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.

Long belated

In September, I found out that a man can’t write a book in the midst of preparing for his own wedding. (At least not this man.)

In October, I found out that a man can’t write a book in the immediate aftermath of his own wedding.

In November, I had a medical emergency, a possible TIA (or else the mother of all migraines, the doctors still aren’t sure), which left me tired, groggy, and with a calendar full of appointments with labs and specialists. Also, we took on a roommate to save money, which meant we had to clean the flat from top to bottom and back again.

We shall see how December goes; but my Beloved Bride (formerly the Beloved Other) has given me the green light to give my work top priority.

Apropos of which, allow me to introduce Sonya to you all:

Sonya is the one without the beard. Thank God.

Scatterbrained

I have been driving Impendices three abreast, and working in a desultory way at other things (and wasting a good deal of time on Plants Vs. Zombies), and have yet to finish any of the promised work for September. CreateSpace is shutting down and being replaced by the Kindle print-on-demand service, and that requires my attention; and other matters are becoming urgent.

For one, I am getting married. The Beloved Other and I (after a rocky period in which it was not certain we would work out together) are definitely tying the knot on the sixth of October. Preparations for this have been taking a great deal of my spare attention (and nearly all of hers), and therefore I cry you mercy for my slowness at other tasks. Pray for us, or else wish us well, according to your customs and those of your fathers.

Report: Nothing to report

So: Immediately after my last post, in which I detailed the long list of projects that I believe I need to complete in order to have any viable shot at paying the bills by writing, I came down with a moderately severe case of flu. The muscle aches gave me sleepless nights, which I could have dealt with; but I also had a fever, and when I get a fever, my inner ears get inflamed, and when my inner ears get inflamed, I get spasms of dizziness whenever my head moves, and can actually hear the faint whoosh of the perilymph sloshing about in there. (It took me half a century to figure out that the illusion of sound I heard at such times was no illusion at all, but an actual sound inside my ears.)

Kipling observed in his autobiography:

I discovered that a man can work with a temperature of 104, even though next day he has to ask the office who wrote the article.

I am extraordinarily cool-blooded by nature, and if my temperature gets up to the canonical 98.6 (or 37 °C) I am already suffering from all the effects of full-blown fever. With a temperature of 104, I should in all likelihood be dead. But having to ‘ask the office who wrote the article’ is a significant handicap when (a) the ‘article’ is part of a tightly organized book, or worse, a series of several books, and (b) there is no ‘office’ to ask. I find that when I am feverish, the perpetual dizzy spells and whooshes are apt to cut off the whole writing process every few minutes, just long enough for my short-term memory to lose track of what I was doing; and if I do nevertheless get stuff written down, my long-term memory is never properly informed, and next day I have to ask what I was writing it for, and nobody can tell me. This is unsatisfactory.

More specific and serious unpleasantnesses have also occurred, but I shall spare you those. I am very unhappy with life and the world, and furious with my own utter lack of progress in recent days.

Fflewddur’s harp

The bard did not answer. For a long moment he held the harp lovingly in his hands and gently touched the strings, then with a quick motion raised the beautiful instrument and smashed it across his knee.

Taran cried out in anguish as the wood shattered into splinters and the harp strings tore loose with a discordant burst of sound. Fflewddur let the broken fragments drop from his hands.

“Burn it,” he said. “It is wood well-seasoned.”

[Read more…]

One step forward, two faceplants

June has not been particularly kind to us. The move took a lot out of me physically, and a fair amount out of the Beloved Other. Until a few days ago I was having severe asthma attacks from all the heavily pollinated dust that had been dislodged from under furniture and behind bookcases, not to mention the depths of a ruinous old carpet that could not be properly hoovered because of its tendency to spit up its own fibres and strangle the machine with long threads of carpety stuff. At one point I had a coughing fit whilst driving, so intense that I nearly blacked out, swerved off the road, and would have driven into an open pit on a construction site if I had not banged against a friendly K-rail and bounced back into the stream of traffic.

Just about the time I got topsides on the asthma, my right knee gave out and I can no longer finish the work of moving. Unpacking is a wild Technicolor dream. I have been hobbling about the new flat on crutches, since my leg won’t bear my weight properly. The quadriceps tendon, you see, passes over the head of the thighbone on its way to the kneecap, and I (so my doctor told me years ago, when I had a similar injury) have an odd sort of rough patch or abrasion on the cartilage there. Ordinarily it does no harm, but if the tendon becomes inflamed, it catches on the rough spot and won’t slide over it. If I am sitting down, I can lift up my left foot straight in front of me like a Christian, but my right foot remains planted on the ground like a megalithic temple. The muscle simply won’t move until the inflammation subsides. It is also quite deliciously painful if I don’t keep my leg extended in just the right position with the right degree of support, and I cannot sleep in that position, so I have been waking up every morning in a fine taking.

Needless to say, my working files are still packed away, though the Beloved Other has done yeoman work to re-shelve a lot of my books; for which I am boundlessly grateful. The Impendices therefore remain impending for the moment. My apologies to all.

Catching up

I should perhaps let you know, my 3.6 Loyal Readers, that I have been bogged down in a new set of troubles, now that the old ones have partly lifted. Fortunately, the new ones do not bid to be as durable. They don’t make ’em like they used to – thank God. [Read more…]

When last seen

Just to let the 3.6 Loyal Readers know, I am still alive and (more or less) functioning. For some months past, I have had a number of illnesses that nagged at me and prevented me from doing much in the way of useful work, and it finally became clear that I would have to shut down and give my full attention to getting well.

I seem to have kicked the worst of the major depression that afflicted me earlier in the year (despite the happiness due to cows and ice cream), thanks to a concentrated bout of cognitive behavioral therapy. My G.P., at any rate, says I look noticeably happier; though I still get the mopes too easily. There have been assorted physical maladies as well, too tedious to report, and none life-threatening or requiring surgery. This weekend I have spent largely horizontal, trying to talk a severe back pain into going away so that I could rest. (The Beloved Other could hardly sleep at all last night because I had to keep getting up, taking medication, moving about, etc., etc. I feel considerably worse for her than for myself.) Of course the medication required has been industriously burning a hole in my belly, which gives me the curious feeling of having one continuous ache going right through my body from front to back: as if a Hong Kong architect were trying to carve a dragon hole in my torso.

I have made tentative arrangements for a sort of miniature writing retreat after my recovery, when I hope to get some real work done. In the meantime, I offer my sad and humble apologies to you all.

Happiness and cows

Yesterday, the Beloved Other and I went up to Banff for the day. We swam in the hot springs, had a picnic lunch at Lake Minnewanka, and on the way home, we stopped at Mackay’s ice cream parlour in Cochrane, which I heartily recommend to anyone. Their ice cream is as sound as their business philosophy, as expressed by this sign on their premises.

[Read more…]

Sequel

As a sequel to my last post, I have received a charming and delightful email from a person who informs me that I am a ‘miserable fool’, that I am suffering from spiritual pride and need to turn to the Lord, and that the only way to do that is to do exactly as he, the writer of the email, commands. But it is I, you see, not he, who suffers from pride.

As a further balm to the wounded spirit, he offers this gem:

As for fiction, you haven’t enough broad and intense experience to ever convey the kind of depth and originality to the fantasy field (or any other) that makes for greatness or popularity.

I shall not reply to him in person; I have dealt with this character before; his eyes, ears, and mind are closed to everything and everyone, as far as I can tell, and the only thing he pays attention to is the din inside his own head. But I reply to him at large and in public, in the words of C. S. Lewis from The Pilgrim’s Regress:

But how can you help me after removing the only thing that I want to be helped to? What is the use of telling a hungry man that you will grant him his desires, provided there is no question of eating?

I put it to the 3.6 Loyal Readers – just in case I should be missing a jewel in a dunghill; I do not want to dismiss advice without a hearing. Is this man right, and I should give up writing fiction?