The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I first heard about The Shining Girls from the Big Idea feature on John Scalzi’s blog, and was immediately drawn to the aspects of the story that attracted the author, Lauren Beukes. Sometimes that’s enough for me, finding out what interests a person. The way they’re going to take the story. The premise was also pretty unique. The Shining Girls is a story of a time traveling serial killer being tracked by the one victim that got away. It’s a solid idea, bringing to mind images of the first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who, except the mysterious figure in all those historical documents is a cold blooded killer instead of the timey-wimey dandy we all know and love. I also appreciated what Beukes said in her article about the violence, her focus straying away from, but not avoiding, the killer (who usually holds our attention) to include the lives of the victims. We’re so used to the detective story, the serial killer story (both traditionally male narratives) that we tend to disregard the story of the victim (predominantly female) except as motivation for the detective. Dead girls are something that gets the story rolling. They’re not the story itself. The Shining Girls redresses that.

So I picked it up. Took a look at the praise on the back cover and read a quote from Matt Haig that compared The Shining Girls to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Which was great news for me. I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, and keeping that in mind while reading I saw where those parallels could be drawn. Before I go into my thoughts about the story (which will also include spoilers for Niffenegger’s novel), I want to say that The Shining Girls is pretty damn good. The characters are solid and well drawn. Beuke has definite skill for the short form of chapters, as sometimes this is all one of victims gets before she is dispatched. In five to ten pages, Beuke manages to cram in a life. Hopes and dreams and the guttering pain of it all being snatched away. Not an easy feat. I found slight pacing problems in the middle but all of that came together in a page turning third act. I’ll go a long way for a solid ending, and The Shining Girls certainly delivers that. The violence is properly violent, so know that going in if that’s something you avoid. If that’s not a problem then I’d definitely recommend it. There’s enough going on here that it’s worth the walk.

Recommendation aside, here are some more structural thoughts on the book (spoilers):

1) While Beuke’s strength lies in the short form of chapters, I didn’t find the same sort of skill played out across the whole arc of the novel. It’s a tricky thing, though, and with so many character perspectives and jumps in time, I’m not sure how you’d accomplish that. Each chapter in The Shining Girls takes place from a different perspective, while focusing primarily on Harper, the killer, and his surviving victim, Kirby. The other chapters are dedicated to Kirby’s mentor, Dan, and the other ‘shining girls’ that Harper is after. While yes, these chapters do allow us a much needed glimpse into the lives of the victims, it’s hard to keep the narrative momentum going with all the interruptions.

I kept finding myself thinking about The Time Traveler’s Wife and how that was structured. In a similar way, it goes back and forth on perspective, showing the different sides of the relationship in an out-of-order chronology. But I never felt the narrative lose steam in the same way I did with The Shining Girls, perhaps because the arc of the story was their relationship. How they came together and how they inevitably came apart. Despite the hops through time, we were reading their relationship in a linear way. The Shining Girls has some of this in that there’s a murder attempt followed by a detective story that culminates in a confrontation, but it kept losing me. The drive of the mystery kept getting interrupted. I couldn’t keep the dates straight. As reference points go, they were just numbers, whereas in The Time Traveller’s Wife the reference points were places and specific moments. The museum, the accident that took his mother, the place he worked, the place they met. I don’t need the year when I know how old they were, etc.

All of this said, I’m not sure what I could suggest to fix this problem that I have with the main arc other than perhaps to reverse the order of how the characters appear. Harper appears first in the book and seems to take up more real estate than Kirby throughout. If this is a story about Kirby’s survival and her solving the mystery, would it work better if there was a lot less Harper? What if we get the brutality of the attack and then go back and forth between all the ‘shining girls’? What if Harper doesn’t get his own chapters? What would that change? Would that make him more terrifying? I kind of think it would.

2) Harper travels through time after finding the key to The House. The House can transport him anywhere in a 60 year range. It also has a room with all the artifacts that lead him to the girls he has to kill. There’s some confusion about who is pushing who that’s never resolved. Is the House actually Harper? They’re connected, but how? I kept wanting rules to the time travel, a basic framework that Harper figures out through using it, but it never manifested. Something in line of the inscape explanations Joe Hill gives for his characters in NOS4A2. His motivations for traveling through time and murdering these girls is fairly amorphous. He’s driven by compulsion, but it’s vague. Which is fine if he draws closer and closer to understanding over the course of the novel, but he doesn’t. He’s trapped within a system that he can’t explain, it seems, and I found that ultimately unsatisfying.

There’s a lot to like in The Shining Girls. Time travel stories are difficult at the best of times. There was one moment towards the end of the book where Kirby’s mother mentions in the same breath that Kirby should be looking for her father’s identity instead of her killer’s that had me terrified we were going down that well worn path. Thankfully, Beuke’s never does anything so predictable. The Shining Girls is a solid read that is very much it’s own story instead of a rehash of something you’ve already read. If you haven’t already, give it a go.

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That Little Asshole Goat

Dear Tessa,

This afternoon I took you to your very first trip to Butterfield Acres, a nearby petting zoo/working farm that I’ve heard friends with children talk about for years but never looked into till last week. This summer I want us to get out more, so I’ve started taking you for full days instead of your usual morning at dayhome and afternoon with me (which you’d usually spend most of the time napping anyway). The aim was for us to go out and have little adventures. Go to the science center, the zoo…Butterfield Acres.

You did not enjoy your first trip to Butterfield Acres, and to be honest, despite all of my high-minded thinking behind taking you I’ve been trying all morning to figure a way out of it. It’s hot out and your overweight dad is not a fan of the heat. A large sweaty man does not a good image around countless children make, even if he has one of his own in tow. And it’s a new place, and occasionally I have problems with new places that I only figure out a few hours before I actually have to show up.

But damn it, I wanted us to go. For you, mostly. Even if you didn’t have a good time, it would be a beginning to build on. A new experience. That has to be good, doesn’t it? The final decision is out on that one, but it was a new experience.

You do not care for farm animals at the moment. I’m sure it’s an age thing, as all the other children – some half a year older than you, others several years older – had no issue. You’d discover them almost by accident walking through the park, realizing sometimes a little too late that you were closer than you’d like. You’d back away very slowly, all the while saying ‘no’ in a very calm, but determined way. Not a ‘No! Get that peacock away from me’. More like a, ‘No, I am not going to engage in this situation right now thank you very much.’

I tried to push the issue a couple of times, picking you up so you could pet the horses (almost wrote horsies there but you just turned your head, buried it into my shoulder and repeated your little ‘no’ mantra. Except for a two incidents, this was your whole first experience with Butterfield Acres. You stayed apart from the larger groups of older kids running by in packs like I’ve seen you do at dayhome. You’re not sure if you want to join in and even less sure about how to do it even if you wanted to. You’re thinking it through, though, that’s for certain.

So these incidents:

The first bad incident is when you were surprised by the miniature horses (that’s little horsies, to you). They were about your height and not moving by the fence so you didn’t notice them until you were really close and they brayed quite loudly. You backed up into a fence filled with turkeys that started to shriek and between a turkey and a little horsie well…there were some tears. I picked you up and we went to go play with some sand and trucks.

The second bad incident was a reoccurring encounter with one of the smaller goats (kids?) walking around the farm. It took a liking to you while you were backing up and away from the flock (?) of sheep panting away in the summer heat. It approached you and you didn’t see it at first, which was probably what added to the shock when you finally turned around and it was right there. You shook your arms as if they were miniature wings that would take you out of the situation and began to run…properly run away in a fashion that resembled someone running away from a madman with a knife. That little asshole goat, who really wasn’t such a bad kid, followed you perplexed, and you continued in your run, pumping your arms like a champ and occasionally throwing a look back to make sure, yes, that little bastard was running (walking, really) you down.

So yeah, tears and a lot of no. Not the greatest first trip. I was a little dismayed until on the way back when we were passing the infamous horsie/turkey combo  I heard a woman talking on her cellphone while her daughter was petting an emu. The woman was telling the person on the other end that this time was better than six months ago, that it was like two different kids. And you know what, that’s probably what it’s going to be like with you.
Regardless, we’re going to keep going on these day trips this summer. They should have started more consistently a long time ago, but at least we’re doing them now.

Love,

Dad

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First pages

Growing up I loved the idea of a journal, a place where I could write down what was going on with me and where I was going. The kind of diary a ship captain or adventurer might have. I would buy a book and then sit down and write out what was going on, only to read it over later and come away profoundly disappointed.

This wasn’t how a journal was supposed to look. It didn’t feel the way I imagined it would. So I ripped out the page and then, maybe the next day, maybe a couple days later, I tried again. Maybe that one stuck. But the next day didn’t. Unlike a journal in a movie or a book, it didn’t have a consistency. I was one thing one day and another the next. It wasn’t a story, it wasn’t a collection of exciting (inciting?) incidents. It was just what happened to me. It was my life, I suppose, and it didn’t look right.

I have dozens of barely started notebooks in a box in the basement. The first few pages of notes from more than a hundred ideas. Some are stories, others are journal entries. I have mission statements, I have promises to myself. All of it revolving around the central idea that if I got this right, this beginning, and continued to get things right, then it (my life) would work out.

This is real definition of insanity type shit right here. Always expecting a different result.

A few months ago, I read (the audiobook version) of a book by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival. It’s a book about survivors, about the mental and physical commonalities that survivors of all different types of accidents share. I read the book at first out of sheer interest. I’m still tinkering away at the goblin book, and was thinking about learning more about what a person struggling to survive would act like. But the more I read, the more the book affected me. In the opening chapters I realized I would not be a good candidate for survival in a real wilderness situation. I’m a rule follower, and apparently they don’t fare too well outside of civilization. A few more chapters in I came away from the book in tears, because even though it was talking about the stages of being lost and how to get out of that state, I saw a metaphor for my own situation.

For years now I’ve been trying to get my shit together, professionally and personally. On the family front, with my wife and child, I’ve got that sewn up. I’m rock solid on the family side of things. But when it comes to my individual goals I’m in the same grey space I’ve been in for the last five years. All of this was drawn into glaring focus after a recent upset at work, but mostly it drove home that when it comes to personal accomplishments, I’m not happy and haven’t been happy for a long time and the only person who can fix that is me.

A week ago today, Ryan Davis, host and writer for the Giantbomb site died of natural causes in his sleep. He was 34 years old, a year older than I am now. I listen to the podcast every week and over the four or five years I’ve had Ryan talking in my ear for days if not weeks worth of content. I’ve come to know him and the rest of the crew through those weekly updates. They’ve made me laugh and they’ve given me a fun place to hang out on the internet. They pointed me to games that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

When I heard that Ryan had passed it hit me harder than I expected it would. We’d never met. He read one of my questions out on the podcasts once, but couldn’t find my name to put to it at the time. That was the extent of our interaction. But I’d watched him and listened to him for hours and I saw a guy that went after what he loved and in his too short time with us accomplished a lot. He was happy. Not all the time, and he worked long hours, but he seemed to be a guy who was happy doing what he was doing. For the past couple days since hearing the news I’ve been confronted with the fact that I can’t say the same thing. Not in the slightest. And if I died tomorrow there would not only be a lot left undone but unattempted.

Gonzales references something that D.H. Lawrence writes where every year we silently pass the anniversary of our future death. We don’t notice it, we can’t, but it’s there. Just a regular day every year until it’s the last. And I don’t know where that day is, but seeing a guy like Davis go so soon pushes home that there really is no time to waste. If you’re going to go, you have to go now.

I don’t know what the right steps are. I don’t know what the right words on the first page of the notebook should be. If I’m going to move in a direction, I want to know with a guarantee that it’s the right direction. But I can’t. Despite how hard-wired that desire is in me, it’s not something that’s possible.

According to Gonzales, one of the problems that most people have in a survival situation where they are lost is thinking of themselves as someone who is lost. They think about the destination, where they wish they were, and they paint their current situation in that light. What that does on a brain level is change your interpretation of the information around you to suit your desires. You want the path of least resistance to lead you home? You’ll go that way even if it’s the wrong direction. A survivor is the person that understands that they are not lost because they are where they are. They find themselves first and from there make decisions.

Whether it’s Laurence Gonzales or Andy Whitfield, the first piece of advice is this: Be Here Now.

And that’s something I haven’t done. I’ve had my mind focused on where I want to be, not where I am. I’ve pulled away from friends and family. I’ve isolated myself and tortured myself over mistakes real and imagined. I haven’t always been the most fun company and all of this has culminated in making the wrong choices based on the wrong information.

I want to make the right decisions. I want to go after what I love.

So while this might not be the perfect first page of this new virtual notebook, it’s still the first and it’s where I am now, with words of a book and the pain of losing a friend I never met rattling around my head and my heart.

Goodbye, Ryan. I’ll miss you.

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A (Collective Noun) of Drouillards

So it’s 2012. Where are we at?

December was a crazy month. Your grandmother on your mother’s side, Annette, flew over mid-November to help us out with the day-to-day operation of being parents but in the last two weeks of the year she was joined by the rest of the family: her husband (your grandfather) Norman, and their two sons, Michael and Matthew (your uncles). The house got a bit crowded all of a sudden but in a good way. Pretty soon people were fighting over who got to hold you or rock you to sleep. The fights died off when it was time to change you, of course, but you can’t hold that against them.

The weather has been surprisingly warm this holiday season. Not sure why I mention that, other than that it’s unusual and made the trip easier simply because having –20 or worse outside generally doesn’t make life better for anyone. We spent Christmas with my parents and you received quite a few wonderful presents in the form of tree ornaments, toys and some very special books with touching inscriptions from both sides of the family.

The thing that struck me most about the trip was how loved you were by everyone on both sides of the family and the friends we introduced you to. I didn’t expect that. We don’t have a lot of young children in our family and out of my close friends I’m the first to become a parent. This was my first time seeing it…although is that even true? I have seen it before, this kind of love, but for some reason it was surprising and heart warming to see it happen so close to home.

Your grandfather Norman in particular was quite taken with you. There were plenty of early mornings when he would pace with you back and forth through the living room until you fell asleep on his chest and then he would settle with you in the rocking chair. You won’t remember this by the time you are able to read this letter but I will, and I want you to know how very much loved and wanted you are. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture:

The holiday was like a magic trick that way. Lots of movement and lots of sound. With everyone in the house like that it was simultaneously like being back stage and front and center. And then one year passed into the next and in the early morning hours of January 1st your mother’s family left to get on a plane. I watched as your uncles, your grandparents, passed you between them, saying their goodbyes, kissing your cheeks and the top of your head. There were tears, of course. That’s just something that happens in this family, but they were the good kind. And then, as quickly as they had arrived, the holidays were over and it was just the three of us again. The dogs, equally mystified, have been wandering around the house looking for the visitors, wondering where they’ve gone and when they’re coming back.

Postscript: Just in case you’re wondering about your festive get-up in that picture, apparently it is the same set of clothes that your mother and her brothers were brought into the hospital in when they were little. You looked very cute and old timey if I do say so myself.

Love,

Dad

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Second Childhoods, The Count of Monte Cristo and the Theme Song from Cadence

You are six weeks old today and currently sleeping in the playpen on the main floor while your mother and grandmother sleep upstairs. I get up early, mostly for work, so when I’m on days off I keep the schedule and give your mother a few extra hours of uninterrupted sleep while we hang out downstairs. This entails a lot of pacing, the occasional howling fit, and me rocking you back and forth and singing Happy Together and the theme song from Cadence (I get some dancing in with that last one and it tends to quiet you down when you’re upset, so we keep it in steady rotation).

I meant to write earlier and more frequently. I had imagined parenthood and watching you grow would be a steady progression -a one foot after the other- and that I would blog it that way.  Step by step. The highs would be there and the lows would be comical to read. Didn’t turn out that way. Like most things, any assumptions I made about parenthood have been demolished since you’ve been born, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing it hasn’t always been easy.

Let’s start this letter off with something pleasant, though: It feels as though you’ve been here forever. Tessa, you’re going to meet people in your life who, when you see them, you’re going to feel like you’ve known them forever, that they were always there but just around the corner. In the same way as your mother, I feel like you’ve been with me forever. Separating the time before you and after you doesn’t really work. There was always you. You were always here. So I never get that feeling of surprise that I imagined, the ‘Oh my God, I have a baby’ feeling. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is. It’s a good feeling.

Television and films feed a lot of my expectations of what being a father should be like. Maybe that’s common, maybe I’m just strange, but I thought when you were born I would be overwhelmed with a sense of love for you that would manifest in a positive warm fuzzy kind of way. I thought I would have this new appreciation of everything and that somehow it would make me calmer, more mature. I could let go of the unimportant crap that I’ve been carrying around for so long. In this I turned out to be half right, because I was overwhelmed with love, but not in a way that was particularly comfortable.

In reality I was really quite frightened. I thought about writing you a letter then, but I think I made the right choice in getting some distance between those feelings and putting something down on paper now. There was a whole week where I existed in this perpetual state of being half-angry, half-scared, as my brain spooled out all the potential problems and threats and dangers that you might face in your life. And I felt helpless to stop it. You were, and still are, incredibly small. I can hold you in one hand and I know that the world is largely indifferent to your existence. And that’s scary. Very scary. It took a week of that before I could calm down enough to get a handle on the surge of emotions and process them properly.

Parenthood is like a second childhood in a way. All the issues you didn’t deal with when you were younger come right back to you with your child, so when I look at you I find myself thinking about how to avoid the bullying I went through in school, the weight issues I’m still wrestling with, the lack of self-discipline. You don’t know this yet, but you and I have conversations everyday. When I’m driving to work, when I’m alone in a room, when I’m pacing with you in the wee hours of the morning. I’m practicing conversations with you for when you’re older. Conversations about the big questions, the little questions, the questions that don’t have solid answers. I’m talking you through your problems. I’m talking me through mine.

I want so much for you, and the rawness of that want surprised me. It is a want I can’t really explain. It gets in my head and into my chest and some things I thought were important aren’t important anymore. You’re important. This family is important. And on top of all of that there’s the urgent need to get all my shit together as quickly as possible. That’s a daily message, flashing in bright lights. It’s how I order my day, or at least try to.

None of this you are aware of, or if you are you’re keeping it pretty close to the chest. For the most part the last six weeks have had you on automatic pilot. You are figuring out your body. Your arms and legs kick and flail without any real purpose. You cry when you’re hungry, when you need changed or when you need held. You have (and I am absolutely biased) the most beautiful little face I ever did see. But I am careful to not read too much into what you do at this point. You’ve been born, yes, but you’re still coming alive. Climbing out of yourself. Figuring out how all the systems work.

To illustrate where we both are at the moment I’ll end with this image: We’re a few weeks in and your grandmother hasn’t arrived yet. It’s just the three of us in the house plus the dogs. Your mother is in bed and I’m taking care of you in the early morning. It’s dark outside and you’ve been sleeping for a while. You start fussing about in your crib and I walk over. You are still asleep but wrestling around in your swaddling blanket, grunting and shifting in a way that looks like you are trying to get free. And I am transfixed. It brings to mind, of all things, The Count of Monte Cristo, and with that thought I think about how you, the woman you are to become one day, is locked away in that brain of yours and it will take decades for you to fully come out. It will be a struggle and you will learn things during your long and great escape, but one day you will emerge from your efforts a free woman with a treasure map to riches and a great wide world. It’s a beautiful thought and it makes me smile down at you just to think it. You are my beautiful daughter, I think, and I love you. You keep struggling. Keep growing. I’m here. I’m-

And then you let out the loudest, longest fart of your whole entire life.

Let’s just say we’re experiencing this you-being-alive thing in two very different ways.

Love,

Dad

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Significant Details

I meant to do this sooner, but since you were born the days and nights have been a bit of a blur. In conversation I’ll reference something as if it just happened to find out it was a couple of days before. So between this jumble of memory and the fact that today marks your first week with us, I thought it would be a good place to start with these letters by writing out what I remember about your birth. Hopefully by the time you’re old enough to read this I’ll have stumbled across the trick of consistency with my writing output, but for this moment, even though my best intentions are to keep up with these letters, I’m not sure how well I’ll do. I almost didn’t write today, and even though I’m exhausted and in desperate need of a nap myself (you and your mother are currently passed out upstairs) I know that if I don’t start these letters today the time might slip away completely.

So here goes.

You started your arrival early morning Sunday the 23rd. Your mother woke me up just shortly after her water had broken and we decided to go into the hospital, even though steady contractions hadn’t come yet. As we drove through the empty midnight streets we joked back and forth about still not having a name for you and that even though we were making the trip we knew we’d be sent home again until your mother was further along. The parking lot at the Foothills was empty. It’s about the only time of day it’s ever that quiet, so we got a decent spot. We walked in through Emergency and as we were heading down the corridor towards the elevators I turned around and saw a tall, handsome  guy dressed up as Thor prowling the waiting area. Red cape, breastplate and all. He cut a dashing figure, and it made me relax knowing that the God of Thunder was nearby in case we needed him. Fun fact: your mother still does not believe this actually happened.

Once upstairs we got the reception we expected. Professional but not too concerned. Contractions hadn’t started yet and you were still a long way off. When your mother went to the bathroom she was discreetly asked by the nurse there if she was in an abusive relationship. She came back joking about it, because there’s nothing farther from the truth, but it made me ask another nurse later on how common it was. It’s not, as it turns out, but it’s a sad statistical reality that a woman is most likely to be abused by her partner when she’s at her most vulnerable while pregnant. I’m not sure why I mention this. It sticks out in my mind as a sobering detail, even though it didn’t have any bearing on what we were going through.

We were sent home, like I said, and told to come back in twelve hours. We went home. We slept. We ate. My parents came over to pick up the dogs and we had a little sit down before we left for the hospital. It didn’t strike me that when I came back I’d be coming back as a father. You’d think it would have, but it didn’t. I was excited. We were still joking around about names, going through a list of potentials, trying a few out. We still referred to you as little baby No-Name.

Once we arrived back at the Foothills (now in the afternoon, so the parking spaces were nowhere near as choice) we were admitted into a proper delivery room with an amazing view of the city. Fall doesn’t last long in Calgary. It seems the leaves are yellow, red and brown for a week or two before they’re all blown down and the branches stick out skeletal towards the sky. They hadn’t fallen yet when you were born. The view was breathtaking and I ended up getting some good pictures. The sky was clear and the temperature was warm. There was a cleanness about the space.

You were induced, which was not the way we had hoped you’d arrived. We had a plan. We’d made a wish list. And while practically nothing in the delivery went according to plan I still feel it went well. You were never in any level of distress that seemed dangerous (at least as it was communicated to me), and while the delivery was painful and difficult for your mother, nothing ever felt as life-threatening as I was afraid it would be. But yes, you were induced, which meant we ended up electing for pain medication, which in turn led to intervention in the last few, critical moments.

I want to take a moment to talk about your nurses. Over the course of the night you had about four or five of them, and all of them were professional and excellent at their jobs. Seriously, I could not have asked for better care for you and your mother. They made us feel at ease and well taken care of, and if I were recommending places for children to be born, I couldn’t give the Foothills a higher recommendation. I also want to mention that your grandmother, my mother, was there with us almost every step of the way, and that also was a great choice. Having been a nurse, she was a great mediator between Tara, myself and the medical professionals. She understood the culture and was calm throughout.

I was also calm throughout, which is not what I was expecting. I was expecting fear, to be honest. A lot of it. But it takes a long time, the delivery process, and fear doesn’t do well in tests of endurance. Fear has poor stamina. It’s a sprinter. But however well I may have behaved during your delivery, the grand prize will always go to your mother. She was amazing. There’s no other way to describe it. In a situation where she had thought she would curse and potentially buckle, she rose to every challenge. If a nurse suggested a different position that might be more painful but more beneficial to your delivery, she took it. She went the distance in a very real way, and having known her for a good number of years now I can safely say I’ve never been more proud. She made a difficult process look easy. You couldn’t have asked for better.

Finally we came to the end. I’m not going to go into too much detail. We can talk about this when you’re older. Some intervention was necessary and all of a sudden everything moved really fast. The pain went from manageable to unbearable and the last five minutes, that last dash, was terrifying. Your mother was scared. She was tired and scared and the last five minutes were so painful that it broke me just watching it. I held onto her, I supported her with the other nurses, the doctor, my own mother, and I tried in my own futile way to make it easier for her and you.

And then you arrived. Despite charting your progress through the nine months of pregnancy, listening to your heartbeat, watching your movements on the monitor, you did not become real to me until I saw you. I didn’t think I was going to watch, but I did, and I’m so glad that I chose to. After feeling the need to sleep creep up on me during those final hours, I woke up in a second. I was crying, probably shaking. And you were here. Shortly thereafter, your mother and I were holding you.

I thought when I began writing this first letter I would go on to talk about your first week, that somehow I could get your birth out in fewer words maybe. But the rest can wait. If I wait too long before publishing this, I’ll go back and tinker too much and you’ll never see it. I’m sure I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ll remember later. The important beats are there. The significant details.

Actually, wait. There’s two more.

The first: after getting you and your mother settled in the postpartum wing, I had to drive home and get some sleep of my own. The adrenaline of watching you being born was wearing off and I was crashing fast. I needed to sleep but I needed to drive safely home. It was a struggle, but I managed it. On the way home an odd thought struck me. I’m not sure if it was the first inklings of what it’s like to be a father (one week in and I’m still not sure I feel like one), but it stuck out and continues to do so in my memory.

You may discover as you grow up, that I have this underlying belief that things should be fair somehow. Hopefully you never notice this. Hopefully I do not pass it along. It’s a remnant from childhood and has done a lot to add to my discomfort over the years. But driving back from the hospital I realized in a very real way that the world was not fair, and that the world’s opinion towards you, that little baby you, was utter indifference. Not hostile, just indifferent. And that the only ones who were ever going to fight for you, to help you, were going to be us. Family. That this was the job now. That very little else could be depended on. That, like Carl Sagan says in his Pale Blue Dot speech, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us…like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

Which is a downer, to be sure, but it rattled me. The night sky was clear above me and I could see all the stars. I thought about this, about what it meant for me, your mother. What it demanded of us. And while a part of me is not sure I can do this, the better part, the greater part, is going to do his very best to be the help to you that cannot come from elsewhere.

And the second: that bit of business about your name. If you had been a boy we would have had a name for you picked out months ago. It’s still there. Solid. Built to last. But a girl’s name, for us, was trickier. How was it decided? In the middle of things, as it happens. During the delivery. Your mother was going through contractions and I asked about the name and she told me. Tessa Simone. Tessa, because we like it, and Simone, because it was the name of one of her grandmothers. And I found myself unable to argue. That was your name. Being male and going into a delivery room populated solely by women is a strange feeling. It very much feels like intruding. I did my best, but there were things going on that I felt that, no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be a part of. The nurses were, you were, your mother was (hell, even my mother was), but I had to stand a little apart from. And out of that wash of emotions and experiences and connections that I couldn’t firmly understand came your name. A day after you were born your mother thanked me for letting me name you that, which seemed a strange thing to do. It was your name. Like you, it came out of that room. There was nothing I was going to do to change it.

And with that, I’ll pull this first letter (of many, I hope) to a close. You’ve been with us for a week but it feels like you’ve always been here. Your current favorite activities are eating, sleeping and farting. You are really good at farting, as it turns out, which proves to me that you’re more my side than your mother’s. Let’s see if we can keep these letters going, shall we?

Love,

Dad

p.s. Here’s my favorite picture of you with your mother, taking in your very first week.

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Bad Weather Moods, Friends and To Kill A Mockingbird

I was in a bad mood going into Theatre Calgary’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Something had crawled inside my head a day ago and hadn’t left. Nothing particular or specific, just that pervasive sense of (boring) cynical negativity that makes me no fun to be around. I ask weird questions when I’m in this space. It’s clear by looking at me something’s wrong and I’m just not myself. But these moods are like weather, and I’ve found that just waiting until it passes is the best thing possible.

I was not looking forward to the play.

I had been before. My oldest friend, Aaron Conrad, is in it, and I’ve tried to see all of Aaron’s plays since he started acting in high school . I have to claim bias up front, but the truth is it’s always easy going to Aaron’s plays. Have you ever been friends or family with an artist (of whatever discipline) where you go out to support them but when it comes right down to it you just can’t get your head or heart around what they do? You’d never tell them to their face, of course, but the fact is that you just don’t dig their stuff. You wouldn’t engage with it at all if you didn’t know them. Those kinds of people? That’s not Aaron for me. What I’ve always appreciated about his work is that he’s good at what he does, but more importantly he’s invested in getting better. You hear it in the way he talks, whether it be about a specific role or about the profession in general. It’s always enlightening listening to actors talk about their career. They feel it more than the rest of us do, I think.

In Mockingbird, Aaron was playing the part of Boo Radley. It’s a small but integral part, and from what I understand he got the role primarily because of his excellent (again, bias) work as one of the (I forget the name) mental patients in last year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While I had problems with that staging of Nest, what Aaron did was impressive, and I can see why someone seeing his performance there could have found a way for him in Mockingbird. Whether or not that’s the case, I’m not sure/can’t remember.

So it’s a shame that I wasn’t looking forward to it. That the mood had come on that made me resent even stepping out the door when all I wanted to do was go back to bed or spend a quiet night at home not thinking about anything in particular. It’s not the attitude that you want to come to a friend’s work with. In addition, I was starting to suspect that my feelings for last year’s Nest were going to repeat in Mockingbird. I had been told that reviews for this production were mediocre. I was prepared for a difficult/bad mood evening.

I forget how much I like theatres. The actual structure of a theatre. It’s a good idea. When I walked through the smaller hallways and doorways with my mother and sister (who I had come to the play with) we emerged into a large open space that is specifically theatrical. The levels of seats. The tall ceilings. The boxes where the audience mills about the edges, giving the room a depth that would be lost if we were all in the same plane. I looked over at the stage and saw that it was set up like a courtroom, with jury seats where members of the audience could sit. And in the middle of this courtroom stood a tree. A large tree with branches that disappeared upwards out of view.

My first thought was that, if you were ever to have a museum to trees, this was how you’d do it. A large theatre with a tree in an enclosed space, with the tree almost standing in as performer. With roots and dirt for stage. There would be something remarkable about going through hallways and small rooms and coming into a theatre with a tree inside, a massive living, green tree that you would sit and stare at.

My second thought was that the stage was too small. My dread deepened. I couldn’t imagine how the play could work in such a small space. I didn’t like the idea of the audience on stage. It didn’t speak to me immediately (the absolute sign that it will not/cannot work, of course). I sat in my seat and watched the audience get settled. Like last year’s Nest, I found that most of the audience were middle-aged and older. There seemed to be a few younger people here and there, but my first read of the crowd was older. I started to look up the levels and saw people talking, interacting, and something happened that made me relax just the littlest bit. I think I heard someone say before that there were 600 seats in that theatre. If every seat were full that would mean that there would be 600 men and women sitting down to enjoy a performance, a fiction, that was unique in its presenting. We’d sit in the dark and have a relationship with the people on stage for a couple of hours. If the play was good, we’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d have something to think about. Made me realize that it wasn’t just the architecture of theatres that was a good idea. Theatre is a good idea. 600 people all thinking different thoughts with different histories watching the same performance that is interactive is a good idea.

It’s not big revelation, I know, but it started me down the path of getting out of my mood. Sometimes the simplest stuff does. Depression, when it hits, is like being told you’re not just someone else entirely but believing it entirely. It’s like dreaming and not remembering your waking life. And then something happens and you remember. You follow the path out, if you can, and for the next two or three hours that’s what I did.

The play was great. The characters from the book came alive in the performances. I came to understand and appreciate the idea of the jury/audience and the play between the two and by the end of it I couldn’t see how it could have been any other way. It struck me that To Kill a Mockingbird could come across very easily as heavy-handed if you didn’t do it right. It’s very on point with its message, with the questions it is asking, but even though I saw those center stage what saved it for me were the characters and the performances. I cared about these people and I found myself thinking throughout what the message and questions meant for me. I was thinking a lot about courage, and what it meant to start when you knew you were going to lose but starting anyway. Which led me to think about a lot of other things.

And Aaron, of course, for what time he was on the stage, shone.

It’s good to have talented friends. It’s better to have families who put up with sudden mood shifts. And it’s a great thing that we, as a species, came up with theatre. Or fiction. Or music. Or domesticated dogs, for that matter. Architecture. The whole lot. Sometimes it’s a book that rescues me from a bad day. More often times it’s my wife. But yesterday it was a play. And it was a very good play indeed.

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Letter to my Unborn Daughter

It was the night of December 13th, 2007, and I had resolved that day to ask your mother out for the second time in our somewhat tumultuous couple years of knowing each other. I was on good authority that this time was going to go better than the first, but I was still nervous. It’s always a little scary to extend yourself, even if you’re certain. And let’s just say the first time had not gone so well for me. But it was more than that. Asking your mother out felt more like proposing than the actual proposal itself ever did. I was certain she was the one for me, and that if she said yes that night then everything else would follow. Marriage. A house. Schnauzers.

You.

Just before I left the house that night I caught myself in the mirror and the strangest realization came over me. These were, in all likelihood, the last few hours of my single life, and while my single life hadn’t been anything remarkable (or very enjoyable for that matter) it did feel like the end of something. It took about a minute, whatever I did, thinking that thought, then I was off. Out the door and into the car and driving off towards the best and most rewarding relationship of my life.

I’m glad I took that moment. It sticks out in my mind. And before you arrive (any day now) I felt it was right to take that moment again before everything changes. Because shortly everything will, and the person who is writing this won’t be the same as the guy you see every day. He’ll be a father. Your father. And for your whole life you’ll never really be able to meet me as I am in this moment. It will be, quite literally, before your time.

I’m not really sure what to say.

I’m not sure all fathers feel this way, but it has been my experience that the pregnancy part of having children is a work of science fiction. Unlike your mother, I haven’t been directly connected to you. All the information has been filtered and mediated through machines. When I heard your heartbeat for the first time it was through speakers that sparked with distortion and static that made it sound like background radiation from space. A sound amplified from a great distance. And when I saw your face for the first time…well, I didn’t even see your face at first. I saw your skeleton. Your organs. I saw your little heart beat. Black and white through an ultrasound that brought to mind looking at ancient or alien fossils underwater, the white light from the surface colouring everything in different levels of gray. I could feel you kick and move through walls of flesh and muscle, that movement that so quickly brings up images of the monster from Alien. But in each instance I have met you only indirectly. You’ve been the person I’ve heard so much about at a part, the girl who is constantly in the next room over. The neighbor I hear rattling around next door in the middle of the night.

Suffice it to say, it hasn’t been what I expected.

But what did I expect? Honestly, I think I expected to fall in love with you the moment I heard you were coming. I expected that feature film level of excitement. The shaking hands as I called my parents, as I told my friends. I expected to talk to you daily and with growing enthusiasm as you developed, relating to you as the person you would become through our (mostly one-sided) witty banter. I expected laugh track accompaniment. Music, too. I expected to immediately and magically become a father. Whatever that means.

But that’s not what happened. While there’s been periods of excitement a larger portion of time has been spent nervous and, more than a occasionally, a little scared. Nervous about what kind of father I would be. If I could keep you from making some of the mistakes I made. Or would you even like me? Scared that something will happen to you. That I might not get to see you at all. That you might not be healthy. That the world can be a terrible place and would try to hurt you or take you away. Like some sort of survivalist nut job I’ve kept myself up at night thinking of worst case scenarios, both epic and mundane, trying to puzzle out ways to protect you from that. I’ve had countless conversations with future teenage you. Hoping you’ll listen to me. Hoping I’ll listen to you and say the right thing.

It has at times been pretty overwhelming. When I try to hold it all in my head at once, all the possibilities and dangers of the future, I have trouble catching my breath. It’s just too much. I have to go outside. Take a moment. And when I do that I invariably look up and see the stars (somehow, it’s always the stars) and it’s in that moment when I’m closest to you, when I feel like I understand what this is all about. Because this past nine months has been a science fiction for me, and when I look up at the night sky I feel like I can see your arrival. That straining, sputtering glimmer of a satellite. The last child of some dying planet. Heading to Earth. Looking for home. It’s funny, because when I was young I wanted nothing more than to be Superman and I’ve grown up and found myself Jonathan Kent with all the incredible responsibility that entails.

And it’s suddenly all fine. There’s no nervousness. There’s not even excitement. There’s just the simple, certain knowledge that you are heading this way and I will do my very best for you with the time that we have together. And I hope that time is long and healthy. I truly do. I hope that your mother and I can raise you to be the woman none of us even know you can be yet. So that one day you’ll get back in your spaceship or step off the ground and into flight and have a whole world of adventures out there. And when you do  I’ll be the one in the distance who will smile and think, ‘that’s my girl’.

So this is me. The me you’ll never meet, the me hasn’t seen you yet. And I’ve found while writing this that while I thought it would happen after you were born that I love you already. That I am scared for you and hope for you. That I’ll always have your back, whoever and wherever you are.

I’ll see you soon.

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Ya Gotta Have Heart, Kid

Bastion Cover Art

Like some monster of old, I’ll go a great distance to get me some heart.

A story that has heart has our attention. We know, right away, that something is different. There’s something being communicated. Something honest. In the low stakes game of watching a film, reading a book or playing a game, we get the feeling of something large and hard to describe under the surface. Something with risk. The easiest trap to fall into with heart is to point the finger at the content. A well told story that tends toward sentiment, coupled with good action, quality performances, great description and/or direction seems a prime candidate for the qualifier. But it goes deeper than that. There are plenty of films, books, games I’ve played where the content was pitch perfect and I wasn’t moved the way I am when confronted with genuine heart.

Heart comes from within. It’s like the organ, that way. It’s in the people who make the thing. It almost doesn’t matter what the content is at times or even how good it is. Kevin Smith, arguably, is a creator who’s made a career playing by heart. By his own admission his movies aren’t the best committed to film, but what you can’t fault them for is their honesty. You can see the love in those films, even if you think the acting or the dialogue or the story or the direction is terrible. The man is honest and his movies take chances because he is trying to communicate something personal. They have heart. Hell, Rocky has heart, and again it’s not because of the story. When you see Stallone in that part you’re seeing a part of Stallone. He wrote from himself and he had to fight to play the part. There’s an energy that comes off of that that’s electric. You can hear it humming.

Bastion, for me, is a game with heart, in the way that you see more often on the indie side of development rather than the AAA. Supergiant Games is a team of seven people who spent twenty months to build a game. They got a house for an office and put the time in. I first became aware of the Supergiant team through the Building the Bastion feature at Giantbomb. Itself a site that is run by writers passionate about games and the industry, Giantbomb followed the game through from creation all the way to final certification. And so did I . Watching those videos each month showed the behind the scenes of independent games development that I hadn’t seen before. All the effort and time this small group put in to something that could just as easily have disappeared when it came to market. While playing the game, the risk wasn’t whether or not I would finish or ‘win’, it was watching the risk of seven people swinging for the fences. The definition of heart.

Bastion is a beautiful game that has solid gameplay and amazing music. I enjoyed the few days it took to put it to bed. If I had any complaints, honestly, it would be how the final climatic run was handled in the narrative, as over the course of about twenty minutes a little bit too much information was delivered rapid fire. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I felt that I had to think through the movements of the characters and the larger plot more than I should have. I don’t mind working for my story, but this didn’t feel like one of those times. But this is a minor complaint if it can even be called that. Is Bastion a perfect game? For what it is, it comes close. It does what it set out to do. Supergiant Games went out to create a self contained story in a well realized world with solid mechanics and they succeeded. But the real success for me is how clear it is in how that game was made, how it plays and how they’ve handled the community after its release. These are people who care, who love games passionately and created a heartfelt entry into the genre. Looking forward to seeing more from them in the future.

Bastion is currently available on Xbox Live for their Summer of Arcade feature.

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