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Archive for March, 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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