Thursday, February 28, 2013

Be not "precious"


In the business side of my life I am offering three main services, although sometimes the boundaries between them can become blurred. These services are: manuscript assessment, copy editing and proofreading. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the most sensitive and difficult of these tasks (although not necessarily the most time-consuming) is manuscript assessment.

Manuscript assessment is similar to reviewing, except that it is much more in depth and provides a much more detailed critique. It is also the area into which the greatest proportion of subjectivity and opinion enters. There is a large degree of objectivity about grammar, spelling and punctuation, and although the process of proofreading is time-consuming, it is less taxing. Copy editing demands a little more subjectivity, but it still essentially deals with the nuts and bolts of the manuscript. Manuscript assessment, on the other hand, goes to the very heart of the creative process. It examines plot, character development, writing style and story structure. These are not “incidentals”. These are areas of enormous sensitivity. They are at what most would consider to be the heart of the story.

It is not too difficult for a writer to accept the correction of a spelling mistake here, or of a sentence there. But to be confronted with a critique of the very story itself, of some valued character, or of a cherished passage, is much more difficult. Of course, a critique is not only about criticism; but it will inevitably involve some criticism, even if given constructively. As the one providing the critique or assessment I am also, of course, acutely aware that in many cases I can only offer an opinion. There is certainly some room for objectivity; but this usually occurs where assessment overlaps with editing. For example, there is little subjectivity involved when pointing out a plot inconsistency. However, if I suggest that a particular character requires further development, or that a plot element doesn’t really “work”, this sounds (and probably is) more in the realm of opinion than fact. Nevertheless I try to back these claims with evidence from the text; I provide suggestions for how to move on. As the author it is important not to be too “precious” about this; and not to take it too personally.

It is an enormous advantage for both the author and the assessor that they do not know each other. While it is never my intention as the assessor to be unkind, sometimes it is necessary to be uncomfortably honest. I do not see the disappointment on the author’s face. I do not have to face them the next day. They can swear and curse about me as much as they desire. Hopefully, at the end of the day, what I am able to provide will help them to move forward and produce a better novel or story. Hopefully.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

“You, you… fustilarian!”


"You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” (Henry IV, Part 2)

I am continuing where I left off from the last blog, with some words from the Bard. Something a little more flavoursome, this time.

Ah, language is rarely so colourful and expressive as when it is devoted to the task of hurling insults. Shakespeare was one of the greatest insult-deliverers of all time. Even though few of us would know what a “rampallian” or “fustillarian” might be, we suspect that these are not things with which we would care to be compared. (I am not certain whether I want my catastrophe tickled or not.) Name-calling can be entertaining, but a witty jibe can be even better. "He had delusions of adequacy," said Walter Kerr. Who Walter Kerr was, and towards whom he directed this remark, I have no idea. Perhaps one of the shortest great insults ever. [Wikipedia informs me that Walter Kerr was a writer and theatre critic – talk about delusions of adequacy!] "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go,” wrote Oscar Wilde, thus destroying a fair proportion of the human race. “I like long walks,” observes Noel Coward, “especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”

Coming up with a good insult can sometimes take time, and I am envious of those who, in the midst of a heated argument, can cut down their enemy. Most of us can come up with nothing better than, “You, you... dipstick!” I’m not even exactly sure why that is an insult. It’s a bit like saying, “You, you... kitchen knife!” Wow, cutting! Sorry.

As I write this I am experiencing a rather nostalgic flash back to my youth: idle afternoons spent watching Lost in Space. Do you recall Dr. Zachary Smith, and the insults he would hurl at his companion, that bubble-headed booby, the Robot? Alliteration, of course, was invariably the key to these insults. “Deplorable dunderhead!” “Ignominious ignoramus!” “Pusillanimous pinhead!” How Lost in Space improved my vocabulary! I would have to leave to look up the word “pusillanimous” immediately. [Pusillanimous: Lacking courage, cowardly. From the Latin pusillus (weak), animus (courage – among other things).]

I think it is only fair to conclude this pestiferous post with some additional words from Will:


“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” (Henry IV, Part 1)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

“On”, “in”... er, make that “at”


Prepositions are tricky little buggers. When learning another language they can be amongst the most difficult words to master, because, in many cases, their application seems quite arbitrary. When working with students for whom English is not their first language, this has been among the most difficult things to explain. Often there is no explanation, beyond “it just sounds right.”

For example, in English we say that we did something on a Monday in August at night. But why do we do something “on Monday”? It could just as easily be “in Monday”, because it takes place within the boundaries that determine the beginning and end of that day. Or “in night”, for the same reason. Indeed, why does there have to be a preposition at all? Why not just say “I did it Monday”?

We say that someone walks “up the street”; but “down the street” means exactly the same thing. Unless, that is, we are following a rule related to the numbering of the houses. But I don’t give that a thought when saying “up” or “down” the street.

Some words require prepositions and some don’t. For example, we talk about something; but we simply discuss it.

This difficulty with prepositions is not restricted to English. I have encountered similar problems trying to cope with prepositions in French.

Of course, one of the things that has plagued the use of prepositions is the so-called rule stating that a sentence must not end with a preposition. There is the well-known protest by Winston Churchill, quoted in various forms, but which is more or less as follows: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put!” Actually, as far as I can ascertain, there never has been such a rule, although “prepositional fundamentalists” become apoplectic if this rule is broken: it signals the end of civilisation as we know it. There are clearly cases where ending the sentence with a preposition is much to be preferred over constructing convoluted sentences such as that used by Churchill to illustrate the point. “That’s not something we choose to talk about” is surely preferable to, “That’s not something about which we choose to talk.” It is tidier to say, “Which shop are you going to?” than, “To which shop are you going?” If I am about to board a ship or a plane, how could I say, “Shall we go aboard?” without placing the preposition at the end of the sentence? Of course, these sentences could probably be rephrased without using a preposition: “”Shall we board?” This is fine, if our aim is to eliminate prepositions from the language. But as long as they have a place in the language, in many (I don’t say all) cases, prepositions can comfortably end sentences.

Before we mount our high horses, we need to remind ourselves that many (if not all) great writers have readily ended sentences with prepositions. Let us conclude with a short extract from the writings of a little known sixteenth/seventeenth century English playwright:

By a sleep to say we end
The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death–
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns– puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Do not go gentle..."


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

-          Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas, who wrote this beautiful piece, died at only 39 years of age. It’s a nice thought that one might leave life, kicking and fighting, full of spirit. However, I suppose many of us would prefer to do precisely the opposite: to slip away quietly.

It’s not so much that I would fight death. I have no fear of death. Of course, I say that now, but I might sing a different tune when it draws closer. But, then, who knows how close it is? No, it would not be fear of death that would have me burning, raving and raging. It would be the desire to fit as much in as I could in the time available. I want to leave this world with many things left undone, with many hopes and wishes unfulfilled. Does that sound odd? I would rather that than come to a point, while still living, when there was nothing left that I wanted to do, taste, hear, experience. I do not want the last years (months, weeks) of my life to be dull. In that sense, I do not want to slip away quietly. I do not want to die in (let alone of) boredom.

Talk of death is still pretty much taboo in our society. As a species, we rail against death, doing everything we can to prevent it, everything we can to extend the human lifespan, despite the implications of that for the future of this planet. I do not, on a personal level, want to oppose death in that way, and as a species I think we could apply our expertise and money to more useful and interesting ventures. Death is an essential and helpful part of life. Without death we would not be here. Evolution is driven by death: it is the fittest that survive, at least in the natural world. No, that is not what “raging against the dying of the light” means for me. It means holding on for that last wondrous glimpse as the light fades.

Of course, I am aware that in this day and age, this may not be possible. It is entirely possible that my mind will have left long before my body finally fails; or that I will spend my last days in a drugged stupor. And, by then, it might be what I want. Nevertheless, as I write  this now I would like to think that I would savour every last drop of life.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

!High Importance


Have you ever received an email with this warning alongside – and therefore almost immediately assumed that it isn’t? Of “!High Importance”, that is. Because the chances are, it isn’t. This is just one example of the hyperbole that seems to pervade internet communication. Perhaps “hyperbole” is not the right word; or, at least, is not general enough. There is a kind of absurd, overblown intensity on the internet. Another expression of this is the “field asterisk” – this field MUST be filled in. Another is password paranoia. Every web page has to have a password: it has to be this long, with some of this, some of that, and a dash of Tabasco sauce. You receive an ominous warning if the password is weak. All so that you can enter some online store that you will never waste your time on again. Yesterday, to access something, I had to provide a “strong” password, three “security” questions, and two email addresses.

Then there are the “bot” checkers. Are you a real person? they ask. Just type in these “words” in the space below. It’s clear that I am not a real person, because sometimes I can barely read these words. Paranoid Twits use “true validation” to prove that I have flesh and blood. Really, why the f... hell would I care if I am following a spammer on Twitter. Most of what is tweeted by non-spammers looks suspiciously like spam anyway; and any “genuine” spam will soon vanish down the timeline, unread along with most of the rest.

Let’s just say – to avoid further hyperbole – that it all seems just a little over the top. Some of the procedures needed to prevent spam or fraud are far more irritating and time consuming than the spam or fraud itself would be. And do some of these sites really have the right to insist on my home phone number, my mobile phone number, my address, my shoe size? I am inclined, if I can get away with it, to use (obviously) phony information for these questions. They usually don’t need to know.

And, if you really want me to hit delete as soon as I see an email message, just mark it:

!High Importance.



Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Eye for an Eye


If someone hits me, I hit them back, right? This is one of the other things that we learn in the schoolyard, if not at home with our siblings. It’s necessary to defend yourself; to assert your own rights. Right? The trouble with this is that if someone hits me, and I hit them back, I usually hit them back a little harder. Even if I don’t, their perception will be that I did. So now they consider themselves to be the injured party; and now they owe me one. It’s not difficult to see where this ultimately leads.

“An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” doesn’t work very well, because there is no mathematical formula available for determining this equivalence in a real life situation. Therefore, the person whom I repay can always interpret my repayment as excessive; therefore, they now owe me, and so on.

The alternative to this is not necessarily to “turn the other cheek.” Passive acceptance of a wrong done to us can sometimes encourage more of the same. Human beings are not averse to being bullies. Nevertheless, at some point in an escalating confrontation, one party has to forego the impulse to get even. Someone has to have the common sense to realise that there is never going to be any “getting even”. There is no method for weighing the injuries that one party has inflicted on the other; and no formula for working out who is "ahead". So someone has to call a truce and start negotiations. We can’t really expect children in the schoolyard to understand and learn this process while national and international leaders appear unable to do so.

Oscar Wilde once said (I have been unable to determine when, where and in what context): “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much”. He was really just paraphrasing Paul in Romans: “Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Forgiveness or kindness as the ultimate revenge! Actually, what this may do, is, first of all, surprise him. This may at least initiate some new thought process and put pause to the automated revenge response. It’s always easier not to bother thinking, and just to go on responding automatically, doing what we have always done. Be the one to break that cycle. Who knows, it may actually work!

The other thing that we might want to consider is acknowledging that, as much as I have been wronged, I may have done a little wronging myself. Perhaps I did overreact just a tad. Perhaps I could have done something differently. The chances are that I have been as big a dick as the other guy. Acknowledging our own fault, not retaliating: these are not things that come naturally to human beings. Then again, neither is riding a bicycle, but most of us manage it with a bit of practice!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Isn’t it Ironic?


We had solar panels installed today and, of course, it’s been raining ever since. Is that ironic? Actually, no, not according to the strictest definition of the word, according to which irony refers to a verbal statement in which the intended meaning is the opposite of the words used to express it. Now this statement is ironic: “We had solar panels installed today, and I am so glad that it hasn’t stopped raining since.” Poor Alanis Morissette has copped criticism for her song, Ironic, based on this strict definition. So, for example:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn't it ironic... don't you think...

Ermmm, well... no, actually, at least not according to the strict definition. But:

Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
 And as the plane crashed down he thought
"Well isn't this nice..."
And isn't it ironic... don't you think

Yes, his thought is indeed ironic, although the crash, strictly speaking, isn’t.

However, language has a way of breaking out of its confines and taking us in a new direction. This we resist for as a long as we can, until, eventually, we have to concede that a word has taken on a new meaning. Ironic may be such a word. There is, for example, something referred to as “cosmic irony”.  According to cosmic irony, fate, or “the gods”, brings about a result which is the complete opposite of what we might have expected from our actions or from our circumstances. So, for example, if I went for a holiday in the deserts of central Australia and were drowned in a flood, this might be considered an example of cosmic irony. This still contains the element of contrariness that is embodied in ironic speech, and it is understandable how the term “ironic” may come to be applied in this situation, although it harks back to a mythical way of thinking, in which the gods toy with humankind. In this sense, many of Alanis’ examples are, indeed, ironic. So perhaps the critics should be less harsh with her.

So, about our solar panels. Perhaps this is an example of cosmic irony. However, if it isn’t ironic that it hasn’t stopped raining from the time the solar panels were installed, what is it? Bloody annoying, that’s what!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Life of π


π (Pi) is odd, wouldn’t you agree? π is simply this: the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. Hypothetically, at least, each of these has an exact value, but when you divide one by the other, there is no exact value: it can be calculated indefinitely, with an infinite number of decimal points, without any repeating pattern of numbers. Now the number 1/3, when expressed as a decimal also extends to infinity; but the digits repeat forever: 0.33333... π does not do that; π cannot, in fact, be expressed as a ratio of integers in this way. This has always seemed very weird to me, slightly mysterious. It seems to suggest some kind of open-ended-ness in the universe that we inhabit, especially as π plays such an important role in this universe. Not surprisingly, π (together with a few similar numbers) is also known as a transcendental number, that is (I suggest skipping the rest of this sentence, if you become queasy in the face of mathematics), a number that is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that, although π plays in an important part in equations of cosmology, it is not a physical constant, in the way that, say, the speed of light or the strength of the various attractive forces in the universe are physical constants. It describes no property of reality. It in fact describes the relationship between two aspects of  a pure concept: the perfect circle. No such thing exists, except in our minds. That we can conceive such things, and that there is such amazing coherence to mathematical concepts, is truly astonishing. Mathematics itself is transcendent, in the sense that it is beyond any mere physical manifestation of it. The number “3”, for example, “exists” independently of any group of three objects that we might encounter. And within that transcendent system called mathematics, π is further transcendent. Mathematics exists purely as a set of logically coherent concepts. Then, surprisingly, within this very system, we encounter “irrational” numbers such as π. Equally surprisingly, these concepts somehow “apply” to reality in some way.

Is it any wonder that human beings have always felt that there was something mysterious or even mystical about numbers? You do not have to believe that numbers have any magical or predictive capacity for this to be true. Once again, these magical and semi- or pseudo-religious interpretations obscure what is truly mysterious about numbers; but it is easy to see how one could slip into magical thinking. I emphasise here, as I have done time and time again in these pages, that the universe is wonderful and surprising in its own right, without having to ground that in any other being or reality. I stand in awe of, but do not worship, this universe into which we have come into being.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Dark Man’s Son, by Meg Whitlock: A Review


Today I am posting only my second ever review here. This is the first book for which I have ever given a five star review. It is a shame that it is not attracting the readers that it deserves.

*

The Dark Man's Son tells the story of Jason, whose life is transformed when he meets "Alex" who is the Guardian of Light, created to protect the human race from a multitude of threats, among them the Dark Guardian (her "brother"), Lucifer and a host of demons and other creatures. Jason gradually learns his own true identity as he and Alex battle to save, well, the world.

In many ways this is the classic good against evil, cosmic scale story that has been told many times. What is particularly impressive about this telling is how incredibly accessible the characters are. I am tempted to say "human", even though, clearly, most of them are not. Despite their awesome powers, these characters have well-defined personalities that set them apart, and make them something distinct from their mythical and cosmic personae. Their personalities are complex, and lift them above and beyond the mere good-evil dichotomy. Their motivations are understandable, even if, at times, very complicated.

This book is very well-written, lifting it well above the field. The author's use of humour is excellent - I found myself laughing out loud several times. She has constructed the scenarios brilliantly, pausing in just the right places, building carefully, then punching the reader with a surprise twist. The story is set across a broad timescape and landscape, which all seemed well-researched. Readers living in Paris or Hamburg may have some quibbles. Readers from the twelfth century may pick fault here and there; but the author convinced me.

I have a few minor quibbles of my own. It was a shame that the back story - told in flashbacks across the centuries - faded out about halfway through the book. This introduced some imbalance into the book's overall structure. I was also somewhat surprised by the abruptness  of the ending, which left so much unresolved. Clearly the sequel is presently under construction. However, I felt that the ending was so sudden, and that so much was unresolved, that this was less a book to be followed by a sequel, and more "part one" of a much larger story. I sincerely hope that the rest is coming soon.

I am always reluctant to give a book 5 stars. No book is perfect. However, this book is clearly on the 5 side of 4.5, and I have no choice but to round up to 5. This is a book that really deserves to be read.

*

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defence of Mediocrity


            Only a mediocre writer is always at his best – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday’s blog proved to be rather popular. Today’s follow-up “single” is likely to be comparatively mediocre; which is probably quite appropriate as I intend to play with this pithy saying, this time by Somerset Maugham. If it is true that only a mediocre writer is always at his best, this is also true of most other forms of human endeavour. Indeed, it is probably true of life itself. “Only the mediocre life is always at its best.” The mediocre life is lived on a relatively level plain, with very few contours. It is safe, but uninteresting. It is at its best, but its best is not very remarkable. Those few who rise above the plain, scaling the heights, do so at great risk, because they expose themselves to falling, to failing. What can be said of a life, can be said also of an era:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

There is always a price to be paid for achieving greatness; and they are not to be despised who choose not to pay it.

I find myself, surprisingly, coming to the defence of mediocrity. The world would be an unbearable place if everyone strived for greatness. Imagine a nation in which everyone was like (or believed themselves to be like) Leonardo DaVinci or Winston Churchill. Imagine a committee with only “high achievers” as members. I suspect that not much would be achieved, despite the talent and brainpower available.

I suppose that the distribution of “greatness” within the human race, however we might measure it, probably follows a Normal curve. Sure, it might be nice to be one of those at the extreme right of that curve, some of the time. At other times, though, I imagine it would be hell. And yes, I would probably not want to be one of those languishing at the left extremity. But somewhere in the middle? It looks pretty good to me. And let’s not forget that the word “mediocre”, although it sounds as though it means “not very good”, actually derives from the Latin words “medius” (middle or halfway) and “ocris” (a broken, stony mountain). Halfway up the mountain is not a bad place to be, after all.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Inexplicable, or Just Unexplained?


“Anything that is easily explained isn’t really worth explaining.” – me.


I shouldn’t have to explain that, should I? But I will anyway. Or, rather, I will use it as a launching pad for today.

It is funny how people are willing to jump so quickly from “unexplained” to “inexplicable” (now, there’s a weirdly irregular word). Yet my not having an explanation for something – and here I emphasise my not having an explanation – is hardly evidence that something is inexplicable. I may watch a magician perform a trick; I have no explanation for what he or she did; I am fascinated, even slightly in awe. But I don’t pass from that state to thinking that it is inexplicable. I don’t assume that it’s, er… magic. The same is true of many things in the realm of science. The same is even true in many day to day events. I can’t explain why the sock that I looked for so thoroughly in the drawer, is suddenly there on top, right before my eyes. I am unlikely, however, to resort to explaining this in terms of that mischievous sock demon that likes to mess with my mind. I happen to know that he became bored and moved onto higher technology. He now moves files around on my computer.

People often complain about human arrogance. How arrogant to think that we could explain everything! Actually, however, the arrogance is on the other foot – or perhaps I am getting that mixed up with socks. Anyway, it would be extraordinarily arrogant were I to assume that, because I could not explain something, it was, therefore, inherently inexplicable. I may just be stupid. I am almost certainly lacking some necessary information.

Of course, the other thing that people often mean when they say that something is inexplicable, is that it is perfectly explicable. What they really mean is that they can explain it in terms of some kind of supernatural intervention. Really, though, that is just the lazy path. I don’t know why this occurred, so it must be something, you know, like magical? Like, you know, God or somethin’? This is, in the end, a pretty radical (and arrogant) claim. It needs rather more justification than: “I can’t explain it, therefore it must be…”

I prefer to take the humbler approach. Yes, I can’t presently explain why my sock suddenly appeared precisely where I had looked ten times previously. I think, though, that this may be because I lack some information, something that has to do with the vagaries of human (and perhaps especially, male) perception. It is unexplained-ness that drives science; and God, demons and magic are just the lazy shortcut that stands in the way. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things


“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan.


One of my favourite books is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. I highly recommend it. Dirk is a detective who operates on the principle of “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”. He doesn’t look for clues. Or, rather, everything is a clue, because of the fundamental inter… You get the idea: everything that happens is related to everything else that happens, and therefore, ultimately, points towards the precise thing-that-happened that is under investigation.

There is a kind of weirdly resonant, if also slightly silly, truth in this. Ripple effects. Butterfly effects. “No man in an island…”. Making apple pies from scratch. Even “six degrees of separation”. All these things suggest the same idea, or variants thereof: namely that everything is interconnected. It is always possible to follow the links from here to there, be they causal links or otherwise. Unlike the Irishman whom you ask for directions, and who wisely informs you that you “can’t get there from here”, I believe, like Dirk Gently, that you can always, finally, get there from here.

Carl Sagan also once said, “We are made of starstuff.” An entire history, back to the beginning of time, leads to me, sitting here right now, right here, writing this. I won’t let it go to my head, though. Because it is true of you, too; and of everyone else. It’s also true of the mosquito that just bit my ankle. It’s true of the dengue virus that she could have injected into my bloodstream. We are the apple pies that the universe has made. We are not the end points, though, just links in the chain, nodes in the network. Still, it’s pretty cool being a link.

It’s a sobering thought: I am the current embodiment of one particular chain of causality that began with the Big Bang. That entire history finds expression in me, here and now. But I am now a cause, as well as an effect. What am I going to do with this power of causality?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

100th Blogiversary

This is my 100th blog. Woo hoo!! These blogs have been posted over a period of just 104 days. It has been something of a challenge. I’m sure it hasn’t always been successful. There have been times when I struggled to find anything worth saying. Nevertheless, as a discipline, I forced myself to write something on any day that it was possible to do so. There were a few times when I did not have access to the internet, particularly over the holiday period (and on one occasion when the whole network was down).

It seems appropriate to reflect, on this auspicious occasion, about the almost mystical number: 100. It all comes down to fingers, in the end, I suppose. It is all due to a random mutation, so many hundreds or thousands of millions of years ago, that resulted in the first emergence of five-digited creatures. And then to that other phenomenon a few hundred thousand years ago – walking upright, developing functional hands. And so we count things in tens and tens of tens, etc.

This simple example helps us to see how very anthropocentric the concepts of meaning and significance are. The one hundredth occurrence of something has significance for no other reason than that we, human beings, have 10 digits on our hands. If we had only eight digits, our number system would likely be in base eight, so we would count thus: 1, 2, 3, …, 7, 10 – with “10” being what we now call “8”. And “100” would be what we now call “64”. Yet we cannot resist the almost numinous appeal of 100. This is one of the ways in which we shape reality in our own image.

From this it can be seen how intensely personal “meaning” and “significance” are. The green, smelly aliens of which I spoke in the previous blog, with their twelve digits, would not be able to understand why our “100” should have any particular significance. This is intensely personal to us as a species. So it is with us as individuals. What in our history and experience gives to some particular event this feeling of meaning and significance? How can others share it? In terms of our individual experience, as opposed to the history, experience, and physiology that we share as a species, we are each of us, vis-à-vis the other, a green, smelly alien.

And yet, strangely, there are many things of meaning and significance that we share, for which there is no immediately obvious explanation. These fall under the heading of “universal symbols” or archetypes. There will certainly be some debate about which of these are, in fact, universal, in the sense that they arise from something innate to human nature. The circle might be one. What is it about the circle that makes us sense in it something more than just one among many geometric shapes? Why is the circle somehow “perfect”? What is it in us that makes us respond to it in this way? Our response to light and dark may be another, and is perhaps understandable in terms of our evolutionary history, and the potential danger that darkness represents.

The point is that what we find meaningful cannot be separated from our collective and individual history. We are essentially anthropocentric as a species and egocentric as individuals. We can share meaning only insofar as we share a history.

****************************************


Friday, February 15, 2013

Fear of Smelly, Green Aliens


“It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive manifestations of their aggressiveness.” – Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud was a rather miserable old git. Or so it seems from his writings. For example, he is famous for saying, “Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” Nevertheless, there is always something to be said for hyperbole. It makes us sit up and take notice. It upsets us and makes us want to proclaim the antithesis. And it generally contains enough truth for it to make that annoying ringing sound.

This comment by Freud (above) makes quite a lot of sense, not only from a psychological but also from an evolutionary perspective. Living in a group has obvious advantages: the group as a whole can achieve more than the sum of its parts. No individual could possibly hope to hunt a buffalo using only a spear, but several together can. Hence cooperation evolves, and alongside that, the emotions that are needed to bind the group together. Those emotions include love/friendship for those within the group and fear/hatred of those outside the group. Life’s pretty tough, and competition between rival groups can be fierce. This all makes pretty good sense in a tribal hunter/gatherer context.

Unfortunately, here we are today, still dragging those chains around. Nothing like a clearly identifiable enemy to bind the “tribe” together! Unfortunately, it is usually hate and fear that bind people together. After the fall of the Great Satan (the USSR), the human race floundered around for a while. What do we do, thought the West, now that we have no one to despise, no one to fight? Meanwhile the Eastern Bloc was too busy fighting itself to be concerned with such issues. China and North Korea provided occasional diversions. But it was not until al-Qaeda (whatever, whoever, if-ever that is) reared its beastly head that the West finally had an enemy against which it could (more or less) unite. And the arrogant, wasteful West provided a perfect enemy against which the lunatic fundamentalists of Islam could rally the troops.

What’s to be done? After all, these things start in the schoolyard, when children ostracise the smelly one, or the one whose mother cuts his hair. Children divide into tribes at a very early age. It is a way of establishing identity and belonging. Powerful forces.

What we need, to unite humanity, is an encounter with some smelly green aliens (whose mothers cut their hair): a common enemy to unite us all – sort of, for a while. So, smelly, green, dumb-haircut aliens, don’t say you weren’t warned!

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Departure


It’s time for a little story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin...

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I knew something was amiss. Why else would things begin to disappear from around the house? The old chair was one of the first things to go. I had loved to climb onto that chair and feel myself sink into the sagging cushion. Then toys began to vanish. Those in the closet at the back of the bedroom. There was the bunny with the chewed ear; the teddy bear with the stuffing bursting from under its armpits. It was the soft toys that I would miss. Snuggling amongst them, I could almost smell the past.

On the other hand, boxes began to appear; things were packed into them. She did most of the packing. Storing this, putting that aside to give away, tossing the other onto the discard pile. She was too busy to pay much attention to me. The family spent a great deal of time in animated discussions, but I could understand little of what was said. I recognized my name occasionally. Mostly, I could read the excitement in the air that made me irritable and jittery, and for a time I hid myself away. There were many places to hide.

Sometimes they took me over to the neighbour’s house. To keep me out of the way, I suppose. At least she talked to me, played with me; gave me some yummy things to eat. It, whatever it was, was drawing closer. I just knew it.

When the day came, when the big truck arrived, when they began to pile the boxes and furniture into it, as the house emptied around me, I scampered here and there, getting out of the way; getting in the way. Eventually I was hoisted aloft and carried once more into the neighbour’s house. There were tears. Goodbyes, or so it seemed. Through the window I saw the truck pull away. And from the rear of the family car, as it, too, pulled away, red eyes stared, hands waved. The neighbour came to me and took me in her arms. She carried me to another room, and placed me on the floor, in one corner. And there they were, on my favourite old chair: the one-eyed bunny and the leaking teddy. I smelt the memories and curled up amongst them, purring to myself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Popish Fruit


The other day it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would step down from the position he has held for some eight years. He is only the second Pope in history to leave the post while still living – one suspects that several have stayed in the Papal Throne for some time post mortem. The first to exit while living was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. The circumstances were rather different, however. Gregory occupied the Holy See at a time when there was a rival pope based at Avignon in France. Gregory’s abdication paved the way for a resolution of the schism.

Cardinal Ratzinger will step down from the office on the 28th of February due to ill health, and an inability to carry out the papal duties. This is surely preferable to seeing him propped up and operated by remote control. It is refreshing to see a tiny spark of common sense prevail over tradition, if only in a fairly benign and non-controversial fashion. Would that a few other minor traditions, such as clerical celibacy and an exclusively masculine priesthood, could be sidelined by common sense. But, of course, the world would implode if common (or any other kind of) sense took root in the Catholic Church.

It astonishes me to see how much influence the Catholic Church continues to have in the world today. It reminds me of a tree that has been ring-barked or poisoned, but takes a long time to realise that it is dead. It’s quite sad to see such a tree, or the trunk of a tree that has been cut down, lying on the ground, continuing to push out new growth even as it dies. The Catholic Church continues to bear popish fruit from its crown, even though it died at the roots years, if not centuries, ago.

Of course the Catholic Church continues to have influence, not only at the global level, but also in the lives of individuals; and not exclusively among those who continue to identify with its teachings. We are all too painfully aware of how the Church has influenced and continues to influence people, long after they thought to have escaped its grasp. I am not referring only to those individuals who have been sexually abused by Church members, although that is obviously deplorable. More generally, guilt is one of the chains that still weighs down many former Church members. I have no problem with guilt per se as long as it arises from acts that warrant it. I think that one should feel appropriately guilty for murdering someone, or for voting for the Republican Party (US) or the Liberal/National Party (AUS). But for masturbating? For having sex outside the bonds of matrimony? For taking the contraceptive pill? The Catholic Church has long since lost the moral authority to pronounce on serious ethical issues. Yet there are its doomed branches, waving in the wind, bearing overripe popish fruit. Strange fruit indeed.

We shall watch the Vatican over the coming days and weeks, waiting for that white smoke to inform us which overripe fruit will take the current Pope’s place. Let’s hope it’s not too much on the nose.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

From a Wannabe Radical


With an election campaign underway here in Australia, I am led into a rather nostalgic place. It is a sign of age. I was a little too young to be politically active during the nineteen-sixties. I first became politically aware during the election of 1972, when I was fifteen years old. I was too young to vote, but I remember being caught up in the euphoria of those days. “It’s Time!”, the Labor election campaign proclaimed, and so, to many of us, it seemed to be. We were emerging from the turbulent ’sixties, and from the Vietnam War, and the future seemed bright. At last, someone with true vision was going to run the country. Here were people who were prepared to stand for an ideal, even if it might involve some hardship along the way. It is all too easy to look back on those days with cynicism. The dream, in the end, was shattered; but not necessarily because the dreams and visions were misguided. Australia proved, in the end, too conservative to take any real risks, to undertake any bold political, social  and economic experiments.

Since then, Australian politics has become increasingly conservative, if not reactionary. Economics dominates everything. Placing faith in the advice and predictions of economists is fine, if you are an advocate of crystal ball gazing and reading the entrails of animals. Nevertheless, somehow economists have conned us into trusting them, into accepting their unfounded opinions as “science” – and this faith appears to continue unabated, despite the repeated failures of their predictions and prescriptions. Faith and religion are alive and well, it would seem – we just have a different set of priests and prophets. Government in Australia now amounts to little more than running a large business, thanks to the dominance of economics.

It’s interesting, because the word “economics” actually comes from the Latin word meaning “household management”; so economics should be more closely related to this, than to running a business. Of course the household budget is important. But I hope that for most of us, running a household is about more than the bottom line. It is about creating a place where we feel safe and valued. It is about creating an environment and community which encourages and fosters growth and development. NOT just “economic” growth and development – how modern usage as despoiled that word!

There was a time when Australians cared about social issues. People would march in the street in support of issues, even when they would not personally benefit from the changes. Now we are all enclosed within our own wallets and purses. There used to be a time when it really seemed to matter which political party one voted for. Now we know that, excepting a few superficial differences, both parties are guided by the same “ideals”. Whoever gets into power, we know that decisions will be based on narrow economic principles – however fallible and flawed those principles reveal themselves to be, time and time again.

You can dismiss these as the ravings of an aging wannabe radical, if you like. But I can think of far worse things to be accused of!

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Writing a book is like...


I have a feeling that some people are afraid of grammar, just as some people are afraid of mathematics. In a way, they serve a similar purpose. Mathematics provides a set of rules for handling numbers: grammar provides a set of rules for handling words. In the latter case, rules are necessary in order to facilitate communication. Now, unlike maths, if the rules of grammar are broken, the process of communication does not completely break down. Even with mathematics, sometimes we are happy with an approximation. Usually, however, it is a good idea to get it as right as possible.

I understand that some people have difficulty coming to grips with the rules of grammar, and question their importance. Sometimes, however, I feel that the reaction is less a considered response than a defensive reaction: “What use is grammar anyway!” I think of it this way. If you are building a house, it is a good idea to have both a brilliant architect and an excellent builder. Sure, we may be able to live with a little shoddy workmanship here and there, but I bet we would rather not. It is similar with a book: the architecture is the story; the building materials are the words. Surely we want to get both the architecture and the building process right. Yes, we may be able to live with a few misspelt words, grammatical errors or clunky sentences; but surely we would rather not. Some people are better at getting the story right than at getting the words in place, and as a creative writer, your first priority is probably the story. Nevertheless, if you design a beautiful house but don’t build it well…?

The job of a manuscript assessor, editor or proofreader is to help you get the building right. They won’t do it for you, but they will point out and help you to repair any parts that aren’t quite up to speed. Some of this is only a matter of taste and style; some of it is actually about ensuring that the building remains standing. If grammar terrifies or bores you, the editor can help you with that side of things.

Finally, I would emphasise that the pleasure I get from reading is not just about the story. I get as much pleasure from the texture of a book, from the way words are strung together, from a beautifully constructed sentence or paragraph. Although I can overlook things that aren’t quite up to scratch if the story is good, I find more pleasure when those elements are minimised.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hearing Voices


Why is it that some people who report hearing voices end up in psychiatric institutions, and others end up on TV? I worked for several years in psychiatric hospitals, and also in the community among people suffering from a mental illness, together with their families. The majority of the people that I worked with suffered from schizophrenia, and many of those would regularly hear voices, alongside their other symptoms. There were those among the staff, nurses and psychiatrists, who were naturally suspicious of anyone who claimed to have direct communication with God or spirits. This could make life difficult for someone working as a chaplain in this context, although I never claimed any such direct communication myself!

And yet there are plenty of people around who claim to hear God’s (or a god’s) voice, to be in direct communication with spirits or aliens, or who claim to “channel” some kind of being. Why are these people not “mentally ill”? Some would probably say they are! I would not. Misguided, almost certainly, if not actually fraudulent, but not mentally ill. Anyone who has worked closely with people with a serious mental illness knows that such a person has great difficulty functioning in day to day life. When they are psychotic they are in no condition to run a television show or a business. What they say rarely makes sense. Those among us who claim to channel an alien intelligence or a great being from the past may say unbelievable things, but they make sense. By that I mean only that they are able put words together to form sentences and coherent speech. I make no judgement about the worth of what they say.

Which of these groups of people, those with a mental illness, which generally destroys their life, or those who claim to channel a greater intelligence, or to communicate with us on behalf of departed spirits, represents the greater threat? We will mostly ignore the psychotic ravings of someone who is seriously ill, but the words of someone who claims to have tapped into a greater wisdom can sometimes be seductive. I understand the temptation to believe.

I, at least, am more inclined to listen to someone who speaks with their own voice.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Is Writing Easy?


I wonder, do we think less of writing as an art form, because we all think we can do it? I know I can’t paint. I know I can’t create a sculpture. I know I can’t write a symphony. But I assume that I can write a novel. Of course, almost all of us can write, to some degree at least. Most of us can handle a shopping list, for instance. But I would never presume, because I can draw a stick figure today, to be able to complete an oil painting tomorrow. I would never presume, because I can hum a pop song, to sit down and compose a symphony. We know that these art forms require years of very specific training and experience. Yet I assume that I can write a novel without any training or experience at all. Even if I did take up painting as a hobby, I might be happy to hang a painting on my wall, but I would hardly expect someone else to buy it.

The more I write, the more I realise how difficult it is to actually get it right. No matter how good I think what I have written may be, the truth is that it probably falls far short of being “good”, despite what friends and family might say. Yet I somehow persist in the belief that people will want to buy and read it.

Perhaps there is another factor at work here, that has to do with how easy it is to distribute our written work. A painting, at least, is a one off piece of work, that can only ever be reproduced approximately. We can only ever sell one exemplar of the original. However, we can potentially sell thousands, even millions, of copies of our books. Does this tempt us into writing, in a way that we are not tempted into painting or the other arts?

Is writing actually “easy” compared to other forms of art? I suspect, given the number of writers who are actually remembered over time (and are not just this week’s best seller), that the answer is “no”. As few writers really leave a mark on the world as do painters, sculptures and composers. However, as much as I might tell myself that I would be better of sticking to writing shopping lists, I know I won’t do that.

Friday, February 8, 2013

That funny thing, humour.


Ok, why are some things funny? As with all these questions, I’m sure the answer is complex, and no doubt volumes have been written on the subject. So here I will just throw around some first thoughts.

My very first first thought is that an unexpected outcome is amusing. As human beings we place a great deal of trust in reliability and repeatability. Since the sun rose this morning and the day before that and the day before that, we rather expect it to rise tomorrow too. If it didn’t, that would be… well, probably a bit of a disaster actually. Now, if, instead of the sun rising, a giant apple poked its head (do apples have heads?) above the horizon, that might be pretty funny – at least until we all died. Similarly, we have fallen into the habit of expecting the ground to hold us up. If, suddenly, my mother-in-law fell through the floor, that would be hilarious, just as it’s funny when someone slips on a banana peel. Well, it would be funny for those watching. Well, it would be funny for me, anyway.

My second first thought is this. Things are funny when we put two things together that aren’t usually together; in other words, incongruity is funny. So, a rabbit on a skateboard might raise a giggle. A politician telling the truth would have us all in stitches. Kittens exploding in the microwave… or is that just me? Gremlins then.

My third first thought is that we find it amusing when we discover that something is not what we first thought it to be. For instance, I think it would be kind of funny if we saw someone wearing a donkey costume, and when the costume was taken of it revealed an actual donkey.  Ok, maybe not. It’s also funny (usually in a titillating kind of way) when objects resemble something else. So yes, here comes the inevitable carrot photograph:

 
And that’s about it for my first thoughts on this subject. Pretty soon I will be having second thoughts about the whole idea, so I will quit while I am ahead.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Show and Tell


“Show, don’t tell.” This has become such ubiquitous advice for writers that it is accepted as dogma, but may have entered the realm of the cliché. Assuming, that is, that it ever had any real (or, at least, clear) meaning. I suspect that a revolution to overthrow this particular regime is long overdue.

In the first place, no one has ever been able to make clear to me, in a succinct fashion, what exactly the difference is between “showing” and “telling” when it comes to the written word. The general approach is to provide an example. Take this example, borrowed from another blog (chosen simply because it was the first to come up when I did a Google search for “Show, don’t tell) which can remain anonymous. This, we are told, is “telling”:

 “He sits on the couch holding his guitar.”

And this, we are told, is “showing”:

“His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants [sic] to let go.”


Just a moment’s reflection will reveal that the application of the word “telling” to the first example and “showing” to the second is completely arbitrary. It would be possible to switch this application with ease. One could argue that the first sentence is, in fact, the one that shows, because this is, after all, the only thing that the observer would see: a man sitting on the couch holding a guitar. The second sentence, by contrast, tells us a whole lot more about what is going on, none of which is actually observable. Perhaps this is just a bad example. The problem is that it is very difficult to come up with a good one.

Let me try to rewrite the first version:

“He sits on the couch with his eyes closed, his lashes flickering slightly, and the movement back and forth of his eyes visible behind the lids. He pulls the guitar closer to his body, pressing it against his breast. The tightness of his grip turns his knuckles white.”

Here I have described in much more detail what can actually be observed. I have tried to show what the guitar holder is feeling, without actually telling the reader. This, it could be argued, is “showing”. In the second version cited above, it becomes “telling” as soon as something is reported that cannot be observed.

I may have accidentally demonstrated here what the difference between showing and telling actually is, and it is clearly not what the author of that other blog thinks it is. Both the first and third version are showing: the third version simply shows more of what is going on. The second example, which is the blogger’s example of showing, is, in fact, telling. This simply serves to highlight the lack of precision and the degree of ambiguity surrounding these terms.

I would argue that sometimes telling is more effective than showing. For example, it is probably more effective to tell the reader that the character “was scared shitless”, than to describe in detail the change in the character’s pallor, the shallowness of his breath and the quickening of his pulse. “He was scared shitless” moves the action along at a faster pace. Showing in detail may be useful for creating a mood, building suspense, or moving the reader along slowly.

Although I have, in the process of writing this blog, clarified somewhat to my own satisfaction what the difference between showing and telling actually is, I think the point remains valid that the phrase is perhaps past its use by date, and was never very useful anyway. Much of what people describe as telling, is, in fact, just poor showing; and much of what they describe as showing is, in fact, telling. Whether we are showing or telling (and we need to do both), the point is to do it well, with some imagination and flair.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Beauty of Chaos


I am looking at my desk. It’s scary. I have been told that I have an orderly and tidy mind, but if my desk is an outward manifestation of this, I cannot believe that this is true. It reminds me a little of the world. People who believe in creation will often point to the world, holding up its wondrous order and efficiency as evidence that a mind is at its basis. The world is indeed a wondrous place. However, as you look more closely into it, ordered and efficient it most certainly is not. Chaotic and wasteful, are the words that come more readily to mind.

“Nature” often achieves her goals by “throwing everything at a problem”, so to speak. Consider ants. Far from representing a well-oiled, well-ordered machine, colonies are more often a disorganized rabble. Sheer numbers means that they eventually get there, i.e. achieve their purpose. There would be much more orderly and efficient ways of achieving their goals were this “planned”. I suggest that the last thing we should do is “Go to the ant… and consider her ways” (Proverbs), at least if we are in search of models of efficiency and cooperation. If we are in search of how order arises out of disorder and chaos, then ants are our girls.

You do not have to look far into the natural world to recognize that there is no plan, just as there is no plan for how my desk operates. If there is a mind behind the natural world, it is a decidedly disorderly and wasteful one. But the beauty and wonder of the world lies precisely in this: that order and structure arise out of chaos and randomness. Once you have glimpsed this process, you will stand in awe of it and never look back. To see this as in any way “planned” is not only, in the end, rather silly, but also robs the natural world of its true beauty. To see the world as planned is not to see it as it is, but to see it as our minds would like it to be – at least as very tidy people would like it to be. Religion is the obsessive compulsive part of our nature that likes everything to be in its place. Really the world is just a wonderful, exciting and ever-surprising mess.

And no, you probably will never find that other sock.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Real" Reality


Why do I write? Why do I bother writing something here every day? Why am I still struggling on with my fourth novel. I write because I can’t paint and I can’t make music. In other words, for some reason, I need a creative outlet. Words are the notes. Words provide the palette. But to what end? What is the point of creativity?

It seems clear to me that creativity is closely related to spirituality; that, indeed, it may be the essence of spirituality. It is a way of responding to the world around us. However, this is not only reactive: it is also very active. Creativity is not simply about reflecting reality, but shaping it. Art brings something into the world that was not present before. It is creatio ex nihilo. Clearly we draw upon existing materials to form our creations. But what we create is not simply a rearrangement of things. There really is more there afterwards than there was before. In this sense it is ex nihilo. I can measure an increase or decrease in mass and energy. I can even find ways to measure an increase or decrease in order. But can I measure an increase in beauty, meaning, humour or value (I am not talking about monetary value)? I used the term “more” to describe the change in the world when a work of art is produced, but this is really a hangover from our materialistic way of thinking, in which everything is measurable and quantifiable. What art brings into the world is not really measurable in this way: it is more than just “more”; which, I suppose, is a way of speaking of transcendence.

All of this is a convoluted way of saying that I write in order to take myself and the reader beyond reality; or more deeply into reality. These are merely spatial metaphors for the process and the experience. Writing is far from being the only way to achieve this, and possibly not the best. Nor do I claim to be particularly good at it. Nor does this imply that reality is something to be avoided, or replaced by something better or more real. What art does reveal is that reality is more real than it first appears to be.  

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Getting Pithed


“Perfection of means and confusion of ends seems to characterize our age” – Albert Einstein

There is someone I am following on Twitter who seems to have made it his mission to tweet pithy sayings, such as the above, throughout the day. It is interesting that so many such sayings are eminently tweetable. Perhaps Twitter is not so new after all. Perhaps throughout the ages great men and women have been twittering away at us without our realizing it. There are certainly advantages to propagating such pithy sayings. Their brevity makes them easily communicable, and perhaps even memorable. Their structure also sometimes makes them memorable, often via the juxtaposition of opposites, or the inversion of another popular idea. There is an almost formulaic quality to these pithy, memorable sayings. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This perfectly exemplifies the point I am making. Those who cannot recall the not-very-memorable movie, Mystery Men, may nevertheless recall the “wise man” who was always producing sayings like this: “If you do not control your anger, your anger will control you” etc. etc. etc.

So, what about our friend, Albert’s, pithy contribution. I suppose what he was saying, all those years ago, is that our present society is technically very proficient, but lacks clear goals and ethical guidelines. We can do a lot of stuff really well; but we don’t quite know what to do, or why to do it. As a result we tend to react, rather than act, bouncing around from one thing to another, and constantly changing direction, like the ball in a pinball machine. I’m not sure what our score is.

So let me leave you with a thought: “It is better to do something good badly, than to do something bad well”. I have no idea whether that is true, but at least it is pithy.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beyond Good and Evil


What would we do if we were suddenly to discover, hidden in a cellar somewhere, a collection of brilliant and inspiring paintings, paintings with the unmistakable sign of creative genius (whatever these things might be, both the genius and the sign indicating its presence). And what would we then do if, hidden among the paintings, was undeniable evidence that these were painted by one Adolf Hitler?

On the other hand, what would we do if irrefutable evidence were to emerge indicating that a great, revered man – let’s not name him, lest this somehow suddenly become “true” – had, in fact, sexually abused several children over his lifetime. Let us suppose that this man was a great spiritual leader, or a great humanitarian.

What I have written, and how I have written it, already indicates something about what our (that is, society’s) response would be. How? Well, I have no trouble naming Hitler, because few among us could seriously envisage such a possibility: that beauty could emerge from such a soul. And, if it did, I imagine that the works would quickly be dismissed as rubbish; or claims would be made that they were painted by someone else, and that Hitler had “stolen” them. Besides, how dare we suggest that such an evil person might also have done some good! We prefer to see our evil nicely packaged and segregated from goodness and beauty. Even if those works of art were indeed magnificent, and undeniably attributable to Hitler, this would do nothing to change our and history’s opinion of the man.

On the other hand, I could not bring myself to name a “good” man as the perpetrator of evil. Why? For several reasons. First, because even a completely unsubstantiated claim that a “good” man has committed an evil act can quickly acquire the patina of “fact”. Suspicion alone is often enough to tarnish a reputation. Secondly, we are, in fact, very quick to condemn “good” people who commit acts that are perceived as evil. Is this because we feel particularly let down by them? Is it because good people shame us, and to see them fail makes us feel better about ourselves and, above all, better than them? Thirdly, while no amount of beauty that Hitler was seen to create would do anything to change our opinion of him, even a tiny amount of evil suspected in the life of a “good” person will tarnish and undo all the good they have achieved during their lifetime.

Can “evil” people do good? Most certainly, because they are not, in fact, evil, although some or many of their acts might be. In our eyes, though, they will remain evil. Can “good” people commit evil. Most certainly, because they are not, in fact, good, although some or many of their acts might be. However, in our eyes they will almost certainly be good no longer.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Aaaaah! The AGM


I haven’t been to an AGM or a committee meeting for a long time. Yesterday I attended an AGM. I realise now why it has been so many years.

No, I shouldn’t and won’t be cruel. It’s just that people can’t help being people. And AGMs probably bring out the worst in all of us. We turn into automata, co-opted for the day to carry around an ego. I sit there, and something is being discussed. I don’t know… Let’s say that the big issue this time is whether or not dogs should be allowed to become associate members of this particular organization. I have no objection, as long as they pay their membership dues. But then someone objects: If dogs can be members, what about my little kitty? And my goldfish, says another. I don’t have one, says someone else, but if I did, I would expect my unicorn to be eligible for membership.

Or perhaps the discussion revolves around whether or not the plates used at the upcoming fete should be white or cream-coloured. Now, frankly, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse what colour the plates are, but I suddenly feel obliged to have an opinion on the matter. And to voice it. What’s more, I am suddenly an expert on what colour plates are appropriate for every occasion. My grandmother’s best friend, after all, was once the… I forget now what she was, but it seemed to carry a great deal of weight at the time.

Voices are raised, and temperatures rise; and before long, a splinter group forms. The Reformed Society for Victims of Sexual Abuse by Elves is born.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Comma's Tail

He was so very tiny, but he had such a cute tail. At least, he thought it was cute, although some of the full stops teased him terribly. “Look at you, letting it all hang out there below the line,” they would say. He, at least, could waggle his tail back at them. What did they have to waggle?

“Will I lose my tail when I get older?” he had asked his mother one day.

“Aaah,” she had replied slowly. “You’re too young yet to be thinking about your future career. For now, just enjoy it.”

His mother had also started life as a comma, but had married a full stop. From their lifelong partnership together as a semi-colon, he had been born. He wondered if he might one day get married himself. While keeping his tail, he could marry a full stop, as his mother had done, or marry another comma to form quotation marks. He thought he would prefer to join up with someone else to form double quotes, rather than to stay on his own to become a single quote. Everyone always seemed uncomfortable around single quotes, not quite knowing what they were for. On the other hand, if he lost his tail to become a full stop, he could marry either a comma, in a semi-colonic relationship, or another full stop, so that together they could become a colon. But colons were also rare and rather misunderstood. At the moment he favoured keeping his tail. But he didn’t relish spending the rest of his life alone, dangling from a line.

As the years passed, and the little comma matured, he remained single. He flirted for a while with one or two other commas, hovering at the beginning or end of some direct speech. His proudest moment, during those years of early adulthood, was when he teamed up for a time with a friend to form the initial quotes in an exciting and popular blog, whenever they were needed. He was never quite comfortable in this role, however, because it was not easy to find a pair of end quotes with whom they both felt comfortable. This led to frequent arguments, and, ultimately, to he and his quote partner going their separate ways.

Fortunately, luck was with him. Or, at least, so he reckoned. He heard of a vacancy in a shop window: good steady work. A new business was opening up in the neighbourhood, and they needed... Yes! They needed an apostrophe! After his unfortunate relationship, he thought that this would suit him down to the ground. No need to dangle his tail below the line. No need for a partner, let alone three of them. So he applied for the job, and was successful. He was experienced, presented himself well, and knew exactly how to use his tail. Salary was negotiated – and what a salary! Contracts were signed. Dates were set. On the great day he presented himself, standing proudly, waiting to be set in place. Then, as he was lifted and carefully positioned, he looked at his context, ready to greet his neighbours politely. And the colour drained from his face. But it was too late. The contract was airtight – and long term. If he broke the contract now, he would never work again. So there he was destined to remain for many years. He would have hidden if he could, but the sign was large and bold. He prayed that the business would fail, but it thrived.

He is there to this day. So, if you ever pass this way, look out for that very successful little business, and spare a thought for this little comma-turned-apostrophe, whose mother has disowned him:

Professional sign’s and lettering