The Real Deal

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As if further proof was needed that man is not a rational animal who learns from past mistakes and makes decisions based on evidence, we again struggled as we made our way from London to Deal. Despite frequently and fervently swearing to travel light, we lugged out 45 lb suitcases, plus loaded carry-ons and briefcases from our hotel in Soho, through the tube system (avoiding man-eating escalators) to the St. Pancras train station, though we initially went to adjacent King’s Cross and almost missed our train.

Arriving in Deal we discovered we were 2 hours early for check in and, having dragged our luggage across a bridge we popped into the nearest pub to have a beer and work out details of our arrival. I must say the locals were friendly if somewhat perplexed to see two heavily laden Canadians in their pub. Still, they were free with their advice as to where to get the best and most economical lunch platter and the cheapest beer. We eventually wound up in a taxi to drop off our luggage. “You went to The Eagle?” he queried. “Not first on my list of recommendations.” Apparently we managed to find the one notorious pub in the entire town of Deal. We may go back again this weekend to watch the fights.

Deal itself is charming, stretched out along the channel between Dover and Sandwich with a long pebble beach and large private and public gardens. It has a charming High Street with plenty of interesting shops – all closed because yesterday was a national bank holiday (the Canadian equivalent of Victoria Day apparently) – more good planning on our part. We met a lovely couple (John and Lynda) – amazingly fit and spry for being in their seventies – tending to a large garden on the edge of Deal on the location of a castle that fell into the sea. They were hoping to win the upcoming garden competition, having finished second last year, and were busily weeding and deadheading. They confessed to having been award winning dancers which perhaps accounted for their continued flexibility. I got sore just watching them work.

Our cottage is exactly as described and photographed – once you remember that in England, the first floor is actually the second floor – which makes for quite a climb up narrow stairs to bed every night. Still it is well equipped and has better Internet than what I have at home. It has a washer and a dryer though the dryer consists of a line in the backyard and a heated rack for drying towels in the upper bathroom. And, sadly for our guests, the second bathroom is downstairs from the second bedroom. But we’ll work something out.

Last night we feasted on some of the best Indian food I’ve had in years (though the service was marginal) and today we are off to the store for groceries. Tomorrow I’ll return with more of the usual political fare but for now that’s ten minutes.

The Power of Scarcity

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A recent article suggested that to be successful, writers should go beyond the regular (genre) schedule of one book a year and write two or even four. James Patterson (and his assistants) produces twelve. It seems to have worked well for Patterson but one wonders if, like a kid in a candy store, readers may eventually grow sated.

Our entire culture has become oriented toward speed. Like teenagers who chug beer in a desperate rush to get from sober to drunk in as short a time as possible, a lot of people seem to be addicted to instant and complete consumption. Watch the frustration of people’s face – no matter what their age – if their computer or smart phone doesn’t instantly start up or can’t quickly find a connection. We want and we want now. Waiting is unacceptable. Just ask George Martin.

Yet, it seems that scarcity continues to hold sway over our deeper desires. Nothing inflames us more than to be told we can’t have something now – but we might have it later. And for some artists scarcity has led to massive success.

Take Adele. Her first album appeared six years ago and it was two more before his second showed up. The latest gap is four years. Both of her previous records went to the top of the Billboard 100 and stayed there for weeks or months. She now has two of the most successful recordings ever. Her world tour – the first in years – sold out in a day or two. Adele has made herself scarce – and with her undeniable talent made that scarcity hurt – and as a result may become one of the most successful pop acts ever.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that he has taken to pausing between bites of food. He pointed out that by savouring each bite and then letting the flavour fade, he experiences the same pleasure when he takes the second bite as he did with the first.  As someone who tends to wolf down a chocolate bar as soon as it is unwrapped, I decided to try this theory out. And it works – each bite of chocolate, with delays of a minute or more, is as delightful as the first. What used to be the equivalent of chugging a beer has now become a leisurely exploration in taste and pleasure.

Of course, to slowly consume anything – in a society that seems to admire mass and massive consumption at lightning speed – requires a certain mindfulness, a deliberate decision to exercise self-denial.

I have another example. I only saw the new Star Wars movie last night. I had to force myself to listen to the moans of pleasure from my fellow fans while avoiding all serious mentions of what the film was like. I have a feeling that I enjoyed it more than if I had been the first one in the theatre.

Economists have always known about the power of scarcity to drive up the value – or at least the price – of any desired good. Maybe they’re on to something. I wonder if more people would read this blog if I only wrote it once a week or a month instead of every day.

And that’s ten minutes.

Being Social

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Today is the day of our Christmas open house – one of the three or four big social events we organize each year. The others are mainly publisher’s parties at science fiction conventions, so this is the one where we welcome people into our own space. As you can imagine we’ve spent most of the last few days, cleaning, shopping, cooking and decorating to welcome the 40 or so people we expect to show up today.

It’s not always easy being social. While my wife, Liz, would likely have people over every other day, I find I have my limits. By the time Christmas and New Year’s is over, I’ll probably be happy not to see another soul – outside work requirements – for at least three weeks. I need some time away to recharge my batteries. Don’t get me wrong – I like people and being alone for too long doesn’t make me happy but I do need my breaks and alone time.

Others struggle a lot more than I do. Because many of my friends are writers or otherwise involved in the ‘geek’ community as we affectionately and proudly call ourselves, I know my fair share of introverts, for whom big social gatherings can be a chore. I’m always pleased and a little honoured to see them show up at my place. I must be doing something right.

I think it is important to remember – especially if you are the gregarious sort – that while it is in our nature as primates to be social and to want others around us, we all have our definition of what social means and we all have our limits as to how to express it.

I remember when I was a graduate student and would go to any event with a buffet. I was standing up in a balcony overlooking a crowd and watched as students from cultures where personal space was narrower than it was for most Canadians try to interact with their hosts. While engaged in conversation, they would move closer and the Canadian they were talking to would step back. Closer, back, closer, back as they wove an intricate dance pattern around the room.

It’s important to think of those kinds of differences when asking people to be social. You need to let them define the nature of their interaction. After all the purpose of a social event is not to change people, it is for them to have fun. And fun can only be held when people are comfortable.

So if you are hosting an event this year, make sure you have some spaces for people to retreat to so they can have a moment alone or with just a friend or two. Make sure everyone gets the experience you would want for yourself – comfort and joy, happiness and convivial surroundings. Parties aren’t sporting events, where you have to win and impose your idea of fun on others. They are places to let people know you care for them and want them to be around you.

And that’s ten minutes.

Savings

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There are lots of things going on in the world today but for some reason I didn’t feel like writing about any of them so I thought I might skip 10 Minutes today. But then I started thinking about my next vacation which led me to wonder how I’m going to pay for it.

My wife often says that if we just drank a little less we might have more money to spare. Now I don’t drink $50 bottles of wine or sip from $200 bottles of scotch. No my preference is cheap wine and cheaper beer with only the occasional treat of something special. Still, it adds up and, over the course of the year, might well – if I were to stop altogether – pay for a (modest) week somewhere not too expensive.

But why stop there? If I were to stop eating anything I didn’t prepare myself, I’d certainly be better off – especially if I cut beef out of my diet, which some people seem to think is more healthy (others, thankfully, disagree). Again , we aren’t talking about eating out every night at five star restaurants but I do go out a couple or three times a month, plus the occasional lunch at the cafeteria or pub and the three times a month order of pizza… and a few muffins; again, it adds up. It might not pay for a week in Paris but a long weekend in Montreal? Sure.

Savings abound. For example, I live downtown and, while that means I don’t need to own a car, it is a bit expensive when you add up mortgage, condo fees, taxes and so on. Not penthouse in downtown Toronto expensive but not cheap. I could move to the suburbs and, as long as I was on a bus route, save quite a bit each month. Now that would pay for a week in Paris for sure – maybe two.

But wait, I thought of something else. I read about 35 books a year. I could probably increase that to 45 if I cut out drinking and eating out and spend my time commuting on the bus reading. But, I generally buy 60 to 70 books a year. And not e-books either but usually hard covers and trade paperbacks. Cutting twenty or so of those would pay for a weekend in Toronto for sure.

Look at that – four simple changes in my life and I can have another three or four weeks holiday time paid for without sacrificing anything. Well, other than wining, dining, reading and the comfort of my turn-key condo.

And think of the money I could save if I stopped going on vacations! Why, I’d be as rich as Howard Hughes. And pretty much living his lifestyle, too. Which means I’d be saving on soap, shampoo, haircuts, nail clippers and telephone bills. Hmm.

I guess I’ll have to cash in my RRSPs and pay for my holiday that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

SFContario 2

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Recounting old battles and savouring past victories is a pleasant way to spend the evening whether with old friends or new acquaintances. The latter have the advantage of never having heard your war stories before and – even better – can’t correct you when you stray into hyperbole. But sharing stories with those who were there and took part has a sweeter flavour.

Indeed, there is a certain pleasure to listen to people swap stories even if it involves something you were no part of. Watching them jogging each other’s memories and sharing credit (or shifting blame) can be a fascinating dance to watch. Last night, I spent the evening at SFContario doing exactly that. It was great fun.

After a day of panelling both as an audience member – the one on First Contact stood out – and a speaker (I skipped my last one, mea culpa) I slipped out to dinner with some of my fellow con attendees and a few friends who happened to be in town. We shared a few drinks and more than a few stories while we dined on unhealthy but delicious pub food. It was great fun – particularly when stories began to riff off each other as old friends crafted a lovely simulacrum of past events from their own particular remembered perspective. Sometimes I was one of the sculptors and sometimes I merely listened and observed. New friends – or in this case, more recent ones – had their own stories to tell and, if they were at first reluctant to speak out, it didn’t take long before conversations began to dance around the table.

A lot of times it was not a matter of telling shared events but rather recounting parallel stories. That reminds me of… or I had a similar experience/epiphany/fright when… And that’s how friendships are built and maintained, one story at a time.

Later, I went back to SFContario and hung around the Swill party. Swill, as I understand it (I’d had a few glasses by then), was a fanzine that had its origins some 35 years ago among a group of – shall I call them loveable rascals – who took great pleasure in writing outrageous commentaries and satires on the Powers That Be in organized SF fandom of the day. The details don’t matter. What was fun was listening to the stories of various scandalous adventures they had perpetrated and the upset they had caused. Recently, Swill was revived – though whether from nostalgia or a renewed sense of outrage, I was never quite sure.

Eventually, the others gathered there trotted out their own stories of youthful or not so youthful rebellion, lessons learned, mistakes made, victories – however small – won. It reminded me of all the great convention parties I’ve gone to over the years – places where common culture and loves are shared and explored and new initiates welcomed into the great long conversation SF fandom has been holding – sometimes jovially, sometimes with bitter rancour – for nearly a hundred years.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

The Good Life

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When I was about 17, I read The Nature of Things (Dr Rerum Natura) by Lucretius. It was my introduction to Epicurean philosophy and in many ways it became a touchstone for my worldview and personal philosophy. Of course, many of the ideas are a little dated now and most of the ‘facts’ have been replaced with more accurate representations of the universe. But what would you expect from a book that is more than 2000 years old – an accurate representation of how the world does and should work? Surely you jest.

The Nature of Things, despite its flaws, describes a universe that operates at the atomic level. There are no ethers or Forces or prime movers, simply a set of laws that matter follows to produce all the wonders that we see. It is a world without gods and without worship. No wonder the Churches of the world tried to suppress it for a thousand years. In fact, it was sheer luck, as described in the excellent book The Swerve, that preserved it to modern times – thus hastening the Renaissance and the coming scientific revolution.

Lucretius and his mentor, Epicurus, were not only concerned with the function of the larger universe; they were concerned with how a man or woman might live the good life. Contrary to the slanders leveled at Epicureans, it is not a life of excess but rather of seeking pleasure through moderate consumption of all good things – food, wine, music, sex – while cultivating deep and lasting friendships.

While the Epicureans denied the existence of gods, they were never more than gently mocking of their religious contemporaries; one might wish that they were treated the same way, but no. They were persecuted for centuries and there was no greater taint that a priest could level at a philosopher or ordinary citizen than he followed an Epicurean life. The Inquisition could hardly be far behind.

Still, it seems to me, that the world would be a much better place if Epicurus had become the central fount of wisdom for modern society. No more poverty or excessive wealth, no persecution of people for holding different views – merely a demand, made in a jocular fashion, that they defend their views in a rational way based on actual observation of the world. Toleration, moderation, contemplation, friendship, joy, laughter, acceptance, inner peace – all Epicurean values.

Now that would be paradise on earth. But you have to excuse me – I have to go eat a modest breakfast of scones, strawberries and whipping cream washed down with a mug of hot strong coffee. While listening to music with my lovely wife.

And that’s ten minutes.

Omnivores

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When I was living in Iqaluit in the 1980s, I knew a couple of vegans. They were not quite as proselytizing as the ones today but they were imbued with a high moral tone and always willing to tell you how your diet was both unhealthy and immoral. After a couple of months eating nearly spoiled vegetables and expired tinned goods which comprised the entire local supply of greenery, they developed a lean and hungry look.

Their solution was — unique. They decided it would be okay to eat caribou and fish caught by local Inuit hunters. It was ‘country’ food and came from ‘the land.’ So that’s sort of like a vegetable, right?

Recently, there was a minor tempest in Ottawa when the experimental farm’s dairy hosted a educational event called ‘from cow to cone,’ which not only instructed young people about farming, it also gave them free ice cream. What a treat!

Apparently not. Immediately there was a demand to provide a non-dairy option (soy cream, I guess) “to be inclusive.” You know, the way vegans offer a ‘steak’ option to their dinner guests.

I’m not a big vegetable eater – the list of ones I can’t stomach is much longer than the list of those I can tolerate. But I try not to complain. I don’t always succeed but I try. And eat what I’m offered and if there is a lot left on the plate — I just wasn’t very hungry

Back at the dairy farm, things have escalated. People raised the spectre of cattle-rape and asked about the fate of the calves. Last time I was there the calves were frolicking — though make no mistake; this is a working farm so they may not frolic forever.

The final blow came in a comparison of dairy farming to Nazi death camps. Seriously?

Evolution provided humans with the tools to pretty much eat anything (except cellulose — that’s why we have cattle). The environment, sweet old Mother Nature, pretty much demanded we do that to survive. Humans have for a million years been hunters, gathers and yes, scavengers. In olden times, road kill was called lunch. We are, by nature, omnivores.

Some cultures have adopted dietary restrictions as part of their religion — such as kosher or halal foods or vegetarianism among Hindus. Religion masks this as ethical but evidence suggests there is a big — horrors — economic motive as well. You can’t afford to eat animals if they are more valuable as sources of labour. One of the best ways to stop people chowing down is to make it immoral with threats of supernatural punishment.

The demands of radical vegetarians that we all stop eating meat products have no more basis in fact than most other religious beliefs. Too much of anything is probably bad for you but too little leads you to taking dietary supplements and enriching the coffers of big Pharma or its whole earth equivalent.

I look at it the way I look at homeopathy. It doesn’t work but no real harm done. And if you get really sick you can always turn to medicine. Like those northern vegetarians turned to caribou.

But that’s ten minutes.