Sunday, April 29, 2012

Formative Moments

I witnessed something unusual on my way down Decarie early this afternoon. I was driving along, minding my own business, when I happened to look up and see a young man, probably in his mid-twenties, walking down the lane markers between cars, shaking his drive-thru coffee cup and making "I need money" gestures at drivers and passengers alike.  That in itself is not unusual, not in Montreal, especially not while the sun is shining and the weather is passably warm.  But what followed made me really reflect on our society, on how we (as a community) raise our children, and how insidious our own prejudice may be.

I was about six or seven cars from the Go Line at the intersection, so I was close enough that I could watch him, and I was far enough away to keep my opinions to myself. He was a young man, lean, able-bodied, no obvious signs of chronic drug abuse, no overt signs of having spent time in Afghanistan. He didn't carry any cardboard sign saying what his affliction was or where he was headed, nothing like that. What was working in his favour: I didn't see a cell phone or anything of the like.

As the light was about to turn green, the young man suddenly perked up and swung his head in the direction of the sidewalk. It took him a couple of tries before he saw what had caught the attention of his ear. Standing on the sidewalk near the gas station, there was a woman, maybe in her early to mid-thirties. With her, she had two children, one maybe 10 years old, the other maybe 7-8 years old. The woman was smiling broadly, and she was beckoning to the man who had been walking on the road. I could clearly see that in her hand she held paper money. Whatever it was, it wasn't a dime and a spitball in the eye; it might have been a five, or a ten. The young man pointed to himself, visibly surprised, and when she grinned and nodded, beckoning him forward with the money as bait, he came running between the cars. He was in perfect safety, because the light had barely turned green, and no one was moving anyhow.

Soon, I was directly across from them, and I could see the actual moment when the woman on the sidewalk gave the young man the money.

Then I happened to glance in the rear view mirror. A cop car had suddenly turned on his rooftop lights and pulled into the gas station driveway. I had barely gone a car length forward before I saw the officer had his door open and that he had stepped out to speak with the young man, the mother and her children.

I have no idea what passed between them. I don't know if there were charges pressed or warnings issued - and if so, to whom - but it inspired in me a stack of questions.

Who was at fault? What law was broken? People beg strangers for charitable donations all the time, but that's not illegal - so how is this different? Was it a traffic violation, or was it something more?

And what about that woman, as joyful a giver as she is? There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that she's simply a generous soul, and she was probably taken aback by the intervention of the police. Maybe she'd been in the act of teaching the merits of kindness to her children. Maybe she was trying to teach them that we should never judge. What was going on in her mind the moment that officer switched on his lights and pulled over to speak to them?

And more importantly: what was going on in the minds of those children? They must have been watching all of this with wide eyes. What would they be thinking of their mother, when she demonstrated a willingness to give money to a complete stranger - one, presumably, in need of money and a kind word? What would they think of this young, able-bodied man, walking between cars begging for money, when presumably he was fit enough for a second chance and some stable employment? And most importantly, what would they think of the police, who made such a big and visible deal about the exchange of money between mother and vagabond?

I'd just finished reading Jo Walton's Farthing (a Christmas gift from Michael Lorenson), and there was a particular quote that struck me and stuck with me.  Further research actually attributes the line to Anatole France.  "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."  As soon as I saw those lights go on, that's the quotation that came to mind.

So, one question that's stayed with me since early this afternoon is this:  "What did those two children just learn about our society today?"  Because surely, I'd just witnessed a formative moment in their lives.

And the other question is:  "What did I just learn about my own prejudgement?"


Literary sidenote:  Anatole France also said: "When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Arthur Ellis Shortlist Event / Shrier Family Reunion

I started planning this event back in March - an almost last minute thing, in the way that AE shortlist events go.  It was the first time I went completely solo, too, at least during the planning and organizational phases.

The goal of the night:  to read the shortlisted nominees for the Arthur Ellis Awards, and to host Howard Shrier as he read from three of his current books.

In terms of turnout, it didn't have quite the penetration rate I was hoping for - but the family of one Mr. Howard Shrier is a dedicated bunch, and they turned out in force.  In fact, not only did Howard's mother and father come out to the event, but even his grandmother braved four flights of stairs, and she's turning 101 years old in a couple of days!

We had a lot of food there, too, and all sorts of drink.  I managed to pick up a couple of boxes of coffee before the event too, and my half-exhausted, half-delirious smile managed to charm a free cup of coffee and a 15% discount out of the manager.  Of course, drinking a medium java from Second Cup in under three minutes, not so good for the already-frazzled nerves, but I'm not one to turn down free coffee. 

In fact, there was so much food that I had to tackle those same four flights of stairs, what, five times?  Stairs:  those are good for the nerves.  Jogging up and down all those stairs, especially loaded down with boxes and bags, they're great for burning off nervous energy.

And yeah, I went a little overboard with the goodies.  Listen, when somebody declines an invitation to an event in Toronto - and flies in that day from Boston by way of Toronto - you go all out.

In terms of how the event went:  there was the original plan, there was plan B (cooked up about four hours before the event), and then, five minutes into the event, the plan went completely out the window.  We did a better job off the cuff anyhow.  And funny enough, I had a lot of people approach me after the event, complimenting me on how well organized it was!  I laughed a lot on the inside.

But there's one thing I will say:  I saw Howard Shrier in Toronto as he read from his latest book, Boston Cream, and I was impressed by his composure.  But this time, watching him read from all three of his books, I was really impressed by his ability to read so fluidly, rarely referring to his own books or notes, as if he had memorized whole pages and rehearsed night after night in front of a mirror.  And when he spoke of the research he had done in the past, and the research he's doing this weekend while he's home in Montreal, he spoke with an enthusiasm and passion that was contagious.

He wasn't on the list this year, but that's only because of a matter of timing.  Boston Cream came out this year, not in 2011, so he didn't qualify for this year.

Nancy Kilpatrick was there.  That darling sweetheart of an angel asked me yesterday morning if she could help in anyway, and boy, did she.  She helped me arrange all the food and drink, and she acted as a semi-co-hostess and everything!  I showed her my shaking hand, and she laughed at me, which, ironically, helped to settle me down.  Considering she's been a past guest of Nine Day Wonder and of Fusion Fiction (a mixed-genre event from a couple of years ago), I'm really indebted to her.

Michael Lorenson was there, too - and he played the part of Vanna White when I introduced the raffle.  He won a copy of Boston Cream - and three or four more of his tickets were drawn after that, but we only let him win once. 

Christopher Huang - a former NaNoWriMo participant and a current FB friend - was also there, and he helped me "fix" the microphone by actually reading the instructions taped to the top of the speaker and clicking the "ON" button for me.  I have no brain when I'm under duress.  I've got to fix that.

Michael Blair was in the audience. - he's been a previous guest of mine in events past, and we've had a few chats here or there too.  During my initial spiel, he corrected me about the origins of Arthur Ellis - it was the pseudonym of the last hangman in Canada, not the first.  And that was a ridiculous error to make on my part, considering I'm the one who wrote the Wikipedia article on the Crime Writers of Canada!

Speaking of which, that went over better than expected!  We raised about $135 for the YMCA literacy programs - so all those funds are going directly into the donations I'll bring up to Muskoka in July.

Through the raffle, we gave away sold several copies of Howard's books.  Howard also "donated" a character in his next book, Miss Montreal.  Unfortunately, I missed the winner's full name, but I believe his first name is Hendry.  So congratulations to him.  Howard also "donated" a five page critique - the lucky winner submits the first 5 pages of a work in progress, and he critiques it.  And funny enough, it was Howard's father who won!

Judith Warne from Libraire Clio and her husband (who I've met at least twice before and still I can't remember his name) - they were there, and they sold a full box of books, so they declared the event a success.  Considering how many members of the audience already had a copy (or two), that's really saying something.

After the event, Michael Blair approached me and said, "You did a great job, but if I could offer you one piece of advice..."

I laughed and asked, "Introduce myself?"  It was about half way through the event when I'd realized I had introduced the Crime Writers of Canada, the Arthur Ellis Awards, the raffle, the agenda and my guest star, but that no one in the office except my Facebook friends knew who I was!

Michael Blair laughed and said, "Well, that, and next time, print off the Arthur Ellis shortlist."

Before I'd left home, I'd written a two page list of things I had to bring, up to and including a change of clothes "just in case" (ask Tracey Webster or Mady Virgona about my recurring wardrobe failures).  I'd printed off the agenda, all the stuff I had to say about AE and the CWC, everything except for the Arthur Ellis awards.  Gah.  The one thing I had to print and actually read off, and I'd forgotten to print it.

Fortunately, a netbook and a handy USB modem saved the day, but it's really tricky to read a list of names from a screen that's only six inches tall.

Otherwise, no lights went out in the middle of our wrap-up, no fire alarms went off, and no one choked on the cookies.  I still wish more people had come out, but at least there were more people than raffle prizes.  I think there were about forty people, maybe?  I went home with fewer bags and boxes of food than I'd arrived with, and people seemed to enjoy themselves throughout.

So, all in all, I think it was a success. 

But I'm telling you: next year, I'm getting someone else to help me with the planning and organization. Doing it single-handedly, especially in a month like this one, especially when I'm working full-time, it's bloody exhausting!  Fun, but exhausting.