All posts by kbarlow

You On Your Pogo Stick, Son?

April 21, 2016

pogo-stickIn case you haven’t heard, John Gibbons, the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, recently reacted to new MLB regulations by saying “maybe we should all go out there wearing dresses tomorrow.”

Not surprisingly, the people who have come out in support of Mr. Gibbons’ word choice, have labelled the women who are disappointed with his statement as petty and thin-skinned. One man went to so far as to say that Mr. Gibbons’ remark wasn’t sexist because it was simply a matter of fact. Men are stronger than women and an all-female baseball team will never beat an all-male team.

Fair enough. That being the case, would Mr. Gibbons’ supporters have reacted differently if he had said, “Maybe they should all come out there in wheelchairs tomorrow.” Because that too is simply a matter of fact. A team of able-bodied athletes will defeat a team in wheelchairs.

In keeping with that theory, is anyone who takes offense to that statement merely being petty and thin-skinned? Or was the comment so utterly offensive that even the women in Mr. Gibbons’ life would have told him to stop. The very fact that none of those women were disappointed in the statement he made speaks directly to the problem of unconscious, systemic sexism.

I’ve never met Mr. Gibbons, and I’m sure he’s a wonderful husband, father etc. And the women who know him best understand that he was not trying to be a jerk. It was dad being dad. His way of goading the boys into playing better. Come on, lighten up.

But if the wheelchair comment is a step beyond dad being dad, a place where Mr. Gibbons would never go, it’s only because society has evolved to a place where we no longer refer to someone with physical disabilities as a cripple. Or someone with mental disabilities as a retard.

We have come a long way in understanding the power of language when it comes to disabilities. Yet, the same understanding has not happened for women. Men still insult each other with, you play like a girl. And the much worse, are you or on your period?

Statements like that aren’t meant to be funny. They’re meant to be demeaning. Just like the wheelchair reference is demeaning.

So here’s a way to figure out if what is about to come out of your mouth is sexist or not. Every time you’re about to say girl, woman, period, why not substitute ‘cripple’

You play like a cripple.

You run like a cripple.

You on a cripple, Son?

You were cringing as you read that, because I was cringing as I wrote it. But it’s an easy way to recognize unconscious sexism and just stop. And try this instead:

Rather than hollering ‘maybe we should all go out there wearing dresses,’ Mr. Gibbons could say: “maybe we should all go out there riding pogo sticks.’ The message will be the same. You can’t play good baseball on a pogo stick.

But will anyone be offended for the pogo stick? Unlikely. In fact, I rather like the image of the Blue Jays on pogo sticks. And their playing would suck a whole lot more than if they did indeed pull on dresses.

So instead of girl, woman, period, next time say pogo stick. And no one will mind at all.

Adventures in Credit Card Security

February 16, 2016


Got an email alert from American Express. Some fool had my card number and was trying to use it for a telephone purchase in Toronto. Of course, I was out of the country, so the algorithms didn’t line up when the merchant went for approval. The purchase was declined and the email instructed me to call and let them know if was legitimate or fraudulent.

“Fraudulent,” I told the nice young woman on the phone. And the process of cancelling the old card and sending me a new one began.

Easy-peesy, right? Not even close because I didn’t want them to send the card to my home. I wanted them to send it where I was.

“No problem,” said the nice young woman. “You just need to answer three security questions that will be randomly generated by Trans Union Canada.”

In case you haven’t heard of them, Trans Union is a credit reporting agency, like Equifax. They gather information about you and make it available to institutions looking to issue you credit. This includes your credit history as well as basic information such as your name, current address and phone number. They also keep historical information about past addresses going back more than 10 years.

None of this seemed problematic when the nice young woman said, “You need to get all three questions right, and you only get two chances.” Fire away, I told her.

Question One. Which of the following credit cards do you currently hold? A, B, C or none of the above. For me, the correct answer was C.

Question Two. In which of the following towns or cities have you lived in the past ten years? A, B, C or D. For me, the correct answer was D.

Question Three. Which of the following is a previous address. A, B, C or D. Again, for me, the correct answer was D.

But I failed the test. She generated three questions again. Two of the same ones came up. Again, I failed.

How was that possible? I know where I’ve lived, I know what credit cards I have. Yet, there it was on her screen. Failed.

Now I had to wait 48 hours before 3 more questions would be generated.

I tried speaking to supervisers, I tried to escalate the call because something was wrong, all to no avail. There is no way around the questions and no way to speed up the process.

So I waited 48 hours. Another nice young woman asked me three questions. Again, I failed.

Now I was pissed. “Trans Union must have some wrong information,” I told her.

Perhaps, she agreed. But I still had to wait another 48 hours to try again.

She gave me a phone number for Trans Union. I called and sure enough, they had all of my personal information wrong. Even my name was spelled incorrectly.

Turned out they had combined both of my daughters’ information with mine to come up with a person who didn’t actually exist but had my Social Insurance Number.

The woman from Trans Union agreed that I could never have passed the American Express test with real answers. And it would take 30 days for the report to be updated for their clients. Her advice to me? Answer the questions incorrectly. She even told me which answers to give for the questions.

I called Amex. The nice young man was very understanding but regardless of the Trans Union errors, I still had to wait 48 hours to try the test again. Unless I wanted to have the card sent to my home address instead. “I’m not there,” I told him.

“I know,” he said, and we went around and around that issue for a while until finally I said, “Fine, send it there.”

“Someone has to be there to sign for it,” he told me.

“Fine,” I said again, knowing I’d have to impose on the lovely woman looking after my cat and the next door neighbour and anyone else who might be willing to wait around for the courier to arrive.

Turned out that they didn’t send it by courier after all. They sent it by Express Post. The tracking information said it was successfully delivered, but not to my house.

So I called Amex again. Since more than 48 hours had passed, I said I wanted to try the 3 questions again so the card could be sent to the address where I was instead of my house.

This time, I answered the questions with the incorrect information supplied by Trans Union and I passed the test. My card was sent again. I was told it would come by the US Postal System. No need to wait in.

Of course, the card arrived by courier. The driver went to the wrong unit and knocked on my neighbour’s door instead of mine, but fortunately he was home and he signed for it.

Two weeks after the jerk in Toronto tried to buy plumbing parts with my old card, I finally had my new one.

The whole ordeal has left me shaking my head.

Security is only as good as the information behind it. Trans Union has a lot to answer for, and American Express needs to initiate a way for customers to get around their roadblocks, when the information they’re relying on is wrong. And you need to check with every credit reporting agency out there to make sure they have your correct information!

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

December 30, 2015


As a professional writer and writing instructor for over 17 years, this November marked my first foray into the madness of Write A Novel In A Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. The acronym has always intrigued me because the first thing I see when I look at it is No Write More, an interesting conundrum when the goal is to pound out roughly 1600 words a day, seven days a week for 30 consecutive days, but I digress.

While the concept of banging out a quick and dirty first draft is a good one, it’s not something I’ve ever been able to do. I can write 5,000 words a day when I need to, but that is something I call Deadline Hell. The place I enter when I have a contract in hand, have already cashed the advance cheque and the deadline for submission is approaching.

By the time I descend into Deadline Hell, avoiding all human contact because I rarely shower, never shave anything and all communication comes in the form of a grunt, I’m well into the book and the story can pour out. It’s rarely beautiful as it pours and later I’ll take out redundancies and add in whatever I’ve missed, but when I stumble out of bed at three in the morning to pick up where I left off, I do so with direction and confidence.

The very opposite is true when I start something new. I have a vague idea of where I’m headed but no clear idea how to get there.

Yes, I teach writing and yes, I use all the tools that I share with students. Character Sketches. Wants, Because, But. What’s At Stake? Plotting Through Character Arc. All of these and more come into play when I sit down to write, but at that stage, the words on the page are not cohesive or logical or even readable. They’re musings and observations. Following the characters as they walk around and talk to each other, letting them get to know each other and allowing me to understand who they are beyond the static facts of the sketches I wrote. Until I do that, all the planning in the world doesn’t matter. I have to hear their voices, let them speak for themselves and sometimes I have to kill them off and start again because they want to be in a different kind of book entirely, not the one I intend to write at that moment.

After eight novels, six novellas and a raft of other writing, it still takes me a while to feel my way into a new story. I usually write the beginning a number of times, coming at it from different points of view or settings or moments in the story. This can take days and none of the effort is wasted because each time I write that opening, I’m learning more about the story. I’m figuring out what the hell I’m trying to say because if I don’t know that then I need to stop spewing out words and find out.

Then of course research pokes its head into the mix. Perhaps it’s a weakness, but I can’t write without knowing what I’m talking about. A single line on the page that came out of nowhere – and is often as simple as a dog walking into the action – can mean a lost hour finding out about that breed and resulting in no words on the page. And therein lies the problem for me with NaNoWriMo.

Being competitive by nature – something that all the positive affirmations and deep breathing exercises will not change – those lost hours of research and pages of drivel only served to make me tense and irritable because the word count had to reach a certain level every day or else I was a failure. And all of those words on all of those pages did not count. They were part of a process, quick and dirty writing at its best or worst, but as vital as that process is to me, they did not a story make. They were merely planning and I could not in good faith put them on that pulsing NaNoWriMo chart.

Go ahead, tell me that’s not the point of the exercise, tell me I’m an obsessive/compulsive idiot who doesn’t get it. The truth is that I am obsessive/compulsive, and undoubtedly crazy because I dwell on people who don’t exist and things that never happened, but that’s what makes me a writer.

The knot in my gut that forms when I don’t write is real, but nearly a month in Deadline Hell hasn’t made it better, it’s made it worse. I park my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard as required to make any book come to life. But instead of anything remotely resembling a story, all that came out was gobbledegook, which only served to make the knot bigger.

Now five pounds heavier and sunlight deprived with a week left to go in NaNoWriMo, I realize it’s time to stop. Deadline Hell is a place I need to go to when I know the story, not when I’m in the early, development stage. Perhaps this is something that others also know and they enter the fray at that point in order to push the sucker out. But it seemed to me that the point of the exercise was to get a first draft of a new work done and over with. Spew it out, clean it up later and count every single word toward your goal. Sadly, the perfectionist that is part and parcel of being obsessive/compulsive only allowed me to count the words that form a story and drive it forward.

A week before the month ends, I have a Word document filled with thousands and thousands of planning words, and another with 5,000 solid, usable words. I have the beginning of a story I believe will be good, perhaps fabulous, and I’ll keep going forward because that’s what a writer does. But I’ve confirmed what I’ve always instinctively known: I’m not a good candidate for NaNoWriMo.

So I’m bowing out gracefully, coming up from Deadline Hell before I gain another pound. Allowing myself to walk in the sunshine and stop feeling guilty when I spend time with my granddaughters because I should not be baking cookies, I should be writing.

I will say ‘Well done’ to those who meet the 50,000 word goal, and stand and cheer for every soul who answered the challenge, but I will not sign up again next November. Perhaps I’ll try and grow a beard instead!

They Need A Good Bombing (and other shit my mother said)

November 15, 2015

They need a good bombingRemember the naval war between Spain and Britain? The one in 1588 where the invincible Spanish Armada tried to take control of the English Channel with their huge and heavily armed ships. If you recall, the English at first attempted to disable the Armada with long range gunfire, but soon realized this kind of shot merely damaged the rigging which was quickly repaired. So the English turned to smaller, faster ships that could close in and take repeated broadside shots into the Spanish ships at short range. This resulted in considerable damage and an Armada forced to turn tail and run, giving the Victory to the British.

What does this have to do with ISIS and the coalition trying to beat them? Everything.

The coalition is like the Armada, with big powerful jets and drones and bombs that can inflict plenty of damage once they’re in place. ISIS on the other hand relies on smaller, faster tactics. Machine guns, suicide vests and trucks coated with armour plate, each one loaded with bombs and driven by men with visions of virgins dancing in their heads as they smash into markets, schools, hospitals etc. ISIS knows the drones and bombers will never get there fast enough to stop them, and so do the people they are attacking.

In effect, ISIS is the British navy, able to navigate more quickly, turn on a dime and deliver destruction much more effectively than the huge, lumbering coalition.

To think that more air strikes are the answer is to ignore not only history, but exactly what is happening on the ground in Syria, and Iraq. Air strikes are an easy sell to a Western public that likes big displays of firepower and very few casualties on our side, but they don’t work. What works, as illustrated in recent battles between ISIS and Kurdish pesh murga, is local military properly trained and armed with tanks, guns and missiles that are capable of delivering the kind of shots that are needed in an instant. The moment the truck loaded with bombs appears, not twenty minutes later when a drone or bomber finally arrives.

And what has this to do with Canada? Again, everything.

Our government plans to withdraw our bombers from the current mission and thank God. U.S. Generals have admitted that all the bombs dropped so far have not managed to stop the threat and despite what our former government liked to pretend, Canada is not a world military power. We don’t have the budget to provide our own military with new equipment so we certainly can’t send the kind that is desperately needed in Syria and Iraq. What we can and should do is send humanitarian aid along with men and women who can train the fighters on the ground to be more effective. And we should help those trying to escape the madness of ISIS.

We are not a nation that turns from conflict, but neither are we a nation of fools. After the tragic events in Paris, we need to resist the bleating of the right and the calls for more bombs, more suspicion and less compassion. Canada can and will be part of the war against ISIS, but we need to be smart about our role, and give those fighting on the ground what they need, versus what we want them to have.

Sex Ed Made Easy

November 12, 2015


Sex Ed Made Easy


Why I’d Rather Chew Soap Than Talk To My Daughters About Orgasms

I admit it. I took the easy way out when it came to talking to my daughters about sex. Not the actual mechanics – that they understood from about the age of eight and I took comfort in knowing they were well and truly disgusted by the very notion of such things happening. But I knew that initial disgust wouldn’t last, and by the time they hit puberty, curiosity would start to take hold.

It didn’t help that I wrote romantic comedy. Neither daughter would read the books because they could not put ‘mom’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence. Much like the brother-in-law who tried to read one of my books and had to put it aside after encountering the word ‘nipple,’ but that’s another post for another day.

The dilemma for me was how to talk to a pre-teen about consent, orgasms, figuring out what you like and more importantly how to ask for it when having sex.

To my mind, the number one consideration when having sex has always been “do you feel safe and happy.” Not either/or, but both at the same time. This made the consent part fairly easy to talk about regardless of how much eye-rolling and walking away I encountered. The rest was harder. Much, much harder.

What mother wants to talk to her kids about orgasms? And what kid wants to hear about any of it from mom? The problem of course is that pornography will quickly fill in any blanks that we leave and it was more of a horror for me to think of those young female minds getting their first impressions of what sex should be from anything titled Busty Backdoor Nurses or Poke-Herhontas #8.

Luckily, when I was faced with this dilemma women’s erotica was making its way onto the literary scene. Today there are plenty of books to choose from, some of which are poorly written (50 Shades of Crap, for instance) and some that would probably scare the crap out of any pre-teen, which might be great for a while, but isn’t the long term goal. But in 1993, there was Slow Hand, a collection of short stories told from a female point of view and penned by talented writers. Stories that were not simply titillating but also tender and emotional and sometimes controversial, which was perfect because the desire for sex is neither simple nor straightforward and I didn’t want my daughters to ever think that it was.

So I made sure they caught glimpses of me reading that book, and saw me close it abruptly and set it aside when they entered a room. And one day I inadvertently set it on a table and left not only the room, but the house, hoping one or both would pick it up.

While I had my suspicions, it wasn’t until a few years later that I finally found out that the plan had indeed worked. They both read it and talked about it (and were suitably appalled that I was reading it), but those stories did what they were supposed to do, feeding them important information that they carried with them into their teen years and beyond.

Slow Hand is tame by today’s standards which is why I still find it a great introduction to the exciting and confusing world of sex for both boys and girls. So grab a copy, make it forbidden and then leave it lying around. While safe and happy was my starting point, these stories helped launch the girls on their own journeys and isn’t that the point of sex education?

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October 27, 2015

Listen to other writers tell their personal stories.

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Do a free fall writing exercise every day.

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Join writing organizations and workshops.

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If you write within a genre stop reading within that genre.