Berserker

If you want to run like a berserker, you need to run with a berserker. That’s my strategy for setting a PR at this year’s Muddy Sneaker.

Muddy Sneaker is a 20K trail race through Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY. Lots of  hills and water and, yes, mud. Some years more than others. You never know what sort of conditions you’ll encounter Upstate in mid-April. As the Muddy Sneaker web page promises, “The weather is guaranteed to be a mystery on race day.”

Could be snow, freezing rain, hot and humid. I’ve had opportunities to blame them all for my performance. But the greater mystery is usually…am I in any kind of shape to run the race? Some years I am, others not. Muddy is typically the first race of the season that really tests my conditioning. It tells me, with painful clarity, how much I’ve slacked off during the winter.

This year will be different. Because I’m training with a guy in my age group who consistently bests me whenever we race together. I figure, if I match him pace for pace, mile for mile, in the months leading up to the Muddy, I should be able to hang with him all the way to the final brutal hill – The Demoralizer – and then, perhaps, have a shot.

I acknowledge that there’s a flaw in this strategy. If I trained twice as hard as Joe (which would be impossible, but hypothetically speaking), I would never BE Joe. Behind Joe’s mild-mannered facade lurks the spirit of a berserker. He can ignore pain. He runs every hill. His discipline is iron-clad. He’s followed the same training regimen, on the same course, three days a week, FOR THIRTY-FIVE YEARS. He swims in Lake Ontario at least once a month year-round – unless the ice is too thick to break through or two jagged to walk on. He fasts for two weeks every February, subsisting on a secret concoction of maple sap and lemon juice, and loses 15 pounds in the process.

I can’t do any of those things. But if I run with him, maybe some small shred of the berserker will rub off on me – enough for me to keep him in sight during the first 11 miles of the Muddy and perhaps on his heels up the Demoralizer. Maybe I’ll learn how to flip that berserker switch at the right moment and become something else, something wild and unthinking and impervious to pain. A berserker for an hour or a minute. Isn’t that something we all want to experience? I figure it’s worth running around Cobbs Hill reservoir three nights a week all winter. To see if it’s possible.

And maybe to set a Muddy Sneaker PR.

 

I Miss John Thaw

Most of what I knew about John Thaw I learned from Inspector Morse. Because they were the same person, although not the same persona. I first knew Morse, the crusty British homicide inspector, and developed a fondness for him – his aspirational love of literature, opera, and classical music. His disdain for contemporary culture. His poor Sargent Lewis, who took the brunt of Morse’s abuse and his superior, elitist attitude. Morse drank too much – loved a good bitter – and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. He struggled to articulate his softer emotions, so when he did, it was heady stuff. When he fell in love, he fell hard. And when it didn’t work out, as was always the case for one reason or other, he took it stoically and buried himself in his work or his books or booze, and returned to his solitary life.

It was much later that I met the actor, John Thaw, who was completely unlike Morse in most respects. He was sensitive and vulnerable and not afraid to laugh at someone else’s joke and didn’t have an elitist bone in his body. But his was an incredible actor who persevered for years to rise from his humble beginnings to play Shakespeare on the world stage and earn accolades worldwide. I was amazed that one man lived inside the other and wondered if that wasn’t true for each of us. I liked them both for different reasons.

When Morse died on screen, and Thaw died in real life, I felt like I’d lost two friends, or brothers, or fathers. When I see John Thaw in old Inspector Morse episodes, I want him to be alive again. It tears at me if I let it. And I wonder why. Sometimes I listen to the theme music over and over and wish I was hearing it for the first time.

But of course. The music. How does music work? It taps into your emotional memory. I learned to love Morse when I was married and the kids were small. The weekly broadcast on WXXI, our local public TV station, was one of those evening rituals my wife and I would enjoy after the kids were in bed. We would hunker down (maybe with bowls of rum raisin ice cream) on the living room couch in the blue glow of TV screen and lose ourselves to Morse and the towers and quadrangles and pubs and punts of Oxford. Oh yeah, and the murders that Morse would solve – eventually. That was the other thing I liked about him. He made mistakes, but always seemed to right himself. Or at least accept being righted.

I have the theme looping on YouTube as I write this. Just missing Morse and everything connected with his memory. I suppose I should think of it as a celebration. I’m sure John Thaw would want it that way.

Requiem

I doubt anyone in Eastman Theater’s Kodak Hall last Thursday evening for Mozart’s Requiem was thinking about Count Franz von Walsegg – the man who commissioned the work – or his mysterious employer, or the mysterious employer’s deceased wife, for whom the work was purportedly dedicated. You can’t listen to Mozart without thinking about the artist, the brilliance of his spirit and the tragedy of his short life. His music is a window into his soul; it brings him to life in us two centuries after his death.

Everyone should be so remembered.

My father and mother, for instance, who instilled in me a love of classical music. They had listened to Requiem, somewhere, at some time. They might have played the LP on Dad’s tube stereo that occupied the corner of the living room at 84 Hillcrest Drive. Or earlier, at the house in Burnt Hills, through the Tannoy duel cone speaker in the “folded horn enclosure” Dad had painstakingly cut and assembled from plywood. He loved classical music all his life, right up until his long decline, when he became preoccupied with the end of things rushing at him, like an upwind wildfire on the horizon. That makes a mesmerizing sound, too.

And my sister. I have some of her albums in my collection, rescued from the converted barn on the property she loved in Italy Valley, New York. The place is too cold and isolated in the winter and the deer flies are murder in summer, but three or four months of the year it’s heaven; in spring, the air perfumed by the ancient lilac looming over the smoke house, by the sweet smell of cut grass and hay in autumn, the view of the valley from the berm of the pond on the hill. After she took the job at the library, she lived in Brighton, but she never moved out the the barn. When she’d escape to the farm on summer weekends, her collection of vinyl was always waiting for her. The mice are feasting on what albums remain on the shelf. They like the cardboard, for some reason.

I thought about them, and others who’ve gone ahead, as Mozart’s Requiem brought the audience to tears and ecstasy. A thousand people, transfixed, channeling their grief into this one shared experience, this moment, a stranger 200 years gone, before applauding and zipping up their coats and venturing out into the chill, alone with their dead.

I went to Salinger’s instead to drink some beers with the living for a while.

 

 

 

Writing the Weird

“The strangeness of the world at large has finally caught up with our capacity for imagination” – Ross E. Lockhart

I believe there’s some truth to the old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” As I seem to be somewhat behind schedule in achieving worldwide fame as a writer of fiction during my lifetime, I am pursuing the more modest goal of leading writing workshops at Rochester’s literary center, Writers & Books. Modest in some ways; demanding in others. Critiquing is one thing; demonstrating knowledge of a genre is another. My foray in to speculative fiction a year ago forced me to do some homework so that I could, at the very least, answer the question, “What the heck is speculative fiction?” As it turned out, I never had to, not head-on anyway. No one signed up for my “Writing Speculative Fiction” course the two times it was offered. I changed the title to “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” and nine people showed up. Apparently, people would rather write in genres they are familiar with than one they’ve never heard of.

But spec fiction is real – it’s a thing – and I managed a bait and switch in the one-day spec course, twisting the conversation and writing exercises toward the speculative. A good time was had by most. And then, after another year dwelling in the spec world and drilling down, following clues and currents, exploring rabbit holes and rat holes along the way, I found myself in the sub-sub basement of spec, a smaller and darker chamber carved out of the bedrock, called The Weird. Strange as it may seem, that’s a thing, too.

Weird Fiction

According to Wikipedia, “Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be said to encompass the ghost story and other tales of the macabre. Weird fiction is distinguished from horror and fantasy in its blending of supernatural, mythical, and even scientific tropes.”

Think Poe. Think Lovecraft.

Contemporary weird author Jeff VanderMeer and his wife Ann VanderMeer are perhaps the leading curators of weird fiction today, having published a massive anthology (The New Weird) of short weird works spanning the last 100 years. The Weird Fiction Review is also one of their projects. This (which includes Lovecraft quotes) is from the introduction to their site:

[Weird fiction] represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature”—through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.

The Weird can be transformative—sometimes literally—and it entertains monsters while not always see them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges that failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.

Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it.

The Weird in a modern vernacular has also come to mean fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark frisson of the unknown and the visionary.

The New Weird

I like weird. It suits me. Especially the “new weird,” which seems to me to be exactly the right fiction for the world we live in today. The new weird was born in the 1990s and explores a broader range of metaphysical questions, pondering the mysteries of the universe. It’s about the existential impact of confronting the unknown, which may be horror, or awe, or some other transcendent experience.

The introduction to the anthology The New Weird defines the genre as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”

Robin Anne Reid, from Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Overviews, put it this way: New weird fictions “subvert clichés of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends.”

Fiction that Reflects Today’s World

If the world seems surreal to you these days, that’s because it is. Weird fiction is a consequence:

“Weird fiction tends to be fundamentally concerned with eliciting an effect of disquiet, displacement, and alienation in the reader… Instant access to information, images, video, and other media from all over the world has given the author two things that I think contribute to the New Weird’s even greater tendency to experiment than its forebears: 1) more source material, ideas, and perspectives from cultures that differ from one’s own, and 2) more competition in the sense that it is easier than ever to be exposed within a few seconds to the horrors of the real world, which the writer must both distill and transcend.” – Christopher Burke

The world is weird. You can’t escape it. But you can embrace it. And if you happen to be a writer, it’s a rich source of raw material, which, more than ever before, is truly stranger than fiction.

“The Ill Wind that No One Blows Well”

I’ve taken up the french horn. When I pick it up to play, my cat slinks out of the room, her ears flattened to her head. Proof positive that cats CAN be trained – at least to avoid pain.

The horn was originally my brother’s. When he upgraded later in life, he passed it along to my father, who used it to make sounds that entertained my niece when she was very young. But it’s not an easy instrument to master, especially with dentures, and it ended up in his upstairs closet, where I found it, in its original case, covered with dust, wedged in between two rusting file cabinets, a week after he died.

I added it to my collection: two trumpets (also originally my brother’s), two ancient trombones (I don’t remember how I came by them), two serviceable saxophones (a tenor and a soprano), a cello (my mother’s), a viola (the one instrument I actually played back in the day), and a set of entry-level congas.

I don’t acquire as much as accumulate. I’m the shore – stuff washes up on me. Ninety percent of everything in my home came to me from deceased relatives. The rest from living relatives. I mentioned this to a friend who knows me too well and she nodded and observed, “you’re passive.” I objected. “We’re not talking about relationships with people,” I said. She shrugged. “People, things, whatever.” I proved how active I could be by making her lunch.

I’d been thinking about learning (or relearning) how to play one of the instruments in my collection for a long time, and – inspired by the second movement of Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major – I decided on the french horn. In the last several months, I’ve nearly mastered Lightly Row. Notes in the higher register give me trouble – I have to press the horn to my lips with such pressure that it’s pushing my incisors out of place. And yet, there is something gratifying about making such a racket.

My brother is an accomplished player and is pleased that I’ve taken it up. We’re an ocean apart but I hope, some day, we’ll sit down and play together. A duet perhaps. I have a two-part score for Lightly Row. If only I can keep my teeth til then.

What is True “for All Nations and Religions”

Wouldn’t that be nice to find? I guess each of us needs to find it for ourselves. I was lucky – my father found it and passed it down. It wasn’t easy for him. No matter how rational we are, we still look for something beyond. It can make you crazy – to know one thing and hope for another. To hold both in your head, until the day we take that last breath that we know is coming for all the years we distract ourselves from thinking about it. But that’s what makes us human.

My father lived the last 27 years of his life in Glens Falls, NY. In the Fall of 1982, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Glens Falls Post Star newspaper. It was published in the “Your Viewpoints” section. I have a photocopy of the article on my refrigerator, but I don’t want that to be the only surviving copy. So here it is, reproduced in full.

Reconciling Modern Science with Religion

Editor:

Readers who may be concerned about reconciliation of religious beliefs and progress in science may be interested in an article that appeared the September issue of the British science journal Nature.

Entitled “Twelve Wise Men of the Vatican,” the article summarizes a recent meeting of scholars at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Participants included paleontologists, geneticists, and molecular biologists from six countries, chaired by Carlos Chagas, president of the academy and scientific advisor to the pope.

The following is taken from the Nature article:

“The highest scientific body of the Catholic Church produced a strong statement supporting the evolutionary hypothesis as the explanation for the origin and diversity of living primates – just a few weeks after the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s death… The pope reportedly takes a keen interest in the activities of the academy.”

This acceptance of scientific verities brings to mind the address of  Pius XII to the academy in 1946. Recognizing “that insights and perceptions of science are irrefutable,” the pope described and accepted the conclusions of astronomers and physicists related to the formation, properties, and evolution of the universe as known at that time (quoted from “The Bible as History,” by Werner Keller, translated by William Neil, author of “Harper’s Bible Commentary”).

In conflicts between religious dogma and scientific findings, science eventually prevails. This relates not only to the inductive methodology of science, but to its supra-sectarian constituency; all nations and religions are represented in science.

It is, however, not obvious that science and Christianity must be in conflict. The most significant and profound truths of the Old Testament and in the teachings of Jesus transcend dogma and are not at odds with the findings of science.

An integration of Christian theology with modern scientific humanism would generate greater spiritual force than either alone in coping with present, worldwide, societal problems.

Winfield W. Tyler
Glens Falls, NY

My father was not a genius. This is just rational discourse. And yet, look at what’s making headlines these days. As Einstein said, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Starting with each of us.

 

 

 

 

Stollen Moments

The only time I have any ideas anymore is first thing in the morning. Or second, if you count coffee. Third, if you count a little fruit bread on a white porcelain plate, absolutely still, in the diffuse morning light washing over the kitchen table. Diffuse, because the big kitchen window faces north, overlooking the backyard, under the canopy of towering maples. Still, because everything is at that hour, inside and out. Still enough for thoughts to precipitate out of suspension.

The radio whispers in the corner, on the counter, which, is a more modern kitchen, might be occupied by an appliance garage. It’s the birthday of American novelist Francine Prose, according to Garrison Keillor. A novelist named PROSE? And I think, of course, it’s April Fools’ day. But it’s no joke, and he goes on with a straight face, or straight voice anyway, and mentions her 2006 book on writing, “Reading Like a Writer,” which I’ve heard of but never read. Because why would a writer need to read it? If you’ve done any writing at all, had your stuff workshopped, critiqued the work of others, spent any amount of mental energy TRYING to write well, you already read like a writer. You can’t help it, and that can be a problem.

Because the critical faculty can cripple the creative one. What we need is a guide book titled “Reading Like a Reader,” reminding us how to appreciate the art of the written word without constantly looking for flaws and ways to improve it. No doubt it would cure many a case of writers’ block.

The challenge is to write like writers and read like readers – and that goes for reading your own stuff as well. To avoid self-censoring yourself into silence. And to allow yourself to enjoy your work and the work of others for what it is.

Change Agent

It’s been so long since my last post, I’ve forgotten my password.

For months leading up to the workshop at Writers & Books, I gorged on sci fi and spec fi, trying to make up for years of not reading – or reading crap. Crap being writing that doesn’t unlock any rooms in your head, that doesn’t show you things. That doesn’t take you somewhere you don’t want to leave. Or can’t leave, even if you want to.

One of the authors I’m reading lately is M. John Harrison. I read “Light” and moved on to “Nova Swing,” which takes place in the world  – no, the universe – the Mr. Harrison has created in these thin, dense novels that bushwack you with mind blowing images and ideas. More than that – he nails aspects of the human condition that each of us thinks are ours alone. I’m getting close to the end of Nova Swing and am encountering literature that is absolutely genre agnostic, a thrill to find in a novel that is classified – because everything must be classified – as sci or spec fic.

It’s a paradox: it’s the universality of ideas that make them feel personal. This, for instance, spoken by Lens Aschemann, the existentialist detective haunted by the spirit of his dead wife:

“When I left Utzie,” he said, “she would dial me up and say, ‘People think it’s a failure to live alone, but it isn’t. The failure is to live with someone because you can’t face anything else.'” He chuckled. “Two days later it would be, ‘Cooped up with yourself 24 hours a day, that’s life, without remission. Lens, the worst thing in the world is to be inside yourself, you don’t even want to be rescued. Yet to be as happy as we were – to be so open to someone else – invites the failure of everything.'”

Was anything more true every written? All options are fraught. Most of us bounce from one to the other, ricocheting off pain like a pinball.

And later, when Vic Serotonin, an opportunistic “travel agent,” follows Elizabeth Kielar deeper into the twisted physics of the Event Site:

“The further off the beaten path Vic got, the more nervous he became and the easier it was to persuade him to take another wrong turn. It was what he had always feared.”

But it’s the thrill that keeps you going in the wrong direction, isn’t it? The unknown, inside or out. What you might encounter, or learn, or survive.

Makes for good reading, too.

 

Creatures of Habit?

Habit is a funny thing. It’s an amplifier. That can be good and bad. Washing your hands is a good habit. Doing it 50 times a day, not so much. It’s been said, and I think it’s true, that you can achieve great things if you control your habits. Discipline, in the form of habit, doesn’t feel like work. Exercise daily. Floss morning and night. Post to your blog every Sunday. (I was going to say, “post religiously,” but that would take this in a different direction.)

The idea seems to be: decide what you need to do to get where you want, train yourself to do those things habitually, then voila – you achieve your goal. Effortlessly! All you have to do is adopt The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and you’ll be, well, effective. At whatever you choose, presumably. Implying that otherwise you aren’t.

And no one wants to be thought of as an ineffective person.

Lately I’ve heard about some research on addiction that says it’s not chemical, it’s not genetic, it’s not a mental or physical dependency – it’s just habit! Habits cut both ways.

I have trouble with the concept of habit. That we do things without consciously making the effort to do them. I find it easier to believe that we do what we want. If we want to work toward a goal – and we ‘re not blocked by barriers of fear or time or expectation, or god knows what else (we all have our demons) – we do it and just may be “effective.” Likewise, washing your hands 50 times a day or drinking yourself blind every night might just satisfy some need, provide some pleasure greater than the damage it causes.

We never turn off our will power – we always choose. Whether it’s to post a blog or pick up a drink.

Take cats, for example. This entire post was inspired by the way mine likes to hang out in the tub after I get out of the shower in the morning. Is that a habit? Cats are mysterious. Dogs have habits. Cats do what they please and don’t give a damn about the rest. I like to think we’re more like cats.

 

 

THAT’S What I’m Talkin About

America’s Embrace of Ignorance

Politics, lies, religion, and “a new low in stupidity.”

UPDATE: No one embraces stupid like Sarah Palin…and whoever embraces her. Read “Sarah Palin’s American lobotomy: The Republicans keep making us dumber, and not even Stephen Colbert can save us

Disheartening. But there’s hope!

The American Psychological Association published a study that shows that Americans will stand by beliefs even when it is proven that their belief isn’t based on or can be proven by any kind of facts. This can be destructive, but that is up to the individual to change or not.

Politicians however, should be held to a higher standard because they make crucial decisions for the American people. …Barack Obama said it best when he said ‘You can ignore facts but you can’t deny the facts.’ The American people deserve honesty not deception, because that is the American way and it’s the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, you can’t expect a higher standard from politicians than that of the people who elect them. It’s hard to know where to begin. Preschool?