Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley
In 1960, John Steinbeck set off in his modified pickup truck with his poodle, Charley, and spent the next two and a half months travelling across America. The journey occurred in the twilight of Steinbeck's life, and appropriately, he departed just after summer had rolled away to die. His ostensible reason for making the trip was to rediscover something about America, its people, and its character. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck chronicles his journey.

I've read a number of Steinbeck's classic novels over the years and felt certain that his talents as a memoirist would be just as rewarding. I wasn't disappointed. A kind of double appeal existed when picking up the book—no doubt Steinbeck's spare, concise writing style would be in evidence, but I also felt a voyeuristic attraction in reading about the exploits of one of America's most successful novelists of the 20th century as he wandered the highways and back roads searching for interesting stories to tell. But Steinbeck wisely decided to remain as anonymous as possible during his months on the road. It's impossible to avoid making any references to oneself when writing a memoir, but he at least removed an angle that could have resulted in some fawning and disingenuous interactions with people he met along the way.

When Steinbeck departed with his dog in the fall of 1960, he only had eight years left to live. Of course, he didn't know that at the time, though he did know the mortal bell was tolling not too far off in the distance. At the beginning of the book, he mentions his recent bout of ill heath:
During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake.
This marks the beginning of one of many extended passages that are interspersed throughout the book and which focus on various subjects. In this particular passage, he goes on to discuss the fact that he does not want to become dependent on others as he gets older. Like most people who have lived to a reasonable age, Steinbeck had already acquired a lifetime of wisdom when he set out on his journey. But unlike most people, he was able to distill that wisdom into engaging and entertaining prose. As with many of his musings on the world and the ways of human beings, his piece about refusing to regress into an infantile state as old age looms, had me nodding in agreement.

It would be his last lap around the country he loved so much and which provided him with the inspiration for the books he wrote. And yet, he never seems quite at ease with what he finds, and he regularly questions the direction in which he sees society heading. He is never bitter, only philosophical, and the tone often reminds me of a theme that is so common in many old western movies. Everyone reaches a stage in life when the world has moved on, and the only thing left to do is settle accounts and say goodbye. Those tales usually strike a chord with anyone who has ever yearned for something better, learned about loss, or faced down their own mortality. Like those movies, Steinbeck's words are often graceful and poetic as they simultaneously celebrate and lament the human condition.

The nostalgia that comes through in a book written more than 50 years ago is palpably different than in one whose author looks back in time and tries to recapture the past. A certain turn of phrase that no longer exists, the world frozen at that particular place and time, and the knowledge that the author too has long since passed away, all add a special kind of wistfulness to the reading experience.  Also, with the intervening years, you can judge just how prescient Steinbeck was with his analyses and predictions. Indeed, he was very accurate in much of what he wrote. Of course, it was hardly rocket science to foresee that cities would keep growing, the local flavour of many regions would start to disappear, and the reckless, predatory approach to the environment would take its toll.

Steinbeck travels through the northern states until he hits the west coast and then drives down through California, across Arizona and New Mexico and into Texas. Finally, he enters the troubled southern states on his final stretch before returning home. Along the way, he reflects on many subjects—both those specific to whichever state he is in at the time and those universal ideas that all people can relate to. And many of his observations are naturally related to travelling, and specifically travelling alone. Anyone who has done any solo travelling will understand the roller coaster of emotions, the loneliness, and the litany of serendipitous encounters that can hammer a person into a magical, otherworldly state. In this passage, Steinbeck echoes the truism that most travellers internalize after an extended and unscheduled period of wandering: no matter what you think you know beforehand, you can never start to understand what a place is about until you are there:
It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it and at the same time not know anything about it. I'd never been to Wisconsin, but all my life I had heard about it, had eaten its cheeses, some of them as good as any in the world. And I must have seen pictures.Everyone must have. Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake?
...I don't know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with the heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear, so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate.
In a somewhat related vein, he describes the notion that dictates many people's decisions when they are travelling: the need to experience things in a scripted way that will be appreciated by friends and family back home:
I could hear them say, "You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn't go? You must be crazy." Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterwards.
Many of Steinbeck's observations are not specifically related to travelling, but still ring true. For example, in this section, he talks about the disappointment of trying to turn someone else on to an experience that has given you pleasure:
I felt the rage and hatred one has toward non-appreciators, toward those who through ignorance destroy a treasured plan.
Now, in the above sentence, Steinbeck is referring to his dog Charley not appreciating the majestic splendour of a redwood tree, but still, the sentiment is a good one. And speaking of Charley; as the only other main character in the book besides Steinbeck, he gets a fair amount of ink. Steinbeck clearly loves his dog and any pet lover will enjoy those comments about his furry travel companion.

As an accomplished novelist, Steinbeck understood the importance of relaying the interactions he had with people he met along the way. Those passages in which the writing shifts from narrative summary to specific scenes have a timeless immediacy and are some of the best parts of the book. In the following scene, Steinbeck describes the Badlands in North Dakota and a taciturn character he meets at the side of a road:
Presently I saw a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wired fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground. The man wore a dark hat, and jeans and long jacket washed palest blue with lighter places at knees and elbows. His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare and his lips scaly as snakeskin.
...I pulled up to speak to him, saw his eyes wash over Rocinante, sweep up the details, and then retire into their sockets. And I found I had nothing to say to him.
All books, not just novels, thrive on conflict and drama, and there are many pages that will keep readers following along in excited anticipation. The direction of Steinbeck's trip meant that he visited the South just before he returned home (or maybe he had an inkling that events in that part of the country might provide some good drama and planned his journey with that in mind). Regardless, the descriptions of racial tensions in New Orleans and other locations, and the deft character sketches of people he meets in the South provide some of the most compelling reading in the book. For the most part, Steinbeck makes the racists he encounters look like scared buffoons, though he also meets a number of people sickened by the civil rights' abuses that were going on their midst at the time.

Travels with Charley has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, somewhat in part because of questions regarding the authenticity of both the timeline involved and Steinbeck's interactions with various people along the way. This writer (a former journalist) in particular has devoted a lot of time to researching Steinbeck's book with the goal of demonstrating that things just couldn't have happened exactly the way Steinbeck claimed they did. Some of the information on his website is interesting (and he has written a book about his research), but the whole underlying premise of trying to prove that Steinbeck took liberties, created some composite characters and even cooked up some dialogue, just seems rather pointless. Although I suppose piggy-backing a book on the legacy of one of the most famous writers of the past hundred years has potential for generating publicity.

In my experience, all non-fiction writers play with the truth to varying degrees. Especially in travel writing, where an obvious narrative doesn't always present itself, I have often found myself wondering how things happened to fit so nicely in certain travel memoirs. Of course, readers expect that things happen basically how they are presented in non-fiction books. But most people would not be outraged to learn that the dialogue they read in a travelogue is not exactly how it was spoken. If writers presented conversations verbatim, they would be unreadable. The idea, repeated by the writer linked to above, as well as others, including Steinbeck's son (who is on record with a few nasty digs at his deceased father—not sure what the story is there) that because Steinbeck was a novelist, it should be expected that he created large swaths of Travels with Charley out of whole cloth. I disagree. I think the only expectation is that whatever changes another writer would have inevitably made wouldn't have resulted in a book that was as well written or entertaining as Travels with Charley. No doubt some of the claims about authenticity go beyond manufactured dialogue. But if Steinbeck put in the time on the road, visited the places he says he visited, and maintained the spirit of conversations he had with the people he met, I don't have much problem with a few embellishments.

However, after saying all that, I still feel there are some rather clich├ęd passages in Travels with Charley. For example, as Steinbeck sits in a hotel room vacated by another guest but not yet cleaned by hotel staff, he tries to imagine the recently departed guest based on the state of the room and some scraps of paper he left behind. It comes across as rather unbelievable. But then, life often is unbelievable. Wouldn't it be interesting if those sections of the book that seem to lack realism were in fact fully authentic, while others that attracted no scrutiny were invented? Yet, even though the hotel scene feels a bit forced, the stark loneliness of the passage combined with the prurient interest it elicits makes it effective and memorable on another level.

Travels with Charley was released in 1962 and was Steinbeck's last major, original work published while he was still alive, and fittingly, it spent some time as the New York Times number one bestseller. More than fifty years later, Steinbeck's observations, wisdom and simple eloquence make Travels with Charley a book well worth reading.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Mark of Ignorance

CBC dunce intern
It's not an exaggeration to say that the level of spoken and written English has declined in recent years. That's probably a claim that has been made every decade for the last two hundred years. But I truly believe that skewed syntax, bad grammar and malapropisms are more widespread now than in the past. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that those people are more likely to be heard or read (think of the proliferation of online media outlets and the need to staff them) and are more clueless (or shameless) about their language ignorance.

Grammar mistakes in mainstream media are extremely common nowadays, especially online. The most common errors that have for years been an indication of uneducated people now clutter the pages of even the most well-known newspapers. These errors jump out at anyone with even a basic understanding of grammar and language usage. The editors of newspapers regularly seek refuge behind the excuse that the 24-hour news cycle means it's harder than ever to ensure error-free copy. I'll accept that even people who know the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" will sometimes type the incorrect word when bashing out an article. So that excuse may have some merit, but for the most part, there are just more people today who never learned how to write or speak correctly.

Many of the mistakes that appear online are an indication that the people doing the writing (and the editing) do not possess the necessary skills to do their job. Why is this so? I would say that the education system is largely to blame. When I was going to school in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, grammar was not taught. The idea was that students would absorb the rules through activities and practice (inductive learning as opposed to deductive learning). Lo and behold, a few generations of semi-literates after moving away from more traditional teaching methods, and not only do many people not know how poorly they speak and write English, but there is no one to tell them when they make mistakes. Thankfully, because there are always some people around who possess critical thinking skills, and because some people in decision-making positions recognize the importance of language skills, deductive grammar learning is making  a partial comeback.

Beyond the claim of the frenetic pace of reporting and filing stories, there are other excuses for the legions of professionally employed language morons to hide behind. Any human weakness can become a virtue. When enough people possess that weakness, there is no further need to defend. What used to be an excuse becomes accepted wisdom. When the borderline incompetence of many reporters and others who are paid to write is highlighted, the person doing the highlighting is likely to be dismissed or ridiculed. The tut-tutting and supposed arrogance of anyone who points out the mistakes are more worthy of discussion than the mistakes themselves. The tools of the trade are words and grammar, but somehow, expert usage is not considered a requirement. Of course, moralizers of any kind are necessarily self-righteous. The two are inexorably intertwined. You cannot be one without the other, and I'm guilty as charged.

The funny part about this focus on the people complaining about bad grammar is that many of the so-called grammar Nazis are being played for all they're worth. All newspapers now encourage anyone who sees mistakes in their online rags to dutifully report them. How thrilling! I am a more skilled editor that the ones employed by big newspapers! And look! I reported a mistake, it was promptly corrected, and I even got a personal email thanking me!

You bloody fools! Why on earth would you provide your services for free when you could otherwise let the mistake stand, thus highlighting the sloppiness and perhaps increasing the likelihood that the buffoons in charge might take steps to improve the quality of their product?

But I want the focus of this post to be about speaking, not writing. There is one extremely common mistake that many people currently make when speaking. It's not a careless error made while the speaker is passionately arguing a point. It's not a one-off blunder made when tired or annoyed. It's a fundamental gap in the speaking ability of the people in question.

This obvious blunder is committed not just by people from lower socio-economic classes. I have heard doctors, lawyers and newsreaders speak in this fashion. It makes me cringe every time I hear it. My mother claims that a friend of hers who is a principal in a school in Canada makes this mistake whenever she speaks.

And what is this most shockingly bizarre lapse in fundamental language skills? One that what would have, years ago, been a mistake worthy of a solid cuff to the side of the head?

The inability to use the past participle when using participle verb tenses. People who suffer this affliction speak in sentences like the following:

I haven't went to the movies in a long time.

Have you ever ate spicy food?

It is hard to fathom that people who speak like this are not aware of it. And it is also hard to believe that no one has ever pointed out to them how ignorant they sound. My guess is that they know full well that this major gap exists in their ability to speak the English language. But they just don't care. It likely warms their hearts when they are in the company of other semi-literate mules who were also never taught how to speak correctly.

And that is the modern-day mark of ignorance among native English speakers.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tefl Classroom Activities: Compound Sentences—And, But

This is a simple classroom activity for students to practice using "and" and "but." You can easily modify it to suit any topic, and you can use it to focus on writing or speaking.

Create Worksheet

Create a worksheet with pairs of questions that students can ask each other regarding whichever topic you want to focus on. I encourage you not to put complete questions on the worksheet. This is so your students can complete the questions themselves. The following examples demonstrate this:

Again, notice that the questions are in pairs so that in the second half of the activity, the answers to the questions lend themselves to using "and" and "but." I created this particular worksheet for a business English class about shopping and new products.

Put Students in Groups

Once you have prepared your worksheets and have met your class on the appointed day, divide them into groups (for this activity, I've found that groups of four work very well). If you have a prepared spiel about the topic in question and any relevant vocabulary, give it to them now.

Then, tell the students that there are two parts to the activity. Hand out the worksheet and tell students to ask and answer yes/no questions in the necessary verb tenses with one or more group members. Let the students know that you will fill them in on the second half of the activity after they have finished interviewing each other. Telling students about both parts of the activity at this point would overload them with too much information.

Second Part of Activity

After the students have finished interviewing each other, tell them that they are now going to take turns telling the rest of their group about the responses of one or both of the individuals they have interviewed. In other words, each group member takes a turn to speak to their entire group about the answers of other group members. Before they proceed, point out to them that all the questions are in pairs.

Next, highlight the possibilities for formulating different sentences with "and" or "but." I usually write the following on the whiteboard:
Explanation on whiteboard
This part of the activity also requires students to conjugate verbs for third person singular. The examples I used here are quite varied, though for lower level students, you could ensure that the structure for all questions is the same. Also, instead of only practicing compound sentences with "and" and "but," you could also practice complex sentences with subordinating conjunctions such as "however," and "despite."

And that's all there is to it. A simple activity that is adaptable, easy to prepare, easy to explain, and which allows students to practice a number of different skills and to focus on using "and" and "but."

Friday, April 8, 2016

How to Tally Points and Calculate Grades in Microsoft Excel

Tefl Spin Tutorials
Many schools now use grading software to make life as easy as possible for teachers. However, other schools have online grading systems, but the teachers are still responsible for tallying points and calculating grades based on an approved grade range. Many luddites exist in the world of teaching who believe there is some virtue in spending hours with a calculator and pencil adding up rows of figures. Despite how proud they remain about doing it the good old fashioned way, their calculations remain susceptible to errors.

Why spend all those hours tallying points and calculating grades when you can do it in minutes with Microsoft Excel?

This tutorial aims to make tallying points and calculating grades as simple as possible for teachers. I have created this tutorial with no assumptions about the skill level of the people using it. In other words, if you follow this tutorial step by step, I guarantee that you will be able to use Excel to tally points and calculate grades for your students and as a result, you will save hours of time.

This tutorial is intended for Microsoft Windows 7 operating system and Microsoft Excel 2007. However, the instructions well may work with other Windows operating systems and other versions of Excel.

The tutorial is divided into five parts:

—To import student information into Excel
—To format and save your Excel document
—To tally points in Excel
—To round up and round down point totals in Excel
—To calculate final grades in Excel

To import student information into Excel

1. Open the Microsoft Word document which contains the points for the relevant course

Note: If you do not wish to use Microsoft Word, and instead want to keep all the points for your course in Excel, you can skip to subsequent parts of this tutorial. I maintain a Microsoft Word document throughout the semester for aesthetic reasons—I think a printed version looks better. Plus, as you will see, it's so simple to import a Word document into Excel, that it is really not much added work.

2. Click on the Show paragraph mark button

Click paragraph mark button

3. If any extra paragraph breaks exist in the document (indicated by a paragraph mark), delete them (to delete, position cursor before paragraph mark and press delete on your keyboard)

Delete paragraph mark

Note: When you import the Microsoft Word document into Excel, extra paragraph breaks can cause unwanted formatting in Excel

4. Hover your cursor near the upper left corner of the table until a small square appears and your cursor turns into a black, four-pointed symbol

Hover cursor over upper left of table

5. Click on the square so all the contents of the table are highlighted, right-click and click Copy

Copy Microsoft Word table

Copy Word table

To format and save your Excel document

1. Open a new Microsoft Excel document

2. Click in the cell in the upper left hand corner, and press Alt + V on your keyboard (shortcut for Paste)

Click in first cell in Excel document

Result: The contents of the Microsoft Word table should now appear in Excel

3. Hover over the line separating two columns until your cursor turns into a black cross (the horizontal line will have an arrow on both ends)

Change Excel column width

4. Click and drag to the right or left to format the columns as you desire

5. Click the Microsoft Office button in the upper left of the document and click Save As

Save Excel document

6. Choose an appropriate name for your Excel document and save it in your desired location

To tally points in Excel

1. Place your cursor in the upper left-most cell which contains points

Click in cell with points

2. Click and drag, and highlight all the cells which contain points. Also highlight the entire column to the right of the final column of numbers

Highlight all columns with points

Note:  In the Microsoft Word document I imported into Excel, I already had an empty column labeled Grades. If your document did not have an available empty column, place your cursor in the right-most column, right click, click Insert and enable Entire column.

3. In the Home ribbon, click the AutoSum button

Click AutoSum button

Result: The total points for each student should appear in the new column

4. Click in the last column of the Excel table, right click, click Insert and then enable Entire column. Label the new column "Divide by 2"

Create new column in Excel

5. Place your cursor in the formula bar at the top of the Excel document and type in the following formula: =(M5/2)

Divide formula

Note 1: Take careful note of your particular Excel document. The "M" in the formula I used above indicates the column letter of the column which contains the figures I previously tallied, not the column where I want the next column of calculations to appear. The column of tallied figures likely appears in a different column letter in your document.
Note 2: This step is done to divide the points total for each student in half because, for this particular course, the points total is out of 200. Obviously, omit this step if necessary or alter accordingly.
Caution: Be careful not to confuse the row number of the Excel document with the number next the first student's name in the list.

6. In the first relevant cell of the new column, hover your cursor in the lower right corner until a black cross appears.

Drag black cross down

7. Click and drag down to include the entire column. Release your mouse button

Drag down webbed outline

Result: The new row of figures, divided by two, should appear in the new column.

Completed column divided by two

To round up and round down point totals in Excel

1. Click in the last column and create another new column (see step 4 in the previous set of instructions), and label the new column "Round Up/Down"

2. In the formula bar, type in the formula =ROUND(N5,0)

3. Drag the black-cross cursor down the entire column (see steps 7 and 8 in the previous set of instructions)
Result: The new set of figures have no decimal numbers. All figures which previously had a .49 or lower decimal have been rounded down and all figures which previously had a .5 or higher decimal have been rounded up.

To calculate final grades in Excel

1. In the formula bar, type in the following formula:


Enter grading formula in Excel

Note 1: As with previous formulas discussed above, note the relevant column letter in your own document. You are using the column letter that corresponds to the column with the most recent calculations (in our case, the Round Up/Down column). Also, of course, enter the relevant details for the grade range you are applying.
Note 2: For future use, I recommend you copy and paste the formula into a Notepad file and keep it in a folder with any other documents you may have related to calculating and entering grades.
Note 3: This formula, of course, needs to be entered precisely. Notice in the screenshot the colour-coding of the closing brackets, which correspond in colour to the opening brackets. There should be one closing bracket for each "IF" statement.

2. Drag the black cross cursor down the entire column (similar to steps 7 and 8 in previous set of instructions)

Drag down black cross final grades

Result: The final grades should appear in the relevant column.

Final grades entered

3. Reformat the Excel document as you desire (for example, left align all number columns)

Final format Excel

There you have it. An easy way to tally points and calculate grades. The great thing about the final Excel document is that if you change any of the point totals for any of the categories, all the calculations will automatically update accordingly. For example, when the worst case scenario happens and a student fails a course, I go back through all assignments and exams in the hopes that I may have missed a point here or there. If I find a few missing points, I simply update the relevant cell in Excel and see if the final grade has changed as a result. One final qualifier: as with all software programs, in Microsoft Excel, there are numerous ways to perform the same function. I have found the above methods the most effective and straightforward. If you have any shortcuts to recommend, or any other methods you feel are more useful, please include them in a comment.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Strange World of Travel Blogging

What the hell happened in the world of travel blogging?

I remember reading some pretty good travel blogs 10 years ago or so. Well-written, fairly regularly updated blogs by people who lived as expats or otherwise managed to spend a good chunk of time travelling every year. They weren't always the slickest-looking sites. But the bloggers were usually thoughtful, well-read, intelligent individuals who made an effort to present their own unique take on various destinations.

Travel Blogs

I was so impressed with all those blogs I apparently read, that I can't remember the name of a single one. I'm probably engaging in some revisionist history when I talk about those long-lost travel blogs. But I believe that I enjoyed reading much of the early travel writing that appeared online. For example, I remember a long-term traveller who posted numerous essays on his blog and after a while started putting them together and offering them as ebooks. I believe he even gave many of them away free of charge. They were simply written, interesting thought pieces set in various locations.

I recall that many travellers at the time had a certain anti-establishment attitude and were always exploring various philosophical questions as they spent time in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet. Sure, we're all hypocrites to some degree and are inexorably tied into a world of corporations and profit. But at least those phantom travel writers made an effort to temporarily leave some of the worst excesses behind instead of seeing their journey as an opportunity to hook into the system more completely than ever before.

It was travel writing with a gonzo journalism sensibility and was reminiscent of independent publications produced by people who, not too long ago, would get together a few times a year and print a couple hundred magazines on the cheapest paper possible in whatever third-world hellhole they were temporarily calling home. Some of the earliest travel blogs had the same nose for the quirky angle, the out-of-the-way destination, and the interesting locals you would never encounter if you were on a two-week whirlwind tour.

Today there's a certain sameness to many of the most popular travel blogs. They're all professional-looking, multi-media sites with plenty of stunning photos and breathless headlines. A nice-looking website certainly isn't a bad thing. But aside from the banner, not a lot distinguishes the design of most of these top-end travel blogs. In fact, the cookie-cutter look emphasizes exactly what most of them have become: one big advertisement. Most are in the business of peddling all manner of travel-related products: hotels, adventure-tour companies, clothes, sunglasses, food, their own advice on how to become just like them. The self-congratulatory, smug, listy-ness of some of the writing can be very off-putting. Most of the time, the writing simply isn't engaging.

And what about those stunning photos that appear on every last one of the most popular travel blogs? When did the world start looking like that? Of course, the world doesn't look like that. Many of the photos I see on those blogs are lifelessly impressive. I find that very few of those photos demand an extended viewing or multiple viewings the way good photos, drawings or other artwork does.They remind me of young women who flaunt their sexuality in a crass, this-must-be-what-being-provocative-and-alluring-is-all-about way. You can almost hear their thoughts: "How can I not dress like this when it brings me so much attention?" How can you not post those breath-taking, panorama shots with the crisp delineation of every last molecule that appears in the frame? What are you going to do, tweak the settings on the camera that was gifted to you on the condition that you mention its make and model every week in the captions of those very same stunning photos? Tweak it so the photos don't look quite as good? So that when you just keep mashing the "take the fucking picture" button with your thick, peasant fingers, the results are not as impressive as they otherwise could be? No, of course not. The thing is, you can overdose rather quickly on those amazing pictures that span the width of the webpage. I find them oddly distracting especially when I am reading. I want my online reading space a bit cozier and more word-focused than those hotshot, faux-world photos allow.

What else do most of the high-flying, top travel bloggers of today have in common? They all devote a certain amount of their content to advising their readers how they can also "quit your job, sell everything and get paid to travel the world." Of course, anyone who operates a blog can easily track their most popular posts, and doubtless those how-to articles are their top draws. Fair enough. But sweet mother of f***, wading through the carnival huckster, revivalist tone of those pieces has no doubt turned off more that a few potential readers.

And while we're speaking of all the thinly-veiled advertising that is necessary to allow someone to travel full-time, let's drill down a bit deeper. Very few, if any, of the elite travel bloggers address the issue of how they can write honestly about products and destinations when the companies which sell those products and benefit financially from having those destinations hyped are also paying those people who are writing about them. It seems a handful of travel bloggers who survive on the tainted benevolence of free trips are content to stick with the flippant, hipster approach to any questions of their ethics. It's kind of the "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we all know this is the way the world works and you would do it too if you were in my position. Besides, I'm never influenced one way or the other when I take free accommodation, flights or products from companies who expect, nay, spell it out plainly when they make their offers, that this is a quid-pro-quo and they want something in return."

Many industries are built on the premise of handing out billions of dollars in trinkets, free dinners and all manner of other tangible benefits every year in exchange for less-than transparent shilling by those who slurp up all the goodies. People who operate businesses give things to people because they expect something in return. There is no other reason for it. Regardless, writing about something which you have been paid to cast in a positive light cannot be done in an objective way. That's not to suggest that many of the hotels or locations highlighted by travel bloggers are not fantastic, exciting places worthy of paid visits. But situations could arise that bloggers might describe differently or not at all if they have previously benefited financially from various owners or operators. Just maybe those owners or operators wouldn't always appreciate a truthful account of everything related to their product or service. The point is, if your interests are the same as those who are paying you, your interests aren't always the same as your readers, regardless of how many times you claim that you "always tell it like it is."

Why not be up front and tell people when travel freebies are offered in exchange for publicity? And also, tell us exactly what happens—a real-time, unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at the (likely) shamelessness of  it all. It would be refreshing and would add some real authenticity to many blogs whose writing has taken on a tired, brittle, advertorial sound. I'm not suggesting that most travel bloggers are constantly showered with all expenses paid trips, nor that any of them don't simply work traditional jobs in various locations to finance their travels. But I have no doubt that many bloggers aim for and achieve a situation in which they are basically being paid to advertise under the guise of writing about their adventures on the road.

On the other hand, provide me the names of some travel blogs that don't all look the same, sound the same, or have the same collection of "you can do it too" articles and I'll quit complaining. Please point me to some well-written, non-professional blogs that are updated more than a few times a month. I can't seem to find many of those. Every time I type some likely search terms into Google, I get countless results that point to other blogs and websites which have Top 10 or Top 25 or Top 50 lists full of the top travel blogs. And all those blogs being ranked in the lists are inevitably the type that I have described above. If the most popular slick, hip, travel bloggers are the big leagues, then the legions of other bloggers who make the lists are desperate wannabes on farm teams hoping that their sycophantic praise will get them some attention from their heroes. I mean, you've really got to go pages' deep into the results of an online search before you start finding travel blogs that don't include numerous mentions of "affiliate marketing," or "travel hacks."

Of course, travel books are still an option.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir

This past November marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. I clearly remember the night he was killed because I was living and working in Tel Aviv at the time. I had nearly attended the rally where Rabin was murdered, but because I hadn't been able to find any fellow travellers to accompany me, I spent most of the evening pouring beer down my neck instead. When I stumbled back to the hostel where I was staying later that night, a group of friends and I heard the news from a radio at the front desk.

The Wandering Goy
It was interesting to watch Israelis react to the news in the coming days and weeks. About a month later, I left Israel, but I had already made plans to return after I finished working for the winter at a ski resort in Switzerland. I returned on schedule, albeit on crutches, and stayed in Israel for another year.

Israel fascinated me more than any of the other countries I had visited in the previous year of backpacking around Europe. The weather, the history and the beautiful women were aspects that made it a popular destination for backpackers. But part of the appeal was also the fact that backpackers could stay for relatively long stretches and could easily find work.

I kept a fairly regular travel journal at the time, and I intended to write a book about my experiences in Israel as soon as I had the time. Twenty years later, I've finally put in the necessary hours. The result is The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir.

Combining the observations I wrote down 20 years ago with the two-decade-old memories that are still knocking around in my head and a much different way of looking at the world resulted in some interesting writing sessions. Just how accurate are my memories after 20 years? Hard to say. But after scanning the notes, mini-essays and page-long rants from all those years ago, I found that many of the tales that I had remembered and re-told numerous times matched up fairly accurately with what I had written down.

Although I wrote the beginnings of what would become The Wandering Goy while I was in Israel and kept the notes for years (I transferred them to digital form about ten years ago), I don't have a single photograph from that time. That was just before inexpensive digital cameras became ubiquitous. I bought a handful of disposable cameras while I was there, but I have no idea if the photos I took survived, or if they did, where they are. Of course, the fact that I never got it together to photograph some of the amazing sights in Israel really had nothing to do with the availability of cameras. It's a testament to my feckless, come-what-may lifestyle at the time. So it's kind of appropriate that the only lasting memories of those wild, out-of-control days I spent in Israel are contained between the covers of The Wandering Goy.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Most Unique Quit-Smoking Book Ever Written

A few years ago, I wrote and self-published a book entitled Tough Love for Smokers. While it wasn't the most successful quit-smoking book ever written, I can confidently state that it is probably the most unique attempt ever made at trying to help people kick the habit.

Tough Love for Smokers
When I was writing the book, I really did believe that my one-of-a-kind approach might strike a chord with people who had tried other more traditional methods of quitting smoking. However, I can't honestly say that the completed book was exactly what I had in mind when I started writing. Most writers will tell you that a book rarely turns out exactly the way they had envisioned when they first started writing it. That fact is exaggerated in the world of self-publishing where anything goes and there's no editor or publisher to veto extreme language and experimental ideas.

So when I started spewing vitriol in an attempt to demonstrate to smokers just how much they are loathed by so many people, it really did feel good. And it just kept coming. I remembered my own personal history and the interactions I've had with smokers over the years. For example, the sneering punks who took up smoking when growing up. While they weren't all low-bred, white trash, many of them were. Was an association planted early in my childhood in which I connected aggressive, nasty sons-of-bitches to the smoking habit? Maybe. Of course, I've had numerous friends over the years who were smokers, and many of them were intelligent, well-educated, successful individuals. But there were other memories.

The attractive girlfriend who was a heavy smoker, and who, at the age of 29, was already starting to show signs of premature aging—the haggard face, the tiny little lines forming around the mouth and eyes. But the nasty, reeking stench was the worst part.

Then there was the fat, slovenly oaf who vacated an apartment just prior to my moving in. Whenever I think of the cigarette-smoke filth he left behind, I truly hope he suffers a nasty end. Of course, the owners of the apartment should have cleaned the place for me after he left. But they didn't, and the piece of garbage who moved out certainly didn't consider cleaning up his wretched, vomit-inducing mess. If I could have scraped off the yellow, stinking cigarette scum that had been caked onto all the walls and ceilings, fashioned it into a ball and driven it down his fat neck and watched him choke to death, I believe it would have been a just ending.

The shamelessness and the filth. That sums up so many of the feelings I have had towards smokers over the years. The countless tons of cigarette butts that scar every last public space in the world. The smoke blown in faces. The dozen or so minor burns suffered over the years from careless pieces of shit who have brushed up against me in public places. In fact, it was a specific incident that took place in Ottawa, Canada, which motivated me to write Tough Love for Smokers.

I was walking home from work one day when a still-burning cigarette landed at my feet. I looked up and saw a sneering little puke exhaling smoke while turning to walk into a building. The security door closed behind him, but he surely heard the verbal abuse I directed at him. That night, I wrote out an email detailing what had happened, and was all set to send it to the head office of the organization I was sure the smoker worked for (the information gleaned from the sign on the glass door of the building he had entered). But I decided against it and instead turned the email into a rant against smokers. A few years later, that rant was the beginning of Tough Love for Smokers. So while the book is ostensibly about helping people quit smoking, it also ensures that I will never stomp a smoker to death. Now whenever I experience a flash of rage against a shameless smoker, I just tell myself "It's not worth it. After all, I've already written a book about it."

But did the words in my book have their intended effect? Did they really help people to stop smoking? Here's a sample from the book:
When comparing the smell of cigarette smoke to other things in our world, excrement—human and otherwise—naturally comes up. Shit and cigarette smoke. Shit is the only thing that comes close to equalling the unappealing and visceral smell of the emissions from a toxic cigarette. Of course, shit isn’t nearly as bad. Because the reek from shit can’t kill you. (OK, after a night of Guinness and Mexican food, it could probably come close.) So shit in all its forms doesn’t stink as much as cigarette smoke. What else doesn’t equal the nasal contamination of cigarettes?
  • Rotting vegetables 
  • Rotting corpses 
  • Animal and human farts 
  • The belch from the mouth of an 80 year-old man who hasn’t brushed his teeth since the second World War, and who survives on a diet of diseased rats marinated in the pus extracted from the weeping anal sores of a Sing-Sing cellblock queen originally locked up in 1956 and still there to this day—all boiled in sewage run-off from a leper camp.
And this excerpt, from a passage on "addictions":
Still, let’s swat the jackass assertion out of the way. Here it is. Read carefully smokers. You see, cancer patients cannot just decide that they have had enough of the disease that is eating away at their body and dragging them into nothingness. On the other hand, you have a choice, you fucking mules. There, we’ve dealt with the “smoking is a disease” canard in about 30 words. But that doesn’t matter. Believing in the lie is still so easy for many that they will continue consuming the steaming shitpiles of pseudo-science telling them that as their thick peasant fingers reach for another cigarette and cram it into their hole for a good suck, it is not their fault. It is the mystical disease known as addiction.
I knew when I was writing the book that people rarely change their minds about something they feel passionately about. At least, they rarely change their minds on the spot. And the likelihood that they will change their minds is often reduced if they feel insulted or condescended to. But remember, I wanted to use black humour and appeals to emotions. And that very same notion about a supposedly harsh tone decreasing the chances of reaching someone also states that an idea or image may insinuate itself and then later gain traction after weeks or months of percolating. And some people were certainly enraged by what I wrote. Whether or not those ideas ever did take hold after the first shock, at least they proved that my writing accomplished the one thing most writers hope for: it had an effect on people.

Some of the wackos who read my book felt such intense rage that they wrote blog posts about me and made all sorts of wild claims. I won't give these unhinged individuals any direct publicity, though you could easily find their libelous attacks online. Maybe even some of those freaks—the kind who genuinely insist there is no link between smoking and lung cancer—later had second thoughts about their habit after reading my book. Likely not, but without I doubt I crawled up inside their heads and settled in for the long haul.

Another theme that I consciously thought about before writing the book and which became more pronounced as I neared its completion was self-delusion. People will make a virtue out of anything. To the hard-core smokers who will never quit and who have no intention of every trying, the danger of smoking makes them feel like hard cases. This aspect of smoking will always appeal to smokers, and especially youngsters who take up the habit. This thrill at engaging in risky behaviour that is despised by many in society has become more nuanced and multi-layered over the decades, but it will always be an invincibly reassuring way for smokers to make themselves feel better as they march towards their early deaths.

Finally, by writing a quit-smoking book that is completely different than anything else that has ever been written, I hoped to appeal to the demographic that could benefit most: young people. Is a 15 year-old going to read one of the more popular quit-smoking books that have been published? A book that is written in the new-age, psycho-babble, desperate-to-coddle style that is so popular in most of these books? Possibly. But maybe the content and tone of Tough Love for Smokers is so different that it might make that 15 year-old see the stupidity of his smoking habit for what it is.

This final excerpt is from one of a handful of short stories that appear in Tough Love for Smokers:
The wretch experienced a jolt of fear at the sudden turn of the conversation. He felt he had to stand up to face the man to prove that he wasn’t as scared as he felt. He moved from his sitting position and started rising up from his haunches when the man lifted a solid kick into the wretch’s gut.

“Ooomph! What the hell was that for?” The wretch curled into a fetal position and held his hands to his stomach. He looked up at the man.

“I thought you were an angel. When I took a swing at you before, I couldn’t connect. What the hell?”

“That’s not the way it works, boy,” said the man. The wretch struggled back into a sitting position with his back against the wall.

“This whole thing makes no fucking sense at all! You telling me you’re an angel, but you want me to keep smoking, and you want as many new people to start smoking as possible? That just makes no sense at all,” the wretch said as he held his guts.

“Ah, but you assume that angels only come from one place,” the man said as he started to laugh.