Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Fools These Mortal Readers Be

“I give e-mail skimming a pass. Because a businessman once acted out for me how he and his peers have to be ruthless with reading e-mail.”
From an e-mail to Derek Silvers by Sean Crawford

Hello reader,
Should we read or skim?
If we skim, then what would our dear mothers say?

I’m behind schedule for another post about 
me and “blogs in general.” 

(OK: Before I forget, let me say, for “blogs in general,” John Scalzi blogged on July 4 that “… the general collapse of blogs, which has been happening for a couple of years now, really seems to have accelerated in the last year.” 

I don’t think people are leaving their screens, rather, they’re just switching their viewing to things like Facebook and Twitter)

Never mind me. I’ve been wondering what other readers are like. Readers of the Internet, I mean. For readers of the screen, scientists have found them to be a little stressed at trying to squint at digital fonts: It seems people don’t want the same blocks of text on screen they would easily read on paper. This I already knew, instinctively, and so I’ve been writing paragraphs almost as short as in a newspaper.  I trust my instincts, even though I’m a middle-aged man from the time before computers. May I confess something? I still have an odd feeling that anyone reading a screen must be a computer nerd… 

I think it’s Politically Correct for me to blog about PC users, because I think I still have my nerd credentials: After all, I still like fantasy and science fiction. In fact, I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, and seen the 1980’s movie. At the cinema. Haven’t done the new TV series yet, but surely I would like it. Elizabeth Moss has a nice familiar face. Speaking of sci-fi, may I do a fantasy thought experiment?

Imagine I’ve walked into the old library tower at the university. I walk in awe among the exciting stacks. Maybe I sit cross-legged on the floor in the dusty aisle to read intently. And since this is my fantasy: Matrix-style, I can wave my hand to make the stacks race past me, then wave stop! —and I pick out a book or periodical —and be engaged. Committed. Sitting in the aisle. After all, you get out of life the effort you put in. 

Regarding real life, and people reading the Internet… research shows that many will arrive on a web site, glance at the “homepage” and then skip off again along the web. No sitting cross-legged, figuratively. 

Sad to say, I cannot, metaphorically, imagine Americans as smiling Buddhists in canvas sneakers skipping alongside the new exciting “temple of computer” like excited kids going through cyberspace. No, for the research is damnably depressing: Lots of people will be reading fonts with feelings of low grade distress, while also, like having an annoying fan whir-whir-whirring in the background, be reading with an ongoing impatience. Not only do they skim and click off, but even when they are quote “reading” unquote, they are doing so with just as much impatience as enjoyment. Forget any awesome “temple of learning.” According to science, many people skim every page of any site they like. Call it “skimming as a lifestyle choice.”

Maybe they think they are “trying” to read. I think of Yoda: “There is no try, either do or do not.” These poor guys are missing a chance to be present like Yoda, instead rushing along in a pathetic doomed search for their digital pot of gold. Such a twisted form of FOMA: fear of missing out. I get it. For them, the long scroll of article titles in a nerd forum must be as intimidating as the looming university stacks. But there’s a difference. A lady smart-as-a-nerd, carrying her regional library card, wandering over to the campus and up the tower, does not regard the stacks with distressful impatience, let alone have a helpless compulsion to skim.   

I would ask those poor skimmers: The last time you stood up from your screen, did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Had you lost track of your time because you were having so much fun? Or, if you lost track because it was just so much compulsion, did you stand up feeling hollow? 

A modern-day Henry David Thoreau would decry consumers frantically rushing to be consumers of screen time. And for what? A life of quiet desperation?… Oh, believe me, I get it. Sometimes, if I am on my computer and my neck is somehow stiff and unable to turn a mere ten degrees to look at my clock, then I know my head is clamped in the vice grip of a compulsion. And I stand up hollow. 

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I have to say it: At those times I don’t respect myself. So then how can I respect the nerds in skimmer-land? At least they’re happy in their own way. I suppose. I hope.

Maybe they could take a step towards sanity by spending twice as much time on merely half as many sites. Maybe, like a television addict, they need to… I don’t know. What do addicts do?

I really should stop writing now. I don’t suppose, dear reader, you want me to rant and rave. 

Better for you to hear me being positive, so here goes: Two of my favorite bloggers are computer nerds. One is a former manager at Microsoft, we correspond by e-mail. Recently he was feeling depressed, so I advised him I feel cheered up by reading the blog of Derek Silvers, a guy who can program in several computer languages. Derek, I told him, presents a down-to-earth sanity.

In Silver’s post (link) about writing for the screen he says “people are busy.” (see comment #122 for “research on readers”) That’s a charitable way for Derek to put it, but no: “People skim.” The folks shown in the research studies may be in the majority, but still, “they skim because they skim.” Of course I believe in “democracy” and “the majority,” but—The majority also consumes too much sugar, owns too much stuff, and exercises too little. I know this, because I am human too. But I don’t have to like it. In fact, I could wink sideways to you and say, “My blood just boils, boils I tell you, thinking about the research on screen readers.”

Or I could lose my sense of ha-ha and get angry, then: “OK Self, try to calm down. Meditate: … “ohmmm, ohmmmm, …” Works for Yoda, not so much for me. Let’s change the topic to my own blog. 

I write for a niche market: For readers who know the name Henry Thoreau, or at least are willing to look him up. Without needing me to present them with a link on a silver platter. People with a God-given attention span. 

I won’t make my essays any shorter. Even Aesop, teaching his morals, had to wrap his sound-bites in a two-page fable, if he wanted his datum to stick. I realize my beautiful, perfect, darling posts get skimmed—I came up through newspaper journalism, I know—Still, if you manage to skim all the way to the ending of one of my essays then truly you are doing better than the mass of men. Good for you, good for me.

Now, without skimming or rushing, I suggest you go and take your… time… in seeing your dear mother.

Sean Crawford

~ My last scheduled self-indulgent essay “about me and blogs in general” was Twenty-Five Blogs archived October 2016.

AND THEN there’s Doctor Who, with his reading glasses, in that show about a sad near-immortal with mortal companions:

~Here’s a nice link to Abigail’s Song performed on stage, backed by a string quartet, by the classically trained singer Katherine Jenkins who first sang the song on Doctor Who. In the show, Abigail is a tragic figure with a beautiful soul. Her song begins, “When you’re alone, silence is all you know.”

~I wrote of the New Doctor Who, with his space-and-time machine, back in February 2017. He has a habit of saying, “back in ten minutes” and then returning after years. Well, for one of his pretty young companions, he returns to find she is 63 years old and retired. But at least she’s taught in every country in Europe, and even learned to fly a plane. But still… He feels badly—and he should. Maybe adults like your mother don’t grow as fast as children do, but yes, they are growing. Don’t miss out.

~There are two Dr. Who contrasting back-to-back episodes: The Girl who Died and The Woman who Lived. The beloved girl, who died surrounded by people who loved her, was lucky. The woman? Unfortunately, she lived too long, too lonely, and then she stopped caring about people. As a script writer said (link) on the Joss Whedon quotes site, “Loneliness leads to nothing good. Only detachment.”

…like I said, go see your mother. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Art, Genre and Cowboys

“Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos 5:24

Hello Reader,
Got art showing life?

Strange how sometimes genre, for prose and television, can be such a powerful metaphor for real life, just as “real literature” is. To me, there’s no point in being a literature snob looking down on genre. 

“Genre” means “category” where the audience arrives with certain expectations: A “cowboy” story, we think, must include a gunfight, and the plot should be like straight yarn, no tangled flashbacks. In contrast literature, or art, is beyond glib category. If it isn’t genre, then the audience is expected to release expectations, and just “be present” for the art. 

A splendid movie—five stars out of five in the Roger Ebert review—by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, was Art— And that’s why, in regular cinemas across America, people who insisted on their regular Hollywood fare walked out… A  simple genre movie, or a genre novel, is something I can recommend to any stranger, using a star rating. But for an “art movie,” unlike a western, I need to first know the person I would recommend it to, or, if not, I need to spend a lot of time explaining not just what it’s about, but as Roger would say, how it’s about. 

Of course even genre for a mass audience may still sneak in some artsy metaphor. Back in the days of black and white TV Rod Serling, despite his surrounding culture of the 1950’s, managed in The Twilight Zone to sneak in some anti-conformity and anti-racism. I’ve mentioned Serling and Malick. Put it this way: Genre might be made by a committee, but art, as Rita Mae Brown once noted, must be made by a single unified consciousness. 

My favorite western novel to make use of artistic metaphor was by war veteran (European theatre) Louis L’Amour, entitled The Kiowa Trail. L’Amour’s novel starts off with a typical trail herd headed north to the rails. But then members of the dusty cattle drive ride into a town for drink. After, say, (I forget) a cowboy gets shot in the back, the town denies justice.  The townsmen take their rifles to the rooftops to defy the cowboys, to keep them from entering the town for any arrest or trial. 

Obviously this is a metaphor: The “townsmen” are the folks of Nazi Germany defending their choice to deny human rights. Is it proper then for the ranchers to blame the whole town? Surely there are still a few “good townsmen,” even if they are keeping totally invisible. Must they be judged too? 

Yes. The angry cattlemen proceed to act against the whole town. I forget how, but I think they blockade the town. In those days they would have known their biblical judgement: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” 

Today judging may be controversial, but maybe not in the cowboy days. You see, the entire civil population of the CSA, Confederate States of America, had recently been subjected to starvation by blockade, and then further exposed to the horror of General Sherman’s army with their controversial “marching through Georgia.” No doubt, to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the marching troops sang, “We shall hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Then came peace, with blessed sanity. Then, of course, veterans of both sides would work on cattle ranches together. Just as in the next century fighter pilots of West Germany and Britain flew together in South Korea as part of the United Nations force. (Canadian forces were in Korea as part of the Commonwealth Division) 

When my father’s generation bombed the civilian factories of the Rhine and Berlin, while the London blitz must have somewhat eased their conscience, part of the formal reasoning was “people get the government they deserve.” (Are best fitted for) At the same time, I suppose the allies used the infamy of Pearl Harbor to somewhat ease their conscience as they used U.S. submarines to blockade the nation that deserved Prime Minister General Tojo—again, just as with the blockade of Europe, innocent fascists starved… 

How strange that I could conjure up all these memories of history by reading a book in the western genre. While art and genre are at two separate poles, truly genre meets art at the equator. Metaphors are world-wide.

Sean Crawford
Under the big sky of Alberta

~As for The Tree of Life, as I see it: The movie is about how a shocked family has their faith shaken, and so they question and ponder God’s creation and God’s very existence. Maybe I would question too, were I in such grief. Here’s a link to Roger Ebert’s review.

~Both a movie about Korean jet fighter pilots, and a Reader’s Digest condensed novel about a trail herd, North to Abilene by Zachary Ball, include a scene where a freckle faced boy, too young to have fought, folds his arms and refuses to drink with a former enemy. The older men, veterans of both sides, teach him he is mistaken.

~I heard in a tavern that Muslims in certain countries are taught while still children, by their parents, to have hatred. If true, then a simple peace treaty would not restore them to sanity. How sad.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Blog Interview with Me

Hello Reader,
Got belonging?
(For that, the essay body is prelude to the footnotes)

I haven’t written about me in a long time. Of course I don’t mean “Me,” the woman on Doctor Who. I mean just me, Sean. 

As for my life, there’s nothing worth writing home about, but maybe you’d like to see me through a blogging lens. For a blog interview, what would the lovely Me ask me? Me from Doctor Who, I mean. That overly long-lived lady.

Me: Hullo. Are you male?

Sean: Isn’t it interesting how we Celts go in for bi-sexual names? I worked with a man who’s name tag read Shirley, at college the man who ran the physical education equipment room was named Beverly, and of course I share a name with the actress from Bladerunner, Sean Young. 

"As it happens, I’m proud to be male. —Well, not exactly proud, I mean I was merely born this way, but I might just as well be proud, since there’s no changing it, —well, you can if you have some money and you’re determined, but, well, don’t go there. Just don’t."

The above was me channeling the tenth doctor. I liked him. Wasn’t it awful when he was all torn up and said, “I don’t want to go” and then, of course, he had to regenerate into another body? Now I know why the eleventh doctor was the torn up “raggedy man” beloved by a young girl. Poor girl, I grieved.

Me: Do you cry when innocent companions of the doctor meet their end?

Sean: No. See answer to first question. Well, Ok, if I am binge watching when a companion moves off this mortal plane then, well, I don’t watch any more that day. Won’t. Can’t. But, —Oy! Let me tell you—back in my day? I can remember a companion saying goodby and then skipping gaily down a nice English country lane. None of this awful ending stuff.

Me: Binge watch?

Sean: No. I like to make my series last, and I have a life, but the sole exception is Doctor Who: He, I mean she, I mean, the doctor is so popular the library puts the DVD on a one-week loan. But hey, binging on that “person” with his/her two hearts is fun.

Me: Tragedy or comedy?

Sean: For my blog? I guess mostly serious, after harkening to the advice of the closest thing to an essayist I read as a boy: Province newspaper columnist Eric Nicol, author of some funny books. He liked doing his serious, citizenship, “save the world” columns, but for his final column, his summing up, he had a warning: Don’t do any humorous columns. He said “once the public hears your jester bells tinkling,” they won’t pay attention to your serious stuff. Such a pity. Say, do you think that’s changed?

Me: …no answer…

Sean: I can relate. The previous columnist was Jack Scott, whom my grade five teacher, Mr. Thompson, really liked. Jack used to wonder, as he typed his “save the world” pieces, if there was anybody out there reading. Anybody? Hello? One day he dashed off a piece about picking blueberries up on Mount—Mount X, I better not blab the real name—Next day there was a long line of cars edging up the sole mountain road. Every car carrying a hopeful bucket for berries.

Myself, I write serious speeches to deliver at my toastmasters club. One day, for a quick topic, I did one on the joys of carefully mixing your breakfast cereal. Result? A nice couple from another club have been telling me for years that is their favourite speech of mine, and how they still mix their cereal. Glad to be of help, says I. I can save the world some other time, says I.

Me: You’re so naturally funny.

Sean: Ya, in real life. Not sure whether I should be funny on my blog, though. I mean, what would Eric Nicol say?

Me: What did Eric say? Besides what you said, I mean.

Sean: He said it is not a good idea to put lots of man-hours into learning how to be funny on the page. Now that television is in colour, that’s where people get their laughs.

Me: That was before computers. Now there’s lots of screens. With print. Like on a page.

Sean: What do you think?

Me: Why ask me? With a center-of-the-world name like Me you can bet I don’t feel any need to be apprehensive about measuring up to others, nor be worried about life in general, nor do I have any ego-need to put people down. No tension-need for laughter. Maybe I still do laughter from being surprised, but that’s about it. I’m happily learning to appreciate beauty, just now, but really, I don’t focus on comedy.

Sean: Oh. That’s all I can say: “Oh.” You’ve lived such a long time, Me.

Me: Goodby, Sean.

Sean: Goodby, Me.

Sean Crawford
After the thirteenth “the doctor” has been announced,
after I did The New Doctor Who in February of 2017

~Shall I do humour?

~I guess Eric Nicol was “out of community” when he died, with a small, small funeral. Shall I be enraged or sad? Here’s a link to remembering him.

~Here is a link to a young man who, like Me, is “out of community” but, unlike her, is trying hard not to be “out of empathy.” In his case, his condition is because he moves over the globe so much. Here is a quote of how he copes:

I always prioritize making at least one deep friendship in each place I visit (ideally more of course), because I have seen the dangers of ignoring the human aspect – I have met a couple of long-term travellers who simply lose the ability to empathize with other people, because they never get the chance to care for anyone for long enough. I never want this to happen to me, and go out of my way to try to really get to know and help people so there is always some human connection, and that I perhaps leave a place better than how I found it.

But I actually miss routines a lot. I have to essentially look for a new supermarket that has what I want, new friends that I can confide in, a nice walking or jogging path, a good regular social event to attend, a place with great food, every single time I move somewhere. Sometimes I really wish I could have these things more easily accessible and not be constantly searching for them.

By the end of the time that I live in a place, the guy I get coffee from recognizes me and gives me a nice smile, or the weekly party I go to has the same familiar faces who wave at me… and then I have to go. It takes time to build these kinds of little nice parts of your routine that so many people take for granted. For me it's such a novelty to be able to say somewhere that I'll have “my usual” order…

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Integrity and Philosophy

Hello Reader,
Got Gibbon’s old classic
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?
(I didn’t get past chapter one, myself)

My college teacher for leadership 102, “how to run a meeting,” Gerry Bruce, used to encourage our integrity. If we were having a classroom “meeting,” or discussion, about a tough philosophy decision, he would have us each write down for our eyes only what our answer was—so we would have to make a choice.

If a classmate asked him for time to address the class for something, (such as a party or special event) and if she told him, without honest thought, that it would take “a minute” or “two seconds” then he would not allow such dishonesty. Students had to have the integrity to estimate how much time they were asking for.

Last week’s footnote went: 
Perhaps, if you are reading this in a future library, you are wondering why I would sacrifice the natural flow of my essay to suddenly, in the third from last paragraph, go sideways to a paragraph referring to the war on terror. 
To me it’s obvious, but maybe I could answer in a sidebar, next week. 

Now it’s next week.

My answers: 
Secondly, in a modern war, where the total democratic population is involved, some sacrifice is expected by everyone, if only the sacrifice of time, attention and a citizen’s duty to be informed. 
Firstly, dear reader, I wonder too. Do the American people deserve my sacrifice?

Do they think so little of the words that fall from their mouths that they say “war” when they secretly mean to stay on their couch, letting only their civil servants “give a care?” Letting themselves abdicate any citizen oversight or planning? A war is not won by accident. I think they are too lazy to win—how, you may ask, could I say such a horrible thing? As I see it, here’s the smoking gun: They can’t even be bothered to “demonize” the enemy. Such a lack of national focus would have been inconceivable during my dad’s war, when even passive artists were quick to make demonic propaganda posters. 

Perhaps those people who declare war yet refuse to demonize, also think there is only “a small difference” between the terrorists and us. That’s no way to run a war. My dad could have told them, as Barak Obama’s mentor Saul Alinsky said: “You can’t ask a farmer to leave his wife and children, his crops half-grown in the field, for a small difference.” 

Nor can you ask my sister to (hypothetically) leave her college degree in Arab Studies half-finished to go be a translator in a long modest dress, to accompany the U.S. army at night. (Surely the army or the embassy would at least provide her with rations and a free roof overhead—they could even call her a “civilian contractor”) Therefore my sister won’t be giving aid and comfort to any Arab families as the U.S. troops “recruit for Al-Qaida” by kicking in doors at midnight, frightening families in the bitter search for insurgents and weapons. No, better to let America’s army recruit new insurgents. While lazy Americans are saying from their couches, “Let George do it,” I would tell my sister, “Stay in college. The American people don’t deserve you.”

… Note of gratitude: Some of the above ideas are ones I have applied from reading the Chtorr War novels of David Gerrold about a world desperately fighting against an alien invasion by ecological infestation. (No Martian Fighting Machines with death rays) I love that series.

I wonder: Did the folks of the sprawling decadent Roman Empire look back to their famous old city-state republic as a golden age? Did they know, as historians do today, that they were in decline, headed for a fall, even though they were so much greater in terms of gold and territory than the virtuous old republic? If they did know, they must have felt helpless to reverse their decline.

One theory, for spotting a state’s decline, is presented by a character in Robert Heinlein’s speculative fiction novel about a grown up orphan named Friday. A wise man tells her a nation in decline has declining civility, adding that the worst offenders view their rudeness as a strength.

I wonder if Heinlein had read old Roman parchments? 

I guess nobody knows how to spot national decline (except for the obvious tell-tale of government being dishonest with the money supply, producing inflation—as in the U.S., Canada and early Nazi Germany until Hitler stopped inflation cold in its tracks—as documented in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) but here’s another theory: Perhaps a nation has lost greatness when they no longer aspire to have integrity in their language. I suppose the loss of integrity would be most noticeable in a nation’s elected leaders and “patricians.” 

Speaking of leaders: During the U.S. civil war, at a time and place when everyone else went in for florid speech, as an historian has noted, both President Lincoln and General Grant were concise and accurate in their speech—which helped them to trust each other at great distances. Perhaps in their personal lives those two had the same philosophy as I: Honest language prevents decline. During my dad’s war, Sir Winston Churchill would correct bad language such as reporting that in Italy yesterday we “were fighting with the Germans.” As if war is a game. No, we were fighting with our allies, against the Germans. Once an officer, as a figure of speech, said to Churchill, “I’m afraid that—” “Don’t be afraid!”

Now what’s to become of us? We may have the president of the United States speak of the “war on terror” but he seems to secretly regard it as being, at most, a mere “leave it to the regular military” police action. 

Greatness never sits down beside exaggeration, or lies, or wishful thinking. Integrity means wholesome thought, word and then deed. Any Girl Scout knows that. 

And that’s why I think the American people, even after conserving resources for their war by pulling out of Iraq, have doomed themselves in advance to not-win.

Sean Crawford

As for “citizen oversight,” by searching the web I can find individual congressmen, in small groups, going briefly to the occupation zone as Ugly Americans and staying among the elite in the Green Zone—just as Ugly Americans (as in the classic of that title) would stay glued to urban Saigon—but I find no sign of a Congressional Committee going over long enough for a formal study. Perhaps congressmen thought it was peacetime, and so therefore they were most needed back in couch territory. 

As long as congressmen remain content to not-win, the terrorists will be excited to not-lose.

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 caloric 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 crow 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 by somebody 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.