Plagues

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There is a plague terrorizing Africa. It is incurable, inexorable and seemingly unstoppable. It produces new victims every day, indiscriminate of class or profession. Yet the media is mostly silent.

This plague isn’t Ebola; it is malaria. Since its first discovery Ebola has killed 3000 people. Forty years and 3000 deaths. Ebola is a piker. Malaria kills that many people every three days. Three days – 3000 dead from malaria.

Malaria isn’t exciting; it is not threat to America or Europe. It doesn’t cause you to bleed out. Doctors don’t have to wear hazmat suits because you can’t catch it from another human. Malaria doesn’t make interesting pictures; Malaria just kills people. Those it doesn’t kill it makes permanently ill. You may have good days but then it hits and knocks you on your ass for a month. I have several friends who have malaria caught while living in South Africa.

There are pills you can take to reduce the risk but in some people they cause psychotic episodes. Not something you want to risk so visitors lather on mosquito repellant and sleep under DDT infused nets. Locals do so too if they can afford it. Many can’t.

Ah, DDT. It was the great hope of the tropics. It was driving back the mosquito hordes that carry the parasite. But then along came Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. Her argument led to a world-wide ban in the use of DDT. Never mind that we later found some of her evidence was fabricated.

But that’s how it is. The beacons of truth that burn in the minds of true believers are always more important than the lives of children. All fundamentalists – religious political or otherwise – are like that.

The Canadian government has given $1.4 M to contain Ebola. It’s a nice political cause. People are afraid of Ebola so there are votes to be gained. Meanwhile they ignore climate change and the mosquitos that carry malaria move farther north every year. Malaria doesn’t exist in Canada now but it did once – when they were building the Rideau Canal, workers were brought in from other more southern projects and they may have infected the local mosquitoes (though some studies suggest the disease was already present). The disease died off over the winter months but as the climate changes that might not happen the next time. I wonder if, when we see our own children dying, DDT will make a comeback.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Flying

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The oddest question in any language may be: Do you like flying?

Sure, if you mean like Superman — soaring effortlessly through the air, arms extended, breeze rippling through my steel fiber hair as I gaze down with enhanced vision – even x-ray vision – on all the beauties and wonders of the rolling landscape. Rushing past mountains and over seas, impervious to any possible harm except the chance encounter with a kryptonite meteor. Sure.

But if you mean stuffed into a metal cigar tube thrust forward by highly flammable fuel with the roar of jets and the cries of babies in my ears as I breathe in recycled air and all the aromas 200 people can generate in 4 to 6 hours? Having to endure the pressing flesh of my overweight seat mate as a I choke down bad food and cheap wine and watch films on a tiny screen until my knees ache from sitting too long? To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: I like having flown.

Because I love to go places. Whether it’s places I’ve been often, like Yellowknife, or places I go to rarely, like Boston, I love to go places. I especially love to go new places. This summer there are a lot of familiar trips but the one I’m most looking forward to is my first to Dublin. To walk where Joyce and Yeats walked (and more importantly to drink where they drank) looms large in my imagination. Will I see leprechauns? Probably not but I will see the mists and rivers and stony places that inspired them. I wish I was going longer and that my first visit to Ireland took in more than fabled Dublin but 3 days is all I have. Guess I’ll have to make do with London and Paris — the other part of our European adventure.

Paris is my new old love. Since I’ve been writing detective stories set in 1920s Paris I’ve been there three times. This summer marks the fourth. Walking those streets, seeing that cityscape always takes me back to another time. So off I go today, flying from one end of the country to the other and then across the Atlantic.

I must be crazy because I sure ain’t rich.

And that’s ten minutes.

Friendship

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We are judged by the company we keep. Fortunately I’ve been surrounded by a pretty good crowd. My friends, even more than my family, have defined me. They have provided the cornerstones of the life I’ve constructed for myself. The bond of friendship is an interesting phrase. Bonds are constraints, ties, fastenings and friendship is all of that. But bonds are also promises, covenants that we make and construct. This twin restraint/support holds us in place, keeps us grounded and centered and lets us define what and who we are.

I am thinking a lot about friendship these days — partly because I’m about to set off to Alberta and BC to renew my bonds with some of my closest friends. One of them, Kirk Miles, is an inspiration for this very blog. Kirk, professional clown, arts organizer extraordinaire but, most of all, poet, told me of a habit he had formed of starting his day by writing a five minute poem. Not every one, in fact, very few, were gems but they liberated him and led him into his busy and often productive days. Kirk is a great friend as too is his wife, Tania Sablatash, whose friendship actually is slightly older than that I have with Kirk and easily as profound.

I won’t enumerate who else lies within the closest circle — they know who they are. The list isn’t long but it is very deep. Which for me is what describes how I feel about friends — a deepness of emotion that crosses almost all limits. There is acceptance, support, laughter, tears, love. It’s the complete package.

Oddly most of my closest friendships were formed in a ten year period between 1985 and 1995, a time when I was finally putting together the pieces of the puzzle that is myself. My friends helped me do that — no, they made me do that and for this I will be eternally grateful.

Some people think there comes a time when it is more difficult to make new deep friends. I don’t think that’s true. I have felt the bonds of friendship grow with someone new almost at every stage of my life. Sometimes those tendrils wither and fade; other times they deepen and become the strong roots that sustain me and help me grow ever taller.

And that’s ten minutes.

Terrorist — and other failing epithets

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Once things are on your mind they are hard to let go. Like the diminishing meaning of perfectly good epithets.

Terrorist comes to mind. Time was, we all knew what a terrorist was. A person who used violence against the state to achieve political ends. These ends were often vague but the acts were generally focused. Bombs thrown or bullets fired usually at public figures in order to destabilize the state and bring about, as they so nicely put it now, regime change. It was common throughout history — the assassination of Caesar in a public place was meant to instill terror and change the political order in Rome. It did, though not quite in the way the perpetrators intended. The assassination of the Archduke that precipitated World War I was also a deliberate act of terror — though it succeeded more from good luck than good planning.

Terror of course was always used by groups trying to liberate their countries from what they viewed as foreign oppressors — the Irish, various wars of African liberation — because they had few other tools. I recall the Goon Show skit where Prince Phillip greets a newly minted President (who is clutching him by the throat) with: “I used to think you were a terrorist, now I know you were a freedom fighter.

Now of course everyone is a terrorist. Not just people who deliberately murder politicians or civilians to upset the social order but essentially anyone who takes a disruptive action against the established powers that be. If you refuse to play in their ball park by their rules you are a terrorist. For example, people who burn GMO crops or spike trees are eco-terrorists — possibly fair if lives are endangered— but that term has now spread to people who propose boycotts, engage in loud but non-violent demonstrations or harass corporate executives on Twitter. Maybe it’s time those CEOS grew a pair, hmm?

What about economic terrorists? Applied by the right to those who hack into banks or national security databases and by those on the left to proponents of government austerity. So-called men’s rights groups view feminism as a form of terrorism if the feel threatened by their actions — as legal and as peaceful as those might be. More people who need to man-up.

I could go on and talk about fascists and assholes — two more insults that have lost power from overuse.

But that’s ten minutes.

Self-discipline, self-esteem and self-doubt

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You thought maybe I’d continue on where I left off yesterday. Maybe later. My thoughts have been interrupted by the fact I sold a story. Woot!

Everyone thinks I have tremendous self-discipline, no doubt because I do seem to get lots of things done. Sadly, this is not true. I constantly berate myself for all the things I’m not getting done. I look at the long list of possible accomplishments — not foolish impossible things like climbing K2 (much more deadly than Everest) or learning how to do heart surgery (getting queasy at the sight of a bloody finger probably is a major obstacle) but really quite doable things like writing my next novel or figuring out how the book market really works or becoming a public intellectual who will be in constant demand for pithy analysis of ‘deep subjects.’

My lack of discipline where these things are concerned is precisely the reason I have to work almost every day. If I didn’t I would get nothing done and what would my admirers think of me then? So I plug away, task after task and at the end of the month I surprise even myself with what I have accomplished.

But self- disciplined? Ha! Yesterday instead of making lamb chimichurri I ordered pizza and drank wine — gaining back all three pounds I had lost the previous week. No discipline there, folks.

What really drives me is self-doubt. Oh, I know I seem filled with self- confidence, brimming over with self-esteem. All a show. Frankly I only write because I doubt I really can. That’s my need to write — self affirmation. Nothing more. No secret muse, no burning creativity, just the need to prove myself. Even as I approach 60. Ha! Again ha! So, there you have it.

That’s the reason for my success. Self-doubt and a fiery need to prove myself wrong. Which is why selling a story can be so upsetting. If I could just prove myself right, I could quit. Read books, drink wine, stop being a writer and publisher, go for walks on the beach, be satisfied with my sad little existence. But no, I had to sell a story.

And that’s ten minutes.

Words

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Words. I’ve been thinking a lot about words. This might not come as a big surprise. After all I am a writer and editor. But mostly I’ve been thinking about them in terms of the power of words, politically, socially, personally — how they gain power and how they lose it.

It was brought home again to me last night. I was attending a book launch here in Ottawa by Chizine publications. Several new books were coming out and there were readings and a little music. Notably, Matthew Johnson, Ottawa writer, was reading from his new collection of short stories, Irregular Verbs. He read the title piece which by exploring the idea of the private language that couples or families construct was able to not only take us into the world of private grief caused by the death of our loved one but also explore the more public grief felt by a people when their language disappears. Having spent many years working on the issue of Aboriginal languages through my association with Senator Nick Sibbeston, it resonated deeply with me as I thought of the struggles to retain and re-invigorate the many threatened tongues in Canada and around the world.

Which brings me back to my original thought. Language gains its power from its use. Similarly it loses its power when it is no longer used or is, if this can be said about a language, misused. Certainly that happens with individual words.

Terrorism is a good example. This is not a new word, not a product of 21st century events. Or even of 20th Century ones. Terrorism, as a political tool, was first seriously discussed by 19th Century anarchists, many of whom argued that in the face of totalitarianism and the overwhelming power of the state, it was the only tool. Terror as a way of undermining state authority may have seemed logical at the time given the burgeoning police states of Russia and Austria.

Terrorism no longer means that at all.

And that’s ten minutes. More tomorrow.