Tag Archives: Pontificating

Push

Consider yourself adequately forewarned: this is another running analogy.

Late last week, I had – in terms of time – probably my best run of the summer. (I was also largely fuelled by a payload of fury, but that’s probably not highly relevant. Case in point #9283 that ‘keep your emotions in check’ is a heap of bullshit) I do think it helped that I was Very Angry, and it probably also helped that it started raining a bit partway through (motivation!) but what both of those things really did was get me in a mindset where I was willing and able to push myself.

Yeah, I was getting a bit tired, and yeah, legs a little sore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean slow down. Maintaining max performance necessarily means that it’s going to feel like you’re doing as much as you possibly can. Especially for something that I essentially do for enjoyment, that’s not always the easiest thing to do. Slowing down is both the response my body appears to be angling for, and the one that comes more easily. Which is basically fine – except that it won’t lead to my best running – because running is a hobby. I don’t, however, want my writing to be just a hobby.

I mean, this is far from an earth-shattering observation, but it’s one I do need (apparently) to remind myself of periodically. We can do hard things, but they are still hard. That means both that yeah, it’s ok to find them difficult to do, but also that they’re going to require some perhaps uncomfortable effort to get done.

That’s true for getting the best time out of a run that I can, and also true as I try to get back in the writing groove now that I’m done teaching for the summer. I would really like to get a complete first draft of the WIP knocked out by fall, which is going to require a significant amount of work to achieve. It’s not going to happen if I take it easy and write when I feel like it. I’m going to need to push.

I’ve written before that I also think the ‘write every day’ rule is goofy and that there are times to admit that writing is not going to be a thing that happens on a particular occasion and let yourself off the hook about it. As with most things, there’s a balance to be struck here, between pushing yourself to get the work done and also recognizing limits.

I thought Rich Larson put it well when we had him on Broadcasts from the Wasteland (what is that, you ask? Well, go here) – basically you have to show up for work as a writer, i.e., sit down at <whatever writing technology> and try to get the words going. Some days the answer will be ‘no’ and that’s ok. Most days, you’ll get at least something done. Some days will be outstanding.

The thing is that just like I need to push a bit on the runs, I also can’t just wait around for the days when I feel absolutely overflowing with inspiration to write. Not if I want to be my most productive and have writing perhaps be more than a hobby. (I should say that some of this absolutely depends on my writing friends who are good enough to tolerate writing in the same space as me. 🙂 )

So: pushing myself, to write, and to run.

Thanks for reading.

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Notre Dame Lives

Yesterday there was a terrible fire at the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. I said some stuff about it on Twitter, but I wrote it before there was any real sense of how bad things were and what the result was going to be. We know a little more today.

As bad as things looked yesterday, when we saw that ghastly image of the spire falling, the picture that emerged today was much more encouraging. The bulk of the ancient stone structure seems to be relatively intact, although assessing that will take some time. All three of the medieval rose windows somehow survived what looked to be nearly certain destruction.

Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we first think. Things endure.

The roof was nearly completely destroyed, taking with it oak wood framing that dated to the 13th century, in places. Exactly how it will be rebuilt is something of a question. It almost certainly cannot be reconstructed as any thing approaching what it had been – there’s a shortage of century-old oak trees, to say the least. There’s also very valid arguments against rebuilding in wood at all – perhaps, since we’re starting over, it’s time to build something that would cope with fire a little better. In the 19th century, they rebuilt the roof of Cologne cathedral with an iron frame, apparently for just this reason.

Sometimes it’s better to start over.

I read a fascinating observation from Dr. Jez Wells, at the University of York, who pointed out that no matter how the cathedral is eventually repaired and rebuilt, it will sound different. The roof structure will not be the same as it used to be, and so all of the geometry of reverberations will be different, and the building will no longer respond to music in the same way it used to.

Some things can’t be fixed.

It’s also a good point that any of these ancient buildings have not been static throughout their long existence. They have been damaged, rebuilt, expanded, rethought, reconsidered, redesigned and redone many times. Obviously what happened yesterday was a particularly traumatic change in the state of a grand old building, and it is still painful because of all the things that have been lost and will never come again.

But, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It will continue to be all the things it has been for eight centuries, and will still mean many things to a lot of people. It will be different, but things always are.

Almost always, we can carry on.

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The Star Wars Episode IX teaser dropped on us. Of course I have thoughts about this, and of course I’m excited. It’s Star Wars, after all, and we got Lando back flying the Falcon and Rey doing a pretty rad backflip cut a TIE Fighter in half looking manoeuvre. This setting does love a desert planet.

They didn’t really give us all that much to chew on, and I’m sure we can rely on some of it being misdirection. Death Star wreckage is cool, the Emperor’s laugh will always be unsettling. I hope they managed to stitch together a fitting farewell to Leia.

I am a bit worried that they’re going to try to push a Kylo Ren redemption angle. It seems very likely, but I think they’ll have to work hard to earn it.

I’m also concerned – both from the ‘Rise of Skywalker’ subtitle and the little bit we see here – that they’re rolling back the ‘Rey from nowhere’ background from Last Jedi and giving us some kind of Secret Skywalker reveal. Again I think that probably fits with the series’ overall mythology, but I also think it will be so much less satisfying.

If the hero is nobody in particular, then anyone can be the hero. That’s a solid message these days, I would argue.

In any event, it’s early days to know what’s going on with this film just yet. I have high hopes, and just a few gnawing worries.

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I hate Chekov’s Gun

I recently finished watching the most recent season of True Detective, and I’ve seen some people annoyed about it, and I have some thoughts. They are thoughts full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched to the end of Season 3, think you might, and care about spoilers, probably just give this entry a miss for now.

Ok, for those of you still here (skipping the question of why? for a moment) – first of all, I thought the acting this season was great and I enjoyed the Ozarks setting way more than Season 2’s LA. I thought the main character’s unreliable and fragmentary memory was an impactful and clever new wrinkle to throw into the show’s established ‘multiple time frames’ format.

Now, where I saw some people getting annoyed was with how the resolution came together, and in particular that the ending violated Chekov’s Gun. I think I hate Chekov’s Gun.

To explain: we did get plenty of hints at something occult going on in the early going, with a Lovecraft reference in the first ep, creepy Blair Witch-y dolls, and a body posed on a stone slab in a cave. That, coupled with how Season One had gone (with some strongly implied Weird stuff going on) seems to have led many people to expect that dark magic was going to be part of the resolution here. And it wasn’t. We also had reason to expect some alarming child trafficking ring, and didn’t really get that either. And at least some of the audience didn’t like it.

First of all, I think some of that reaction comes from people being proud or fond of their solution to the puzzle we were presented with, and not being happy to learn that their speculation was wrong. That’s perfectly understandable, really – no-one likes to be wrong, and most people like to feel clever. However, I’ve seen a decent number of people frame their complaints through Chekov’s Gun thing: basically, that you shouldn’t introduce hints at occult magical things and then not follow through.

I am sure that the original advice behind what became the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ rule was well meant, and it probably applies decently well as a general principle (maybe especially well to a stage production? I’m not certain), but like almost every writing rule I have seen, it shouldn’t be applied as broadly as it is. Especially if you’re presenting a story about solving a problem (which a criminal investigation essentially is) – well, almost every one of those is a story of various false starts, dead ends, and things that looked important and then weren’t. Yes, in the first couple episodes of the season, the evidence for Occult Stuff looked strong. Turned out mostly to be smoke. I don’t think you want to go to the ‘fakeout’ well too often as a writer (or your audience won’t ever believe anything you present), but some misdirection is fine, and presenting the reality of any kind of investigation as a story of all the things we got wrong before we started getting things right is perfectly solid.

There were similar Chekov’s Gun complaints with the last season of The Americans (yeah, spoilers ahead) in which Elizabeth is given a suicide pill, speculation abounds about who will end up taking it or having it used on them, and then … no-one does. It gets buried in the woods as the Jennings flee the country. Again, I thought it worked great. It served to create some tension when it was introduced, and then having it come to nothing was part and parcel of how the whole world of our favorite spies was falling away. Sometimes it really is fine to introduce something intended to fizzle out, or show a road that no-one ends up taking.

Some people also objected that the non-occult resolution wasn’t as interesting. Look, I’m a huge fan of having fantastic elements in stories generally (not a shock, I am sure), but I thought what True Detective gave us this season worked pretty nicely. We saw several grandiose explanations for the murder of one child and abduction of another, but in the end it was a story about a series of reasonably humble human frailties and failings that led to it all. To me, the mundane roots of evil are at least as interesting to me as another abyss of the human soul (such as we saw in Season One) would have been.

Now, I would agree that the two massive dumps of exposition in the final episode came across as pretty clumsy, but it’s hard to see how they could have been replaced without at least another episode’s worth of action. None of this is to say that I thought Season Three of True Detective was perfect, but I think it was pretty darn good, and some of the criticisms I’ve seen of it seem to be treating yet another general principle of writing as an absolute, must never be broken, rule.

Increasingly, I think those don’t exist.

Thanks for reading.

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Power

This is not really even tangentially about writing, but what the heck – if you came for a tightly-focused blog I figure you ran screaming a long time ago. This one’s going to be about something connected to the start of a new school term, and a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago now. I was telling them about some interactions I had had with some students that seemed strange to me. My friend said the students were probably afraid of me.

I have to admit, at first I didn’t think that could be right. I don’t think of myself as being intimidating, and I certainly never set out to try to scare anyone. I like to think that I’m open and approachable – but then, probably everyone does. I didn’t immediately see how I could be the sort of person that someone would find frightening, but (as my friend pointed out) as a teacher, I do exert (some) control over an education my students are presumably taking seriously, and what happens in their studies can have very real effects for things like scholarships, further academic placements, and job opportunities.

So despite my first reaction, the idea stuck around for me, and I started to think about my interactions with students in a way I hadn’t before. Which brings us to the present day, when I know my friend was right. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I understand interactions that I used to think were just awkward, or perhaps even that the student was being disrespectful, and interpret it differently. On what I still think are relatively rare instances, I have students who do find me intimidating.

When I read that off them, I try very hard to slow things down, be as reassuring as I can and emphasize that whatever concerns the student has are valid to me. I like to think I always do that, but you can always turn an extra light on things. I think, and hope, that this has made me a better teacher. I definitely think in a different way about my position relative to the students: I have an obligation to be fair in everything I do, and to help them learn of course, but also I need to actively create a circumstance where they feel comfortable interacting with me.

I guess the point I’m thinking of tonight is that even when we don’t necessarily realize it, most of us do have various kinds of power that we may be using without thinking about it as much as we might. To a reasonably humble extent, I do have a position of power over the students in my classroom. I think it’s important to recognize that, and to do our best to use the power we have kindly, when we can. I can’t necessarily prevent my students from ever finding me a little intimidating, at first, but I am pleased when, by the end of our time together, I can tell that they’re seeing me differently and bringing me their issues with confidence and comfort.

We’ve all got power. Let’s try to be kind with it.

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Find the Good Stories

So I gather there’s been another fuss where someone in the media has fired off their opinion that certain kinds of entertainment are not ‘adult’ and therefore people who enjoy them are contributing to the downfall of society. This argument seems to bubble up fairly regularly, although the frequency also seems to be ticking up a bit lately, perhaps because of the perception that certain kinds of stories have been growing in popularity in recent years, and that this is somehow indicative of the world’s onrushing demise.

There have already been a lot of good responses to this, but heck, I don’t have a better topic for the blog this week. I also do read a fair bit, and much of what I enjoy falls into the categories that tend to attract criticism. Many of the movies and TV shows I watch are similarly positioned. And then, of course, there’s what I write. So sure, it feels like a shot across the bows a little bit, as well as (I’m pretty sure) just driving me slightly insane on general principles.

I do think that you should probably try a bunch of different types of book (likewise for movies, music, whatever) to expose your mind to a wide range of experiences, challenge yourself and also because you might discover new stuff that you hadn’t known you like before. Like, you can’t possibly know that you like Ethiopian food until you try some. (Which I did, and it’s delicious) You absolutely should read more than one thing, but I would give that advice to someone who only reads cap-L literature just the same as I would to someone who only reads four-colour comic books.

But then, having done so, there’s nothing at all the matter with focusing on what you love. If your absolute favourite thing in the world is to curl up with a hardboiled detective story, then enjoy (schweetheart). Life is too short, and the world too full of stories, to waste your time on ones you don’t enjoy.

Presumably the people bellowing about the need for people to read ‘more challenging’ work are also out there on the weekend screaming at people out for a stroll about how they should be running a marathon. Look, anyone can. Not everyone wants to, and who the fuck are you to dictate what people ‘should’ be doing? I can read Middle English, but I don’t do it when I sit down to unwind the day. Most times, I want a book I can lazily settle into like a nice warm bath. There’s also the argument, which I have a good deal of sympathy for, that if you tell your story such that it’s hard for your reader to understand, maybe what you’ve done is written a terrible goddamn story? Or at least, it’s not better for having been made a chore for your audience.

It’s also true that this whole thing about absolute levels of quality always existing between different types of story (or music, or, or) is bullshit as well. To paraphrase Pat Rothfuss (and tip o’ the hat to Brandon Crilly for pointing this quote my way), there is some terrible SFF out there. But there is also SFF that I will put up against anything written by anyone, anytime, ever. Similarly, the stuff that gets published as cap-L literature includes some fantastic writing. It also includes some hideous drek. Repeat for every genre out there.

If someone asks you to recommend something to read, then whole different ballgame. Give that person your best advice. But if no-one’s asking? Stop trying to fluff up your ego and reputation preening about the perceived value of whatever it is you read. In general, I try to keep my advice to myself (honest), because ultimately giving advice when it isn’t wanted is a) annoying and b) really about ego. I sure have ideas about what I think people should be reading. I surely know most people don’t care what those ideas are just the same.

Ok, that got at least rant adjacent. Thanks for reading, and go find the good stories.

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On Sabine

I really don’t have a good idea to write about this week, but I have been thinking a lot about Star Wars (in part because of the RPG I game master, and in part because I’m doing the Star Wars Lego advent calendar), and so I think I’m going to do my thoughts on Sabine Wren. For those who have maybe missed it, Sabine is one of the characters from the Rebels animated series that I’ve talked about on here before.

I really enjoyed the series overall, and I think all the characters were written quite well. Sabine was the one that really surprised me, though. I kind of cringed a bit when I first saw her because she’s a young girl in Mandalorian armour – the stuff Boba Fett wears. I think I’ve also said several times before on here that I think the Star Wars writers have fumbled the ball pretty badly where Boba Fett is concerned.

They had a character with a neat visual design who people thought was cool in part because of the look and in part because he was an enigma. Boba Fett had fan support far beyond what his actual role in the movies really justified. The response to this was to not only do more and more with that specific character, but also to recycle that visual design into seemingly as many places as possible. A copycat bounty hunter in basically the same suit. Another identical looking guy for the prequel trilogy. Mandalorians everywhere. Everything they’ve added has, to me, undermined where the appeal of the Boba Fett character came from so that by the time I saw Sabine show up on Rebels, I was like ‘oh noooo’.

But then, she turned out to be far from just a retread of the ‘bounty hunter in cool armour’ concept. I mean, yes, Sabine is good in a fight and enjoys explosives, but there’s a more interesting layer. She’s an artist. That (to me, now) overdone armour is brightly painted and stylized. She bombs things with paint, and wants to leave a her symbol behind to let the Empire know who just kicked their ass. When she’s gonna take a stolen TIE Fighter into battle, well, she’s not gonna do it until she’s given the thing a custom paint job. I’m still sorry we never saw that thing again.

I guess it’s maybe not a surprise that I’d dig a character who is, on some level, another creative, but I also think this was just not a character we’d seen in the Star Wars world before. Knights, space pirates, royalty, con men, yes … but not really an artist. So that was cool, and it got me to buy into the Sabine character long enough for the writers to give me the rest of her story. Which did, in the end, involve a whole bunch more dudes in that goddamned armour, but by then I didn’t care because it was Sabine’s story and they found a way to make me care about that.

So well done, but also something to think about regarding characters in general. It gets me back to the idea that I keep running into from writers I respect that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the bare bones of your idea (plot, setting, characters, whatever) are brand new, because you’ve never told their story before. Sure, a particular character concept (Mandalorian warrior!) might have been so chewed over that people are sure they’ve seen it all before – but they haven’t seen you do it yet.

I mean, I still don’t think I ever want to see another Mandalorian armour bounty hunter in my Star Wars, but maybe I do, and I just don’t know it yet, because it’s gonna come from a writer that I haven’t seen use that particular brush to paint with. I think it may be the hardest thing to learn as a writer, and I’m sure still working on it: believing that the story I have to tell could not be done by anyone else, alive or dead, and that means it has an audience that wants to hear it.

Tell that story with confidence. Paint brightly.

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Read Whatever

Busy times just now, so a bit of a brief one. I saw several separate discussions on the internet recently about people being told that they ‘must’ read various authors, either to ‘properly understand’ SFF as a reader, or to be able to ‘properly write’ it. This is not, it’s true, unique to SFF or fiction in general; people will make the same argument about appreciating music Properly or film The Right Way or whatever. It’s not something that I’ve ever been told personally, but I sure have seen many suggestions along the lines of ‘you cannot truly understand SFF until you’ve read <Author>’. <Author> is usually a white dude from like the 1960s, although not exclusively.

I don’t care who the author is, though, this is bunk. There are lots of great stories out there, ones that will blow your mind, and you should read them. Seek them out. Hunt them down, feast upon them. The thing is, that even in a ‘niche’ genre like SF, or fantasy, or horror (or, or, or), there’s so many different kinds of story, too. For any individual reader, there’s some you’ll like and some you probably won’t, because of the writing style, the thematic approach, the characters, whatever. It’s very silly, to me, to think that there’s some imperative to read the stories we know or can guess that we won’t like very much, just because A Name wrote them.

A friend of mine noted (tangential to one of these discussions) that he’s never read any Heinlein. I’m not 100% certain, but knowing him as I do, I don’t think he’d enjoy Heinlein’s stuff very much. There’s like a billion things out there to read, why spend your limited time on something that doesn’t grab you by the throat and scream ‘READ ME’?

Likewise, as a writer, the most important thing (it seems to me) is to write the stories you feel passionate about. You can absolutely do that, because the story comes from you. There’s no background reading required (although yes, reading widely in general will improve your writing). This goes back to one of my very first blog entries and that advice from Stephen King (still some of the best writing advice I have yet seen) – you’re ready to write when you feel ready to write, and if someone tells you you’re not because you haven’t read X or Y books from whenever, tell them to get bent. Go ahead and smoke that shit.

Now, if your objective is to study the history of a field, the development of (say) SF fiction over time, then sure, you’d need to go and read particular influential and impactful writers and landmark books. But if you’re just reading to read? Read whatever tells you that it must be read. If you’re looking to write? Congratulations, you’re ready to sit down and try it out. Just write the story that you’re excited to tell everyone.

Gatekeeping, man. It’s extremely tiresome. Most creatives really don’t need anything additional feeding our impostor syndromes. Give these kinds of argument all the attention they deserve, which is none.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Side Jobs

Short one again this week – I’m kind of running around with the start of the new semester, all the things that need looking after, and my consequently declining energy reserves. A new term is always exciting, but there’s so much to do!

And yes, as you will probably already have deduced from reading this blog or my social media, that does mean that I have a job besides that of being a writer. Writing is, in fact, very far from providing a significant part of my income, so though I love it and think of my writing as the most important thing that I do right now, it’s not paying the bills.

Many creatives are in similar situations, a fact that our society sometimes decides is a funny joke or something to sneer at. Recently (as you will no doubt have seen) a couple media outlets tried to shame an actor for having a job at a grocery store. Man, if you look the guy up you’ll see that he’s been working steady, he’s been getting jobs, it just doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately the overwhelming response seems to have been that no-one should be made into a public spectacle or made to feel bad because they’re working a couple jobs. Just as fortunately, the actor himself seems to have a pretty good attitude about it all and may even have scored some extra work.

So that particular situation seems to have resolved itself decently well, but it is an uncomfortable reminder of the position creatives often find themselves in in society. People often assume that doing art is easy money (people have genuinely asked if I make all my money from my books), that the artists whose work they have enjoyed are set for life, and are doing nothing but work on their art all day every day. Would that it were true.

The odds are very good that your favourite writer has at least a side job or two. That singer you admire may be working a full-time job around practicing Russian pronunciation. This isn’t a cry for sympathy, not exactly – everyone has to work and lots of people work more than one job these days. In a lot of ways, creatives are exceedingly lucky to be able to make anything at all doing something they love.

On the other hand, since we (as a society) do like art so very much – and we do – perhaps we could at least not poke fun at whatever work artists find themselves needing to do to earn their bread and cheese. There’s nothing noble in not being able to pay the bills, and whatever work you gotta do, you gotta do. No job is shameful.

It also puts the complaints about artists not having their work be free or the next thing to free in a different perspective. We love art, on the whole. We shouldn’t try to wriggle out of paying the artists.

That’s it for this week – thanks for reading, as always.

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Sir John A.

Because of a statue in Victoria, the controversy over John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is back in the news again. Living in Ottawa, of course, Macdonald is unavoidable; I drive to work most days on a parkway bearing his name, and it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to eat my post-race breakfast in a pub named after him each fall. When I was in high school, my history teacher made a character out of Macdonald, told us funny stories about him, and I left for university thinking of him as an appropriate figure for the first Canadian Prime Minister: an ambitious politician, sure, but also a cantankerous Scot with rather too much fondness for the booze.

I hadn’t learned about the residential schools, then, and Louis Riel was simply framed as ‘traitor’; our strange little Canadian moment of rebellion, come and gone, shorn of wider meanings. I retold those funny stories, many times, to people who asked me about Canada. I got laughs in the pub, reinforced my own impression of Canadian history as a more or less whimsical tale about a basically harmless country. I would not tell those stories now, and I’m glad I went on learning.

Since then, Macdonald has been reassessed, in divergent ways. In relatively recent years (it seems to me, although I am not an expert on Canadian historiography) he’s been given a boost, from certain quarters, to promote his role as father of the nation and make him our equivalent to Washington (who, of course, also has a lot that lies beneath the national myth). The name everyone knows, the ubiquitous figure who we credit with bringing the place we call home into being. It was such efforts that got his name on that parkway I drive on, which was simply the Ottawa River Parkway until 2012. A certain kind of national pride, or nationalism, demands heroes, and so Macdonald was built up.

Gradually, I have learned more about the varied parts of his legacy (both in and out of classrooms), and I (like, I imagine, many Canadians) have come to see him as hitting quite wide of the mark of heroism. It’s fair to say that our first Prime Minister’s greatest flaw was not hitting the bottle a bit much, it was that he was a racist. I would never deny his influence and importance in the Canadian story (you’d have to be wilfully dishonest to do so), but he’s no hero of mine. As more and more voices have insisted on telling this part of the story, so has come the pressure to take those statues down.

It’s interesting (as I read on the CBC) that Scotland is also reconsidering Macdonald, removing references to him from government websites. Like the removal of the statues, no doubt this has raised at least a few cries of ‘erasure’, although quieter than here; Macdonald is far from as big a deal to the Scots as he is to Canada. As Nahlah Ayed reminded me in the article, there isn’t even a problematic statue of Macdonald in Edinburgh to worry about taking down. (And honestly, such is my national inferiority complex that when I was there this summer, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be.)

Erasure is something that I think any historian, or lover of history, must surely oppose. Pretending that things that happened, never did, or that people who existed, never did, is always harmful. That is how we come to believe in lies, and that is how we fail to learn anything useful from our history. We need to remember and study every part of it, even (and maybe especially) the parts we find distasteful. Failures, missteps, bad ideas, need to be examined so that we can understand how they came to pass, and we must reach those conclusions honestly. If you ask me, I will never be in favour of tearing out one single page from the book of our history. I might, however, be very much in favour of writing that page over again.

The Scottish government, as it happens, says the articles have been taken down to be rewritten, as Macdonald’s legacy is reassessed. It’s not a failure to reassess and reconsider what we think about our past and the people who came before us. That is probably the one thing that will never change about history: that we keep changing how we see it, how we tell that story. Heck, that’s part of why historians continue to work, because the stories have worn out, need patching, darning, and retelling.

I’m not a Canadian history expert – far from it – but it’s clear that Macdonald did and does need to be reassessed, his story rewritten. He was not just the (fairly nakedly ambitious) ‘Father of Confederation’, he was also among the architects of the brutal system of residential schools through which cultural genocide was practiced upon the First Nations people who came under Canadian authority. To tell his story otherwise, dishonest. A carefully upholstered national myth that presumably offers comfort to some even as it ignores the suffering of others, and the historian’s first duty: the truth. So, reassess Macdonald, tell the truth about him unapologetically and clearly.

But, what about those statues. Is removing a statue an act of erasure? Would renaming that parkway I drive on be one? This is a debate that widens out beyond Macdonald: the Canadian government recently took the name ‘Langevin’ off of one of our Parliamentary buildings, due to Hector Louis-Langevin’s own involvement with residential schools. And, of course, there is the ongoing controversy to the south about Confederate monuments, about which I wrote about on the blog a while back. To take these plaques and statues and titles away, is that erasure?

Of course it is not. We do not learn history, or should not learn history, based on what monuments are up in the world around us. Monuments are erected, most of the time, to figures who were in a particular moment considered ‘great’, but history must not be only the story of the great. It must be the story of the ordinary and the unregarded just as much if it is really to inform us about the people who lived before we did, and what that means for us. History will ever be the story of protagonists, surely, because it seems we cannot resist a good tale and most tales work best with a hero, or a heroine, but it must have its fools and villains just as much, and we need to hear about them just as clearly as we do the people who we decide to put up a statue for.

A statue, a monument, in the symbolism we operate under, says ‘this is a thing we take pride in. Yes, even war memorials, because we take pride in the courage and the sacrifice of those people in defense of country and ideology. So, to have a statue of Macdonald is not simply to say ‘there was a man named John A. Macdonald’, it is to say ‘this man, we admire’. (In a museum, where we might feasibly present a nuanced picture of a person, along with an image in bronze, the situation is rather different, and perhaps that is the compromise) It is surely not so great a leap of imagination to consider how that feels to people whose family suffered in a residential school, who do not know the language of their people because of policies that sought its eradication, who grew up in poverty and peril because that was all the government left them.

Macdonald cannot be erased from Canadian history, but we do not need to declare, publicly and loudly, that he is among our heroes. He should not be, if we mean any part of the ‘Canadian identity’ we are so bold to declare. Students of Canadian history, and Canadians in general, should of course still learn about John A. Macdonald. It would be lunacy not to. However, they should learn about who he really was and especially what he really did, not some imagined and carefully tailored figure we create because we want our own Washington (although, again) a benevolent or heroic ‘father’ to the nation.

It’s not a question of ‘feeling guilty’, either; no-one wants more empty gestures and I don’t think it’s fair to say that Canadians today are culpable for what Macdonald and people like him did. But. Recognizing the truth about the birth of the country in which we live, how those policies and decisions played out down the years for generations of people, and how they continue to affect the very real conditions that people live in and grapple with today, is very important. Canada, whatever else is true about it, was forged from great injustices done to the people who already lived here before Europeans rolled in. There is no chance of really reconciling with their descendants and creating a right and just solution to that central problem if we cannot even recognize that the problem exists.

Part of that recognition is, yes, admitting that John A. Macdonald was not a great guy. We need very much to have a conversation about that, about what it means and what we should probably do about it. Pretending Macdonald didn’t exist is not (or should not) be the aim. Coming to grips with what he really meant must be.

The statues should come down. We could find a better name for that parkway.

And we must remember, all of it.

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ALF vs. Sense8

You may have seen on Twitter or Facebook that I finally started watching Sense8 on Netflix a few days ago. (Once again, yes, I continue my proud tradition of being among the last sapients to see a given movie or show, or read a given book.) I’m still not quite through the first season, and I expect I’ll have a little more to say about it once I’ve seen more of the work, but there’s still one thing I wanted to touch on right now.

Because, also in the past few days, there was an announcement that a reboot or remake of the TV series ALF is underway. I, uh, have some commentary.

One of the things that the showrunners for Sense8 said about it when it came out was that people who watched would see things they had never seen before. Even after a partial viewing, I see where they were coming from. The show is unquestionably ambitious in the kind of story it is trying to tell, depicts characters that don’t often make it onto the screen, and because of the visuals they wanted to include, must have been a huge pain in the ass to shoot. I don’t know that everything they were trying to do always works perfectly, but man they’re trying something, and made something challenging and, yes, really unlike basically any other show you’ve probably seen.

And then, there’s the ALF remake, of a show that was about the most paint-by-numbers sitcom you could imagine, just with a puppet in it. Or, perhaps, a continuation of Frasier. Or we’ll bring back Roseanne. We are awash in remakes and reboots and reimaginings, and wringing every drop of whatever out of things we’ve already seen. As a re-reader of favorite stories, to some extent I sympathize, but I’d way rather see a new show as different and ambitious as Sense8 than a legion of ALFs.

Before I get accused of picking on ALF in particular, or maybe just not liking sitcoms (although..), I was equally unexcited about the idea of a Lord of the Rings TV series from earlier in the year. Why we need another big-money treatment of that story when the books were translated into film about as successfully as it is possible to do not that long ago, I cannot imagine. I’m not even all that excited about more adventures of Capt. Picard (which we’re apparently also getting), because I think I’d rather see new adventures of a new character. I love Patrick Stewart, and I’d rather see him bring a new character to life than go back to one that, yeah, was really good, but got throughly explored and fleshed out and has already been in a lot of stories (some great, many good, some, uhh).

There have been good examples of the reimagination concept, of course. I loved the retelling of Battlestar Galactica, as a prominent example. These things, though, strike me as the outliers in what is an increasingly choked field of remakes and reboots. As much affection as I have for the character, if I never see another version of the Spider-Man origin story, I will be more than content. It is more than a little baffling to see the people who make TV and movies continually go back to old wells.

Because it isn’t as though there aren’t tremendous, exciting new ideas out there. Sense8 was one. I can’t help but wonder how many equally bold concepts are out there, without the Wachowskis behind them, that never get a chance. Heck, just to pick the example that is (literally) close at hand: I’m currently reading City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, and if you wanted to throw a lot of money at a fantasy series, do that. It would be a setting and characters that we haven’t really seen on the screen.

Ideally, of course, the answer would be ‘do all the stories’, and make the nostalgia-trip reboots as well as the wonderful new stories, but that’s not how things really work, is it? I think with the rise of Netflix and Hulu and all the other places that are now making TV, we’re in a better place than we used to be in terms of space for new ideas to get made (viz. Stranger Things, among others) but it’s still not as good as it should be, in my opinion.

There are fabulous creators out there with ideas that will blow your mind. I would be just so delighted if we could give more of them a chance rather than rehashing more things from the past, no matter how much everyone loves a puppet.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.

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