Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Secular Fallacy: Part II

When I ended the first part of this discussion, I asked if my fallacy wasn't such a fallacy after all. Perhaps some people think all things are divine, but don't most people separate the holy from the non-holy, the good from the evil, or at least the religious from the non-religious? Church might be holy, but surely you wouldn't say that a pub is, right? Church is sacred; the pub is profane.

And I said, Of course my fallacy is a fallacy. I wouldn't be writing this if there wasn't more to it than that. If we look back you'll see that I defined the Secular Fallacy as saying that people divide their lives into the sacred and the profance. Even people who rigourously categorize things based on the sacred and profance do not divide their lives according to such things. Consider the Gnostics: they very certainly thought some things were sacred (ideas, the right books, fasting, Jesus, wisdom) and some things profane (food, sex, bodies, Earth, most people, the God of the Old Testament). Every decision they ever faced was made on this framework. If two courses of action came before them, they would ask only, "Which brings me closer to the world and which brings me closer to Sophia (their name for Wisdom)?" They would then choose the latter. It did not matter whether it was Sunday or Monday. It did not matter whether they were worshipping or working. It was always Sophia, never the world.

I'll give you an example of how this might look in a modern, Christian context. Let's say it's a Friday night. Staying up all night won't interfere with going to Church for a regular service, and it's not a holy day by my religion. My friends say to me, Let's go out to the pub, and so we do. There we talk about things, and I have the opportunity to bad-mouth someone. The bad-mouthing will make me more popular among my friends and they will be happier in general if I do. There are some folks who'd say that this decision is not a religious one at all. It has to do with everyday morality. It has to do with weighing the consequences of my actions.

I will from the outset agree that it has to do with weighing consequences. The scary thing is, those consequences are eternal ones. Our lives are a pilgrimage to the Divine. Each decision we make brings us further or closer, though often we don't understand how or why at the time. Those consequences are also world-shattering. Each day of our lives is a battle between evil itself and good itself.* We are both the battlefield and a combatant, and, if the truth be told, we fight for both sides. We are traitors to the good and to the bad; we are traitors to our allies; we are traitors to ourselves. Just because I am in a pub does not mean that there is no war going on. Just because we are not talking about God or religious-seeming things does not mean that I am not choosing between cowardice or heroism. The spiritual conflict is on all fronts. You cannot ignore half of them and hope to wn the war.

A different metaphor may here be suitable: Each decision we make is one between contributing to a war or contributing to peace. We can either fight for some piece of property, or we can try to make peace. If we fight, we might win, but each enemy we slay has a brother who will seek revenge. Eventually, we will die in this war. If we try to make peace, we will likely be killed, but in the event that we aren't killed, we have contributed to peace. If enough people contribute to peace, perhaps the war will end, and we won't all die. This decision is not just sociological (think of The Bomb), but also spiritual, and it literally inhabits every decision we make. We can fight for war, or we can work for peace.

How can whether or not I am sitting in a bar make the slightest bit of difference in such a situation?

If you look at this worldview, whether or not you believe it, you can see that I do not separate my life up into things that are religious and things that are not. Hopefully, you can also see that I cannot divide my life in this way. All decisions affect who we are, and who we are affects how we relate to the divine, and how we relate to the divine is all that matters. Sunday might be a holy day, but that doesn't mean I'm free to do whatever I like come Monday.

And yet the secular world expects me to divide my life like this. It wants me to live a double life. Well, it wants me to live a singular life--the one it offers--but if I won't do that, then I had better keep my religious life separate from my public one. For example, I shouldn't talk about my religion in public, or really even act "religiously" in public. When I write papers for university, I better not base my arguments on the existence of God, though I can base my answers on premises that presupposed the non-existence of the Divine because that's still secular. Universities will frown upon religiosity in papers, and I have learned to write 'closet-Christian' papers; these are essays which say something quiet and 'secular' if you don't read for religious things, but will grow into something much more significant once you add God as a premise. (For instance, I wrote a paper about rationalism as an origin theory for mathematics; I attempted to put that theory into such a position that it could only be 'saved' by the acceptance of some sort of God, even a Diest one.) People will criticize others for "being too Christian," and religious symbols are banned in some public places. The secular world believes that we, the religious, can live this double life, privately religious and publicly non-religious. In many cases we try, but in all things we must be secretly religious. Some of us have learned to be silent about our motives, but these motives must always be spiritual ones. (Others, of course, are not so silent. I sometimes have problems with their methods.)

The Secular Fallacy is not that we do separate our lives into the religious and the non-religious. It's not that we should separate the religious and the non-religious. The Secular Fallacy is that we can separate our lives into the everday and the divine. In truth, the everyday is divine.

So when Jon asks me to list the "infinite" times in my life, but to exclude the religious ones, I must say, "There are none." Properly seen, all things in my life are religious. If the academic world requires that I sort all of my ideas into 'religious' and 'secular' boxes, the secular box will be empty. Now, before you go any further, I fail at doing this. My life is full of the secular. I am terrible at remembering the consequences of my actions. I am always forgetting just how eternal we are. I do divide my life into religious and non-religious sections. The trick of it is, this division is accidental. I just forget sometimes. But forgetting doesn't change anything: my life is whole, whether I want it to be or not. Everything belongs to God. The key to life is to remember that.

Christianity is not the only faith that operates this way. Every religion I have ever studied operates this way. Atheism seems to operate this way--rational materialists seem to seek reason in all things. Religion is about the foundations of our beliefs, our worldviews, our decisions. How can we separate our lives from their foundations?

Bonhoeffer says about Christ's commandment not to look upon a woman in lust: "Jesus oes not impose intolerable restrictions on his disciples, he does not forbid them to look at anything, but bids them look on him. If they do that he knows that their gaze will always be pure, even when they look upon a woman."

The idea that we can make decisions outside of our religion is a fallacy. We can have a secular government, one which is not institutionally bound to organized religion; we can have secular schools, which do not compel us to believe a particular thing. But even in these 'secular' spheres our religions will always intrude, because institutions have members, and those members have religions. When citizens vote, what they believe about God will influence their choices. When students think, what they believe about God will influence their theories. This is true for Christians, atheists, formal agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Toaists, Buddhists, Confucians, Shintoists, practitioners of Vodoun, and Theistic Satanists. Society is built by our behaviours, and our behaviours are steered by belief. We can have a secular state, but we cannot have a secular society. We cannot have secular lives.


*I realize some people may be tired of or troubled by using war as an analogy. It is of course time-honoured, used by the Old Testament, by Paul, by C S Lewis, and others. Perhaps that's why it seems exhausted of meaning to some. Unfortunately, it seems perhaps like the best analogy we have. There isn't much room for Satan in diplomacy, and we can't quite leave him out of the picture.

Friday, 29 January 2010

7 Quick Takes (XXVII)

1. My life is a bit of a paradox. I say that I am fascinated by different religious traditions and that I like to hear other people talk about their faith, as different as it might be from mine. But in the end I pretty much only read about other beliefs. I visited a mosque once and I talk to atheists and agnostics and secularists a fair bit, but pretty much all I ever hear from them is denial of religious tenents, rather than affirmation of something positive. I should emphasize that all I ever hear is the denial; it's more than possible that they affirm all sorts of things and I'm just not terribly good at listening. It's probably a balance of the two.

So what do I do when people of another faith come to me to talk?

On Saturday, two Jehova's Witnesses came to our door. I am used to this. One of the pair that visited this past week, named Esther, has visited about three times before. When I lived in Sebringville I would often speak with a particular woman who came to our door. It was easier then, however, because she would only come in the summer when I was happy to stand outside and talk. It is rather cold to do that here. I will do this, talk. I will generally affirm or pause to consider most of what they say. After all, their opening statements are generally not very disparate from orthodox Christian teachings and I am not very good at disagreeing with strangers, especially if I'm not forced to give a bald-faced lie. But I feel like I have some obligation to tell them that I am not going to convert. Do I say to them, "Look, I go to church. I serve at church. I'm an acolyte. If your sole object in coming here is to convert me, then you are wasting your time."? I don't really want to scare them away, though. I think I do want to talk to them about their faith, but how do I do that honestly? The answer, likely, is just that: be honest.

Esther implied she'd be by in a week, which at this point means sometime tomorrow. I could conveniently arrange to be out of the house at noon so I can have another week to consider it. I don't know.

2. Sunday, for the first time in a long time, I was in the congregation again. We are reading, in conjunction with services, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. I admit that I am hesitant about celebrity-preachers. They seem too glossy for me. They are also often too controverial. I did a little research on this Rick Warren guy. He doesn't seem too bad--he's no Pat Robertson, for instance--but there are still a few things I'm worried about. We all have our warts, but somehow they look worse on celebrity Christians. I fear that they do more damage than good. Of course, there are exceptions: the dead ones, like St. Paul or Martin Luther or Deitriech Bonhoeffer or C. S. Lewis have a particular limit to how damaging their warts can be, and the self-effacing every(wo)man Christians who have come to celebrity indirectly, like Jennifer Fulwiler, display their warts endearingly. But those mega-preachers... they worry me. I'm not sure how much of this hesitation comes from our secular culture and how much of it is legitimate, though.

I should say that I'm reading The Purpose-Driven Life not antagonistically, but critically. So far, I have very little to complain about, but there are a few things that I disagree with or that I think aren't quite playing fair. He's not nearly as sloppy as Dawkins in The God Delusion, but a few of Warren's logical prestidigitations are of the same category, if not caliber. For instance, quoting an atheist as saying something to the effect of, "Without God, life has no meaning," does not mean that you've established that fact beyond reproach. It means that one atheist agrees with you on this one.

3. I finished my grad school applications this week. Now I wait. I hope it all works out. My greatest fear is often that I did the paperwork wrong and that I'll ruin my future because of a technicality. According to Northrop Frye, such a concept belongs most naturally in a comedy, though these days I think you'd see it in a satire. Perhaps this is why you don't see such strong comedies any more, except in out of the way places like the Drayton Theatre stage. (Drayton has some excellent comedies, by the way.)

I don't think I'll make it to seven this week, folks.

4. I heard from an insider that UBC's MFA program has made its admissions decisions. She also told me that they are very slow in getting the word out, though, so I may not hear one way or the other for a while.

I am worried about this, to be frank. I don't feel that my portfolio is particularly strong. I may have mentioned this already. I was encouraged to not choose fiction as my top two choices, since everyone chooses those and it drastically reduces your odds of getting in. So I went Children's Lit, Fiction, and Non-Fiction, in that order. However, I have no Children's Lit material, so I had to write 15 pages from scratch. Now, in the committee's first round of admissions decisions, they only look at your first choice. If you make it through that round, they then read the rest of your portfolio, and cut more people from there. My first choice was Children's Lit, and this was also the weakest (so I think) part of my portfolio. If I made it into the second round, I think my portfolio just might be strong enough. But I'm not confident that I did get into that round. In retrospect, I ought to have gone with Fiction, Children's Lit, and Non-Fiction. That, however, is in the past.

And I think that if I don't get in, I will be more upset by the rejection than the fact that I didn't get into the program. Don't get me wrong: I want to get in. But disappointment I can handle. Rejection, though...

5. I now have time to write, and I think I'm ready to get into it. I have an idea for a novel (again), and I'm afraid it's a little too odd for your average reading audience, but it's not odd for no reason at all. I am working with a purpose, here. And certainly odder things have hit book shelves, and some of them sort of along the same lines. I wouldn't compare what I plan to write directly with Half Life by Shelley Jackson, especially not in style or tone, but I think that this book has been at the very least published is an indication that what I'm interested in writing isn't too outlandish to get on the bookshelves. I intend to be cagey and silent on what it is I'm writing, though. Don't bother asking too much.

6. I also plan to write something for NorthWord. That's not the one based in BC, with the same name; I mean the one focusing on northern Canada. It will just be a short piece, and I'll submit it and see whether they accept it. You don't get paid for submissions, I don't think, but it'll be another publication, and I want to support northern Canada literature. Contributing to NorthWord seems like a small way of doing just that.

7. This past week I read Deception Point by Dan Brown. I was disappointed with his treatment of Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic. In particular, I thought it strange that he didn't bother to mention it. NASA is gallivanting all over Ellesmere Island, making discoveries of titanic scientific importance, and then keeping them secret until they are ready to announce them, and not once does anyone mention that this is all happening on Canadian soil. Why does NASA get to lead these expeditions, and how can the US publically announce these discoveries, made within Canadian sovereignty and without Canadian knowledge, without receiving international criticism? Probably because, in the universe of Dan Brown, Canada doesn't exist except as a producer of unpatriotic beer, the Newfoundland coast, and a red-shirt geologist. (These are literally the only times the word "Canada" shows up.)

I would just put this all down to Dan Brown's repeated attempts to break for the fence dividing truth from wild fantasy, if it were not for the fact that there are unresolved sovereignty issues in the Canadian Arctic. The only differences are that, in Deception Point, there is no foreign criticism and the American institutions are more clearly in the wrong.

American readers, please inform me: what does your average US citizen think about Canadian sovereignty? Does your average US citizen think about Canadian sovereignty? Politically-aware Canadians, for the record, think about foreign countries' sovereignties all the time. (The not-so-politically-aware Canadians likely do not.)

As always, check out 7 Quick Takes' host at Conversion Diary.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Secular Fallacy: Part I

or Why You Can't Separate Religion from Society (or Anything Else, for that Matter)

I think it's high time for another installment in my unofficial "Understanding Christians" series.

I don't mean to pick on Jon, but something he said once seemed symptomatic of a persistent myth about religion that I have encountered among the non-religious. I have been meaning to expose this particular myth for some time now, so I think its time has come. This myth I am calling "The Secular Fallacy."

The context of Jon's comment is irrelevant, so I'll leave it out. He suggested that I compose a list of moments during which I "felt infinite." He also specified that I try to avoid listing religious moments, but rather stick to non-religious ones. Jon went on to say that he realized I might take this as blasphemous, but then, "what do you expect from a heathen?" (His words.)

Of course, such an exercize is, for me, impossible. I wasn't even remotely insulted or offended by what he said for, I think, three reasons. 1) Jon himself pointed out that this might go against having a religion at all. 2) I know Jon, and I know that he isn't anti-religion, so I knew that his suggestion was not meant as anything offensive. 3) I recognized that the particular flaw in his suggestion was pandemic to contemporary areligious thought, so he can hardly be blamed for having committed it.* I would like to add a fourth reasons, that being that I do not get offended when people say silly things about religion, but that would be lying, which I generally file under "Don't Do This."

What, then, is that flaw? It's one that has been around for quite some time, at least as far as North America is concerned, one that is built right into the constitutions of both Canada and the United States. It seems to me as though most people who do not themselves follow a religion, well, religiously assume that a person divides their life into two distinct categories: the sacred and the profane.

"Wait," I hear someone cry from the back row, "don't most academics who have devoted their lives to the study of religion state that one of the defining features of a religion is the division of the world into two realms, namely the Sacred and the Profane!? And have they not provided solid evidence of this fact!?"

Yes. It is true that some religious studies scholars believe such a thing. It is true that there is some evidence pointing to such a division. It is also true that some people, perhaps many people (see the Gnostics, for instance), separate the realms of the world into the Godly and the unGodly, the holy and the carnal, the spiritual and the material, the visible and the invisible, the good and the evil. Many religions do have, implicit or explicit, a list of things that are holy or not-holy. But the thing is, it doesn't seem as though every tradition has this sort of ontological dualism (see, for instance, this essay I wrote on why some Aboriginal groups do not call themselves religious). So some scholars do not put the sacred/profane divide into their definition of 'religion'; rather, they talk about things like 'meaning' or 'transcendent reality.' If you want a really nice word for it, Otto once coined 'numinous.'

Numinosity refers to a quality of an object or place. This quality is hard to define. 'Holiness' comes close, but haunted things are also numinous. The best one can do, I think, is to say that a numinous object at once is whatever it physically appears to be, but also reveals or signifies a transcendent reality that lies behind it.** The lay lines are numinous, as are the sites (or paths) of pilgrimage. More importantly, numinosity demands an emotional and even physical response: a numinous thing provokes awe (according to Otto, "trembling") and commands attention.

What I think we can say with certainty is that all religions have some idea of the numinous. Each religion understands and frames itself around numinosity very differently, of course; some religions, like Buddhism, will eschew numinosity in the physical world, while others locate numinosity in virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. As a Christian who does not participate in the theology that the physical world is inherently evil***, I am willing to see God in everything. If you truly believe that God is both transcendent and immanent, that God works through the world, that God made the world both intentionally and lovingly, then I think you must say that all things reflect some element of God's nature. I'm not, of course, saying that everything is a sacrament, and neither am I saying that all historical events are as God willed them to be (the Holocaust is the most frequently cited example). What I am saying is that, to the person willing enough and blessed enough to see it, all things can be numinous. And every Christian who is trying very hard to have a relationship with Christ is, whether they know it or not, an amateur mystic. Practicing Christians are bound and bent on finding the numinous. To those who are looking, God is all over the place.

But I must concede that there are some people who do not see God in all things. I suppose, in truth, I don't myself. I may wish to see him in most things, but to an extent I must say things like, "Drunkenness does not for me contain a path to God." Thus we can say, provisionally, that someone like me puts sobriety under the sacred category and drunkenness under the profane category. There is some sort of a division going on after all. I think this is a fair thing to say. So, does this mean that my fallacy is not such a fallacy after all?

Of course not. And I'll tell you why in a later post.

See Part II.

*Do not take this to mean that Jon is atheist. What it is that he does or does not believe had better be taken up with him, but the last time he mentioned it to me, he said, "Oh, I believe there's a God. I just don't know what he's like," or something like that.
**I realize "transcendent reality" is a big term. I'm sorry to say this, but we're dealing with big ideas--the biggest of all ideas, actually--and so sometimes all we have to work with are big terms. "The supernatural realm" is a very poor substitute for "transcendent reality." Basically, what I and most religious scholars mean when they use this term is that part of the world that is just so true, just so real, that we can't access it directly. This seems like a post-Platonic idea, but, if Huston Smith is right, that's exactly the sort of worldview that indigenous peoples hold, too.
***The physical world was made by God. This does not mean that it cannot be evil--Satan was made by God, too--but it does mean that the physical world started good, and since it was not omniscient upon its fall, it cannot be all evil. When it distracts us from our holy purpose, then it is acting for evil. But while we do not live on bread alone, Jesus did hand out a lot of it. Food as a general category has Jesus' stamp of approval, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Spiritual Pathways Post Removed

Sorry, this is a housekeeping post.

I am removing the Spiritual Pathways Post because, oddly, it is probably the one post which brings in 80% of my Google traffic. It is also most likely in violation of most countries' copyright laws. I had put it up for the use of my regular readers, but it seems they (you) aren't the ones using it anymore. Since I do get so many Google hits on it, and since it's not mine, and since I don't want to draw any traffic from the actual owners of that personality test, I am taking it down.

If you were headed that way, sorry, it's gone.

For the record, Cait had made this comment on that post: "so I got Creation as my first and Activist as my second"

Christian H
aka English Clergyman

Friday, 22 January 2010

7 Quick Takes (XXVI)

[Note: for some reason, my spacing won't come out in the post in the same way that I have it in the draft. It's unprofessional-looking, but the most I can do is explain it here.]

1. On Saturday, as I'm sure you can see in my previous post, my folks and I went down to Conn Creek. It was breath-taking. I had to run into the variety store to buy some batteries for my camera, and I'm glad I did. They were disposable batteries, though, and were giving me low-battery signs for the whole walk.

2. On Saturday night, we watched Is Anyone There? This movie was not as funny as I expected it to be. As a matter of fact, minus the very end, it was fairly depressing. That's not to say it wasn't good. It just wasn't as billed.

3. I served again this past Sunday. The officiate told me that it was a morning prayer service, and Dave, the deacon, would not be serving that morning. She said that on such occasions the server usually didn't serve, though I could if I wanted to. I asked her who else was up there, and she said, "No one but me." So I served, as I didn't think she ought to be all alone. I have no objections at all to serving. I like the formality of bowing to the altar, of taking the offering. It's silly, but I feel childishly pleased to put the collection plate on the altar, to be the one who gets to do that. In Christianity, most of our sacrifices are abstract or interpersonal; I am fortunate to be able to make a more physical, ritual sacrifice when I serve. Nonetheless, I will be happy to sit in the congregation again for two Sundays.
Afterwards, I went downstairs for lunch and spent most of the time talking to Rob, the former-priest-now-bishop's son. Rob will be leaving soon. We discussed all sorts of things that you might discuss with a kid. Somehow I am bonding more with children at St. Thomas' than I am with adults. I don't know what this says about me. Even Kim, who is pretty much my age and extremely outgoing, is harder to talk to than Rob or Dakota, who are children. Sometimes I am absurdly shy, which I don't think anyone who knows me--especially from class--will believe or understand. Like many shy people, I hide it by giving firm handshakes, speaking confidently, and taking official-ish positions, such as server or DSC representative.

4. This week I helped run the Open Minds program at work. The programs coordinator was away on Monday, so we had planned for me to run it then. Her flight was turned back, so I had to run Tuesday's, too. By then the children (grade two/three students) knew me, so I stayed and helped for much of Wednesday. On Thursday the coordinator told them I couldn't really stay with them all week, as I had my own work to do. I did, however, attend their certificate ceremony. The programs coordinator had them hug her, if they wanted to, but I said nothing because I'm constantly paranoid about getting sued for doing inappropriate things around children. Not that I do inappropriate things at all; I just recognize that I could get frowned at for being hugged by a kid, you know? It's backwards, but that's the way our world works. But after shaking all of their hands when they got their certificates and saying goodbye, and group of the girls came up to me and hugged me anyway. This was sweet, of course, but also uncomfortable for me. For some reason, if I wouldn't be comfortable with a person being attracted to me, I probably won't be comfortable with them touching me. I don't know why that is. I am so neurotic.
I wish adults could show affection the way children do. I sometimes wonder if adults can still even feel affection the way children do. (Honesty check: replace "adults" with "I.") Probably not; affection is so muddled up with romance and eroticism among adults that we can get confused. You can't even go and call something a Platonic relationship because then 1) people assume you're trying to hide something, and 2) through contrast the possibility that it might at some point be something other than Platonic, while left unspoken, is nonetheless spoken. In drawing a picture of a candle-light, you must also draw darkness; by saying that a relationship is Platonic, you point out the existence of non-Platonic possiblities. So you're better off not saying it at all. And if you talk about friendship with people of the same gender as you, either people assume there's the latent possibility of homosexuality, or you have to use words like "buddy" or, alternately, "bromance." The possibility of real, non-ambiguous friendship or affection is all muddled up by either shying away from or parodying a homosexual relationship. As much as I support coming out of the closet, it seems to me as though homosexuality's publicity has broken homosociality. With children, it's so much more uncomplicated, or at least can be if these kids are anything to go by. It never was for me, but I have always been weird, and no more so than when I was a child.
That probably made no sense. Gah. It's not as though I haven't had normal, unambiguous friendships with guys and girls. I just mean that you can't articulate that without making what it is unstable. Any display of friendly affection is misconstrued.
5. I worked on grad school applications. Almost there!

6. My day-by-day Bible had a really interesting conjunction of Genesis and Gospel readings. Actually, this one's pretty cool. Got your Bible handy? Read Genesis 40:1-16 and Matthew 12:46-13:23. That was for January 19th. I have been waiting for a day's reading that has been so deliberate-seeming. The first day, opening with the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of Matthew, was of course connected, because both are about the beginning of the world in two different senses. This week the verses corresponded in a way which was less predictable and therefore more potent. I have a hard time imagining Joseph as looking different from Jesus, and I think this conjunction is one of the reasons. (Another is that I recognize that Joseph is a foreshadowing of Christ. But then, Samson is that too, and I don't picture him as anything like Jesus. I imagine him more like Hercules or Gilgamesh.)
Each night also has Psalm and Proverb readings, but these haven't yet been terribly connected to the other readings, except, again, on the first day. Proverbs begins with a call to listen and a promise of wisdom, so that kind of goes with the creation of the world and the genealogy of Christ.
7. I just finished reading lullabies for little criminals by Heather O'Neill. I am not inclined to profanity, and yet the response which wants to come from my lips is something like, "H**y f***ing sh*t, this book is good. G*d. Read this!" I have no idea where this blasphemy is coming from; even when I do want to swear, it's usually profanity and not blasphemy. I make a distinction.
If you're in the mood for the romanticization of urban homelessness, read this book. It's God in the Alley without Jesus, and fictional. [Edit: The "without Jesus" part isn't supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing. That's just what the book is. God in the Alley is literally about Jesus, and lullabies isn't. That's all.] Actually, I can't recommend it as highly as I would like because it's terribly depressing almost all the way through. In my opinion, the ending makes it worth it (I'll try not to spoil it any more than saying that), but it's a hard book to read. If you're feeling even slightly inclined to depression or melancholy--and, let's be honest, folks, that describes me when I get lonely, which is all the time up here--then this will be a very hard book for you. If I read this too soon before I went to bed, I'd be a bit miserable. Most of the book doesn't have the desperation you might expect, but that's only because it's hopeless. Desperation implies that you think there's a way out.

Anyway, if you're up for a challenging read, pick this up. It will be worth it. It's Canadian, which I approve of. And I met the author at uni and got the book signed, which I also approve of. Once you're done reading the book, read the author bio, too. That's a story in itself.
Jennifer Fulwiler is hosting 7 Quick Takes, as always.

And that's me for tonight. This hasn't been a cheery post, I think, though I certainly feel happy enough right now. I'm still happy about holding that giant millipede. I liked how his little legs moved.

Well, rambling thoughts end here. Good night and God bless,

Christian H

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Winter Photography of the Conn Creek Greenspace

I once promised to put up decent winter photography from the Fort McMurray area. Here I am fulfilling this promise. Facebook friends, you may have seen these already.
It might be worth mentioning that as I took these pictures I was playing with the ISO and exposure time settings.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Writerly Advice from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

I almost think "Strunk and White" ought to be italicized as well, as their names are so much a part of the title.

Anyway, to all your writers-aspiring who may read this, I want to encourage you to read the book itself. Here, perhaps contrary to that recommendation, is an excerpt which I think is good advice:

3. Work from a suitable design.

Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. (See Chapter II, Rule 12.) Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, you can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography, you will need at least a rough scheme; you cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about your subject, lest you miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to your labours.

Sometimes, of course, impulse and emotion are more compelling than design. If you are deeply troubled and are composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, you had best not attempt to organize your emotions; the prose will have a better chance if the emotions are left in disarray--which you'll probably have to do anyway, since feelings do not usually lend themselves to rearrangement. But even the kind of writing that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a simple plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we know think, sensible design.

I am unsure about his geographical claims near the end; how does he mean that the New World took shape under European discovery and exploration? The author nonetheless gives good advice, I think, between King's radical spontaneity and other writers' meticulous planning. Copying out this passage would be a good excerise in writing, too, if you would like to get a feel for good writings' mechanics. White's prose is neat and elegant, worthy of study.

Everyone, read his book; writers, read it carefully.

7QT XXV (Two-week edition)

Righty, because I did not do 7 Quick Takes last week, having been in Edmontonia and all, I will cover 2 weeks with 7 takes. Deal? Deal. Also, I don't think I have that much news in the first place.

1. Last weekend we went to Edmonton, driving down Highway 63 on Friday. It was the first time I'd been south of the airport since September. Man, it is nice to be heading south on that highway. Of course, eventually we drove north on it as well, returning to Fort McMurray. In that direction we saw more of the land around us; southbound it got dark before we were too far down and we couldn't see much. Before it was dark, though, we got to one of the more visually interesting sections: to the edge of sight to the east and west, short, thin evergreens march over low rolling hills. While the forest is tangled, it isn't thick. There are few needles on the branches. This area was struck by forest fire maybe not quite a decade ago, and the trees we see are the survivors and the since-grown. Here and there, often on tops of hills, are pockets of taller thicker trees, sometimes deciduous. The look, to me, is Cretaceous.

2. First thing Saturday morning, we went to the Royal Alberta Museum. We stayed until 3:00. This was likely the coolest part of my weekend. I won't go in detail about each exhibit and display, but I will say discuss two: 1) in the front lobby there was a collection of photographs of endangered cultures from Tibet, India, Mali, and elsewhere, and 2) upstairs there was an insect-related exhibit at which we got to hold some cool specimens. The photographs were black and white and exceptionally beautiful. The insects, arachnids, and other arthropods were awesome, too. I got to hold two species of stick insect and I got to pat or stroke a tarantula. Best of all, I got to hold a giant African millipede, something I have always wanted to.

As I always do in museums, I began to feel saturated before we finished the Aboriginal Culture exhibit. I had taken in too much info before the day was up and I could not take in any more.

3. After this we went to Value Village. While Mom was spending forever in the clothing section, I was trying not to buy lots of books. In the end I got Samson Agonistes, The Dante Club, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Deception Point, Saint Augustine's Confessions, The Dead Zone, The Witch of Portobello, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/Weir of Hermiston. I may have failed just a little bit. (As you may now know, I read Samson Agonistes on the drive home.)

4. Then, and this was getting late, we went to the West Edmonton Mall. We had all been before, so it wasn't as though we were gawking around like tourists any more. That's not to say it isn't an interesting place, but after your first visit it stops being quite as spectacular. Mom wanted to get some supplies from DeSerres and I wanted some CDs from HMV. I have lost much of my music when my computer crashed, so I have only been listening to the music I took from Cait's and Quinn's computers. Now I have the soundtracks to Gladiator and Pan's Labyrinth. That was the last place we went that evening and we left for Fort McMurray pretty much first thing Sunday morning.

5. Reading. I finished The Dead Zone this week, not to mention getting through most of The Elements of Style, which if you have a prodigious memory you know I bought a little while ago now. I have started lullabies for little criminals, which I bought almost a year ago by now. I don't know about it yet.

6. On Thursday I finished my exhibit at work. So that's that. I am doing other things at work now, but it still feels odd not to be working on my project. I have been working on it since September. I understand now how it can be odd to finish a Master's. How can I be done? What comes next? etc. I'll let you know when it launches.

7. Last night, the folks and I went to see the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour at Keyano College. It's a two-night thing, but we only saw the last night. There were a number of great films: Revolution One, about off-road unicycling, which is actually pretty slick; Deep [something in Japanese], a very brief one about skiing in very deep powdery snow; A Little Bit Mongolian, an excellent film about an Australian boy who learns horse-racing among traditional Mongolian nomads, the quality of which film was mitigated only by the main character's mild sullenness and by his mother's silly colonial phrasing ("He's a real Mongolian now!" she says at one point); one the title of which I'm forgetting, about taking solar ovens to African countries while white-water rafting across the continent; Spirit Songs, about a Tibetan family connecting through music despite being separated by exile; To the Rainbow, about a famous mountain-climber who broke his head and is now returning to one of his favourite climbs, called The Rainbow, despite being in much lower physical condition and not having the use of his right arm (this was something to see); and The Ultimate Skiing Showdown, consisting of stunt-skiing and skiing accident clips put to "The Ultimate Showdown (of Ultimate Destiny)."

7 Quick Takes is hosted by Conversion Diary.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Thoughts on Three Books

1) Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

I started this a little while ago, and would put it down to read other books between chapters. It's not that I wasn't interested in it, but that I wasn't interested enough. The main character was interesting in her own flawed way, and there were a number of narrative quirks and preoccupations I found interesting--one of which, though the least frequent, having to do with my recent obsession with multiple selves. This wasn't enough, though. I just could not feel the stakes. I suppose part of it was that the back of the book led me to believe it was a ghost story, and it's not.

But then the novel began to gain momentuum, as they say. The novel is about the narrator, an unnamed early-twenty-something girl orphaned into the working class, who marries the wealthy Maxim de Winter and moves into Manderly, his estate. She, however, is his second wife; her predecessor is the late Rebecca--the very recently late Rebecca. The crux of the novel is that the narrator's dreams of an idyllic life are repeatedly blocked by the 'ghost' (though not supernatural) of the house's previous mistress. The narrator feels herself rivals with Rebecca on a number of accounts, and she finds she loses more often than not. It's interesting, but it wasn't as riveting as I had hoped.

Until, of course, the weeks before the Manderly Ball, the structural centre of the novel. As the plot progressed toward this point, I became more interested. I could see what would happen at the ball, but I could not predict how it would fall out. There was about to be a disaster, and I wasn't sure what the consequences would be. And after that, things moved quickly, and everything was of consequence.
I have two observations. First, it's one of those books that is good to read because it alerts you to other people's emotional or interpersonal situations: it's about wrong assumptions, about people trying and failing to connect, about despair and redemption. The narrator's situation is one which deserves empathy, notwithstanding her own foolish caused no small part of it. Second, it has pointed out to me a trend in our contemporary literature which perhaps prevents us from enjoying some of the 'classics.' We have not exactly revived the tradition of beginning in media res, because people don't like flashbacks any more. We are, however, beginning precisely where the exciting part begins in our literature. We don't tend to allow things to develop, to build up, to reach a climax. This is of course partly to do with the genres we now produce. Detective stories, political thrillers, spy novels, and the ilk in a way must begin with the violent and transgressive act which move the story. (Of course, Hamlet begins after the murder and it still builds slowly, but there is speculation that Hamlet was Shakespeare seeing how long he could drag out the Rising 'Action' without destroying the play--and in so doing he made something that worked. It made Hamlet's own deliberation, own internal torment, the focus of the play, with the piling of bodies being a consequence of this.) I think of course of Shakespeare's climb toward the centre: it is not until the climax in the third act that Turning Point, or exciting part, happens. Thinking about it, this is true of many 'classic' novels--Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby. We so rarely see this any more, this paced progression, and when we do run into it we get bored. It's not that we couldn't stick to it if we thought there was a promise of excellence, that this was a build-up. But we don't even think of that. We expect a novel to be homogenous, the same sort of pace and style straight through. How awful that would be, if all books ran like that! I think I enjoyed Rebecca so much more for it taking off then if it were the same throughout. The point where we, the reader, think, "Here we go," is worth it. In my opinion.

2) John Milton's Samson Agonistes.

Technically not a novel but a tragic poem, Samson Agonistes is Milton's portrayal of Samson the Nazarite after he is betrayed by Delilah, blinded, and handed over to the Philistines. Samson is a slave lamenting his poor fortune and discussing it with assorted visitors upon the scene. Also, this is a closet drama. Perhaps there are interesting things to say about a play which will never be seen and Samson's blindness (that just occured to me now, typing this), but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

I'm not claiming this reading is for everyone. It's interesting to somehow who has studied the Renaissance, of course, in that it discusses typical Renaissance preoccupations in new ways (fortune, publishing, women, manliness, love, nationhood, productivity). It was also be interesting to someone who is interested in disability studies, given that Samson in the narrative is blind--as was Milton, when composing it. But to your average person, what interest?

If you can get past the formal diction and the characters' tendency to frame everything in the manner of a formal debate, the interesting part is in the characters' emotions, of course. Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism is what clued me into the poem's interest in this respect, calling Samson, scream that he would tear Delilah apart if she touched him one of the most--I forgot what word he used, 'touching' cannot have been it, but it had to do with emotional impact, so let's say--moving scenes in all English literature. Samson is blind, and people are staring at him and he can't look back. Meanwhile, Delilah, his wife, the women he loved despite his family's misgivings, has betrayed him; he also knows that he betrayed himself in trusting her. She has returned to him and wished to make up, and in his anguish he cannot forgive her, even though he knows he should. When she tries to explain herself she winds up hurting him more. Samson's anguish is made less palpable by the Miltonic verse, but if you can read it and then picture it to yourself immediately upon reading it, the emotional stakes are high.

Milton has a tendency among the Renaissance poets, I think, to give his villians reasonable perspectives. This has led people who perhaps read more simply than others (and I'm not separating literary analysts from 'philistines' here but rather some analysts and some regular folks from other analysts and other regular folks) to say that Milton himself sided with his villians. They say that Milton's hero is Satan, not Christ, and I think in reading Samson Agonistes people might be tempted to say that Milton vindicates Delilah. I do not think this is ture. I have not yet read Paradise Regained, so I suppose I cannot speak, but from what I understand of it, it can put rest to any claims that Milton sided with Satan. The hero in this one is clearly Christ, and Satan is clearly the villian. This being said, a story is more interesting when the villians are not unreasonable. Consider Lewis' The Silver Chair. Many consider The Lady of the Green Girdle to be the most dangerous of Lewis' villians because she not only comes so close to winning (both the White Witch and King Miraz get further than she does) but because it is so clear that had she broken the surface, things would have been much bleaker and harder to overthrow than under either the Witch or the Telemarine. She, after all, is far more convincing, which we see in people's reactions to Puddleglum's speech: either they cannot accept his reasoning and end up believing the witch, or upon accepting it, they are actively relieved. And I mean the readers, not the characters. This moment is a strong one, one that lasts.

But back to Milton. I do not think he vindicates Delilah, but he does make her a more engaging character than he may have. I am still not sure how much the chorus' dismissal of her 'showing her true colours in the end' (as a traitor) reflects Milton's own attitudes towards her. It doesn't really matter in the end, though. The chorus doesn't quite have it right about her, after all. She did wrong, yes, but I can understand her, I can feel for her. I think that her last defiant speech to Samson, claiming she is proud of what she did, is a reaction to her rejection of her. I think that she really did want his forgiveness, that she truly was contrite. I can empathize with her on this. She made a horrible, horrible mistake, and now it's too late to go back. I, for one, feel bad for her. I, for one, forgive.

There are readers who wouldn't, who would say that you sow what you reap and that it's her own bloody fault, no complaining now. These are the people who don't sympathize with Northumberland in 2 Henry IV as he mourns his son's death; yes, Hotspur died because his father was a rebel and a coward and Hotspur himself was a rebel and rash, but his son is dead. This requires pity. The fact is, if people who screwed up don't get our pity, then we all deserve whatever horrors come to us and have no place lamenting to others. We have all made enormous errors that, if combined with bad luck, would have destroyed ourselves and those around us. We have simply been lucky, or good liars. All of us. Delilah made a mistake, and paid for it; her mistake may have been worse than any of ours, but it is different only is magnitude and consequence, not quality. So I say, yes, she is a villianess, but she deserves our pity, too. If we can get past the prose, I like to think Samson Agonistes shows us a pathetic (in the original meaning, "deserving of pathos") Delilah, but of course I realize that there are many, many readers who won't spare her their empathy anyway, because they are so in the habit of dispensing judgement.

3) Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Litte Town

I loved this book. The back described it as a blend of the idyllic and ironic, and I had thought that impossible. It turns out it was quite possible. It's about a small Ontario town after the turn of the century but before WWI. It's both grand and small; the very humble matters of Mariposa are elevated to historically-shaking heights. Leacock manages to blend affection and ridicule perfectly, such that the townsfolk's foibles are presented good-naturedly. I recommend this book to anyone at all. I would in particular like to hear what a city-person thinks of it; after all, I align myself with the rural every time. My perspective of this book would be different from someone else's.
This book, for the most part, sits in a timeless past. Leacock wrote the novel as taking place twenty years before its writing, before the Great War and the Depression he was writing from. I suspect that even for him it had a sense of idyllic history, of nostalgia, of the world the way it was. For him, it was the world as it was when he was a boy; for us, now, we have never seen the world this way.
At least, not in this time period. But small towns don't change much in their structure, except perhaps in becoming gradually more anonymous as times go by. One way or another, the small town of Mariposa is in ways similar to small towns today. In ways it's dissimilar, too, but if you watch Corner Gas or read books by Stephen King, you might already have a feel for the small town mentality. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Corner Gas is a modern, televised Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town at heart. The point is, there is something timeless about Mariposa. It chugs on and on and remains virtually the same, while the urban 'important' world morphs yearly. The big, urban world may change as it likes, but I wonder how much of its change is sustained or generated by the actions of the little, rural world it ignores. Perhaps the election in Mariposa means nothing at all by itself, but the elections of all the Mariposas in Canada combined... well, I am forced to think that those matter quite a bit, really. Seen as a very small part of a very large whole, perhaps Mariposa is after all just as grand as it thinks it is.
Perhaps we all are.

Strange Accidents

I just read the last chapter of Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town while listening to the soundtrack of Pan's Labyrinth. I'm not sure how much it influenced how I read that chapter; are those final lines actually so stylistically disimilar from the whole, or was it music? Whichever, it went from ironic-idyllic to sadly nostalgic in a moment.

I am back from Edmonton, by the way. I read Samson Agonistes on the way home as a 'break' from Leacock (which I didn't read more because he was buried in the back of the van, not because I need a break).

More later.

Friday, 8 January 2010

No Blogging Today

I will be occupied this weekend, and so you will not see 7 Quick Takes (or any other number of Quick Takes, for that matter).

Be good! Be happy!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

A Harp on the Athabasca

I'm digging into the archives for this one. (My personal archives, that is.) I haven't written anything publishable as of late, so I'll put this up. If/when I ever get around the publishing it in print, I'll likely have to take it down. Until then, here she be. (This is from a CWRI class portfolio. I might discuss it more elsewhere.)

A Harp on the Athabasca

Rob felt slightly idiotic, fussing over his camcorder and tripod as he watched Miranda bound down the ice, one hand steadying the instrument strapped over her back, no hesitation at all. Her harp easily cost more than his camera, but there he was, shifting his boots on the grit and trying to balance himself against his backpack. Miranda looked across the river when she got to the bottom, letting him stagger down the ice in privacy. When she could hear the pebbles scatter and grate under his feet, she turned to him and winked.
The Athabasca broke just weeks before, later in the year than it had for a long time, and sheets of ice were still piled on the banks, broken and jumbled up the slope and even into the gravel parking lot where the river bent by the water treatment ponds. Down where the fishermen sat with their coolers and folding chairs was narrower, backed up against the ice, but on days when the sunlight came down hot and direct, the coolness spread out from those wintry remains, keeping the heat at bay. A couple of young guys fished near the path down the ice and there was a family fishing nearer the bend just then, where the ice piled higher and its open face was cleaner.
They walked down to the family and looked for the elder in charge. A man with a deep tan and a smoker’s face seemed to be their best bet, so Miranda addressed him. The rough-haired woman, perched on the cooler to his left, squinted at her.
“I don’t suppose we could ask you to move?” she requested, straightening her back and squaring her shoulders as she spoke.
The cooler-woman squinted more.
“My friend and I are going to shoot a scene for our music video, and we’d like to do it here.” She pointed at the shore behind him. “We can’t exactly have folks in the background. It would be just for ten minutes. You could even watch us.”
The man worked it over with his lips and tongue and decided in the end he could move after all. They got up and dragged their chairs a little further along the beach, waving at their two fat boys to haul over as well.
“You don’t mind the booze, do ya?” he asked, gesturing to the bottles stuck in the softening ice.
Miranda looked at Rob.
“Nah,” he said.
With the family moved out of the way, the pair scanned the ground. They tossed a few beer bottles and cigarette packages out of view, and Rob pulled the little stool off the straps on his backpack. Miranda sat on it near the water’s edge. Rob set up the tripod.
“Hey,” he said, “the wind’s coming off the river. Did you say you wanted your hair blowing across your face?”
“Not too much,” she said, “but don’t you think that’d look kinda cool?”
“Sure, but if you want that you’ll have to face the ice.”
She turned, and the wind eddying off the ice tossed her loose hair around her face. Miranda hung most of it over her right shoulder so the camera still had an open view. The wind was modest and would not interfere too much with the sound. After they each made adjustments to their instruments, he nodded to her and she began to play.

Rob had met Miranda at interPLAY summer street festival the year before. He had been filming the buskers for a series he’d been working on about interactive performance and had asked the pretty girl playing a Celtic harp whether she minded if he filmed her. She said she wished people would do it more often, laughing, and they got to talking and she said her band needed somebody to film their music videos. He told her he wasn’t a real cameraman and she told him they weren’t a real band, and the next weekend he was meeting Jimmy, Natasha, Keith, and Chuck for the first time.

When she finished playing, she paused, stood up, and carried her harp in one hand past the camera. Then she stood and smiled at him.
“Was that good?”
“When do you not play well?”
“No, the last bit. Walking off camera like that. You could use it for the video maybe.”
“We’ll see. You know this is Jimmy’s thing right now.”
“Sure,” she said, “but you’re the movie guy. He’d listen to whatever you said. We trust you, you know.”
“Except Chuck.”
“Chuck’s a knob and he argues with everybody, but he thinks a lot of you. You’re getting us on camera and you’re doing it well. He appreciates that.”
Rob smiled. “He still thinks he should have had that harem in his video.”
Miranda waved it off. “Where’s he going to get a half dozen sexy Cree babes willing to undulate against him for free?”
They crunched back along the bank, nodding to the fishers as they passed. The two college guys down the beach had come over to watch as well. Miranda and Rob felt their audience staring until they’d climbed up the embankment to the parking lot.
“You won’t have too much difficulty getting these videos sold, if those guys are any indication.”
“No, no,” she laughed. “I am not taking my clothes off for the camera. Nice try, dude.”
“Hey,” he laughed back. “You’re the one with the dirty mind here. I’m just saying, it looks like people are interested.”
“Yeah, right. Looks like we’ve both been spending too much time with Chuck.”
The next scene was set to be in the hills above them. They started climbing up the path along the bank. Here it was Miranda who felt out for the ground every so often, squatting strangely to keep her centre of gravity low. Rob, however, had spent half of last summer in the bush back here. The edge of the woods was a minute’s walk from his apartment and there was lots of experimenting you could do with a camera in these trees. The hills didn’t bother him at all.

The band’s name was The Ravens of Avalon, and they played folk metal.
“Eclectic metal,” Natasha corrected when Jimmy introduced them.
“With DenĂ© influence,” added Chuck from the drums.
“And a little country,” said Jimmy, jabbing his thumb at Keith, who had been hammering out some honky-tonk on the keyboard when Rob and Miranda got to the garage.
He had never heard of such a cobbled-together group in his life. According to Jimmy—lead vocals and guitar—they each came from entirely different musical backgrounds, but their similar ages and mutual love for Tolkien conspired with random happenstance—Natasha’s phrase—to bring them together. Each member contributed his or her own songs, and everyone tried to accommodate their individual style to the group project.
“So if we ever get a video out,” Jimmy explained, “it’ll technically be folk metal, but there’ll be tracks that weave the fantasy themes through country-western, death metal, unblack metal, and folk lenses.”
But the first song they played for Rob was a cover of “I Love Rock and Roll,” Jimmy forgoing the vocals so Natasha could sneer into the microphone. Keith replaced her bass and he even looked like a countrified Gary Ryan. Rob made them play it over and over again, getting into capturing each member’s quirks and posturing, until Natasha stopped beating out the lyrics and started lisping them in a Britney Spears imitation. Chuck started wolf-whistling and Miranda giggled until she got angry, and they were done for the night.

They clambered over the last tree roots and got to the clearing they’d picked out a week ago. The dogwood hadn’t grown all the way in yet, but the moss in the hollow was thick enough and green. Some of the saplings in the back had started sprouting leaves and a great log was behind her, shaggy with dead moss and composting at one end. It was quintessential northern Alberta, but maybe it would remind viewers enough of Ireland that they wouldn’t question it. And the decay didn’t bother him too much. All the folk metal videos he found on YouTube were filmed in spring or autumn anyway.
They set the stool out again, and she dug the dress out of his backpack. He turned his back to her, watching up and down the path to give her warning if anyone came by when she was changing.
“You can look again,” she said. He noticed she was red and out of breath. Maybe this accounted for the impatience in her voice. She wasn’t as used to these hills as he was.
They wanted her to look more Celtic in this scene, so she braided her long hair and let it hang over one shoulder. The dress, borrowed from the costuming department at Keyano College, was narrow in the torso and waist. He wished that they could have brought her other harp here. It was an inherited concerto and far too unwieldy to carry into the hills, so they brought her Celtic out and used it for the rest of the video. She preferred the smaller one anyway.
He steadied the tripod once in the middle of the path, but had just started checking light levels when a dog and cyclist started down the hill. Pulling the camera out of the way, he watched the guy on the bike thunder down the slope, giving a thumbs-up as he went. His grinning Lab trotted behind him.
“He’ll kill himself,” Miranda said once he was out of earshot. “He’s a fool.”
The second time Rob set the camcorder up just off the path. It didn’t have the higher angle he wanted, but it would have to do. He made the appropriate adjustments and waved to her to play. She got through the first few chords of Jimmy’s new song, “The Wyrding Well,” but then she stopped and looked up at him.
“Has Jimmy been an ass lately, or is it just me?” she demanded. He fumbled for the “Stop” button.

The weekend after they played “I Love Rock and Roll,” Rob showed the band what he had done with the footage. They loved it. At least, they said they did. Jimmy invited him into their group and Chuck spent the next half hour explaining what Rob had done wrong with the video. It was only later that Miranda explained this meant he was a fan. After editing the film, they got down to business. Over a pitcher at the pub, Jimmy told him the plan.
“We want a music video. A themed set, right? We’ve each got two or so songs we’ve written, and the first and the last will each be a conglomeration, something lyrical that provides opportunities for us to riff off each other, with solos and duets. We haven’t gotten all the pieces perfected yet—”
“—or started,” Natasha added.
“—but we’ve got two or three down. Now, we want to put these together into something interesting and we need someone to link these visually into something seamless, you know?”
Chuck interrupted. “None of these battle re-enactments folk metal bands usually do.”
“No,” Jimmy continued. “Something that places us in the history of music. Something that highlights our inspirations, that locates us in the broader spectrum of lyrical achievement.”
Miranda and Natasha chorused, “The broader spectrum of lyrical achievement?” Natasha was delighted while Miranda sounded unimpressed.
That night Rob tried to keep track of all the songs he was supposed to listen to, the members recounting their favourite bands and their inspirations. Each listed at least five bands, ranging from the local Rezz Dawgs to the exotic Orphaned Lands. Rob said he hadn’t heard of any of them.
“Just YouTube it,” whispered Miranda, squeezing his knee.

“What makes you say that?” Rob asked Miranda. Now that he was paying attention, he realized he should have seen that the flushed face meant she was angry.
“You haven’t noticed?”
He shrugged. “He seems the same as ever.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Same as ever, only more so. I’m sick of it.”
“I’m lost.”
Miranda flipped her braid to the other shoulder. She was surreal, blushing red above the white old-fashioned dress. “You remember what he said yesterday?”
“Oh. Yeah.”
“My song doesn’t push the genre far enough? It doesn’t make people re-examine what music means?”
“You seemed to take it well at the time,” he said, wishing he hadn’t as the words left his mouth. She didn’t seem to notice his implication that she wasn’t taking it well now.
“Yeah, well I hadn’t had time to think about it. You know what? I don’t want to re-examine what music means. I don’t want to redefine the genre. I mean, hell, we play folk metal. Eclectic metal. Whatever. How much more can we change the genre? Who cares? It’s folk metal! No one listens to folk metal!”
Rob shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know if I can help you. I know nothing about music.”
“You know enough now. You’ve been with us for nearly a year. But look, that’s not the point. The point is, who’s Jim to say that it doesn’t push boundaries? What I’ve written is far mellower than whatever they wrote. Is that not pushing a boundary? Mellow metal?”
He shrugged again. He had no idea and was tired of pretending like he followed the music-talk. It didn’t matter, because she didn’t stop for him to respond, watching her own gesturing hands instead.
“Here I am,” she continued, “playing a crazy harmony for his, his epic monstrosity. This is never how I played the harp when I was girl. I—”
She stopped, and breathed again.
She looked at him. “What do you think?”
“I think maybe you’re right, maybe the band does care too much about defying conventions, but why are you blaming just Jimmy? Natasha’s far worse for trying to be ‘authentic’ and ‘original,’ and Chuck is constantly throwing things off by trying to incorporate rap and, I don’t know, Native elements.”
She glared. “What are you saying? I mean, you’re right about Natasha—how can you be authentic if you’re too busy trying to be original? But Chuck’s just like that and no one expects otherwise. Jimmy—he’s smarter than that. It’s just like, like he lets being all intellectual take over. That’s fine and all, but sometimes I just want to play music.”
They were silent a while.

The first few weeks he was with them, he learned something about their past. Not how they got together—he never heard the whole of that story. He knew, though, that Keith was a late addition and that for a while they had considered kicking Chuck out of the group, but then Leroy showed up. Leroy was a solid bassist and this had balanced out his more annoying personality quirks, according to Jimmy, but when he pulled out the spoons, that was the last straw.
“What’s wrong with the spoons?” Rob had asked. “You guys have a harp already. It’s not like you care about traditional instruments.”
“Are you serious? Spoons?” Jimmy demanded.
“Besides,” said Keith, “the harp sounds nice.”
“And he was serious about those spoons,” Jimmy kept on. “He wasn’t going to part with them.”
Later, when the two of them were going over some footage together, Miranda told him that the personality trait Jimmy had most objected to was Leroy’s insistence on getting into Natasha’s pants. “It wasn’t just that he was open and persistent about it, either, but that Natasha didn’t seem to mind all that much. She wouldn’t go for a guy like Leroy, or at least she’d hold off for a little while, but she’d giggle and laugh. Jimmy’s protective, and he’s always had a thing for Natasha.”
She must have seen the look on his face, because she added, “Oh, no. Everyone thinks that at first. We’re not together. We just go way back.” She paused, and said, “You know, Jim ought to have been born in ancient times. He’d have had a dozen wives and would have loved every one of them.”
After Leroy was gone, they didn’t mind Chuck so much.

The same Lab as before came up the path, and the biker followed a few minutes later.
“Having fun?” Rob asked.
“Sure thing,” he said. “Nothing like a sunny day for screwin’ around in the hills, eh?”
The biker pushed his bike back up along the cliff side. When he was out of sight, Miranda said, “How long are you sticking around?”
“Sticking around where?”
“With us,” she said. “With The Ravens. How long will you film for us?”
“However long I’m in Fort McMurray,” he answered.
She nodded.
“Why? How long are you staying?”
She fingered the moss. “I don’t know. This isn’t where I thought I’d end up, you know? I saw myself somewhere else. I’m a secretarial assistant and make more than I would if I was working on a career right now. I could be getting my B.Ed. in Calgary instead of putting in nine-to-five, gobbling overtime, and then spending all my leisure time screwing around trying to get big with some garage band.”
“You’ve got time, right?”
“My mother was just about pregnant with me at this age. She already knew my dad. I see myself with kids, Rob. Maybe in Calgary, but I sometimes thought I’d head out to the Maritimes. Play my harp on the bluffs in Newfoundland.” She laughed twice, and then frowned again. “Sure, I’ve got time, but how do I want to spend it?”
She looked at him, and he wished he could read what that look meant.
“Do you know how long you’ll be in Fort McMurray?” she asked again.
“No,” he said. “Until my loans are paid off, I guess. Until I know what I want to do with my life. Find a studio or something, or find someone to buy my documentary. Then, who knows? Who ever knows, here?”
“Yeah,” she said, looking over his shoulders to the hills across the river. Then she nodded to the camera, and he started taping again. This time she played, slow and creaky at first and then picking away faster, pulling at the strings. It sounded fiercer than before, during the sound recording—fierce and tragic. Her face was rigid, furious. Her voice tightened as she sang the open, meaningless vowels Jimmy had written for her. Her singing was no less clear than it had ever been. It would work with Jimmy’s song, where her harp and voice were supposed to be fate’s background mechanics, the fate that would destroy Jimmy and Natasha’s lovers. It was maybe the best he’d heard her play.
Soon she was done. She took her clothes from his bag again and didn’t wait for him to turn around before starting to pull the dress off. Blushing at her underwear, he covered his eyes.
“Let’s go,” she said when she was done.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Post of the Year

EE is having another blog carnival, this time selecting your post of the year, not month. Even if you don't want to participate, I encourage you to read her own selection, because it's a very powerful post.

I chose "Thoughts on Four Years of University," which enough people commented on (on Blogger and Facebook) to warrant this sort of advertisement, I think.

Anyway, I hope you participate, as I'd like to see which of your own posts you think most worthy of special treatment.


1. On Sunday I served at church again. This will be the last for a little while. I was surprised to see Rev. Leslie there. This meant it was to be a communion service, which I still feel best prepared for. This is the last time I serve for a few weeks now. I still accidentally kicked the little ceramic Magi under my chair whenever I leaned forward.
I am also borrowing The Book of Alternative Services (of The Anglican Church of Canada). So far I've only briefly looked through it. I wanted to see how liturgies were written. I hear them every Sunday, of course, but it's easier to study in writing, so long as you remember that it's prefered form is oral. Over the last few months I have begun pondering the sorts of genres that occur during ritual. It's funny; we discuss all sorts of different genres in English classes but our scope is very limited. I think once I read sermon in one of my English classes. Once or twice I read non-literary academic articles--one of them was an excerpt from Darwin's Origin of the Species. Because my Renaissance professor was a New Historicist, I read a few Renaissance pamphlets. Overall, though, even for genre-interested courses, I have read very little other than prose fiction, written poetry, dictionaries, and non-fiction concerning aesthetics. I have not read many newspaper articles, nor lectures (a hugely important secular genre), nor letters (other than poetic Romantic letters), nor any of the genres concerned with worship services. This gap in my education seems odd--I won't bother going into why it's odd here--and I figured I'd remedy it myself.
Anyway, I once wrote some sort of 'devotional poetry' for a Creative Writing class and a classmate suggested I draw more upon liturgical language, as it was already so poetic. At the time, though, I had no idea how I would access this language, since the church I was attending had little that resembled traditional liturgy. No more than the bare minimum in responsive reading and the 'hymns' were not hymns in the traditional sense, for the most part. Well, now I can access this language, and study its genres (prayer, responsive reading, confession, etc.).

2. I worked this week. Except for brief periods of the day, and I was almost entirely unaware of these, I was all alone at work. Monday through Thursday. By Thursday my work ethic was very low. It's tough to motivate yourself when no one's around for so long. One's mind tends to go off without permission, leaving one rather incapable of working. But I did get quite a lot done, so I'm pleased with that.
Everyone else had this week off; I would have, but I traded it for last week.

3. We put the dog down on Tuesday. Not much to say on that. I'm not actually all that sad; I can't figure out why. I did spend quite a lot of time with her. I don't know. She was old for a dog. I received her and her brother as puppies on my birthday in grade three. I am have a Bachelor of Arts, so you can see that grade three was some time ago, at least in dog years.

4. Also on Tuesday we went to see Sherlock Holmes. I ought to read more of those; I've only read Hound of the Baskervilles. I recognize there's a sort of puritanism debate going on. There's one contingent which is somewhat affronted by how many liberties they took with this most recent movie, and then there's another, more educated contingent which points out that the Sherlock Holmes most people are familiar with is unlike the one in the novels. (Holmes isn't the only one to change, either.) Most people think of the Holmes from the early TV shows and movies, and he's disimilar from the books. Not very many people at all are aware what the Holmes from the books looks like--I've only read one, so I don't think that's a fair assessment--and its difficult to do puritanism well when you don't even know what the original looked like.
The movie itself was fun. Holmes' brilliance was cleverly portrayed, and I must continue to give Robert Downey Jr. props for being charismatic in roles that could be aggravating (ie. Iron Man). Jon will be pleased to know that Rachel McAdams is in this. (Is that why you updated your list, Jon? She's been in the media lately?) While her hairstyle in some scenes made her oddly similar to Helena Bonham Carter--I say "oddly" because she looks nothing like Helena--and she wears period male clothing which makes her look like Oliver Twist sometimes, she nonetheless pulls off a good seductive thief. And I managed to overlook that Watson was played by Jude Law, which is really a good thing, as I for some reason don't like him very much. I also particularly liked how the movie ended.

5. We rented Angels & Demons. It was very similar to the novel, except it omitted one of the more interesting "twists" at the end. I won't spoil it for you, unless you explicitly ask me to. Anyway, it was well-filmed as far as Hollywood goes, and I thought Ewan McGregor was, as usual, excellent.

6. I am enjoying Fallout 3. I know I don't usually talk about computer games here, largely because I never play them any more. However, I do have this new one, and I'm liking how it feels. I don't necessarily mean the in-game ambiance, but rather the interface. I like the way one interacts with the in-game world, the sorts of things one gets to do, and how the Pipboy and VATS work. It's being called the best game ever made, and while I think such a title is a silly idea (how does one judge?), I can understand how this would be a competitor for it. I have hardly scratched the surface of it, and if my track record holds out I won't ever finish it, but I must say this is something I am enjoying. If nothing else it is well-crafted.

7. I spent New Year's Eve updating Wikiquote. And then I went to bed. I don't really do New Year's. I'm one of these people who feels it's too arbitrary and doesn't signify anything of value. It doesn't hit any of the holiday/festival registers; it has no meaning, or at least it lacks obvious signifiers. I recongize that it has to do with turning to a new year, with opportunities and new chances. I celebrated one New Year's in Mexico, and there they have a tradition of eating grapes after midnight and making a wish for each grape. That I can get behind because it's a concrete ceremony (eating grapes) with a concrete reference (wishes) which fulfills a specific spiritual need (hope/petition). But watching fireworks? Fireworks are celebratory, and celebration is also a spiritual need, but what are we celebrating during New Years? Surviving the year? I don't feel like that's a real issue where I live. Not failing at life this year? That's a hard one to take seriously when I'm stuck out here in cultural exile, and anyway it seems awfully pessimistic. I just can't get into it. Any of the winter solstice-type festivals (ie. Christmas) or the spring equinox festivals (Easter) seems to be more sensible to me; the symbolism is clearer. You know, world redemption in the midst of sin and death. That's something that I find meaningful. Celebrating the march of time? Less so.

(8.) We (Mom and I) went for a walk in the woods today, and I took a few decent pictures.
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