Merlyn on Learning

The last time I met with students face-to-face this year was March 13. It was a regular teaching day, but as I talked with my first-year students about the differences between periodical and scholarly articles, I was receiving email after email on my phone as the world shut down. By Sunday evening of that weekend, the government had announced the suspension of face-to-face classes throughout the province. The term ended in an online scramble that had instructors and students alike learning new ways to learn. COVID 19 may have altered the way universities deliver content—perhaps permanently—but there’s a constant here people need to bear in mind: university is about teaching, but even more it’s about learning.
When in doubt, ask a favourite character. When it comes to learning, I turn to Merlyn from T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Here’s what Merlyn says to the Wart about learning:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
(White, T. H. “Chapter XXI.” The Sword in the Stone.)
In the last couple of months I took this advice to heart in various ways. I found a book that I’d put off reading and dived in, Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara. This is a short book outlining the history of the dinosaurs. Lacovara explains where dinosaurs sit on the tree of life, and he describes in detail his discovery of the dreadnoughtus during a dig in Patagonia. It’s estimated the dreadnoughtus measured twenty-six metres in length and weighed more than eight male elephants, or more than a Boeing 737.
Lacovara offers a vivid and compelling discussion of dinosaurs and why their lives and eventual extinction remain relevant today. For one, you can see and hear the descendants of dinosaurs every time you take a walk outside. They feed from your bird-feeders and fly overhead. These avian dinosaurs are what remained following the chicxulub impactor, the asteroid strike that caused the last major extinction event, 66 million years ago. This giant space rock hit the Yucatan Peninsula, creating a crater more than a hundred miles across and twelve miles deep—forever altering the global climate and changing the course of evolution.

A photo taken at the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller.

The best way to experience dinosaurs is close up—close up in a museum, such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. Always a fascinating place to visit. But if you can’t get there, you can visit online.
Merlyn is a hands-on teacher, but I think even he would have approved the use of the internet to continue learning in a global pandemic. COVID 19 has changed the way we interact, how we work, how we live our lives. But we need to continue learning. And when you need a break from the screen, make sure and get out for a walk. The natural world is the best teacher—it’s always ready to show us something amazing,, and it never tires of doing so.

New Fiction, The Girl without Hands

I want to thank Nathan Leslie and Maryland Literary Review for publishing “The Girl without Hands.” This is a work of fiction. While my growing up in north Edmonton certainly had an impact on place, everything and everyone here is fictitious.
This story has been rejected more times than I can count, and I’ve seriously considered changing the title a number of times. The story is part of a larger collection that I’m hoping to turn into a novel in stories at some point.
Having a story rejected a dozen times seems part of the process—at least some of the time. It can get harder and harder to maintain your belief in a piece when journals keep turning it back. I even had one editor tell me the ending “errors gravely”—they encouraged me to revise the ending and resubmit the story. I almost did. An additional character, Aubrey, comes into the story at the end. The editor thought this character needed greater play, and that introducing this character, without resolving what emerges between Audrey and the father didn’t work.
On the one hand, I thought I could just remove the reference to Aubrey, and it wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, I thought having this character present, if only in name, allowed for something implied in Bethany’s character. Clearly one editor didn’t agree.
Which actually leads me to the name of the story.
Such titles, The Girl—insert preposition, , insert noun phrase—have been very popular in the last decade. But if you know your Grimms’ fairy tales, then you can guess I took the title from the story of the same name. My story isn’t a revision or rewriting of the Grims’ “The Girl without Hands,” but it does inform my story, and there were aspects of the Grimms’ tale I wanted to include in mine, particularly around the relationship between father and daughter.
So I kept the title—and I never really wanted to revise the ending, anyway. In the end, I didn’t have to because Maryland Literary Review stepped in and published the story. So thank you again to MLR, and enjoy.

On Audio Descript, in Recognition of Accessibility Week

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we had a thing called video stores. If you didn’t want to buy a DVD, you had to go to the video store to rent your film. By the way, they were called video stores because they originally rented movies on video cassette. But that’s a different life-time ago.
In 2012, Disney began distributing the Avengers films. Around the same time, Disney began including video descript with all of their films. Someone I know saw a video descript sticker on the Avengers film and got very excited. She rented it for me. I watched about half an hour of the film; I eventually gave up—not because of the video descript, but because I didn’t think I was an Avengers fan.
Video descript, or audio descript—as it’s more commonly called—is a description track that’s inserted to help blind and visually impaired people watch film and television. The idea for this technology goes back to the 1970s, but not until the late 80s does it begin to take form, first as the Descriptive Video Service, tested on American Playhouse in 1988. In 2010, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed in the United States.
I never liked audio descript. This might seem an odd thing for a blind person to say—I just found it invasive, or something. But I never really gave it a chance—something that became clear to me the first time I watched Disney’s Frozen. I couldn’t keep the sisters straight, and I thought the talking reindeer an odd addition to the film. I had to later sort out the details with the help of my daughters. Then Netflix found its way into my life, and I began to rely on the audio descript for shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Grace and Frankie. And I have the fine people at Netflix to thank.
Erica Kram is the Accessibility Project Manager with Netflix, and she and many others have pushed hard to ensure that all of Netflix’ original programming includes audio descript. And it’s not a service just for blind and visually impaired users—people are apparently using audio descript to turn television watching into an audio book experience.
Then came COVID. We were probably two weeks into lock-down before I decided to get Disney Plus. My sister and eldest daughter had already subscribed to Disney’s new streaming service, but I was definitely a late comer.
At the end of March, my youngest daughter and I decided to rewatch the first six Star Wars films. We got to The Empire strikes Back—and, look at that, no disk in the case. We had no idea where the disk had disappeared. That’s when my daughter reminded me that Disney had all the Star Wars films in their new streaming service. We either had to buy Empire through iTunes, or join Disney’s golden horde—we joined.
I quickly learned that Disney takes accessibility as seriously as Netflix. Disney has added video descript to all of the Star Wars films—and I mean all of them, going back to The New Hope from 1977. And this doesn’t include the audio descript Disney has added to its animated films as far back as The Little Mermaid from 1989.
This week is Accessibility Week, and audio descript is an accessibility issue. And like all accessibility issues, it’s political. It may seem a small thing in a pandemic world, but it’s not for those who rely on it. And the fact that major corporations recognize the importance of accessibility speaks to a changing world. It’s not just differently abled groups who will benefit, either. Such recognition benefits everyone. Celebrating diversity in ability, ethnicity, race, gender, economic status, and in every other way helps to alter the human landscape. Join in recognizing and celebrating all the diversity around you. This is how we are changing our world.

New Fiction, “The Book Finder”

For me, walking into a book store is an odd experience. I’m in a room full of books and I can’t red any of them. Books and reading is where I live—where I have lived for most of my life, but as a blind person, access to print books has always been an issue.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like walking through book stores. I will visit with a friend—always feeling a strange expectancy as whomever I’m with reds titles and backs of books. If I buy, I mostly buy for other people. But my world of books is audio and digital, not print.
I’ve always been able to find books to read, books that take me into worlds I haven’t yet imagined, but many of my most memorable reads have come from other people—teachers, friends, and relatives. I always pay attention when someone tells me about a book. It might be something I’ve already read, but often not. And you never know how a book is going to alter the way you see the world—whether that’s a biography of Charles Darwin, a hefty Dickens novel, or a book about little people who live in holes in the ground. Every book is both mirror and lens—it shows you something of yourself while enabling you to see the world in new and interesting ways.
All of this thinking went into a story I wrote last year called “The Book Finder.” It’s a story about a mysterious woman who works in a bookstore. People talk about her, but no one seems to be able to find her by looking. If you ask at the bookstore, they will invariably shake their heads and send you to the reference desk.
Here’s the opening from “The Book Finder”:

You couldn’t always find her. If you went looking for her, you would never find her—that’s what some people said. You just had to be in the store—by accident, by chance, or just because.
Most people who claimed to have met her didn’t remember her clearly. They would frown, trying to recall.
“I was in there … a Tuesday, I think,” they would say, vaguely. “But I didn’t know what I was looking for. Then she came over and just started asking me what I liked to read. I told her … and she handed me a book.”
The stories went like that. Some said it was an older woman—one was convinced it was a man. But most said it was a girl, or a young woman, smiling, inquiring, and asking what you liked to read.
And maybe that was it. You couldn’t go into the little shop intentionally. You couldn’t walk in and ask for her. If you did, the person behind the counter would say something vague in response: ”Oh, you must mean Sarah (or Sally, or Jane). She’s not here today, but if you go to the reference desk, someone can help you.”

I want to thank the editors of The Evening Street Review for publishing “The Book Finder” in their summer, 2020 issue. You can purchase a copy of the journal at the following address:
The Evening Street Review.
The summer issue is loaded with poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. Remember, purchasing a copy of the magazine helps such journals to continue bringing us stories that will live with us for years to come, and perhaps, even change the way we see the world.

George MacDonald, The Father of Modern Fantasy

George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.

Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)

George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.

On Writing Memoir, Part 7, “Standing at My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016”

This is the seventh and final post in my series on memoir. I’m sure I will post more about memoir in the future, but this series has been my attempt to bring some order to, and provide some context for, the pieces I’ve published on losing my sight when I was a boy.
In May 2016, I was visiting my daughter in Glasgow, Scotland. She had a flat with a friend. We spent a couple of days wandering about downtown and seeing the sights. Our plan was to make a series of short trips during my two-week stay—down to Hadrian’s Wall, up into the Highlands, and to Edinburgh to visit The Elephant House where J. K. Rowling was supposed to have written the first Harry Potter book.

A few days into the trip, I had a phone call from my sister—an elderly aunt had died. It was the second of my two aunts to pass away within a couple of years. I felt badly for my mom, who had now lost both of her older sisters.
My aunt’s passing had a different effect on me. It was her two sons who were with me in the car accident that took my sight in 1974. Graham, her youngest, and my cousin, was killed in that accident.
In some ways, these pieces I’ve been posting that describe the accident and explore the loss of my sight are skating around a more central issue—the death of my cousin in that accident. I loved Graham, with all the confused passion of my ten-year-old heart. I also loved the trips down to the farm where I got to spend time with him. Adjusting to my blindness after the accident was one thing, but coming to terms with my sense of loss over Graham’s death took many more years.
The death of my aunt in 2016 brought me back to southern Alberta where these events occurred. Two days after arriving back in Canada, I drove down to Lethbridge with cousins. It was good to gather with family for a few days, but more important—for me, anyway—was visiting the cemetery where Graham was buried. In forty years, I had never been.
I have two pieces that have appeared in the last ear that specifically address that loss,
“Standing at my Cousin’s Grave, May 2016”
“My Cowboy Cousin.”
I want to thank the people from COG Magazine for picking up “Standing at My cousin’s Grave,” and Zone 3 Press for publishing “My Cowboy Cousin.” “My Cowboy Cousin” is currently only available in print, but purchasing a copy of the magazine will go towards supporting the journal.
For me, writing memoir has never been about creating a single narrative; it’s about fragments or parts of a larger story that involves many people. Each piece I write, each time I try to do this, I’m opening another window onto that narrative, and I never exactly know how it’s going to unfold. But what I am sure of is my gratitude for those people who have shared the story with me.