Friday, 5 August 2011

on harry potter

In the unfortunately great length of time since I last posted, a major pop culture event occurred: the end of the Harry Potter film franchise.

In the UK, on July 15, 2011, the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was released and as in years previous, there were midnight viewings and release parties and fans decked out in pointed hats and robes and round glasses. I saw the film the week following its release, on a Tuesday afternoon in a theatre that was suprisingly full. After, I scoured the internet for fan reviews and opinions, out of curisoity and because it would be the last time I would be able to do so. One common theme I found was that for many they felt as if their childhood had come to an end.

I appear to be one of the few who don't feel the same way.

I'm not saying that I am indifferent to the series, because I'm not. The Harry Potter novels have had a profound affect on my life, since the very first one. I remember seeing the Philosopher's Stone advertised by Rosie O'Donnell on her chat show (and that should definately show my age), although of course that was the American version. She raved about it, and the summary she gave captured my eleven-year-old attention. My mum bought me the Canadian paperback, but for some reason I had difficulty making it through that first chapter. I left it sitting on my bedside table for months.

Every year, my elementary school had a book day. I don't remember what we called it, but effectively the entire school was given leave, for one day, to dress in comfy clothes, bring pillows and blankets and snacks, and to curl up under desks and in classroom corners reading. I had a backpack full of books, ever the ambitious bibliophile, and by lunchtime I had browsed through many of them without making a single commitment to read more than a few chapters. It was then that I finally decided to give Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone another chance. I would make it through the first chapter. I would give it another chance.

I didn't put it down.

The second I finished it, I bought the hardback boxed set, which at the time was the first three books. I started Chamber of Secrets in the booth of a restaurant (that is now a sex shop), and by the time I had finished Prisoner of Azkaban, I was a fan who eagerly wanted to know what was to happen in Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, I had to wait, but as soon as it was available I pre-ordered Goblet of Fire and took it home the day it was released. I spent two weeks of the summer reading it, lying on my bed and sitting behind a registration table at a church daycamp. A friend of mine was only a few chapters behind me, and we talked and laughed and theorized, tomes propped on our bare knees. It was one of the best summer's I'd ever spent.

It would be two years until Order of the Phoenix was released, and in that time I entered high school and became embroiled in my own teenage adventures. But I hardly forgot the books that had already affected my life so profoundly. Because it was while reading that very first book at age eleven that I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: I wanted to be a writer.

It seemed that yearly, all through elementary school, we students were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Some made their choices confidently, and drew pictures of themselves as firefighters and teachers and doctors. I never knew. Every time we were asked--every time their was an assignment to draw or write about ourselves in our future careers--I would panic and do the only thing I could think of: I asked my friends what they wanted to be. Consequently, for the first five years of my education I wanted to be a vet or a kindergarden teacher. I read voraciously and I wrote any time there was paper and pencil within grabbing distance, but I never thought of them as jobs. It never occured to me that you could. Then, sitting on the floor of my grade 6 classroom reading about a messy-haired boy who lived in a cupboard, it hit me, like the flicking of a lightswitch: this was someone's job. This was what someone did for a living, this is what they were when they grew up. They wrote.

And in that moment I knew that I would too.

During the Goblet of Fire-Order of the Phoenix gap years, I refused to let something that had such an affect on me be forgotten, and with my growing interest in the internet, I made like the 21st Century fan and turned to fandom. I read forums, I joined websites, I looked at fanart (which back in the late 1990s and early 2000s was our only source of visual Harry Potter media outside of the illustrations in the American editions), and I read fanfiction. I even wrote it, using this opportunity to not only make real the many what if's my brain had concocted, but to also improve my writing by playing with prose, and by trying to stay faithful to pre-established characterization. All of JK Rowling's characters have distinct personalities and speech patterns, and it was a challenge to try and stay true to them, which I know improved my understanding of character and improved my writing in general. At the time, fan speculation was also rampant, and it was a thrilling thing to be a part of.

When Order of the Phoenix was finally released, I bought it that morning and spent a little under a week locked in my room reading, and burst into tears when Sirius Black slipped through the veil. Of course, my sister had to come into my room at just that moment and laughed at me, but Rowling had made me care about a character so much that for the first time I was moved to tears at his death. And she had made me connect with another--with Harry--to the point that his loss felt like my own. It's truely remarkable, and something every writer hopes to accomplish, myself included. My own reactions (and this was later blostered by my feelings while reading Vladamir Nabokov's Lolita) made me strive to elicit a visceral reaction from my readers, to have them be affected by the story I have told. Hopefully, one day I'll succeed.

Half-Blood Prince came out just after I graduated high school. I was in the UK, doing a bus tour from London, up through Scotland, down through Wales, and after a stop at Stonehenge back to London again. It was in that final day, not long before our flight from Heathrow was supposed to leave, that I got my hands on the sixth book and spent the entire trip with my head buried in it. Three or four days later, I was sitting on my bed again, crying over Dumbledore's death. Then, like so many, I jumped on the internet to discuss whether or not Snape was actually evil incarnate. In 2007, I was in another airport--Charles de Gaulle in Paris--and I can remember everything from when I opened the front over of my freshly purcashed copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, bought in the airport shop. I was sitting at our terminal, cross-legged in one of the black chairs near the windows, the book resting partly in my hands and partly on my right leg (it being hardback and the size of a large brick). The first chapter was a meeting with the Muggle Prime Minister, and I was on the edge of my seat from the first word, my entire body tense with excitement and fear because this was the end. There would be no other books after.

I made it a little past Dobby's death by the time our plane touched down in Detroit, and resolutely decided to leave the rest for the next day, to sleep off the jetlag and prolong the experience. And prolong I did, exercising almost painful restraint the entire morning before I sat at my desk, put some music on, and read. And cried. And finished.

I was 19--almost 20--and rather aptly, my childhood had ended.

I remember a sense of loss, and I do remember after my twentieth birthday feeling incredibly strange, because although I had legally been an adult in Canada for a year, the numeric transition out of my teens felt much different. It felt like growing up. And I wouldn't be surprised if finishing the Harry Potter series had something to do with that feeling. The novels that had carried me through my pre-adolescent and adolescent years, that had, effectively, shaped me just as my classes and teachers had, were done. The wizarding world had changed, and so had my own, both of them becoming more adult not just due to my--and Harry's--eyes maturing, but also due to time. The aforementioned family friendly restaurant I read about twelve-year-old wizards in becoming a Stag Shop as I hit my late teens attests to that. And just as Harry wouldn't be returning to Hogwarts with anything more than fondness and a sense of nostalgia for the place he had grown up, so too would I re-read the books with a feeling of reminiscience. I grew up with Harry and Ron and Hermione, and just as they had to leave, had to get jobs and flats and, as we know nineteen years later, get married and have children, so did I move to another country, get my Masters degree, and get two wonderful jobs doing what I love. I can only visit Hogwarts now, I can never live there again.

And it's time to write my own adventures.

As many, I discovered through my review reading, said, one of the reasons why the release of the final film feels like an ending is that even after the release of the Deathly Hallows novel, there were still films to look forward to and talk about, and now, there will be nothing. Slowly, the fandom will die. Personally, as much as I am a fan of the books, the films have always left me a tad underwhelmed. Oh, I do love them, but especially following Prisoner of Azkaban's release, I had to come to terms with the fact that they would not be faithful adaptations of the books I so adored. Instead, they were more films-based-on-the-books, and that has made them far easier to enjoy and has possibly made me feel more detached from them. They don't have the same hold on me as their novel counterparts. And if anything the intervening four years since the end of the book series and the end of the film franchise has taught me, it's that there will always be fans. There will always be old fans returning to the series and new ones discovering it, always art and fiction and discussion. There will always be people wondering "what if". Fandom won't die.

And (here's my cynicism showing) in ten or fifteen years someone will reboot the film franchise, and it will start all over again.

Harry Potter has given a great deal to me, and I know that I won't ever forget it. I'm still involved in fandom, having drifted away and drifted right back, not because of the films--not because of new material--but because the books will always have a hold on me.

"Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home," JK Rowling said at the London premier of Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

And we graduates will never forget that.

(Image borrowed from here.)

Thursday, 9 June 2011

on world ocean day

Every morning, while drinking a cup of tea and eating my breakfast, I go through a website routine. Every morning, I log into MSN messenger, check various e-mail accounts, check Facebook, go through online comics and blogs, and eventually breakfast is over and I can move on to the time-consuming task of job hunting.

Ecosalon is one of those websites.

Earlier this morning, as I ate my cinnamon-raisin bagel and drank my tea out of my Elephant House mug, I browsed through the new articles on the Ecosalon website and stumbled across this one. Apparently, since 2008, June 8 has been World Ocean Day. I didn't know that existed (so much for press). To mark the occasion, article author Heather Goldstone discussed the affect human actions are having on the world's oceans, and the rather horrific consequences that are coming about due to our almost ceaseless blundering.

At the end of the article, Goldstone lists five things we can do to help our oceans. Small things. Everyday things. Things that, to an individual, may seem unimportant and, even, ineffectual. But if every person in every country on every continent does their part, change is not only possible but probable. "One person can make a difference, and every person should try." JFK can't be wrong, can he?

And after all, which would you rather see? This:

Or this:

(Images borrowed from here, here, and here.)

Thursday, 26 May 2011

on eco-fashion

Well, a small part of it.

First, let me say that I have been...remiss. Okay, let's not get fancy, I haven't posted anything in months, and that is just horrible. After all, it's not like there hasn't been anything happening in the sci-fi and environmental worlds. The sixth series of Doctor Who started. There was Earth Day. There was the anniversary of Chernobyl. So many things happened, and I...ignored them.

But then, so many things were happening to me.

As of early April, and officially to the public as of May 14, I am the new Monthly Book Review Columnist for Starburst Magazine! Starburst originally began as a print magazine in 1978, but stopped in 2009. Now it has been re-vamped as an online magazine, and it's pretty damn fantastic (because I'm not biased at all). As for my little corner of the mag, every month I review a different piece of genre fiction, be it novel or short story collection; sci-fi, fantasy or horror. It's proving to be a wonderful exeperience, and hopefully readers get just as much enjoyment from it as I do.

Now, for the primary reason for this post.

I was walking around town today, and noticed, right near my flat, a new shop had sprung up: {Think} Boutique. The clothes were lovely and the window display adorable and so, being in a window shopping mood, I went in.

All of the clothes and accessories are from "Fair Trade, organic, sustainable, up-cycled or locally produced sources" (here I quote the flyer that I took with me...the only thing that I could afford, unfortunately).

How is it that it's been there for almost six weeks and I've been oblivious?

I had a quick chat with the woman working there, and discovered that the Boutique is a pop up shop, temporary no doubt due to the cost of permanently owning the space. All of the clothes are and will continue to be offered online, however, I loved being able to see them in person. Because that is the issue with organic clothing: rarely will you see it in stores. Chains, of course, tote the organic label. H&M produces organic clothing, however, it has been under fire for its use of GMO cotton, which is as inorganic as you can get. Truely organic clothing appears to only be available from sources that aren't quite as mainstream, however, finding them in a shop where you can try them on is tricky. And unfortunately, combined with famously high price tags often leads to consumers going for cheaper, non-organic options.

Eventually, I hope, the use of completely organic, Fair Trade, and ethical materials will become more mainstream, and the issue those of us who wish to have all aspects of out lives be as eco-friendly as possible face when clothes shopping will be eradicated. Organic clothing will become the norm. But in the meantime, I'm going to bask in having an eco-friendly boutique so close to my home (because basking is all I can do). And when it packs up next week, I'll move back to some of my internet favourites, which I hope you'll enjoy as well.


People Tree

For more, EcoSalon has an entire section dedicated to green fashion, with frequent items for you to lust over.

(Image borrowed from here.)

Saturday, 26 March 2011

on earth hour

Tonight at 8:30pm is Earth Hour! What does that mean? It means that tonight people all across the world are switching off their lights for one hour to take a stand against climate change. So get out your candles, and join me in giving our planet a bit of a break.

Because it so dearly deserves it.

(Image borrowed from here.)

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

on nuclear power

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last week, you know about the crisis in Japan.

The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, alone, are horrific. Bodies wash up on the shores of Fukushima, limp and still like ocean debris. Houses crumble. Whole lives are overturned. Natural catastrophe in and of itself is terrible, but even though the seas have calmed, the danger isn't over.

And that's all thanks to us.

Nuclear power is a hotly debated subject, it always has been. I, personally, am not comfortable with something that leaves waste we are unable to safely dispose of. Even a minute amount of exposure to radiation is harmful, as evidenced by the mass evacuations occuring around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant (a 20km zone, so says this article). It's dangerous to be around unprotected, it's complicated, uraniam mining is harmful to both people and the environment, and when something goes wrong, the after affects can be disasterous.

Chernobyl is, while not the most recent nuclear disaster, certainly the most famous. On April 26, 1986 a systems test led to an explosion that unleashed enough radiation to displace over 336, 000 people, and leave the nuclear plant's surrounding city of Pripyat abandoned to this day. The effects on people and the environment were terrible: 203 people were immidietely hospitalized, of whom 31 died. Radiation drifted through the air to settle as far as Canada. Food produced near the area was adversely affected. The affects are still felt today, from higher cancer rates among survivers and those within the area, to food still being under threat of contamination due to the wind-blown radiation. One of the most noticible environmental affects is the Red Forest, whose pine trees were destroyed by settling radioactive particles, making it one of the most contaminated areas in the world.

Why nuclear power is still used after such an incident both puzzles and enrages me. You would think, given the accident's after affects, that people would think that it was far too dangerous to keep using, that the risks outweigh the gains, and that people and the planet deserve better than the threat of nuclear disaster.

You would think.

Now, 24 years later, another nuclear plant is under threat, making a natural disaster a million time worse. It's not nature's fault; earthquakes and tsunamis happen. But we have to be smart enough to either not put things liable to explode out of nature's line of fire, or not put them there at all. I vote not at all. We are doing our planet and ourselves a huge disservice by using nuclear power, because for all that it can be "clean", if something happens, we put everything at risk. Our homes. Our families. Our health. Our Earth. Escaped radiation leaves traces in trees and soil and in our skin, and long after the rubble has been cleared and normality resumed, the consequences still grow. Like a cancer. As cancer.

So lets not let it.

To help with disaster relief, please make a donation to the Red Cross. And/or head to help_japan, a fandom auction wherein the proceeds go towards charities that give aid to Japan.

(Images borrowed from here and here.)

Friday, 4 March 2011

one household cleaners

A few weeks ago, I did a trial at a coffee shop, and while the job did not work out as hoped, my time there did get me thinking about something: household cleaning products.

When my former employer sent me to clean, he sent me with paper towels, over-the-counter glass cleaner, bleach, and cheap dish soap (the kind you can buy in bulk). I don't use these chemicals at home, and was disgusted when my senses were assaulted by the fumes created by these products. One day mid-week, when I got home, I decided to look up the health dangers that come with interacting with normal household cleaners.

To whit, I was horrified.

First, there's soap. Hand soap, that is. It's what we use most often, in our bathrooms and kitchens, and there are hundreds of options to choose from. There are different scents and colours and sizes; some have flitters, others have "moisturizing pearls"; and each of them is chock full of chemicals that can be hazardous to ourselves and our planet. Triclosan is a bacterial-killing chemical found in 75 % of hand soaps, an article in The Minnesota Daily says. Triclosan can cause allergies in children, and there is a worry that its use in other products (like deoderant, toothpaste, and toys) may cause resistant strains of bacteria to develop, which of course doesn't do anything good for we humans. The affect on people aside, like with the dirt you wash off, your soap--and the triclosan--goes down the drain, through pipes, into a water treatment plant, and then back into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. According to the Minnesota article, waste-water treatment plants do not filter triclosan from the water, but they do add chlorine, which can then lead to chlorinated triclosan, and when combined with sunlight, this can cause a dioxin. This is then taken in by fish, drank by animals, and absorbed by the soil that nourishes plants, and doing nothing but harm, even if it doesn't seem like it at first.

The story isn't any better for the soap you use on your dishes. Like most soaps, they contain Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Depending on the concentration, it can be hazardous to the skin it's exposed to. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is also absorbed into the skin, and when that happens it mimics the hormone Oestrogen, which can lead to something as severe as breast cancer. Many dishwasher detergents also contain chlorine, which means that "each time you wash your dishes, some residue is left on them, which accumulates with each washing. Your food picks up part of the residue--especially if your meal is hot when you eat it."

Essentially, we are all eating and drinking chlorine.

Of course, it doesn't stop there. From air fresheners (which contain formaldehyde) to bleach (a strong corosive), laundry room products (which contain chemicals that can cause rashes, sinus problems, and other wonderful things), and toilet bowl cleaner (which contain hydrochloric acid), nothing is free from chemicals, and the predominant reason why they are used is because they are cheap. But they are also extremely dangerous, if not in the short-term, then in the long-term health effects you will suffer from breathing in fumes and absorbing the chemicals you use to clean with. I've heard about these effects first hand, and it's not something I wish on myself or anyone else.

In the developed world, we have become obsessed with cleanliness. That's not necessarily a bad thing (after all, not that long ago people weren't even bathing weekly), but I think we have become overly aware of bacteria, but uninformed as to the effects bacteria has in our everyday life. Germs are everywhere, on our skin and in our bodies and on every blade of grass. But they are not something to be terrified of, to wipe out with the harshest chemicals Mr. Clean can provide. Unfortunately, that concept will take some time to catch on. In the mean time, what is available for those who want the dirt out of their house, but also want to be eco-friendly?

Good ol' hot soapy water.

This will do the trick for most things, guarenteed. If you need something abrasive, then baking soda is handy (it also kills odours and puts out grease fires). But if you want to buy cleaners (and their associated accessories), and definately if you want to buy eco-friendly soap to mix that your hot water, I recommend Ecoleaf and Ecover.

Ecoleaf are UK-based products that use biodegradable, plant-based ingredients, and have recyclable containers. Depending where you purchase, you can also go into your local organic shop to refill your containers. Personally, I love their hand soap.

Ecover is an international company founded in Beligum in 1980 with products in more than 26 countries. They have everything from hand soap to floor cleaner, and like Ecoleaf their products are plant-based, use few ingredients, have recyclable containers, and you can refill where available.

During that week of worrk, I saw my (now ex) boss mix bleach, glass cleaner, and soap in the dishwasher, and I was so horrified I couldn't speak. Hopefully his regular customers--customers who eat off those plates and drink from those glasses every day--aren't harmed by his cleaning methods.

And hopefully by reading this, you won't make his mistakes.

(Image borrowed from here.)

Friday, 11 February 2011

on computers

Three days ago, I returned to the UK. I took a nap, did a bit of unpacking, and set up my laptop. I hadn't been on the thing two seconds before my computer was attacked by malware.

A friend of mine was able to fix it remotely, and in the meantime I was able to use my netbook, but nevertheless the situation was frustrating. The malware had disguised itself was WindowsDisk, a defragmentation software. A similar thing had happened last year, when a Trojan attacked my computer disguised as anti-virus software. Hackers are getting tricky, and in both instances I freaked about the files stored on my harddrive. This most recent incident, I had less to worry about, but I did quickly e-mail myself a short story I had been working on and hadn't got a chance to back up on an external harddrive. But this got me thinking.

Are writers worse off if they use the computer?

Back in the day--and I mean way back--before iPads and laptops and computers so thin not even a CD will fit inside it, when you wanted to write something, you got out a piece of paper and a pen and you wrote it by hand. Many still do, and the success of notebook companies like Moleskine and Paperblanks clearly indicate that people still enjoy using a paper notebook. For myself, I find that a notebook is easier to carry (more so than even my netbook), more conducive to jotting things down, and that editing on paper is better than trying to do it through Microsoft Word.

But there are downsides to using a notebook. For one, I know my hand can cramp if I write for too long, and I don't write as fast as I think, meaning I'm sometimes one or two sentences away from where my pen is on the page. Furthermore, unless the paper in your notebook is 100% recycled, trees are still being cut down in order to produce paper notebooks, and the covers of those notebooks may not be terribly green, either.

So, computers are speedy, but still not as convenient (although the iPad looks like it will change that), and paper is convenient, but sometimes frustrating. Their respective uses aside, however, how do each stack up against destruction? One would assume that paper is far easier to destroy that something digital. Water can saturate and run ink; fire can burn; wind can toss loose-leaf into the air or into a pond (as Colin Firth found out in Love Actually); and earth can render words illegible. People can also steal notebooks and throw away paper mistaking it for garbage, and unless you make photocopies, you can't backup something physical. Digital writing, however, is just as susceptible to destruction as writing on paper. Work can be deleted, and if your computer is attacked, then fixing your computer can result in a wiping of your harddrive--and every file on it. The tricky thing with computers is that rarely can you see an attack coming, and unlike relegating your writing to being indoors to save it from the elements, protecting your computer isn't completely fullproof. It seems that in recent years, you need all kinds of software to protect your PC, and while Macs are famous for not being attacked by viruses, as a friend once pointed out, there will likely come a day when someone does attack Macs, and they will not know how to defend themselves. Now, not only do you need strong anti-virus software (and a host of other things), you also need USB sticks, external harddrives, and/or CDs in order to backup your work. And you need to do it regularly, otherwise when you're caught unawares, then you are left frantically e-mailing and transfering files.

And that is not fun at all.

It seems that writing has always been fraut with peril, as it were. However, I think that adding technology into the mix has made it just that bit more difficult. Yes, it's greener (you aren't using as much paper when you're saving everything in Word), however, there are dangers to digital work that don't occur with hardcopies, and take much more safeguarding against. While I don't think we're worse off, I do think it makes us more stressed.

And really, do writers need more stress?

(Image borrowed from here.)