Earlier today I wrote on my twitter: “Most of my friends on the political left, and some on the right, say the #AmericanDream is over. Do we have a new mythology to replace it?”
And I was asked by a friend to clarify; so here goes. 🙂
For the sake of the exercise, let’s say that the “American Dream” is two propositions: 1: “Equality of opportunity for all (if not equality of everyone’s eventual final position)”, and 2: “any person who is talented and hard-working can make it rich, or famous, or otherwise materially successful.”
The idea of the American Dream is a nation building mythology. It galvanized America for decades, perhaps for two centuries; it gave people a sense of purpose and of initiative; it was hopeful and optimistic; it defined clear and measurable goals. It was for America the equivalent of France’s “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood”, or Canada’s “Peace, Order, and Good Government”. You knew that when you were talking to someone who wanted “success” and who believed (quite rationally) that he had a fair chance to get it, that you were talking to an American. Or, anyway, someone inspired by America.
I read a poll today that said 59% of Americans think the American Dream is unacheiveable. Among those friends of mine who discuss such matters, those on the political left gave up on the American Dream many years ago. They point to the fact that there is no such thing as equality of opportunity in America today, given the wide disparity between the rich and the poor; they also observe that many talented and hard-working people nonetheless remain “unsuccessful” (in that narrow materialist sense of ‘success’) because of various systematic injustices. They also observe that many people become materially successful without any talent at all, but instead they succeed because of inheritances or privileges or sheer dumb luck. I also have a few friends on the political right who also believe the American Dream is basically finished, although they point to different reasons. For instance, some of them think that getting “success” in the narrow materialist sense isn’t especially important anymore. Others look to some feature of the welfare state and/or the social safety net, and argue that it creates a disincentive for individual effort.
My question is: suppose we assume that the American dream is, in fact, over and gone. What, if anything, is rising up to replace it?
I suppose this is partially a factual question (ie. what is replacing it?) and also a moral one (i.e. what should replace it?). I am as interested in how people interpret my question, as I am interested in their answers.
But I think it is a deeply serious question. A nation without a mythology has nothing to galvanize it. Its people no longer identify with it, often long before they are willing to admit as much to themselves. Should the nation come under attack, or be paralyzed by injustice and by corruption in its high places, the people might not come to its defense. The mythology isn’t there to grant the necessary glamor of heroism to the effort to protect the nation or to right its wrongs. But they might come to the defense of different mythologies, different worldviews, different ideals, which also possess the power to galvanize people and direct their initiative and energy toward clear and measurable goals, even if they call that new and different worldview by the same old name. And I am interested in what different mythologies might be emerging today, and perhaps which of them should “succeed”.
I’m not an American myself. But I am a person who lives on this world and who cares about what might happen to it while its only superpower nation undergoes an agonizing revision of its identity.
Some thoughts on the election of Trump to the US Presidency.
Although I prefer to keep my political rants to my FB and twitter, and off of this blog, I am aware that the majority of readers of this blog are people who found the result of the United States presidential election very distressing.
Well, when I say “distressing”, I mean that some of you told me that you are are terrified of being targeted for violent hate crimes. I think it would be cold and uncaring of me to say nothing about the fear and anger many of you are feeling. And some of my own creative projects, like the RPG based on my novels, now feel rather frivolous.
Yet I’m somewhat at a loss to know what to say. I have the distinct advantage of living in Canada, and of being a straight white male, so perhaps I can only incompletely imagine what some of you are feeling, and what some of you might be about to endure.
So, I hope it is not too pretentious of me to say something like this. For many years now, I’ve been writing and publishing books about The Call of the Immensity, an ethics-grounded spiritual path which I discovered while living in Ireland, and which acknowledges the moral importance of the limnal frontiers of things, the in-between places of the world and of the mind: places like the edges of the earth, and the faces of other people, and loneliness, and death. My task, our task, is to respond to these frontiers with heroic and rational virtues like wonder, integrity, and humanity, so to build a worthwhile and meaningful life for ourselves and everyone whose lives overlap with our own. We rise to the call when we affirm the essential basic goodness of all humanity.
Yet for a great many good and beautiful people like yourselves, this affirmation is about to be put to a radical test. I know that a lot of people are angry and that they have very good reasons to be angry. We will get through this if we are better people than those who would hate and harm us. That doesn’t necessarily mean quelling your anger, if that’s what you’re feeling right now. But it does mean preserving your sense of wonder, integrity, and humanity. And even then, we won’t all get through this, just as not everyone survived other times in history when it seemed the monsters were winning. Such is the tragic nature of human life. And it breaks my heart.
Still, it is always better to be rational, caring, and intelligently optimistic, than to be vengeful or despairing. It is always possible to see something in the world that offers hope; that is a moral postulate as much as it is a statement of fact. At the fall of darkness, Minerva’s Owl takes flight. With each other’s help and encouragement, we can demonstrate by example that there are always more and better ways to be human. And in so doing, we can craft worthwhile lives for each other.
Remembrance Day is tomorrow, and I would like to remember this soldier who fought in the First World War. He is my dad’s paternal grandfather. I hardly know anything about him. But maybe someone out there in internet-land can help find out.
Click on the picture for a better view.
Here’s what I know to be true.
– He was born and raised in Scotland, probably Glasgow.
– He was a soldier.
– He married a woman named Margaret McCullough (though her sirname may be spelled McCulla, or somesuch).
And that’s about it.
Here’s what I suspect may be true, but I may be wrong.
– As a soldier he was assigned to that part of the world we now call Israeal-Palestine (let’s call it that in this blog post, in the hope of offending the fewest people) during the British Mandate, around 1920.
– His sirname may not have been ‘Myers’ It may have been spelled differently, or it may have been a completely different name. In fact his entire name may have been completely different. There are two theories about why he may have had a different name. One is that the name was changed in order to protect the identity of an illegitimate child. Another is that he was a Scottish Presbyterian who married an Irish Catholic, which would have moved both their families to disown them; the name might have been changed so that they could start a new life afresh somewhere.
– He may have had two families, each unbeknownst to the other: one back in the UK, another in Israel-Palestine.
– Margaret McCulla is buried in or near Acton, Ontario.
My dad, my aunt, and other members of my family have already done a lot of research here, including all the usual registries and all the usual paid services. Over forty years, my aunt has written letters to people and to organisations, often finding nothing, or finding a stone wall. What I’ve described in this blog here is nearly everything we’ve learned so far. I believe that someone out there knows more. If I were more conspiracy-minded I’d wonder if this man’s story is being kept secret for some deliberate reason. But I think it more likely that someone out there knows something but doesn’t know the significance of what he or she knows.
I don’t care which of the two theories about the name-change is the truth, or if there’s a third explanation. I don’t care if it turns out this man was a completely terrible person. Every family has a few of those. I simply want to know who he was. If there’s another branch of my family out there, maybe they might like to know what became of us.
Here’s how you can help. If you are a military history fan, maybe you recognize his cap badge?
Or his service medals?
I’m asking this for two reasons. One, is that although I am committed to peace and am against war in principle, I also think that the dead deserve to be remembered, and that those who wager their own lives in the service of protecting their land and people deserve special respect. I’m also asking because I would like to know where I came from. Our ancestors are obviously an important part of who we are.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
– Robert Lawrence Binyon, “For the Fallen”.
UPDATE a few hours later!
Thanks to my friend Graeme Barber, a member of the British Columbia Dragoons, I now know that my mystery ancestor was a member of the Transjordan Frontier Force. That’s the uniform and cap badge he’s wearing in the photo above. He also found that the medal on the left is a campaign star, and the one second from the left is the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
I had been told all my life that he was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Highland Black Watch. A few years back I got a kilt with the regimental tartan, to honour him. (It doesn’t fit me anymore). Well, its definitely the TJFF uniform and badge in the photo above, and not the BlackWatch uniform. But we found that the Blackwatch 2nd Battalion served in Mesopotamia and was then moved to Palestine, right around the correct time period. It’s possible that Mystery Ancestor here was transferred from the Blackwatch to the TJFF some time before this photo was taken.
Two months ago, my sister B gave me a surprise gift of a live rabbit.
Though BrightEyes was a surprise gift that I wasn’t fully prepared for, B knew that the gift would be fitting. For I have imagined and wondered about and loved rabbits like a personal totem (if there is such a thing) for most of my life. It probably began when I was two or maybe three years old, when my dad gave me a toy rabbit; forty years later I still have him. As a child I read and watched Watership Down over and over again, and I made up my own stories about rabbits and their adventures. In my private mythology, rabbits are the listeners and the knowers of the animal kingdom. They’re always alert to danger. They build their homes and families close to the earth, in the hidden places where other creatures think there’s nothing of interest. They’re curious, and their curiousity sometimes lands them in danger, but they know how to escape. They have sharp claws and teeth and they can fight when they have to. But they prefer to trick their enemies and turn their enemies’ weapons against them. Then they hide, and wait, and listen, and know.
Of course, imagining rabbits is nothing like owning and caring for a live one. When I was 10 or maybe 12 years old I had a pet rabbit, given to me by a family who I knew from my primary school. I named him Patrick because I got him on St Patrick’s Day. But this guy was quite wild: he used to bite me every time I cleaned out his cage or fed him. He never let me play with him. We built a run-space for him in the garage, when the winter came. I don’t really know what happened to him: and I think it’s likely that he escaped.
Then in September, some of my family came to my house to help me with some renovation work, and B stepped out of her car holding a young white doe, and carefully handed it to me. I think she was expecting that I would be full of bliss to have this new companion. Actually my first thought, after saying “thank you”, was “But I was going to get a dog!” But BrightEyes seemed comfortable with me right away. She licked my arms and face. She sat with me on the couch in the evenings while I was watching telly. I put her cage in the library, so that she could use the library as a run-space and I could close the door there so she wouldn’t escape to the rest of the house.
Then she ate some of my books, and chewed on the door-frames, and peed everywhere. I suppose I should have expected that.
Curiously, she went straight for the Margaret Murray books about mediaeval witchcraft. And ate them.
After a few days, the damage (and the smell of the urine) was getting too much for me. As was a bit of guilt at keeping her in her cage for 20 hours of the day. I built another run-space in the basement, enclosed by some old doors, and on a tile floor which she can pee on without damaging. She seemed a bit happier, but a bit lonelier.
Then, on the first Monday of October, I was cleaning out the litter in her cage, and saw a lump that was moving. There was a nest of little babies. They were each about the size of my thumb, and without hair, and their eyes were still closed. BrightEyes was a mama– and now, so to speak, I was a dad. Nobody, including my sister, knew that BrightEyes was pregnant.
It’s been a month now. It’s interesting to have them, I must admit. By day I work as a philosophy teacher at the college, and my head is full of the Platonic Forms. By evening, the immensities of life are played out as practical realities in the rabbit run. I like sitting among them as they eat, and I like the way they come up to me when I’m sitting there, sniffing around my feet and legs to see if I have more food. They have such simple and honest wants: to eat, to be safe, to be loved and cared for. They remind me of the poem by Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
But my little family makes me sad, too. They don’t return affection the way cats and dogs do. They seem to live in a constant low-grade state of fear, all the time. They scatter to sheltered corners of the run-space if I make any sudden moves, and they cluster together in a little pile, perhaps feeling safer among their own kind than with me. They scatter off again if they think I’m about to pick them up. If I do catch one, their eyes bulge a little bit, and their limbs remain tense, and their ears stay flat down on their heads. After a few minutes they relax, and seem more comfortable with my petting them and even kissing them on the nose. But when I set them down on my knee, they hop off almost right away. The same seems to go for BrightEyes. Two days ago I found her sitting on my chair in the run space. When I moved to pet her, she jumped away and darted back to the litterbox and hid under the castle.
Here’s another poem that expresses this feeling: “To A Squirrel At Kyle-Na-No”, by WB Yeats:
Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.
So, it’s as if these rabbits are teaching me how to handle unrequited love– and the irony is not lost on me, as in my checkered past I was sometimes the one not returning the love bestowed on me by others. I suppose that is what karma looks like. (It is perhaps interesting that the eight babies together with the mama make nine– a number often taken as having Druidic significance. But I digress.)
Yesterday, BrightEyes was on my chair again. She let me pet her, and she even licked my nose in return. But I can’t always tell whether she likes it. I try not to make her feel trapped when I hold her, and I never reach into the litterbox when she’s in there, so that she won’t feel as if there’s nowhere safe. Still, these nine housemates are giving me quite the emotional ride. I will be both sad, and at the same time a little relieved, when they’re gone.
Yes, I said “when they’re gone”. Because I can’t keep them. The babies will be fertile around four months after their birth, which means that if I keep them there will eventually be thirty of them, and more on the way. So I’m also asking you if you would like to take one as a pet of your own. Two associates of mine have already agreed to take the little brown ones; the other six still need new homes. They’ll be fully weaned from their mama in early December, so that’s when I can give them away. I might not be able to keep the mama either, because its difficult for me to find someone who can come and look after her on the occasions when I need to be out of town for a few days at a time. I will have to give them to the local SPCA if I cannot find other homes for them.
If you can’t take one for yourself, you can still help by buying one of my books: because I will donate my November royalties for my self-published titles to an animal shelter. You can also share this blog post, or the above video, with anyone you think might be able to take one of my bunnies as a pet of their own. And if you’re local and don’t want to keep one but you might like to try holding one in your hand, come and visit. We rabbit people need to crowd close to each other, too.
Two days ago, a student told me that because I was born in 1974, therefore I am a member of something called “Generation X”. So yesterday I googled around for a while to find out what that means. In the process I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the music of my generation is not so bad.
So while cooking and cleaning up my house yesterday, I built a playlist of Oasis and Radiohead and Pearl Jam. Listening to all this great music, which I apparently missed, has made me wonder where I fit in the world. There are whole “generational” experiences associated with that era of music that I didn’t have.
What generation am I? According to one schema, popularised by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, Generation X is everyone born between 1961 and 1981, roughly the first round of children born to Baby Boomers. According to another, I’m from the “Baby Bust” generation, the period from 1967 to 1979 when birth rates tended to decline. Whatever the precise category, sociologists and newspaper columnists were saying we were slackers, “reluctant to grow up”, apathetic, cynical, disaffected, distrustful of authority, and generally ridiculous.
Another phrase I found to define my generation is “latch-key children”, that is, kids who carried their house keys on their persons because when they got home from school their parents were not yet home from work. My mom was always home so I was never one of those; but I shared with latch-key kids the experience of playing mostly outside, climbing trees or scaling the rockfaces of the Elora Gorge. We had games of Capture The Flag, riding around the village and the farm fields and parks outside the village, on our banana-seat bicycles, over a territory which measured something like three by nine kilometers. I might have been among the last “free range” kids, who could play outside with almost no supervision. But don’t misread me: I have very little nostalgia for that time. I was also the target of some very severe bullying from other kids back then, and the main reason I went on to my PhD was so that no one would ever push me around like that again.
One marker of generational membership is one’s age when certain society-changing technologies became available. I first got internet when I was an undergrad, and I got my first mobile phone during my PhD. (I organize the history of my life by what degree I was working on at the time.) But maybe a greater sign of your generation is the way in which you grapple with what your predecessors left you. I remember early in my Masters degree days having long conversations with my peers about how the baby-boomers in academia were refusing to retire “on time”, with the result that by the time we graduated there would be no academic jobs for us. As it turned out, when the boomers did eventually retire, the economy crashed and therefore universities hired us as adjuncts and sessionals instead of as real profs, and a lot of us dropped out of academia altogether.
To this day, I still feel as if a defining experience of my generation is of having been screwed by the Boomers. Boomers were in charge of the economy and the body-politic when the economy crashed, when global warming and climate change became more evident and nearly irreversible, when the the social-welfare safety nets that the Boomers themselves benefited from were gutted, when well-paying industrial jobs were exported overseas, and when we were put massively in debt by student loans. To this day the boomers refuse to let go of political power: it’s noteworthy, in my view, that both current candidates for the US presidency are boomers. And it’s the boomers telling the younger generations that their problems are their own fault because of “entitlement” or a supposed lack of individual initiative.
The end result of all this is that here in my early 40’s, I can’t help but feel out of place. And this is partly because of what happened to my demographic, and partly because of my own life decisions. I look back on my life and I see a certain pattern: a series of movements from one social world to another because of a feeling of non-belonging. As a kid I became a consumate recluse because I did not feel at home among the bullish and narcissistic asshole kids at my primary school. In my teens I made a point of not listening to most pop music, nor punk nor metal nor goth, because the kids who did listen to it were too cool to give me the time of day. I didn’t feel like one of them, so I didn’t listen to their music. After that, I entered the pagan world because I didn’t feel at home in Christianity: the doctrine of original sin seemed to me obviously wrong. I pursued higher education because I didn’t feel at home among the party-going upper-middle-class “preps” of my late teens and early 20s; nor did I feel at home in the factories and warehouses where I got my first real jobs. I entered left-wing activism, especially in labour unions, because I didn’t feel at home in capitalism: at the time, I felt that the local economy was a rigged game, designed to keep me out. I went to live in Newfoundland, then in my father’s country, Ireland, because I didn’t feel at home in Ontario. Then I went back to Ontario because I didn’t feel at home in Newfoundland or in Ireland– also because I couldn’t find jobs out there. I sometimes feel out of place when I am single, but when in a relationship I often feel like an imposter, as if I don’t really deserve to be loved; consequently I’ve never held a girlfriend for longer than about two years, and I’ve come to prefer living alone. I don’t feel fully at home in the pagan world anymore: I’m tired of the infighting, and the competition for attention, validation, and ideological purity. Finally, although I own a house here in west Quebec, and although I love my job and I love the Gatineau Hills National Park– still, whenever I go anywhere else in this city or in Ottawa, I still don’t feel fully at home. It’s partially the language barrier, but its also the culmination of all those movements in my life, where no matter what was going on around me, I felt as if I didn’t belong.
I’m not asking for counselling or “help”; I’m certainly not asking for commiseration or pity. I’m asking whether anyone else has a similar experience. I would like you to reason with me about these feelings. I’d like to know if it’s my generation, or if it’s just me. And I’d like to know where I fit in, if I fit anywhere at all.
I was six, maybe seven years old, and turning the knob on the old Panasonic 12-channel TV, when I saw a field of stars, and a curiously-shaped spacecraft passing among them. A “re-run” (a word I just learned) of a show called “Star Trek”. Well, I had been playing with a telescope in my back yard for years already, and building a whole universe of spacecraft out of Lego bricks. So, of course I sat down and watched. The crew of that ship “beamed” down to a planet, where they met three witches, towering in the skies above them. And I turned the TV off and ran up to my room. It was too scary.
Eight years old. Still scared of Star Trek. My dad took me to the cinema to see The Wrath of Khan anyway. That film, along with Roy Gallant’s book Our Universe, and (I must admit), two of the three Star Wars films released to that date, produced in me a lifelong love of science fiction, which I still enjoy to this day.
Over the last few days, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the franchise, I watched all six films made by the original cast. Here’s what I like about each of them.
By the way: spoilers.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
I am very well aware that most scifi fans, and indeed most Trek fans, regard this film as the runt of the litter. To me, it’s one of the top ten scifi films ever made. I can’t recall exactly when I first saw it; I have a vague memory of seeing the transporter accident scene on TV in the late 70s or early 80s. In the 1990s a friend gave me the film on VHS tape and I watched it daily for a month.
Of all the films featuring the original cast, this one seems to me the most philosophical. It is a film about knowledge: it’s a film about the philosophical question “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” And that’s a very difficult theme around which to tell a story. It explores this theme in two ways: one on a “big picture”, represented by the existential threat posed by the V’Ger probe, and the other on the “small picture”, represented by Spock when he gives up his Kohlinar discipline; and by Kirk when he effectively commandeers the Enterprise from Decker, its new captain. V’Ger is introduced with a long and visually trippy descent into the cloud, to establish the weirdness and alienness and wonder of space exploration. V’Ger itself is the product of an alien society that loves knowledge so much it took an ordinary exploration probe and gave it godlike powers for the sole purpose of learning “all that is learnable, and transmit its knowledge to its creator”. The film ends with very possibly the best reveal in scifi: V’Ger is one of ours. Then, as if to place a quasi-religious glamour on the search for knowledge, V’Ger and Decker fuse with each other and become a new, maybe supernatural being. The message is: knowledge is transformation and enlightenment.
If you are a fan of Trek who doesn’t much like TMP, consider at least this much: the music. Glorious. Evocative. Bold. Inspirational. The overture, Ilia’s theme, played to a blank screen (in the cinematic release) or a receding starfield (in the remastered DVD) tells you from the beginning that this is going to be an introspective and personal film. Then the brass rise for the main theme, played over the opening credits, tells you that this is a film about courage and triumph. You know that theme: it was used for the opening credits for The Next Generation. I listened to the soundtrack for TMP while writing my own novels. The long exposition scenes that some critics hate are actually essential: they give you time to think about the big themes that Star Trek has always been about. The scene when we arrive at the Enterprise in its refitting dock was the first time anyone saw their beloved starship in over ten years. Fans needed that long, loving look. They deserved Goldsmith’s beautiful music score to pay homage to it.
On watching this film again last week, for the first time in perhaps ten years, I suddenly realised how many contemporary films and TV shows of every genre obsessively demand action, action, action. TMP is a slow burn. A science-fiction art film. A movie for thinking, not merely ‘riding’. A love song to the idea that we human beings can solve our problems and boldly go where no one has… you get the idea. We have far too few such films in the canon of Western pop culture. We’ll probably not get many such films again, in Trek or in any franchise. But I digress.
The Wrath of Khan (1982)
This film I also regard as one of the top ten scifi films ever made. Indeed I think this film, together with its predecessor, make for two distinct and complimentary faces for what Trek is about: TMP is thoughtful, questioning, and inspirational; Wrath of Khan is scrappy, adventurous, and heroic. We have clearly defined heroes and villains; they’re both tough, and they’re both smart. The Enterprise crew changed its friendly (but boring) uniforms from TMP for a sharper, more militaristic look. The opening musical theme also changed, emphasizing strings over brass and somehow evoking the romance of space travel and the danger of space warfare at the same time.
When I first saw this film I was too young to understand philosophical and political questions hinted at (though not emphasized) in the film: questions like what to do about getting old, and what to do about superpowerful new technologies, represented by the Genesis Device, and Khan’s own genetic engineered ‘superiority’. I did, at the time, understand that big technologies could be destructive; we had done a nuclear drill in my school that year. What I love now about this film is that it represents a society that loves exploration, science, experiment, and curiosity; that takes such things seriously and questions their ethics; and that is capable of fighting when it needs to. The final space battle between Kirk and Khan, in the nebula, reminded me of submarine war films: the tension was not so much in fighting the enemy, bit finding the enemy. Yet Kirk and Khan had been exchanging moves from the first moment that the Reliant fired on the Enterprise– the battle between them was more a battle of wits than of weapons. Any idiot with a working right hand can fire a gun; it takes Kirk and Khan to fight each other with information, deception, move and counter-move, leading to a surgically-precise final blow. This is how smart people fight each other.
When writing the villain in my own novels, I had the voice of Ricardo Montalban in my head.
And then– Spock died! First time I saw the film, I never saw it coming. Spock’s death was perfect for the character: logically chosen, and heroically executed. The phrase “I am, and always shall be, your friend”, so simple and plain, and introduced early in the film where it was almost innocuous and casual, was elevated to a more noble meaning. It made for an interesting contrast against Khan’s parallel act of self-destruction: quoting Herman Melville (“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”), Khan sacrifices himself in order to kill; Spock sacrifices himself in order to save.
It was wise of the filmmakers to give Spock the last lines in the film: the reading of the show’s manifesto: “Space, the final frontier…”. It told us that the film makers loved Spock as much as we fans did. And that Spock might not be entirely gone.
The Search for Spock (1984)
This film came out when I was ten. I don’t recall if I saw it in the cinema; but I do recall that Robin Curtis’ portrayal of Saavik was one of my first adolescent boyhood crushes. (Too much information, I know. Sorry about that.)
Including my re-viewing of this film last week, I’ve seen Search for Spock perhaps only three times. I find it a strange film: it tries to be thoughtful like TMP, and adventurous like Wrath of Khan, at the same time, and I’m not sure it succeeds at either. The central theme of the film is friendship: it is about the Enterprise crew coming together to effectively bring Spock back from the dead. It’s interesting that the crew of the Enterprise, who we have long admired for being upright and moral people, commit several serious crimes: stealing the Enterprise, sabotaging the Excelsior, disobeying orders, all of which would likely earn them the death penalty in a real-word navy service. Yet the ethics of these crimes is never doubted: the value of friendship overrules them all. We see this in the great personal cost that the crew, and Kirk especially, must bear: the destruction of the ship, the death of Kirk’s only son. But I think the heart of the film appears at the end, when Kirk discusses these costs with Sarek. Sarek expresses regret that if Kirk hadn’t gone after Spock, he would not have lost his son. Kirk replies: “If I hadn’t tried [to save Spock], I would have lost my soul”. Kirk’s friendship with Spock and the crew is his soul; and in a clever reversal of Spock’s utilitarian reasoning that led to his self-sacrifice, that friendship is the “one” which can outweigh the needs of the “many”.
It’s interesting that the film makers had to invoke the idea of a soul to reverse the “needs of the many” argument that concluded Wrath of Khan. This soul is a psycho-spiritual “package”, so to speak, that McCoy can carry around in his head; it’s also a relationship between people, a non-supernatural phenomena. Trek has explored the ethics of individualism over socialism many times; I think that this film is Trek’s best exploration of that theme.
As a follow-up to my comment about the demand for fast-paced film making: Search for Spock doesn’t give us enough time to feel Kirk’s grief. But it does give us just the right amount of time to appreciate Spock’s return. Shot with almost no distracting visuals in the background, and no music, it gave Spock fans the reunion they were waiting for.
The Voyage Home (1986)
This is one of the most popular films in the series but I have mixed feelings about it. I like the environmentalist message, for instance, but I also think the message was delivered a bit heavy-handed. Trek’s best morality plays are the ones where the viewer is shown an ethical or social possibility that she might not have thought of before but still lets the viewer make up her own mind about it. Here the message is “Save the whales, save the world!” Ya. It’s a bit much.
The strength of this film is the camraderie of the team. For the first time in the films, the story is not just about Kirk / Spock / McCoy / Everyone Else. It’s about everyone, nearly equally, bringing their own unique skills to the task. Characters like Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov had almost nothing to do in the previous films; here they have essential jobs to do, and more recognizably distinct personalities. And excellent comic timing! Watching this film felt like hanging out with friends. We had an important job to do; but we’re having fun doing it. The saving of the day was a kind of foregone conclusion. What mattered was that the world of Trek was still around, its heroes were still heroes, and its sense of optimism for a better future was still deeply felt. Job done. But for all that, the film didn’t seem to have much re-playability. I couldn’t watch it again and again like I could watch Wrath of Khan. It felt more like an episode of a TV series than a movie. I also felt stuck on the sheer cheapness of the final set, the Federation council chamber. So, on the night last week when I re-watched this one, I watched the next one afterwards, right away.
The Final Frontier (1989)
I know that most fans regard this film as the very worst of the series. And yes, there’s a lot about this film that really, really sucks, and I don’t want to sound like an apologist. The film is funny in all the wrong places; the ‘ascent of man’ symbol as Kirk climbs a mountain just doesn’t work, and neither does its counterpart ascent in the Enterprise turbolift shaft. An end scene, where Kirk says maybe God is “here” and then he points at himself, just makes me want to gag. All that said: here’s a few points about it which I think are worth praising.
First, as with The Voyage Home, the Enterprise team are working as a team. They’re distinct individuals with unique and necessary skills, and their ability to work together is what wins them their victory. It was also nice to see McCoy standing up for Spock more often.
Second, a reaffirmation of classic Trek humanism. I had a VHS tape of this film when I was a teenager that I watched repeatedly. In retrospect this is surprising, since I was growing up in a deeply religious Catholic household and the film was a deeply anti-religious film. The slowly unfolding premise is a search for God. But the big reveal at the end is that “God” is a fake. In fact Spock, at the gunner station on board a Klingon ship, fires on him and kills him. Logic defeating superstition. Not even for the first time in Trek history. How did I get away with watching that film so often back then?
Third, its villain, Sybok, is a smart and charismatic person, and as you’ve gathered by now, I like a smart and charismatic villain. He’s on a kind of spirital quest, to locate the planet of Shaka-Ri, a kind of mythical Eden which might be the home planet of God. A sound, solid motivation, and it’s easy to share it. That Sybok gets there by effectively mind-controlling people is what makes him an interesting and frightening villain. Also his one tiny moment of self doubt: when told he is mad, he says “Am I? We’ll see!” Actor Laurence Luckinbill played that moment perfectly.
As a villain, Sybok has class.
The scene in the officer’s mess where Sybok compels Spock and McCoy to reveal their pain seemed to me very effective. We got to see more of these men’s characters than we normally see. Spock’s pain is one we’ve known since the original series in the 60’s; McCoy’s struck me as new, and very emotionally powerful. Kirk’s speech about how we need our pain also worked: well, sort of. For one thing, we already know that Kirk’s pain is his grief for the death of his son; for another, it’s a strategic rather than principled argument, designed to keep Sybok out of his head. But a central moment in the film, for me, happened right after that speech. Even after Sybok “released” Spock and McCoy from their pain, they chose to remain with Kirk, and not join Sybok’s army of fanatics. That showed the strength of will and the sense of self, which makes those characters the heroes that they are.
We see this strength in Kirk a little later on, when the ship arrives at Shaka-Ri, and Sybok relinquishes command, like the honourable man he thinks himself to be. “What makes you think I wont’ turn us around?” asks Kirk. “Because you, too, must know.” Yes, and so must we. Very effective.
More effective still, is when Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?” Pure Pyrrhonic skepticism: Kirk still must know, and remains in doubt about everything so that he can get closer to the truth. His superpower is his ability to keep on questioning; Sybok’s weakness is that he can’t. Until Kirk shows him that he can. Then I think that Sybok became a kind of hero, in his own way: maybe an unwilling hero since all his deepest beliefs had just been exposed as illusions, but he died an admirable death nonetheless.
It’s hard to see these good moments behind the mess of bad effects, bad pacing, misplaced comic moments, and pretentiousness. Thank the gods (well, you know what I mean) that the franchise didn’t end here.
The Undiscovered Country (1991)
My re-viewing last week was the first time I had seen The Undiscovered Country since its cinematic release, and it’s growing on me. Though I called the first and second films two of the top ten best sci-fi films of all time, this one may well be the most perfectly Trek film of them all. It’s a film about how our biggest social and political problems are best solved by negotiation and discussion, and not by violence. But it also asks what is to become of those who know nothing but violence, and who might feel they have no place in a world defined by peace. So it is also a kind of ‘whodunnit’ detective story, about smart characters solving a difficult problem together. There’s an investigation into the assassination of an important Klingon politician and the saboteurs of a peace conference. Then there’s also a jail break, a space battle, Sulu in command of his own ship, Spock very nearly losing his temper, some well placed moments of comic relief. And there’s a promise at the end that our heroes are still out there somewhere, sailing into the sunset, and boldly going where no one has gone before. Star Trek optimism and adventurism at its best. Indeed if this wasn’t a Trek film I think it would still stand up as a great sci fi classic. A timely one, too: the Berlin Wall had just come down; America was no longer fighting a cold war with the Russians. So it was with the end of the Klingon Empire. Old cold-war warriors like Kirk and Valeris and Chang have to cool off, but they don’t know how.
For some reason I also began to notice something in this film which hadn’t caught my attention in the other films: the colour palatte. The film makes tableaus with high contrasting elements in the frame: computer lights and dark backgrounds; star fields and starships, red serge uniforms and black metal floorboards. A white hallway and a black armoured Klingon waking down it. Lt. Valeris’ ghost-white skin and night-black hair. The darkness of the mine shaft and the sharp red laser-rays of the mining tools. A red ticking digital clock over the black viewscreen. The bright flags, sashes, and colours of the conference hall. Films three through five had the “look and feel” of a television episode; this one had the look of a big screen movie. Although I think Shatner and Nimoy’s direction in films III, IV, and V got good results from the cast, Meyer got the best results from the camera.
One big problem, which I think no one saw back in 1991, because the sexual politics was different. Near the end of the film, Spock has to probe Valeris’ mind to get the identities of the conspirators. Valeris keeps her Vulcan cool, but it’s clear the mind meld is unwanted. Did Spock psychically assault her? Is Kirk guilty too, for ordering Spock to do it? I invite discussion in the comments.
So there you have it.
Science fiction which is optimistic about humanity’s future isn’t very fashionable anymore. The future we expect is more like the one depicted in films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, or Serenity. Or, people might look forward to a future in which we join the Rebellion and fight the Empire. But the tragedy of that future is that the war, while mythic and romantic, never ends. That is why, although I would like to study at the Jedi Temple some day, I would much rather live in the Federation.
Off to binge on The Next Generation now. And DS9. And Voyager. I’m also 14,000 words into writing my own scifi novel. The human adventure is just beginning.
In December of last year, I bought a house– a nice house, with the perfect location, size, and price for my way of life. And I thought all would be well. The house has good bones, new roof and main-floor windows, and new-ish hardwood floor. But it has a wreck of a basement: insulation is missing on most walls, the wiring and plumbing is not up to code, the basement windows too drafty. I expected my energy costs in that first winter in the house to be high, seeing as the basement was not properly insulated. So I arranged for a “construction draw mortgage” which would pay for the renovations to clean all that up.
Everyone involved in the transaction, including the mortgage broker, the real estate agent, and most of my friends, assured me all would be well.
It’s about six months later, and I’m feeling as if ever since I bought the house, someone or some group of people promised me something, and then when I asked them to deliver their promise, they punched me in the face instead. I feel like I have been cheated and lied to, victimized by a sophisticated bait-and-switch trick, all validated and approved-of by the CMHC and other regulatory bodies that are supposed to put a lid on this. Here’s the story.
The first punch in the face.
In mid December of last year, I gave $15,000 to the notary to cover the downpayment, the lawyer’s fees, and some back taxes. Later that afternoon, the notary phoned me to say I needed to pay $16,000 more, and he gave no explanation for it.
I didn’t have that much money. For about 48 hours, I was sure that I would lose the house and all my money with it. Picture me standing in front of the TD bank branch on St Joseph in Gatineau, in the traffic, in the rain, wondering whether I will have a home to go to tomorrow. I don’t fault the notary for this– he was acting on the instructions he received from the bank. But no one at the bank could explain why I suddenly owed more than twice as much money. I had to hike up the limit of my line of credit to pay for it. Now my short-term debts were enormously higher than I had planned them to be. In fact I had planned no short term debts that I couldn’t pay within a month or two. Instead, I have five-digits worth of short term debts that might not be paid in full for years.
The second punch in the face.
Early in the new year, I wrote to the mortgage broker to ask about how to access the construction-draw funds for the renovation. I got no answer. I phoned him a few times, and left multiple emails. After several months I heard back from him– he had left the bank, and was no longer working on my file. Well, that happens from time to time, and I can’t fault him for that, though I would have appreciated it if the bank notified his clients. So I wrote to his branch, arranged for a meeting with another of their agents, and asked my questions.
At that time, I was told that at least some of the money could be available to me in advance. Perhaps as much as the 15% advance which the contractor wanted. I handed in all the estimates I had so far. But this particular agent admitted that he hadn’t worked with construction-draw mortgages before, and he had to make some inquiries. Very well.
Weeks go by, and nothing happened. I made some phone calls and emails again. The manager of the branch phoned me and said I had been given incorrect information. The construction-draw portion of the mortgage would not be paid until the construction was finished. He also gave me an answer to my question of why I had to pay an extra $16,000 back in December. (Remember, this is five months later.) It was an “insurance premium”, of a sort that is normally rolled into mortgage payments, but for some unexplained reason I had to pay up front. He didn’t say exactly what kind of insurance. It’s not the regular house insurance: I get that from a different company. It’s something else. I still don’t know what.
So, I was to get no money from the bank until the work is done. But because of that unexplained “insurance premium” that the bank took from me without warning, I did not have the funds to pay my contractor to do the work in the first place. You see the trap I’m in: the renos won’t happen until I can pay for them, but I cannot pay for them until after they happen.
The third punch in the face.
The bank manager suggested I could extend my line of credit again, to pay for at least some of the labour and materials in advance. He assigned me to another agent, and I came into the branch to show my income and do the paperwork. At this time I had been assured my line of credit would be increased to $30,000, which I could use to pay the contractor for his labour, and then I could buy materials like insulation and lumber using store cards from Rona or Home Depot. This debt would then be covered by the construction-draw funds, and rolled into my mortgage, as promised.
More weeks go by, and I notice my line of credit had not increased. I wrote the manager to ask why, and I learned that the bank’s head office decided my income wasn’t high enough to carry that much debt– even though the bank knows that the construction-draw portion of my mortgage would cover it less than six weeks later. I was told this was the CMHC’s rule and that there was nothing the local branch of the bank could do about it. The manager said he would investigate whether CMHC would allow the release of half the construction-draw funds when half of the work was done; later he found that he couldn’t predict that until after half the work was done and he got a CMHC inspector to visit. He says I should ask the contractor to accept payment when it’s over, or else borrow money from friends or family.
It’s not the fault of that particular branch manager. But it is the fault of someone, somewhere, at the bank, that I am unable to do what the bank promised me I would be able to do. There are people whose job includes explaining these things to me, and yet nothing was explained. There were too many expensive surprises in this whole experience. And they’ve left me feeling thoroughly demoralized.
Meanwhile, my building contractor, who has been chomping at the bit to get to work all this time, is left wondering what’s happening. He’s a decent man: friendly, helpful, and well recommended from friends at my workplace. But he can’t work for six weeks for free, and I won’t demand that he should. In a way, the bank has been punching him in the face, too. The renovation work should have been completely finished three months ago. Instead, it hasn’t started at all.
I’m investigating other companies that might be able to offer me another loan, but I’m running out of options. I don’t even know what office at the bank I should complain to about any of this. I can’t ask any friends for help– they don’t have money to loan me either. And I don’t have the skills to do the work in the basement myself, although I suppose I could learn them this summer.
I am not asking you, dear reader, for any help in this matter. But I am asking for you to share this story with anyone you know who might have had a similar story, or who might be about to walk into a similar trap. Perhaps next year I will look back at all of this and feel thankful that I got through it. But at this moment, I’m beginning to wonder if what the banks really want me to do is hand over everything I own, and then thank them for the privilege of being punched in the face.
In May of last year I began researching a book about the philosophy of civilization. I’m almost done; but I’m asking for your help.
I would like to hear from people who, one way or another, have moved “out” of civilization— or who wish they could. For example, I’d like to hear from ex-urbanites; off-the-grid homesteaders; residents of experimental or intentional communities; urban primitives; residents of small towns or islands, far from major cities; or anyone who thinks there’s something not-quite-right about civilization, whatever that may mean to you, and who has changed their lives accordingly. I’m curious to hear from people whose jobs or livelihoods regularly brings them to the margins or the edges of civilization— whatever you regard those edges to be. I’ve got some questions for you.
1. What does the word ‘civilization’ mean to you? Or, what is its centre?
2. What is civilization’s biggest problem? Or, are there many problems, and what are they?
3. In your life, or in the lives of others close to you, what have you done about that problem?
4. Why live off-the-grid? Or, why do you live in some way at a distance from the centre of civilization? Or, if you don’t presently live that way, do you wish you could? Why?
5. Has moving to an off-grid way of life (or planning or wishing to live that way) changed the way you think about things?
6. What kind of future do you foresee for yourself and that away-from-the-centre way of life?
7. If you had a chance to go back to the city, would you take it?
Actually I’d like to hear from anyone at all who might be interested in these questions.
Please answer as many or as few of these questions as you like. Take as much or as little time as you like. Post your thoughts to the comments space below, or email me: bmyers (at) live (dot) ca.
Yes, I know some of key words in these questions are not clearly defined. To others whom I’ve already posed these questions, one common automatic answer was “That depends on what you mean by civilization”. I’ve left these key words mostly undefined because, while I’m interested in people’s answers, I’m also interested in how people interpret the questions.
Finally, please share this mini-questionnaire as widely as you can.
In my creative projects, I wear many hats: philosopher, researcher, novelist, musician, game designer. About two years ago, I tried to launch a tabletop RPG based on The Hidden Houses, my urban fantasy novels, using Kickstarter.com to pay for editors and illustrators. Back then, it failed. But I remained determined. I’m now gearing up to try again. And this time, I’m laying the groundwork a little more carefully.
For instance, I’m recruiting some help much sooner in the process. Last time, I wrote to almost a dozen artists I knew, and asked them to let me use work they had already created, with the promise that if the campaign succeeded I’d work with them to make project-specific illustration. This time, I commissioned my friend Susanne Iles to create some project-specific illustrations right away. (And I’ll pay her out of pocket, whether or not the campaign succeeds.) I saw one of her rough sketches this morning; it’s going to be great. I also have informal agreements with two other artists to work on the project after the campaign is over.
Because, here’s an image I made 20 years ago, which at the time I wanted to use as the front cover of a different game I made back then:
Two of my old D&D characters, punting on a creepy river
And here’s a sketch of “Old Hobb”, one of the characters from my novels, which I made about a month ago:
Old Hobb speaks without speaking. Know what I mean?
I still like these images, but I’m nowhere near good enough to illustrate an entire 250-page RPG book all by myself.
I’ve also recruited “beta-testers”. There’s about a dozen people now, some friends of mine and some friends-of-friends, who are already playing the game. I’ve asked them to tell me their thoughts about the workability of the engine, the clarity of the world building info, and so on. (And, I’m asking them to help promote the heck out of the fundraising campaign, when it goes live.) In return, they’ll get a copy of the finished product, and an honorarium, of an amount to be determined based on the success of the fundraising campaign.
By the way: if you are a fan of games like Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf’s Vampire / Werewolf / Changeling series, and the like, let me know. If you think you and your friends will enjoy a tabletop RPG which is part political thriller, part fairy tale, and part philosophical salon, let me know. Yes, I really can make a game that’s all three of those things. Join the beta-testing team to find out how I did it. 🙂
Besides, I will need the help of a small army of people to plug the Kickstarter campaign when it gets underway.
This game will probably not be a “legacy” project for me; it’s not what I expect future generations to remember me for, if they remember me at all. I certainly don’t expect that the game will make me rich. But it will be fun. And that’s a good enough reason to try again.
I started house-hunting about a year and a half ago, when it appeared that my job was secure enough, and that I had near-enough money for the downpayment. I didn’t house-hunt with much enthusiasm; the apartment I lived in was nice, and close to work, and I probably could have remained there mostly-happily. But then I saw a wonderful house along the road I take to walk to work, and I phoned my real-estate agent and asked him to come view it with me immediately. I put in an offer the next day.
It turns out that the sellers had a previous offer already in hand, and so I lost that house. So I bought the one next door. 🙂
In retrospect the “house next door” is the better choice for me. It’s smaller and less “modern” than the first one. Its dominant colour scheme features earth-tones like yellow and red-brown. And aside from its excellent location– close to work, grocery store, Gatineau Hills park, bus route, and so on– I was “sold” by a curious renovation made by the previous owners. They demolished a wall between two of the bedrooms, thus creating a master bedroom that’s as big as most people’s living rooms. That huge room is now my library.
Buying a house was not the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it comes very close. Every time I thought I knew what I was doing, something unexpected appeared which no one warned me about. For instance, the building manager at the old apartment seemed to want to punish me for moving out. I had to scramble for an insurance company when the first one I contacted, the same one my employer uses for group insurance, turned me down. The store where I bought my appliances forgot to send me my stove; I didn’t have a stove in my kitchen until yesterday. Worst of all: a few hours after I delivered the downpayment, the notary phoned me to say that I was short by– well I best not say exactly, but it was a five-digit figure. There was (and still is) no explanation; and my mortgage broker said it made no sense to him either. He stayed up late at night trying to find out where the miscommunication was. For about 48 hours, I thought I was facing complete bankruptcy and homelessness. Eventually I extended my line of credit to cover it. I still have no idea what happened there, but I’m working with the bank and the local chamber of commerce to figure it out.
It’s been about three weeks now (although I spent one of those weeks out of town) and most of that time I wandered around the house and yard, looking at things, touching things, and feeling the weight of the financial responsibility. I am now ten times deeper in debt than I was with my student loan. I’ve unpacked slowly, and often rearranged furniture as I went. I think it was when I first hung the art on the walls that the house felt finally “mine”. I’m mostly done unpacking and arranging things now. I might be cleaned-up enough to receive visitors this weekend.
Until then, here are some photos, at last!
Here’s the house as it appeared on the MLS listing, back in October. Oak tree on the left, maple on the right. (Yes, it’s a clue pointing to where the house is. Please don’t stalk me.)
Here’s the first view of the living room, after you step in the front door. I built that bookshelf myself, around 20 years ago. And I’m the author of all the books you see stacked there. Yes, this is a transparent attempt to wow my guests. I know it doesn’t work. But what the hell.
The dining room, which is actually an extension of the living room. The painting of the beach on Innis Oir was made by my mom; the table, corner hutch, and sideboard are the same kitchen furniture from the house in Elora where I grew up. This was my parents’ housewarming gift to me, and I can’t imagine a better one.
Huge, wide, floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. I need four curtains to cover it at night.
View from the front windows, today. That’s seventeen inches of snow out there– yes, I got a tape measure and I measured it.
Here’s part of the kitchen (and a view of Mom’s painting again). The fridge is standing out like that because it’s too tall to fit in its niche. It will be replaced next week. Note also my map of Skyrim. I think it goes nicely with the shelf below it.
Philosophy on the left. Mythology, history, anthropology on the right. (Other categories out of shot).
Writing and study area. Also, my essay-marking area.
The back yard. I don’t quite know what to do with it yet; I’ve never had a green thumb and I’m not really interested in gardening. I might just plant more trees.
The basement. The previous owners, or someone in the history of the house, put a bar down here, complete with fridge, sink, lights, built-in blender, cushioned ledge, 70’s era porno-film carpet, and fake English Tudor timbreframe on the ceiling. As fun as this is, I plan to pull all of this out during the renovations, and install a proper kitchen.
In fact in February I’m planning a full scale renovation of the basement, because most of it looks like this:
Basement bathroom. I’ve never seen a urinal in a private home before!
And finally, I shoe-horned my bed into the smallest room in the house.
There it is. As I grow more comfortable with this house, plans for it start growing in my mind. I’d like to host music nights with my guitar-playing friends, or salons in the style of the 18th century French philosophes. After the renovations, the basement will have a rentable unit, and a guest bedroom. And, of course, I plan to write many more books here. I think this will be a good home for me, for the next however-many years.
Incidentally, I have about 40 gently used cardboard boxes now. Do you need them for your next move? If you can come and get them, they’re yours. I don’t plan to move again for a while.