Books that Changed Me: “The Winter of Our Disconnect”

This is a book that I’ll probably end up buying someday. Most of the books that I take out of the library several times over a year end up being books that I buy. It was that way with “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and with “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and with “How To Be Idle,” all books which I’ll likely write about in this new column, “Books that Changed Me.”

However, for now, being a student has meant curbing my usual spending, so thank goodness for the library.

Anyway. I first read “The Winter of Our Disconnect” before I got an iPhone. It’s really funny and easy to read, because Maushart has a down-to-earth tone. Yet it is also full of current, scary facts about how addicted we are to our devices. I remember thinking, “Man, this woman must have also been on crack! No-one gets that addicted to a phone.”

Then I got an iPhone myself.

And now I get it. I understand what it’s like to want to take the little device with me everywhere. To start panicking when I’m not sure where it is, even for a few minutes. To be addicted to the rush of tapping an app and seeing something cool happen, or new mail appear, or new photos on the Instagram feed. To think, “So what if it’s the first thing I want to do in the morning and the last thing I want to do before bed, I’m sure I could go without it if I had to.”

And it scares me. Yet, I’m not willing to give it up cold turkey. I like the connectivity, when I want it (although I don’t want it all the time). I feel like there must be some way to live in balance with it.

Yet I look around and I see so many of us on phones, looking at screens, clicking and tapping away. It’s a strange new world, for real. Even five years ago there was not this proliferation of mini handheld screen-worlds that we could take around wherever we went.

And now after reading this book, I think of screens and technology as a very addictive substance that we’ve just been introduced to, en masse, and we’re carried away by it. We may not even realize it’s so addictive.

Alcohol has been around for a long, long time, but it’s only recently that people have developed addiction therapy like Alcoholics Anonymous. Maybe it won’t take us as long to learn to engage with our technological habits, aware of what they do to us, to our families and to community, and to make responsible choices when it comes to the ubiquitous screen.

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currently Loving the Internet and hating it at the same time. (So many images! And inspirations! And cool people doing cool stuff, or wearing cool stuff! Or sites to check out! I get all excited about things, click “Like” a bunch of times, and then I’m all worn out. Without having actually done anything but click. Ya know?)

Walking a lot. And then taking pictures of my feet and putting them on Instagram.

Reminding myself not to think too much this time of year. My brain can run around in circles like a dog after a tail, worrying about climate change, overconsumption, the world, and the future. Things that are much, much bigger than a breadbox, and far too big for me to fix in an afternoon. (Not that I shouldn’t care about these things at all, but I need a reminder to chill out, too.)

Writing cards by hand and mailing them by Canada Post. It feels like a good, strong antidote to all the computer-based creating I do these days. Something necessary, like a home-cooked meal after lots of junk food.

Trying new drinks like Candy Cane Hot Chocolate and London Fog, when I meet up with a classmate at a local cafe for some study time once a week. It’s a lovely little perk. And yes, that’s a pun – the cafe is called “Wentworth Perk”.

Feeling winter. Emotionally and physically feeling the cool air, the snow, the hibernation. It’s a time of year when I feel like hiding. Like making a “fort” in the living room out of sheets and blankets and pillows, and snuggling up underneath it with a good book and a snack. Like Nutella on apples. Or candied nuts.

(Edit: the font in the picture is Lobster Two, and is a free download from FontSquirrel. Also, if you want to know how to make circular images in Photoshop, I used this tutorial.)

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Oh, OK, just one…

It seems that I just can’t stay away from you – “you” being the nebulous group of readers, the Internet in general, and my blog in specific.

Having a little break is really good for my head, overall. It’s so nice to focus in on my schoolwork, knowing that nothing else takes priority. (Except cooking, or going to the bathroom, or sleeping.) I love the feeling of committing time and energy to something, and really learning it well, really giving it the time it deserves.

But, I do miss blogging, and my self-induced break from it is working; it is recharging my batteries for more of it after the New Year. Ideas pop into my head and I write them in my notebook. Not feeling that I have to do it leaves me free to “play” with it again. And, I’m excitedly preparing for a talk that I’ll be giving in the New Year, that I can’t give details about yet.

And today, I went to the Farmers’ Market in Sydney River, and met some new people who said what every writer loves to hear: “Oh! I’ve heard of you!” Seriously, it’s gratifying, considering that most of what I do takes place by myself in my office. It’s good to get out from behind the screen, you know?

Here are some snaps from the market this morning. My friend Aleena, originally from Pakistan but now calling Cape Breton home, is the one who does the henna tattoos, and the picture at the beginning of this post is her drawing a henna tattoo on me! So now my left hand is beautifully decorated with drying henna. Fun!

Ron of Wandering Shepherd Cheese holds the cheese curds I’m taking home with me. He’s been up since 3 am.

I ask a random market-goer if I can photograph his food.

This gentleman was kind enough to let me photograph his hands holding his plate of food.

“It’s my breakfast, you know,” he said, even though it was around noon.

“It looks delicious,” I said. “Just so you know, this picture is going to end up on the Internet. I’m a writer.”

“You know, there’s no-one really going around and tasting all the different foods… on the island,” he said. “There’s an idea for you!”

Aleena does a henna tattoo on another customer.

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taking a break til after Christmas

I’m working on a handlettered banner for the blog’s redesign, which is part of one of my classes at school.

It’s been 11 months since I started this blog.

It’s been amazing so far, and I’m oh-so-grateful for all the people I’ve met, both online and in real life, the conversations I’ve had, and the ability to get an idea out there and have people connect with it on the Internet.

Cape Breton has steadily blown my mind more every day as I realize that every square inch of the island has stories to tell.

But at the moment I feel like I’m half-assing two projects that are equally important to me. One is school. The other is this blog.

Mind you, no-one else is probably noticing this. I’m a good writer and a hard worker, and so I’m confident that so far, my work in both realms has remained impressive, or at least passable.

But I’m starting to feel the cracks. Both when I’m working on a school assignment, and when I’m writing blog content, I feel bad that I’m taking time away from the other project. That’s not good, when school has very real deadlines and is something I’ve paid a fair bit of money to be doing.

So I need to focus. Clear away the things that don’t need my attention right now, and focus on what does.

I absolutely intend to return to blogging after the Christmas holidays, in 2013. I absolutely have interviews to post, ideas to write about, things to share.

And the Facebook group will remain active, so if you want to ask questions, share information, or in some other way connect to over 600 people who either live on Cape Breton or who are in some way connected to caring about Cape Breton’s future, go nuts there!

In the meantime, enjoy your November and December. See you soon.

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Maritime Fiction: Philip Roy

In this portion of an interview originally published on the Cape Breton University Press blog, Philip Roy, author of Blood Brothers in Louisbourg (CBU Press, September 2012), talks about writing Blood Brothers, creativity and aging, and his associations with Cape Breton.

You can pick up a copy of his newest book directly from CBU Press here, or at local gift shops and bookstores in the region.

Interview by Laura Bast, Assistant Editor at CBU Press.

Why did you choose to set a novel in Louisbourg?

I first visited the site of the fortress as a child, and often afterwards, and many times as an adult. I watched the remarkable transformation the reconstruction created. It always seemed incredibly special to me, like a kind of miracle even. The fortress of Louisbourg has always sat in a special corner of my imagination. Any opportunity to set a novel there was irresistible to me.

Did you visit often while you were writing and if so how did it influence your writing? What are your impressions of Louisbourg before and after writing Blood Brothers?

Rather ironically, I didn’t visit the fortress while I was writing this book. But I felt I had a sharp memory of the buildings and their interiors. I felt confident.

And then I was always consulting books in my research. This past summer, I visited for the first time in several years, and experienced a kind of shock. I realized I had strayed too far from reality in my mind’s vision of the place. I had put kitchens in the wrong rooms, rooms on the wrong floor. Rooms were bigger and smaller than I imagined them. Long-time characters in costume weren’t there anymore—the wonderful bossy French woman who served food and always told me to tuck my napkin in tight and sit up straight. The man in the Engineer’s house who spoke in a whisper. I was a bit disoriented. I was carrying the book in my head and had to let it go. I love both the book and the place. But they are not the same.

You give a lot of workshops teaching kids how to read and write. Did you take any workshops yourself? What writers or teachers did you learn from or were inspired by?

Strangely enough, I was particularly unlucky in never having had an English teacher with whom I related well, or from whom I felt I could learn much. It was the opposite with my music teachers. They were fiercely strict and demanding, but also warm on occasion. I was lucky in that they were especially well trained themselves, knowledgeable, and proficient. I learned all the important lessons through my music teachers and sports coaches.

It seems to me there are two schools with regard to writing workshops: those who take them, and those who don’t. I fall into the latter group. When I give workshops myself, I am more concerned with a student’s sense of self-affirmation and personal motivation than actual skill. Any skill can be developed once one believes in oneself. I really believe that we actually always teach ourselves. Perhaps teachers teach best by showing us how to get out of our own way.

(Editor’s note: Philip Roy is the author of the best-selling Submarine Outlaw series. He travels extensively to schools, fairs and festivals and carries with him a model submarine and helicopter made with found objects.)

What inspired you to build your submarine? And the helicopter? And the shark? Any other current projects on the go?

I just love building things. More and more of the people I meet these days—older writers and artists in various fields, especially—demonstrate for me how our creativity grows as we do, and it has an inclination to spread if you let it. As a good friend (and very busy writer) recently said to me, “The important thing is to be creative.” On the other hand, I find it harder and harder to find the time, so that I’m always having to become more flexible, to create on the fly, so to speak. There is a particular pleasure in seeing a physical creation take shape. And for me, it is particularly exciting when it is put together out of random pieces of stuff I gathered here and there. I really want to build an octopus!

Now I am getting really bold and am composing a “Fantasy for Submarine Outlaw.” I’ve already composed a Fantasy for “Train Riding Through Wintery Farmland.”

Tell me about Cape Breton. What are your favourite things about the place? How often do you go there? What do you love about it? When you go there, where do you go and what do you do?

I love that Cape Breton is an island, and that it is a very Scottish place. I associate it with nature, trees and wood smoke, beautiful drives, and beautiful views.

I also love that it is an incredibly creative place, although, sadly, too much of its talent goes away, and only sometimes comes back. That’s the harsh reality of economics, although I truly believe that with the way technology has of shifting economic centres, and giving individuals increasing freedom and control of their means of production, places such as Cape Breton will grow economically at the expense of places out west. That’s just my personal belief. I’m in Cape Breton several times a year, more some years than others. Usually for work, or to meet with friends.

Philip Roy

Louisbourg Lighthouse. Photo: Mike Hunter.

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the island versus the counties

I’m from Baddeck. It’s in Victoria County, one of the four counties on the island.

When I told people in Baddeck that I was moving to North Sydney, which is in Cape Breton County, sometimes people would say, “Oh that’s great, you’re going back to school, and moving in with your boyfriend, I’m happy for you!”

But sometimes people would react with sadness, and say something like, “Oh no! We’re losing you! Another young person!”

And I would think, No, you’re not! I’m staying on the island! I’m only an hour away!

I kind of forgot about it but then the other day I ran into someone from Baddeck in Home Depot. We were chatting and I told him I’d moved to North Sydney.

“Oh, I didn’t realize!” He said, and looked disappointed. “Another young person leaving.”

So it reminded me of this question that’s played in my head a bit since I moved “over the mountain” to the CBRM.

We think of ourselves as an island, but do the four counties act like it?

What do you think? (Maybe you think this isn’t actually a thing, and that’s OK too.)

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leaves for a dance floor

Leaves have such a great texture to them. Pictures don’t do the reality of leaves justice. They don’t communicate the quiet rustle of them, the soft way they rot all over the lawns and sidewalks of the neighbourhoods. The way they fall, either in bunches in a strong wind, or solo on a quiet afternoon, surprising a walker.

They carpet the back streets and the lawns, and as I powerwalk and run along the sidewalks and look over them, I think, “In some way this neighbourhood is still a little bit like the forest it once was.”

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