that digitally "punches" holes in your existing fonts, so that when you print a document it uses 20% less ink (and, as some skeptics pointed out, gets at least that much less legible).

Brilliant idea or utter greenwash? You decide.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cover Vote

A number of magazines have been using website polls to let readers help to choose an upcoming issue's cover design. Mostly, the cover photos tend to be variations on a theme. Rarely are they as diverse as the three covers offered up for readers' eyes as the next issue of explore. I can't wait to see which cover that readers—and then staff members (and my former colleagues)—pick. I've had a sneak peek at a couple of the "true life tales", and it promises to be a great issue.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eyes on the Road

This Sunday's New York Times featured another excellent front page investigation, this one about the thwarted attempts by many states to enact laws against the use of cellphones by car drivers, despite the increasing evidence of the distracting dangers of both handheld and hands-free phones for people who should be paying attention to the road.

The story is fascinating for not being entirely black and white: some big businesses (cellular companies) are lobbying to halt cellphone laws, while others (auto insurers) want bans in place. Also, the family of the woman killed by a cellphone-using 20-year-old, who didn't even see the red light he blew through, admitted that she often talked on the phone while driving. That was one of the most interesting details: Most drivers recognize the dangers of driving and dialing—they just don't think it's dangerous when they do it. (Alas, it is.)

While it doesn't mention bikes, the story evokes every cyclist's worst nightmare—getting smeared from behind by someone too busy text-messaging to notice them—and I couldn't help but think of the Times report again when I read the news stories about the five road cyclists injured in Ottawa, at least one of them critically, by a driver who didn't even bother to stop at the scene. There's no indication yet that a cellphone played a part, but it was a clear day and a group ride, and the driver would seem to have no excuse beyond aggressive ignorance. Some good tips, for cyclists and drivers alike, on how to stay out of each other's ways in today's Globe and Mail.

Finally, it reminded me of a line from an excellent Sports Illustrated article recently, about the different attitudes towards cycling in Europe (where it's considered a blue-collar sport) versus North America (where it's the much-mocked realm of nerds with thick calves), and how Lance Armstrong bridged those two worlds for many years:

"In Europe a truck driver who sees cyclists out training invites them to grab hold of his rig for a tow; Armstrong could recount many times that pick-ups and semis in Texas literally ran him off the road. What made Armstrong different -- what would make him a seven-time winner of the Tour, when you get right down to it -- is that he would flip those truck drivers the bird."

It looks like this year Lance will be passing his crown onto the new master of the mountains, Alberto Contador. But you can bet that he'd still put his pump through the windshield of any text-messaging yahoo who tried to mess with his ride.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Krazy Kitchens and Other Motivations

I forgot one of the other interesting storylines, at least for Canadian and B.C. cycling fans, at this year's Tour de France: the second appearance of Victoria racer (with the perfect cyclist's name) Ryder Hesjedal, who, despite two crashes in the first week, is still soldiering on on behalf of his team.

Also, when I was researching my profile of Simon Whitfield, I learned that he motivated himself for the final sprint at the Sydney Olympics by imagining a soccer ball bouncing down the final stretch and then madly chasing after it.

Last summer, at Beijing, he inspired himself to a comeback silver by reciting "Sing like Kreek!" in his head, thinking about Canadian rower Adam Kreek, who had won gold with the Canadian 8-man crew and then belted out the national anthem.

And then last month in Iowa, he came up with yet another unusual motivational technique. He told himself to "Run for the crooked playhouse!"

What's that? A backyard play toy for his toddler daughter. What makes it so inspiring? And why did even a successful athlete like Whitfield feel he needed to win a $200K race to justify its purchase?

Check out the cool designs—as well as the bank-busting list prices—of the Crooked Playhouse.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Amazing Races

It's July, and that means only one thing for cycling fans: Tour de France time! Thank god for live Internet feeds, so that I don't have to shell out good money for another tier of cable stations simply to get a month of the most exciting sporting event in the world (tight Spandex edition).

This year's TdF has been well worth the early wake-ups, thanks to Lance Armstrong's un-retirement and a variety of related and unrelated storylines:
  • Lance vs. his aging body
  • Lance vs. his heir apparent and Astana teammate, Alberto Contador
  • Lance vs. his good friend and former teammate, George Hincapie
  • Lance vs. the skeptical French media
  • sprint demon Mark Cavendish
  • stage wins for French cyclists (and long-suffering French fans) on daring breakaways
  • plus, the best broadcast tandem in sports, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.
The Tour hasn't been the only race worth watching, though. On the last Saturday in June, in the heat of an Iowa summer, Victoria triathlete and Olympic gold and silver medallist Simon Whitfield pulled out another amazing come-from-behind and close-as-it-comes sprint finish to win the $200,000 grand prize at the richest race on the triathlon circuit. You can check out highlights here and get a signed edition of the says-it-all finish-line photo here. Yet another memorable performance from one of Canada's most inspiring athletes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: The Lost City of Z

Even in a semi-distracted state, I blew through David Grann's creative nonfiction bestseller The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a fascinating biography of British amateur explorer Percy Fawcett melded with Grann's own personal journey into the Amazon in search of answers for what happened to Fawcett, who disappeared with one of his sons and his son's friend in 1925, on his final quest for an ancient El Dorado in the rainforest.

Grann expanded a feature article in the New Yorker (which I somehow missed; must be somewhere in my backlog of still-to-be-read issues going back several years now) into a book built out of the historical record, Fawcett's detailed letters and journals, and Grann's own often comical travelogue. It's a great story, well told, and if the writing never ascends to the lyricism of the best travel and adventure narratives (like John Vaillant's The Golden Spruce or Jon Krakauer's Into the WIld), neither does it get lost in jungle-like verbiage or macho hyperbole. Grann writes in the lean (not "luminous"!), detail-thick, meticulously documented, and wry style of the magazine in which the story first appeared, and Fawcett—a single-minded explorer I knew next to nothing about—springs to life in this study of his flawed and fascinating character.

One of my favourite books of the year, for its propulsive narrative, compelling central character and a twist at the end that justifies the author's presence throughout the book.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Back from Summer Break!

Okay, it hasn't been a "break" that has kept me from blogging—more a combination of busy-ness and laziness. More on the former, less on the latter in future posts. The summer began with some good news: my investigative feature for explore magazine ("A Deadly Crossing"), about the deaths of two sea kayakers in Howe Sound, on Thanksgiving 2007, won a Gold medal in the Sports & Recreation category at this year's National Magazine Awards. I'd hoped to attend the ceremony, but life (and a $2,000 plumber's bill) had other plans. Still, I was ecstatic to learn the good news, especially after having played the bridesmaid with nominated stories previous years.

More recently, I did a phone interview with a Ryerson student about my research for the story, which he then edited into am intriguing podcast he produces with other Toronto journalism students. They sit around, drink beer, trade tales, talk shop, and critique one long work of literary journalism every week, and then post their discussions on a website called Ms. Jamerson's Literary Saloon. It's a fun, loose and baggy production that I might encourage my UVic students to experiment with.

While I was disappointed to miss the Magazine Awards and the ASLE conference here in town the same weekend (which featured a wealth of sessions with eco-minded writers and academics), I did fill my notebooks and digital recorder with research for future articles (and maybe a book?) during a long weekend trip to hang out with archaeologists on the Broken Islands (where I got my hands dirty and indulged my Indiana Jones fantasies) and on a two-week return visit to Israel (after living there 20 years ago) to explore the many changes to the kibbutz movement over the past two decades.

Add to these trips a wonderful sun-filled six days up-Island with the family, for beachcombing on Miracle Beach, hikes in the subalpine of Strathcona Park and the rainforest of Quadra Island, and a chance to try out my new/old mountain bike on some sweet island singletrack.

Now, to find the free time and focused frame of mind to knock off a draft or two of this summer's stories before the tsunami of students overwhelms me in the first week of September. It's only July 12, and I can already feel the season ticking away...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Good News about a Sad Story

The annual National Magazine Awards were announced yesterday afternoon, and I was thrilled to pick up a nomination (in the Sports & Recreation category) for my story "A Deadly Crossing", which appeared last May in explore magazine. It's good news but for a story that was based on a sad and tragic event—the death of two kayakers in Howe Sound during a training day gone horribly wrong—that should have never happened. The incident formed the Epilogue to Fatal Tide; it occurred just as I was sending the final draft of the manuscript to my publisher. Over the following months, I interviewed close to 40 people involved in the incident to reconstruct the chain of bad decisions and worse luck that led to two men dying from hypothermia—and two of their friends nearly perishing as well. It was a tough story to work on, and hopefully the honour of being nominated for an NMA will continue to raise awareness about the perils of cold water. An online version of the article can be read here

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Watch your shoulder

Here's a funny picture that my father-in-law passed along to me, taken in Florida, that perfectly encapsulates how too many drivers and road engineers think about walkers and pedal-pushers sharing "their" pavement.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cockpit readers

I was down at Gyro Beach this weekend, taking our kids to the (rainy) Easter festivities there, when I bumped into my colleague, the prolific novelist / short-story writer / hockey memoirist Bill Gaston. We got to talking, and I remembered that Gyro Beach was the setting for an early scene in his novel Sointula. The main character—a suburban mayor's wife who goes off her meds and heads to the West Coast in search of her damaged son—slept on the beach (Bill pointed out the spot where he imagined it happening), hijacked a kayak and then headed up the east coast of Vancouver Island on her quest.

Bill retold a funny story related to the book. He recently sold a pair of kayaks, and the young guy who bought them—a local outfitter—asked who he should make the cheque out to.

"Bill Gaston," Bill said.

"Like the author?" the outfitter asked.

Bill's voice, needless to say, swelled with pride, as he said, "Well, in fact..."

It turns out the young guy had read at least two of Bill's novels, including Sointula. I suggested to Bill that he should have signed the kayak—how often does a writer get to do that?—as its connection to his novel made it an important artifact of Can Lit history.

Last week, I also acquired a funny little kayaking-related anecdote about my own book. My cousin Bernie and his wife had been visiting Victoria from Calgary. He mentioned that his mother—my aunt Karen—had been reading Fatal Tide at her home in Manitoba. When she got to the climactic storm scene on the Bay of Fundy (spoiler alert: the book doesn't end well), she actually climbed into the cockpit of the lake kayak she owns and finished reading the chapter there.

How cool is that? Every author dreams of writing a story that transports a reader so completely. Maybe if Penguin ever prints another edition of Fatal Tide (spoiler alert: highly unlikely!), it can be sold along with a small inflatable kayak, so other readers can share the same "immersive" reading experience.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


It was one of the moments that you can't believe what you just saw. 

Near Oak Bay High School, I was waiting for the bus with my daughter, who was swilling a bottle of milk in her perambulator (yes, it's a stroller but definitely of retro rather than nouveau variety). Suddenly, across Cadboro Bay Road, I saw an SUV lurch through the crosswalk, suddenly stop, and then a woman's handbag land in the middle of the road. 

The driver had just struck a pedestrian.

Fortunately, the woman who had been hit was all right: scratched and bruised, with a twisted ankle and in a great deal of shock. Other witnesses—as well as the driver of the SUV—quickly came to her aid. I called 911 and the police swept in. 

But it all could have been much worse. And from my experience as a cyclist and especially as a pedestrian, it's getting all too common.

The problem seems to be the rising restlessness of drivers caught in traffic—as was that case that morning along Cadboro Bay Road, as a line of cars bottlenecked in both directions while students crossed to get to school—and their willingness to take chances with other people's lives. The Hippocratic Drivers Oath—first, do no harm—gets tossed out the window with the urge to make up minutes and even just seconds on an ever-longer commute. The perceived "right" to get where you're going as promptly as possible overrides the very real responsibility to not put other drivers, and especially cyclists or pedestrians, at risk. Sitting inside the airbagged box of a vehicle makes too many drivers (and I've been one of them) think, and behave, like they're president of the Republic of Me.

Case in point: Even after the injured pedestrian had been helped to the sidewalk. Even after two police cars parked with their flashing lights on. Even as other walkers gathered around what was obviously an accident scene. Even then, two cars approached Cadboro Bay Road from the nearest side street, and then the rear driver laid on the horn because the driver in front of her wasn't making the right turn (through the crosswalk / accident site) as fast as she would have liked. Once that car was goaded into motion, the rear driver then swerved into traffic with the same impatience that had bowled over the pedestrian just five minutes before.

It was one of those moments you can't believe what you just saw.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Crazy legs

There was an interesting profile in yesterday's Globe about a Canadian who will be competing (for a second time) in the grueling Race Across America cross-continental, solo, virtually sleepless bike marathon. The RAAM is an extraordinary event, one that makes the efforts of Tour de France cyclists (with their teams of domestiques and days off between stages) seem like a Sunday ride through the park, and was recently rated the second toughest race (after the Badwater Ultramarathon) by National Geographic Adventure magazine.

After months and even years of training, the riders undergo an intensely transformative experience, both physiologically (in multi-day competitions like this, the body shifts from burning carbohydrates to fat reserves) and psychologically (I once spoke to another Canadian who had completed the RAAM and he described the out-of-body visions that accompanied his final few days of cycling). It's a secular spiritual practice in many ways—a modern version of the ancient ascetics who subjected their bodies to the most exquisite pain in order to bring themselves, however briefly, closer to the ineffable.

While I've got no interest in ever riding the RAAM myself (seven days of the much more manageable TransRockies Challenge brought me close enough to my Maker, thank you very much!), I do find the dedication and efforts of the handful of women and men who race across North America every year truly inspiring. They really emphasize the power of two of the most efficiently designed machines to traverse our planet: the bicycle and the human body. When anybody suggests they can't possibly bike to work a couple days a week because it's too hard or takes too long, I just think: There are other people who cycle across the breadth of our continent in just over eight freaking days! Amazing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

M, M, M good!

A big thanks to everyone who voted for Fatal Tide in the balloting for the "M Awards" hosted by my journalistic alma mater Monday Magazine. My literary baby was one of three locally produced nonfiction books to make the short list in its category—and to beat back a shameless attempt at vote-stuffing by an out-of-town editor. (Hi, Bruce!)

The final winner will be announced at the M Awards gala on Tuesday, March 31. As I've learned to repeat from several experiences of being a bridesmaid at the National Magazine Awards, "It's an honour just to be nominated." And it is.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Times Colonist readers are morons

Okay, maybe just the ones who comment on the newspaper's web discussion forums. An accident occurred on Lands End Road last weekend, near Sidney, in which a car rashly passed a pack of road cyclists (including two-time Olympic medallist Simon Whitfield) and then was knocked into the riders (putting two in the hospital) after it was struck by another car making a right turn (without actually stopping) onto Lands End. Whose fault? Well, it's complicated.... except in the mind of many T/C readers, who placed blame clearly on the "elitist" cyclists. The comment thread is long and depressingly familiar to anyone who reads the Colonist's Letters page after a cycling accident: Why aren't cyclists licensed, insured, they don't deserve to be on the road, etc. etc.?

Here is a classic reply, written by a reader I like to imagine is nicknamed "The Major" from the sherry-soaked comfort of his Oak Bay mansion:
When I was young (here in Victoria), we had to take a test to ride our bikes on the road. If we passed, we were given a small license plate that hung on the back of our seat. If we didn't have one of these plates, we were not allowed to ride on the road. If the police saw anyone riding a bike on the road without one of these plates, their bike was permanently confiscated. Then sold at a police bike auction. Which is where many of our parents got bikes for us when we were young. Why don't we still do that? Why do we make it so easy for people with no sense or regard for others to enter into traffic on a bike? I'm also a firm believer that bike riders should have to buy insurance to ride in traffic. Then, if they cause an accident, they can pay for it. On a daily basis, I witness bike riders blatantly breaking the rules of the road. Most of them act like they don't believe the rules pertain to them. My biggest beef is WHY DID WE START ALLOWING THEM TO RIDE ACROSS THE JOHNSTON STREET BRIDGE??!! What happened to the days when cyclists had to dismount and walk their bikes across the bridge on the footpath?? Also, what happened to the rule that cyclists had to dismount at an intersection and walk their bikes across in the crosswalk?? I constantly see cyclists ride across while the light is still red!! Why are they allowed to do that?? Cyclists are slower than cars; if they're riding more than two abreast, they are blocking traffic. People become impatient and try to pass. This is what caused this unfortunate accident. It had nothing to do with the fact that an Olympic hopeful was riding in the bunch. I don't know why the TC felt it necessary to make that the headline. Sensasionalism sells they say. I'm also happy to see that most of the people sticking up for the cyclists seem to have very poor spelling. That demonstrates their level of intelligence; so their opinion can pretty much be disregarded.
No wonder our planet is burning up...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Protect the Harbour

Anyone who cares about people-powered paddling in Victoria will want to join tomorrow's protest in the Inner Harbour to voice dissent about a proposed large-scale marina for mega-yachts that would seriously disrupt kayakers and canoeists enjoyment of the area.

The good folks at Ocean River Sports are all over this issue and are coordinating the protests over a dumb, ugly proposal that will attract rich Americans' mega-yachts at the expense of everyone else.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ride to the Reader Redux

It's been a crazy busy January, so it was a relief to have the excuse (and the sunny afternoon) two weekends ago to go for a bike ride. Richard Pickard, UVic prof and lit blogger, invited me to ride up to his home and bring a copy of Fatal Tide for him to buy (and me to sign). That makes him reader #2 to take up my long-standing offer to ride and sign copies of my tome. Woo-hoo!

Hopefully, Richard and his family aren't too traumatized by the sight of me in my full Spandex pseudo-Lance outfit. (Thanks, Richard!) I had a great ride afterwards and was in such good humour that I stopped by Oak Bay Bikes and picked up a new pair of bike shoes and clipless pedals on sale—which means the $2 I made selling a book vanished beneath the $200 I spent on carbon-fibre shoes. Moral of the story: Don't quit my day job! Either that or curb my velociphilia.

Still, the offer stands, especially as the warmer months approach: You wanna book? Drop me a line at and—if you're in Victoria or Oak Bay—I'll ride to your house and sign one for you for a mere 30 bucks.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Back on the blog...

...after a busy end of term and relaxing (if rather unadventurous—except for swimming with manta rays and jellyfish in Mexico) holiday.

When we got back, I was delighted to learn from a friend that Fatal Tide had been mentioned in the Xmas round-up of book picks selected by callers on Rex Murphy's Cross-Country Check-up. You can get the whole list here—mine was one of the few Canadian-authored books picked by Canadian listeners, which suggests some of the many challenges of the domestic publishing industry. It turned out that the caller was one of my students from a few years back, a talented writer named Wayne Potoroka based in the Yukon. But, honest, no money was exchanged or grades inflated for the plug!

The book also made at least one blogging reader's top ten list for the year.

Then, the new issue of Sea Kayaker magazine—the biggest kayaking publication in the world—ran a good review of the book (despite its lack of an American publisher), written by editor Chris Cunningham, no less (but not online). The kayaking community has really embraced the book and the lessons to be take from it about safety preparedness and the perils of cold water.

The adventure racing community? Less enthusiastic.

Finally, this weekend, the Vancouver Sun ran a fun little article by local author Barbara Julian about the ups and downs of self-marketing for Canadian authors. She mentions a couple of low points from my own oddball efforts to drum up interest for my book, which I'd described on this blog. Apparently, the Sun also ran a photo of me, but I've yet to see the article.

One of my vain efforts was the "Ride to the Readers" campaign last summer. So I thought, now that it has been mentioned again in the Sun, I'd resurrect my offer to bike to interested book buyers and sign their copies in person, with a few twists: 1) I'll limit the geographical range (at least until the weather improves) to Victoria, Oak Bay, and parts of Saanich not too far from the university; but 2) and I'll actually bring a copy of the book to your house (while supplies last) and sell it to you for $30- flat fee (a toonie off the list price, and w/o any tax).

Surely, with that kind of CRAZY GOOD offer, I can improve on my statistic of one reader ridden to....