Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Poem for Peace

Ah, Peace on Earth…
I’m still chuckling at the episode of the The X-files where Mulder meets an Arab genie and wishes for world peace… next morning he finds all the people gone! His wish, explains the genie, was too hard to fill any other way.

I guess every generation wonders, “What is the cause of war?” I think the answer is like the cause for cancer: no single reason. And no single solution. What helps peace? Lately, the conventional wisdom is: Democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech to inform each other about those rights, about democracy and, of course, freedom to say that peace is a Good Thing… Too bad I won’t live long enough to see democracy, plus the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, grace Russia and the Arab world.

Meanwhile, the First World War remains a classic lesson that war is wrong. I heard once the young soldiers started out conversing with each other, “When I get home…” and then it was, “If I get home…” and finally they just weren’t saying anything ... because they just weren’t going home. In the classic poem below the man is deathly aware that the seasons will change so the ground firms up enough to move supplies to support an offensive…

I have a Rendezvous With Death
by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with death
At some disputed barricade
When spring comes on with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with death
When spring brings back blue days, and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath;
It may be he shall pass me still.
I have a rendezvous with death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with death
At midnight in some flaming town
When spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

He did not fail
Sean Crawford
Pray for peace
Xmas, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Life of Change

As you know, individuals and corporations and entire nations often resist beneficial change and growth.  As for me, if I see an individual growing from learning concrete skills, such as typing or riding a bull (named Fu Manchu) I find it inspires me. When someone is going through their bucket list, however slowly, it can be contagious.

Besides the example of concrete skills, it’s been wonderful to know people learning to be liberated in various emotional areas.

Metaphorically, to explain such people, and me too, it’s useful to look at a single example of a change-road society has not taken: consider the example of the standard typewriter keyboard being set for QWERTY, as read left to right across the top row of buttons.

The common explanation, for the setup of the keyboard that many of us learned to use in school, is that the letters were set around so illogically in order to slow the typist down, so the flying keys wouldn’t jam together. I can remember reaching forward to manually untangle the keys. But as mechanics got better, and then balls and daisy wheels replaced flying keys, and are in turn replaced by software, do we still need to be slowed down? A better way would be to arrange the keys so the “home row” where your fingers rest, has the letters used most often, such as the vowels.

It’s been done. A man named Dvorak invented the Dvorak keyboard, a board that every Macintosh computer can easily be switched to. I switch mine back and forth whenever I pass my laptop over to client to use, or to a Mac technician. Am I typing any faster using Dvorak? No. Not yet. But if ever I get arthritis I will be very glad I switched. A professional fantasy novelist, with swift fingers, got arthritis very badly, her livelihood was at risk, so she had to risk switching, and it all turned out all right. She got her speed back up.

The way I learned Dvorak—since you can’t take it at night school—was to practice a series of lessons I found on the webs, from a man who obviously likes the sci-fi series Babylon-5. But whatever motivated me to get over the speed bump of inertia in order to change? And why did I persist with “my” typing drills until I had mastered them? The answer is back at community college.

It was at night school that I learned to touch-type. The “recreational” non-credit course was full, so I had to take the “real” one, in a class with folks learning to be administrative assistants. This meant more pressure on me, but what else could I do? I didn’t want to wait for another semester. Happily, I had my own manual (not electric) typewriter at home, so I practiced hard… I got an A—and I raised my grade point average!

Many years later, my willingness and persistence for Dvorak was largely because I had faith I could learn, because I had once learned in night school. And I remembered how liberating and free it felt—such happy lightness—to be able to touch-type with all my fingers rather than being a two finger typist, or having to hunt and peck. As they say, “Nothing succeeds like success.” Now I have the joy of using futuristic Dvorak.

As a boy I read sf writer Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” (Revolt in 2100) where a young man under a totalitarian theocracy learns to question his cradle-to-grave ideology. After breaking free of government propaganda, he later learns to be liberated regarding a minority group called pariahs (probably Jews) and still later he learns to have a healthy (for him) degree of sexual liberation. It’s as if he got into a habit of life change: After getting liberated in one area he felt a willingness to persist in working through other areas too. As singer K.D. Lang says, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

People in small towns have a reputation of being less liberated. I wonder: Perhaps with no individual pariahs in town to care about, and work through their issues about, they never get a taste of that first happy lightness of being liberated, and so they never move on to other areas. …Or maybe some folks retard their growth in order to blend in with their peer group… I’ve noticed that people with a proven track record of change seem to have multiple areas of broadmindedness, and are open to new information. People such as my writer friends: No wonder they make a good peer group!

Sean Crawford
December 2014

Footnote: Maybe it’s a slow December, but you wouldn’t believe how few hits my last piece received. I am curious to see what happens this week.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Webizens and a Sense of Wonder

Faux Digression


I just can’t “get into” all the excitement about this futuristic "social interneting," not when my fellow “webizens” have let me down. I can't believe in them anymore.

Recently I saw the movie Alice In Wonderland. Then I found so many negative comment threads by so many mistaken people. Some of them, perhaps kids with low reading-comprehension skills, (on imdb) didn't comprehend the words on the screen: "Nineteen Years Later." Did they they blink? Did they fail to notice that Alice was a grownup? Why insist on the book version's "series of incidents" when the movie "sequel" offers plot and character development?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised when the democratic amateur web consensus is wrong. After all, the mass of movie critics on Google got it wrong too: Many said the movie lacked the “heart” of the books. Heart? Were they copying each other? Forget the mob. It was left to an individual, a friend, to validate for me how the show had continuous humor and empowerment. I bought the soundtrack just for Alice’s “hero theme.”

The film was so good I found it hard to leave “Underland” when the credits rolled: Not nearly as bad as when leaving the peaceful nonviolent world of the original Star Trek, no shuddering sighs, but still… So it was “perfect!” when the Alice credits started with the “screeching” of Avril Lavigne’s song. The webizens, alas, “didn’t get it.” All they did, on the thread of comments I found, was complain about the screeching.

After Lavigne, during the ending credits, is a choir and orchestra, composed by Danny Elfman. While I valued an individual’s dense web page from “filmtracks” explaining Elfman’s music and lyrics for Alice, I discounted a thread where webizens denigrated a “mere composer” for daring to craft words. I hope other threads do value Elfman; as for myself, I found the lyrics to be like a poem, like an iceberg tip, representing the fearful time of initial adulthood. Adolescence is more painful, early adulthood is more fearful.

Of course, individual threads, like individual people, may be mistaken. What if I was to surf comprehensively? I did so for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. This was when I hadn’t got to the ending yet myself; Christina and I were still catching up on DVD. I telephoned her.

“Hello Christina.”
“’Bad news. I’ve been surfing all over about the ending of BSG.”
“Remember the ending of The X-Files?
“Oh no!”
“Well it’s not that bad, but everybody’s angry. I thought I better warn you.”

Weeks later, when I got to the ending myself, I had to call her up again. I told her I really liked the final episodes, and so I must discount all those webizens. How frustrating. Again I valued an individual: I found a lengthy web posting by Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan. (And I printed it off for Chris.)


In middle age, I’m not surprised to find myself still liking that “crazy, disrespectable” fantasy and science fiction such as the movie Alice In Wonderland. My childhood was many years before Star Wars and country music were ever cool, still, I took it for granted I would never “grow up,” not for f & sf. Last year my brother Rob remarked he had really respected my “courage” for how back in elementary school I got the other kids to play “space” not sports.

Faux Digression

It was in elementary school, long before distrusting the web, that I learned to be skeptical of society and progress. I will explain. My school, built right after the war, had yellow wooden inclined desktops. There was a hole at the right for your inkwell, and a slot carved across the top to hold your pen with its messy nib. But during the war they had introduced ballpoint pens for bomber crews, so that’s what we used. Our teachers still used pen and ink, so did Mum.

We used the hole for our paste bottle. Occasionally a child would find a big feather quill on the school grounds and say, “Hey, I could use this quill for writing!”

Then “progress” came slinking in. First the yellow tops started being replaced by futuristic composite green tops. Cool! But then came newer green ones: First the holes started disappearing. …OK, I guess… Then the pencil slot went. Why? The green smooth ones looked so space age, but of course the desks were still slanted. Why have a writing desk with no way to set down your pen without it rolling off? It was a most curious riddle.

There was a riddle posed in the 1865 book that was… never answered. Generations have been frustrated, wondering at the solution. You hear it asked a few times in the movie:

Hatter: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Here's my answer: Easy—Because they both have quills!

(You’re welcome.)


I can relate to Alice. Flouting society, we postwar kids were the first ones to be able to step out onto to the dance floor and just start dancing: No need to “learn how” first… “Do your own thing!” we proclaimed joyously.

And then there’s Alice, at age 19, refusing to be stifled by corsets yet having to dance a quadrille. It would be impossible for her to just dance a futterwacken- What would “they” say?

Ah, but don’t say “impossible” to Alice. The girl who favored the Hatter would also enjoy the old man in Edward Lear’s limerick:

There was an old man of Whitehaven
Who danced a quadrille with a raven
They said, “How absurd!
To dance with this bird!”
So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven

Yes, that’s just what “they” would do. Some folks are as dumb as—well, as dumb as webizens.

I wish her well. As Elfman ends his song:

“Please tell us so we’ll understand
Alice…Alice…Oh, Alice”

Sean Crawford
Still in Wonderland,
December 2014.8.27


~As for the lyrics, I think people of Alice's age tell each other their woes because at one level they miss not being able to tell their parents, and so there is comfort in the lyrics saying "us."

~Back when color TV sets were so new the department store salesmen couldn't set the colors right, back during the first season broadcast of Star Trek, Kirk asked Spock something like, "Didn't you ever dip a girl's pigtail in the inkwell?"

~ Speaking of the space age, this post was composed entirely by touch-type, no peeking, on a dvorak -not your mother's qwerty- keyboard: Today I finished my final "dvorak ABCD" lesson, by Babylon-5 fan Dan Wood, off the 'net. Hurray!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rain Falling On Hemlock

My brother and I grew up in the rainforest—then we left. To make it sound Romantic, say: Snow Falling on Cedars, which is the title of a splendid book and movie. Less romantic, say: Rain Dripping off Hemlock. I’ve no love for hemlock: Instead of needles it has flattened fronds. And when someone finally found a way to straighten its (then) useless warping wood, he had to market it as “Alaskan pine.” I’m not going back. And neither is my brother. Sayonara to the neon lights of coastal Vancouver.

To Canadians in the great white north, the Pacific Northwest is as close to sunny California as they will ever get. To them, their warmer west coast is “lotus land.” I won’t argue, but I won’t go west, either.

Eventually I settled down to seek my fortune here on the Great Plains: The total opposite of lotus land. Older Canadians tell stories of childhood on the lonesome prairies and of having to walk miles to school in deep snow. But out here what brands your soul is not the great distances—measured, as in Texas, by hours, not miles—and not the great snow, but the great cold. As the poet recited, “Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold, it stamped like a driven nail.” (Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam Magee)

As for folks along the west and east coasts—or by the coast of a so-called “lake” as Buffalo is—they can experience mighty dumps of snow, but it’s not very cold, being below freezing by only five or ten or fifteen degrees. Buffalo’s snow soon thawed. It’s far worse back here when we get a foot of snow, coating the cement-hard ground like dry white sugar, far from any ocean heat sink. To sound flat, say: Blizzards flowing for miles.

As a young man out in Calgary, under a pale sun in icy blue skies, I attended Mount Royal College, earning my diploma in Rehabilitation Services. Back then the diploma wasn’t offered back west. The campus was all one building: All day long you could cheerfully wear your student uniform of blue jeans and T-shirt. One of my classmates was a tall confident local guy who’d been the president of his high school student council. Two or three times he told me a story of finding a green army surplus winter scarf with a large panel of instructions: not for laundry, but for various uses, such as covering your face at night. He couldn’t believe the army would print such obvious-to-him advice. He always told me this with great derision, and I never had the nerve to tell him of my great delight when I discovered that panel on my own scarf.

I remember a pretty lady out in Vancouver, recently from the Philippines, telling me of how strange it felt to have to wear a long coat and hood with only her face showing. On the prairies life is even stranger: At the bus stop I laugh to hold a travel mug, coffee steaming from the drinking hole, with sloshed coffee frozen solid on the lid. Luckily for me, back when I was a boy my mother had gone to the Queen’s Printer and come back with A Soldier’s Guide to the North. Memories of the guide sure came in handy in my new hometown.

As for the Philippine Islands, (P.I.) that’s where my brother finally ended up after leaving the rainforest. He’s been at Subic Bay for decades, with a wife his own age, among Vietnam veterans who ALL believe that post-traumatic stress disorder exists, although the goddam government would deny it, and half the vets are on medication for PTSD. My school president buddy says the suicide numbers among vets now exceed the casualties in Nam. I haven’t had the nerve to go check the numbers for myself. As for my brother, I’m confident that when he passes upward to that great climate controlled cloud in the sky his death will be from old age. Recently he e-mailed me of his vision of retirement, while lounging in the shade in the P.I. wearing his straw cowboy hat with the side brims folded up to defeat the wind. He gets a new hat every year because of the mildew in his hometown.

Mildew? I used the word in my writer’s group and people leaned forward with interest. Such a nostalgic word back here as our scrubby grass is khaki colored in summer—a short summer. During the winter my plain-as-Stephen-King writer friends don’t exactly dress like Eskimos, and no one wears ski pants or the equivalent. Just as the folks in Los Angeles—at least on TV—don’t dress in bathing suits or Bermuda shorts, even if they should. And all over North America, of course, junior high kids will be especially silly. A writer laughed to tell us of a boy who got on the bus, sped to the back, hurried to stuff his outer jacket into his pack, and then sat up looking cool, just two seconds before other kids boarded the bus. Nobody in my group writes about the cold; we take it for granted.

I remember one afternoon after college playing with a young woman and her husky downtown on an island park in the river. It was so frigid we had the pretty park all to ourselves in the virgin snow. That evening the front of her legs were red, and I was spared a similar fate only because under my jeans I was wearing stout bicycle shorts. Some folks decide to wear long johns. Me too. I once went with some university students to a conference in the city of Saskatoon, one time zone further east, even deeper into the freeze-dried heart of the continent. This was in February. A lady in our party looked at people on the sidewalk, and said, “Wow, they dress just as stupidly as we do.” In jeans and running shoes. If you go yet another time zone east then, according to my Winnipegger best friend, long underwear is sexy, a sure sign of indoor intimacy.

My brother has adjusted. With more free time and calories than the locals have, he and his wife are exploring hill trails that link up although the paths are intended to be local. He keeps in good shape. That he was once a medic, and still treats folks, provides him enough protection from the bad guys. Also, his wife’s a healer.

I’ve adjusted; I’ve come to like my hometown. In a tough climate my neighbors tend to be tough rednecks. Meanwhile, some of my best friends are bleeding heart liberals, yet they aren’t the majority—My brother-in-law says that when some Hells Angels came through a small town a police escort was provided, to protect them from us.

Off in metropolitan Vancouver the citizens tolerate a vast congregation of flea-bitten lotus eaters on Main Street, enough losers to populate a prairie town. One of those long-haired addicts thought he could slowly jaywalk in front of me as I steadily motored down the hill—until he noticed my car front showed I was a frugal redneck: no license plate. He hurried up.

The rainforest is still there. If my brother ever left his sun-drenched P.I. for Vancouver drizzle he’d have to wear a parka: Even so, he’d still feel a hades-horrible chill right into his very marrow. And me, if I ever went back to the coast, I’d walk around feeling twisted up from the high costs and cramped living.

As a boy, growing up 25 miles inland, I would safely move cows across the Surrey freeway to graze the grassy median. And now? The freeway is a solid train of cars, past Surrey and through Langley, miles and miles of vehicles in first and second gear during a “rush hour” that is hours longer than you would believe. I’m not exaggerating: I drive a manual shift, I know which gears I was in—for miles. They tell me you can’t just impulsively phone a friend to come visit: the crowded traffic means socializing must be planned in advance. I wouldn’t like it. As the poet says, “you can’t go home again.”

I believe a good man assimilates. He goes to where the jobs are, and then he plays the cards he’s dealt.

Softly, snow is falling on cedars… and two brothers are gone...

Sean Crawford

~ 25 miles is 40 kilometers.

~In elementary school our teacher showed us a photograph taken through the porthole of a ship on a great lake. We all gasped—the lake had no shoreline.

~I reviewed a useful book for the armed forces community on post-traumatic stress disorder, archived June 2012. Needless to say, civilians can have PTSD too.

~My old best friend has her own essay, archived June 2014 called God, Guns and a Gay Mother.

~In everyday urban life, nobody wears ski pants, quilted pants or zippered-up-the leg fleece. Meanwhile, common waist-length ski jackets are like kilts: wearable for all levels of formality.

~The Fine Man, Fine Writer whom I wrote about in October is from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He owns six parkas. I asked.

~Hells Angels has no apostrophe. I once declined to buy a used British nonfiction book on the gang, when I noticed the book put the apostrophe where it didn’t belong.

~In the incorporated “city” of Greenwood, on the #3 Crows Nest Pass Highway, I went to city hall to ask why the little town was so affluent, as I had noticed the paint on the buildings along the main highway-street was so new, only a few years old. Turns it out it was a movie set for Snow Falling on Cedars. The library front window still has guilt writing for the fake town, but the banner over the street had to be removed: Too many people were asking when the Strawberry Festival was on.

~Today’s prairie kid will ride to school in a yellow bus with a strobe light on top.