Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sarah Connor and Gratitude

A crow was lamenting—something was sad. I was listening from my car in a sunny parking lot eating a nice big sandwich.  My life was good. Strangely, for a creature of nature, the bird cried at precise five second intervals, “Craaw…(five seconds) craaw…(five seconds) craaw…” Perhaps the crow thought, “These are emotional times, serious times, where crying is more important than conserving energy.”

Deja vu. I was reminded of a murder of crows at the top of Primrose Hill, the highest point of London. They had been walking and flapping about the cowling of a motionless Martian Fighting Machine, which was standing high on three stilt-like legs. An hour ago, as I had been crossing a canal, forcing my way through the Red Weed, I heard the Martian operator, still alive, activating his call, the only sound in dead London, at five second intervals. “Ulla… ulla… ulla…” By the time I reached the hill, at twilight, the Machine was standing still as death, only the crows left alive.

In my sunny car, as the bird wasted calories—how unnatural—I played a compact disc with the compositions of Bear Cleary for his soundtrack to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Cleary’s music is somber, plaintive, and lonely in the dark, as if Cleary had included a night train whistle. (but he didn’t) Tunes like Cromartie in the Hospital and Derek’s Mission are relieved by only two lyrical songs, sardonic and superficial, one with the bouncy descending line: “Ain’t we famous baby, ain’t we famous we are.” 

Forget fame. Sarah’s world portrays two time-space locations: the present Los Angeles, sunny and bright, and 2027—rubble and bunkers. To Sarah, and to everyone surviving in the future, fame is frivolous. A few resistance fighters come through to the present: They focus on their mission even though they are suddenly on easy street. A young traveler screams at a family because, in her eyes… they don’t how lucky they are! They don’t get it! They don’t know anything about the coming rubble, starvation and bleached skulls…

To Sarah and her son John the values society disregards today are in fact the classic values, such as bravery, kindness and being helpful. And relationships. How superficial to the Connors are the frivolous things we of today place so much pride in, such as working long hard hours, away from our family, at the office striving for a bigger car, fancy possessions and silly fame. We should be grateful we live in these easy times, where it’s so easy to kid ourselves about what matters. In the backs of our minds, surely, we know we have built our values on flimsy foundations of paper. And paper can so quickly burn to ashes, blown away on the nuclear wind. I think of that sad cow looking down on our misplaced lives.

The 2008 TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, was canceled for having low ratings. Someone thought the ratings were from having too much philosophy and not enough car explosions. I don’t agree; I found Sarah’s musings and the philosophical plots quite interesting. Maybe if ever this world is to be saved it will be from more philosophy, not less. 

During our war on terror that, by the very definition of “war,” is always in our minds and in my essays, it is quite noticeable to me that terrorists place no value on philosophy, and put a second-class value on “their” womenfolk who, if given equal rights like Sarah, might think about building a peaceful world for their sons. As a Canadian Muslim put it, terrorists never have degrees in the liberal arts. They never analyze stories.

If the Berlin Wall has fallen and yet our culture still tells stories of apocalypse, lately stories about plagues of zombies, then surely there are sound psychological reasons. I wonder if we are creating these stories subconsciously to remind ourselves to see the world with fresh, grateful eyes. In Sarah’s world, one angry time-traveling officer, enraged somebody at drifting away from the mission, says: “I took you from hell and brought you to paradise!” Yes. 

I try to take a moment, on a sunny day, in my air conditioned car, to reflect: ...I am living in paradise.

Sean Crawford

~in 2014, starting from the sand pit on the common near the house of H. G. Wells (his house has a plaque) I made my way to Primrose Hill. It’s out beyond the tourist map of Central London, and yes I did have to walk along a canal to get there.

~There was a fierce blockade during the first world war. German troops were desperately short on food and material. When a great mass of troops from the eastern front were freed up by Russia’s surrender, the Germans tried their last great offensive of the war. (Too bad the Germans had put their war under military, not civilian control—not like in a democracy—because the presence of all those troops could have been graciously presented as a reason for the Allies to agree to a peace treaty—but of course, the army guys couldn't think that creatively) 

According to my high school teacher, the attack stalled… partly, my teacher said, because the troops slowed down to loot the plentiful food.
Sometimes, I guess, bloodless sanctions and cruel blockades are more effective than bayonets.

~Perhaps, if you are reading this in some future library, you are wondering why I would sacrifice the natural flow of my essay to suddenly, three paragraphs from the end, go sideways to  referring to the war on terror. To me it’s obvious, but maybe I could answer you in a sidebar, next week. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Tourist Making Conversation With Strangers

Hello Reader,
Got social skills?

In which I blog the first half of a nice speech I gave at my Toastmasters club. And being as I’m too lazy to waste a speech, I thought I would blog it here as an essay, even if I only have enough time to give you the first half.

Have you heard? In the last days of August I’m taking a big silver bird! To the United Kingdom of Great Britain! Maybe I’ll go the exotic city of Edinburgh, and then, like so many before me, walk “the Royal Mile.”

Some self-satisfied snob said, “When I travel, I get off the beaten path, and talk with “the people.” I think, “Really? The people? If you are going to talk to strangers in Scotland, then first you have to talk to complete strangers you run across here in town—Do you do that?”

After the above introduction, I said to my peers in Toastmasters, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I will talk on ‘how to strike up a conversation with a stranger.’”  

My peers might not have done theatre improvisation, or watched Drew Carey doing “Whose Line is It, Anyways?” but in Toastmasters they had all done an improvisation called “Table Topics.” That’s where the chairman asks you a question, and then you have to talk for “one to two minutes.” Such an impromptu speech is a totally separate skill from being able to go home and write out your speech ahead of time. To me it’s like how a hunter can be excellent at the skill of snap shooting but hopeless at distant targets, if he never practices long deliberate shots. (Soldiers train for both)

As you can imagine, when you first try Table Topics your brain and body freeze up tight. But don’t worry, in time you learn to relax and freely improvise on your feet. You get good at it. Likewise, you can get better at talking to strangers, as an improvisational skill, not quite like your skills for mingling, say, in the lobby at a toastmaster event or attending a wine and cheese thingy. There people are attending in a “meet people mood;” there you could, in theory, boost your confidence by writing your social questions ahead of time on a small file card to put in your pocket. You know the ones: Do you live around here, have plans for the weekend, see any good movies lately, and so forth. In contrast, encountering a stranger on the sidewalk along the Royal Mile is a little different, but not by much. Not like wandering around a friendly summer bar-b-q, no, but more of an improvisational thing, and happily it’s a skill you can learn. Maybe by role modeling.

As for modeling, one time at college I entered a wine and cheese with Joyce Gee, a petite pretty girl. She was worried, unsure whether she would be able talk to anyone. I said, “I have an idea! You just stay right beside me and as we mingle around, after the first words, I’ll include you in the conversation.” So I’d say hello, get us started, and then? They’d all talk solely to Joyce. Yes, she was pretty.

Another memory: One time I was sitting on a stool at the counter of the old Lido CafĂ©. Ken Fung, the manager, asked how I was. I said with some gloom that I had a weight on my shoulders as I had a project due in three days, but then I would be able to feel fine. He said, “I bet you have to do a speech for Toastmasters.” Wow! How did he know? Maybe because he had a son, Vincent, in Toastmasters. I guess the lesson, dear reader, is that strangers are more alike than they are different, they know your concerns, and they are just as eager to talk as you are. Have faith.

Have faith not only in your ability to learn to improvise, but also in your ability to have an awareness of who wants to talk. We all know which dog doesn’t want to be petted, which person doesn’t want to be hugged. Jerry Mundis in his excellent book on debt tells of the time he was walking along with his head down. I forget the actual story, so let’s pretend: His companion drew his attention to “Aren’t those the most beautiful clouds?” he looked up for a micro-second, said, “yes,” then looked down at his feet again to worry about his bills. She confronted him!

Needless to say, at that moment Mundis was not “present” or “grounded” or “centered” or— well, he was just not in the mood to talk to any stranger. I try to be aware not just of others but of myself too: If I’m feeling “dark” at a particular moment, then that’s OK, that’s normal; it’s OK to for me to ignore strangers until another day. In fact, I wrote an essay about a whole day of ignoring people, called Say Hello To Strangers, archived March 2014.

I have a pretty young acquaintance, Clarisse, who can walk the length of Calgary downtown without any young men speaking to her, without herself speaking to anyone. Just as might happen on the Royal Mile. I know her through my friend Miranda, who tells me Clarisse walks without an awareness of the impression she gives off… when she is (seemingly) walking without any awareness of her surroundings. Without any caring for her surroundings… and then, it logically follows, without caring for the people. At least she doesn’t walk too fast, not like a type A personality. But she does walk eyes front, arms slightly swinging in symmetrical time, face blank, in her own little world. A remote world.

Miranda, at least on her good days, moves through the world like a Girl Guide, alert and observant. Her eyes are light and roaming, her face is open. In Star Trek terms, she is present with her scanners scanning, sensors sensing, her radar dish whirling merrily. That’s her proven way to strike up conversations with strangers.

For my Toastmaster speech people laughed when I began twirling my hand like radar. By this halfway point, having already talked about faith, and awareness, I added a little more about awareness, and then I went on to explain willingness. My essay, as I type this, writing at the Cochrane Coffee Traders, is over a thousand words. It’s time I bid you good luck in talking to people, I’m off to meet folks in Calgary. Maybe I’ll see you on the Royal Mile.

Sean Crawford

~Do you want a Part Two?

~Soldiers not only practice deliberate shooting and snap shooting, they also do “run downs” just like they would when maneuvering in the field, where they have throw themselves down and shoot while breathless.