Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”: A novel for all time, yet also of its own time.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury is a world. It’s the author’s fictitious Green Town Illinois, but it’s also a fairyland where boys are young forever. It’s a town where a new pair of tennis shoes can make boys run and leap like gazelles. Where a mechanical witch in an amusement park was once a real woman, imprisoned in wax for telling true fortunes. Where a boy could be cured of a summer flu with bottled spring air given him by a junkman. Where an old man is a human time machine, and who makes random phone calls to faraway foreign cities so to listen to the traffic and remind himself those places are still real.

But it’s also where death, the Lonely One, hovers over everything. He appears in old age and in murder victims, in machines that fall apart, trolleys that set out for their last run before they are replaced by unromantic buses, and the inevitable return of autumn, and most of all in the darkness of a Ravine that splits the town in two.

What better world can there could be, in which young boys can come of age?

But this blog entry is not just about how wonderful Dandelion Wine is, and why you should go read it. It’s also about why it is a product of its time, for better or worse. As our values change, so do our evaluations of the art of the past, including the recent past. A book or a song or a movie that might have been regarded as beautiful when it was new, might today be regarded as problematic. Here are two ways in which Bradbury’s work is a case study for the point.

First, his style is a richness of imagery. Yet today’s writers are often encouraged to be terse and minimalist: to pack the maximum information in the fewest and simplest words. Stephen King told us never to use adverbs, ever; Dandelion Wine veritably and wonderfully overflows with them.

What would Bradbury himself have to say about the contemporary demands for terseness and minimalism? He would have called it “Tosh!” In a coda published in the 1979 edition of Farenheight 451, he said:

In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”
      The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.”
      Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
      Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!
      Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead.
      Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

In this particular case, I think Bradbury has it right, and contemporary minimalists have it wrong. Editors, and for that matter writers, who assume readers are half-illiterate, really must find another job.

By contrast. Some of today’s writers are encouraged to be the opposite of minimalist: they’re snarky and edgy, like howling Ginsbergs, where long-winded metaphors beat you over your head with their cleverness and make you feel stupid for not having thought of them first. That, too, is not Bradbury’s style. His style is full of metaphor, and often invokes the language of infinity, such that simple events and ordinary places take on world-defining significance. Yet his style is also also somehow matter-of-fact about it. In a passage that stood out to me because it reminded me of my town, his Green Town is styled like a ship at sea, and all the residents cut grass and trim hedges like sailors bailing out the water to keep the ship steady and floating. It’s a magnificent piece of writing. Here’s another, where an elderly woman shows two pre-teen boys photos of herself when she was their age:

“It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. Pomegranate glowed in her lips, and the noon sky in her eyes. To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night. And all of this, this breath-warmness and plum-tenderness was held forever in one miracle of photographic is chemistry which no clock winds could blow upon to change one hour or one second; this fine first cool white snow would never melt, but live a thousand summers.”

Go read Dandelion Wine if you want to see what a non-minimalist style looks like when it is done right.

Second: Dandelion Wine also has another marker which signifies it as a product of its time. All its characters are white and middle-class, or they can be assumed so because that’s the way white middle class people wrote books back in 1946. It’s a town where men smoke cigars on their porches after work and women bake pies and cool them on windowsills. Today, readers demand representation and diversity, and strong female and POC protagonists. Dandelion Wine was published more than half a century ago, and therefore has none of those things. Further, some of its metaphors jar the modern reader with their contemporary inappropriateness: an old man describes a herd of buffalo by saying they had “heads like Negro’s fists”. Today an editor would be right to jump on that metaphor and erase it immediately. But in 1946, an editor would only ask if it the reader could see the buffalo that way.

What would Bradbury say to the contemporary critic who felt the work was sullied by such things? Again, the coda from Farenheight 451 provides his reply:

I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premiers as an opera in Paris this autumn. But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared to do my play – it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with baseball bats if the drama department even tried!
      Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men), Or, counting heads, make and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count line and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
      I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.
      For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own.

My point here is not only to show how contemporary values change how we enjoy (or do not enjoy) things. It’s also to show that the contemporary debate about representation in literature is much older than most people realise. In one corner of this debate there’s Bradbury who claims the absolute freedom to write whatever he wants, without interference from anyone, and subject only to the judgment of the work’s aesthetic merits. In the other corner, there’s the readers who notice that their gender, their class, their language, their experience of life, doesn’t appear in the literature of our time. These readers have a serious and important point. All voices deserve a hearing; all faces of all shapes deserve to be seen, and everyone’s story deserves to be told, and to be told with all the beauty and tragedy and love that can be mustered in the telling. So if writers are still only writing about Americana, and let us admit that for all its universality Dandelion Wine is a slice of Americana, then where does that leave all other voices? Is their absence a way of saying that those other voices aren’t important enough to be included in our stories? Is it sufficient to say, as Bradbury says, that if you want representation then you should write it yourself?

My other point is, it’s okay to be critical of the things you love. I will likely continue to read and love Bradbury’s work, and I’ll encourage others to love his work as well. But I will also be conscious of what it is. You can read a book like Dandelion Wine with a question in your mind like this one: is the experience expressed in the book important and beautiful enough that you can suspend your criticism of the parts which contemporary values render problematic? Or, is the book’s experience so deeply embedded in its own time that it can’t leap past its own problems and speak beyond its time?

On those last two questions, I think Dandelion Wine is artistically successful, and completely readable today. It is a story where perhaps nothing happens for thirty pages or more, and then everything happens, and it is beautiful and tragic and right, all at once. Death amidst magic; sadness amidst wonder, and yet all of it loving and caring and human. There it is, a whole world in one summer, printed on a page as much as stoppered in a bottle of wine– dandelion wine, no less. It’s a book to read in winter, when you have half-forgotten what summer feels like; or a book to read when you’re old, and want to remember being young again; a book to read when you hear the footsteps of the Lonely One, and it’s time to learn how to welcome him in.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Can book launches be as big as weddings? Some (slightly selfish) thoughts about celebrating books and writers

While attending my brother’s wedding last week, I had a rather selfish thought: no one has ever celebrated my life and accomplishments on a scale that big.

Of course the reasons for this are obvious. I’ve never been married; I lead a solitary life anyway; I don’t have that many close friends.

Still, all six of my brothers and sisters have now had a big day (really a big week) with live bands, DJs, caterers, photographers, excursions, pub nights, suit / dress fittings, rented halls, and more than a hundred friends, some of whom traveled very far to be there. So I wondered if my turn would ever come. I’m not getting married in the near future, if I ever get married at all. And I don’t want to have a “getting married to myself” party because I think that would be silly. But I was discussing this with my sister Bridget during Turlough’s reception and we hit upon the obvious solution:

A book launch!
For all seventeen of my books!

My next book, “Reclaiming Civilization“, will be available for purchase in late August; and some of my previous books, including my “History of Pagan Philosophy”, and the entire “Fellwater: The Hidden Houses” urban fantasy series, didn’t have launch & signing events at all.

So: perhaps in October 2017 (because I may need that much prep time) and perhaps in Toronto (because it’s closer to more of my friends and family), I’ll rent a pub, or a hotel function room, or maybe a campground, and I’ll invite everyone I know. Perhaps a bookstore could be persuaded to sponsor the event and sell copies of the books there. We can have a huge dinner, and do live readings from some of the books, and maybe some of my musician-friends could do a concert. If there’s sufficient interest, I might do it again in Montreal.

It’s not all about my ego (well, okay, it might be mostly about my ego); it’s also the principle of the thing. We tend to celebrate weddings on big scales; sometimes we also celebrate birthdays, school graduations, retirements, deaths, etc., on similar scales; I’d like to celebrate writers and their books the same way.

If you agree, and you’re willing to help, let me know.

(And if you think I’m being pretentious and selfish, my reply shall be to write more and better books.)

At the launch event for “Loneliness and Revelation”, 2010.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

An expedition to the lake, and thoughts along the way

As often as I can, I like to walk from my house to Pink Lake and back; my usual route is about 12kms long, and I love every inch of it as much as I love my library and my guitars. Here are some photos, and some thoughts that came to me as I made the circuit for the first time this year. All these photos were taken today. 🙂

About half of my usual route follows a bike trail in the park, where the view along both sides is forest and rocky ridges, like this:

And in my private mythology, some of these rock ridges have magical names. Here below, for instance, is “The rock of ages”, a boulder by the side of the path which I like to tap with my hand as I pass by:

And here are two of the three rock piles which I call “The three brothers”:

And across the bike path from the three brothers is a fourth rock pile, which I like to call “the motherstone”

The trail also offers some variety in its tree life. For instance, this gravel path leads to a birch and juniper grove:

I love the intimacy of the forest. Especially in the spring, when after a few hours my skin will be slightly slick with the tree oils in the air. I love the peeping toads and frogs in the ponds, and play of sunlight through the canopy, and the sense that everything around me is connected. Yet in the last few years I have begun to love tall-grass meadows, and I wonder if I like the meadows more. Open distances, stronger breezes, a full sky above! And often, more variety in flowers. Here, for instance, is an area which I call “Colovia” (after a region in Cyrodil, because when I first came here I was playing TES:IV all the time), which appears after a dramatic bend in the path:

Just look at this part of the meadow, where the buttercups seem to float like stars:

And this particular spot, where the path through the meadow re-enters the forest again. I think I have photographed this view every year since I moved to Gatineau; and I think I will never tire of it. Even though this is the angle that shows where I’ve been and not where I’m going, still I like to imagine this view is of a path to a kind of wonderland, full of discovery and welcome.

From here my usual route takes me through the forest, past several more landmarks that I am fond of: swamps, ancient hollow trees, forks in the road, and the like. Today I took a side-spur that led to the Gatineau Hills parkway, a road I have to share with cars. I decided to take the parkway today just to cut down my hiking time (I want to get back to writing, after all), but perhaps because of this decision I found that I noticed the cars in a way I normally don’t. In my neighbourhood in the city, it’s easy to ignore the cars; they’re everywhere and the infrastructure is build to serve them and so they look like they belong. In the forest, they look like an imposition, an invasion. More than what they look like– what they sound and smell like feels invasive. I come into the forest for peace and contemplation; if I want the sounds of civilization, I can go to the downtown core. Well, this park belongs to all Canadians, not only to me, so of course I can’t lobby the authorities to ban cars in the park. But next time, I will take the trail that keeps me as far from the road as possible.

So, after about an hour and a half, I arrive at Pink Lake:

…where I often stay for an hour or more, contemplating the waters, and the life all around. It is one of the few places in the world where I feel at home, safe, welcome, and at peace; it is one of the places where I feel as if the land knows me. This feeling is enriched as much by my knowledge of the science of ecology, as by the association in my mind with the fairy lakes and otherworldly waters in the myths of my Celtic ancestors.

Today, I didn’t stay long, because it’s a Saturday and that means the lake is crowded with tourists. Again, I don’t begrudge their presence: this lake belongs to them too. But today I was reminded of why the ideas for my book on Civilization were born along these shores. And as I meditated on the snippets of their conversations that I could overhear, I was also reminded of an unquiet thought which occurred to me here while I was still researching that book.

Explaining it will require a little bit of philosophical history.

Aldo Leopold proclaimed in 1949 that humanity had to change “the role of Homo sapiens from conquerer of the land to plain member and citizen of it”. Charles Reich declared in 1970 that “There is a revolution coming” and that this revolution would involve the “recovery” and “greening” of first the individual self, and then the body politic of America. Arne Naess declared in 1986 that the ultimate norm of deep ecology was “Self-realization!”; that the biosphere of the earth is a kind of expanded self; the realization of which is both a moral postulate in its own right, and also the basic premise to support the argument that the industrial destruction of the environment must end. In 1990 Karen J. Warren and Vandana Shiva taught that the destruction of the environment is a feminist issue: the oppression of women and the domination of the environment follows the same logical structure and the same substantive value system. These were the bold and forthright ideas in the air when I encountered the green movement, and the pagan community, in the 1990’s. They were serious, action-oriented, pervasive, and even optimistic, although the latter quality was perhaps not obvious at first. They were the ideas that configured the vocabulary of most spiritual people I knew back then; and most of them felt their sense of one-ness with the Earth so deeply and profoundly, that they were convinced “the greening of the self”, and then of the nation, was inevitable.

It was a different time.

So, it’s been nearly seventy years since the first proclamation of “the greening of the self” (well, according to that little list.) And yet all the major life-signs of planetary biosphere health continue to decline. (I direct your attention to the most recent IPCC report, if you are curious.) It is not that those streams of thought lacked logical coherence or explanatory power. It is not that they couldn’t be translated into political action or spiritual inspiration. Nevertheless, the practical fact on the ground right now is that the greening of the self, which these philosophies predicted and demanded, has not occurred. It has, perhaps, occurred among people like myself who are already disposed to it (and I am no exemplar: my eco-footprint is smaller than that of my neighbours, but not by much.) It has certainly not occurred among the majority of politicians and industrialists and other wealthy and powerful parties who are in any kind of position to do anything on a global scale to halt the degradation of the planet’s biosphere. And it has definitely not occurred among a majority of the world’s middle-class and working-class consumers and voters. The failure of this prophesy is perhaps best exemplified with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. But it’s been growing on my mind for at least a year, maybe more.

Here, then, is a question: what can be said to persuade people who have not felt the greening of the self– who will perhaps never feel it– that the earth should be protected from climate change and ecological destruction? What can be said to people who will never feel for the land the way, for example, I feel for everything along the path from my house to Pink Lake? What can be said to people who believe, following the logic of a different spiritual path, that they don’t have to care about climate change and global warming because they expect to be saved by God?

Well, that very question is likely to be the topic of my next nonfiction book. But in the meanwhile, I invite your comments.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kenny Klein: Guilty on all charges

Kenny Klein: pagan celebrity musician and songwriter. Arrested and charged for possessing child pornography; today, found guilty on all counts.

Here’s the court docket.

Not that there was ever any serious reason to suppose the conclusion would be otherwise, beyond the pro-forma of court procedure.

Klein’s music was a big part of my life when I started out in the pagan world, some 25 years ago. I always looked forward to his shows at Wiccanfest. Now I feel like some of those happy memories are not quite so happy, seeing as I now know how the story ends. Friends of mine pointed out to me that I enjoyed playing his music during a time when I had no idea what was going on behind the curtain, so I shouldn’t worry about it much. I suppose that’s correct; still, for my part, I doubt that I’ll ever play his music again.

We could discuss whether we can separate the man from his art, and so enjoy his music without endorsing the man, or his colossally bad moral choices. And between us, we philosophers have been having this discussion for almost a century now, whenever we talk about Nietzsche or Heidegger.

But a more useful discussion would be: a discussion about how to write new and better songs. As well as new and better books, and poems, and stories. New relationships among ourselves with new songs to lead the way.

However terrible your old idols may turn out to be, however dysfunctional the community can often be, none of it can cover the spiritual epiphany you had when you were young, when the earth and sky revealed itself to you in beauty and showed you who you are. Whatever may be going on in your life, or in the world, the Immensity will always be there, and it will always gain a hearing.

The thing to do, therefore, is to reclaim that golden moment– but to do so intelligently. Without forced or false innocence, without pretentiousness, without illusion.

Then to carry the inspiration of that moment forward into your work, with new and better songs to lead the way: affirming the living, affirming the beautiful, affirming the good.

Affirming the just.

Posted in General | 3 Comments

Why I’m Writing Science Fiction Now

I used to write books about druids. Then I wrote books about philosophers. Then I wrote a six-volume urban fantasy series. Now I’m writing a science fiction novel, and a second edition to a college textbook on logic. A friend remarked to me yesterday that it looks like I’m randomly re-inventing myself, and leaving people confused.

I disagree: I think I’ve been completely consistent to myself the entire time– but to explain why, I need to tell a story.

In 1982, I was in grade three, and my teacher put me on an enriched reading program, separate from the rest of the class. I read the autobiography of Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut. I think that around the same time, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And my dad bought a telescope, and showed me how to use it to project an image of the sun on to a screen, so we could count sunspots. Meanwhile, every year someone would give me for my birthday a bag of mixed Lego bricks, which almost always included some of those wonderful blue and grey spaceship themed pieces. Soon I was creating entire fleets of spaceships, some of them G-Force style fighters, and some of them Star Trek style exploration vehicles. My Lego astronauts had names like ‘the leader’ and ‘the one who likes fighting’ and ‘the curious one’. I had my own Trek style space-exploring federation. I built base stations that resembled temples– one of them was a tower, which I built almost two meters tall, and which was the home for the fleet’s leader. He had a black body and legs, and a blue captain’s hat, and a scratch over his mouth which erased part of that famous Lego smile. He also had mystical Jedi-like powers; and he sometimes secretly consulted a disembodied head for guidance. This being a child’s fantasy, after all. I never gave my space fleet a name– it was enough to know the fleet was my fleet. These were my first science fiction stories.

My childhood sci-fi fantasies tended to look rather surreal, like this frame from Star Trek The Motion Picture.

In the fourth grade, I committed one of those stories to pen and paper. It was about a group of rabbits who build a rocket ship, but on their first launch something goes wrong and they found their ship on course to crash into Jupiter. I never did finish writing the story, but I drew lots of doodles of the rocket ship and its crew all over my notebooks. Probably in the same year, I read Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and The Halloween Tree, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Thinking brave new thoughts about infinity and reality cannot help but do weird things to a young mind— in fact, at the time, some of my teachers led me to believe that such books were as dangerous as experimenting with drugs. Naturally, therefore, I read them anyway– often in my secret place in the forest outside my village; often under my blankets at night, with a pen-light given to me by my grandfather. In high school I kept the habit. My teachers asked me to read The Grapes of Wrath and The Stone Angel. Instead I read A Canticle for Leibowitz and Rendezvous With Rama. And I read Camus’ The Plague and Sartre’s No Exit, but that’s another story.

In my first month as a grad student at the University of Guelph, I met Prof. John Leslie, just after attending a lecture he delivered on the Carter-Leslie Doomseday Argument. Although I ended up writing my Masters thesis on a different topic, and my doctorate on another completely different topic, the logic of the argument always loomed in my mind. I bought Leslie’s book The End of the World right away, and it stayed on my bedside table for many years. Usually beside a copy of Watership Down.

Many more years after that, as a professor at Heritage College, I read Azimov’s Foundation trilogy. And around the same time, several NASA-funded scientists published an essay called “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY)“: a mathematical model they had invented, which shows how “over-exploitation of either Labor or Nature results in a societal collapse.” And then things began coming together. I thought of Michael Collins again, and the Doomsday Argument, and my story about the rabbits in their star-crossed rocket ship, and all the sci-fi that my teachers wouldn’t let me read in class but were secretly proud that I read anyway. Azimov’s story features a fictitious social science, Psychohistory, which predicts the mass movements of huge populations of people; the Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument together with the HANDY model seemed like the obvious real world analogy. And I found I still wanted to understand it better, and write about it.

That’s where Lorelei Bloem, the heroine of my scifi novel, comes from. She is not a new self-reinvention. She lives in a world which has always been with me. She’s the scientist, philosopher, and ecologist, who discovers the evidence that the world has a bright and good future– but no one believes her. I have loved her for a long time. And I’m almost ready to share that love with everyone.

Nobody in life is entirely ‘one’, in the sense of being a unified person, having a single unchanging identity throughout her life. In my forty-two short years I have already lived many lives; I am as different to my ten-year-old self as I am different to my next-door neighbour; I have been a different person to different people and different communities. I might ask, as Walt Whitman asked: “Do I contradict myself?” And I can answer the same way: “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But there is a thread tying them all together, a long red string that was sewn together from other strings before I was born, and which I lay on the ground behind me as I walk, like an explorer in a labyrinth keeping his finger on the way back to the door. That red string is my story, my narrative, my logos; it is that which emerged whenever I found myself facing an immensity, and instead of running away from it, I sought to understand it.

The names of the planets and moons in the fictitious solar system of my novel.

Flags and other symbols for the various political factions in the novel. Unfinished and very subject to change.

Postscript: Here’s the (draft) marketing text, for when I eventually seek an agent and publisher.

Tagline:
A scientist discovers a crashed alien space probe, thereby triggering a new space race, and a new cold war.
 
Cover copy:
A bored technical team discovers a crashed alien space probe on Verlassen, the furthest dwarf planet from the sun. The discovery triggers a new space race, to build a starship and travel to the planet that the probe came from, only nine light-years away. Lorelei Bloem, the team’s science officer, persuades The Conference of the Nations of Humanity, a global diplomatic and humanitarian agency, to build a ship. But the competition includes military juntas, corporate oligarchies, and fanatical religious groups, all intent on sabotaging her work. She calculates that the ship must be built in less than sixteen years: after that, the looming cold war between the superpowers will collapse the world’s economy and biosphere. Under pressure from all sides, and thrust into the spotlight unprepared, her choices will determine the future of civilization.

State of the Manuscript:
The first draft is 80,000 words and almost finished. I expect to have a complete first draft by mid May, 2017.

Post-postscript: My friend also asked me, Why is my lead character a woman? The short answer is, I have long been fascinated by the story of the Lorelei, the Germanic siren-spirit who lives in the rocks beside a sharp bend in the river Rhine. I have a lot of lingering nostalgia for my two visits to Germany, in the summer and autumn of 2004.

And because the gods of philosophy are women: Saint Sophia, and Urania, for instance.

Urania, Muse of mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers.

Although my Lorelei isn’t Greek, and I haven’t yet asked her whether she wears a tichel.

Also, because of the magnificent song by The Pogues.

And because women can do things in stories that men can’t do; and women also face different (usually bigger) social obstacles. My acknowledgement of the literary politics of our time.

And because– well, it’s best I keep my last reason to myself. When you read the novel, I hope you’ll see.

Posted in General | 4 Comments

The American Dream: What next?

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.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

At fall of darkness, Minerva’s Owl takes flight.

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.

We can all do that much, if nothing else.

white-rose1

Good luck, everyone.

Posted in General | Tagged | 1 Comment

David Guthrie Myers: An Unknown Soldier. Can you help?

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.

david-guthrie-myers-great-grandad
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?

badge

Or his service medals?

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.

That narrows the search quite a lot!

Posted in General | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Concerning Rabbits. Some thoughts on what I’m learning from my family of bunnies.

Two months ago, my sister B gave me a surprise gift of a live rabbit.

img_2497

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.

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.

img_2511

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.)

img_2590

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.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

My Generation– where do I fit?

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.

Posted in General | 3 Comments