SFContario 2

Standard

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.

 

Yearning

Standard

Sometimes I start the day not knowing what I will write but last night I decided I would spend ten minutes on ‘yearning.’ Not surprisingly it impacted my dreams.

I dreamt of a zombie apocalypse. It differed from most in that after the zombies were killed (again) they came back to life with much of their old personalities intact. Except they were nicer and more helpful. One of these rejuvenated zombies – who was still dead of course (and decaying) – embraced me and explained in a low voice that they had become better than they had been. “We are better than humanity,” he said “because we have left behind yearning.”

I have to disagree.

We all yearn for things. We feel an intense desire or longing often for things we can never have, or having lost can never recover. We yearn to see our dead mother or to find a long-lost sister. Some of us yearn for selfish things – like power over others or a life of comfort and ease. We yearn for pleasure.

Often our yearning leaves us melancholy; we feel incomplete and bereft. We yearn for something to fill the emptiness in our hearts.

Is not this yearning for completeness, the desire to be one with the world or even to be re-united with lost loved ones at the heart of all religion? Certainly it runs throughout spiritual writings and many people describe their yearning towards God in terms of filling the emptiness in their soul.

Given my own atheism, you might think I would agree with the zombie when he says, we would be better without yearning.

Yet, it is yearning – that longing for completeness, the desire to be in a better place, that, along with reason and curiosity, fuels the scientific impulse. It is not central to the scientific method itself but it is essential to the impulse of those who find they are at odds with the world. It is that feeling that we have an argument with the universe that triggers the investigation into causes. And that is the beginning point for scientific investigation.

The same can be said for art. It is a yearning to express our hopes, our desires but also our feelings of loneliness and despair that drives the artist. We feel a need to explore the various shaped holes in our hearts. Yearning to understand and explain ourselves to the world is a key element in all artistic activity.

To lose our sense of yearning, to become self-satisfied and unquestioning, to sink into a complacency of material goods and simple satisfactions is to leave humanity behind. But being a spiritual zombie is no improvement over the pain, longing and striving of the human condition.

Saint Augustine yearned to be made pure – though he ended his prayer with ‘but not yet, Lord, not yet.’ Meanwhile Spock explained: ‘Sometimes having is not as good as wanting; it is not logical but it is true.’

So, I will continue to yearn for what I can’t have and continue to strive to grasp it anyway.

And that’s ten minutes.

Bored

Standard

In the immortal words of Dark Willow: Bored now. I never thought I’d say it but, honestly, I’m bored with the current Federal election. Maybe that was the intent all along – get Canadians bored enough that they don’t notice if the Conservatives slip back into power. Well, it’s working. So for the next week I’m going to avoid writing about politics. If I can. It’s a bit like saying you are not going to eat fudge when you spend every day browsing in a candy store.

In any case, partisan politics – the cut and thrust of sound bites and photo ops has never interested me much. As Kim Campbell famously said, an election campaign is no time to discuss policy. And we all know what happened to her.

Policy, for me, has always been more interesting than politics. Policy is a calling, a life work; politics, a mere game or hobby. Unfortunately, most politicians prefer the campaign to the hard work of governing. Maybe that’s why permanent campaigns have become so popular in the United States and now Canada. An endless opportunity to bluster, complain and attack while avoiding the hard work of problem solving and legislating.

Such is the life a frustrated policy wonk – someone who is well aware of the political differences between people (I’ve never worked for an organization whose policies I’ve agreed with more than 50%) but is fascinated with how you can still find common ground and acceptable solutions to most problems.

But enough – see how tempting that fudge can be? I was talking about boredom. Which, of course, in itself, is a fairly boring subject. It ultimately devolves into that classic teenage conversation: What do you want to do? I don’t know – what do you want to do? I don’t know, etc.

The trick is to stop thinking life should be exciting – after all, as events always show, life will find ways to scare the crap out of you without you having to go looking for it. So, I’m not so bored that I want to go climb trees in the rain. No really – you can do that in Ottawa today which is the site of the Ontario tree climbing championships. Who knew there was even such an event? The things you learn when you passively listen to the radio, lost in a fog of ennui.

Now there’s a solution to boredom – figuring out how you can slip in words like ennui and anomie into your conversations. So, that’s what I can do this week. Fight boredom with words. It will be fun for me, maybe not so much for you.

But it’s better than maundering on (another good one) about the nattering nabobs of negativism.

And that’s ten minutes.

Hemingway

Standard

I have this photo over my writing desk. It is Ernest Hemingway with his son, Greg. Both came to hard difficult ends. Though that’s not why I keep it on the wall. That is more complex.

Of course, the simple answer is that I am a big fan of Hemingway, an aficionado, if you like. I’ve read all his novels and short stories, even his few poems and plays. I’ve also consumed a half-dozen biographies – all of which provide a different perspective on his life. I’ve used examples from Hemingway when I’m teaching as well. You can learn a lot about writing by seeing what he did and didn’t do.

The more complex answer is that, knowing all that, I can still learn things by looking at that picture. Some days it is nothing more than a man sharing time with his son. Neither of them knows what lies over the horizon. For the moment, they are at peace. Perhaps they’ve been hunting – but if so they were unsuccessful; there is no evidence of game on the bridge where they sit. Perhaps the lake has been empty all day as it is at this moment. Perhaps none of that matters because game is not what they’ve been hunting for.

The boy in any case is unshod, not ready for a hike through the brush, not ready for anything. His father is always ready – but maybe not ready for this moment. He doesn’t touch his son, even though the boy is sleeping bedside him. Rather he looks away, trying to see, perhaps, what he is meant to do. Is he thinking about his own father, a man by all accounts distant from his children, content to leave them in the hands of their mother while he goes about his business as a doctor? Is he thinking about the way his father died and about how he threw the gun into the water?

But for now it doesn’t matter. Father and son are together and even though they are not speaking – perhaps have barely spoken all day other than rough instructions or admonitions – they are teaching each other about their respective roles. They are teaching each other about manhood – ironic given the secrets of the older man and the fate of the younger.

I keep the photo above my desk for all these reasons; as a reminder of what words can do even when they are unspoken; as a lesson about men and their sons; as way of kick-starting my own writing when the words seem distant and unexpressed.

I keep it there because I like it. I like the simple lines and shades of grey. I like the expressions in the faces and the bodies, the ease they have in the present. Because clearly they do not know the future, none of us do. They only have the weight of memory and the present pleasure. And I am reminded that this is enough.

And that’s ten minutes.

One of Those Days

Standard

Bear with me. There are days when I have nothing to say. Or I have things to say that I’m not ready or willing to express. There are days when I think silence would communicate more. There are days when I know that silence means consent or invites others to put words in your mouth. There are days when my focus is insufficient to settle on any one topic. There are days when too many ideas are tumbling around in my brain for any one to dominate. There are days when I simply can’t finish my argument to my own satisfaction. There are days when I think whatever I write will simply be a repetition of things I’ve already said.

This is one of those days.

It’s not that I have suddenly gone blank, suffered a stroke and sunk into aphasia, decided that nothing is troubling me, that my observations of the world are no longer worth sharing, that perhaps I’ve said enough already.

It’s just… I don’t know… hard to encapsulate.

I tried to write a general description of cultural relativity – you know,’ you can’t push the bus you’re riding in’ or ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’. Then I tried to make it more pointed – to describe how it is almost impossible not to see opposing views as ideology and your own views as mere common sense. But it got bogged down in terminology.

Then I began to explore the beauty of language, describing how sometimes I don’t care about plot or character, about dialogue or narrative tension or even about description. All I want is the rhythmic pounding of words upon the far shore of my mind, the perfect flow of sound and froth and… oh, to be a good enough writer to express what that feels like. I can’t define the poetry of language but I know it when I see it – like I know that feeling of slipping into another state of being when I hear wordless chanting, the thrum of voices that takes me back to the place we humans were before we were human.

So you can see why I’m not able to bear down today. Practical political theory fighting with pre-human emotional responses to primal communication.

Then I thought I could write something amusing about old men trying to hold on to their youth. You know the thing I’m talking about. I see old guys, their skin tanned and leathery, in tank tops and short-shorts, running like the devil is chasing them, running as if they could catch their fleeing youth, their mouths hanging open above the wattles of their necks, their eyes glazed over with exertion and pain, as young people – men and women – glide by them, unaware that their own youth is already pulling away.

And yet what else are old men supposed to do? Sit on their verandas and yell at the kids on their lawn? Curl up and die? And even when all we’re doing is racing to put down ten minutes of words, aren’t we – aren’t I – just chasing something that I will never catch?

Yeah, it’s one of those days.

But that’s ten minutes.

Debates

Standard

There is a huge debate going on in Canada right now. A debate about debates. Political debates have long  been a staple of election campaigns. There have certainly been memorable ones. The Kennedy-Nixon debate was almost certainly a turning point in a close presidential campaign – though for the most part it was not what the debaters said as how they looked. Kennedy looked cool, presidential; Nixon with his perpetual five o’clock shadow and flop sweat looked like a used car salesman – or perhaps the crook he later turned out to be.

Perhaps people can discern deep meaning from trivial things or perhaps Kennedy simply understood the importance of image in an age when most people were barely figuring it out. Or maybe luck played a role.

Some debates do have significant rhetorical moments: In the 1984 election campaign. John Turner was asked to defend the series of patronage appointments the outgoing Prime minister had demanded he make. Turner’s lame response was that he had no option. Mulroney shot back: You had an option, Mr. Turner, you could have said no! It was a turning point. The already faltering but still competitive Liberal campaign collapsed and the Conservatives went on to one of the historic majorities – one of the few gained with an actual majority of votes in a multi-party race.

It’s ironic that Brian Mulroney raised patronage to an art form – appointing party hacks to positions that previous administrations considered part of the regular public service. Debates can have turning points without revealing much about character.

Then there was the famous Clinton move where the candidate essentially stepped out of the debate format – ignored his opponents to communicate directly with individuals in the audience. His “I feel your pain” dialogue cemented him not only as President but as one of the most enduringly popular politicians in American history – a fact that still drives his opponents bananas.

Mostly, however, debates have degenerated into wooden talking heads speaking their pre-fabricated points while carefully avoiding any real discussion of the issues with other debaters. ‘Make no mistakes’ has taken over from scoring a knockout blow. When they do engage, it often seems to be red faced politicians yelling at each other or more likely trying to yell each other down.

Still telling moments can come – often when you least expect them as in the foolish and patronizing remark by Jim Prentice of Alberta when he told (now-Premier) Rachel Notley that math was hard. It solidified people’s views of him as arrogant and out of touch – not to mention sexist.

Yet, one wonders: do debates matter? Obviously they do – give how rigorously the political parties, especially the Conservatives are trying to manipulate the process. But it’s not because of huge audiences or even the likelihood of winning moments. It has to do of finding moments of advantage while avoiding the possibility of an unrecoverable error.

In any case, I’ll be watching – unless they have them in August.

But that’s ten minutes.

Projections

Standard

Being able to predict the future was one of the greatest evolutionary advantages that humans had. Discerning the pattern of animal migrations, for example, or where a predator was likely to be lurking was very useful indeed. Equally valuable was to be able to guess the thoughts and moods of the people you lived with. Was Groog – the big guy who was prone to violence – in a good mood today? Does Alllalllea feel warm thoughts for me or will she scream if I put my hands on her? All valuable stuff – especially in the days when language was still rudimentary.

Of course, we still carry these evolutionary tools with us – even though they aren’t as useful as they once were or as necessary. After all why guess what someone is feeling or thinking when you can simply ask them? Why indeed?

Of course, most of us do these predictions without thinking about them too hard. It often comes down to what we are thinking or feeling. Some people, for example, might be called down to the boss’s office and go full of excitement, fully expecting to be given a choice assignment or maybe a promotion. They may have no reason to think that – indeed the evidence might be they are a lousy employee. But why rain on their parade? They will find out soon enough.

Others, of course, will take a completely different tack. They will assume they have done something wrong – that the boss is going to haul them on the carpet or maybe even fire them. This despite the fact they have been consistently shown in (apparently too) subtle ways that they are a good employee.

My wife and I occasionally get into these little projection wars – which fortunately almost always ends with one of us laughing and saying – you’re right. I guess you know me better than I know myself.

One of the interesting things about this is that women are accused of doing it more than men. It might seem logical enough – women have often depended on being able to read the moods and intentions of the men around them. Men have been rewarded for being taciturn and besides, sadly, are sometimes dangerous and it behooves people to know when they might explode.

However, men are equally guilty in this regard. Men’s behavior, perhaps – though the evidence is not entirely certain – less linguistically focused spend a lot of time trying to figure out how other people are thinking – sometimes women but more often other men. Figuring out what can be said and done will determine whether you will be accepted, whether you will gain status or lose it, whether you will be bullied for deviating from group thinks.

Projection used to be a useful tool in the struggle for survival – one of several we used to predict the future. But now, more often than not, projecting our fears and doubts on others leads to trouble – not only at the personal level but on the world stage. There we sometimes fall into the trap of projecting one of our inner demons on our opponent rather than thinking of them as a human being with legitimate concerns, fears and needs of their own.

Maybe we need to stop silently assuming what others think, feel or want and start using our words. That’s what they’re there for.

But that’s ten minutes.