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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

working girls (and boys)

Second mug of coffee draining down to the last cool swallows. We were up promptly after the alarm went off at 5:30, Kimmie wanting to turn over a new leaf and give herself more time in the mornings so she can leave punctually for work. Through my closed venetian blinds I can make out the bluish darkness still outside.

First thing for me, after I make the coffee, is to open up my big fat copy of Microsoft Windows XP Inside Out by Ed Bott, Carl Siechert, and Craig Stinson--an excellent resource. Sitting here at my PC, highlighter in hand, I make my way slowly through it, day by day learning more about the operating system I'm using.

Since Windows XP was first released in 2001, hundreds of fixes and improvements have been made to it. Most of these were bundled into two major updates, known collectively as Service Packs 1 and 2.

Well, I'm starting to think of the work I'm doing on The Mission now as my own Service Pack. Marooned on the sandbar of chapter 30, I'm finding that I want to circle back and look over the work as a whole. Recently most of my notes have been in a document I set up to write ideas for draft 2 of the book as a whole. I've been displeased and dissatisfied with aspects of what I'm writing, and I want to address these problems so that I don't finish my draft with those lame, arbitrary things left in it.

The specific problem, I believe, is arbitrariness. Everything in a story, from story events to points of characterization to specific images, should be organic: should belong to the story and help communicate its meaning. This is not easy to achieve, and requires careful, deliberate, and skilled effort.

On Saturday night Kimmie and I watched the 1988 movie Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford (the movie actually bills Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver as the stars--an artifact of their greater contractual muscle and higher fees). The movie was written by Kevin Wade and directed by Mike Nichols (of The Graduate fame). It was about the 4th time I'd seen the movie, and I continued to find more in it to appreciate. One of things I appreciated about it this time was the unity of its elements.

For example, when Tess McGill (Griffith) is making her way to Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry during the opening credit sequence, we learn that it's her birthday. Her friend Cyn (Joan Cusack) gives ger a tiny cake and sings "Happy Birthday". Her "birth" is being celebrated: and Tess, without yet knowning it, is indeed on a journey of birth to a new life. Soon she's working for a new boss, Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), a successful, ambitious, and supremely self-confident woman, who, it turns out, is also having a birthday--a week later than Tess's. They're both turning 30--a pivotal age--but Katharine is actually younger than Tess, and has apparently achieved vastly more. They are twins and mutual shadows: Tess is blonde, working-class, and struggling to gain a toehold in the business world; Katharine is brunette, of patrician stock, and seems to have had wealth and success hand-delivered to her.

With the birthdays come gifts. Tess receives sexy lingerie from her boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin)--yet another gift that she can't wear outside their apartment. Katharine, for her part, is showered with gifts when she breaks her leg in a skiing accident (including a near-life-size plush gorilla--a funny inside allusion to Weaver's earlier role as gorilla researcher Dian Fossey). But the more important gifts come from Tess's new associate and would-be lover Jack (Harrison Ford). When, now impersonating a high-powered deal-maker, Tess shows up at a meeting without a proper briefcase, claiming that she's "lost" hers, Jack gives her a beautiful briefcase, classic symbol of the businessperson. With this he sends the message, "you're one of us."

At the end of the movie, when Tess and Jack have gotten together and she has indeed made it as a wheeler-dealer, he gives her a final gift: a metal lunchbox, packed with lunch and other tenderly considerate goodies. The lunchbox is emblematic of her origins, and with this Jack is telling her that he accepts and loves her for who she is. As a high-powered executive she can carry a lunchbox so she doesn't forget where she came from--so she doesn't lose what is most important about herself.

My point is that these choices were made deliberately and carefully, most likely by Kevin Wade, the writer. They are not arbitrary. The result is that the movie feels unified--it feels as though everything in it belongs.

That's where I want to get to with my own story. But (big surprise) it's not easy. You need to know your world and your characters before you can really make meaningful, non-arbitrary choices. And knowing anything, I find, takes time.

Still, what else am I doing with my life?

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

calibrating my frivolometer

I sit here staring at the blank window of the blog-creation screen. All kinds of thoughts tumble through my head. What to say? What to write? Where am I going? What do I report?

One thought leads to another in a vast network of tinker-toy connections (I loved my tinker-toy set when I was five or six). For an investigator, like me, the search seems endless. Search for what, you ask? For stable beliefs.

Books are again accumulating in my reading-stack like planes over a crowded airport. Two more arrived yesterday: one from Amazon.com and one from a used-book dealer in Eugene, Oregon. One was a text on website development; the other a hard-to-get monograph on religion in the ancient Near East. I didn't start either one; I've got too much on the go. A feeling of limitation starts to encroach: the sense that I can read only so many books in my life; I need to choose carefully.

One of the thoughts that came up in the bouquet or fountain of possibilities when I was trying to think of how to start this was about frivolity. I think it was a couple of years ago that this word finally came to me as the label for what troubles me about most contemporary fiction and other cultural products. It's frivolous, generating a "who cares?" response in me.

As I tried to figure out what exactly is the difference between a frivolous and a nonfrivolous work, I eventually recalled these words from Thomas Pynchon's introduction to his collection of short stories, Slow Learner:

When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death--how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate.

I thought this hit the nail on the head. Now I would calibrate my frivolometer by measuring how completely a book or an artist is ignoring the fact of death. When you're dying, life matters. When you're not, you might think you can afford to pretend that it doesn't. It's mere delusion and denial--nothing more. But it is pervasive.

Being cognizant of death doesn't mean being depressing or humorless. It means being honest about your values. I believe it means looking at life from the perspective of a dying person--from the perspective of your deathbed. In fact, I think you could do worse as a writer than to imagine you're on your deathbed right now, and look to see what matters to you. That's what you should be writing about.

Coming to grips with death--with one's own death--is the task of middle life and beyond. The problem of how to swallow our own impending death is the core of the midlife crisis. If successfully met, it has a strongly maturing effect. I think this maturing effect can be visible in the work of writers and other artists, as it is in people's lives generally. The talented youngster becomes a mature artist, or, in Pynchon's terms, the apprentice writer becomes a journeyman.

Some authorities believe there's no hurrying this maturing process. I recall reading an opinion given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a debate about whether Sholokhov's novel And Quiet Flows the Don was written when Sholokhov was only in his early 20s, as was alleged. Solzhenitsyn dismissed this idea, since he regarded it as impossible for any writer, no matter how talented, to write anything of real maturity and worth until he or she gets into the 40s.

But I'm not so sure. There may be such a thing as "old souls", those who are mature beyond their years--in fact that seems obvious, in my experience. The opposite is certainly true: there are those who are immature for their years. And it may be possible, if you're serious and have the imaginative talent, to journey to a place of maturity, to visit it intensely enough to be able to write. My mother and I have been working our way through James Joyce's Dubliners, which he wrote in his 20s, and these works are anything but frivolous. His insight and expressive power already exceeded anything that almost any other writer could ever come up with, no matter how old they get.

Ach, I'm trying to console myself here a bit. As the world seems to whiz by, I bend over my scholarly books, reading, searching, puzzling...

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Monday, October 29, 2007

the sleeping dunes

More rain after a rainy weekend. Today is the last day of Kimmie's vacation. She's cheerful about it, although admits forthrightly, "I'd rather it weren't the last day."

Yesterday afternoon we spent doing errands, driving our 2001 Toyota Corolla on the wet, overcrowded streets, experiencing the selfishness and aggression that increasingly characterize our roads, and our civilization as it sinks, led by deep ruts of habit, into the tar-pit of its doom.

Strong words? I believe them.

Yesterday, on the errand mission, while Kimmie was struggling to get 5 meters of fabric at half-price in the primitive retail environment of Fabricland at Park Royal, I strayed to the Chapters-Indigo bookstore, and, browsing, actually found four books I wanted to buy. I bought two: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (a key inspiration to my mother as she wrestles with writing a memoir of her own), and Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, a British science writer. At reading-time I started both, and enjoyed them both very much--although my enjoyment of Six Degrees was of a different sort. The subtitle of this book is Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and in it Lynas has prepared a forecast of Earth's climate in the coming century, arranged in six chapters that explain likely events as the average global temperature notches up 1 Celsius degree at a time. I'm only in chapter 1--1° C warmer--and it's already, well, I was going to say chilling.

He chose six degrees as his range because this is the range forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as probable over the next century. His method was to survey the scientific literature over the past few years on both climatology and paleoclimatology, in which researchers have made forecasts based on computer models about future climatic events, or have described ancient climatic events from warmer periods in Earth's prehistory from study of fossils and other evidence. Lynas sorted thousands of articles according to whether their scenarios represented a warming of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 degrees. He then synthesized the scenarios and drafted his book.

As he emphasizes in his introduction, Lynas based his scenarios only on peer-reviewed scientific papers, not on the works of journalists, popularizers, or advocacy groups. It's not Hollywood, it's sober, level-headed science.

And it's pretty darned frightening. Even at 1-degree warming there is a substantial likelihood that the Western U.S. may return to conditions that have existed during great droughts of prehistory. The terrain from New Mexico to Saskatchewan consists largely of a great dune-field overlain by a thin layer of soil held in place by plants. When conditions get too dry, the plants die and the soil blows away. On a small scale, this is what happened during the Dust Bowl years of 1934-40. Yes: I said on a small scale. At that time, 85% of Oklahoma's entire population vacated the state in desperation. If warming and drying cause the topsoil east of the Rockies to lose its plant cover, a mighty sea of sand-dunes will reemerge, turning the Great West into something resembling today's Sahara Desert.

This area is not densely populated--but it is populated. Like the Okies of the 1930s, those people would likely have to migrate. Where? And that area is also now a key food-producing region for the U.S. and for planet Earth. There goes one breadbasket. Who's to pick up the slack?

In the introduction Lynas talks about giving a presentation in Britain, and overhearing one of the attendees apologizing to another one for bringing him to such a "depressing" event. Lynas was shocked, because although he too finds these images alarming, he does not see them as inevitable--it is at least partly or mostly still avoidable, he thinks. If we act now.

At this moment, I feel more like his depressed attendee. As Clive Ponting describes in his A Green History of the World, Easter Island was covered with forest and populated with wildlife when humans first made landfall there in the 5th century AD. When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen arrived there on Easter Sunday, 1722, he found a treeless rock with "about 3,000 people living in squalid reed huts or caves, engaged in almost perpetual warfare and resorting to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to supplement the meagre food supplies available on the island." Time and again, human beings have passed environmental points of no return, felling the last tree, killing the last animal.

Heading off such a course requires vision and leadership. Where are these today? The world's most powerful people seem preoccupied with thoughts like, when it comes time to fell that last tree, they want to be the ones felling it--not someone else.

I hear the dunes waking.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

my clip show: bite

Still in vacation mode, I'm finding it hard to get to my blog-posting in my usual way. Late rising, changed routine--no post. Yesterday I became involved with research and didn't want to tear myself away.

In the production of TV series there's a phenomenon called the "clip show". These happen when the show has overspent or otherwise run out of money, and still needs to come up with an episode. So a meager, one-location script is written (characters trapped together in an elevator or something), and they reminisce about things that have happened to them. The reminiscences are then shown in the form of clips from previous episodes, now perhaps with a new context or voice-over commentary by the character. Result: a low-budget but hopefully watchable episode of the series.

As a viewer, I was always aware of the cheesiness and unsatisfactoriness of these episodes, and I used to wonder why they bothered dishing up stale rehashes of previous episodes. Well, in TV it can be hard to raise the production funding in the first place, then it can be hard to keep a tight control on it, no matter how tough or how experienced you are. I'm pleased to say that in season 1 of The Odyssey, we never had to resort to a clip show. Thanks partly to the cheapness of the creative talent (notably the writer-creators), we were able to have all-original episodes.

I thought of clip shows because I'd like to use a preexisting piece of writing to fill out my blog-post: another vignette from my early life, written years ago as part of my lifewriting project. It's not a true clip show, of course, since this material has never been published before. It's still all-original.

This "clip" I titled "Bite":

Naptime is over. Mrs. Dunsmuir turns the lights back on. We have to pick up our blankets from the floor. I don't know the word church but kindergarten is in a little white church a long walk from home. Mrs. Dunsmuir has a long sweater that buttons up and a long skirt. Mom walks me there and sometimes Grandma walks me there and once when it was raining really hard and it was almost like night Dorothy drove us there in her black car. I walk home by myself. It's a little way up then a long way down.

Mrs. Dunsmuir is playing music. We have to walk in a circle, two by two. We're holding hands. We hold our hands high, then we hold them low.

Suddenly there's a scream. I look around, confused. It was a girl's scream. We've all stopped. Two girls who were walking together are both crying. They're best friends. Mrs. Dunsmuir runs to the girl who's holding her own hand.

"What's wrong, dear?" says Mrs. Dunsmuir. "What happened to your hand?"

The girl, crying, says, "She bit me."

"Why'd you bite her?" says Mrs. Dunsmuir to the girl's friend. Mrs. Dunsmuir isn't mad. She is mystified.

The girl's friend is crying more loudly than the girl she just bit. She is scared and shocked. She is sobbing so hard that she can't talk. Mrs. Dunsmuir bends closer to listen. The girl chokes out her words between sobs.

"Because I love her."

Mrs. Dunsmuir doesn't seem to understand. But I understand right away. I know exactly what she means.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

acts of creation

Well bless me, there is sun out there and blue sky. Kimmie sent me an e-mail, two floors below her (she can do that now), commenting on the beauty of the sunlight touching the orange leaves of the maples on the boulevard. The deluge is over.

Yesterday I had the fun of receiving a book in the mail. If you order enough books online, you don't know what has arrived until you open it, which gives the experience more of a Christmas feeling--it's fun! It was a used book, not a purchase from Amazon. I saw a Chicago postmark, but didn't remember what book I had bought from there--and didn't want to remember. I tore open the envelope, and unwrapped the hardcover book, which someone had carefully shrouded in pages of the Chicago Sun-Times' sports and metro sections. Then it was revealed: a compact, quite pristine 1969 copy of Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation--a book I'd forgotten altogether that I'd bought.

I subjected it to my usual process for receiving a used book: I carefully wiped down its (surprisingly intact) dustjacket with a damp cloth to remove the grubbiness and organic flecks that accrete on book covers. This made the book feel clean and new. Then I inscribed my name and the month and year on the inside.

I forget now exactly what prompted me to buy the book. It may have been part of my research into the phenomenon of identity. In this book Koestler examines the psychological phenomenon of creativity, more specifically the event of creation: the individual creative act. Where do new ideas come from? How are they formed or discovered?

These questions fascinate me for several reasons. For one thing, I'm a creative type. I'm interested to know more about this aspect of myself. For another, I want to look into the mysterious borderline between the mechanical and the free. For as living beings, we are combinations of the two: the great majority of the processes of our lives happen automatically, by reflex. But floating on that automatic flow is a free agent, an entity who chooses--and who creates. Where is the border between the automatic and the free? How does it work? How does it change? I expect Koestler to examine those questions.

Then there is the fact that creation, in the words of religious scholar Mircea Eliade, is "the divine act par excellence." Creation is finally the prerogative of the gods. When we humans create, we partake of the divine.

The kicker for me was the fact that I had so enjoyed Koestler's later book The Ghost in the Machine, actually the third book in a trilogy of which The Act of Creation is the second book (the first is The Sleepwalkers--a copy of which I've owned since 1986 but have not yet read!). I've talked about The Ghost in the Machine before. I found his ideas powerful and persuasive. I admired his boldness and originality as a thinker, as well as the clarity, vividness, and passion of his prose--that interesting and humbling phenomenon of the foreign-born (Hungarian in this case) writer taking up English and beating most native writers in its use. As an explicator of scientific ideas, he belongs in the pantheon along with (in my opinion) Isaac Asimov. (Interesting side-note: all the writers I've mentioned here--Koestler, Eliade, and Asimov--were polymaths and creators whose works spanned both fiction and nonfiction in various fields; plus they were all of East European birth, with Eliade born in Romania and Asimov in Russia.)

In The Ghost in the Machine Koestler developed the powerful new idea of the holon--a unit of spontaneous organization in an "open hierarchical system", which means any "system", including especially living organisms, that behaves in organized, purposive ways. In this theory, any such system is made up of relatively autonomous parts, which in turn are made up of other complex and relatively autonomous parts, and so on down the line. For example, we, as living beings, are made up of organs. The brain is a relatively coherent unit, although it forms only a part of the whole person; likewise the heart and the stomach. But the brain is made up of substructures, each of which has its own comparative autonomy within the system. There are structures specifically devoted to processing visual information, and for coordinating balance, and regulating speech, and so on. Thus, each "part" is also, from another perspective, a "whole" in its own right. In Koestler's terms, each is a holon: a neologism signifying something that is a "whole-part".

I've taken up Koestler's holons as part of my own developing theory of identity. Another thing I enjoyed about The Ghost in the Machine was how Koestler did not merely suggest a few new ideas, he boldly explored their implications as far as he could. He developed a whole system. In short, he took the ball and ran with it all the way to the end-zone: no timid half-steps for him. The book does not stretch a couple of thoughts into book length; it is a banquet of well-worked-out ideas, a feast--and I love that.

Given the author and the subject-matter, I have every reason to expect much enjoyment from my "new" used book. I started it yesterday at tea-time. So far, so good.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

top of the reading-stack

Hello friends. What can I tell you in the dark of a Monday morning in October, with rain pouring heavily outside for the nth consecutive day?

Kimmie is still on vacation, and now very much enjoying the new (used, actually) PC set up in her "office" (sewing-room/mad-scientist's laboratory of creative projects). I finally got all those machines set up, networked, and functioning. Now I'm pleased with the result.

On my current reading-pile is Neal Stephenson's 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. I decided to get it after reading a feature article in the MIT Technology Review about the present and future of Web-based virtual reality, as embodied right now in Second Life and Google Earth. (The article, speculating about what a convergence of these systems might look like, was called "Second Earth".) In Second Life (which I've never explored), you, represented by an animated "avatar", enter a virtual world built mainly by your fellow visitors. There you poke around, do stuff, and interact. In the article, a couple of key programmers associated with this networked virtual-reality world said that they had been inspired by Snow Crash. Since the novel has had such an impact on people so influential on where our society is going, it is, as far as I'm concerned, socially significant, so I thought I'd read it.

I'm on page 198 of 468, reading two short chapters a day. It's holding my attention, which is more than most novels can do.

It takes place in a near future that includes, among many other things, a virtual Metaverse like our own current Second Life, although more potent in that people occupy it via VR goggles that immerse them in the experience, rather than merely watching it on a computer monitor. The main character, Hiro Protagonist, is a hacker and adept of the Metaverse. The book's title refers to a new drug whose effects seems to straddle both worlds: it fries your mind even as it fries your computer. (The term itself is apparently hacker slang for a computer crash so profound that it makes your monitor generate random noise or "snow".)

I remember my first exposure to Neal Stephenson. It was in a small bookstore in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2002. I was still temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, and had traveled to Sackville with Ani Tsomo, a young Irish nun, to attend four weeks of Ponlop Rinpoche's Nitartha Institute, an intensive (and excellent) program in Buddhist philosophy held at Mount Allison University. Tsomo and I, in our robes, were browsing some local shops in our free time. We made our way quietly and separately past the shelves, the only shoppers moving over the worn linoleum tiles of the store. On a rotating book-rack I found a massive (1130 pages, plus an appendix!) paperback with the daunting title Cryptonomicon.

What's this? I wondered. Science fiction?

The blurb on the back advertised it as "three novels in one", including World War II adventure, cryptography, and high-tech finance. Intrigued, I opened it up. A few pages of enthusiastic notices, couple of pages of acknowledgments, a couple of epigraphs from Alan Turing and The New York Times, then, on page 1, the opener of a prologue:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down
From it, warring songs.

...is the best that Corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice--he's standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question.

Ah! A soldier-haiku-writer riding a vehicle of some kind at high speed! I was impressed with how original and vivid this was--and how it was not talking down to me. But I felt a clench of worry too, for it reminded me strongly of reading Thomas Pynchon, especially his most famous work, also set in World War II, Gravity's Rainbow. As I read on through the paragraph, the feeling grew. Here was a super-talented writer writing more or less in the style (incredibly, impossibly!) of Thomas Pynchon.

As a young writer I was a huge fan of Thomas Pynchon, and also tried to write in his inimitable style. It was a bust. One needs to find one's own style (no easy task). I'm less of a fan now, not so easily impressed by riffing. I thought I recognized in Stephenson a kindred spirit (he was born in 1959, just a few months after me), someone who had been thrilled and electrified, as I had been, by Pynchon, but who had had the energy and stamina to actually produce a long work (much longer than Gravity's Rainbow) in that profligate, inventive, and knowing style. If the rest of the book held up at that pace, it should be at least fun to read.

I returned it to the rack. I was too afraid of being dished up secondhand Pynchon, but more than that I already had more reading than I could handle with the Nitartha Institute. And once I had returned to the Abbey, "samsaric" reading was something that would be limited only to Saturdays, our day off. I gave it a pass.

But later, when I'd returned home to Vancouver, on one of my near-despairing traipses through a bookstore's fiction section, I gave the book another look, and realized that, whatever flaws I might think it had, it nonetheless was head and shoulders--possibly more--above anything else in the store inventiveness, intelligence, and refusal to patronize the reader. If anyone there deserved a chance, this guy did. So I bought the book (you're welcome, Neal--45 cents of your kids' education came from me).

I think that was November 2004 (unlike nonfiction books, novels I don't sign and date--usually I'm too disappointed in them to keep them, and wind up sending them to a used-book store, where they're worth more unblemished). Well, I read the whole thing. That's saying something, since not only is the book long, but I just don't finish books all that much, especially novels, which usually become stale and uninteresting (to me) long before they end. I wasn't thrilled with Cryptonomicon, but he kept me interested enough to keep reading. Stephenson really is able to dish up surprises, and situations that are lifelike in their tragicomic complexity. Quite consistently he is able to evoke a sense of richness in his world--that quality I yearn for and look for in writing. And even if he doesn't always completely succeed in what he sets out to do (which always seems to be more or less hugely ambitious), he does not talk down to his reader. For that he has this reader's gratitude.

So Snow Crash seemed like a low-risk buy to me (and another 45 cents to Neal). And so far I am indeed, mostly, enjoying it. He has a gift for jarring, outrageous, and hilarious similes and metaphors, in that way faring tolerably well against writers like Pynchon or Tom Robbins. It's a whole hell of a lot better than the flat, stale, unimaginative, often semi-literate prose of most published fiction.

How about a sampler. Here is chapter 1, paragraph 1 of Snow Crash:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

If being a fiction-writer means being able to evoke a world forcefully in the mind of a reader, Stephenson is one, certainly for this reader. He's earned his 90 cents.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

what babies say

Vacation mode. Vacation means departure from workaday routine. For the likes of me, that means that my usual activities require an extra push of intention in order to get done. That applies as much to things like brushing my teeth as it does to writing posts for this blog.

So: a push of intention this morning. I wanted from the beginning to offer a window into the life and mind of a writer--this writer anyway--and that window stays open only so long as I actually come down here and write. I want to do it; I just need to remind myself.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading What Babies Say Before They Can Talk by Paul Holinger. (I feel a sense of accomplishment and pleasure whenever I finish reading a book. My coffee-table is like an airport: books still in progress are like aircraft circling, awaiting a landing. Every time I actually finish one I feel like I've brought in another load of passengers safely.) It's a good book, and I found it stimulating and provocative for several reasons.

Holinger has aimed his book at the parents of young children. He has drawn on recent studies of how newborns express emotions (apparently we are all born "hardwired" to express nine distinct emotional "signals": enjoyment, interest, surprise, distress, fear, anger, shame, disgust, and "dissmell"--the reaction to a bad smell) to suggest ways to help one's children grow up in good mental health.

I bought the book as part of my ongoing philosophical investigation into the phenomenon of identity. Inspired partly by the ideas of William James, I'm looking into the idea that our personal identity, our inward sense of integrity and unitary being, consists, essentially, of a set of thoughts. By thoughts I mean what James would call conceptions--mental images that are stable and recognizably the same at different points in time. It seems logical that the basic conceptions, if they show up enough in the mind, are what we give the labels called words.

In James's view, some of these discrete, stable conceptions have a certain quality of "warmth" or "intimacy" that marks them out as belonging to ourself: we recognize them as being part of me. He likens such thoughts to cattle that have been branded, so that, in a stream of cattle passing through a gate, their owner can immediately recognize them as his, even when mixed with other cattle. (Interestingly, the word character originates from just this same process of branding or stamping something with a permanent distinctive mark.)

In mathematical terms, such branded cattle form a set: a collection of discrete members drawn together by a rule of inclusion. I'm calling this set Me: the set of conceptions that I regard as "branded", as belonging to myself. The name "Paul" belongs to Me; the term "English-speaker" belongs to Me--and so on, millions of such conceptions. The entire set of these represents Me: the collection of thoughts that I regard as true statements about myself. The totality of Me is what I consciously regard myself as being.

All right. Thinking along these lines got me interested in learning how babies acquire and express language. How and when do they start speaking? What words do they use first, and why? Could I find traces of how a newborn starts to form a Me set?

I was drawn to Holinger's book because it deals specifically with the communication of babies before they can talk: and so it might hold clues as to how babies think and acquire language.

And it does hold those clues. A baby, when born, is a completely dependent person whose survival depends largely on its ability to communicate its needs, in the hope of having these met by someone. According to the researchers on whom Holinger draws, these needs are expressed in exactly nine discrete ways. These basic, inborn expressions of affect become refined and combined into the full suite of adult emotions. In this view,the basic affects anger and "dissmell" combine to become contempt, for example.

Holinger stresses the importance of helping children learn how to verbalize what they're feeling. In this way they--we--learn to talk about feelings instead of simply acting on them. We develop self-awareness and "tension-regulation". We become able to say "I'm angry" instead of punching someone in the head.

In my terms, this means recognizing feelings as recurring, nameable things, and giving them labels--words. The feelings themselves are not conceptions. Only the thoughts that recognize and label them are. In my view, an unnamed feeling can't be part of Me. But a distilled conception that recognizes a feeling, like "I'm angry", can be. The thought "I'm angry" is not itself an emotion; it's a dispassionate thought that includes anger temporarily in the Me set. If it happens enough, a further thought might arise: "I'm an angry person". That would be an effort to include the feeling of anger permanently in one's own identity--to brand the feeling as belonging to Me. One then identifies with anger.

These are just a few thoughts. There is a great deal more here to think about. For one thing, my Buddhist training had much to say about emotions vs. conceptions, and their natures. One way of looking at emotion is as a raw energy that in itself has no particular flavor or color; it is just dynamic and powerful, or perhaps simply naked dynamism and power. This is one way of looking at the view of Vajrayana Buddhism. When the energy is colored, we experience it as a specific emotion, such as anger or desire. It takes on qualities and attracts concepts that support it and "explain" it and so on. From this point of view, our inward "talking" about our "feeling" can actually distance us from its intrinsic power and purity.

As often happens, I've said more than I expected here, without really going where I thought I wanted to go. So be it! The writer shoots from the hip here, and the bullets go where they go.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

enjoy your life

Here I was puttering through my morning, puzzling a little over how there seemed not much to do. Then I remembered my blog. Oh yeah--I'm supposed to do a blog-post!

I'm in semi-vacation mode (the mode I go into when Kimmie is in actual vacation mode). No alarm-clock, no fixed requirements on my day. To be sure, I'm lying awake in the night for long stretches, more than I usually do during regular "working" times. I put that down to particular circumstances in my life at the moment rather than anything to do specifically with being on "vacation". Jesus counseled us to be carefree--as have other spiritual teachers. At Gampo Abbey a quote from Suzuki Roshi was photocopied and hung on various walls to pop into one's view unexpectedly as one went about the day: "Enjoy your life."

Enjoy your life. Good idea--why not? For us monks and nuns, leading a disciplined, vegetarian, sex- and drug-free lifestyle, it was wonderful advice, and very accessible. Speaking for myself, I would have to say that my time at the Abbey was perhaps the most enjoyable of my life--in many ways. Certainly there were times when I experienced a greater depth of joy there than I have anywhere else.

Suzuki Roshi was pointing, I think, to the idea that enjoyment of one's life is more a matter of choice or attitude than of circumstance. Whatever's happening, why not enjoy it? What's the alternative? And why would you prefer that alternative? You can feel hard done by, ripped off, and cheated--and maybe in some sense you have been cheated. Well--what of it?

I think about Epictetus, the philosopher-slave of the 2nd century AD. How we respond to any situation is up to us: a tyrant can send me into exile, but he can't force me to be uncheerful about it.

Life might be a horror--but don't people pay to see horror movies? Our love of story proves that we recognize deep down that life is in some sense a problem--an unending series of problems. And yet I feel ripped off when I face problems in my own life, as though they shouldn't be there.

But do they have to be so hard?

Years ago on Saturday Night Live there was a sketch done in the form of a late-night movie, some low-budget Italian show about Hercules that had been dubbed poorly into English. A pot-bellied, cigarette-smoking, middle-aged Hercules was going about his labors. One of his labors was to lift a boulder. He strains at it briefly, then says, "That rock is too heavy. Perhaps I can lift a lighter one."

Yes, maybe I can lift a lighter rock. But somehow, this seems to be the one I've actually got in front of me.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

not easy--not supposed to be

Over the weekend my mother sent me a quote she found in a book she had just bought:

If I were to describe to you my situation during the past three months, you would hardly be able to believe it; it's totally impossible for things to go on this way. My wife can't take any more; I can't take any more - things have gone so far that novels and short stories mean nothing to me measured against a single tear shed by my wife: that's how things are.... Up to now, I've been unable to work freelance, nor do I earn enough to buy shoes for my children. I've simply undertaken something impossible, and I have to confess that I've reached a dead end.

Thus Heinrich Boll in 1950, 22 years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

I found his expression of despair heartening. It was a salutary reminder that writing is hard even for those who are the very best at it. And it's not only that the practice of writing itself is hard: being a writer is hard. It's hard on one's psyche and one's family.

I think back to one of my consultations with my meditation instructor, Geoff. I was plodding through the first leg of a practice called ngondro (Tibetan for "preliminary practices" or "foundation practices"). The first leg involves performing 100,000 full prostrations, with accompanying visualizations and repetition of certain words. One is not supposed to linger on the practice, but rather to power through it as much as one can (not in one session, of course! most people take at least months, more usually years, to complete these). I was in one of my periods of uncertainty, even dejection, about the practice. I faced Geoff alone in the small shrine-room, where we sat cross-legged on meditation cushions.

"It's not easy," I said, by way of trying to sum up the situation with an understatement.

"It's not supposed to be easy," he said.

In a way he was merely stating the obvious. But his words flipped my mind in a new direction. I was carrying the expectation that things should be easy. That if I were doing it right, I would not find the practice so hard. The unreasonable demands of the practice provoked feelings of anger and resentment, along with self-doubt, tedium, and even despair. It was supposed to do these things--and that somehow made it seem even worse: like a torturer deliberately inflicting suffering on you. But the difficulty kept on seducing my mind into dwelling on notions of success and failure, and this preoccupation was itself the source of much of my suffering. Ngondro is a kind of spiritual purgative that forces you to spew out your neuroses and emotional baggage, and then pushes your face into the revolting mess--your revolting mess.

Geoff was challenging me: Why do you expect things to be easy?

It's a good question. When things are easy, you can coast on autopilot, and success is almost assured. You can stay more blissed out, in the pleasure-zone. When things are hard, your attention is forced onto the matter at hand. You have to deal with it--think. And failure looms over your shoulder, watching your every move.

Failure. It's a painful affront to one's self-esteem. And yet even some of the world's great seeming successes have been failures when viewed from certain angles. Great works of art are often regarded as failures by their creators, who envisioned something more.

The easy way is not the heroic way. As Joseph Campbell points out, when the hero accepts his adventure (and often he tries to shirk it), his mettle will be tested to the utmost. And there are heroes--or would-be heroes--who fail. Their stories stand as cautionary tales, as warnings to those who hope to do less than their best and get away with it.

I did not finish my prostrations until 2002, when I was at Gampo Abbey, eight years after starting them. It was a long journey--and not easy.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007


In yesterday's post I offered one of my lifewriting vignettes of my earliest formative memories. The memory of climbing the cliff is no doubt part of my conscious memories now because of its enduring power in telling me who I am and what my life is about--it's part of my personal mythology.

Today I'll offer another one. Again, I would have been about five years old. This one I labeled "Jesus":

I'm playing with some kids who live down the road. They live just above the bend where the dock is. Their house is white with green edges. We're playing in the garage which is inside the house (our garage is by itself). The older sister is a little older than me. She seems to know a lot. She's telling me about a man who's in a book she's holding. His name is Jesus.

"They killed him," she says.

"Who did?" I say, worried.

"They hammered nails right through his hands," she says, narrowing her eyes.

I feel my face start to crumple with horror. I can see long steel nails.

"They hammered nails through his feet."

I cringe in the torment of pain. How could someone hammer a nail right into someone else?

"They stuck thorns in his head."

"In his head?"


I'm baffled and horrified by the cruelty. I had no idea.

"Right in his head?"


I feel a swoon of pity and shock. I have to go home.

There you have it: my introduction to religion.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I would like to report progress in my great work--I really would. But the very concept of progress has become hazy even to me, the one supposedly "progressing" with it.

I have arrived again at what feels like a characteristic spot for me: stuck on a cliff-face. Metaphorically, that is--although in my personal mythology, the guiding image is from a real event. When I was attempting my lifewriting project about seven years ago, one of my efforts was to write a number of vignettes of my earliest memories. These form an archipelago that has no sequential order in my mind; they remain self-contained yet interconnected, not unlike the Greek myths.

Here is the vignette that I labeled, simply, "Cliff":

Let's climb up here. Yeah. Okay. It's the cliff behind the Schmidts' house. It doesn't seem like a cliff because trees grow around it and up it and on top of it, but the dirt runs out and you have to go up the speckled rock. Greg Schmidt is first. he's twenty-four days older than I am. He's five. I'm next. Doug Schmidt is last. He's four.

Greg is fast, he finds places to grab and places to put his feet. I try some of his places and some of my own when his look too hard. At some point I stop. All the places look too hard here. I look down. Doug climbs slowly below, bristly blond head against a yellow sweater. I can't see the last place I put my foot. I look up again. There's a crack in the rock running up at an angle. The top of the cliff is rounded. Greg is just standing up to turn and look down.

A wave of fear passes through me. It is intense fear that I have never felt before.

"C'mon!" says Greg. "It's easy!"

There's a squeal of excitement in his voice. He makes a big come-up gesture with his arm, lifting one gum-boot from the rock with the energy of his movement.

I cling to the rock. I look up. I look down. The fear becomes strongest as I realize that I must either go up, go down, or fall. There is no other choice. There is no one who can help me. I must do something. I must do it by myself.

"C'mon!" says Greg. "Grab over there!"

I must choose.


But Greg is already turning to explore the trees at the top, losing interest in us.

I don't know the word panic, but I know I mustn't or I will fall. The top is closer, but I don't know how to get there. The bottom is farther but I'll have to get past Doug. I'd be chickening out. I could still fall.

I decide to go up. I reach for the crack where Greg went and cling to the rock as I make my way. I hate being forced to do this. I hate being stuck so I have no choice. I hate being terrified. But I have to. I put my feet in places and grab places with my hands. The slope gets less and I walk leaning forward over the curve at the top. I make it.

I look down and see Doug slowly climbing his way up. He doesn't seem scared. I feel some triumph but mainly relief and maybe anger that I had to be scared so badly to get up here. But I made it.

Want to know what it's like to be most of the way through writing The Mission? See above.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

terra incognita

Yesterday was Canada's Thanksgiving holiday. Here in Vancouver it was sunny and clear. And for the first half of the day I found myself uncharacteristically depressed.

I know that depression is normal, but for me it is unusual. As I used to say to depressed friends: I tend toward anxiety rather than depression--mental agitation rather than painful mental inertia. Yesterday it struck me that depression is lethal to an artist, or to any freelance. Self-motivation seems to be one of the first things that the psychic defoliant called depression takes out.

Kimmie suffered from depression in the 1990s. She was treated for it for some time before the doctor twigged that Kimmie was entering (very early) menopause, and saw the depression as a symptom of a larger process. One of the things the doctor recommended was reading the book Darkness Visible by the novelist William Styron, who had suffered through severe clinical depression. I read parts of the book myself. It was chilling, and I admit that I have always found depression to be a scary disorder.

Another thing that the doctor gave Kimmie was a depression self-test questionnaire. One day Warren and I both did the questionnaire, and discovered that, whatever our other problems, we were both normal in that respect, or at worst only mildly depressed.

Antidepressant medication is a major industry, and Kimmie was on these for awhile and received clear and obvious relief from them. Nonetheless, I do not feel that depression is "caused" by brain chemistry, or is a disease in its own right, any more than fever is a disease in its own right. Fever (elevated temperature) can also be controlled by medication, but that is not the same thing as treating the underlying disease. If a persistent fever has an unknown cause, it is irresponsible simply to keep throwing Tylenol at it. This is essentially what I tried to do in 1990 when I got a cold or flu with accompanying fever, and kept taking Tylenol for the fever. It barely worked, which eventually led me to visit the doctor, who determined that I had pneumonia. No amount of Tylenol would have helped me.

My own feeling is that depression, as a mental state of low initiative combined with sad, pessimistic feelings, is a symptom. This is clear enough in cases of normal depression, as when some calamity occurs, like the death of a loved one. You become depressed, and you know why you're depressed. In time you work through the grief and start to function more normally again.

So-called clinical depression--depression that has no obvious outward cause--I believe is also triggered by underlying mental facts, but these are out of sight. The "event" is in the unconscious, and is probably shielded from consciousness just because it is so painful and unpleasant. In some unknown way, one is somehow maladapted to one's situation, or ignorant of an important truth about oneself. The maladaptation has become a crisis, a kind of mental tumor, drawing resources to itself and draining your conscious budget of energy.

As I recall from Styron's book, clinical depression is often suffered by those who have undergone trauma as children, and who have alcoholic tendencies. To me it seems clear that these traumas will have lasting effects that most likely will continue on, influencing our lives in countless ways. Maybe it's sort of like breaking a bone and never having it set properly. It knits together in some random way, leaving one partly lame.

And, as I mentioned recently, Daniel Goleman's book Vital Lies, Simple Truths explains how the psychology of self-deception is not merely an isolated clinical event, but a pervasive fact of conscious mental life. He shows how to be conscious means to be continuously self-deceived to some extent. The task of consciousness, of adaptation, of maturity, is to become ever less self-deceived. Consciousness is intrinsically a highly censored experience for all of us. In this state, it seems obvious that inward events could color our conscious experience without our being aware of what they are. Indeed, as Goleman shows, we're generally aware of precious little.

Probably the greatest doctor of the mind is still the Buddha, who provided both diagnosis and treatment for the ills of the human condition in his Four Noble Truths. He fingers the problem in the Second Noble Truth, the Truth of the Origin of Suffering: ego-fixation. When we come to the realization that "I am suffering", we habitually try to get rid of the suffering--but that doesn't work. He said that the part that needs to go is not the "suffering", it is the "I am". If we can do that, the suffering disappears at the same moment. But where does ego-fixation come from?

The root-cause is ignorance. According to the Buddha, all of our suffering arises from the state of our knowledge, specifically our self-knowledge. The Buddha would have agreed wholeheartedly with the directive inscribed at the entrance of the oracle of Delphi: "Know thyself." If you can truly achieve that, you can escape suffering. You can also become a truly useful and effective human being. Indeed, if you go all the way with it, you become a buddha.

Yesterday afternoon, when my depression had lifted and I was doing my reading, one of the books I read was What Babies Say Before They Can Talk by Paul Holinger. To help with a baby's healthy development, one of a parent's tasks is to act promptly to relieve the child's distress. Often, though, figuring out the source of the distress is hard. A baby can move from distress to rage, and you don't know why. One mother eventually discovered, by accident, that her daughter's socks were too tight. (I recall now that this was also one of the theories for why the Grinch in Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas was so mean-spirited: his shoes were too tight...) It's the same with our own minds, our own lives. Figuring out the source of distress can be hard. We're terra incognita even to ourselves.

As for yesterday's depression, it was a briefly chilling experience. I feel lucky not to have that millstone hanging around my neck more often.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

money, fame, and their lack

Yesterday, busy with other aspects of my life, I did nothing toward The Mission, not even write a blog-post--not until the afternoon reading period, when I did press forward with The Cults of the Roman Empire. I didn't feel good about this; it truly felt like downtime.

I need to keep nibbling away at this project, and to do this daily in spite of other responsibilities and commitments. It's an old story for writers and other artists: how to survive while also attending to one's (often unremunerative) vocation. In this respect I've been luckier than most, but it's still a balancing act.

James Joyce, when he first ran away to the Continent with Nora Barnacle, taught languages at the Berlitz School and wrote in his free time. He was poor. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, another of my inspiring guides in literature, was tortured by money worries (at least partly exacerbated by gambling), and this no doubt contributed to his passion for writing Crime and Punishment, in which his poverty-stricken protagonist feverishly talks himself into killing for money.

An interesting alternative to this is when the artist enjoys financial success but critical opprobrium. I'm not thinking here of people like Mickey Spillane, who made no bones about the fact that he wrote first of all for money, and didn't have the least interest in what professional critics thought about his work. I'm thinking more of people like the painter Robert Bateman, who was featured in a brief news segment in the last couple of days. Although enjoying great popular success, and collected by people such as Prince Charles and Prince Philip, Bateman has been mainly ignored or denigrated by the academic art world. His meticulously crafted and arresting nature scenes leave them cold.

Unlike other realist painters launching their careers in the 1950s and 1960s, like Alex Colville and Ken Danby, when nonfigurative art was considered the only valid kind, Bateman has not been "rehabilitated". As I think about it, I suspect this is because his art is inaccessible unless you share something of his passion for nature, which most urban art critics and curators probably do not, beyond a certain obligatory lip-service. Most of us city dwellers have never seen a polar bear or a wolf in the wild, and never will. As subjects they are therefore as remote as figures of Greek mythology--more so, since the Greek gods had human form. His paintings of natural scenes are done with the same kind of painstaking reverence as the Buddhist thangkas painted in Tibet--sacred images to hang over shrines. The painting of them is itself a spiritual practice, the resulting picture being actually secondary. It wouldn't surprise me if Bateman's attitude were similar. The pictures say, "Look! Look!" And if we're not amazed and awed as he is, then we're not really looking yet. His meticulous and masterly technique is really only an attendant and servant of his subject, which you might as well call the goddess Gaia.

But Bateman has enjoyed great popular and commercial success--well earned, in my opinion.

So: it's tough to have it all. But what else is new?

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

the truth: it keeps on hurting

Might as well get writing something. It's part of my morning routine. Finish keying notes from research books (this morning: A Study of History, volume 2, by Arnold J. Toynbee, and The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan), then, second mug of coffee drawing to its lukewarm close and 7:30 drawing close, I switch to Mozilla Firefox and pop open the Create screen of this blog.

Although blog-post ideas sometimes come to me during the day, I seldom remember them when I set out to write. If they come to me, they usually do so mid-post, and I find my topic morphing into a subject I didn't plan on when I started typing. Ah well--it's a free medium, something more structured and disciplined than my personal journal, but less disciplined than a column published and paid for by someone else.

I suppose it should convey some sense of what it's like to be a writer--or anyway to be this writer. I've mentioned before my appreciation of a comment by the writer-producer-director James L. Brooks, that the writer is always to some extent alienated from the filmmaking process. I think this alienation is more general. The writer, if he or she is any good, is more or less alienated from society altogether, and must be.

The creative writer's real job is to tell it like it is--like it really is. To the extent that a writer is simply repeating socially accepted platitudes, he is adding nothing of value to society (although he may be cashing decent paychecks).

The obstacles to telling it like it really is are many, and start first of all within oneself. Do you have the guts to tell the truth? But before that, do you have the guts to face the truth? And even before that: do you have the guts to look for the truth?

And maybe before any of those: do you have the presence of mind to recognize that truth is something that may in fact be looked for, and perhaps found, by yourself--instead of being something simply received and accepted from someone else? Are you capable of thinking critically about the platitudes exchanged around the barbecue among the assembled, wine-sipping guests?

My own relationship with truth has not been simple or easy. It's been more of a life-adventure, a dominant theme that in some ways I did not see as such until relatively lately. The forces that would suppress truth are extremely strong, even within oneself. This is a point that Daniel Goleman investigates very well in his psychological study entitled Vital Lies, Simple Truths. At a deep level, we shield ourselves from pain by blotting out reality--truth. The narcotic bliss of the heroin addict is a state we rest in naturally, at a lower level. Pleasure numbs our attentiveness to what's actually going on.

I remember reading a paper by the American Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray, in which he observed that our conscious attention tends to follow the "moving hot-point of pain". We're preoccupied with seeking ways to escape the painful or unpleasant aspects of our current situation. The Buddhist meditation practice consists in the first place of resisting the urge to run away from the present moment, whatever it may hold. The mind, which habitually squirms like a restless baby, temporarily gives up its escapist habit.

The truth hurts. I suppose that sums it up. The true writer has a special duty to be in touch with that pain at the personal as well as the societal level, and to give it expression--to put it into the consciousness of the audience.

Such a person cannot really belong to, or be accommodated by, any of the institutions of society, whether in business, academia, or politics. Whatever is institutional has been, by definition, automated, systematized, and therefore, in this view, narcotized to the pleasure of autopilot and unquestioned assumptions.

In the Gospel of John, 8:32, Jesus states,

And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

This is a profound truth in itself--but even profound truths can be co-opted and perverted. Last night I read in Chalmers Johnson's Nemesis that this very quote is inscribed in the foyer of the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. Maybe soon, if it has not been done already, it will be replaced by a more recent quote:

Ignorance is strength.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

musings on a dark, rainy fall morning

Back to the task. Kimmie returns to work today. The mornings are dark a long time now after 5:30, when our alarm goes off. I hear the distant jingling of our front-door chimes buffeted in the predawn autumn wind.

My project, my story, is morphing out from under me. As I learn more, throw open more doors to the vaults of the deep past, my world enlarges and changes the journey of my heroes. Not fundamentally--I'm in far too deep to make a radical story-change now. But it's more like discovering things that were already here: connections, meanings, possibilities. I feel I have the opportunity to replace certain arbitrary elements, which I'm never very happy about, with elements that reflect the growing meaning of my story. In this way a controlling idea very gradually emerges, like a shipwreck being floated gingerly from the bottom of the ocean.

My reading about the cults of the Roman Empire--the exotic religions brought into it by its foreign traders and captives--is throwing tremendous new light on the way I see that world. I sometimes wonder (and worry) about the fact that I'm coming across this information so late in my journey, but in general I trust the timing of the arrival of information. This trust seems to be borne out time and again by the coincidental arrival of complementary information from different sources. I read about the Egyptian religion of Isis, which became widespread in the Roman world, in a book devoted to her cult, only to open a chapter of Toynbee's A Study of History to find him discussing Isis and Osiris (he conjectures that this brother-sister, husband-wife, mother-son duo represents a transformation of the more ancient cult of Ishtar and Tammuz in Sumer). These simultaneous linkages between widely different sources happen a lot for me, and tend to confirm the path I'm on, and the way I'm traveling it. It's like just-in-time delivery of manufacturing parts, except the parts here are ideas or pieces of knowledge.

If my "building blocks" are arriving just in time, that must mean I'm assembling things at the right pace--painfully slow though that seems to me. (I find it embarrassing to be asked about the progress of my work, since its progress is almost imperceptible, even to me. Pluto seems to orbit the Sun faster.)

Even in Chalmers Johnson's latest book, Nemesis, about the disintegration of the American republic, I have a very good short summary of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, which also dovetails with my other research, even though I'm reading it to learn more about current events and not for my project. The parallels between Rome and the U.S. are striking, and give me a feeling of relevance in what I'm doing.

Supposedly Harry Truman said that the only news is the history you don't know. I'm sure that's true. History is made generally by the ignorant and purblind, those who believe they're acting in an original way but who are in fact merely duplicating the actions of others taken long before, most often with disastrous results. It's a truism to say that history repeats itself, and it never actually does, quite. But the hallmark of intelligence is the ability to see a pattern where the less intelligent see only chaos.

Mind you, that's also the hallmark of paranoia.

One of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, I think it was Live and Let Die, had as an epigraph this little saying:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.

According to Toynbee, since the beginning of civilization societies have evolved according to one overarching pattern: growth; stagnation into a "time of troubles"; the rise of a pacifying "universal state"; and a final rupture and disintegration due to the combined agitation of a disenfranchised "internal proletariat" and a hostile and opportunistic "external proletariat" of barbarians beyond the civilization's frontier. Although I have not yet finished reading his Study of History, Toynbee so far reckons that our own civilization (which he calls Western Christendom) entered its "time of troubles" in the 16th century with the bitter and fratricidal European Wars of Religion. Since the 20th century was even more disastrous and bloodthirsty, it seems safe to say we're not out of the time of troubles yet. Indeed, they have to get so bad, in Toynbee's view, that people are generally relieved to acquiesce in living under the aegis of a universal state, like Rome under the Empire.

We don't seem to be there yet, which means that things are set to get continually worse. The U.S. administrations since World War 2 have set their sights on becoming the next universal state. But their chances of success are, in my opinion, poor. I expect this century to be worse than the 20th century in terms of human suffering, and that much of it will be linked to catastrophic environmental change. If Toynbee's historical cycle is still functioning after we go through that wringer, it's anyone's guess who might be strong and coherent enough to provide a peaceful universal state for the survivors to recuperate in.

Whew, this morning's even darker than I thought.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

the golden rule

Kimmie opted to take Friday and today off from work, so we've been enjoying an extended long weekend.

I don't spend my early mornings much differently on my "days off" than I do on my "days on". I make coffee and come down here to my office to type notes from my research books. But on my "days off", I feel free to stay longer and meander on to other things as the mood takes me. I also, generally, don't bother with a blog-post, which feels like a "workday" responsibility. For even though I find it not very difficult to draft these posts, it is an effort, and it's tempting to take time off.

This is one of the many blessings of unpaid work. I was struck when I read this excellent line by Thomas Carlyle in William James's Principles of Psychology, volume 1:

Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet.

How true this is. Generally we all need wages to live, but the less need you have of them, the freer and more self-directed you are. You can place your effort where you want, rather than where your paymaster tells you to.

The more need or desire you have for money, the more vulnerable you are to those from whom you're trying to get it. This often leads into conflicts of interest, in which your desire for money interferes with your moral integrity or artistic judgment. It leads us to that jaded place where we find ourselves doing something we personally feel is wrong, or at least something we don't believe in, but do it anyway because "that's what they're paying me to do."

Years ago I was at a conference of some kind for people in the TV industry. One panelist was a story editor for a high-profile CBC TV series. That is, the series was independently produced, but broadcast on CBC. Something she said bothered me. She talked about getting episodes ready to shoot, and referred to the network as "the client".

I myself was the creator and de facto "story editor" of a successful drama series, also running on CBC. But I would never have dreamed of using the word client to describe the network. To me, this was the vocabulary of the advertising agency, not of a creator of dramatic works. And to be sure, my relationship with the network proved to be quite adversarial, and it got me kicked off my own show as soon as they could find a way to get rid of me. Still, I was, as far as I was concerned, standing up for the right things: the creative quality and integrity of the show, and the quality of the audience experience. I was fighting for the viewers. The network was buying the series, but I did not regard them as a client, someone to whom my position as vendor required a meek and subservient attitude--a subservience bought with money.

These kinds of thoughts are mainly alien to functionaries within the broadcasting establishment, and most other establishments. People sell out and make their peace with doing as they're told in exchange for big paychecks. But this is not good for the product, it's not good for the audience, and it's not good for your soul. And the bigger the paycheck, the more bought you can become. I've mentioned before Michael Jordan's infamous line, "Republicans buy sneakers, too"--his reason for not involving himself in a political campaign in his home state against a racist incumbent. What is money, that it can turn one of the United States' richest men into an Uncle Tom?

I'm not saying that Michael Jordan, or anyone else, should be obligated to participate in a political debate he doesn't want to. But the reason he gave for demurring showed that he had been bought: his income-stream was the overarching value. What good can ever come of this?

At a time close to my attendance at that TV conference years ago, I also attended a weekend workshop on independent film production by the producer Dov Simens. At the workshop, he taught us would-be indie producers the "golden rule": "He who has the gold, makes the rules." Whoever's spending the money calls the shots. The producer who's aware of this has leverage over the services and vendors he's trying to deal with. To land a job, to get some of that gold, people will bend, twist, accommodate. Often they have to: they've got to eat.

But we shouldn't forget that Simens's "golden rule" is not actually the Golden Rule--"do unto others as you would have others do unto you"--but a deliberate parody of it. I've left his "rule" in lowercase to make the distinction clear.

So: by all means, sell--but don't sell out. I'd even say, if you possibly can, try making your wages a zero, at least sometimes, and see what happens.

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