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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, July 31, 2005

out of the waste land

No rain after all. More sun.

For morning notes I keyed from From Eden to Exile and, after some deliberation, The Grail Legend, which I haven't opened in a while.

I was glad I did. The Grail Legend has been lying buried in my coffee-table stack for the past few months, unread. As I typed over my second cup of coffee (from chapter 6, "Perceval's Task", much of which was highlighted) I felt myself being nourished and inspired by the insights of Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz. This is the type of thematic background that might help me recover my sense of purpose in writing my book.

If I understand correctly, the authors contend that the central task and meaning of the Age of Pisces (the age of the Grail) is for humanity to bring to consciousness the hidden unconscious contents of our minds: to effect a conscious reconciliation of the opposites, in particular good and evil, that lie fused in the unconscious. And this also is the task of Perceval:

When Perceval has to solve the riddle of the Grail, this means that he should make his own psychic problems and his extensive inner nature conscious.

Thus Perceval is the hero of our age, just as Joseph Campbell contends in his Creative Mythology. Presumably, or potentially, as he goes, so go we all.

I admit that I don't understand this. I don't know exactly what it means. I do know that it has a bearing of some kind on my work, and that somehow these ideas are steering me. Emma Jung worked on her book for 25 years, and it was still unfinished on her death. It took Jung's student Marie-Louise von Franz 15 more years to finish it. Much reflection and thought has gone into it, and for that reason alone it's worth reading, even apart from its significance in shining a light on the meaning of our time.

I think about Campbell's mention of the "golden seeds" of our human potentialities that lie within each of us, awaiting the moment, the right stimulus, to awaken. This is akin to the Buddhist view that our nature is intrinsically complete; we do not need to--indeed we cannot--import things from outside to enlarge or "complete" ourselves. But the seed image--like James Hillman's "acorn"--suggests the journey quality of life, the growth required of us all. The oak is in the acorn, but only in a manner of speaking--only in potential. There is a sometimes perilous journey from acorn to oak.

The Waste Land is the place where there is no divinity to be found without ("God is dead") or within ("man is just a collection of appetites, or an ape that reads"). In short, it is our own modern world. Perceval was the redeemer of the Waste Land, and so he is our hero, specifically our hero of the current modern age. The literary geniuses of 800 years ago were already sketching out our salvation when the religious authorities formally entrusted with it were losing their grip on people's souls and, even more importantly, on their imagination.

Perceval redeemed the Grail kingdom by posing a single question--not by finding an answer. He exhibited the intention to become conscious.

Since this morning these thoughts have been burbling through the background of my mind, while we planted begonias and impatiens out front, and while we walked to London Drugs so I could buy some highlighters. I also bought a novel (rare for me): The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Yes, it's already an international bestseller, but I'll still report back on my findings.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

earthquakes and archaeology

Weather draws in: a high, high white screen of cloud across the sky, so that there is still blue all over the south, but over us a canopy that is softening all the shadows to near-invisibility. Tomorrow the forecast is for rain.

Last night I woke up repeatedly. It was hot (the felt blackout over our window raises the temperature a few degrees); my pillow was damp. I dreamed of sitting here at my PC, when suddenly the house lurched sideways, then back another way. I was thrown into the air, bounced off a wall--I realized with panic that this was an earthquake, the only question was how strong, how long. I was thrown straight up, sending my head through the ceiling. I cringed, but there was no impact: the ceiling was only a hologram--or my head was. I was already awake.

I don't remember dreaming of an earthquake before. It is a sudden catastrophic release of pent-up tension in the earth. Imperceptibly slow movement loads a giant spring, which pops violently. The ground, proverbial for its solidity and immobility, suddenly lurches and devours what rests upon it. What is the ground under me? What do I take for granted for its stability--especially, perhaps, with relation to my work, done here on the PC? We describe news or events as earth-shaking. What is shaking the earth under me?

More feelings of aimlessness today. I came down and keyed notes from From Eden to Exile. What to make of this book? David Rohl is retelling the Bible, translating its stories into a new narrative based on modern archaeology and the study of ancient documents. He finds that the Bible stories are, broadly, substantiated by the other ancient records, with a bit of creative interpretation. His story is fascinating and quite persuasive, and I'm sympathetic with his mission of presenting a plausible narrative, as though to say, "This is what actually went down."

But did it? It raises the question of what we choose to believe, and why.

Yesterday Kimmie and I talked after breakfast. I told her about my visit to the Amazon.com website to link to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are 68 reviews of the book on the site. Scanning through many of them, I felt that people, in general, did not really understand the book or the magnitude of Campbell's achievement. One review in particular was by a self-confessed Christian who took exception to Campbell's description of the Christian story and theology as mere myth, along with the other myths of the world.

Kimmie rolled her eyes. "Oh brother."

"Why does he believe the Christian story is true?" I said. "Ultimately it will be because somebody told him to. Yes, he'll say he's looked into it and compared the teachings with his experience, but it will have come in via those around him, being raised in it. Like all religions, it has to believe it has a lock on the truth, and everyone else is wrong. Most often, people believe what they're told to believe. That's not what Campbell was about."

I don't think that's what Rohl has done with his retelling of the Old Testament. I believe his take is that there is more historical baby in the bathwater of the Bible than most contemporary historians and archaeologists give it credit for. He finds historical events in there--datable ones. Joseph, vizier of the pharaoh, died in 1617 BC. Moses was born in 1520 BC. It's a fascinating idea, and may very well be true.

But what does it mean? Of this I'm not sure. I feel it's important, but it's hard to say exactly why. It has to do with my idea of the mythology of facts, which I've written about before.

I'll think more about that. Meanwhile, I'm keying a retold Bible, and am enjoying it.

Friday, July 29, 2005

the manure smell of summer

Hot day, with a semi-chemical smell pervading the air from the hills of manured earth piled on the boulevard out front. The workers have made this corner their stockpile, and when it gets depleted by the endless runs with their mini front-end loader, they truck in more. The rumble of trucks, the smell of manure.

Kimmie, on impulse, took today off. We will be heading out to Mom's place to celebrate my aunt Jackie's birthday with fish and chips that we'll pick up at the Crab Shop. Kimmie is baking a birthday cake right now.

Morning notes: Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian and From Eden to Exile.

After the flash of inspiration the previous day, yesterday was another day of uncertainty and vacillation. I got off to a late start and became sidetracked. The lawyer for Harvey's estate approved our accounts, but wanted changes made to the spreadsheet showing what the beneficiaries are getting, so I worked on that. I made a point of getting back to my research reading in the afternoon, and I did enjoy it.

So: another day off. Here we are at the long weekend, B.C. Day (a civic holiday created in my memory, in the 1970s by the NDP government of Dave Barrett). Well, summer has always been a slow time, even in ancient Rome. The wealthy would decamp to the country villas and idle away the hot months. I, Saturn in Capricorn, have a Scroogelike streak that feels that time off is vaguely immoral (even though I help myself to as much of it as I can). Even though I'm not very keen on work, some part of me wants to turn all time to account. Hence, I don't merely read; I study, highlighter in hand.

In fact, I'd like to go do some of that right now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

aid for the despairing hero

After yesterday's post I wandered around a bit more, wondering what to do, what to read. In the past, when I have sunk to low levels of inspiration, I have turned to Joseph Campbell. So that's what I did again: I came down and pulled my old 1979 copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces from my bookshelf and decided I'd try reading that (again) over tea. Since I've already read the book so many times, I wasn't really expecting to find anything new.

I was wrong. It felt as though I'd never read it before. I started in, just reading the highlighted text (my own condensed version of the book). I was stirred by his opening remarks about myth and its centrality to the human experience. On page 16 I came to this paragraph:

The hero is the man of self-achieved submission. But submission to what? That precisely is the riddle that today we have to ask ourselves and that it is everywhere the primary virtue and historic deed of the hero to have solved. As Professor Arnold J. Toynbee indicates in his six-volume study of the laws of the rise and disintegration of civilizations, schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death--the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be--if we are to experience long survival--a continuous "recurrence of birth" (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death. For it is by means of our own victories, if we are not regenerated, that the work of Nemesis is wrought: doom breaks from the shell of our very virtue. Peace then is a snare; war is a snare; change is a snare; permanence is a snare.

Yes, I thought: anything set fast is death. By means of our own victories Nemesis works; the very things we work to establish choke us to death if we cling to them. I wasn't exactly sure what this had to do with me or my situation, but I sense a river of inspiration running within me somewhere deep.

On to the next paragraph:

Theseus, the hero-slayer of the Minotaur, entered Crete from without, as the symbol and arm of the rising civilization of the Greeks. That was the new and living thing. But it is possible also for the principle of regeneration to be sought and found within the very walls of the tyrant's empire itself. Professor Toynbee uses the terms "detachment" and "transfiguration" to describe the crisis by which the higher spiritual dimension is attained that makes possible the resumption of the work of creation. The first step, detachment or withdrawal, consists in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external to the internal world, macro- to microcosm, a retreat from the desperations of the waste land to the peace of the everlasting realm that is within. We carry within ourselves all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung has called "the archetypal images."

Notice the phrase in there, "the crisis by which the higher spiritual dimension is attained that makes possible the resumption of the work of creation"? That sent a jolt through me. What am I concerned with now but the resumption of the work of creation? Have I not said that I feel I'm in crisis? Here it is, spelled out.

My hiatus is a retreat to the causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside.

I'll run with this, I thought this morning. I opened a document in a different folder, labeled Lifewriting, titled "Theme Notes". I pasted in the 2 Campbell paragraphs and started writing thoughts about my own life: my past, my development, finding the moments when my mind and life changed direction. This is actually a project I've been going at, off and on, for several years. I intend to write stories about my life, but I'm taking my time discovering how to approach it.

The typing flowed. Things I've been thinking about, looking back over my life, I wrote down. I was writing what I wanted to write, so it went smoothly. A sample selection:

The "retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche" was exactly the meaning of "The Hermit". The story was of the character's choosing of an unconventional life; he quit school. That was my manifesto. The Tarot symbolism I used and embraced as part of a turning away from rational causality and conventional thinking generally.

What were the forces in tension leading up to that choice? What was the nature of the crisis?

And so on.

Am I saying that I'm a hero? Yes. We all are, more or less. But the artist has a greater obligation to live as a hero, and must equip himself with the hero's qualities: integrity and courage. Only a few manage to do that fully. Joseph Campbell was one, and his work was the boon brought back to revitalize humanity, to help those of us lying famished and hopeless in the waste land.

I see my struggle in a different light, and my hiatus especially. I'll let the creative work take its own course.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

what's on my mind?

Yesterday afternoon I read, like a good lad, from A History of Technology, From Eden to Exile, and Alexander the Great. This morning I got up and keyed notes from The Ruling Class of Judaea and Alexander the Great. So far so good. Saw Kimmie off ("Well all that time I spent this morning was wasted," she said sharply. "This looks awful." She was dressed, very nicely, I thought, in black capris with little black dangling ornaments at their cuffs, and a white top.). Had my morning cereal while reading Scientific American (article on the geology of Mars). Sent Kimmie her morning e-mail (I send one most days to start her day off and perk her up), did my stretches and exercises. But when I came down again to face my PC: no dice. I could not even open files relating to my project. Didn't want to.

Yikes. OK, don't panic.

I muddled through the morning, took lunch a bit early (leftover Greek salad, Indian naam bread in lieu of pita, hummus). After lunch I brushed my teeth and lay down. Closed my eyes for awhile, and wondered, What's on my mind?

For if I don't feel like working on my book, I must be interested in something else. What? That would be simplest: not to force myself to work on something I don't want to, but to go where my mind wants to be. Where is that? Is there some philosophical question I want to explore? Some historical era? Science? Do I want to write about my own life? What?

I'm not sure. So this blog post is a start. I'm simply exploring my thoughts. I can't really do that here--it's still too public a place. But I can give a flavor of the sense of questioning, of uncertainty. The most productive thing, surely, is to go where the mind wants to go. There is where the energy and interest are--the things that will cause work to be produced, if work is to be produced at all.

Maybe it's not. And maybe that doesn't matter. Productivity in some ways is bourgeois. I am bourgeois. And I don't want to be. I don't want to care what anyone else thinks about me, my life, or my work--or nonwork. I don't want to have a superego within me that pretends to look at me through others' supposed bourgeois perceptions. "Get busy. Don't lie around."

It's actually hard to be inactive. I feel a conflict within myself, a struggle--like the confluence of two rivers: the waters charge together, mix, toss, create whirlpools, stir up mud.

What is on my mind? It seems a simple question. It's certainly an interesting question. If I'm not interested in my project or its research, what am I interested in? What's there, if I sit down and listen?

Maybe I'll keep you posted.

Monday, July 25, 2005


Maybe a quick one. It's already almost 5 p.m. I was just outside in the hot sun picking up garbage in and around the wooden garbage-box my building's residents use to contain their garbage bags. Monday is our pickup day. This morning when I took out my yellow bag of paper recycling for pickup I found the doors of the garbage box wide open, and most of the bags within partly gutted, the ground strewn with chicken bones, ballpoint pens, chunks of styrofoam, and some viscid strong-smelling blobs that might have been vegetable matter. I thought an animal had been at them, but I later found out from Margot, one of my neighbors, that a scavenger had been in there last night.

"He's this really crazy-looking thin guy," she said, "you always see him going up and down St. Georges. He was in there pulling bags apart, and finally came out with an empty. He wanted one to put his bottles and cans in."

That is crazy--there must be an easier way to get empty garbage bags. But it was disappointing news, for it means that this will be an ongoing problem, not just a one-off. This the type of thing that I, as president of my strata, have to deal with. This is what political power is to me: I'm the one outside cleaning up sun-cooked garbage, and I get to think of ways to deter scavengers from plundering our full garbage bags.

Other than that, I spent time out at Mom's, entering some new data and printing new accounting reports so she can take these to the lawyer on Wednesday. Jackie was home too, with the week off. We had lunch at the dining-table, overlooking the lawn and the green water slowly draining from the cove, changing color as it exposed the sand below.

Oh: this morning, yes, research notes: The Ruling Class of Judaea and Roman Arabia by G. W. Bowersock.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

another stroll in New West

High summer. Up at 6:40 or so, made coffee, keyed notes: Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, and The Ruling Class of Judaea. A certain mechanicalness now to my research, a certain doggedness: mustn't give up this. That would be losing my grip on the whole thing.

Robin had a date at the Show and Shine (car show) in New West with Trevor and her father, so Kimmie and I went out to New West ourselves--back to the IHOP for breakfast. It was already busy when we got there at 10:25, so we took a seat. I whipped out my prose sketchbook:

SUN 24 JUL 2005 10:25 am IHOP NEW WEST

Sunny summer: I'm here on the narrow blue upholstered bench, waiting for a table. K has just come in with a Province. The old sphere-headed Asian next to me is buried in his copy: ash-colored coarse hair, short-sleeved check shirt, black loafers with white socks. Fleshy compressed features: lips, nose.

"No, I live in that building across the street now," he says to the woman next to him, "next to the gas station.... No it was a townhouse. This is thirteen hundred square-foot. We were at the Fraserview.... We didn’t live in half of it."

Babble of voices; refreshing morning breeze comes through when the door opens, people coming and going. Red tile floor with gray rubber-backed entry rug. Vinyl wainscoting with wallpaper above: greenish-gray, pattern like cracks forming in dried mud.

Chinese family has sat next to me: 2 women and a child; talking Chinese.

The restaurant is in a high peaked roof, great beams angled up like a church.

Old woman walks slowly by with a cane, her right foot badly twisted inward. Heavily she moves forward in her turquoise pants, lurching.

Tall beanpole of a young guy stands nearby. Now he's sat: long white T-shirt, long long drapery down to his black shorts.

We both had omelettes. Then we strolled through Queen's Park, the sun bearing down but the shade dense and cool. Tall graceful trees swished in the breeze; cirrus clouds were combed by wind high in the blue sky. We felt great appreciation for each other's company.

We crossed the gritty highway of Royal Avenue and walked down the steeper slope toward downtown New West and the river. The Fraser was a great flat snake of milky green stretching away in both directions. Massive bridges: the Patullo, the SkyTrain bridge, and off to the west in the distance, the Arthur Laing. The old crumbling streets of New West plunge down the hill to the water, some of them showing their original red-brick pavement through the worn patches of asphalt. Well-dressed people, families, ambled to their cars from a beautiful but run-down little church commanding a view of the river from above the SkyTrain tracks. The rubble of St. Mary's Hospital was piled in sun-blasted ridges behind chainlink fence. Three old houses, boarded up, sat in the compound. Evidently they are being offered for $1 each on the condition that the buyer moves them to another site and renovates them.

We walked back up the slope and drove back to North Van. Stopped at a nursery to buy flowers (marguerites, snapdragons, a couple of others), and do some grocery shopping.

Everything is wonderful. But my project is stalled.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

music in the street

Awake before 5:00, rose at about 6:00. Worked on morning notes, like a good little researcher: Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, and The Ruling Class of Judaea by Martin Goodman.

Tinkered on a couple of Wikipedia articles. Noticed that some contributors there get a bit hot under the collar.

While I worked I heard the sound of Caribbean music thumping in through the open windows. The parade for Caribbean Day was mustering on Keith Road in front of our house. Kimmie was ecstatic, hopping and dancing in the kitchen like a jumping-bean. I joined her out on the porch to watch and listen awhile. It is exciting and different to have live music flooding our street instead of the noise of traffic--a sense of festival. A truck was decked out as a float, with a Caribbean-themed mural hanging from its side and the band in a fenced platform on the roof. Guitar, bass, keyboards, saxophone, one or two microphones for vocals, and a couple of hangers-on who seemed just to be loitering on the roof. The repetitive bass-riff thudded out through the cool air.

Robin was off to a staff meeting. Kimmie and I headed out to do errands--buy her some bras at the Bay, get her a new debit card at the credit union, get my glasses fixed at Lenscrafters. I have felt sensitive and depressed for the past few days, as though I'd like to hide somewhere. Somewhere perhaps far away from my book.

Tonight: night 1 of Paul's Rom-Com (romantic comedy) Festival. Kimmie wanted me to pick out the best romantic comedies and play them. I'm going in chronological order, so tonight it's a DVD of It Happened One Night, the movie that launched the romantic comedy genre in movies. We've seen it about 3 times before. Made in 1934, it's directed by Frank Capra and still excellent viewing. So there's something to look forward to.

Friday, July 22, 2005

lingering feelings

Maybe just a quickie post. It's 6:30 p.m. and I've just poured myself a glass of wine after a 20-minute lie-down. Spent the day out at Mom's completing the estate accounting (all balanced, ready to be taken to lawyer to discuss how to present the information to the beneficiaries). She treated me to lunch, this time at the Lazy Bay cafe at Parkgate. The day was much cooler than yesterday, and overcast, with suggestions of raindrops every once in a while.

Just before lunch Mom had an errand at the North Shore Credit Union by Parkgate. I stood outside and waited by the parking-lot. I did a prose sketch:


Cool, clouded-in summer day: smell of toasted bagels from the café next door; motor sounds of cars coming and going. They swish by on the parkway. Trees: planted not many years ago. Little ornamental maples in the beds by the parking lot, topiary mushroom caps. The box plants below cut into little spheres. Elderly man, tanned brow and white beard, munches at a table, chewing with the front of his mouth like a monkey. Man in kilt and sporran ambles out to his little 4x4 to drive away.

The brick pavers of the parking lot are oil-stained. Squad of young shaven-headed guys comes out of the café to clip up to get back on their bikes. There's a sun up there in that feathery white sky: it shines at me from the windshield of the Honda that just pulled in--a little nuclear-bright eye.

There you have it, the flavor of the moment.

This morning I came to as Kimmie switched on the radio. The song playing was "Linger" by the Cranberries. I was enchanted, taken back to the time I first heard it, which was one night while watching music videos, no doubt in 1993 when the song was released. I was mesmerized by the wistful melody and Dolores O'Riordan's waiflike, accented performance, and the black-and-white video. There I lay, yearning along with Dolores, feeling the distilled essence of a whole time, a whole phase of life, the locked chest of feeling opened to swirl up again like an aroma around my heart while the brief seconds evaporated away. So brief.

I got myself up, feeling keen pangs of love for my wife. Relationships, I now know, are not just one-way streets that start somewhere and wind down. They can surprise you--really surprise you.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Achilles and the acorn

It's starting to feel a bit awkward having this blog ostensibly devoted to the creation of a novel, with precious little movement happening toward completion of same. This morning was another "into the wall" experience when I finally sat down here to get going. It was as though something in me knew I couldn't face it.

Yes, I did my morning notes, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian and Alexander the Great. I had opportunity: no other pressing engagements or commitments today. No excuses. Just me--and it. I made myself open the Notes file for chapter 17, and scrolled to the bottom of it, but barely looked at its content; I couldn't bear it.

Am I in crisis?

Last night my sister Mara came over with her daughter Chella. Mara was curious to hear more about James Hillman and his "acorn" theory (presented in his book The Soul's Code). I told what I could, that the acorn is our inborn nature or mission in life, which will out regardless of our intentions. It's not particularly something we have to find; it finds us. On this view, we don't necessarily have to search high and low for our life purpose; our acorn will grow into an oak without any special pushing or pulling--if it's alive, it will get there.

But the existence of the acorn doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing, or that our decisions will be easy.

When I wrote 2 days ago about being at Nitartha Institute as a monk from Gampo Abbey, I got to thinking about my vocation and the sense of fate in injuring myself there (exactly 3 years ago today), an event which unexpectedly precipitated my return home--which I accepted enthusiastically, largely because of my excitement over this project, The Age of Pisces.

What the heck, I'll provide that entry from the sketchbook too:

SUN. 21 JUL 2002 8:55 p.m. MONCTON HOSPITAL

I lie in the emergency ward. Playing tennis behind Carriage House with Scott Wellenbach, Kim Colwell, and lamas Tenpa and Sherab, I lurched forward on my left foot and felt a snapping of my ankle-tendon: a failure. It was not painful: a mechanical failure, a feeling as of falling back off a curb. A crunch. Kim rushed away and brought Karl. He gently felt my naked ankle (Scott and Sherab-la had all but carried me to the side-bench), comparing it with my right ankle.

"Yeah, it's torn. Not all the way through, but, you know, halfway, maybe two-thirds."

So Karl supported my left side, and Sherab-la my right, as I hopped up the hill to Scott's car. Kim very sweetly brought me my fleece and Roman Lives, along with 2 copies of The New Yorker. Scott drove me and Karl to the Sackville Memorial Hospital.

After a wait I was wheeled to emergency, where Karl and I talked. (He's a Sun in Pisces, Moon in Capricorn, Taurus Ascendant.) Seen by young Dr. Adrian Kelly, very handsome and pleasant: his first (partially) torn Achilles tendon. He made a call to Moncton and said that there was an orthopedic surgeon who can take me tonight, Will Alanach.

So Scott dropped off Karl and drove me to Moncton--here, to the hospital, wheeling me in solicitously, talking with me, keeping me company. The processing was quick: Anglo-French ambience of Moncton; this is the anglo hospital.

Will Alanach: young, dark-haired, compact, casual, easygoing. Offered options of surgical/nonsurgical interventions: nonsurgical have 15% relapse rate; surgical 1%. Probably would use general anaesthetic. 30-45-minute procedure, could happen right after a compound fracture case, maybe 10:30 (an hour from now) or 11:00. Could be awake again by midnight.

I chose surgical: let the young doctor exercise his skill on me.

Touch: clean fabric against my naked skin; only a faint, unsteady throb in my left ankle--rear; pressure of naked behind pressing into the laundered sheet; cold feet, with cool air drifting up under the sheet, corner of the sketchbook pressed into my belly.

Taste: a stale metallic flavor, not quite enough water since playing tennis in the hot sun, teeth rough-feeling.

Smell: neutrality, maybe a faint coldness of oxygen in the ER air; the body smell of my sun-toasted chest mingled with clean cotton.

Sound: nurse-talk beyond the curtain enclosure; "What strength--do you know? What color is the pill?" Thrum of HVAC; the low beep of a piece of equipment, maybe every 10 seconds; clacking of plastic containers, pill-bottles or boxes; hollow scrape of wooden chair-legs on linoleum; nurses in quiet continuous consultation.

Sight: rose-pink curtains wrapped around 2 sides of my ER territory; white mesh along their upper quarter; the hump of my knees covered by clean sheet weith pink bands running along it; Wedgwood-blue fabric of my gown falling off my shoulders; white paper bracelet with bright-yellow stripes; my own arms, looking brownish and hairy, a plastic ampoule-needle parked in the vein of my left arm; blue urinal-jug perched on my rolling bedside table; square stainless sink in the corner; squat plastic pump-jug half-filled with pink soap; yellow plastic box of sharps mounted on the green-cream wall to the right; clear plastic bag with the clothes bundled in it that I was wearing at the time of the injury and the time of admission: burgundy sweatpants, yellow sleeveless shirt, grayed-green fleece; the speckled white of the linoleum.

Haven't contacted Kimmie, of course. After surgery, tomorrow morning. If it should happen I don't make it through surgery: I love her ever so much, and treasure the time we have spent together. My wish is that she lets Tim go through all my writings of every kind first; it's for him to decide what should happen with what, and what to show to whom. But most of all: I love my Kimmie.

The excitement I felt about coming home to write seems to have boiled away. Now I am burdened under worries about the eccentricity of my project and its uncommercial size. Acorns don't care about external validation. But people sometimes do.

The ankle was Achilles' only vulnerable point; it was where his mother gripped him as a baby while dipping him in the water of immortality.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Morning notes: A History of Private Life, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian.

Then I did a bit more work on the Wikipedia article I'm revising, Genre fiction. Today I had arranged with Mom to go out and work on the estate accounting, so that's what I did (managed to break my eyeglasses first--a nice lightweight pair of Zeiss lenses; broke the nylon line holding in the plastic left lens, wound up wearing my previous pair, which I got in 1984). I felt a bit stressed, reading a letter from the obstreperous neighbor's lawyer to our lawyer, even though I do feel a certain sardonic amusement when lawyers express emotions on behalf of their clients. That is hilarious, if you think about it. Anyway--

Summer sun in Deep Cove: the tide was out, revealing the muddy, barnacle-and-rock-strewn bottom. There was a persistent sound in the quiet air, as of a Weed-Wacker. I spent the work time up in Mom's office upstairs, a large garret room painted pale mint-green, with its lovely view over the cove. The room is shady and quite cool.

Mom made me a lovely bacon-and-egg sandwich again, and gave me large oatmeal and peanut-butter cookies. Mm. Mom's not fond of cooking, but she does a good job (learned a lot about it from Dad, during their brief marriage all those decades ago--he's a wizard in the kitchen), and I think she likes doing this small service for her 46-year-old son. Mom's been thinking about aging lately.

"I'm old," she said (Mom's 67), "but I don't feel old."

No, and she doesn't look it or act it, either. Most people would never guess her age--not unless they read this blog. (Sorry, Mom.) Doctors and others are routinely astonished at how young and attractive she looks. She's not gray, of course--nor, she says, will she ever be...

"Yeah," I said, "some 90-somethings are energetic and vital, while some 60-somethings are tired and old."

I described seeing an old man yesterday, up at Lynn Valley Centre, coming out of Save-On Foods.

"He was probably in his 70s, maybe pushing on for 80. But he looked old: he moved painfully, at a shuffle, a bit stooped. You could see he didn't have much strength. He was thin. And his expression was tired, drawn. There was nothing there."

Mom shook her head sadly, as though she knew the man well.

"How long before they're folding him up into a box?" I said.

Mom got me to help her with some of her personal household financial stuff. Then back at it. And today, using Quicken, I got the accounts to balance. Yahoo! It's a milestone. Now it's a matter of cosmetic improvements, which we'll tackle on Friday.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

this day in history

Kimmie and I were out in the sun at the waterfront park we simply call Automall Park, because it's next to the Auto Mall. I took my prose sketchbook and made an entry, but noticed that I'd made my first entry in this sketchbook exactly 3 years ago: 19 July 2002, while I was attending Nitartha Institute, a 4-week intensive on Buddhist philosophy, at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. I was still a temporarily ordained monk at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton. I'll present that entry as it was:


The two mosquito bites on the back of my neck itched freshly as I lay in the morning dimness. Could there be unseen "mozzies" sharing my room? I lay, refraining from scratching.

I didn’t want to get up, didn't want to be at Nitartha Institute, didn't, above all, want to be a monk: didn't want to get into my robes, which seemed more like greasy overalls to me, like the body which people with near-death experiences say they don't want to go back to. I just didn't want to. Samsara: wanting things to be be other than they are.

Fresh frustration: when I tried to talk to Colleen, the coordinator, on her way in from lujong, to tell her again that we are out of candles for Rinpoche's talk, she put me off by whispering, "I've gotta have a shower." I guess she was worried about not being first in the bathroom. It's a frustrating annoyance, even humiliating.

According to Pönlop's last vajrayana talk--

Colleen reported back immediately after her shower: "What can I do you for?"

I'd give all my Nitarthas
For a single Kim-mee-ee...

Thus I imagined singing as I returned to my chair with my second mug of coffee.

Yesterday: Tsomo and I in the household kitchen, getting breakfast, having trouble with the Spanish omelette and the colored turkey-strips that were standing in for bacon. In her interview with Rinpoche he lightened her load of ngöndro so she can return to shamatha practice when she returns to lay life in November. Rinpoche came back after breakfast and talked about Vancouver. Steve Seely was there. Rinpoche and Steve each left, but Steve came back in to go to the washroom. I asked Tsomo whom to contact about an interview with Rinpoche. She said Steve. I felt that the gods had sent Steve back to provide me with the opportunity, so when he came out I asked him.

"He gets a lot of requests in the last week," Steve said. "Everyone wants to see him."

"Well," I said, "If he can’t, then so be it."

Steve's eyes were steady and blue: the stillness of the 3-year retreatant. He looked into my eyes and I looked calmly back. The request was from the gods; it was bigger than either of us.

"He usually sees everyone who asks," said Steve.

"Okay. Thanks."

Steve left. I asked Tsomo about the protocol for an interview with Rinpoche. Yes, three half prostrations.

"And I could let you have a katak," she said--an offering scarf.

"I’ve got one," I said. "I bought the last one in the Abbey store."


Another sign. Sign of what, though? At dinner, talking with Sherab, I found out that he, like Tsomo, had received fairly detailed life-instructions. Pönlop told Sherab that his main contribution will be music, with perhaps some translating as a side activity. So Sherab is excited about practicing piano for a year after leaving the Abbey, and auditioning for the masters program at the University of Washington.

"Whoah," I said, "you came out of the interview with a 25-year plan."

Pönlop is both Tsomo's and Sherab's root teacher. I'm quavery on the topic of my root teacher, but I'm pretty sure it's the Sakyong.
Two days later I ruptured my left Achilles tendon while playing doubles tennis on a day off, and soon, unexpectedly, was winging my way back home--and to The Age of Pisces.

Monday, July 18, 2005


Summer is here, just in time for Vancouver's usual 4-week run of fine weather from late July to early August.

A few days ago I visited the Wikipedia website and somehow discovered that there was an entry there for The Odyssey, my TV show from the 1990s. I noticed that Wikipedia, the "free encyclopedia", encourages users to edit its articles. Wow! I couldn't resist--I went in and expanded the article for The Odyssey (which I thought was already a quite good, brief summary of the show). If you click the above link it will take you to that revised version.

I found myself magnetized by the idea of participating in the project of Wikipedia. I love the idea of an altruistic, optimistic, democratic project devoted to the dissemination of knowledge. I wanted to do more! So I searched for other articles--things to which The Odyssey linked, for starters. Since my revision of the article now made mention of its genre (adventure-fantasy) near the top, I thought I'd look for material on genres. There are indeed several articles on genre. Most of them looked like they could use some help. Where to start? I decided to set to work on the article on genre fiction. Check it out! I'm responsible for most of the top half of the article, as of today, anyway (I was surprised to see that someone had already come in and added more edits overnight).

I feel like I was born to write encyclopedia articles, in some sense. I have wide-ranging, omnivorous reading tastes. I take notes. My natural writing style tends toward a dispassionate, neutral tone. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have a project folder called Encyclopedia where I keep Word "clippings" of my research books, filed by subject.

Back in 1980, when I was still on fire with enthusiasm for Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, I got a book of criticism of his work, a collection of essays called Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, edited by George Levine and David Leverenz. One of the essays was "Gravity's Encyclopedia" by Edward Mendelson. I've read the essay several times. Mendelson's thesis was that Gravity's Rainbow is one of a select class of novels he called encyclopedic narratives. He says that

its companions in this most exclusive of literary categories are Dante's Commedia, Rabelais's five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby-Dick, and Joyce's Ulysses.

Mendelson goes on to say:

Encyclopedic narratives attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge.

I was fascinated by this idea, and made a point of reading (or anyway attempting) each of the works in his list. When I told Warren about the essay he dubbed these authors the encyclopedists, and saw me as a would-be encyclopedist. Even I, immodest though I was in my heart of hearts, felt that might be biting off more than I could chew. But I was--and am--fascinated by the idea. And in my life I have searched for encyclopedic knowledge. (Hm. My proposed multi-volume work, The Age of Pisces, may be even bigger than a mere "national" culture--I'm even less modest than I thought!)

So: Wikipedia. Maybe I can let my "encyclopedist" tendencies out in that healthy way.

Today Kimmie and I walked through north Burnaby. At the end of our walk I made an entry in my prose sketchbook:

Stopped to do a prose sketch. Kimmie and I are on the grass of the sloping boulevard dividing the east and west lanes of Boundary Rd. Are we still on the Burnaby side? I don't know.

Touch: The pressure of breeze blowing against my skin and ears from the north, uneven little gusts. Soft firmness of my buttocks against the grass, the ground; the heel of each foot also planted downhill, the pressure holding my legs bent up at different angles. Warmth of the sun on my bare shins; leg- and arm-hairs stirring in the breeze.

Taste: Slightly salty dryness of the mouth, barely any residue of the pizza-slice of an hour ago.

Smell: A dampness of grass (dried clumps of cuttings are strewn through it). The scent of my own sunbaked shoulder.

Sound: The fading motor of a car traveling down Boundary. The pressurized rush of invisible traffic rolling onto the Second Narrows Bridge--a sandblasting sound. The low rumble of wind in my ears. The slap of Kimmie’s thongs as she walks away down the block to explore. The wheezy whine of a bench-saw reverberating from a garage in the distance. The very faint buzz and crackle of the great power-lines directly overhead, gripped by the skeletal steel towers.

Sight: Blue sky to the west, and the near-black silhouette of a fir-tree towering over a pale glossy laurel-hedge, rising at its othe end to a sunstruck splay of fruit-tree foliage. Just off he deck of the half-concealed house beyond, a little glimpse of Vancouver’s harbor in the distance: a jagged mass of blue buildings over the green water. A black 1986 subcompact sedan sits parked in the deep shade of the fir, shade that sways gently and silently on the sunlit asphalt like seaweed.

But Paul--what about your novel? Huh? My what?


Sunday, July 17, 2005

barbecues and strolls

Last night: off to a salmon barbecue chez Warren's sister-in-law in north Burnaby, along with 10 or so other guests and a few kids. Kimmie and I were among the last arrivals, settling into chairs on the old concrete patio, looking over the aging wooden fence at the lush green backyards of the neighbors, shaded under the swishing plane trees lining the street. Gas lawnmowers fired through the evening air; next door a trampoline thumped as the kids invaded it, probably uninvited. Warren moved intently from place to place, fitting some hellos amid various missions of setup and cooking salmon patties on a blackened gas barbecue. Crows fled the setting sun to find their roosts in the east. Kimmie, having grown up in that neighborhood, was entranced.

"I so want to move here," she said.

Max, Warren's 12-year-old son, his hair grown out to a mop of thick gold, took time out from shooting baskets with the other boys at a plastic mini-hoop set up on the patio to tell me that he'd read a couple of chapters of my book and that he really enjoyed it and thought it was a good idea. I thanked him, and thanked him again. For years he's had the ability to speak to adults in an oddly adult, but respectful, peer-to-peer way. But, from Warren's reports, he's far from being such a balanced, supportive, sociable guy all the time. Nonetheless, I'm happy to take praise where I can get it. Clearly, it takes an unusually intelligent, literate, and discerning 12-year-old to see the merit of my work. Clearly.

Annemarie, Warren's Dutch-born wife, talked a bit about her work as a web-project manager for a large multinational bank in Chicago, and soon Warren had the exquisitely cooked salmon burgers ready. We chatted with the couple sitting nearest us, the mosquitoes came out, and we left. I shook Warren's hand on the sidewalk in the strange dark-light under the plane trees, with bright sodium-light of streetlamps penetrating a little, and we said goodbye till next time.

Today: full-on summer sun. Kimmie and I went walking in the hyper-rich neighborhood of Shaughnessy in Vancouver, identifying trees in the oval park of The Crescent, one-time ground zero of Vancouver's urban rich, now perhaps less so (several massive houses, silent behind their wrought-iron fences, high hedges, and shady porte cocheres, were for sale). But for all the forbidding aspect of the houses, almost every single person we passed on the sidewalks (admittedly not many) smiled at us and bid us hello. You don't get that on south Granville, just a few blocks away.

Now: Kimmie and Robin are off to yet another birthday-celebration dinner for K, this time at her niece Lisa's place in Lynn Valley. I begged off--I have important blog posts to write, books to read, tea to drink.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

extraordinary popular delusions

The day after Kimmie's birthday, and yet the festivities carried on.

Had a very nice dinner at Chez Michel last night in West Vancouver, a place we'd never been. French cuisine has fallen out of fashion in the last 20 years or so, and the number of restaurants specializing in it has declined. This little place was tucked on the upper floor of a 2-story storefront building on Marine Drive at Ambleside, with a view of Prospect Point and the outer harbor. There were about 15 white-clothed tables, all occupied by people older than we were, and all (except the very oldest) dressed more casually. Michel and his cadre of waiters, all actual Frenchmen with heavy accents, buzzed among the tables, occasionally having a few words with the diners, cracking some jokes. It was relaxed and unpretentious, like our former French haunt, Pierre's on Lonsdale, which eventually closed due to the falloff in interest in French cookery, at least here on the North Shore.

Kimmie wore the suit she'd just finished making, a dress-and-jacket combination of black patterned with hot-pink silhouettes of 50s-style society women walking their poodles. I wore a tailored shirt of pale pink and blue stripes, a pale-yellow necktie (the only man in a tie), and blue-gray pants. Robin, whom we'd picked up at her new medical office nearby, was a little more casual in pants and pastel top. Robin had the New York steak, Kimmie the roast duck-breast, and I had halibut in sweet basil sauce. Lovely--and costly.

Today: after morning notes (A History of Private LIfe, Galilee: From Alexander the Great to Hadrian) I drove the 3 of us to the IHOP in New West, partly to help Robin get to Trevor's new apartment there, since he was going to drive her to Ikea to get a new mattress for her (single) bed. We stopped at Save-On Foods so that Robin could buy Kimmie part 2 of her present: a copy of the just-released Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There were some stacks of the book, but no feeding-frenzy at Save-On. The copies were $24.99 each (Robin also got one for herself). I shook my head and thought about the 19th-century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, which details a number of episodes in history when people lost their minds, seemingly, in their feverish desire to possess some object that others also wanted to possess--most famously, tulip bulbs in 1630s Holland.

New Harry Potter books are things that people must have now. There is no doubt that the publishers will, eventually, print more than enough books to meet planet Earth's demand, but the desire to have it as soon as possible has people arriving at stores at midnight, and staff specially detailed to manage the distribution of copies of the thick hardback. The time is now 4:33 p.m. PDT 16 July 2005. The novel was released less than 17 hours ago (in this time-zone). I wonder how many have read it cover to cover already?

I'm not one, nor will I be. I never made it through Harry Potter 1, having bailed somewhere in chapter 2. I thought Rowling's style was much influenced by Roald Dahl, whom I like, but I was turned off by the creation of characters (the Dursleys) who exist mainly to serve as objects of the author's and readers' distaste and contempt. Yes, of course, it' s comedy, but it seems unfair, since the poor character has no defense, but simply has to manifest the negative traits piled on him by the author. It's a cruel fate.

I don't know, maybe that wasn't why I stopped reading--but I did. I'm not part of the HP phenomenon, can't relate to all those kids and retailers in costume. As ever, I stand outside the culture, looking in.

Friday, July 15, 2005

birthdays and romantics

Today is Kimmie's birthday; she's 51 (a cradle-robber, since I'm only 46--and look even younger). We could hear rain falling outside as we came to this morning, over the purr of the electric fan Kimmie likes to keep going on her side of the bed.

"I can't remember the last time it rained on my birthday," she said.

Kimmie took today off (Monday and Tuesday as well). I made coffee while Kimmie tarried in bed, reading more of Dead Until Dark, which she is really enjoying. Robin gave her mother a moonstone bracelet before heading off to work in her blue scrubs. I gave Kimmie a card with an enchanted fairy forest depicted on it, and a couple of cartoons of myself on the inside. I also gave her a bottle of Mumm's Cordon Rouge champagne. She was delighted with it all.

I did some morning notes as usual: A History of Technology and A History of Private Life.

I got a call from no other than Warren, who has arrived in town as a stop in his family vacation from Chicago. I hadn't heard his voice since he left the country last September. They're staying at his sister-in-law's place in north Burnaby. Warren had errands to do in North Vancouver, so I invited him over.

He arrived around noon with a bouquet of freesia and irises for Kimmie, which delighted her. She retreated upstairs to continue with her "princess day" (self-administered manicure and pedicure) while Warren and I sat at the circular pine kitchen table, cluttered with neighborhood newspapers and unopened bank statements and bills, and talked, more or less as though we still did this often, as when he used to show up every day while we were writing together.

He shared more details of his new life in Chicago, where his kids are among the small minority of white children attending a public school. He said his son, Max, age 12, likes it better in Chicago--finds school more interesting and challenging, and loves the relative exoticism of the people around him (especially a certain teacher, a 60-ish, 4-foot-9 black woman from Louisiana who is able to induce him to perform academically where others have not). Warren's description of the school system in Chicago, with its competitiveness, emphasis on testing, and the power of individual school principals to hire staff and set programs, made it sound superior to our relatively flaccid system in B.C.--contrary to the self-flattering belief common here that our primary education system is better than America's. Warren's kids work longer and harder at school in Chicago than they ever did here.

As ever, our conversation ranged over many things: Derrida, Robert Crumb, the U.S. vs. Canadian constitutions, gun culture, my blog, and, of course, books and writing. We talked about chick lit--trying to guess what it's all about.

"I assume it's a species of romance writing," I said. "Bridget Jones's Diary. There's ironic, self-deprecating humor of young women who are overweight, trying to quit smoking, surrounded by 'fuckwits'."

"With the hope of mating somewhere over the next hill," said Warren.

I described romance as explained in Maurice Cranston's excellent book The Romantic Movement: the movement began with Rousseau's novel La Nouvelle Heloise, which provided the template of the passionate, artistic young man who falls in love with a like-minded woman who is married to an upright, wealthy, conservative man. Hero tries to get heroine to leave hubby for him, but in the end she decides to stick with hubby, leaving hero emotionally shattered.

"The story was retold by Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther," I said, "where Werther went a step further and killed himself--which evidently led many young German men to do the same. The form supposedly reached its apogee with Wuthering Heights. But it was still the underlying structure of Gone with the Wind, although that was told from the woman's point of view."

So Bridget Jones was an echo of the same structure: two potential mates, one an aloof prig, the other a selfish bastard (and her boss). Eventually, the (unlikely) climax of the two men--a publisher and a lawyer (!)--slugging it out in the street, like two caribou butting heads to get possession of the cow.

"But wasn't that also what was happening with Tristan," said Warren, "when he was taking Iseult back to King Mark?"

"Yes," I said, "and what about Lancelot and Guinevere?"

"Right--shagging the boss's wife," said Warren. "That's a risky policy."

"I think it goes back to Robert Graves and The White Goddess," I said. "The goddess has her priest-king-lover, who must be overthrown by his tanist--his younger successor."

And so on. I'm trying to give some flavor of the flow of ideas when we get talking. Three hours passed, and Warren's car was ready to pick up from its servicing. We'll see him again tomorrow night.

Now: time to get ready for a birthday dinner at Chez Michel in West Van.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

rats and randomness

Morning notes: I opened a document for A History of Technology, Volume 1 and keyed some material on primitive time-reckoning. Then some notes from A History of Private Life.

Otherwise, I didn't get to my novel today. I became a little (and pleasantly) sidetracked by downloading and reading the Grumpy Old Bookman's essay "On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile". In this he applies Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory of "black swans" (unpredictable statistical freaks that upset the existing order--such as the success of the Harry Potter books) to the publishing industry. The Grumpy One concurs with Dr. Taleb that such anomalies have much more to do with chance than with qualities inherent in the black swan itself. After the freak success has occurred, people universally apply mistaken thinking to account for it, an instance of survivorship bias--to pay attention only to the qualities of the "survivor" (black swan), and not to those of its vanquished competitors. On this theory, it is impossible to predict in advance what project will become a black swan, since the factors that cause this phenomenon are essentially a conjunction of circumstances outside any individual's control or even knowledge.

I read with interest and appreciation, but also skepticism. There are problems with invoking randomness as a key factor in any situation, since the very concept of randomness is an elusive one, and its use reflects the underlying belief-system of the user. The Grumpy One makes it clear that he thinks of it as what he calls circumstance, which he defines as "everything that you cannot control, or even influence". This is a long way from the randomness understood in, say, quantum physics, which is thought of as a property of quantum events, which are unpredictable even in principle. Usually, for most of us, random means "having causes that I don't perceive or understand, leading to results I can't predict".

From this everyday point of view, there could well be orderly causes at work--we just can't perceive what they are. Yes, things look random; in other words, we don't understand why they are the way they are. But, as Jung warned us, we should beware the defense mechanism of projection: our ego-protective tendency to say, "That's meaningless" instead of, "I don't understand it", projecting our lack of comprehension into the object.

I suppose I'm skeptical of the assertion that the success of, say, Harry Potter is merely a fluke and nothing more--that it could just as well have happened to any other book. The truth of that assertion is unascertainable: to test it would involve winding back the calendar and substituting another work in identical surrounding conditions. It is a matter of faith to believe that another work would have performed the same.

Yes, 12 publishers rejected Harry Potter before one decided to take a chance on him. Yes, people of apparently middling talent achieve fame and fortune. Yes, genius sometimes suffers and dies unrecognized. Does this necessarily mean it's all random?

Nothing's random if you believe in karma--or the gods. Indeed, Joseph Campbell, in Creative Mythology, describes the worldview proposed by Arthur Schopenhauer that life--the universe--is really like a vast dream, in which we're all both dreamers and the apparitions in each other's dream, all in marvellous synchrony and interpenetration. As we get older we can look back and see what seems to be the hidden hand of an underlying purpose in the seemingly random or unwelcome events of our lives. Coincidences crop up, people arrive at crucial moments, to change our course and take us where, it later feels, we were meant to go. Random? Or guided? Who writes the dream of life? Who writes our own dreams at night?

This question of guidance is also an undecidable proposition; there's no way of confirming it. It's an impression, a feeling--as is the impression of randomness. Yes, my ego-desire to become successful and famous may be frustrated, but how important is that ego-desire in the long run? Is that ego-desire born of my true best interests? Or is it a mere striving after wind?

Events might be random; they might not. There's no way of knowing, so we have to choose. Which choice is going to light the way for us?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

when excitement strikes

The sun has come out today, shining hot among masses of white cloud. I've just come in from my first run in a couple of weeks. I ran shirtless, and sweat runs down my body now as I type. The manly writer!

Kimmie, though still feeling bad about her exchange with Joanne, is much improved. She got a perm last night at a new salon near her office, and was pleased with it (lots of soft curls). She also had a long talk with her manager, Eileen, who was most sympathetic and supportive. This morning, as she headed out in her white denim and baby-blue top, she was just short of cheerful.

While awaiting fresh data for the estate from Harvey's stockbroker, I got back to my project. Yes: where was I? Chapter 17 notes. Right. Yesterday I had started to make a bulleted list of dialogue topics for my current scene, which became more like a series of "beats" (the little events that make up a scene). I had most of my topics, but still not the dramatic flow. What's the drama of this scene? The conflict? Who's trying to do what, and what's stopping him? Argh! This is what I'd been procrastinating. It's work--and I resent working.

Just do a little at a time, I counseled myself, like someone trying to coax a child to eat lima beans. You can rest at any time. I went back to the top and recapped for myself, with kindergarten simplicity, who was doing what and why. That helped. It got me going. I realized that I'd been spending so much time on developing the topics of my dialogue that I had mixed up that process with the process of developing the drama of the scene--the underlying conflict between the characters.

Ideally a scene, especially if it's a large, important scene, should have its own miniature "act structure"--the large-scale turning-points within it as it moves from its initial state to its conclusion. The scene is its own little story, with its own surprises. In this scene, Alexander is trying to get the astronomer Sosigenes to do something for him. The basic conflict is that Sosigenes doesn't want to--and Sosigenes has much more authority and power than Alexander does. What's Alexander to do? He's got to come up with something.

An extra ringer in the scene is the presence of Lynceus, another astronomer. The addition of a third character turns the scene into the equivalent of the "3-body problem" in gravitational physics--the equations become impossibly complex to work out. In short, a third character destabilizes the situation. This is the dynamic that works in character "triangles" such as the love-work triangle that James L. Brooks created for Broadcast News. In a triangle, when one character acts, the other two are pushed to respond, and their twoness makes their responses dynamic and unpredictable, which further destabilizes the situation.

The writer creates more work for himself, in a way, but also a potentially more interesting situation. Today I felt the dramatic line of the scene--and indeed the chapter--click into place. Eureka! Yahoo! Yes! I remembered what it's like to get excited by a project. I thought back to working with Warren on The Odyssey, the sometimes long periods of dramatic blockage. A scene would resist our efforts, and we would try different ways to make it live.

The wonderful thing was that when we got an idea that would bring a scene to life, the writing became easy. Ideas would tumble out; I couldn't even write them fast enough (I would write notes in longhand while we were working out a scene). "What was that?" I'd say "What was the third part?" The beats wrote themselves, and then writing the scene became easy. It wrote itself. After sometimes days of blockage, pages would roll out. And they'd be good. We knew they were good; we knew why they were good. And that type of material, with only occasional exceptions, would be almost rubber-stamped by the network--even network people don't usually change stuff that's actually good.

I had some of that breakthrough feeling today: I got excited by my scene. I'm not just executing outline; there's a drama unfolding here.

When I read over some of the pages that I've drafted for this chapter, I was pleased. I'm already 8 pages in--a significant start. I'm enjoying the characters, an excellent sign. Braced with my new dramatic ideas (not really new--more like connecting what I already had), I scanned through the existing material, tweaking a few lines, then typed just a few more lines. It was the end of the morning; I knew that to really launch into this scene I'd need to pick it up another day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


After last night's post: family drama. Kimmie got a phone call from her older sister Joanne, whom she had mailed a birthday card last week, and with whom she has not spoken since the stormy scenes following the death of their eldest brother Freddie on Valentine's Day. Kimmie was hoping to reopen communication with the sister to whom she'd always been closest (they're 3 years apart in age), but at a respectful distance to begin with, since Kim didn't want to gloss over Jo's near-berserk fury at their parting.

Kimmie had consulted with me before sending the card. She had drafted the message she wanted to put inside the simple greeting card, and wanted my input.

"I've felt so good, so healthy these last few months," she said, "but I think it's time to try to get in touch with Jo again. She's probably feeling awful inside."

Having witnessed this happiness and health in my wife over the past few months, after the trauma surrounding Freddie's death, I was none too keen about her reconnecting with Joanne, who has spent much of the 20 years I've been with Kimmie in trying to drive a wedge between us, out of jealousy. But I have always believed in freedom of association, and it was not my call to make.

"Do you know how you're going to handle her?" I said.

"Yes. I won't start out by trying to get too close, or by denying what happened."

"What are the rules of engagement for someone with borderline personality disorder?" I said.

We are both convinced that Joanne has this disorder, described in the book I Hate You, Don't Leave Me by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus. People with this disorder are even more trying and exhausting to be around than other mentally ill people.

"What are the three components of SET?" I said.

SET is an acronym for the attitudes and actions that one should take when dealing with a borderline personality. We had to look them up again: support, empathy, and truth. One is to be supportive of the sufferer, empathize with what she is feeling, but also to speak the truth--not let the person dodge the facts of a situation.

It was all for naught. While I didn't listen in detail, I could hear Kimmie's voice rise from low and calm to a more emotional, defensive tone. By the time I got out to the kitchen the women were trying to interrupt each other, and then Kimmie abruptly hung up. I thought she'd hung up on Jo, but Jo had hung up on her. Kim was very shaken, angry, and hurt. I knelt by her to comfort her as best I could.

Kimmie remains depressed and upset, miserable. As someone whose only experience of Joanne has been essentially as a rival and enemy, I have never been able to understand the nature of their bond. Twenty years ago, when Kimmie and I were first going out, they went through a similar (though less intense, I think) grind when Joanne had been trying to take Robin away from Kim (yes! her own daughter!) and became furious when Kim told their father Fred, who had told Joanne to back off. At the time I thought, I would turn my back on that woman and walk away for good. I could not see what positive advantage could compensate for such vicious bullying. I still can't. Now, finally, Kim can't either.

Monday, July 11, 2005

psst! wanna buy a...?

The rain is back. After my morning notes (A History of Private Life, From Eden to Exile) I went out to Mom's in Deep Cove to continue with the estate accounting. I discovered that some account balances given by the North Shore Credit Union for the date of death are incorrect. We'll now have to dig into that, and get them to recalculate or explain.

Mom made us corned-beef sandwiches which we ate in the living-room, looking out across the misty water. I asked Mom whether she'd read my post of yesterday, and yes she had. She'd read the extract of paragraph 1 of Dead Until Dark.

"It was very breezy," said Mom. "Too breezy for me."

"Yes," I said, "the tone is light."

We got to talking about my recent searches for a novel to read. I told her how I'd looked at the opening pages of 4 different chick-lit novels in the Save-On book section yesterday.

"One of them was by Joanna Trollope," I said. "That one was noticeably better than the others."

"Yes," said Mom, "I think she has a bit more of a literary reputation. It's supposed to be a cut above."

"It was. The characterization was better off the bat. But the tone was still light. They're all trying to be light and humorous. Straining to be amusing, as I put it yesterday. It can be painful."

Mom has been reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte. Apparently Charlotte wrote to Robert Southey, a major writer of the day, for advice on some pages she'd written. His advice to her included words to the effect that "if you write in order to please people or to gain fame, you will surely fail." You have to write what's in your heart to write. Well, Jane Eyre's still in print.

We agreed that visiting bookstores is usually depressing.

"And yet publishers must be hoping to find the next big thing," said Mom. "They're probably sitting there thinking, bring it to me!"

I nodded. I gave up on careerism about 4 years ago. I formally gave up on doing things to promote my "career". Whatever I'd been doing to promote my career before then--and it wasn't much--hadn't worked. I don't have a career. I just have this project. Other people are bringing their cows and pigs and honey to market; I've got a 5-headed, 2,700-pound thing that even I can't identify. Wanna buy one?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

square-riggers and vampires

Have arrived home from our Sunday outing, just as a high white overcast has drawn itself like a screen across the sky.

Morning notes: A History of Private Life.

Kimmie and I wanted to see the tall ships that have come into town for a few days, so we drove over to Stanley Park, in hope of parking there so we could walk to English Bay. No dice--it was after noon and there was no parking. In the heat of the summer sun we prowled through the park and through the tree-shaded sidestreets of the West End, where almost all parking is strictly for those with local permits. After about 40 minutes of driving around, we parked up on Hornby Street, east and north of the main action, and walked down.

At the foot of Hornby we arrived at the bustling, breezy seawall of False Creek and headed west toward English Bay. Passing through the cool shade of the Burrard Bridge, we arrived at Sunset Beach and a view of the ships, sitting at anchor across the bay, off Kitsilano or Jericho Beach. We sat on a boulder and I took out my prose sketchbook:

Warm/cool breeze sounding in my ears, a low roar. Sunshine on the beach with its fine gray sand. Boat-motors from English Bay in front of us: ghostly trembling moans like wind through cables, and a ground-note of mechanical rumbling beyond the splash of little waves, silty-green, down the shell-speckled slope of the shore.

The tall ships are here: the 3 masts of the tallest standing higher than the boat is long. We sit on boulders looking across the channel to Kits Point, maybe 150 m away. It is crowded with a 2-way traffic of boats: sloops under power, diesel-puffing harbor cruise-ships, power-launches, Sea-Doos, kayaks. In the sky, a complex feathering of white cloud, half-covering the blue, misting it over diaphanously.

Kids splash in the murky water: boys yelling as loud as they can. The seawall is crowded with moving human traffic, white T-shirts and sneakers, bronze skin. From Vanier Park on Kits Point a quick trumpet-riff sounds across the water. Out beyond the bay: blue mountains reaching up to the gnarled mass of cumulus in the distance.

We walked along the crowded shore of English Bay, and up the packed sidewalk of Denman Street, before setting out to meander through the shady streets of the West End, looking for old houses and apartment buildings.

We made our way home via Save-On Foods to do the weekly grocery shopping. As we tarried in the book department, Kimmie decided she wanted to get this paperback about vampires--one of her favorite genres. It's called Dead Until Dark, by a Charlaine Harris. I asked Kimmie if I could borrow it to use for my blog post, and she said sure. Knowing nothing about the book or the author, I thought it would make a suitably random sample for my first sentence/first paragraph test.

In this book, the first sentence is the first paragraph, so I'll extend it to the second paragraph. Here they are:

I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.

Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) two years ago, I'd hoped one would come to Bon Temps. We had all the other minorities in our little town--why not the newest, the legally recognized undead? Bur rural northern Louisiana wasn't too tempting to vampires, apparently; on the other hand, New Orleans was a real center for them--the whole Anne Rice thing, right?

There, I read it myself for the first time just before typing it.

First sentence, I'd say, passes muster: it's provocative without being too pushy, and there is tension in not being sure whether it's intended seriously or not. The key point: I'm willing to read on.

Paragraph 2: The humor question is answered in sentence 2, with the reference to "coming out of the coffin" (pretty funny). The town name of Bon Temps is very atmospheric, and possibly ironic (French for "good times"). By sentence 3 we've already learned that vampires have been "legally recognized"--which implies that they have rights, like other maligned minorities. Here is what I assume is the concept of the book: a world in which vampires, in our ever more inclusive, politcally correct society, have been mainstreamed.

That's funny, and provocative. It sets the mind wondering: how the hell can you mainstream vampires? What problems are going to crop up? It's not even completely implausible--if vampires ever do become identified as a group, they probably will be mainstreamed. It reminds me of the concept behind the TV series (and, I assume, the original movie) Alien Nation, in which extraterrestrial aliens were portrayed in terms of an immigration issue: they were treated as the latest wave of immigrants arriving in the U.S. In my opinion, they took Alien Nation in the wrong direction, and the audience dissipated. I don't know what Ms. Harris does with her book, but the concept is, I think, a strong one.

In sentence 4 she deals with the whole Anne Rice thing: the writer who seemingly would have a lock on the subject of Louisiana vampires. This is upstate Louisiana--not urban New Orleans. It's different. The narrator comes across as folksy, openminded, and lacking a strong attitude to mainstreamed vampires--which in itself is a bit funny, I think.

In short, Dead Until Dark passes my 1st sentence/1st paragraph test--not too common an occurrence. The more so, since I positively have no interest in vampire stories to begin with. I don't find them sexy, intriguing, or even scary. To me they're just cultural leftovers that have been in the fridge too long already, and should be garbureted. For those reasons I would never have picked up this volume in the bookstore to give it a first-sentence test there. But here, at home, I have to say I give it a passing grade. I'm willing to look at paragraph 3!

It's 6:04 p.m. Time for a glass of wine and some reading of my own. I might head back in to A History of Technology, volume 1. I'm about 80 pages in, and I'm still reading about how flaked Paleolithic hand-axes were first hafted by having animal skin wrapped around them to protect the user's hand. It's a very good book--which is good, since now I've got the first 2 volumes of this massive series. I like digging into origins and first principles.


Saturday, July 09, 2005

57 channels...

Kimmie and I had our coffee (I did morning notes: A History of Private Life), then headed off to New Westminster for breakfast at the IHOP. (Kimmie invited Robin, but Robin wanted to sleep on.) We ate big, enjoyable omelettes in the busy diner. It felt like traveling: a small-town feel, as though we were on a road trip outside the city.

We parked by Moody Park and waited in the car while rain fell thinly. Then we went strolling under the inky canopy of cloud that covered the district, while blue sky and sun shone to the west. Hydrangeas are in bloom, and roses, and phlox and dahlia. Massive oak-trees and maples grow by the dilapidated 80- and 90-year-old houses. The streets slope steeply down to the elevated SkyTrain tracks and the Scott Paper plant, while traffic rushes by the curve of highway there. Plastic toys lay in the little yards amid the noise. We climbed back up to Moody Park and watched workers'-league softball: young, blue-collar men and women in motley clothes, smoking cigarettes while their tiny children ran on the grass. The outfielders shouted continual encouragement and praise to their teammates. They played well.

Next we drove to Park Royal so Kimmie could shop for fabric to make a new summer dress she's excited about. I went to Coles Books. I perused the History section--the best shelves in this store, in my opinion, but there was nothing there I wanted. I headed to the fiction section, which is wrapped around the three walls of the store. First: science fiction--maybe something there. I was a little interested in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but thought I'd be better off borrowing it from the library.

On to the main section. I worked my way alphabetically backward, pulling out the odd title to give it the first-sentence test, first-paragraph test. Then I'd put them back. Long stretches of Danielle Steel, Belva Plain, Larry McMurtry--the usual suspects. I sampled a few of the green-and-pink-covered "chick lit" titles, to see what all the fuss is about. Sentence fragments. Straining to be amusing. Is there any writer here, I thought, who does not regard life as a trivial waste of time?

Backward through the infernal machine I crept, subvocally humming Bruce Springsteen's "Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothin' On". Here I am, a book-lover with money in my wallet, looking to buy--I spend thousands a year on books, but now mostly used, since I can't find any new publications I want. I'm stymied right here in the store: chagrined. Curses! Foiled again.

Hm. A bunch of books by Dan Brown. Isn't he supposed to be something special? I picked up one, something to do with the ultimate code. But the opener was stale, cardboard: I think some guy leaning down lovingly over a woman, proposing to her. Or maybe it was a declaration of love. Either way, what would usually be a peak moment in most people's lives is dispensed with in paragraph 1 as a kind of throwaway. The writer may have started with a bullet-point in his outline that said, "character happy and in love", and just penned something that suggested happiness and being in love. Back to the shelf it went.

Everywhere, a blight of prologues. It's become canonical: your novel must have one. I've talked about this before. The prologue shows you the crime, or life before the story starts, then comes chapter 1, often a gush of sentence fragments frantically trying to grab the attention of the reader. Maybe if only 1 or 2 writers did it, it would be OK. But the herd mentality has taken over. Writing should not be a herd activity.

I reached the beginning of the alphabet. Star "by" Pamela Anderson. Then the erotica on the top shelf, before the As. I'd struck out.

I left the store, bookless and depressed.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005


It's a symptom of the writer's situation that his blog, ostensibly devoted to the progress of his novel, instead documents his other, quite unrelated, activities. Yesterday it was coffee. Today, I don't know, how about chess?

I did work on my morning notes: Rubicon, A History of Private Life. I did open my notes for chapter 17, and gamely copied and pasted highlighted sections of the notes, trying to gather all the relevant material into one area of the now 37-page document. (Yes! Those are my notes for one chapter! Quite a few of them are book extracts, though.) My three eggheads need to have stuff to talk about, and my preference is that it have something to do with the overall meaning of my book. If I can figure out what that is. So I draw my notes together, concentrating the best thoughts into a bulleted list, in the hope of being able to arrange them.

Mom called, and I headed out to Deep Cove to work on the estate accounting. Left at 3:40, had to go across the North Shore to get filtered water at Waterland. There, the Serbian clerk Ivan helped me get my 4 19-liter jugs going, then urged me to make a move on the chessboard he keeps at a nearby counter, along with a chess clock. When he found out that I used to play in tournaments he would sometimes engage me in chess talk when I went in. Last time he was enthusing about a book he was reading on the life and games of Mikhail Tal, world champion in the 1950s.

"He was Latvian, wasn't he?" I said.


"I'm Latvian too."

"Oh!" said Ivan, his eyes widening in surprise and pleasure (although I'd told him this before, when the Latvians were doing better than expected in world soccer action). "Well then you have to play--it is in your blood!"

"It's been years," I said.

"Make a move. Go--make a move."

What is it with Eastern Europeans and chess? My East European blood has been diluted, so the chess urge is perhaps not as strong. But I do like the game.

I opened with e4; Ivan responded with g6 (we didn't use the clock). I moved d4; he played Bg7. We were into it--what is technically called a Robatsch Defence (I just looked it up), named after an Austrian master who took the time to work out its theoretical possibilities. I know nothing about it; I flew by the seat of my pants. Ivan kept his eye on the water-jugs, although one of them overflowed as he got wrapped up in the game.

It was a good, sharp game; we played quickly, but neither of us made any blunders. There was tense tactical action through the middlegame and a challenging endgame in which I had two connected passed pawns against his extra bishop. I felt like the underdog going into the ending, but I actually won with a combination that got one of my pawns through. Ivan smiled and offered his hand.

"Thank you," he said, "that was a good game."

It was a good game--an unlooked-for treat on a muggy July afternoon.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


A new day (at least, it used to be). I felt more positive this morning. Morning notes: Rubicon, A History of Private Life.

I made coffee in the bigger carafe that Kim and Robin went shopping for last night, to accommodate the new extra coffee-drinker in our household. They got an 8-cup Melitta carafe. I experimented with a new quantity of beans and water. It worked out well: we had barely enough. They had to go to London Drugs to find it; Wal-Mart didn't have one. According to Robin, no one uses cone-filters anymore because no one wants to wait for a kettle to boil. They buy coffee-makers, which are no doubt abundant at Wal-Mart.

"They can't even wait for a kettle to boil," said Kimmie. "They'd rather drink bad coffee."

"You can do other things while the kettle's boiling," I added.

Well, let others have their weak, tepid coffee, brewed in a plastic tank. I'm perfectly happy to grind beans, boil water, and pour it through a filter-cone--twice--to get my morning brew. Mm.

I seldom drank coffee until I left home in 1980 to live with my friends Brad and Keith. Then, on weekends, it became a ritual. Brad initiated us into heating and whipping milk to add to extra-strong French-roast coffee. A couple-three mugs later I'd be trembling and nervous from the caffeine, my stomach burning faintly as though famished. Keith liked to drink coffee almost continuously. He would trundle from kitchen to bedroom with mug after mug, leaving a trail of spots from the trembling of his caffeine-impaired neuromuscular system.

Occasionally I would have a coffee at work, in the Heather Pavilion cafeteria at night with the other blue-uniformed janitors. This stuff, urinated by a vending machine into a little cup of ribbed beige plastic, was notorious for its marginal drinkability. You had to push big buttons marked "white" and "sweet" to have additives dribbled into the warm brown water. I got laughs one night when Jim, one of my coworkers, spilled a whole cup on himself just as he was sitting down.

"Look on the bright side," I said, "at least you didn't get any in your stomach."

My father was a coffee addict. Once, after some kind of caffeine-induced collapse, his doctor made him inventory how many cups a day he actually drank. Dad sat in the exam room, counting them mentally. He worked in TV and everyone drank coffee as a matter of course, mainly from vending machines. I forget the total number; I believe it was in the 40s a day.

"Yeah," said Dad, "but you leave them sitting around half-finished. Never finish a cup of coffee."

He was ordered off caffeine on the spot.

I'm sensitive to caffeine (and most psychoactive drugs), so I couldn't drink that way even if I wanted to. For me, a key inducement to rolling out of bed at 6-ish each morning is those cups of fresh coffee that I make first thing. And bringing the first cup of the day up to Kimmie in our en suite bathroom, while she attends to her hair and makeup, is an act of respect and love. Now Robin is getting in on the act. On Monday, when she was up at the right time, I brought her up a cup too. What says "I love you" more than bringing someone a fresh cup of coffee?


Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Morning notes: Rubicon, A History of Private Life.

It was raining this morning--it still is raining. A backhoe growled and groaned on the boulevard while workmen looked on.

Robin hustled off to day 2 of her new job, right on time, in her blue scrubs. Day 1 went well, as she related to us last night when she got home. The new medical office, large and understaffed, is busy, with MOAs scrambling to keep up with the basic tasks of processing patients. Robin was in the "checkout" station--named for its function of seeing that patients are properly checked out after their appointments, but consisting mainly of phoning specialists to book appointments for patients who have been referred. We all enjoy the topics of workflow and office organization, so it was a fun debriefing at teatime.

This morning, when the house was empty, I sank into a state of creative inanition. I couldn't face opening up my project. I wasn't interested. I footled my time away. Oh no, I thought, not this. I did my stretches, my exercises, poured myself a grapefruit juice. And nothing. I couldn't even make myself go through the motions of opening my project. I wrote an e-mail to Warren instead.

My transocean kayak drifts, my paddle shipped as I stare at the hills of water coming and going around me, the craft itself pointing this way and that like a compass needle near magnetic north. Why am I doing this again? It's too late to be asking myself that question.

Monday, July 04, 2005

private life

The patter of rain as I awoke this morning, having slept quite well after the 7-mile walk yesterday.

Morning notes today: Alexander the Great and A History of Private Life I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, edited by Paul Veyne. This is a good book; I remember buying it at the original Duthie Books on Robson Street in May 1998, not long before Duthie's disappeared. Hardly daring to believe that I was contemplating writing a work requiring such a massive investment in research, I would pick up likely-looking books here and there as I found them. It focuses on material that is of special interest to the novelist: social and household practices and structures that don't get much mention in histories or official documents.

Today I was keying from the section titled "The Household and Its Freed Slaves". To give an idea of the material, here are the subsection headings I keyed from this morning:

- Widows, Virgins, and Concubines
- Unrecognized Bastards
- The Tribulations of the Freed Slave
- Further Tribulations of the Freed Slave
- Clientage

Interesting, no?

Robin was up early to get off to day 1 of her new job. I saw her out the door at 7:09 a.m. She hustled in her new blue scrubs up St. Georges Ave. to get to the bus stop on 15th Street. We're expecting her home soon, and are keen to hear how it went.

I spent the day at Mom's, keying data into Quicken. She made us lunch--lovely ham and Swiss sandwiches with mustard, and I got a bowl of Jackie's vegetable soup: excellent. We ate in the living-room, looking across the placid cove at low tide. As often happens, we got talking about writing. Mom's afraid that she's not a writer by nature.

"When I read in your blog about how you sat here on Friday and wrote about what you saw, I thought, That's a writer. Me--I'm not a writer."

I didn't want her to give up so easily.

"I like to think of my prose sketchbook as my own neat idea," I said, "not one necessarily used by other writers."

And it turns out that Mom has indeed done similar things--used to write down, on the sly, what was going on around her in her office, for example. The instincts are there, the expressive desire. It comes down to how to work through the fear that is the universal experience of writers. I'm not sure how one does that. I'm kind of flunking at it right now, as far as returning to my own opus is concerned.