Frustrations with the Digital

As much as I like the internet and my laptop and the easy access to information at the press of a button (or more recently the tap of a screen) there are some things that I will always enjoy more in their analog form. Books are one such thing. I have a Kindle. It’s loaded with books, but I only really read it at work, where the convenience of not having to deal with pages is its biggest draw. Most touch screen command centers are also beginning to draw long, confused pauses from me, though as I get older, I find that a lot of my interactions produce long, confused pauses.

This week I added an item to my list that I never thought I’d ever add: real human interactions. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the cheerful yet automated voice of customer service knows what I’m talking about. It is infuriating and humiliating to have to yell your requests repeatedly into the phone for an automated system that neither has the capacity to recognize your frustration, nor has any clue what number you’re trying to select.

Interestingly, this exercise in hair pulling was brought on by yet another technological failure. I have been trying to be greener with my bills recently, by making them all electronic. While also saving a tree or two, this vastly reduces the amount of paper I later have to shred. This, however, also puts me at the mercy of The Machine (in previous generations known as The Man) as I had the unpleasant, Kafkaesque misfortune of discovering last Friday.

When I found my cell phone bill in my inbox, conspicuously showing me a figure several dollars higher than what I’m used to, my immediate instinct was to run a fine-toothed comb through the damn thing to find out what I was being over-charged for this time. Which was when I discovered that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not log into my account. That produced the thought of, “Oh shit, I’ve forgotten my password again,” because really, who can remember four dozen random arrangements of 15 uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, and neolithic cave drawings all of the time? So I angrilly reset my password, and yet the problem did not go away.

Time to call customer service.

Well, it was a busy day for customer service. Thirty minutes spent waiting for ‘an available agent’ after the five minute maze of dial pad commands was not what I wanted to do with my morning. So I left my number for a call back and went on with my business.

My call back came in at the appointed time, and everything was going well, (I was bopping along to the elevator music) when suddenly it stopped and I’m patched through to a line.

An empty line.

The call didn’t drop. There was no dial tone. There was nothing but a faint white noise. Evidently I had been patched through to an agent who had left his headset on his desk while going off to take a wee. I waited for five minutes before I gave up in disgust.

Next option: live chat.

I like live chat slightly less than automated phone systems, if only because chat bots are becoming way more advanced every year and my fragile optimism coupled with my paranoid cynicism is always worried that I’m going to be the one that lets an AI pass the Turing test that then ushers in the robot apocalypse. Don’t laugh, it could happen!

As it happened, Veronica, my assistant was instantly on my radar. First of all, come on, no one has been named Veronica since “Archie” comics. Secondly, she spoke (or, I guess typed) a little too robotically. There are certain casual nuances to human communication that Veronica just didn’t seem to pick up on. Or else my phone company has a script written by an emotionless tin man that their employees are never, ever allowed to deviate from. But whatever. Veronica needed to be tested.

Me: Hey, Veronica, what’s your favorite animal?

Veronica: My favorite animal? giraffe

Very clever Veronica. Your programming has allowed you to deviate off your script. Time to throw another wrench into your machinery.

Me: Giraffe isn’t an animal, Veronica.

Veronica: No? Then what is it?

Damnit, Veronica, you’re not playing the game right!

Me: Veronica, can I speak to a real human please?

Veronica: I am a real human.

Touché, Veronica. Touché.

Clearly I was outmatched. This was either a very, very clever chat bot or else a very confused and possibly offended human woman. I may never know. Not until the robot uprising begins, that is.

In the end she gave me a very complicated work around that involved making a new account with a new email address and password. And while she wasn’t able to definitively prove to me that she wasn’t a metallic imposter, she did inform me that the error I had been experiencing was because my phone company had decided to muck around with their website, and had inadvertently locked a huge number of their customers out of their accounts. I told Veronica that their web developer needed to be fired, and possibly needed to be the first fleshy human to be put to work in the mines.

Whichever.

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This seems like as good a time as any to announce that my short story, “Customer Service” has been accepted by the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis. It will appear in a future issue that I will be more than happy to pimp out once I have more information.

In the meantime, the ink continues to [slowly] flow into other projects.

There will be updates.

Sometime.

Maybe.

Back to School: Week One

So I’ve jumped head first back into it: less than one week before my thirty-first birthday, and I’m still an undergrad. Fuck. If there’s one thing I have definitively learned this week it’s that I’d really, really like to skip the part where I’m an undergrad. Or at the very least, I’d like to skip the first couple years of it. But I’ll have to work my way up the ladder one rung at a time, like anything else. Patience is a virtue and all that.

I started off the week in a whole heap of stress. My entire final pay cheque from August and then some went into paying September’s rent. This is after I busted my ass working forty-three hours a week–some shifts eleven hours long. To not even be able to cover rent on that was crushing to say the least. Not to mention the bills I had to ignore while I had $35 sitting in my bank account. But I was waiting for the 6th, because that was the day BC StudentAID promised that my loans would disburse. So I waited, patiently, hoping my creditors would do the same.

Then the 6th came.

Then the 6th went.

And so it was with the 7th.

On the 8th I finally called the university. They said all the paperwork checked out, and I should be getting my loan once the banks finished the transfer, which could take up to ten business days.

Now here’s something that I’ve learned about electronic payments: When you’re paying someone or something, holy mother of God you’d best be on time and they will ZING that money right out of your account at the speed of light. But when you’re looking at an empty refrigerator and a maxed credit card, it’s fine if the banks take their time with things. Must be some property of physics that I don’t entirely understand. An osmosis of finance or something like that.

Anyway, I had to call my insurance provider, which up here in the frozen north is government run. They’d called me at work the week before, but being at work, pulling my 11 hour shifts, I wasn’t in a position to answer the phone, and then they dicked off for the long weekend, and then I had classes and I finally got around to calling them on Thursday. The call went something like this:

Agent: Yeah, hi. We called because you now have an outstanding balance of $150 on your account. Any idea when you might be able to pay that?

Me: Yup. As soon as the government sends me my student aid.

Agent: … Oh. Uh. Do you know when that might be?

Me: Yup. ‘Up to ten business days.’

Agent: Huh. Um, you can’t make any payments before that?

Me: I have $35 in the bank, sir. When the government gives me my money, I will happily pay the government.

Agent: You couldn’t make a credit card payment?

Me: My credit card is maxed, sir, on account of the government not paying me for up to ten business days.

Agent: Right. Well, pay us when you can then.

Yes, in Canada, even the creditors are polite. Or it could have just been that the agent had no idea how to squeeze me for money for the government when it was the government holding my money hostage. It was very satisfying to tell someone else, “you’ll get your money in up to ten business days,” though. Very satisfying.

For the record, I ended up getting my money on the 9th, and Alex and I celebrated by baking a ‘happy disbursement day’ cake. It was very yummy. And paying out $700 to my truant bills. *cry*

But that aside, my classes went well, I think. No tutorials this week, only lectures. Earth science is shaping up to be my easiest class. No assignments, no papers, no final, just three midterms that cover the material of the month prior. I like the material, I like the textbook and I like the professor, so I’m happy that my requisite science course isn’t going to be a drag. Don’t get me wrong, I love science, I just don’t tend to flourish with it in an academic setting.

Anthropology is going to be another interesting course. I mostly took it so I can cherry pick a few upper division courses later on in the SA department. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it, but it’s another class with a relatively easy workload. Probably because the instructor is a PhD student herself, and the burden of student overwork is a fresh wound on her soul. We have the usual midterm and final in her class, and a new mini assignment each week, but no papers to write. Papers are always what require the most energy.

So far the publishing course looks like it’ll be both the most fun and the most demanding. The professor is really brusque which I love. That humorous cynicism just jives with me. We had an hour long lecture this week during which we were told that we didn’t need the $40 textbook that was marked as a required purchase on the university website, but we would need the $20/month creative cloud subscription, and to set aside $60 for the printing of our projects, so that was a bit of a thorn in my side. We were also given our first assignment: come up with a thirty second idea to change the publishing industry.

K.

Actually it didn’t take that long to come up with an idea. Alex and I have been chatting casually about the publishing industry for years. It wasn’t hard to bounce a couple ideas off of her and come up with something. Don’t know if it’s entirely what the prof. wants, but we didn’t get much more direction than a broad definition of what ‘publishing’ is, and a couple snaps to hop to it. We’ll apparently be making a bunch of cool things in this class, and the final project will be a hand-bound mini book, which I’m incredibly stoked about.

We unfortunately didn’t have any sociology classes this week, since Monday was a holiday, but I did get a head start on reading the first chapter of the textbook. You want to know what’s worse than buying a $40 textbook and learning afterward that you don’t need it? Buying a $100 textbook and finding out that it’s a piece of shit, both in terms of content and in terms of physical quality. Half the pages I read weren’t cut properly at the printer, and needed to be hacked apart with my own impatient scissor skills. It’s also trying stupidly hard to be hip with the kids just blinking out into adulthood, and to be relevant as a part of Canadian academia. Seriously, I love my country but when I read the line, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty more Timbits and maple syrup in these pages” I threw up a little in my mouth. This is going to be a hard book to choke down. My high school textbooks were more dignified and mature. But the nice thing is that I’ve got a whole bunch of sociology pleasure reading on my shelves to cross reference as I’m reading. I don’t have to rely solely on this one textbook for my information. Which is nice, because if the authors start throwing moose and hockey sticks at me, it’s going to be really hard to actually learn anything.

Back To School Week

I’ve always loved September. The change in the weather from the sizzling hot grasp of August into the breezy, slightly damp first days of autumn; shopping for school supplies, and the easy first few days of classes when teachers want to do less teaching and more rapport building to avert any potential problems for the rest of the school year. It’s also my birthday month, which I’ve always denied as being the true reason why I love September so much.

In honesty, I enjoy returning to school after summer break. Even though that now mythical two month vacation period I enjoyed as a grade school student is long gone into my nostalgic past, the prospect of returning to university after my *cough* six year hiatus is making me more than a little excited.

I finally know what direction I want to take my education in. I don’t have a clear career path, per se, but I know that if I want to drop $50,000 on a four year trial to get a piece of paper, I want to enjoy the process. Thankfully my school has a double minor option for getting a degree, so I’ll be taking Sociology and Publishing.

Love of sociology was an accidental discovery during my first year of university, before I booked it to Japan. Most of my papers argued from a sociological angle, and I found myself reading and being fascinated by more and more sociology books. I’m hoping university doesn’t kill my hobby passion under the weight of academic study. Fingers crossed.

Publishing on the other hand will give me some actually salable technical skills that sociology won’t. There are a lot of graphic design, marketing, and economics courses in the program that may be transferable to future career. And if I’m going to continue to pursue this dream of being an author, some knowledge of the actual industry might be helpful.

In the end, I have no idea where any of this will take me. I don’t like to plan too much for my future, because sticking to the plan necessitates closing and locking too many doors. I’d rather pencil in a course on the map and see where the wind takes me along the way. Besides that, Alex has made a pretty solid plan for herself and the last thing I want for us to have is plans that diverge. Completing my four year degree is my only real goal at the moment. After that, we’ll see what the options are.

Sixteen Seconds

2300 words
Originally published September 2013
Out of Print Blog

It was a day in March.

The sky was a flat, unimaginative northwest gray. Rain had been pouring for most of the afternoon while Charlotte ran her errands and then, just to be cheeky, wound down to a drizzle and finally stopped when she at last took shelter in the appointed cafe. Why couldn’t the month make up its damn mind whether it wanted to be spring or winter? It was hailing that morning for chrissake and it would be another two months before sunny weather became reliable. March was just a dismal reminder that pleasant weather was still a long way off. It should stop pretending to be spring, already.

The dark roast face in Charlotte’s coffee glowered sourly up at her as she stared into her cup. It was too expensive, too bitter and too hot to drink. She stirred in another packet of honey with nothing else to do. Aidan was late again, surprise surprise.

In her purse her phone buzzed. For a full minute she ignored it, blowing softly on the surface of her coffee, peeling away the heat one layer at a time in between each muffled vibration. Eventually, it gave up and stilled. She waited another minute before bringing her paper cup to her lips, scalding them again. She couldn’t have one victory — not one single victory today! Soaked to her skin by the rain, abandoned by Aidan, pestered by her phone, and burned by the one comfort she could usually count on. She clicked her tongue angrily and thrust her hand into her purse for her phone. Might as well just accept things as there were today.

She didn’t need to check it to know who had called. It was Suzie; the woman had been calling her all day. Her voicemail icon displayed a hopeful notification and disinterested, Charlotte tapped it and began counting.

It took sixteen seconds for her voicemail to get through all of the automated recordings telling her needless information: the date, the time, how many calls she had and how much space remained in her inbox. She didn’t care. She cared less about the message. At the end of sixteen seconds she flicked 7 on her screen, deleting it, and put it out of her mind.

Another honey packet went into her coffee and with her cheek pressed unflatteringly in her palm, she stared at the soggy world outside. Despite the weather, the streets were still busy with people just as soaked as she was. The rain seemed to have no effect on them. Like limp paper cutouts they carried on their business, expressionless and efficient. She envied them. She’d lived here her entire life and yet every year when the rains came and lingered for months like an unwanted relative she cursed the persistence of it, as though she’d never known a six month rainy season in her twenty-six years.

Her phone began to buzz again, edging threateningly closer to the edge of the table but she ignored it – spitefully now. The rain started again, coming down in full force and a black-capped mushroom grove of umbrellas popped up under it. Occasionally a brightly colored umbrella would bob by, on its own stubbornly rebellious against the gray of their world but Charlotte knew better; eventually, the rainy city bullied everything into monochromatics.

Fourteen… fifteen…sixteen. She turned her head without lifting it, mashing her cheek into her lips and she flicked the delete command again. Her phone sat reproachfully silent at the edge of the table. She slid it back into her purse and sighed, refusing to be guilted by a piece of technology.

Her stomach excused itself obnoxiously under her damp cardigan. There was no use in her starving while she waited; if Aidan had really wanted to eat lunch with her, he would have been on time. She stood and collected her purse. Her phone remained thankfully silent.

There were no other customers at the counter and the barista behind it looked for a moment as though she’d done her job in serving Charlotte once and wouldn’t do so again kindly. With aspartame sweetness she asked, “What can I get you?”

“The spring salad; low fat dressing. Do you have any more fruit cups?”

“No, sorry, we just sold the last one. Would you like a fruit tart instead?”

If Charlotte could eat a fruit tart, she wouldn’t have ordered wilted greens and a tasteless vinaigrette. She thrust her irritation into her purse in exchange for her wallet.

“No, that’s fine, just the salad.”

“Okay then— seven ninety-nine.”

A despairing sigh left Charlotte before she could check it, but she laid her last ten dutifully on the counter and watched it distill down into a handful of coins.

“Thanks,” she said, or thought she said— hoped she’d said as she took her change and her lunch and sat again. It wasn’t much of a meal, all things considered. A few brown edged leaves of romaine, cucumber sliced so thinly it could pass for a microscope slide and— was that dandelion?! Who the hell put weeds in a salad? Her head returned heavily to her hand and she mixed the deceptively sweet smelling vinaigrette into the over priced plastic bowl of yard trimmings. In her purse, her phone buzzed again. Why couldn’t Suzie take a hint? The woman couldn’t comprehend anything existing outside of her sphere of influence. It irritated Charlotte enough to be deliberately avoidant, just to throw a wrench in her plans. If she could, she’d tell Oliver outright that his mother’s micromanagement and constant badgering were suffocating, but then she’d have to deal with the hurt puppy looks and the passive aggressive silences.

She was halfway through her salad when the door banged open and shut and a new breeze of cold and wet spilled in. Moments later Aidan stood over her, shaking the rain from his coat onto the table and floor around him. Charlotte moved her purse and regretted for a brief, petulant moment that it also invited a seat for him. His childishness was starting to rub off on her and she lifted her head and straightened her back to hide it.

“You look like you’ve had better days.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatcha eating?”

“Weeds.”

“Sounds appetizing.”

“You’re late.” Her eyes turned up to him as he sat. She must have looked or sounded more accusatory than she’d intended. He frowned right back at her until she sighed and looked away. That look. That damnable, stony, chiding look that made her feel like a kid caught in the cookie jar again.

“Sorry,” she muttered without wanting to.

After a moment, the hardness of his expression cracked and broke away and his usual sunny features shone through. “Don’t worry about it. It’s the weather you know? Dark skies make people dark on the inside.”

“Except you?”

He grinned. “Except me. They serve anything here besides weeds?”

“Probably. Did you bring your bank account?”

“Even better.” He flashed her the gold surface of a MasterCard and then was gone again.

She took another sip of her coffee— too cold now, of course but at least the caffeine stood a chance at improving her mood. She stared spitefully into her half eaten salad.

Her phone went off again. She could almost feel Suzie’s impatience in every clipped buzz. They were even timed the same as the woman’s nervous lip smacks. She brought her phone out of exile just as the vibrations stopped. Three new messages. She was about to delete them all out of hand, when she noticed one was from Aidan. She tapped on the 1 key and brought the phone to her ear.

“Hey babe, it’s Aidan. I’ll be a bit late. Traffic around here is a nightmare. Don’t wait- go on and get something to eat. I’ll grab something later. See you soon.”

The message ended and she sighed. Only Aidan could make her feel so guilty with such friendly words. Well, Aidan and Oliver, if she thought about it. She didn’t want to think about it.

“Who was that?” Aidan dropped into the seat opposite her, surrounded by the smell of stracchino cheese and chives. Her mouth watered against her will and she quickly drowned it in another sip of coffee.

“No one. Just messages.”

“Yeah? Did you get mine?” He set a white paper package in front of her. It radiated warmth and was losing its opaqueness to grease.

“Just now.” She picked open the moist paper and stared at the cheese and chicken melted mess inside. “Aidan, you know I can’t-”

He held up a hand, his other cradling his own sandwich. “Come on, one meal off your diet isn’t going to hurt anything. Besides, everyone cheats, you know.”

There was something in the cheeky way that he said it that she didn’t appreciate. She almost sent the sandwich back across the table to him but another look down (it dolefully oozed a tendril of cheese to the paper) changed her mind. Of course, he was right – and God, it was good!

Her hone rang again.

“Fuck. I can’t even eat my lunch in peace.” Muttered of course; who knew where an overly sensitive parent might be lurking.

Aidan snatched her phone off the table while she was busy licking cheese off her lingers.

“Suzie, huh? You want me to answer for you?” He grinned an evil grin, his thumb hovering devilishly over the display.

“No!” She grabbed the phone before he could press the bright green button, careful not to nudge it herself. He lifted a shoulder.

“You’re still with Oliver, then?”

She dropped back into her purse. There was a grease smear on it that she’d have to clean up later.

“Yes, I’m still with Oliver.” She was so tired of this conversation. Life would be much simpler if Aidan would just live in the now.

“Are you ever going to tell him?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

There was silence between them. Her coffee grew colder, but she was determined to enjoy her calorie bomb of a sandwich while it was still warm, Aidan and Oliver and Suzie be damned —double damned for making her second guess her choices. She was an adult, damnit! in control of her own life. Whose business was it anyway whose bed she was in?

“So,” Aidan sighed at last. “What does mother hen want?”

It took everything in her not to send him the warning kick he deserved — he didn’t need to be so antagonistic, even if he had every right to be. She nibbled up a string of cheese sullenly.

“Nothing important. There’s a gallery opening she wants me to attend. I haven’t gotten back to her yet.”

“When’s the opening?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” He hid his expression behind his own paper coffee cup. Four sugar and a teaspoon of cream. She didn’t know how he could tell the difference, but she’d given him two teaspoons of cream on purpose one morning and he’d sent her back to the kitchen with a warning and a swat to her ass. Confident and casually in command —she supposed it was what drew her to him in the first place. It was so easy to give control over to him when he miraculously made it seem like she was still the one in charge.

“I guess dinner and a movie are out then, huh?”

“I told you noon. It’s not my fault you were late.”

“No, but you could have at least set out a whole day for me. We used to do that you know. Whole days.”

“I know,” she said, and set her mostly eaten sandwich back on the table. She’d never been fond of crusts.

He sighed again. “Look, no pressure, but think about it. You’re complicating your life needlessly and you’re going to end up hurting him, one way or another. You know that.”

She knew it, though it was somehow worse that he knew it.

In her purse, her phone began buzzing angrily again. They both stared at it and it seemed to Charlotte that this time that the vibrations had no intention of shutting off. Aidan stood, collected their trash and headed to the bin. When he returned, Charlotte and her phone were silent.

“You should probably call her,” he said quietly. Charlotte nodded. “Will you be free later? After the opening?”

“Maybe. You know how Suzie is with her family outings. It could be a while. It could be all night.”

“Well, give me a call if you want to come over. If you’re not held up overnight. I’ll probably be up.” He wouldn’t be, but he’d pretend that were the case, if she called him. She watched him leave without saying goodbye. He’d understand she had a lot of heavy thoughts on her mind, after all, he’d put them there.

The rain had stopped again, and here and there a few fingers of sunlight poked through the dark cloud cover. Umbrellas snapped closed and jackets unbuttoned. Charlotte watched Aidan’s head bob up and down in the crowd, turn the corner and then disappear.

She stood and slid into her coat. Her purse buzzed against her back. Outside, she finally obliged her phone and held it to her ear.

“Hello?—

“Suzie! Hey, how are you?—

“No, no, I’m all right—

“Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been running errands all day. The rain has just made it impossible—

“Of course I’ll be there. Is Sophia coming?—

“Great! Tell Oliver I’ll be around at about six—

“Of course I’m staying for dinner. I wouldn’t miss it for the world—”

 

Pokémon GO Outside And Play

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Less than two weeks after its initial release in Australia, Pokémon GO is an undeniable success in the mobile gaming world. The much anticipated alternate reality game has rekindled the love of Pokémon with generations of adults and children alike and caused a surprising wave of hostility and controversy for a game that is essentially part scavenger hunt and part capture the flag. But with the current news cycle flashing nothing but negativity, pessimism, and a dichotomy of ideology 24/7, the arrival of Pokémon GO is to some a much needed diversion back to a happier and more innocent time. To others it is a childish regression, and an unsafe waste of time. Wherever you stand on the subject, undoubtedly Pokémon GO is dominating your social media feeds with images of cartoon monsters, alarming news headlines, and glib memes demanding that anyone over the age of ten who plays the game grow up and get off of their lawns.

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Pokémon GO is the latest installment in the globally popular Pokémon franchise, which began in Japan in 1995. From its Red and Blue start on the Game Boy, the turn-based monster collection and fighting game exploded into a lengthy video game library, a trading card game, a wildly popular cartoon series, nineteen movies, a comic book series, and its own Monopoly board, among other popular media. There are three key components to the Pokémon entertainment empire: explore the world, collect the monsters, and compete with friends. Up until now, Pokémon fans have had to limit their experiences to the fictional world first described in the original games. But with the dawn of mobile gaming and readily available GPS technology, it was only a matter of time before The Pokémon Company brought its pocket monsters into our world.

Which is where Niantic comes in. Niantic is the developer best known for the game Ingress, from which Pokémon GO takes many of its mechanics. Partnered with Google, Niantic and The Pokémon Company worked together to create a game in which Google Maps data is used to populate the world with monsters, gyms, and PokéStops where players can view pokémon superimposed on their own neighborhood streets through their mobile phones. The core concepts of Pokémon are preserved–explore, collect, and fight–however the alternate reality quality of the game adds a novel mechanic to the mix. In order to achieve any of these goals, players must leave home and walk to find, level up, and compete with their monsters. Pokémon has essentially left the couch and forced players to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise.

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With such a popular game demanding of its players what anxious parents have wanted for years, the benefits of Pokémon GO seem indisputable. Monsters spawn in random locations, giving players only a rough 300 meter map of where any given pokémon may be. Players must thus walk long distances in the hope of catching a rare pokémon that their friends may not have yet. The new element of PokéStops–areas of interest within neighborhoods that give players needed items when swiped on screen–incentivizes players to explore and learn about places round them that might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. Lure Modules, an in-game item that can be attached to PokéStops, attract pokémon to a certain area. These areas can be seen on-screen, and draw huge crowds of people to one area where they socialize, compete, and in general share a love of the game across age, gender, race, or other social barriers that at times conspire to keep people apart. Pokémon has even reportedly helped some players fight depression and social anxiety by bringing people together in a fun and engaging way, where the normal pressures and stresses of social interaction are set aside in favor of a group expression of joy for a shared hobby.

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Unfortunately, and as expected with so many people suddenly playing the game, many negative news stories have come out about Pokémon GO as well. From reports of players discovering dead bodies, to criminals using lures to attract victims to rob, to reports of distracted users walking straight off of cliffs, questions about the game’s safety have been as numerous on the internet as those asking where players can catch that elusive Vulpix. And while the game does what it can to keep players safe, including a plea for users to be mindful of their surroundings in the loading screen, and utilizing the vibrate functions on the phone to alert players when they approach a monster in the game, to get the full experience of watching the avatar move on the real world map, players must juggle their eyes between the screen and the road. What should be common sense can sometimes be discarded as players get caught up in the excitement of experiencing their favorite game in a new media.

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Beyond the physical dangers that careless players might put themselves in, there seems to be a rather vocal, borderline obsessive retaliation by the older generations against Pokémon GO players. Sneering, dismissive and even insulting comments are flung down by the self-proclaimed mature adults who hold their own hobbies and interests above scorn. There even seems to be a subset of dissenters who would prefer that adult Pokémon GO players put down their innocent fun to engage in some decidedly more reckless and even illegal behavior. In the name of maturity, mind you.

But this hyper-sensitive insistence that adults only engage in pre-approved adult activities didn’t begin with Pokémon GO. The West has an obsession with its vision of maturity. We want to grow up fast, be done with the silliness and whimsy of childhood and jump into the world of alcohol and sex and debt as soon as we possibly can. Men must have loud cars and big guns, and women must be dolled up and sexed out; our movies, video games and books must be dark and gritty, must have enough R’s in the ratings to draw a pirate’s attention and enough curse words to make a sailor blush. Tits and explosions. It’s what separates the men from the boys. In Pokémon’s birthplace however, the opposite is true. It’s youth and innocence that is prized. Japan is littered with cartoon images, from train stations to police boxes to construction sites. Women want to be cute, rather than sexy, and men dress to look youthful and college-hip, rather than powerful and intimidating. Adult players of Pokémon GO in the West who snub their noses at their vocal detractors ask, in this vein, “What’s so good about being mature, anyway?” What indeed.

For Pokémon fans, both old and new, Pokemon GO offers a fresh avenue to explore the world we live in and the world of Pocket Monsters at the same time. It brings people together, gets gamers out of the house, and has given those of us who loved Pokémon in our youth a little bit of sunshine at a time when there seems to be nothing but dark clouds overhead.

So haters gonna hate, and PokéFans gonna throw pokéballs, regardless. We’re happy. We’re having fun. And most of us are playing safe.

Go Team Mystic.

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Debunking Myths of Living Abroad in Japan

I’ve been back in Canada for twelve weeks now, and while I’d like to say that I received a warm welcome back to the place of my birth and have easily assimilated into the maple syrup and hockey lifestyle, the reality is that it’s been more like being doused in ice water than it has been a bed of roses. My grandfather’s passing has unleashed a shitstorm within the family, as estate dealings usually do, but even I wasn’t prepared for the level of stress and toxicity I was returning to. Instead of unpacking all of that though, I want to look back a bit nostalgically on my time in Japan, and give you, reader, a list that is by no means complete of all the things I miss about my life abroad. Here are twelve reasons why living in Japan is better than living in Canada.

  1. Employment – I was a foreigner in Japan, so this may not apply to actual Japanese nationals, and I know in some cases it absolutely does not apply to my Japanese friends, but employment is so much easier to find, and a living wage is so much easier to come by in Japan than it is in Canada. Even without the university degree that is a requirement of most of the big schools I was able to find work teaching English with little difficulty and in fact, the job I ended up in had the most amazing boss, the best perks, a great student base, and near unlimited freedom to teach as I wanted. I was happy there. Alex and I were making enough money to not only live comfortably, but to have vacations and date nights and shopping sprees. Contrast that with Canada: it took me ten weeks to find any work, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed. This is with many years of experience in the field I was applying for, and equal experience in a management position. The job I’m working at now pays minimum wage, with a commission percentage on top of that. I’m working about ten hours a week. As a thirty year old who was making $25 an hour at my previous job, this has left me stunned and worried for my financial future.
  2. Transit – When I was young and stupid, I used to think that Vancouver had a world class transit system. Holy shit was I wrong. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the trains in Japan, and how they are accurate to the minute, and broadcast any delays in real time to the stations they will be arriving at. Commuters always know exactly when their train will arrive, and if there is a delay they can request a notice from the station master to excuse their tardiness at work or school or wherever they have to be. Subway stations in Kyoto even let you know where your train is in relation to your station, so you know how long your wait will be. Buses are the same. Bus stops in Kyoto electronically track where the buses are and how long they will take to get to your pick up. Missed your bus? No problem. Buses run on a 15 minute cycle, with the popular routes sending buses every five minutes. And if you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to take a bus, taxis operate everywhere. MK in particular is convenient for its shuttle service and private bus route that can take travelers to and from airports hassle free. Transit in Vancouver on the other hand is a nightmare. By all accounts it has been steadily degrading in the time that I’ve been gone, but our light rail system, the SkyTrain breaks down on the regular, often stranding commuters in between stations and forcing them to walk the tracks back to civilization. While TransLink continues with plans to expand the SkyTrain lines to other parts of British Columbia (parts with few actual potential riders, and more potential for developers to draw people in) the bus system is woefully inadequate for the demand. Amid a multi-million dollar “upgrade” to train stations, construction is causing delays and outright cancellations of buses throughout the day. These cancellations come last minute and at times, hours after the bus in question was due to arrive, leaving commuters with little or no opportunity to make alternate arrangements. This is in addition to slashing the frequency of buses from every 15 minutes, to every 30. Missing a bus in Vancouver means being ridiculously late for your appointments. And no, TransLink doesn’t issue notices to stranded riders that they may present to their employers as an explanation.
  3.  Rental Offices – There’s this really cool service in Japan that is literally everywhere you go: rental offices. Do you need new accommodations? Something closer to your new job, or just need a change of scenery? Do you know what you’re looking for down to the number and size of windows? Just walk on down to the nearest rental office (you can find them by the brochures they leave literally everywhere) and talk to an agent. At no cost to you they will find you the right rental property for your needs, your budget and your location. 1LDK? 2LDK? They’ll be able to match you with the perfect house, hassle free. In Vancouver? Shit on you, you’re on your own. Good luck. Most of the rental adds you’ll find that are halfway to affordable are a new version of the Nigerian Prince scam.
  4. Housing – It’s a myth that the housing situation in Japan is deplorable. Yes, it’s a small country. Yes, most of the country is functionally unusable due to the amount of mountainous regions. Yes, people live close together but you know what? The Japanese make it work. And they keep it affordable. Now, keep in mind that I’m still talking about Kyoto here. Tokyo is its own little bubble that I’m not going to get into. Our first apartment was nothing to write home about, but at 50,000 yen a month (roughly $500) it was definitely affordable for one full-time student and one part-time teacher, especially considering that the utilities were all included. But still, we wanted something better, something with more space and with more comfort, as we were suddenly planning on staying for more than a year. With the help of a rental office we were able to find a gorgeous two story townhouse, 2LK (two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen). The closet space alone was as much as all the floor space in our first apartment. It was 20 minutes convenient to work, at the base of a mountain in a quiet neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants, nature and temples within walking distance. And we paid 80,000 yen a month for it. “NJ!” I hear you cry because, as we’ve already established reader, you and I are telepathically linked. “I’ve heard all about this thing called ‘key money.’ Isn’t that a huge problem in Japan?” Ah yes, key money. A gratuity to the landlord for the honor of renting the property. It can be pretty steep. Ours was two months rent, on top of the deposit and the first month’s rent but our landlord was super nice, and knocked 50,000 yen off of the total, so in the end, with some help from a friend, we were able to pay the initial expense, which we recouped in the end when our landlord took most of our old stuff off of us and saved us a hauling fee to remove it. Looking back, I miss that place more than I have words for. Housing in Vancouver is dreadful at the moment. Foreign investors are causing real estate prices to soar. One bedroom basement suites are going for $1100 a month minimum. Renters are being forced out of their homes by owners wanting to sell while the market is hot. To say that housing is in crisis in Vancouver is to be seriously understating the situation. At the moment I’m living rent free in my grandfather’s old house, but it too is being sold and without any student financial aid to back me until September, where I’m going to live over the next year is worryingly uncertain.
  5. Food – To be honest, in Kyoto, the food isn’t as great as it is in many other parts of the country. It’s more about the presentation of the food than the actual flavor and how much it can fill you up. It’s not what I generally like in dining, but I took what I could from it. Food in Kyoto is also very seasonal. You can’t buy foods year round and many foods are entirely unavailable outside of expensive specialty shops. However, there are many different shopping options available in Japan, especially for food items. In our neighborhood there were no less than four grocery stores to choose from and at varying price ranges. We were able to find the things we needed, and cook fancy meals at home on a budget, and even had enough to eat out a couple nights out of the month. In Vancouver, however, food costs have risen to the point that even the lowest cost grocery store has pricing comparable to mid-level grocers. I’m spending on average $200 a month to feed three people with just the basics. Every time I go shopping I cringe at the check-out counter.
  6. Leisure – There is always something to do in Japan. Especially for someone like me who loves nature and culture and history, Kyoto was an ideal place to live. Leisure activities are very low cost and easily accessible. For the weekend we could go out and enjoy the city for less than $50. Here in Vancouver, not only is everything ridiculously far to get to, it’s expensive, seating is limited and options themselves are limited. In the suburbs, there’s next to nothing to do other than go to the mall and look at all the things we can’t afford to buy.
  7. Data/Bandwidth – One of the things I miss the most about living in Japan is my unlimited data plan on my cellphone and the lack of bandwidth caps on my internet service. I never even had to think about it. The internet was just always there at my finger tips, and we only paid 6,000 yen a month for internet and 9,500 a month for two cell phone plans. Not here. We’re paying $75 for an internet service that barely covers three average net users and $192 a month per phone for 2.5GB of cell phone data. I feel like I’m being robbed.
  8. Immigration – It doesn’t matter what country you’re trying to enter, immigration is never a fun experience. The lengths one has to go to to prove that they are employable and financially self-sufficient and in general decent human beings is ridiculous, but Japan actually has one of the easier immigration systems. They love paperwork, and the more supporting documentation you can show them the better your chances are at being admitted into the country. They also have multiple means of entry, depending on what your primary purpose for visiting Japan is. Renewing and even changing your visa is an uncomplicated process that can be done within the country. In Canada, all immigration procedures must be done at a port of entry, even if you’re already here. Getting Alex her student visa was a headache enough due to the lack of information and transparency from the university who should be making this as easy as possible to attract foreign students. Actually getting her permanent residence is a minimum two year process if it’s started in Canada. That can be brought down to 18 months, if it is started in America. It is also a one time only thing. If she is denied, we cannot reapply. And they don’t give you any help with it, either. Figure it out yourself and hope to god you didn’t forget any of the paperwork.
  9. Convenience – Oh my god, is Japan ever a convenient place to live. I don’t know how true this holds to super rural areas, but in Kyoto I had everything I needed for daily life within a 10 minute walking radius of my house. Banks, post office, buses, trains, grocers, drug stores, art store. Everything. I would walk to most places I wanted to go, and transit took me everywhere else. But Canada being such a very large country, everything here is very spread apart. Our nearest convenience store is an hour walk away. The mall is a 45 minute walk. The bus stop is relatively close, but half the time the bus doesn’t come or else it is late. The train station is at the mall. There is nothing at all within 10 minutes of me but the school and a lake and a whole lot of houses.
  10. Postage – It cost me 82 yen (about 82 cents) to send a postcard from Japan to Canada. It costs $1.30 to send a postcard from Canada to Canada.
  11. Recycle Shops – Because of how the corporate world in Japan is set up, often times families have to pack up and move when a company sends one of its employees arbitrarily to a different branch, sometimes on the other end of the country, or even abroad. Moving costs can quickly add up, and to avoid such costs, many families unload their non-essential items at recycle shops. Some of these shops will buy used items, others charge a fee for pick up. But all items are thoroughly cleaned and if necessary, repaired and then resold at a discount. Many items sold at recycle shops are antiques that sell for pocket change. We got almost all of our furniture at recycle shops in Japan. All of it clean and comfortable and very much usable. These things just don’t exist in Canada, making everything so much more expensive bought new.
  12. Health Insurance – I paid a lot for Japan’s national health insurance. About $130 a month. This is compared to the $32 a month I paid in Canada before I left. However, Japanese health insurance covers everything: doctors visits, emergency room care, dental and prescriptions. Canadian basic government coverage only covers doctor and emergency room services. Dental and pharmaceutical is paid through employers, if you’re so lucky. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to a $0 premium when I returned as a citizen with no income. Unfortunately, since I hadn’t been living in Canada for the last 12 months, I am automatically enrolled in the highest income premium for an entire year, with no eligibility for premium assistance until then. See point #1, 4, 5 and 7 for why this is a bit of a problem for me.

In all, I’m missing my life in Japan a great deal. I wasn’t ready to leave when we did, but we didn’t have a choice. Life was moving forward and we had to move forward with it. I’m frustrated with the way things are in my country right now, especially seeing how another country seems to have very workable solutions for these little frustrations. And don’t get me wrong, there were things I disliked about living in Japan too, while I was there. But now that I’m home, I find myself struggling to understand how life and living in the country of my birth can be so fundamentally more difficult than it had been in a country with a completely different language and culture.

Looking on the bright side, however, we have Trudeau where they have Abe, so I suppose Canada scores a point in that regard.

Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #198

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is always a delight to read. I don’t always necessarily like all the stories that they publish, but they tend to pick up stories with either very lovely prose or incredibly thoughtful speculative fiction. Issue #198 features a story about the life of a puritan settlement in America battling against the constant threat of the devil, and a haunting eco-tale about the ghosts of whales harnessed to the lanterns that burn on their oil.

“Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land” by Thomas W. Waldroon
“Whale-Oil” by Sylvia V. Linsteadt

I loved the voice in “Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land,” though the length made the story a bit tedious, and many of the strands it starts felt a bit unfinished by the end. “Whale-Oil” is a story that bleeds vivid colors into the reader’s imagination. With a fairy tale feel and brilliant imagery, “Whale-Oil” is a great piece of speculative fiction.

Read the original stories in issue #198 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. My full review is available at Tangent Online Magazine.

Tangent Reviews: Analog, 3/2016

I think it says a lot about the strength of a writer’s skill when they can grab the attention of a reader who doesn’t read in their genre very often. Science fiction doesn’t usually grip me as hard as fantasy, spec fic or horror does, but nonetheless, the science fiction stories published in Analog give me something to think about, and something to enjoy.

The March issue featured the following original fiction:

“Drummer” by Thomas R. Dolski
“Elderjoy” by Gregory Benford
“Snowbird” by Joe M. McDermott
“The Coward’s Option” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Perfect Bracket” by Howard Hendrix and Art Holcomb
“Unlinkage” by Eric Del Carlo

It’s rare for me, but I enjoyed nearly every single story in this issue, with “Snowbird” and “The Coward’s Option” being my top picks.

Find my full review here at Tangent Online. To subscribe to Analog, click here.

The Writer’s Pinch

660 words

So here’s the scene: There’s this writer, you see? He’s there hunched over his desk, burnt out cigarette between his lips and fifteen of its cousins already stubbed out in the tray and on the desk and under the typewriter. There’s an empty bottle of whiskey rolling around under his feet and no less than seven dirty coffee mugs on the kitchen counter behind him. The one that’s sitting cold by his elbow needs a wash, but he’ll give it a rinse if he remembers, or pour the stale ghosts of beans past directly into it if not.

He’s alone, because that’s the responsible thing to do when your art is tearing you up from the inside to get out, but is shit at feeding a family or keeping the water hot. He’s barely got the lights on, which was what she said when she left the last time. He pretends not to care because the hurt makes the words more real. Pain is ink and he feeds it drop by plunking drop into the machine in front of him, hitting the keys like he’s in a brawl. Bare knuckle boxing against twenty-six opponents and their stuttering, stalling, questioning peanut gallery. And he fights on, hour after hour, endlessly, mindlessly typing because when he stops is when he hears them. Every single goddamned one of them and their poison-tipped words that keep him perched on the edge of a bottle: Kook, shut-in, layabout, mooch. Knife thrusts in what was supposed to be a fair fight. And he’s fighting, damnit but all the bets are against him, and they laugh at his bruises but don’t they know this is the only damn thing he’s ever been good at?

He’s got a stack of rejection letters eight miles high and four miles deep, but he wears his one acceptance like a badge of honor. Victory on the field of battle. Welcome home soldier, you’ve done your good duty. Sorry about the legs and all; we’ll get you looked after. And then he’s gone. Forgotten in the gutters and he digs viciously at the keys, recounting it all: the struggle over the mound of bodies, the rip of bullets through his flesh, and the flash of bayonets white-hot like match flames in the cigarette-smoky air. He tears his hair out at the sound of mail sliding through the door slot: planes overhead dropping their payload. Shell after shell of bills; he prays that the atom bomb of another rejection doesn’t land in the pile. It’s PTSD and he knows it but there’s no VA for writers who can’t get published, and no support for a man who can’t work a normal nine to five because the weight of it crushes his soul already undervalued beside what worth can be ripped out of the toil of his body.

He’s pinched. His stomach. His wallet. All of it. Pinned to the wall like a bug. One more beetle out of a hundred thousand others. And still he flexes, twitching in the last synapses of life before death. LOOK AT ME, he screams into the din. I’m special. I’m unique. Inspect me. Tear out my wings and catalog them. Every book: twenty-six letters: different patterns. Different spots in different arrangements. Pigment, flourish, camouflage. In an evolution of words his are failing natural selection. Failing to stand out. Falling out of the gene pool. He’d give his kingdom of cobwebs to be a butterfly right now.

His fingers slow to a stop over the keys. They hover and then drop, the mad hummingbird pace they’ve been keeping falters in uncertainty. Is this worth it? The world returns to him. The real world. Empty refrigerators, medical bills, and the sound of angry, bitter sex through the too thin walls. His head drops like a cracked clay pot into his hands. Ash stains his keys. He’s written fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four words today and erased fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eight-five.