Do Nothing Beach

How hard it is to do nothing. Before you know what you’re about, you’ve laid down some jazzy chords and improvised a blues riff over the top. So here’s another track intended for People Are Guitars. I was aiming for something like the smooth, bassy tones of Kenny Burrell with a chiming top end. I wanted it to feel totally laid back, like it’s too hot to move and time is nothing but gentle waves crashing on golden sand, ya dig?

On a squarer note, I’m getting the hang of Ableton Live. It’s really easy to combine programming and expressive parts. I feel like these rapid new methods of production and distribution are revealing art to be a continual process. In the past we waited for a single, definitive release. Maybe things now are becoming like they were before record deals and the printing press: songs and stories evolve over time, becoming something you do rather than an end product.

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

Ishmael’s Leg

I’ve just finished typesetting the first draft of The Tide Clock and Other Poems. This will be a shared pamphlet featuring poetry by Joe Franklin, Hugh Greasley and myself. It’s not unlike the split 7″ singles bands used to put out to share production costs and pool their fanbases. You might remember a similar collection we produced in 2013, The Inner Sea.

As a taste of what’s to come, here’s one of mine that draws on Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Check back here soon for more news about The Tide Clock

Ishmael’s Leg

“I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing.”

— Moby Dick.

I’ll leave it blank.
These patterns are only as permanent as skin
though a decent word might outlast the sea-places
I go to fish or through which I leave a life.
Shallows are quick to warm but never the same
from one wave to the next: like the bays, beaches and ports
long cast out of which, even if I’m gone an hour,
swell with strangers, new winds, tides.
You can never go back.

My mind’s tattooed with dreams,
changing more than my blue-inked body shows.
Nothing I write could fill the absence of friends
more central than myself in a life between storms.
Tyrants, bad weather and worse luck have marked me
more indelibly than ink but I love the tale
because I’ve never been the author of my fate
and yet there is a silent part to tell.

The importance of being bored… and eating frogs

Hunter-gatherers couldn’t have had much to do once the sun had gone down and the storytelling was over. I’m sure we can all think of a few things but, aside from the obvious, our ancestors would have little to occupy themselves with but watching the night and watching their own minds watching the night.

We, on the other hand, have as many distractions as we need to completely ignore our experience from sun up to the wee small hours. Are we really as busy as we complain to be? What is it we’re avoiding with all this busywork? Even though I’ve taken a sabbatical my days feel as filled as ever. There are always lists of things – creative, pragmatic, ludicrous – waiting to be done. The busier I get the harder it is to call it a day, stop, and listen to the wind whistling around the eaves. Somehow, I doubt our ancestors’ problems were abstract enough to warrant lists, which would at least afford them more time for living in the present.

A technique I’ve found helpful is to write down one task each day that it’s actually important to do. Choose something that, even if you were to do nothing else that day, would make you feel like progress was made. This is what they call eating a frog: it’s often slimy, difficult to catch hold of and you may be reluctant to do it. If caught early enough, however, a frog can sometimes be swallowed whole or with a minimum of chewing and may even prove tasty. I offer this as food for thought for modern hunter-gatherers and email farmers.

Anon. – The greatest of all poets

No doubt this January 1st we’ll all spring out of bed refreshed and ready to seize the promise of a pristine new year. As our clear, crisp minds embark on new creative pursuits, here’s a question to help understand what kind of projects we’re working on and who they’re really for.

Would I be willing to do this anonymously?

In other words: is this for personal gratification or personal enjoyment? Is it something I’m willing to stand behind? Is it worthwhile for others, and/or in its own right? The question is intended to help us clarify our motivations for working on a task.

Anonymity does appeal, however. I remember reading poetry anthologies in school and thinking the best poems were by Anon. Who was this mysterious Anon who wrote all of the bold, simple poems that spoke with such undeniable clarity that they sounded fresh, funny and often alarming centuries later? Now I find myself wondering who these poets were and why their names don’t appear in the anthologies. Perhaps a famous master decided that a straightforward, comic piece didn’t fit her oeuvre. Were they risking controversy? Did they only have one poem to write or thousands? Were they always anonymous or was their name lost over shifting centuries? Conversely, how many poets now exist in name only, a bit like Ozymandias?

This touches on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Some projects are passions and important for our fulfillment and sense of wellbeing. These are some of the most meaningful activities we can do. If I write a story because I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself, I don’t need the approval of others to do so. In fact, in some ways writing becomes more enjoyable if no external recognition is asked for or received. It becomes deeply personal – and its worth won’t be coloured by the opinions of others.

Other projects are valuable because they do have meaning for other people. They could be social, like playing guitar with friends; or inspiring, like painting a scene that stirs emotions. Perhaps a project will benefit a community or directly alleviate someone’s suffering. We might consider still other works, especially those at the pinnacle of a craft, worthwhile purely as aesthetic or innovative achievements – or perhaps because such actions or behaviours are inherently worthwhile. Solving a hard mathematical problem or learning to dance might be good examples (though neither are strengths of mine).

On the other hand, we’re likely to encounter disappointment when we expect our work or art to bring us pleasure because of how it reflects on us. Then we derive little enjoyment from our effort unless it gains us recognition: something we ultimately have little control over.

It’s a good idea to know what kind of satisfaction we’re looking for. Happy New Year!

Running as creativity

I’m never sure what exactly is meant by ‘creativity’. The word brings to mind an off-hand, highly-strung activity: the artist thrashing out a masterpiece in one sitting and before settling back into their neuroses. While they start with inspiration, most creative pursuits involve a process of continual craft and re-evaluation. In this respect, they resemble a lot of seemingly very ordinary things we do. Is it that creative tasks are actually very natural, or perhaps the ordinary things we do are fundamentally creative?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

— Henry David Thoreau.

Take running. When you head out your door for a run, you’re crafting an experience. You choose the route, the time of day, whether you run alone or with friends, the effort, whether you push on a hill or amble up it, whether you stop to admire a view or maintain the flow. But as with all creative acts, there are many elements that will be decided for us: who we meet along the way, and – to some degree – how we perform: whether our Achilles tendon will be sore; whether the heavens will open up at the furthest point from home. The art is in balancing our intentions with what arrives.

Technicalities: a sci-fi story

I’d like to offer something different for your reading pleasure: a sci-fi short set in a bleak colonial future. Merry Christmas!

Technicalities

I joined the mechanised division in 2505 after graduating with a 412.3/1 kill average. My first co-pilot was a greyhair named Johnson. She’d been planetside for too long. She mumbled to herself and her kill ratio had dropped to 214.9/1.

Our assignment was cleaning up a regressed colony in a spiral arm of Andromeda. It was dull – like pouring boiling water over ants every day. We’re supposed to supervise the targeting systems, select the lethality of response, and make decisions about terrain and weather. The AI was programmed on a peacekeeping routine but Sarge taught us you could complete the mission faster if you maxed out the damage detectors’ sensitivity. Then the control would enable aggressive attack patterns. Johnson never wanted to override, she was lazy.

It wasn’t a dangerous job, so we got no hazard pay. A topple might make you rediscover your breakfast but the H-armour would right itself automatically while perimeter guns stripped flesh from anything that moved. We were technically impervious.

The trouble started as we were torching a clone nursery. Johnson asked, “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“Look, they’re animals,” I said, “right now they can’t do anything to us. If you dismounted and went down there, you would be boiled and ready to eat within ten minutes. We’re flushing bacteria.” Just then a muscular native emerged from the burning treeline. The spear flew high and true. I followed its arc, forgetting to launch the guard net. Johnson caught it in the chest. Her body slumped in the pilot grip but her eyes stayed fixed on me. Unfortunately for Johnson, our H-armour was built for defence against energy weapons, not sharp bits of wood. A subsequent inquiry decided no redesigns were necessary and my request for a hazard percentage was denied. It was deemed extremely unlikely to happen again.

I dropped a firebomb and watched as red water washed over the muscular spearman, the trees and the temple beyond. The heat was drying out my eyes so I had to look away. I ejected Johnson’s body as per the protocols for combat hygiene then took my H-armour back into orbit.

Sarge gave me a rollicking but it would play better in civilian News-Snacks than the usual blue-on-blue killings, which were largely unavoidable given the extent of our firepower. Rather than suspending my pilot status they told me to complete a rest cycle and assigned a new co-pilot, also named Johnson, fresh out of the academy with a 596.4/1 kill average.

Kill averages were worked out in one-on-one sparring between equally armed and trained combatants, unarmed, in a regular combat suit and H-armour biomech. It would have been ridiculous to work out ratios in relation to colonists. So Sarge decided that every millionth colonist killed would be classed as one opponent beaten on the academy kill-scale. Until the first Johnson bought the big one there were no casualties to balance the equations.

The new operation would be a revenge mission for Johnson. There was no need for planning as the natives were, recent events notwithstanding, unable to respond. Rebellions were gaining pace in the rim territories, and the job had to be finished within this solar cycle before the dust storms kicked up. We punched a hole in the stratoshield and melted a rim city with nano-goo. Sarge said it was what Johnson would have wanted.

I’d been feeling strange since the old Johnson died. My average had dropped to 398.9/1. “Doesn’t this bother you, Sarge?” I once asked during a sports break. He requested permission to put his arm around my shoulders. “Look son,” he said, “sometimes we all feel like we’ve seen too much of this shit. But the truth is, if we didn’t kill them they would only kill each other.”
“What are the rebellions about?” I asked.
“Politics,” he shrugged. “Our orders come directly from the system MP.”
“Directly?”
“Well, from his office.” His office was a hive city on Omicron-1.

The new Johnson and I were losing our place at the top of the board. The only way to score higher was to kill the enemy before friendlies could. I say friendlies, but the competition could be distinctly hostile. Richardson pinned me after I nuked a temple complex on the edge of the shadow hemisphere. Luckily, the new Johnson fixed him with a Microwave Oscillating Pain Enhancement Ray™ until he let me up.

Our missions grew even duller. If any spears or rocks had come our way, I’d almost certainly have launched the guard net this time but these colonists couldn’t throw high enough.

“Doesn’t this bother you?” I said to the new Johnson.
“A bit.”
“What should we do?”
“Don’t know,” she said, igniting a recreation silo.

When Sarge saw our kill ratio was slowing we were assigned to spraying crop-killing viruses over the planet lung. It’s the worst chore imaginable. It takes forever to kill off an ecosystem, like months, but we were making some progress. The corporation prefers to start again in these situations. Regenesis they call it. You can never tell what caused the regression and it’s cheaper to create a new system than troubleshoot the old.

We returned to orbit after spraying a full load of Death Breath™. Sarge came out of the briefing room to give us a sober look. The entire division was assembled inside. Something was going on. We de-suited and followed him. As soon as we entered, the AI hit us with a brain dump. We saluted the Political Ordnance Officer, who was standing as if he had a spear even further up his arse than usual, and took our seats.

Sarge cleared his throat, “This is an intelligence report from Earthcorp. Self-replicating probes have been detected harvesting the outer edges of the great barrier belt. Their transponders bear the Alliance ‘Peacekeeper’ signature’.” Sarge paused. If you’ve taken planetleave on the wrong worlds, you’ll have heard tales about a rogue unit of reprobes who kept reproducing long after their mission had ended. Spooked pilots will tell you that’s why the southern arms went quiet centuries ago; that they’re eating every asteroid, moon, world and sun in the edgespace. Tall tales or no, few freighters go and fewer come back. News travels ever more slowly.

“In any case, the data will make it clear to you that these are 15th generation reprobes. It’s certain they’ll be heading this way once their force is amassed…” Sarge looked at the class III planet rotating in the tactical display. “Then this whole world will be stripped faster than a hooker in a gold bikini.”
“Sir, I object to that analogy,” interrupted Johnson.
“Your objection is acknowledged,” said Sarge, “but there wont be time to file an official complaint.”

15Gen reprobes. Our 14.9Gen weaponry would be more or less the equivalent of throwing cat shit at those fighters.

Sarge continued, “This garrison is of strategic importance to Earthcorp and should be defended at all costs. I know you’ll agree: any deserters should be executed immediately.”
“What are we gonna do!?” cried Thompson, Richardson’s nervous co-pilot.
“We still have our orders. The reprobes won’t attack until their seedpods are secure. There’s time to finish these savages off and complete our primary mission. After all, they killed Johnson.”
There was silence as everyone looked at the new Johnson.
“Sarge, she’s right there.”
“Not that Johnson. Idiot.”

“Maybe we can fortify the colonists’ cities,” suggested the Political Ordnance Officer. Johnson rolled her eyes and said nothing. Richardson shot me a thought-bleep: We’re gonna die!

Why don’t you volunteer? I shot back, closing my mindcomm. Anything Richardson said was as welcome as a fart in an airlock, but he was right.

Then Sarge cleared his throat again, searching for gravitas. “There is one hope. If two of you were brave enough to protect all that we’ve achieved here… a single H-armour could sneak up on the enemy flotilla and drop the Big Untactical Missile™.”

We all knew it was suicide. Even in an asteroid belt, you would never get close enough to AI-controlled 15Gen reprobes to deliver a planet buster. The new Johnson and I slowed down even more after that. Our kill ratio dropped to a combined 287.8/1. All the fun had gone out of it. We were busting up an EduFactory when he suggested we escape into the shadow hemisphere. I turned on her with my gat-laser and was about to deliver the coup de grace when she said something that engaged my thoughtstream, “I know a way out of this. I know a way we can live.”

I held fire and heard her out.

We retured to orbit and volunteered to drop the Big Untactical Missile™ on the reprobes. Sarge was over the moon. He had techslaves fit our H-armour with the warhead and painted us with Earthcorp’s most prestigious logos in honour of our great sacrifice.

On the morning of our mission the primary moon hung above the colony planet like a skull. Our unit went down to the planet along with swarms of other divisions to hide among the ruined fortresses down there. Johnson asked if I was ready. I gave her the order to change our mission target to the planet below. We dropped the Big Untactical Missile™ and watched as waves of radiation scorched our shields and the moon above. The system star would be a red giant by the time the surface cooled off. “It’s for the best,” Johnson said. Sarge had lost his shit and Richardson had always been a fleshbag. We kept the burning world between us and the reprobes, and aimed stardrives at a pleasure system six weeks away.

Johnson piped up an hour into the flight, “Who’d have thought?” She ran a calculation on my screen.
“What?” I asked.
“With all combatants on both sides dead, our kill ratio levels out at zero.”

We were pacifists.

Really looking

I attended a mindfulness meditation retreat a couple of weeks ago. As I lay on my back forming an intention not to prod the meditator below me with my foot again, some writing on the rafters caught my eye:

A work of art can only be comprehended by looking at it and no description is a substitute for this.

— Gervase of Canterbury, c. 1141–1210.

That seemed like a pretty good definition to me.