An Individualist Humanist in a Tribal World

Stand on a beach some time, somewhere well up on dry land. Above the high water mark. Notice you don’t drown.

Then walk down toward the water. If the wind is blowing and the water is rough, there will be a boundary region that’s maybe a metre or more wide where the land is wet but the water isn’t really there.

The boundary, the edge, isn’t really very sharp. In fact, the very word “beach” was invented because there is no infinitely crisp line between land and water. The edge is so fuzzy that it was useful to invent a word for the breadth of it: beach.

Keep walking, and pretty quickly you’ll be swimming.

This is important. Reflect on it: you started off on dry land. You ended up in water over your head. This despite the complete lack of any infinitely sharp dividing line between the two.

Remember this the next time you hear someone say, “Where do you draw the line?” as if the difficulty in drawing a line between two things means there is no difference between them. It isn’t easy to draw the line between land and water, but most of us still have no problem not drowning when we’re on the right side of it.

The world is not given to us in sharp, crisply divided categories. Water and land overlap. Good and evil blur into each other. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between them. It means that the sharp edges we draw between them are somewhat arbitrary. They are constrained by reality but not determined by it: anyone who decided that the appropriate place to draw the edge between land and sea fell somewhere in Saskatchewan would be wrong. But different people might will draw the line in different places on the beach.

Each one of them, though, will likely have the sense that there is a line, and that it is a sharp line, a discontinuity between land and water. That is because there really is a discontinuity: the discontinuity of our attention. We choose to attend to one side of the line as “water” and the other side as “land”. Our attention has no mass, no energy, no momentum. It can move vast distances instantaneously. It can react to changes in the world without us even noticing.

All edges, all crisp, discontinuous, categorical distinctions, are the edges of our attention, imposed on the world by us, constrained by the underlying reality if they are to serve our purposes as knowing subjects.

Not everyone has the same purposes, though. Many people–most people–go out in the world each day with the intent to divide, to Other, to tribalize. They use the way they attend to the world to draw lines around groups of people, to create edges within the human population: this group is separated because of skin colour, that group is treated differently because of their Y chromosome or lack thereof, or the way their sexuality is presented. Tribalists have a desperate need to use their attention to draw edges between groups of people.

Tribalists disagree both on where to draw their edges and what the relationship between the tribes should be. Most tribalists identify themselves with the dominant tribe and attempt to impose both the edges they draw and the value judgements they make on the tribes they have created by doing so. To one group of tribalists “Christians” vs “non-Christians” is the dominant division. To another “Progressives” vs “Conservatives” is what matters. To another it is “Whites” vs “non-Whites” or “Women” vs “Men” or “Gay” vs “Straight” or “Vanilla” vs “Kinky”.

All tribes are created by the edges of the tribalist’s attention to human beings. The world is not given to us in sharp edges.

Tribalists insist that the edges of their attention have traced out the contours of something that is real and important to the world, although unlike edges that are more usefully constrained by reality, tribalist’s edges are all over the place. Tribalists always end up insisting that they have special perceptions and that the people they are busying Othering not only lack those perceptions but are permanently unable to experience them.

This is a good way to win arguments, apparently, that has worked for thousands of years: claim special privileges and perceptions for yourself and your tribe and then viciously attack anyone who suggests you’re just a power-hungry wanker with an axe to grind. It worked for the Church for many centuries, and in the 20th century secular wankers got in on the scam in a big way.

To a humanist–someone whose understanding of the world is informed by a deep belief that nothing human is alien to me, that no one’s experience is beyond my imagining–these claims of special perception by one tribe or another don’t even look self-consistent: they necessarily claim to have special knowledge of what the other tribe can or cannot have special knowledge of, but once you have granted that one tribe can know things others cannot, how can you possibly claim to know what another tribe knows? Tribalism is necessarily viciously hierarchical and anti-humanist, because the answer to that question is always, “My tribe is special, and I will kill/shame/attack/destroy you if you dare disagree.”

So not only are the edges tribalists draw mutually inconsistent they are not even self-consistent unless you grant one tribe or another the privileges of special perceptions that allow them to tell all the other tribes what they are or are not capable of perceiving. Tribalists always end up claiming special privileges for themselves because they can’t defend their preferred divisions of humanity by reference to any interesting constraints found in reality. To gain power for themselves and their tribe is the only use and purpose that tribalist’s edges have.

Tribalists–like all humans–are only able to keep five or ten things in mind at once, and so they necessarily insist on imposing on hundreds of millions or billions of people a small, stupid, simplistic set categories that has almost no explanatory power regarding anything of significance.

Unsurprisingly, there is a war of tribalisms going on today.

That these tribalists are fighting for different tribal divisions and privileging different tribes within their preferred scheme of tribal hatred does not make one group better than the other. They are all equally sad, at root. Lost children, ur-humans, huddled in their caves and denying the humanity of others.

I am an individualist humanist, or possibly a humanist individualist. That is not my nature: I am, like everyone else, heir to the tribal impulses that have divided humans from each other for as long as their have been humans.

But like any ordinarily decent person I do what I can to overcome those impulses. I don’t found political parties or university departments or think tanks or websites dedicated to Othering most of humanity for power and profit.

I don’t entirely despair of humanity, despite current events. We have come a long way since when our tribe was our family, or our village, or our county. We now have tribes that span the world, and anyone who isn’t a completely hate-filled husk of a human being is trivially capable of seeing that what supposedly divides us is far less than what actually unites us.

We are all humans, sharing the common vagaries of the human condition, and we are all individuals, each unique in our perspective and experiences.

Our uniqueness is part of our commonality. We each of us know what it is like to be alone in the world, the only one who sees through our eyes, who knows and feels what we feel. It is something we all share with every other human being on the planet, and the unfortunate people who would divide us into tribes based on irrelevancies necessarily try to erase all of that. As artists and as human beings we need to politely decline to do so.

This is important, because not only does tribalism make our lives smaller and poorer and uglier, attempting to divide humanity into tribes or to unite individuals into tribes always results in a mess, often the large economy-sized mess known as “war”. Tribalists today are working hard to make that happen, because war serves their end: by convincing arbitrarily created tribes to hate each other, the people of their own tribe will band together more tightly. That makes tribalists feel less alone, more powerful, and more loved.

Tribalists lack the intellectual capacity to feel at one with humanity–to make humanity their tribe–so they necessarily choose a smaller division as their own, and then foment hatred and division to solidify the feeling of security they get from that. Tribalists thrive on hate because for them, love of humanity isn’t enough. Without the contrast of another tribe to hate they cannot feel fully bonded with their own tribe.

Tribalists, like all humans, need love, and they sow hatred to help them feel that. If we love them regardless of their hate-mongering and divisiveness we may be able to get them thinking on a large enough scale that they can see themselves as simply “humans” rather than left or right, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian. Of course, there is a rather strong implication regarding both the rule of law and a certain level of social and economic equality in that. It’s unreasonable to talk about our common humanity if we aren’t serious about making sure everyone is fed and has a roof over their head and is reasonably secure in their person.

Tribalists need love. I’m going to do my best to remember that in the coming weeks and months and years, as more and more of my friends succumb to the powerful and natural tribalist impulse, and willfully contribute to the hatred and divisiveness that is currently encroaching on our world.

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Notes on the Next War

There have been major populist movements in every century since the Reformation. The English Civil War was essentially populist, or part of a general populist upheaval with oddball hangers on like the Levelers and Diggers. The American Rebellion was likewise a populist uprising, as was the French Revolution. The Long Peace between 1815 and 1914 was an elitist era in the British Empire, and the Civil War was a populist revolt in the US. The wars and revolutions of 1914-1949 were populist in nature, driven by a belief that “the people” could represent their own interests directly in politics, possibly channeled through a World Historical Figure or Spirit that manifest the popular will.

Populism as a political movement pits the nominal will of a pure and homogenous people–“Old Stock Canadians”, say–against oppressive and corrupt elites. The NAZIs were a populist movement and Hitler was seen as a virtuous “ordinary man” by most Germans.

Typical NAZI-era joke: Hitler walks into a bar and orders a glass of milk. Everyone else in the bar rapidly orders milk, except for one old man who adamantly orders a beer. Hitler turns to him and says, “I am glad to see I am not the only honest man here tonight.”

My expectation is that there will be much fawning and kowtowing in the US and Canada in the next few months and years, as people reconcile themselves to the Autocrat and hope he will be nice to them. I have a sick feeling that within a year some of my progressive friends will be defending Trump as an honest man who tells it like it is, who puts on a good show, who hasn’t been as bad as they feared, who only wanted the Sudentenland and now will stop.

I have a sicker feeling that in keeping with past populist eras, there will be war.

Precisely how that will happen is too far ahead to predict. We live in a multi-polar world: India, China, Russia and the West all have potential to do damage, with Russia’s demographic decline and China’s Four-Grandparents problem (a mathematically necessary consequence of the One-Child policy) make them the least stable, most bellicose players. India and the West are natural allies. The Arab world is at best a bit player and disruptor in the absence of that special game-piece that is required to get noticed on the world stage these days. Pakistan is as close to non-aligned as one can get.

Trump’s supporters will tell a lot of lies about him. They will say that he has walked back his misogyny and bigotry, and that in his victory speech he repudiated his entire campaign’s modus operandi by saying he would be a president for all Americans. This is not a plausible statement, particularly when it comes without an apology or any sign of contrition for his many decades of moral incontinence.

It will not do to simply say, “OK, reset!” after over a year of public pandering to bigots and sexists. It will not do to simply say, “Hey, I’m going to govern well” after lying about almost everything, flipping positions for no readily apparent reason, and demonstrating a vitriolic vindictive streak. It will not do to simply say, “Trust me” when he proved he can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account.

People do not get a clean slate in my book simply because they have won an election.

And Trump has already done damage. By even hinting that he might not honour America’s Article 5 obligations he is endangering the entire world. If I had to bet, I would bet that World War III will start with Russia invading Latvia to “liberate” the Russian-speaking population there. It worked pretty well for Hitler to do something similar in the Sudentenland.

At that point there are two options: either we fight under Article 5, or we don’t. If we don’t, we fight later. If we do… well, we fight.

Either way it ends badly.

There’s not a lot to be done. Nothing is going to induce Trump to behave sensibly. He is a very simple man: an arrogant bully who can’t stand to lose and will do anything necessary to “win”, where “win” is something he defines in such a way that it isn’t too hard to achieve. As a businessman he has been an abject failure by any standard except “I got mine”: he has left a trail of failed companies and investors behind him, while lining his own pockets, and for some reason he counts that as a success.

Brave men take risks. Trump has played things very safe for his whole career, which is one of the many reasons he’s been such a failure as a businessman. He’s never woken up in a cold sweat wondering where his next contract is coming from. He started with millions in secured credit and has done poorly with it sense, not even beating the S&P500 over the decades.

Will a cowardly bully like Trump risk war? Not deliberately, because he’s too gutless. But he’s also profoundly ignorant, and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. So he has already increased the odds of war without knowing it.

Trump has announced he wants to hold Nuremberg-style rallies during his term as president, which will help consolidate his status as Leader. He followers want a Leader, and as he makes the world more and more dangerous more and more people will follow him. That is what humans do: populists want a Leader, and they find one. The Leader does bad, stupid, ignorant things that make the world a more dangerous place. That leads more people to follow the Leader. who does more stupid things, which makes the world more dangerous. It’s a very simple process, and it always ends one way: in war.

“Not this August, nor this September; you have this year to do in what you like. Not next August, nor next September; that is still too soon; they are still too prosperous from the way things pick up when armament factories start at near capacity; they never fight as long as money can still be made without. So you can fish that summer and shoot that fall or do whatever you do, go home at nights, sleep with your wife, go to the ball game, make a bet, take a drink when you want to, or enjoy whatever liberties are left for anyone who has a dollar or a dime. But the year after that or the year after that they fight. Then what happens to you?” — Hemmingway, “Notes on the Next War”

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Reflections on Age

It’s not a particularly significant birthday in the decimal system. Not a big round number or anything. But I do notice that as each decade passes it’s around four years after the big round number that causes me to reflect more on age. As I see the big round number disappearing in the rear-view mirror I am more aware that I am here for a finite span of years and I’d better make the most of them.

It’s been a year of change.

At my last birthday I was still less than two months in to my current job and struggling pretty hard. I was managing a team of mostly new people who were learning to maintain and operate a software system that was extremely complex. Today we have it all well under control, and are working in a new way to simplify and streamline the development process under my guidance, and the company overall is doing good work in retiring technical debt while setting out in new directions.

So that’s a change: I think I can check off the “successful senior executive in an SMB technology company” box on my life list. There is still more to learn, so I’ll be sticking with it for a while.

My personal life had some challenges. I was in a long-term relationship that came to an end, although we have been able to transition into a viable friendship.

I bought a boat. I’ve taken some good trips. Likely one more this year, then some major upgrades over the winter: a composting head, and a rebuilt ice-box are the two big ones. Being on the water changes me, or at least rejuvenates me.

And there was much improv. Joe Bill’s improv intensive just before my birthday last year was life-changing, but not nearly so life-changing as Jennifer Peilak’s musical improv courses. I did really good courses with Instant, Second Storey and VTSL/ICI over the year, and all were valuable. The genre workshops with ICI were particularly good in terms of learning stuff about the way structures work in story. But nothing has come close to the joy, confidence, and pure fun that has come with musical improv, in part because of the amazing people I get to play with.

I don’t hear well, and grew up being told I can’t sing. I’ve been told I can’t do a lot of things, both growing up and as an adult, and while I rebelled against as much of that as possible, some of it slipped through.

When you think you can’t sing and you hate to look clueless, singing in front of people is terrifying. At this time last year it was easily my number one fear. Carrie and I had done a karaoke duet earlier in 2015, and with her support I could get through it, but it was a difficult experience. I was afraid. And I hate that.

So when Jennifer ran her first “Happy Jam” I signed up, and found the doors opening to a supportive, transformative environment that has continued to expand and offer new opportunities. There was a six week course on “Musical Improv Elements” offered after that, which I took. A group of us continued to practice together, and I’m currently taking a more advanced course with many of the same people.

It turns out I can sing somewhat, and while I’m still challenged in certain respects–new hearing aides helped a lot–I took singing lessons over the summer that have made a difference, and am practicing the operation of this odd instrument we all have within us. There’s more to learn, always more to learn, but it’s better to learn awkwardly than to gracefully remain unchanged.

I’m not afraid of singing in front of people any more. I do it at every opportunity. I don’t know where this musical improv journey is going to take me, but every single step has been more than worth the effort.

So that is another change that has occurred over the course of the past year, and continues to percolate through all aspects of my life.

I’ve written less prose than I had hoped, but I’m OK with that for now. I’ve done more writing for short film work than I’d planned, and that has been a learning experience and good fun.

Since I started dating again, I’ve learned that when I describe my life, people sometimes simply assume I am lying. This cracks me up, because it makes perfect sense, and yet it never occurred to me.

One of the fun things about breakups is they force you to look yourself sternly in the eye and say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” This isn’t the first time I’ve been through this process, having done a lot of work with a cognitive therapist when my marriage broke up, but coming back for another look turned out to be a good idea. I learned a lot about emotional development in infant humans, and can say with some confidence where my almost complete lack of empathy comes from. Some of it is my basic neurochemistry, which falls well short of anything on the Autism spectrum, although you can definitely see it from where I am. But some of it is due to a poorly developed interpersonal self, which is a result of some of the circumstances of my infancy. Knowing that, which has given me a much clearer picture of what I’m not doing well, I have figured out how to exercise the capacities I do have to see if I can improve them. I think it’s helping some. Time will tell.

That’s another change that’s still in progress.

I’ve written some good poetry and some I’m not so sure of, and maybe one of the best poems I’ll ever write, inspired by Hilary’s novel take on the mandala form. I’m working on getting a poetry business up and running–there really are such things, which produce poems for weddings and graduations, speeches and retirement parties and whatnot–and have a long narrative poem that’s a kind of Robert Service/HP Lovecraft mashup coming out in the next edition of the “Mythic Delirium” e-zine. I’m also working on a long poem that’s a take-off on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”–working title, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Ham”–in Seussian anapestic tetrameter. Beyond that, I have something more Homeric in the wings that might prove interesting.

There isn’t enough time in the day, and I’ve had some pretty intense periods of activity over the year, with just enough downtime to stay healthy. I’ve lost some weight and plan to lose more. It’s going slowly. I’ve been running again recently after a six month hiatus. My legs hate me.

After a year that has had more than it’s share of bumps, my life is more filled with joy than it has ever been. And there is more to come.

So here is my reflection on age: live well, be true to yourself, surround yourself with people who appreciate who you are and who want you to feel good about being who you are, and keep creating whatever it is you are moved to create. Keep learning. Embrace change. Do that, and getting older can be ridiculously joyful. There are sad and difficult bits, and you die in the end, but that doesn’t preclude joy. It’s right there. It’s all around us. It’s in us and of us. Embrace it, and grow old in it. That’s my plan.

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Not Dead Yet

Beneath the dark and cloudy sky
there comes a time to do or die
so screw the grave and give the lie
to the fear that lives in the hills.
This be the curse that is laid on me:
to be in the place that I need to be
to loose my hold and go falling free
like the wild wolf after its will.

[With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson:]

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Some surreal certainty suffices
to turn turgid temerity toward
ponderous political pronouncements
exhorting exceptional extremes.

Another asshole assessing America
finding fearful followers
groking gargantuan goals:
crime, corruption, Clinton.

Lying liars laying legerdemain
on odious obligers
who wishfully, whitely, wander
behind bellicose belligerence.

Trumpets trace tearful transcendence
down dreadful dialectic drifts
quite queer quislings
upend unending unities.

Nowhere nations naturally name
itinerate idiots idolizing
joking jesters jettisoning junk,
metastasizing miracles:
ludicrous, lazy, loquacious, lugubrious.

Killers keep
ridiculous riots repeating,
vile vicious victories
which would wreck

young, yearning yobs,
zealots, zeroes.

Why yes, this is a political poem, because the “conservative” movement is completely off the rails and flirting with fascism worldwide, and in the US is stripping off its clothes and getting ready to get into bed with it. Also: I like alliteration.

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The Speed of Light

[Hilary quite correctly pointed out there was something rong with this poem in it’s original version. This is the revised version, which I’m still not entirely happy with but which is better. The problem is the first quatrain came to be entire while greeting the sun from my balcony one morning last week. I noticed how different each day was as we progress toward the equinox, now less than a moon’s turning away. The rest of the poem, though, remains obscure to me. The original version can be found below.]

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past.
Each day beneath the sky so clear and blue
above the dew-dropped Earth that smells of autumn
winds of change are blowing straight and true
scrubbing down the world from top to bottom.
Each day the trees are turning brighter shades
of red and yellow, oranges like fire
lit by morning sunlight, burning glades,
unconsumed, growing each year higher.
Each day the changing light greets morning new
Each day there’s time and still much work to do.

Autumn is a season of renewal for me, and yet at this point in my life I’m aware–very aware–that there are quite likely more days behind than there are ahead. But there is still a lot I plan to do in the late summer and early autumn of my life, and I am in fact busily engaged in doing much of it, with more to come.

Original version:

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past
day by day. The speed of changing light
announces Autumn, parabolic curves
blow silent fanfare, welcoming cool Night
through the gates of evening to preserves
once ruled by Day alone. And yet there’s time
before cold Winter blusters through the gates
and freezes out the last remaining rays
of Summer sunshine with a glance of hate
making final end of all our days.
The changing light greets each morning new
And promises there’s time and much to do.

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Deep clear cold running water
down from shadowed upper bend
distance dancing with time’s daughter,
no beginning, without end.

Sunlight dappled river bed
cedar overhearing
what the roaring thunder said
down rapids, water rearing

over rocks and into pools
where currents softly twist
plaits of shadow, catching jewels,
like fireflies in the mist.

Down around the lower curve
still the rushing river leaps
past the rocks in graceful swerves
water running cold clear deep.

From notes taken on the path to Brandywine Falls.

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Putting the “Shake” in “Shakedown”

I took Murrelet out for a shakedown cruise this weekend, to Plumper Cove, a local marine park on Keat’s Island on the Northwest side of the entrance to Howe Sound. It’s an easy day sail from here, about five hours in typical conditions.

spring evening at anchor a family of river otters sculls silently toward shore their small heads poking above the water's surface

spring evening at anchor
a family of river otters
sculls silently toward shore
their small heads poking
above the water’s surface

There was a strong wind warning up Saturday. Out in the Strait, there were winds gusting up to force 7 on the Beaufort scale, which looked a lot like this: the long streaks of foam are what really distinguish it from 5-6 in my mind.

But before getting to that, I had to get out of the north arm of the Fraser.

As the Fraser approaches the sea it splits in three: the south arm contains most of the river, but the middle and north arms have plenty of traffic, both industrial and recreational. The north arm is protected by a breakwater on the south side, and runs along the coast toward Point Gray, exiting into the ocean at Wreck Beach.

One of the fun things about sailing in Canada is some of our most popular sailing grounds have some of the nastiest water. I know a guy who has sailed all over the world, including off South Africa, and he says for his money the water between the mouth of the Fraser and Howe Sound is the worst in the world. I tend to agree: the confluence of waves, winds and currents mean that there are multiple patches of disorganized waves, or steep, short waves that make for a very rough ride. I got the latter exiting the Fraser, the former as I crossed over toward Howe Sound.

Murrelet is a 29 foot sailboat, with a nicely sized Yanmar diesel that never seems to do much work but moves the boat pretty well in all conditions. I was grateful for it Saturday morning as she dug her nose deep into wave after wave while I bulled through the transition from river to ocean. I’m a reasonably fit, strong, man who knows how to ride a boat well, but even hanging on to the steering stanchion and doing my best bobbing and weaving rather than fighting the motion, it was work. There was lots of crashing from below as things I hadn’t stowed quite well enough came out of their assigned places.

The tenders were a bit loose on the foredeck, despite my having tied them down earlier. I hadn’t anticipated quite so much bouncing. They did stay in place, more-or-less, although it looked like I might lose one overboard at one point. I simply ignored them while conning Murrelet through the mess. A sailor’s priorities are very simple: keeping the ship matters; nothing else does.

I saw a number of boaters turn back at the transition zone, and reasonably so. And I talked to a guy on the docks today who did the same. Knowing your boat and your own capabilities are critical to safety.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only five or ten minutes, I was through the worst and got the jib up, which hardened the boat up a lot. Sailboats want to sail. The wind being what it was, I cut across to Point Atkinson through more dirty, conflicted water. Unlike the stuff at the river mouth, this was just disorganized, with large waves moving in several directions at once. We take this stuff for granted on the West Coast, but it really is something that most places don’t have to deal with. Lucky them.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

On the good side of the ledger: Murrelet came through with flying colours. She handled easily and took as good care of me as was possible under the circumstances. She bucks and screws pretty hard under the right circumstances, but she’s predictable, which is really important.

I did learn some things about her:

1) The autopilot motor should be mounted pointing forward. If you put it on backward it not only gets in the way, the poor electronic brain thinks port is starboard and vice versa, resulting in uh… sub-optimal performance.

2) It is surprisingly easy to lose the manual bilge pump handle overboard when you do not properly seat it in the pump bellows, which results in it flipping out of your hands on the up-stroke and spinning through the steps of the pulled-up swim-ladder, to be lost to the ocean somewhere off Bowen Island. The shear elegance of this event is not to be under-estimated: if it hadn’t been spinning end-over-end in just the right way it wouldn’t have made it through the ladder steps. It was really quite entrancing. Although it does mean I have to buy a new pump handle.

3) The windlass for the anchor has a separate switch under the chart table, outboard. I knew there was such a thing but could not for the life of me remember where it was, all while drifting in Plumper Cove in the hope of anchoring. Anchoring theater is something sailors live for, and I’ve seen people spend twenty minutes trying to catch bottom, to the quiet amusement of all around. I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I did what any confident, capable sailor would do: I called the previous owner, and said, “Hi Lillian, it’s Tom. I’m trying to anchor Murrelet. Where’s the breaker for the windlass?” Fortunately she was home. Note to new boat-owners: always keep the previous owner on speed-dial. My last boat I got a call about six weeks after she sold, adrift off Sidney, wondering if there was some trick to getting the engine started (there wasn’t, although I hope the advice I gave him about checking the electric fuel pump was useful.)

4) The anchor rode is marked every 25 feet with red paint and yellow zip-ties. It’s all chain, so you can’t tell when the anchor is on the bottom because the chain always hangs vertically under its own weight instead of going slack like nylon does. Every boat I’ve had with all chain rode has 25-foot markings. Maybe it’s some kind of ISO standard I don’t know about. If it is, it’s the only thing about sailing that is standardized.

5) I cleverly double-reefed the main before leaving port, as I knew the wind was high, but I’ve literally never reefed a sail before (other than roller reefing a jib, which doesn’t count) except to practice. It turns out you want to make sure the out-haul is taunt before you tie the reef-points, or you wind up with something pretty creased and ugly (see picture, above.)

Overall, it was a really good first trip. Despite heavy use of sunscreen I got way too much sun on my face, but there are much worse problems to have.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

I think Murrelet and I are going to do well together.

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Notes on Genre and Wants

Notes from Graeme Duffy’s Soap Opera genre workshop at VTSL, which was run with their new intensive gym format of two weekend afternoons followed by a performance:

These are general notes, not specific to the form, although the observation that the soap opera form provides a template for relationship drama that can be transplanted into different contexts–medical, legal, whatever–really helped focus on how the stories are always about relationships.

1) Things gel. Our first run-throughs were rough and awkward. We were trying stuff out and sometimes it felt not so good. We trusted in ourselves as individuals and a group and it all came together nicely. This has become a common enough experience for me that by the time we were on our second run-through on the first day I was confident in our ability to get it amazing in the end, even though I didn’t see how w we could get there from here. This is similar to the process in technical problem solving where you reach a point that you know you will find a solution to a problem even though you do not yet know what that solution is.

2) The inner life of characters. Graeme commented on the life-history of his hunchback character, to the effect that, “That guy as has been in thousands and thousands of scenes. All of that informs who he is.” This was a really lovely way of identifying the value of characters who recur in your own work, because you are discovering how that character reacts in a wide range of situations, which is especially useful because…

3) Play the scene, not the narrative. Let your character do what they would do in the scene, with only local, in-scene concerns as the focus. The narrative will (mostly) take care of itself. Stories want to be told. Carrie later mentioned a thing by TJ and Dave where they talk about how all the stories we tell are going on before we tell our part of them, and they go on after we have stopped telling our part of them. Terry Pratchett talked a lot about this too, as have others. Narrative causality will take care of the big picture. All we have to do is be that character in that scene.

4) Wants. We only started playing wants heavily the second day, and it both made everything easier and made manifest how wants affect the story.

It made everything easier because every story became the story of various people pursuing their wants and either failing or succeeding in fulfilling them. It’s that simple. That is what a story is: someone with a want either fulfills it or does not. If there is more than one person in the story there are multiple wants and they can come into conflict, but that conflict is not what drives the story. The wants drive the story.

Given that, it’s no surprise that when the wants changed, the stories changed. We did a couple of run-throughs where characters had different wants, and it was like a little controlled experiment on how wants change the story. It might be interesting to do a “Wants Workshop” where we focus on a few characters, and simply do repeated scenes with different wants and see how that results in different stories.

It was also interesting to see how individual characters’ wants sometimes diffused out of their own storyline and into the broader narrative–Joe Jone’s desire to do down Tate Powers ended up as a pretty general conspiracy against the poor guy.

Overall this was one of the best improv workshops I’ve done, easily in the top three. Graeme did a fabulous job as always, and I couldn’t have been with a better group of people. Thanks, guys.

Posted in improv, life, story | Comments Off on Notes on Genre and Wants


In the firelight stories grow
between the shadows, with the glow
of ember’s heat and flame’s soft light
while the darkness of the night
presses in and all around
the shadows dance across the ground.

Here within the circle’s magic
legends rise: comedic, tragic,
strange, compelling, sad, uplifting,
while the smoke is softly drifting
toward the stars where heroes dwell…
of their lives the stories tell:

Andromeda strains on her rock;
Heaven’s Shepherd guards his flock;
Crooked Running Water flows;
Great Fisher plants the summer rose;
Rahu and Ketu eat the Moon;
Haft-owrang’s seven sisters loom. [*]

Beneath the ever-changing sky
As the dawn is drawing nigh
When the fire is down to coals
Bodies curl for warmth, and souls
Entangle in the dark
Warmed by stories’ living spark.

[*] Greek/Sumerian/Chinese/Native American/Indian/Persian

I’ve been doing a lot of musical improv lately, thanks to the brilliant and wonderful Jennifer Pielak, whose work as a teacher and performer I cannot recommend enough. It has got me thinking a lot about music, and the human voice. Poetry in my world is speech before it is anything else, and music in some primordial sense is the sounds we make with our bodies. Instruments are great, but the vibration of the vocal chords, the clap of hands, the slap of flesh on flesh… these are the core of music. Without them, we would never have gotten to the piano or violin or whatever.

All of which reminds me of an idea that Matt Bernardo told me about once, that music, not mathematics, is the fundamental thing unifying all intelligence in the universe (it sounds way flakier than I intend when I say it that way, but so what?)

So I found myself thinking about hominds in the circle of firelight. The use of fire predates modern humans by at least half a million years. The smoke of burning woods smells pleasant to us, whereas other animals are generally not so keen on it. Fire, and the love of fire, is in our genes: we are descended from and evolve from fire-loving creatures. Who gathered in the darkness around the light, who made music. Not words, but sounds, rhythmical, melodic… together.

This poem doesn’t reach that far back in time, but it grew from the idea that gathering in the firelight to make music together is a primordial experience, uniting all human cultures everywhere.

Posted in evolution, music, poem, poetry | Comments Off on Firelight