Turkish Hiking

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If you ever go to Uchisar in Turkey, you must spend part of everyday, hiking down one of the many valleys that cover the land. With names like Pigeon Valley, Love Valley or Rose or Swords, the choices are myriad. The walks are pretty arduous and, therefore, good for you and the vistas are spectacular. But of course the real reason you must walk them is, it is the only way to work off the tremendous amount of food you will eat.

Breakfast in Turkey is always sumptuous but at our hotel in Uchisar – the Sakli Konak – it was spectacular. You arrive when you like between 7 and 10 and take a seat at one of the large breakfast tables. Soon a young man will bring you a tray with nine kinds of cheese on it. Surrounding that will be five kinds of olives, several slices of deli-meat or perhaps sausages in tomato sauce. A basket of bread, of course, is provided (more if requested – you pig) with 10 types of homemade jams as well as peanut butter and honey still in the honeycomb. Had enough yet? Would you like an egg prepared, any style? Have some fruit – melon one day, slices of apple and orange wedges the next. But wait, there’s more. Some eggy fried bread perhaps or crispy fried pita with cheese in the middle. Don’t forget your coffee and orange juice. And what would breakfast be without a tomato, cucumber and pepper salad? And to fill up the corners, a few chunks of delicious nutty halva.

Now you walk. For three to four hours or so, scrambling up and down steep slopes and along narrow ridges, taking pictures every ten steps or so because you can’t believe the next fabulous magical view. And the reward on the other end? A nice cold beer and lunch on a lovely rooftop terrace with more spectacular vistas to look at.

It doesn’t matter what you order, they always start you off with a free appetizer. On our last day it was fresh baked bread which you dip in oil, spices and crumbled feta cheese. Delicious. Then we had hot hummus (the edges were still bubbling when they served it) topped with beef bacon. For our mains we shared dry roasted lamb neck with rice, potatoes and grilled vegetables. And we had worked so hard on our hike that we deserved a dessert of yogurt with honey plus some thick Turkish coffee (with a few pieces of Turkish Delight thrown in as ‘thank you for your business’ treat).

I’d like to tell you we then walked back up the hill to Uchisar (some 8 km away) but we took a cab. We needed to rest up for supper.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Turkish Carpets

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It is always interesting to visit a city or a country for the first time. No matter how many guidebooks or travelogues you read, the reality is always different. The first day or so is spent recovering from jet lag and learning the rules. And it always takes a few marginal – hopefully not bad – experiences to really let you start to figure things out.

Wednesday was our third day in Istanbul and was the transition point when we went from bumbling foreigners to semi-confused tourists. The previous day was forecast to be the last sunny day so we had gone down to Princes’ Islands on the ferry. It was glorious but on the way back we misread a map and got off at the wrong ferry terminal. We were dropped in the middle of the busiest night life of the city – at a bus terminal in the dark. It was a wakeup call of sorts, a reminder that this is not home and we are strangers here.

The next day we decided to stay closer to ‘home’ and went up to see the Blue Mosque. On our way we were accosted by a friendly fellow who greeted us warmly. Being Canadians we responded politely and soon we had a boon companion. He was very clear – he would help us out and we would visit his shop later on. And, in fact, he was very helpful. He advised us that we had arrived too late for the Mosque –it closes at lunch – and suggested we go to the Hagia Sophia instead. He got us past several queues and gave us good advice as to what to look for. Ninety minutes later there he was waiting patiently by the exit in the rain.

What else could we do but follow him? We went to his shop – not his at all but his ‘family’s business’ – and then the hard sell began. We were given a fifteen minute history of the evolution of the Turkish carpet along with explanations of how much work went into them and all the rules governing the sale and export of heritage rugs. Then the display – carpets rolled out across hardwood floors and flipped artistically through the air to show off their colors. There was talk of government set anticipatory prices and discounts to be had. This one was $2000 and that one only $1200. Though we expressed a desire to see something smaller and more modest (we live in a small place, we explained), the hint was never taken. Oddly, if they had shown us something nice for $750 we might have bought, but I guess the margin wasn’t high enough. In any case no sale was made.

Our friend was waiting outside – disappointed no doubt that he would earn no commission. He gently asked for a small tip for his time. It wound up being 50 lira ($25), not bad given the show we had received. We made our escape before he could guide us to his favorite ‘family’ restaurant and spent the rest of the day in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts but that’s another story.

Lesson learned in any case – don’t respond to friendly offers with anything more than a smile and shake of your head.

And that it ten minutes.

Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

University

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My nieces and nephew are starting University this week – hard to believe that the triplets have all left home to start the next stage of their life journey. It must be quite a shock for my brother and his wife to go from a full house to an empty nest in just a few days. As I look at their posts and pictures of orientation and dorm rooms on Facebook, I can’t help but think of my own first weeks at Mount Alison University, forty three years ago.

Life was easy for me back then – maybe easier than it ever was again. I was on full scholarship – with enough money to cover tuition, room and board, books with a few bucks left over to buy a stereo and some records. Okay, the latter were bought with my savings from work but at least I had savings. That first year I worked in a pizza place for 8-10 hours a week, so I was pretty much on easy street.

Orientation was perhaps a bit more robust than it is today. We went through most of a week of lectures on how to live at university combined with relentless hazing from the sophomores. It was never too harsh, though occasionally frightening. It culminated with a walk through a swamp chest-deep in mud, before we came out dirty and tired but in possession of our freshman tam. It was the last year for the swamp – it wasn’t exactly hygienic and a few people got some nasty infections. I still remember the joy I felt when we started chasing the sophomores who had tormented us, covered in muck and with bottles of ketchup and honey in our hands. I particularly liked having football players run away from me.

That first week or two was quite an experience. I’d never really been away from home for more than a week or so and I’d never had a roommate – other than when I shared a bunk bed with my brother when we were kids. Randy and I got along great – people thought we’d known each other for years when in fact we met for the first time in our shared dorm room. It was a friendship I kept for the rest of his life (he died much too early from cancer). There were lots of other friends made too – and a few sort of enemies.

At least I wasn’t trying to learn the dating scene. My girlfriend from high school was there as well and we married at the end of our second year. It didn’t last but it seemed right at the time.

But that didn’t stop me from learning how to party – those first few weeks were a wash of alcohol (and bad aftermaths) and eventually grass. I learned how to handle it though. At the end of the year, I retained my scholarships with an 80+ average while half of my first year friends were flunking out. But that’s a story for another day.

‘Cause that’s ten minutes.

Wandering

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Years ago, a friend of mine was in charge of a large hostel. While it catered mostly to travelling youth from around the world, he told me that a growing part of his clientele were men in their forties and fifties; men who travelled the highways as tramps even though they didn’t have to.

Who were these modern day hobos? They were, for the most part, men who had achieved a certain level of success – as lawyers, business men or other professionals – who suddenly found themselves adrift. They had focussed on their careers and failed to notice that their families were drifting away. Their kids had grown and left home and their wives had slipped away to careers of their own or to relationships where they were a partner rather than an appendage.

Most had also discovered that their careers – that had been such a focus of their lives – had reached a nadir. They were as successful as they were ever going to be, had risen as high in the firm as their ability and ambition would take them and there was no place else to go. And all the money that seemed so important was gone – spent on divorce settlements or vain attempts to recover their youth.

While most people in this situation would retrench – accept their lot in life and do what they could to recover their families and their friendships, others would set sail on something new. A lot of people in middle life seek something new to rejuvenate them. Some take up a new passion – art or golf or a return to school (or perhaps a fling on Ashley Madison) – while others return to a passion of their youth. Some settle into quiet retirement, find God or start a new family.

And a few throw it all away – including their most important responsibilities – and take to the road or the high seas. It seems it is mostly men who do the latter. Perhaps they embrace the danger, the solitude, the self-reliance. They stay at hostels when they can or sleep in ditches when they can’t. They become lean and fit or grow drunken and dissipated. They lack any purpose other than to keep moving.

Sometimes, that desire to drift overwhelms us all. Sometimes it is in our blood. My father was a hobo – not out of desire but of necessity and not as an old man but as a youth – and his tales of travel filled up much of my childhood.

When the autumn comes, I feel it strongest. Years of schooling taught me that the autumn was the time of new beginnings, of new friends and new experiences. The autumn was the time to move along and so it has been. Almost all of my new ventures have started in the fall.

Still, I can’t see myself tramping alone into the horizon. Not with my knees; not with my love of comfortable beds and regular meals. I’ll have to make all my journeys in my mind.

But that’s ten minutes.

Dreams and Schemes

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Whenever I come home from a great holiday, I feel rejuvenated. I’m tired – three nights up past 1 a.m. and rising early the next day will do that to you – but I’m also energized. I am filled with dreams and schemes.

I won’t go into details as to how much fun the last month has been with visits with family and friends and birthday celebrations times two. The weather was fine and the sights and sounds were both familiar and novel. The perfect mix of remembrances, present pleasures and future possibilities.

The final weekend was spent at When Words Collide and everything went according to plan. That is to say, I had no particular plan so everything worked out just fine. Book sales exceeded my minimum needs and almost reached my optimistic goal – pretty good given we didn’t have a book launch.

I was also pleased and a little bit humbled by the number of people – especially colleagues in the publishing industry — who said what a good job we were doing at Bundoran Press. A few others even told me how much they liked my writing. It was nice to reconnect with friends and, as the cliché goes, discover friends we hadn’t previously met. The panels were invigorating – lively, occasionally contentious but never impolite. Turnouts were good even at the last panels on Sunday afternoon. The WWC audience is fantastic and very book oriented.

Now I am back home with all kinds of ideas for writing and editing and publishing and filled with energy (despite the sleep deprivation) and ambition. Sometimes these dreams and schemes fade away in the harsh reality of daily living and the grind of work. But other times I’ve found the inspiration remains – enough to drive me forward to the next great adventure.

I’ve always said that there are certain kinds of work that takes it out of you – leaves you feeling drained and depressed or, at the very least, good for nothing but sitting in front of the TV watching not very good programs with a glass of wine clutched in your hand.

But there is other work that leaves you with fire in your belly and the nagging feeling that there must be a few hours in the day still waiting to be filled with creativity and excitement.

That’s how I feel today – full of big ideas and expectation for fresh accomplishments. Will it last? Who can say? All I know is that I intend to ride the wave until I reach the far shore. And who knows what I’ll discover there?

And that’s ten minutes.

Comic Books

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When I’m nostalgic, I think of comic books. Not graphic novels, not movies or Marvel Universes but comic books – those slightly dusty smelling 32 or 48 page magazines with glossy covers and newsprint interiors. Those are the things of my childhood.

I can’t remember the first books that caught my attention but by the time I was 10 or 11, I was accumulating comics of every kind. I was as likely to be reading cowboy stories from Dell, a Gold Key Tarzan adventure, a Classic adaptation of Robinson Crusoe as I was to be following the heroics of Superman or the web-crawling angst of Spiderman.

I collected them and traded them with friends. My earliest intense friendships were built around a common love of comic books. Age didn’t come in to it. My best friend was three years older than me – a huge gulf when you are 12 years old.

Being a comic book collector in a small town in Nova Scotia was not an easy thing. Only a couple of stores carried them – usually in a single rack in the corner of the store. You soon learned which store was most reliable in getting the books you wanted – even knowing when the books would appear on the shelf. I was such a regular at one store that the owner set aside my books for me so I wouldn’t miss an issue.

I was an enterprising lad. I mowed lawns, shovelled snow, sold greeting cards door to door, delivered newspapers and eventually, when I was fourteen got my first part-time job at the town library – a natural haven for a book worm like me. All that effort driven by the love of comics.

But local purchases weren’t enough. They kept you caught up on your favorite stories – I was buying 25 comics a month – but what about back issues? Some I got through trades – giving up lesser favored lines for back issues of those that obsessed me. To fill in the gaps, I started hitchhiking 40 kilometers to Moncton to find piles of used comics in the United Book Store. I was 14 by then and it was a good thing my mother didn’t know – I suspect my comic book days might have been numbered if she had.

Still, I found plenty of treasures: the first appearance of Thor in a Marvel comic and a #3 issue of Spiderman. I planned my weekends around trips to used book stores and even garage or estate sales in the hopes of finding a rare gem. I even once bought the entire collection of a boy who was moving away – just to get a couple of issues I coveted. The rest made great trade material.

I joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society – complete with membership card and special subscription rates. For a while I had comics come by mail direct from New York but didn’t like the way they were folded – creating a permanent crease up the middle. I’d lie awake at night hoping to hear Cousin Brucie on WABC give one of his occasional insights into my favorite heroes.

By the time I went to University, I had 2000 comics; raids from fellow students soon reduced it to 1500 and I kept them locked up after that (and spent a fortune replacing the missing issues). Then came my first divorce and my collection went away like a puff of smoke. And I’ve never felt the same about them since.

But that’s ten minutes.