Travel Log: San California, 2009

The following is a travel journal, to be updated daily between October 27th and November 4th, 2009. Follow me as I travel to San Francisco, San José and the 2009 World Fantasy Convention!

October 25, 2009 – The Plan

It all starts with the World Fantasy Convention.

To anyone unfamiliar with the written Science Fiction and Fantasy community, the expression immediately suggests a Hedonism-style bacchanal of unimaginable perversion.  Add that the event is taking place near San Francisco, and conversations pretty much stop dead at that point, aside from the raised eyebrows and mutters of “this isn’t like you at all…”  Border guards asking “Where are you going?” get especially suspicious.

The truth is far less salacious: The World Fantasy Convention is as close to a professional trade show as Science Fiction conventions ever get.  It’s an event that caters to the field’s authors, publishers, editors and critics: Three days of intense networking, serious panels, working lunches and bar conversations.  There’s quite a bit of drinking for those who do imbibe (I don’t) and few costumes in sight.  One of the highlights of last year’s WFC in downtown Calgary on Halloween Day, in fact, was to realize that there were more costumes outside the convention than inside.  I love the WFC: it’s a convention that treats its members like serious adults, and it raises the bar for the entire SF convention experience.

2009 will be my fourth WFC, after Montréal (2001), Saratoga Springs (2007) and Calgary (2008).  It will also complete my hat-trick of “2009 World Conventions” after May’s dismal World Horror Convention in Winnipeg and Montréal superlative World Science-Fiction Convention in August. The fact that it takes place in San José, a train ride south of San Francisco, is another reason to go: I’ve never been to Northern California (although I was in Los Angeles in 2006), and the WFC offered an ideal off-season opportunity to go take a look at one of America’s iconic cities.

I won’t pretend that I’m getting used to travel, but the last few years have seen me travel to major conventions in other American cities on a bi-annual basis, usually with bigger and more ambitious plans.  The two complications this time around are non-direct flights (no such things from Ottawa or Montréal) and quite a bit of traveling by train on the ground in between San Francisco and San José.

Taking all of the above together, the plan is this: On Tuesday, October 27, I will fly from Ottawa to Toronto, then from Toronto to San Francisco, where I will stumble (via BART) to my hotel, spend the next day visiting San Francisco and surrounding on tourist buses, then make my way to San José, attend the WFC for three days, get back to San Francisco on Sunday, and then spend two days walking around San Francisco after which I fly back to Ottawa via Toronto.  Also, two more things: I’m launching a major web project on Friday, and I start writing my NaNoWriMo novel on November 1st.  Plus the assorted keep-in-touch-with-the-office and keeping this journal updated.  Stay tuned.

As I write this, two days before launch, my schedule is finely tuned, my reference printouts are nearly completed and I’m minutes away from packing my luggage. Yes, I’m ready.

October 26, 2009 – The checklist

Let’s see if I have everything ready:

  • Overall schedule printed and verified: Check
  • Printed materials (plane confirmation, hotel reservations, maps, WFC progress report) assembled: Check
  • iPod stuffed with ebooks, music, maps: Check
  • Netbook pre-loaded with software fit to answer web emergencies, tested for telework and blog access: Check
  • Electronic devices charged and stuffed in luggage along with vital extension cords: Check
  • Complex laundry/clothing (under and overwear)/carry-on luggage algorithm performed: Check
  • Clothes picked, folded and put in luggage: Check
  • Paperbacks (2) selected for length and put in luggage: Check
  • Beard trimmed and shaved: Check
  • Luggage stuffed, fluffed, prodded, sat on and found to be still within carry-on guidelines with place to spare in case of book-buying emergencies: Check
  • Passport taken from safe storage, admired and put in jacket pocket: Check
  • Colourful Canadian money switched to dull-green American money: Check

I think I’m reasonably OK.  Of course, there’s thousands of things I haven’t had time to do before I leave…

October 27, 2009 – From Rockland to San Francisco

8:00 – I never sleep very well on the eve of a major trip, and this one is no exception: I suspect that I have slept, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I get up with the usual stuffy nose, dry throat and scratchy eyes that either say “impending cold” or “You’re about to leave for far away.”. Shower, breakfast, one last look at email. The luggage, fortunately, is already packed.

9:00 – My ride from Rockland to the Ottawa airport is convenient, but it also gets me there far, far too early.

10:00 – Early as in “got boarding pass, underwent security check, went to the washroom, am now sitting at the gate three hours before the flight leaves. Notable: Canadian customs don’t required shoes to be removed anymore. The rest is simple and easy. I start reading The Project Gutenberg edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on my iPod. It’s a novel of its time, but it’s interesting to see where it all started.

12:30 – We board! I finish Dracula moments before the plane lift-off. I have a left-side window seat. There’s no one sitting to my immediate right, but a couple is sitting on each side of the aisle; they’re also going to Northern California.

13:00 – Flying from Ottawa to Toronto. The flight is ridiculously short at 45 minutes. There’s barely any time left for poking around the movies of the week (making notes for the next flight) and getting one packet of surprisingly good corn-and-flax-seed chips. Mild turbulence.

14:00 – On the ground at Pearson airport. After calling Gray Line Tours to confirm the next day’s guided tour, I make my way to security…

15:00 – Gaah, the final hour has not been one of my finest, and it’s not over yet. Pearson is big and complicated, and I’m not above a few dumb mistakes. The first sign that something is going wrong comes when I start filling my US custom sheet and realize I have forgotten my usual jacket pen at home. (This, by the way, explains the extra pen on the kitchen counter I was wondering about.) I have, of course, a backup in my luggage, but it’s a pencil. Minutes later at the custom booth, the officer stares at me, scratches the penciled signature and tells me to NEVER DO THIS AGAIN. (Fact: When US custom officers with powers to deny you entry in the United States tell you do do something, you vow to obey.) But wait! It gets better! Security check-up is simple (although they still insist on the shoe thing.) but the troubles start when I look at my boarding pass printed in Ottawa and see that I have to get to gate 270. OK, except that following directions first lands me on a bus making its way across the airport tarmac, and then in a dismal sub-terminal catering to turboprops headed for exotic destinations such as Hartford. Gate 270 is going somewhere I’ve never heard of. The customer service center, at the other end of the tiny terminal, at least has the decency to agree that something had gone horrible wrong on my boarding pass: they write the right gate number (149) and call me another bus to go back to the central terminal. All right now, right? NO: following the directions lands me at the end of a lengthy corridor where I (and quite a few other passengers) find ourselves faced with a glass partition that won’t open to reveal our final gate. I retreat to write the day’s adventures so far. Then I start reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

15:40 – That took a while, but the glass partition finally opened and allowed us to proceed to the right gate. From there, it’s an uneventful wait for the flight.

16:45 – Our flight leaves Toronto. Once again, my clever seat selection has paid dividends in not having anyone sitting next to me (there’s another couple sharing the aisle seats in my row, and they seem to be traveling back to SF as a group.) The flight isn’t full, but there’s a steady amount of mild turbulence from Toronto to SF. (It’s “one of those days” says the pilot. I finish to Kill a Mockingbird (not overly impressed), read half of Iain Banks’ surprisingly (for fortunately) short novel The Wasp Factory, snack on a substandard wrap, sort-of-sleep for half an hour, find out that my fatigue symptoms have now progressed to the usual headache, finish the Banks novel, change clocks to three hours earlier on my iPod and camera (but not netbook) unsuccessfully try to sleep some more, start Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, race the dusk until night wins just before final descent. We are early, but…

19:00 (22:00 Ottawa time) – …the fifteen minutes head-start is eaten up by slow deplaning, a confusing introduction to the BART system (any ticketing scheme that depends on references to a printed sheet of paper detailing prices for specific stations is not obvious to newcomers) and a lengthy wait for said train to downtown. Fortunately, I make it without to much trouble, and so…

20:30 (23:30 Ottawa time) – …I exit the BART system at the Powell St. station and immediately start seeing a payoff for my freakish preparation: I immediately recognize the building in front of me and start walking toward my hotel. Two left turns later, I’m at the Hotel Fusion. Check-in in slow, but I get the room I want. It’s tiny (I barely fit in the bed), but it’s exactly what I need at this point. There’s one problem: The free Internet access is wired, which means that it requires a data cable that I left at home. (Wi-Fi is so prevalent that in considering whether I should pack the cable or not, I actually thought “naaah, what are the chances?”). Here, another freakish piece of my preplanning pays off: I know there’s an Apple store only a block away. Plus, I’m reasonably hungry and the hotel room has an enticing flyer for Indian food. So…

20:45 (23:45 Ottawa time) – This one goes out to Yves and everyone else I may have annoyed by saying that Apple Store were cult temples that that I would, ahem, never-ever go shop there: I went there and bought what may have been the single most expensive CAT6 Networking cable in the Western Hemisphere. Because, to adapt a quip, the best cable is the one you have with you at the time.

21:00 (midnight Ottawa time) – Second stop: Indian food. The “New Delhi” is able to accommodate a single guest without reservations showing up an hour before closing time, and the “non-vegetarian complete meal” is a combo plate that’s pretty much everything I wanted from my visit. Well, except for the rice, most of which I left on the plate –there was more than enough on the rest of the plate to fulfill me.

21:30 (00:30 Ottawa time) – Back at the hotel room, where the data cable connection works without a hitch, no screaming email emergencies are found and a few things are sent or posted.

Tomorrow: Guided tour of SF and surroundings. Now: Sleep

October 28, 2009: Guided tours of San Francisco

6:50 (9:50 Ottawa time) – Any night where I sleep comfortably and wake before the alarm is a success, and so I note with delight that my “impending cold” syndromes have receded to the usual “hotel climate” dry throat. Shower (in a strangely designed stall that leaves a cup of water on the washroom floor by the end of the shower) is followed by a businesslike continental breakfast: Orange, apple (for later), muffin, bagel and juice (half-cranberry, half-orange) aren’t the end of gastronomy as we know it, but they’re at the right place at the right time. Plus, they solve “the breakfast problem” in ten minutes.

7:50 – On the street of San Francisco. My immediate objective is to walk to Pier 43 ½ (fun fact: There is no pier 44) to board my tour bus. I have been instructed to be there “fifteen minutes before the start of the tour, although it’s unclear whether this means 8:45 or 9:00 or 9:15. I aim for 8:45. My Google Maps walking direction seem to include a useless flourish in telling me to walk down Stockton/Colombus/Mason rather than the more straightforward Powell, but this useless flourish is revealed to be essential when I see the uphill climb on Powell and the tunnel on Stockton. Brilliant. Along the way to the pier, I get to experience downtown SF during rush hour (not pleasant; plenty of aggressive driving and honking), a commercial strip of Chinatown as it gets ready for the rest of the day (I have to dodge a few fruit boxes), and a calm residential area of the city. Alolng the way, I even catch glimpses of the Transamerica Tower, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. I make it to my destination with fifteen minutes to spare, which I use to go take a look at the sea lions on Pier 39. You can hear and smell them well before you can see them, which is a useful indication of how ugly they are. But there are a few good photo opportunities along the way.

8:45 – My voucher is accepted without a fuss, and the bus (A double decker) shows up on time. I get a good seat (upper floor, right side, window support beam slight behind me, good sight-lines: I know my way around bus tours.) What’s new, aside from the double decker, is the prerecorded audio in eight languages. I use the wait until the tour beginning to write up the day’s adventures so far.

9:20 – Tour begins after a quick test of the audio broadcast system. Our first leg of the trip is a tour of the Fishermen’s Wharf area, followed by a quick drive through the Embarcadero, then the downtown area. Our driver’s funniest line, about the poor neighborhood The Ternderloin: “Area residents are mostly seniors with fixed incomes, recent immigrants, ex-convicts, criminals, drug users, pimps, prostitutes, bus drivers and tour guides.”

10:00 – First stop is at the Mission Dolores, the oldest building left in San Francisco. While visitors were directed to go take a look inside the Mission, I was irresistibly drawn to the picturesque surroundings, eventually circling the Mission city block and making it to another intersection before coming back to the bus. Our driver nearly strands two passengers who came in late; I really can’t fault him, and this shows others that he means business. (The other thing that doesn’t help is that a double-decker doesn’t allow for a quick head-count.)

10:20 – Our second leg of the trip takes us through the Castro, then upward twistier and twistier streets and roads until we get to the top of Twin Peaks, a spectacular vantage point south-west of the city that allows for an uninterrupted view from the ocean to the bay.

10:50 – Second stop: Twin Peaks lookout. Many pictures taken, one of them not even on my own camera.

11:00 – Third leg: a short trip to the Golden Gate park, where we briefly tour the Academy of Science area before being dropped near the Japanese Tea Garden.

11:30 – Initially reluctant to pay to enter the Japanese Tea garden, I take a short walk alongside the Academy of Science before relenting. It turns out to be a pretty good change of heart: Not only do I see my first San Franciscan squirrel, but the garden is an intricately landscaped Japanese-style garden, pleasant to walk through and take multiple pictures.

12:00 – Fourth leg: Simple but spectacular as we make our war through the Presidio to and on the Golden Gate Bridge.

12:30 – A quick stop at the Golden Gate Bridge, where I get engaged in conversation by an older woman with a particular fascination for Cape Breton. I take, obviously, a few great pictures of the bridge.

12:45 – Back to the bus (hey, aren’t two people missing?) for a quick drive back on the Bridge, through the Presidio, the Marina district and, finally, to Fisherman’s Wharf for the end of the city tour.

13:00 – The Muir Woods outside the city starting at 14:15, this leaves about an hour to eat and look around. I end up at Boudain for a quick clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl (plus a bottle of gourmet grape soda). It’s hefty eating, even from the beginning dip of the extracted bread. I dawdle on the docks to pass the time. (But not very efficiently, always being a bit too fast)

14:15 – Back on another (single-decker) tour bus: same driver, and he mentions that we did lose two people at the Golden Gate Bridge lookout. The rest of us are warned. I use the downtime to record the rest of the day’s events so far. The drive takes us back through the Marina and the Golden Gate Bridge, then on to the less-urban areas at the north of San Francisco, and then deeper and deeper in the wilderness, through one-lane roads (construction, not by design), hairpin turns and roads midway mountain slopes. Property prices seem to be an ongoing obsession around here, unless it’s just our driver’s (“Dal”) pet obsession.

15:00 – This all takes us to Muir Woods, a primordial redwood preserve hidden deep in a valley protected from direct sunlight. So much so that it felt like dusk in the middle of the day. On the other hand, the results are worth it: the sights are incredible, the atmosphere feels completely different from the urban bustle of San Francisco and the result is entirely refreshing. Deep on the trail, at the quiet “Cathedral Grove”, us casual hikers are even treated to the sight of a small deer hopping on the trail, walking a bit farther, then hopping off and chewing on plants while posing for tourists. Back to the camp (should I have tried to make it to Bridge 4?), a quick stop at the refreshment stand gets me an overpriced lime soda and an equally-expensive locally-grown plum (The plum being better than the soda, though I’m enjoying drinking stuff not available in Ottawa) and then back to the bus for a quick update to the day’s events and waiting for everyone to come back.

16:15 – It took ten minutes for the passenger to come back (with three minutes until sayonara, says our driver), but all thirteen of us are aboard; we leave! Back through the same mountain road, which looks much scarier once I’m on the ravine side. I’m feeling a bit tired. The tour next goes to Sausalito, a small (but, as you may guess, expensive) community on the northern side of the Golden Gate bridge. (I remember dying stupidly there in the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas equivalent of the city. Which reminds me of all the flashbacks between GTA’s San Fierro and San Francisco, but that won’t mean anything to those who haven’t played the game a lot.)

17:00 – The problem is that there just isn’t a lot to do in Sausalito for the average guided tour tourist: The nearby Spinnaker restaurant will take forever, the shops are all high-end, the marina’s for the boat owners… At least there’s an ATM where I can fill up on 20$s, a really good view of the San Francisco skyline by the north (especially since it’s now bathed in the sunlight that Sausalito doesn’t get, being behind a mountain.) and a few odd and ends to look at. Our driver mentions the ferry as a possible way to get back to the Wharf, but a look at the ferry schedule shows that it will take an hour before the next ferry leaves… and that it will cost 8$. I’ll risk the bus.

17:30 – On our way back via the Golden Gate Bridge, I discover that my camera batteries are practically empty and that the memory card is practically full, both of which are a bit amazing to consider but explanable given the amount of non-sop photography during the day. Traffic is, we’re told, quite a bit heavier than usual: the Bay Bridge is closed, and everyone else has had to find an alternate way to cross the bay. Still, we make our way back to Fisherman’s Wharf in a decent amount of time.

18:05 – I could have asked to be let off closer to the hotel, but my cunning plan involves walking back to the hotel via the mostly-flat Embarcadero and then Market street. It’s not such a good plan given that the bus already did that route, that the sun is practically set by the time I start walking, and that my right foot is starting to hurt. Still, I end up overshooting Market and grabbing at least two good shots of the Bay Bridge, as well as the Embarcadero clocktower. On my way back from Howard to Market, I make the hapopy discovery of a high-end grocey store, which takes care of supper via calzone, fruit salad, suspiciously-flavoured “Funky Fusion” potato chips and a Black Cherry soft drink. Even overpriced, it costs about half less than a real meal at a restaurant. Despite the endless panhandling, walking down the now-dark city never feels unsafe.

19:20 – By the time I’m back to the hotel, my right foot feels the impact of the day’s activities. Oh well; supper, email, etc. Final update of the day.

21:30 (00:30, Ottawa Time) – Lights out. I am trying to keep to the eastern schedule, after all.

To sum up: The afternoon tour is a bit of an anticlimax after the city, but both tours combined do manage to fulfill my expectations, which were to take me where I wouldn’t have time or transportation to go when I’m going to return to SF after the WFC. Otherwise, I’m liking the city… although I understand that I will never have enough money to live here.

Tomorrow: Goodbye San Francisco (I’ll be back), hello San José and WFC.

September 29, 2009 – The way to San José

6:55 – Once again, I get a good night’s sleep and beat the clock., The challenge will be to beat it even further, waking up at 6:00 if possible. The problem in California, as I’m finding out is that the days are perceptibly shorter than at home: if can get up at six, but if the sun’s not up until seven thirty, that’s not much of an incentive to go outside. In any case, my morning and clean-up routine go well (well, except for sending the basket of butter containers to the floor of the continental breakfast room –yes, I cleaned up.) and there isn’t much to do in a tiny room in which even the bed is small; I decide to leave early.

8:30 – On the streets of San Francisco, making my way from Hotel Fusion to the Caltrain station down 4th street. My right foot is slowing me down and the sun is blinding, but I make it to the station just in time: After the BART ticket fiasco, I have read up on the Caltrain ticket machine and make an efficient purchase. I follow the crowd and make it onto the train…

9:00 – …just in time, as it leaves moment after I have sit down. Better yet: I have snagged one of the last morning express train, which means that I’ll be in San José about an hour and a half before my schedule allowed. In the meantime, I skim over the last remaining third of the generally uninteresting paperback fantasy novel I brought along (it’s the first of a trilogy; sadly, I won’t be reading the rest –too bad, because it’s from an author I like!) and keep going on King’s Bag of Bones, which is stored on my iPod. The sleeping guy sitting in front of me is thoughtfully displaying his security badge, which allows me to find out that I have an authentic Facebook “powered by laziness” employee. (Which, given that the trian goes straight from SF to the Silicon Valley, isn’t as surprising as it may sound. I actually followed someone who went into the 4th street “Six Apart” building on my way to Caltrain, and the vast majority of the other people on the train seem to be using some kind of electronic device of some sort. Looking outside the window sometimes reveal known dot-com logos on the side of buildings.

10:00 – I’m grossly early in San José, but that’s all right: The walk to the Fairmont hotel that will be my base for the next three days is pleasant (except foot blister), and not without a few surprises: Most impressive is the complex of movie-villain building branded with the Adobe logo. My mental map of the surroundings matches the terrain, and the only time where I don’t quite know where I’m going is when I enter the hotel, because…

10:30 – …hotels where you have to look for registration are in a class of their own. Once found, though, it goes well: they have a room ready even this early, and I’m quickly on my way up. The room looks like an unacceptable opulence after the right-sized Hotel Fusion: The bedroom is at least twiece the size of the Fusion room, and that’s not even mentioning the dressing antechamber that leads to the washroom that has different stalls for the toilet, the shower and the bath. In fact, the washroom is slightly bigger than the Fusion room. Gee. More importantly, though, the Internet connection works perfectly the first time and seems responsive enough. I update the day’s adventures so far.

11:00 – I’m not “stuck” in my room, but I’m still unwilling to walk too far away today, WFC registration only starts at noon, and my computer setup is more pleasant to use than at the previous hotel. (One exception: the marble desktop is too shiny/reflective for my mouse use. Fortunately, there’s a plain sheet of paper to solve the problem.) This sounds like an ideal time to do the web site update homework I had brought along. Minutes later, my personal web site movie reviews are pretty much all up-to-date. (Book reviews next; they’ll take a bit longer.)

12:30 – Down on the Ballroom floor for a first look at the convention. It doesn’t take thirty seconds in the elevator to be exasperated at the usual fannish doofusness, but my bubble is deflated moments later at the registration desk when a friend points out that my fly is down. Ahem. WFC registration is quick and comes once again with a big bag full of books. I bring them up to the hotel room for a photo before miiediately getting rid of about a quarter of them. (Anything marked “Book one of…” get the cut, along with stuff I already have.)

13:00 – Initial registration being over, I head outside for a scan of the surroundings. My blistered foot is bothersome, but I still manage to find the nearest movie theater (Ooh, GOOD HAIR is playing!), a Safeway grocery store and a Subway restaurant where I grab a quick and uncomplicated lunch. This takes care of the east side of the hotel; west later on.

13:45 – Back at the convention, I figure out the hotel layout (which is circular, not linear), try one of the main lobby chairs for reading (verdict; they’re great) and eventually end up at the dealer’s room, where I eventually find the one book I’ve been looking for (Nick Mamatas’ You Might Sleep…, on perpetual back-order from amazon.ca), as well as a “new” (and thin!) Kim Stanley Robinson book I didn’t even know about. There are, unfortunately, several other really interesting and/or cheap books in the room. My usual objections about travelling with carry-on luggage are soundly defeated by the convention’s successful effort in establishing a temporary post office. This may lead to further spending. The dealer’s room is also where I meet a number of familiar faces, make a successful pitch for my [secret] project and say hi to a few people. I’m also made a member of the convention Golden Maple Leaf order.

15:00 – Back at the hotel room for dropping off books, updating the day’s adventures so far and a bit of advance planning. A look at the schedule suggests that programming is going to be very light: Something at 16:00, Opening ceremonies at 17:00, nothing much interesting until 20:00 –then it’s pretty much lights-out for me. Hm, maybe I can fit a movie and a grocery store expedition in there… I eat up the rest of the hour with some reading. Three more books go back to the freebie exchange table.

16:00 – First true panel of the convention: The influence of Edgar Allan Poe (the WFC is celebrating his 200th anniversary). The panel eventually gets to discuss its subject, but not before an annoying number of digressions (alcohol abuse by writers, literary/mainstream opposition, etc.) and a number of chummy panelists who seemed to assume that we knew all about them and what they did. (Two of them had the cringeworthy wall-of-books in front of them). The severe lack of discipline eventually led to the panel going overtime, at which point I walked to make my way to…

17:00 – The opening ceremony! Short and uneven, which some guests of honor knowing how to keep things short and amusing, while others less so. Nonetheless, the convention was launched and everything was over by 17:20, which was good since I took advantage of the programming lull to go…

17:30 – To the movies! GOOD HAIR, much-awaited in Ottawa but distributed in limited release in Canada given fuzzy “black movie” perceptions. It’s a good documentary about black hair, how much attraction it creates, how and why it’s treated/augmented and what effect it has. Written and directed by Chris Rock, who keeps his comic instincts even in tackling the more serious implications of his subject. A movie preferably seen with a crowd, even though it will make you feel more ignorant for not knowing enough about the world.

19:15 – Out of the theater and into… the grocey store! Safeway’s Market is an upscale, upexpensive grocery store. It does have enough for me to stock on a quick sandwich-and-fruits dinner, plus my next three breakfasts. Blister update: ouch, and it’s causing me tendon twinges as I try to walk unnaturally to minimize the incomfort of the blister.  Good thing I’m not walking tomorrow.  I hobble back to the hotel room to snack, then it’s on to another panel:

20:00 – The Google Books Settlement. Authors and one lawyer discussing the ramifications of the Google Books settlement, as seen from the perspective of the authors and their representatives. The tone isn’t complimentary toward Google (causing one ex-Googler to speak up) and my basic pro-Google stance isn’t shattered, but it’s hard to listen to the panelist and not agree that the specific of the implementations are wrong. The panel tens to be dominated by three out of six participants, including a SFWA president with a penchant for excessive profanity. This panel is a perfect example of why WFC is the closet thing to the industry’s trade conference.

21:00 – Returning to my hotel room for lights-out, I take the time to set up final tweaks to my secret project to be launched on the 30th of October (which happens to be NOW in Ottawa). This turns into 90 minutes of last-minute tweaks, the realization that christian-sauve.com seems to be down, polishing up these notes and other things to be done via keyboard. At the 75th minute mark, my site comes back up, my secret project is launched and announced and I post this.

22:20 (1:30 Ottawa time) – Lights out.

October 30, 2009 – WFC Day Two

6:00 (9:00 Ottawa Time) – I certainly don’t beat the clock today, as the alarm interrupts a lucid dream about paying an outrageous price for sending a large package, with a garlic bulb rather than a stamp. (It actually makes more sense written down than it did at the time: Garlic = Vampire, Shipping = Buying more books. See, my subconscious is telling me to go buy fantasy books, even though I’ll have trouble mailing them back…) A quick tour of my email accounts shows no reaction to the secret project yet (which, it can now be revealed, is a virtual convention at www.carnavalboreal2010.com). I take care of a few more email (routing against what seems to be the hotel firewall blocking elements of my christian-sauve.com webmail), shower, become strangely obsessed with a missing sock (still missing at the end of the day) then get down to the business of writing stuff.

7:30 – This is serious writing time. I dispatch a review of Good Hair, then (badly) edit and post nine book reviews that had been waiting in the queue for a few days. This, incidentally, brings me completely up-to-date, which is essential given my upcoming writing projects. In-between, I check my email. The day hasn’t yet begun for people on their California schedule and I’m already feeling quite accomplished.

10:00 – First panels of the day. (Blister update: still sensitive, but at least I’m not limping like yesterday.) I first make it to the least-conventional “whatdunnit” panel, but end up leaving after ten minutes once it becomes clear that the moderator really, really loves to hear himself speak, and that no one else seems to understand what he’s going on about. I slip into the other room for a far more conventional panel on How to Write the Alien. The panelists are uneven: if Kay Kenyon is a wonder to hear, the same can’t be said for one other panelist who seems determined to explain in minute details all elements of her alien society. (Authors; don’t do this, or limit references to your own work to one for every two references to someone else’s work) There’s a mildly disturbing question from a member of the audience regarding interspecies relationships and offspring thereof.

11:00 – Interview: “Vandermeer on Vandermeer”, or husband-and-wife Guests of Honor Jeff and Ann Vandermeer mutually interview themselves. It’s a really, really fun interview, made even more fun by their shared sense of humor. (Highlight: How Jeff ended up waking up Ann to kill a roach, then went out the room and facebooked it.) Somehow, after the end of the panel, I end up picking a few more free books on the exchange table.

12:00 – After a short break to check email, I catch the last three-quarter of “The Best of the Year So Far”, an overview both generic and specific of the state of short fantastic fiction in 2009. These overview panels are always worthwhile in learning about which new writers are worth paying attention to.  Editors seem to agree that writers don’t develop linearly, but in plateaus.

13:00 – I have to break for lunch, and so go get a Quizno sub (which I find sub-standard), followed by a small stroll on the neighboring pedestrian mall, then back to the convention for a trip to the dealer’s room where I embrace my resolution to ship books back home and get four hard-to-find books I have been eying forlornly. I end the hour in my hotel room, checking email and movie showings (alas, no significant change at the next-door movie theater) As usual when I’m feeling tired (the attempt to stick to an Eastern Time Zone schedule has its price), I have a dry nose and kind-of-sore throat.

14:00 – One panel I had been looking forward to: Fantasy in Translation, featuring a bunch of people I like a lot, from Cheryl Morgan (who unveils a new prize for books translated to English) to Rani Graff to Nick Mamatas. A good panel, even though much of it is already familiar from the perspective of a bilingual reader. This being said, there’s a lot more than just French fantasy out there, and Mamatas’ challenges in dealing with Japanese-to-English translators sound interesting.

15:00 – Another highly specialized panel: “Genre Fiction and The Library of America”, which tackles the challenges that Peter Straub underwent in editing a definitive two-book set of fantastic short stories. The discussion quickly becomes an attempt to define canon, the restraints placed by mainstream publishers on genre-friendly anthologies, and other Library of America projects of interest to genre readers. Surprisingly interesting discussion, particularly due to S.T. Joshi’s knowledgeable interventions and opinions.

16:00 – Nothing immediately interesting on the schedule, so I tour the art show (a few good pieces, but it’s really sparse) and retreat to the hotel room for checking email, writing the day’s adventures, and a bit of literary googling.

17:00 – Last panel of the day; something on violence in fiction. It’s my experience that panels on violence often turn into confessionals about violence experienced or performed in the past, and this panel is no exception, what with a panelist discussing ear trophies and a member of the audience discussing past abuse. On the other hand (and quite unlike the violence panel at 2008’s WFC where it stayed mired in depressing personal recollections), the panel went on to other things. The perspective, ironically enough for a panel that stemmed from a discussion between an American and a Canadian, definitely seemed American. I do feel quite a bit tired; it wouldn’t take much to make me go to sleep.

18:00 – Two hours’ worth of time-out and my feet are OK, so I go exploring the area to the south of the hotel. There isn’t much to be seen, although there’s a remarkable block two streets south where no less that three splendid theaters lie there, abandoned with marquee and box-office still intact. Returning north, I stop again at the Market Safeway for supper and a few snacks for the next day and a half. My big find: Fresh figs!  I’ve never had fresh figs!

19:00 – Back at my hotel room, I take some time to eat (the panini is average, the figs show why they’re so difficult to keep fresh, most of the other snacks are duller than I expected) and read. I’m tired and I would go to sleep, except that…

20:00 – …It’s time for the autograph party! This, a WFC tradition, is when authors congregate in a big room and sit for two hours waiting for people to come and get things autographed. It’s chaotic, noisy, sometimes-depressing for those who sit there without anyone asking for any signatures, and a lot of fun for everyone else, since it’s a good opportunity to go and make (quick) conversation. For once, nearly everyone at the convention is in a room, and it’s a great place to bump into friends and chat a bit. I carry three books along for signatures and get all three signed (although the second one involved catching the author in mid-walk –but I wasn’t the only one asking!) The third author, Jeff Vandermeer, has me signing a copy of his new book: during his upcoming tour, he’s going to ask for reciprocal signatures from everyone he’s signing for. A splendid idea! (I asked “where the blogging section was” and ended up signing my name next to a mention of WordPress, appropriately enough.) The WFC had set up a scrumptious buffet outside the signature hall, which would have been awesome except that I had just eaten. (This being said, I was unable to resist grabbing a few slices of watermelon –call it a character flaw.)

21:00 (00:00 Ottawa time) – That’s it for me: email, upload this, some light reading and sleep. With a bit of luck, I’ll get a full 8 hours of sleep.

October 31, 2009 – How to spend a perfectly dull Halloween

6:00 – I don’t quite beat the clock, but it seems less painful than the day before. I’m slated to go do laundry at a nearby laundromat, but since I don’t know exactly when it opens (Google Street Views “Zoom-in! Enhance!” sadly doesn’t have CSI-level performance, although I’m pretty sure that’s a single digit hour there on the store window), I target 8:00 and spend the rest of my time having a leisurely breakfast with some reading (I will finish King’s Bag of Bones today!) and checking email (where there’s one splendid bit of news that settles one long-running file I’ve been working on.) My missing sock (still missing) is driving me nuts, given the impact even one single missing sock could have on my tight clothing schedule.

7:30 – En route to the laundromat! It’s foggy and humid-cool outside, which isn’t unpleasant as I make my way through the USJ campus deserted of human presence. I can walk generally well, even with the remnant of the blister. There seems to be one squirrel for every two trees, and there are a lot of trees. I don’t look at the map once yet manage to find my laundromat exactly where it should be. Success: It’s been open since 7:00!

8:00 – Fortunately, an Internet review of the laundromat explained how it worked: Purchase a (3$, refundable) card, load it up with money, do washing (4$ plus .75$ load of Tide) and drying (4×0.25$), return card. I read about a sixth of Bag of Bones in-between checking how the machines are treating my clothes. At the end, I discover with some surprise that my missing sock has reappeared, and everything is accounted for. (What a cunning missing sock, hiding out where it was supposed to be all along. I must study it… for science!) It’s all over in an hour, at which point I get a refund for what’s left on the card. From my explanations as to why I’ll be wanting a refund, the laundromat attendant deduces that I’m on a business trip and staying at one of the nearby hotels.

9:00 – Since the rest of my schedule in San Jose will be busy, I decide to go exploring the north-east side of my hotel. Mostly residential areas; nothing spectacular to report. I end up at a nearby ATM to fill up a wallet depleted by book purchases and food. I’m back at the hotel for the beginning of programming.

10:00 – First panel of the day: “Why Steampunk now?”, an exploration of the steampunk phenomenon in both its literary and lifestyle form. More interesting than I thought; it even moves me to think that I should pay more attention to that sub-genre. One panelist is annoying, constantly bringing back the discussion to one specific way of considering the issue; it would have been better to hear that panelist discuss steampunk from a wider perspective.

11:00 – Nothing truly grabbing my attention at that moment, I decide to settle The Book Thing, which is to say make a last major trawl through the dealer’s room (I’m reasonable, I only buy two things –including a book I’ve been hunting for years) and then bring everything I’ve decided to keep with me at the temporary post office set up by the convention and representatives from the US Post Office. I end up packing a box full of books and shipping it to myself, at a non-inconsequential cost (roughly the price of two hardcover books) but with the knowledge that I won’t be burdened with another box for the duration of the trip. In my carry-on luggage, I swap the paperback I’ve been reading for another I have purchased in the dealer’s room, just in case I run out. The US Post ladies are unbelievably nice given my general cluelessness. Another foreign national (an Israeli), ends up shipping a much smaller box at a much higher price.

12:00 – Panel: “When People Confuse the Author with Their Work”, a thin excuse to discuss the relationship between authors and what they write. This is probably the single best panel of the convention for sheer entertainment value, as it consists of four seasoned professionals (Kushner, Edelman, Nix, Powers) and one competent moderator (Ferrari) discussing anecdotes and impressions from their career. All five are pretty funny, able to feed from each others’ quips, and the audience is a good player. Tim Powers, whom I have rarely seen at conventions, is particularly biting.

13:00 – “Urban Fantasy as Alternate History” is a bit scattered, although L.E.Modesitt’s moderation style is instructive. It’s a loose subject, though, and the quality of the discussion between the authors is pretty high despite little participations from about half the panelists. Anyone paying attention walked away from this panel with about half a dozen story ideas. In the row ahead of me, a guy proudly demonstrates his polyamorous credentials throughout the panel by hugging and petting ladies on each side of him. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a tiny bit jealous.

14:00 – “What we read just for fun” is not a bad panel, mostly because it let its participants speak and kept a light tone throughout. The most annoying member of the audience is the woman whose cell phone went off twice during the panel: Not only was it a loud irritating theme, but she insisted on walking out the room before answering it. Gaah. (And while she’s the most annoying of of cell morons at the convention, she certainly isn’t the only one.)

15:00 – After an abortive attempt at getting some indian food across the street (aborted, because I didn’t understand their system and didn’t want to block off their queue; plus, the realization I wasn’t that hungry), I’m back in panel rooms for “Notable Books of the year”, which ends up being a considerable disappointment. Limply moderated (it started ten minutes after the hour, with a series of inane questions that covered well-trodden grounds in terms of trends), it went here and there without doing much in terms of recommending notable books. Apparently, the panelists had spent a lot of time preparing a list of works, but little of those recommendations came to light during the panel. (They’ll be posted on the web soon, which may be preferable to attending this panel altogether.)

16:00 – Ah, yes, nothing like a panel on “The End of the World” to entertain the crowd. Despite a number of missing panelists, the discussion isn’t without a number of interesting moments as panelists worked out consequences of many apocalypses and the reason why they fascinate us so much. Unfortunately (and this is a real problem at this convention), the moderator doesn’t know that panels are supposed to end five minutes before thee hour; I end up leaving with an exodus of people who just spontaneously get up and leave the room.

17:00 – Last panel (wow, it’s been six in a row!): Sorcerers! The panel is like a Wikipedia blender of scraps of information and mentions of everything that can possibly be synonymous with wizard. Etymology, examples, attraction, more example, other considerations: It’s a crazy mish-mash of names shouted by the audience and panelists who seem pretty happy not to hog the spotlight. It sort-of-works, even with the strange structure.

18:00 – Suppertime break. I can’t resist one last visit at the Market and an Italian sandwich on foccacia bread (along with walnut fudge for dessert; who said you had to go to restaurants for supper?). Then I retreat to the hotel room for eating, a bit of email-checking and some reading. It’s pretty much the end of the day, except that…

20:00 – There’s one last panel I want to attend, on the next ten years in book-selling as predicted by booksellers. It’s not a happy panel: Gloomy predictions abound, from the end of the national chain bookstores to the retirement of one bookseller himself. The multiplicity of apocalypses in store for book-selling seems infinite and diverse: from too many choices to too few, from too-high prices to too-low prices… and that’s with a tacit agreement between the three panelists to avoid any discussion of Google Books or ebooks. At least it’s reasonably interesting, and maybe even hopeful: no matter which channel, good books will keep being published.

21:00 (0:00 Ottawa time) – The wonders of technology allow me, in California, to place an on-line order from a Canadian store for someone in a city far from my home. Our times are grand, just grand. Otherwise, I finish King’s Bag of Bones and call it a day. Tomorrow, the WFC ends and I will take the train back to San Francisco. Oh, and I will start writing a novel despite being woefully unprepared.

November 1st, 2009 – Californian time-slip

5:00 (8:00 Ottawa time) – I don’t beat the alarm and actually have a bit of trouble getting out of bed. This is not something I can blame on the five-o-clock time, since I’m taking advantage of the seasonal change of hour to remain even more firmly on Eastern time. But, hey, I’m tired and so give myself a generous five more minutes in bed before getting out and starting the pack-up process. Shower, breakfast (using the last of my Market hoard), clean-up. My luggage is mostly ready before even sun-up.

6:00 – Today is November 1st, which means I’m once again on the NaNoWriMo treadmill to write a novel in thirty days. My topic this year has undergone numerous adjustments, and by this time I have a lot of thematic intentions, a good central character, a general idea of the plot but little in place of an outline. Still, one can’t let small details like that stop the process, and over the next two hours and a half I manage to bang out 2,700 words of unspectacular but not entirely terrible prose. I’m particularly happy in that I seem to be getting into the flow of things despite a year-long pause. At times like this, I’m reminded of how much fun fiction writing can be. I stop at the moment where I have to name the narrator, which seems a good point to think about what’s coming next.

8:30 – Somehow, my brain looks at my laptop clock, crosses two wires and figures out that there’s only half an hour left before the WFC panels start again. So I finish what remained to be cleaned up in the room and make my way to the hotel checkout. Then I err around the hotel, taking pictures, finding out that there’s a major water leak between the third and first floor, resulting in a water-drenched second floor, registration moving to another spot, and a visible stream of water falling into garbage cans placed on the first floor. (Later, I learn it’s a pool problem: the pool is on the top of the third floor.)

9:00 – Brain wires still crossed, I make my way to the panel room and am about to start reading an e-book when a woman comes into the room and makes me realize that we’re both an hour in advance. We bond over this and spend the next hour chatting in the hotel lobby, examining hidden details of the paintings on the second floor and discussing philosophy with a local optometrist-slash-pulp-specialist. The WFC can be a strange and wonderful place.

10:00 – First panel of the day: Rural fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy). Numerous ideas of contemporary fantasies taking place away from city centers are thrown around, with a cautious conclusion that the defining work of the genre has yet to be written. I’m particularly appreciative of the slick performance by the moderator of the panel. A few good ideas are discussed regarding how dangerous the city vs the country can be, and why.

11:00 – Second and last panel of the day, about the “real” life in medieval (and early-modern) times. Anyone who thinks modern life is brutish and mean and cruel should start hitting the history books. There’s a pleasant concentration of amateur and professional historians in the room, and there’s a lot of reality checking going on. I go from things I already knew to new and interesting factoids and theories. An interesting panel, and a fitting end to the convention.

12:00 – I say goodbye to old and new friends, then make my way to the San José Caltrain station. There’s a demonstration of some sort in front of the hotel, a group of four police cars on the nearest boulevard, a police officer interrogating two wasted men in front of a convenience store and the temperature is warm going on hot. The train station has minimal instructions and minuscule washrooms, but I still manage to buy my ticket (relying on my sole previous experience) and correctly deduce which train to board. I don’t seem to be the only one with issues at the station: Nearly everyone who boards the train ask a variation on “Is this going to San Francisco?”

13:00 – Good news! The train moves in the correct direction. Even better news! It’s going to San Francisco. The next hour-and-a-half is uneventful: I read 60% of Scott Westerfeld’s first tome of his galactic opera duology (pretty good after a scattered start) and get an earful from a nearby guy telling everything about his complicated love life to a friend of his.

14:40 – On the ground in San Francisco: I slowly make my way onto Fourth, then Stockton, then Sutter until I reach my hotel. The day has gone from warm to definitely hot and I’m drenched by the time I reach the hotel: It doesn’t help that I get to experience San Francisco’s hills first-hand.

15:20 – Whew: I made it at the hotel. Registration is playful, and there’s a couple of French tourists in the lobby. The perfectly charming room itself is right-sized between the extremes of the Fusion and Fairmont hotels. The wireless Internet doesn’t work (uh-oh), but I take a breath, update the day’s adventures and look at my next possibilities. There’s only a few hours until the sun sets and I want to cross something off my list of things to do over the next two days. I finally settle for Van Ness/Lombard with a possibility of Coit Tower: It’s a tough slog, but I’m still reasonably fresh and it would strike a number of north-east destinations off my list.

16:10 – Whee! On the streets of San Francisco! Van Ness avenue is a major commercial street, and car dealerships jostle for space with art supplies stores. Not-so-accidentally, I find myself at a Staples to check out the inventory (Hmmm… Looks like the Apple Store data cable wasn’t as overpriced as I thought) and buy, yes, replacement pens so that I don’t get in trouble with customs officers again. I continue on Van Ness, the gentle incline ceding place to a gentle decline. My foot is sensitive, but OK. Eventually, I make it to Lombard Street, turn right and go…

17:00 – …OMGWTFBBQ this is going to hurt. There’s a reason why “the crookedest street” is a stretch of Lombard and even getting to the top of that stretch is an effort. It’s “only” three city blocks, but by the time I hit the second intersection, I’m already dripping, wheezing and vowing to never do this again. I am, obviously, a two-dimensional walker. I have to make my way on stairs going through a dog park to get there (seeing, along the way, the second-cutest chow-chow in the world) but I do. It’s impossible to miss “the crookedest street” from even one block away given the number of tourists elbowing their ways to photo opportunities near or on the street. I quickly join them, but keep the grimacing, juggling, posing nonsense to a minimum and descend the staircase on the right side of the street. I don’t think it’s possible to get a great picture of Lombard street’s crooked curves from the ground: you can capture chunks of it, but not all of it. I hear rather a lot of French (European accents) along the way. Once done with Lombard, I make it back south via Hyde, where I see, along the way…

17:30 – The Calla Grocery Store! Hurrah! I take care of dinner (Sandwich, melon salad, chocolate-chip biscuits, juice), and the next three breakfasts (orange, banana, croissant, juice) for less than the price of a single restaurant meal. The Calla Grocery store is a bit of a local institution, and the after-Halloween crowd buying produce and alcohol (Michael Jackson, Shaggy from Scooby Do) clearly show why.

18:00 – Back at the hotel room for an update, confirmation that the Internet doesn’t work (what’s up with that?) and dinner. Foot update: hurts a bit (ominous music). A quick trip to the lobby to test their Internet connection reveals that… I’m a moron. As Microsoft Windows helpfully suggests, “Are you sure your wifi is turned on?” What Windows helpfully doesn’t add is “…since you deactivated your wifi for the plane trip and didn’t turn in back on because you used two data cable connections, you idiot.” Oh well; at least I’m online. Now that I don’t have the convention to worry about, there’s a good chance that I’ll get to sleep at a decent hour. But first, a bit of work on the novel.

18:30 – A bit of work on the novel. It’s a bit more difficult that the morning, but I keep going and eventually end up with a nice 3,777 words total for the day. I am momentarily very concerned with the noise level of the room when I discover that my room is next to the neighboring hotel’s rooftop pool and what seems to be a busload of kids are screaming, running and cannon-balling into the pool. Fortunately, this dies down shortly part 19:30 and by 20:00, everything is calm again… though the windows aren’t thick and I can hear much of the street traffic –especially trucks!

20:00 – (23:00, Ottawa time) That’s enough for the novel: I will settle down, hopefully finish Westerfeld’s novel and turn the lights out.

I suppose that a few general words on San José, the Fairmont Hotel and the WFC in general are in order.

San José: Our hotel was very favourably located in-between a few museums and high-tech high-rises on the west side, and the most pedestrian-friendly commercial downtown on the east side. I ended up spending much of my time on the east side and it was, indeed, very nice and walkable. It’s tough to appreciate a city when you’ve seen the best square kilometer of it (and it wasn’t hard to “walk off the reservation” very quickly), but what I saw seemed OK.

The Fairmont hotel: More expensive isn’t necessarily better. My room was far too big, both the carpet and the bathroom showed signs of accumulating years and it seemed that every single other amenity was costly (good thing I managed to get free Internet!), but it was a hotel at least a class above those with which I’m most comfortable. On the convention floor, I’m still not too sure about the layout. Registration and the dealer’s room were far away from the panel rooms, although I suppose that the center-lobby bar ended up being the main focus of interest for most professionals at the convention.

The 2009 World Fantasy Convention: Pretty darn good in the way WFCs usually are: The level of discussion can be very high, and if I feel that the convention didn’t attract as many pros as its west coast location would suggest (unless it’s just that I wasn’t familiar with those names), it did fine. The dealer’s room was absolutely fantastic (wait, wait, I mean “TOTALLY EVIL”) and programming held its own. This being said, the “real” WFC takes place elsewhere than in the dealer’s room or the panels: It’s in the bar, in lunches between professionals, in small chance meetings and long discussions with friends you only see once every year. In this regard, I was out of my element in Northern California: I knew maybe a dozen pros at the convention, and none of them well enough to have much to say after “Hey, hello, glad to see you!” Unlike Saratoga (where I was part of the “Canadiens Français”, and knew quite a few East-coasters) and Calgary (Canadian element, redux), WFC-San José was a bit lonely. Much of that is my fault, of course: I wasn’t too keen on socialization throughout the convention, even though I do know all the tricks to making friends at such events. You could say that I got the convention I wanted, and that would be fair. I got to hear a few pros talk shop, got to experience another top-quality WFC and got and excuse to amble through San José. Plus, to top it off, I kept up with a number of ongoing issues virtually, and even advanced on my writing projects. Pretty good so far!

Tomorrow: Feet allowing, a long walk through San Francisco, with a focus on the south-west of downtown.

November 2nd, 2009 – Walking SF, Part 1: Ouch, ow, argh, hey: look at that! (repeat)

5:00 (8:00 Ottawa time) – Why is it that it’s getting harder and harder to get up? Anyway; if this is Monday, this must be San Francisco. I eventually get up and start writing fiction (bringing my total up to 5,000 words), eventually breakfasting and showering. Around me, the city is waking up as the sun rises. I lighten up my backpack, removing just about everything I usually keep in there “just in case”. The umbrella, particularly, gets the ax weather reports predict sunny and 24c.

8:00 – Once more on the streets of San Francisco. If armies live or die on their feet, I’m likely headed for defeat today: My Lombard Street adventure has left painful traces, and I start the day with an uncomfortable walk. This is Not Good. First destination: The City Hall/Library area. The Library itself is closed and will be for another 90 minutes, so I proceed to the next objective: Alamo Heights and “The Painted Sisters”. It’s not easy going: There are many many inclines along the way.

9:00 – Alamo Heights is a pretty neat park. Alas, the light is all wrong for the Painted Sisters (seven houses, neatly arranged in an ascending row, over a city backdrop. You often see them in movies, postcards and tourist guides) which are in full shade. Aw, well. I take a moment to read a bit more of Scott Westerfeld’s Second Novel in That Series; my foot-saving plan includes several breaks for reading and recuperation throughout the day… with the added bonus that I will read one more book during the day!

9:30 – Alamo Height being done (with a few surprisingly good pictures along the way), my next stretch takes me to the infamous Haight-Ashbury district. It’s… lively. Certainly not my scene, obviously, and my inner straight-edger (which isn’t buried all that deep) takes a perverse pleasure in the heavy commercialization of that high temple of hippie culture: Ha! Peace and Love will always be defeated by Money and Sense! There is, I note with some irony, a Ben & Jerry’s at the Haight-Ashbury intersection. (Incidentally, I completely miss taking a picture of the actual intersecting street signs, although I get a picture of the Ben & Jerry’s and the picturesque fake Haight-Ashbury sign a few doors east.) I don’t linger a long time in the area: Even though I’m too early for much of the district (Thre’s practically no one on the sidewalks), the local population is reminding me of zombie movies: There are clearly a lot of people here whose brains have been irremediably damaged by their lifestyle, and the number of panhandlers seems even higher here than in the rest of the city… which is saying something.

10:00 – Golden Gate Park! I’m always a sucker for urban green spaces: I get cranky in cities and there’s nothing like a lot of green and blue to make me happier. I don’t stop near the eastern edge of the Golden Gate Park that borders Haight Street: The landscape is littered with sleeping, stoned or simply zonked-out homeless people. I eventually make it to the western edge of the Children’s Playground and Carousel (after making my way around the actual playground, since the rules state that “adults must be accompanied by children”) and stop for a bit of restful reading. Around me, one fearless Brewer’s Blackbird and numerous pigeons keep foraging for food.

10:30 – Once more across the park, after a stop at a nearby charmless public washroom. The park is biiig. Big enough to accommodate an entire botanical garden without blinking. I can’t resist plants, and admittance is free; why not take a look? Despite the costs in feet-point, it’s worth a walk. I barely see anything but the essentials (dodging automatic sprinklers along the way like a real-life game of hide from-the-sentinels) and yet see so much: One of the things I really really like about San Francisco’s climate is how it can accommodate plants familiar to the norther latitudes (ie; stuff that looks like home) and yet can accommodate tropical-climate plants as well, such as palm trees, aloe, cacti and such. Of course, sometimes you get hideously deformed familiar plants: This is the first time I actually see a silver-mound bush, for instance. I zoom through the garden and am once more on my way west by 11:00. I take a dirt path at 11:10 and end up resting/reading on a stump at about 11:20, almost completely alone except for a few joggers passing by every ten minutes.

11:40 – My goal in going through the park from east to west is to make it to the Pacific Ocean beach, but my feet are hurting so much that I’m beginning to doubt the wisdom of that objective. Is the ocean that impressive? Am I just deluding myself? Why is this park so damn long? When is this going to end? Is that a dutch windmill? (Yes, yes it is. It is also the western edge of the park.)

12:05 – The Pacific Ocean. Oh hell yes it’s worth it. It’s a gorgeous sunny windy day and the surf is awesome to watch. The beach is busy without being crowded, and as I carefully make my way across the beach to the actual ocean, I am reminded of the rare times where I have walked ocean-side beaches: Los Angeles/Venice in 2006, Miami Beach in 2008… You can’t run on sand when wearing good shoes, and the soft give of the beach soothes my feet. The dry, loose sand eventually gives way to the more densely-packed wet sand, and then on to the perpetually-smoothed section of the beach on which the surf crashes on. The air smells refreshing, the white noise of the surf is calming and if you look long enough on the horizon, you can almost see Japan. Some surfers make a few valiant efforts to catch waves, but it’s a really windy day, and there’s no doubting the warning sign that says “people have died here.” The surfs crashes down lower on the beach except when a certain wave does manage to get higher; I step back and still get a bit of water on my shoes. I wait a minute or two, taking in the place, damning the sunburn, and then another wave rushes up the beach. I don’t move, bend down just as it crests at my feet, and run my finger in the white scum lapping at my shoes. I touch the ocean, and bring my fingers to my mouth to taste it. It is indeed salty. Quite likely polluted as well. The moment having reached its apex, I turn back east.

12:30 – On my way back to the city via Fulton Avenue, just north of the Golden Gate Park, I eventually figure out that there’s no reason to torture myself. I dig out $1.75 and wait for the #5 bus that goes all the way downtown to the public library. Aboard the bus, my feet love the bus, I love the bus; it’s a fall of love alongside the Golden Gate Park. Whee for public transit!

13:00 – City Hall area, basically just so that I can visit the Public Library. It’s an impressive piece of work; six floors, with an interesting architectural style, at times of movie-set quality. (I’m particularly fond of the long elevated walkway that leads to a back room, high above the other floors.) I randomly go around the library, briefly leave to go eat a Subway sandwich (what would I do without Subways?) and come back to read some more of the Westerfield novel.

14:30 – I’m feeling recharged enough to go for another pilgrimage. This time, I’ve got an entirely unnatural attraction in mind: Borderland Books, one of the best specialty SF bookstores in the wooorld. This, incidentally, will allow me to discover a bit of the Valencia and Mission shopping districts. The sun is heavy and tough to avoid, especially on Market Street given how it shines straight down at that angle. A bit of creative walking solves the issue, but Valencia is sadly under heavy construction, and I spend more time navigating the obstacles (and slow-witted pedestrians) than admiring the location. (Fun fact: Even with one foot in excruciating pain, I’m still faster than most pedestrians.)

15:00 – Borderland Books is a great bookstore most days of the year, but today is even more special: following the WFC, a number of authors are signing at the bookstore during the evening, and they start walking in as I’m browsing the shelves. Anonymously eavesdropping on discussions between Pretty Big Names (and occasionally dodging them between the stacks), I learn things, such as the tale of store mascot Ripley, the believe-it-or-not Sphinx cat with mutant radioactive anti-baldness powers. (ie; after anti-cancer treatments, this formerly-hairless cat is now fuzzy-haired. He is pretty cute, even though my surreptitious pictures of him are too blurry to be of any use.) I manage to find a few books that I had either been looking for, or couldn’t get at all in Canada. At one exception, all are thin and small and easily stuffable in my luggage.

15:40 – Out of Borderlands and back in the city, I plan a repeat of my mass-transit-back-downtown plan. Mission Street is nearby, and that allows me a few block of pure Latino-infused color before going down in the bowels of the 16th street BART station. (I heartily recommend Mission Street over Valencia for shopping goodness, although there’s a perceptible difference in the types of stores on both streets: Valencia is high, Mission is low.) By 15:55, I’m waiting for the next train headed downtown.

16:10 – My batteries are running low again, and I figure that there’s no better way to recharge them than to sit down in front of the Embarcadero with a big Subway drink (fountain mixture of Green Tea, fruit juice and a bit of Dr. Pepper) and the last 20% of Westerfeld’s book. This, it eventually strikes me, is a highly civilized way of living.

16:50 – There isn’t much daytime left (due to the hills, San Francisco gets dark fast) and I want to tweak a few more good shots out of the day. I briefly consider, then reject the idea of making it to the aquarium on Pier 39. I end up at the Embarcadero itself, where I get a few good shots of a leaving ferry, the Oakland Bridge, birds, ships, an NBC News set-up probably reporting on the bridge closure, and cheese. Yes, cheese.

17:10 – My way back to my hotel, now that daylight is fading fast, becomes a game of “let’s not trash my feet” by sticking to level streets for as long as possible. This takes me near the Transamerica pyramid, and then down Kearny (or Montgomery, or both) until Post, where a generally smooth incline lets me walk back to my hotel. Around me, people are leaving work, moving as a herd toward the BART station on Market. The city is lighting up as it gets darker. The lit-up Palm trees on Union Square are spectacular. Curiously, my feet don’t seem to hurt as much as they should.

17:55 – I’m almost at my hotel when I realize that I could go for something to eat… and end up heading in one specific direction in the hope that I still remember where the Calla grocery store is located. Fortunately, my instincts are good: It’s exactly where I hope it is. I get a croissant/chicken-salad sandwich, smoked almonds and a quarter-watermelon, hoping that I will figure out a way of slicing it despite not having anything close to a knife in my possession. I get a clever idea while waiting in line.

18:15 – The neighborhood of my hotel has been described as “gritty”, which I have not seen any evidence of until a rather good idea for a picture of my hotel is made unusable by a man urinating against a trashcan. Consider description of neighborhood validated.

18:20 – Back in my hotel room. Feet still in one piece, although tomorrow will be tricky to navigate. I end up writing another few hundred words of fiction (total of 5,822 so far, a bit under quota), update the day’s adventures and eat my supper. WATERMELON PRO TIP: As I had cleverly thought, a (washed) plasticized Library Card works superbly well in cutting through most of a quarter-watermelon. It’s not elegant (do it in the bathroom sink), but oooh –Watermelon!

21:00 (00:00 Ottawa Time) – All right, we’re done here. Lights out.

Tomorrow: The rest of the city, with a North-East focus. Coit Tower, Here We Come –Feet be bandaged!

November 3rd, 2009 – Walking SF, Part 2: Rescued by the bus!

6:30 (9:30 Ottawa time) – Not only do I not beat the clock, I pretty much ignore it, and as a result of a few “oh, ten more minutes” find myself grossly late. Part of the problem is that it hasn’t been a good night: The walls of the hotel are thin but the doors are even thinner, and the residents of the room(s?) in front of me went in and out of their room at about 3:00, waking me up in the process. Also: traffic from the street, wonderfully audible at all times of the night.  I never totally went back to sleep after that, drifting in and out (and deactivating the alarm) until I saw 6:30 and went “aaargh!” Shower, breakfast are quick, followed by a bit of writing. It’s the writing that suffers the most from my late réveil: I barely add a thousand words before deciding to check my work email (solving a problem via IM, four thousand miles away) and striking out on the city for a second day. I have four-and-a-half objectives today: Will I be able to get to all of them?

8:30 – Walking downtown, my feet don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. They even get a bit better after a while.  Still, I have plans to save them from utter ruin: My first stop of the day is the Powell streetcar ticket booth, where I stand in line and buy an unlimited one-day transit pass. The big story of the week, I can tell from the newspapers, continues to be the repairs to the Bay Bridge. Then it’s off to an ATM to replenish my funds (actually, to establish the seed money for my next American expedition) and onto the base of the Transamerica pyramid at 9:10 to grab a handy #1 bus to… the west!

9:50 – My bus has taken me all the way through San Francisco, nearly back to the Pacific to the Legion of Honor (OBJECTIVE 1). I’m not really interested in going inside the museum, but there’s plenty to see outside: a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker, a few sculptures, and, especially when leaving the Legion by the hoity-toity “El Camino Del Mar” (watch out for those seaside properties!), a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Amusingly enough for a ceremonial museum admittedly copied from the French, I arrive at the same time than two school-buses of teenagers in what sounds like French immersion classes.

10:30 – Back on board the #1 bus, back to downtown. I’ve seen this stretch of the city before; I continue reading King & Straub’s Black House.

11:10 – At the base of the Transamerica Pyramid for a few pictures (did you know there are redwood trees in a small park at the base of the building?), and then north for the day’s biggest physical challenge: climb up stairs all the way up to Coit Tower (OBJECTIVE 2).

11:40 – Even a slow and steady rhythm broken up by pictures of a few wonderful gardens does little to make things easier: I’m practically wheezing by the time I’m at the base of the tower. (Later on, even the tower’s elevator operator seems impressed that I managed all the stairs from the East Side.) Admittance to the top of the tower is 5$ (via elevator only), and the view up there is blocked by glass windows, but it’s pretty spectacular nonetheless. There’s a bit of haze, but otherwise I can see almost forever. Certainly more than enough to take pictures upon pictures.

12:05 – Well look at that: There’s a bus (#39) waiting there at the base of the tower to take anyone back down. I’ve paid my due; I’ll take the bus. Ten non-agonizing minutes later, I’m at Washington square, where I make my way north (walking) to Fisherman’s Wharf.

12:30 – Yes, I’ve been to Fisherman’s Wharf before, but I have missed the Aquarium, and those are mandatory stops for me in cities that have them. The “Aquarium of the Bay” (OBJECTIVE 3) isn’t all that impressive when compared to others in Vancouver, Boston or Long Beach, but it’s got a few good things, including well-lit jellyfishes, a pair of tunnels under bassins and… bees!

13:00 – Poking around Pier 39 shows all the best and worst aspects of tourist traps. It’s all very superficial, commercial and aimed at tourists. On the other hand, it’s interesting to navigate, fascinating to discover and worthwhile even for those who don’t want to spend too much money. This being said, I’m not too tempted by the restaurants, because some Googling has revealed one thing I should try out…

13:30 – …In-n-Out burger! After years of hearing about it, I’m ready to try this regionally-exclusive fast-food chain. At a time where every fast-food menu seems to include everything, In-n-Out specializes in simplicity: There’s only a handful of options to choose from (yes, I know about the secret menu, no, I didn’t want to try it out the first time) and the process is speedy order-and-wait. I get number 1 (or 101) and mix myself a fountain blend of Dr. Pepper and Lemonade to wait it out. (This doesn’t taste particularly good, a failure I blame on not seeing the ice tea and cherry lemonade spouts.) The double-double burger is… ok. As a straight-up mass-market fast-food burger, it’s about as good as these things get. Still, I’m not bowled over. The fries are even less spectacular. Have I missed something about In-n-Out? At some point during my meal, I realize this is my first mass-market fast-food hamburger in years, and I haven’t really missed them.

14:00 – After a bit of rambling in the upper-scale commercial complexes west of Fishermen’s Wharf, I end up on Bus #30, to the Exploratorium via Chestnut.

14:30 – It would be silly to go to the Exploratorium without a walk around the “Palace of Fine Arts” ruins, a meticulously preserved set of classic dome and columns left over from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It’s very pretty to look at, and there are more photo opportunities here than I know what to do with.

14:45 – The Exploratorium (OBJECTIVE 4). I hadn’t really planned on spending much time here, but multiple recommendations led me to this place, and once the fun starts I find out it’s hard to stop. A practical hands-on science museum much like the Ontario Science Center in Toronto, the Exploratorium is, basically, a warehouse featuring gadgets with which you can play to illustrate various scientific principles. It’s compulsively addictive, up to a point, an hour after entering the building, that I had to remind myself that I was in San Francisco to go see the city, not play with science toys like a big happy nerd. Nonetheless; have I mentioned the smoke-signal generator, the bubble chamber, the optical illusions, etc, etc, etc?

15:45 – The day is going to end soon, so I go get a few pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field Beach.

16:10 – Back aboard the #30 (whose stop proved surprisingly far and subtle to find)

16:30 – Oh. My plan to go back downtown by cable-car hits a snag when I find that there’s a long snaking line of people waiting for cable cars. My plan B is really Plan F, as I revert to the F-Line streetcars running on the Embarcadero. This, really, isn’t such a good plan: The streetcar takes forever to leave, is filled with clueless tourists (willfully clueless tourists. No wonder locals hate tourists so much) and inches along the Embarcadero. There was probably a better Plan C by bus.  As I consider the errors of my ways, I make decent headway in Black House.

17:00 – Finding myself at the Embarcadero Terminal, I decide to retrace my steps from the first day and take pictures of the Bay Bridge, then find the RJ’s Market grocery store that had so much good stuff. I get a ham-and-gouda sandwich, plus fruit salad and Black Cherry Soda.

17:30 – Night is falling fast, and I find myself in the same crowd of departing workers than yesterday. This time, though, I’m going for broke (feet-wise) in order to find my last landmark of the trip: The gate that represents the entrance to Chinatown (OBJECTIVE 4.5). Returning to the hotel, I make a slight course correction to go through Union Square, only to find that there really isn’t much there, especially when it’s night.

18:00 – Back at the hotel for the usual routine. It’s about time I’m done for the day: In addition to my unusual blistering, more familiar signs of over-walking are appearing: sore shins, abraded toes, etc. Work is piling up in my various email in-boxes: it’s definitely time to go home. The ham-and-gouda sandwich is great, and I manage to leisurely pack up my luggage while writing the day’s adventures. Tomorrow will start early: My flight leaves at 7:30, which means I have to be at the airport at 6:00, which means… oh, you’ll find out tomorrow.

21:00 – OK, goodnight. Sadly, the novel is the big loser in this final day, with a measly 1000 word added in the morning and nothing at all in the evening. Maybe it will be better tomorrow.

November 4th, 2009 – Back Home

Well, I made it.  Let’s see how it happened:

4:30 (7:30, Ottawa Time): I’ve been drifting in and out of sleep since 3:00 when the alarm gets me up.  Shower, breakfast, check-out.

5:10 – The hotel calls me a taxi SUV and then it’s off to the airport through San Francisco’s empty streets and (slightly more busy) freeways.  Given the time of the day and the absence of stops, I get a bit of the thrill of driving down San Francisco’s hills at decent speed.

5:40 – At the departure gate already?!  I settle down to read more of Black House.

7:00 – Boarding for Toronto.  The flight is about 2/3 full: There’s no one sitting next to me.  The Air Canada menu is unavailable because the flight left from the US, and the “chicken sandwich” I buy is awful, even with the supplied salsa.  I end up reading the first quarter of Child & Preston’s Book of the Dead before making use of a functional entertainment system to watch JULIE & JULIA.    Then it’s already time for the descent and the second quarter of Book of the Dead.

(time-warp ahead 3 hours, back to Ottawa time)

15:02 – I’m not sure if I’ve joined the chorus of people who hate Pearson Airport, but I do.  It’s such an unfriendly airport that trying to build a mental map of it is counterproductive: It’s best to just follow the instructions, shrug, get out the safe zone, get back in the safe zone, take off the shoes, put back the shoes, not hit anyone and sit down until boarding.  I read another 20% of Black House as a fatigue headache slowly but steadily build.  Weather reports forecast overcast snow for Ottawa.

16:50 – Boarding for Ottawa.  Another flight 2/3 full, with no one next to me.  It’s a ridiculously short flight, but it still seems to take forever as I try (not really successfully) to doze off the headache.  Trying to read is counter-productive.

18:15 – Finally in Ottawa.  Getting out for the first time since 5:30 is a shock: The temperature is barely above freezing, and I can see my breath.  My headache retreats to someplace where there are more important things to consider.  The 97 bus back to Hurdman is there, but sits driverless for about ten minutes until the driver comes back.  I try reading a bit on the overheated bus back: a bad idea.  More happily, my transfer to the Orleans-bound 95 at Hurdman is a textbook case of perfect timing.  I stand up on the way to Orleans and that seems to help.

19:00 – My ride back to Rockland is there, and family/local gossip reassures me that the world hasn’t ended while I was away.

19:20 – Two more echoes of San Francisco await me: First, I have no food an I must eat… so I drop by the local grocery store to buy supper: a very urban thing to do.  Second, the big box of books I shipped to myself on Saturday is already waiting for me at the local post office.  Walking it back, I feel the true weight of the books.  Curiously, though, my feet feel just fine.

20:00 – After that, it’s laundry, email, post-trip clean-up and other assorted household tasks.  I don’t have time to reply to all emails (and sadly, the novel once again bore the brunt of the day’s exhaustion, with 0 words added), but at least I’m home, and I can look forward to a few snow-bound weeks of non-traveling.  Yet, there’s already another trip in advanced planning stage: WHC/London/Paris/London/Eastercon.  Read all about it in late-March/early-April 2010!

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