Category: Books

Mutant Thoughts (iv)

CaneIt’s been hectic again of late…which is tolerable, for short periods of time. I very much prefer ordinary, mundane routine. Much better for my creative faculties.

Finally got the word and will shortly have my second hip replaced. Just in time too. The right side had collapsed and I’ve been walking like a peg-legged pirate. More pain manifesting itself, my upper body out of whack, so when the surgeon’s office rang me up, I felt nothing but relief.

I think I sensed something coming. The COVID numbers were down, I’d heard elective surgeries were restarting…something must have clicked. For the past month-six weeks I’ve been working like a dog, writing and editing a new one-act play, as well as toiling on three other, separate projects. Haven’t been this productive in awhile—and now I’ll have to take an enforced break to recuperate and rehabilitate my right leg. No use trying to write anything with a Dilaudid-clouded brain; I’ve tried it before and the results weren’t pretty. Get off that shit ASAP and on to a regimen of Tylenol, Ibuprofen and, possibly, CBD oil.

Brought up some treasured movies from downstairs for comfort viewing and have found three or four old sci fi classics on YouTube I intend to giggle my way through. Stuff like “This Island Earth”, “Invaders from Mars” and Jack Arnold’s “The Space Children”. No superstars, no CGI, no production values (sometimes)…and whole orders of magnitude more fun and entertaining than today’s empty-headed, multimillion-dollar blockbusters.

* * * *

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching events in Ukraine with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Putin still thinks he’s living in the 1950s and 60s, that a powerful country can just roll into another and impose its will. But these days the world is far more connected than he supposes and this episode will not end well in terms of his imperial ambitions.

As for those beating the drums of war or, at the very least, demanding a more active role for NATO/EU in that volatile region, a (God help us) “no fly zone”, let me remind you that since the end of the Second World War the major superpowers have scrupulously avoided a direct confrontation. The results could escalate too quickly for either side to control, with horrific results. Putin and his minions are vulnerable to sanctions, especially if the West gets serious about cleaning up its banks and financial institutions so they are no longer able to launder the ill-gotten gains of the oligarchs.

The reliance of the European Union on Russian oil and gas was always worrisome, valuable leverage that Putin could employ at his discretion. Now is the time for the E.U. to act dramatically to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, accelerating Green energy initiatives, becoming entirely self-sufficient.

The Russians have also finally raised enough alarms that NATO seems prepared to reinvigorate itself, member states pledging more money to their armed forces, adding life blood and relevance to what was previously a sleepy, moribund alliance. Even Finland, long an outsider, is thinking of joining up. Surely not what Putin intended when he embarked on this quixotic quest to return Europe to its pre-1989 boundaries.

That isn’t the only unpleasant surprise he’s experiencing and it won’t be the last.

In this instance, his reach has far exceeded his grasp and he’s about to get his fingers very badly burned.

Ukraine

“Becoming” (Personal Essay)

I’m grateful I was born into a pre-digital society. Give me the wonder-filled Space Age over the Information Era with its rapacious consumerism and surveillance capitalism any day. I am a true analog kid and, like most people of that television-raised generation, I was/am at least partially ADHD (or whatever the hell the correct acronym is these days). My concentration frequently wandering, needing something to focus on, even if it’s only a scatter of shiny dimes.

Luckily for me, I discovered books at a relatively early age and ended up happily addicted to the printed word, which soon became my primary source of entertainment, opening doorways to other realities, while simultaneously educating me on the fine points of being human.

Reading was an escape in more ways than one. My home life could be a trifle tumultuous at Burns familytimes, particularly if money was tight and dad had been drinking. The rows got awfully scary and rather than coming together as siblings and drawing comfort from each other, my sisters and I retreated to our separate corners and went into full self-preservation mode. Every child for themselves.

My identity was set early: dreamy, distant, possibly smart, but since I didn’t talk much, it was hard to tell. All the evidence you’d need to diagnose a troubled home life. Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you. Those pictures of me at five, seven, nine. Pale skin and sunken, dark-rimmed eyes. I had trouble sleeping, anxious and fearful, bedeviled by nightmares, prone to bed-wetting. Displaying wary, watchful behavior, not just toward strangers but everyone.

A loner by temperament, not choice, existing independently of neighborhood kids, relying on my own resources. A vivid, far-reaching imagination, if I may say so, and that undoubtedly saved me. To all outward appearances I might have been thin and delicate as a sparrow but in my mind I was captain of a spaceship, first man on Mars, steely-eyed and fearless, undaunted by gruesome aliens and lurking danger.

Ray Bradbury is the first author I can recall having an impact on me. Ray was a dreamer too and could convincingly describe the topography of Mars, the peculiar customs of its denizens, while at the same time authentically portraying the hopes and dreams of two thirteen-year-old boys one magical summer when a traveling carnival came to town…

By the time computers and video games began to nibble at my awareness, I was already a devoted bibliophile, poring over whatever I could lay my hands on, even stuff I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to; I’d rather read than play outside with my friends. Libraries and bookstores were holy temples and nothing in the known universe could compete with that special feeling I got when I cracked open a book for the first time.

Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Being born in 1963 meant I was denied the pleasure of spending my formative years surrounded and inundated by social media, wedded to certain platforms, chained to some sort of personal device (laptop or cell phone), obsessed with my status, the way I present myself to far-flung “friends” and a host of complete strangers.

Sis & me And as a result of my odd upbringing, I found that I had sort of dispensed with the need for affirmation or acceptance from others. That stood me in good stead whenever I interacted with my fellow homo sapiens; I wasn’t seeking their approval and, thus, was largely indifferent to their opinions of me, good or bad.

Upon reaching adolescence my personality developed an extra layer of protection: a wicked sense of humor. It was all those years of watching people, witnessing their many foibles, taking note of their effortless stupidity. When challenged or threatened, I now had a formidable weapon in my arsenal which I learned to use judiciously (otherwise, some troglodytic thug might’ve murdered me).

I had my first intimation of it when I was around eleven years old. It was during a sleepover at a friend’s place with four or five pals, probably a birthday party. It was long past midnight and we were all giddy, unable to sleep. I remembered a joke I heard my father tell, one of those traveling-salesman-stopping-overnight-at-a-farmhouse routines. Either we were all really, really hyper or I absolutely nailed the punchline (I’m guessing it’s the former), because I earned a huge, gratifying laugh and from then on blossomed into a regular smartass; not quite the class clown but definitely someone whose bent humor could provoke a reaction among his peers.

Childhood taught me grownups couldn’t be trusted and authority figures were either despots or dingbats. Is it any wonder that I gravitated toward comedians like Richard Pryor and Cheech & Chong…and, a bit later, with more long-lasting consequences, the genius of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? For some people a healthy dose of the absurd isn’t something they’re born with but instilled by experience and circumstance.

You need something. A coping mechanism or self-defense strategy to keep the wolves at bay. A mask or a shield (or both).

As for career aspirations, I had come to realize that my two earliest ambitions—becoming a cowboy or an astronaut—were likely not in the realm of possibility. But…how about acting, directing or even (gulp) writing? Could I ever make a go at something like that?

Well, I guess I have my answer to that particular line of inquiry.

I had already intuited that I was physically and emotionally unsuited for most real world vocations (a summer employed in a huge factory, making and bagging bread and related products confirmed that), which is why I spent, yes, eight years working as a dishwasher in an upscale Regina restaurant. Making like my hero George Orwell, getting down in the trenches, slogging away at a low-wage, part time job with no benefits, surviving if not thriving.

I kept a stack of paper napkins on top of my Hobart (dishwashing machine) so that whenever an idea for a poem or short story struck me, I could snatch one up and scribble some notes as the steam rose around me, the air filled with delicious aromas from whatever was on the menu, a waiter snarking at the cook because an order was late and a customer was complaining…

Some of the best of my early tales originated in that kitchen.Kafka tribute

And then, during that same time, after years of hoping and praying, I met someone who was perfect for me. Call it a miraculous confluence of planetary bodies, a rare alignment of stars with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” thundering in the background, two fates colliding.

Before her, I was lost, then I was found.

And, y’know what, that twisted sense of humor came in handy because this gal appreciated a good joke and her laugh could shatter a Pyrex glass. I could be as uncouth and crude as I wanted to be and she’d not only keep up, but do her best to top me.

Let’s give her a name: Sherron.

Sweet, kind, good-natured Sherron. That’s the impression she likes to give but it’s far from accurate. Warning: when you’re around us there are no allowances made for the timid or thin-skinned. There are bouts of jocular barbarity that would make yours ears melt. No, there’s no point asking, I won’t repeat a single word. There are reputations at stake. Discretion must be observed.

She’s the only one who never recoiled from me. Before we hooked up I dated, irregularly, but there was no magic, no great rapport, and sooner or later they got that look on their face: you’re weeeeiiiirrrrd.

Prior to meeting Sherron, I lived and breathed and ate and defecated and got high. And I wrote. I was always writing but it wasn’t good. Bad poetry and meandering, self-referential short stories. Tales of an uneventful life, with secondhand accounts of sordid episodes related to me by friends spliced in. I was always the observer, never an active participant, hiding in the wings, where the perspective was clearer.

But Sherron changed all that. I started writing stuff to entertain her, widening the scope of my work, stretching my meager talent to the breaking point. I became a better writer and a better human being. All because of her. Credit where it’s due.

Decades later, how much has changed?

I’m still bookish, tending toward reclusiveness, but I also share time and space with the finest, funniest human being I’ve ever known.

And we’ve managed to retain our goofiness, still love a good laugh and smart talk and the occasional debate, never missing an opportunity to startle, surprise or disgust our better halfs, reminding them never to take anything too seriously in this chaotic, irrational, messed up world.

Because we both know: it could all change tomorrow.

In our mid-fifties now and very much aware that from here on the path grows shorter, a steady decline that quickly gains momentum, since we’re on an increasingly steep downward slope. We find ourselves being herded toward an inevitable future, fixed and unavoidable. Our legs growing tired, breath short, and, meanwhile, up ahead something huge looms into view, bearing down on us, becoming clearer and more defined with every passing day.

I’d like to tell you what it is, but, frankly, I hate spoilers.

Let’s just say there are no guarantees of happy endings or a better and brighter hereafter, but there will be a cessation of pain and worries.

In that respect, could whatever happens be all that bad?

“Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”

Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”

Happy couple

Best Books Read in 2021

ministry

Fiction:

Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

Franz Kafka: Lost Writings edited by Reiner Stach (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson

Cascade (Short Stories) by Craig Davidson

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit by Mark Leyner

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

Honorable Mention:

Quicksand by Emmanuel Bove

Appleseed by Matt Bell

Things About Which I Know Nothing (Short Stories) by Patrick Ness

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison

Phase Six by Jim Shepard

Joe’s Liver by Paul Di Filippo

A Man At Arms by Stephen Pressfield

Poetry:

Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis

Graphic Novel:

Berlin by David Lutes

Love&Capital

Non-Fiction

Love and Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx by Mary Gabriel

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens

Pictures At a Revolution: Five Movies & the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen

Germany: From Revolution to Counter Revolution by Rob Sewell

Essays After Eighty by Don Hall

After the Apocalypse by Srecko Horvat

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Honorable Mention:

The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott

Mutant Thoughts (iii)

Another long hiatus and, what can I tell you, I might’ve been AWOL from this blog, but I’ve been up to my naughty bits in new writing.

I’m talking about over one hundred and twenty (120) pages of prose since June and my next poetry collection, The Definition of Melancholy (publication date May, 2022), now boasts over ninety (90) poems, and still going strong.

Not only has my blogging suffered during this creative binge, but I’ve also been doing damn little reading (no way I’ll reach my goal of 100 books this year).

Had to go ahead and reorder additional copies of my Notebooks 2010 – 2020 from my printer; many, many thanks to the folks who’ve picked up a copy and seem to love that odd, wee tome. It has done surprisingly well and I couldn’t be happier with its reception.

So on the professional front I guess you can say that all is well.

On the personal front, well, the recent surge in COVID cases in the province pushed back elective surgeries for months so I’m probably not looking at the second hip replacement until Spring, 2022. Just gonna have to tough it out ’til then. I’m doing all right, managed to keep up with the yard work this summer and can still limp around on my errands. A lot of folks are in worse shape than me and I can only empathize with what they’re going through as we wait for the surgical wards to come back on line.

I intend to spend the Fall & Winter getting down as many words on paper as I possibly can. Once they carve into my hip I’ll have to focus on pain management and rehab, which can tend to play hell with your creativity. Must try to read more, as well, my to-be-read pile has attained almost K2-like dimensions. New Colson Whitehead and Jim Shepard books out…and that fat history of the Ottoman Empire has been staring me down for the past week.

Have also been feeling the urge to descend to my basement lab and slap some paint on canvases, see how much more damage I can do to the legacy of visual art. And maybe it’s time I hauled my MIDI keyboard upstairs, produced an hour or so of noise and mayhem to unleash on unsuspecting listeners on BandCamp.

Watched Rose Glass’s “St. Maud” with Sherron last week and (shudder), boy, that finale is just…well…it’s…it’s…

You have to see if for yourself.

But, be warned: it’ll take an awful big bite out of you.

Looking forward to seeing “Dune” at our local theater as a birthday treat, but going in with pretty low expectations. I’m usually underwhelmed by Denis Villeneuve’s films. Nice to look at but they don’t move me emotionally. But “Dune”…shit…that’s half art, half spectacle. Gotta see it BIG.

Enough for now. I close with an image of an oak leaf from our back yard.

This. This is how I’m feeling these days.

FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM by Aaron Bastani (Review)

FALC:cover

I don’t review a lot of stuff these days (although I do keep a regular book journal). However, after reading Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism I felt compelled to respond, at length, to his vision of the bright, shining near future that awaits us thanks to new technologies, robots, and limitless leisure time.

* * * *

First of all, does anybody else have a problem with the words “luxury” and “communism” appearing in such close proximity? Aren’t they understood to be practically, y’know, oxymorons?

Not according to Aaron Bastani.

Looking through his rose-colored glasses, he sees the future as a time of abundance, thanks to the mining of asteroids in near earth orbit and virtually free services like health care and housing. It is technology that will finally liberate our species from the onerous yoke of work, robots doing most of our jobs, humans enjoying lives of leisure…

I consider myself something of a student of history and try as I might, I can’t recall a single human society, from pre-history to the present, where someone didn’t get a larger slice of the pie due to their size, strength, ferocity, intelligence, wealth, connections, etc. In times of abundance, the ruling clique simply takes more. In times of want, they give up the least.

I wouldn’t call Bastani’s book non-fiction, more like science fiction.

In describing a near future utopia brought about by technological advances, he is employing wishful thinking—I don’t trust machines (or billionaires) to save us and, frankly, we don’t need more luxury on this godforsaken planet, we need less.

In light of the most recent IPCC report on the climate (and its ominous-sounding references to “Code Red”), Fully Automated seems even more far-fetched and fanciful. It will be decades before we can mine asteroids or store limitless amounts of data on a strand of DNA. I see no political will anywhere for building affordable housing or offering free health care or university tuition—hell, we can’t even get our governments, liberal or conservative, to get behind a liveable minimum wage.

And, in the meantime, we’ll be dealing with a climate catastrophe: drought and severe weather phenomena, refugees in the hundreds of millions, flooding, famine, mass deaths from heat waves and newer and even more deadly pandemics as we continue to trespass in remote areas we don’t belong.

Under such stressful circumstances will workable societies and infrastructure still exist, will we have the capacity or, yes, luxury to conceive of space travel when the bonds that hold civilization together are loosening, the world coming apart at the seams?

We know that capitalism is eminently adaptable, able to contort itself into new configurations if it means justifying its survival, but even getting it to embrace a $15 minimum wage or support the notion of a Universal Basic Income is like trying to pry food away from a T-Rex.

It isn’t part of its mentality to throw around “free money” or have governments providing anything but the most basic services to citizens. Oligarchs and their cover organizations have spent billions in “dark money” to secure legislators who are hostile to “big” (i.e. effective) government, doing their best to discredit democratic institutions in the eyes of an increasingly cynical and disconnected electorate.

What major party or serious contender for power is out there agitating for Universal Basic Services for every citizen? Who is going to have the courage and chutzpah to “switch off the privatization and out-sourcing machine”, institute a “One Planet Tax” and impose the rest of  Bastani’s progressive and expensive agenda in a world bought and paid for by minions of neoliberalism?

To be fair, the book does have its moments. For instance, Bastani is proficient at providing short, snappy definitions:

Capitalism is described as “a machine designed to extract maximum value to shareholders at the expense of workers and service users”.

Privatization: “is not about improving outcomes or services, but pursuing a political agenda which redistributes wealth from the majority of society to a small elite”.

Neoliberalism: “reduces the capacity of public bodies to spend money while simultaneously intensifying social problems like homelessness and poverty. This means the only options to respond…are increasingly market-oriented”.

And, finally: “A green politics of ecology without the red politics of shared wealth will fail to command popular support”.

I also agree with Bastani’s insistence that we should replace the GDP, not with an “Abundance Index”, as he suggests, but something that measures the physical, mental and spiritual health of our citizenry, a Happiness Scale (“decommodify happiness” should be a meme passed on like a secret password, embroidered on t-shirts, stamped on buttons).

But those occasional gems don’t detract from this book’s wrong-headedness and sheer hubris:

“Our technology is already making us gods, so we might as well get good at it.”

“Under Fully Automated Luxury Communism we can lead lives equivalent to today’s billionaires…”

It sings the praises of technology but expresses little interest in human nature and our somewhat spotty historical record when it comes to slavery, exploitation, genocide, conflicts over resource scarcity, etc. Even so-called “free societies” have been built on the fruits of cheap labor and menial servitude.

Bastani posits a positive, hopeful future based on the most specious evidence while blithely ignoring crises that represent an existential threat to our species and are far more present and pressing than he seems willing to acknowledge.

Humans have never lived “wisely and agreeably and well” (quoting John Maynard Keynes) and we’ve never existed in a jobless, leisure society where our basic needs are met and I don’t believe we ever will.

If there is wealth, the priest-kings and charismatic leaders will use dogma and jingoism to take more than their fair share. If we complain, they will employ lethal force to terrify and constrain us. What else is new?

Capitalism might be flexible and self-replicating, but it will also fight fiercely for its survival, its ability to continue exploiting the many in favor of the few, chewing up more and more of our precious ecosystem, its greed barely held in check by weak laws, compromised lawmakers and a distracted populace.

Bastani feels that through some magical influx of abundance, capitalism will become a victim of its own success and be transformed into an economic system that better serves the common good.

I wish that were the case but fear his timeline renders his solutions, fanciful or not, moot. Our plight as a species must take precedence over capitalist wet dreams. We need to act today to save our living, breathing planet, not wait decades for dubious technological fixes.

And I shouldn’t have to say this but the solution won’t come from without, but within.

It starts with us. Speaking and acting collectively. Reforming when possible, revolting when necessary. Putting aside our differences, shouting in one voice, a deafening, prolonged clamor that can’t be, won’t be ignored. Demanding a sustainable, equitable, ethical future, one worth the blood, sweat and tears that will undoubtedly be shed in the course of bringing it to fruition.

Heat wave

Mutant Thoughts (ii)

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.

I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.

But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.

* * * * * * *

  • Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
  • More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
  • The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
  • My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
  • There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
  • Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
  • Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
  • That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.