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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 30, 2006

outside the box

It's warmer: now 3°C. The snow is wet and heavy (I still went out to do some shoveling, since it snowed again overnight, and it will not be gone by tonight when it freezes again). There is a mild, pearly luminosity to the sky, making the winter scene benign and beautiful.

Again this morning I keyed notes from Uriel's Machine. I made it all the way to page 413, where the highlights stop because that's where I left off reading the book last year (the text, including appendixes, runs 530 pages). The material is very interesting, but I'm unsure of Lomas and Knight's authority. They make bold speculative connections between diverse types of evidence, and go to great trouble to develop original evidence of their own for the core parts of the book--notably constructing their own version of Uriel's calendar "machine".

I typed skeptically the passage I'd highlighted in which they state their belief that Julius Caesar's new solar calendar was developed from a calendar of the Druids, with whom he had studied astronomy and calendars while in Gaul. While Caesar is supposed to have authored a book on astronomy based on Druidic lore, his new Julian calendar was essentially identical to the solar calendar already in use in Egypt, and the creation of his calendar is credited to the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes. Of course, there's undoubtedly more to the whole thing than meets the (modern) eye.

Overall, I like Lomas and Knight because of their boldness, their willingness to think outside the box (indeed, they don't spend too much time in the box). They launch their book on a biblical patriarch's supposed relationship with megalithic astronomy by discussing the impact of comets and planetoids on the Earth--in particular, they discuss two impacts for which there is apparently good scientific evidence: one in 7640 BC, and another in 3150 BC. The first of these was particularly catastrophic, with a comet breaking into seven pieces that hit the Earth in various oceans, according to geologists Edith and Alexander Tollmann. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean gives an idea of how powerful giant waves can be, and what devastation they can wreak. The tsunamis released by an event like the one theorized for 7640 BC would have been much bigger, and multiple--criss-crossing each other, crushing and drowning everything within many miles of any shore.

Lomas and Knight speculate that these events may well be the basis of the Flood legends--their universality being accounted for by the fact that the floods were universal on Earth.

All of that may be. It's intriguing to consider. On the other hand, I find efforts to account for myths by various literal facts and phenomena unsatisfying. The deepest truths concern things that we can't see with our eyes. The literal level of events is like the crust of the Earth itself: a veneer of diverse, wonderful phenomena lying over a much vaster unseen realm that is the real prime mover of events.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

becoming a citizen again

The sky had filled with cloud again by sunrise, as though some great pale-plumaged dove had sat on the city. With a forecast of more snow by afternoon, I hustled out in the morning to get filtered water (the "boil water" advisory for Vancouver is now gone, and people are not jamming the stores for water) and groceries. I wanted to start up the car in any case, to keep it ready to go in the freezing weather. Sure enough: tiny flakes fall quickly and vertically out my office window right now.

Stepping out the door into subzero air is evocative of other times and places: I have flashes of being at Gampo Abbey, or in Switzerland. Even with the heat turned up, the house is cold. My hands are cold as I type (mind you, I just had a lie-down in the bedroom where the thermostat is turned down to 10°).

Another book has just arrived: it's still cold from lying in its box out on the front porch. The book is Nuclear Renaissance by W. J. Nuttall, an examination of the technologies and policy issues around nuclear power. It is recommended by James Lovelock in his The Revenge of Gaia. It's an expensive hardback, but I was able to get a lower-priced new copy from A-1 Books in New Jersey via Abebooks.com.

I wanted to look into the question of nuclear power more closely, since Lovelock believes strongly that we--all of us humans on Earth--need to throw as much effort as possible, as soon as possible, into converting to nuclear energy, the only source that is technologically ready to wean us off carbon in the short term. Since, like most environmentalists, I have had a long-standing aversion to nuclear power, this is a change of direction. Lovelock's arguments in favor of it are strong and rational. He believes that the arguments against nuclear power are mainly irrational, and play upon our fear (in the West) of cancer--a disease that 1/3 of us will die of in any case, regardless of what we do, eat, or breathe.

So it's part of my effort to become educated about the things that matter in the world--the most important political and social topics that I can focus on. I have long held that environmental issues are at or near the top of the list of priorities for humans worldwide, but Lovelock's book has given that feeling a new fillip. Even though I've long been keen on science, I have never been very interested in nuclear technology, mainly because I disapproved of it and wanted it gone. Now I have a reason to learn more, and have the scientific aptitude to be able to read and understand this type of material.

Two other--used--books arrived in the mail two days ago. These also were recommendations of Lovelock's: The Self-Organizing Universe by Erich Jantsch, and The Earth System by Kump, Kasting, and Crane. The former is a 1980 text on the new science of self-organizing systems (including living systems, such as us); the latter is a textbook on the emerging field of "earth systems science"--the way earth, atmosphere, water, and living things interact. (I understand I was lucky to find the Jantsch book for only about $16. It is an out-of-print book that apparently many people want to get their hands on. The next-cheapest copy at Abebooks.com was about $68, as I recall. I think my seller in Port Townsend, Washington, didn't realize what he had. But he offered and I accepted.) These too are part of my current push to become better informed about a topic that will quickly, I believe, start to dominate all levels of political discussion.

So: the writer is starting to think of himself as a citizen once again--a world citizen, a concerned citizen, nay, a worried citizen.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

a question for an artist

Temperatures have dropped even lower here--around −7° C--but it is sunny and brilliant. I trudged out on errands--get cash, buy a ham hock, drop book and DVD at the library, and down Lonsdale to the liquor store for scotch and wine. When I pay attention, I'm quite sure-footed and not given to falling. I trod carefully over the patches of smooth, hard-tramped ice, mainly at intersections.

Still embroiled in my copywriting assignment, I am still drifting with The Mission. Not entirely: I'm still keying notes first thing in the morning (after switching on the heat throughout the house and making the coffee), from Uriel's Machine, which I bought at this time last year.

"Uriel's machine" is their name for a device the authors theorize was specified in the "Book of the Heavenly Luminaries" portion of the Book of Enoch--a simple observatory that can be set up at any latitude to create an accurate calendar for that latitude. (Uriel was the angel who enlightened Enoch about the heavens.) The depth of the astronomical understanding underlying it, coupled with the great simplicity of its design (a matter of setting vertical sticks in holes along an arc), point to the sophisticated engineering intelligence behind it.

Lomas and Knight, the authors, believe that devices like "Uriel's machine" were used at the henge-type megalithic monuments of the British Isles--of which there are remains for more than 40,000. There is strong evidence that the so-called Grooved Ware People, a seemingly quite advanced culture that lived in Western Europe about 5,000 years ago, used observatories and may even have built scientific stations--which is what the complex at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands appears to be (dated to 3215 BC), with thoughtfully made uniform apartments for occupants who apparently neither farmed nor hunted, but ate meat that had been specially transported to the site.

All of this is of keen interest to me. Enoch was of special interest and importance to the Essenes, who feature prominently in my story. I chew through the material, comparing it to what I already know, slowly working toward my own theory of what happened.

In all, I sense that a great deal of knowledge has been lost over the millennia. And while we're smug about our scientific progress, we should remember that the kinds of knowledge we seek--the very questions we ask--would have been considered uninteresting to people in the ancient world.

This is illustrated with a great example by the Frankforts, quoted by David C. Lindberg in The Beginnings of Western Science. If I keeled over now at my keyboard, my body would be taken to a morgue and autopsied to find the cause of death. The doctor would discover evidence of, say, a massive heart attack, and write this on the death certificate. Problem solved.

An ancient person looking at the situation would be very dissatisfied. The question asked by the modern doctor is not interesting to him. The modern scientist is looking for an answer to this: "To what general class of phenomena does this particular case belong?" When he finds that, he regards his job as done.

The ancient person asks a different question: "Why did this man die in this way at this time?"

It's a very different question. The ancient person is interested in the meaning of an event--its significance. Science has very little to say about this. It's a question for an artist. Or perhaps for a shaman. But it deserves to be answered, don't you think?

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Monday, November 27, 2006

snow and community

As I look out the venetian blinds of my office window, I see shrubs and trees clumped thickly with snow. Winter has arrived suddenly and early in Vancouver, and Kim and I are both delighted.

We both love snow because of its beauty and because of the quiet that falls over the world. Right now I hear no traffic going by; it's been minutes since a car has rumbled by the front of the house. Ordinarily that kind of traffic quiet happens only in the dead of night, maybe around 4:00 a.m., and then only for a minute or two at a stretch.

We also both like the inconvenience of snow: how it discombobulates and derails people's ordinary routines and patterns, turning ordinary errands into adventures. Most people hate this. They complain bitterly about the snow (even though Vancouver gets only maybe two weeks of snow cover a year, if that)--even more bitterly than they complain about all the other kinds of weather we get. I love it.

Yesterday we walked up to Safeway and the butcher to get some groceries, huddling under my large umbrella. With the goods in a backpack, we decided to walk through the neighborhood as the flakes fell thickly and silently. We made our way up 15th Street to Grand Boulevard, where we were drawn by the faint sound of children's shrieks of fun in the park.

There we saw a scene such as I don't recall having witnessed since I was a kid 30-odd years ago: a little crowd of kids and their parents with various kinds of sliding device, clustered on the edge of the soccer field where it plunges over to a slope to the lower park. Kimmie and I made our way past intact and demolished snowmen to a vantage near the bottom of the slope, and watched the kids (and adults) zip down on plastic sheets, mini-sleds, and inner tubes. One group had built up a snow jump midway down the slope, and one enterprising kid was hauling more snow on his toboggan to augment the jump.

We watched awhile, smiling, enjoying the scene of wholesome, enthusiastic, family fun. I tasted a sense of community--that precious, largely lost thing that I used to take for granted, indeed whose existence I only gradually became aware of through its gradual destruction.

We headed away, having got our fill, and remembering that we'd forgotten to buy roasted peanuts as part of the kung pao chicken that Kimmie had planned. We trudged past a couple of abandoned snow forts, no doubt built for an earlier snowball war.

Home to an excellent wood-fire (birch logs and a few pieces of apple-wood), and of course reading.

Yes, still quiet out there--so quiet.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

breakdowns large and small

All kinds of ideas swirl in my head of things I'd like to write about as I go about my day(s), but now that I open up the text box here at Blogger.com--nada, or near-nada.

I'm underslept, that's one thing. Today I feel it. And the heavy cold rain has returned, falling from a featureless sky of thick watery cloud. The tapwater will continue to run yellow-green, the bathtub will fill with a brownish liquid like pond-water. The "boil water" advisory is still in effect.

These past two mornings I've spent time reading, on what has become my favorite source of online news or political commentary, a preview of an essay by Mark Danner called "Iraq: The War of the Imagination", which will be published in the December 21 edition of The New York Review of Books. In some ways it's like a compressed recap of Thomas Ricks's book Fiasco. And fiasco it is, lest there be any remaining doubters out there.

I'd read once that the word fiasco was someone's name--some Italian naval officer who'd screwed up in an exemplary way. But according to my Dictionary of Word Origins, it is simply Italian for "bottle", from an Italian phrase far fiasco, "make a bottle", theatrical slang for "suffer a complete breakdown in performance."

Performance breakdown. There are many ways for one's "performance" to break down. It's no doubt best done in the privacy and comfort of one's own home, rather than being writ large on the world stage, engulfing millions of lives and billions of dollars. So I've got that to be thankful for.

Another post I recently read at the Tomdispatch site was a piece on NASCAR racing and its political overtones. It gets me thinking about car-racing--seemingly a field rife with breakdowns. And yet, in some sense, I reckon they probably don't see mechanical failures that way. I'm assuming that in NASCAR they have pit stops as they do in Formula 1 racing--places where the cars pull in for quick servicing during the race. The key point is that they expect these--they're part of the race. You don't go out there without having a pit crew ready. The car is complex, expensive, and you're driving it hard, at the limits of its performance envelope. Things are going to go foo-foo here and there.

I suppose I'm driving toward the idea that "breakdowns" (which my Webster's defines as "a failure to function"--I love Webster's!) can be reframed as "pit stops": not (necessarily) disasters, but an inevitable part of pushing one's performance to the limits. Your car's pulled off to the side, the wheels are all off, you're not moving anywhere--but you're still in the race. Your stressed parts are just getting a little TLC.

I'm in the pit stop, and the wheels are definitely off. C'mon guys--put 'em back on!

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

feelings and the moon

In from my (short) run, taking advantage of the gap in the rain. Today it has been uneven, with squalls interspersed with periods of moist calm, as now.

My mind is torn, or anyway tugged, in various directions. I lay awake in the dark after 3:30 this morning, troubled by thoughts and feelings. The night is definitely a more emotional time. I might have the same thoughts during the day, but they do not arouse the same emotional response. No doubt there are physiological and psychological reasons for that: low biorhythms, the activity of the brain focused in different regions related to dreaming, and so on. In the ancient world it was all summed up by saying that the night was ruled by the Moon, visible sign of the Great Goddess, and she ruled the feelings.

Graves referred to the White Goddess in his books--the shining white of the Moon. But of course the Moon is not only white; it is black too--as now, during the new Moon. Makes me think of something I read about the Tao in one of the books lying around the apartment on 12th Avenue back when I was 21: "Neither speech nor silence is enough to express the Tao."

Neither speech nor silence is enough to express the Moon.

I've just sat here for several minutes staring at the screen after writing that last sentence. Mentally becalmed. Might as well go and do up some dishes, and move on to the reading course.

Reading, yes: I heartily recommend it.


Monday, November 20, 2006

the big lie

I'll try to get in a quick post before heading up for tea. It's already 4:00 p.m.

I've been a good lad, working diligently on my copywriting assignment. In the morning over coffee I keyed some notes from the book Uriel's Machine by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, authors of The Hiram Key. This is genuine research for The Mission, so I'm getting my mind back to that. Indeed, I worked fairly hard on it yesterday, Sunday. Kimmie and Robin had headed off, with emergency rain-ponchos, to watch the Santa Parade in Vancouver, leaving me to my quiet suburban devices. I dove back into my research, feeling just in the mood.

But I've wanted since last week to touch in on something else that came to me. On Saturday I had to return the library copy of Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks. I only made it to page 100; I'll have to put another hold on it and wait for the eight people in front of me to have a go first. But it was already absorbing reading as far as I got.

Ricks makes this point:

The Iraq fiasco occurred not just because the Bush administration engaged in sustained self-deception over the threat presented by Iraq and the difficulty of occupying the country, but also because of other major lapses in major American institutions, from the military establishment and the intelligence community to the media.

One thought that came to me was the recollection of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962 during the Kennedy administration. It is now given as a textbook example of groupthink--the psychological phenomenon of a group's subtle or not so subtle tendency to smother dissent and manufacture consensus. It seems clear that this was strongly operating in the U.S. administration--as well as its legislative branch--in the runup to the war.

But another thought was a vague memory of the phrase, "the big lie." I couldn't remember quite where I'd heard it or what it referred to, so I went to Wikipedia and was intrigued to find that the phrase is due to Adolf Hitler. They have an extract there from Mein Kampf:

[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

Ricks's book makes clear that in the runup to the war, the U.S. administration persistently and willfully overrode its own intelligence community in the matter of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The emphaticness with which they did so, arguably culminating in Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the UN, strongly suggests a reliance on Hitler's technique. It was a big lie.

Also, on Remembrance Day I found another quote, this time from Hermann Goering:

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Again, I was struck by the resemblance to the political behavior I've seen in the last few years. Apparently, until recently anyway, it was working in the U.S.


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Friday, November 17, 2006

up on the roof

Heavy rains have returned. The GVRD has issued a "boil water" advisory: all tap-water, even for brushing teeth and washing dishes, should be boiled for one minute before use. Indeed, the water in the toilets is turbid; it's visibly cloudy even as it comes out of the tap.

Outside the rain has let up somewhat. I'm supposed to be joining my neighbor Ken in an expedition up to our roof to look for the source of a leak in one of the townhouses. It's not a thought I relish, especially after watching real-life trauma shows recently on TV, which mainly seem to have focused on falls. Two of them have been roof-falls from heights of about 20 feet. The injuries aren't nice, and always bring on fervent resolves--by the survivors--that they won't head up a roof again.

But as president of my strata corporation, it seems to be one of the tasks that falls to me. Falls.

Creative writing is still on hold while I work on my commercial assignment. There's always reading around the edges, though--something to do over coffee and tea each day. The only book that I'm currently reading that relates to my own novel is Persian Fire by Tom Holland. Even though he's dealing with events 450 years before my period, I find it valuable--anything to help get insight into the ancient mindset. Holland's cynical, gossipy writing style is fun and engaging, even if it arouses a bit of skepticism about his understanding of ancient characters, at least for this reader. His account of the battle of Marathon, though, which I just read last night, was stirring and effective.

Other reading I'm doing: Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a new account of exactly how the Iraq War got screwed up. It's another library book, so I've been reading it down here at the PC. It's also only a "14-day book", so I've got to take it back tomorrow (about 8 people have holds on it at the library), even though I've only made it 85 pages in so far.

It's later. I'm just back in from my roof inspection with Ken. We used two ladders, a long and a short, to gain access first to a resident's balcony, and second from there to the roof. Rain was falling lightly, and we took great care in climbing from the ladder over a short stretch of slippery cedar shingles to get to the flat asphalt-and-gravel inner part. There was a pool of accumulated rainwater around one roof-drain, where someone--maybe the roofer we sent up a couple of weeks ago to look into this problem--had created little dikes of pea-gravel to pen the water. Strange, we thought.

I kicked the gravel back flat and Ken took some digital photos. From the roof we could see the city skyline across the water: a blurry dark blue with bright pinkish-white sky beyond. The light was already fading from the day, clouds clinging and swirling like dark gunsmoke to the mountain above us.

There was no obvious point of entry for the water. My best guess is that there may be a rupture of some kind in the drainpipe itself below the level of the roof. We'll have to get someone in.

Now: tea and reading!

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

the writer tangles with Mercury retrograde

I'm finding it to be a frustrating day. I'm suffering some of the symptoms of Mercury retrograde: a period of three weeks when Mercury appears to move backward in the sky. Astrologically it coincides with communication and travel delays and mixups, lost mail, telephone tag, and malfunctioning office equipment. (Have you found any of this happening since the end of October?)

I'm suffering from the latter. I discovered today that my antivirus and Internet security software, Kaspersky Antivirus, expired on October 11. Yikes! I set about trying to renew it. While Kaspersky, a Russian firm, is not as customer-hostile as Norton/Symantec (who are very customer-hostile indeed, in my experience), they nonetheless make it difficult to get things done. For hotshot programmers, their Web interface is pretty confusing and mysterious. Buying stuff online should be simple and straightforward, and the user interface well tested. Strangely, this is an area that most online businesses seem to put little effort into.

I managed to buy version 6.0, but then, upon trying to install it, I hit a wall: I would reach a point where the Install program would tell me I had to restart my computer. I did so. I hit the same point again, and restarted again. And again. And again.

At that point I sent an e-mail to the Kaspersky American support people who sent me my discount code for buying the product, but I haven't heard back from them. They probably work a regular day till 5:00 or so on the East Coast, then went home. Meanwhile, version 6.0 appears to have deleted version 5 that was resident on my PC, leaving me with nada. Luckily, they did get my money for the purchase.

I hesitated about updating my security software while Mercury is still retrograde, since this is exactly the kind of transaction that can go haywire. But I felt nervous about continuing to run on a virus database that was last updated on October 10. Well, now I have no virus database. Presumably I'm a sitting duck for malware, spam, phishing, and who knows what else.

I could try contacting Kaspersky at their Russian headquarters. From the "support" page of their website, it appears that I would have to fill out a form, a process that they advise takes about 15 minutes. That should keep those pesky inquiries away!

Maybe more businesses should have a flash page that says: "Just give us your Visa number, stop whining, and go away." As long as it were simple to enter the credit-card number, they might get some business with that, just because it appears to work.

There: some good old, down-home complaining.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

the warm glow of togetherness

It's Remembrance Day here in North Vancouver: gray, chilly, rainy. Kim was home from work, providing us with our fourth straight day of sleeping in. It's a relative thing, since both of us are awake a fair amount in the night (between about 4:00 and 6:00 this morning in my case), but when you can lie in till after 7:00, it's still excellent.

I seem to be reading these days rather than writing. This morning, over coffee, I pressed further with James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia, his plea for the world to wake up to the severity of global warming, and his suggestions for how best to preserve civilization. His prescription is that while we develop sustainable sources of energy for the future, we must immediately press forward with nuclear energy--as much as we can build, as fast as we can build it. He deplores the bad name that nuclear power has got, and the destruction of its reputation by environmentalists. In one chapter of his book he does his best to rehabilitate it.

According to Lovelock, the so-called green energies, such as wind power, solar, and tidal, are decades away from being able to produce power on the scale needed to maintain our way of life. He is dismissive of biofuels, since these can be produced only through still more extensive agriculture, and the conversion of so much of the planet to agriculture already is one of the key contributors to Earth's current environmental crisis. He dismisses hydrogen as well since it, like electricity, is not properly a source of energy at all, only a carrier of it. Hydrogen must be produced, and this process requires energy from some other source.

He is enthusiastic about nuclear energy (fusion energy, in particular, although this is not yet available) because it represents a genuine source of energy (fusion is the same energy that powers the sun and other stars), the technology to produce fission energy already exists, and, watt for watt, nuclear power is safer than any other major source of power generation, including coal, natural gas, and hydro. Watt for watt, fewer people have been killed by nuclear-power generation than by any other form of energy production, and that by a large margin.

Hydro power, in the period 1970-1992, had the worst record, at 883 deaths per terawatt-year (a measure of power output over a year). All these deaths were "public"--that is, people not involved in the hydro industry itself. No doubt they were due to one or more dam-bursts. In comparison, nuclear power resulted in 8 deaths per twy over the same period, and all those were workers in the industry itself.

(Coal and natural gas resulted in 342 and 85 deaths per twy respectively.)

Lovelock points out that our fears about radiation-induced cancer are vastly overblown. Approximately one in three of us dies of cancer in any case, due mostly to our lifelong exposure to the most powerful carcinogen of all: oxygen. Against this, even serious nuclear accidents, such as that at Chernobyl in 1986, contribute relatively little extra risk. The people who have died of Chernobyl cancers have been the workers who put out the fire and who cleaned up the site.

I must say, he has infected me with his sense of urgency about this. Although I have long regarded global warming as an important issue, he has persuaded me that it has actually more the nature of a crisis--one that humanity as a whole must deal with immediately. There is no reason at all to doubt that the Earth can return to a climate regime such as it had at he dawn of the Eocene epoch 55 million years ago, when it was 5 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today. And there is ever less reason to doubt that that is exactly what it is doing right now, while we watch.

Will humanity wake up and work together on this? Or will we take comfort, like lemmings, in behaving just like our neighbors, enjoying a feeling of solace and togetherness as we plunge of the cliff together? "It's not my fault--I just did what everyone else did..."

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

fresh concrete

The weather has turned cooler again, and dry after the torrents of the weekend. I wore sweatpants, sweatshirt, and gloves on my run--and earplugs to keep my ears warm. I felt heavy and sluggish, still carrying my lunch of navy-bean soup, pita, and an apple.

After I'd walked off the run I chatted with the city crew at the intersection nearby. They'd spent the last two days tearing up ground and pouring concrete for a new crosswalk on the east side of Keith Road. The city has decided to turn it into a four-way stop with zebra crosswalks on three sides.

"Can you believe it?" said the Italian guy in his orange safety vest. "A four-way stop with zebras. They're already backed up at Keith and Lonsdale. What's it gonna be like here?"

"They've got a stop sign there already," I said, pointing at the southbound side of St. Georges, which runs downhill to the west of our building. "People usually don't stop there anyway."

"Yeah, people in a rush. Like this idiot--" He indicated a red coupe stopped northbound on St. Georges behind two other cars stopped at the upper stop sign across the boulevard that divides Keith Road. "People can't even turn left around him."

With a loud burst of smoky acceleration, the coupe was up and across the north lane of Keith road, speeding up St. Georges. The worker shook his head.

"Where's a cop when you need him?"

I looked over their handiwork.

"When will this concrete set?" I said.

"We should be back taking the stuff down tomorrow afternoon," said a younger guy who was picking up tools. "You'll be able to walk on it tomorrow."

"I'm thinking about tonight," I said. "Kids might write graffiti in it if it's still soft enough."

"Oh!" said the young guy. "Well, we put up the tape around it. I mean, what can you do?"

"We should put some poly over it," said the Italian guy.

"Naw," said the young guy doubtfully. "It's not going to rain."

"No--because the kids are too lazy to lift the poly," said the Italian guy.

But the idea died out quickly. I looked over the smooth wet concrete--maybe the last time it will ever appear that way--and came inside.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

getting by

What to say. There is quiet beauty out my office window. Some little birds, I can't tell which species, but they're flapping and hovering furiously like oversized hummingbirds around the holly-tree next to the neighbor's townhouse. Maybe it has berries on it, and they're harvesting them. And the leaves of the Japanese maple by our own patio have turned a deep burnt vermilion. They glow in the faint light falling from the white overcast.

I feel both busy and unproductive. I'm doing no creative writing these days, and feel the full sense of being stuck in neutral. Even pushing ahead on a seemingly infinite project is better than actually being idled. Of course writers, like other artists, must find ways to earn their keep. James Joyce, toward the end of his career, found a patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who was willing to support him while he worked on Finnegans Wake. Excellent woman! I doubt I'll ever be able to read more than snippets of Finnegans Wake, but I salute her gesture toward tending the flames of genius.

In his masterwork Story, Robert McKee says that the screenwriter must earn his living from his craft. Otherwise, the burden of trying to work on it while also supporting himself will eventually be too much.

I suppose he's right. But there's something to be said too for a writer's being (more or less) financially independent. True, many of the greatest works have been written while the writer was enduring terrible poverty. But I think about my own experience of earning at creative writing while working on The Odyssey. Financially I had my back to the wall while the show was in development, with two house mortgages and no other regular source of income. When people are pressuring you to change your ideas--make them worse--it's much harder to resist when you need the money. Time and again Warren and I had to beg the producer for advances on future stages of the work, just so we could survive. I didn't find it particularly humiliating, but I wasn't keen on it either. We were being toyed with by people with six-figure salaries, when, in one year, 1990 I think, The Odyssey provided us with a total pay of $8,000 each. Try paying off two mortgages with that.

I think also about an excellent documentary series Kimmie and I watched a few months ago, called The Other French Revolution, about the Impressionists. Most of them endured great financial hardship, almost starving their families as they pursued their art. Of course, as I well know, this could only be a source of family friction and pain. By the time they became old, however, they were vindicated, and mainly enjoyed good commercial success.

I'm sure there's no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. People have different needs, desires, beliefs, including artists. As artists go I'm relatively bourgeois, and like to live at a certain level of comfort. Others thrive on a bohemian lifestyle. However, I can get by on very little. But I can't quite get by on nothing. Not quite.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

thoughts on a warm autumn day

Southwestern B.C. is recovering from flooding after torrential rainfall over the past few days, but now, here, on steeply sloping and therefore mostly floodproof North Vancouver, it is sunny and balmy, with great cumulus clouds tumbling slowly and silently over one another in a pristine blue sky. I'm just in from a short run, which I did in shorts. I could even have left my sweatshirt at home, it was so warm.

It all looks different, now that I'm reading The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock. Since it's a library book, I've been reading it here at the PC in the early morning over coffee, typing notes while I read. (It's not the most enjoyable way to read a book, but it is efficient if one is to take notes that are to make their way to the computer eventually.)

This morning I read chapter 3, "The Life History of Gaia", in which Lovelock sketches the history of Earth as a self-regulating system, which, he believes, it became shortly after the first life appeared on it over 3 billion years ago. Since then, Gaia has, like an organism, maintained itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium, with its constituent life-forms metabolizing and evolving in such a way that the overall environment is conducive to continued life. When there are perturbations to that equilibrium, Gaia has feedback mechanisms that push conditions back to life-optimal.

Lovelock says that textbooks are incorrect when they claim that Earth simply happens to be at a distance from the sun that makes it hospitable for life. There was a time, he says, about 2 billion years ago, when Gaia was in a "Goldilocks" period and no special mechanisms were required either to heat or cool the planet, but at the time life first appeared the sun was about 25% cooler than it is now. Since then it has grown steadily hotter, and will continue to do so until it finally explodes many billions of years from now.

He believes that Gaia has more than one equilibrium temperature. In this it is like the camel, which has two. By day, the camel maintains a body temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius, close to the ambient temperature of the desert air. But at night, the camel's temperature regulator is reset to about 34 degrees, so it can function without having to burn so much energy.

Depending on conditions in space and the life-forms on it, Gaia may have several of these equilibrium points. But Lovelock says that for the past several million years, as the sun has grown so hot, Gaia has shown a preference for ice ages, when the temperature was kept cooler, and the total amount of life may have been greater, due to the much larger land area around the tropics (exposed by dropped sea-level) and the much greater productivity of the cooler oceans (the great majority of open ocean is desert of life).

He believes that the long warming trend since the last ice age 12,000 years ago is a sign of Gaia's cooling mechanisms' being stretched beyond their capacity. Add to this our flaming-off of all the hydrocarbons stored beneath the surface of the Earth, creating a heating blanket around us, and we have the conditions for all-but-inevitable environmental catastrophe. Lovelock thinks it is probably already too late to stop this. We may be in the early stage of a sudden global heating such as has not been experienced since the onset of the Eocene epoch 55 million years ago, when temperatures shot up by 5 degrees Celsius in the tropics and 8 degrees elsewhere, turning Earth into a desert planet. The event was marked by mass extinctions.

The event can be sudden, in geological terms. Lovelock observes that all the heat-control mechanisms that we know of are in positive-feedback mode toward increasing temperature: shrinking ice-caps, shrinking forest cover, increasing greenhouse gases. The rate of heating will speed up until the next equilibrium point is reached (I'm assuming there is one--haven't finished the book!).

Will humanity survive? Sure. An adaptable species. But how many humans will that be? And will there be any memory of the world civilization we now take for granted? Or are we living in our own legend, like citizens in the last days of Atlantis?

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Friday, November 03, 2006

blood and oil

Yesterday, for me, a small cause for feeling accomplished: I finished reading a book. Usually the books in my stack of 10-15 on the coffee-table get rotated out without being finished. I realize that I haven't read a book for two months or so, pull out the paper slip I use as a bookmark (with words and definitions written on it), and shelve the book.

But sometimes I do finish books. Either they are short enough for me to make it through before the wind of my interest shifts direction, or they are of particularly hot interest so I read them straight through, or they are unfinished books that I have pulled from a shelf, my interest in them rekindled, and have picked up where I left off and read them through to the end.

This book was Blood and Oil by Michael T. Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, Amherst. I bought it last month from Amazon.com, along with an earlier book of his, Resource Wars.

Blood and Oil, while it has its flaws--Klare's writing style is flat and prosaic; it reads like a corporate report or a briefing document--is very good and deserves to be read by a wide audience. Indeed, his dry factuality helps his case in the sense that, although he is strongly critical of the American administration and its energy policies, he does not waste time denouncing them; instead he assembles facts, presents them in a neutral tone, and lets them do the talking. (In the afterword, written a year after the book's initial publication in 2004, he lets fly with more stinging direct criticism of Bush administration's dogged insistence on maintaining an attitude of dependency on foreign oil.)

The thesis of the book can be summed up simply. Since 1945, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt met secretly with King Ibn Saud of Arabia aboard a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal and, it is thought, promised security for the king's new and still poor country from outside attackers, plus protection for the king's regime from internal assault, the U.S. has pursued a policy of increasing reliance on foreign oil, and has been paying for this by arming and protecting autocratic and repressive regimes. This has resulted in an ever-escalating conflict with the people at odds with these regimes, such as many of their own citizens, and an ever-increasing flow of American blood on foreign soil.

This morning when I opened up Google News one of the lead stories was about a missile-test by Iran in the Persian Gulf, apparently in response to U.S. military "exercises" in the area. This eventuality--that Iran may disrupt the flow of oil shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, through which 43% of the world's petroleum exports pass--is raised by Klare in his book. One of the top priorities of Centcom, the U.S. Central Command established on 1 January 1983 with the Middle East as its area of operation, is to maintain the flow of Gulf oil. It was (and is) Centcom forces that have fought the two Iraq wars and the Afghan war. Its mission was set out in the Carter Doctrine, enunciated by President Carter in January 1980, designating the flow of Persian Gulf oil as a "vital interest" of the United States.

One big problem is that more and more countries are gulping more and more oil, and oil is not being found fast enough to slake this thirst. There will be an ever-increasing competition for an ever-shrinking supply. As this goes on, Klare maintains, persistent and escalating violence is inevitable. There is only one solution: stop relying on foreign oil. To do this will mean to drastically reduce oil consumption, which will require vast efforts at improving efficiency and finding alternative sources of energy.

Yes, environmentalists (such as me) have been saying this for decades. Now, roused by impending disaster (such as global warming), more people are growing alarmed. Still, there is a remarkable complacency in the halls of power, and a weird fixation on continuing with the same policy that was sketched out by Roosevelt: keep that foreign oil coming at any price.

I think of a quote I read in The Great Reckoning by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, about the collapse of Spain as the world's leading power 300 years ago. Finding themselves sinking in debt while spending on costly military ventures, some in government urged that cost-cutting measures be taken. But those with the most power overruled these promptings, causing one despairing Spaniard to write, "those who can will not and those who will cannot."

It sounds awfully familiar.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

days of the dead

Just in from a short run. Crisp and gray out: the sky a luminous gray. I wear earplugs to prevent earache from the cold air, and gloves, because my knuckles get chapped in the cold dry air. Exploded pumpkin-shells lay on the roads here and there amid the rusty-brown leaf-litter.

When I was walking off my run an RCMP SUV pulled up, stopping the traffic behind it, and the passenger cop asked me something. I approached, tugging my right earplug out, tilting my head to indicate I hadn't heard.

"Have you see a druh kid?"

"Pardon?" I said. "A drugged kid?"

"A drunk kid," said the cop. He was a South Asian man with a bored, slightly irritable expression. He spoke quietly, unemphatically. "A red jacket, walking around?"

I shook my head. "No. I haven't."

They pulled away.

I came inside and headed down here to write this post.

I got three books at the library yesterday. One was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a novel in a genre that is an old favorite of mine: the postapocalyptic survival tale. I started reading it with my afternoon tea.

I have actually bought a McCarthy novel before: Blood Meridian. I recall exactly when. I was in Vermont in January-February 1993 at the Buddhist center called Karme Choling for a one-month meditation retreat. It was the free day halfway through the program, and many of us went into White River Junction in the freezing cold. After browsing some time at a bookstore there, I decided to buy. Having read a very favorable review of McCarthy's book All the Pretty Horses, I plumped for a copy of Blood Meridian.

I never started it until I returned from my retreat. I couldn't get into it. I found McCarthy's prose very distancing, the characters unsympathetic, and the action violent and gory. It was not my cup of tea.

Now though, with my mind turning toward future-oriented projects, even if not necessarily postapocalyptic in the strict sense, I was intrigued to find out what was out there.

It's a smallish book, with a plain black cover. I found the familiar McCarthy style: spare, distant, with very little punctuation, even commas--just periods. No quotation marks around the dialogue--that type of thing. I find that such techniques distract me and make me unpleasantly conscious of the fact that I'm reading. There is a sense of watching a writer perform, rather than being involved in a story.

The story, such as it is so far (to page 22), is of a father and son, survivors in an otherwise charred and unpopulated American wasteland, where roads are crumbling and everything is still coated in ash. They push a shopping-cart loaded with their few possessions, headed south in search of warmth.

As yet, nothing has happened. That is, nothing that advances the story. The little paragraph-long scenes are just snippets of exposition: coming across an abandoned gas station, the man reminiscing about a day spent rowing on a lake with his uncle long ago. With his austere style, McCarthy is painting a picture of his postapocalyptic world--but that's all.

We'll see. If nothing happens, I'll have to bail. What do I know? I'm only a reader, not a literary star.

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