Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Here comes 2016

The funny thing about New Year's Day is that it comes whether you want it to or not. And the more you don't want it to arrive, the more likely it is to get here sooner. Time works in mysterious ways.

I am both dreading and excited for New Year's Day. Excited for obvious reasons, as the start to a new year is always a good reason to be excited. So much can happen in 12 months and it's all before me.

Dreading because 2016 will start off no different than 2015 ended, and I'm not in a happy place right now. To be fair, I'm not miserable either, but this year is not ending as I hoped it would, and 2016 is not starting as I hoped it would. In fact, is starting very close to how I dreaded it would.

Hense my conflicted feelings on the matter. But 2016 will come, whether I wish it or no, and so, like most things in life, you learn to make the best of it.

On that note, I have certain New Year Resolutions. Though I hate that term 'resolutions'. I resolve to do this, this and this. Resolutions are about intention, not outcome, and by the definition far too easy to break. Like promises. I am resolved is a good turn of phrase, but it does not necessary mean follow-through.

Instead, I make determinations. I am resolved in decision yes, but I am determined in process.

So my New Year Determinations are:

Follow-through on the internship I created for myself. That means six months self.

Go to the gym regularly.

Eat fewer white carbs.

Eat less processed sugar.

See friends at least once a month.

Write a query letter. Send it out. [Freak out.]

Finish the novels that are in progress. To not start anymore.

Edit two novels. [Well, one and a half.]

Travel as much as your bank account will absolutely allow.

Walk camino.


Be excited about 2017.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Best Laids Plans of Writers and Academics

Let me just be honest: I gave up on December NaNo about December 3rd. I had the best of intentions, but like many things in life, even the best laid plans have to be sidetracked. December is the type of month that can either be great for me, or miserable, or both. This year, it's not been a particularly good month, and it never helps that I get anxious this time of year about the fact that another year is ending and I didn't do half the things I wanted to.

But that's normal. That's par for the course. But it makes writing hard. I also know from experience that I am much better in an empty house. I cannot write in public places. I also can't write very well in company. And I've had nothing but company this month, even more so than in November (and I managed NaNo with international travel!) It happens. I am slowly ploughing away at finishing the novel I didn't quite manage to finish last month (to be fair, 50k is rather short, and this one needs to be 70k).

That is my only goal this month. I am trying to be kind to myself and do only what I can actually manage each day, and not feel like a failure if I don't accomplish the To Do list. Or feel guilty for not being able to. I promised myself a year ago I would start doing this, and then life threw a loop-d-loop my way and this year has been full of (not always pleasant) surprises. Instead, I am making that promise again. Do only what I can. There are times to push oneself, and I'm generally pretty good at those, but for the rest of this year, I need to just be okay.

And that's enough for the busiest, craziest, most expensive month of the year. There is absolutely nothing wrong with baby steps. I think this might be what people mean when they talk about the year after the PhD.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Two for One

This year I am doing back-to-back NaNo, although it remains to be seen how December will go, with family commitments and such. I aim to try, at least.

I am writing two very different novels. This is the only way to do it, I feel, much like reading two books at once. If the books are similar, you may confuse the plots if you go back and forth between them. With two very different stories, that becomes less of an issue. And so too with writing. I chose two plots that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, in two different genres, for different ages.

The first novel I started at the beginning of November got me through 19000 words, before I hit a block. It's okay, because I'll get back to that one in December, and if I manage a full NaNo I will have completed the necessary word count.

The other novel that I started in on when I hit writer's block on the first will be longer, but I've been 'cheating'. That is, I've been writing the required 1667 words a day, but several days a week I've been doing extra words. It means I'm at about 45k now, which is where I should be for a NaNo novel if I'd started it on November 1st. I'll hit 50k for this month, and then will have to write another 15k or so to finish it off. Perhaps between writer's blocks in December. I may just spend the first week of December finishing this one off so I can focus on the other one (and not get distracted). We'll see. It's only the 28th.

What are the novels about, you ask? You didn't, but someone reading this is wondering. You'll have noticed I don't really talk about what I'm actually writing on this blog, and there are reasons for that. Until my stories are 'finished' they are very personal for me, and I don't like sharing something that isn't complete.

Still, no harm done in a short plot synopsis.

The first book I started was junior fiction, about a young girl who has to move to a new city when her mother gets a job transfer. She keeps hoping and wishing that her parents will decide to move back home. But then her mother is killed in a car accident, and the young girl blames herself, because she wished so hard that something would happen that would let her go home. The only person she feels understands what she is going through is her bedroom's resident ghost. A young boy named Timothy who died a 100 years before.

I've never written junior before, so it's been an interesting lesson in language and kids stuff. We'll see how it goes, but I wanted to branch out and see if I could do it. And also, the hook for it was brilliant.
The second book is a memoir and it is entirely a selfish pleasure. After I got back from Spain I wrote a guidebook for the camino, that was half guidebook and half memoir, but I've never been particularly happy with it. For one, it's not fiction at all. So I decided to try my hand at making it fiction. It worked for Cheryl Strayed. And it's kind of going alright, although it may be entirely unmarketable. It will certainly not be the first novel I query. But they say write what you know, and I know this more than anything, because I lived it.

If I can make 100k by the end of the year, I'll be quite happy. Since I finished That Winter Book this year too, and edited it. Not bad for 2015.

Oh yeah, and I got my PhD too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Creativity Updates

Well now, it's passed the middle of the month. The good news is that I'm on par with NaNo's suggested word counts. The bad news is that neither novel is as far ahead as I hoped it would be. The good news is that Novel 2 is speeding alone admirably, though, and I don't think I will run out of ideas (though I might run out of plot). Novel 1 has stalled and I suppose it will be December's Problem To Deal With. How joyful that will make the holiday season.

[Good spotting, that was sarcasm. The things we writers do...]

I've been sick, a lot, the last few weeks, and when I haven't been I've been away. But I got back to painting today and it's coming along. I've done the easy bits now, though, so it's the near perspective that's left and that requires much more patience and determination. There are A LOT of red leaves to add in to this thing.

The entire left side is one giant maple in full brilliant autumnal red. Each individual leaf will have to be painted, after I finish filling in the details on the rocks, the leaves in the water, and the rest of the floating twigs and such. Oh, and the trees in the distant left too, though they are mirrors of the ones on the right.

Now that I'm looking at it...that water ended up much redder than intended. Might have to fix that. It's supposed to be muddy brown, but it could just be my iPhone too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

And good heavens, how time flies

The 11th already, where does the time go? Oh, right. [Never mind, I remembered what I spent the last week doing.]

But onwards and upwards are the mottos of National Novel Writing Month, and so we go on (unless you've given up already, which I wouldn't recommend). I've discovered a small advantage to deciding to do back-to-back NaNos. When you get stuck on one novel, simply work on the other. You still hit your word count, you still get further along in the plot, and you still contribute the success of both.

One of these is so much easier to write than the other, and there's a simple reason for that. They say 'write what you know' and I've usually taken that to heart. Or at least 'write what you love'. But this time, this time I'm challenging myself and it's not going so well. Oh, I hit 18000 words or so, so it's not a total disaster, but it's not been easy. I'm way out of my comfort zone here (a worrying fact, if you knew what my last novel had entailed). So, I went back to the 'easy' one. The one that's me. The one that's my story. This is literally writing what I know. And who I know. And how I know it. And, for now, that's just going to have to be good enough. I'll get back to the other one later, even if later is December.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Once Again...It's November

You know what that means. We've been through this before. Differently, I have nothing else to distract me this month (except Pinterest), and so I have high plans for National Novel Writing Month this year. High, high, plans.

However, I have few plans for this blog, beyond perhaps the occasional post that might give you some idea of the confusing pathways of my mind and how I create stories. Mostly, the number of these posts will be directly proportional to the amount of writer's block I suffer. Therefore, no promises.

Just...stay tuned! And wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's Over

A lot of people in Canada are very happy right now. I'm happy for one reason: it's all over for the next four years. Because I've had quite enough of politics to last me at least four years.

It's been an interesting insight into how things work, and how things do not. I have a lot of opinions on how our electoral system is run in this country, and a lot of ideas on how elections are run. And a lot of ideas of how we could do things better, because it can't get much worse.

So I've had an eye-opening experience, which for a contract job is, shall we say, quite impressive. I feel like I've learned a lot, both as a work experience, and also about myself, and those are things I can take forward. It will, at least, make for excellent answers in job interviews, if I ever get a job interview.

I am now going to spend the next month or so reassessing and readjusting, and resting. I feel like I barely recovered from the PhD before I got launched into election mode and I'm frankly exhausted again. There are some things I would really like to devote honest concentration and time to and I am hoping to spend the rest of the year in those pursuits. I feel like I've taken a step forward, and now I need to look around and make sure I'm on the right path, but continue to walk onwards at the same time; just with a bit more eyes-wide-open.

In other words, I hope to have more blog updates soon.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Forms of Creativity

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but I paint. I have since I was in my early teens, and for a long while I considered being a material arts major. I took every art course in high school (and then some), and studied rather a lot of different forms, as well as years of art history. And I was pretty good at it. Ultimately, I decided I liked general history more, but that doesn't mean I stopped being an artist, anymore than I stopped being a writer because I became an academic.

Occasionally, when I can, I paint. I've always gravitated towards oils, because I like their flexibility, and the nature of painting with them. I love that it takes so long for them to dry. It makes for amazing layers and textures. And I also like how long it takes to paint with oils. This is not something you knock off in an afternoon, anymore than a 1000 page novel is. I like seeing how a novel will develop, and I like seeing how a painting will too.

Now that I'm back in Canada, I have access to all my paints again, so I've returned to that thing I like best. It's a great source for my creativity.

I started this a few weeks ago (although I haven't been able to work on it for more than a week now).

Tomorrow I'm planning on doing the final layer for the water, and starting the base layer for the shore. Then that will have to dry for several days, until I can build onto it. Hopefully on Sunday. I'm absolutely thrilled with the perspective right now, and the clouds are pretty nice. I'm looking forward to the massive red leafed tree that sits in the foreground on the left. That'll be fun! 

I'll share a few more pics as it develops.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


For those in the sector, MuseumNext is sort of that conference a lot of people talking about going to, and then are really pleasantly surprised when they do go.

People told me a lot of things about MuseumNext before I went. I figured, with all I had heard, some of it had to be exaggerated, or blatantly untrue.

Not true. There were a few things that were not quite what I expected, but I think that had more to do with the fact it was the first time the conference had been hosted in America, and naturally hosting internationally is going to change a few things.  Overall, it was well-organized, friendly and supportive, sometimes innovative, always interesting, and very social. I think it's more social in Europe, because a lot of people regularly attend each year and know each other, and this was a bit different because almost everyone was new to it.

The theme was, ostensibly, 'inclusion', although the definition of that got lost somewhere, as 'inclusion' turned out to be rather, well, 'exclusionary' in reality. There was a lot of 'look at all the things we did!' and not a lot of 'this is how you engage those groups that absolutely would not otherwise walk through your door' which is what inclusion actually is to me. There was also very little reference (baring one fantastic presentation) on black communities (which Indiana has a lot of), other racial minorities, the poor, or really, much other than LGBT and young people. Which is great, but is not the definition of 'inclusion'.

I also found that the point about the museum industry being exclusive was raised a lot, but no one really had any recommendations of how to change things. We've been talking about this for years, and I find European museums are actually (slowly) becoming pretty diverse in the work and volunteer force, but it's clear America (and Canada) are a long way behind. There was a lot of 'well, we've been talking about this for 10 years, when you are going to do something?' Inclusions been a hot topic in Europe as long as I've been doing museums, so having an 'innovative' inclusion conference in the US sort of rang of 'late to the party'.

Still, there were some amazing infinitives, not least of which is what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz with their poor communities, the amazingly diverse work of the Amsterdam Museum, the hands-on (rather than tech-on) projects at the Science Gallery in Dublin, and just what you can do when someone gives you millions of dollars and says 'have at' (crop art, apparently).

I'm glad I went. I'm glad I got to spend time with some European compatriots, I'm glad I got to taste some lovely food, I'm glad I got to see Indianapolis, and I'm glad the conference was so well attended. I'm less glad that, unsurprisingly, there were a lot of problems raised, and not a lot of problem solving going on. Seems to be par for the course in the industry these days.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Well, on Thursday I am off for my first ever solo road trip. I'm not going that far, in the grand scheme of things, but eight hours is further than I've driven on my own (and up until last January, further than I've ever driven even sharing with someone else). I'm headed to Indiana for MuseumNext, the first time this world-renown European conference has been held in the States. So that's exciting. It's an amazing conference, so I hope this US edition will be just as good.

But it means I'm going to have a whirlwind tour of Michigan/Ohio/Indiana. Two of those states I've never been to, so we'll cross those off the list. I'm sure I'll be exhausted, driving down Thursday, two days of jam-packed conferencing, and then back on Sunday. Then 6 straight days of 8 hour shifts at work.

So, life's fun right now. To think, I was almost bored a few weeks ago.

*laughs hysterically*

Further up and further in, my readers. This ECR thing is lots of fun.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Social Media Making

I've decided to start a new, on-going, series of posts to this blog. I've been toying with this idea for a long time (*cough*6 years*cough*), but I was never really certain if I should quite go ahead with it. Partly that is because this might very well be the area of work I get into (one day), and having most of my expert knowledge posted free and publicly rather defeats the purpose of being paid for a living. And partly it is because I'm never really certain how many people read blogs, or how many people who do find this useful would actually read this one (bets are few).

However, I've decided to bite the bullet. I know plenty of bloggers who post things that they don't feel are useful, and yet readers gobble it up. So maybe there is a chance. And if I only help one person, that's still worth the effort, I think.  Maybe that person will help another person and so on.

But first, a little bit of history to begin with.

I first got into social media in 2009. Except that's a bold faced lie. I first got into social media in 1997 when I discovered chat rooms, but I was *cough*young*cough* and we don't talk about that. But then, social media in the 1990s was not yet a 'thing'. A thing talked about, at least. Our concept of social media comes mainly from the last 10 or so years, particularly since Facebook took off. It has existed since the Internet began, but social media is mostly a construct of our new networked society where the Web is accessible and open for most people (rather than just the early adopters or the geeks - I was both).

But it wasn't until 2007 that I discovered Facebook, as did most people. And it wasn't until 2009 that I had a Twitter account. Though my first blog dates to 2002 and I've had a Photobucket account as long as Photobucket has existed. And then there were all those chat room personas...that we don't talk about.

In other words I, like most people, came to social media over a period of time. It started with one site and then, as the Internet spread, I got involved in more and more things. Now, like most people, I maintain a presence (that might not be strictly 'me') on nearly a dozen social media platforms, and half a dozen others that I have lost log-ins to or that have mainly gone the way of the dodo bird, as has most of the Web. And sometimes, having that many sites to keep track of means I neglect one or two for longer than intended (like this blog), and spend hours of the day on others (Twitter - no Pinterest).

However, over the years I've come to know most social media sites, at least in what we could call the mainstream ones. There are others I've purposefully stayed clear from (Tumblr) and a few I delayed getting involved in (Pinterest), but for the most part, I've used the vast majority of them, and made an effort to understand what they are for and where they can fit into my life (and where they don't). But that is a lot of work, as anyone who is social media savvy will know. And often it's more work than people on the outside are willing to expend, without understanding what the pros and cons are (or only seeing the cons). I understand it can be daunting, particularly if you've stayed on the fringes of social media all these years (and if you have, congrats, I sometimes miss being disconnected).

Perhaps there are enough of you out there that are not quite social media savvy, or have a specific social media platform you'd like to know more about (before you start using it), or would like to know how to use (now that you do use it). And perhaps I can help a few of you. It's worth a shot, at least.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blogging Manifesto

I started a new blog. Which, normally, would mean ignoring this one. I don't want to do that, however, so I thought I'd taken a lesson from Miss Pond, and create a manifesto for this blog. Something I can refer back to whenever I get a bit off-track.

What will I use this blog for?

-career pursuits
-reflecting on job hunting
-issues in the museum field
-comments on getting into novelizing and trying to get published
-flagging up blogs of note in the above fields
-social media opinions and suggestions

What I won't use this blog for:

-PhDing (that's what the other blog is for)
-complaining about how bad life is
-personal issues
-referencing other blogs (except where they relate to career/novelizing)
-procrastinating from writing entries for my other blog (or working)

Well, that's a start at least. Something I can have to refer back to every time I write a new post. We'll see how that goes for the rest of the year, and maybe I'll come back to this again in January and see how I've been getting on, and revise, where needed. It's a work in progress.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Blog

Okay, first, I won't be ignoring this one. I'll still post as infrequently as I already do. But, in an effort to start some sort of career (unpaid though it will likely be) I am embarking on a new endeavour.

PhD-ing for Dummies

Please follow along if you've an interest. Or pass the link along to those who might.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Attention Span of a Gnat

This might be insulting to gnats everywhere; just fair warning.

When I was little I would focus on one thing for hours. I was well known for being able to play a computer game for eight hours straight, or read an entire novel in a day.

Some things have not survived my PhD. That sort of attention span is one of them.

It's a funny thing, this 'other' side. Emerging from four years of intensive academia and finally having the time to take stock of what's changed. A few things were temporary (memory loss, hair loss, compromised immune system), and some things have not been temporary.

But the one that is causing me the most grief is the inability for anything to keep my attention for longer than about twenty minutes. Things I used to enjoy for hours I now grow bored of in minutes. I can't watch an hour of television, even with commercials to distract me (I can't watch it without commercials either, thanks Netflix). I can't read more than a couple of chapters of a novel. I can't read more than one academic article a day (and even then, if it's long...). And I can't do fun things. I get bored of Pinterest after ten minutes. I get bored of Twitter after five. I get bored of writing blog posts in the middle of writing blog posts.

I'm certain there's some psychological reason for all this. I'm quite certain someone could tell me why so long intensely concentrating on one thing has somehow hardwired my brain to not be able to concentrate on anything. And maybe I'm just - still - recovering, and it'll get better. But if anything, it's gotten worse.

It used to scare me a lot. The things stress does to the body. But I've gotten over that, mainly because a lot of the stress-related issues have gone away. But this one? This one may never, and I'm going to have to adjust to that. It's entirely doable, I'm sure. I just have to learn to do things in 5-10 minute windows, rather than do one thing for three hours.

Time to try to Pomodoro technique, I think.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Upon Completion

There are certain times in your life when something occurs so unexpectedly that you gap in awe (or shock). Sometimes these are moments of sheer surprise. Other times they are moments you have hoped and prayed for, but never actually believed would happen.

And sometimes, they're both.

I've been rather quiet the last months, I realize. I have been especially quiet on discussing my thesis amendments. Partly this is because I don't want to turn off people who are currently doing their PhDs, or are contemplating starting one. The last thing you want to hear in Year 3 is 'you think writing the thesis the first time was hard? Try THIS'. I have taken a note from the book of students that finished before me and, on the whole, remained rather silent.

But perhaps that isn't helpful. Perhaps you need to know exactly what a pain in the ass it can be so you can be prepared. Or, on the other hand, so you can realize you aren't suffering alone.

If you'd rather not know, you had best stop reading now.

There are various levels of amendments. In the university I attended, they come in three likely options: minor 1 month (spelling/grammar mistakes), minor 3 months (sentence structure, small issues, more references, etc.), and major 6 months (big things). The other option is resubmit, but that is the one everyone fears and, thankfully, few get.

I got 6 months. It bordered on resubmit, in fact, because of the number of issues. Different examiners might have given me a different outcome (it could have gone either way), but we'll never know. All I know is what I got.

And I got lucky. Yes, the list was long. Yes, for the first month after I received them, just opening the document gave me an all out panic attack. And yes, I cried a lot after my viva, mostly in despair of ever finishing. But no, they were not impossible. And no, they were not ambiguous or general. And no, I was not at any point confused by what I had to do. I had a clear list of exactly what needed doing, it just came down to finding the will power (and the calmness) to do it.

It took me 5 months. I had 6, but I didn't want to push that, in case further amendments were forthcoming. For the first two months I worked part-time on the smallest corrections (spelling/grammar, sentence structure, missing info/references, rhetoric), and then spent the last three months working full-time on the major stuff. Some of it took me a week. One thing took me a month. I despaired of ever finishing. I despaired of ever passing. I despaired of getting out of bed in the morning. It was ten times worse than any point in my PhD before (and I had thought my last months prior to submission were the worst it could be).

But I had good friends. And I had people who had gone through this and survived. And the best piece of advice I received in the six months since my viva was this:

It sucks. It really, really sucks. At times you will want to give up. At times you may completely give up. At times you will be convinced nothing will fix the issue and you will never pass. At times you will question your sanity of ever doing a PhD in the first place. At times you will be depressed. At times you will be anxious (for me, always). At times you will be confused, confounded, muddled, etc. At rare times you will have a Eureka! moment. At times you will wonder if you ever will again. At times it will all seem impossible.

And that's normal, okay? It's all, completely, entirely, 100% normal.

That doesn't make it better. If the PhD taught be anything, it's that knowing it's normal does not make it better. But it does make it a tiny bit easier.

And every little bit counts, when after 4 years you've been told you have another 6 months of this.

But in the end, you'll get it done. You'll get it done because, after 4 years, you have no other choice. After all this work, it's only 6 more months. You cannot falter at the final hurdle. So you will complete. You will submit again. And you will find out the outcome.

And it's probably going to be a shock. It's probably going to leave you in awe for a little bit. But it is also the greatest email/letter you will ever receive. Savour that. Enjoy it. Take the time to come to terms with what it really means.

You're a Doctor now.

And so am I.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why Exercise is Bad for You

[Warning, this post contains no scientific facts or true health warnings.]

I've obviously been neglecting this blog. Clearly, this is something that can happen easily, when life gets in the way and the blog is not a main part of that life. And I'd really like to change that, but in order to do so I think I'm going to have to go off-topic a bit more than I have previously done. For one, my PhD is almost over, so I have very little to talk about there, and for seconds, well...let's just say that novelizing has been put on hold for the short terms so that I am not really writing much of anything. Needs must, sometimes, and all that.

But what I have been doing (besides finishing the aforementioned PhD and, you know, just recovering from three years of stress, anxiety and depression) is attempting to get back into shape. I've never been an avid gym goer, but I can honestly say that I was pretty fit in my 20s. I am no longer in my 20s, however, and like all things, age does have an impact. I also sat at a desk for three years (excepting the 800km I walked across Spain) and both my back and hips were definitely in a mood to complain about such things.

Because I don't do anything by halves (well, most of the time - cleaning is an exception), I joined a local fitness centre, got a personal trainer, and made myself accountable to going three times a week. And I've been really good about it for 8 weeks now (except last Wednesday, because I was in so much pain that walking down the stairs made me cry). However, for those 8 weeks, I have been in reoccurring pain in various muscles of my body that I didn't even know I had. My trainer knows I have them, though, and since I dictated to her what areas of my body I needed to work on, she's been working them.

But I suppose I had some vague notion that this would get easier. What I never took into account (having never worked out before), was that for the first couple of weeks you get your body to adjust to being active again...and then you start building it up. So you never really hit a plateau where it gets easier, because as soon as it gets easier, you make it harder. This is how one gets into shape. Apparently. I've been told.

So I've decided that exercise is really, truly, awfully, bad for you. There's no other explanation. It makes you tired, it makes you hurt, it makes you sleep for inordinate number of hours more than you used to, it makes you eat more (and crave bad things), and all around it makes you feel sort of a bit like you want to crawl into a hole in the ground and never come out again. Obviously, all of those things are horrible. And it's really not worth the effort just to get 'into shape'. After all, once you are in shape, you have to stay in shape, and that's just as much work! You have to do this for the rest of your life!

And this doesn't even get into all the other issues that come with getting fit. Your old clothes stop fitting and you have to buy new ones (and what an added expense that is). Also, you have to change your eating habits. Suddenly you have to eat certain foods at certain times of the day. And drink water at certain times of the day. And drink protein smoothies that taste worse than the worst fibre supplements on the market. Oh, and you have to do more laundry, because you can't wear your sweaty gym clothes more than once without feeling like your bathing in a sweat bath. And your hair looks awful. I'm not kidding; I haven't had a good hair day since I started this. It's either oily and sweaty from exercising, wet from showering, or poofy as all get-up from having been showered. And don't even get me started on how annoying it is to schedule your day around a fitness appointment. It ruins all your timing and just takes over your life.

So exercise is bad for you. Clearly. Definitely. Whoever next tells you you should go to the gym, you should kindly, but firmly, explain to them what a bad idea that is. Because it's totally, unequivocally, utterly, not worth the effort.


[Except, it completely is.]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Exhibition Review: Pompeii, in the Shadow of the Volcano

The title is a bit gimmicky, but, you know what? I like it. It represents the exhibition in a nutshell, and that's what an exhibition title should do.

The first clue that Pompeii would be good were the partners that worked with the Royal Ontario Museum to create it. It was three years in development, and timed to coincide with Italian Cultural Month in Toronto (and the Italian Film Festival) and - we can assume - the Pan Am Games. It's certainly well-timed, with Canada hosting the woman's FIFA World Cup, the aforementioned games, and it's usual long list of annual events in the city that draw a large international (and local) crowd. And the marketing campaign has been running rampant for weeks now, coming across almost like a movie (including dramatic trailer with even more dramatic voice-over). Leaving aside my opinions on 'blockbuster' exhibitions (that's a whole other post), let's reviewing Pompeii: in the Shadow of the Volcano.

There are six galleries (plus an 'introduction), although only the last is clearly separated into its own space. The others flow from one to the other, and after the entry hall, it's very much a non-directional design. Which I like. Too often exhibitions tell you what to look at, and in this 21st century museum we need to understand that visitors are different, rather than one solid whole, and exhibits need to cater to that. Free-flow galleries are a good way to do this. I went off on a tangent last year about the British Museum's inability to properly do labels for their Vikings exhibition, and blessedly the ROM makes far fewer mistakes with Pompeii. There are the larger 'theme' text panels which introduce each exhibit, and then text panels for individual objects/pictures. It's a nice way to cater to those that want to read everything and those that would just really like to see things and keep on walking.

The main emphasis is entirely on people. The objects and text panels are focused on the stories of Pompeii, directed towards Roman life especially. As a theme of an exhibition about death, I like this focus. It makes the first five galleries feel like a story about life. There's an underlying theme about the volcano, which mostly appears at the start of gallery 1 and in gallery 5, but it's not the focus, anymore than it was for the people of Pompeii. The stories are not morbid, but explain how people lived in Pompeii, using objects from the site and from Herculaneum (and I think Stabiae, too, though that isn't specified). The exhibits all coincide with each other, showing food, entertainment, daily life, the rich and the poor, architecture, religion, etc. There is also a small section on sex in the ancient city, which is separated in a corner with a warning label on the front. It's also painted in red. Just to be obvious. It's not blatant, however, and would certainly be okay for very young children (toddlers and below), but not for those a little more aware of things (they'll be questions!) But it's parents' choice. It's interesting that, in this exhibit, sex is quartered in a small area, but death is ever present and visible. An interesting take on how we usually do exhibits and one that I don't disagree with.

I could have used more contextual labels. The objects explain what they are but not what site they are from, their known (or guessed) dates, or specify materials. I was missing those (the BM had the opposite problem). I know a lot of people don't care, but it's important to give context and be specific. People will look if it's there and they might actually learn something. And ancient dates tend to bring it home. The coin timeline, however, was nicely done.

Also nicely if...graphically, done was the timeline of the eruption, making it starkly clear in black and (red) what happened from the moment of eruption to the end. The focus on Pliny's account to Tacitus of the eruption is also good, though again a bit more about Pliny might have been useful context.

I can't comment on the interactives. Most of them were not yet in situ for the media preview, but I have it on good authority they will be there by the launch. There are two nice (if small) screens that offer visitors a 360 degree view of parts of the Pompeii site, for those who have not visited (or will never visit), although bigger might have been better - they are stashed in a corner and I wonder if they will be obvious when the gallery becomes busy during timed entry. However, from what I've heard about the interactives to come, they should be fantastic for kids and definitely enjoyable, though in very specific areas. The vast majority of the galleries are things in glass with text panels, and I think many family groups are going to be somewhat lost. However, though Pompeii is a great subject to tie in with Roman history for children, it is desperately hard to make 'child friendly'.

Full points go to the team that decided on the first object in the first gallery, though: it's a large piece of pumice stone with a PLEASE TOUCH panel above it and right at kid level. It may turn out to be the only touchable object in the galleries, but it's a good one. Though being able to pick it up and feel the lightness would have been a fun addition (though hard to engineer).

The galleries all have a similar vibe (hence why it's so hard to tell when you've strayed into a new one), but the last gallery stands out. It's harsh and cold and very, very, clear. You've just walked past a 30 foot screen showing a pyroclasic cloud barrelling down at you and suddenly it's behind you, the noise slowly fading, and you walk out into a wide space where there is one panel five displays; wide shelves with trench barricades and figures in plaster. It's is both more eerie and less so than rounding a corner in Pompeii to a display case full of plaster casts. The lighting and mood (and the silence of the gallery here - by this time most everyone had left and there were only 5 of us and a film crew in the space) lend an eerie feel to the place and make you feel like you're walking through a graveyard - at night. But in another way, they are more 'display' pieces here then they are in Pompeii. More things to be looked at rather than shied away from. In Pompeii, I couldn't bring myself to take photos of the casts; it felt wrong, somehow; like an intrusion on a private moment. Here, that feeling was suppressed. It wasn't so much a private moment, but one fully on display. And maybe that's a bad thing. The casts are not considered human remains, although in many ways they are more human than most skeletons appear. And yet, they are not treated the same, because they are not the same as a 'dead body'. They are only the ghost image of one, and yet the visceral feeling of them is much more real than a skeleton will ever be. These are people in their death throws; screaming, yelling, clutching each other in their last moments while they quickly suffocate. It's horrible; but it's a lasting image the visitor will take with them into the (thankfully) staid gift shop.

I almost wanted something more. Some small space before I was spilled out into commercialization, just to reflect on the fact that - although Pompeii is an excellent snap-shot of Roman life - it exists only because it was destroyed, unlike most archaeological sites that exist because they were not. It's something to think about.

Mostly, I ponder what my old instructor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill might have thought. Italy has done well to loan these much treasured objects (though the best of the murals and mosaics for which Pompeii is famous are still housed in Italy), and to be so very generous with their help in creating the exhibition.

It's not perfect, but it's pretty good, and that comes from both a student of Roman History and a doctor of Museum Studies. So I should know, right?

It does remain an expensive day out, with transportation and parking fees getting ever higher in Toronto, not to mention the ROM's entry fee ($28 adults, $20 children). For this, it might just be worth it becoming a member for the year, at $97 for an individual. Four trips would make it worth your while, if you live around the city. I do, however, wish they would do family prices for exhibitions, much like museums in Europe do. Two parents and two children would be $96 entry, if my math is correct, which continues to make this a rather exclusive museum. I'd recommend going Friday evenings, if you can, when tickets are helpfully cheaper. But, if you can't get to Naples, then this will be worth the price of admission.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Stress and the Machine

Ostensibly I have seven novels on the go. Ostensibly. The reality is that two of them are with test readers, one of them is sitting untouched (for 8 months) on my hard drive, two of them are no more than a summary, and two of them are on my to-edit list this summer. So, actually, right now I have no novels on the go.

This would be grand in most circumstances. Particularly if those circumstances were: agent man is looking for more books to sell. But I don't have an agent, or a single book sold, or even time to query any of the books that are works-in-progress.

Instead, I am revising a thesis. There are few things I dislike more than academic editing. I can think of a few, but most of them involve death and dismemberment. I am not an avid editor, but I can just about manage with fictional editing; academic editing is another kettle of fish (barrel of monkeys?). I spent five months last year editing this thesis, and now I'm spending another five months editing this thesis, and in many ways I am simply taking what I already changed once and changing it again (sometimes back to what it was originally!). I am bored and disheartened and thoroughly, thoroughly, frustrated with the whole thing. As usual with editing, one edit changes five other things, or you remember that if you reword this you have to go find that other sentence 10k words later and reword it too. It's awful. But it's revisions, and just like editing a novel, it has to get done.

But in many ways, I'm lucky. I have nothing else to do with my time except plug away on this, so in many ways it is not very stressful. That's not to say it isn't stressful. It is. Anything on which your future career lies engenders stress. This is not, however, as stressful as the first round of edits was last autumn where my feeling was 'it's utter shite, what am I going to do?' Now it's a matter of considering 'well, they told me it wasn't shite, so I just have to take it from being acceptable to being good'. That means less stress as well.

I had no idea what I was doing the first time. No one does, the first time they write a thesis. I had about three different research questions and it took - what felt like - forever to figure out which one was the actual one (jury is still out on whether it was the right one). Even at the end I was still stressing about whether it was a good research question. So that stress is gone now, for which I am very grateful. And yet, some little niggling voice in my head still thinks maybe there was another way. I try not to give it much voice time.

So, I plug away, slowly but surely. When before I editing whole sections in a day, now I go one paragraph at a time. I am hoping that is a good thing. That I am being even more dedicated and careful. Time will only tell. What I do know is that it leaves me a lot of time for other things; things that reduce my lower stress even further and that I - mostly - enjoy.

Next week, look for a review of the Royal Ontario Museum's new blockbuster exhibition 'Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano', and possibly some future ramblings about supervising and consultancy. Because apparently that is a thing I now do.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

CMA Conference 2015 - Banff

This past week was the annual Canadian Museum Association conference. It usually teeters back and forth between eastern and western Canada, and as last year was here, this year they went west. To Banff. As you do. In Canada.

I haven't been out to Alberta in 21 years, so my memories are a little bit hazy. I remember mountains, which, really, is the important part.

I didn't go out with very high expectations, in all honesty. I know people who have been and, honestly, this particular conference has a bit of a reputation for being the ol' boys club. It sort of is, I don't dispute that, now having been. The big museums are much better represented than smaller ones, because the registration fee is so exorbitantly high. Yeah, it was a nice conference, but the panels and discussion are the important part and I feel that has sort of been lost in the drive to pick the Best Hotel Ever and throw money away on food. But maybe I'm just really old fashioned and think conferences should be about the conversations, not the scenery.

But Banff is beautiful. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is. And how friendly everyone is. I have never been somewhere (even PEI) where people smiled at you and said hello and were welcoming and helping all of the time. Genuinely. But then, they live in Banff, so how could they not be happy? I was certainly quite pleased the whole week, every time I looked outside. There are mountains, Gandalf! Mountains!

In terms of the conference itself, we started with a great workshop that really sort of evolved as it went along to suit that fact a lot of attendees were more behind than the organizers expected (or I hoped). But I think everyone got something useful out of it, and I know I was pleased with myself for actually opening my mouth and saying stuff (because it *was* on my topic). And the organizers were really welcoming of that, bless them. In fact, so welcoming we ended up having a bowling tournament that night (I lost).

Wednesday had some quite interesting talks, and some ones that gave me that gut wrenching feeling that Canada really doesn't understand the cultural industry at all. My understanding of my own country's industry developed over the week and in many cases I had eye opening experiences. Not all of which were pleasant. I was aware of several issues in the industry, but did not quite realize how ingrained they were. It doesn't make me particularly hopeful of change anytime soon, but we'll see. The point was that I met a lot of young people that felt the same way and want to make things different, but haven't figured out how to have an impact on a industry that won't even employ them (tell me about it).

But some positives came out of the event, not least Richard Sandell's talk (one of my favourites of his) that seemed to floor a lot of people in the audience, judging by the tweets. And a fantastic panel about diversity on the Thursday afternoon that just gave me warm fuzzy feelings that there are people in the industry trying to make it better and succeeding - on however small a scale. If they can do it, it can be done.

The food was great (mostly the food I ate outside the Fairmont - though the coffee breaks were good there), my hotel was lovely and the transportation network never let me down. The weather mostly cooperated too, which is always nice for April in the mountains (it snowed only the day I went to the springs, which is what I was hoping for). And the scenery was amazing. Truly spectacular. So much so, in fact, that on the way up to Banff from Calgary I cried. It might have had something to do with the epic music soundtrack I was listening to as well. But, for a week, I was really wonderfully happy. Until I returned to Ontario. Life hasn't been so great the last couple of days, but I've made a few decisions and things are going to change in the next couple of months. And hopefully, they will start to get better.

Because, if not, I'm moving to Alberta.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Post Viva

My first thought, had anyone asked me six months ago, would be to say that of course I was looking forward to after the viva. You're a doctor after all. How cool is that?

It's sort of surreal, actually. All my very supportive friends and family keep calling me Dr. Hetherington, but yet, in my head, nothing has changed. I didn't just wake up and start feeling like 'now I have my PhD'. I'm still stuck somewhere in 'I'm a student' mode. Possibly this is because I have not yet moved from the student lifestyle and mentality onto something that might be considered more 'adult'. I am where I have been for three months, doing exactly the same amount of procrastination I've been doing, it's just no longer considered procrastination. I think, once I'm out in the world working again I will feel less like a student, but until then, I'm just having a bit of a time wrapping my brain around what being a Doctor means.

But, the fact of the matter is that the viva is over (gut wrenchingly terrifying as it was - I don't do well in those sorts of situations, and spent most of the day having a panic attack), and I was told I did really well (despite the panic attack) and should feel pleased about that. It's sort of really a blur (because of the panic attack), but I do know I'm glad it's over and I won't have to do that again (unless I get another hair-brained idea to do a PhD - please stop me if I do). Now I have a few months of corrections to do (well, it'll take a few months, because I think it's going to take me a month or more to work up to actually being able to face editing my PhD again - we've not really been on speaking terms lately). But I'm done the big, really hard work bit, now it's just a few things to tidy up (I was just told that by a previous graduate and I've decided it's a nice way of looking at life).

But I think I might not actually wrap my head around being a doctor until graduation. For both my MAs I didn't feel done until I held that piece of paper in my hand, even though I'd finished school 6 months before convocation.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Viva Prep

It's that time of year. Well, that time of the PhD, at least. It's time to start prepping for the viva.

The PhD experience is a very individual one. Each person has their own project, their own methodology, their own timeline, and, in the end, their own thesis. Though other people are also going through a PhD, they have their own individual journeys and things will never be exactly the same for any two people. So too with the viva (I've been told).

We've been lucky in my department. Very few people have had an awful experience. Partly this is because external examiners are chosen very carefully. A good external and make a viva and a bad one can break it. I know I have a great external (and a good internal, for that matter, though I didn't get to choose). That is the first hurdle out of the way.

The second is writing a good PhD thesis. I think I've done this, but I also know, without a doubt, that there are issues. There unanswered questions or things I probably should have done differently. Every PhD has those, though, and they don't mean it's a bad thesis. Knowing what they are and acknowledging them is a great first step. It means fewer surprises in the viva!

I also know that the viva is as much a mental thing as it is a physical event. I have known a lot of people to freak out before their vivas, convinced that they've ruined their thesis or made so many mistakes there's no way they'll ever pass. I've known others that have torn their research in two, looking for all the things they might get called out on. It's hard not to do any of those things. We're sort of conditioned towards it. It's not easy, critiquing one's work, but you do get good at it while writing a thesis.

The third thing about having a good viva is to just be prepared. It sounds so simple, but it's not easy (but it shouldn't be hard either!) After all, you've done the hard work already. You've researched and written the thing. It's just a matter of defending what you have already done. That's in the past now, and you can't change it. But you can acknowledge that and understand that it was never going to be perfect, and it doesn't need to be.

So, my viva prep will consist of rereading my entire thesis (which I haven't done in two months), and acknowledging what the strengths and weakness are of each chapter, and each of my main arguments. I've already made a list of likely questions (the typical ones most people are asked, and ones specific to my research) and started to make bullet point answers to them. Once I've gone through all the chapters, I'll go back to those questions and have another go (and see if any more questions occur). After that (which I figure will take about 2 weeks), I'll have a brief look to see if (shockingly) anything new has been published on my subject since September last, and then have a look through my external's publications (again) to remind myself where they are coming from (those will take about a week). At that time I'm going to be getting on a place to return to England, so that's my deadline. It also means I'll get a bit of a break right before my viva, because it's hard to concentrate with jet lag!

As for the run-up to my viva, I've got stuff to do and places to be the few days before, so that's good distraction. And I've got an amazing supervisor who has offered to be there if I need help (calming down). And lots of friends around who I am sure would be more than willing to tell me 'It'll be fine!' (or similar versions). Some of them have actually been through vivas and can give me honest and useful advise. I'm relying on that!

But, in the end, the best piece of advice I have ever been given is...enjoy it. It's probably the hardest piece of advice (considering I am A) prone to fists of anxiety and B) a worst-case scenario-ist). I do, however, aim to try.