The art of low expectations

First, a word of explanation after my long absence.

In the past six months, my health has broken down for various periods in various ways, which the McStudge (having requested copies of the relevant reports from my personal tormentor-imp) found most amusing in a small way. Normally he, or it, depending how you look at things, turns up his nose, or its disgusting proboscis-type appendage, at anything less than the damnation of millions and the destruction of nations; but the suffering of an individual, especially if pointless and unedifying, makes a pleasing appetizer or between-meals tidbit. But enough about the McStudge, or I shall be carried off to the suburbs of Gehenna on the resistless wave of a single run-on sentence.

During the spring, my trouble was simple depression for the most part; I could not frame to write anything, and though I started various blog posts with the best of intentions, the impulse always ran out in a general fog of despair and futility before I got anything half finished. Part of the trouble has been that my Beloved Bride lost her job through no fault of her own, her employers having shut down their Calgary office, and then, when she seemed certain to get a new job, that employer went out of business also. The reason for this deserves a short but angry digression.

According to the rules prevailing in Calgary, business properties as a whole are expected to pay a fixed share of the city’s budget every year. For many years the bulk of those taxes were paid by the tenants of expensive downtown offices – oil companies, banks, and the like. Then, thanks largely to the stupidity of higher levels of government, our oil industry collapsed, leaving millions of square feet of empty office space, and nobody to pay the taxes thereon. To compensate, the city raised the tax rate on all the surviving businesses. And when some of those went out of business, it raised the rate again – and again – and again. The average business-tax increase was 32 percent for 2019 alone, and many firms are paying triple what they paid just five years ago. All this culminated in a full-fledged tax revolt earlier this year, but not before thousands of small businesses had gone to the wall, my B. B.’s old and new employers both among them.

Wurst restaurant in Calgary, with sign: ‘PROPERTY TAXES – 2014, $74K – 2019, $208K’

An example of The System at work. (My Beloved Bride was not employed here.)

To the best of my knowledge, this method of setting taxes was last used in the late Roman Empire, and played a considerable share in causing the fall of Rome. Each town and district in a province was set a fixed tribute, to be collected from whoever had the ability to pay. In the declining days of the empire, it sometimes happened that one citizen had to pay the entire tribute due from his town! Some Romans escaped this ruinous system by fleeing right out of the empire. Millions more stayed put, but when the Goths and Vandals invaded, they did nothing to defend themselves; they would rather be ruled by barbarian kings than Roman tax-collectors. Calgary has not had a barbarian invasion – yet – but a lot of business owners have been fleeing from the city, and we now have the highest unemployment rate of any major city in Canada.

All this takes a toll on one’s health, mental and physical, and my Beloved Bride has had a hard time of it. I have done what I could to help, or at any rate, what I knew how; but it left my mind in no condition to write anything. After months of this grief, we took a holiday to save our sanity. We spent most of a week in Penticton, B.C., among lakes and beaches and orchards and vineyards; also among Elvis impersonators, who were having a festival there at the time. We came back rested in body and refreshed in spirit, and I promptly caught pneumonia. My doctors prescribed antibiotics, which caused my gout to flare up. They then prescribed prednisone for the gout, which caused me to become narcoleptic – I generally passed out two or three hours after taking my morning dose. There was nothing they could do for the prednisone, except wean me off it slowly – it is dangerous to stop taking that drug suddenly. These things cost me the whole month of July and half of August. I stopped taking prednisone last Monday, and today was the first day I felt well enough to write.

So now you know where I have been, and why.

One of my many unfinished tasks is to draw some maps for the Magnificent Octopus, and the Orchard of Dis-Pear, and various other works in process. I have scribbles and scrawls and scraps, but nothing suitable for reproduction; and as Tolkien observed long ago, if your story contains any substantial amounts of travel, you have got to start with a map and then write the story to fit it – it won’t work the other way round.

I should like to post my revised and cleaned-up maps here, as I get them done; but I have a shyness about it. Just now, thanks to the gaming industry, the world is flooded with pretty-pretty fantasy maps, ‘painterly’ in quality, rich in saturated colours and quasi-pictorial renderings of terrain, and often very poor in the actual information that one wants to get out of a map – visually impressive, but not particularly legible. (George R. R. Martin set a deplorable fashion, by the way, when he published his maps of ‘Westeros’ without any scale, and then wrote about 5,000 pages of turgid text without ever mentioning how many miles it was from hither to yon, or how many days it took to get there. This is inexcusably lazy; but that is a rant for another time.)

Anyway, my own maps are not pretty or painterly, and I don’t generally work in colour, and I am rather afraid that my 3.6 Loyal Readers (if you are still there and still reading) will give them a resounding raspberry. So I am going to start off with a map by a Famous Name, the worst piece of work I could find. Then your expectations will be duly tempered, and I shall have nowhere to go but up.

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, every newspaper in the world was full of breathless reports about the Prussian invasion of France and the siege of Paris. The immortal Mark Twain contributed his own unique burlesque angle to the story, by hand-engraving a ‘Map of the Fortifications of Paris’ for the public to follow the proceedings by. The map was published in his own Buffalo Express (and other papers) with glowing ‘blurbs’ and reviews, written, of course, by Twain himself. Some of the blurbs:

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of.
TROCHU.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map.
W. T. SHERMAN.

I said to my son Frederick William, “If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die – even anxious.”
WILLIAM III.

And my personal favourite:

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now.
J. SMITH.

And here it is, in all its hand-gouged glory, Mark Twain’s map:

I hope to do better than this. God have mercy on my soul if I do worse.

Candlemas

As my fellow Catholics will know, today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus, and also the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since that is a terrible name for a holiday, we fake our way out of having to use it. This we accomplish by bringing candles to Mass so that they may be blessed, and thereafter serve as symbols of Jesus Christ, Light of the World.

In some parts of Christendom, it is true, additional customs have accreted onto the original Candle-Mass. For instance: It is truly an inspiring sight in a large church, such as the cathedral in which my Beloved Bride and I were married, to see the whole congregation armed with hundreds of blessed candles. We light them, of course, one after another, until the whole interior of the sanctuary is ablaze with glory.

And then, if the groundhog sees his shadow—

The dilemma of creativity

My brain is fermenting, and I’m not sure whether it’s making wine or just having gas.

Coming soon – Writer’s Block: An insider’s guide

That book I wrote the other day? Looks like I will indeed be releasing it, probably in late August or early September. Watch these non-blank pages for updates.

Herewith, a Cover Design:

[Read more…]

Writing a book in one day! (Sort of)

So on Wednesday, whilst brooding over my lack of productivity through the entire house-move kerfuffle, I came up with a perfectly silly idea for a novelty book, or as they are called in the trad publishing trade, ‘non-book’. I told my Gentle Editor, Wendy S. Delmater, the idea. She thought it was amusing enough to put in some effort and try it on a dog. We agreed to confer online Friday afternoon.

So today, beginning at about 12:30 p.m. Frozen North Standard Time, I started furiously typing any old gag that would fit the idea. The beginning and ending were easy. Filling out the middle took a little longer. About 4:00 I began formatting the text in InDesign, and at 7:03 precisely I sent the PDF to my beta reader, the talented and cover-designer-ly Sarah Dimento. She is not a dog, but she does have two cats, and no disapproval being met with from that quarter, I have decided to throw the thing out there and see what happens.

I call it Writer’s Block: An Insider’s Guide.

It begins with ‘This page intentionally left blank’, and goes on from there. If there is a way of not writing books that I have failed to mention in its voluminous pages, I will eat the hat that I haven’t got.

Warning: This book will not tell you how to cure writer’s block. At best, it will give you some of the kind of company that misery loves, and maybe a few laughs. But perhaps that’s enough.

Happy St. Ersatz Day!

Begob and begorrah, ’tis St. Paddy’s Day, that special time o’ the year when authentic Irish bars are filled with authentic Irishmen drinking authentic Irish green beer… men with authentic Irish names like O’Schmidt, O’Mukherjee, and O’Chang.

In the spirit of which, we bring you this fine performance of ‘Danny Boy’, by three of the finest authentic Irish singers of our time.

Sláinte mhuppet!

Wodehouse submits to an Editor

In my recent illness, I have been reading large quantities or gobs of the early P. G. Wodehouse. A few years ago, Golgotha Press, a firm of whose existence I until recently remained culpably unaware, released a vast compendium of thirty-odd Wodehouse books which had fallen into the public domain, for the derisory price of a dollar. (You can find them on iTunes if you search for Wodehouse, but the collection does not appear to be available on Amazon.) Under U.S. copyright law, I am told, anything published before 1923 is fair game, and I have been dining these many days on aged roast Wodehouse.

If anybody wants to know what it was like for Wodehouse, as a short-story writer in the early years of the twentieth century, to submit his work to a magazine, the process was essentially the same as it is today. Observe the following account: [Read more…]

Not quite genius

It has been truly said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

A genius once observed that all motion is relative. After long perspiration, he published the Theory of Relativity.

An idiot, too, observed that all motion is relative. After no perspiration at all, he decided to brush his teeth by holding the toothbrush in one place and shaking his head back and forth.

‘Sociology’

At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

[Read more…]

G. K. C. opens the cruellest month

Today would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday. He expected to live to see it; many of his close relations had lived that long, or close to it; he was in robust physical health till his mind gave way. But a house untenanted falls sooner into dilapidation, and I had to say my goodbye to him more than two years ago.

Because the first of April was, for our family, the date of a celebration not fitly met with mockery, I have never gone in for April Foolery myself; though I can appreciate a good jape when performed by a genuine artist.

This, for instance:

‘G. K. Chesterton on AI Risk’

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

(Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for mentioning this jewel in the comment box.)