Amy (old posts, page 43)

2013 Year in Review

I'm writing this a little late, as it's already 2014. I suppose this way I can be sure I'm not missing anything, as one never knows if 11:42 pm on December 31 might be the highlight of the year.

Well, it wasn't. But at about that time someone did ask me what the highlight of 2013 was, and I was stumped. I thought of our trip to Buffalo, but that was in December; not even a month prior. So to write this post I'm going to have to look at calendars, to-do lists, photos, old emails... Clearly my own brain won't suffice.

In January I wrapped up work on Shamans Among Us with Joseph Polimeni. I edited and typeset the book, as well as designing the cover and overseeing proofreading and website design. It was a fascinating book to work on; I learned a tremendous amount.

But after Shamans wrapped I set aside my editing work to join Greg Wilson at Software Carpentry. That's a big deal, really. It's my first regular, non-freelance job since Delphine was born. It's so nice to be part of a team, to be useful and wanted for something other than knowing where the clean socks are and what we're having for dinner.

We all did a lot of travelling this year, mostly by ourselves. Delphine went to a few Guide camps and week-long sleepover camp in summer, and Cordelia went to Brownie camp. Blake went to Pittsburgh, London, Brussels, San Francisco and Minneapolis, and I went to Portland OR, Boston, and London (but not at the same time as Blake). The girls and I went to Saskatchewan in June, and in December we all went to Buffalo, which sounds lame but might have been the best trip of all.

In June my first-cousin-once-removed Emily came to visit with her boyfriend Dan. I never met her before (I don't think? I feel like I should know this) so that was pretty cool, because she's awesome and Dan is too. The girls loved them because Emily is from New Zealand and that's pretty much Middle Earth, and because Dan played Lord of the Rings Risk with them. (Emily was also written up in the Huffington Post, which is more than pretty much anyone else I know can say.)

This is a pretty uneventful year in review, so I guess 2013 was a pretty uneventful year. I'm okay with that! I hope 2014 is also uneventful, and with some interesting trips. And maybe more cats.

Ice Storm Christmas

On Saturday, December 21 the girls and Blake and I went to a Christmas carolling party at a friend’s house. We sang lots of old-fashioned Christmas carols (the ones they don’t sing at school because there’s too much Christmas in them) and drank wine and talked about the coming storm. “Charge your phones,” I said, “make sure you have milk and bread!”

“Is it going to be all that bad?” My friends moved here from England just over a year ago — they weren’t here for the ice storm in Ottawa and Quebec back in 1998.

“It could be nothing, or it could be a few days without power,” I said.

By the time we left it was raining, cold hard rain which was starting to freeze on the ground. Blake walked us home and went out again to meet some friends at a pub. I plugged my phone in, made sure my computer was charged, tucked the girls in and headed to bed with The Sea-Captain’s Wife.

Sunday, December 22

When we woke up the power was out but the house was still warm. I lit some candles and boiled a saucepan of water for tea. I shuffled to the gym and back, and the power came back on around 10:30. Easy!

The city was covered in ice, part of the subway was shut down and people were being advised not to go out if they didn’t need to, but Delphine and I had tickets for the Sing-Along Messiah. When we heard at around 11:00 that Massey Hall was open and the Sing-Along Messiah was on, we still weren't sure whether to go or not.

My friends who were going to come with us decided not to go --- they told a very long story about a branch in their driveway and ice on their car and the subway might not be running and it would be hard and they’d rather just not bother. That was disappointing and we thought about staying home too, but we decided that an adventure of any kind would be preferable to staying cooped up at home being sullen.

Waiting for the bus, a lady shuffled towards us with unkemped hair and flushed skin, sprinkling rock salt from a gallon jug on the sidewalk ahead of her. “The subway isn’t running from Eglinton to Bloor,” she said. “No trains! They’re running shuttle buses!” Again we thought about giving up, but decided to forge ahead.

At Yonge Street three shuttle buses drove past, each too crammed to pick anyone up. A small CBC TV crew was shooting some B-roll of people giving up; Delphine wanted to be interviewed for TV but they found someone less hopeful.

Finally I decided to work around the Yonge Street problem altogether by catching the number 14 bus over to the University-Spadina line. The number 14 was diverting from its usual route because of branches on the roads, too, but it was only a twenty minute ride to Glencairn

The subway train we caught at Glencairn was the Hobbit train, which pretty much made the whole trip worthwhile. We got to Dundas station ten minutes before show time and didn’t miss a single note. Dame Emma Kirkby sang. (I wonder how she enjoyed it.) There might have been a bit of a trainwreck in the Amen fugue, but we pulled it together with lots of help from Ivars. Delphine had a good time and she’s starting to learn the choruses and sing along. All in all, going was absolutely the right choice.

After the sing-along we wandered the mall with Janet, who had joined us for Messiah, and then met Blake and Cordelia for dinner. We ate at Mr Greenjeans, our favourite mall restaurant. After a lot of food we went home and noticed that it was very dark on our block; the power had just gone off again.

Monday, December 23

The lights were still out Monday morning. I was supposed to go grocery shopping for Christmas dinner ingredients, but the grocery store was closed. I’m actually not sure what we did all day; cooking and washing dishes, tending to candles. I wrapped Blake’s Christmas gifts in the basement by the light of a single candle. I spent a lot of time checking the @TorontoHydro Twitter account. The girls and Blake decorated their gingerbread houses, which they had cleverly baked the day before the power went out.

At 8:45 pm on Monday, after the power had been out for over 24 hours, it was 16.3° Celsius in the house. People kept inviting us over to their house to warm up, and I didn’t realize why until later when I heard that other houses cooled down to 10 degrees and lower within a day. I don’t think there’s any one thing which made our house stay so warm; it’s a combination of factors:

  • really small house (about 1200 square foot)
  • a layer of rigid foam insulation on the inside of every outside wall (making the house even smaller)
  • semi-detached, so one wall of the house is insulated by an entire other house
  • protected on the north side by another house which is about three feet away
  • newish, small windows
  • honeycomb blinds

And finally, we have a gas water heater and a gas stove, so we were able to warm the place up with hot showers and cooking. I'm feeling pretty good about our little house these days.

Tuesday, December 24

On Christmas Eve morning it was 13.4°C when we woke up; it went up to 15.3°C by the end of breakfast. We went out for lunch and to see The Hobbit; when we got home the temperature had gone down to 11.4°C. We lit some candles and made pasta for dinner, and managed to drag the temperature up to 13°C before bed. Blake and I had to stay up later than the girls because of Christmas, but I lit lots of candles and we managed.

Christmas Day

When we woke up on Christmas Day it was 9.3ºC, which is perhaps too cold for comfort. But Christmas, like the show, must go on, so we made tea and breakfast and lit a bunch of candles and opened presents. Lots of books, lots of chocolate and lots of Lego, so satisfactory all ‘round. Oh, and the girls got rubber swords, which they immediately fought over. Of course.

After opening presents we went over to Baba’s house to warm up, do the cryptic, read (me), knit (Delphine), and watch TV (Cordelia). I kept checking Twitter for news about the power, and at around 3:30 I got a text message from a neighbour to say we were back on. Hooray — we could sleep at home!

The biggest conundrum of the no-power Christmas was where, and if, Christmas dinner would happen. Normally I host, and I was thinking about cancelling dinner, but my sister-in-law is the best ever and offered to have it at her place rather than cancel or postpone. So I brought Christmas pudding and cookies, and made Yorkshire puddings to go with the roast beef, and it was delicious and perfect. And the evening ended very satisfactorily, in our own cozy little house.

Thomas

Early Thursday morning our sweet Thomas died. He was twenty-one years old.

For the last day or so he'd been wheezing a little bit, and at about three in the morning he was making so much noise with every breath that he woke us both. He was curled up on the foot of the bed, his head bobbing up and down and his abdomen sucking in with with the effort of every breath. There was a puddle of urine on the floor; he had been too weak to go down to the basement, but was still sweet and well-mannered enough to get off the bed to pee.

I realized he would have to go to the vet right away, and I was pretty sure this was it for him. Blake woke up the girls to say goodbye while I got dressed and called a cab.

The receptionist at the vet called the triage nurse who took Thomas into the back straight away. I was asked to wait in a examining room. After a few minutes the vet came out -- she was short, pretty, youngish, a little plump, with a pierced lip.

She said Thomas had fluid around his lungs --- pleural effusion. It might be caused by heart disease, a tumour, or it might be idiopathic --- caused by nothing in particular. Heart disease, after being confirmed by a cardiologist, could be treated (with an unpredictable degree of success) with medicine. A tumour could only be treated with surgery, and the only treatment for idiopathic pleural effusion would be to drain it, keep Thomas in the clinic for twelve hours, and see how long the fluid took to come back.

Surgery was out of the question, and I didn't see much point in putting Thomas on yet more medicine. Draining and waiting would be torture. I asked for a minute to talk to Blake on the phone, and we decided it was time.

The vet agreed that this was a sensible course of action, and the nurses brought Thomas into the little examining room and gave me a few minutes to say goodbye. They brought a tank of oxygen so he wouldn't have to work so hard to breathe, which was wonderful except it made him seem like his old self again; he was breathing so easily, I didn't know if we had made the right choice. It wasn't until he had his face away from the oxygen for a few minutes that he started to wheeze again and I remembered how miserable he'd been.

I gave him lots of scratches, and whispered to him what a good cat he was, what a handsome boy, how much we loved him and how much we would miss him. At first he lay there, but soon he half-stood and start to nose around the examining table. The vet had put in an IV line in his left foreleg, taped with blue tape, and he shook his leg in irritation. I kept wanting to say "It's okay, it will be off soon," but I couldn't. He gently head-butted me one, two, three times. He was never very affectionate, but the awkward head-butt was his quiet way of showing love.

Finally, after a lot of tears, the vet came in and talked a little bit about what would happen. She let me stroke Thomas as she injected the drugs. He didn't die as quickly as Mimi had -- she was gone before the syringe was half-empty, but Thomas took a little longer. Not much, though; within seconds his head came to rest chin-down on the table and he was still. His eyes were open but empty, like the eyes of an Egyptian statue. He was still beautiful.

The vet let me have another moment alone with him; I kissed him on the head and told him again that I loved him, then started to go out the door. I was about to close it behind me but changed my mind and went back in for one more stroke, one more kiss, one more look at my beautiful grey boy.

Two Things About Time

I've finally admitted that most of my non-kid-related posts to this blog are about my struggle to use my time wisely, so I created a "time" category. However, I'm not going to move all my old "time" blog posts into it. I just don't have the time.

However, this post is a pleasant change from my usual moaning about not having enough time. I have actually learned two things about time.

Slack

A few years ago I read a review of Tom DeMarco's Slack. I'm not sure what the book is actually about (and I don't want to look it up right now lest I lose track of my thought) but what I took away from the review is that piling your employees with the absolute maximum amount of work they can handle is not effective. People and systems need enough available slack to deal with crises as they arise. (Also people, especially people doing creative work, do some of their best work when they have a chance to be idle, to chat with coworkers, to just think. I'm pretty sure that I learned that since, though.)

At the time I thought the slack theory sounded very credible, mostly because it validated my own work-related misery and exhaustion at the time. (In retrospect that's laughable; I hadn't had kids yet and had no idea what being too busy meant; I was miserable and exhausted at work for other reasons.) But it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that it occurred to me that the principal of incorporating slack applies to individuals as much as it does to companies. When your everyday life is crammed to the brim, you have no recourse when a family member gets sick, a neighbour adopts a baby or a friend loses a parent; you have to either abandon something important or let someone down.

At the moment my schedule is crammed full; between household maintenance and childcare and child management and choir and school choir and friends and working out and, of course, work, I have no slack. And there's nothing I want to give up.

However, I'm trying to let things fall away and not replace them. I have stuck to my resolution to not take up the eco-committee chair position at school; I have stubbornly refused to take on any other major school volunteer jobs; I have even declined to arrange social events.

My plan, and I think it's rather clever, is to fill my slack time with a space-holder hobby: something worth doing but which I don't mind setting aside if I'm needed for something more important. I have a needlework project which my father started as he was beginning to sink into dementia; he abandoned it when he was moved into the nursing home, and I brought it home with this summer. I want to finish it but I don't mind how long it takes. That will be my time-space-holder. Just as soon as I find some time to hold.


Time Panic

In the October 5 issue of New Scientist Debora MacKenzie reviews three books about pursuing happiness. Part of her review is about how scarcity inspires obsession:

...the brain focuses ferociously on what it feels is lacking. This reflex evolved to help us find what we need. The team's real insight is that it applies to all scarcities, not just of money, but of time and even social contact. We "tunnel" in on the scarcity and ignore anything outside.

All that scarcity messes with how we manage the resource in question.

The future looks less menacing than the scarcity we face now. So we borrow money, then borrow more, disregarding future costs as interest mounts, until we are deeply in debt.

This is exactly what I do when I feel overwhelmed with things to do. Instead of taking the time to figure out how to best spend my time, I panic and either avoid everything or just do the first thing I put my hands on, which is sometimes helpful, and often not. At the end of the day I'm exhausted, anxious, and no further ahead.

Uuh, I'm not sure what the takeaway is from this particular clue, apart from that I need to notice when I'm flailing and take a deep breath. It might seem like I don't have time to take a deep breath, but really I don't have time not to.

Birthday 38: Another Post About Time

It's time for another birthday post. I'm not sure if I manage to write one every year, although I always feel I should. It seems as good an opportunity as any to catch up on everything, sitting here on my back deck on a cool summer day, enjoying the dappled shade of the silver maple.

I should be hanging a load of laundry that Blake washed.

I should be working. I think. Should I be working? It's Sunday, but then I don't work full time the rest of the week, so maybe Sunday is a good time to catch up? I worked a couple of hours today already, but there's still plenty to do, and if I don't do it today I will only have to do it tomorrow while facing an onrush of new work as everyone gets to the office.

So, I don't know if I should be working.

Time dismays me. This blog knows that, for one thing because I hardly ever post — I just don't have time — and for another because when I do post it's often about time. I have so much that I have to do, and so much that I'd like to do, and I don't know where to find the time.

This is what I do now:

I work. I have a regular job with an organization now (as opposed to a freelance publishing gig), although only part time. It's supposed to be two hours a day, but my boss keeps casually referring to it as half-time, which it really should be because I have so much to do. This summer, especially, I'm having a hard time keeping up. At least once a week I get a worried email from a workshop host or instructor asking if I've had a chance to put up that website or set up that registration page or process those receipts. Right now I have eleven emails which I have flagged to remind me that they're Urgent and should be Attended To With Haste. Then there are the other forty-four emails which can wait, although if I leave them long enough they may well become the other kind.

I parent. This means that I spend time with the girls, of course. It's summer and they have only been in one two-week day camp, so we've gone on a few adventures and worked on a big jigsaw puzzle. (Conclusion: "I don't really like jigsaw puzzles, Mummy.") They're still good fun, although they're having a fractious summer in each other's company. Neither of them seems to have the social skills to tolerate the other's foibles, or to de-escalate disagreements. Sibling rivalry is supposed to teach this kind of thing, but so far it doesn't seem to be working. Maybe they need to be older. But when they're not fighting they're good friends, and they love each other even if they wouldn't admit it.

The other side of parenting is management. I never realized how much management there is to being a modern parent — I don't think it came up in any of the books or magazine articles I read. Spending hours researching extra-curricular activities and school programs, filling in registration forms, buying clothes and equipment, organizing calendars, emailing babysitters, scheduling playdates — none of that was part of mothering as I understood it.

You may think: But you've been a mother for over ten years, why is this bothering you now? The thing is, the paperwork side of mothering only seems to grow as the children's needs and challenges become more complicated (and expensive). As the nitty-gritty side of diapers and snacks and bloody knees diminishes the administrative side inflates.

But I was relieved to come across a passage in Rumer Godden's Home is the Sailor about the children setting up the mother doll at a desk with piles of paper, where she would spend most of her days ordering things and organizing the children's lives. Even in 1964, apparently, mothers had lots of paperwork to do.


I also look after the house and the finances and the cat.

The house needs the usual upkeep (although I am supported in that by a biweekly house cleaner) as well as identification and resolution of various old-house problems. We're still dealing with the leaky bathroom situation; also a chunk fell off the outside dining room windowsill; also the paint is peeling on the window frames outside. There are problems with chattels, too: the dryer is broken, the couch is ready for the landfill, and the cushions for the deck furniture need new covers. It's true that the more you own, the more it costs, in time and money.


I also do things for myself, a little bit. I read, not as much as I'd like to. I go to the gym most mornings, which isn't fun per se, but it's the only time I let myself read New Scientist, so that part is fun. Also fun is how flexible and energetic and, I admit, smug I feel after the workout is over.

Lately I've been amusing myself with nail colour. My friend Karen D, who used to be into quilting, is now into nail polish, and her thoughtful posts and juicy pictures made me want to paint my nails too. It seems like a fairly harmless pleasure: it's not expensive, it doesn't take much time (okay, I do manicures while I'm working — I can type without smudging wet polish) and it gives me inordinate pleasure.

And I indulge myself with plenty of social time. I don't go on many organized outings with friends, apart from book club and the odd lunch, but I don't begrudge myself a nice chat when I bump into a friend on the street or at the start or end of a playdate. Apart from how good it makes me feel (I'm an extrovert), I know that having rich social connections is as healthy as working out.


I don't think I waste a lot of time. I have a somewhat, I think, precocious sense of my own mortality. It came upon me a couple of years ago when I realized that my to-be-read list was getting longer at a greater rate than I was reading books, leading to the obvious conclusion that I would die before I was done reading. (A slight digression: I don't understand people who "don't know what to read next". Do they not have hundreds of books waiting for them in lists or piles? Why don't they?) This awareness leads me to a somewhat panicked fear of wasting time. I've come to realize that some things which might seem like a waste of time, like walking places or hanging out with friends or just sitting thinking, are not a waste of time but rather essential to happiness and long life. But I'm constantly on guard against time misspent.

I'm somewhat heartened by the fact that life seems to go on for a long time. I'm often surprised to realize that people who were grown-up and doing things when I was a kid are still active and doing things now. The books of Judy Blume were already dated when I read them (Sanitary pads with belts? Wha?) but she's now active on Twitter and overseeing movie versions of her books. Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod made my childhood miserable with their shame-inducing Body Break segments, and now they're on Amazing Race Canada, still fit and chipper as ever. (I suppose I can be thankful that Slim Goodbody isn't on Survivor.)

What I'm saying is, even though it may seem that being almost-forty and having done basically nothing useful with my life is an unrecoverable failure, the fact is I probably have at least another forty years ahead of me, and I don't have to waste twenty-two of this batch in growing up and going to school.

And now I'd better go hang that laundry while there's still enough daytime for it to dry in.

Everything That Happened Since Last Time I Posted

(Probably Not Actually Everything)

Boston

This week I went to Boston for a two-day work thing, which I will not discuss at length lest this gets linked as some kind of relevant post and too many work people start reading it, which I don't mind but makes me feel weird about posting boring crap about my kids and my hair. Anyway, yeah, Boston. I didn't get to do much interesting touristy stuff but I had fun and would visit again.

(I should point out that I wasn't ever in Boston, except when I was at the airport — I was in Cambridge.)

I got there on Sunday afternoon and right away went to BJ's with my infinitely patient Boston friends to get snacks for the boot camp. After we unloaded the snacks at the B&B we went for dinner at Cambridge Brewing Company, which my friends kept confusingly referring to as CBC. I had the cheese plate (cheeeeese) and I want to say a salad but I don't recognize any of the salads on the menu. It was tasty and satisfying. I also had the HefeWeizen (which I now realize I was pronouncing wrong, for shame, haven't I sung enough Bach?) which hit the spot.

We walked over to Toscanini's Ice Cream where I had Ovaltine, and Peanut Butter and Honey. Ovaltine ice cream is a wonderful and necessary thing. The Tosci's ice cream was good, but I have to say it's no better than the good ice cream places in Toronto. Sorry, I know that's kind of a jerky thing to say.

Then I said goodbye and many thanks to my friends, and oddly enough went back to CBC, where I met up with some boot camp instructors and helpers, and drank more beer (a Saisonniere, which I did pronounce properly).

I worked the next two days. On Monday night we had a catered dinner at the boot camp, so I didn't even eat out. (Catered dinner is good too! Such a treat to have someone turn up and make everything right, with wine!) Tuesday morning I had to go to a supermarket and buy another cartload of snacks because apparently people are way hungrier than I thought.

The boot camp ended on Tuesday afternoon and I went for a drink at Catalyst with a couple of instructors and helpers. The bathrooms were fancy! Then I went walking around Harvard with a new friend before a late dinner at The Kebab Factory (goat curry! gulab jamun!). We talked about the supposed advantages of name-brand universities, and national identity, and immigrant identity, and walkable neighbourhoods. It was one of those great conversations.

The B&B was fabulous — clean and beautiful, and the proprietors and staff were delightful company. If I ever go back to Cambridge I will definitely stay there.

First Day of Summer Vacation Didn't Go Well

Friday — yesterday — was the first day of summer vacation. Well, as a friend kindly pointed out, yesterday was technically a PA day, and Monday is a statutory holiday, so the first day of summer vacation is Tuesday. This is good because it gives me a chance to not foreshadow a terrible summer.

I woke up with a hideous headache and a mild but nagging nausea. Like a hangover without the fun. I took some ibuprofen and drank some tea, but it didn't get better so I gave up and went back to bed while the children did I-don't-know-what. When I woke up at 11:30 I felt mostly okay and what was left of the headache seemed vanquishable by drugs, so I took some and dragged the girls downtown to the office; I needed to talk to Greg about the boot camp and some other stuff.

The office was the best part of the day. We had lunch there and saw some people, and the girls got to play with Post-it notes and the white board.

As we left the office it started raining, and after we went to Winners for a failed attempt to buy socks for the girls everything was quite soggy. On the way into the subway at St Andrew I warned the girls to be very careful because the stairs were slippery. And then I fell down them.

You know the part in Lord of the Rings where Legolas slides down the stairs at Helm's Deep on a shield? It was like that, but instead of a shield, my butt. Apart from that it was the same, with the rain and the orcs. Or maybe those were commuters.

Somehow I righted myself at the bottom of the stairs, accepted sympathy from friendly orcs and limped on. No serious damage, I think, but some nasty bruises, and new pains every time I move. I seem to have done something clever with my left arm on my way down, although I'm not sure what. I was trying very hard to stop falling and apparently my left arm wanted to help. And failed.

The exciting news is that my back is not busted up. So far.

School

As pointed out above, school's out for summer. I guess we had a pretty good year. C's teacher was fantastic and just right for her: sweet and gentle but insistent and with high standards. C's reading has improved and so has her stick-to-it-iveness and focus, and most importantly she enjoyed school despite her moaning.

D's year was harder, although not catastrophic. Not even terrible. I've already blogged about the problems she had, and the good news is there's a change coming: she's been offered a place at a new gifted program. Well, kind of — she was offered an opportunity to express interest in being offered a place at the new gifted program, supposing that there are enough other kids expressing interest to make it worth starting up said program.

We were only given one evening to decide (though really we had had weeks to think about the idea of going to a gifted program, I didn't want to dwell on it too much until we had a more concrete offer, so we hadn't made a decision yet). D didn't know how to decide, so she sat on the kitchen garbage can with a sheet of paper and we listed the pros and cons of each decision while I made dinner. And finally, tearfully, she said she would go to the program so long as she could have two playdates with her best friend from her old school every week.

I'm pretty excited to be joining a new program. For some reason there has been a surge of applicants to the gifted program this year, and I'm hoping that that means that a) the new program will be mostly filled with new applicants, and b) the new applicants will have a better proportion of girls than the existing gifted population. That's kind of an optimistic assumption, because I have no idea why there have been so many applicants this year. I suppose it could be that there has been a surge in insufferable gifted boys and the teachers want to get rid of them all. Either way, it will be nice to be there for the first year of a new program — at the very least D won't be joining a crowd of kids who already know each other.

I'm a bit sad that she won't be able to walk to school and back with C next year, and that she won't be able to be in the school choir that I volunteer with. Okay, I'm very sad about that. But it didn't seem like enough reason to keep her from this opportunity.

I'm bad at wrapping up blog posts. The End.

Amy Goes to Portland

In order to go to the Write the Docs conference that I wrote about in my last post, you might suppose, correctly, that I had to go to Portland, Oregon. My last adventure was my trip to Japan in 2011, so I was ready to get away.

There are lots of ways to get from Toronto to Portland; I chose to go via Vancouver on Air Canada because I heard from Twitter that, while Air Canada is bad, the American airlines are worse. As usual, I didn't have any trouble with Air Canada and arrived in Vancouver only slightly cramped and squashed.

We flew into a storm on the way from Vancouver to Portland, and when we were almost there the plane got hit by lightning. I wasn't terribly happy about that; I couldn't think of a time I had heard about planes being hit by lightning and it ending well. The pilot didn't seem bothered, though, and apart from some turbulence and the people behind me panicking, we landed without a problem.

Portland was warm and moist and smelled wonderful. I got a ride to the Hotel deLuxe from an Internet friend, and we had a chance to gossip and talk to her little guy about Superman and the fact that he couldn't reach his bits of paper with "S" on them.

The Hotel deLuxe was built in 1912 and recently restored with a vintage movie theme. It's a luxurious old-timey hotel like a smaller King Eddy. My room had floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes, crystal deco-style light fixtures, and white subway tile in the bathroom. The bed was furnished with thick, heavy sheets and more pillows than I knew what to do with. (So, more than two.) There was also a pillow menu, so you could order an even better pillow than the umpteen already there, and a holy book menu so you could request any one of about twelve holy books. I approve of the breaking of the Gideon hegemony.

After I got settled in I decided to go for a walk to wind down after travelling all day. Powell's Book Store was nearby, labelled as an attraction on the hotel map, and open late, so that was my destination.

The area around the hotel was dead at that time of night; there are some offices, a church, a theatre with nothing going on. Obviously I wasn't familiar with the neighbourhood so I didn't know how nervous to be, but there were a few women walking around and biking alone, so I decided not to be nervous. After a couple of blocks I came to Burnside Street, which was a little livelier.

Powells is astonishing. It's a multi-storey used book store which covers an entire block; it's a shrine to books. I could have spent the whole weekend there, but I managed to escape after about an hour and a half with only a few books and a couple of gifts for the girls.

The next day was the conference, which I already talked about over here. I woke up early (still being on EST, three hours earlier than local time), worked out in the hotel's small-but-effective gym, then had a proper cooked breakfast in the hotel restaurant. (I don't know why, but hotel breakfasts are the height of luxury and self-indulgence to me.)

I walked to the conference site in plenty of time, so when I got there the doors weren't open yet. There was a short line of grumpy-looking people waiting to get in (and one person who looked pleased to be there). I was happy and well-rested so I didn't want to stand in a grumpy line, but I wasn't feeling outgoing enough to talk to the one happy person, so I went for a walk around the block instead.

By the time I got back the doors to the Mission Theater were open. It's another old building (Portland doesn't seem to have Toronto's love of knocking old buildings down): a theatre with a balcony and a bar.

As I said in the other post, the conference was great. We were served lunch and there was an open bar (!). The line for lunch was really long, so to pass the time I had a beer; the first day I asked for something "not too bitter" (because I know Americans love really bitter ales); the drink the bartender served me was delicious and indeed not too bitter, so I asked what it was: a Nebraska Bitter. Good thing I let him choose.

I took a break from the conference and walked down a few blocks to get a coffee from Barista — some of the people at the conference suggested it as the best local coffee place. (It was delicious and, after three days I'm officially spoiled for non-awesome coffee.) I also stumbled on Oblation Papers, a paper and print shop with beautiful, quirky handmade cards. Like so many places in Portland, the store is just the front desk for a tiny factory — they actually make the paper right on site. There's also a budgie.

I really like Portland. I don't really understand how the economy of Portland works because there seem to be lots of businesses which employ people to make things by hand, and sell the things for reasonable price. You can get vegan food everywhere, and wherever you can buy coffee, you can also buy beer.

Monday night the conference organizers had some events planned; a night at a video game arcade (with infinite quarters), and a couple of informal gatherings nearby, at a beer place and a coffee place. The video game arcade had dozens, if not hundreds, of video games and pinball games, but nothing that appealed to me (unsurprisingly — I have never liked video games). They had DDR but no-one was playing. I ended up going around the corner to the coffee place — not only coffee, but beer and computers you could rent time on — but there was no-one from the conference there. I was tired and hungry anyway, so I had a plate of nachos, read Twitter and went back to the hotel.

On Tuesday I tried World Cup Coffee, which was better than Starbucks but not as good as good Portland coffee (told you I'm spoiled). They were experiencing a small fire in one of their coffee roaster, but they managed to make me a coffee anyway.

Wednesday morning I woke up even earlier, packed, and had another fancy hotel breakfast. Then I caught the Max train (just around the corner from the hotel) and rode all the way to the airport without a single transfer. So awesome! I wish I lived in a non-world-class city that had decent transit to the airport.

I entirely failed to get any good gifts for my cat-sitters, so I hoped I would be able to get something at the airport. I was lucky; turns out the Portland airport has awesome retail, including a store called Made in Oregon which has a great selection of interesting, actually-local food and gifts. I got hazelnuts, tea, chocolate and saltwater taffy for the folks back home.

Write the Docs: Portland, Oregon, April 8–9

This week I went to the first-ever Write the Docs conference. Write the Docs, as I understand it, intends to create a community of the people who write documentation for open source projects. There are plenty of professional groups for technical writers, and plenty of communities online and off for open source developers, but open source documentarians (a made-up word) exist in an awkward nether-world, neither corporate and well-trained like professional tech writers nor, well, reluctant to write documentation like open source developers.

That awkward nether-world was embodied in Portland last Monday and Tuesday. The geniuses who put the conference together booked an old theatre, gathered a diverse group of speakers of various levels of seasonedness (another made-up word), sold 220 tickets to a yet-more diverse* group of people and put us all together in a room for two days to soak up each other's stories, ideas and passion.

(* Diverse in interests, experience, and gender, but not race; the group in the Mission Theatre was almost as white as Portland itself.)

In a stroke of inspiration, the organizers managed to get enough sponsorship to not only feed us but provide an open bar — that's right, I said an open bar — every afternoon. Which is nice, but I'm sorry to say I can now never go to another conference unless there is free booze every day starting at noon.

There were twenty-seven talks altogether, as well as some ad hoc lightning talks. They will all be available on YouTube but so far they are not sorted or tagged, just listed under the account of the company that did the videoing.

Here is my list of standout talks from the conference:

Matthew Butterick's Typography for Docs (NSFW: swearing) didn't teach me a whole lot (which is good considering typography is one of the many things I charge money for) but Matthew is charismatic, funny, and opinionated. And I love that he didn't have a slideshow, he just clicked around some tabs in a browser window.

Matthew outlined four important decisions in typography:

  1. Font choice (he likes Charis, Charter, and Adobe Source Sans for the web)
  2. Font size (smaller than you think for print; bigger than you think for the web)
  3. Line length (between two and three lowercase alphabets per line)
  4. Line spacing (between 120% and 145% of font height)

(I know, this blog fails terribly at at least two of those. Cmd-shift-=!) Among other things, he warned us to be careful of misuse of emphasis; anything dark catches the eye, so you don't want a lot of darkness in your navigation — save it for headers and other clues to document structure.

Matthew Butterick wrote a book called Typography for Lawyers which I will probably buy.

Kevin Hale's Getting Developers and Engineers to Write the Docs is misleadingly titled; it is really more about customer support and retention than documentation, although documentation plays a part in both those things. The punchline is that at Wufoo they got developers (and everyone else in the company) to answer the tech support phone. My favourite line: "After the second or third ring of that phone, with the exact same problem, the engineer will stop what they're doing, fix the problem, and you don't get phone calls for it anymore." (That's a paraphrase of a Paul English line.)

Marcia Johnston's Write Tight(er) — (no video yet) was about how to write concisely, with the right number of words and no more. She argues that wordiness is bad when paying for translation and when people are reading on small screens, but editors everywhere know that concise writing is easier to read and comprehend.

Marcia provided a list of ways to write tighter. Get rid of:

  • variations on "to be"
  • -ly words and other flabby adjectives
  • "very", "just", "such", "so", and "really"
  • negative constructions
  • "begin to" and "start to"
  • (or be suspicious of) "of"-phrases: "in light of", "in spite of"
  • "proverbial"
  • "different" in "many different" or "three different"-type constructs
  • the passive voice

And of course, with all these guidelines the rule is to apply them, unless it's better that you don't. Oh, English.

Marcia's book, Word Up!, will be available on April 27; I'll probably buy it, too.

Nóirín Plunkett (or Pluincéid on Twitter, but I guess that's just too open to mangling) did a talk called Text Lacks Empathy (also not posted yet). It's about how to put the emotion back into casual written communication.

Nóirín had some lovely metaphors. Being social is, for introverts like her, like working in a virtual machine; she can still do all the usual things, but it takes a little more processing time. Tact is like a filter: some people apply it on their output; some people apply it on input from others. If it's not applied on either end (i.e., if someone assumes the listener will apply tact on input and so doesn't apply it on output), offense can result. Similarly, if tact is applied on output and input, content can be lost.

She also pointed out that in an emotional void we tend to assume negative emotion. That is, if you haven't heard anything specific about someone's emotional state for a while, you tend to assume that they're angry or annoyed at you.

Nóirín had some suggestions:

  • Understand expectations: where is the tact filter generally expected to be applied in your organization or relationship?
  • Zero is not negative: don't assume that no emotional communication implies negative feelings. If in doubt, ask, and always assume good intent.
  • They don't know how you feel: you have add emotional content to your writing in a way you don't have to add it to face-to-face communication. Express your emotional state with words, use emoticons, or change to a more emotion-rich communication channel: email < IRC < voice < video < real life.
  • Perception is reality: if someone feels attacked, it doesn't matter what your intent was, they will react as if they have been attacked. You have to deal with their emotional state first, before you can return to the content of your conversation.
  • Active isn't always better than passive: take advantage of English's passive voice: "You broke the build" is aggressive and causes those emotions that you then have to deal with; "The build broke" allows everyone to save face and get on with fixing the problem.
  • If it doesn't matter, do it their way.

Unfortunately Nóirín ran out of time and didn't get to talk about the last points in her slide show — I'd like to see the whole talk sometime.

It struck me that many of Nóirín's points apply to parenting. When you're dealing with an upset child, you do have to manage their emotions before you can teach, discipline or advise; they literally cannot take in any information while they're upset. (As my nanny told my mother once, "They can't hear you when you shout at them.")

Assuming good intent is vital; it's one of Alfie Kohn's 10 Principles of Unconditional Parenting. And finally, "if it doesn't matter, do it their way" is another way of putting one of parenting's most important mantras, "pick your battles wisely".

I have no idea if Nóirín has written a book, but I'm sure she will eventually.

Finally (for this post, not for the conference), Daniya Kamran's Translating science into poetry was beautiful and thought-provoking. She didn't offer examples or concrete tips, but a series of ideas to consider when writing:

  • Constant vigilance; remember you are writing to impress the reader and earn their continued attention.
  • Immortality: write as if your writing is immortal; write to transcend time.
  • Dilemma: poetry is about conflict and questions; introduce them into your writing.
  • Bias: have a point of view; be the expert.
  • Error: poetry is about things that have gone wrong; treat crises as part of the cycle, not as a negative consequence.
  • Reiteration: poetry uses it liberally; after each complexity, bring your document back to its purpose.
  • Metaphors allow the reader to participate in creating meaning, and so they connect to your writing more deeply.
  • Elegance is important.

Tim Daly's talk on Literate Programming was entertaining; Jennifer Hartnett Hender's talk about sketchnotes was thought-provoking. Heidi Waterhouse did a talk about writing search-first documentation to make your documents findable. Ana Nelson's talk about Dexy was thrilling (even though I was exhausted and understood about 14% of it). There were a couple of good talks about the importance of documentation, and another couple about how to convince your company and colleagues to take documentation seriously, and even to write it themselves.

There were plenty of interesting talks and lots of great people at Write the Docs. I don't know if I will go next year, what with not being a tech writer and all, but I'm glad I went this year and I would recommend it to anyone who creates documentation and works with developers.

Write the Docs is on Twitter, where they have posted links to some write-ups of the talks and will hopefully link to videos when they are up.