Where is thy sting now?

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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.

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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.

Reunions

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It’s been a good week for reunions. I’m up in Yellowknife, a place I lived for seven years and where I frequently go as part of my job as policy advisor to the Senator to the NWT. It’s not surprising that I would regularly run into people I know. But this week was special. The new government in the consensus system was being selected so there were a lot of people from all over the NWT in town for that. Others were attending a major conference on Aboriginal Wellness and there was the usual flux of people out and about simply because it is dark and cold and Christmas and staying inside seems a bit like hibernating.

As a result I saw people I hadn’t seen in years – including one former colleague who I lost track of when I left in 1991. He spotted me in the gallery of the legislature and was kind enough to come over and say hello – taking time out from the drama of finding out if his son was going to become Premier. He didn’t though he is in Cabinet. At lunch yesterday, I had not one but two former Premiers of the NWT stop by my table to wish me the best of the season. I’m sure that other people were staring at me, wondering who the hell I was. Reflected glory is still glorious.

Not all reunions take place in person. I recently reconnected with a friend on Facebook who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. This was an acting friend rather than a political one; we did a few shows together in the early nineties. You can read about one of them here. In any case, we have now reconnected on Facebook and I drew his attention to a photo from the night we won the one-act play festival in Calgary. Before long, almost every other member of the cast had weighed in and we had a fun time remembering the night and some of the antics we got up to in celebrating the win. It was a virtual reunion but one that almost prompted me to propose a reunion tour of the play – though I suspect adding twenty years or so to the characters in that story would make for quite a different play. Still, it was fun to all get together once more and remember when we were young. Well, some of the crew is still relatively young – you know, in their forties – but we are all still more mature. Well, I’m sure they are.

This weekend – once I’m back in Ontario – I’ll travel down to Burlington to reunite with family I don’t see often enough and then it will be time for all the Christmas and New Year get-togethers. It is the season I guess for remembering old friends and, whenever possible, touching base even if you can’t actually touch hands over the miles.

I hope all your reunions are going so well.

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.

Losses

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Last weekend I attended SFContario where the annual CanVention – the national SF con – was also being held. Each year they give out the Aurora Awards and this year I was nominated in the category of Best Related Work for Strange Bedfellows. I would have liked to win as I am very proud of that book – an anthology of political science fiction. I didn’t, which was a bit disappointing especially when I discovered that I was in first place until the final round of balloting. Such is life with preferential ballots.

Still, I could hardly gripe. I did finish second to a very deserving OnSpec magazine. Given that I support them every month through Patreon, I obviously think they are worthy. And there is always next year.

Meanwhile, on Monday the NWT territorial election was held. I had a number of friends running – most of whom did not win (though some did). My boss’s son was one of the losers and though he finished respectably (almost) tied for second, I’m sure he is feeling disappointed. I know the experience from my own electoral career and suspect he is probably second guessing himself now. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t people support me? Whose fault is it? His disappointment is significant – it feels like a personal rejection – but may be less severe than the incumbent MLAs, including two Ministers, who lost their seats. It is well known that losing your seat can lead to depression, though it usually passes in a year or so.

And, in any case there will be another chance to run for office. In a democracy it happens with great frequency at one level or another.

To put all this in perspective:

On the Friday evening before SFContario, I learned that Barry King, an SF writer and organizer had died suddenly from complications of pneumonia. He was in his forties and I had seen him only a few weeks before, when he seemed in perfect health. I didn’t know Barry really well. We had met half a dozen times and I had recently bought one of his stories for my latest anthology, published in October. He had invited me to take part in Limestone Genre, a new SF gathering he had helped organize last year in Kingston.

I had got to know him well enough to know he was a smart witty man, a good writer, and was well loved by his friends and of course his family. Their sense of loss makes anything I or my political friends experienced in the last week completely trivial. For Barry, for Barry’s family and friends, there is no next year, there is no future opportunity. There is only the permanence of loss and grief.

My heart goes out to them but in the end only time and their love for each other can heal the loss they have experienced.

I was once told that when a bad thing happens to you, you should ask yourself if it will matter one year or five years from now. Losing an award is a transitory thing, losing an election is forgotten in five years. Losing someone you love never goes away. Perspective.

And that’s ten minutes.

Trophy Wives

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My father was 14 years older than my mother and I certainly know lots of people who have connections with those much younger than themselves. I’ve never really understood it – all my relationships have been with women a couple of years younger or older than me. It was funny a few years ago when someone asked Liz, my wife, if she was my trophy bride (given she is two years my elder). Very complimentary to her, I guess; to me, not so much.

Still, I sometimes wonder when age differences move beyond the understandable and move into the creepy. The heart wants what it wants, according to Woody Allen – and I fully recognize the irony of quoting him in this context. But what exactly is it that it does want in these cases?

Some might think it is a desire on the part of the man to cling to youth – his youth by proxy – and, more importantly, potency. Yesterday I saw a picture of retired Senator Rod Zimmer coming from court with his twenty six year old wife (he is in his 70s). It wasn’t his legal problems that were at issue though he has plenty of those – she was being charged with weapons possession as part of a drunken incident. I was struck by how angry she looked and how tired and stooped he appeared. And what was she seeking – financial security or a father figure? I wondered if the two things – his youthful wife and his legal troubles – were linked to a common cause, a desire to still feel in control of the world.

Of course, none of it is simple. The pattern of older men and younger women is common place even when the man isn’t rich or the woman isn’t alluring. It may be a cultural thing, part of the infantilization of women that some men need to feel like men. And according to Kate Fillion who wrote extensively on the subject in a book called Lip Service, the same phenomena occurs with older women and younger men. It is less often commented on and perhaps less common but the dynamic seems remarkably the same.

I’m sure that in the end it all comes down to our selfish genes and the desire to find the right mate even if child rearing isn’t what we have in mind. Or it could be someone was too busy to fall in love (again) until the candle was almost burnt down to the base. Tony Randall married for the second time late in life (his first wife was deceased). He sired children and seemed enormously happy – though I often felt there was a deep sadness inherent in that family. He would never see (and didn’t see) his children graduate primary school let alone have children of their own.

For me, I’ve always needed to have a deep relationship – based on shared values and experiences, shared tastes and shared times together. Liz and I spend hours every day just talking and while I’m quite capable of carrying on an endless monologue it is in dialogue that I find my joy.

And that’s ten minutes.

Marriage

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Marriage. Whenever I hear that word I can’t help but also hear the intonations of the impressive cleric in The Princess Bride. Peter Cooks’ elaborate lisp and towering hat lend both gravitas and ridicule to the great institution. The real crux of the matter, in any case, is ‘true love.’ Marriage – however otherwise understood – is simply a formalization of agreements made in other ways. Marriage vows barely carry the surface meaning of the ‘marriage of true minds.’

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been married four times, each time undertaken with full solemnity and with every intention that it be forever. As the law requires. And as the heart desires. It is only in retrospect – hindsight being twenty-twenty – that one realizes that the agreements undertaken were in some way flawed or insufficient to the task.

No matter what any religion or moral system might proclaim, marriage is, more than anything, a legal state – a legal state that exists even when the formal state has not been proclaimed. Increasingly, we understand and treat marriage as existing as a matter of common law – indifferent to the manner that the relationship is created. This, perhaps, is as it should be.

Quite apart from the niceties of state-sanctioned unions, two people who have chosen to live together and to act as if they were married should be recognized as having the same rights as those who are joined by the most holy ceremony. That is often what is at the crux of the marriage debate – equality before the law. When two people of the same or different sex are denied those rights, then the law must intervene – must change – to provide them. Those who don’t want to permit gay marriage are not upholding the institution of marriage – they are defending their own belief that such relationships are invalid under any terms. Bigotry, not religious freedom, is what lies behind the resignations of marriage clerks. I wish them luck feeding their families and paying their mortgages with hate. But I digress.

What then is at the heart of every marriage? It is, in the end, a matter of agreement – not necessarily formally stated or written down, though that is sometimes the case. It is by way of an informal contract, a spoken or more frequently acted out agreement as to the rights and obligations of each party. We may not realize that when we marry – but we learn it when we split up.

My mother used to advise me to start as you mean to go on. That is, your behavior today will determine your outcome tomorrow. Almost any arrangement is acceptable (though abusive ones are not) but, when willingly entered by both parties, they form a tort. If a couple shares the financial burden and split the efforts of housekeeping and childrearing, that is the nature of their agreement. If another prefers a single breadwinner while the other carries the load at home, that is theirs. If the relationship dissolves, no-one should be surprised that the courts will impose conditions reflecting the agreement the couple made themselves. Though child custody has fortunately been largely separated from the issue of marriage breakdown in many jurisdictions, men or women who supported their spouse to stay home will be expected to continue to do so after divorce, at least for a while.

Not that anyone should ever enter marriage with the expectation it will end. But, like a boy scout, perhaps one should always be prepared.

But that’s ten minutes.