Friday, December 28, 2012

Blair's Apartment

Blair’s Apartment
A Freefall Exercise

In mid-August, as I’ve noted here before, I attended When Words Collide. At the weekend conference I ran into Judy, a flight attendant I had lost touch with. Over supper Judy told me she was involved in something exciting, something good enough to adjust her flight schedule for: On Fridays, at the Alexandra Centre—a converted inner city school—she was participating in a “freefall” writing workshop. I attended, and liked what I saw: Someone brings along a “prompt,” be it a sculpture, a postcard, or words, and we fall into writing real fast without let up, free of the judgmental left brain—don’t go back and edit, just keep going… The writing time is usually about ten minutes.

One day the prompt was the phrase, “You can learn about people by their surroundings” and I instinctively thought of a certain intellectual:

Blair’s apartment was fitting for a very smart literate man. Apartments were better than owning a home, requiring less upkeep, less energy and less time away from reading. In each room was the expected floor to ceiling bookcase, sans bookends, sans sculptures or knickknacks. No kitsch. No room for anything less relevant than books.

In one room was the usual collection of the modern nerd: computer boxes, keyboards, computers, and one facsimile machine, complete with a telephone handset. The handset came in handy for conference calls. Along the walls were stray papers, boxes, and boxes of papers. Throughout the apartment, the pictures on the walls were in character: No canvas, no fancy frames, no expensive prints. A few souvenir gift photographs. Blair was without an aesthetic sense, but not without friends.

He kept clean counters and a full sink. The refrigerator held lots of interesting things. His abode was in the Bohemian cool part of town. Of course.

Sean Crawford
Between trips to old Strathcona, (formerly a separate town, with its own armoury) Edmonton
December 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Recent Anecdotes
Recent Anecdotes
Taking Stock

A good writer is like a good conversationalist: You can’t say everything you know…. But I sure wish I could.

A computer wizard and essayist at Google, “Stevey” Yegge, once said he had way too much stuff to write on. How much? He said it felt like shoving an elephant through a keyhole. Meanwhile, a computer millionaire and essayist, Paul Graham, no doubt with his own elephants, wrote that he uses footnotes to contain digressions. Me too. Even so, I find myself having to withhold some darn fine footnotes.

While I always have space for a few footnotes, I never find space to include anecdotes and explanations. Until today. Having finished another of my website administrator’s “page” of 25 titles, I feel entitled to have a catch-up-on-anecdotes day.

Recent Anecdotes
… Christopher Columbus was once at a big formal dinner of men and women. This was a couple decades after he had discovered the New World. At his table a young man sneered that Christopher hadn’t done anything special: lots of people are crossing the Atlantic these days. Chris didn’t engage him. Instead, he addressed the other diners: “It’s possible to balance your hard boiled egg on one end. Can anyone else do so?” Everyone got interested, they all tried to balance their dinner egg, and all failed—including that young man. All eyes were on Chris as he held his egg upright at the table—and then tapped the end so it crumpled… into a base that would support the egg, balanced.

The young man was still in sneer mode. “Anyone could have balanced their egg, if they knew that trick.”

Chris said calmly “Yes, and anyone could have sailed to the New World, once I showed them how.”    … For (October) Television Appreciation.

… Bertrand Russell was a brilliant man, born into the Victorian Age. A foolish age, as we can read in Jerome K Jerome’s 19th century comic novel Three Men in a Boat. Jerome satirizes how if an unmarried woman gets pregnant then she has no way to repent for her sin, no option but suicide! (Of course, Jerome tells it far better than I can)

As for Russell, in his essays he raged at the foolish beliefs of his peers. He despised society’s belief that to keep young people away from any pre-marital sex, society could simply hide all information about sex until after they were married adults. Hide any statues, hide any oil paintings—hide any art, no matter how classic or priceless, that could reveal what people looked like under their clothes. Withhold inform-ation! Then all the men and women, right up until their marriage, would be innocent and chaste and sexless and celibate. Russell hated how, as these actions failed, society said the answer was to censor even more, try even harder. The theory behind all this madness, of course, was that being heterosexual was an inform-ed choice.

At last, finally, we know that feeling heterosexual is not a choice, but is pre-programmed from birth into the very cells of the body, thanks to “evolution.” We have learned our lesson. Or have we? As Santayana said, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”: Our US cousins—even unto the 21st century—still think feeling homosexual is an informed “choice.”    … For (October) Fools and Their Choices.

… Remember that TV situation comedy, Seinfeld? It made a lot of people happy. After it finally ended, for several seasons afterwards, I kept reading about the “Seinfeld curse”: Back then, none of the actors were able to make it as “the star” of their own series. Really? Stars? They were all nice ensemble actors, but…

And who can forget Lindsey Lohan? She was the star of Mean Girls, a film based on the nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabees. I loved that movie! Meanwhile, the train wreck of Lindsey Lohan’s life just goes on and on. At first, some reporters had wondered “when” or “if” she would make a “come back.” Not now… Really? A come back?

If Lohan would drop her addiction-fueled grandiosity, and be content with only a humble walk-on part, and later a small supporting role, then Lohan could start on the long straight road of abstinent recovery;  … meanwhile, if the Seinfield cast put being actors in supporting roles ahead of being “the” star, then, being already (presumably) rich for life, they could, without the distraction of earning the rent, enjoy the road to mastering their craft.

There is no silly curse: Everyone just needs to embrace being humble.     … For (November) Humble and Iraq.

… No wonder Canada is a land of immigrants: Such an immense land! Five and a half time zones! No one ever drives all across it. When you do drive, and you finally come to a small town, and you’re thirsty for good fellowship, all you need to do is look for the Canadian flag: If it’s not at the city hall then it’s flying at the Royal Canadian Legion: For war veterans. Active in the community, for all sorts of volunteer causes, the Legion is as Canadian as a railroad, grain elevator or an outdoor ice hockey rink. Note: Under the liquor laws, since the Legion is a private club, you have to be invited, or be a member, in order to go inside.

One day a man went into a Legion hall and asked to sign up as a member. He was wearing a typical Canadian lumber jacket. The man at the desk, wearing his proud blue blazer and blue Legion beret, grabbed a form and said, “OK. Were you in the Royal Canadian Air Force?”
“No, not the RCAF.”
“Were you in the navy?”
“Ah, the army then.”
Big exasperation: “Then what were you in?”
Big smile: “I was in the Luftwaffe!”
Yes, they allowed him to join. True story. He was the first. After him, the Legion made it official that axis veterans were welcome.

I came across this story while researching the Legion for a college term paper as part of a class on volunteers and volunteer-run organizations. This was a few years before our winter Olympics, the Games where Calgary surprised the world with our widespread use of volunteers. I’ve written before of how North Americans, from better citizenship, are better at volunteering than Europeans. Calgary folk, as it happens, are especially good. Official observers from France looked on with wonder but were unable to duplicate our great volunteer component for their own Games four years later.

When I presented my paper to my class, as part of my diploma in Therapeutic Recreation, (Leisure Services) I learned something about college students. As I told this anecdote, standing in front where I could see everyone, I was careful to hold back the punch line, careful to make the very last word in the very last sentence be “Luftwaffe.” I watched as half the class contorted in mirth, and the other half remained perfectly still…. I learned people could be smart enough for college yet not have basic WWII vocabulary.   … For (October) Hatred and Canadian Muslims.

Taking Stock
As for my yet again “Taking Stock” of another page of 25 post titles, well, what can I say? After recently being translated again I’ve resorted to spelling “translators” all in caps, as in “TRANSLATORS, please comment so I don’t die of curiosity.” I guess I could have been a little faster to capitalize… As is, about 20 guys in the former “worker’s paradise” of Moldova, interested in my (April) Peace Without Democracy, a piece with references to Marxism, have made no effort to feel “worker’s solidarity” with me: They left me no comments. I suppose this is merely due to human nature, not from formerly being dirty Godless communists.

After all, Buffy fans—2,121 hits and still counting--don’t comment either, which reminds me: When I expanded my (January) Buffy essay into (October) Television Appreciation on this page I didn’t think to add the label (tag) "Buffy" until it had been out for a week. Reason? I forgot. Plainly, the many fans who didn’t comment didn’t make enough of an impression on me, not enough for me to remember to make a label for them.

Going by hit counts for the previous “25-titles” my two most popular posts were both ones where I felt I was a “minority of one.” For this latest page I made an essay where I felt I was most especially a minority of one, because I dared to argue against making Internet links. And to my surprise, for this page, that’s the essay with the most hits by far. That’s heartening—or is it?

I have a reason to doubt: This morning as I lay in bed a memory popped in. One night I was at the Ship and Anchor pub for an evening of garage bands. One band was especially bad, while also being especially enthusiastic and innocent. So the crowd kept nudging each other and winking and shouting “More!” And the band innocently obliged. “More!” I suppose this memory was my subconscious warning me not to take the hit count for (July) No Links is Good Links too seriously. Perhaps robot search engine crawlers are using my essay as a pivot. Beats me. Maybe after another 25 posts I’ll have a clearer view of what my readers like to read.

I suppose the lesson for us all is: If you know what you like, then don’t just click on it: Write a comment, too.

Sean Crawford
Calgary 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two Imaginary People

Years ago I read an interview with a forensic pathologist who said  he had never gone into a bad crime scene, where he had to clean the blood off the walls and whatnot, in any place where there were a lot of books. It occurs to me that because books give us an escape even though we may be trapped wherever we are, they give us a "time out" space. People who don't have this have to stay in the pressure cooker...
Lois McMaster Bujold in The Vorkosigan Companion (p89 paperback)

“I am not… I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this. I’ve lived in a cave for five years in a world where they killed my kind like cattle. I am not going to be cut down by some monster flu. I am better than that. But I wonder… how very scared I am.”
Winnifred “Fred” Burkle … while deathly sick.

In my everyday life, you are welcome to share my amusement that sometimes—ahem!—I think about imaginary people, such as Fred. It’s understandable. People have known since the Iliad and the Odyssey, since the days of flickering hearth fires and fairy tales, how empathy and insight, those two great treasures, are found in stories. Just so, in a first season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a nerdy vampire is quietly in a library: Suddenly he’s seized by the Master—as emotion-food! The Master tells his minions something like, “This one reads, this one has feelings.” When the Master wanted to devour emotions, he knew where to go.

They say that when A Christmas Carol was published people were stopping on the street to ask, "Have you read it?" Such is the energy of fictional empathy. Sometimes I feel wonderstruck at how, although of course reading and stage plays are best, and live action on the screen is second best, I have found that even painted stories on a celluloid reel can have a depth of power.  Just so, in “the greatest anti-hunting film ever made:” the movie where Bambi’s mother dies. If you know about anime (Japanese animation) you may know that some of it makes people cry.

Last week I was thinking about an imaginary person with a gold hammer "he got from his old man": Fix-it Felix, Junior. In the animated film Wreck-it Ralph Felix is a nice and friendly fellow; he’s even nice to the destructive Ralph, whom nobody else likes. When Felix travels to Sugarland he is no idle tourist: He takes initiative. Besides helping Ralph, he helps an army lady sergeant look for fearsome cyber-bugs. Such an amusing contrast: He is short, she is tall. The intense sergeant has a scathing wit like Shakespeare, Felix tries hard not to swear. In fact, Felix apologizes if cuss words slip out of his mouth that might hurt others. You have to wonder: Does he even stand a chance of getting the tough sergeant as his girl friend?

I know something about cussing. I’ve experienced people doing harsh jobs, especially manly jobs far away from the fairer sex, while saying obscenities. I suppose folks in a cushy office job, requiring less motivation, will resort to such words less often. I wonder: what would the scientists say about swearing? Aw, no doubt they have more important things to research. One of my fellow writers, George Orwell, who was both a soldier and a colonial policeman, speculated that swear words were somehow impressed upon, and connected to, our nervous system. That sounds right.

Incidentally, page one (or two) of the Canadian army leadership manual advises not swearing at all, recommending you save such words for a desperate time when they might do some good.

If swearing is connected to our nerves, if our swearing is our human default, then what about Felix? Easy: Fix-it Felix is a darn competent handyman who cares about not hurting others; perhaps this caring he got from his old man. Hence Felix makes an effort to rise above his default. Another effort: He calls ladies “Ma’am.” I have empathy for that. My insight stems from the questions: What does this behavior signal? And what does the sergeant think?

Signals are important. In the city a court judge, or a policeman, will look to see if a juvenile delinquent is scruffy, signaling his low self-esteem, low energy and low resistance to temptation. Right now, during our war on terror, extremists are looking for such signs to seek out new young suicide-bombers. Meanwhile soldiers giving “aide to civil power,” fighting against insurgency, will take care to demonstrate high standards of polished dress and deportment, demonstrating to the public their energetic determination.

Felix wants a relationship with the sergeant. In his eyes, she’s “a dynamite gal.” In her eyes, besides his other heroics, Felix has the strength to be polite, even when times get rough. Here is my insight for Felix: his determined politeness is his equivalent of always oiling his weapons and always polishing his boots, even during the storm and stress of a nation under martial law. The classic mistake of untrained troops and barbarians, besides their being slovenly and unpolished, is they think polite speech means weakness. “It ain’t necessarily so.” At the end of a hard day of fighting cyber-bugs we could all use a little politeness. So yes, Felix and the sergeant share a kiss.

Incidentally, my favorite example of politeness-discipline is when General Patton once grabbed a ride with a lieutenant and the lieutenant’s driver. The general took pains to respect the chain of command by quietly giving all his suggestions for making turns to the lieutenant, rather than directly barking orders to the young officer’s driver.

There is one other character I’ve been thinking about lately, on a TV series about Angel, “a vampire with a soul,” seeking to make atonement for his evil soulless past. On Angel there’s a lady named Fred. Everyone likes her. Skinny, plain like “the girl next door” and very intelligent, she also has—alas--mental health issues. It’s understandable. She was once in a hell dimension hiding from demons. She first had to escape enslavement, and then hide for years, knowing that if the demons ever caught her she would surely be their food. Inevitably she became a little unhinged. At last the staff of Angel Investigations find her, and they return her to the world. She too becomes an Angel employee.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has said, in effect, that while Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about having a job and making your way in the world. My little insight from Fred’s story is that if you can function and contribute on the job then people may overlook minor can’t-help-it issues. As someone (I forget who) once said, “We like people for their strengths, we love them for their faults.”

Anyone who reads enough would feel empathy for Fred: The lady who was so brave in the hell dimension must now brave a new world; the lady who once, amid her deep despair, treasured deep hiding places will never again despise any dark sewer; the lady who appreciates her brave heroes who rescued her doesn’t realize she is a beautiful hero too. At the end of a wonderful day, back in the world, she said something that strums my heartstrings.

“This has been the best night ever. First, there’s you taking me for ice cream, then there’s the ice cream, then that monster jumps out of the freezer and you’re all brave and ‘Fred, watch out!’, and then we get to chase it down into the sewers which are just so bleak, oppressive and homey. I—I could build a condo down here.”

Sometimes, I think about Fred.

Sean Crawford
In a 3 by 9 meter cabin
At the city limits at the edge of town
On the howling prairie
December 2012
Note: Feel free to comment: Who do you remember?
Down in the USA, costume festivals are held on sunny bare grass.
Up here, I love to see happy young people among patches of snow in my hometown wearing costumes for Otafest. The happy music the fans dubbed in is from the above mentioned film Wreck-It Ralph, during the film credits.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Favorite Art and the Public

You just never know.

If you are trying to be any sort of artist, of paint, print or song, then you just never know what the public will like. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense.

I remember a young bookstore owner: Greek features, long dark hair, thin, a good lady who loved wine and chocolate with a good romance film or novel. What I found exciting was how her taste for shelving books and things, for young and old, was the same as mine. I found out my childhood favorite The Eagle of the Ninth, in theatres last year as The Eagle, had a sequel. I guess the public, unfortunately, had different tastes, for the store is no more.

One day I was telling her how a manuscript of mine wasn’t doing well. She said, “Don’t give up” after telling me of when she was attending the provincial art college, here in town. One of her pieces had not placed at the college competition. But when she entered it at an outside competition, she won—and even beat out a piece by her instructor! “You just never know,” she said.

I got my start in writing at my university student newspaper, the Gauntlet. Of course this could include attending far away “student university press” regional conferences, for my own knowledge and fun, mostly, but also, in theory, for taking notes and reporting back. As I recall, one of the seminars was on staff morale and retention. We were advised on such simple, yet new-to-us, things as having a coat rack, and a message board with individual names. (Reporters get calls from friends and sources) A few years later, during a discussion, at a Gauntlet staff meeting, on the value of conferences, I mentioned this seminar. People said sweet! They rushed to implement everything I could remember.

But when Tony Sabo looked in the files for my report, it wasn’t there. Why not? Perhaps the staff, or the “regime,” of that year had not only disregarded all my feedback, but had removed my report, too. Or perhaps, after feeling foolish at being so disregarded, and not wanting to cast pearls before swine, I had quietly taken it back. I don’t know. To the advice of “don’t give up” we can add, “Keep a long perspective”: The public can change.

I’m still chuckling at a sweet lady cursing at me over the telephone. I had lent her the DVD’s for a TV series that “wasn’t good enough” to make it for even half a season before being canceled. Maybe to the public it was “bad,” but that wasn’t why my friend was cursing me—it was so good! She was hooked! And now it was over! I agreed it was good, “It’s flying off the shelves at Amazon, from word of mouth.” As you may have guessed, I am referring to the series Firefly by Joss Whedon, the writer-director of this year’s summer blockbuster, The Avengers. The man who made Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, must have had such high hopes for Firefly… but sometimes you just don’t know.

Up in Edmonton on the weekend I saw an art house movie, Searching For Sugarman, regarding a lyrical singer-songwriter. Afterwards, people stood in the aisles to watch the film credits, not wanting the show to end. Believe it or not: In South Africa they listened for decades to a musician as well regarded over there as any big household name over here. In the documentary made overseas, Searching For Sugarman, some Cape Town music lovers are seeking to penetrate the mystery of a gifted artist of the late 1960’s, a man who, according to legend, committed suicide on stage. If the world wasn’t good enough for one as beautiful as he, then no wonder he made no more albums.

The wonder is how his albums were heard everywhere, with every music lover in Cape Town owning them…yet…—here’s the kicker: He was American! No, I hadn’t heard of this man, named Sixto Rodriguez, either. During the movie I was enthralled to hear his music, played over scenes such as pretty skylines and historical civil rights footage; simple musical scenes without any need for fancy “shaky cam” or rapid scene cutting. Awesome. If you have to travel to another city to see it, then do so: the movie is worth it.

I just don’t know, here in “Amurica,” why “we-all” wouldn’t listen to such lyrical music, so pure, so powerful, produced right here in our own backyard.

Sometimes, I just don’t know. It must be painful, even unto suicide, to keep creating art the world disregards. (Stormy, starry night) Poor Vincent died without selling a single piece… they go for millions now. Having thought so much about it, I think I’m entitled to create a little advice: Value your day job, as your art can only benefit from contact with the real world. Enjoy your art, regardless of this painful world, for it is real, and it is yours. My favorite painter, August Renoir, when asked why he still painted despite arthritis in his hand, said it best: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

Sean Crawford
As winter deepens, and Christmas draws near
~My buddy Blair, an avid reader with little use for TV, felt so moved by Firefly that he composed a review: It is still the best review at amazon; people who don’t know he has passed away are still commenting to thank him.

~Any thoughts?