Shortly after 4:35PM on Saturday, March 28, I finished my manuscript for “Designing with LibreOffice.” It was the end of two years of work, stolen from my efforts to make a living and from my leisure time, as well as the start of the next stage in bringing the book to market.

At eighty-thousand words, the manuscript is the largest I’ve prepared since my master’s thesis twenty-five years ago. This time, no lightning strike directly overhead took out my hard drive a few weeks before a critical deadline, but other obstacles impeded me instead. Unlike with my thesis, I couldn’t take the time to do nothing else until it was done. Grief, repetitive stress injuries, and bad knees took their toll, dragging out the writing far beyond what I had expected.

Then, too, I confess there was mission creep. I was aware of the problem, having tried to write a book on OpenOffice.org over a decade ago, only to lose the control of the scope, but it happened again anyway. This time, while I wanted to avoid too much detail, I soon understood that,while I started only with the intention to explain styles and templates in LibreOffice ,the exercise would never serve readers unless it also explained typographic conventions and standards.

Fortunately, having worked as both a technical writer and a graphic artist, as well as a free software writer, I was well-positioned to write such a book.

However, the form it needed took a while for me to understand. What I wanted to write was only partly a technical manual. It was also an explanation of typography, mixed with advice about how to – and how not-to – use LibreOffice. Finding the voice and structure for all these aims was much harder than the physical act of writing, which is why some of the chapters only took their right form in my third draft.

I finished, tired and satisfied, and smirking just a little at having overcome everything when I finished sending the last of the files to my editor. Had I been living with someone, undoubtedly we would have gone out to dinner and so to bed, but instead, I floated vaguely around the townhouse, imagining vast panoramas of spare time opening around me in the days to come.

That won’t happen, of course. Next comes the corrections requested by my editor, the selection of the cover, and the building of the concordance for the index. At some point, too, I have to divide into small sections to sell separately from the hard copies of the entire book (the downloads are free). Already in the past two days, this new stage is starting, so I feel like I am at the tip of the crest, feeling the roller coaster starting to tip inevitably downwards.

Time now to disengage from the book, to re-frame it in my mind as no longer mine, but an object to prepare for others. Time to lose the ego’s perspective, in which criticism feels like an attack, and to become detached and business-like.

Still, even as that next stage begins, a sense of accomplishment lingers. Not the meaninglessness of self-esteem, but the sense of accomplishment of having finished not only a long project but one which very few other people have the background to do.

I suspect it won’t be another twenty-five years before I write another book length manuscript. Possibly, I may begin a new project by the end of summer. Meanwhile, I’m going to surf the crest of the wave of accomplishment, believing for a while that I’m not so useless as I sometimes believe.

Will the return to reality will feel like toppling headlong into the waves and losing all sense of direction? Probably. But for a moment I’m standing tall, doing handstands on my board, waving to those stuck on the beach.

Soldiers’ Songs

In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the title character learns that Julius Caesar, far from giving speeches about glory and sacrifice to his troops before battle, joked with them instead – and, at least once, gestured suggestively with a turnip. Wisely, Claudius ignores his written speech about honour for an impromptu one.

This episode made me realize a basic fact about war literature: If a piece talks about heroism and fallen comrades, it was probably written by a non-combatant, or by a veteran long after the fact. From this fact alone, you can usually judge how authentic a piece of war literature really is. Graves himself, as a veteran of World War I and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, was in a position to know this fact, and I believe he was the first to record the observation.

This observation explains, for example, why Rudyard Kipling is so often admired by those who have soldiered. Possibly, Kipling doesn’t get the tone of his poems and stories quite right, partly because he was a civilian, and partly because, in describing soldiers’ lives to the audience at home, he often lectured. However, he is close enough that soldiers from any war recognize the type of life he describes, with its inside references, jokes about officers, and low level griping.

I was reminded of this touchstone when I woke a few days ago with a song I had heard over a decade ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was a song about the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and its defense of Jarama, set to the tune of “The Red River Valley.”

The first two verses of the original are:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That’s a place that we all know so well,
for ’tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we’re leaving
But don’t hasten to bid us adieu
For e’en though we make our departure
We’ll be back in an hour or two.

By contrast, this is the version of the song heard a few years later at a reunion of British survivors:

There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.

We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.

Only a few years separate the two versions, but the falseness has already crept in – no doubt because those who sang the second version are not only survivors, but survivors of a cause that was utterly defeated. The original’s reference to manhood has changed from a complaint to a reference to self-sacrifice, and all sense of humor thoroughly scrubbed from the song. Now, the soldiers are not simply learning one of the truisms of war – that it includes long stretches of boredom and futility – but have become “true sons of the soil” (whatever that might mean when applied to foreigners fighting in Spain).

Similarly, the original ends with, “So remember the Jarama Valley / And the old men who wait patiently,” while the later version ends with, “So before we continue this reunion / Let us stand to our glorious dead.” The difference in the description of the soldiers or the tone can hardly be greater.

Apparently, this is a fundamental difference that is almost impossible to overcome. Woodie Guthrie, who sang his own version of the song, does better than the reunion version, writing that “we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell,” but even a songwriter of his talent cannot resist promising to return in victory, when the valley’s inhabitants will “breathe in our new freedom’s air.”

I understand the reasons why nostalgia might transform the experience. If nothing else, the songwriters and singers are eager to find some compensation in their defeat, and all of them were idealistic men.

Yet, even so, I far prefer the genuine sentiments of the original. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but the cynical humor of the original seems to tell me far more about war is actually like for those who live through it.

Jungian feminism

When I was researching my master’s thesis, I became a Jungian. I didn’t plan to. But my subject was influenced by Jung, so I eventually read the complete works of Carl Jung. Often, I wondered if reading Jung in translation was any easier than reading him in German would be, but the experience left a major mark upon my thinking, especially about gender roles.

I must say that, as a person with artistic aspirations, I found Jung more sympathetic that I ever did Freud. Freud and his disciples usually make very clear that they are the experts, and that they know more about your unconscious than you do. By contrast, Jung considered artists as experts in symbolism, sometimes even as people he could learn from, and his respect made me more inclined to consider his perspectives.

Before long, the idea that people think and act largely in terms of symbols began to make sense to me. I questioned if all the archetypes were universal – although some, like the Mother and the Father probably were, but modern, often feminist, schools of Jungian thought included the possibility that some might be cultural, which made sense to me.

Either way, Jungian thought seemed to do more to map the unconscious than psychoanalysis ever did. The idea that symbols were how the unconscious expressed itself explains why rational argument so rarely changes anybody’s mind – there’s a basic translation problem between the conscious mind’s use of language, and the unconscious mind’s use of symbolism. Moreover, the idea that people project their unconscious symbols on to those around them helps to explain why misunderstanding is so commonplace – much of the time, people are reading from different scripts.

This model has been especially useful for me in understanding gender relations. For example, Jung suggested that one of the most influential archetypes for a man is the Anima, or the female version of himself. As much for symmetry as any other reason, he suggested that a woman is motivated by a similar archetype called the Animus, which is the male version of herself.

The Animus seems so much an after-thought in Jung’s writing that a widespread debate, especially among female Jungians, is whether the archetype exists. Realizing that men tend to define themselves in terms of not being a woman – in fact, to treat women as the archetype of the Shadow – I had no trouble in concluding that the Anima exists.

But the Animus? The evidence for that archetype seems much weaker. Some women go into mental contortions, even enduring abuse, to make themselves over in the image that men want, but – to many men’s intense dislike – women as a whole do not seem to define themselves as being the opposite of men. Men need women to tell them who they are, but women do not seem to need men to the same degree or in the same way.

For me, this difference explains the difficulty that many men have in accepting feminism. Because their identify depends on women’s roles, any change in women’s roles means that men’s own identity is under-mined. Already inclined to see women’s roles as mysterious and even sinister, they move easily to seeing any change as a threat – something that the Shadow is never far from being at the best of time.

To avoid this reaction, a man needs to reject the Anima and Shadow as an influence on his thinking. But the two archetypes are such a fundamental part of male thinking that rejection is difficult, and often impossible.

This reaction is one that most feminist theory seems to have largely overlooked. What Jungian theory suggests to me is that male hostility to feminism is generally not about the threat of a loss of privilege or power. Rather, it is about a loss of identity, about no longer having models to tell men who they are (or, to be more accurate, who they are not).

By contrast, women may not approach changes in gender roles easily. If nothing else, habit remains a strong motivation. But traditional gender roles have less to offer modern women than they do men, because less of their identity is based on not being men. Women may feel unsettled when they try to move beyond tradition, but the average woman is far less likely than men to feel that their entire sense of identity is being destroyed in the process.

What makes the situation all the harder is that, because the problems are played out symbolically, men are frequently unable to express what has happened. They may become angry, depressed, or abusive, but these reactions in themselves only indicate that something is wrong – and not what the exact problem is. At best, the number of men – or women – who understand their symbolic life is always going to be very few.

Jung is not the only way to this perception. In Stiffed!, Susan Faludi comes to a similar analysis simply by hearing the same problems over and over from the men she interviews. But my guide was Jung, and he remains – mistakes and all – one of the foundations of my thinking.

If you doubt that we live in a superstitious age, look at online dating.

The rationale of most dating sites is that they offer a scientific approach to dating. Instead of meeting people at random, they claim that answering a series of wide-ranging questions about your preferences will help you select a potential dating partner based on real similarities and differences.

In my experience, though, the role of science is primarily to make the process more credible. Designing a poll is a job for an expert, and even they often make mistakes and find skewed results outside what they expected. You do not make a poll scientific by taking a list of questions – often contributed by the users of the site –and simply tally up similarities and differences. Many people are amused by answering questions to supposedly learn – about themselves, to judge by the popularity of quizzes on Facebook, but popularity does not make them any more or less scientific.

Nor do the results encourage me to believe in the process. Over the last few years, I have exchanged emails with perhaps a dozen women on dating sites, most of whom are supposed to have over a 90% similarity with me. Without exception, we found after writing back and forth a few times that, whatever we might have in common, it wasn’t enough for us to keep in touch, let alone to want us to meet face to face. We drifted out of contact, with no blame or disappointment on my part, and none, so far as I know, on theirs.

In addition, twice dating sites have given me a close match with women I not only knew but intensely disliked. The suggestions tickled my sense of humor, but did nothing to give me any faith in the matching process.

The problem, I suspect is that people don’t know what they want. Or perhaps most of us are unable to take personal chemistry into account when we express our preferences.

In my cases, for example, when asked if I would date a smoker, my first impulse is to say that I never would. To me, smoking is a disgusting habit. I hate to have the smell on my clothes, and a lifetime of exercise has given me a cardio-vasular system that makes me away of even the least whiff of tobacco or pot.

Yet, despite my preferences, my late wife was a smoker when we met. She was considerate enough to smoke outside, and tofreshen her breath afterwords, and thirteen years after we married she quit smoking altogether. Yet regardless, I could often smell tobacco around her, and only the diplomacy that helps newlyweds survive together long enough to become old-marrieds kept me from constantly commenting on it. All the same, I endured the smell because we were attracted in other ways.

The way I see things, if I could ignore for so many years a prejudice as strong as the one I have against smoking, then the questions on dating are poor predictors at best. You could answer hundreds of those questions, and they still would not predict accurately, because they are factors in personal attraction for which the questions do not account.

Perhaps people who are more neurotic or stubborn than I am might hold to their preferences more strongly. But the point is, you can never tell. You may find tidiness a necessity, yet develop feelings for a slob. You may insist that you want a potential partner who is taller than you, yet find someone below average height irresistible. The variables are too complex to offer any guarantees.

The one advantage that dating sites do have is that they collect a group of available people that is far larger than you would ever find offline, and allow you to reject the impossible more quickly and with fewer hurt feelings.

Personally, though, I would rather go to a meetup or a night class. My odds may be no better than on a dating site, or even worse, but at least I will have enjoyed myself or learned something while looking around. By contrast, all that you can be sure about with dating sites is that they cannot deliver reliably what they promise, and are about as scientific as horoscopes.

The German general Helmuth von Moltke noted that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The writer’s equivalent of that adage would be, “no outline survives contact with the keyboard.” Still, that doesn’t mean that outlining is useless – just that it is very different task than most people get taught in high school. I taught composition for eleven years as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University and community colleges. Since then, I have written close to 1700 articles, as well as numerous blogs, stories, and essays. From this experience, I feel confident in saying that almost everything the average novice thinks they know about outlining is wrong. For instance:

  • There is no point in insisting on using a formal outline, the way that most high school teachers and many text books insist. The fact that, when asked for one, most students construct a formal outline after the fact is enough to prove that, for most people, formal outlines don’t work.
  • No single type of outlining works for everyone. Instead, you should try mindmapping, mental planning, or any other form of outlining you can think of until you fgreatind the ones that work best for you. All that counts is what works – an idea so radical that after I expressed it, I sometimes heard students draw deep breaths as though I had said something shocking. Apparently in their experience, writing techniques were not about benefiting them, but satisfying a teacher’s insistent demands
  • .

  • The purposes of outlining are to prepare you to write, and to get you away from trying to outline, write, and edit at the same time. If you have ever plunged unprepared into writing, getting a few lines, then crossing them out, writing a little more, and crossing out a little more, over and over until your main emotion is frustration, you can appreciate what I mean that trying to do all these mental tasks at the same time mean that you are probably doing them all poorly. By dividing them out, you can probably be more efficient at all of them, and take less time to complete what you are writing.
  • No firm rules exist, but, based on my experience and that of other writers, the physical act of writing should occupy less than a quarter of your time. About half your time should go into researching and outlining, and the remaining quarter into editing. These are only approximations, of course, and will vary widely between people, but many novices spend as much as three-quarters of their time trying to write (but really combining all three functions)
  • Spending too much time outlining is often counter-productive. Although some people thrive on formal outlines, others go into so much detail that, by the time they go to write, they have lost all interest in the topic. Instead of preparing them to write, outlining saps the energy that should go into writing
  • .

  • Outlining is over (at least until the next draft) when you have a clear idea of how the piece you were writing was organized. This definition has at least three advantages: it keeps you fresh, gives you confidence, and helps you to think more clearly about your subject.
  • Outlining is a starting point, not necessarily a final structure. Something about writing — especially with a pen, but also with a keyboard – stimulates the human mind. Perhaps this stimulation is a matter of focus, but I have never heard it adequately explained. Personally, it is the nearest I have come to a supernatural experience, and all I really know is that it works. But for whatever reason writing stimulates other ideas, and what seemed like a thorough outline shortly after completion is likely to seem incomplete or even misleading as you write. Instead of clinging to the outline, accept this stimulation – after all, it’s a sign that writing is going well. You may choose to scribble down the ideas that come when you are writing and deal with them later, or try to incorporate them as you work, but the one thing you should never do is ignore the ideas that coming to writing. If you do, you are probably throwing away your best ideas.
  • After each draft, spend some time outlining, evaluating your original structure as well as the ideas that came to you as you writing. Look especially at the order and importance of your ideas. What seemed to work while you were originally outlining may not have worked as well as you expected when you came to write.
  • Outlining after a draft is as much about throwing out ideas as adding them. Just because you spent time expressing an idea does not mean that you should keep it. In fact, many writers believe that an idea or its expression pleases you too much, it should be deleted automatically. I wouldn’t make that an inevitable practice, but it’s worth considering, if only to improve your thoughts by challenging them.

Your methods of outlining may change as you gain more understanding of yours work habits, and as you increase your experience of writing. For instance, years ago, I needed to outline in some detail to write three thousand words. Now, I do most of my planning in my head, and only need to jot down a few key words unless I am writing at much longer length. However, I am not trying to suggest that novices imitate me. That is one thing that many people who give advice about writing fail to notice – often, what they are saying is how they do things, not anything with any claim to applying to everyone. The point is, you can make outlining work for you, if only you disregard many of the certainties you were taught and discover what works for you.

Most people have the vague understanding that writing their name entirely in lower case characters is a claim to being avant-garde. However, few people have any idea why this connection is made, or exactly what it supposed to signify.

The practice dates to the 1920s. Back then, Germans had a bewildering selection of alphabets to write in, including Roman and Italic characters, cursive characters for handwriting, and black letter characters, all of which used both upper and lowercase characters. Black letter characters, or fraktur as they are sometimes called were especially popular because of the growing German nationalism, because they originated in Germany. However, they were the least legible of the selections and made for old-fashioned, often cluttered page designs.

In this situation, a small group of German typographers rebelled against the layout conventions of their day, advocating designs that were simple and minimalistic. Their ideas were codified in Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book The New Typography.

These ideas included the elimination of all the alphabets available to German typographers except lower case Roman. This choice was made because lower case Roman characters are not only simple, but also distinctive. Unlike with any upper case characters, lower case Roman characters have more distinctive characters, so much so that even if you only see an outline of a word, you can often make a good guess about what the word is.

Today, this idea seems trivial. But in the atmosphere of Germany, which was sliding towards Nazism, all the New Typography’s ideas seemed unpatriotic, even treasonous. In fact, under Hitler, Jan Tschichold was accused of “cultural Bolshevism,” and fled Germany one step ahead of his arrest to exile in Switzerland, and, after World War 2, in England. In other words, using only lower case Roman was daring and progressive, and both an artistic and a political statement.

As the New Typography became known, its ideas were adapted by Modernist designers of all sorts, even among those who had little idea of the justification for using only lower case Roman characters. By the time the idea reached the English-speaking world, only the practice was left, and its justification totally lost.

Today, using a lower case name still has the reputation for being avant-garde, even though after ninety years it is hardly new or daring, let alone any kind of political statement. In fact, ironically, many of the ideas of the New Typography are so far from the cutting edge that they are the nucleus of orthodox design and layout today.

However, one of the ideas that did not become standard was using only lower case Roman. By the mid-1930, many of the leading New Typographers had relaxed their original aesthetic position, falling into practices similar to those used in the English world. Tschichold himself eventually became the lead designer for Penguin Books, producing gem after small gem of typographic excellence for popular use – a worthy accomplishment, but hardly a radical one.

This history is mostly unknown, partly because typographer is an art that most people know little about, including many graphic designers. Even more importantly, although the English-speaking world was influenced by the New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s manifesto for the movement was first published in an English translation in 1998 – seventy years after its German publication.

However, when you know the story, one thing becomes clear: those who insist on only lower case are following a practice that is behind the times instead of ahead of ahead of them, and taking no political or aesthetic position where once the practice could actually be dangerous to their freedom in some places. Whatever meaning the practice might once had, for all they stand out as artistic or political radicals, they may as well be wearing black T-shirts and jeans.

The Hobbit movies

At the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, Gandalf describes Bilbo as a small fellow in a much larger world. The words are Tolkien’s, but while Tolkien has Bilbo reply, “Thank goodness,” making the description an indication of the self-knowledge he has gained, in the movie, the line does nothing except express Gandalf’s fondness for the hobbit as they part company. This false note is typical of the mis-steps that the movie makes, again and again.

As a writer and a producer, Jackson is at his best when he follows Tolkien most closely. For instance, in The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo’s return home in the middle of an auction of his goods to discover he has been declared dead expands Tokien’s brief description of the scene while preserving just the right comic touch. The unexpected arrival of Gandalf and thirteen dwarves at the start of the first movie also works, although Jackson’s version drags because he is less skilled at exposition than Tolkien.

Unfortunately, most of the time, Jackson seems to neither trust nor understand his source material. His favorite mode seems to be Grand Opera, full of world-sweeping events and high dramatics. This tone works in Lord of the Rings, partly because much of the trilogy has the same tone, and partly because when filming Lord of the Rings, Jackson still had the sense to include small intimate moments, and even to invent such incidents as the four hobbits silently toasting each other in the pub after they arrive home.

But The Hobbit is all about intimate moments. The whole point of The Hobbit is that Bilbo is not a hero, and takes a long time to achieve the small heroism that he eventually accomplishes. Jackson, though, ignores most of this tone to replace it with Grand Opera. Almost the entire third movie is Grand Opera, in which a battle that Tolkien barely describes occupies the entire movie to the point that it becomes a kind of fantasy war porn, a tiresome collection of scenes that add up to nothing. Compare The Battle of the Five armies to the Rohan’s arrival at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King, in which the ensuing battle is about defining moments for several of the characters, and you see the lack of purpose in The Battle of the Five Armies immediately.

Part of the problem, of course, is that one movie of material has to be stretched to fill three – a mistake so basic that it should have been restrained regardless of commercial motivations. Some of this expansion is legitimate, although the expulsion of The Necromancer / Sauron from Mirkwood take place in a way that is far from the spirit of Tolkien. However, most of the filler material does not work even so much as that episode manages.

The trouble is, much of the filler is thin to start with, and Jackson seems unable to invent enough to make it interesting. For example, he adds an orc chieftain’s feud with Thorin, the leader of the dwarfs, but fails to flesh it out, leaving the orcs to thrust themselves into already dramatic scenes, with the chieftain shouting such redundant device to his cohorts as “After them!” and “Kill them!” (as though orcs would ever invite Bilbo and the dwarves to tea).

Other pieces of filler are so bizarre that they become ludicrous. When I saw the first movie, the entire audience burst out laughing at Radaghast’s rabbit-driven sled – and it was not a good-humored laugh, but a laugh of rejection. Similarly, when the elf king shows up in the third movie riding what is either a moose or a horse with decorative antlers, I felt the movie had degenerated into a Canadian beer commercial. By the time I saw Dain arrive on a giant pig, or watched the dwarfs clinging to armored mountain goats as they bounced up a mountain, I was throwing back my head and laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.

Somehow, I don’t think that was the reaction that Jackson intended. But it was an indication of how much his judgment has slipped in recent years.

Another major mis-step was the introduction of the elf woman Tauriel and her love for one of the younger dwarfs. What Jackson seems to have missed is that The Hobbit is a children’s story, so the fact that all the main characters are male tends not to matter. Love and sexuality simply don’t enter into the plot. You don’t watch Tolkien movies for the love scenes any more than you watch Marx Brother movies for the inevitable lovers’ sub-plot.

Nor is Jackson’s effort to fix what doesn’t need fixing particularly skillful, since, despite the hints of a love triangle with Legolas, Tauriel remains a flat character so defined by the men in her life that she is more insulting than the absence of women could ever be. Unlike Arwen, whose appearances in Lord of the Rings made for the slowest parts of the movie trilogies, Tauriel is not even allowed to be the tragic figure of an immortal in love with a mortal.

All this would be bad enough by itself, but Jackson’s storytelling seems to have deserted him as much as his invention, leaving him to repeat himself endlessly. Just like the first Lord of the Rings movie tantalized with only glimpses of Gollum, so the first Hobbit movie tantalizes with glimpses of the dragon. All the underground battles involve collapsing bridges and violations of the rules of physics. Main characters fall, are loomed over by a foe, and are saved at the last second by the approach of another character. Gandalf duels with a figure of evil, and is imprisoned.

Jackson’s repertoire is so limited that, near the end of the third movie, he even has the orcs tunneling with giant worms, as though that had somehow drifted into the movie from some forgotten footage of Dune. Jackson’s repetition of tropes is so predictable that he seems an honorary member of Bilbo’s expanded family; while Tolkien describes the Bagginses as being so conventional that you could tell what they would think on any given subject without the bother of asking them, so you can tell how Jackson will develop a scene without the bother of watching it.

Such shortcomings might matter less in any other film adaptation. But The Hobbit is both a classic and a cult book, and another version is unlikely to be made any time soon. Under these conditions, Jackson has an obligation to be true to the spirit of his source material. He should not be expected to use all of the book’s dialogue or events, movies being different from novels, but he can be expected to be true to the spirit of the book, and not just borrow its highly marketable name.

But Jackson only intermittently connects with the spirit of the book. Instead of producing movies that can stand beside the book, all he manages is overblown and easily forgotten nonsense.


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