Pick a Future, Any Future


surrounded by booksWhen I say that I am a voracious reader, I’m not exaggerating. In any given week I will get through about seven books, a slew of daily newspapers, and a bunch of junky magazines I drag home from the supermarket because I feel too guilty to just read them while standing in line to pay for my groceries.

And yes .. I’m a speed-reader. Always have been, just born that way. Most of my family are the same … speed-reading book junkies.

My tastes are catholic, and I routinely run the gamut between politics, humour, philosophy, current trends, and plain old fiction. I like mysteries and stories of alternate futures, worlds that might have been or are yet to come.

all our wrong todaysOne fascinating book that still has real estate in my brain is a terrific new novel called, “All Our Wrong Todays, ” by Elan Mastai, a Canadian screenwriter who lives in Toronto. Like every sci-fi movie or novel, the book presents another vision of what our future could or should look like.

In this case, Mastai asks us to hold two separate realities in our mind simultaneously, and see the beauty and the horrors in both. From the jacket,

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

     Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

     But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career and–maybe, just maybe–his soulmate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future–our future–is supposed to be.”

Since the book is set in current day Toronto, I sometimes realize I’m actually travelling on the streets referenced, half expecting to see Tom wandering by, struggling to find his place in this upside down world in which he’s found himself.

In the end, our hero comes to see that it is our every day actions and dreams that shape the future in which we find ourselves living. If you dream it, you can make it.

dystopian novelsWhile this book presents a fairly utopian future (that we j-u-s-t missed … ) the public’s interest in dystopian literature has been on the rise for .. oh, nearly two years now. It’s simply not possible to deny that the current reality of America’s highly partisan politics was postulated many years ago. Sales of books like It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis,Brave New World (Aldous Huxley,) 1984 (George Orwell,) Ready Player One (Ernest Cline,) and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood have boomed with each new outrage and indignity unleashed in the United States.

These books provide us with some idea of what can happen to any nation when individuals with a taste for dictatorship manage to snow the people for long enough to step into power. By the fall of 2016, I was already saying that I felt like Poland nervously watching Germany in 1939. And yet, many still, even today, see nothing wrong with a national leader believing that the country over which they wield power, should be his personal property, run only by himself without dissent.

In 1990, attorney Mike Godwin came up with what was to become known as Godwin’s Law – the belief that, sooner or later, in any online argument, someone will bring up Hitler. It may be an inevitable consequence of free speech, and certainly is frequently used inappropriately, but by 2017, even Godwin said that Trump’s populist and fascistic campaign really did beg the comparison.

dystopia bookThe best dystopian novels are about characters like ourselves, whom we can cheer on through the worst times, and mourn when they suffer losses. We want to see how people react in the face of a world they have to navigate despite the viciousness of nature gone mad, or of all-powerful despots and their evil minions. The survivors are the rebels, the quick-witted, those who manage to turn a horrific society into a place where they can simply live without fear, against all odds.

They battle the commonplace as well as the absurd. In “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel‘s character faces a world decimated by what seems to be a mutation of the common cold.  In “The Age of Miracles,” Karen Thompson Walker‘s young heroine struggles to find meaning in a world where the sun has slowed, and the days become longer and longer.

Does our interest in alternate – and especially dystopic –  futures stem from an attempt to  control the outcomes? Act as a sort of “SciFi Survival 101” handbook to coping with the possible pitfalls which may arise?  Soothe our worries of how to live in our current reality by reading about futures impossibly worse?

I know that my dystopian readings alerted me early to where the Trump presidential campaign was headed, and what was likely to ensue if he was elected.

ciut bill kingIt’s funny – way back in October or November of 2016, pre-election, I was a guest on Bill King‘s radio show, along with Jane Harbury and Bob Segarini. I was asked if I thought Trump would win the election, and found myself the only person who thought it very likely to happen. Like Cassandra of legend, my predictions elicited only scorn. But I could see it and feel it, and I knew the world was about to change dramatically.

Sadly, I was right then, and can only hope that my other beliefs of how quickly and how tragically the U.S. will be damaged – perhaps to a point of no return – while the current administration tears down the nation, are exaggerated. Tho’ … I doubt it.

dystopian novels 2The sad truth is that the steady drip drip drip of horrific executive orders, ‘breaking news!‘ and the knowledge that the hands of the nuclear clock steadily move more surely to midnight, has already taken an enormous psychological toll on most thinking humans on the planet, leaving us more prone to mental and physical disorders.

Until the world feels a bit more like the grownups are in charge, I’ll keep devouring the novels that hold out at least a little hope for a brighter future, even if it’s only in fiction.

 

Surprise!


There was a power outage earlier this week. It was a day when I was actually a little ahead of the morning … I’d eaten, dressed, and was nearly ready to drag on my winter boots, when everything abruptly winked out.

cat speedbumpsWinter’s dark at the best of times, and the sun was barely out. I could make out the shapes of the furniture, but overall, I was just hoping that the cats weren’t lurking in the hallway, waiting to trip me up.

While I waited for the power to come back on. I was pleasantly self-satisfied for having prepared for the morning the night before. I had printed out some course work, checked that I had everything I needed for the next day stashed safely in my purse, and had my transit fare ready in my coat pocket. I was good to go.

surpriseThat’s when I started to think about how most things that happen in our life – for good or ill –  are surprises, that come without warning. You can prepare … you can anticipate … but some things are still a surprise.

We know that our lives will have speed bumps to navigate – that’s just part of the human condition. No one gets from cradle to grave without encountering difficulties. Our characters both define and reveal how we react to those complications.

And it’s always a surprise. That unplanned pregnancy; the school you went to over the school you didn’t; the job you took for the summer that changed the course of your life –  to mash up Bowie and Lennon, we never know what ch-ch-ch-changes are in store for the life that happens while we are busy making other plans.

Surprises are supposed to be fun, but not all are. Our whole world can change in the blink of an eye, a fall on the stairs, or the turn of a shapely leg. There’s virtue in steering the arc of our lives, but it’s the unforeseen that often compels its trajectory.

ready for my closeupI’m one of those unfortunates that tries to be prepared for every eventuality. That is why my purse weighs 400 lbs. I never travel light; even a trip to the corner store finds me with hair and makeup for a cast of thousands at the ready.

And yet – I’ve been known to misplace my purse. And then the whole facade crumbles. I am lost in a world where nothing makes sense, because I feel out of control.

We live in a world where the winner is judged by the amount of goods and services he/she accumulates, which is why so many of us find ourselves coming to the end of a good run with far too much detritus. Little by little, I’m trying to shed my need to so closely control the ‘what ifs’ of the day. I’m paring down the things I keep and carry ‘just in case!’ in favour of a lighter mental load.

trust fallBut it’s tricky. And it takes a faith in the future that many lose as they travel through life. If enough events that you perceive as good have lined your path, you will feel differently than someone who has encountered a lot of disappointing moments. It’s like a trust fall .. where you’re neither trusting nor trustworthy.

When I was living in the wilds of Scarberia, and carless, every trip to the grocery store was fraught with a desperation more often seen in someone preparing for a hurricane or nuclear war. I was obsessed with having enough food in the pantry, fridge and freezer to survive to the next shopping trip.

Now I live two blocks from two massive supermarkets, and know that I can get whatever I need, with very little effort. I’m working on the ‘just in time’ model, that businesses rely on to increase efficiency and decrease waste. You buy stuff when you need it, use it, then buy more as you need more. Except cat food. One should always have a surplus of tins and bags of cat food, because … cats.

But I’m still loaded up with a lot of junk that I can’t seem to release without worrying that I’ll need the item ‘one of these days.’ I’m working on it .. but I do still have a box of Furbys from the Christmas of 1998 that I couldn’t unload on eBay.

I’m not fixing to die anytime soon, but nor are most of us, and some of us won’t make the end of this year. It’s just the way it is. Pretending that we’ll always have these fragile lives in our control is what makes our leaving so frustrating to our loved ones.

swedish death cleaningThe latest big thing in organizing philosophies is the darkly named Swedish Death Cleanse. It’s the process of cleaning house before you kick the bucket, rather than leaving the job to your loved ones.

If you’ve ever had to close up a loved one’s home, you know how difficult it is to sort through the gold and the dross, while mourning and trying to lead your own life. Whether you are an aging baby boomer or just bummed with our current reality, it’s a trendy way of dealing with our hoards.

No matter how much we invested in antiques and heirlooms, the reality is that these items are worth less and less as our generation and our parents’ dies off. Our kids probably want smaller, lighter furniture for their nomadic lifestyles. I’m also gonna guess that neither of my daughters is going to want my collection of cassette tapes from the 70s and 80s. hoarders paradise

I’ve put a solid dent in the collection of holiday wrap I’ve dragged around for years, but it still gave me a pang to see how many people were recycling full rolls of wrap after this Christmas. Can’t help it. Grew up thrifty.

But I have to get real, living in a much smaller space than before, and I would prefer my kids remember me as thoughtful and tidy, rather than a packrat.

Besides, sorting and donating some of my better ‘stuff’ makes me feel not only generous, but in control of what I’m letting go.

I’m also feeling a relief and lightness in clearing away the boxes. In a small space, it’s easy to feel like the walls are closing in. Ditching the stash opens up your living space.

womens world living roomI didn’t feel the walls closing in when they were lined with books, but just having chotchkies lying around does me in. I’m actually getting to the point where I feel a little creeped out when I see pictures of a typically overstuffed living space. It feels fussy and frilly, and not in a good way.

The Swedish word dostadning is a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning. The idea may creep you out, but what it really is, is a way to formalize what matters to you, and what you want to hand down to your heirs. Keep the things you love. Trash, recycle, donate or gift what you don’t.

face meltingPrioritize the preservation of sentimental and family objects like old letters and photographs, but also keep a well-labelled  ‘throw-away box’ for things that you can’t part with yet, but would like to keep away from prying eyes, like your collection of sex toys. Tape a note to the top of the box warning that opening the box will sentence the opener to death by face melting.

life is what happens LennonLife is full of surprises; some good, some bad, but all unexpected. That’s what makes those unexpected moments a surprise.

It’s great to be prepared, and it’s great to live in the moment, but even the most happy-go-lucky person lives happier when their lives are tidy and lack stress.  It’s human nature to want the smoothest ride possible on our journey through life. Sometimes we just need to do a little vehicle maintenance to ensure the ride is both exhilarating and fulfilling.

 

 

Books, Music and Stuff


Tolkien if-more-of-us-valued-food-and-cheer-and-song
The skies are grey, it’s been raining for days. What better time to turn my attention to the accumulated office mess and scan through the wee bits of paper on which I’ve written a germ of an idea, usually accompanied by an *asterisk* and several exclamation points!!!? I just have to haul them out from under the weight of the newspaper clippings, flyers, magazines, library books and paper backs they’ve landed under, over and in between.

I’m an idea junkie, a bibliomaniac and a collector of all things relevant to my incessant research on anything that tickles my imagination’s fancy. Don’t tell me to go digital – my computer’s ‘bookmarks’ are too numerous to be manageable. No, the printed word is my vice, which is why I live in fear that, at any time, a laden shelf will collapse under its own weight and crush all in its path.

george_carlin_house stuff1It has been ever so. Even as a kid, I would escape into a world of books. My temple of choice was the local library, where I could devour books of all kinds … for free! … and float home on a cloud of new fantasies. When I left Montreal for Toronto in my twenties, I had to have several car loads of boxed books and files moved to my new city. It’s madness, a mania, and despite my current need to downsize, an almost impossible task and a literary Sophie’s Choice.

It’s hard to get rid of “stuff.” George Carlin nailed it when he said, “Have you noticed that their stuff is shit, and your shit is stuff? And you say, ‘get that shit off of there and let me put my stuff down!’”

Carlin accumulating possessionsWe love our stuff; we’re emotionally attached to our stuff, especially if the stuff has the added sentimentality of having coming from a loved one. Having our stuff around us makes us feel secure. We’ve got our house stuff, our office stuff, our gym stuff and our car stuff. I have a purse so prepared for any eventuality that it could double as an overnight bag. Except – no, I’ll need that too, cuz for overnight I’ll need even more stuff.

BOOK-HOARDERSome people like stuff more than others. We call those people ‘pack rats,’ or in extreme cases, ‘hoarders,’ the distinction being that the pack rat has a messier house than you, and the hoarder is in imminent danger of being crushed under a shelf that might collapse under its own weight and … oh my god I’m a hoarder!

Fact is, it’s easier to hoard than to be an organized person. You just never sort the stuff, or throw anything away. You find great deals on something you must have, or you sell off less significant items to finance your obsession, and you scour Craigslist or freecycle, where those without your particular kink actually give away what you’re jonesing over… and the collection grows …

ant-and-grasshopperI am the Ant, with a need to amass that trumps the flightiness of the Grasshopper. I shore up my perceived literary needs, present or future, with a stockpile that will protect me from a cold winter.

But even within my collection, there are prejudices and disunions. Books about music and the entertainment world live happily side by side with dictionaries and reference books. Those are the ‘honourables,’ the undisputed Lords of the Shelves. Books written by or about friends come next, with first, special and signed editions following.

treasured-booksLowliest of the low are the mass market paperbacks and hardcovers, although I have a few authors whom I adore, and will never unfriend. And then there are the hundreds of books that piqued my interest, but have yet to see their spines cracked. Whether fiction or non-, they taunt me with their promise and possibility.

book monsterI’m working on dismantling my book monster. Every day I sort through another category, refining my choices to what I MIGHT write about, as opposed to subjects I’ll never really pursue. I’m streamlining what remains, in the hopes of becoming a more selective reader, and of being better able to actually locate that particular reference that I need while writing a column or proving a debate point.

-it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-nightAlthough I can see a day when I’ll rely more on electronic media, the internet and e-books than I currently do, I still crave the physical sensation of holding a book in my hands, opening the cover, and reading the first sentence of a new tale, one which the writer laboured over incessantly until he or she thought they’d found the exact right words to capture a reader’s imagination.

But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk indifferently past a bookstore, especially one with shelves that groan under titles I’ve never read. Books – displayed, sold, and treasured – these are the gold I seek. A man who can write, and who can passionately discuss a favourite book, attains a special status in my heart and mind.

And music … I must have music. A man who can slip a literary reference into a song … that’s a delight beyond words. I quivered when Sting mentioned Nabokov’s Lolita in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” I grinned when Smoky Robinson referenced opera’s Pagliacci in “Tears of A Clown.”

Books and music are not such strange bedfellows. The Strokes, The Smashing Pumpkins and deadmau5 have all written about soma, the drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album had three songs that mused upon George Orwell’s1984.” Bowie actually planned to do an entire rock musical based on the novel, but Orwell’s widow objected to the idea, so the project was shelved.

The Ramones wrote “Pet Sematary” for the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It was later covered by Rammstein. And of course, Elton John’sRocket Man” is Bernie Taupin’s condensation of Ray Bradbury’s short story.

Books and music are my hoarded gold. Toss in a beer and a sandwich and we’re golden.

(originally published Feb /2015 @ bobsegarini.wordpress.com)