Musings

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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Why, Oh Why? #1, Parking Lots

Some things I notice in daily life make me think, say and wonder, “Why, oh why?” Are there good reasons for these irritating phenomena? If so, perhaps someone could point them out.

First up, parking lot design.

Maybe it’s just the city I call home, but I’ve noticed a couple of things about local parking lots that never fail to bug me.

Running the Gauntlet. Why, oh why do the people who design parking lots for shopping malls or plazas insist on running all the vehicle traffic right past the mall and store entrances? Everyone has to cross that road to get from car to shops, which frustrates drivers and endangers pedestrians. Could it possibly be that the pedestrians are seen as traffic-calming devices?

The logical place for car access to parking spots is around the outer perimeter of the lot. Moving vehicles would be directed away from the places where all the customers are headed. Bollards or other devices would separate the vehicle parking area from the pedestrian zone running along the shop fronts or mall entrance. All drivers would approach parking spots from the far edge of the lot. Those who need to park close to the stores would still be able to drive to the nearest vacant spot. Handicapped parking spots would be located where they are now. But no one would have to worry about getting mowed down in their final approach to Canadian Tire, the bank, or the grocery store.

The Landscaped Lot, known by me as the Parking Lot From Hell. Here, the rows of parking stalls are separated by narrow strips containing plants — small trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses. I have two problems with this.  First, the space taken up by the landscaping makes it harder than necessary to maneuver one’s vehicle without risking collisions and close calls. Teeth are gritted on arrival and departure, and many trips to one of these mazes are challenging. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more fender-benders in landscaped lots than wide-open ones.

Second, the plants deteriorate. When newly installed, they look attractive, but inevitably, many of them decline and die, going from spiffy to sad, despite routine watering and maintenance (which is not always provided). Narrow beds in expanses of asphalt and concrete can’t be called ideal environments for most trees, shrubs and perennials. Shoppers intent on spending and acquisition tromp heedlessly through them. No one appreciates these plants, especially once they start to look scruffy and battered. What’s the point? It’s a parking lot, not a park.

Old-fashioned parking lots that are just expanses of asphalt with lines painted on it work much better for the intended purpose — parking. Yes, they look butt-ugly and prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. To mitigate this, parking lot designers could develop durable yet water-permeable surfaces. That would be more effective than the pathetic plantings. Swales and rain gardens around the edges of lots or along pedestrian walkways may also help.

This is the first in what may become a series of posts. Hopefully not a long series. Muttering “Why, oh why?” is not the best way to spend one’s energy.

Here are a couple of pictures that have absolutely nothing to do with parking lots.

 

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Lewisia flowers

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Bewick’s wren on ornamental wooden egg.

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The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.

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A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Guest Author: Audrey Driscoll – Weird rabbits…

Sue Vincent invited me to contribute a post to her estimable blog, so I wrote this.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

A while ago it occurred to me that when humans become extinct, unless aliens arrive on Earth to dig up and appreciate our music, art and writing, it will become meaningless. The animals that survive our presence on this planet will never read our books, sing our songs or admire our creations, even though vines may festoon our sculptures and birds nest among their twining stems.

Culture, I thought, is unique to us. Then, for some reason, I remembered those weird rabbits.

What rabbits?

Near the end of Part I of the late Richard Adams’s wonderful book, Watership Down, the band of homeless rabbits comes across a warren whose inhabitants display peculiar behaviours. They practice complicated etiquette, recite poetry and make things they call Shapes by pushing pebbles into burrow walls. It turns out this warren is managed by a nearby farmer. He protects it from predators and delivers…

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Pseudo-Haiku From Spam

I gather February is National Haiku Writing Month.

I write no haiku. This poetic form has quite exacting conventions and a long history. I suspect it would take considerable study and practice to become proficient in it, but many in the West seem to perceive it as “quick and easy poetry.” The result is a lot of of polysyllabic word-clumps intended to convey some fleeting notion. Or maybe I’m being disrespectful of well-meaning haiku writers.

But…

I was shoveling spam out of my email inbox the other day.  Most of the time I hit the “empty spam” button without looking at what is about to be flushed. But a couple of gem-like phrases caught my eye. I noted them down.

Rearranged a bit, here they are:

Body is a baggage for life / Protect stomach lining / Better tomorrow starts now.

Starry mood? / The energy of bright feelings / Just enables.

Quick start, long action! / Life is well when you take the right meds! / Be confident!

Afraid to fall? / Do not push me / You’re mighty!

You will note that these word-strings do not contain the 5-7-5 syllables prescribed for haiku. That, among other reasons and with apologies, is why I call them pseudo-haiku.

Feel free to guess what the spammers were trying to sell.

“Spam” image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

April 19, 2014

 

Shower Thoughts

I actually remembered a thought that floated into my brain when I was in the shower this morning. Usually, these random ideas vanish by the time I’ve dried myself off, leaving behind at most a frustrating husk — now what was that great idea again? Lost forever, the thought is inevitably a priceless evidence of genius.

This time, I bustled out of the bathroom, grabbed a pen, flipped open a notebook and wrote this: psychopomp & psychopath. Puns, etc.

Not exactly a pearl of wisdom, eh? Let’s see…

I started by thinking (as I often do) about the piece of writing I’m working on now, which is set in Egypt. I was mulling over the concept of the soul in ancient Egypt — a rather complex composite of the ka, the ba, the akh and some other bits and pieces. At this point, the brain skipped to psychopomp, which is not Egyptian but Greek, meaning “one who conducts the souls of the dead to the afterlife.” Then I got to thinking that “psychopomp” is a rather unwieldy word. (I see the spell-checker thinks it’s not a word at all). Someone unacquainted with it would probably focus on the “psycho” part and think of serial killers. But what’s a “pomp?” Pomp and circumstance? Or pompous? A serial killer who thinks he knows best?

The main character of the 4-book series I have published becomes a psychopomp. Unfamiliar and weird, it’s useless as a keyword for book discovery. “Conductor of souls” is less mystifying, but may suggest a “soul train,” which would be totally misleading.

In a short story I published recently, the psychopomp recognizes a psychopath — two, actually — which takes him onto a difficult path, indeed. A psycho-path? I could say more, but I won’t, in case anyone wants to read the story.

To capture other, possibly more valuable shower thoughts, I think I’ll stash a notebook and a writing implement of some sort in the bathroom. That way I’ll have to hold the thought only until I finish toweling off. And if I get a notebook and pen designed to work in wet conditions, maybe not even that long.

It will be interesting to see if the thoughts captured are of more significance than these.

 

 

 

One Way Mirror

We took down our Christmas lights today. No more blue glow from the porch this evening.

A day or two after Christmas, the world changes — completely. Christmas trees and decorations are still up, but seem less relevant with every passing minute. Shame on anyone who dares to play (or hum or whistle) a Christmas tune. The excitement that started building in November has reached a climax and dissipated. The deadline of Christmas Day is dead, and new ones appear on the horizon. Valentine’s Day. Birthdays. Spring break. School holidays. The wheel of the year must trace an entire revolution, through budding, blooming and fading, before those coloured lights of the winter solstice look right again. The only way to get there is forward, through the raw brightness of the new year.

For some reason this abrupt shift was especially acute this year. It may be because on New Year’s Day a strong northeast wind came up, bringing a week of cold, dry weather. OK, it wasn’t true Canadian cold, but cold enough for us West Coast types — minus 5 degrees C (23 F) at the nadir, which came last night after the wind finally dropped. But air hovering around the freezing point feels murderously cold when propelled by a 30 or 40 knot wind. That wind seemed to blow Christmas and its trappings right out of town, intensifying the effect of the annual post-holiday shift.

Another slightly disconcerting thing was a feeling that I should be going back to work, as though the nine months since I retired on March 31st were just an extended holiday, now over. I have to say I’m happy to reassure myself that it’s not so, emphasized by the fact that the first new items of clothing and footwear I’ve acquired since then are without question “loafing clothes.”

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Remember those geraniums (pelargoniums) I resolved to pull through the first episode of cold weather several weeks ago? Well, I added extra insulating materials and covered everything with a tarp. When I unveiled them today they looked alive, but I’m wondering if they’re actually green zombies that will eventually show their true deadness by turning brown.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.

The Disembodied Brain

Recently I heard an interview on CBC Radio’s program “The Current,” with Dr. Michael Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. He believes it will be possible to live on after death as a digital copy of your brain. “We could create a second you, or at least a second brain that thinks it’s you, has your memories, your personality.”

This caught my attention for a number of reasons. Cheating death (sort of) is important to Herbert West, the main character of my novel The Friendship of Mortals. A disembodied brain is featured in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, “The Whisperer in Darkness.” And it sounded like the sort of idea I might like to quibble with.

Indeed, there is lots to quibble with in Dr. Graziano’s scenario. He suggests that once this technology is perfected (in a century or so), one’s early years would be like a larval stage. Real life would come after your brain is digitally copied, and the copy would live an idealized life in some sort of digital paradise. The physical you would live out its bodily existence and die in the old-fashioned way, leaving digital you to live on forever, possibly interacting by means of technology with living folks, including your descendants, and with other disembodied brains.

Well. Where to start? The most important problem with this scenario, it seems to me, is that the digital brain would have no autonomy. It would be at the mercy of whatever or whoever controls the technology that maintains its digital environment. If someone decides to delete you, what can you do? Same deal if the powers that be decide that you will be the lucky brain to undergo experiments, which may be uncomfortable or even agonizing. (Dr. Graziano did acknowledge something of the sort in the developmental stages of brain scanning technology). And what about power failures, computer crashes, data corruption and similar events? Here I’m reminded of a Far Side cartoon in which a janitor in a cryopreservation facility trips over and unplugs the power cord of the units in which hopeful individuals are being preserved for the future. Oops!

And what if the digital brain decides it’s had it with life and wants to commit suicide?

Another disturbing issue is whether there could be multiple copies of an individual brain? Suppose you have your brain copied at age 35, and then decide at age 50 that you have developed into a wiser, more copy-worthy individual. Do you have age 35 you deleted, or keep both of them going, possibly in different artificial environments? The possibility induces a slight dizziness, because it reminds me of having more than one copy of a work-in-progress — a big, complicated document full of tiny details. Keeping them straight and deciding which is the “real” one can be a nightmare. And novels aren’t as complex as the brains that create them.

I thought it was a telling point that when asked whether he would want to copy his own brain and live on as a disembodied, digital entity, Dr. Graziano said, in effect, “No way.”

Even if this isn’t an appealing possibility in real life, it does offer a rich variety of scenarios to explore in fiction. Think about it — you and your digital copy. How would you get along? What if there were more than two of you? What would life as a disembodied brain be like? What if such a brain wanted to get re-embodied somehow, or rebel against its technological overlords? The possibilities are endless. Writers of hard SF, humour, tragedy, even romance, could make something of this.


Featured image: By DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Created with Canva.

A Different Kind of Story

I have recently discovered a radio documentary that first appeared as a podcast by the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster). It’s called Someone Knows Something, and describes a revisiting by independent filmmaker David Ridgen of the disappearance of five-year-old Adrien McNaughton in 1972. The boy vanished on a June day while on a fishing trip with his family at a small lake in eastern Ontario. Forty-three years later, Ridgen contacts the family, examines the search procedures and interviews people who were associated with the family and/or the search.

Each half-hour episode concentrates on various aspects of the case: the family’s memories, the theories around the disappearance (drowning, animal attack, kidnapping), consultations with psychics, artistic renderings of what Adrien might look like as an adult, searching the scene with cadaver-detecting dogs, and re-diving the lake.

Unsolved cases of vanished children are compelling and heart-wrenching. Ridgen’s take on the case of Adrien McNaughton unfolds slowly and methodically, revisiting and lingering on the scene at Holmes Lake, discussing the details with those who had participated in the extensive search, probing their memories for clue fragments.

All eleven episodes of Someone Knows Something are available on the CBC website. A bonus is the theme music created for the series by Bob Wiseman, and performed by the composer with vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara. It’s wistful, heartbreaking, and a little weird — perfect for the subject matter of the series.

Listening to (so far) seven of the eleven episodes, I have been thinking how a story like this could inspire others — writers, poets, artists — to create new works. All art is rooted in some sort of lived experience, transforming it into something unique that adds to the shared entirety.

Missing

You did not say goodbye,

No door closed behind you.

You did not look back and wave

Before the world took you away.

The eye of the lake gazes at the sky,

The trees point upward and sway

As the wind shakes their limbs.

Snow falls, snow melts.

The small birds return.

Does the earth keep you close now,

In a deep embrace?

Or do you walk the days somewhere,

Wearing your own face, and a different name?

We do not know.

We do not forget.

November 9, 2013