Comedy

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“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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Guns (Again)

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There is not a lot of point in trying to argue with Americans – some Americans – about guns. These are people who are not open to listening to any argument about why guns should be restricted. That should give you a clear window into their mindset. Not open to ANY ARGUMENT.

Some cling to the second amendment (like they actually understood what it says) as a point of principle. That’s a scary thing. These are people who are not only willing to tolerate mass shootings but the day to day murder, accidental death and, mostly, suicides that widespread gun ownership seems to provide – on a principle. When you think of what atrocities that others have been willing to do on points of principle, I guess this is a fairly small thing. 20 to 30 thousand deaths a year is no big thing compared to genocides elsewhere. But it does add up.

Some people actually fervently believe the silly slogan of the NRA – that good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. Mostly no. Yes, you can cite a few examples (mostly off-duty cops or soldiers) but I can double down on your citations. Take the good guy with a gun who tried to stop a car-jacking in Texas. He wound up shooting the victim of the car-jacking in the head. He then scooped up his shell casings and ran away. A certain animal cunning, at least, if not otherwise an intelligent response.

Because most of these good guys with guns actually don’t have a clue how to act in a live fire situation. Neither of course do I but there are plenty who do and most of them say what you should do is run, hide or fight back – IN THAT ORDER. Whipping out your gun almost always makes it worse. So there you have it – good guys with guns are mostly clueless and almost always screw-ups. If they weren’t, I might be worried about pointing it out.

Then there are those who just deeply cynical – they know there are votes to be gained by fear and by appealing to base desires for righteous revenge. If people die, so what? It’s not likely to be them or their family – they can afford trained security. Some of these people are under the sway of the NRA – others are actually in their pay. I’m looking at you, congressman.

Speaking of screw-ups (and losers) do people who actually have time to walk around malls and sports arenas and school yards with open-carry assault rifles actually have real lives? Don’t they have jobs or something useful to do, homes to go to, children to love? No, I didn’t think so.

And tell me how do you tell an open carry enthusiast from a dangerous psychopath? In America it is apparently based on the color of his skin. Even though most mass shooters are white males.

And speaking of psychopaths – did you know that one out of every two hundred people are psychopaths. That means there are at least 750,000 heavily armed psychopaths with guns in America. What could possible go wrong? But I’m arguing with the wind.

And that’s ten minutes.

Memento Mori

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The curse of self-awareness is the foreknowledge of our death. It is the one thing we can know about the future; we will die. Some try to avoid this unpleasant truth with dreams of medical immortality or even the hard upload into mechanical selves. Still dreams. As we like to say, human immortality is only fifty years away and always will be. The awareness of death is certainly central to all religions and explains all those wishes for an afterlife. There must be something more than these three score and ten.

The price we pay for the privilege of getting older is measured in the currency of memento mori. With each year we are doled out constant reminders that the abyss is approaching. Parents age and die, friends grow enfeebled. Eventually everyone goes – live long enough and you will certainly be alone.

Why so glum, chum?

It’s been a rough few months. One friend had to cancel a long-planned visit because of sudden health concerns. My mother-in-law broke her hip and while she is on the mend, at 90, her life will never be more than a shadow stretching forward. My wife’s sister has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and several friends are struggling with their own versions of that illness.

Then this morning Liz woke up with a terrible pain in her lower leg. She couldn’t even get out of bed the pain was so intense. She’s no weakling but it made her cry. We called 911 and ten minutes later the paramedics arrived and took her away to hospital. There were no other symptoms so it is hard to say how serious it is but I can’t help but feel worried. We are quantum creatures: tough and fragile in the same breath.

The clock is ticking for us all. But surely midnight is a ways off yet.

And that’s ten minutes.