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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 26, 2008

the goal-directed life

Another morning, another cup of coffee, another blog-post. I've done my morning research-work (keying notes from A History of Technology, volume 2, and reading the online book The Private Life of the Romans); now it's time to get in a quick post. Such is the structured order of my day.

I like purpose. I've thought and said this many times, but only gradually is its full significance beginning to dawn on me. Everything that people do has some kind of purpose, of course, even the most random-seeming drunken rioting. But I'm speaking here of more consciously chosen, goal-directed behavior. I sense that choosing a goal that is in accord with one's nature, and then consistently pursuing it, is what we call the feeling of meaning in our lives.

The feeling of meaning happens on a smaller scale too. A memory that stands out for me was of traveling with my friend Tim in Spain in December 1978. We had arrived at Cadiz at the Strait of Gibraltar, and were driving through the city in our red VW Westfalia, enjoying the sights and the ambience: palmettos and the lovely blue of the sea after weeks of driving inland. As we drove down along the port we saw a large ferry docked there, marked with its destination: the Canary Islands. There must have been a schedule there, telling us that it would be leaving in a couple of hours. We looked at each other: did we want to go?

Yes, we decided. Cool! Neither of us had imagined we would ever be setting out for the Canary Islands. But we had to take care of some things first--I don't exactly recall what, whether just buying fuel and provisions, or getting the tickets from a travel agent, or taking care of some other business. But anyway, we had to hustle a bit in order to be able to make the sailing. We were still driving around Cadiz, but now we were driving around with a sense of purpose, with a time limit. There was a fresh feeling of adventure and urgency--would we make it on board the ferry? Or would we miss the boat? Now the views of palmettos and sea seemed more fleeting and precious, more charged with meaning. They were the backdrop of an adventure, and took a new aspect. There was a feeling of going forward.

We caught the ferry, and wound up spending Christmas and New Year on Gran Canaria--a delightful side-trip. The mini-adventure of catching the ferry had provided a story in our lives: a goal, and the question of whether it would be achieved.

To me the difference in feeling, the appearance of the very same scenery under these different mental and emotional conditions, was striking. It almost suggested the difference between the ennui of immortality vs. the fleeting excitement of finite life. Catching the ferry was a little metaphor of life: it's short; you've got to attend to your tasks and enjoy the view along the way.

So it is with my reading. It's almost all purpose-driven, part of a bigger project. I think of a guy I knew back at Buddhist Seminary in the Rockies in 1994. He was from (I think) Wisconsin--maybe Minnesota. And he read a great deal, almost all fiction. The way he selected his reading, though, was one I could never adopt. He scanned book reviews of publications that he respected, then set out to read all the works that got the best reviews. He wanted to be reading all the best and most important fiction being published in America. Apart from the fact that I don't read much fiction, this approach would be altogether too passive for me. There's no plan except to try to read everything that other presumed experts regard as "good".

No. I want to be going in my own direction, under my own power, as much as possible, as far as possible.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

on (not) being Mozart

I am a writer, so I should be able to write something in this space.

As I look back at this blog to posts two or three years ago, I myself am struck by how forthright and open I was about my working methods and my writing day. I know that for some years I harbored an idea of running a site that would let spectators in on the workings of the writer's mind while "in action" (if I might stretch the meaning of that phrase). Wouldn't it be cool to see how writers come up with stuff?

I think back to the play and movie Amadeus, in which the successful but second-rate court composer Salieri, burning with creative envy for the brilliant Mozart, contrives to "help" Mozart finish his last great piece. Mozart, lying sick in bed, dictates the score to Salieri, who scratches frantically at the chart-paper to keep up, trying to guess what's coming next. He is skilled enough to be able to write the music, but not gifted enough to be able to create it.

Salieri, I realize now, is an incarnation of Satan or Lucifer as he was eventually conceived by around New Testament times. This character, made famous more recently by John Milton in Paradise Lost, refused, out of pride, to bow down before Adam, God's crowning creation. He had been created sooner, and should not have to concede priority. He would rather be thrown out of heaven than bend his knee.

Satan's sin is held to be pride, but from his point of view he's a victim of injustice--God's injustice. Since it was axiomatic by that time that God was a just God, Satan had an irreconcilable problem. In a certain sense, you could say that Satan was the character with integrity, and as I type these words I find them very interesting indeed.

Salieri complains bitterly to God about His unfairness: that He had bestowed the gift of genius on a silly irreverent rascal like Mozart, while endowing Salieri, who truly loved both music and God, with only a mediocre talent. Why? It was senseless. It was unfair. So, like Lucifer, Salieri turns his back on God and decides to destroy His precious masterpiece, Mozart, just as Satan decided to tempt Adam away from his innocent thralldom to God.

Am I likening myself to Mozart? Or how about Salieri? I may not have Mozart's gifts, but I identify more with him. I was born on 24 January 1959; he was born on 27 January 1756--both in what some astrologers call the Week of the Genius (the first week of Aquarius). Of course, at my age I've already vastly outlived Mozart, who died at 35. I'm still barely getting started! More especially, I tend not to envy other people's abilities. If someone has done something excellent, I want to find out the secret, for I always secretly think I can do it, if I can just find out how. Hence my relentless study.

From another point of view, Salieri's real problem was that he could not accept the way things are--or the way he was. In any endeavor, someone is always going to be the greatest, and the overwhelming likelihood is that that person is not you. If you can't deal with that, then you really do suffer from the sin of pride, and the world--or God--will surely break you sooner or later.

Well. There, I've come up with a post after all.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

the writer's Monday-morning status

I'll check in here with a brief note. Feeling underslept, having awoken at about 4:00. I've beavered away at my research notes and reading. Now is the usual time for a blog-post, but I'd like to save some energy today and see if I can get a bit more direct project-work done. It's a long shot, but worth a try.

Outside: mild sunshine. I'm looking forward to a nap later today.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

nature's cathedral

I'm very skeptical about the theory of evolution as it now exists. I don't doubt that evolution occurs; that seems to be established beyond question. What I can't swallow are the explanations currently on offer for how it happens, what the process is. On the whole these strike me, so far as I'm aware of them, as being pitifully inadequate.

What provokes this spasm of skepticism? Watching my DVD lecture series from The Teaching Company called Understanding the Brain by Jeanette Norden. I've now seen 11 of the 36 half-hour lectures. With my casual but longtime interest in the brain, much of the material is review for me, but quite a lot of it is new too. The structure and function of the brain are such as to make me certain that it cannot be merely the product of random or deterministic processes, no matter how long such processes may have been operating. But for me the coup de grace for a purely random and deterministic origin for the brain came while watching the lecture on development, in which Dr. Norden described how the developing neurons of the fetus are guided precisely into place by helper cells, who in effect shepherd them long distances in order to ensure they wind up where they're supposed to, and are wired up properly with their neighbors.

Looking at my last sentence, I see that I instinctively and without hesitation used the pronoun who to refer to the helper cells, rather than which, meaning that I see them as persons rather than as things. The cells of course are living things, but in general our language is loaded with impersonal and mechanical references, to stay consistent with the prevailing idea that physical processes are necessarily mechanical at bottom. Biologists go through contortions of language to expunge any suggestion that living things, especially low-level ones such as single cells, operate through any kind of consciousness or intention. It is still as Andrew, a scientist acquaintance back in the 1980s, asserted when ruling out certain kinds of explanation: "That would be teleology."

Teleology--the explanation of events by the idea that they are guided by a goal or intentionality--is a "third rail" in biology: an idea with which no serious practitioner can appear to have any truck. It is doctrinally forbidden, for it would appear to open the door to God and "intelligent design".

I understand the resistance to "intelligent design" by biologists, insofar as it is a codeword for sneaking the Bible into school science classes--an event that would indeed signal the intellectual decadence and bankruptcy of our civilization. If "intelligent design" means teaching Genesis 1 in science class, then OK, let's find another term. But the idea of intentionality and purpose--the universal behavior of all living things--does not necessarily mean having to invoke sacred scriptures as our scientific authorities. It does mean thinking about things in a new and more expanded way.

Even back in the 1980s my response to Andrew was, "But what if the processes are teleological--in fact? Wouldn't you want to know?"

I'd want to know--and I do want to know.

I'm developing my own ideas about evolution and life (a fun hobby for me). Maybe I'll share those in due course.

But for now I just wanted to note that in watching this lecture-series on the brain I find I'm gaining access to that important emotion wonder or awe. I think about Joseph Campbell's assertion that the first function of any living mythology is to evoke a sense of wonder or awe, and an image flashed through my mind as I watched and listened: that the brain is a cathedral.

I've visited a few cathedrals, on my trip to Europe with Tim back in 1978. I recall feelings of awe at these buildings, feelings arising from some mixture of the size of the buildings, their beauty, and also an awareness of their age and purpose. They are not utilitarian unless you regard "utility" as including a relationship with the divine or invisible reality.

The brain is incomparably more complex than any cathedral, incomparably better designed and built, by very many orders of magnitude. It's one living structure among many, it's true, but as the seat of consciousness it has a special place, and a special claim to sacred status, I think.

Given that human life is supported by such an ongoing miracle of design and complexity, I inevitably think about the uses to which I'm putting that life. Am I worthy of marvels that support my existence? Or am I squandering them and taking them for granted?

Lots to think about. Luckily, I have just the organ for it.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

the reality of writing

After all my fine talk, yesterday was a naked confrontation with the problem of work-avoidance.

The aspect of writing that seems like it should be the most creative and the most fun, coming up with original ideas through the free play of imagination, is in fact the most daunting part of the job, at least in my opinion. The work is most approachable when it is at its most mechanical. I almost never put off the most mechanical parts of the job, like typing up my research notes. Indeed, I enjoy that part. I start my "creative" day by reviewing the previous day's writing notes, and highlighting possible "keeper" ideas--again, fairly mechanical and easy, and not something I'm inclined to avoid.

But then we arrive at the day's problems: how to push my story forward? This is where the rubber meets the road, and, by and large, it is the place I am most afraid and disinclined to be.

There's nothing for it: here the writer is on the spot. This is where the writer produces. The insertion-point winks slowly on the screen, ready, waiting. It's supposed to be moving forward, with a string of new words trailing after it.

Yes, this is a corny complaint of writers through the ages. But it's real enough. When the writing matters to you, it becomes very difficult. In this respect it is like thinking through your own life-problems. For we all have those: "What should I do about my alcoholic brother?" "My wife can't forgive me for not getting the vice-presidency; what should I do about that?" "I'm not achieving what I wanted to in life; what should I do?"

Questions that seem too hard we tend to simply avoid, push aside--at least, I do. This is not a wholesome strategy; indeed, it's not any strategy. It's what happens when you simply try to dodge the immediate and impending feeling of failure. In writing, you stare at that insertion-point and nothing comes, perhaps. Or only the same stale ideas that you've typed there before. You get to experience yourself in the act of failing--surely no one's favorite experience.

On the other hand, the failure-point is also the success-point. Whatever magic there is in writing, this is where it happens. New ideas do come, they do blossom in the head--familiar words are strung together, and something new appears. It's just that, on any given occasion, you don't know what you're going to get. Or, rather, you have a good idea that, if it's like most such occasions, it will not be very rewarding. The gold, like real gold, is contained in a mass of native rock that has to be dug. And no matter how much you like gold, some days--many, most--you don't feel like digging.

So yesterday I arranged some notes, did some more research reading--I tried to be productive at those lesser, more doable activities, pushing my project forward in an administrative sense, at least.

This is the reality of writing. There's that winking insertion-point right now: ready, waiting, not judging me but simply doing its job. Yes. Will I do mine?

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

your date with...

Yes, I'm having a hard time coming up with ideas for blog-posts (even if it doesn't seem like it). I think it's at least partly due to the fact that my sense of my own work is changing. I feel less and less that what I'm doing makes me part of any kind of identifiable group--even of "writers". Like a dreamer or a psychotic, I wander ever deeper into a solitary world, from which communication can serve no purpose except to indicate just how separated from my society I have become.

Does that sound depressed? I'm not. Far from it: I feel quite good. How about psychotic--am I that? I don't think so, but then, it's probably not my call to make. As a citizen I seem to be functioning OK, which should keep me free from involuntary hospitalization.

The journey, then, is long, and it is solitary. In a way, though, it is thrilling, for what could be richer and more exciting than to be off any beaten track, away from any conventional path? Of course there are no social gains to be had on such a journey--no fame, no prestige, no riches--for these accrue only to those whose status, whose position, is recognized. There's no audience for the solitary trekker in the forest: only the trees, the birds, and whatever creatures move through the dark brush, still innocent of human contact. You trek into the woods for your date with reality, with your self.

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Monday, June 16, 2008


In my last post I raised the topic of what the experience of literature, the experience of reading, actually is. To the extent that we read for pleasure or at least on our own initiative, we must feel we're having a positive experience from it, maybe several positive experiences. Can these be identified?

At some basic level I sense the interplay here of the Familiar and the Strange. Words, in order to communicate, must be familiar--we have to know them. But in order for them to tell us something new, something we didn't know before, they must, in their combination, present us with something strange: a new idea. There is something mysterious about this ability to combine familiar things in new ways to present us with things that are not only strange and new but also relevant and illuminating. The source of the power of literature lies somewhere here.

I think about something I read in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, something that he mentions in passing: that in Shakespeare we find, for the first time, the phenomenon of the character discovering new things about himself in the course of a monologue. We watch a character following a train of thought and coming to novel insights about himself and his world. As I recall, Bloom was saying that the character discovers or forms himself through this process. It's like the old saying, "tell me something I don't know", but applied to ourselves: I tell myself something I didn't know.

Thus the basic experience of literature, the fundamental emotion, if you like, associated with reading, is surprise. My Webster's gives this as sense 3 of the verb surprise:

to strike with wonder and amazement esp. because unexpected

All right, so surprise itself is not the emotion, but rather the trigger for the emotions of wonder and amazement.

Here I'm using wonder and amazement as general terms that have degrees of intensity. I'm referring to our reaction to novelty of all kinds. Novelty attracts our attention and sparks our interest; it engages us. I think about Paul Holinger's assertion in his book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: that we are born with nine forms of emotional expression hardwired in us. Three of these he calls "signals of fun": interest, enjoyment, and surprise. (The other six he calls "signals for help": distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and "dissmell".) I'm saying that a properly functioning literary experience evokes surprise in us, leading on to interest and enjoyment. We may not gasp and gurgle and raise our eyebrows as we did when we were newborns, having learned to internalize our feelings and not let on so transparently. But nonetheless the impulses to do those things are still there, and, I say, can and should be triggered by reading.

Friends, there you have it. The experience of literature is (potentially) the gateway to the full suite of all our positive feelings. What more could one ask?

Back to creating mine...

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Friday, June 13, 2008

I'd like to do that

After three years of blogging, I'm finding it hard to come up with ideas for posts these days. Does this mean that my blog has played itself out--that I've covered all the topics that naturally relate to it? Or does it mean that more of my life and work has become "unbloggable"--not of a nature that I can or want to share in this public space? Or perhaps that my creativity is drying up?

This morning, for example, I was going to launch on a post based on John Fowles's critique of his own novel The Magus--that he was trying to create an experience "beyond the literary". But I recalled then that I've already written about that. Dang! I don't want to be that person who's always repeated the same joke or the same anecdote.

Well, it still raises an important idea: the experience of literature. What kind of an experience does the literary creator seek to create in his readers--and why?

In my case, anyway, there seems to be a certain kind of "imitative inspiration". I read or see something that I really enjoy, and want to create something that has that kind of effect on others. I remember feeling that way when I first saw the movie The Big Chill in 1983. Watching the movie alone in the theater, as I often did in those days, I was moved by it, and as I walked home in the dark across the Granville Street Bridge I thought, "I'd like to make a movie like that!"

Why did I think that?

It seems there are a number of factors. We often think that when we see great athletes or pop stars or dancers: I wish I could do that. Yes, it's partly perhaps envy: "I wish I had other people looking at me and being impressed". But I think that is a relatively small part. Larger is the desire for the sense of joy and presence that mastery suggests. An athlete at the peak of performance is in the moment: absorbed in the synchronization of mind and body with the challenge at hand. This is almost the definition of fun--don't you think? So: "That looks like so much fun! I want to do it too!"

Another aspect is giving back. Just as the athlete or artist has given you an experience that you value, and for which you feel grateful, you want to be able to share that with others--to be the vector of such experiences. You want to be a joy-bringer, a fun-bringer. You want to enrich the culture, enrich people's lives.

One more factor. These thoughts remain mere daydreams or wishful thinking unless there is some native talent or aptitude within one. Where the desire to imitate is strong, I suspect it is one's own talent calling to one: "Yes, that's right--this way. Come on!"

The achievements of others send us the message that this is possible. We know that the achievement is difficult, but that is where the excitement lies: it's difficult, but if you try hard enough, it's possible. It's presenting the possibility of the thrill of achievement, like reaching the peak of a mountain: hard but exhilarating, and worth it.

All these things are ingredients in the cocktail called "I'd like to do that".

I've written before about how these feelings were triggered in me by, among other things, reading Crime and Punishment when I was 13. To produce such an excellent work of art is a noble goal, a worthwhile aim for one's life. It's very easy to be seduced by lesser or counterfeit or consolation aims, such as making lots of money or becoming envied for some other reason. But these are lesser, and at some level we know it.

Back at it then. The mountain-peak still towers far above me...

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

the end and how to get there

The finger? Much better, thanks. Its last segment is still a bit hard from inflammation, but it does not hurt, and I can use it at will. I used it to play some guitar last night, and this morning I'm typing with both hands.

Kimmie and I have been watching the 1977 Masterpiece Theatre production of Love for Lydia, based on the novel by H. E. Bates. Set in England of the 1920s and 30s, the story has a moody young man, Edward Richardson, aspiring to be a novelist. While the core of the story is shaped around his love for a beautiful young socialite, Lydia, who also appears to be somewhat mentally ill, I'm interested by how the approach to novel-writing is portrayed. Young Richardson simply rolls a sheet of paper into a typewriter, types "Chapter One", and launches on his book.

While I'm sure that many, no doubt most, novels are written that way, I'm equally sure that very few published ones are. But since it was presumably written this way by Bates, it seems plausible that this was how Bates himself worked. That seems the more likely, since he wrote and published hundreds of works in his lifetime (he died in 1974). (It's also possible though that the material was written in order to conform with the audience's preconceptions in order not to distract from the more important relational parts of the story.)

To me, it's as hard to imagine writing a book without a careful plan as it is to imagine building a house by just starting to dig in the ground and making it up as you go along. And writing a large book is more like building a skyscraper. It's inconceivable that it could work out without detailed planning.

On the other hand, who really knows? All the various methods and techniques for creative writing are probably so much whistling in the dark. In reality, it's probably, as I've mentioned before, as that pilot told me back at Seminary: "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing." Any method that gets you to the end is a good method.

Well then. I suppose I should get on with it.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

don't do it

Nobody knows anything.

This statement was made famous by William Goldman, the screenwriter and novelist, who was making a comment on the movie industry. He was pointing to the fact that many people in that industry, especially studio executives with high salaries, claim to understand the industry and what makes movies successful, and indeed must believe this in order to justify said high salaries, even though the facts seem to point quite the other way. The great majority of movies are flops both critically and commercially. To Goldman the inescapable conclusion was that, all chest-thumping aside, nobody in the movie industry, not even those who have been in it longest and have enjoyed the most success, really knows what makes a movie successful. Nobody knows what's going to work. Or, in brief: nobody knows anything.

But why stop there? Is this condition merely an aspect of movies, or is it a more general phenomenon? When it comes right down to it, who really knows what they're doing? Does anyone?

Take the Iraq War. The stated reasons for the invasion were Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's links with Al Qaeda. For the sake of argument, let's assume everyone was sincere and honest about this from the start. Before long it came out that these reasons were in fact nonexistent. On the face of it, it would appear that the invasion was therefore a boo-boo, even in its own terms. Assuming sincerity and honesty, a lack of knowledge led to a mistaken and highly costly and bloody action, and we have every reason to think that Goldman's dictum applies 100% in this case as well.

That's a spectacular instance, but by no means the only one. You don't have to be a Buddhist to see that ignorance is the driving force behind much of our activity, perhaps all of it. From Thalidomide to CFCs to pumping groundwater dry throughout the world (currently under way--soon much of the world will be without water to irrigate crops with or to drink): action is confidently undertaken on the basis of incomplete knowledge, with disastrous results.

We hear of the "law of unintended consequences": everything we do brings a harvest of unexpected knock-on effects. Many of those are unpleasant, and have us scrambling to take new ill-informed actions to try to deal with them. I'm wondering whether the law of unintended consequences is the motto on the flip side of the coin of "nobody knows anything".

It feels good to do things instead of just sitting around on one's duff. I often feel bad about how little I do. But if we look at it objectively, the world would probably be in a lot better shape if more of us spent more time on our duffs and not trying to do things. This is the view of Hinayana Buddhism (sort of), as well as the Hippocratic Oath: "first of all, do no harm". As in first aid, the wise, disciplined approach is often a matter of not doing too much. Meditation, indeed, is really just a calculated strategy of sitting on one's duff.

Ha--here's maybe a case in point. I was just seeing Kimmie off to work. On the front porch, I swung the door closed behind me--only to have it slam on my fingertip. Smash. I gave it a good one, and it hurt plenty (still does--I'm typing this with my left hand).

I didn't know what I was doing.

( don't worry--I've been applying an ice-pack, and it's starting to calm down.)

Yeah, I'm liking sitting on my duff--the perfect activity for those of us who don't know anything.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

getting a kick

Early this morning I dreamed that I had managed to get my family aboard a special ferry (my family here consisting of Kimmie plus my mother and aunt, and possibly also my sister Mara). In a queue leading up one side of the ship, we can look out the windows on a commanding view of what I take to be the pulp-producing town of Powell River (implying that we're really on a train instead). I point that out, then try to rush ahead so that we can see other views out other windows at the bow of the ferry.

In the forward lounge I try to secure us a table, which is cluttered with other people's dishes and wrappers. An imperious and nasty woman is trying to get the same table for her party, but won't sit there until it's cleared. While she stridently and rudely orders a steward to clear it for her, I simply take the table as is, wondering whether I'll be getting into a fight with this termagant.

My women start to take places here, while I point out the other views available: the Gulf Islands as though from on high. I'm proud because I've done this trip before, while it is new to them. I want to go to the far side to check out the windows there, for I know other great views will be visible if we get to them soon enough--maybe of Salt Spring Island or Saanich on Vancouver Island.

I hurry over, and find I have to squeeze through a small gap between a bar-counter and a wall. On the other side of the gap, by the windows, are a few people and several horses, which I suppose they're transporting. But out the windows here there is indeed another new and wonderful view. I feel a bit intimidated, but think that the horses must be tame and safe to be on board. Having to squeeze through the gap means I must move close to them, there's no help for it. So I quickly squeeze through.

As I do, I see that there is a foal here, and I become alarmed, because the foal's mother will no doubt be protective. The foal scampers near me, curious and affectionate. I try to dodge away, but before I know it I feel a terrific wallop on my thigh--I've been kicked by the mare! It happened so fast. I hurry around another counter, wondering whether my leg has been broken. No, it seems OK. I feel annoyed, but also embarrassed that this has happened to me. I must seem like an inexperienced sucker--the only one here who's managed to be kicked by one of these horses. But maybe I'll be impressive too when I tell my family about it.

This dream is one of a string of strange new dreams I've had in the past few days. As far as I can recall, I've never dreamed about horses before, and certainly never about being kicked by one. A common theme of my dreams since about 2002 has been of trying to catch ferries, buses, trains, and airplanes, sometimes getting them and sometimes not.

I recognize some of the dream's ingredients: my father stopped by to visit a week ago, and he had ridden the ferry over from Vancouver Island where he lives. Recently too Kimmie and I talked about a little vacation trip we took with Robin to the Gulf Islands in 1990, when I had recently been to Salt Spring Island on a solitary meditation retreat and so knew the ropes of that particular route. On that trip we had visited a park on Salt Spring where a cliff-edge lookout overhangs the sea hundreds of feet below, and Kimmie had been too terrified to go near the railing, instead repeatedly ordering us to come away from it.

There was a reference to horses in The History of Technology yesterday. Evidently in medieval times the horse began to replace the ox as the preferred draft-animal for plowing and threshing, its lower strength and higher cost being offset by its greater speed. The changeable weather in Europe made speed increasingly important as more land was cultivated, and people at harvest-time needed to get crops in as quickly as possible. Before that time there had not been any harness that allowed horses to pull heavy weights without choking themselves. Horses lack the powerful shoulders of the ox.

What does it all mean? The horses were pintos.

I've been fascinated by dreams ever since I was a child. They are the primal storytelling medium. And they remain a deep mystery.


Monday, June 09, 2008

out with the old, in with the more complicated

Back to the routine of regular life. Kimmie prepares to head off again to the office, out into the still-gray weather that also characterized our week of vacation here at home. I too will try to return to full productivity.

Of course, I kept up with my reading and my notes over the vacation. To me those things are not mere duty, but what I do for pleasure as well. For better or for worse, I'm not in the situation of Stephen King, who did his actual creative writing 365 days a year because that was what he enjoyed. For whatever reason, and to whatever end, my approach is much more deliberate.

Early in our week off our old television packed it in. It had been an excellent set over all--a Sony, about 24 inches I think, that I got in 1990 on a rent-to-own basis because I was unemployed (oops, I mean a full-time TV series creator). A couple of times in the preceding week the set had switched itself off and then on again in the middle of a program. On Saturday night (June 1), just as we were starting to watch our weekly movie (The Bridges of Madison County in this case), it switched itself off and I could not get power restored to it. We wound up watching the movie on my new laptop, the sound tinny and faint from the speaker even with the computer close to us, resting on top of the coffee-table.

The next day we headed to Future Shop in Park Royal to look for a new set, and wound up buying one--or rather a whole system, since to be fully high-definition-ready it seems you need not just a TV set but also a digital set-top box, and ideally also an expensive HDMI connecting cable to carry the signal between them. The price of all this was about double the maximum amount I'd regarded myself as prepared to pay.

But when it comes to technology purchases, or indeed anything that I really want, I don't like to scrimp. If I only buy a TV every 18 years, I want to get one that's near the front of the technology, not at the rear, so the thing can last.

We went for it. The package consists of a Sharp 32-inch LCD flat-screen television with a Motorola set-top box that includes a 160-gigabyte hard drive for recording programs. The TV is plenty big enough, since we sit quite close to it (I think of a saying my father used to invoke from time to time: "white man build big fire, sit far away; Indian build small fire, sit close".) And the picture and sound are excellent--a leap beyond what we had, for sure.

There are some negatives. The new system is complicated to use--two more remote-control units. And the user's guides that come with the units are poor. Indeed, the Motorola guide is laughably inadequate. The page on using the video-recording feature is simply a list of features, with not one word on how to use the thing. Easily the worst user's guide I've ever seen. If I were interested in chasing copywriting work, I'd write Motorola and offer to write a better one.

Robin, who already has a digital flat-screen TV, wondered why we need a set-top box. Doesn't the digital signal just come through the cable into the TV, as on hers? Our salesman insisted that we can't get a full high-definition signal without the set-top box, so we got it. But as to precisely why that is, I don't know--and my user's guides certainly won't tell me. So, as ever, I'm taking matters into my own hands: I shopped for and bought a book on digital TV from Amazon.com a couple of days ago. I'll wait for that and hope it straightens me out--or at least that I can tell Robin why we sprang for a $650 piece of auxiliary equipment to go with our new TV set.

Meanwhile, TV is very enjoyable again. This past Saturday we watched Apollo 13, the next title in Paul's 90s Festival, and it came across powerfully on our new screen.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

vacation mode

Kimmie has taken this week off, and so we're in "vacation" mode. That means sleeping in (this morning I staggered out of bed at the late hour of 7:05), and a change away from the usual routine--including blog-posts. I may not be writing more posts until we return to normal next week.

Meanwhile, it looks like we've got rain for much of our vacation week--plus there are roofers working next door. I don't mind hammering, but power tools are a blight on suburban life. To their credit, these guys run power tools quite seldom--not as much as all the gardeners attending to the grounds of the townhouses hereabouts (including ours). For me it increasingly means wearing earplugs in the daytime as well as at night, because I can't stand noise.

So: on with it. To all of you who check in to read my blog, thank you--I appreciate your attention.