A Conspiracy of Lizards

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A small percentage of Americans (totaling 12 million) apparently believe that a group of lizard people – cleverly disguised as human – are operating all the governments of the world. The exact intent of these lizards is unknown but it can’t be anything good. Usually when people use the word conspiracy, a switch goes off in my head and all I hear afterword is ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda.’ If you want to know why, read the book “Voodoo Histories.”

Of course, a real conspiracy is only effective if it can’t be detected and if it can’t be detected it could hardly work its way into the public consciousness. So any conspiracies that people talk about are actually fake news, covering for the real ones that we cannot fathom. Confused yet? Join the club – you know the one with Steve Bannon and his other paranoid ‘deep state’ fumblers.

Still, if there were a conspiracy of lizard people, what signs might we look for? I would think an accidental slip-up where they reveal a bit of scale or perhaps tweet something in their secret slithering tongue. Is that what covfefe really means? Perhaps. The White House press secretary seemed to imply it meant something – but only to the president and a few select others.

And of course, there you have it. In a world that increasingly hates facts and evidence, where everything can be explained as a plot or a plan by some secret cabal, anything is possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us hang on every word or tweet, like supplicants outside the Oracle at Delphi, struggling to interpret the secret meanings behind every mumbled exhortation.

The sad reality is that most of what President Trump and those in the White House say means very little – it certainly doesn’t mean what they or what any rational person might think it means – as, for example, when they say they are going to build a better America when they actually mean they intend to wreck everything good about America. That sort of thing.

But perhaps there is no real conspiracy at all. The simpler explanation is that POG (Poor Old Guy) got up in the night to pee (he is over 70, remember?) and was struck with a brainwave. He grabbed his phone and, voilà, covfefe. I sympathize. What writer has not woken from a deep sleep with a sudden flash of brilliance, reached for his notepad and pen and scribbled it down for posterity? The next morning he finds a meaningless scrawl or, worse yet, a series of unrelated words – goose climbs dark wonderment stardust – and wastes several days trying to recapture the moment.

In any case, it is a waste of time to spend too much effort trying to find deep meaning in most of Trump’s tweets or other utterances. There is nothing complex there – he is a grasping old man whose only meaningful statement in the last twenty years was: You’re fired. And while we are fluttering and fuming over the meaning of a Tweet (and isn’t Twitter the perfect name for the cacophony of the dawn chorus?), POG is pulling out of the climate accord and wrecking alliances that have served America well for decades. Covfefe, indeed.

And that’s ten minutes.

Making Stories

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Once, while doing a reading at an SF convention, I was asked: that’s a good story; did you download it from the Internet? Granted the questioner was slightly drunk and, one suspects, majorly stupid but still, the same question in other forms does arise. How do you come up with those crazy ideas? Or more politely, where do you get your story ideas?

The easy answer is: stories are everywhere.

Or you could respond facetiously as in: I buy them by the gross from Walmart. And now, with the rise of writing bots, one might actually say you downloaded them from the internet.

At a more recent reading, I tried to illustrate the multiple sources of story by reading bits of three and describing how they came about.

The first was Marion’s War which appeared last year in the anthology, Strangers Among Us. That story, about an elderly soldier suffering the effects of a war with aliens, arose directly from personal experience. I experienced mild PTSD after witnessing the murder of Cpl Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial in Ottawa – a story many of you have heard before. That inspired me to look into the issue of soldiers’ mental health and led directly to writing what I consider to be one of my best stories ever.

The second was called The Burdens We Bear, which appeared in another anthology, The Sum of Us, this year. This story came about through the tried and true method of brainstorming. I took a number of key words from the anthology’s guidelines and then tried to imagine connections between them, free associating images and situations until, out of a mass of connecting and overlapping circles, a character and a story appeared. Quite literally, it was a story out of thin air (as I like to describe the space between my ears.

Finally, I read from a new, as yet untitled, unfinished and unsold story. That one came out of the other main source of stories from me – experiences that others have and that I learn about by observing, interacting, reading or researching. I was recently in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and, while there, I spent a lot of time walking around, looking at things and listening to people. I had one conversation with a couple in their forties who described their kids’ interest in travelling around – experiencing things while remaining largely disengaged from the world. These twenty somethings travel from place to place, working for food and shelter and spending most of their spare cash on tattoos and piercings. I now had a setting and some characters and when I brought in a theme of running away from political engagement, I had a story.

Stories, for me, almost always come from observing, feeling, thinking and pondering what it is that I’ve seen or felt or thought that causes me problems. Then, in my effort to solve those problems, I turn to fiction, to story.

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.

 

Yearning

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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

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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

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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

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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.