Musing About Writing

I write to distract myself from parlous and morbid thoughts. After my first book Foxtrot was self-published, a second, Stardust, published more professionally, received decent reviews and an award from the local library. The third (Meteors) is now in press in Vancouver and will be officially launched soon. I’m currently writing more essays to be included in a fourth and final work to be titled Eclipse.

In terms of organizing principles, the first book was an autobiographic memoir, the second (including a condensation of the memoir) was a collection of 140 essays about human activity in four parts —writing, enquiring, believing, and laughing. The third book is another collection of 130 essays organized by topics into ten chapters, about matter, life, mind, belief, self, society, sounds & words, and all tied together with three final sections reflecting on time: past, present, and future.

The proposed final book will be in two parts, the first being a gradual progression from bright light to darkness, like the development of a solar eclipse from a dimming to total blackness, a metaphor of the fall of human civilization.

But it will conclude, again as does a solar eclipse, with a reverse progression from totality back to brightness, with a number of “lollipops” as literary distractions, describing the entire process of writing as a cosmic joke, epitomized by the last words of Falstaff at the end of Verdi’s eponymous opera: “Tutto nel mondo é burla … ma ride ben chi ride la risata final!” (Everything in the world’s a jest … but he who laughs last, laughs best!)

Do laugh indeed if you can, but bear in mind that because I’ve had no formal training in creative writing, I don’t write fiction.
Jaime Smith
July 2, 2022

The Wheels of Ixion

In the Greek myth, Ixion was a minor ruler who made the unwise decision to murder his father-in-law over money, and was obliged to seek purification for this crime from Zeus in Olympus. Once there, he seduced a likeness of Hera and fathered monsters, the race of centaurs. As punishment, Ixion was bound to a constantly revolving fiery wheel.

Some millennia later in the UK, a group of educated motorcycling enthusiasts formed an online mailing list in 1990, and attempted to name it Ogri, after the popular cartoon character of a British superhero style biker created by English cartoonist and illustrator Paul Sample in 1972. Permission to use this name however was denied under copyright law. Remembering the ancient Greek myth, a classicist member of the group suggested Ixion as an alternative .The motorcycling connection to Ixion is through the Reverend Basil Davies, who in addition to his religious vocation was a prolific motorcycling journalist who write for the magazine The Motorcycle from 1903 until his death in 1961!

Postings by members on their website were spontaneous, often involving beer and bikes, being topics arising naturally when “chatting down the pub” among bikers.

My personal involvement with the Ixion group arose during the severe arctic winter of 1996 when I was living and working in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where on some days temperatures fell well below -40°. Discovering their website while being confined indoors as a once active biker, I joined the group as an overseas member, happily sharing in the friendly chatter, and later bought a couple of Harley-Davidson “Sportster” motorbikes that I kept in the garage from October to April, but used in the summers to explore the Territory.

After returning south to Vancouver Island in 2001, for years I continued to personally meet and befriend members of the group, or “Ixies”, in person, on my many trips across the pond. We customarily gathered “down the pub” in London, York, Bristol, Newcastle, and I was welcomed to stay at homes of members in the UK. Some Ixies also visited me in Canada, first in Yukon and later on Vancouver Island.

I fondly remember a weekend among them at Hay-on-Wye at the sinister sounding and dowdy but comfortable Baskerville Hotel, enjoying the local ales in the evening, and by day on a borrowed bike, riding in a small group dodging sheep around the mountains and valleys of Old South Wales. From there I continued across to southeastern England, visiting Roman ruins. My last visit to the UK was in June 2013, when I met with the Ixies at their annual weekend excursion on the Welsh restored steam Talyllyn Railway at Tywyn.

A confirmed biker since 1958 in Argentina with a little NSU250 , I gave my final and 15th motorcycle (a BMW F650GS) to my grandson Hugh a few years ago, but try to keep in touch with Ixies, even if no longer aboard any wheels of fire. Approaching my 90th year in a few months, I may defiantly sport a black t-shirt displaying below the ornate title “Sons of Arthritis” an image of an old geezer on a motorbike, an Ixie to the end of his days.
June 29, 2022

Christian Theocracy a Bogus Enemy

American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, agreeing with the majority that states could ban abortion, called on the Supreme Court to reexamine cases allowing both LGBTQ rights as well as the right to contraception. “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell,” Thomas said in his concurring opinion.“We have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”
The 2015 Obergefell decision guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marriage; the 2003 Lawrence decision overturned a Texas law which made gay sex criminal. The 1965 Griswold decision allowed married couples to use contraceptives.

Apparently the US judiciary is being led by the nose of fundamentalist Christians into a theocracy intent on forcing human behaviour to comply with the Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew scriptures. The support of American billionaire capitalists is ominous, and the historic separation of church and state is fraying. Promotion of totalitarian ideology is more than on the horizon now, it is a sad and blatant political infection of American government, and I feel sorry for my friends and relations living there.

Canadian acquaintances remark to me about how glad they are not to be living in the country to the south, bristling with firearms, and now mired in a combination of superstition and greed, affirming an imagined deity to be their legal guide. The similarity of belief and process in the US with the totalitarian Russia of Vladimir Putin is nauseating. Official state atheism in China might superficially seem better, but these political-cum-religious conflicts are only frills compared to reality, the impending collapse of civilization secondary to global warming.

The distractions of these squabbles among those ignoring the approaching apocalypse seems tragic, for the real enemy is not widespread superstition and associated religious belief, but the inability of those in power to recognize the looming catastrophe, searching instead for a more congenial political assessment, as a distraction from the undeniable scientific facts.

June 26, 2022

End of the Road

Another fine sunny day, but like the aged Queen, I am imprisoned in a palace. She, constrained by her unchosen role, has whatever she wants other than her freedom, but then I too no longer have the freedom I once enjoyed, and am constrained by the Rules of the Halfway House where I dwell alone.

Like H.M. I can always have  a cup of tea, although no footman or lady-in-waiting to call for service. I can brew my own in my quarters, or else take the lift down to the mess hall where a machine is installed to provide inmates with their choice of  hot beverages.

She must endure the tedium of her duties, I the tedium of my own company, unless I choose to associate with fellow inmates, but they tend to vanish unexpectedly. She is also constrained by great age and its vicissitudes, as am I.  She can be conveyed to any destination, but I have no car or motorbike any longer and depend on the good will of a few others to leave. 

What does she do in her spare time? Does she have any spare time? We differ, in that all my time is spare. She is never granted any freedom to be alone; nor am I confined to solitary punishment, and am granted day passes when requested, though with a catch: I must return when I had advised the gatekeepers, or they would find me and bring me back.

I knew a local cardiologist who drove into the dense forest and laid himself down to die where it would be difficult to find his cold remains. Police hunted him. Radio and newspapers blared forth the always fascinating and voyeuristic news of his disappearance. Once the remains were found, silence

. A colleague later shook his head and told me that the poor fellow had been depressed, but as a doctor, felt he didn’t have the nerve to ask for “professional help”, whatever that is these days. Makes some sense I suppose. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to buy a one-way first class plane ticket to Switzerland to enjoy a nice dinner at a fine Swiss restaurant, and then go back to the prearranged comfy Zürich apartment, listen to some Bruckner or Bach, fearlessly swallow the prescribed lethal sedative and peacefully fall asleep, never to rise again.

Not an option for H.M. it seems, for it would sadden her subjects, nor for me, because it would be unkind to my friends or family. So we both must endure our crumbling lives such as they are. s She a role model for us all, whether royalist or republican.

But now its 09:01, too late for a second breakfast in the mess hall, of the announced dry mini cheeze omelette and the usual two rashers of overcooked bacon, with a couple of cold toasts. I will remain here today, secure for now in my comfortable quarters, surrounded by my books, with the thermal mug of coffee beside me on the desk, eat a couple of Timbits, read or write, exercise, nap, or just reflect on my good fortune, staring out the dirt encrusted window at the now deserted industrial landscape below my tower, the nearby yet distant town centre full of other Canadian humans going about their works and pleasures, with the distant but unattainable snowcapped mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in that cursed land of neofascists  and innocent victims that has no Queen.

June 25, 2022

From Kinsey to Grindr

After a strenuous two hour session last night playing with and against one another in rotating pairs, eight mature gay men relaxed together for drinks and snacks provided by the weekly hosts of this activity. Conversation turned to issues of language regarding sex and gender, and how it has gradually evolved over the years.

Same-sex desire and behaviour in both males and females is seen in many species, including homo sapiens, and has been considered amusing or undesirable at different times and places. In the culture of the ancient Hebrews, it was specifically condemned by their deity as an “abomination” in the Book Leviticus of the Torah, or Book of Laws. This negative attribute was subsequently adapted by the derived “Abrahamic” religions of Islam and Christianity, and persists to this day.

During the classical ages of Greece and Rome it was not felt to be a  major religious issue, according to the learned monograph Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (1988), by Finnish scholar, historian of ideas, and theologian Martti Nissinen.

Following the establishment of Christianity in the early IV century CE in the Roman empire however, the expression of same-sex desire among males was denounced, not only as “sin” but also became a crime. This view  persisted until the mid XIX century, when medical science began to recognize it as relatively common in humans.

In China, same-sex affection between males was celebrated early in poetry at the level of the imperial household. This attitude was destroyed in early modern times, mainly by the work of Christian missionaries, though the behaviour, being natural, persisted. A recent scientific study by anthropologist Tiantian Zheng in her researched book Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China (2015) describes this in detail.

Early work in Germany in the XIX and first three decades of the XX centuries by physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld to decrease stigma and repression of males with same-sex desire was a harbinger of the now enlightened social attitudes in many countries, though in some places such as totalitarian Russia under Putin and a number of former European colonized states in Africa it remains, if not a crime legally, at least the subject of official condemnation and repression. The story of Hirschfeld and his young Chinese collaborator Li Shiu Tong is retold in the recent work by American professor Laurie Marhoefer, Racism and The Making of Gay Rights (2022).

Appalled by suicides of homosexuals, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and World League for Sexual Reform in 1897. He continued to promote tolerance throughout the Weimar Republic years and later internationally. His institute in Berlin was destroyed in 1933 by the Nazis and his library publically burned. After he died in exile in 1935, Li continued his work until he too died in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1982.

Magnus Hirschfeld set the stage for gay rights, and Li lived long enough to see the rebirth of the movement, beginning in the US with the Stonewall riots in June 1969, provoked by police repression at a bar for gay men in New York City. The cause spread continentally and eventually worldwide. Pressured by its male and female members, the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of homosexuality from its diagnostic nomenclature by stages, and this was subsequently followed by the World Health Organization in its international classification of diseases.

Scientific support for the public normalization of same-sex desire emerged in 1958 with the publication of work by American sexologist Alfred Kinsey, noting its ubiquity, and documenting 38% of his cohort of adult males admitting to sexual orgasm with another male. Kinsey famously developed a scale of sexual orientation from 1 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual) to describe same-sex ideation and behaviour, noting there is a range of activity involving partner choice.

Since then, primarily same-sex oriented men have been joined as sexual minorities by lesbian women, as well as others perceiving themselves transsexual, psychologically differently gendered as male or female from that assigned at birth.

English speaking gay men have traditionally been called in gay slang”tops” (anal insertive) or “bottoms” (anal receptive), analogous (no pun intended) to heteronormative vaginal intercourse. However the existence of a relatively large group of same-sex active men eschewing anal sex altogether led to the internet dating contact site for gay men Grindr to recently add a position called “side”, for those finding fulfillment in every kind of mutual sexual act except anal penetration.

This new development was explicitly described in an article in the Guardian on 20 June 2022, citing evidence that a large number in a study by George Mason University in Virginia, which surveyed some 25,000 men self-identified as gay or bisexual, revealed that only 35% of them had participated in penetrative sex during their last sexual encounter.

This subject of language usage arose in an animated conversation among gay men over drinks and snacks after playing games last night. The drinks were coffee or herbal tea, the snacks were strawberry shortcakes, and the playing consisted of 16 hands of bridge.

June 24, 2022

Eats at the Halfway House

Recently having reread Thomas Mann’s 1929 Nobel prize winning novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), I was struck by similarities between its setting in a fictional alpine tuberculosis sanatorium in the early XX century, and the residence for the aged where I have lived since relocating last year from my rented apartment in Victoria, British Columbia. Tired of grocery shopping and boring simple frozen meals, I was enticed to move partly by the promise of nutritious and balanced meals three times a day.

Breakfast in my tower quarters consists of a pot of freshly ground and brewed coffee with a butter croissant, muffin or toast, fruit, yogurt and muesli. Sometimes I vary it with a bowl of instant porridge or raisin bran breakfast food, or even a sandwich of cheeze and salami. The fresh coffee is kept in a thermal mug and sipped throughout the morning. I prefer my own continental breakfast to the hot morning meals provided daily in the mess hall, of fried, poached, or boiled egg, accompanied by either overcooked bacon or tasteless little sausages.

Lunch quality varies. At times delicious, like a mixed salad with grilled fish or meat, other times only a sandwich of egg salad, a phony bland “banger” and mash, or a typical fast food item like chicken fingers, a cold “hotdog” or a soggy grilled cheeze sandwich. But other freshly made sandwiches are on offer at the “Courtyard Café”, and hot soups are generally good. Fruit and cookies, tea or coffee, juices and milk are always available, but never wine or beer as in Europe.

Dinners are outstanding, usually of gourmet quality, with meats, fish or other seafood, pasta or potatoes, and veggies. The dessert offerings look tempting, but as a rule I don’t have any.

It is my custom to request takeaway meals from the kitchen, preferring to eat alone in my quarters, with a local craft beer or a glass of good Argentinian Malbec wine, and at a later hour than is served down in the mess hall. Reheated in the microwave, the meals are almost always a treat and seldom a disappointment (as was once an ersatz cheezeless lasagna, devoid of any resemblance to either restaurant or home-cooked pasta.)

Unlike many of my fellow inmates with their assisted mobility devices, approaching my tenth decade I am fortunately still ambulatory. Friends or family take me out several times a week for meals and socializing, so there is usually a small array of frozen leftovers to reheat if I don’t feel like anything else. In general, the promise of good cuisine here is fulfilled, and I salute the management for preparing a variety of tasty and nutritious meals for inmates at this temporary “halfway house”, isolated from society not by illness as at the Berghof in Mann’s Zauberberg, but by age and disability.
June 19, 2022

Oligarchs: Worthy and Fetid

Oxford academics Alex Connock and Andrew Stephen contribute a fascinating account of experiments with artificial intelligence in The Conversation (UK) on June 18, 2022. They trained a computer to master the unique styles of writing by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill, and exhibit examples of AI creations that superficially resemble the distinctive patterns of expression by the original authors.

Nothing sinister here it seems, just having fun, and the two academics testify that they “do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.” So far, so good.

Their academic appointments however are with the Business School of the University of Oxford, a provider of neoliberal management education rebranded as the Saïd Business School in 1996, after a donation from billionaire Wafic Saïd. More and more interesting.

Wafic Rida Saïd is a Syrian-Saudi-Canadian financier, businessman, and philanthropist, the founder of TAG Systems Constructions SA, also the founder of Saïd Holdings Limited, a privately-held international investment company. His net worth is $2 billion. He is owner of the luxury yacht Zenobia, a private jet, and officially resides in Monaco. He helped facilitate the Al-Yamamah arms deal between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, then received Saudi citizenship by royal decree. Aha!

Like Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and other more powerful explosives used in warfare, who also founded the Nobel Prizes, the philanthropy of Walic Säid is commendable, but his fortune ultimately originates from the extraction of fossil fuels with the foreseeable result of human extinction secondary to global warming.

Unlike the deemed evil and unworthy Russian “gangster oligarchs”, whose yachts, private jets, and fortunes are being seized by the US and its NATO lapdogs like the UK in the name of “liberal democracy”, the possessions of Wafid Säid appear to be safely secure in his hands, insured by his philanthropic donations, including that to the Oxford University School of Business, where academics like Connock and Stephen can experiment with artificial intelligence and its possible contributions to profit in business ventures, That after all is what a “business school” does.

The catch however, is that the worthy “good oligarchs” and the fetid “evil oligarchs” both contribute to global warming and human extinction, by their profit-driven love of money, in the familiar words of St. Paul, “the root of all evil”.
June 18, 2022

Intrinsic vs, Extrinsic Qualities

When the Third Reich was in its death throes in early 1945 and being invaded by the victorious allied armies, a bound volume of XIV century music manuscripts was taken from a German church or monastery by an American soldier, his souvenir of the war. Theft of civilian private property or looting, has always been a feature of invading armies throughout recorded history. Considered a “war crime” these supposedly civilized days, it is formally discouraged but not prevented, and cries for “justice” by the defeated are regularly heard from ravaged Ukrainian civilians, whose personal possessions had been looted by invading Russian soldiers.
Such objects can be described in terms of their intrinsic qualities like shape, weight, constituent parts, and their extrinsic qualities, how they relate to others, such as values, symbols, or ideas.

Colonization by European imperialists led to looting of art objects from invaded lands, many of no extrinsic value in the minds of the looters, but some ending up in museums like the Elgin marbles in London. The book of stolen music manuscripts was eventually sold by the returning soldier, for whom it had no particular extrinsic value beyond its worth in dollars, to a used bookshop near a university campus, where Individual pages were ripped from the binding and sold individually.

I bought a page for $10.00 in the early 1950s, had it framed, double sided so both pages could be seen, and considered it a musical treasure throughout my many moves in and around North and South America. Downsizing recently, I gave it to a Vancouver choir director, rather than risk it ending up in some thrift shop after I’m gone . The extrinsic value of the manuscript could be thought of as either a treasured item of music history, or simply as loot, a soldier’s souvenir of war. The difference between how an object is perceived by others reflects its extrinsic quality among different observers.

In her short essay : A Fetus or a Child? of May 27, 2022 in the Times Literary Supplement, the Canadian philosopher Regina Rimi of York University argues that the ethical debate over abortion arises from conflict over only the extrinsic value of the contents of the uterus in a pregnant woman.

Distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic qualities, Professor Rimi concludes, “Our instinct in the abortion debate is always to find that one intrinsic property [like time since conception, weight, stage of development] that will settle everything. But extrinsic properties have moral weight too. When I enter a supermarket as a customer or as a thief depends on how I relate to the merchandise. In thinking about abortion, our focus cannot be on the fetus alone.”
June 12, 2022

Home and Homelessness

This essay was started by clicking on “home”, a site appropriately named, for every trip, be it physical, intellectual, or chemical, has to begin someplace. If not planned in advance, once having departed, consideration must be given about where to go, and issues of safety arise along with the choice of a destination, that possibly, but not necessarily, is the same place one left as in baseball, where “home” is where players start from and to which they hopefully return. Intermediate places of safety exist, called first, second, and third bases, but they are only temporary refuges, and one caught in the spaces between them is declared “out” of the game.

The game of life superficially resembles baseball, in that early existence is usually protected in a home base of some kind, providing food, shelter, and security until the organism is capable of providing these for itself, leaving home, able to reproduce, and generating a new organism to begin the cycle over again.

Complications arise. Being called “out” in a baseball game is equivalent to causing death in a living organism before it has an chance to safely reach “home”. Baseball is a team sport, in which one group of players attempts to win the game by defeating its opposition. A similar situation arises among groups of organisms that interfere with each other, all trying to secure a safe place to survive and reproduce, — a nest, a den, a burrow, a “home”.

When the groups involved are human beings, this competition is sometimes called “war”, an activity that attempts to destroy the homes of competing sides, deliberately causing homelessness, as seen in refugees.

Homelessness of course exists in non-martial settings, often the result of neglect or lack of protection by a family, sometimes the result of physical or mental illness, and often the consequence of economic instability. Political systems in Sweden and Finland recognize homelessness as a social evil, outlawed by considering having a place to call home to be a human right and providing one; I never saw a homeless person in Stockholm or Helsinki.

Other jurisdictions like the UK and USA mostly ignore homelessness as a situation likely caused by the homeless themselves, unworthy of social support, ignored, and simply called “out”, like a baseball player unable to reach home, caught between bases by the opposition.
June 9, 2022

The Royal Fugue

In the spring of the year 1747, King of Prussia Frederick the Great invited the elderly Leipzig musical wizard Johann Sebastian Bach to his palace in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin. Frederick took pleasure in music since his youth, playing the flute when not invading the neighbours with his soldiers. His palace became a centre of the European culture we call the Enlightenment, with resident guest luminaries like the French philosopher Voltaire, celebrating a new cultural path of reason beyond sterile religious dogma.

Bach had been renowned in musical circles for his ability to improvise at the keyboard, especially in what by that time was considered stale and old-fashioned baroque music of the fugal and contrapuntal style, predating the coming classical works of Haydn and Mozart. His son Carl was in the service as court musician for King Frederick, and though not alienated from his father, associated himself more with newer forms of musical composition. He may have been responsible for the origin of the fugal theme.

An “invitation” from royalty being more of a command, Bach senior arrived at the court after an uncomfortable two day journey by carriage from Leipzig. That evening he was presented with a challenge by the King, and asked to improvise on a three part fugue for a fiendishly difficult theme. Bach famously briefly considered his options, sat down at the keyboard and complied, astonishing all in the room with the spontaneity of his creation..

King Frederick then slyly asked the old man if he could double the complexity to six parts: Bach replied that he would have to think about how to do that and returned to Leipzig. After a few weeks he fulfilled the challenge, sending a written score back to the King, oddly calling it A Musical Offering. (In German the word for offering ‘Opfer’ conveys the meaning also of ‘victim’, in the sense of a ‘votive offering’, so the title may be understood as perhaps a subtle jest by its composer.)

This tale inspired a fascinating double biography of King Frederick and J. S. Bach, Evening in the Palace of Reason. Published in 2005 by journalist James R. Gaines, the chapters alternate between the King and the composer, their individual lives and works. It richly conveys the aura of the Enlightenment in Frederick’s court at Potsdam, a new locus of European culture in the mid XVIII century.
June 8, 2022