March 30, 2011

Pacific Rim Whale Fest

I just came back after attending a whale festival on Vancouver island and figured that this might be a good place to tell my friends and family what I got up to.

The Pacific Rim Whale Festival is an annual festival taking place in Ucluelet and Tofino, BC, Canada that celebrates everything whale. Well actually it's more like "everything Pacific coast". The focus is on the gray whale migration that passes along the coast every March as the gray whales head up from the warm waters of Mexico to the feeding gold mine that is the Pacific Alaskan coast. Several hundred whales pass by each year and as such it's one of the best times to go whale watching.

This year was the 25th Anniversary of the festival and was my first time heading up. I got a chance to do an educational talk about my thesis work on the filtration mechanics of lunge-feeding baleen whales, but my wife and I made a vacation out of it and stuck around for a few festival events too.

Anyways, let's make this easy and just run thru the day-to-day fun that my wife and I got up to.

Check out some of my pictures here.

We took off for Vancouver Island the day before the festival got started and actually got an early jump as my wife was home sick that day. It was an easy traveling day though, so I managed to get her in the car and we took off for Port Alberni where my in-laws live. The drive is always incredible on the way to Port Alberni and this relaxed drive finally gave us the opportunity to stop at Cathedral Grove. I highly recommend stopping there if you pass by. The temperate rainforest that surrounds you is simply magnificent.

We spent the day in Port Alberni and ended up going on a little nature walk here as well. The walk was actually pretty amazing considering we were within the city (town?) limits and yet felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. (Check out the pictures) In the late afternoon we made our way over to Ucluelet and checked into our hotel. And what a hotel! (Again, see the pictures) The Waters Edge Resort in Ucluelet was perfect. We had a one bedroom suite on the third floor overlooking the dock and the town. At night I took advantage of our brand new tripod and my new camera lens to capture some pictures that I never thought I could do! And while I took pictures of the port, my wife took in the private balcony jacuzzi that comes with each suite. Ya, pretty sweet deal.

A perfect, blue sky on a spectacular March day. We really couldn't have asked for better weather on this trip. The west coast is renowned for it endless cloudiness and frequent rain. We, however, got very little of that. After taking in a late breakfast we thought we should take advantage of this weather (it might not last long!) and do some outdoor activities. It started with some kayaking around the straight. The kayaks were free courtesy of the hotel so we did a little bit of island hopping and sea lion spotting. Hanging out on the water and just sitting still is a feeling that us city folk don't really get to experience much. The extent of silence that you can get when you're out on the water always impresses me. There's no background noise. No cars. No rumbling generators. No humming street lights. Nothing. Just silence. Ahhhhh....

Anyways, back to the adventure. We then headed off on some whale watching. Having studied the feeding mechanisms of whales for the last couple years, I had yet to see a free, live baleen whale. So this was the perfect chance. And sure enough we spotted a couple whales. We saw about 4-6 grey whales and 2 humpbacks. Plus some stellar and California sea lions. All in all a pretty jam packed 2.5 hour boat ride. We went with Jamie's Whaling and I would highly recommend it. Our guide, Scott, knew a fair amount about the whales and the coast in general. I like it when guides don't have to be prompted to give you information. Scott would just bring up interesting facts without prompting, but would still leave some times of quiet and peace.

So, alas I had seen some live whales!! I didn't manage to get any great pics, the whales were not to obliging on showing their backs let alone their whale tails or a full breach. Never the less, it still counts as a whale sighting if all you really see is the mist from the blow hole! The boat ride itself was worth the trip. We were on a small 20 foot zodiac, but man, that thing could really cook it. At some points we were just skimming the water and the guy behind me's clam chowder just wouldn't stay down. He was quick enough to hurl over the side though, so I stayed clean.

We took an early night as I wanted to get ready for my talk the next day. Just another evening of jacuzzi tubbing and fishing boat photographing.

The big day! I gave my talk at the Wickannish Interpretive Centre in Pacific Rim National Park. Almost half way between Ucluelet and Tofino. It was a beautiful setting with the interpretive centre sitting right on the beach (the southern tip of the famous Long Beach). At first it looked like my 11:30am Monday morning time-slot might have dissuaded anybody for coming, but by the time I started there were about 30 people in the crowd.

My talk seemed to go over well. I had a lot of questions at the end of it so that's always a good sign. The questions I got ranged from a 4 yr old getting her mum to ask whether Nemo really could have come out of the spout of a whale to someone (who must have been an engineer) commenting on pressure differentials and laminar versus turbulent flow. Thankfully I think my background abled me to address both questions. :)

After my talk we met up with some of Alys' relatives and had lunch at the beautiful Black Rock Resort in Ucluelet. Considering how posh the resort is, the restaurant was pretty reasonably priced (lunch anyways) and pretty tasty too.

The evening gave us the chance to attend Sweet Indulgence, the Whale Festival's all you can eat dessert event. It was held at the Ukee community centre and had a couple hundred people show up. And the desserts were tasty too! The people of Ucluelet really put a lot of effort into making tons of homemade desserts and we were able to eat until we couldn't take any more. There were also about 50 door prizes too, of which we won one (2 for 1 dessert!) and a pretty good live acoustic duo playing some original and some acoustic covers the whole evening.

Guess what we did later in the evening? That's right....jacuzzi and pictures! I guess it looks like I'm really into photography now! And my wife must be really into jacuzzis...

Our first rainy day. We woke up to rain and it didn't want to let up. So unfortunately we had to skip the last event we had planned to attend (a nature walk led by a professional photographer) and headed back up thru Port Alberni and back to Vancouver.

All-in-all this was an amazing trip and I definitely hope to be back to Ucluelet and Tofino for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival! Next time we'll have to do some surfing and some more hiking if we get weather like that again. If you ever get a chance to hit up the Whale Festival, don't pass it up. I guarantee it'll be worth it!

March 25, 2011

Three words for Harper's reign of terror

1. Contempt - first time EVER!

2. Prorogue - remember that?

3. Cats.

If these 3 words make you shiver, then show it in the polls.

March 6, 2011

A Day in the Life of Jaboo (in comic form!)

It was a random, dare I say serendipitous, confluence of events that led to me drawing a comic about my cat.

A few days ago as I was leaving for school, I unexpectedly found a mysterious bulky brown envelope propped up against the door. It was present for my cat Jaboo from the little girl who lives upstairs. She's about 5 or 6 years old and once left a scrawled note taped to the door saying Jaboo had been elected Mayor of Cat Town. I suspect when Jaboo's out gallivanting about he's actually just upstairs a lot of the time. Their family also has two cats. Anyway, this envelope contained two old margarine containers with kitty snacks inside. Adorably, the package had two previous attempts at writing "Here is a present for Jaboo" that were hastily scribbled out with the final message written on a piece of masking tape.

This was definitely worthy of some sort of thank you card and I had this niggling idea of making a comic after recently attending the Serendipity graphic novel conference (see last post). Say what you will about my scrappy drawings, but I've been reading more alternative comics over the past year and, uh, let's just say drawing skills are not a requirement for making comics (a point reiterated by the Serendipity panelists, even though they were all amazing artists anyway). During a workshop with Aaron Renier and Jason Shiga, we were shown by Shiga how to make a clever choose-your-own-adventure style comic, so I had a pre-made comic just waiting for the panels to be filled in. The comic folds every which way so it's hard to show how it works with any justice, but you might get a sense of how it unfolds in these photos:

Following the arrows, you essentially end up with a branching 5-panel story with four endings. Very cool.

Uh, keeping in mind the target audience, here's the comic presented linearly (without all the unfolding fun):

I gained a greater appreciation of cartoonists for the time, effort, and commitment in producing even a small amount of work. Drawing consistency is also not my forte as I more or less drew a different cat in every panel. A discerning eye may be even able to pick out the order in which these panels were drawn (as my enthusiasm progressively dwindled).

March 1, 2011

Long-winded Serendipity '11 Recap

Last Saturday, I attended Serendipity, an all-day conference put on by the Vancouver Children's Literature Roundtable. This year's event was billed as an Graphic Novel Extravaganza with a talented panel of guests including Gene Yang (American-Born Chinese), Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Matt Holm (Babymouse), Aaron Renier (Spiral-Bound), Jason Shiga (Meanwhile), and Valerie Wyatt (How to Build Your Own Country). Naturally, I had to go! I may even have to go next year with the already-announced Asian Books for Children.

Alas, I forgot my camera, but I brought a couple books to be signed (and ended up with a few more!).

It started way too early on a cold Saturday morning with a continental breakfast and author signings, but it was a small price to pay to meet and chat (awkwardly) with these comic creators. I recognized a couple fellow SLAISers and at least one VPLer, though on the whole I had no idea who the majority of these attendees were (teachers? librarians? budding cartoonists?). First up, I approached Raina Telgemeier, whose autobiographical Smile chronicles her orthodontic adventures as a teenager. I first found out about Raina and Smile last year after her appearance on The Ink Panthers, Alex Robinson and Mike Dawson's comic podcast where they try not to talk about comics. Anyone who's had braces (myself included) can identify with her charmingly told coming of age story while cringing at the haunting memories of brace wires being tightened. You'll also feel relief that you probably did not have it as bad as Raina who had headgear and the whole bit after knocking out her two front teeth.

Raina was with her husband and fellow comic book creator Dave Roman, who a few years ago actually proposed to her in comics-form! I later realized that my conference package included a pre-release copy of his new book Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, so I had to hop back to their table later to have him sign his book.

I met Gene Yang next, who really is pretty much the nicest guy ever. In addition to writing and illustrating the award-winning American Born Chinese, he's a high school teacher of computer science in California. I was very jealous of the buyer in the silent auction who snagged an early copy of his latest video game themed graphic novel Level Up, illustrated by Thien Pham. It's out in June, so I'll just have to patiently wait for now.

When I approached Gene, I actually brought a gift for him... One of my favourite childhood comics (I suppose they'd label this a graphic novel these days) was Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads, which was pretty much the only comic other than Tintin and Asterix at the children's library in Edmonton. I can still picture the beat-up old copy, which had been rebound with a generic purple cover with white writing on the spine. It's based on the same Journey to the West story of the Monkey King that Gene incorporated into American Born Chinese. I rediscovered this book a few years ago when someone donated their entire graphic novel collection to the Strathcona Library. Some research revealed some things I hadn't realized as a kid: the book was commissioned in 1983 by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in conjunction with an exhibition on the Silk Road of China with wonderful illustrations done by one of the museum's artists Anker Odum.

I seem to be the only person who's read this on and the only online mention other than used book sites is a dismissive 1984 review from the University of Manitoba. I was pretty oblivious to the legend of the Monkey King and its storied history in Chinese culture, but when I read American Born Chinese a few years ago, I immediately recognized the story and was later inspired to read Arthur Waley's translation of Journey to the West. A couple interesting incarnations have appeared in recent years with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame collaborating on the 2008 Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West. Even a futuristic retelling in video game form was released last year called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West with Andy Serkis voicing and mo-capping Monkey, natch. Anyway, I insisted Gene take my copy of the Magic Monkey comic since it's fairly rare outside of Canada. I've already ordered my replacement copy for 20 cents (plus $6.49 shipping). Here's a link to Gene's tribute to the Monkey King. He actually recommends the David Kherdian translation of Journey to the West as an entertaining page-turner . . . added to my reading list!

At that point, the program was getting ready to begin. To my absolute surprise, the MC was someone I worked with in 2006 during a year stint at the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. It's a small library world! We were first treated to a charming presentation by Matt Holm talking about his background as an artist and the creation with his sister of the hit series Babymouse, which was the most checked-out children's title at the New York Public Library in 2010! Towards the end of his presentation, he invited someone up to help create a Babymouse illustration from scratch followed by a Q&A. His and the later presentations were variations of the ones they would typically be doing for school audiences, but heck we were all kids at heart here!

Next up was Raina who was initially joined on stage by Dave to read aloud an excerpt from Smile with Raina voicing herself and Dave everyone else. That's gotta be the first time I've seen a comic read aloud. She then went on to talk about her creative process and her path to becoming a cartoonist, before a quick round questions and drawing. Even the MC noted how novel it was to have guests draw on demand unlike previous guests of previous years ("30 seconds, write a short story, GO!").

After a short coffee break, Gene Yang went up to talk about his unlikely path into comics. He hilariously incorporated emoticons in his presentation representing the dismayed reactions of his parents to various points in his career path. When one of his comics appeared in the New York Times, his dad tromped around to various newsstands to track one down (somewhere in California) and paid FIVE whole dollars for it. Gene remarked, "Believe me, that's a lot for an old Chinese man!"

We were provided lunch boxes with sandwiches, a cookie, an apple, and juice boxes. Like elementary school revisited! During lunch there was also a limited-seating hands-on workshop with Aaron Renier and Jason Shiga who showed us some simple techniques to creating DIY mini-comics. Jason showed us an ingenious choose-your-own-adventure style folding comic, which can also be viewed in this youtube video. Things got a bit weird towards the end when the session devolved into people shouting at them, essentially forcing them to draw a chalk jam comic in 30 seconds. I felt awkward on their behalf and embarrassed on our behalf.

The afternoon featured Valerie Wyatt talking about How to Build Your Own Country, for which she was presented the 2010 Information Book Award from the VCLR. She also discussed aspects of the publishing world since her career has primarily been as an editor. This was followed by another hour with the full panel of guests (minus Wyatt) with everyone taking turns answering questions pre-submitted by the audience. Phew, it was a mighty full day and even I was fading a little by that point.

Lastly, there was a final round of signings. I was compelled to grab Aaron Renier's The Unsinkable Walker Bean once I saw the beautiful drawings that accompanied each of his signings. I forgot to ask him about it, but earlier it came up briefly that Aaron recently did some sort of illustration fellowship at Maurice Sendak's house! Here's part 1 of his blog post about the experience (part 2 forthcoming).

I also picked up a copy of Jason Shiga's Meanwhile (which I had previously read from the library). Meanwhile is a mind-bending choose-your-own-adventure, seemingly modeled after the time travel film Primer. I asked him about it and he hadn't consciously noticed the connection but admitted that Primer was his favourite time travel movie (even better than Back to the Future 2, he said). During the earlier panel, we learned that Shiga majored in Mathematics, which seems unusual for a cartoonist although you can definitely see a mathematics slant in the puzzle-like designs of his comics and stories. His claim that Meanwhile required a computer algorithm to calculate the ideal layout turned out to be a joke that I fell for because designing the book's complicated layout is nearly unfathomable to my puny mind. Another fun factoid that came up that day: Jason Shiga's dad was an animator on the old Rankin/Bass special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

After I bought Meanwhile and came back to get it signed he asked me about a hypothetical situation: if you travelled back to time to buy a lottery ticket with the winning jackpot numbers, would they even be the same numbers? He argued they'd be different because the numbers would be randomly generated each time. I blathered about parallel universes and other stuff I couldn't articulate, eventually arguing that they should theoretically be the same numbers. You'd be travelling to an event that already took place, so the numbers would be the same. Shiga said he wasn't sure and we should defer to a physicist. Later that night, I remembered an essay I wrote in a sci-fi film class about Newtonian and Einsteinian paradigms of time travel narratives, comparing the films Twelve Monkeys and La Jetée. Years removed, that essay is borderline unreadable and I can't believe I wrote it, but basically one theory suggests everything has already happened including your time travel so nothing ever changes (the numbers would be the same) and the other allows for divergent timelines (numbers not necessarily the same). I guess it comes down to a philosophical debate about whether you believe in a deterministic or non-deterministic universe. In short, I love me some time travel narratives!

As usual, succinct blogging is not my forte, so I'm going to cut this off here. Needless to say, I had a blast!