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That was 2022

About a month ago I had an idea to write a round up of the year. I think maybe the reason I didn’t, was that there isn’t a great list of successes and achievements. No matter how many times I try to revise my expectations, or review what I count as “success”, there’s still an insistence that I must produce new work every year, and by produce I mean “finish and publish”. This only applies to plays, of course, because I’ve given up on the notion of the e-books being anything but a way of storing information about my prop-building exploits.

But it’s the year end, and Spotify have sent out emails showing you what you listened to. Authors will be reviewing their favourite books of the year, there’ll be “Best Movies of 2022” articles everywhere, video games reviews and so on. All in all, it’s a strong incentive to look at our own achievements and put things in “pro” or “con” columns.

Mrs Dim said the other day that she’d found a note that said our word for 2022 was “Optimism”. You have to remember that, back at the start of this year, we had no idea how she would be affected by her stroke long term. There was no projected date for a return to work. There was a faint chance I could move up to a full-time position, but that turned out to be too long a shot to pull off. So we’ve spent the year being optimistic. We managed to buy the apartment, allowing the elder two Weasels to move out and still live within their means. Fluctuating interest rates have made that harder, but now we know Mrs Dim has the chance to return to work in January, our income may rise a little to offset that again.

My brother came through his health scare with some terrific new scars, but a working heart. My mum and dad have got through the worst (hopefully) of the UK winter, despite a Conservative government actively trying to kill off large sections of the population.

We went to Seattle and showed off Derek to an actual DOCTOR. If I ever need to smile, I just watch the video of Derek trundling around. He only got motorised this last summer! That seems incredible to me. I’m resigned to the fact that most of his renovation work won’t be completed by Fan Expo in Feb, but he MIGHT be talking…

Anyway, we were optimistic right up to Christmas Day. We had gather the kids together for a nice lunch and to open presents, when I got a resurgence of what I had thought was a grumbling appendix. When it hadn’t stopped grumbling after a few hours, we went into Emergency, and they finally determined it was a kidney stone. I came out with some medication, the advice to pee through a strainer, and someone else’s cold, which I then passed on to Mrs Dim.

None of this has made the last week of 2022 any more optimistic, but I don’t think it’s knocked us down either. I made it into work today, and I won’t need to come back until next Tuesday if I don’t feel up to it. Mrs Dim has a similar timeline before her trial return to work period starts, and it’s a graduated return too.

We’re aiming for “Stabilisation” next year. Mrs Dim finding her footing in work again, Tiny Weasel doing the same in her job at the library. The elder two weasels are wrestling with work and college still, and I obviously have health issues to work out. And Daleks to renovate.

Maybe we don’t have a laundry list of accomplishments for the year, but maybe we don’t need one. Maybe we can just stand on the mountaintop and appreciate the view before we start the next climb.

Silly Seasonal Traditions

It’s December, so we’re sat here watching seasonal movies. (Mrs Dim watched “Sleepless in Seattle” while I was at work, so we’re rounding out the Nora Ephron canon with “You’ve got mail”). I don’t know that watching seasonal movies counts as a tradition, because everybody does it.

Anyway, we do have some traditions that we chose to make our own. Christmas Eve afternoon, we have a “picky tea” – food you can pile on a plate and eat with your fingers – and we watch two very special things – Muppet Christmas Carol, and Simon Callow reading extracts from Dickens.

Again, maybe not wildly original, but something we have come to love doing.

And then there’s this:

I know it looks like a collection of crazy toys, but it all started with a beautiful Christmas village set that a friend gave us soon after we arrived in Canada. For several years,we laid out the fake snow material and put out the houses and bought the odd small addition – streetlights, raccoons in a bin…And then one year, I forget why, we decided we were going to tell a story about what was happening in the village. We would write one short installment each day on Facebook, and include a photo. We’d start December the first and finish on Christmas Day

Most of the stories centre on Boots McGee (she’s the one in the hat, next to the Minion dressed as a Napoleonic soldier). She’s a brave orphan who usually has to struggle against great odds to solve a problem of some kind. Some years there are specific themes or running gags. One year I tried to work in a line from a Christmas carol into every day without disrupting the storyline. Last year, we hid titles from festive movies in every installment – Boots McGee had taken up with the criminal shorty Gnome Malone, for example.

Over time, the original inhabitants of the village have been joined by Lego figures, Star Wars figures, a T-Rex skeleton, toy cars, and even a model of the van I use for my day job.

If you look closely, you might just be able to see that Boots is wearing a false mustache in this picture. She was in disguise.

But the big issue this year is more of a logistical problem than a storytelling one. Part of our house renos during 2022 was removing the living room fireplace and, therefore, the mantelpiece that went over it. We’ve gone from this:

….to this:

There isn’t room under the TV to assemble the village, so we’re probably going to be using the shelves…I don’t really know how it’s going to work this year, but we have to figure it out soon… The Nuns of St Frideswide have just set out from the niche in the hallway, intent on leading the donkey and camels they confiscated from the Three Kings with the aid of The Bad Batch from Star Wars back to Mantelpiece Village…

All this is a very roundabout way to say, keep only those traditions that bring you joy, or connect you to things or people you hold dear. Quite a few people seem to have found the phrase “Traditions are just peer pressure from the dead” this year, and I think that’s worth reflecting on. We’ve chosen traditions that bring our family together, that raise a smile. I hope we always will.

Fear of Failure

Thmoas Edison – one of the men who invented the lightbulb. Yes, “one of” because it was ALSO invented in Sunderland, UK. As was I.

It feels like the last fifteen years have been filled with positive messages about failure. My generation seem to have arrived at our peak (ahead at work, senior in many things, making decisions for our communities) and taken time to reassure one another that failure is a part of the process. That if you’re not failing, you’re not trying.

I’m the one on the right, looking down at the ball I just dropped.

As a juggler, I’m very familiar with that kind of mindset. We used to say “A drop is a sign of improvement” and “a touch is as good as a catch” and other such encouraging things. We meant them too.

But it occurs to me now, sitting in my job’s break room, thinking about the debt I have tied up in my house, that we only risk failure willingly when the stakes are not high. No one was forcing me to learn to juggle. Although I tried to make it into a business, nothing major hung on it. I wanted to make a living from juggling, or teaching juggling, but when I couldn’t, I went out and got a regular job. You MIGHT say I failed

The latest upgrades for Derek the dalek are challenging.

Following my own logic, then, I should be willing to risk failure in my hobbies. Eager, even, since there are no real consequences, and no one to disappoint. I can carry on mucking about with upgrading Derek the Dalek and no one minds if it takes ages and goes off the rails from time to time. Right?

Well, no. There’s me. Although the stakes may not be high in terms of life or death, lose the house, bankrupt the family, I DO feel there are stakes involved. Derek earns nothing for the family. We have fun parading him around, but every dollar I spend on him is a sunk cost. The next stage of the upgrade is making a cast of the 3d print I just did of the front half of his shoulders (see picture above). If I get this bit right, we can replace the wood and hardboard construction of his shoulder section with lighter but just as strong fibre glass, giving Laurel much more room inside to work his various functions. But the gear for casting has cost $150. Just making the front half on the printers has cost at least $60. I’ve never done any casting before, and right here is where I am suffering my greatest fear of failure. The next step I take might wreck some of the supplies. I might use too much and have to buy more. I might even get as far as producing the mold, and then get the casting bit wrong. There are SO MANY opportunities to get this wrong and waste money I don’t have, and yet the outcome if it all goes right it just people going “Hey, that looks pretty much the same from outside.”

Mrs Dim sometimes says she doesn’t understand why I have hobbies that make me angry or depressed, but the truth is, it’s not the hobby, it’s ME. I want to do this thing, like fitting Derek’s speech box, and I muck it up. I might not even know HOW I mucked it up, but I do know I’m not learning anything from the experience other than that I can’t trust myself to get these jobs right. I’m fifty now, and I think the real fear of failure is that I can’t learn a new skill, can’t master something I didn’t spend time on before.

I don’t want to be afraid of trying, but I really, really don’t want to screw this stuff up.

5 things you should know about 3d Printing

I wrote a post not so long ago about the joy and magic of 3d printing, and how my younger self would have been utterly bewitched by this machine that could produce any action figure you could get plans for. But then the other day, a friend of mine mentioned they were considering getting one, and asked my advice. I wondered what I would have liked to know before I got a 3d printer. Here are the five things I came up with.

  1. It’s still early days. While the technology has been around for a couple of decades, the majority of the 3d printing community are quite techy folks who are happy to tinker and recalibrate and even print new parts and additions for their machines. Furthermore, a lot of printers still arrive in pieces that you have to assemble yourself. It’s not quite soldering circuit boards, but very few are “open the box and go” models.
  2. Perhaps because I’m not very techy or willing to tinker, my results can vary immensely when it comes to printing. In the recent spell of hot weather, a lot of my prints went sideways. Because of the hot weather? Well, maybe. Again, this is a young field, so there’s a lot of opinions and not a lot of established lore. Should I enclose my printers to try and control their climate? Maybe. That’s a good, solid maybe, you understand.
  3. Filament. Filament is the plastic string that you feed into your printer to be turned into your masterpieces. It comes on reels, in 0.5kg and 1kg rolls (mostly). The stuff I get tends to cost around $30 a reel, but I can’t tell you how long it lasts because each print uses a different amount, and what you’re printing doesn’t often have a real world equivalent. What would it cost me to buy the segment of Dalek that’s in the photo above? I don’t know, you can’t buy it. Well, except from someone who’d 3d print it for you.

But here’s the thing about filament: It comes on plastic reels, every time. After a little while, you have a lot of plastic reels that you really can’t use for anything else. If you ask, people will point you to projects like this:

https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2103466

Yet I don’t need all the storage things I already have, so I’m not keen on using MORE filament to make MORE storage I don’t need. I have used a few reels to store Christmas lights, but the rest are just stacked on a pole in the corner of the basement. And here’s the OTHER thing about filament: You won’t always use all of a reel, so you’ll be left with a few turns. The logical thing is to link all these pieces together to use them in another project, but if you are not a tinkerer, there are NO straightforward, reliable methods for joining filament. People may want to argue that point, but I will stand by it. The devices for sale on Amazon that claim to do it all (heat, connect, smooth and release) have terrible reviews – they’re described as shoddy and unreliable and overpriced. All the DIY methods I have tried have failed. It’s a shame, because I reckon I have at least a kilogram of odds and ends of filament that I would LOVE to re-use.

4. You don’t just download a file from the internet and print it. Most of the files you’ll find in places like Thingiverse.com are .STL. You take that file and import it into a slicing program, which converts it for your printer. My FlashForge Finder has a specific slicing program which is great – intuitive and easy to use, for the most part. My Tinkerine Ditto has an online-only slicing program which is less user friendly and has fewer features. For example, the Finder program can actually cut up large pieces into smaller units for printing on a small print bed. The Tinkerine can’t. So if I have something that’s too large, but I want to print it on the Tink, I have to slice it in the Finder program, export the sliced pieces as .STLs and then slice them individually in the Tinkerine program before saving them as .GX files for printing. Then I put them on a storage device – an SD card for the Tink, a USB stick for the Finder – and take them to the printer.

5. My final tip may not come as a surprise: 3d modelling is difficult. In the early days of the pandemic, I spent two weeks or more doing an online tutorial in Blender, because I have that program already. I learned a lot, then forgot most of it. I have designed and modelled a few things which I went on to print. All were very simple shapes. Some worked first time. Some were complete disasters. I need more practice to make it easier, but I don’t want to practice because it’s difficult. A bit of a circular issue there, I know.

The main point I want to make is that the best printers out there are not the simplest to use. But if you’re thinking of getting one because you want to do something awesome, like 3d printed armour, or helmets or hey, a life-size dalek? Then aim high, grit your teeth and prepare to do the work. You may find you take to it like a duck to water, but if you don’t, there are plenty of people out there in internetland who would LOVE to help you out. The 3d maker community is NOT an exclusive club – they are very keen to spread the joy and answer your questions.

Halloween 2022 (and others)

If you’ve read more than a couple of these blog posts, you’ll know we like making stuff in this household. We are happy to put on crazy outfits for the flimsiest of reasons. Halloween is obviously a big deal for us.

For our last Halloween in the UK, we followed the traditional custom of having a party to which the Weasels invited their friends. At the time, the UK was just coming to terms with adopting the North American custom of Trick or Treating, so rather than patrolling the neighbourhood trying to finds someone who was prepared to hand out sweets, we hosted a crowd of kids in costumes.

Arriving in Canada was a bit of a revelation. People had LOADS of Halloween decorations. The shops were stuffed with special supplies of sweets, and giant inflatables. Since my first job in Canada was working at Home Depot, I got to see some of these crazy giant decorations up close…

So we have made the most of being here – we’ve added to our own collection of Halloween decorations every year, and although we don’t have an animatronic dragon (yet!), we DO have an animatronic witch who is quite creepy enough, thanks.

The last few years we’ve made a giant spiders’ web which stretches right across our driveway and supports a giant spider. Sweets get hung from the web and the kids have to pick them off. The advantage is that we don’t have to spend the whole night outside if it’s cold or rainy, just restock the web every now and then.

Now, I don’t know where this year’s idea came from, but it got settled early on that for 2022, we would have a pirate ship in the driveway. There’d be a hole in the side of the ship, and kids would have to go into the ship and find the sweets in the treasure chest.

It took a couple of false starts, but eventually, we ended up with the wreck of the good ship “Queen of Scream”, a firing cannon, five pirate skeletons, a cursed treasure chest, and a forty-five minute pirate soundscape (courtesy of Middle Weasel) that included some great pirate songs, creaking rigging, someone walking the plank, a pitched battle at sea, and a fight with the Kraken!

Truth and Reconciliation Day 2022

Thanks to an accident of birth, I’m free to live in Canada. It’s a land I have no claim to, and though we acknowledge every day that we are here on someone else’s land, we still hide behind sophistry. We say “unceded”, when we mean “stolen”.

We live on the land that was taken from people who had lived there for thousands of years. Because they looked different, because they valued different things, lived a different life, they were judged lesser, deemed uncivilized. Though the people who stole the land professed to hold to a religion that says stealing is wrong, they compounded their crime by trying to eradicate the people who lived there first. They tried to destroy their way of life, and they stole the children to separate them from their families and their culture and their heritage.

There’s no excusing what was done. It’s not enough to say “It was a different time.” or “They didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing.” They did know. They were very clear that the culture that existed in North America must be replaced with that of the European Colonists. That no act of violence was too terrible if it resulted in cutting the next generation of the First Nations off from their families, their stories, their history.

We talk about Truth and Reconciliation, but it’s not ours to give, or to take. The uncovering of the Residential School graves last year was a step towards truth, but like many things, this was a truth the indigenous peoples have been telling everyone for years. Any reconciliation has to be on their terms, not ours.

And if you think that’s too much to ask, imagine having your children torn away from your family, being denied contact, having them raised in a culture and religion that is not your own, and perhaps facing the horror of them never returning. Having no idea what happened to them, or where their remains lie. This one aspect of the crimes committed against the First Nations should be enough to stop us in our tracks.

We have allotted one day to mark Truth and Reconciliation, to stand against decades and decades of abuse, erasure, prejudice, and mischaracterisation. It’s a long road that we must walk now, and the First Nations have to be the ones leading. We can’t ask how far we have to go, until we acknowledge the terrible weight of the burdens they have already been carrying all these years.

Writer’s Block

I was going to title this post “Writer’s block – myth or not?” but I didn’t. Here’s why:

A lot of writers who blog, or Tweet, or whatever address the issue of writer’s block at some point. Some say it doesn’t exist, that to write – to really write – just takes the application of bum to seat and fingers to keyboard. It’s a job, they say, and writing every day like it’s a real job will carry you through the days when you just don’t, you know feel it.

Other people say “No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I want to write, I really need to, and I am sat here ready to go, and the WORDS WON’T COME!” It’s a genuine blockage, something preventing the flow of words that is normally, if not effortless, then at least easy.

So that brings me round to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: People are different. We KNOW people are different, but we still determinedly lump together people who share one aspect of their lives, or their personalities, or their medical diagnoses, and we treat them all the same.

Writing. I’ve been a published writer for over twenty years. I’ve earned actual money from the stuff I write. Now, I don’t make my entire living from writing, so maybe you can discount me that way, but I don’t think so. I’ve written fiction and non-fiction and sold both. I’ve done magazine articles and short stories. I’ve done novels. I’ve certainly done plays. But what I’ve written over the last three years could be fitted on a pack of cigarettes without removing the government-mandated warning pictures. And yeah, some of that is because of regular life – remodeling the house, buying an apartment, Mrs Dim’s medical condition, the trip to England… There are always going to be interruptions. But I’m saying for the record here that there has been plenty of time for me to write, and I haven’t done it.

Is that Writer’s Block? Maybe for me. It’s not the first time I haven’t had ideas fighting to get onto paper, though it is the longest. I’ve had ideas during that time, obviously, and some of them got noted down in various places, but nothing developed beyond that scribbled note:

“And then my husband got fat”

“Small, Good Wolves need not apply”

“Famous Last Words”

“The Gardener of Crystal Palace”

Last week I was shuffling through a bunch of old files. One of them was an outline of a play I started to write. It was called the “Not Bertie Wooster” Play, because I had listened to the complete Jeeves and Wooster series on audio, and the style of Bertie’s speech was burned into my brain. I had a lot of fun, writing the outline using Bertie’s eclectic terms of affection and disbelief, and was building up quite a Wodehousian plot. Naturally, I ran out of steam about a third of the way through, but that was five pages. Five pages of outline. Since I didn’t have any other writing work on, I thought it would be easier to try writing out the script from this outline, rather than trying to write something new (or, actually, finish the outline first!)

That was a week ago, and I am pages into the script and haven’t caught up to the end of the outline yet. Writing this is fun , it’s not difficult, and I’m not worried about running out of outline because it feels like this is one of those plays where the characters will take up the story and run with it if I let them.

I haven’t “broken” a writer’s block. I haven’t found a method that will work for other people, or even for me the next time around. Everyone is different. But for now, I have rediscovered my own joy in writing, and it may well carry me through to the end of this script.

If YOU are suffering from Writer’s Block, or some similar condition that is preventing you doing your own creative thing, then firstly, I believe you. No one can tell you that block does not exist. It’s YOURS.

Secondly, because everyone is different, there are a million different pieces of advice out there that claim to break your block. None of them is going to be right every time for every person. But because there are so many, and hey, aren’t you desperate? Then you can try as many as you like until you find one that works for now.

Fifty, not out… (Cricket reference.)

There’s a lot of mileage made in popular culture about fear of aging, but the truth is, it’s rarely presented as an issue for folks like me – middle class, middle age white guys. In fact, we’re more likely to be told that Charlie Chaplin was still fathering children when he was in his seventies, and I still don’t know what to make of that.

I didn’t worry when I turned thirty. I’d once been told that men hit their physical peak at eighteen, but if that’s true, then my peak wasn’t much to shout about, and if I ever get around to making an effort, I’m pretty sure I could get into better shape, even now. Thirty was nothing, though. I was a dad of young kids, involved in the school, trying to make a hobby into either a career or a paying prospect. I was learning to be a good husband, still thinking back then that it was something you could become, not something you had to choose to be every day.

I don’t remember turning forty, really. I notice I didn’t blog about it, and we didn’t make a fuss about that birthday, but instead threw a party  when I turned forty two, because that IS an important number, right? Forty is officially middle-age, and even today a guy making it to 80 is doing well, beating the averages. But my kids still seemed young, and I could generally keep up with them. There were the odd aches and pains, but I still wasn’t actually doing any exercise, so that wasn’t surprising.

And now fifty. Two of my kids are so grown up they’ve left home. One’s working full time, the other’s about to finish university. The remaining stay-at-home may be about to start work too. My latest shot at promotion may have stalled, but I’m happy in my job, and it brings in enough to allow us to live happily, if not extravagantly. I’m not disappointed that I never became a motorcycle stunt man (as ten-year-old Dim once wanted), and I’m happy with all the choices I’ve made, I think. Being fifty doesn’t feel as old as it used to sound.

Derek at Emerald City

So far we haven’t taken Derek out of town. The Vancouver FanExpo is small but mighty, and we have loved the two visits Derek has made there. In the background, however, was this idea that maybe we should be looking to keep moving up, with the eventual aim of going to the Mother of All Comicons, San Diego.

Just a couple of hours across the border, Seattle hosts the Emerald City Comic Convention. This year they announced that David Tennant was going to be attending, along with Billie Piper. A few years ago, the Weasels went all the way out to Edmonton to get a photo with David Tennant.

Mrs Dim and I decided we might head out to Seattle, take the photo with us, and get our picture taken with their picture, and then challenge them to get another picture holding our picture…. Well, it was a great plan. Unfortunately, once the Weasels heard about our plan, they decided they should come too, and bring Derek…

Derek has been upgraded somewhat, thanks to the 3d printers and the Raspberry Pi, but we hadn’t had more than a brief try out with all the kit in the basement. The biggest addition was the hoverboard that Mrs Dim found, which allowed Eldest Weasel to move Derek around without having to flap her feet like Fred Flintstone.

With Derek taking up the whole of the back of Magda the Mazda, the Weasels has to drive themselves to Seattle, but we managed to arrive at the same car park beside the convention center. Assembling Derek as easy, thanks to experience…

But then we ran into an issue that we’ve not had to deal with before, which Seattle may need to look at. To get to the elevator for the convention center, Derek had to go down some stairs. Derek can not go down stairs. Despite the fact that we were parked next to a disabled parking spot, the only access to the elevator without stairs was down the “NOT FOR PEDESTRIANS” ramp. Only to find we couldn’t get into the convention center that way. We had to go find an employee to point out the ADA compliant entrance.

It’s a good job we don’t believe in omens. We trundled Derek into the center itself and stacked him up with Eldest Weasel in the driving seat.

Try as we could, we couldn’t position the speaker in a way that prevented feedback whenever we tried to use the Raspberry Pi voice-changer. The Pi worked, but the feedback drowned the dalek voice. We disconnected it, and hooked up a phone with pre-recorded phrases instead. Voice changer next time. The hoverboard was working, though, so we trundled forward, into the convention at last.

Derek was a sensation. From the moment he rolled into the the first hall, he was mobbed by people admiring him, asking for photos, for details of construction, for confirmation that someone was inside.

Eldest Weasel makes Derek come alive, but even when she stepped out for a chance to tour the halls and Derek was simply standing sentinel, he attracted admirers. It was just so much fun to see people genuinely light up when they saw him.

When Eldest Weasel returned we had our biggest challenge: We had to make our way from the convention center to the Hyatt Regency. Out on the actual streets of Seattle.

All the photo sessions were taking place in the Hyatt, so we were making our way there along with other convention goers, and passed by others on their way back to the convention. We were stopped for photographs as we went, and Derek’s hoverboard proved equal to the challenge of the streets. Even so, Derek’s driver found the process quite tiring, and was relieved to unstack in the Hyatt for a bit of a rest.

We had made it to the Hyatt in good time, so Derek was able to restack and roll into the long line of people waiting to have their photo taken with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper (David Tennant having, sadly, had to withdraw due to filming commitments.)

Even after everything we’d seen that day, the look on their faces as we rolled through the curtain – well, Derek rolled – it was amazing. So much so that I apparently nearly forgot to get into the photo myself.

Derek made it to Emerald City in style, and he wowed the crowds and the celebrities. We still have more upgrades planned, more work to do, but as he is, Derek is just fine.

Another Juggling Box Update

There’s a lot going on right now. Two of the kids have moved out, there was a fire at work, we’re renovating the basement bedroom….

…Yes, that’s ANOTHER fireplace we’ve removed. I’m also trying to get Derek’s upgrade moved along, but I’ve reached a tricky bit that involves putting together a lot of components at once in a way that absolutely must not go wrong.

On top of which, I’m also trying to keep ahead of the script reading work I do for Lazy Bee Scripts. We’re busy, is the short version.

Nonetheless, it bothered me that I had made this custom-built thing to carry all my juggling kit, and yet when I added the jar I use to carry the fuel that keeps the fire clubs burning, the lid would not shut. The box on the top is the logical place for this jar, but I was not about to rebuild the entire top box just to accommodate a few centimeters in height. So here’s my elegant solution:

Not only does the jar now fit when the lid’s closed, it doesn’t rattle about as you drag the box around on the tiny wheels! I bet all the woodworkers who’ve been liking the original post will be well impressed with this.