And Now The Legacy Begins

Here's how I feel: I'm nervous. I'm embarrassed. I'm insecure. I'm excited.

Here's why: I'm going to be a writer.

I feel so stupid typing that. I was tempted to say, "I'm going to start a writing career", or "I'm going to try writing for money", but those are just mealy-mouthed ways of saying, "I'm going to be a writer." Why not go for the gusto?

I'm nervous because what if it doesn't work out? What if it turns out no-one wants to pay me to write? (Answer: I'll just keep trying. Sooner or later somebody will pay me to write something.)

I'm embarrassed because it seems so presumptuous to be all, "I'm going to be a writer!" because what makes me so special? Then mad at myself for not thinking I'm special enough to be a writer. (As if being a writer is some kind of impossibly cool and unlikely job, like being a rock star. I have this idea that if a job is cool enough for me to want to do it, automatically I am not cool enough to do said job. Before now I've only ever seriously considered jobs that I secretly think are kind of lame. Or at least very safe.)

Insecure, obviously. Very. The little voices in my head which tell me I can't do stuff are having a field day with this one.

And excited, too, when I manage to squeeze it in amongst all that other nonsense.

I'm not sure when I'm going to fit Being A Writer in amongst all the other stuff, but the plus side is I can do it without having to add much: I have a computer, an Internet connection, a phone and a roof. I also have two hours every day. At some point I would like to add a computer of my very own (rather than the shared family computer) and maybe a writing course or two, but Blake looks askance at spending any money on this endeavour before I've "proven" that I can earn money at it. (Which I take, of course, to be a vote of non-confidence, even though it's actually perfectly sensible.)

I'm going to kick it all off by working on three projects (yes, three): a non-fiction children's book or article, an article (subject TBD) in a parenting magazine (which one TBD), and an article on science and society in, again, some unspecified publication. I know, this all seems insanely vague, but this whole "let's be a writer!" thing is still insanely vague. I just decided to pick three things I would like to write, so I would have something concrete to work towards. My first tasks for all three pieces are basically: "research publishers" and "research topics". Once I have been working on those for a few weeks I will also start sending out feelers for business writing gigs, which I expect will be my bread and butter. I'm not so choosy about what I write, I just love the idea of getting paid for it.

So there. I said it. Out loud. My writing alter-ego is @arbrownwriter at Twitter and arbrownwriter at gmail. Drop me a line if you need me to write something for you!

Cordelia The Brave

Cordelia, as you know, has been having trouble saying goodbye to me when I drop her off at day camp this week. This morning, again, she cried at breakfast, saying she didn't want to go to camp, she wanted to stay with me. We agreed that I would read her a book at camp before I left her.

So indeed, we sat down and read a book together at camp. After the book was over, Cordelia looked at me and asked, "What now?" She was on the very edge of tears. I said, "Now we say goodbye and I go home and you have a nice day at camp." Well, I have never seen someone so small try so hard not to cry. She squeezed up her face and said "Okay mama" with a voice full of tears, but she didn't cry. She was so brave, it just about broke my heart, and it was all I could do not to cry myself.

The thing of it is, I know just how she feels. (I almost always know just how my children feel.) She loves me so much right now, and wants to be near me all the time, so it's almost a physical ache when she isn't (at least unless she's distracted by something else). So I will pick them up early tonight and we can all be together again.

Catching Up At the End of Summer

It's been ages since I've posted, and I have so much to talk about I don't know where to start. I want to talk about what we've done, what we're planning, and how everyone is doing right now. Perhaps chronologically is the way to go.

When I last wrote it was mid-June. The girls were supposed to have swimming lessons for the first two weeks of summer vacation, and then Delphine was supposed to go to day camp at Riverdale Farm for a week, but both things were cancelled on account of the Toronto city workers' strike. We couldn't spend long, lazy days at the park because the bathrooms were closed (city workers' strike) and we couldn't take the ferry to the Island and go to Centreville (city workers' strike) so we tried to find fun other ways. The library remained open through the strike, and we could go to the park for a couple of hours at a time. We went to the ROM and the Science Centre, and Cordelia and Delphine played with friends and neighbours. Honestly, the three of us are pretty good at just kicking around together. Blake joined us for some fun—one of the perks of freelance work is that you can spend odd weekdays with your family and make up for it by working on the weekend.

One Friday in June, Delphine hosted a t-shirt party. She had received a "sticker club" chain letter, which I didn't let her participate in for various pedantic reasons. She was disappointed, but after a conversation with Blake she decided she would host a party where each guest brings a t-shirt (or two). At the end of the party, each guest gets to take home a different t-shirt. Some of the guests were perplexed, some were really into it, and one girl took home the same t-shirts she brought, but everyone had fun and they all went home happy.

The girls and I went on big Expedition to the lake one sunny Tuesday. We took the bus, then the subway, and then a very long streetcar ride all the way to Woodbine and beyond, to the beach at Kew Gardens. The girls spent a merry morning playing with pebbles and water, and befriended a little girl while I chatted with her dad. We were all getting along famously so we headed over to the playground together, then took a walk to an ice cream shop before heading home, grimy and exhausted, at about four in the afternoon. We ended up getting together with that same little girl and her dad the next week, but then they went back home to Calgary.

Just as the Toronto city workers' strike ended the girls and I headed out to visit my mum in Saskatchewan. We were there for two weeks, and had a grand time. The children love being at Granny's house, where there are lots of things to look at, and unlimited television and cookies. (Although even my mother was getting sick of kids' TV by the end of it.) Thanks to the indomitable Shirley, my Big River fixer, we went to a beach at Nesslin Lake, visited a cattle farm, and went fishing. Cordelia caught a fish and Delphine learned how to hold a fish up to have your picture taken with it. (You have to stick your thumb and finger into its eyeballs, which she did with aplomb. She is not squeamish and she's quite pragmatic about the fact that things have to die if you want to eat them.) I caught a few fish, too. I rather enjoy fishing. One day I'll have to try and fish around here.

I think my favourite thing in Big River, apart from the fishing, was walking in the woods at Nesslin. We went for a walk in a beautiful moist forest, rich with fungus and moss and berries. The forest floor was dense with life, and made me realize how sterile a traditional garden is, with its empty brown strips of soil between plants. I would like a garden with the ground alive with fungus and tiny vines and mosses.

We also got to visit a real straw bale house at Ness Creek, which seems to be some kind of hippie retreat (with wireless internet!)

As soon as we landed in Toronto, Andy met us at the airport to take Delphine and Cordelia to the cottage for a few days. (Blake and I weren't invited.) A fine time was had by all—the girls played on the beach for three days (getting nut-brown in the process) and ate corn on the cob for supper, while Blake and I played at being childless. We went for coffee, we went for lunch (it was supposed to be brunch but apparently no-one in our hard-working neighbourhood serves brunch during the week), we saw a movie, and Morgan treated me to a pedicure. I spent quite a lot of money on used books, as you've seen. I also bought a tube of lip gloss and some hair dye, which was more fun than perhaps it should have been. It's unspeakable luxury to be able to go to a store, be it a book store or a drug store, and spend as much time as you want browsing, considering, reading labels and jackets, without having to hurry up and pick someone up, or rush because the children are getting restless. Twenty minutes considering lip gloss! Can you imagine?

We had the girls back last Friday morning, and spent the weekend not doing much, to everyone's relief. This Monday brought more excitement with the start of day camp. It's not a fancy, themed camp, just a week at the child care centre where Cordelia went to nursery school. It's all day, though, which is the longest Cordelia has ever been in the care of someone outside the family. Delphine has been having a fantastic time—one of her best friends is also enrolled in the camp—but Cordelia continues to be very sticky. She's been a mummy's girl for at least six months now and this week has been especially pathetic. She cries at breakfast: "I wannoo stay wif you! I don' wannoo go to camp!" Then when I drop her off she won't let go of me. Once I extricate myself and leave the room she collects herself within a matter of seconds, apparently, so I'm not concerned for her long-term mental health. And I have to agree with her that six or seven hours is a long time to be away from your Mummy, especially later in the day when you start to get tired and grumpy and the organized activities peter out. Kindergarten will be much easier since it's only two and a half hours. That's barely enough time to miss me.

Tomorrow is the last day of day camp, and then we have two weeks of not-very-much before school starts. I'm not expected to buy school supplies for either girl, and they both have plenty of clothes, so we don't need to go shopping. We are scheduled for trips to the optometrist and the hair salon, and I want to go to Centreville, and see an IMAX movie at the Science Centre, before the end of summer. Between that and catching up with friends we haven't seen for ages, the next couple of weeks will be agreeably busy but not frantic.

Books I Bought With My Birthday Money

Herewith find a list of all the books I bought with my birthday money. (I shopped at second-hand stores for the most part.)

  • Death's Daughter by Amber Benson
  • A Handful of Time by Kit Pearson
  • The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • 12 Books That Changed the World by Melvyn Bragg
  • The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski
  • Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
  • Heat by George Monbiot
  • Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William Maples and Michael Browning
  • The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

...and two for Delphine:

  • That Scatterbrain Booky by Beatrice Thurman
  • Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler

If you wait long enough I'll review them all, except for the last two.

Discussion Questions for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Some shovelware for you—we are reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in my book club this month. It was my pick, and so far two people have emailed me to say they couldn't finish it, so we'll see how it goes. Anyway, since it was my pick I was responsible for finding or getting discussion questions. Here are the questions I devised on my own. Discuss amongst yourselves:

  1. On page 286, George Deasey says that the boys' comics are "powerless" and "useless", but Joe Kavalier thinks to himself that he believes "in the power of [his] art". Do you believe in the power of popular culture to steer the course of public opinion or political events? Can you think of any current or recent art which affects politics?

  2. Several characters in Kavalier and Clay change their names as a means of reinventing themselves. Does it work? How does knowing the person's original name affect the way others relate to them? Have you ever changed your name? Did your identity also change?

  3. Do you read comics? Did you ever? (Did you ever try to write one?) Do you appreciate them more having read Kavalier and Clay?

  4. Several characters in Kavalier and Clay identify as both Jewish and as atheists. Discuss how their Judaism is manifested in the absence of belief in God. Do you practice the rituals of your ancestors and if so to what extent do you share their beliefs? Is it possible to be Christian without believing in God?

  5. When I was reading Kavalier and Clay I came across a few words I didn't know. Do you enjoy it when a writer uses unfamiliar words, or do you find it annoying, or pretentious? When you come across a new word do you look it up and try and learn it, or just carry on?

  6. The theme of escape recurs throughout the book: escape through changing one's name, escape through disguise, literal escape from bondage or from danger, and escape through literature. On page 575, Chabon writes: "...the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf." Why is escapist entertainment frowned on by some? Do you agree? Do you use books or TV as an escape or reprieve from reality?

That can’t be good.

I don’t know what happened there, but it doesn't look quite right to me. WTF? Well, it’s fixed now, so I guess no harm, no foul, right?

Thunderbird 3.0 beta 3 shipped!

It’s true, after a lot of hard work, and a few hard decisions, the first version of Thunderbird that has code of mine in it has shipped. Dan Mosedale has some comments on what’s changed. If you like Thunderbird, please download it, give it a try, and let me know what you think!

On a more personal note, the thing I did on this release that I’m the most proud of was to add a button that lets you reply to a mailing list.

Reply to a mailing list

I’m proud of it because it feels like a neat-but-still-usable UI, and because it is one more step on the road to getting people to change their mailing lists to not munge the Reply-To header. (With this patch, you are given the option of replying to the list, or the author. Unless the list has set the Reply-To to point to the list, in which case you can only mail the list.)

A couple of the other areas I worked on for this release were updating the Activity Manager so that it didn’t hang when you clicked “Clear Now”, and so that it merged a bunch of move/copy/delete notifications into a single notification that told you how many messages had been processed; and fixing a some layout and logic bugs in the Autoconfig dialog (which you get to from “File » New » Mail Account (Quick Setup)…”). Yeah, the Autoconfig dialog is still kind of ugly, but it’s better now than it used to be, and I’m working on making it prettier for beta 4.

Books in June and July

Dude, I don't even know why I'm doing this blog entry. I'm so tired! The girls and I had an epic day today: we took the streetcar out to Kew Garden and the girls played on the beach for hours. After that, they played in the wonderful playground, and after that, we walked for blocks and blocks to have an ice cream with a friend the girls met on the beach. Then another long (long, long) streetcar ride (punctuated by an emergency stop at Starbucks for a bathroom visit) and finally home at five. I made supper, put the girls to bed, cleaned the kitchen, and then rearranged all the furniture which had been disarrayed so I could paint the wall. Then I reloaded the bookcase, which I had emptied so I could paint it. I must have put on more coats of paint than I realized because I couldn't fit in all the books I was sure I had taken out of it, but I finally got all that sorted out and now I am sitting. Hurray!

On to the books.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill was our book club book, and it's also the Canada Reads book for this year, which means that just about everyone I meet has read it, or at least heard of it. Now that's cool.

The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman who was kidnapped into slavery as a child. The book follows her life through slavery and freedom, and all around the world. Some of the people in my book club didn't know about the slave ships and stuff, and I didn't know about the loyalists in Nova Scotia, the actual Book of Negroes, and the ships to Liberia. It was an informative read, and a good yarn, but I didn't get as emotionally engaged as I did when I read, for example, A Thousand Spendid Suns (which just about killed me). I found Hill kept a distance between the reader and Diallo, and didn't let me get right into her emotions.

The book is sold as Someone Knows My Name in the US, because apparently "Negro" is just too loaded a word down there. I think from a marketing standpoint, The Book of Negroes is a better name, but Someone Knows My Name is truer to the themes in the book. Names are important in this book. But it's a bit forgettable, marketing-wise.

I don't often buy books. I used to buy books a lot, before Delphine was born and we had a 1-to-1 people-to-jobs ratio. But a couple of weeks ago Blake and I found ourselves in a bookstore and I decided I was going to buy myself a book, dammit. Lucky for me it was coming up on Father's Day so I checked out the display of Man Books, which I love. (Why are there no science books in the Mother's Day display?) In amongst all the spy books and stuff I saw the bright yellow cover of A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. The cover promised a witty, clever thriller. It started off a little confusing; it's not one of those books that spoon-feeds you every detail, so you just have to forge ahead and figure out things as you go along. It's worth it, as the book unfolds into a touching and intriguing story of love and revenge. With a great ending.

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson decided to walk to Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Well, not the whole thing. But enough to get an idea of what the trail's about, and write a book. As usual, it was great Bill Bryson writing, funny and easy to read. Reading the book inspired me to do (well, think about doing) a long hike sometime. (I'm trying to figure out how to go for a long hike without pitching my own tent. I expect that will involve paying someone a lot of money.) Reading this book was the next best thing to actually walking the AT.

Healthy Lunchboxes For Kids by Amanda Grant. Picked this one up off the display at the library. Delphine's starting all-day school and while I'm not expecting her to stay for lunch often, I thought I could use some ideas. Thinking of something for dinner every day pretty much saps my food creativity, so I need all the help I can get. This is a great book, with lots of sandwich and salad ideas, recipes for scones and cakes and cookies, as well as nutrition information and advice on how to reduce waste in your kid's lunch. Very useful book and one I'd consider owning. Although you could tell it's an English book; apparently English kids love chutney, will consider eating dip made with smoked fish, and enjoy sausage sandwiches. No sign of Marmite, but plenty of nuts.

50 High Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. I ordered this from the library but it's really not my kind of thing. I like low-care garden plants, but I also like them to be local to my area, and this book featured lots of foreign plants chosen because they have spectacular foliage or great flowers. This is a useful book but not for me.

A Perfect, Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson is a young adult book about a large family coping with the death of their mother. Sebastian, Rosalind, Corrie, Orly and Juliet live in a big old house with their father, a distracted English professor. The older kids take care of the younger kids while they all try and stay out of the way of the latest housekeeper. They cope with the loss of their mother by escaping into a game of Round Table, playing the roles of knights, squires and pages. The children struggle with growing out of the game, or not being able to, and the pressures of having to take care of themselves without an involved parent. It's a lovely book with beautifully drawn characters and a satisfying resolution.

My first couple of days at Mozilla Messaging.

A few weeks ago I started a new full-time contract at Mozilla Messaging (a.k.a. the people who brought you Thunderbird). I meant to post this on the Wednesday after I started, but didn’t get around to it until now. So, here you go, my notes from just after I started a new job.

It has been a pretty crazy couple of days, both because I’m not that used to working for a full 8 hours on one thing, and because I’m at the point where there’s still so much to learn that I could spend all my time researching stuff, and never get anything done.

But even with all the stuff for me to learn, I feel like I’ve made a fair bit of progress. There were a few bugs assigned to me, based on a previous patch, as well as a couple of things left to do to get the feature working, so I jumped right in to those. After I had new patches up for review on all of those bugs, I talked with Bryan Clark about what bugs I should tackle next. He and David Ascher both suggested that the new automatic mail server config dialog could use a bit of love.

This morning, I did some investigation on group email addresses for one of the bugs I’m working on, and took a look at how the autoconfig dialog was put together so that I wouldn’t sound like I was completely lost in the meeting. (XUL, CSS, and Javascript. No surprises there. :) Then, after the Status Meeting, Bryan and I chatted a bit about what the various bugs were that he had assigned to me, and what sort of things I might look into to try and fix them. A few hours later, I had a fix for one of them, and applied a similar fix to another. (As an aside, you’ve got to love the 3 hour investigation which ends up being a 9-character change. At least while investigating the bug, I learned a lot about hboxes, vboxes, flexes, grids, and descriptions, which will hopefully come in handy in future bugs. :) Finally, I ended the day by reading a review of a patch I submitted on Monday morning, making some tweaks to my code, and resubmitting it.

The final thing that amazes me is that each day is taking up pretty much a full page of my log book, which is way more than usual. Most of the days last month got a line or two. Really full days would maybe get half a page. But yesterday and today were a solid page, chock full of information, each. I wonder how long this trend will continue. I hope it keeps on going like this for a long time.

An odd coincidence?

I have a theory. (No, it’s not bunnies.) One of my favourite foods is soy beans. I love it both because they’re tasty, and because they’re so changeable. I mean, what other substance can be used to make a hard white solid (tofu), and a viscous black liquid (soy sauce)? Hey, waitaminnute. “Soy beans” are oil! It’s all just different names for petrochemicals!