Why You Should Always Use Clear and Relevant Headlines

Sometimes your subconscious brings up some dumb thing you did years ago, and then you get to stay up all night thinking about how awful it was.


In school I only enjoyed English class. English and Language Arts teachers were always my favourites. They paid me as much attention as I thought I deserved. My essays were used as teaching examples and read in front of the class. Lots of A’s and nice comments in red ink.

I had one teacher who was exceptional at maintaining control of the class, and told great stories. He had recurring laryngitis, and we would all lean forward to catch his unbelievable punch lines, told in a raspy whisper.

There was an accident where someone was swept downstream through icy whitewater, rescued with seconds to spare before tumbling into a butterchurn waterfall. There were adventures that ended with him sneaking into the house at 3am, only to find Dad in his room, sitting on the bed with a sarcastic expression. There were horse penises.

Great stuff. Anyway, I got A’s in that class as well. I avoided group projects by writing long essays. I was left alone to read doorstop-sized novels while everyone else struggled through slim paperbacks. It was the only provincial exam I did well on.

By the end of high school, I hadn’t made a good impression on any adults in my life, and had accomplished little aside from those long essays.

The band teacher, I fought with continuously, and did not practice my instrument. 

In chemistry, I got nosebleeds and frequently left class to deal with them. 

In social studies I wrote poetry instead of working on assignments and goaded the teacher into telling stories about India. 

In math I made an effort sufficient to keep passing only because the math teacher wouldn’t let me go to track meets if I failed. 

In track I ran slowly and didn’t throw the discus very far.

In Bible class I wrote angry rants and violent song lyrics on the back of test papers, as well as doodling “disturbing imagery”. On the front of those papers I wrote what I thought were scathing criticisms of Dr. James Dobson. (Please let those papers stay missing forever).

This book is just straight up mental. It tells you at exactly which base you cross from being cool with God into putting your soul in danger of hellfire. Spoilers: it comes before "touching each other's hair."
This book is just straight up mental. It tells you at exactly which base you cross from being cool with God into putting your soul in danger of hellfire. Spoilers: it comes before “touching each other’s hair.”

I was sent repeatedly to the principal’s office. I avoided delivering my senior chapel presentation, the source of at least 50% of my stress and nosebleeds that year, by procrastinating my way out of it.

At a summer camp where I worked as a counsellor, I was reprimanded for bringing “inappropriate books” to camp and leaving them within reach of campers. I can’t imagine what they found in that book that was inappropriate – it was so boring that I never finished it. Oh well.

At the library where I worked part time, I was scolded for reading in the stacks instead of shelving books. 

And I was thrown out of the spring musical for missing practice due to audiologist appointments.

So English was the only class where I did anything noteworthy.


At that after-school job in the library, I found amazing books. The job itself was dull, but I never lacked great reading material.

One was How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater, which was every bit as good as the title. Another was The Warrior’s Apprentice, first of series that turned out to be my favourite of all time. It beats Harry Potter and Discworld by a wide margin. Another was Sin and Syntax, a style guide for those who would break the rules of the English language for maximum impact. This is the one that got me in trouble.


The thing to do after you finish high school, is either go to college or get a job. I attempted college. It didn’t go well. I enjoyed arguing with my philosophy classmates and writing poems for my English elective, but Micro- and Macroeconomics gave me more nosebleeds. The education seemed too expensive and too much work for the job it qualified me for – part-time barista, perhaps. I stopped, and set my sights on Katimavik.

Nevermind what Katimavik is or why I was thrown out of it. The point is that I needed letters of reference,  and two years out of high school I had still failed to do anything interesting with my life. The only person I could think to ask was my old English teacher. And I wanted to be sure that he read the email and responded to it, even if in the negative. So I pulled out old Sin and Syntax, and opened it to the section about writing compelling subject lines to emails.

This is the first google image result for “airsex”. I don’t know what to tell you.

airsex“, the book suggested. No, that wasn’t right. “Prepare to be overwhelmed“. Not strictly accurate – there was nothing overwhelming about 20-year-old me. “writer threatening suicide” was another example the book cited, as an attention-grabbing subject line. It would get attention, but not, I thought, the right kind. I settled on “I love you“, as the book guaranteed that this was a title unlikely to be ignored.

I don’t know why I did that. Please don’t ask. However, the only email address I had handy for that teacher was the one that he shared with his wife. So if they did indeed receive the message, it cannot have been very welcome. Never got a reply. Haven’t spoken to either of them since. Hope I never do.

The moral of the story is that if you are writing to ask for a reference, or indeed for any other thing, you should make your subject line clear and relevant. In this case “Request for reference” would have made a perfectly adequate subject.

The second moral is, don’t just do stuff that books tell you to do. Get a second opinion first.

How to talk to your deaf* friend

Tl;dr read the bold bits.

Friends, have you ever started asking me a question only to be interrupted by “Wassat?” after like 2 words? Like,

“Do you…” “What?”

“I was going to say, do you want some more coffee?”

“Oh. Yes please.”

I notice a sound – I notice that it’s speech – I notice it’s addressed to me – I look around trying to figure where it’s coming from – I see someone looking at me with a question on their face, halfway through asking something that I haven’t heard any of.

People with normal hearing get through most of those steps before the end of the first syllable, but it takes me a couple of words to get there.

Please help me. Get my attention before you start talking. Say “Shannon”. Tap my shoulder. Say “oi.” Make eye contact. Throw something at my head. Just that tiny notification that you are about to start saying something makes a huge difference.

I will drop everything and give you my undivided attention at the slightest provocation. Just help me out a bit.

If I don’t know what the conversation is about, I can’t understand any of the words people are saying. So if a group is talking about the food on the table, and suddenly switches to hockey, I get very confused. Like, I’ll go from understanding maybe 80% of the words that people say, to less than 10% – until I hear the word “hockey” and then everything snaps back into place.

If I’ve spent any amount of time in your company, I’ve probably left the room, come back, and interrupted the conversation with “Ok, what are we talking about?” That’s what’s going on.

I don’t know any other deaf people. They’re bloody impossible to talk to. The irony does not escape me, and I am grateful for those who have patience with me.

I ask for repeats a lot. People respond in one of two ways. The first sort will rephrase what they said, same volume, still mumbling. Thanks, now I have two confusing sentences to decode while the conversation sputters and dies.

They’ll repeat themselves a couple more times, then eventually get annoyed and yell it out. Or better still, say “nevermind”.

My friend’s seven year old daughter does this a lot. She gets a pass, because she’s seven and adorable. If you’re an adult, I will try to educate you, but I won’t put up with it forever. When I ask for a repeat, say the exact same phrase – louder, and more clearly. 

Other people, who are used to it or maybe just more socially advanced, will develop a “Shannon voice” – that’s like an outside voice, in the words of your kindergarten teacher. Sit up straighter, use your lungs and your lips, and speak loudly enough for the whole class to hear. Recognize that you are an important person with interesting things to say, and I want to hear all of it.

Sound that arrives in my brain through my ears is of very low quality. It takes a lot of power to parse it out and get useful information. Sometimes there is a delay. Sometimes it takes a while for me to catch up.

Some things that cause my brain to work even harder:

  • Mumbling.
  • Loud noises in the background – like if someone slams a door while you’re talking, that whole sentence is gone.
  • Any kind of white noise in the background, like a tap running. Your ears tune it out – mine can’t.
  • Low light – it’s hard to read lips.
  • Accents.
  • Women’s voices, which tend to be higher pitched and quieter than men’s. I only recently – like this year – began to learn how many fascinating women I know. I have to seek them out for one on one conversation, because in groups they get drowned out.
  • Children – might as well be hamsters for all I can understand them. Fortunately kids don’t hold it against me, and will try as hard as I do.

Some things that help:

  • Talk louder. DON’T YELL. That distorts the words and makes them harder to understand. Plus it’s scary and upsetting and makes me want to leave. Louder, like you’re giving a presentation in class and the teacher is sitting in the back row.
  • Face me. I read lips.
  • Face me. When you talk to the kitchen sink, all the sound goes straight down the drain. None of it gets to me.
  • Don’t rest your chin on your hand. Don’t stroke your stupid mustache. In fact, shave the mustache, it also gets in my way.
  • Sit nearby. If you’re 3 feet away, I’m struggling. If you’re 6 feet away, I’m helpless.
  • If I put my face 6 inches away from yours and stare directly into your soul and that makes you uncomfortable, talk louder. I’m uncomfortable too.

Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your effort. I will try to repay it by listening well.

** Technically I am hard of hearing. Takes too long to type.

Art & Lutherie

When I was 18, in January, I had $1000. That was all the money I had in the world, right after I was paid. I was ahead of the rent for the first time since leaving home 6 months ago. That meant that I could spend money on something other than food, for the first time.

I took the bus downtown to Old Towne Strings. I picked up the first guitar I saw. It was an Art & Lutherie acoustic guitar, with a cedar body and a cherry fretboard. The sweetest, warmest G major chord I ever heard.

I played 6 or 7 other guitars but nothing sounded better than the first one.

The lady behind the counter told me it was a refurbished model. “The cedar they use for the neck is so soft, it bows. We get a lot of these guitars in with bowed necks. We take them apart, put a steel rod in, put them back together. It’s better than brand new.”

I bought it for $200. I’m not much of a musician though. I played it a bunch, but eventually I got bored of hearing myself play badly.

I moved probably 8 times with that guitar. Barrington Manor, to my Auntie’s house in Royal Oak, to Shane’s house, to Westall Ave, to 5th St, to my Auntie’s condo at Spencer Castle, back to Shane’s house, to the Crack House in Gordon Head. Every time I moved, my brother (aka my personal moving company), would toss it in the back of that year’s truck and say “You ever play this thing?”

Some fella said that he was going to move to Australia, and I thought I would move there with him, so I started selling stuff. That guitar was one of the first things to go.

Two skinheaded gentlemen came to the Crack House. Skinhead #1 played a couple of scales and chords, then said to Skinhead #2, “Sweetie, I love it.”  Skinhead #1 said “Ok, we’ll take it. Happy anniversary, honey.”

I didn’t go to Australia, but I didn’t miss the guitar much either, till last week. Walking along Quadra Street under that giant yellow half moon, maybe on Boxing Day or the day after, The Only One started in my headphones and I needed to learn how to play it.

So now I’m borrowing my cousin’s abused old beater that he got in elementary school. It’s a lovely guitar. It says “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS WHEN USED AS DIRECTED” on the side, and it’s covered with the signatures of all the people he was friends with in 2007. It doesn’t sound half so nice as that cedar Art & Lutherie though.

My pick is a chunk of plastic I cut out of a Safeway club card, and my phone works for tuning and recording it. I used to have more picks, a real tuner, a couple of guitars, and a lot of nice equipment. But at least I’m playing it now, which I didn’t back then.

For now, anyway. Just want to learn that one song.