Month: February 2016

Photograph

I had a new portrait taken this week.  I like the photos I’ve been using, but they are ten years old and I felt like a liar when I looked at them.  So, now you can see the truth.

The whole experience got me thinking about cameras and photographs.   With photo apps on cell phones our age is awash in pictures.  What we eat, where we travel, who we meet, our pets, our children, our messy kitchens — all show up in a photo and posted to social media for all the world to see.

It was not always so.  Many indigenous people, including those in Canada, believed that if someone took your picture, he stole your soul.   I use that bit of lore In my book Her One and Only

 I’ve been studying photography and cameras for my work-in-progress since the heroine is a photographer in the late nineteenth century.  I grew up with the notion that “the camera never lies.”  Nowadays we know the camera lies all the time.  Photoshop has put editing tools in the hands of everyone who owns a computer, but I’ve learned that from the beginning, the camera “lied.”  Hannah Maynard, a famous photographer in Victoria, B.C. created many odd effects by cutting up her photos, rearranging them and then photographing the results.  Thus she was able to create a picture of herself having tea with herself in the guise of five guests.  She also created what she called “gems.”  These were faces of children cut out and rearranged so that they formed fantastical shapes, like a fountain or a house plant .

While Hannah Maynard was experimenting with photographic effects in Victoria, George Eastman was experimenting with the technology of cameras in New York.  By 1885 he had developed a box camera loaded with enough film for 100 photos.  Previously, images were captured on glass plates making photography cumbersome and awkward.  Eastman’s “Kodak” camera used thin celluloid film and a fast shutter speed  allowing the user to hold the camera in her hand rather than setting it on a tripod.  Photography as a hobby burgeoned.  Women especially were caught up in the new vogue.

Once the one hundred photos were taken the whole camera was shipped back to New York where the Kodak company unpacked the film, developed it, reloaded the camera for 100 more pictures and returned the whole lot to the customer.  In our day of instant everything, it’s  hard to believe such a cumbersome process was considered the height of convenience!

Dogs and Writers

Writing at a coffee shop the other day — one of my favourite activities — I glanced out the window at the collection of dogs tied up outside while their owners were inside.  Without exception, the dogs were worried. How could I tell?  Dogs don’t have the same facial expressions as humans.  They can’t frown or smile as we do, yet I had no trouble reading their emotions.  Right in front of my eyes, was an object lesson on body language.

To indicate their distress, the dogs strained to the end of the leash, eyes fixed on the door through which their particular human had disappeared.  Sometimes they ran in a little circle before resuming the tense pull toward the door.  They shifted their feet.  They glanced over a shoulder, then back to the door.  When a well-meaning passer-by stopped to pat them, they’d give a half-hearted lick to the friendly hand or a single tail-wag, but their concentration never wavered from the door.

When the longed for human finally returned some dogs stood on their hind legs, some shook their heads so vigourously their ears flew out like wings.  Tongues administered doggie kisses everywhere.   Canines ran a happy circle about the owner’s legs.  Tails wagged fast and furious.    Shoulders relaxed, heads up, eyes glued to the human, the dog’s body language told the story of a long (maybe three minutes) wait, a presage of disaster and a final resolution of intense joy.

When I returned to my editing, I kept a sharp eye out for overuse of common body language in my prose.  My characters smile, frown and sometimes run their hands through their hair.  Pretty unimaginative!  As I worked, I considered the lesson from the dogs.  Perhaps my anxious heroine should shift her weight frequently, look toward the object of desire, then away, then back again.  Perhaps my happy hero should sprawl in a chair, relaxed and content while he gazes at the heroine.  Perhaps a child could lean against his mother’s knees in utter joy.

In The Man for Her, I used a dog as a foil for one of the characters and to propel the story at a critical point.  In an early draft of the book, I had the dog get old and sick.  Lottie shot him to end his pain.  I used that scene to show her strength of character.  When a beta reader read it she was horrified.  How could I kill the dog?!!  She loved the dog.  She didn’t care that I wrote fiction.  Save the dog was her vehement advice. In the end, I didn’t kill the dog.  I couldn’t bring myself to inflict that sorrow on my readers.

But sometimes life is cruel.  In that same book I make reference to the Remittance Men, young, well-born, well-educated English gentlemen, who emigrated by the boatload to the colonies of the British Empire.  Between 1875 and 1900, 45,000 of these ‘gentlemen’ came to Canada.  The emigrants were generally younger sons who, for various economic and social causes, suddenly found themselves superfluous  at home.  They eagerly flocked to the Canadian west, convinced they could continue to live the life of an English squire, owning hundreds of acres, a stable full of fine horses, and a pack of dogs.  As a group, these men were ill-suited and ill-prepared for the rigours of earning a living in Canada’s west, where they were expected to do the work themselves and not rely on servants and tenants.  Most of them failed.  Instead of an income from their labour, they relied on an allowance from home.

With some exceptions, the majority  were misfits in a land of hard-working farmers, miners and loggers.  The remittance man, so named for his oft repeated promise to pay his tab “when the remittance comes in,” gained a reputation for running up debts, drinking to excess, and looking down his nose at his “colonial” neighbours.  In short, the term “remittance man” was a label of scorn.

For all the disappointment of their new lives, most of these gentlemen remained true to their ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, public duty and patriotism.  When the call for volunteers came at the start of WWI, remittance men flocked to the recruiting offices, ready to defend the mother country.  In a sad post script to a sad interlude, they had to dispose of their animals before marching off to war.   There is a story of one group of men who arranged with their fellows to lessen the pain.  The last act of a man going off to war, was to ride to his neighbour’s home and, in friendship, shoot the dogs.

Looking at the eager faces of the dogs outside my coffee shop, I can well believe the story.  Even in kindness it would be impossible to draw a gun on your own dog.  Even more unthinkable to abandon it.  For all their faults, I feel a pang of sympathy for the unloved remittance man.

We’re All Immigrants

I spent Sunday afternoon attending a fund-raising concert for Syrian immigrants.  Lovely concert, but the cause was most important.  The plight of refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria, has been well-documented in the media and Canada has opened its heart and its homes to those fleeing war.

This is not new in my country.  From 1979 to 1980, Canada accepted 50,000 Boat People, so desperate to escape Viet Nam they took to flimsy boats, paying outrageous fees to exploiters who promised them passage to the West.   Then, as now, refugees were sponsored by church groups, community groups, clubs, office groups and government.  As a nation, we were proud of our compassion.

It was not always so.  There are black marks in our history, like when we turned away German Jews in 1939.  They were forced to return to Europe, where most ended in  concentration camps.

But, by and large, Canada, and all of North America for that matter, is the story of immigration.  My own Irish ancestors arrived here in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840’s.   On my German side, there is a tale of a wicked stepmother.  The story is that she managed to disinherit the oldest son of her husband by his first wife so that their land would go to her son.  The disinherited man, my forebear, emigrated rather than be a tenant on what he considered his own land.  They came to Canada and the promise of free land.

Each wave of immigrants has been met with a mixed welcome.  Irish, Polish, Hungarians, Chinese have all experienced discrimination.  Remember the pictures of “Irish Need Not Apply” in our history books?  At the same time, prairie women set up welcoming centres to help the flood of European immigrants pouring into Canada’s west in the late nineteenth century.

I tend to think of North America as the destination for immigrants, but history shows that people have migrated all over the world since earliest times.  Our own First Nations probably came to this part of the world from Asia at the time when it was possible to walk across the Bering Sea from Asia to present-day Alaska.  Pre-historic migration out of Africa populated continental Europe and the British Isles.

While it is common for an established population to fear immigrants, “the other,” those others bring huge benefits.  Migrants to Ireland and Cornwall brought their knowledge of tin and copper, signalling the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. Modern migrants in Canada  settled the Prairies, joined the army, contributed to our universities, ran for parliament, raised families, paid taxes, trained as doctors and nurses and teachers and cooks.  Those Boat People?  They are in the forefront of sponsorship drives for Syrian refugees.

There will be clashes as Canadian society tries to absorb 25,000 refugees in a short time, refugees from a  different culture, a different religion and a different clime.  But the goodwill exemplified by S.P.R.I.G. and thousands of similar groups across the country is reason for hope.

My immigrant ancestors helped make this country.  Today’s immigrants will do likewise.

The “Write” Purpose

When Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in Oct. 2015, his acceptance speech included the phrase “sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.”  Now, Mr. Trudeau appears to have a sunny disposition and he campaigned on a platform of hope and positivity, so one would expect him to extol sunny ways, but it turns out he was quoting another prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who held that office from 1896 to 1911.  During that time he devoted himself to national unity in Canada using the politics of compromise.  When disputes arose he appealed to Canadians’ better nature to reach a workable solution.  Mr. Trudeau seems set to follow that example.

When Barak Obama was first elected in the United States, he too campaigned on a message of hope, and the positive slogan “Yes, we can.”  History will judge the success of his administration, but there is no denying that he won with “sunny ways.” There is no denying that hope, affirmation, positivity are great motivators.

I love a sunny day.  I don’t suffer the worst effects of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)but here on the west coast where it rains and rains and rains during the winter season, I can get a bit grumpy.  When it’s not raining, the clouds are hanging so low it feels like we’re living in a grotto.  So, when the sun breaks through it’s cause for celebration.  My energy picks up.  My imagination goes to work.  And I smile — a lot!

One of the ways I cope with those dark days is to review the notes in my “sunshine bowl.”  That is a pretty yellow bowl painted with spring flowers that sits on my desk.  Whenever I receive a compliment, I write it on a piece of pretty paper and pop it into the jar.  Re-reading those notes is a great pick-me-up.  One of my favourites reads, “I like your writing.  I like your descriptions.  It feels happy.”

Every author hopes her books will make a difference in someone’s life.  Some will inspire readers to climb a mountain, or adopt an orphan, or start a school.  Others will encourage kindness, generosity and empathy.   If my stories can make a reader feel happy, I am content.

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