End Days

Standard

Apparently the world will end this weekend. Again. Every few months or years, fundamentalists predict that they have discovered the date and time of the end of the world or, as it is sometimes called, the rapture. It may be based on numerology as the current one is or on the Mayan calendar. It may be based on mysterious communications from gods or aliens. It is mostly based on wishful thinking. And, so far, it never turns out to be true.

There are lots of ways the world—or at least civilization—could end. Some of them loom on the horizon but, they are hardly preordained. If the world comes to an end, it will likely be caused by human foolishness or human agency. Or an asteroid. Hardly the stuff of heavenly prophecy. I mean, if God wanted to end the world, surely he could come up with something better than throwing rocks at it.

It’s easy enough—and lots of fun—to tease people who suggest that prophecy has predicted the end of times. It’s a little unfair to do so, a bit like kicking a puppy for barking. Sadly, more than a few people are taken in and some lives have been ruined when folks follow the advice of these religious naysayers.

In any case, predicting the end of things has a long and happy tradition well away from the sweaty-faced prophets and weird cults of the world.

Take capitalism. People have been predicting that capitalism will fail and disappear ever since the first person called himself a capitalist—whenever that was. Marx was certain that his scientific materialism showed the days of the capitalist system were numbered. Yet here we are in the second stage of post-modern, post-industrial capitalism, and the world keeps ticking along, mostly using some form of market based economy.

I think it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead; it’s not even the past. Pretty profound for a guy who didn’t know when a sentence should end.

But he was certainly right. Just as William Gibson was correct in saying that the future has already arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Because no system—once invented—ever really goes away. Don’t believe me? I know people who still play vinyl records, take film photographs, and listen to radio – all of which were predicted to disappear years ago. And did you know you can still send a telegram?

More significantly, slavery, abolished in most of the world more than a century ago, still persists, not just in the dark corners of collapsed states but right here in Canada, the United States and Britain. The slave economy—often operating as an adjunct or as a shadow parallel to the capitalist system—still thrives with an estimated 11 million people caught in its net. And though some people call capitalism ‘wage slavery,’ it is sheer pedantry to suggest the two economic systems are the same.

And what about colonialism? Relegated to the scrapheap of history? Well, there aren’t a lot of western states still elbows deep in the practice, but take a look at what China is doing in Nepal, on the Indian border or in Africa or what the newly expansionist Russian empire is doing in eastern Europe and it’s not so clear.

The belief that we are at the end of an era—or at the dawn of a new one—is deeply embedded in the human psyche and in human culture. Predictions of the apocalypse are scattered throughout history like marbles in a child’s playground. We all—even so-called rationalists—seem to embrace one death cult or another. Yet, the more I see of the world, the more I believe we are all simply muddling through, making deals with entropy to get from one day to the next. Systems are as illusory as the predictions of their end.

So don’t worry, be happy. The end days come for us all—but we don’t have to drag the world down with us.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

And really I should apologize—I’m in the middle of writing a novel of post-collapse recovery. As soon as I get to the hopeful part, I’m sure my blogs will get more cheery. Or not.

Advertisements

Where is thy sting now?

Standard

I’ve been strangely preoccupied with death lately. This is not unusual—I am much closer to the day of my death than I am to that of my birth. Still, my health is good and I have plans enough that I hope the final day is still well off.

Death is all around us, of course. I am an orphan and I’ve lost several good friends over the years. Social media seldom lets a day go by without recording some loss or another whether it be a parent, a friend, a pet or some celebrity who has touched one of us in some way. Most of us have pictures on our walls or albums of those who are no longer with us.

Still, that hasn’t changed nor is it likely to change any time soon.

What has brought death to my mind lately is one particular death and the way it occurred.

A few weeks ago I heard that someone I once cared a lot about was scheduled to die on a certain Tuesday. No, they weren’t on death row in Texas; they were in a hospice bed in Halifax.

Jeanne was my second wife—we stopped being a couple nearly 30 years ago and haven’t had much contact for nearly 15. That was her choice but I can’t blame her for that. I was the one who left and while I still have feelings from those days, they are not tinged with sadness or hard-feelings.

Over the years, I know that Jeanne had made a good life for herself—filled with the love of her partner, her friends and her family and she had some real successes to look back on. When my mother was dying, she found it in her heart—no matter how she felt about me—to be kind to her and my brother.

Unfortunately, cancer came calling far too early and eventually her condition was declared terminal.

That’s when Jeanne did an incredibly brave thing. She chose to seek medical assistance in dying (MAID as it is called in Nova Scotia). She chose the time and place of her death. I don’t know what led her to that place—it could not have been easy, she loved life and had religious views that must have made the decision more difficult—but I am happy for her that she had that choice to make.

I’ve long been an advocate for assisted death for those who want it. I supported the legislative changes made last year—though I didn’t think they went far enough. That may yet come—it is a moving legal and moral landscape. However, it is one thing to support something intellectually but quite another to have it impact you directly even at a distance of many years and miles.

Now that it has, I have to tell you I am more supportive than ever. Jeanne died with great grace and strength and she died with her family beside her—saying good bye in the way we would all like to say good-bye, with full hearts.

And she died without pain and without the indignity that death tries to bring to us all at the end. Who wouldn’t want that?

I hope that when my time comes I can approach it with joy and courage the way Jeanne did. Then we can truly say: Death, where is thy sting?

And that’s ten minutes.

Comedy

Standard

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” This death bed quote attributed to British actor, Edmund Kean, encapsulates the nature of humour in six short words. Comedy is all about death.

My friend, Hamlet the Clown, tells a story about doing a gig in a Northern Alberta school in late spring. The kids were eager to be outside playing and, on top of everything else, were hyped on sugar treats as 250 were gathered in a gym to watch his show. Things started out shaky but got worse when some 12 year old yelled, Kill the Clown! Pretty soon the entire auditorium was chanting “Kill the Clown!” as the teachers watched in horror.

“Kill the Clown!” It was a wise king who understood the value of the court jester and didn’t fall into the trap of following the advice of his ministers to end his sharp-tongued bantering. Self-important and self-righteous people hate any humour that they don’t create themselves; they especially hate to have their own pompous balloons punctured by wit.

Not everything is funny. Not everything that is funny is funny to everyone. It all depends on what you fear. Four year olds find fart jokes enormously funny – because the horror of toilet training still weighs on their minds. To fart is to exercise control over a wilful body. A fart is not a pant’s full of shit and so it is funny.

Most jokes suffer from over analysis.

But here’s one I find hilarious. A wealthy man – one who made his money honestly, treated his employees and family well and was generous to his community – is dying. An angel appears to tell him his time has come. The man, who lived a modest life, is still proud of his accomplishments – accomplishments that he and others measure by the wealth he has amassed. He begs to be allowed to take some of it to heaven and the angel grants him one suitcase. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, the archangel, asks to look inside the bag and discovers it filled with gold bars. He asks incredulously, “That’s it? You brought paving stones?”

It sends up the foolishness of wealth and the hypocrisy of religion in a single paragraph.

Comedy is dangerous. Indeed that is why it is so often used as a weapon to attack people of other races, religions, genders. Racism or homophobia or misogyny excused with – hey, it’s just a joke. But it’s not, even if you have a perverse sense of humour. Nothing is just a joke – it is all meant to do something, to say something, to attack something.

Yet, would the world be better if there were no jokers, no jesters? The people who killed the satirists at Charlie Hebdo (and their progressive detractors who suggest that maybe they brought it on themselves) might have us think so. But they are wrong.

Comedy is what we use to laugh in the face of power, to assert our dominance over our fear of death and over those who would use that fear for their own ends. Sometimes, in the darkest of moments, comedy is all we have to say: I’m here. I’m still alive. I’m still laughing.

So go put on your red nose. Because that’s ten minutes.

Capricious Gods

Standard

If there were a God, there would be no question that he would best be described as capricious – unpredictable, moody and arbitrary. This idea would come as no surprise to ancient peoples. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Israelites would have no difficulty understanding the concept.

The gods could and likely would act in any way that suited their moods at the moment. Life was a constant struggle to try to figure out exactly what that mood might be and how to ameliorate it. That was why auguries and sacrifices were so important. Yet, even if you lived an exemplary life, that was no reason to think the gods wouldn’t suddenly turn on you and visit all sorts of unpleasantness down upon your head. Just ask Job.

While the gods were unpredictable to the ancients, he was not unknowable. If a man was struck down with a wasting disease, it wasn’t hard to know why. He had clearly offended one of the gods and was being punished for it. Not much to do but to make a sacrifice and hope for the best. The idea that god works in mysterious ways was completely foreign to the ancient mind.

Why would god choose to kill a good man and let a bad one live? Again it’s not hard to figure out. The good man was struck down precisely because he was good – he had clearly embarrassed Apollo by his goodness or his talent or even his piety. He had to go. As for the bad man? Well, the gods love to torment their creations. Undoubtedly, Hermes was getting great pleasure out this tricky little weasel and wanted the game to go on for a while.

The modern Christian – and I suppose those of other faiths – have a more difficult problem. They can hardly accept that a loving and forgiving god could operate except for the best of reasons. It’s fascinating to watch them try to explain why four-year old children get cancer and die. God must have wanted him in heaven is the most mealy-mouthed answer. To which I might say – what the hell for? He’s God – he can’t possibly need anything. We can’t know God’s mind, they respond

Of course, some so-called Christians have no difficulty in figuring it all out. It is the sins of… you pick it, liberals, homosexuals, Obama, Muslims – whatever. God is angry and he’s showing it by letting all these terrible things happen. You would think that an all-powerful and all-knowing God would be smart enough to know exactly who is pissing him off and powerful enough to punish them directly.

Which I guess is why they are so much more interested in the old testament than the new – a god who is capricious and who, as Shakespeare said: is like wanton boys to flies, is so much easier to envision as one who will do your dirty work for you.

Yeah, I’m pissed off this week. A good, gentle, brilliant man fell down some stairs and died. Another, an abusive, addicted, violent, limited man fell down some stairs the same day and lived. And someone told me it was God’s will. Yeah, I get that, even if Jesus wouldn’t.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

David G. Hartwell

Standard

As I write this, David Hartwell is hovering on the edge of death. He suffered a massive brain bleed yesterday and is not expected to survive.

David, for those of you not in the field, was one of the most influential editors in the history of science fiction. He was responsible for the careers of many who work in the field today. And he was especially interested and generous to Canadians.

Unlike other public figures many of us have been mourning this month, I knew David. Not well, but well enough to say that I liked and respected him and always looked forward to seeing him at science fiction conventions we both attended.

I knew David as an editor before I knew him as a man. His collection of the Year’s Best SF was always the one I turned to first. We had similar tastes, I guess, and thinking about it, I would have to say that he influenced my own style as an editor and anthologist. How sweet it is to remember that David was the one who handed me my Aurora Award for editing the anthology, Blood and Water. I recall that his smile couldn’t have been bigger and warmer than if he had won the award himself.

I suppose I first met David in Chicago in 2000 at the TOR party at the World Science Fiction convention. It was a brief introduction and we hardly spoke but we met again off and on over the years. And more and more we would find time to talk – about books, about the progress of his young children through school, about whatever topics came up.

I’ve never been much of a note taker – even in university – so when I tell you that I often wrote down things that David said on panels or on those occasions he gave a lecture about the history of SF or the process of editing, maybe it will tell you how much I admired his intellect and his erudition. What David didn’t know about SF may not have been worth knowing.

Anyone who spent even a few minutes with him will remember David’s kindness, his curiosity, his subtle wit, his intelligence or, if nothing else, his wild taste in neckties. In fact, David’s neckties were so famous that they actually created an exhibition of them for the art show at the World SF convention in Montreal.

The last time I saw David in person was in Ottawa at the end of October. He had decided to drop in at the local convention, coming all the way up from New York to be with us. David was one of those people who was as much a fan as a professional and I think he genuinely loved to be with those of like mind and spirit. We chatted for a good half-hour beside the Bundoran Press table in the dealers’ room. Again if was a wide ranging and happy talk – despite some personal troubles David was going through.

If I had known it was going to be the last time I would speak to him, I would have told him how much I admired him. I can’t do that now so I’m telling you.

And that’s ten minutes.

Bowie

Standard

David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69; another icon of our collective youth has passed into the void about which he sang so eloquently. I was never a huge fan of Bowie but was always aware of his music and his transformations. Even if you didn’t listen to his music you could see it reflected in the work of others – talking back to him or following along.

Tributes are flowing in from around the world – fans, fellow artists, even politicians are talking about what the man and his music meant to them. Everyone seems to be able to find something in his music. He explored science fiction and sex, politics and love. It was an impressive body of work.

But what impresses me most is not how David Bowie lived but how he died.

Most people were unaware of his on-going fights with illness. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became somewhat reclusive, focusing on his art and his family. Perhaps he began even then to think about what the last days would look like.

Clearly he had no intention of simply fading away. After nearly a decade away from the music scene he released a new album in 2011 to critical acclaim. Another was released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead. He had to have known the end was coming, even as he recorded his last songs.

A lot of people, faced with illness or death, become closed in, smaller. They disengage from the world. They focus on the end to come instead of the life still left to them. Some turn to the consolations of religion – the hope for a life to come.

Maybe there is a life to come – though I don’t think so. But even if there is, it is another life, not a life of the body or the senses but a life of… well, who can say? No-one has reported back.

Perhaps it would be better to believe there is only this life – the one we are living right now.

I’m not a big believer in spirituality (I honestly go blank when people bring it up) or meditation. But I do believe in living as if this were my last moment. It may seem bleak but it’s not. Though it’s not always easy. The past creeps in; the future looms large but in the end, what does one do but put one foot in front of the other? Whenever I feel like nothing is worth doing, I think of when I will be able to do nothing at all. It helps.

We all face our own demons. I’m sure Bowie had his. But he chose to wrestle with them to the very end. Maybe the best way to remember him is not to grieve at his death but marvel at his life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Death and Taxes

Standard

Nothing is certain, they say, but death and taxes. I’m not so sure. Death has been a target of scientists and dreamers for generations. So far, death is winning. Though lives have gotten longer – largely due to improvements in sanitation and nutrition and vaccines and antibiotics that prevent early death– the gains have so far been marginal. And while more people are living longer, the maximum age has not increased much at all. A few years or a few decades seem to be the best we can do. Some new studies that suggest that reducing people’s stress is one way to lengthen lives and make people healthier and more active once they do get old. Doctors and yoga teachers are doing what they can; newscasters and politicians seem to be working in the opposite direction.

And of course if the climate reaches the tipping point it all becomes fairly moot.

So while death continues to be certain, taxes are a whole other thing. Thanks to the endless tinkering of lawmakers, tax systems in the most countries in the world have become ridiculously complex and increasingly opaque. Rich people – and lot of middle class folks as well – have seen the amount of taxes they pay fall to zero through a combination of loopholes, deductions, tax credits, tax shelters, and, of course, outright fraud. Avoiding taxes seems to be a national sport in some quarters.

There is little that can be done about the 4% or so of chronic cheats – those who prefer to game the system even if they are already winning at it (other than hunt them down and put them in jail). Whether you are talking about welfare systems or Ponzi schemes, there are always a few who will take advantage of deceit to get ahead. Of course, when we are dealing with the welfare system we are talking about a few hundred dollars at a time; rich tax evaders skip out with millions or even tens of millions each.

A truly courageous government would make revising the tax system a number one priority. It is a daunting task. Most tax codes run to hundreds or even thousands of pages and even experts can be surprised at some of the provisions. A lot of the things included in tax law are put there for, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, honourable reasons.

Take for example the tax deduction for your bus pass. The idea was that this would encourage people to take public transit. In fact, more than 90% of the people who claim it were already taking the bus. They were being paid to do something they were happy to do anyway. Studies have shown that if the same money had been spent on improving infrastructure, ridership would have  increased by more than a few percent.

Both the Canadian and the American tax system are filled with similar boutique tax credits – giving money to people for things they would do anyway and almost always benefitting the middle class and the rich while providing nothing to those who actually need a hand up.

Will the new government in Canada or the next one in the United States do the right thing and simplify the code so everyone is one a level playing field? Not bloody likely. There are plenty of points to be gained by adding yet another little deduction and almost none to be made by requiring those who currently avoid the inevitability of taxes to pay their fair share.

And that’s ten minutes.