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.

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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.

Northern Elections

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Today is Election Day in the Northwest Territories. Given my long association with the North, it is not surprising that I know many – though certainly not all – of the candidates that are seeking office today. Some of these friendships go back decades. Paul Andrew, for example, had a lead role in the first play I ever had staged, Hemingway Crosses the Mackenzie, while Ben Nind was my ‘brother’ when we acted together in Melville Boys. Meanwhile, Randall Sibbeston is the son of my boss, Senator Nick Sibbeston. I’ve known him since he was a teenager.

Many of the other candidates I’ve worked with or consulted with over the last fifteen years. Many of course were part of the last or previous governments. One of those, Glen Abernathy, is the son of a man I worked with in the mid-80s. Man, sometimes these blogs make me feel old.

For those who don’t know – the NWT doesn’t have political parties. Every MLA is elected as an independent. Subsequently, the elected members meet to choose a premier and Cabinet from among themselves. The Cabinet becomes the government but is in a permanent minority situation, requiring the support of some of the ‘ordinary’ members to get measures passed the Assembly. Often, though certainly not always, that support is unanimous, as the Ministers and the members work together in committee to craft legislation and budgets that are acceptable to all.

This system is called consensus government and has operated, more or less effectively (depending on who you ask) ever since the 1970s when fully responsible government began to be developed in the NWT. The government of Nunavut uses the same system. Yukon, on the other hand, uses the more familiar (to southern eyes) party system.

There is a lot to be learned from the consensus style of government. For example, the process of pre-budget consultations that used to be very secretive and limited has now become commonplace in Canada. But it was pioneered in the NWT where it was a necessity to keep the wheels turning. Did it always work? Not at all. There were certainly stumbles along the way – I still recall a Minister losing his job for passing a note threatening a project in a Member’s riding if he didn’t cooperate.

Still, the system has lasted despite numerous failed attempts to introduce party politics into the mix. In fact, several times when candidates have run as a slate in a proto-party fashion, every single one of the candidates was defeated. It may be that they were lousy candidates or it may be that the people really don’t want a change – despite the frequent grumbling of some people in the media. I think they miss the rough and tumble of partisan politics.

In any case, it will all be decided today – or at least the first part will. In a couple of weeks the government will be formed and I’ll either be working with the same old crowd or with a whole bunch of new faces – even if some of those faces I’ve known for decades.

Good luck to all the candidates.

And that’s 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.

Advice

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Most people like giving advice, some even like getting it. A few will actively seek it out. A smaller number will actually take it and do something with it. The problem is – the advice we get is seldom the advice we want to hear.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is – writing, politics, relationships – the best advice usually doesn’t start with: you should just keep doing what you are doing. You are exactly on the right path and as long as you stick to your guns, nothing can possible go wrong. That is the most popular advice to give and if you have nothing more helpful to say, I suppose you might as well make the person happy, even it ultimately leads to disaster.

Just as theatre is not therapy (a whole other story), good advice is not simply affirmation. You’re confusing that with being a “good” friend. Good friends don’t pile on; they offer emotional support if not practical help.

Good advice is never about the easy path. Almost all good advice contains somewhere in it the words ‘hard work’ and often words like ‘compromise’ and ‘patience.’

These are not always what people want to here. I’m certainly no different than most when it comes to hearing and accepting advice. Because advice almost always sounds like criticism and most of us have grown up being told that no-one has the right to criticise us (even though almost everybody does). Taking advice is a humbling experience because the first thing you have to admit is that you were wrong and the second is that you are not capable of solving your problem on your own. Self-esteem is seldom a useful tool when it comes to course corrections.

Still, the truth of the matter is that we are often wrong – and usually willfully blind to the nature of our error. Being wrong is not only common it is natural. The world is a complex place and we are – all of us, even the best and brightest of us – only human. Only capable of understanding so much. Anyone who tells you they were never wrong – or only admits to minor errors – is either a liar, a narcissist or in serious need of medication. The errors I’ve made would fill a book – in fact given that these blogs have now reached over 150,000 words, they have filled a book.

But I like to think I have learned to at least recognize when I’ve made a mistake. Maybe If I live long enough I learn to actually avoid them.

And as for capability, that’s something that comes and goes depending on the problem you’re facing (or have created for yourself). But you should at least be able to fake it – with hard work, compromise and patience.

And that’s ten minutes.

Doing

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I had lunch with a friend recently. He’s a little older than me — a couple of years — but he’s still working at a variety of things. It was clear he had no intention of stopping. I talked about my plans, which largely consist of getting ready to retire. He asked me what I intended to do in the next stage of my life. I said I planned to keep dabbling at writing, travel and generally take it easy.

“But what are you going to DO?” he insisted.

I have to say I was taken aback; I thought I had laid out a fairly comprehensive plan. I suppose I could have added that I was planning on taking in a few baseball games and improving my skills in the kitchen but I don’t think it was quite what he had in mind.

I finally replied that I would do something — one has to in order to fill the space between now and death after all. And, I added, I’ve never been someone who was particularly driven by work or by considerations of the future. I’m not stupid about it — I’ve planned carefully to make sure I don’t have to eat dog food while sheltering in a cardboard box — but mostly I’ll let things unfold, doing whatever takes my interest and fits my budget — both of money and energy.

As I thought about it, I realized that this question has come up again and again, among my friends and colleagues who have reached the age where they can choose to do or not do — in the sense of either having big goals or aspirations or being willing to simply let life happen.

Some have leapt at the opportunity to stop working. They usually have some money or a decent and secure pension, though sometimes they just have enough, and feel they have actually done plenty already. Others can’t imagine sitting in idleness and continue to work well into their seventies. The type of work may change or the intensity but for some people being outwardly productive is a necessity — it is how they define themselves. Even if they retire they sometimes go back.

What about those who choose to set aside the yoke of productivity, who no longer feel the need to do big things out in the world? Most of them seem to have opted for inner productivity. They pursue their own interests, not caring whether anyone notices or cares. Sometimes it is a matter of returning to the basics of life — hiking, maintaining their house, foraging for gourmet food, looking for beauty, reading books or just thinking thoughts. For them it is enough to create something inside themselves or simply to consider all that has gone before.

I suspect I will be among the latter. I’ve achieved some things for which a few people might remember me. I have a small shelf of my works to remind me of those efforts and a horde of memories of the more ephemeral accomplishments.

So that is what I am going to do. I’m going to practice the art of doing nothing. Who can say what wonders I might achieve?

And that’s ten minutes.