Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Curator

I admit it: occasionally I Google my name to find out where my work has been mentioned. During a recent investigation, I stumbled upon the video above. I'd forgotten about being interviewed several years ago about my writing, so it was interesting to hear my thoughts about it. 

The video was shot on the old Eastern Avenue bridge across the Don, which I think I'd recently wandered onto during a psychogeography walk. 

This film reminds me of one of my early New Year's resolutions: if I can afford it, I'd like to take lessons or one-on-one sessions to polish my speaking skills. I've never been entirely comfortable with them, possibly due to my mind racing ahead of my tongue, possibly due to self-consciousness over too many "ahs," "likes," "reallys," and "ums." Given one or two recent near-misses with radio interviews on subjects I've covered, building confidence in my speaking abilities could boost my marketability and open up new opportunities.

Curious about the stories mentioned in this video? Here are the links:


The same Google search uncovered an article Inside Toronto interviewed me for back at Halloween about the Don Jail. If any other reporters are looking for someone to discuss Toronto history with...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Innovation in Book Publishing, 1980s Style

Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid under Creative Commons.
While researching a future installment of Historicist, I came across this nugget in the acknowledgements section of one of my resources. It's not clear if this particular passage relates to original 1984 edition of James C. Worthy's Shaping an American Institution: Robert E. Wood and Sears, Roebuck, or the 1986 update I'm using:

This book was readied for publication during a period of major technological innovation in the publishing industry. While early versions of the manuscript were typed in traditional fashion by [name of typist], subsequent versions, including the final one, were prepared on a sophisticated word processor by [name of typist]. Instead of a typed manuscript, the University of Illinois Press received a set of floppy disks from which type was set by electronic means, thereby materially reducing the time and costs of manufacturing this book.
Who wants to place odds that 30 years from now, a reader will chuckle at the notion of my typing this post in the "compose" screen of a publishing site, or that I file articles via platforms like WordPress?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ten Minute Tales...and a Longer Tale from London

Having hit a wall with this evening's regular writing attempts, perhaps another 10-minute writing exercise from Take Ten For Writers will put me back on track.

After consulting with Twitter, I'll tackle exercise #42. Douglas Adams fans will be sad to learn this one isn't titled "The Meaning of Life." Nope, this one's "Lingo-istics," which is the author's expression for "the touches of slang added to your dialogue to make your writing sound more realistic." Twitter also chose the number that will provide my list of words: numero neuf.

It appears I'll be using Australian lingo. I'll highlight in blue the expressions I had to work with.

1997: I'm eating in a low-grade Chinese buffet off Leicester Square. So far on this trip to London, I've done well as far as student-budget dining goes. This place shows every sign of being a disaster. The chafing dishes are placed in a circle. Apart from rice, every item appears to be made from the same base sauce. The chef believes onions are their own food group - they overwhelm every other ingredient. This belief extends to the base sauce which underlies every hot item, which is little more than barely fermented black beans and dry onion soup mix.

I sit down at a communal table, where I'm quickly joined by a stereotypical backpacker. He introduces himself as Michael, an Australian touring the world. For the next half-hour he's a living, breathing infomercial for his father's hotel back home. I received what Michael called an "earbashing" - an unending stream of details about his family's pride and joy.

"The food's awful here, isn't it? I should have gone to Maccas, but they're everywhere on the planet, aren't they seppo?"

Translation: he should have eaten a Big Mac and enticed potential customers at the Golden Arches. I discover "seppo" is slang for "American," though I had to clarify that despite lingering traces of a Midwestern accent,  I was Canadian.

"How come you don't say 'eh,' eh?" he joked. "Where's the flag pin on your daks?"

I thought he meant my backpack, but it turned out he was referring to my pants.


View from Primrose Hill (2)
OK, this isn't Leicester Square. And the picture was taken in 2006, not 1997. Still, it's a nice picture of the London skyline from Primrose Hill, isn't it?

The tale is inspired by an actual encounter I had at a low-grade Chinese buffet during my university semester in London. Not sure why this memory was triggered. After completing the story, I dove into the journal I kept while I lived across the Atlantic, to rediscover the actual story.

The spot was Mr. Wu, which appeared to be part of a chain. My unintentional dinner companion was English, not Australian, and was possibly in an altered state of consciousness. He rambled on about his parents' B&B in Bath, steering the conversation back to it whenever I switched topics.

An excerpt from the February 22, 1997 journal entry:

Being single, I was seated with another couple. There was one more empty space at our table, which was filled halfway through my first plate. The new diner was a strange little man with blonde hair, stubble, and eyes which couldn't focus. From the moment he sat down he started rambling on. Noticing that I was reading a book about films of the 1960s, he started talking about a book which collected articles from Oz, an underground periodical of the time. I wondered how I could get this pseudo-hippy to shut up.

Eventually he dropped the subject and move on to more interesting things. He repeatedly recommended a B&B his parents owned in Bath and that even if I didn't stay there, a trip to that city was worthwhile. I never found out exactly what Patrick Dunning did - all I knew was that he was 31, had traveled extensively as a student, having several work abroad trips in Australia. It sounded as if he may have been a photographer. I sensed he needed somebody to talk to for the hell of it. The more he talked, the more I didn't mind. He continually apologized for rambling. In a way, I had been looking forward to hear somebody from this city talk about anything, even if they seemed to be in another world.

He left me with the number of his parents' hotel in Bath. I had to leave after an hour to make my way down to the South Bank. Perhaps I wouldn't have been able to shake him off otherwise, I don't know. I sensed he was homeless.
Note for Patrick Dunning if he ever stumbles upon this: If you weren't homeless or stoned, I apologize for thinking you were.

Why was I headed to the South Bank? Based on the rest of the journal entry, I was taking advantage of cheap student admission to catch a concert of pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. Further details would be in Royal Festival Hall programs currently residing in Amherstburg.

The quality of the food was inspired by another Chinese restaurant, where the fare was so awful the eatery remains nameless in my journal. The only clue is that it was in a basement on Gerrard Street. Every item swam in onions and tasted as if the chef had diluted stir-fry sauce with Lipton's onion soup mix. As the January 18, 1997 journal entry puts it, "your mediocre North American chop suey n' chicken ball joint could do a better job."

I stuck to cheap Indian food (mainly at The Raj, a long-gone spot at the south end of Camden High Street), old-school caffs, and affordable Italian eateries after this. 

Thanks to Greg Burrell and Chris Wilson-Smith for promptly picking the numbers I needed to do this exercise.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ten Minute Tales

One of the reasons for this site is to have fun practicing/improving my writing skills. I constantly borrow books of writing exercises from the library but never get around to doing them. Could be all that other writing I do, but who knows.

Among the books that fall into this category is Take Ten For Writers.The set-up is simple: there are 100 exercises, each with a different premise. After you read the scenario, pick a number between 1 and 10. Flip the page, and your choice will provide a phrase you must use, a concept for your story, opening or closing sentences, etc. You write for 10 minutes.

Here’s my first attempt. Rather than do the first exercise in the book, I’ve chosen the one matching my age. The concept (which I'm outlining to scary copyright notice): you’ve been hired to write for a new supermarket tabloid, a la the Weekly World News. Your boss hands you a headline but no equipment to research anything related to it. You’re inventing the story. As he puts it, “Everything you need is in your head. Write from there.”

There are 10 headlines to choose from. Since today is November 2, I’m going with numero deux. Ten minutes. Start writing…NOW!


ORCHARD PARK, NY: Medical students observing work in a local hospital this week made a sweet discovery. A sweet, juicy discovery.

Instructor Dr. Bill Bison was just as stunned as the future sawbones when he opened up the chest of Kelly Levy, 62, and discovered a small watermelon growing inside.

“I’ve seen many strange things in my lifetime,” said Bison, a skilled medical practitioner for the past 36 years. “But a watermelon growing in a human? That takes the cake.”

At first, Bison thought the watermelon was a prank performed by the students when he briefly left the room to heed the call of nature after making the initial incision. But the degree the fruit’s tendrils were attached to Levy’s chest cavity proved it was no joke.

Bison called in a local gardening expert, Merv Weinstein, to observe Levy’s unusual growth. Weinstein estimated the eight-inch wide melon had grown inside of Levy for several months.

According to a student who knew Levy, the retired auto worker had complained of intermittent chest pains recently, but refused to visit any doctors. “I tried to examine him myself,” said Pearl Allen, “but he refused every time.”

Bison was certain that Levy had expired from a heart attack, and believed this would provide his students with a fine example of how to distinguish heart disease as a cause of death.

Levy’s family has refused comment on the matter, though a distant cousin, Marv Saban, joked that the melon could be served at Levy’s wake. “That way, we’ll all enjoy a sweet memory of Kelly.”


If anyone wants to test their 10-minute writing skills with the same exercise, go crazy in the comments section.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Written on the Calendar

Click on image for larger version.

WARNING: This post contains self-promotional advertising. Don't say you weren't warned!

As someone whose writing primarily appears online, it's nice to physically hold the fruits of my labour. Such was the case this week when copies of the 2014 Friends of Canadian Broadcasting calendar arrived in my mailbox.

Click on image for larger version.

Projects like this provide the opportunity to stretch my horizons - in this case, to write about Canadian history outside of my usual Toronto habitat. Being paired with striking images is the icing on the cake.

Click on image for larger version.
If you're working on custom project - be it a calendar, book, pamphlet, website, or placement - and require words to celebrate your achievements and/or strike a chord with your audience, drop me a line. Enhance your publication with award-winning research and writing.*

*2013 Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence, Short Publication category.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Early Scribblings

An archaeological dig this afternoon in search of research material uncovered the roots of my writing career: a faded exercise book filled with rough notes and drafts of my first newspaper column.

Our local newspaper, the Amherstburg Echo, ran monthly columns highlighting the exciting events happening at elementary schools. During the 1988-89 academic year, I handled Malden Central Public School's updates. For a nerdy grade 8 kid, this was the pinnacle of achievement. My name splashed every week for readers to worship every carefully-chosen handwritten word.

By the bottom of page one of the April roundup draft, you'll sense how much of a nerd I was. Normal 13-year-olds wouldn't show off their knowledge of deleted scenes from 1930s movies. Dig deeper and there's a nod to Mitch Miller, showing off my knowledge of early 1960s square popular culture. The column ends with a Stan Lee quote; every piece ended with a famous quote, usually one years past its expiry date. Normal 13-year-olds didn't go around quoting Walter Cronkite or Bob Hope in the late 1980s.

Perhaps my inner historian was asserting itself.

Perhaps I knew who my audience was. Older readers, including other columnists in the paper, thought my columns were adorable.

A few explanations:

Extended Education: a program for gifted students, who were pulled out of class one day a week to attend special classes. I was placed in the program in grade 5 and hated it. Dad taught the high school version for a year and liked it as much as I did. My sister Amy did her one-year tour of duty (she earned a trip to Washington, D.C. for Odyssey of the Mind). This is a topic ripe for future exploration, after asking family members to refresh my memory.

Maplewood: an elementary school in Essex.

The Beverly Hillbillies: my class's skit for the spring concert. I hammed it up as a random hillbilly. Foreshadowing my college radio days, I assembled the soundtrack with my friend Mike. We used advanced technology to mix the music: a tape recorder held up to a portable record player. It helped that I had recently recorded excerpts from the 1960s Beverly Hillbillies tie-in album from Mark Elliot's weekend archive show on CKLW-FM.

Vintage Courts: the fitness club in the local mall. The business has changed names a few times, but it's still in operation as The Athletic Club. It is the only portion of Fort Malden/White Woods Mall left standing after the rest of the building was demolished for a Wal-Mart and its surrounding plaza.

Note my earliest attempt at drama criticism. I found out just how good General Amherst's next musical was - I was in it, fumbling around stage in assorted costumes borrowed from Stratford for a production of Oliver! in grade 9.

My handwriting from grade 8 is far more legible than my current chicken scratch. Never great, it slid near the end of university. I've noticed lately that anytime I trying to dash out research notes via pen or pencil, my hand hurts. It's as if my fingers no longer know how to comfortably grasp a writing an instrument for more than a sentence or two. I often rewrite notes as I go along so that they'll be legible later. Hopefully a sign of over-adjustment to typing and not a foreshadowing of unexpected physical issues. Slowing down works most of the time.

I briefly wrote for short-lived incarnations of the high school paper, then edited the yearbook in grade 11. It was nearly a decade before I tackled a column again. You will be shocked to learn that it was the weekly helpings from the archives of the Ontarion. Flipping through the notebook, the work isn't as cringe-inducing as it could be. Too cutesy for its own good at times, but I was 13. What did I know?

Click on the images to view larger versions.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Semi-Obligatory Introductory Post

Hello readers,

Just as the title promises, this is the semi-obligatory introductory post. Launching this site without explanation might confuse you and will confuse me. If this genre bores you, wait till the next post. If it doesn’t, keep reading.

OK, you didn’t take off. Excellent.

Every story needs a beginning; this story begins with me sitting in front of the computer, which is where you’ll usually find me at home. I was clicking around the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival’s site, glancing blurbs to pick which shows to see this year. It hit me that I’ve seen productions during more than half (maybe say “more than half”) of The Fringe’s 25 year run, even if one year the only elements I saw were the late night freebies at the Fringe Club (those count, right?).

This inspired me to figure out what was the first Fringe show I saw.

The first place I looked for clues was a cardbox box sitting atop a living room bookshelf. Inside were my personal journals from university, which I haven’t looked at for years. Part personal diary, part scrapbook, they capture an important formative era of my life. The writing borders on cringe-inducing, but the bulging volumes of spiral-bound handwritten 70-to-360 page notebooks are a portrait of what the late 1990s were like. They fade out during my tenure as an editor at the Ontarion (the University of Guelph’s student paper), though there were a few writing bursts between moving to Toronto in 1999 and launching my first blog in 2003. Having a later volume vanish when the backpack it sat in decided while sitting at a downtown store to walk away with a new owner, one which included thoughts on my father’s passing, didn’t do much for keeping the journal going.

The volume for 1999 didn’t touch on the Fringe, so I went to the next possible source, a flimsy clear plastic IKEA tub filled with clippings intended for future scrapbooking. I discovered an incomplete notebook which held the answer I sought

A typical volume of the ol' journals.
Flipping through the journals, I realized I haven’t done much writing in that vein recently. OK, this isn’t quite true; Facebook and Twitter have been forums for bite-size musings. But the online continuation of those old journals, JB’s Warehouse and Curio Emporium, has evolved into a purely historical site. It now feels like it would be jarring to toss in personal pieces, writing experiments, and opinions about the present state of the world.

Which brings you to this website.

Hopefully, amidst the pressure of deadlines and trying to find work, I’ll pop on here to scribble loose thoughts.

To try writing exercises drawn from books I’ve borrowed from the library 38 times but haven’t cracked open.

To let off steam when the world drives me bananas.

To stop and smell the roses when the world doesn’t drive me bananas.

To appreciate the joys of the city, despite the nitwits who run it.

To continue to refine my writing skills for both my own satisfaction and to impress future associates.

With any luck, getting this site rolling will also prompt me to tackle one long overdue task: a third website devoted to my professional work as a writer, researcher, and (hopefully) historical consultant. A business site where clients can reach me, and where I can really strut my stuff. And finally use that web domain that’s lain dormant for two years.

Anything’s possible, right?

Thanks for sticking around to the final line,

(And thanks to Susan Clarke for proofreading this debut post).