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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

the knowledge hunter

These days I'm still thinking and reading about as much as ever, but I find that my train of thought is dispersed. I feel less of a sense of goal or direction in my thinking. I have a sense of being becalmed, and am unsure of which way to go.

I'm kept in motion by habit. "Just keep doing what you're doing," I tell myself. "Just keep doing what you're doing."

I feel intellectually tantalized. In some sense I think I always have.

The word tantalize comes from Tantalus, a figure of Greek mythology whose name meant (according to Robert Graves) either "lurching" or "most wretched". He was alleged to have committed two crimes against the gods: one was stealing ambrosia, the divine food, from one of their banquets; the other was the butchering of his own son Pelops and making him part of a stew served to Zeus and the other gods. He was caught at both, and Zeus killed him and arranged a special punishment in the underworld. Tantalus was hung from a fruit-tree so that he dangled in a lake. Tormented by thirst and hunger, he would bend down to sip the water, only to find that the level of the lake dropped away as he did so, returning when he raised his head again. He would then try to grab fruit from the tree, but a wind pushed the fruit just out of his grasp every time he did so. In this hungry, thirsty, and unfulfilled state he would remain for eternity.

To be tantalized, then, means to have the object of one's desire always just beyond one's grasp, and more especially it must mean that it recedes from you just as you approach it or reach out for it.

It's hyperbole of course. But in learning I do have a feeling of forever reaching out, and never quite grasping what I think I'm reaching for. It might be that I don't know what I'm reaching for.

So I play it by instinct. What I read, and what I write in my notes, is a matter of following my urge or impulse of the moment. A hunting metaphor springs to mind: the deer runs through the forest, across country, trying to elude you. It's not trying to make it easy for you; it's trying to make it hard. Very hard--impossible. If you've made that deer your prey, then you're stuck with whatever terrain it leads you through: dense brush, gooey swamp, steep hillside. Now that you've fixated on it, it sets the terms of the chase.

If I get scratched, trip, break my leg, or indeed plunge off a cliff and die, that's not the deer's fault. It's the risk I assume by taking on the role of hunter.

Right now I feel I've kind of lost the trail. The deer is nowhere in sight, and I'm shifting back and forth, looking for its tracks. This is part of the hunt too, but it's an anxious and unrewarding part. Yes, even a tantalizing part.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

book kindling

While checking Amazon.com for Art Spiegelman's book on 9/11, I came across an unusual message from Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos on the home page, announcing that more units of their Kindle e-book reader are now ready for purchase and inviting one to read his letter to Amazon shareholders on the topic. Interested in the phenomenon of e-books, I took the trouble to read Bezos's letter.

As a book lover, I have had mixed feelings about e-books and therefore about Amazon's Kindle. (While Bezos says that the name Kindle is meant to suggest that it will "start a fire" and "improve the world of reading", I have always found that the name reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--the temperature at which paper and therefore at which a physical book combusts. It's not impossible that Amazon at some level intended this reference to the auto da fe of book-burning. On the other hand, the most powerful parapraxes--as Freud called them--are unintentional, like the original name of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: Operation Iraqi Liberation, soon changed because of its acronym, OIL.)

In general, it seems to me normal and inevitable that technology will provide a new way to deliver and read books. My concerns with it are two:

  • that it will make the experience of reading itself less pleasant

  • that it will not be secure enough to ensure that authors receive full payment for their work

On the first point, I suppose my concern is that people in general will be willing, as often happens, to trade quality for convenience--even for someone else's convenience. In order to have such a handy and portable device, people may be willing to put up with a slightly inferior reading experience. I think about groceries: how the modern tomato has been bred to assume a more cubic shape so that it can be packed more densely and transported more cheaply, and perhaps also so that it resists bruising. What has been traded is flavor, and perhaps nutrition. In this way, maybe a second-rate reading experience will drive out a first-rate one, eroding the quality of life for us readers.

But that concern is perhaps relatively minor. After all, if people like e-books and e-book readers, whether the Kindle or some other, then they should have them. If there are still people who love paper books enough to buy them, then they will no doubt continue to be printed. New technologies seldom eliminate old entirely, after all. The movies did not eliminate theater; television did not eliminate either movies or radio. The Kindle will presumably not wipe out ("burn") books entirely.

As a content creator, more important to me is the issue of author compensation. The integrity of Kindle files is presumably protected by some form of encryption or "digital rights management" (DRM) which prevents people from distributing the content promiscuously without payment to its creators and publishers. But it seems that DRM systems all get cracked sooner or later--hackers often regard it as a point of honor to do so. And there are those who think that once a file has been acquired, it should be free to be distributed on, as over a peer-to-peer network. Preventing people from "sharing" files is an infringement of their freedom!

To such people, I can only suggest that they try writing for a living for a while. If they can't write, they might be able to get a feel for it, as an economic proposition, in the following way. Go to your regular job, full-time or part-time as the case may be. Each week or two, instead of receiving a paycheck, you will receive a ticket to a small lottery that will be drawn in, say, five years' time. After the five years are up, you'll find out whether you receive any money for your work. (The likelihood is that you will not.)

Cracking a DRM system would change this scenario by, essentially, eliminating the lottery at the end. The tickets you've received are for a lottery that has been canceled. Instead of being won by someone (usually other than yourself, true), it's won by no one.

That's my fear.

Still, there are grounds for hope. The phenomenon of iTunes shows that people are very willing to pay for downloadable content, if they want it enough and the price is right. They recognize that there is a principle of exchange, that if you receive something you value, you should pay for it, unless it's been offered for free by its actual owner.

But I think to of how writers have usually lost out, all the way back to ancient times, such as in Rome, where books were "published" (that is, copied by hand and sold) by people who had no concept of paying anything to the writer of the work being copied. Since writers at that time were usually men of leisure, it was not so important perhaps. Ever since then, writers have struggled to receive compensation for their work.

All of that being said, I applaud Bezos's vision for e-books. As an environmentalist I like the idea of publishing works without the destruction and pollution caused by felling trees, making paper, printing books, and shipping them. The costs of publication will drop dramatically, and therefore so should the cost of books. More marginal and eccentric works could be published. And e-books are seemingly ideal for the kinds of things I like to do with books: highlight the parts of interest, and search through them for what I want.

We'll see. I do like Bezos's aspiration to provide any book ever printed in any language within 60 seconds. What's not to like about that? Some books I want now I can't have due to their high price, which I believe (these are out-of-print books) is due to their physical rarity. As used books, none of the price they command will go to their authors in any case. Why should those books, with the knowledge they contain, not be available to us all?

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Friday, April 25, 2008

House of War, House of Death

Two days ago I finished reading the Iliad, as translated by Robert Fagles. Over all it was very good, and much more accessible than I was expecting.

Now I'm keying notes from the book's introduction by Bernard Knox and from its end-notes.

One thing that's striking about the Iliad is its unapologetic and graphic violence. Picking one example at random (there are many to choose from) from Book 17, "Menelaus' Finest Hour", the warrior Hippothous is trying to drag the corpse of Patroclus away from the battle-front:

Hippothous out for fame...Pelasgian Lethus' son,
lashing a shield-strap round the ankle tendons,
was hauling Patroclus footfirst through the melee,
hoping to please Prince Hector and all the Trojans,
Hippothous rushing on but death came just as fast.
No Trojans could save him now, strain as they might--
Ajax son of Telamon charging quickly into the carnage
speared him at close range through the bronze-cheeked helmet,
the horsehair crest cracked wide open around the point,
smashed by the massive spear and hand that drove it.
His brains burst from the wound in sprays of blood,
soaking the weapon's socket--
his strength dissolved on the spot, his grip loosed
and he dropped the foot of brave Patroclus' corpse.
There on the ground it lay--he rushed to join it,
pitching over the dead man's body face-to-face,
a world away from Larissa's dark rich soil...
Never would he repay his loving parents now
for the gift of rearing--his life cut short so soon,
brought down by the spear of lionhearted Ajax.

The poem contains much mayhem of this sort. I would not say that it particularly glorifies violence so much as looks it unflinchingly in the face. In Homer the warriors are mostly brave, but subject to fear and even terror. They fight and kill, but they don't want to die, and when they do they claw at the dirt and clutch their entrails, whimpering their last as the darkness swirls down over their eyes (a common image in the Iliad) and they descend unwillingly to the hated House of Death.

The killing in the Iliad is up close and personal: the result of arduous hand-to-hand combat. I think about another book I'm reading, House of War by James Carroll, a history of the Pentagon. The book's subtitle suggests Carroll's viewpoint: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. The 20th century saw great "advances" in the technology of killing. Weapons became more mechanized even as the institutions using them became more impersonal and bureaucratized, with the soldier becoming subsumed in the growing fungus of The Organization Man as described in William H. Whyte's 1956 classic. The result in World War II was the deliberate slaughter, especially of civilians, by aircraft flying far overhead, launched not so much by individuals as by committees and teams of bureaucrats.

The darkness swirling over the eyes of all those women and children, though, was just as real. When Dresden was fire-bombed people leaped into the rivers to escape the gigantic walls of flames, only to be boiled alive there. They descended reluctantly to the hated House of Death.

People who claimed the mystique of the warrior had in fact become functionaries of the slaughterhouse, not different from the illegal immigrants who work at meatpacking plants, killing animals in an efficient, high-volume process worked out by industrial engineers. What do you do with all that blood? All those intestines and brains? It's all been worked out. The math has been done, the drawings rendered on drafting-tables.

Yes, we live in a sniper's world: a place of killing the defenseless from positions of impregnable safety.

In Homer's world, violence was still dangerous to the perpetrators. But the mystery remains of its mystique, its fascination, the whirlpool-like attraction of it for us primates (for chimpanzees commit murder too). It's a somber puzzle.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

looking at evil

I've sat here for several minutes now, staring at the screen, wondering what to write.

It's not that there's nothing to write about. It's that there seems to be too much to write about. Any topic I might begin with feels like the beginning of a whole journey, a commitment. Everything is interconnected, and to raise one topic feels like it must be related to everything else in order to make sense, or to seem other than merely an isolated, irrelevant interest of mine.

Yesterday I received a new book in the mail--a favorite event for me. This was a small paperback entitled Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State in Europe 1300-1800 by Hillay Zmora. Why this? you might ask.

I was led to it by a particular stream of thought. Following the stream backwards, or, I suppose, upstream: I had arrived at an interest in the idea of aristocracy or a ruling class. The notion of a ruling class seemed to have arisen from the distinction between warriors and producers or farmers. This in turn seemed to have arisen from the emergence of distinct ways of life on two different kinds of landscape: the fertile ground of riverbanks for farmers, and the arid land of the steppes for warriors, who were nomadic pastoralists. Farming and pastoralism in turn seemed to be the evolved extensions of plant-gathering on the one hand and hunting on the other. These different economic activities were respectively engaged in by women and by men, and arose in their turn from more primitive foraging and scavenging. Our early and pre-human ancestors made their living by finding plants and meat to eat where they could.

Why was I interested in all this in the first place? I was investigating the question of evil: what is it, where did it come from? Is its origin in the brutality and hard-heartedness of pastoralism, in which herdsmen round up animals and slaughter them? Exploiting the weak and dumb in order to survive--and then transferring that attitude to one's fellow creatures, and developing an ethos of superiority based on physical prowess and violence? The ruling class.

Cats prey on mice, and mice don't like it. Does that make cats evil? Do they not deserve to live too? Nature seems not to have taken an opinion on good and evil. Does that mean they don't exist?

I'm concerned about the evils of our own time, and of the past century. The rise of mechanized weapons and mechanized bureaucracy seems to have created fertile fields for evil inflicted on a mass scale. Was this inevitable? If so, why? If not, why did it happen? Why is it still happening?

Hillay Zmora, in his book, starts out by saying that the modern European state, founded on human rights and the rule of law, was born from the violence of relentless warfare that had to be financed. Raising money for war was the basis of the modern state.

Yes, I'm curious about these things--they trouble me, and I'm going to keep looking.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

cold 'n' sleepless

It's a cold spring: 0° C when I switched on the radio at 5:40. I'd been awake since 3:00. Now it's sunny out there: like a bright winter's day.

Today I have yet another dental appointment--another in the chain of data-gathering sessions about my mouth that seems to be the bedrock of modern dentistry. Since I have some (very slight) unexplained pain in a lower back molar, it's time to use this brute-strength approach.

So just a short "placeholder" post for today, while I go about the business of living my life. Perchance a nap later on...


Monday, April 21, 2008

new bookcase, new book

Yesterday was sunny but still unusually cold. I spent most of the afternoon assembling the Billy bookcase Kimmie and I bought at Ikea last weekend and then rearranging my bookshelves. The task was bigger than I'd expected, and I wound up losing patience and just stuffing books in wherever I could. But my office is clear again of tottering stacks of books on chairs, desk, and floor. I love it.

At reading-time I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the stack of books I've got on the go--a feeling that comes over me from time to time. I take it as a sign of the shifting wind of my interests. I read a passage of the Iliad, then a few pages of House of War by James Carroll. But I didn't really feel like reading anything else that I had on the coffee-table.

I let my mind wander over subjects: what's missing in my reading diet? Science? What kind of science? Psychology?

Very quickly my mind zoomed in on the book Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, a lavender-colored paperback I got in February. Could that be it?

Trusting my hunch, I came down to the new bookcase (located in the empty windowless room where we keep our freezer) and collected the book. I started reading, and found myself immediately absorbed. Yes: this was just the thing.

Many years ago I was given a book by Northrop Frye, The Great Code, as a gift from our friends the Burts. I still haven't read it. Anatomy of Criticism is, I think, his most famous work, one in which he sketches an outline for a "science" of literary criticism. I decided to buy it when I found it referred to in a work on the epic genre. Apparently Frye said that epics are created by authors at times of greatest stress in their lives. I wanted to find out what else he may have to say about them.

Right from the start I felt myself in sympathy with Frye and enjoying the way his mind works. His "Polemical Introduction" to the book starts thus:

This book consists of "essays," in the word's original sense of a trial or incomplete attempt, on the possibility of a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism.

Whew, a bold agenda, right in the first sentence. But what really hooked me was this sentence, toward the end of his long opening paragraph:

My approach is based on Matthew Arnold's precept of letting the mind play freely around a subject in which there has been much endeavor and little attempt at perspective.

Fantastic! I found this sentence provocative and stimulating. What is it about it that I find so appealing?

It's the conjunction of "much endeavor" and "free play". This, I'm sure, is how valuable discoveries are made. You work hard at something, but unsystematically, because it doesn't yet have a system. One things follows on another, and you just attend to those things. Then, after a time, you gain an unconscious familiarity with the subject. Your conscious effort impregnates your unconscious, and you feel its stirrings in hunches and creative ideas. In that condition, that tension, the imagination can burst forth with new things.

This is another variant of the relationship of research to creative writing, I think. You learn and learn, maybe without much system, and then ideas start coming. You have the materials with which to create.

As I read I found myself laughing out loud at some of Frye's dry witticisms--rare for me while reading.

Yes, it was just the thing.

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Friday, April 18, 2008


Something within me has changed in the last few months. It's hard to pinpoint what it is. It shows up in my attitude to various things.

One is my novel and would-be novel series. I feel a deeper sense of seriousness and uniqueness in what I'm doing, along with a reduced feeling of confidence about how to execute it. Maybe this is, in my own field, an instance of what Joseph Campbell felt to be the spiritual story of the modern Western person, the image of which was given in the Grail romances: the questing knight, plunging into the forest right where it was thickest, away from any existing track. The idea was that one's adventure would be unique, unprecedented, and entirely one's own.

Every created work is a combination of the familiar and the new. The proportion of the two is one way in which its uniqueness is expressed. But then there is the mark of quality in all artistic creation, which can be summarized as "making the familiar seem strange, and the strange seem familiar." If the artist can do this, then the whole work, in every detail, will have the feeling of freshness and originality.

I think I'm becoming uncomfortably aware of how, in the past, or up until now, I have consciously or unconsciously borrowed methods and ideas from other works, maybe in the hope of "fitting in" or being accepted. I'm feeling an increased desire to get away from that--and also a certain anxiety about how to do so.

In this blog too I feel a new uncertainty. Maybe this is like being in the Arctic, when, if you get far enough north, your compass is no good, pointing more west, say, than north--or maybe even just wavering ambiguously here and there. With your compass out of commission, which way do you go? What guides you?

Whatever it is, you're not taking responsibility for it--you can't blame your compass. So with the blog, I'm just typing what comes to mind. I feel a lack of direction, and that sense of waiting or nervousness before a new direction shows itself.

In my worldly outlook, I find myself becoming politically radicalized. I don't mean a turn to communism or anarchy or anything like that. Rather, a sense that the world situation, particularly with regard to climate and the environment, is in crisis, and in crisis a merely incremental approach is not appropriate. Vision and boldness are needed: deep, confident change. If ever there was a time for political radicalism on a worldwide scale, it is now. Nationalism, the Black Plague of the 20th century, may finish us off in the 21st.

So there you have it: a serious set of thoughts. The writer is morphing...but into what? Into himself.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

the long-distance blogger

The third anniversary of this blog came and went last month without my noticing it. Three years on, do I feel that it is fulfilling its mission? Do I even know what that mission is?

It began as an experiment. Indeed, I think I might have set it up originally in order just to have an identity on blogger.com, in order to leave a comment on someone else's blog. I quickly filled in the forms and set it up, not thinking I would actually use it and maintain it.

Now look at me. I think my original thought was that a blog might help save me from laboring in utter obscurity. I would have a way of expressing the experience of working on a large, complex creative project, and maybe some people would take an interest in that.

I didn't realize how popular blogging was or would become. I've heard figures like 40 million as the number of blogs online. A few of them have real, undeniable value (I think about the pseudonymous blog called Baghdad Burning, written by a young woman in war-torn Baghdad, offering an inside view of Iraq unavailable even through the best professional journalists). The great, oceanic majority are like the parody of blogs and bloggers I saw in a segment on the Rick Mercer Report on CBC: nerds in dark rooms who have no life, typing about the pizza they're eating and uploading digital pictures of the pizza for others to look at, while also requesting that they create links to his blog in their own blogs.

Is this me? I felt a little bit uncomfortable as I watched the segment.

I do have one edge over the majority of bloggers: I can write. So I've got that going for me.

But as for whether this blog adequately documents the creative process, or whether that process (my process anyway) is worth documenting, I can't say. There is a self-absorbed quality to a personal blog such as this that is perhaps not entirely wholesome.

In the end though I suppose it's not for me to judge. I do have family and friends who check in on the blog, and that for me is reason enough to keep up with it. There are also others who have taken an interest over the past three years, traveling along with it for a time. I've enjoyed that attention. Then there are those who, for better or for worse, have landed on the blog after making online searches for specific kinds of information. Common searches that lead here are for information on "Shantaram characters", or the word-counts of specific books such as War and Peace or Gravity's Rainbow, or the symbolism of hermaphrodites in dreams--among various other things. The idea that people come here looking for factual information gives me a feeling of responsibility; I worry a bit about shooting off my mouth.

Mainly I feel that the blog is a document of how long this project is taking. I recall a book that used to be on the shelf when I was growing up: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I never read it, but I found the title haunting. The blog, I suppose, is an effort to mitigate the solitude of the creative work, and in that respect it may have some slight effect.

But it is only slight. It is a long distance, and it is, in some sense, lonely.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

one book leads to another

In my life, one book leads to another. Occasionally I might stroll through a bookstore and pick up a book that happens to catch my fancy, or find a book through some other more or less serendipitous means (I recently got the Maus comics after seeing their author-artist, Art Spiegelman, interviewed on TV), but that is increasingly unusual.

More often I acquire books as part of following a line of thought or investigation. Take Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs, a book that I recently took down from my shelf to read again. I first bought and read it in March 1997 (I inscribe the purchase date inside each book). The book, written (unusually for Jacobs) in the form of a Socratic dialogue between modern characters in New York, is, as its subtitle says, A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.

I was led back to it as part of my investigation into good and evil. What's good and what's bad--and why? What exactly is evil?

In the ancient world there were natural evils--that is, natural events that were regarded as evil, such as famines or floods. To me these are more what I would call misfortunes or disasters. Painful and unwanted, yes--but not evil in the same sense as the deliberate and unjust infliction of harm by one person on another. The cruel treatment of the helpless and innocent seems especially evil. Where does it come from? Why does it happen?

Following the thread of this line of thinking back, I recall reading in John Keegan's A History of Warfare that the phenomenon of the mounted warrior arose in the steppes of Central Eurasia sometime around 3000 BC. These people were nomadic pastoralists who gained most of their living from herding and hunting animals. To round up and slaughter defenseless animals requires a certain hardening of the heart, and Keegan observes that the techniques of wrangling herds were exactly the same techniques used by these nomadic warriors in combat: driving and encircling foot soldiers, and then slaughtering them. The feeling of superiority that the mounted warrior felt over his livestock was transferred to his similarly unmounted enemies. They were weak, passive creatures to be controlled and killed for his benefit.

Then I recalled reading in Mary Boyce's book Zoroastrians that it's possible that Zarathustra, the great Indo-Iranian prophet of (possibly) 1500 BC, received his revelation of the cosmic warfare of good and evil in response to his experience of these same mounted (or in his period, chariot-driving) warriors, who mercilessly pillaged peaceful farmers on the steppes.

Another input: in Vintage: The Story of Wine, by Hugh Johnson, I read that the ancient practice of dining while reclining on couches--the eating style of the nobility throughout the Mediterranean world--was acquired from the nomadic tribes of the steppes and deserts. It struck me that the mounted warrior, that creature of the steppes of Central Eurasia, who eventually morphed into the medieval knight, was the basis of what we call the aristocracy or the ruling class. By virtue of their mental toughness and superior prowess, they have the ability and the right to rule over those who are not of their class. Farmers produce wealth, warriors take it.

These thoughts led me to reading up on the steppe cultures of Central Eurasia, but then I also remembered Jane Jacobs's book on morality. She discovered that there are two different and mutually exclusive moral "syndromes" in the public world: one which she called the Commercial Moral Syndrome, which governs the affairs of people in industry and trade; and one called the Guardian Moral Syndrome, which governs the affairs of those in government, politics, and the military.

These two syndromes are mutually dependent in a functioning, thriving society, but what is "good" in one part of the system is "bad" in the other part. Jacobs lists 15 "precepts" that make up each of the syndromes, and the first precept of the Commercial Syndrome is "Shun force". The first precept of the Guardian Syndrome is "Shun trading". Merchants trade, and it's wrong for them to engage in the coercion of force; guardians (that is, police, soldiers, etc.) use force to achieve their aims, and it's wrong for them to engage in trade. When a merchant uses force, or a cop sells things, you have wrongs such as extortion and corruption.

This is the merest outline. My point is that one book leads to another for me, a flow, like one neuron lighting up the next in a train of thought in the brain.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

on (not) wasting time

I awoke at about 3:45 this morning and lay awake.

Without going into detail, there are things bothering me. It happens especially at night. While I might have some qualms about my life situation and decisions during the day, the habitual flow of activity distracts the mind and I'm not troubled. Ah, but at night...

If I look closely at what is bothersome about certain kinds of thoughts, I think it boils down to this: fear of wasting time.

This is not a concern about efficiency. Rather, when I was pressed once to come up with my idea of wisdom, I said this: "A wise person does not waste his time."

What did I mean?

One image that stays pressed in my mind is from watching an interview on CBC television. Evan Solomon was interviewing a former hit-man for the American mob, now living under an assumed identity in an undisclosed location. The hit-man, possibly in his 60s, was matter-of-fact and not shy about talking about his life of crime. He described a few of the murders he had committed--things like shooting someone in the back of the head from the back seat of a car. Once, when shooting someone on his doorstep, he also shot a woman who lived in the same house and who turned out to be a nun.

"Do you regret that one?" said Evan.

"Oh yeah. That's the only one I regret."

By that he meant that all the other victims were also mobsters: guys on the inside who had assumed the risk of getting whacked if they stepped out of line in certain ways. But it turned out he also had regrets over all. Toward the end of the interview, Evan asked him how he would sum up his career.

"A wasted life," the man said.

He said it in the same matter-of-fact way, but I sensed his pain and regret. With those three words he had passed the most damning judgment possible on himself.

I'm not a hit-man, not a mobster. I've done bad things, and from time to time continue to do bad things. But I think the issue of wasting life is not purely a matter of ethics. It arises from a sense that life matters, and that how we spend it matters. Ethics is part of that, but it's not the whole issue. Our mission is not simply to keep our souls pure, but to engage with life in a way that makes full use of our faculties and our uniqueness. Time slips by, and every moment counts. Somehow, it's the very unforced nature of our decisions that puts a heavy responsibility on us.

When I was a temporary monk at Gampo Abbey in 2002, I slept the deep, peaceful, restful sleep of one who had no second thoughts about what he was doing with his life. I knew I was not wasting my time; I was using it to the max.

Now I'm not sure. I'm not plugged in to a structure that has already been given meaning by someone else, so to speak. I'm completely responsible for the meaning of my own life now, and sometimes, well, it keeps me up at night.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

a new week

Another week. I was mighty tired when the alarm went off this morning--more tired than I can remember being in the morning for a long time. It was a tough crawl up from the comfort of the mattress.

This morning I've spent my writing time doing a review of the book The Devil by Jeffrey Burton Russell, which I just finished reading yesterday. If you're interested, by all means check it out.

As for me, it's time to move on to the rest of my working day.

Another week, another week.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

an elephant and his beliefs

My life these days is largely reading--more than it is writing, that's for sure.

I've always loved reading, and I do more of it now than I ever have before. Our old family friend, the late Dorothy Burt, born in 1908, spent much of every day reading for a large part of her adult life. Her day was broken down into the different things she read: The Observer, The Manchester Guardian, nonfiction book, fiction...

I used to think it was a bit strange to spend all of one's time reading and never doing anything, or at least writing something oneself. I think I still feel that way, although I'm less sure.

In my case, although I enjoy reading, I seldom read purely for "pleasure". For me, all reading is study, and that in fact is why I find it pleasurable. Possibly then it's not really reading I like, but learning, and reading is still the most efficient, accessible, and affordable way to learn. Aristotle said that humans by nature love to learn, and that the appeal of art is exactly that we learn from it.

So I'm learning. But am I really? In one obvious sense I certainly am. I do retain some quantity of what I read (less than I'd like). But the motive that keeps pushing me to read more is a feeling of dissatisfaction: that I have not yet learned what I'm seeking to learn.

What am I seeking? I'm searching for my beliefs. What do I think is true? What are the reasons--the real reasons--behind what I see in the world, in my experience?

According to William James, a belief is by definition a concept that we use as the basis for action. We act on what we believe, and only on what we believe. I reach down to my keyboard right now to press keys because I believe that when I do, the corresponding letters will appear on the monitor before me. (So far, so good.) I'm doing that because I believe that when I press the Publish Post button on the screen, this post will uploaded to my blog and become available for people to read. If I found out that these posts were not being uploaded to the blog, I would quite soon stop writing them. My belief would have changed, and with it my behavior.

I look around me in the world and see, mainly, actions based on erroneous or misguided beliefs. These happen on vast, world-changing scales. If, for example, you believe that the U.S. invaded Iraq, as was stated, in order to root out weapons of mass destruction, then that whole costly invasion and subsequent war was initiated on the basis of an erroneous belief. But even if you believe, as I do, that the invasion was for quite other purposes, such as "future oil security", or even "world domination", these too, in my view, are mistaken, since I am certain that neither one can be achieved in this way. Enormous resources are being consumed and lives lost right now, as I type, all on the basis of mistaken beliefs.

In Buddhism, it is taught that we are all separated from complete great enlightenment by the "two veils": the veil of "conflicting emotions" and the veil of "primitive beliefs about reality". Both of these are very difficult to remove, but the first one, "conflicting emotions", is much easier than the second, "primitive beliefs".

It might seem odd that an Indian monk who lived 2,500 years ago would, if he could look at our modern society with its secular outlook and advanced technology, describe our beliefs as primitive--but he would. He did. Our modernity and technology don't touch the issue of our basic mistakenness about things.

Of course, I'm not going to find Buddhist-style enlightenment in books. But I do want to become informed. Even in this relative and temporal way, I want to find out what the true causal forces are working in the world around me. I don't want to act--I don't feel I can act--until I feel I understand what's going on well enough. That means that instead of going out to achieve things, to crusade in the world, I'm sitting in my soft chair, book and highlighter in hand.

I feel like an elephant. It's said that an elephant will not step onto a bridge that won't hold its weight. An elephant just knows. And yet it's probably not just intuition; the elephant must look at the bridge, examine it, and come to a conclusion on the basis of its observations. It arrives at a belief about the bridge, and acts accordingly. I feel that most actions in the world are like that bridge, and I'm still trying to figure out if it will hold my weight.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

don't read this

Back to the grind. It's a wintry day out there: rain falls from a dark-gray sky. I lay awake for a couple of hours before the alarm went off at 5:30, so am feeling a bit unfresh.

Nonetheless it's a new week, and our health is improving. I'm almost back to normal after the heavy-duty cold that passed through our household. Kimmie lags behind me in her journey back to wellness.

Although I've been following the story of the creation of my old TV show The Odyssey, I think I will leave off that for awhile. There's more to tell, but I'm finding that I want to talk about other things again. For those of you who have been following it, thanks for reading, and check in from time to time to see when I pick up the thread.

Last night, on the CBC weekly current-affairs magazine show Sunday Night, there was an interview with American comics artist Art Spiegelman, famous as the author of Maus I and Maus II, a telling of the Holocaust story with the Nazis portrayed as cats and the Jews as mice. I've long wanted to read it (have just ordered these book on Amazon.com). I've always liked comics, and have been a cartoonist myself.

The main topic of the interview was censorship. Spiegelman, as a sometime underground or alternative comics artist, has been censored. He described an instance of censorship to do with a cover painting he did for an issue of Harper's magazine. The cover featured familiar caricatures of various ethnic groups, such as a big-nosed Jew, an angry Arab, a minstrel-show black, and others. There was also a drawing of the naked torso of a woman. The Canadian editor of Harper's asked whether Spiegelman would put black bars over the nipples and genitals of the female body, since these couldn't be shown on a magazine cover in Canada.

Spiegelman, a chain-smoker of cigarettes, laughed. He thought that the naked woman was the least objectionable thing he had drawn on the cover. He thought that the censorship bars over the nipples and genitals was a funny image, and used them for the American edition as well.

Spiegelman is articulate and, to me, inspiring on the subject of censorship. He's opposed to it in just about any form (as am I). He talked about the furor over the publication of editorial cartoons featuring Mohammed in Denmark in 2005. He, like many other people, had to find the images on the Internet since they were widely censored, not just in Muslim countries, but also in Western countries with presses that are supposedly free.

Indeed, the CBC censored itself during the furor, and even during last night's interview used a distorted graphic to "show" the Danish cartoons. Three words sprang to my mind: craven, cowardly, cringing.

I was unpleasantly surprised to hear from Spiegelman that the Canadian big-box bookstore Chapters-Indigo refused to carry that issue of Harper's (even with its decorously censored female torso). As Spiegelman pointed out, that put him in the same category as Adolf Hitler, since Chapters-Indigo also refuses to stock Mein Kampf. Luckily, independent booksellers were there to provide the information people wanted, and that issue of Harper's apparently enjoyed better than usual sales.

Evan Solomon, Sunday Night's cohost, invited feedback on the piece, and I felt moved to provide some. I wrote this comment:

Censorship is the hallmark of an unfree society. Self-censorship is the hallmark of a society that doesn't even want to be free.

Art Spiegelman was an inspiring breath of fresh air--cigarettes and all. He is a self-responsible adult speaking to other self-responsible adults. Let him speak, I say--and let everyone else speak too.

This is a topic about which I feel actual passion. The institutionalized, coercive hypocrisy that goes by the name political correctness is a symptom of a society that, as I said in my comment, doesn't even want to be free. If you can control people's thoughts, their minds, you have automatically controlled their bodies as well.

So I'm against it. The issue with the Mohammed cartoons was fear of backlash. To keep the peace, to stay safe, the cartoons were suppressed in many countries. But I hold with Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

I'm afraid we're going to get what we deserve.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

still on pause

I still find myself wanting to take a break from my Odyssey story, and indeed from my blog in general. The household has mostly recovered from the cold we caught, and we're getting back to normal.

I appreciate the interest people have shown in my story, and the fact that The Odyssey still has fans all these years later. It's still amazing to me, and very personally satisfying, to think that our little show has gone all around the world, and has been watched by millions of people--and possibly continues to be watched to this day. I'd love for it to be out on DVD, but I fear this will not happen on a large scale, since the rights to the show were sold on several years ago to a European distributor as part of a package deal. They may or may not even be aware that the show exists!

Thanks for reading, folks...

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

awaiting inspiration

We're getting better. Kimmie prepares upstairs to return to work today. Outside there is early sunshine and the promise of much warmth later today.

I'm still not feeling totally myself, and so will write only a short "placeholder" blog-post today. I need some level of inspiration to go on with my Odyssey story, which does take some effort to write.

Meanwhile, thanks to those of you leaving comments--I do read them and do appreciate them. I may even respond to some!

Liza has asked about photos of North Vancouver and the locations for The Odyssey. While I don't have any photos of filming locations, you can get a sense of North Vancouver (where the pilot and a couple of other episodes were shot--and where I live) from a Google images search using "North Vancouver" as the search key. Here, for example, are one person's vacation snaps of Vancouver and North Van, which give a sense of the place. The Odyssey was filmed in various locations in the Vancouver area.

Right: on with my day. Till next time...


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

brief update

The beginnings of what looks to be a sunny, if brisk, spring day. I have another appointment on my long dental odyssey (this is really all about information-gathering, rather than a treatment program--although I have been given a plastic mouthguard to wear at night to reduce the effects of teeth-grinding, a product no doubt of inner stresses and tensions). With my compressed schedule, I'll just leave this as a short post.

Kimmie still wrestles with her long cold, and may take another day off work.

Till anon...