I Am Spock

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The death yesterday of Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as Mr. Spock in Star Trek, created — to mix my SF metaphors — a great disturbance in the Force. Mr. Nimoy was eulogized across mainstream media and on social media, a constant stream of accolades and tributes filled the news feeds. Well, at least it filled mine, but I am a SF writer with a lot of friends in fandom.

Still, Nimoy was a significant figure in the pantheon of pop culture but I think that he was more.  The role that he created, assembling it from bits and pieces provided by writers and directors and from his own deeply held beliefs and abilities, transported him beyond mere ‘star’ status so he could say something profound about America and its hugely divided soul.

Spock (like Nimoy himself, the child of immigrant Ukrainian Orthodox Jews) was an American in so many ways — the product of the melting pot philosophy, the outsider who became integral to his adopted society. Spock was also a person of mixed race and, as such, faced difficulties that many of the citizens of a racially divided America could identify with. He also represented, both internally and in his relationship with Kirk, the great struggle that has been part of America since its founding fathers wrote the US constitution, which, despite its flaws, remains one of the great instruments of progress and human freedom in the world.

The founders of America were for the most part products of the Enlightenment. Like Spock, they believed that good decisions and good government came from the exercise of reason. They were not — as Spock was not — without emotion, but they strove to set aside powerful passions to do the right thing based on evidence and logic. They professed that all men are created equal — and yes, I know how limited that profession was — which in many ways leads directly to the Vulcan philosophy, that the good of the many outweigh the good or the needs of the few.

Kirk, on the other hand, was the paragon of American exceptionalism. He frequently violated the rules or even the law because he knew what he was doing was right. He ran on instinct and emotion — relying on the advice of his more rational colleagues but always doing what he believed was necessary. His response to Spock: sometimes the good of the one outweighs the good of the many is pure emotion, pure instinctual choice. Right or wrong, Kirk was always sure. It often led him into trouble but Spock was always there to get him out.

So I am proud to say that I am Spock. I have deep emotions but I try not to let them rule my life. I want to be part of a larger thing but not at the cost of my deepest values. Like Spock, I am always seeking answers. And I’m always prepared to continue to grow so that in the end someone might say: Of all the souls I knew, his was the most… human.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Burning Books

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This week, many in the Western world were outraged at the news that ISIL militants had burned thousands of rare books at a Mosul library. They then went on to further destructive rampages when they took sledge hammers to ancient statues. It was — and should have been — labeled as barbaric.

Barbarians are at the gates and have been for a very long time.

Perhaps it started with the burning of the library at Alexandria, wiping out much of the ancient world’s stock of literature. Maybe it began even before then.

Those who wish to impose their authority on the world have always understood that their first task is to make the world a simpler less nuanced place. Persuade the populace that there is only one way to look at things and it becomes easier to control their thinking and command their obedience.

That’s why books and art have always been so dangerous to dictators. It is why the medieval church obliterated, suppressed, modified so many ancient texts — and not a few contemporary ones. A significant number of those who were burnt at the stake were killed for what they wrote rather than what they did. It is also significant that the advent of the printing press was a critical factor in the breakdown of papal authority. The Papa replaced by the paper.

Hitler, of course, burned books and, we sometimes forget, it wasn’t only Jewish books he targeted. He destroyed whole libraries simply because they presented an alternative interpretation of the way the world worked. Art was also a target — though only some of that was destroyed — the rest was hidden away in secret vaults to be used to finance the Reich in later years. Fortunate, too, that Hitler was deluded into believing his own propaganda about the thousand year length of his party’s rule — we at least got some of the art back.

Not to be outdone, the first shots fired in the town of Sarajevo during the Serb invasion were at the historic friendship bridge and at the library whose books documented centuries of peaceful cohabitation and cooperation of the various religious communities of the town.

What ISIL has destroyed is irreplaceable. They are barbarians. But it is a matter of degree. We have our own share of barbarians —politicians who want to ban books from schools and libraries, even want to make the distribution and reading of some books a criminal offence. It won’t happen — unless they first manage to destroy all copies of the American constitution — but it is frightening to me that they and so many of their supporters want to try.

Freedom is a delicate flower in some respects — but one that will continue to spring up in so many places, often from the charred pages of a book or from the shattered fragments of a piece of art.

The fascists will always try to re-write history. Which makes it so important for us to remember it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Humility

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One of the seven capital virtues is humility — playing opposite to the sin of pride. But as the song goes: Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way. Or as Hercule Poirot puts it: One of my finest qualities is my humbility!

Asking people to be humble in the age of self-esteem is a bit contradictory. Humility requires a certain self-effacement, a level of thinking yourself unworthy compared to others. Taken too far it displays as low self-esteem or even victimhood. If you think of yourself as lesser, it is possible that people will begin to treat you as lesser — which of course re-enforces your low opinion of yourself.

As usual, anything taken too far is damaging to the self and ultimately damaging to society. Both humility and pride are flip sides of the same ugly idea, that is, the idea that inequality is a natural thing. Although the American constitution may hold certain truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, it is abundantly clear that they were just joking. Even at the time, they certainly didn’t mean all men and women weren’t even in the picture. Not surprisingly, inequality has been at the centre of American society ever since.

To be fair few societies have done much better — though some have tried harder.

Perhaps there is a certain truth to the idea — as primates, we are trapped to some extent by status. We recognize alpha males and those who must defer to them. But building an entire social order on the fact that some guys are bigger than others —- and more aggressive — is kind of dumb. And in any case, our big brains have been devising ways to level the playing field ever since the first caveman picked up a club. Big muscles are pretty irrelevant in the face of a sub-machine gun.

Clearly technology has allowed us to level the playing field physically so why have we clung to the trappings of status (as a side note, Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than the general population — and I’m pretty sure it’s not so they can see farther) granting people privileges they certainly haven’t earned?

Equality may not come naturally but, let’s face it we haven’t been living in a state of nature since the invention of agriculture. Maybe it’s time for our great big brains to figure out ways to stop worrying about esteem and start focusing on equality.

Now that would be something to be proud of — in a modest kind of way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Faking It

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Some years ago there was an Italian doctor stationed in the small town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Doctors were hard to come by and even harder to keep so folks were pretty happy to have him. He practiced there for over a year before it was discovered — when he was called on to do an emergency appendectomy — that he wasn’t really a doctor. He had gone to medical school for a year or two but never finished. He faked his diploma and took up residence, so to speak, in Inuvik.

People were shocked, of course, but at the same time generally agreed he was the best doctor they ever had — attentive, knowledgeable enough for everyday purposes and quick to send them south to Yellowknife if something serious cropped up. What more could you ask for than a genuine fake?

Clearly, this guy was smart, could do research on the fly and knew his limitations. Equally clearly he was able to fake the rest with great confidence. Fake it well enough that for over a year he was, for intents and purposes, a doctor.

There is a life lesson buried in here somewhere, one that a lot of alpha type males figured out at least sub-consciously some time ago. If you don’t know, pretend. In fact pretend so hard you actually believe in your own competence. Apparently this works. A lot of men succeed not because they are prepared but because they are prepared to act as if they were — at least until they can catch up. This ‘faking it’ has been postulated as one reason men have an advantage in competitive situations.

One study showed that women will look at job qualifications and if they don’t feel they meet the vast majority — say 80 or 90% — they won’t even apply. Men on the other hand have a lower pass mark — 50-60% — before they throw their name in the pool. That means they apply for a lot more jobs than they get interviewed for but, they figure, nothing ventured, nothing gained. All they need to do is fake their way through one process and they are all set. Better qualified women who would get the job if they were competing with ‘that’ guy aren’t even in the running because they screened themselves out.

Recently a friend of mine was lamenting that he wasn’t sure if he knew how to write or how to even be a writer. My wife — smart person that she is — suggested that he ‘fake it.’ Pretend you know how to write and start putting words on paper. I think she was a little tongue in cheek but he seemed to think it was a good idea (guy, remember) and felt inspired to get back to his work-in-progress.

Last week he announced that he had just sold his first novel.

Good advice, apparently. Fake it until you make it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Books 2

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I have a lot of books. I’m not an extreme book collector but I like them; I like to have them around. Every once in a while I look at my groaning shelves and think something must be done. I carefully develop a set of rules for what will let me get rid of a book — one can’t just arbitrarily throw them away! — and then examine each one. Not read in ten years is a good rule. Or the science is outdated. Or…

This can take a couple of days. By the end of the process I will have identified between 10 and 30 books (depending how ruthless I’m being) which I set aside in a pile for my wife to look at to see if she wants to keep any of them (I’m always hoping she’ll want to keep them all). The remaining ones get re-homed. These days, it means they go down to the lending library in our condo. If I’m lucky, I don’t immediately see books that I want for myself and bring them home. The last time I did bring one home I realized it was one I had put there myself.

Lately, it has gotten harder and harder to cull the pile. The reason? I know too damn many writers. Writers who write books. Books that they sell or give to me. Books that they sign for me. Giving those away would seem like a betrayal.

Foolishly I go to writing events, book fairs, readings, conventions, festivals. I meet more writers. I talk to them. We become friends. I buy their books. You can see where this is leading.

Eventually, every book in my library will have been written by someone who is my friend. I’ll then have to divide them into close friends, casual friends, acquaintances, and one-event stands. It will become a little tacky. My brief flings will be the first to go, I suppose. Yet, what if it was a writer of exceptional beauty, whose language was both shapely and sensuous. Can I discard their book just because we only spent one evening together?

Maybe there is another solution. I could go live in a cave. It would have to be a big cave in a dry climate to hold all my books but living in a cave might prevent me from being in contact with other writers — they tend to aggregate in coffee shops. Most caves aren’t near coffee shops.

Avoid meeting new writers! That’s the solution. No new writers — no new books. But…

Maybe the cave thing won’t work. Some writers are explorers. They might wind up coming to my cave. With their books.

Oh, well, I’ll decide tomorrow. After I go to the Chiarscuro reading series tonight. Where I’ll try not to meet any writers or buy any books. Sigh.

And that’s ten minutes.

Horny

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There is a huge market around the world for things that will increase — what’s the word? – potency. Male potency. Okay, let’s call it what it is — things that help otherwise limp fellows get hard.

We’ve all seen the ads — people dancing for joy while sprinklers flood lawns. TVs abandoned to empty living rooms while the action movies play out off stage.

Who am I to question such desires? After all I’m sure it has restored happiness to many sexual relations. It has apparently also lead to an increase in both divorce rates among the elderly and new health issues — STDs — in senior’s residences. But they are consenting adults — even if not really smart ones — and if they want to experiment with some enhancing prescriptions, let them, as they say, go at it.

Unfortunately, not everyone likes the idea of helping big pharma ‘inflate’ their profits. Some object to the idea of artificial stimulants of any kind. Others argue that there are more natural ways to boost that all important organ.

Ginseng is often promoted as natural alternative to Viagra. There have even been some studies that show that much of the Ginseng sold in health food stores do the job just fine. The same studies reveal that the samples taken off the shelves are laced with — you guessed it — Viagra.

A more insidious remedy is rhino horn. In certain traditional or alternative “medical” practices, it is considered the most effective way of increasing male sexual desire (and cure cancer and hangovers, too). It’s a form of sympathetic magic. The rhino is big and aggressive. Its horn is firm and upstanding. You get the picture.

It doesn’t work, of course, but that doesn’t slow down the demand. As a result, rhinos are slaughtered by poachers at an alarming rate. Rhinos may soon be extinct as a result. Then what will those limp-dicked bastards do?

The saddest thing about all this is that the rhino horn is nothing but keratin — the same substance found in hair and finger nails. That’s right; maybe you could grind up your neighbour’s dreadlocks and put it instead of a little rhino horn in your oatmeal. And as such, it grows back. It should be possible to simply tranq the rhino and harvest the horn.

A renewable erectile resource. But that would be logical. And people who think that eating the hairy extrusion of an herbivore’s face will make them horny are probably not high on the logic chart.

But that’s ten minutes.

Real Writers

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I was so happy today to discover that I’m not really a writer. Despite having sold four novels (and written five others) and more than twenty five short stories, I am not a ‘real writer.’ Never mind the half dozen plays I’ve had produced — I definitely do not fall into the category of ‘true author.’

For one thing I don’t let real life get in my way. I like real life. I enjoy my day job. I like hanging around with friends. I look forward to grocery shopping and even a clean house. I often find real inspiration for stories in the mundane tasks and ordinary people I meet.

However, I don’t really worry about inspiration. Most of my stories don’t come from those ‘out of the blue ideas’ or thoughts at all hours of the day and night. Generally my stories are generated through a fairly organized process of brainstorming. I create inspiration by actively playing with ideas.

And it invariably happens during daylight hours. I have lost sleep over problems at work or worries about money or the health of those I love. But lie awake all night thinking about writing? Can’t say I can remember it ever happening.

I have been known to stare into space and get lost in thought — but it is as often caused by thinking about politics as story — which occasionally interferes with my people watching activities. In fact, I can’t tell you how often my wife has said to me — did you see that guy juggling knives and I’ve replied: no, when was that? Still, I have been known to find pleasure sitting in a cafe or bar and watching the people walk by — anything as an excuse not to write.

Concentration? I can barely focus long enough to get down a few hundred words. Why do you think I spend my time writing these ten-minute blurbs?

Oh, it is true I have in the past been known to sit and write for hours — I did once win the 3-day novel writing contest, which required me to produce 33K words in three short days — but even that weekend I took one night off to eat dinner and drink my face off with friends. Nowadays, the smallest little thing — a stiff neck, the need to pee, a desire for chocolate — can haul me out of my chair and away from my work-in-progress.

And self-doubt, crippling or otherwise, is not in my nature. Ask anyone who has suffered under the glare of my self-esteem.

So, whew, I’m not a real writer. Though I do write from time to time. But that’s okay. I still manage to put a couple hundred thousand words a year into various projects. And still have a real life.

And that’s ten minutes.