Are you reading me?

The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

– Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I am roughly ten weeks away from participating in my fourth Muskoka Novel Marathon. For those that don’t know, no this is not a marathon in which I run. Instead, I sit on my butt for as much of the 72 hours my butt can handle, and I write.

What am I doing? I’m trying to write as much of a novel as I can. I usually do somewhere between 150 and 250 pages.

Why do I do this to myself? That’s a fair question, because at the end of the four days (it runs from 8:00 pm Friday to 8:00 pm Monday), I’ve immersed myself into a world of my own creation, I’ve eaten far too much sugar, I’ve slept far too little, and I’m wrung out, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So why do I do it every year?

I write so that others can read.

Some history is likely appropriate here.

Five things have really led to me not only participating in the MNM, but also being a passionate champion of all that they accomplish.

1 – The first is obvious. I write stories. But the other four you may or may not know about.

2 – The second is, way back in the early 80s, when I was in Durham College, one of my courses was a computer literacy course. If memory serves, we were working on Wang computers with big 5″ floppy disks. You know, the kind of floppy disk that actually was floppy.

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Anyway, one of our assignments was to write something. I can’t remember the details of the assignment, but we had to write something. Might even have been the lyrics to a favourite song, I don’t know. I remember labouriously typing out…something. Might have taken me a half hour or so.

But there was a girl in the class. She’d always been rather quiet, drew no attention to herself. She could draw, and hell, we were taking Graphic Design, so she was in the right course.

On this day, as I did my hunt-and-peck with two fingers, I remember seeing her pull the Led Zeppelin 4 album–yes, the record album, not the CD, this was the early 80s–out of a bag and open up the gatefold cover. Inside, I knew, were the lyrics to the biggest song on the album, Stairway To Heaven. I remember thinking at the time, man, doesn’t everyone have those lyrics memorized?

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She did. But she was functionally illiterate. So, letter by painstaking letter, she had to go to the printed lyrics, then go to her keyboard and search for that squiggle that matched the other, then key it. Then move on to the next.

Almost 1400 times. Imagine that.

It was due to this course that her inability to read and write at even a basic level was discovered. She soon left the course. I don’t know what happened to her.

3 – The third thing was probably, in part, in relation to that college experience. I was recently married, no kids, with some time on my hands. I saw a call for literacy tutors and I signed up. We had to go through a training course, and it was an eye-opener. The two things that really stuck with me were that my general impression of someone who was illiterate was completely false: I pictured the homeless people hanging out downtown. What I was shown was that it was people just like me. People with jobs, some menial, some at higher positions than me. I heard the story of an illiterate CEO that blew my mind.

The other thing that really stuck with me was when one of the instructors flashed the letter b and asked us to name it. Then he flashed a q. Then a p. Then a d. But it was what he did next that opened my mind a bit. He took off his watch, held it up and asked us to name it. Then he rotated it 90 degrees. Of course, we still said “watch”. Rotated it 180 degrees. Still a watch.

“So why,” he said, “do we expect people to look at a watch differently when it’s rotated than we do letters?” And it showed me that this reading thing that I took completely for granted was a tougher problem than I’d ever given it credit for.

I tutored a young man briefly. In that time, I found out he could correctly identify about 18 letters of the alphabet. He really couldn’t read at all, counting on pictures, or trusting strangers to help him out. He wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was likely smarter and much more creative at problem solving than I was. I definitely learned more from him than he ever did from me. And by the way, both his parents were high school teachers.

4 – The fourth thing occurred a few years later. My daughter was born and took to reading much as I had, very quickly and with apparent ease. My son, however, seemed to struggle with it. When we moved to a new house and a new school district, we eventually got a call from his teacher. She’d been concerned with his facility with numbers and letters and reading and told us he was far behind the other kids.

I still remember the absolute fear that clutched at my heart when I heard this. My entire life had been enriched because I could read. At the time we got this news, I made my living from reading and responding to written correspondence from customers. I read for pleasure. I actually wrote stories for pleasure. And there was a distinct possibility that my son might have a reading disability.

Thankfully, the school had an incredible program and, in the span of a few very short months, were able to report that my son had made such progress, through both their efforts and through the homework that my wife and I diligently went through with my son, that he could leave the program. The kid that had been “far behind” the other kids was now reading at a Grade Five level. He was in Grade One.

But I never forgot that fear that I felt.

5 – Then I joined the Muskoka Novel Marathon. And the first year I was there, I met a wonderful woman named Nora. And she is the fifth and final key to my passion for literacy.

Nora had gone through the literacy program that the MNM raises funds for each year. She came in and met some of the writers as she was considering participating in the MNM the following year. She was a little shy, but her big smile cut through any barriers and we all felt we’d made a new friend by the time she left.

And the following year, she participated. And she has participated ever since.

Imagine that. Think back to that person I talked about that had to hunt and peck out Stairway To Heaven. Think about someone like that who might benefit from a literacy program so much that they have the confidence to sit side-by-side with thirty-nine other writers. And write. Personally, I have to admit that, even though I knew about the MNM since about 2002, it took another ten years for me to get the courage up to actually sign up. Nora did it a hell of a lot sooner. She’s a lot more courageous that I’ll ever be.

Whenever I find myself sitting in front of the keyboard thinking, I’m tired. Or, I should pack it in for a while, I look over and I see Nora, either writing away at her own computer, or smiling as she talks to someone. Then I turn back to my own keyboard and I keep writing.

I write for Nora. I write for that girl from thirty years ago that laboriously typed out Stairway To Heaven, character by character. I write for that young man that had to shop by looking at the pictures on the labels and counting on the trustworthiness of the cashiers to give him back the right change.

I write for my son and what might have been.

I write so that others can read.

But to do that, I need to ask for donations, and I’m really not good at that.

So, if you’ve read this far, and if something I might have written above touched you…touched you because you could actually read the words…then I ask that you click on this link and then on the Donate Now button. Donate any amount. It’s all appreciated.

And if you don’t trust the computer donation process, reach out to me at tobin(dot)elliott(at)bell(dot)net and we’ll work something out.

Thank you. For reading.

Hey Nineteen

My daughter turns 19 today.  I can’t believe it’s been a year since I wrote this post, and quite frankly, I don’t think I can match it.  It still says almost everything I want to say about my baby girl.

I even went looking for an appropriate song lyric to toss in here, immediately thinking of Steely Dan’s Hey Nineteen, but the only appropriate lyrics tend to speak more to me than to her.

She thinks I’m crazy

But I’m just growin’ old.

Ain’t that the truth.

A lot has happened in the last year.  She’s changed direction in her education and changed schools as well, moving from a Journalism degree from Carleton to a Public Relations degree from Durham College.  That was a tough decision but it’s one she made on her own, which we’re proud of.

She also came back home and searched for a job.  Again, not an easy task.  She put out about 300 applications and had some pretty abysmal interviews, but she persevered and started working at the Ministry of Finance.  It’s nice to see her interacting with adults in a work environment.  I think it will teach her a lot.  I just hope they don’t follow through with trying to set her up with every cute guy who shows up in the office.

Thankfully, she did manage to get a part-time role as a model for a photography class at Durham College.  Everyone’s told her she should be a model.  I don’t disagree.

Photography by Barb Dionne

And she also filled her time by volunteering at her old high school, helping out as a teacher’s assistant.

She’s a good kid…well, at nineteen, I guess she’s not a kid anymore, but she is to me.  Still she does have her diva moments, which, when we point them out, she gets all indignant and looks at us and says, “What?  I’m a frickin’ delight!”

It always elicits laughter.

She has a great sense of humour and she has some interesting idiosyncrasies…which can be used against her to great hilarity.  She has an unreasoning phobia of feet.  She doesn’t like them.  She especially doesn’t like anyone touching her with their feet.  If you kind of bat your hands at her, she’ll pull her arms up tight to her chest and flap her hands, sort of like a spastic squirrel.  Oh, and her head will also tilt back, eyes close and mouth drop open.  She’s quite hilarious.

When she laughs, her nostrils do this weird flaring thing.  And if she’s bored with you, her eyes will close at different times, one following the other down.  If you point it out, she’ll rub at them incessantly.

It’s quite easy to irk her too.  If she complains that her sunglasses are crooked, just point out it’s not her glasses, but one ear that’s lower than the other.  It will send her into paroxysic spasms.

She’s my kid and I love her dearly. These are all the things that make me love her even more.

Happy birthday, baby girl.  I love you.

It’s all in how you say it…

There’s times when I truly despair for the youth of today.  Yes, I know every generation has their own favoured expressions and way of saying things.  Just in the time I’ve been around, and just talking about expressing something as good, I’ve heard the terms

  • groovy
  • A-okay
  • awesome
  • bad
  • bad-ass
  • the shit (or da shit)
  • beast
  • the bee’s knees
  • the cat’s ass
  • boss
  • buttery
  • choice
  • classic
  • cool (or coolio, kewl)
  • cool beans
  • crack-a-lackin’
  • crazy
  • the bomb (or da bomb)
  • dope
  • mah-vah-lus (marvelous)
  • far out
  • fly (or superfly)
  • fresh
  • gnarly
  • freaky
  • gravy
  • hardcore
  • hip
  • hot (or hawt)
  • ill
  • jolly good
  • kick ass
  • killer
  • massive
  • mint
  • neat-o
  • nifty
  • off the hook (or off da hook)
  • outta sight
  • prime (or primo)
  • radical (or rad)
  • righteous
  • right on
  • peachy keen (or peachy)
  • pimp
  • rockin’
  • savage
  • raw
  • schway
  • sick
  • skippy
  • ducky
  • slammin’
  • smooth
  • smashing
  • snootchie bootches
  • solid
  • stellar
  • sweet
  • swell
  • to die for
  • unreal
  • wicked (or wicked cool, way cool)

That’s just one term…I haven’t even gone near sexy, or smart, or stupid, or good looking, or ugly, etc.

What this all leads up to, however, is knowing which words to choose when approaching someone you don’t know for the first time.  In person, that’s a little easier, because you can see how they dress, how they interact with others, things like that.  You get some clues.

Over the internet, it’s a bit different.  Yes, if you can see their Facebook page, or read their blog, or their tweets, you can still get a sense of the person.  There’s a few people I’ve recently begun interacting with online whom I’ve never met in person, but I think I already have a pretty good sense of their values, their sense of humour and their general outlook on life.

What I’m saying is, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.  Take some time if you can.

So, with all that in mind and, again at the risk of making myself sound old and curmudgeonly, I present the following exchange I had with a moron who messaged me on Facebook. All spelling and grammar is as it was originally presented to me.

Moron:

Yo husler what`s good dawg? add me

Me:

Who are you and why should I add you? Dawg.

Moron:

I want to learn more bout your books! your producing man.

Me:

Huh.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I’m going to give you some advice. Why? Because aside from writing, this is also what I do. I’ve spent many years dealing with young adults such as yourself trying to network, or find out more about something that interests them.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. You’re not doing it the right way.

First off, learn to spell and use grammar. You’ve graduated from school, so show it…especially to someone you know writes. “Hustler” has a t. Sentences start with a capital on the first letter. “About” has an a. “You’re” is what you meant to say. Finally, “add me” is a command, not a request.

Second, you’re not Eminem. As cool as you may think it sounds to throw out the “dawg’s” and the “husler’s” and all the other colloquialisms that make you sound like a “playa”…it really doesn’t. You sound like you’re fifteen. I know you’re not. When you’re addressing someone you don’t know, assume they speak and write proper English.

Finally, say what you mean, mean what you say. “Yo husler what`s good dawg?” tells me absolutely nothing. If you’re interested in my book, let me know up front, because you know I don’t know you. That saves you time and impresses me because you communicated properly up front. And don’t command someone to add you. Ask. Nicely.

Do I sound like a boring old asshole now? Maybe. But trust me when I tell you I’ve given you good advice. And I’m not pissed with you, nor do I hold anything against you. I just think you need a little more experience in dealing with those outside your social circle, so I thought I’d offer up some pointers to help you along.

So, I’ll let you decide. Do you still want me to add you? If not, you can still get information from my Vanishing Hope page, and from my blog (tobinelliott.wordpress.com).

Ball’s in your court.

Moron:

you chirpin? i am fifteen. yu callin me old, daweg? playa is spelt “player” Grammer is badd, are you guwd or ar you freshh? you deciide

Me:

Yeah, okay. We’re done here.

And that was the end of it.  By the way, though he states he is fifteen, I don’t believe him, as his Facebook page states “Class of 2011” for his high school, which means he’s more like seventeen, or he’s a liar, or he’s so stupid he just changes it for each year as he makes it through.

I don’t envy his teachers.

And trust me, I get it that, at the end he was just trying to wind me up and provoke a response.  So I obliged him by blocking him.

Now, contrast that with two requests I’ve received recently from a couple of students from the local college.

The first one was about a month ago and stated;

I’m reaching out to you because I am a journalism student at Durham College and I have an assignment where I need to conduct an interview with a person who is “newsworthy.” And I thought you would be a great interview.

I would love to interview a published writer, and I figured why not a published writer who also teachers Creative Writing? It is my dream to be a published author, and I thought I could learn a lot from an interview with you.

I was also unsure if you would reply to a message on your novella’s FaceBook page, so I thought I would find your actual account.

If you are willing to be interviewed, or even if you’re not, if you could message me back it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your time.

The second one came this weekend and stated:

My name is <removed>. I am a second-year journalism student at Durham College. I was wondering if you were available in the next week for an in-person or over the phone interview regarding creative writing. I am specifically looking at the therapy behind art forms such as writing. I am a poet myself hoping to pursue publication upon completion of my studies.

 If you require any additional information please feel free to let me know.

 Thank you for your time and and consideration.

In both cases, I’ve done everything I can to assist them and they’ve both been nothing but pleasant and courteous the whole way through.

They’ve been a pleasure.  Now, you could argue that the last two have more experience than the first one, and I’d have to agree, but I’m guessing there’s, at most, two years separating the first guy from the other two.  You could argue the second two are in Journalism and are training for this, but the first guy also expressed an interest in “my books” so I’m guessing has a passing interest in writing as well.  You could also argue that I was a little more confrontational with the first one, but the “husler”, “dawg”, and “add me” managed to push several of my buttons, which is my point.  When you’re reaching out to someone for the first time, you want to avoid pushing certain buttons.  And I did give him a chance.  I really did.

I started out this blog by saying I despair for the youth of today, however, as I’ve worked my way through to this point, at least I can say two out of three recent interactions have been incredibly positive.

They’re the ones that restore my hope.

Ottawa & Perfect Moments

We drove the Girl up to Ottawa last Friday evening so we could attend an orientation session for Carleton University.

Hard to believe.  My daughter’s only got 45 more days with us before she heads off to really start living her own life.  I’m still coming to grips with that.

Anyway, the traffic was absolutely fine and the weather was amazing for the entire trip there and back.  In fact, this was the first time we’d driven to the campus and not hit either snow or sleet.  Being that it’s mid-July, I’d be a little concerned if we had, but still…

It was a great day, starting with a talk by the president of the university, Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte, then on to one of the profs, and then the rest of the day was turned over to the various Carleton students who were all very upbeat, very professional and extremely helpful.  Gives me hope for our future and makes me feel even better about the Girl going off to Carleton…not that I had any reservations.

But the one thing that stuck with me through the day came from Dr. Runte.  She talked about driving into the school that morning and taking a moment to just enjoy a perfect moment–the perfect blue of the sky, the early morning quiet.  She went on to talk about all those other perfect moments that happen in a life: winning a competitive event, performing well on an exam, meeting someone new…and starting at university.

What struck me was what she then said, that I found completely true.  That, when you win that competitive event, you may be exhausted, when you do well on that exam, you’re probably still a little stressed over it, when you meet someone new, you’re worried about making a good impression.  And in university, there’s so much to worry about: the money, you don’t know anyone, that new rez roommate, leaving home, how much work it’s going to be, your marks, the freshman 15 curse (marks go down by 15%, body weight increases 15 pounds)…

And yet, this is one of those absolutely perfect moments that only seem to be truly captured in a movie.  The young starlet walks on to the school grounds after long panning shots of others chatting on the grassy areas, a group throwing a frisbee, a good looking guy catching a football, trendy music in the background, the sun shining, and that young starlet turns to her very best friend, who’s just happened to come to the same school, and says something Hollywood, like, “This is the beginning of our future!”  Then they head toward some educational edifice…maybe bumping into that cute football catching guy who you just know will either turn out to be a jerk or a wonderful guy but he has a horrible terminal disease that will take him before the end of the year…

Or something like that.

But my point is, this IS a perfect moment.  There’s not too many points in your life that you can point to and say, “There, right there.  That was a life-changing moment.”

I can point to a few.  Meeting my future wife in a mall.  My wedding day.  The birth of my two kids.  A call from an employer that set me down a completely different path.  My roommate coming home to tell me she was never going to teach night school at Durham College again (which lead to the longest running job I’ve ever had).

There’s a few.  But you know what?

I still didn’t stop and take in the fact that these were turning points in my life.  Perfect moments.

We really should stop and take note of these more often.  I hope my daughter does.