college


 

I admit, I didn’t check the date of the last post. For sure one, if not both, of my readers have likely by now assumed that I’ve been completely swallowed by the non-writing world of contract management, never to be heard from again. This is so terribly overdue that it’s pretty embarrassing.

Well, I’m here at nearly midnight after a long day of renovating the condo I don’t live in and am not allowed to rent out to prove otherwise. Sort of.

 

Where did I leave off? Something about being in Europe and getting married and all that? Yeah, the awesome travelogue I’d planned didn’t pan out. This is a failure I’m happy to display to the world, because it’s the best failure possible: I was too busy travelling to be able to write enough. Sure, I amassed some haphazard notes, but the statute of limitations on turning them into something interesting has lapsed. And that’s okay–unless you’re travelling as a professional and part of the reason you’re doing it in the first place is because someone’s paying you to write about it, why the hell would you spend any significant amount of precious time abroad writing, even if it was one of your passions and few things you’re good at?

Robert Heinlein pulled off a great travelogue. Tramp Royale came out of an entirely different situation–I don’t think most people travel the way Heinlein did. The ones who kind-of-sort-of-do these days often seem insincere and tend to be weird social media personalities who use their fantastic travel plans to build up some YOLO-ish persona, often with some charitable lip-service thrown in just in case anyone is cynical enough to doubt their sincerity. No, Heinlein did it with genuine curiosity and enough intelligence to write something meaningful from it. You should probably put down whatever you’re reading and check it out.

Me? I just stumbled around Paris and Germany with my wife and had a good time. I didn’t even take many photos. Why would I? The way I see it is that the human eye has better resolution than any camera; therefore it is redundant and wasteful to spend time making digital images when all I have to do is sit back and chill for a bit if I want to revisit those experiences. Typical INTJ hubris, I know, but it is what it is . . .

Speaking of hubris, how about that title? Yeah, I don’t mean to invoke The Stephen King in a bad/stupid/clueless/ham-fisted way. But the point right now is that I’ve been sucked into the real world, or Babylon, or whatever you like to call it. Writing is always there, especially in my chosen field. This is probably something most people with adult jobs intuitively know, but since I’ve been writing “professionally” for so long, of course I’m going to view it more mechanically than my coworkers.

Part of my education included a technical communications course. Everyone hated it, but to me it was a refuge. It was the only course where I could sit back, enjoy a break, and occasionally pick up something new. Actually, I picked up more than anyone else in the class did . . . I guarantee this. The hubris didn’t last long, because soon it became obvious that writing at work was nowhere near the same as writing novels.

I kept a certain amount of cockiness, sure. But because I had a million words of fictional crap behind me, my weaknesses in real world writing soon magnified in my editor’s brain and I had to take it seriously. During my work term job interviews, I had to sell myself on communications skills because I’m a 30-something with average grades, and that was all I had to show for it. My pitch relied on this, and yet in reality, writing effectively in the real world is one of the most difficult things there is. It’s confusing because the standard is actually so low, yet the stakes are high: in the world of building things, legal contracts and specifications, one small oversight in precision can result in a bridge collapsing and reputations crushed, not to mention money and jobs lost.

These are all things our instructor told us. But it’s such a complicated thing that merely being told these things amounts to . . . not much. This is really the advantage being an experienced fiction writer gave me–the tools to see the value in being told I didn’t have a clue and why it was important. I don’t blame the other guys for thinking it was all bullshit. It’s not like calculating the point of failure on a column . . . if you haven’t written much, some guy telling you that writing in the workplace is important isn’t going to be all that convincing, especially if you’re a boss at math and aren’t intimidated by dynamics.

I should have gotten this clue a couple years ago when I’d first attempted to document travel. It was an obvious failure, but for some reason I didn’t take it seriously enough to analyze exactly why.

Going further–if you only have to deal with words, you’re lucky. Take drafting, for example. It’s writing too. Or, in the politically-correct parlance, “communication.” Now, talk to most draftsmen, and they’ll probably tell you to fuck off and stop talking about bullshit, but it’s true: drafting is a form of writing, and similar to what I’d learned above, isn’t about whether or not you can draw something. Beside me I have a small drawing of a very simple post and concrete pad setup. I volunteered to make an awesome CAD version of the sketch my coworker had made and used for a project. I’ve been staring at it for a couple days wondering just what exactly the best way to communicate the intention of the drawing is. Still haven’t drawn much. This isn’t a discussion about drafting so much as it is a reality check about non-fiction communication–I’m left with the same sense of bewilderment as when I need to write something detailed, fast, and simple for work. Just like I whipped up some crazy-assed psychoanalytically-based experimental fiction that was terrible, my final drafting project in school featured a feverish isometric drawing of a house. If you’ve ever dealt with building houses, you probably know that a complicated isometric drawing is about as useful as a weight-loss supplement. Like my experimental writing, it looked cool on the page and took a lot of technical thought and effort, but in the end meant nothing. My project overall earned a poor grade despite the effort, and all because I missed the point: to communicate the idea properly and nothing more.

 

But hey, I have a backlog of fiction ideas that I could (in theory) crank out in no time and with little effort. I have more ideas than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime if I were able to write fiction full-time. You’d think that some published fiction and the confidence that comes with that would make you an All-Encompassing-Great-Writer.

The point of this post is to assure you that such an assumption is horseshit.

 

The next time you read a good DVD player manual or see a good set of house blueprints, take a moment to appreciate real-world communication. It’s even harder to find than good fiction.

 

 

 

 

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Kind of a strange title, I’ll give you that. But I don’t know how else to cram a bunch of things together that might not necessarily belong.

In two days I’m heading off to Paris to get married, then travelling down the Rhine over twelve days, wrapping up in Vienna on my birthday. I’ve gotten most of the things done that I need to—no easy task when also faced with a barrage of engineering exams. Seven of them, to be exact. Yet still, I feel the need to crank out one last post to both of my readers before I take off, even though I should probably be organizing our trip.

Why the hell am I thinking about the Distant Early Warning line at such a time? Well, I had spoken too soon in the earlier post where I’d assumed that I had missed the boat on a co-op position. I snagged a summer student position with Defence Construction Canada, which is the public corporation that manages construction projects and maintenance for the DND. This is the organization that played a major part in constructing the DEW line during the cold war. Now, I grew up at the tail end of that period, and I was also obsessed with aviation, so naturally this is something that fires me up.

I have to remind myself, since entering college with people a generation after me, that a lot of people might not even know what a cold war is or why establishing a line of radar stations across the arctic is an impressive feat. I don’t remember a lot of specifics from before the cold war ended, but I do remember the exact day the USSR collapsed, and recall the general vibe of the era. I was 8 or 9 when the USSR fell, and was at home with my grandmother. That side of my family is Russian—doukhobours who immigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century. They spoke Russian up until my mother’s generation, and even then they learned a little, and might even still be able to pick up some words here and there. Given that, my grandmother had the news on when it happened. I remember watching her become riveted, and had no idea why.

I thought it was boring. There were a million other better things on TV than a bunch of old people in suits talking about stuff a kid didn’t even understand. The weather was crappy outside and we were a little stir-crazy, and this was before everyone had twenty televisions in the house. After an hour of this—okay let’s get real, it probably was ten minutes—I spoke up. I protested. What’s the big deal? Why are you watching this? Whatever it is, it sucks!

My grandmother just gave me a solemn look and said that it was “important.” This did nothing to help me understand it, but the sheer gravity did strike me. I shut up. And obviously, I remembered.

Even now, it’s only just striking me what exactly I had witnessed—the opening phrases of a tired narrative’s epilogue. An eight-decades-long modernist experiment crumbling, the driving force behind so much industry seizing and buckling and falling in a hail of rust.

The DEW line was of course built give advance warning of Russian bombers and ICBMs coming over the arctic circle. If you can believe it, we actually used to think that was likely to happen. And it was. The only thing that stopped such things from happening was the never-ending chess game of weapon buildups and countermeasures. Even now, we’re still reminded that a countermeasure like the DEW line is viewed as a de-facto weapon—the NATO missile shield proposed a few years back was enough to get Russia going again.

At that point, Canada’s air force looked quite different to now. The height of the cold war brought us sleek, fast-as-hell interceptors with internal weapons bays, designed for the sole purpose of scrambling within minutes to deliver long-range A-A missiles to take down Russian bombers or ballistic missiles, or equally as fast (and sometimes at the expense of manoeuverability, like the “Lawn Dart” CF-104) nuclear strike aircraft. My all time favourite was the CF-101 Voodoo, which came with a bizarre situation regarding its nuclear weapons. Obviously the politics surrounding nuclear weapons in Canada was complicated, and ended in Diefenbaker’s fall. Canada never officially acquired the nuclear missiles carried by the Voodoo, instead claiming that they remained property of the United States. We tend to think that Canada never really entered that game, but apparently we had jets carrying these things.

The terrorism narrative younger people brought surreal measures with it for sure, but I think we’ve already forgotten just how bizarre and intense the cold war actually was, and it dragged on for decades.

After all that, what was the point again? Well, my new employer, I guess. They’re currently in the process of decommissioning the DEW line. That’s nowhere near what I’ll be doing, but it’s still really cool to be involved with DCC. I lucked-out big time with this one. I could have ended up testing dirt . . . no offense to my friends who are pretty much all testing dirt for their work term. And if I am lucky enough to continue on with DCC, maybe there’d be a chance to see one of these radar stations being dismantled, or at least talk with someone who knows about it. I think it would be important to be able to witness the physical end of something that had such a huge impact on us all during that time.

With so much military hardware ready to go off at a second’s notice for decades, we’re still here. We no longer worry about mutually-assured destruction or build bomb shelters. We’re now legitimately afraid of pipe bombs filled with nails made in someone’s basement—and they’ve killed more people than nuclear weapons ever did when they were at the height of fashion. It’s crazy to think about.

 

Enough of that though. I’m off to Europe to get married and unwind after a crazy year in college. I’m going to make a solid effort this time to write about it—the last time I travelled, my writing was garbage and I put it in the round file. Hopefully it’ll turn out, but even if I never write anything good again, at least I’ll have the greatest wife in the world!

 

 

Oh yeah, it would be asinine to write the words Distant Early Warning without bringing Rush into it. It’s one of my favourite songs, and I love Alex Lifeson’s Floyd Rose equipped Les Paul in this video!

 

 

 

 

Once again I’m finding it necessary to reiterate the fact that yes, I actually still am alive. I may even still be a writer—I guess we’ll see soon enough.

That’s it—24 weeks of 35 hours-per-week-plus-homework craziness. It’s hard to believe that the first half of my engineering technology program is done. I don’t even remember what I did with the extravagant amounts of time I must have had before this. Kind of a sobering thought, really.

If anyone reading this has/is considering one of these programs and is on the fence, I’d say just do it. When you look at all the cool stuff you get into versus the cost and time, it’s totally worth it. Now, on r/engineering, most of the guys will say otherwise and that you should just get a big engineering degree. Sure, if that’s what you’ve set out to do, by all means it’s obviously the best way. But I don’t think everyone interested in engineering necessarily wants or needs to get to that level. For myself, when I read the conversations about students fretting over turning town awesome jobs with huge companies because they want to “do research” or get a phd, my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about more interesting things like gear ratios or cats. Some of us just want a cool job and the scope of a technologist still has plenty of room to go pretty far. Not only that, but if you find you want to become a P.Eng after the fact, it’s easy to continue on with university.

The reason I mention this is because I wish I had done it a decade ago. When I was that young, I still believed the crap people had taught us about how everyone is meant to do this or that and that precious snowflakes should just follow their passion—as if 19-year-olds actually have a clue what that really is. And I think people still believe that, because in the few job interviews I’ve had, a sticking point seems to be the drastic shift in my career goals. If I had been pushed a little harder to look at programs like this, I would have realized that I liked it a lot and wouldn’t have to deal with that issue. It certainly was not at all on the radar back then. I didn’t even know it existed.

Ah yes, the co-op issue. So I didn’t end up with one. I’m on my own until January of next year—whether I find something I can count as a work term or just continue slaving away in the health racket, it’s a bit of a blow.

I used to get job interviews for fun in the health industry. I knew what I was doing, have a reputation here built around it, and had no problem taking control during an interview the way you’re supposed to. In career change land, not so much. Like I said, it looks like being an author is actually hurting me here. These are two worlds that definitely do not get along. I understand why, but the stereotyping is frustrating and something I don’t know how to navigate quite yet. A major reason I didn’t end up with a co-op position is that I can’t really move to where most of the work is. In that regard, not successfully competing in a tiny job market isn’t that big of a deal. But this is why I would plead that anyone thinking of doing this just stop hesitating and do it now—it’s so much harder to do when you have an adult life and can’t pack up and go to a camp for 8 months. I’d love to do it, but it’s just not feasible right now.

Anyway, yes, I’m still a writer. Already I’m starting to look past the current projects I have on the go—mainly a sequel and my serial. I’m thinking about diverging from dieselpunk after I finish those. Two things are getting me going these days when it comes to fiction:

 

  • The way Canadian literary fiction makes me thankful I have a calculus textbook now, because calculus a hell of a lot more interesting
  • Hard SF is full of really great writers, but seems stuck in the 90s.

 

Don’t get me wrong—being stuck in the 90s is awesome. But it’s those little gaps that make me want to write. It’s why I wrote dieselpunk before it was even a thing.

Dieselpunk is on its way to better things. I think it reaches a point where the rate of reproduction outgrows the artistic values that made me write it, and that even when I continue to write in the genre, it won’t necessarily be recognized as such. My vision of it isn’t going to change, but collectively it will.

 

Canadian literary fiction drives me up the wall. How did we go from Leonard Cohen to this? I’m seriously considering trying my hand at it again. It’s like being in a room with all the picture frames placed cockeyed and such. A lot of people would agree—this idea is nothing new. But I don’t get why a lot of writers trash literary fiction, focus on their own little corner, and don’t try to add anything to it. This is something that has constantly bothered me about the genre writing scene. I guess it’s fine to like what you like and stick to that, but I’ve never been able to limit my writing to one area.

Hard SF doesn’t bother me the way the above does, but there are definitely gaps to be filled. I have no idea if I’m capable of addressing either of these things, but hopefully I’ll get to try.

 

That is, after I wrap up some diesel projects of course!

 

At the time, I didn’t quite put it together and just chose the name for my fictitious subdivision CAD drawing because Geddy Lee is awesome, but then I realized that hell, one of Rush’s best songs is literally the thing I had just drawn.

wpid-IMAG0162.jpg

 

Anyway, this is probably one of the more enjoyable things I’m doing right now. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by drafting and technical drawings. To me it was like magic. As a kid I remember reading through my brother’s auto mechanics textbook and being more interested in how the hell someone drew an engine and transmission to scale than how to take it apart and fix it. My only experience with drawing–as someone encouraged to be an “artistic” person–had been just drawing artsy things, and I was really terrible at that. I think in the fifth grade, a teacher had felt the need to tell my parents that I had zero artistic ability. At the time I don’t think I consciously thought much of it. Even then, I knew that assessing someone’s abilities at such an age was a dumb idea. Nobody would have guessed that I would pick up a guitar at 17 and work hard enough at it to be able to shred, play classical guitar, teach myself jazz theory, and all sorts of things usually reserved for people deemed to be meant for it at an early age.

That’s not to say I didn’t pick up any weird subconscious hangups from the experience, though. I think that must be why technical drawings seem like such a godly feat to me. The programming in my head, without me knowing, was that it was something that will always be way beyond my understanding. Magic.

Never mind that I had always liked to draw and continued to draw really shitty things for my own amusement and nothing more. Fast-forward to high school, when little technical schools try to recruit students near graduation. I spoke with someone from DeVry, and when they mentioned drafting, it piqued my interest . . . to the point where the sales rep took my name and continued to call my freakin’ house a few times, trying to get me into the school. I found excuses to blow it off.

Thirteen years later, I’m drawing subdivisions and naming them after Geddy Lee. The above drawing hasn’t been marked yet, but I think it’s not bad for a first subdivision, having had little time to really digest the material due to having to deal with a calculus exam at the same time.

 

So although sometimes I think I envy kids who had more push in any given direction, I also know the downside of making absolute statements to a kid about what you think their abilities are. Those opinions are completely worthless.