Mailing rates: Update

I wrote last December about the cost of mailing my not-very-big paperback novel, The Money Tree, to Canadian destinations: $11.50. I also mentioned I’d be exploring USPO options and last week I did just that, taking ten books across the border to check out US rates. The books were going to individual winners of a Goodreads contest.

What a pleasant surprise! The cost of mailing the same book within the US was $2.79. Furthermore, there was no fussy deployment of measuring tapes that has become the practice at Canada Post. The USPO guy just dropped the book in its envelope on the scale and gave me the price.

$2.79.

I felt as though I’d been transported back in time twenty years, gazing at him with (sorry to say) my mouth slightly open until he asked finally, with a touch of impatience, if it was okay.

Pulled myself together. Very okay, I assured him.

Add a dollar per book for the “truck fee” (don’t you love free trade?) charged by Homeland Security and you’re still only looking at $3.79. Add the conversion rate and my book cost roughly CN$4.17. Still less than forty percent of the Canadian rate.

Moreover, this was first-class, meaning the books get there within a week or two.

I’m of the same mind as before. I realize Canada has a smaller population and therefore fewer economies of scale, but I’m still certain we could get lower rates with freer markets, if Canada Post were stripped of its monopoly.

Gulf Island Memory

Off the west coast of British Columbia lie the Gulf Islands, hundreds of them. The smallest have a population of none, or one plus guests, while the larger islands are home to hundreds or even thousands of permanent residents.

The Islands’ climate has been described by the people at Environment Canada, incorrigible optimists all, as “mediterranean.” The vision of sun and sand conjured up by this word is not met in reality quite as often as the tourist might like, though the weather is certainly mild. That’s one reason why my latest book, The Money Tree, was set here. I felt Juniperus lucre would flourish in the Islands’ environment.

In an early draft, my fictional family, the Frisbys, lived on Thetis Island. It has the distinction of lying directly on the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the United States, thereby allowing the Frisbys to grow both Canadian and US dollars in their north and south groves. However, for reasons having to do with the plot, the family needed to be further south, which led to the creation of the fictional Ledyard island where they were ultimately planted, along with their trees.

I spent a day on Thetis as a 10-year-old, when our family took the ferry over with my grandfather, visiting from England. I’ve never forgotten it, partly because I ate oysters in the shell for the first time, plucked off the beach by my grandfather, and also because we had two flat tires, one when we were visiting a retired captain and his wife on their farm and thus missed the little ferry back to Vancouver Island; and another one in the evening, while en route to the larger ferry at Nanaimo, a few miles north. We arrived home very late indeed, but that day remains as a happy memory.

The greatest drawback to living on one of the Gulf Islands is the ferry service, which can be infrequent or expensive or both. Many islanders have their own boats or (like the rich realtor in my story) seaplanes, allowing them easy access to Vancouver or Bellingham at any time. However, the ferry is no issue at all for those who live there because they love island life, and feel no need to go anywhere else. I think I’d be one of that group.

Carbs Make You Hungry

Four years ago I lost 55 pounds and since then I’ve been maintaining my weight. That’s a staggering assertion for me. I’ve never maintained my weight in my life. I’ve either ignored it and eaten what I wanted, which was fine until I was 17 because I was growing and who knew from weight? But then I went to boarding school, one of the happiest times of my life. Less happy was the boarding school regimen of stodge, stodge and more stodge, with a bit less during Lent (it was a Catholic boarding school).

When I look back on my life now, it seems like one long battle to lose weight. Yet, in the moment I never saw it that way. I’d lose ten pounds, or twenty as the case might be, and keep it off briefly. Then once again the ounces would assemble, generally on my thighs. At 25 I did a lot of walking—about a thousand miles—and discovered a trick: if you stop eating once you’re no longer hungry, you won’t gain weight.

This worked for me for 15 years, in conjunction with smoking. Smoking. How I miss it. Then at 40 I quit drinking and began eating to compensate and weight-control became a battle, and once I quit smoking, a rout.

I discovered a diet online when I was fed up with feeling fat but couldn’t face the cold, hunger pangs and outright misery that I associate with dieting. Over about six months I lost the weight I’d been struggling to lose for years. During the following year I maintained and found it relatively easy: I’d weigh myself once a week and ramp the so-called diet up or down. I began to say I’d licked it: that I had a new diet that really wasn’t a diet but a change in eating habits and now I’m in control of my weight.

But last Christmas I had a bit of a battle in that regard: just couldn’t get stabilized. The pounds would creep back up; I’d cut out this little treat or that one, but it never seemed to be quite enough. Eventually, I came to recognize the wisdom in Robert Fulford’s words. He said keeping lost weight off isn’t rocket science: “It’s a delicate question of self-management, involving pride, shame, ambition, family history and many other difficult themes. It’s much more complicated than rocket science.”

It’s a bit like alcoholism: it’s always with you.

That said, just having a fighting chance of controlling my weight is a major step forward, and I’m achieving it by recognizing that weight maintenance is far less painful when you’re not cold and plagued by hunger pangs. And you’re not suffering hunger pangs if you restrict your carbs. That for me was a light bulb moment and makes me quite sanguine each time I have to hew closer to the original diet than I want: I won’t suffer unduly, and therefore I’m able to look on the prospect with something like equanimity.

Do I miss my carrot muffins and danish and pizza, and orange juice and bananas? Sure and sometimes I’ll have them. And I’m crazy about Lay’s and still enjoy the occasional binge (I love their family-size pack: from the side it looks just like the regular one).

But I like feeling thinner and not feeling hungry. So this morning, when I discovered I have 6.2 post-Christmas pounds to lose, I had no special urge to open a vein. It may take a month—maybe two—to lose it, but I won’t suffer unduly. That counts for a lot. That counts for everything, really. Almost everything.

Sticker Shock

I hustled off to the post office last week to mail copies of my new novel, The Money Tree, to assorted bodies in Canada and the UK. The cost per book by cheapest rate was $11.50.

This is a paperback weighing about 30 percent less than my last novel, which I was able to send for around $8. I came home in a certain amount of shock, mentally editing the complimentary copy list and feeling a sense of bereavement at the death of my marketing program.

A curious thing happened while I was handing over my life savings. An employee emerged from the rear and announced that the post office was out of stamps. “We can meter your parcel,” he said. But they had no books of stamps to sell. The Post Office. Ran out of stamps.

Is that like BC Hydro saying “we’re all out of power, folks. Come back in the new year.”

I’m going to be investigating US Postal Service prices for mailing my books, since the border’s not far away. I’m also adding my voice to the growing number who want the Canada Post monopoly ended.

Now.

If all market restrictions are lifted (an unlikely event in this country, where genuine competition is viewed with deep suspicion), and if mail carriers still can’t give me a price of less than $11.50/book for my little package, then so be it.

But I’ll be surprised if that’s the case.

Can Bitcoin Last?

I’ve been following the progress of the new digital currency, Bitcoin, with interest because its virtues are woven into my new novel, The Money Tree. Nothing makes a novel seem stale quicker than a current event that runs contrary to the plot, and because Bitcoin could simply disappear from the Internet landscape, I was tempted to call it some generic name like “Digibuck.”

In the end, I went to press without changing the name, because regardless of what happens, Bitcoin is both brilliant and unique and if it does nothing else, it is a forerunner of digital moneys to come.

Can it become a useful money? Since one characteristic of money is stability, we’ll have to wait and see. Its price rise has been hectic. When I began writing The Money Tree, last January, it was priced around $25. This week it broke $1000. That’s because Bitcoins are being removed from circulation through loss (hard-drive erasure or accidental dumping), or by investors or the US government, which seized a large cache when it closed down Silk Road.

It’s also because Congress has taken notice, which is, to put it mildly, newsworthy. Various governmental organs are now trying to decide whether Bitcoin is a commodity or a currency.

Right now, it’s behaving like a commodity and for good reason. Bitcoin’s limited quantity is one of its most powerful appeals. This feature was built in to the original code and is strictly controlled. New coins are “mined” at the rate of 25 roughly every ten minutes, down from 50 for the first four years. The rate will reduce still further in the years ahead. Only 21 million Bitcoins are slated to be created.

What if the code is hacked or subverted? Then Bitcoin would be reduced to the ranks of the ordinary fiat currencies it is meant to replace. Millions, billions even, could be created and pushed out into cyberspace, causing the value to plummet.

How likely is that? I’ve no idea. Based on the sophistication of the original code, maybe it’s close to impossible.

Another appealing feature of this currency has been its anonymity, and it’s always been my feeling that this would be the first feature the government would insist on changing. If Bitcoin transactions are no longer anonymous, would the appeal diminish?  I think it would.

If governments choose to tax transactions at some point in the block chain, would that diminish the appeal? Maybe, maybe not, depending on other options.

I’ve argued in my book that competition in the field of money is needed if we’re to restore some sanity to monetary policy. Currency competition doesn’t mean the dollar competing with the yen or pound: these are all fiat paper moneys with an inability to retain their present value for more than a minute. Whether Bitcoin will provide that kind of competition, or whether it’s merely the precursor to a future digital money, perhaps one backed by mutual funds or metals, remains to be seen.

If you’re interested in more on Bitcoin, check out the Coindesk website. It’s packed with useful and entertaining information.

The Annual Rotary Book Sale

I spent $11 today on two books: a 1909 Chatterbox in fair condition ($9) and the second instalment of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Detective Agency. I missed out on the Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition) for $5 because I wasn’t sure which edition I already have. It turned out to be the 13th, but by the time I got back to the mall, CMS (15th) had disappeared, whisked away I’m sure by someone equally aware of what a steal it was at the price.

I love the Rotary book sale. I discovered when I first moved here that it’s a fixture every October. The trestle tables go up on Saturday, long double lines marching the length of the mall. After the tables, the table signs: Geography, Sex and Family, Religion, Literature, Nature, Art, Canadiana, Special Books (that’s generally where I look first), Ethics, Politics, and so on. Miles of Fiction. The books are trucked in on Saturday night, unboxed and arranged, and on Sunday morning at 7am the sale opens for business.

I generally find a recent best seller or two that I didn’t want to pay full hardcover price for; you can usually find a few, though they don’t linger. I’ll usually pick out one or two authors I want to try; fiction is priced from $2-5—cheaper than the paperback versions would be—so you can get several without breaking the bank.

But the Special Books are my favourites, old editions, sometimes first editions, obscure subjects and odd-sized books. One year I found a Folio version of Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love, cloth-bound and slipcased, for $8. Another year I picked up a Norman Rockwell book, a coffee-table sized work with the entire collection of his Saturday Night covers. That set me back $20 and a sprained wrist lugging it home. But I enjoyed it no end, browsing a few pages at a time over several years. Now it’s taking up space and collecting dust and I’m going to give it back and let them sell it to someone else.

That’s how they make money, the Rotary Club. It’s rumoured they clear about $80,000 a year from the book sale alone, though that may be wildly fanciful; I wouldn’t know. But they do plenty of good things round town with their earnings, and I can’t think of an easier nor better way to contribute than to buy books I love to read.

Selective Vision

I sent my latest manuscript off for editing a couple of weeks ago. I know it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and I was fairly confident of getting a glowing appraisal from the dear old editor.

When her email arrived I opened it with alacrity and was devastated to read that she didn’t like the resolution nor one of the major characters.

All my plans went out the window. Based on a screenplay written years ago, this little piece was meant to be a quick filler while I researched my new series. It turned out to be unexpectedly difficult to convert to a novel, but I was pleased with the result, tickled at having learned some more about advancing plot and character, and ready to publish it and move on. Getting a thumbs down at the editorial stage was no part of the plan.

I’ve put in my time on rejection, so I know how unproductive it is. I got out of the house for a few days, played some golf, became reacquainted with the rest of the race, then came back and read the email again.

It’s amazing how the eye skips over praise and attaches itself to the bad stuff. On re-reading, I discovered the editor loved the story. She was with me on the family, the island, their activities, their personalities. In the context of these comments, I realized I had subconsciously shared her reservations about certain elements; I just hadn’t know what they were or what to do about them.

That’s the brightest construction I can put on the situation, because the bald fact is, despite all the good stuff, it’ll need a rewrite. So the series will have to wait, or this will have to go on the back burner, probably the best plan but now it’s like a sore tooth: I want it fixed.

I used to be an editor myself, of nonfiction. When I appraised a manuscript, I was generally hired to implement the suggested revisions. Wish I had someone to do that for me the writer!

Women and Augusta National: Same old same old

(This article was written in May of 2012, following publication of my novel Ang Tak, set at the Masters)

Another sexist tempest at the Masters, this time over the CEO of IBM. The company is a long-time supporter of the tournament and every CEO since the world was young has been invited to join Augusta National Golf Club.

But not this time. This time, an infamous snub, because like the Masters, Augusta National is male-only and IBM’s CEO is a woman.

Ho. Hum.

The only reason anyone gives a damn about this sort of thing anymore is because Augusta National happens to put on what is arguably the best-loved and most prestigious of all professional golf tournaments. It’s seen as very wrong, therefore, that the club is male-only.

Not to me. Whether they don’t want to install facilities for women, or they do want to be able to kick off their shoes and make vulgar noises in the dining room, the reason doesn’t matter. The members are entitled to do as they please, and to be judged accordingly.

I’ve got to add that if women could compete in the tournament—that is, if women were physically capable of competing against men at the highest levels of golf—then the all-male rule at Augusta National would seem outrageous to me.

Unfortunately, women are not able to compete head to head with men. Annika Sorenstam gave it a great try a few years ago and came up short. Michelle Wei has tried. Also came up short. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying. The great Babe Zaharias made the cut in several tournaments back in the 1940s and no doubt another woman will do it again one day.

Until then, women at the Masters—as players or members—is an annual tempest in a teapot.

I had to face this this issue head-on a few years ago when beginning my novel Ang Tak, about a young golfer and his caddie at the Masters. The event is so relentlessly male I wanted to inject a female element to broaden the novel’s appeal. So I made my caddie a woman, and made her the narrator. Kat (her name) holds a similar opinion to mine about the issue of women as members. Similar, but not the same: she thinks their choice is a dumb one. But like me, she also thinks they’re entitled to make it.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask if a woman would even want to be a member of this particular club. Yes, you’d be in influential and well-heeled company, with a membership that includes names like Buffett, Gates and Bechtel. (The club is so wealthy, in fact, they don’t even depend on sponsorship. One of the many reasons to love the tournament so much is because of the wondrous announcement that issues forth each year from the Chairman’s mouth: the one about no more than four minutes of advertising each hour.)

But—forgive me—how exciting would it be to be a member? I guess it depends on your tastes. Ten years ago the average age was 78. That’s probably come down somewhat since, but no one knows for sure. The membership of Augusta National is a well-kept secret.

The fact is, Augusta National will decide to invite a woman to join when it feels it cannot afford not to. Which may be next week or never. And whether or not we ever find out—that too will be up to the men of Augusta National. I’m good with that.

*  *  *

Update: In August 2012, Augusta National announced two new members, both women: Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.

The Fifteenth Club

  • You’re on the par 3 seventh, water all down the right side. To compensate, you aim well left; sometimes that helps you to stay dry. Not today. Another ball gone west.
  • The 370-yard par 4 sixteenth is the easiest hole on the course. Birdies are not uncommon here. Today, however, you miss a short birdie putt. Then, still annoyed, you miss the 12-inch par putt.
  • It’s a beautiful early morning.You plan on a quick round then home to spend Saturday with the kids. But your foursome had a cancellation and the slowest member of the club is in with your group. To compensate for the snail’s pace, you’re rushing your shots and wrecking your round.

You have no club in your bag to help in these circumstances. Yet you could have: meditation could be the invisible fifteenth club that helps you play better with the other fourteen.

More focus, less stress

Daily meditation can be as helpful to you as a session at the range. It can help you to focus, to concentrate. Meditation can help slow your thoughts down after an incredible shot (bad or good). It can assist you in visualizing your next shot. Critically, daily meditation is believed to strengthen the decision-making part of the brain. It helps you make better decisions under stress.

In fact, the simple act of visualizing the good shots, the ones you got right, can improve your game if you do it regularly. Try it some time (but not behind the wheel). Find a quiet moment to empty your mind of all thoughts, then fill it with the memory of one of your best shots. Remember the feel. Hear the sound. Picture that perfect trajectory.

In the course of researching my novel Ang Tak, I discovered that golfers use meditation techniques to give themselves that extra “club” for the times when you want to throw one or break it over your knee. That Tiger Woods learned how to meditate from his mother is common knowledge. But Y.E. Yang, who won the 2009 PGA, also meditates, as do many Asian golfers.

Staying in the moment

When you learn to meditate, you learn how to reduce the stress of a bad shot by embracing it. You don’t deny it, you don’t agonize over it, you don’t start listing all the things you did or did not do. Instead,  you accept that it happened and move on, immediately. You forget that shot and set about finding a solution. It’s history. Your next shot is what fills your mind now. It’s called staying in the moment.

Learning to meditate doesn’t mean you don’t get angry. On the contrary, it means you face your anger and accept it. If you’re able to meditate as you play, then you’ll focus on something like your breath, and try to clear other thoughts from your mind. If you’ve practiced this a while, you may find that this simple technique alone helps to calm you.

Meditation can teach you patience and–in a sport characterized by chronic discontent—it can teach you to find a measure of contentment, if not in your game then in the other components of your round: the weather, the course or your companions.

It’s been written that golf, like meditation, is a journey—a journey toward the perfect swing, the perfect round. It’s also been written that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. If that is so, then perhaps meditation can teach us to enjoy the journey rather than postponing our pleasure until we arrive.

This article was written in spring 2012 after the publication of my novel, Ang Tak, set at the Masters.