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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Adele "Dodie" Lloyd: 1913 - 2007

Yesterday my mother phoned me to tell me that her mother had died on Sunday morning. Dodie had been in hospital in Orillia, Ontario, for a couple of weeks, recovering from surgery to repair a broken femur. Since the fall and surgery she had apparently been in some pain, and in the last days had stopped eating--an invariable sign of the approach of death, according to Warren's observation when he worked briefly as a cook in an old-folks' home. At 93 it seems that Dodie was at last ready to go.

With her I lose the last of my four grandparents. I visited her only twice, once in 1979 when I was on my way home from a six-month European journey with my friend Tim, and we detoured north from Toronto to stay with my kin for a few days; and once in 1994 when I was again in Toronto, with Kimmie, as a nominee for a Gemini for my work on The Odyssey. Both times were at the farmhouse owned by Michael, a horse trainer and one of the middle members of her 14 children (my mother was second child, but her elder brother Hugh died as a young man of a congenital heart condition). I remember phoning her when I got to Orillia in March 1994. When I identified myself she said with amusement, "You sound just like your mother."

"Ah--a compliment!" I said.

She laughed, caught off guard. "Yes, I suppose it is."

At 80 she still kept her hair dark and still held court in the kitchen which had been her throne room since, I suppose, the 1930s, although by this time she was no longer cooking, even for the relatively minuscule household that consisted of just her, Michael, and Michael's veterinarian wife Jenny. I remembered my visit in 1979, when there were still a couple-three sons still living there, as well as my grandfather Dorsey: Dodie still spent much of each day cooking, dropping a platter of fried pork chops on the picnic-table-like kitchen table, complete with benches, at which Tim and I sat along with a few other uncles and friends who showed up suddenly to eat.

Kim, enchanted with all things family, was delighted to meet Dodie, and I think the feeling was mutual. When we arrived at about noon she offered us a beer--Labatt's 50, her perennial favorite--which we accepted.

"Would you like a glass?" she said.

"Oh no," said Kimmie, "the bottle's fine."

"Good," said Dodie, with some suggestion of relief. "I like someone who drinks from the bottle."

While we nursed our brown noontime stubbies at the kitchen table, and Dodie, on her stool, had a smoke while she drank hers, Kimmie deepened the favorable impression she was making by describing the gown she had worn (and made) for the Geminis. For although Dodie was dressed very casually for her kitchen tasks, she was an ardent believer in good dress for women, and liked nothing better herself than to dress up and go out on the town, right up to the end of her life. The idea of a formal-dress awards ceremony appealed to her a lot, although this had to be divined through her laconic, understated, and unemotional way of speaking.

We had a good time, the conversation turning to things such as the fact that Dodie kept a loaded rifle under her bed, and enjoyed getting out to play bingo and gamble at the casino on the Rama Indian reserve. By and by a couple of uncles turned up and it was a regular kitchen get-together like the many thousands she had presided over before.

While I made only two pilgrimages back to Orillia to see my grandparents, I'm glad now that I at least made those two. I met all of my grandparents--by no means a given for someone born into an impoverished household thousands of miles from all them except my father's mother, who lived with us when I was a young child. My paternal grandfather was still marooned behind the Iron Curtain in Latvia, and it would be another 16 years or so after my birth before he would signal his existence by sending a letter to my father. I journeyed to visit him in Riga in 1982, when I was 23.

Anyway, Dodie Lloyd, nee McConnell, lived a life that was, until her later years, quite hard. This was partly by choice, since she came from stock that was not badly off. She was headstrong in her insistence on marrying the feisty young Dorsey Lloyd, as she was headstrong about everything else in life. Her body eventually started to fail her, but her mind was sharp and clear to the end. If you want to make it to age 93 in comparable shape, you might want to try her lifelong program of butter, beer, cigarettes, and childbirth.

Or you might not.

In all, I reckon I'm probably damned lucky to have some of her chromosomes floating in each of my cells. And I send my warmest regards to her, wherever she is.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

bonus post: Vitols translates Goethe

Procrastinating my writing chores, I was adding some labels to old blog-posts just now, and came across the post from 2 April 2006, in which I mentioned a verse of Goethe that appears, in translation, as the epigraph to Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness. Here is that translated verse:

He whose vision cannot cover
History's three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day's frontiers.

Gabriele Campbell, in a comment to that post, gave the original verse in German:

Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren,
Sich Rechenschaft kann geben,
Bleibt im Dunkel, unerfahren,
Muß von Tag zu Tage leben.

I don't know who translated the verse for Neumann's epigraph, but I sensed that it was quite feeble compared to Goethe's original, so I just now had a go myself. I don't speak German beyond a crude traveler's level, having studied the language only in a weekly class in grade 4, then using a Teach Yourself book when I was 25, since I had a German girlfriend and wanted to learn her language. I also took a night-school class through the Vancouver School Board that same year. Thus equipped, I tackled Goethe, and came up with something that I think is quite good:

Who won't go back three thousand years
To hear what history has to say,
Remains in darkness, without ears,
And lives from day to day.

I've written almost no poetry in my life--I'm too inhibited and afraid. But, urged by my sense of the power of Goethe's words in his own language, I felt motivated to try to express his thought in my own language. I believe my translation captures something of the force of Goethe's thought and diction.

There: Vitols, the translating poet, is born!

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rating: "mathematically mature"

I'm trying something different: squeezing a post, or part of one, in my morning routine, before I see Kimmie off to work and get on with my breakfast and writing. Blog-posts have gotten lost in the shuffle as I have adjusted my lifestyle around power-walking in the afternoons, causing untold suffering and anxiety to my loyal readers, who find themselves suddenly in cold-turkey withdrawal. Take heart! I do want to write my posts like a good chap.

Last night I finished reading Meta Math! by Gregory Chaitin. In some places this small book was beyond me. Or at the very least, I did not have the passion or perseverance to attempt some of the exercises he eagerly suggests, such as coming up with my own proofs for certain things to do with real numbers or Diophantine equations (really, Gregory!). My sense with the book is that Chaitin doesn't realize how hard some of the ideas in it are, and he spends more time explaining relatively simple things (like how DNA is based on four bases) than he does on certain very (to me) difficult things. The image that came to my mind was of wading through a lake where the bottom is very uneven: shallow in places, and in others dotted with deep holes down which one might disappear at any moment.

The book is aimed at the "mathematically mature". (This expression stuck in my mind from my days as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital. One summer, one of the vacation-relief workers was a math student, and had brought a textbook to read on his breaks. One of the other guys, an artist named Doug, was flipping through it as we sat at a table at coffee-break. Looking on, I could see that it was an advanced textbook on topology, with many arcane equations and references to things called "sheafs" and "manifolds". Doug asked the student, "Do you think I could read this book?" The student, choosing his words, said thoughtfully, "You would need to be mathematically mature to read this book." His choice of words stuck with me. I was, I'm sure, one of the few janitors at VGH who had a topology text of his own at home: a book called Structural Stability and Morphogenesis, the seminal work of a mathematical field called catastrophe theory by the French mathematician Rene Thom. I'd bought it as a research book for a would-be novel, but could barely make head or tail of any of it. If you'd like to read a truly hard book, I suggest giving that one a try.) But its main argument can still be grasped clearly by the mathematically less educated, as long as you have the interest.

And I do have the interest. Chaitin's book is essentially a description of the discovery and significance of a certain real number that Chaitin found, which he dubbed Omega. (The symbol, uppercase omega, I noted, is the same as that used for Absolute Infinity, which I read about in Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind.) So-called real numbers, by definition, have infinite decimal expansions. An example is pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The digits of its decimal expansion go on and on, never repeating, forever, the digits tumbling on in no predictable order. No one can tell you what the trillionth decimal of pi is, or the quadrillionth, or the quintillionth. They could be 4, 9, and 2 respectively--or any other digits.

But they could be worked out from a formula to calculate pi. That formula is relatively simple. Finding the trillionth digit simply means going though a lot of repetitive but well-defined steps. In Chaitin's terms, that means that pi is very compressible: the infinite series of digits can be worked out from a relatively simple formula. The formula functions as a simple program to generate the digits. Even though we can't predict pi's digits at a glance, pi is in no sense a random number, because we can so precisely calculate it from a small program.

Chaitin's number Omega is the antithesis of pi: it is a truly random real number. It is devised so that its sequence of digits is finitely inexpressible; it cannot be compressed; no program can be created to generate its digits that is any smaller than Omega itself. He has found something that is truly and fundamentally random.

What's the significance of it? It actually says something about how knowable the universe is. All scientific inquiry is a search for laws, which are simple ways of accounting for complex phenomena. The existence of Omega proves that there are specific objects, at least in mathematics, that cannot be compressed--cannot be derived from a simpler formula or law. As I understand it, he's found a specific thing that is fundamentally indescribable and unknowable. That means it's at least possible that the universe shares those properties, and can never be completely understood in a scientific sense, even in principle.

Needless to say, there's a great deal more to this topic. I've been fascinated by it ever since reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter back in 1981. This nexus of ideas, in my opinion, is the most important of the 20th century, and I have enormous admiration for the few brilliant minds who have been able to peer into this mysterious void and descry the outlines of order.

But I'm on the outside looking in on the mathematically mature.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

habit and routine: yum!

Today I have time for a blog-post. It's 2:05 p.m., I've just washed the dishes, and there is time before my reading block at around 3:00 p.m.

Routine, habit? Yes. But that's a good thing. We make routines of things that work. They only become irksome when they're not working anymore--not addressing our true needs. I suspect that this is one reason that we get "set in our ways" as we age: we have conformed our lives to our inner nature and desires, and resist changing it. Why should we change it?

Sure, if your life is stale, mechanical, and empty, it could be worth taking a closer look. But I don't think there's anything wrong with routine per se. In this I have the support of no less a champion than William James. Here's an extract from The Principles of Psychology, volume 1:

Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of 25 you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveler, on the young doctor, on the young minister. You see the ways of the "shop," from which the man can by and by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

When I first read those words I felt chilled and heartened at the same time--a strange double feeling. Here am I at age 48, my character presumably long since "set like plaster". Well, and so it probably is, for good or ill. Of course, this raises the question as to what exactly character is, but let's leave that aside for a moment.

After this vigorous statement of the overwhelming power of habit in life and society, James goes on, in his psychology textbook, to offer some advice:

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

I think this is true. Certainly, I have found routine to be productive in my life. But I feel bound also to mention a contrary view. In my years of Buddhist training, I was taught that habit is, in the main, a problem. The very "automatism" that James endorses is also a system of disengaging our attention from what we're actually doing. Thus, in the morning when I'm making the coffee, I might be measuring beans into the grinder while also remembering a conversation from several years ago and at the same time humming a tune I just heard on the radio. This individual is getting the job done--making the coffee--but he is not focused on what he is doing; he is absent from his life as he's living it.

Since, from the Buddhist point of view, we have no other life but the present moment of experience, our efforts to escape this make little sense. We're constantly AWOL from our life, even as we worry about how to prolong it.

One of my favorite stories on this theme, from the Buddhist side, was of an experience related by Steve Seely, now managing director of the Nitartha Institute. I believe it happened at Gampo Abbey. The abbot, Thrangu Rinpoche, was visiting the abbey, and Steve was involved in helping provide for Thrangu's needs. He described hurrying to get something for the guru, running up a flight of stairs to a loft--only to ram his head into the closed door, which was usually open. Embarrassed at doing this right in front of the teacher, he gripped his head and said, "Stupid!" Thrangu, no doubt with his trademark radiant smile, said, "Not stupid--habit."

So there it is. I note that life at the abbey itself is the quintessence of routine. The life is highly structured and each hour is scheduled and accounted for. When I was leaving the abbey myself in August 2002 I recall talking to Gyatso, an American-born monk then looking forward to his full ordination. While he drove us--at breakneck speed--home from a rare outing for ice-cream one evening, I said, "So you like the idea of knowing exactly what you'll be doing at, say, 11 a.m. on August 16th, 2014?"

He smiled faintly and said, "Uh-huh."

He had found the life he wanted to live, and the idea of staying on at the place he wanted to be was only a source of enjoyment to him.

Of course, the life at the abbey, though regimented, is anything but automatic. All of its structure and practices encourage mindfulness--the presence of mind in whatever one is currently doing. Indeed, routine works against our habitual scheming to find more entertainment for ourselves in the future. Resistance is futile, so you give up and pay attention to what you're doing. In some sense, you have nothing else to look forward to--a surprisingly liberating experience.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

ideas: keep 'em coming

A steady cold rain falls through the gray air. Kimmie phoned to say she wanted to beg off our power-walk for this afternoon--fine, suits me! We'll take a break, and I have a chance to get down here and write a blog-post.

I'm an idea guy. I like ideas. This has to do with my Aquarian nature, for Aquarius is the "idea" sign. More and more I'm seeing my mission in life as boiling things down to their basic idea-content, and working with that, studying it, understanding it.

I understand Gregory Chaitin
perfectly when he says in the preface to his Meta Math!:

I'm not really interested in complicated ideas, I'm only interested in fundamental ideas.

He's a mathematician--a great one--but more than that he's a philosopher. Here's another quote, from chapter 2:

I think that the history of ideas is the best way to learn mathematics. The best way to learn a new idea is to see its history, to see why someone was forced to go through the painful and wonderful process of giving birth to a new idea!

Yes! Giving birth to a new idea. Why is this so important?

Everything that could be called an advance or an improvement in human life or society is the product of an idea. The word itself comes from the Greek idein "to see". Someone sees something new in the mind--has a new conception, and with that new conception novelty enters the life of humanity.

Novelty. Newness. Freshness. New ideas tend to arise under pressure, when they're needed. All technological innovation depends on them. Without new ideas, we would all still be digging roots out of the ground with a piece of antler and eating them raw. We'd be huddled in the cold and wet below a rock overhang, hoping not to die. Hoping--not doing something about it.

It's easy to take ideas for granted. I was just keying notes yesterday from an excellent book I read last year, The Long Summer by Brian Fagan. In it he mentions a crucial invention from the Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago: the needle-drawn thread. This invention enabled people to make fitted clothes, which were much warmer than what had been available until then. This in turn allowed people to live in colder climates, exploiting the game of the tundra in a way that others without that technology, such as the Neanderthals, could not.

Maybe, in the big picture, it doesn't matter. Maybe it would make no objective difference if humans, like other social animals, simply lived and died in a changeless cycle of nature, eating, procreating, dying.

But I don't feel that way. I feel that humanity has a special relationship with novelty, an ability to conceive and create new things: new tools, new institutions. The universe permits this ceaseless creativity, indeed in its richness seems to encourage it, invite it. And personally, I'm all for it.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

a dream, a mystery

It's a day of pale sunshine and cool air. I was awake at 4:40 after a vivid dream of traveling by bus with Kimmie and Robin to get to a luxury restaurant in West Vancouver. The bus takes us to a small ferry terminal, like the SeaBus only bigger, with at least three docks under a huge roof. Kimmie and Robin, having great fun with Kim's friend Katie, decide to go their own separate way to the restaurant, leaving me to take a more direct ferry--the one from the leftmost dock. It seems unlikely that we'll ever make our reservation time at the restaurant, and I don't even know whether the ferry goes straight there, or whether we'll have to connect to another bus. I'm determined to catch the ferry, and am among the first there, along with a dark-haired woman whom I was sitting with on the bus. But suddenly a crowd of other passengers arrives to wait on the rickety wooden float. I'm at the front, so it should be OK, but I remember my bag, which I've left behind me, and go back to get it. To show that I still belong at the front I hold up my ticket or reservation that I made days ago--it has my signature on it--but it seems this kind of ticket is old-fashioned and may not be honored anymore. I feel anxiety and frustration at the unfairness of it.

After keying notes this morning from An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament, I typed this dream into my journal. Buses and other forms of public transportation are a recurring image in my dreams. I've also dreamed before of transferring from one mode of transport to another, as in this dream. I relate the dream to my work, my career. I feel in danger of "missing the boat", even though I was here from the start. Others who are less prepared than I am will jump on ahead of me and beat me to my destination.

Currently at the top of my reading stack is Harold Bloom's Omens of Millennium, a book published in 1996 about Bloom's observations of certain symptoms in society around him of premillennial angst. Along with an American pop-culture obsession with angels and near-death experiences, he finds a surge of interest also in dreams. I'm currently reading his chapter on dreams, and so I feel sensitized to the topic.

Whenever I read books or articles about dreams or dreaming, I feel that people are somehow missing something terribly important, that they are missing the point of dreams. Not that I know what that point is. But I sense that the phenomenon of dreaming is profoundly strange and mysterious, and that all its investigators at some level take it for granted. Because everyone dreams and always has, there is a blindness to the weirdness of the phenomenon. Why would something so apparently disconnected from everyday life, so inexplicable, be so widespread and so basic to life--not just ours, but, it appears, the life of other animals?

Well, anyway, I had some of my own this morning.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

the best excuse

Yesterday when I came down in the afternoon, when I usually might write a blog-post, I found myself opening up my notes document for the next chapter (27) and working on that. In so doing, I was fulfilling an age-old plan to work in this way: write prose in the morning, and push on with notes in the afternoon. This is how a productive person would work, so why not me too?

I am productive. I'm not producing as much of what I would like, but I am producing a fair amount of material, mostly notes. Mainly what happens is that I get fed up with the project. I get bored with thinking about it any more, and want to push it away, with a feeling not unlike that which accompanies taking one bite too many of a wiener: a sense of surfeit and the first involuntary movements of the gag reflex. At that point it's my body rather than my mind saying, "No more wiener!"

The idea of working that way was that the afternoon note-making would clear the brush ahead so I could continue in the mornings building the road of narrative. It's a good idea and I stand by it. The problem is in implementation: the reality that in many ways, I'm lucky to get anything done, in any way, on this massive project, on any given day.

While I was washing the dishes just now I recalled a quote from the ancient slave-philosopher Epictetus: "We ask the gods for what they have not given, when they have already given us so much."

I should be grateful for the leisure I have still got to work on this project, and for whatever I manage actually to achieve toward completing it.

Anyway: that by way of excuse for not writing a blog-post yesterday. I came down today thinking perhaps to write just a short post of explanation before doing some more note-making, but I struggled to log on to my Google account: it is much more difficult now that I have opted to use their "improved" Blogger. The blame probably also lies with my security software: Trend Micro's PC-cillin, which seems to have massive amounts of code that hog most of my computer's resources, and interferes with my ability to load Web pages. The latest version of my old security provider, Kaspersky, would not install on my PC, despite being compatible with Windows 98 SE.

Yes, I need a new PC. And therefore...money. And therefore...a different career.

No--I'm not going to ask the gods. They have already given so much.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

writing as art

Robert McKee says that film is now the most powerful storytelling medium there is. I daresay he's right. A good movie, making use of two senses--sight and sound--can be a powerful, engrossing experience. But a movie makes use of more than two senses, for a movie is scripted, which means that it embodies a story, and a story makes use of the part of our mind that is not directly sensual. It is purely mental. Let's call it the imagination.

But movies have many limitations, and they're not equally effective at telling all kinds of story. In fact, there tends to be a relatively small range of stories that can be effectively told in a movie. Then there are budgetary limitations, plus the fact that filmmaking is a communal activity, which can make a production suffer if the different parts of the community aren't pulling together. Not everyone is equally talented.

And what about that script--the underlying blueprint of a movie? No movie is any better than its script. The script represents the ceiling of quality that a movie can attain, and past which it cannot go. The best filmmakers are simply those able to realize the full potential of a script.

So sound and image, for all their potential power, are boring if the story is no good. The mental dimension, the imagination, trumps the senses in terms of its power to captivate us and move us.

Film therefore may be the most powerful story medium for certain types of stories, but for many other types the printed word remains best, and I think always will.

I believe that much (or all) of the power of any work of art comes from the awakening power of experiencing the detailed presence of the artist's mind. In a painting, every point on the canvas has received the artist's attention and skill. In "The Hay Wain" by John Constable the subject is the horse-drawn wagon piled with hay, but Constable lavished just as much attention on every other element of the picture. Look at the reflections in the water; look at the summer foliage; look at the sky. Wherever we look we discover the artist's attention; we see with his eye.

Each point on the canvas has been visited by the artist's mind. And at each point the artist has used technique to reveal evidence of his passing, to turn that point into service of the whole--his vision for the picture. Looking at a well-made picture has a gentle but strong awakening effect; our minds wake up and enter a state of aesthetic enjoyment. In my experience, this state of aesthetic enjoyment is similar to the quality of wakefulness that arises in mindfulness meditation. When we see evidence of loving attention, mind recognizes itself and wakes up. Not unlike what happens when we walk into a room in which someone has taken the trouble to dust the furniture and vacuum the floor and plump the cushions: it becomes inviting and wakeful.

The art of writing works in the same way. When we read a work of artistic writing, whether fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, we know that each word is a token of the attention of the writer: the footprints of the author's thought. If this has been done carefully, skillfully, lovingly, the aesthetic effect occurs: waking up and engagement with the work.

This to me provides a concrete reason why good writing is economical and avoids cliches. Excess words are a sign either of carelessness or lack of skill on the part of the writer: both symptoms of a lowered level of mindfulness. Cliches are unoriginal ideas and expressions, the sign of a writer too lazy to take the trouble to express his own experience or thoughts in a direct, honest way. Again, sign of a lowered level of attention.

To be a true artist means to be true to the art: to work toward its highest intrinsic expression. The failures of quality in writing and in all art arise from chasing values other than those of the art-form itself: paying bills, having a "career", being popular, finishing something. The best artists suffer--but their work doesn't, and the the world, each of us, is the richer for it.

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