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Life in 2021

Created/Modified: 2021-12-09/2021-12-30

It's been a busy year, for all that some things have gone more slowly than any of us would like.

The first six months were dominated by the second half of a major failure in writing: a fantasy novel that was beyond me. I must have half a dozen drafts of it... the directory where it lives contains 1.5 million words, not all of them unique... how hard could it be to find the unique ones? Ten minutes later: not that hard. There are between 362,636 and 374,030 unique words, depending on how I count, which actually does clock in at about half a dozen drafts of a 60,000 word novel, but only about half of them were written in the first six months of 2021... the rest were from the previous year, which I had thankfully forgotten about. I just couldn't make the metaphor work. Maybe someday, but not today.

In the midst of that there was an online show with Gabriola Players, which I was starting to hope would be our last [narrator: It was not.] I got to play an actor playing William Shakespeare in A Divine Comedy by local playwright Anne M. Holmes, who also directed. As the French might say, "C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la théâtre"

On the eve of our first performance, my beloved cat, Yogurt, who had been my steadfast, dopey, cuddly companion for twenty long years, came to the end of his journey on this earth. He'd been up and down over the previous year or so, and hit a state of clearly terminal decline quite suddenly. I took him to the vet and he was euthanized as I held him in my arms in the sunshine, content to cuddle to the end. I will miss him for the rest of my days, but I am incredibly, overwhelmingly, grateful to have spent the years with him that I did. He was a difficult, awkward, creature, and I was committed to giving him a long and happy life, and I did. He gave at least as much back to me.

The Very Best Cat

During rehearsals for A Divine Comedy I was asked to audition for the part of American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in a local production of John Logan's award-winning play RED, about Rothko's decision to reject a commission from the Seagram Corporation for a series of murals to adorn the walls of a restaurant in their new corporate headquarters on Park Avenue in New York City in 1959.

To say it was a challenging role would be an understatement. Rothko was a deeply damaged man: opinionated, volatile, angry, hurt, amusing, intelligent, depressed. His fictional assistant, Ken, was played by my friend Ray, and together we worked very nearly daily on our lines and characters, with regular rehearsals under direction as well. We had only two shows on an outdoor stage at the local "Cultivate" festival on the July long weekend, and our performance was extremely well-received by audiences.

I've done some scripted theatre in recent years, but as a friend who is a retired professional actor said to me after opening night, "That was a Himalaya." There are moments you'll take to your grave, moments that will warm your heart in the cold days ahead, and that performance, that whole experience, was one of them.

We're remounting the production for a single show in January--given omicron this will probably not now come off as planned--so my life right now is a lot of brushing up on lines and reinhabiting the character. So many lines. Rothko has many long monologues, one of which is a rant against plein air painters, another of which disparages "overmantles": those paintings "doomed to become decoration", a third of which ends with his declaration that he is "NOT HERE TO MAKE PRETTY PICTURES". My wife, Hilary, is a plein air painter who is deeply committed to creating beauty, so we had some interesting discussions regarding Rothko's artistic philosophy.

Over the summer Hilary and I went back East to visit her family and see some friends, which was a nice break in the lull between the unnecessary third and avoidable fourth waves. I struggle a lot with human connection: the combination of autism and a developmental history of trauma and neglect is not a really great foundation for strong social bonds. So it was nice that the trip was nice. Exhausting, but nice. Amongst other things we saw the Rembrandt exhibit in Ottawa with my friend Mike, which was incredible. Beyond the incomparable portraiture, I had no idea that Rembrandt did etchings and landscapes, some of which were just amazing.

We only got out sailing for one brief trip, and I'm planning on selling my Bayfield 29 this year and focus on kayaking, so if you know anyone who's in the market for a fine little pocket cruiser with a recent coat of bottom paint, a reliable diesel with a rebuilt water-pump, and a composting head (which is the best upgrade I've ever made to any boat) tell 'em to give me a shout: TJ at this website.

The summer was hot, as I recall, with over 600 deaths that no one much cared about in BC, on top of the hundreds of preventable covid deaths that no one much cared about, on top of the many hundreds of preventable opioid overdose deaths that no one much cared about.

I struggled at times with how little most people cared. Not just about other people's lives, but about their own. I conclude that creed, convenience, and comfort are more important to the average person than their own life, much less anyone else's. It has made me question at times why I've taken such a hard line about not working on stuff that will add to the sum total of human death and misery, and focused instead on doing what I can to help, to nurture, to create joy, to make life better, even when doing so pays considerably less than the murderous alternatives.

My ultimate reason at this point seems to be that I'm an awkward bugger who's doing good out of pure contrariness.

I did some thinking around organizational incentives and what I see wrong with the standard critique of capitalism, which also goes some way to explaining why proposed alternatives to the capitalism mode of production have failed so spectacularly. The central concept is what I call the "amoral hierarchical organization" (AHO), the invention of which is what separates the Modern from the Medieval world, and which has become ubiquitous to the point of being invisible. I'll likely write something long about it this year, for my own edification if nothing else. I think it sets out the problems that any post-capitalist society needs to solve, as well as identifying clear red flags that can be used to identify proposals that will fail.

Summer saw the publication of the final volume of the "Inner Islands Trilogy": Where the Humans Went, as well as the full trilogy in a single volume.

I am still very bad at marketing, so sales remain near zero despite a lot of positive feedback from people I've sold to locally (most of whom aren't friends or family, so I take what they say seriously, particularly when they come back to buy more copies as Christmas gifts.)

I experimented with paid reviews and Amazon advertising, to no good effect, and in general remain perplexed as to how to go about getting noticed without either spending a lot of money or performing some kind of magic that an autistic man with the kind of history I have really just can't manage. I'm reasonably capable in many areas of life, but "being comfortable actively drawing a lot of attention to myself and my work" is not one of them. Being on stage is different: it's a formal, controlled, environment. It's life that is the hard arena.

In late summer I started working on another novel draft, a thriller that might actually turn into something. I tried the Stephen King intuitive approach, which is not my natural place of comfort, and while I've been experimenting with it for some years with some success, this time I think it worked pretty well. Is it growth? Maybe.

Fall saw completion of the thriller draft and starting on a weird kind of Lovecraftian horror experiment, but with more sex and more humour, I think. It's still a work in progress, and when done--hopefully this month--I'll go back to the thriller for a re-read and re-write and if I don't completely hate it give it to Hilary to see if it has anything worth salvaging.

Fall also saw some work around the house, and next year we're planning on fixing up a strange old structure in the back into an outdoor tea room. Part of the reason for selling the boat is that I bought it when living in Vancouver and needed a way to get out of the city. Now I live in the midst of nature, and don't feel such a strong urge to flee at every opportunity. This is a good thing.

Somewhere in the midst of all this I started working again on the system I developed a few years ago for solving Schrodinger's equation in arbitrarily complex scenarios with up to two particles in one dimension. This is harder than it sounds, and has led to some insight into how the "Many Worlds" interpretation works. My goal is to find an experiment that would distinguish between "Many Worlds" and "Collapse" interpretations, which I have failed at thus far, but hope springs eternal.

The impetus to restart this work came in part from taking time during our travels in Ontario to sit alone and think about the results I got previously, which really didn't make sense to me. And then they did. Sitting alone thinking is often a very valuable use of one's time.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the Many Worlds interpretation is more plausible than I had previously held it to be, but the problem of Born's Rule remains: why do we experience "outcomes" with a probability in proportion to the square of the wavefunction?

Born's Rule is logically and mathematically consistent, but I am a physicist, not a logician or mathematician, and I'd like a physical explanation for it. No one has been able to come up with one, and I've got an idea--rooted in thermodynamics, which is the foundation of all things--that'll probably take me five years to make anything out of, if I'm lucky.

With regard to other ideas about quantum, a friend of Hilary's asked us about our response to a couple of translations of the Tao Te Ching, and while I didn't like one of them much, instead of using the usual translations of "Being" and "Non-being" or "Existence" and "Non-existence" it used "Bounded" and "Boundless", which expresses perfectly the difference between the classical (bounded by the law of non-contradiction) and quantum (not bound by the law of non-contradiction) worlds. This has helped bring some of my thinking forward, and I've started writing on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics again, as there's a book in me that wants to come out, which will also serve as a companion to the simulation code mentioned above, which I'm slowly working on getting into a releasable state.

Other things... I helped create yet another online show with Gabriola Players for Christmas, this time a set of three filmed plays. I wrote and directed one, and did some of the editing and general organizational stuff. It was great fun, and a great group of people to work with, and I'm afraid that yet again it won't be our last kick at the online can.

My day job continued to pay the bills. It's good work, doing good things. My major client is helping ensure safe, clean water to people ranging from First Nations in Canada to cites in Asia and Australia and the US. There are worse things I could be doing for a living.

I also started a substack newsletter, World of Wonders, which has also been a failure: after an initial spate of interest I have had just four new sign-ups, all in the past couple of weeks as I've started writing about covid, and all due to some enthusiastic spreading of the word by a few readers, which I'm deeply grateful for. It has an appreciative audience, but that audience is always going to be a pretty select group.

I've had fun writing it, but will likely shut it down once I have a full year in, because mostly right now it's serving as a reminder of how far outside the human mainstream I am. And I'll always remain there because that's who I am. It's not a matter of choice, as my score on the Rivito Autism Aspergers Diagnostic Scale--Revised reminds me. I fake neurotypical behaviour pretty well. It was a survival skill, growing up, and has served me adequately as an adult. But I'm pushing 60 and getting too old for all that. I understand the landscape of the challenges and opportunities that I'm facing better than I ever have in my life. There doesn't have to be a way through it. But simply the absence of possibility doesn't seem an adequate reason to not make the attempt. Losing hope is not really an ability that I have.

In the play RED, Rothko talks about his friend Jackson Pollock's death as a "lazy suicide", saying: "His muse evacuated. He lost faith in himself. He lost faith in his viewers. Take your pick. He no longer believed there were any real human beings out there to look at pictures."

Later on his fictional assistant tells him: "You say you spend your life in search of 'real human beings,' people who can look at your pictures with compassion. But in your heart you no longer believe those people exist. So you lose faith. So you lose hope. So black swallows red."

And Rothko eventually responds: "I do get depressed when I think about how people are going to look at my pictures. If they're going to be unkind... Selling a painting is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades. It's going to get hurt, and it's never been hurt before. It doesn't know what hurt is."

I often feel this way about my own work. Not that it'll get hurt--I don't anthropomorphize it in the way Rothko does--but that it'll drop into a void where there are no "real human beings" who care about it. Even in academia the kinds of questions--in physics, in epistemology, in politics, and more--that I'm interested in don't get much play. They never have. In the popular media they are dead on arrival.

Writing for children is one way out of that: as I said, the Inner Islands books have had a lot of positive feedback. Kids like them. Parents like them. Even some adults who aren't parents like them. We've had a lot of YA cross-overs in the past twenty years: books written for teens that appeal to adults. Maybe it's time for a illustrated middle-grade chapterbook cross-over.

Philip Pullman says that some themes are too large for adult literature, and can only be explored in children's books. He may not be wrong.

My writing goal in 2022 is much the same as in 2021: get an MS into shape to start shopping it around to agents and editors, and see if I can move from "independently published nobody" to "commercially published nobody." Who knows, if I keep at it long enough, I might even graduate to the ranks of "somebody"s!

It's an ambition far beyond my reach, but those seem to be what I'm naturally drawn to, and I've learned over the years that this is my essential zen: To fully embrace the inevitability of failure, and to nevertheless keep on until I succeed.

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